Lemon Muffins

Tea with Lemon

Jane carefully measured two and a quarter cups of self-raising flour into the bowl. She had made these lemon muffins so many times before. Half a cup of white sugar…. a pinch of salt – where had she put the salt? It was the only time she used salt in cooking. It wasn’t healthy. In the other bowl, one cup of semi-skimmed milk, half a cup of canola oil, one free-range egg and the grated rind of two large lemons.

She loved the smell of grated lemon. It was a feeling-alive smell. Tears swelled, slipped and dropped into the bowl. Jane shook the dry ingredients into the wet and folded gently, turning over her loneliness with each spatula of mix. Her mobile phone cut through the rhythm of her folding.

She had a text message. “Hi Mum. Social tomorrow night at the business school. It’s $6. Can I go.“ Of course he could go. Money was tight, but he mustn’t miss out.

William was often on a healthy eating mission, but his share of muffins rarely lasted to the next day. Not like Eleanor. She would leave at least one in the tin and then forget. It had been a family ritual. Lemon muffins with mugs of tea on the front porch. With William at university, it was only the three of them now. But Eleanor was often away too.

Jane sprayed the muffin tin with canola oil and scooped up twelve equal spoonfuls of mixture. Twenty minutes in the oven. She had enough time to wash. It was early afternoon and changing out of the clothes she had slept in might give her reason not to waste the rest of the day.

Image credit: Tea with Lemon via Pixabay CC0

Iced Coffee

Well stuff you, Kerri said under her breath as she strode back to the coffee machine.

Would you believe it? Kerri pushed hard on the lever of the coffee grinder. I stick her Iced Coffee on the table and she goes ‘Where’s my straw?’ No bloody manners. Rude as hell. Duh, open your eyes, it’s in your drink, I wanted to sayBut I didn’t. The boss’ll go crazy if I speak my mind.

“It’s in your drink madam.”

“Where’s the cream?” she snaps and she’s poking the blob of ice cream with the straw now. I want to say, You’re fat enough as it is. I’m doing you a favour. But I bite my lip. I’m doing really well with my anger management. My boss had a go at me about customer service, so I’ve been working on it.

“We don’t make it with cream according to our recipe, but you can pay for cream if you like.”

She’s staring at me with eagle eyes. “You charge for cream? That’s outrageous. I don’t charge for cream in my cafe.”

I’m keeping my cool. “I’ll give you some cream and I won’t charge you, but we do usually charge.” The boss is gonna be real pleased with me. I’m pretty proud of how I’m handling this. I take the Iced Coffee away and I squirt a bit of cream on top – not much coz she hasn’t paid – and I take it back. “Enjoy your drink madam.”

I’m just clearing a table nearby, grabbing soggy wet wipes and sugar sticks that’ve been ripped open by some shit-bag, when she yells out, “This is disgusting,” at the top of her voice, so other customers can hear – that’s what really gets me. I go over to see what the hell’s wrong this time. I’m feeling like she’s just come in for a moan. We get them sometimes. Whatever turns them on, it sure does piss me off. I smile.

“Sorry madam. What’s wrong?” She fixes me with those eyes again and I don’t feel so confident.

“This isn’t real cream,” she says.

“Can I get the manager for you?” I ask, but she waves me away with her craggy claw saying she’s never coming here again.

“Good riddance!” I call after her. “Go feast on some other sucker.”

Creative Writing

A few years ago, I discovered a new pleasure – creative writing. I’ve found it rewarding on a personal level even if my work is never published. I did make the long-list for the 2015 Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize with Searching for Ruru, and the short-list for the 2016 Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize with Happy as a Pig. Pretty exciting!

Thank you to my creative writing tutors Dr Thom Conroy and Mary McCallum for your teaching, feedback and enthusiasm that led me into the wonderful world of short stories and memoirs, to Dr Jack Ross for an unexpected and eye-opening journey in travel writing, and to Dr Doreen D’Cruz for her literature of women paper that helped my own writing.

