I’ve only seen a Red-capped Robin once, many years ago. I was barely more than a child at the time, and consequently my life was so different from what it is now that it almost seems, when I think back on it, to have been the life of somebody else altogether.
It was at my parents’ holiday house, a property which they still own, just inland from the far south coast of New South Wales. They’d bought the house from friends some years earlier, having somewhat recklessly promised to do so should the opportunity ever arise. When you’re a child your parents always seem wealthy, even if you’re never quite sure exactly how wealthy they may be; it’s only now, looking back, and crucially with some years experience of living away from home, that I can appreciate that even my parents weathered the mundane struggles of daily middle-class life: balancing a budget, paying bills, keeping their children fed and clothed and happily oblivious to any hardships, however minor. On top of it all they took a mortgage on a second house – because it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
The property on which their holiday house is built – was built, in fact, by the very friends from whom my parents bought it – is a steep, densely forested hillside ending, at the bottom of a sharply zigzagging dirt road which is equally challenging on foot or in a car, in the Brogo River. Surrounding the property on all sides are farms, but my parents’ land is unworkable and the forest on it is a refuge for many species of bird. As a child, brought up on David Attenborough documentaries as so many of us were, I took up bird-watching – and I pursued it in earnest once my parents bought the holiday house.
The vegetation on the property is largely wet sclerophyll forest, with a few small patches of dense acacia woodland and a single long gully of sub-temperate rainforest. Accordingly, the birds that live on the property are those species that favour dense, damp forests. In some instances the contrast between the species on my parents’ property and on the adjacent cleared farmland is striking: for instance, within the forest the Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) is plentiful; leave the forest and it disappears altogether, to be replaced by the equally beautiful Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius), which for its part never ventures into the trees. By the time I saw the Red-capped Robin I’d been carefully cataloguing the bird species on the property for several years; I’m not sure what number I was up to on the day when the robin appeared, but last time I had a chance to check the list stood at around one-hundred species.
Australasian robins (Petroicidae) are not closely related to the European robin (Erithacus rubecula). However, they bare superficial similarities to their European counterpart and so were named accordingly by homesick and baffled European taxonomists. Australian forests are full of birds which were named for the European birds they best resemble: the Crested Shriketit, (Falcunculus frontatus), the Grey Shrikethrush (Colluricincla harmonica), etcetera. There are numerous species of Australasian robins in a variety of colours, including a whole genus, Petroica, known generally (though not always accurately) as “red robins”. By the time I saw the Red-capped Robin I’d already identified several Petroica species on my parents’ property, the most common being the Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang).
I’d never expected to see a Red-capped Robin there, though. Unlike others in its genus it’s a bird of arid regions, and it’s not commonly found near the coast. The Australian environment can never be so easily ordered, though, and some years after my parents bought the property the area was afflicted by a terrible drought. The Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax), always prevalent on the property, started flying so low over the house in their search for food that it was possible to see their eyes, and the individual feathers of their wings. The grass on the farmland around the property turned yellow, and then brown. And birds from the inland started migrating towards the coast, seeking water and sustenance.
One of them was the Red-capped Robin. It appeared out of nowhere one day in the small, half-wild garden that forms a buffer zone between the house and the forest, and it stayed all day, perching on the upright branch that acts as a bird-feeder and scanning the grass below for worms and insects. The next day it was gone, and I never saw it again. Even to this day the memory flares in my mind, so bright were the robin’s feathers, so unexpected was the sighting.
It wasn’t me who saw it first, though. My grandparents – my mother’s parents – were visiting us from England, the last time, I think, that they ever made the arduous trip half way across the world from their home outside Woking, in Surrey. My grandfather, sharp-eyed even late into life, saw the robin, and brought it to the attention of everybody else. As soon as I saw it I knew what it was, so many times had I pored over the exquisite colours of the robins in my bird field identification book.
