Fins and feathers, Lauris Edmond

Wade Doak’s World of New Zealand Fishes
Hodder & Stoughton, 1991, $49.95

New Zealand’s Extinct Birds
Brian Gill and Paul Martinson,
Random Century, 1991, $49.95

A Field Guide to New Zealand Birds
Geoff Moon,
Reed Books, 1992, $34.95

Before I read this book, my awareness of the lives of fish had not progressed much beyond a mild pleasure in Rupert Brooke’s lines:

And in that Heaven of all their wish
There shall be no more land, say fish.

Suddenly everything changed. I don’t need to know what fish think about land, or heaven; with this book I am amongst them, propelled into a flourishing ‘reef fish scene’, a marine reserve at Poor Knights, a group of islands off the east coast of Northland. Following the author (he’s in his diving suit) I find myself descending through the ‘silvery schools of jacks and scad, bright colonies of anthias and damselfish … streamlined yellowtails… sea bream awaiting the evening … a john dory … solitary groupers and scorpion fish …’ My education, my illumination, has begun.

Referring to his earlier Fishes of the New Zealand Region, Doak prepares us for the present volume: ‘There is another way of regarding reef fishes; a more aesthetic, entertaining and philosophical approach that does not regard them as a collection of bones, spines and scales to be preserved in alcohol, sport on a hook.’ Instead, he shows us fish as societies, supportive as well as predatory, holding together by using one another, as the cleansing and grooming fish rid others of their parasites while feeding themselves.

The communities of Poor Knights Islands are grouped on the page as in real life, according to a biological logic. We observe the ‘Guild of the bottom fossickers’, ‘Guild of the open-water hunters’, ‘Guild of the invertebrate grazers’ and so on, each presented in language that attractively mixes information and on-location description. The invertebrate gleaners for instance ‘with their thick, rubbery lips and brush-like tooth pads rummage over rocky areas, sucking and kissing off patches of encrusted life swarming with tiny invertebrates’. The diver/ author allows himself to be seen too, roaming among these creatures with a watchful, respectful eye. ‘Whenever I explore the cliff face at night, my flashlight reveals a startling change in the fish guilds. The bottom stalkers are out hunting and the day feeders are at rest.’

These accounts make learning easy. Knowledge accumulates along with fascination. Absorbed himself, Doak appears to think aloud to explain what he has seen out of the sheer excitement of re-living the moment. He tells us for instance how he once saw a combfish, a cleaner, clean 16 fishes in 54 minutes within an area ‘no larger than a small house’. As the fish moved about it became ‘completely preoccupied with cleaning and sought out fish after fish …’ spending ‘5 minutes with a goatfish, pecking at it 50 times’.

Factual writing makes many authors diffident about using the first person. Part of the charm of Doak’s book is his unselfconsciousness about his own journeys of discovery. He is perplexed, determined, surprised, enchanted, by what he finds on innumerable visits to the reef. it’s easy to see the connection between his book and the popular ‘Wild South’ TV documentaries which were made in association with it. Every section is illustrated by imaginative and beautiful colour photos. Here however I come to my only criticism: many of the photos, bled to the edge of the page, obliterate page numbers, and I found this mildly exasperating.

But that’s a small quibble. The Worlds of Fishes is a marvellous account of a world of creatures that live among us and on whom we depend. I hope its publication helps the author realize his ambition to halt the destruction of ‘marine libraries and art galleries’ and encourage the creation of marine reserves, not only here but ‘at appropriate intervals around all the coastlines of the world’. These reserves would be for pleasure, education and ‘to contribute food for a crowded planet’. It’s Doak’s dream. All power to his fins and flippers.

Have you ever wondered how many species of moa there were in pre-settlement New Zealand? Twenty-eight? Half that, only one? In fact, the answer has changed several times and may change again. You will learn why from Brian Gill’s careful, precise text, as you will see several moa drawings in Paul Martinson’s fine illustrations. On the subject of moas, and kiwis, Gill remarks that ‘the ancestors of some birds arrived before New Zealand broke from Gondwanaland, or soon after. These are often survivors of lineages that died out in other parts of the world, and their descendants now seem ‘primitive’ or ‘ancient’.

The story of extinction is often a melancholy one. In New Zealand it is of birds long accustomed to an environment free of predators, and the catastrophic effect of the introduction, first, of the Maori rat and dog, then later of the European rat, several varieties, and ferrets, weasels and stoats as well. But the picture, as given here, becomes more dense, more varied, more complex as it is more fully explained and thus assumes a broad evolutionary shape. The inescapable logic of physical conditions dictates the survival or destruction of every species, including the human, though here they – we – appear only as predators.

There is a strangely rarefied quality about Martinson’s illustrations. Despite being to some extent imagined creations, their details assumed from the examination of bones and interpretations of markings on them, they carry an odd sort of conviction. They are ‘real’ yet static, with a timeless elegance that, quite as strongly as the text, places them in an irrecoverable past. However, while it is easy to be drawn to the paintings, it soon becomes clear that it is the careful scholarship of the text that makes them fully intelligible. The New Zealand crow is typical. The sites where bones have been found are detailed, and evidence of likely food and habits. ‘This bird may have been a weak flier. The scarcity of its remains in cave sites, most of which are inland, suggests that it was of the coastal lowlands.’

This is an illustrated biography of creatures unknown yet oddly familiar. Its special poignancy comes from this sense that the birds are ours. Some, like the moa and the more recently extinguished huia, have been used as New Zealand images, almost ikons ‑ and yet we have lost them. All we can do is be grateful for such delicate and thoughtful chronicling as this book has given us.

Geoff Moon is easily New Zealand’s best known bird photographer. His work in this latest book maintains the high standard he has set through seven major volumes and innumerable illustrations for articles in periodicals. The birds are often in motion, always in a characteristic location, startlingly alive on the page. Many of the photos have appeared before in earlier volumes but are not less useful for that, and usefulness is the key to this chunky, compact volume.

Apparently nobody has put together just such a handbook before. It identifies all the birds likely to be seen in New Zealand mountains, forests, wetlands, open country and coasts, excluding the Chathams and subantarctic offshore islands. Each is given, as well as its photograph, a list of basic facts, name, habitat and distribution, characteristics, voice, food and breeding habits. With a glossary, index and bibliography, and a note of common sense advice about bird watching equipment, this succinct but comprehensive manual will be invaluable to those with the bird-watching habit, and the passion that goes with it.


Lauris Edmond is a Wellington writer.


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