My favourite short story authors are Andre Dubus and Amy Bloom for their precise language, and for the way they draw me into their character’s worlds, predicaments, and minds. I’ll keep writing and revising, holding them up as my light to work by.

I’ve included some vignettes and poetic attempts for a quick read here.

I’ve also written short stories – Broken Wing and Top Dog, and memoirs – Searching for Ruru, Happy as a Pig, and Dressed Down.

Image credit: Tracy’s Bookshelf  by David Brighten

Free Range to End Range


While stocks last,
Choose from our new menu of free-range birds,
Sourced and slaughtered in the wild.

To start
Stitchbird soup with garlic croutons

For main
A little cautious perhaps, then try
Matured tui tossed in flaxseed oil with fries and catsup sauce
Skewered silvereye served on cat’s tongue cookie drizzled with cranberry coulis
Peppered pukeko served in Huntsman’s sauce
Poached South Island kaka caged in lattice pastry
Fillet of sole on scrambled dotterel eggs with wine reduction
Pan fried local penguin served blue in squash surprise.

More adventurous, less conscientious, then try
Marinated Australasian gannet wings drenched in oil on sea-salt couscous
Seared line-caught royal albatross with dashi agar agar jelly and tangled carrots
Rare fairy tern with sterlet caviar steeped in sorrel jus
Sun-dried yellow-eyed penguin with bitter-sweet squid garnish
North Island kiwi bled overnight served shredded on green leaves
Medallions of moa cooked to extinction.

To finish
Our speciality dessert – Death by Complacency.

Feature Writing

Thank you to Dr Elizabeth Gray for excellent tutorials on business writing, and editing and publishing that have helped me to revise my writing for clarity, conciseness, and accuracy.

Speech Writing

Thank you to Dr Heather Kavan for a most enjoyable and inspiring speech writing paper that taught me new skills and gave me a new writing pleasure.

Save Our Native Birds

Penguin feeding baby
Hoiho Feeding Time by David Brighten

by Tracy Brighten  September 2013
Prize winner at the Massey University Speech Awards 2014  

Maria Montessori’s method of early childhood education had a defining and lasting effect on my family, especially her emphasis on a child’s care and respect for people and the environment.

I’m anxious then that our children are growing up in a society where economic concerns outweigh ecological concerns, where status outweighs values and where oneself outweighs others. Philosopher Peter Singer condemns this human-centeredness; he believes all animals are equal and deserve equal respect.

People often place value on animals based on their value to people, but this ignores the value in animals existing for their own sake. People value pets but in our constructed animal hierarchy, wildlife is demoted. And if you take birds, they’re way down the pecking order, but surely birds deserve our care and protection?

Sir David Attenborough certainly thinks so: “What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?”[i]

The bar-tailed godwit is a world record holder and New Zealand plays a part in this incredible bird’s story. In March 2007, these modest-looking birds hit the headlines when satellite tagging revealed they flew non-stop for over 10,000 km from New Zealand to Northern China, then continued on to breeding grounds in Alaska.[ii] In September they returned to New Zealand in a direct flight of 11,680 km, the longest journey without a feeding stop made by any animal. During summer you can glimpse these superheroes feeding in the mud flats at Foxton Beach in the Manawatu.

If the Minister of Internal Affairs in 1941 hadn’t issued a hunting ban to end their mass slaughter, believing this remarkable bird worthy of protection, it may have been a different story. Opponents argued that protection should only be imposed in cases of economic importance, scientific value or danger of extinction. The problem with waiting until birds are in danger is that we risk being too late. 

