So you’d like to hear another story about birds and skulls, and maybe bird skulls, would you? I could tell you hundreds of stories about birds — shall we start there? Yes?
Years ago I was walking alone down the headwaters of the Pohangina River in the Ruahine Range, a place of small tough mountains and wildness; a place of snowgrass fields on mountaintops, and whole mountainsides of leatherwood, which is the toughest plant you'll ever not want to try getting through; a place that can delight you with its warmth and sunshine and lovely old kaikawaka trees all gnarly and moss-hung, and small steep creeks that promise all sorts of surprises and hidden special places, and its special birds like karearea the falcon, and titipounamu the rifleman (the tiniest bird in Aotearoa), and ruru the morepork whose call at night is one of the most beautiful and melancholy of all owl calls, and most of all, whio, the blue duck, who you won’t find anywhere in the world in the wild except in those high, rushing, New Zealand mountain rivers. Only a few thousand of those wonderful birds survive in all the world, so what sheer joy it is to see them, especially when you’re alone in those places and you sit down to watch and they begin to settle and relax and think, oh, he’s OK, he’s no threat, and they climb out of the river onto a rock and preen their feathers and stretch their wings one at a time, and then they slip into the water again and swim right past you, so close you have to put the binoculars down and pull yourself together again.
But that's a different story. Let’s get back to ours, shall we?
There I was, walking alone down the Pohangina in the early morning when the sun, still low, was making the toetoe on the slips glow gold, so the reflection on the dark pools and shallow rapids looked like molten brass. I had all day to walk down the river to the next hut, and because it was summer and the river was low, the water felt only cool, not cold, and I was enjoying wading across and back again, so I took my time walking and looking around.
At a big pool in the shade with rapids downstream and a small cliff on the opposite side, I stopped to watch the colours on the water. I took off my pack and got the camera out. In the branches of a beech tree leaning out over the cliff and overhanging the pool, a little miromiro began calling and flitting about. I photographed the reflections then packed the camera away, and then, as I began to re-tie one of my bootlaces, the miromiro came flying across the pool, straight toward me. I stood up, and it landed in the shallow water — at my feet.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The little bird splashed and fluttered in the water right next to my boots, and I wondered whether it was in trouble and whether I should pick it up out of the water.
What would you have done?
Maybe wait and see, you say? That’s a good answer. I wish I could say that’s what I decided, but to tell the truth, I only did that because I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there, astonished, while it splashed at my feet.
Then it flew up out of the water with a flicker of sparkling drops and flew back to the tree on the far side of the pool.
Maybe it was having its morning wash? But why did it come right up to me, though? The water was shallow for several metres either side of me, so it could have had its bath further away, not right at my feet.
Do you think it liked me? I hope so.
Maybe one summer you, too, will walk alone down a river like that in the early morning, and a little miromiro will come down to splash at your feet. I hope that happens, but if it doesn't, maybe something else strange and inexplicable and wonderful will happen to you instead, and when it does, I hope the joy will flow through you the way it flowed through me, that day a long time ago, alone in a clear, bright, summer river in the early morning in one of the Earth's wild places.
1. This is Part 2 of the Bird Skull Stories.
2. I know this one's not about skulls — not explicitly, anyway.
3. The facts in this story are true. This happened to me.
1 & 2. Miromiro on the No. 1 Line track (the first is a male; the second is a female). I didn't photograph the miromiro in this story.
3. The Pohangina River near Leon Kinvig hut, November 2018. Tthe pool in this story is about an hour further downriver.