The Hunter Valley & Beyond – a NSW Finch Aviary Tour.

The by now annual pilgrimage to Mecca well, Gunnedah Bird Sale at any rate – was given added emphasis this year as it allowed me to catch up with long-time internet/phone finch mates Gary McCrae and Mick Hanrahan from West Oz and South Oz respectively. In company with Tony Buxton from Gunnedah we set off on a number of aviary visits from the Hunter Valley to Tamworth and everywhere else in between!
The interest expressed by a number of finch starved people in my home town in seeing the videos and photos of our travels has given me the added fuel to present a pictorial itinerary of our ‘adventures’ to readers of Australian Birdkeeper.
As one of a small band of finch breeders in Tasmania it is always good to escape from the ‘Rock’ every now and then and see how breeders go about their trade in other areas of Australia. The difference in climate between home and the Hunter Valley are marked indeed and the way that finch aviaries are constructed reflects this.

Despite the tragic circumstances that preceded our visit to the Hunter Valley this year we were still greeted with the by-now familiar warm welcome and I was invited to speak at the Hunter Branch of the Finch Society of Australia. Next day following the meeting we were whisked away on a ‘lightning tour’ organised by our host, John Butler of Cessnock. Time constraints and some camera problems prevented us from getting to all the invitations that were extended to us so my apologies to anyone I have neglected to mention!

As John Butlers was my base for this extravaganza it is only fitting that we start there as he has been a source of many of my birds and inspiration over a considerable number of years! He is also, no doubt, familiar to many readers of this magazine.

Fig.1. Bank of 5 Back Aviaries.

 Fig.2.  More in the Front Yard! Fig.3. Inside the Shelter Section.

Fig. 4. Large Open Flights. Fig. 5. Pair of Red-hooded Siskins.

John has two banks of aviaries, each with 5 separate flights, and a larger double free-flight aviary for weavers and other hardy finches. As can be seen from the pictures the aviaries are seated on a brick work base and have open shelters with  the sides closed off with Alysynite- both for draught protection and added shelter for the finches. The floors of the open flights are covered with red crushed rock which allows for excellent drainage 'cause when it rains it REALLY rains! The smaller flights have seen a multitude of Green Strawberries, Blue-caps, White-eared Masks, Red-faced Parrotfinches and Yellow-winged Pytilias bred in them. But, not one to merely breed the rarer finches, John maintains a collection of his favourites including Red Strawberries, Diamond sparrows, Ruddies, Black-rumped Double Bars, Longtail Grassfinches and Cordon-bleus to name but a few! If John ever really needed to make a name for himself he certainly did so a few years back when he bred 54 Golden song sparrows and 84 Green strawberries in the same season - told you he was a 'fair' breeder didn't I!
 The banks of aviaries are 4 metres long and each flight is 2 metres wide. The open flights are something we can only dream of 'back home' but it is a delight to sit and watch Johns charges through the expanses of open wire - jealous? Me? Never!!
Along with these two blocks of flights there was a complex of two large flights (Fig.4.) that measured 17m X 2m each. These housed a number of Grenadier weavers, Red- shouldered whydahs, Mask doves, Wrens and the beautiful Crimson chats.

With planning usually reserved for military operations we then moved on to John Barrett's home and  another set of flights to make us drool! John has recently started up into finches and he has an eye for a mutation and it looks like a few more 'extensions' might be on the cards!

Fig.6. John Barrett's Flights.

Fig.7. View of Both Blocks.

Fig.8. Side View of Aviaries.

Fig.9. Cock Cinnamon Star.

Fig.10. Nesting Area.

Fig.11. Hen White Hecks.

John has an impressive collection of Pied and Sea-green Red-face, pied Saint Helena waxbills and Cinnamon Star Finches. Again his aviaries are steel framed and welded with open fronts and sheltered roofs. The use of Alsynite and shade cloth on the roof of the flights prevents parasitic infections from wild birds entering the aviaries and allows for some shelter during the extended summer months. The aviaries have a well thought out base that has been raised and filled with rock fragments to allow for better drainage - great for keeping the aviary floor drier and free of wet areas much loved by parasitic worms and coccidial organisms. Again that great open front look that allows you a close look at the inhabitants. John's flights are 5 metres deep and 2 metres wide. An interesting innovation I was taken with was the nesting sites John employed (Fig.10) with his finches. The front and backs were made from ~ 2inch square wire - giving all finches easy access - and the partitions were made of inch square parrot wire which allowed for four (or more!) levels. Easy to hang, light, easy to clean and fill and they looked great too, I liked it!

