James Cook & his ‘Wild Musick’

Drawing after an illustration found in an early manuscript

Drawing after an illustration found in an early manuscript

In 1770, botanist Joseph Banks described the cacophony of austral bird sounds as almost imitating “…small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable…”

It must have been extraordinary, though I’m guessing that the raucous raaaaaark of a kaka or the bizarre mimicry of the tui (part horror film sound track, part industrial, part pure sweetness) didn’t reach his ears that January morning in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Thanks to more than a century of introduced predators, it’s now hard to imagine being enveloped by the songs, chatter and territorial calls of our native birds. There is some progress – Sanctuaries with their intensive predator control along with offshore islands offer us an echo of the pre-predator era.

A summer camping trip to Great Barrier Island was no exception. A quirky, lumpy, forest covered place with swathes of wetland and white sand beaches skirting the east coast, possums never arrived. Neither did the trio of mustelids, the Norway rat or hedgehogs. Habitat destroying deer never set hoof amongst the lush greenery and feral goats chewed their last few leaves several years ago.

On one of the Island’s campgrounds, yachts and boats dotted sheltered bays nearby. The local store was well-stocked with beer and other alcohol – covering about a third of the floor area! New Year’s Eve was a perfect summer’s day, hot sun frying skin and parching throats. We readied ourselves for a noisy night – and it was. But the sounds of revelry weren’t limited to just campers, yachties and boaties… the birds raised a right ruckus too. Pateke wandered amongst the tents whistling, quacking and growling; ruru hooted mournfully and birds I thought diurnal added their own verbal drama to the New Year’s mix. It wasn’t a great night’s sleep but it was a memorable one for the richness of its sonic texture.

Borrowing words from Banks, 2014 was ushered in with “…the most melodious wild musick” and a few clinking beer bottles too.

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