Signal Hill, With Dogs II

A walking diary - read part one

I spend a lot of time trying to put words to sounds and it is never very successful. There are distinct bird zones on the hill. The top half —where the forest has been cleared — is home to sparrows, chaffinchs, greenfinchs, cirl buntings, paradise ducks, and eastern rosellas. The lower half — where the bush comes in — is home to grey warblers, tui, bellbirds, kereru, fantails, and, after the 16th September (or thereabouts) shining cuckoos. On the plateau, by the pond, are welcome swallows and high above the pond there is sometimes a hawk.

The birds that I have most trouble describing — in terms of their call — are the greenfinches, chaffinches, and cirl buntings. I think of the male greenfinch as making a sound similar to a stick rubbing against a notched piece of wood. A ratchet sound — or, possibly a cicada-esque sound. When I look in my bird book for clarification — or a better description — I find this for the greenfinch: 'a harsh drawn-out dzwee' and a 'chichichichichit-teu-teu-teu-teu'. The descriptions are undoubtedly accurate but they don’t help. Worse, when I listen to recordings of greenfinches, I still don’t hear the sound I am familiar with. This may be because I am — apparently — tone deaf.

Recently, I watched and listened to a female paradise duck. She was circling the valley above Logan Park, honking loudly. After quite some time, four more paradise ducks took to the air above the SPCA. As the ducks merged, the honking female made a new sound — like that of a clucking seagull. The other ducks made a similar sound and as they circled they became more and more vocal, clacking more and more like gulls. And then, once the female pulled away from the group she went back to honking. But at no stage was the sound she made the 'zeek, zeek' described in the bird guide. Or, at least, I don’t think it was.

Having watched television programs about tracking in the wild I imagined it would be fairly easy to date runners’ shoe prints or cycle tyre tracks. It isn’t though. It is easy to identify where cyclists have been — their tracks notwithstanding. On the steep downhill sections the tree roots are often gouged from where the bottom bracket, crank or pedal has come into contact with the wood. Similar, dash-like gouges mark the upper surface of the smooth boulders on these tracks. Near the massive water tank are patches of kereru shit and discarded karaka berry skins. Beneath the pines are bullets of possum shit. The shit is a pleasant loden green in colour and very glossy, much shinier than the rabbit shit that is scattered throughout the tussock on the areas of open ground. Although I was convinced that pigs were responsible for the grazed and rooted sections in the forest I am now not so sure. I have never spotted any signs of pig excrement, though I have come across many examples of dog and even human shit.

Two sections of the hill remind me of my childhood, one makes me think of Australia. One particularly ugly stretch of 4WD track offers the most fragrant 100 metres of the walk. Here the buttery, coconut scent of gorse jostles with the dry, pencil-shaving scent of bracken and contrasts with the cooler, astringent scent of kanuka and manuka. On Fridays, if the wind is blowing from the south, these scents are joined by that of instant coffee — a smell that rises up from the Gregg’s factory below.

The view from Signal Hill encompasses the Otago Peninsula, the stadium, Logan Park, the city, the harbour, South Dunedin, Saddle Hill, Maungatua, Moana Pool, Three Mile Hill, Flagstaff, Swampy, State Highway 1, North East Valley, Pine Hill, Cargill, the old stockyards, the big eucalypts, the ‘slag heaps’, the water tower and the pond. If I stand still, looking at the hills for too long, the dogs get restless and then anxious. The big dog nuzzles my legs and drops pinecones by my feet. Eventually both dogs will wander off, and, after several minutes, I'll follow.