Nest Building Time…Published 2015/10/11

When I was outside in the garden this afternoon I was aware of a very industrious female blackbird with a mission close by. She was gathering material to build her new nest. Unlike the male blackbirds, the females are brown and mottled. This one was quite comfortable with me being only a few metres away.

She was busily pecking and pulling coconut fibres from an old coconut hanging basket liner which was on top of a raised brick bed. The pulling and tugging went on for some time and her beak was chocker block with fibres, I could hardly see her head! Eventually she considered she had enough in her beak and flew away with her building materials.

As a small child my mum used to tell me to pull out the hair collected in my hair brush and wrap it round bare branches in the garden for the birds to provide nesting material; I still do that today and secretly wonder how many nests my hair may have been woven into between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Years ago I remember examining a beautifully made bird’s nest that had fallen down on to the garden path and seeing one of the nesting materials used consisted of a very fine plastic cassette tape (rather obsolete today).

Some birds find the most obscure places to build nests, like this photo below which was sent into The Guardian and shows a thrush getting ready for Spring as it starts nesting in the amber light in a set of traffic lights at Leeds Bus Station.


Blackbirds mate for  life until they die.  I think one of the most beautiful sounds is the sound of a blackbird singing, especially after rain.

Over the last week I have been aware that as late as 8.30pm when it is dark outside there has been quite a rumpus in the back garden with blackbirds.  Perhaps they are settling down to sleep for the night and shouting out their last orders and instructions.  Where birds go at night had always been a mystery to me.

Here is a list of suitable nesting materials you can make available in your garden to0 help their nest building:

Some of the best nesting materials to supply to birds are:

  • Cloth Strips:Natural fibres – such as cotton, wool, jute, and hjessian – make perfect bird nesting materials. Cut old fabric into pieces 3” to 6” long and no more than 1” wide. Longer pieces are too much for birds to handle and can even strangle them.
  • String and Ribbon:String, twine, ribbon, lace, and yarn make good nesting materials. Use natural fibers, and cut pieces no more than 3”- 6” long.
  • Small Yard Debris:Pine straw, wheat straw, and tiny twigs make good bird nest building materials.
  • Grass Clippings:One of the most common nesting materials, grass clippings can be gathered into balls or simply left mulched into your lawn.
  • Animal Hair:If you brush or clip your animals, save the fur! It makes a wonderfully soft lining for bird nests. You can use human hair clippings, too. Make sure the fur hasn’t any chemicals in it like flea killer.
  • Cocoa Fibre:Recycle worn-out linings of hanging baskets for bird nesting material.
  • Plants and Seeds:Fluffy seeds and plants, such as cattails, make good bird nesting materials.
  • Cloth Batting:Wool or cotton batting cut into 3”- 6” strips makes good nesting material.
  • Feathers:Providing feathers for nesting material is a great way to recycle old down pillows!
  • Moss:Sphagnum moss make great bird nesting materials.

What Not to Use for Bird Nesting Materials – Items to avoid for bird nesting materials include:

Dryer Lint: While dryer lint may seem like an ideal nesting material, it hardens and crumbles when it gets wet. Instead, use things more fibrous that the birds can weave together.

  • Synthetic Material:Even though birds will grab things like cellophane and plastic for their nest, avoid providing synthetic materials that can harm both the birds and the environment.
  • Synthetic String:Never provide fishing line or nylon twine as bird nesting material, since it can cause deadly tangles.



Never Underestimate a Sparrow Published 2015.09/05


I often feel that sparrows are one of the most overlooked, underrated and thoroughly disliked birds.  I grew up in England and these little birds were the most common of visitors to my garden there.

In New Zealand they were introduced to reduce the wide number of crop eating pests; despite this were more interested in eating grains and fruit than the insects for which they were initially intended to control.

The Canterbury Acclimatisation Society liberated 40 sparrows in 1867. However when it became apparent that sparrows had become a pest, the society wished to disassociate itself from any part in their introduction. They circulated the story that in 1867 a Captain Stevens had arrived in Lyttelton with house sparrows instead of the insect loving hedge sparrows he was commissioned to bring. The society claimed that they declined them, but that Stevens released the five house sparrows that had survived the voyage.

Sparrows are prolific breeders and in the 1880’s Sparrow Clubs were formed to control the increase in numbers by  laying down poisoned grain and money being offered for their eggs.

I must admit they are without a doubt noisy little birds with a tendency to squabble and I often hear them having quarrels and disagreements in the garden here. They do seem to live alongside people with ease and I was thrilled to come across a treasure of a book a few years ago about a most amazing little sparrow.

