Strictly for the birds, Steve Braunias

Charles Fleming’s Cape Expedition Diary: Auckland Islands, 1942-43
Mary McEwen
McEwen Associates, $40.00, 
ISBN  0473113848

Strange to think that the welcome swallow – a common sight everywhere in the North Island, and absent only in Fiordland and parts of Southland – was rarely seen in New Zealand until it began breeding near Kaitaia in 1958. It’s the kind of bird you see all the time without registering its presence. Small and dark, fast and flitting, it eats on the wing, snatching at insects over water and wetland, and is just as expert at setting up shop in the city as the countryside.

For my money, the best attraction at Auckland Zoo is the welcome swallows which have built their mud nest beneath a bridge near the hippo enclosure. The longest I’ve ever observed one of these hyper-active martins at rest (The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, in an unusually lyrical moment, refers to welcome swallows sitting on wires “like clothes pegs”) was on a post at Mapua wharf. It remained perfectly still for three minutes, allowing close inspection of its forked tail and its surprisingly red chest. As Barrie Heather wrote in Notornis, when he sighted the bird at Farewell Spit in 1955: “A fascinating bird, and one which could make an attractive addition to our fauna.”

The only previous appearance of the welcome swallow in Notornis, the fresh-smelling magazine of the Ornithological Society, was in 1954. Olga Sansom’s short note began with two sentences high in gothic appeal: “Early in September, Mr J C Carrington, of Stewart Island, found a strange bird on a pile of timber on Greenvale Wharf. It was dead.” Its population is now without number; the Field Guide remarks that “several thousand” birds roost in raupo swamps at night. But a single specimen marks the swallow’s first appearance in New Zealand, in Northland, in 1920. The second sighting was in 1943, by the legendary ornithologist Graham Turbott, in an unlikely place in bizarre circumstances.

During WWII, it was feared that German vessels might recognise the strategic importance of New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands. Turbott and other hardy souls – mostly scientists or naturalists – were despatched to this end of the earth to keep a close eye on enemy shipping. The operation, code-named Cape Expedition, was strictly hush-hush. As a mission, it would also surely have been supremely boring. The men kept watch from dawn to dusk. They didn’t see anything – except birds. One swallow does not a year-long expedition make; there were a great many pelagic, seafaring birds to study, as well as yellow-crowned parakeets, bellbirds, snipe, and other species.

Turbott wrote about this singular experience in his superb 2002 book, Year Away, published by the Department of Conservation. Charles Fleming’s diary of his 1942 tour of duty, published by his daughter Mary McEwen, might be regarded as a companion piece, but it’s a very poor cousin.

Turbott shaped his island journal into a memoir. He writes about the cramped huts, the discoveries (a new species of beetle), the bird life, the Enderby Island wild cattle that fed on seaweed. McEwen dutifully presents her father’s typed-up notes. They are lists. Lists of bird sightings, and bird descriptions; lists of geological formations; lists of molluscs.

All lists are listless. McEwen claims in her preface that the diaries reveal “an insight into the workings of the mind of a man who became a great scientist”. There is no disputing Fleming’s status. And of course the various and assorted ornithologia on display has specific value. But for the most part, the “workings” of his mind are merely the jottings of any serious birder – time, place, species identification.

True, there is the occasional adventure, and he hints at tensions among the small band stationed on the barren islands. He makes mention of the contemporary ornithologist’s most useful tool: a gun. He hears the first blackbird of spring, chops firewood, wonders whether fresh cuts to a stand of rata were made by “the Hun”, and ploughs his way through an entire library which includes Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Boswell, and Tacitus. Otherwise, the book’s central merit is Fleming’s attention to the menu. On the awful day that he hears his father has died, he notes that breakfast was suckling pig’s liver, heart, brains, cheek and tongue.

Two years ago, Craig Potton Publishing published McEwen’s biography of her father. Are these diaries a kind of left-over? The islands rarely come to life. In Year Away, Turbott gently presses the reader’s face into the hard, cold earth of the sub-Antarctic, when he writes about an attempt to make a vegetable garden, and describes the turnips as looking “like miserable radishes”. Fleming is bereft of metaphor. A not untypical entry reads, “On the whole, a prosaic day.”


Steve Braunias’ Roosters I Have Known was reviewed in our last issue.


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Posted in History, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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