Take a look at the bird immortalised on your five dollar note. The yellow-eyed penguin with its distinctive yellow crown is unique to New Zealand but sadly, it is one of the rarest penguins in the world. To make way for farming, early settlers set fire to coastal forest and scrub habitat. Penguins were forced to nest further inland and adult birds, eggs and chicks became easier prey for the dogs, cats, and stoats the settlers brought with them.[iii]

If you’re familiar with the Otago Peninsula, you might know the hide at the far end of Sandfly Bay. If you’ve been there at dawn you will have seen these majestic penguins slowly zigzagging down steep rocky slopes to the sea and you will know how unique and special they are. If you’ve been to ‘Penguin Place’, hurrying through tunnels linking hides as you follow a solitary penguin from the beach through dunes to meet its chick, you will know. And you don’t have to see to know. I’m sure I’ll never see an Emperor penguin in the Antarctic but just knowing they are there is reason enough to care.

The New Zealand dotterel is another native bird threatened by habitat loss, predation and human disturbance. You may have noticed this wary red-breasted bird with bandy legs keeping her eye on you as she hurries across the sand. She may even feign a broken wing to draw you away from her nest. With housing and tourist development, her beach habitat is busier than ever. Her eggs are well-camouflaged in a scrape in the sand just above the high tide mark but they’re easily crushed by people, horses or cars.[iv]

Dogs running off the lead can also crush her eggs, or disturb her as she incubates, or even kill her chicks. Cats take her eggs in daytime and night hunters can pluck her from her nest. Her unfledged chicks are easy prey too; one cat can wipe out all the nests near its home in a single night.

If you live near dotterel habitat, keep cats inside, and dog walkers please check restrictions, especially in the breeding season. An egg laid on Motuihe Island has twice the chance of surviving to fledgling compared to mainland areas where predators roam, so it’s worth our effort.[v]

And what about the kiwi? Our national icon could become extinct on the mainland within 50 years. Dogs are the main killer of adult kiwi in Northland where the average lifespan is 14 years compared to 45 to 60 years elsewhere.[vi] Around Whangarei, more than 320 kiwis have died from dog attacks in the last 12 years.[vii] That’s 320 we might have saved.

Conservationists work tirelessly on breeding, pest control, and research, yet their work can be undone in just one night of rampage. Dogs – whether hunting dogs, farm dogs, or pets – are responsible for 80% of adult kiwi deaths each year. It’s true the population can handle some chick losses, but the death of a breeding adult is far more serious. Because the kiwi doesn’t have a breastbone, even a curious dog not intending harm can cause death.

BNZ, who sponsor ‘Save the Kiwi’ campaign, believe with better awareness the decline can be reversed.[viii] If owners keep dogs inside or in an escape-proof garden, especially at night when kiwi leave their burrows, and if roaming dogs are reported to DOC, kiwi deaths can be prevented. Dogs kill in seconds, but aversion training discourages them from approaching kiwi and is very effective.[ix] Why wouldn’t we take these easy measures to help?

Kiwi chicks are killed by cats roaming in kiwi territory during the breeding season. Owners can’t control where their cat goes at night, and you might be surprised to learn that domestic cats wearing radio transmitters were found to roam up to 20 km from home.[x] Partners in crime, stoats, and cats kill a staggering 70% of kiwi chicks before they reach 6 months of age.

It’s a tragedy. Our daughter, a zoologist and passionate birder, tells me how gentle and endearing this flightless bird is. She describes the thrill of being in the bush in the moonlight, hearing a kiwi call, then seeing this rare bird creep past, foraging as it goes.

Cats don’t just kill kiwi. The average cat kills 13 birds a year. [xi] A WSPA pet survey reveals New Zealand has 1.4 million cats, so the death toll is huge.[xii] Why does this matter? After all, you might argue, birds aren’t important, and anyway, cats catch rats, don’t they? That may be true, but there are other methods of controlling rats that don’t harm birds, including traps and new poisons, so we don’t need cats to catch rats.

Native birds could disappear forever, but if we’re truly clean and green we must conserve bird diversity. I’m not suggesting public commentator Gareth Morgan’s cat-free society. Pets are part of our culture. But we have a duty and a moral obligation to be responsible pet owners and look beyond the interests of our own household.

Cats are predators. It may be distasteful, but Tiddles is equally at home tearing apart a fledgling dotterel as he is snuggling up on the sofa. Like teenagers, if you let them out all night while you sleep, you can’t be sure what they’re up to.