The book is called “Sold for a Farthing” and it was written by Claire Kipps. It amusing, poignant tale about the relationship of a woman and an injured sparrow  “Clarence” which she finds on her front doorstep after returning home from an air raid during the Second War World in London.  With a deformed wing, Claire befriends the little bird sharing her life with him until he dies twelve years later. It is a delightful read accompanied with a number of black and white photographs. Keep your eyes out for a secondhand copy a most precious addition to any home library.






Sam at Owl Cottage Published 2015/08/03

This post is in memory of our dear, much loved beautiful boy Sam.

Guardian of the Garden
Guardian of the Garden

Sam was a real character. Often grumpy in mood  he was a  very loyal boy always guarding his home territory and waiting patiently for our return. We will miss those greetings dearly.

Relaxing on a favourite blanket
Relaxing on a favourite blanket

A healthy cat for the majority of his life he enjoyed an active and happy existence and was well loved. I think it does bring some comfort when we reflect on his life. He seemed to have many human traits such as jealousy, distain, embarrassment, anger, bliss and affection to name just a few. His face could display a multitude of expressions. He loved his home and garden. Sometimes he would run up the cabbage tree at speed to show off when we were watching and often sit on the chair at the front door on sentry duty.  Sam did take time to enjoy the flowers by smelling them and licking off water from their leaves.

Enjoying his garden
Enjoying his garden

A couple of years ago he started to have thyroid problems and underwent  radioactive treatment. One of his eyes had slowly started to darken over but he still continued to enjoy life. Unfortunately during this last year it was evident that he was slowing down and his rear leg weakness prevented him from jumping up to higher places. In April he had a very serious seizure and the Vet suspected he had a brain tumor. Medication was given daily but his behaviour changed drastically. He became extremely anxious, very sensitive to sound and his eye sight deterioated. Days were spent pacing around the house in circuits and he was a restless soul; it was distressing to witness. He still enjoyed his food though and managed to purr when we stroked and held him.

Sam a month before he died.
Sam a month before he died.

Three and a half months later he suffered more seizures and this time they were ongoing and his legs had become so weak that he struggled to walk around.  He was a tough and determined cat and right up to his last hours was intent on still trying to walk about in the living room.  It was a cold bleak winter’s afternoon, the log fire was lit  and we knew we had to make the call to the Vet that we had always dreaded.

The Vet had agreed to come to our home to put dear Sam to sleep. We wanted to minimise as much stress and anxiety as possible. I held him in my arms, cuddling him, stroking his head and talking to him as the Vet gave him the injection. He was warm against me. Slowly I felt his whole body begin to relax for the first time in many months Now and then he gave a sigh until twenty minutes later he had stopped breathing.

I still can’t stop the tears from flowing when I recall this.  Sam was a member of our family, our tabby teenager. He was gently placed in a calico bag, still wearing his collar with name tag and bell. We were so used to hearing it jingle announcing his presence.

Sam on patrol at Owl Cottage
Sam on patrol at Owl Cottage

Sam’s finally resting place was his favourite spot on the lawn in the front garden. He will always have a special place in our hearts and will be sadly missed.


Over Christmas and up to the New Year we have enjoyed a most pleasing amount of warmth and sunshine far south in Dunedin. The heavy rain some weeks back helped to plump out the berries and now the sunshine is transforming them into bright ruby red jewels, I refer to our redcurrant crop which is going to be our best yet.


Two plants were bought about five years ago for a $1 each at a church fair. They were sluggish getting underway and for the first year or so made little growth. Planted in a raised bed their size now is huge and some careful pruning will be necessary this season to tame them.

Cuttings can easily be taken and struck without too much hassle. So what can we make with these attractive looking berries with rather a tart taste? The most common choice would be redcurrant jelly. This is a bright clear jelly to have with cold meats and traditional lamb. Be careful in the amount of sugar you add, as keeping the sharpness of flavour is very much a plus point. This year I may add some very finely chopped hot red chili peppers to give it a spicy zing.


Intrigued by these beautiful little berries I have recently learnt they have been transformed over centuries in Bar-le-Duc, a town in North-East France into a very special and highly expensive jelly. Bar-le-duc jelly (or Lorraine jelly) was first mentioned as early as the 1300’s the product is hand seeded and a small 3 oz / 85 gm jar will cost in the region of $85! The fruit is picked and then extracted by hand from each berry with such expertise as to not lose any of its pulp and seed. It remains intact. No expensive equipment is used in its preparation and all cooking is by hand in ordinary domestic sized pans. It is a secret recipe but only water and sugar is added, it is the method of cooking which is secret. Non aluminum pans are used. The rosy red jelly has each fruit perfectly suspended complete with each tiny black speck of seed.

