Eighth Excerpt – Winegrower

The main birds that can wreck havoc among the vines in the Waipara Valley are the starling, blackbird, thrush, and the cheeky little waxeye ( silvereye ). The starlings operate in flocks and are grazers. Given the opportunity, they will start at one end of a row and move methodically and efficiently to the other end, removing whole berries as they go. They leave nothing and are even more efficient than a mechanical harvester – which tends to leave fruit around the intermediate posts and at the end assemblies. The waxeyes constitute an even greater threat, in that they go from berry to berry, pecking holes and extracting juice- leaving behind damaged fruit and a heightened risk of disease from mould and botrytis. They are small, sleek, evasive, and risk takers. Waxeyes have the ability to get through the smallest gap or opening. They would make their appearance, in search of food, as soon as the weather cooled in the hills around the Waipara Valley, usually in April through May.

Other birds to frequent our vineyard included the Eurasian skylark, the spur-winged plover,  magpie,  and Californian quail. None of these birds of flight posed a threat to our grape crop.

The Eurasian skylarks are small birds with streaked brown plumage. We would be made aware of their presence as they swooped through the vineyard making their vibrant aerial song:  a rich sequence of chirps, trills, and whistles, rising and falling rhythmically.

The spur-winged plover was originally a native to Australia only, where it is called the masked lapwing. It is a typically noisy bird as you might expect, given its origins. It is a medium-sized bird which gives off a loud, penetrating staccato call, often heard at night.

Magpie are a small to medium sized bird most closely related to the crow. They have distinctive black and white feathers. They tend to fly in small groups and can be dominant in their behavior. They could often be seen’ ganging up’ on larger birds, particularly the hawk, to chase them away from their patch.

The Californian quail are small and plump. The male is particularly impressive: a striking black face bordered with white, and a conspicuous top-knot or plume. The female is slightly smaller, duller and browner, with some streaking on the neck and belly. The female’s crest is much smaller than the male’s. They are sedate foragers, but when disturbed they run at real speed, their feet a blur of movement, or burst into flight with noisy, rapid wing-beats. They have an amazing ability to take off vertically – up the side of a shelter belt, when disturbed or threatened. The male bird has a distinctive and appealing call. The calling bird is usually perched slightly above the surrounding area, say a post  – acting as a lookout. Other calls include foraging grunts, sharp urgent clucking warnings, and softer sounds. The chicks make a whistling sound to indicate their location. Quail have a large number of chicks, often 15- 20, from our experience. They are able to fly at a young age, but have a low survival rate. They are very vunerable to feral cats and ferrets. We loved the quail, so long as they kept out of our courtyard and domestic garden area.

Our bird-protection strategy for the early years involved the use of single row nets. These were manufactured and supplied to suit our particular row lengths and canopy height. Allowance was made for extra width and height to enable the nets to be closed off at the ends and the 2 sides at ground level. A degree of tolerance was required so that the fruit was not left exposed up against the nets for birds to get at from outside. The main disadvantage with single row nets was the amount of work required to secure them in place for each row. If waxeyes got in then they could be troublesome to get out. It was also more difficult to work on the vines once netted, though crop sprays could be applied through the nets, if required.

We later experimented with side nets as a potential cost- saving option. These nets were usually no more than a metre wide. They were run out along each side for the full length of the row in the fruiting zone and secured top and bottom with plastic clips. The canopy above was left clear. The real work was in the careful clipping of the netting which was time consuming. These nets, too, offered little resistance to the ever present and determined waxeyes.

The use of gas guns also proved to be of limited protection against the enemy. The cannon was mounted on a large tripod and connected to a cylinder of butane which intermittently let off loud explosions. The angle of the gun, direction, and frequency of the explosions could be controlled and varied. The unit was able to be moved around the vineyard as required. A number of these cannons are usually needed to protect a whole vineyard. We found them to be loud and largely ineffective.

The birds soon got used to the noise and put up with it. They would invariably jump up on hearing an explosion, as they sat atop the canopy, and just as quickly settle back down again. The explosions certainly didn’t drive them away.

Another experiment was to use black cut-out images of a hawk secured to a long aluminium pole positioned at different points across the vineyard. The image was intended to move about in the winds, particularly the north- westerly, and to mimic the flight habit of the hawk. The whole contraption proved difficult to manage and a threat to life and limb in a howling north- westerly. We abandoned this strategy after one season.


BARRY JOHNS ( aka Le Vigneron )