So what can we do to help? The story of Sylvia Durrant, the long-time volunteer for SPCA Birdwing now in her eighties, is an inspiring one.[xiii]

Many years ago Sylvia was a nurse and knew little about birds, but she volunteered in her spare time. Her home and back yard have become a hospital filled with cages and feathered patients. Fondly known as the ‘bird lady’, Sylvia visits schools to talk about caring for sick and injured birds and she is a passionate advocate. She knows first-hand the damage cats can inflict and she teaches responsible ownership.

If you have a cat, Sylvia asks you to keep it inside at night and to pop on a collar and bell when it’s roaming in the daytime. You might think a bell won’t work, but bells are effective and reduce bird catch rates by 50%.[xiv] You might say your cat doesn’t hunt, but did you know cats bring home less than one third of their total kill?

Feral cat populations quickly spiral out of control so de-sex your cat to prevent kittens that may become wild. Gareth Morgan condemns the SPCA policy of releasing neutered feral cats the SPCA says have a right to life.[xv] What about birds’ rights he asks? He has a point. Like the Minister of Internal Affairs who protected godwits, you can save birds by preventing these killing sprees.

Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf is known as ‘The Singing Island’, but there was a time when forest birds were forced to leave and silence fell.[xvi] Early settlers cleared forest for houses, crops and animal grazing. By the time they left, the forest had been decimated.

Thankfully Ray, a lighthouse keeper turned ranger, led the restoration in the 80s and now this forested paradise is home to a chorus of species, including the rare takahe, saddleback and stitchbird. Pests have been eradicated and bush boardwalks let visitors see what’s possible with vision, dedication and patience. But there’s still work to be done on the mainland.

Every year in October, celebrities campaign for Forest & Bird ‘Bird of the Year’ and the public can vote for their favourite native.[xvii] Past eminent stars include the New Zealand falcon, the kiwi and the kakapo, and you may recall Stephen Fry’s humping encounter with Sirroco that raised him to ambassador status for this critically endangered parrot.

Birders aren’t a weird species huddled in hides but people who care. Cast your vote and tweet your friends – “birds are cool”. We can join wildlife conservation groups – ‘Kiwis for Kiwi’ website is full of information for volunteers, pet owners, hunters and more.[xviii] We can show our children how to tread softly in nature, how to watch, listen and care. DOC’s website has video clips to inform and inspire tomorrow’s conservationists. [xix] We can set up a feeding table, especially in winter, and a bird bath is a lifeline in summer. We can extend our love for pets to the wildlife in our back yards, on our farmland, in our countryside.

Birds are beautiful. Grab your coat, grab your binoculars, grab your children and get out into the bush. Take your time. Stop, look, and listen. Hear the woosh of the kereru in the tree tops or the tui’s melancholic notes. See the fantail flitting back and forth or the blackbird foraging on the floor. Even in the largest cities, you’re never far from nature in New Zealand. Open your eyes to our country’s amazing birds and let their songs into your heart.

[i] Attenborough, David. (n.d.). Retrieved October 08, 2013, from http://www.brainyquote.com/

[ii] Woodley, Keith. (2009). Godwits – Long haul champions. Auckland: The Penguin Group.

[iii] Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.yellow-eyedpenguin.org.nz/penguins/threats-disease-and-predators

[iv] Department of Conservation. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/nz-dotterel-tuturiwhatu/

[v] Neate, & Hester R. (2011). Breeding success of northern New Zealand dotterels (Charadrius obscurus aquilonius) following mammal eradication on Motuihe Island, New Zealand. Notornis. 58(1), pp. 17-21.