Mary Stuart in the 16th century referred to the preserve as ‘Un rayon de soleil dans un pot!” (a ray of sunshine in a jar). I like that description and read that the late Alfred Hitchcock (often nicknamed “The Master of Suspense” was especially fond of it as was the French poet/novelist/dramatist Victor Hugo.

They are quite precious jewels which hang like fragile Christmas tree decorations off the bushes. If you have a special recipe for these I would very much like to hear about it.

Small but perfectly formed… published 2014/11/17

We are fortunate to have an old rambling Cecile Brunner rose tumbling over a hedge and cherry tree in the front garden. It blooms constantly over spring, summer and into autumn. I have even seen a few pale pink blooms in the middle of winter.  It is a darling of a rose, often nicknamed “the Sweetheart Rose”, it has the most beautiful formed pale pink petals which are the ideal size for a buttonhole.


Yes, that is a touch of black spot you can see on some of the leaves. we don’t use chemical sprays in the garden.

This pretty little fragrant rose was bred in France in the 1880’s by Marie Ducher  and introduced by her son-in-law, Joseph Pernet-Ducher. It is named after the daughter of Ulrich Brunner, a renowned rose grower from Lausanne, Switzerland. It tolerates shade and poorer soils and has clusters of perfectly formed, high centered, pointed buds which open to double blooms which fade from the outside edges with faint yellow undertones and a deeper pink centre.


It is such a romantic addition to the garden providing a backdrop of abundant romantic blooms which remind me of fairy tales. I could imagine this rose climbing around the castle where sleeping beauty slept.

A natural insect repellent, a herbal tea and more …

I can’t remember where this plant originally came from, perhaps a school or church fair. We always look for those little unusual treasures at such places and delight in finding out more about them. With the rather mysterious name Balm of Giliead, which sounds quite biblical; this plant occupies one end of a raised bed in our front garden. A good friend told me it can be “rather a thug”  and she is quite right, it needs constant taming (pruning) but isn’t invasive by self seeding.

I can’t remember where this plant originally came from, perhaps a school or church fair. We always look for those little unusual treasures at such places and delight in finding out more about them. With the rather mysterious name Balm of Giliead, which sounds quite biblical; this plant occupies one end of a raised bed in our front garden. A good friend told me it can be “rather a thug”  and she is quite right, it needs constant taming (pruning) but isn’t invasive by self seeding.

Balm of Gilead
Balm of Gilead

Balm of Giliead (Cedronella canariensis)  Family:  Mint (Lamiaceae) orihinates from the Canary Islands, off the north-west coast of Africa. It exudes a strong and memorable camphorous good to place in a position where you can pass by it and enjoy the aromatic leaves. The smallish pink flowers are loved by bees. This plant can be frost tender, so plant in a sheltered position so it can safely over winter


I should mention a note of caution here, that Balm of Giliead is a name that seems to have been widely used for several groups of plants from the balsalm family including the willow and popular. Our plant, a perennial shrub is pictured below, make sure it is the same if you want to make a herbal tea from it.  It is a medicinal herb and can be used as an inhalant for the lungs as it has decongestant to aid breathing and chest complaints. It has also been used as a treatment for coughs and colds and can be taken as a tea infusion using the flowers and leaves. It enhances digestion and has pain relieving qualities. Sometimes it is used as a relaxant and antidepressant with its wonderful smell revives the spirits. Being fair skinned I am constantly under attack from biting insects.  The good news is this herb can used as an insect repellent, mozzies in particular dislike it.


So all in all, this is a most useful addition to any garden.

What to do with a plethora of plums ? Published 2014/10/26

Since we living at Owl Cottage,  the garden has graced me with an annual heavy crop of red plums from an old plum tree in the front garden.  Situated on the boundary just behind the lemonwood hedge, it is often admired by passers by. In early spring it puts on a magnificent display of snow white blossom and a few weeks later the bright green leaves appear


There has been a problem with people wandering into the garden uninvited and helping themselves. One year  a photo of a hedgehog was captured enjoying the ones that had fallen to the ground, he was “drunk” with the fermenting fruit but very happy, here he is:


After making the obvious preserves of plum jam, plum chutney and spicy plum sauce,I’ve been seeking an alternative for their use and came up with plum compote. It is a concentrated, rather tart brilliant crimson fruit sauce that is superb on muesli and with ice cream or yoghurt. It would equally be ideal for a cheese cake topping or partner waffles with cream.

