Entertaining Wildlife Diversions
by Ben Hope
One evening last year a friend and I were hunting some of Marlborough’s backcountry around a sharp ridge that was punctuated by some rocky outcrops – ideal native falcon habitat. So it proved and being nesting season it was not long before we were startled by the whoosh of a swooping falcon dive bombing us and it’s harsh cry.
It continued to swoop at us. Unfortunately it’s alarm call would probably have alerted any deer. But we got a wild pig that trip but the falcon was the more indelible memory.
That falcon would have been the “eastern falcon.” Ornithologists apparently recognise there are three forms that vary in size, colour and habitats. The ‘Bush Falcon’ is found in the forests of the North Island and the northwestern South Island, the ‘Eastern Falcon’ habitat is the open country of the eastern South Island whilst the ‘Southern Falcon’ is of the coastal Fiordland, Stewart Island and the Auckland Islands.
It’s not the first time I have been dive-bombed by a native falcon. The “attack” usually comes in nesting season. Dogs make nesting falcons particularly twitchy.
Falcons are renowned for their speed of flight which they use to snatch their prey such as a tui in mid-flight. How fast? Assessments vary. The Te Ara encyclopedia says “the New Zealand falcon (kārearea) hunts mostly other birds in the air, flying at speeds up to 200 kilometres per hour.”
Other times falcons, outside of nesting season, may just sit and stare. It pays to keep an eagle eye out for them. Three years ago, I spotted a falcon atop a big rock. I took one photo and then successively taking photos, slowly walked towards it. I got to about five metres before it silently took off.
Wildlife can often put on entertainment plus for the backcountry person. One day in Hawkes Bay, while fishing a wilderness stream I paused to change a fly. Two old billy goats appeared across the stream, unaware I was there. Both goats sported long beards and with horns large and twirly.
Instantly the first goat was galvanised into playful action and next moment the two grandpapa billy goats were engaged in a game of tag more befitting young kids.
For perhaps ten minutes I watched the two elderly gentlemen engage in a game probably learnt from childhood. Then I ruined it by brushing a sandfly off its feasting on my neck. Both saw the movement and they stared. Did I detect embarrassment? Did they sense their game for two venerable and grownup billies looked ridiculous?
Ridiculous or not it was entertainment of the best.
Ever seen adult hinds (deer) having a throwback to childhood by indulging in tag and chase with yearlings? I did once, watched for a good ten minutes and then stealthily retreated away leaving them to their mad-cap game.
Last year, I rounded off an evening hunt and was heading back down a track sidling the spur when I spied a deer, belly deep in the water feeding on the over-hanging green grass. Then as I watched another deer burst from cover and ran into the pond, followed by a third deer.
The two played chasing in and out and back into the water while the deer feeding – presumably a hind – carried on feeding. I sat and watched from a distance, fascinated by deer oblivious to their audience.
One roar in Hawkes Bay on the Burns Range, Dave Mabin and I watched a big antlered stag with a couple of hinds being tentatively challenged by a young stag with mediocre antlers. We watched as the big stag every now and again chased the smaller stag away and then returned to the hind. From a couple of hundred metres away, the big stag then mounted a hind and served her. It was a rare moment for in his classic book “A Herd of Red Deer,” scientist Fraser Darling said “an observer may witness considerable sexual activity and herding behaviour on the part of the stag, but the act of copulation is rarely seen—.”
Mostly the sideshows are more subtle, more cameo than a full-blooded gladiatorial contest. Once in a duck shooting maimai a hawk perched within centimetres of my face, unaware for thirty seconds of my presence. It stared coldly around, preened itself and it was only my stretching cramped leg muscles that ended the show. I saw a hare swim a large river one morning and on another occasion watched a cock pheasant repel three aggressive magpies.
Who hasn’t been charmed by the company of the curious bush robin or the friendly fantail?
On one occasion in the Westland valley of the Crooked River I watched as a native falcon was harassed by six tuis – normally the falcon’s prey. The tuis realising there was strength in numbers bullied the hapless falcon who just sat there looking most miserable.
For me these little sideshows I stumble upon add immeasurably to the enjoyment.
You increase your chances of being an audience by taking your time. Unfortunately all of use are prone to varying degrees of too much hurrying. Perhaps its the force of habit of the work day week? All we need to do out in the hills is to stop and look about more.
© Two big "buddy" stags