From John's it was off to Ken Rix's home for a quick look at his finch set-up. Ken's aviaries are very much like those of John Butlers but much more heavily planted. "That's 'cause I helped build 'em you know son!" - was John's explanation for the similarity!

Fig.12. Well-planted Flights.

Fig.13. Cut-throat Central!

Fig.14. Any Guesses?!

A recurring theme is evident here with the flights being open and only the shelter closed in completely. Ken has heavily planted his aviaries and the birds seems very at home flitting amongst the greenery! The aviary in Figure 13 was filled with the most young Cut-throat finches I had ever seen. Ken also does well with Orange-breast waxbills and Red Strawberries. Plus he is the proud owner of the bird in Figure 14 .....................but just what species is it!!?  Any guesses, is it a Golden Song Singer or a Green song Sparrow?? Confused? We sure were!

As a final farewell to the Hunter Valley we were whisked out to the wine belt and the property of Richard Pinchen (Jnr & Snr) and their aviary complex.

Fig.15.Richards Aviary Complex.

Fig.16. The Entrance.

Fig.17. Inside the Flights.

These aviaries were all metal frame construction with a shelter section covered by Alsynite and well protected from the weather. At the time of our visit the walkway was being extended to cover the entire length of the flights as can be seen in Figure 15 & 16 - this made for a great protection from the wind and a top place for us to sit and watch their charges in the aviaries! These aviaries varied from 5-6 metres deep and 2-2.4 metres wide. The birds kept included mutation Zebra finches, Yellow Saints, Pictorellas, Blue-caps, Cordon bleus, Longtails and Parsons to name but a few!!

Fig. 18. Pictorella outside nest.

Fig.19. Group of Cordons.

After bidding the Hunter Valley a reluctant farewell it was off Northwards to the home of Ken Sweeney Junior & Senior. Despite the falling rain the sight of this magnificent complex was one to behold. Huge well-planted aviaries held a multitude of Masks, Painteds, Stars, Longtails and a host of Parsons! The Masks were so plentiful that they covered the tea-tree in places, and why not in such an amazing aviary complex. In this case a picture is sure worth a thousand words!!

Fig.20. Huge open Flights.

Fig.21. Smaller Covered Aviaries.

Fig.22. Do It Yourself Seeds!

As Ken Jr took us through the aviaries one could not help but be impressed by the state of the aviaries and the healthy look of all the occupants. The aviaries had natural earth floors upon which grew a variety of millets and pannicum plants - no need for the birds to move far for fresh greens here!! Another interesting feature was the planting of the small tree-type sunflowers that grow along the road side in Northern NSW - although Ken's were not the scrawny roadside ones as the pictures clearly show!  What a delight for any cup nesters! As if to testify to this Ken showed us a nest of four young Green singers sitting right on the door rails!!
The Sweeney's had aviaries for every occasion. From large, open flights full of hardier species to more enclosed ones (Fig.21) for the Masks, and Pictorellas. However, the best was yet to come! Ken lead the way over to what was once a school house but was now 'renovated' into a bird room containing mutation Gouldians, Lesser Redbrows and White-eared Masks. Judging by the number of youngsters on show, this experiment was a raging success! The school house was fully lined and the finches had access to large semi-covered flights out the back (see Fig.23). We must have been among the most attentive audience that had ever graced that particular educational institution!!!

Fig.23. The Sweeney's Finch School House!

Fig.24. Group of Lesser Redbrows.

By now it was approaching time for the annual Gunnedah Bird Sale so it was further north and up to our tour directors home at Gunnedah itself! Tony Buxton, or Bucko to most, has been very successful with the Tanimbar parrotfinch, the Orange-cheek waxbill and a number of Gouldian mutations. His self-appointed 'job' of tour guide and chauffeur was handled with his usual 'efficiency' and we were 'sticking to the schedule' as he liked to put it. Only problem was that Gary and Mick were having difficulties in finding out just what the 'schedule' actually was!
Upon arriving at 'Bucko's' we were privileged to see 6 baby Orange-cheeks take their first flight, a sight well worth the drive! Bucko's grin also was a sight to behold!

Fig.25. Bucko's Flights.

Fig.26. Open Flight Area.

Fig.27. Inside Large Aviary.

Fig.28. Orange-cheek Aviary.

Fig.29. Three Internal Flights.

Fig.30. Gourds!