[vi] Department of Conservation. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/conservation/native-animals/birds/saving-northlands-kiwi-from-dogs-factsheet.pdf

[vii] Stuff. (2012, February). Kiwi deaths spur reminder to dog owners. Retrieved September 30, 2013, http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/6424474/Kiwi-deaths-spur-reminder-to-dog-owners

[viii] BNZ Save the Kiwi. (2011, August). Owner of Kiwi killing dog ‘sickened’ by bird’s death. Retrieved September 30, 2013, http://www.kiwirecovery.org.nz/news/news/owner-of-kiwi-killing-dog-sickened-by-birds-death.html

[ix] Shivers, Timothy (2013, September, 30). Time to save the Kiwi. New Zealand Herald: Element magazine, pp. 23.

[x] Metsers, E.M. (2010). Cat-exclusion zones in rural and urban-fringe landscapes: how large would they have to be? Wildlife Research, 37, pp. 47–56.

[xi] Van Heezik, Y. (2010). Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation. 143, pp. 121–130.

[xii] WSPA (2011, August) New Zealand Survey Reveals A Nation Of Animal Lovers And Pet Owners. Retrieved September 30, 2013, from http://www.wspa.org.nz/latestnews/2011/NZ_survey_a_nation_of_animal_lovers.aspx

[xiii] Durrant, Sylvia (2009). Personal communication.

[xiv] Gordon, J.K. (2010). Belled collars reduce catch of domestic cats in New Zealand by half. Wildlife Research, 37, pp. 372.

[xv] Morgan, Gareth. (n.d.). The SPCA are releasing cats into the Wild. Retrieved September 29, 2013, http://garethsworld.com/catstogo/

[xvi] Moon, Lynette (1998). The Singing Island. Auckland: Random House.

[xvii] Stewart, Matt. (2013, October, 5). Battle of the Birds. Dominion Post. pp. A20.

[xviii] Kiwis for Kiwi. (n.d). Retrieved October 1, 2013, from http://www.kiwisforkiwi.org/

[xix] Department of Conservation. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2013, from http://tvnz.co.nz/meet-the-locals/s2009-e6-dotterels-video-2802910


I enjoy writing in various forms, including creative, business, speech, feature, and health writing. You may like to read some examples of my work in this portfolio.

Image creditToe-dipping at Burton Bradstock by David Brighten


Spreading the Word

By Tracy Brighten 2012

A profile of volunteer Sylvia Durrant who has been caring for sick and injured birds on Auckland’s North Shore for over twenty years

Sylvia Durrant

Sylvia with orphaned cygnet

White hair swept off her face and gold-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, Sylvia Durrant, known as the ‘bird lady’, greets me with her generous smile. At once, she engages me in animated conversation about her work and the patients in her care today.

Bird volunteer for over twenty years

Sylvia has been caring for sick and injured birds on Auckland’s North Shore for the past twenty years, since responding to a newspaper advert asking for volunteers to care for baby blackbirds. Sylvia knew little about birds then, but as a retired nurse caring for her disabled husband, she had plenty of time on her hands.

I first met Sylvia in 2006. My daughter started helping her for a few hours each week, and would return full of enthusiasm, re-telling Sylvia’s stories. A bird enthusiast myself, I couldn’t wait to meet her. Sylvia left a deep imprint then and on other occasions when I had the pleasure of seeing her at work. I remain in awe of a modest lady with boundless energy and enthusiasm, even as she struts towards eighty.

Sylvia’s bird shelter in Rothesay Bay

Sylvia lives in a small house on a quiet street in North Shore’s Rothesay Bay. One side of her house is lined with bird cages of varying sizes with plastic covers ready for the Auckland downpours. At the back is the blue penguin enclosure, covered to replicate the darkness of a natural burrow. Step inside Sylvia’s side entrance and her laundry houses needy birds in rows of cages lined with off-cuts of sheets or towels.

In the sink, a pile of bowls and small pipettes wait to be washed. Residents at any time may include natives such as tuis, wood pigeons, kingfishers, fantails, silver-eyes, and Sylvia’s favourites, blue penguins. Swallows, sparrows, blackbirds and ducklings are also frequent patients, as well as the less common petrels, morepork, pukeko, and Australasian gannets.