Like me my grandparents were eager bird-watchers, my grandfather especially. Their house in England had a huge back garden, carefully tended by my grandmother and, later in her life, by a hired gardener, and at the back of the garden was a birch wood from which emerged birds of all kinds. English birds: Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus), Song Thrushes (Turdus philomelos) – and, or course, European Robins. I spent seven months over the northern spring and summer of 2003 living with my grandparents, and every morning before breakfast and every evening before dinner we’d gather at the windowsill to see which birds would appear to us.
I was amazed particularly by the woodpeckers (Picidae), and I loved shutting my eyes and listening to the songs of the Blackbirds (Turdus merula), but I spent a good part of those seven months scoffing at the immense pride the English take in their “red-breasted” robin. I’d grown up with the bold, burning colours of Australian birds and I wasn’t about to be impressed by this dull rust-coloured creature. Australian birds are loud, bright, raucous and impossible to miss; English birds are almost genteel in their delicacy and politeness. I liked them because so many of them were new to me, but as a whole they didn’t really compare.
At the end of the seven months, though, at the end of summer and the start of autumn, I noticed a strange thing: the robin, that bird which at the start of spring had been so easily lost amidst the foliage of the hedges and trees, now suddenly blazed bright from the furthest corner of my grandparents’ garden. I was astonished: I’d gaze into the garden and the startling vividness of the robin’s colour would announce the bird to me as if it was a beacon. After seven months under the English sun, my eyes and my brain had adjusted to the light. I’d been living with my grandparents for half the year, and now I was seeing their garden – their world – as they saw it.
Neither I nor my grandparents had expected me to stay with them for so long. It was an imposition on my part. Still, I don’t doubt that we all got a great deal out of it. My grandparents had been married for more than fifty years and I consider it a privilege to have been able to see how such a longstanding relationship functioned from day to day. I think few people – certainly few people in the English-speaking world – get the opportunity to spend so much time with their grandparents, and to be honest if I’d known beforehand that I was to be doing so I probably would have baulked, but now I count those seven months as some of the best-spent months of my life. In particular, I’ll always cherish the opportunity I had to spend so much time with my grandfather. I loved all of my grandparents, but it was my maternal grandfather – Grandpa – to whom I was closest. He was the man who never stopped laughing good-naturedly at life; he was the man who taught me how to play chess; he was the man who never outgrew his wonder at and fascination with the world. He was the man who, from the other side of the planet, somehow instilled in me without ever saying a word about it the understanding that a man is defined by the extent of his compassion, kindness, and engagement with the world.
There’s a photo of my grandfather and me from the same holiday when he saw the Red-capped Robin. During the time at my parents’ holiday house he and I had completed a jigsaw: another shared passion, or perhaps one that he passed down to me. We’re standing outside the house, carefully and proudly holding up the completed jigsaw for the camera: we’re smiling, and squinting in the bright Australian sun, and the same sun shines glossily off the European castle and the tranquil moat depicted in the jigsaw. I’m young in the photo, I barely recognise myself, but my grandfather looks the same as he always looked to me. We fix an image in our minds of our loved ones very early, and no matter the evidence before our eyes that image never changes – until it does, abruptly: the last time I saw my grandfather, when we all knew he was dying, he suddenly looked so old. I’d only seen him look that old once before, at the start of that seven months that I lived with him and my grandmother: I’d got off the aeroplane at Heathrow, and caught the train to Woking, and I was waiting for him to come and pick me up in his car. It was cold, and when he arrived he was wearing a puffy grey jacket which made him looked drawn and pale. I hadn’t seen him for several years and I was shocked at his appearance. But then he smiled when he saw me, and on the drive back to his and my grandmother’s house he began commenting in his usual way on the various daily absurdities going on around town, and all of a sudden he was the same man I’d always known.
My grandfather’s name was Robert, but I never heard anybody call him that. Sometimes he was called Bobby – but most often, people called him Robin.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org/