I don’t measure quantities. Plums can be picked, stored in bags and popped into the freezer and used when required. Simply defrost and slowly bring to the boil and simmer. Remove any stones, stalks or odd leaves and reduce then add sugar to taste. Don’t add too much sugar or you will finish up with jam and that beautiful tartness will be lost. A secret addition that transforms the taste is the spice star anise. This pretty and beautiful smelling spice can be bought cheaply from Asian food stores, I normally add about 8 of them to a pan full of plums. Make sure you don’t leave the fruit unattended after you add the sugar and regularly stir with a wooden spoon to prevent it catching and burning on the base of the pan. When you feel it thicken to your desired consistency remove from heat and let it cool before putting in an airtight container and store in the fridge. It will keep in the fridge up to a month.

Red PLums
Red PLums



APRIL 5, 2015

Every  autumn and winter  we put out food for the native birds that come down from  the bush up in the hills above our house. Most native birds are nectar or insect  feeders, and so  we feed them sugar water  from  a big feeder hung in  the small trees at the back  of the house- mainly high enough  from  Tilly the cat!

In the middle of winter the birds can drink up to  2 litres of sugar water a day. We also  put old bread out  for the non-native seed feeders like the sparrows and the blackbirds  and thrushes and sometimes starlings. However everyone seems to like the apples that  we  peel  and then spear on  sharpened branches from  the old sweetheart rose that  grows wildly over the back   verandah roof!

Sometimes when  a horde of waxeyes  descend on fruit and water the arguments can  be fierce! Blackbirds hold sway over most  of the other birds, but sometimes an older  bellbird, and always the rare tui, will  outrank  a blackbird!  Very occasionally we might see a brilliantly coloured  Australian  parakeet that live in a small group  up  in  the high trees in the hills, who  comes  desperate for food in  mid-winter.

Up  until  a few years ago we would see a constant parade of  mallard and grey  ducks who  would first land on  our laundry    roof and then  lower themselves with  a loud flutter of wings and quacking, to  the back garden  area to  voraciously consume the bread there, and waggle their tails in  triumph and greed. Sadly for  no reason  known to us , the  ducks no  longer frequent our little  paradise or bring their little ducklings marching up  the front hall  if we left the front door open!

Because we have so many native birds in  the back garden they also    excrete the seeds  from  the native fruit they have eaten in  the bush, and little native seedlings sprout up  below the feeders and in  shady patches in the back yard.

It seemed a shame to waste these precious gifts, so  I began uprooting them from their homes between the bricks or in  the gravel, and putting them safely in  pots. The pot entourage grew! The plastic pots came from  the potted plants  we bought cheap at  fairs and  plant nursery bargain counters,  and the potting mix came from the beautiful  fine loam  created by  well rotted walnut leaves. And so the nursery  was born!

The birds in  their travels throughout the bush in  the hills above our home , bring us  kanono seed, makamako, a few kowhai, tree fuschia and many lemonwood, with  a few more exotic species from  time to time.

The vision is to  spread  more native plants,  uniquely adapted to our Dunedin weather and soil , throughout the city: to  create corridors of food for the native birds  that  fly between the ever-dwindling patches of native bush  around our city,  and to provide homes in the soil  for the myriad of insects and other native species that used to inhabit  this part of the world before the Europeans brought their environmental destruction  and European plants.

The Nursery




Is that  the collective name for a congregation of bellbirds? -hmmm

Below , you can hear what  appears to be 4 or 5 bellbirds singing together high in the walnut tree which  over- hangs our back  garden. They  are clearly simply making music together for the joy of it.  At  this time of year in  early April the bellbirds dont come down  for food from the bush until  all  the bush nectar has gone -usually towards mid-winter ( June/July)

The sound is deafening and superb and so pure. I feel blessed to listen to  such  a wonderful  choir.


The bellbird doesnt look  so exotic as the striking tui– whose song can often sound similar but which  has more raspy notes ( and two  voice boxes!),  but its song is so  amazingly bell-like;  as Captain Cook  remarked on 250  years ago when the native dawn chorus echoing off the water to  the Endeavour at anchor must  truly have been  a magnificent and intense  amalgam of sound.

In the park near the house, the bellbirds  sing in  the tall  trees almost all  day in the spring and summer. Each year they  share a particular musical  phrase, which  over time becomes added to  and adapted;  so  that by  the new song-year, it often sounds like a completely different phrase. Each  locality of bellbirds appear to  have their own set of phrases.