The largest of Tony's aviaries measures 13m X 5m and is well planted as you can see from Fig.27. It houses a number of mutation Gouldians (many of these Blues) and Stars, plus Blue-caps, Dybowski twinspots and the ever increasing colony of Tanimbar parrotfinches. Tony stated that his Tanimbars showed a real preference for nesting in the Gourds that he has hung everywhere throughout the shelter area. The aviaries are welded steel RHS tube sitting upon a foundation of bricks. The shelter measures 4m X  5m and is enclosed with Colourbond metal and shade cloth. The floors of the aviaries are covered with a river gravel to a depth of 12-15cms to allow for drainage in the open flights. The winter temperatures can really drop out at Gunnedah - it was not too long back that there was a week where morning temperatures were around -10 degrees Celsius! However, summer temperatures can be in the high 30's which does present the finchkeeper with some 'interesting' contrasts!
Tony's other flights contain Orange-cheeks, Pied Cordons, Green singers, normal Gouldians and a host of pied and sea-green Red-faced parrotfinches. There are three of these flights and they measured around 7m X 2m. Around all of his aviaries there is an abundance of seeding grass which grows in the natural soil and in pots. It contains Guinea grass, Panicum maximum, which is a firm favourite among finch breeders in NSW. In all the aviaries the finches were swarming over freshly presented seed heads or attempting the 'self-help' approach by trying to pull the seeds through the aviary wire. Bucko suspended the grass from the aviary roof in holders so the birds could climb and pick over the grass and avoid the build up of grass on the floor which would rapidly 'sour' in the heat thus reducing the chance of fungal diseases and the like.
Over the roof and sides of the larger aviaries a number of Gourd plants were growing - these served a double purpose as the Gourds themselves were eagerly harvested for nesting receptacles and the large leaves of the plant gave welcome shade to the aviary inhabitants during the hottest part of summer. Bucko stated that his Tanimbars had a real 'thing' for Gourds and I had been shown a few nests in them on a previous trip.
Tony also had a set of three flights in his garage that served as quarantine/holding or breeding cages for some of the more 'temperamental' finches.

Following the Gunnedah Sale we headed for our last 'port of call' over at Tamworth to the home of Glen Bowden. When we arrived here I was struck by the similarity to many of the aviaries back home in Tassy. Most were covered in totally, a rare thing on our tour to date, and Glen explained that winter night temperatures were far lower than even Tasmanian lows, yet the daytime temperatures remained much higher throughout the winter period. Glen breeds a number of Gouldian mutations and he had arranged a system of heating lights beneath his breeding boxes to cater for the low night temperatures.

Fig.31. Just Like Home! Fig.32. Small Flight Complex. Fig.33. Side of Smaller Flights.

Fig.34. Aviaries - Open Flights.

Fig.35. Glen's Weed Patch!! Fig.36. Seed Heads Galore.

Glens' aviaries were a mix of fully roofed cages and others with half open flights. The latter of these types were full of seeding grasses - again an old favourite Guinea grass, P.maximum- and the birds were certainly into this as we watched them. Out to the left of the aviaries was what Glen referred to as his 'weed patch'! This contained masses of seeding grasses and heads of every conceivable type of bird seed available. Scattered throughout these were a number of the small sunflowers, festooned with masses of small seed heads.
However, as if to further highlight the summer temperature difference between Tamworth and 'home', the roofs of Glen's covered aviaries were fitted with wind 'twirlers' to draw the warm air out of the aviary and keep the temperature at a manageable level (Fig.31). The aviary designs are evident from the enclosed photos and were of welded steel and Colourbond.  The aviary floors were covered in what Glen referred to as 'McDonalds River Gravel' and was kept deep enough to allow for good  drainage - being so hot in the summer months it is easy to water the grasses through this excellent flooring without leaving wet areas with their potential for attracting disastrous numbers of parasites.
Walking through the aviaries it was evident that Glen believes in keeping the number of breeding pairs to a minimum, with some aviaries containing as few as 2-3 pairs of birds. As Glen had bred close on 800 finches for the season who was going to argue!!!

So it was with heavy heart we left Tamworth to head for the ferry terminal in Melbourne and back to Tasmania. Despite this reluctance to leave, we were well armed with 4000 new plans, photos and strategies for breeding our finches - weather or no weather !!!! To the long suffering New South Wegians that put up with our questions, transported us throughout the countryside and allowed us the run of their aviaries a heart felt vote of thanks. However, if they think they've seen the last of us I feel I should leave them with a 'terminal' word from someone far more eloquent than I - "We'll be back"!

Written by Marcus Pollard - Copyright remains with the author.