This is a tale of two trees; one I planted and the other a much older tree I didn’t have a hand in growing, that I see when I look out my kitchen window
Robert Guyton plays the long game of planting trees
Both are bird trees, serving as favourite perches and nest sites for their own communities of birds. The first tree – a native lacebark, houhere, I planted in my neighbour’s sheep paddock – has been chosen by a large flock of sparrows as their night-time roost. Why they chose that particular tree, I don’t know. There are dozens of similar trees across the road in my forest garden, but they prefer to cluster noisily, every evening, in the lacebark.
It’s right beside State Highway 99 and must be a much noisier place to try to sleep in than my quiet garden, but that’s where they’ve chosen to overnight.
It was on one calm evening when I was walking past the tree that I became aware of their presence. The noise they made was significant, twittering and flapping about as if in a fluster, but probably just settling in their places for a sleep. I was surprised by the commotion as I didn’t know sparrows clustered in this way.
I’ve seen starlings swooping into the big street trees in Dunedin, along with the most striking evidence of their occupation, splatterings of guano all over the footpath beneath the trees, but no such sign had caught my eye in my neighbour‘s field.
I stood and listened for a long time, enjoying the hubbub and thinking how lucky the neighbourhood was to have been selected for the purpose. Perhaps our cats are especially sympathetic or too old to threaten the flock, or maybe the view is special from up in those branches
(it is, in fact, gorgeous, taking in the glistening waters of the Jacob’s River estuary and the Takitimu Mountains in the far distance, but I don’t think birds appreciate such vistas).
I’m pleased that the reason they can occupy those branches is because I went to the trouble of planting the tree in the first place.
It was troublesome, in that I needed first to convince my dear neighbour Valerie, now in her twilight years, that a tree, in fact two (I planted a kowhai alongside the lacebark), was a good idea and wouldn’t interfere with the lives of her few sheep that grazed the grass there. I managed that by promising to care for the trees as they grew, and they did, admirably.
Now, some 15 years down the track, both trees serve as shade for the sheep as they languish in the Southern heat on cloudless summer days, so that’s an unexpected a bonus.
The second tree was planted long before I moved into the neighbourhood.
It stands three times as tall as my double-storey house. It’s a macrocarpa of the sort and age that were planted by farmers across the country to provide shelter from the wind for livestock.
Like many other macrocarpa of that vintage, this one is manky, having escaped the pruner’s blade for decades now, but still been subject to hackings by various owners fearful of being felled themselves by falling limbs.
This tallest of the several macrocarpa that I watch from my window is where the white-fronted herons from around here nest. It’s tall and inaccessible enough for them to feel at ease there and they use it every year to hold their nests and the eggs therein, and as a platform to launch from as parent birds leave in search of food from the estuary, or as fledgelings, setting off to explore the world as soon as their feather cover allows it.
The herons, all leg, beak and neck, sweep in majestically from wherever they spend their days. They circle once or twice while emitting their raucous, gravelly croaks, before landing, thin legs outstretched, gracefully and – to my mind – perilously, on the highest platform the tree has to offer.
I adore those birds and am grateful there are still tall trees like those in the neighbourhood. The fashion these days is to fell anything of the size those macrocarpa have attained. That’s a great shame from the point of view of herons which require such aerial landing and nesting sites.
I’m sure many other birds, owls in particular, love old macrocarpa too, and fade from the landscape as the old trees are taken down.
It’s usual in columns written for this magazine to include in the article hints and suggestions for things to do in and around the garden and this month, in light of my focus on trees and their importance to our feathered brethren, I recommend that you plant some, as many as you see fit, anywhere you can, because my experience has shown me and I hope you have been able to see also, that a tree can play a role and have value far greater than you might originally have intended.
My own efforts to get some trees in a bare paddock are now benefitting the birds. Likewise, the long-ago effort of whoever planted the now-huge macrocarpa is much appreciated by the herons of hereabouts.
There will be, now or in the future, bird families and flocks that, if they could and if they knew who you were, would thank you for your foresight and industriousness, carried out with them in mind.
It doesn’t matter to them, it seems, what you plant exactly, so use other criteria to guide your choices.
One important factor in selecting a type of tree to plant for the future is, will it last long enough to be useful?
By that, I don’t mean, is it a long-lived species; more, will someone object to it’s presence and chop it down, which seems to be the greatest threat nowadays to trees of any stature.
Plant with 30 years into the future in mind and do the best you can to predict what the situation then might be.
Plant trees that have no known “dislikers”. Your favourite tree might be the monkey puzzle, but there will be legions out there who will object to the spiky branches they shed, or the towering light-swallowing crowns they produce.
Think smart, strategise and plant like there’s no tomorrow! That’s my task of the week!
The macrocarpa provides both landing and nesting sites for wild birds.