Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Birdsong and feathered friends

When we arrived in New Zealand I thought all of the wildlife would be different, so I was somewhat surprised to be greeted by the sight of blackbirds and sparrows in the garden. Of course I now realise that the early European settlers brought many bird species with them, keen to be surrounded by some familiar feathered friends in their strange new world.

However, it didn't take long to discover that these introduced domestic birds share their habitat with their native cousins. The tui (Maori name: tūī  - pronounced "too-ee") are regular visitors to our patch, and their distinctive call reminds you that you are a long way from home. 

At first glance, the tui looks black with a white ruff at the throat, but catch it in the right light, and its coat is irridescent with dark green, blue and purple hues. Apparently they have a double voice box which enables them to create a range of sounds, and they mimic the call of other birds as well as throwing in their own chattering.

I recorded this example on one of our first walks from home with the girls. It doesn't really do justice to the concerto of song we enjoyed, but it does give you an idea of how different this is from a starling (another familiar garden visitor) or a blackbird.


Less vocal, but also easy to identify, are the fantails. I've only seen them in our own small garden a couple of times, but occasionally they can be seen around the neighbourhood - I think it may depend which bushes and trees are in flower at the time. No prize for guessing why they are called fantails. 

Of the introduced birds, I am very happy to see a couple of thrush which seem to be thriving in their new home. I don't know whether it is the species, or a phase of evolution, but the markings of their speckled breasts seem to be especially pronounced.

Many of the other wonderful native and endemic birds we've seen have been at the local nature reserve - the fabulous Zealandia. I've posted pics of some of these already from the school trip I went on with Susannah, but here is a photo of the kaka (kākā). We are probably fortunate that this is not a regular visitor to our garden as it is a noisy beast.

Just for completeness perhaps I should also mention seabirds. The gulls look like the gulls of pretty much any coastline I've visited. Also by the shore we've spotted gannets, a lone kingfisher, cormorants and shag. The latter come in different forms, including the New Zealand pied shag with its white breast. There are many nesting at Zealandia. 

I perhaps come across as an avid bird watcher with this list of sightings, but I'm not really. I am just enjoying the novelty of the natural world around me. Although Wellington is a city, I am very grateful that birdsong is prominent in its soundscape. The twittering makes me smile, and as for hearing the vocal gymnastics of the tui, that smile often turns into a grin. While I may start to get used to it, I don't expect to ever tire of hearing it.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Letting kids be kids

We've been here for a little over two months, and the girls have now had several weeks going to the local school.

The school is much bigger than they were used to back in Stony Stratford - nearly 800 pupils from age 5 to 13. This could have made it daunting, but actually it really hasn't taken long for the girls to settle.

There are some things we are sad to miss from the old school (particularly for Pippa: the school residential trip and the year six end of year performance) but on the other hand what a relief to be away from the pressure of the year 6 tests.

The positives of the new school have far outweighed the negatives and it is refreshing to be in a school which is value-led but in a much more multi-cultural environment, without the expectation that everyone will be a Christian unless they expressly indicate they are something else.

A few things about the school that make it different from the middle school they were used to:
  • no uniform. Comfort is generally the key. Leggings, T-shirt, a warm layer and trainers is the usual look. The kids don't change for PE so when cross country is on the cards, a change of clothes in case of mud is suggested.
  • composite classes. This means each class spans two year groups - Susannah is in year 3 in a class that spans years 3 and 4 (the equivalent of English years 2 and 3 - she's gone from one of the youngest in the year group to one of the oldest); Pippa's in year 7 in a year 7/8 class. This means the age range per class is greater of course but it seems to work well, and it means you will get some new classmates every year.
  • less homework. So far Pippa's homework has seemed to consist of a weekly maths sheet, and Susannah's a reading log and a handful of spelling words that are comfortably within her grasp. We probably should be doing a bit more times tables practice at home, but there really isn't any pressure from school about this. It is a welcome change for all of us. Pippa's year 6 homework was onerous earlier this year and if it hadn't been started before the weekend you could kiss most of Sunday afternoon/evening good bye.
  • Maori. Actually they are learning far less Maori language than I had expected, but there are a few regular phases and common words in use. In their classes, the girls are learning Kapa haka - traditional performing arts (singing, but also some dancing). The national anthem is sung at assembly - first in Maori, then in English. Assembly happens twice per term.
  • choices and opportunity. This becomes more obvious in the senior classes, and Pippa has enjoyed being to make choices in her learning - which reading group to join based on the book being studied, and a choice of language for example. She chose Mandarin!
  • playgrounds. The school has fantastic outdoor space - not much greenery but adventure playground equipment and sports pitches. The headmaster believes kids need space to kick a ball around and this happens in separate areas to where people are climbing monkey bars or even trees. The outdoor space is also used during the school day when teachers decide it would be a good idea for the kids to be reading in fresh air for a change, or need a break in the middle of a lesson that's used a lot of concentration. The playgrounds can be visited out of school hours and we've been a couple of times during the school holidays in preference to the local park because there is more to climb on.
  • school dinners. This is a negative rather than a plus. Local takeaways provide the lunches on a given day, so unless you want a Subway one day, pizza the next, or sushi on Friday then it's packed lunches all the way.
  • stationery. Families provide school exercise books, pens, pencils according to lists provided by the school. This means there is quite a cost involved at the beginning of term. What you save in uniform costs, you spend on books.
  • the school year. This is probably obvious, but worth mentioning for completeness. The schools operate a four term system. The long holiday runs from Christmas through January to the beginning of Feb. The terms are about ten or eleven weeks long, with a two week break before the next begins. As I write we are mid-way through the two week holiday between terms 3 and 4.
Pippa is in an innovative teaching block - a novelty for the school as well as for her - and she really likes the atmosphere this creates. It is more like a common room with sofas and comfy chairs, and only a few desks. They use IT a lot, for example writing their own blogs, and doing project work together.

So, all in all it's a big thumbs up for the school in New Zealand. I like it because it is more relaxed and they are learning interesting things. I also see it as a big plus that Pippa is not having to go to secondary school this year. She can enjoy being in primary school for that bit longer, and doesn't have to suddenly grow up as they tend to when making the transition to secondary.

The girls like it because of the playgrounds and because they are having fun while they learn. They are allowed to be kids.

If you'd like to see more about the school, the website is:

Here are a few photos from Susannah's school trip to the nearby nature reserve Zealandia. I went as a parent helper.