Nursery for newly hatched orphans

Step through the garage into the hall and first right is the nursery for baby birds. Here Sylvia’s patients are tiny and fragile, some only days old, eyes shut and featherless. They snuggle in small baskets lined with paper towels and covered with cloth to keep them warm. A donated incubator is on hand for emergencies. During the breeding season from September to February, Sylvia can have up to a hundred and fifty birds; many are babies and she can work fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

Feeding time

Sylvia shows me her kitchen where she prepares meals – chicken mash, beef strips, egg yolk, green peas, as well as chopped fruit and sugar water for the nectar lovers. She disappears momentarily – another bird has arrived. She reappears, hands cupped underneath her broad grin, “Another sparrow,” she says with childlike excitement.

Feeding the penguins is a no-nonsense affair. Sylvia kneels in the enclosure, a penguin gripped between her knees as she pops a succession of sprats in his beak. Hungry penguins can eat an astonishing $300 to $500 (4) of fish each week. As she returns to the nursery, I comment on her energy and she throws her head back and laughs as she recounts an amusing story.

Two boys found a bird and one suggested taking it to the ‘bird lady’. “’Is she still alive?’ the other asked. I’ve been around for so long you see“ (2). Then she skips across the room to catch an escapee with the nimbleness of a woman a fraction of her age and deftly holds three chicks at once as she feeds them with a pipette.

Sylvia’s canine assistant helps penguins

The birds are not Sylvia’s only companions. Her dog Misty is a “bird-dog” having been trained to help, particularly when the blue penguins have their swim. Take an early morning walk on Rothesay Bay beach, and you may see Sylvia and Misty encouraging their convalescing patients out of the carriers onto the rocks.

The “little blues” (2) are unsure at first, but are soon diving into the clear salty water that shimmers in the early morning sunlight. Sylvia and Misty look on and seem to enjoy the solitude. The rock pools provide a safe swimming hole, and if a penguin gets out before the end of the session to go for a wander, Misty gently licks it and it dives back into the water.

Sadly, blue penguins are ‘near threatened’ (6) and many become road victims when they come ashore at dusk to return to their nest sites in rocky burrows. Having glimpsed hundreds of these little birds swim ashore at Oamaru on the South Island and clamber up the rocks, the work of volunteers like Sylvia is brought into focus. Helping to keep up penguin numbers for breeding is so important for the long term survival of the species.

Wild release is the priority

Sylvia doesn’t get attached to the birds. Too much human contact wouldn’t prepare them for the wild and the release is the most important part, she says. But she’s not immune to the emotional response when releasing a bird; “everybody has a very good feeling for releasing birds” (1).

She recalls another story – about a man from Kaukapakapa who brought in a wood pigeon that had flown into a window and broken a wing.

“It took about three months to heal … and he’d ring me every week and say ’his mate comes and sits in the tree every day at the same time, its waiting’” (1). When the bird had recovered, the man released it and the next day he rang Sylvia. “’It was wonderful’ he said, ‘I got home, opened the box and it flew straight up into that tree and they flew off in a pair’, and he was really almost close to tears with delight that this had happened” (1).

Another man releases petrels for her, collecting them on his way home from work. His wife says that the best pleasure for him is to release these birds and see them flying away. “And that’s the most important thing because they’re wild birds… and they need to go back,” (1) Sylvia re-iterates, her smile replaced by a seriousness that demands my understanding.

It’s not always a pleasure though. In April 2006, a rare mass starvation of blue penguins along the Hauraki coast resulted in Sylvia caring for 140 sick birds in early summer compared to around 30 usually (7). Dogs off the leash can cause irreparable damage, but when asked what is the biggest problem facing local birds, Sylvia is in no doubt, “Cats, cats, cats and more cats“(1).

Cats are biggest problem for local birds  

New Zealanders are fond of their cats, but they can have a serious impact on bird populations in the breeding season when chicks are vulnerable. Sylvia has prepared an information sheet which she hands out to responsible cat owners (9). She is keen to help with education and is a regular speaker at Forest & Bird meetings, brownie groups and schools. Sometimes she takes along an ambassador if she has one – a penguin with injuries that would severely reduce its chances of survival in the wild, temporarily adopted until it can be re-homed in a zoo. 

