Hidden bird paradise in the East

KATE RUSSELL AND BEN ROGERS
Last updated 05:00 21/11/2012
Whitford Bird Garden
BEN ROGERS/ Fairfax NZ

CROUCHED AND READY: Blake Twigden and Monal, one of the many beautiful pheasants in residence at Whitford Bird Garden.

Whitford Bird Garden
BEN ROGERS/ Fairfax NZ
FRIENDS: Silver the pheasant and his pal, the wondrous Carolina Wood Duck.

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Blake Twigden is a man you may not have heard of. An artist, gardener and avid keeper of birds, for the last 24 years Blake has ensconced himself in a lush, sub-tropical garden populated by extraordinary plant life and some amazing avian friends.

When we meet up with Blake on his Whitford property it's cold and blustery, but assuming the role of brightly dressed tour guide, he's immediately warm and welcoming, even offering up a jacket to keep the cold at bay.

As he talks about the birds we're going meet, we get the feeling each is a valued member of his clan. They go by formal breeding names; Monal, Silver and Amherst, but the relationship Blake shares with the birds is anything but formal - it's clear that he's developed a pretty special bond with each of them.

'Silver', a South-East-Asian Silver Pheasant, is one of the first birds to show up looking for breakfast, an incredible looking thing with a red face and stunningly crisp white plumage. Blake tells us that recently Silver has become very territorial and rather aggressive towards him. The bird stalks alongside us as we enter the garden, a vermin-proofed pre-aviary where the occuapnts are free to fly about.

"He knows I'm superior to him, so he wants to dominate me," says Blake.

Thus, with a protective net in hand to keep Silver at bay, we enter the aviary, which is easily three storeys high. A number of other birds begin to show up, making their way through the lush underbrush for their morning feast of greens and nuts, each one a new revelation in colour - there's a beautiful Carolina Wood Duck with its graphic patterning; a baby Golden Pheasant of yellow, orange and red; and Blake's favourite, the Himalayan Monal, whose feathers are hypnotic in their blue-and-purple iridescence.

"The males don't have bank accounts so they've got to have some colour and drama. When they dance, they are amazing."

Making our way up the winding path through the habitat, Blake leads the way, keeping Silver at a safe distance. He makes a couple of attempts to lunge at our leader but the net provides ample protection and he's put in his place.

Blake tells us that pheasants are naturally aggressive and his approach to managing their behaviour is somewhat unique. "No-one in the world that I know of has done what I've done. I've put all the males together," he says.

A female bird is the key driver of aggressive behaviour in male pheasants, so there's some logic in Blake's move. And over the last decade or so his plan has worked pretty much flawlessly, with the exception of Silver and one other angry fellow, who he was forced to relocate.

*****

In a previous life Blake Twigden was an artist, travelling the world. His works, mainly paintings of birdlife, were highly sought after, shown in galleries worldwide and used in several high-profile calendars.

His return home to New Zealand saw him step back from the social limelight, a welcome break in some respects. The demand for paintings lessened with the move, but, not one to be deterred, Blake saw only opportunity in the change of lifestyle.

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As the pressure to paint eased, his attention turned to developing the five acres of Whitford farmland he had acquired into the fantastic garden that sits there today. About half an acre of his property was vermin-proofed, an exercise that required a deep trench to be dug around the perimeter and filled with concrete. Now, this area is home to not only pheasants, but also turtles, guinea pigs and a tortoise.

Beside the garden sits a large, purpose built aviary, which houses a variety of finches, a pair of quails, a bearded water dragon, parrots, pigeons and much more. Amherst lives here, another pheasant with an amazing hood of black-and-white feathers and a friendly enquiring nature. His plumage is like a multipurpose plate of armour and can be used to shrug off rain, or to camouflage him. 

It's fair to say, Amherst is cool - perhaps our favourite. 

*****

"I love nature, I always have, ever since I was a kid," Blake enthuses.

Creating the gardens and aviary has clearly been a labour of love, proving the connection Blake has with the natural world and the animals that live within it. He's a no-nonsense conservation crusader and a quick Google search will prove his defiance in the face of environmental destruction - in 2007 he burnt 12 of his paintings to protest the loss of habitat of birds of paradise.

So much time and money has gone into creating this spectacular home for his exotic bird collection that it's impossible for us not to be impressed by what's unfolding before us. The personalised tour we receive is both educating and informative - you can tell that Blake thrives in front of an audience.

We chat with Blake about the behavioural quirks of his birds, the age of his plants (one bromeliad on his property is a whopping 500 years old) and the rebirth of his illustrious painting career.

It seems Blake has done a 360 on the career front, sharing with us the exciting news that a selection of his works will soon be for sale at a prominent Parnell gallery.

But while his creative career may be on the up, regular visitors to the gardens - mostly retirement home tour groups - have been on the decline, something Blake blames on rising petrol costs and the subsequent expense of transport.

A look back through his guest book shows Blake's meticulous logging of every visitor the garden has received over the last decade or so. The numbers have been dwindling, which is saddening - this place has so much to offer.

Sad too, says Blake, is the fact that people are missing an opportunity to connect with the natural environment as well as each other.

"People don't get out to do something as intimate as this very often. The fact they are out in the sunshine is healthy," he observes.

The upside to the decline in visitors is that it has freed up some of Blake's time, allowing him to get back to painting in the studio. And with the gallery wanting four new works from him by February, it's perhaps for the best that times have been less demanding.

Our time with the irreverent Mr Twigden ends in his studio, a bright and spacious room filled with works both old and new.

On the floor sits his latest masterpiece - a gannet flying across an open ocean beneath a stormy sky. The work is large, hypnotic, and seems a fitting symbol of all that Blake loves; beautiful birds, Mother Nature, and artistic expression.

Whitford Bird Garden is more than deserving of your time. It would be a tragedy for this place to fall off the tourism radar altogether, with all that it has to offer. The intimacy of the visit and Blake's hospitality will make it an experience you definitely won't forget.

WHAT: Whitford Bird Garden

WHERE: 100 Trig Rd, Whitford. Ph 09 530 8807

WEB: www.whitfordbirdgarden.co.nz

COST: $20pp for up to three people, $15 for four or more

Read more in fortnightly publication Suburbanite.

- Auckland Now

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