Bird injuries are a learning curve

The most challenging part of Sylvia’s work is dealing with injuries because veterinarians don’t usually treat wild birds. She had a blue penguin with a deep gash across its back and the vet said it was impossible to stitch.

I got all the sand out of the wound… I put aloe vera jelly on it to heal it and just put a few zig-zag stitches in it to hold it so that when she moved, her back muscles wouldn’t just tear it again and then I bandaged her up, sent her swimming every day and it healed. Took three months but it healed… So that’s something else I learned, you see” (1).

Triumphant albatross release in the Hauraki Gulf

Sylvia is accustomed to overcoming obstacles. In 2006, a tired, hungry albatross was found in Silverdale, way off course from the Southern Ocean. Sylvia fattened him up with fish easily enough, but releasing this enormous bird was problematic. She was aware that an albatross needs either a very high cliff or very high seas to launch from.

“I rang a few fishing companies and asked, ‘have you got a boat going down to the Southern Ocean any time soon?’ And eventually I found one that was leaving from Nelson.” Sylvia asked DOC if they could take the bird to Nelson, but they told her to put the bird out in the harbour.

“The harbour’s not the place for an albatross, the Southern Ocean’s where he belongs,” (1) she told them, but they were uncooperative. Determined to give the albatross the best chance of survival, Sylvia rang Bill Hohepa, “the Maori fishing guy” (1) she had just seen on television. He said a storm was coming and that the coast guard at Browns Bay could take the albatross out past Rangitoto Island where the seas would be very high.

“Luckily the albatross was able to paddle up to the top of a huge wave, turn round and run down that wave and up the other side before taking off into the sky.“ Sylvia was very excited by that release, “there was a picture of him in the paper and when I stood up and held the bird, his one wing touched the floor and he was so beautiful. I loved having him” (1).

Perils of the bird catcher tree

Sylvia isn’t shy in voicing her opinion and she doesn’t seem to worry what people think about her as long as they listen. She recalls an incident where she wanted to educate gardeners about growing the sticky para para, or bird batcher tree, in their gardens. Sylvia took three little wax-eyes, “all messed up from being caught in that tree,” to a garden club. “‘Now all you people with gardens…’“ (1).

Sylvia’s manner reveals a woman who cares deeply about birds and wants to share her knowledge. She’s matter of fact, “New Zealand only has birds. We don’t have anything else so we have to protect the habitat of birds. And the only way to get this across is to talk to people” (1).

Queen’s Service Medal honour

In June 2007, Sylvia received national recognition when she was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for services to wildlife. She accepted the award as recognition for all the bird rescue volunteers. Locals who have visited her at her Rothesay Bay home may not recognise her in the photograph receiving her medal from the Governor-General (8). She doesn’t have a bird in her hands!

Sylvia has appeared on television and in the North Shore Times, and although she doesn’t seek personal fame, she is aware of the benefits of public exposure. “I don’t mind how many times I’m interviewed or put in the paper because it’s spreading the word” (1).

Sylvia certainly has a growing congregation.

Image credit: Sylvia with orphaned cygnet by North Shore Times 


  1. Alex Brighten, recorded interview with Sylvia Durrant, June 2007.
  2. Tracy Brighten, conversations with Sylvia Durrant, November 2006, December 2007, December 2008, March 2009, February 2010.
  3. Leigh Van Der Stoep, “The Bird Lady is Making a Difference”, North Shore Times, May 2006,
  4. Forest and Bird ‘Te Karere’ newsletter, Issue number 94, October 2009,
  5. Department of Conservation
  6. New Zealand Penguin, http://www.penguin.net.nz/
  7. Anne Beston, “Little blue penguins found dead in droves”, New Zealand Herald, April 29, 2006
  8. Governor General
  9. Sylvia Durrant’s information sheet for cat owners
  10. Stuff