Psephotus haematonotus & Ardea intermedia
When I started this blog I had dreams of travelling the world, seeing exotic animals and writing about them. I even fantasised that one day somebody might be willing to pay me to do it. Who knows, maybe they will – even in this day and age, breaking into the writing business is a long, slow, painstaking process. In the meantime, by necessity, most of the animals I’ve written about for this blog have been observed in the urban environment, within the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne where I live.
When it comes to cities, I don’t think we Australians realise how lucky we are. A few weeks ago I was talking to my mother, who still lives in my hometown of Canberra, and she expressed surprise that I could see the stars even in the middle of Melbourne. In fact at that time, at the start of the Southern Hemisphere spring, I was going to bed every night and gazing out at Orion’s belt splayed across the night sky above my back garden, outside my bedroom window. I think we forget that most large cities in the world don’t afford such delights. Likewise, it can be easy to overlook the amount of wildlife that lives in our very midst – whether because we haven’t trained ourselves to observe the world, or because we’re too preoccupied to properly notice our surroundings.
Last week I was riding through the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond. It was around 5:30 in the afternoon and the evening rush-hour was already starting. I was riding in the bike lane along Victoria Crescent, a sweeping curve of a street whose shape is dictated by the nearby Yarra River. As always when I’m riding on the road, even one with a separate bike lane, I felt compelled to ride as fast as I could so as to avoid holding up traffic as much as possible, and because the rush-hour had started and because Victoria Crescent is a popular thoroughfare for people trying to avoid the heavier traffic on larger roads there was a constant stream of cars rushing past me in either direction. I’ve had too many close-calls on my bicycle not to pay careful attention to the cars around me so even in my haste I was being watchful of my surroundings, and as I approached a plane tree on the side of the road ahead of me I noticed a sudden flash of movement and bright colour: it was a male Red-rumped Parrot, diving head-first into the hollow formed by the removal of one of the tree’s branches.
Even among the myriad parrots of Australia, I’ve always regarded Red-rumped Parrots have as exotic. I think the reason for this is that unlike the many other parrots that I grew up with in Canberra – Australian King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis), Crimson and Eastern Rosellas (Platycercus elegans and P. eximius), Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita), Gang-gang Cockatoos (Callocephalon fimbriatum), Galahs (Eolophus roseicapillus) – Red-rumped Parrots tended to stay away from people’s houses. They’re not at all uncommon – they’re probably the most common small parrot in Australia’s cities – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in somebody’s back garden. They’re perfectly happy to live in urban environments – just not actually amongst buildings. They hedge their bets, so to speak: they like living in parks and woodland and remnant bush.
When I was a child I called them by their colloquial name, “grass parrots”, because I saw them most often grazing in the grass by the side of Canberra’s extensive bike paths. “Red-rumped Parrot” is an accurate name as far as it goes because when the males of the species fly away the broad flare of red across the base of the bird’s tail is unavoidable – but I think the name also has the unfortunate effect of distracting from the bird’s chief asset, which is the vivid emerald-green colour of the bulk of the male’s plumage. Just as distinctive, in its own way, is the dull olive-green plumage of female Red-rumped Parrots: the females are exquisitely camouflaged against the dried, balding grass of a typical Australian summer. Red-rumped Parrots typically congregate in small, mixed flocks, and I think seeing the males and females together – the females always noticed last, and slowly revealing themselves in ever-greater numbers as the observer’s eye becomes attuned to their presence and their colouration – was probably my first ever lesson in the often striking sexual dimorphism present in many bird species.
It was from bird-watching when I was younger that I learned to be observant: prior to taking up the hobby I was terrible at searching for things, my parents would always tease me good-naturedly about how I couldn’t find something that was right in front of me. Once, I vividly recall, I spent over half an hour searching for a particular piece of Lego that I was actually holding in my hand. Learning to observe birds, though, changed all that: by training myself to observe details of plumage in an instant, before the bird took flight, or to notice a bird that was doing its best not to be noticed, I became infinitely more observant of everything else around me. Bird-watching will never be the coolest of hobbies, but in my experience it’s been one of the most valuable.
But back to that day last week when I was riding through Richmond: even though I’d seen a flock of Red-rumped Parrots only half an hour before, on the edge of an oval near a border of native shrubs and bushes – a fairly typical urban habitat for the species – I was surprised to see that male bird dive into the plane tree, and not just because it was in such a busy, built-up area. Australian forests and woodlands are dominated by eucalypts to an extraordinary degree, and eucalypts are infamous for dropping branches. Many Australian animals – not just birds – make their homes in the resulting hollows, and the oft-repeated fear about Australian wildlife is that with the clearing of native old-growth forests the number of appropriate tree-hollows is quickly dwindling. So it’s surprising to see a native animal diving into a hollow in an exotic tree – but, of course, any native animal happily living in a city is an animal that has proven itself adaptable to new environments, and at the end of the day I guess a hole is a hole; once, a few months ago, I happened to be sitting beneath a beech tree in one of Melbourne’s many public parks and above me a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) were busily inspecting a hollow in the tree.
Shortly after seeing that male Red-rumped Parrot descend into the plane tree I turned my bike off Victoria Crescent and carried it down the staircase at the end of Gipps Street which links to the bike path along the Yarra River. From there it’s just a shade over ten minutes by bike back to my house. With my curiosity piqued by the sighting of the Red-rumped Parrot, I decided to take special note of the native animals I saw on the ride back home. They were all birds, unsurprisingly: Australian mammals are almost overwhelmingly nocturnal, and it was too cool a day for reptiles (although a week earlier I’d seen a Common Blue-tongue Lizard (Tiliqua scincoides) along the same path). Between Gipps Street and my house I saw the following birds: Rainbow Lorikeets; Silver Gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae); Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen); Australian Ravens (Corvus coronoides); Magpie-larks (Grallina cyanoleuca); Little Black Cormorants (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris); Dusky Moorhens (Gallinula tenebrosa); and Chestnut Teals (Anas castanea). There are probably a few more that I’ve forgotten about; certainly it wouldn’t be unusual for me to have seen Pacific Black Ducks (Anas superciliosa) and Grey Butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus) along that same short stretch of river-front bike path. Any day now I expect to start seeing Sacred Kingfishers (Todiramphus sanctus), a seasonal migrant.
There’s one bird I remember seeing very well on the ride back home, though. I’ve seen it regularly over the last year along the same brief stretch of river bank, just below Yarra Bend where the Merri Creek flows into the Yarra. Whether it’s been the same individual for that whole time or not I obviously can’t tell – though the fact that there’s always been only one, and always in the same relatively small area of the river, suggests to me that it probably has been. The bird, as you’ll know from the title of this post, is the Intermediate Egret. Egrets are, essentially, Herons – but specifically they’re white Herons (though there are some that are more of an off-white, or which display patches of colour other than white in their breeding plumage). There are several species in Australia and in appearance the only significant different between them is their size – and they tend to be named accordingly: there’s a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and an Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta), and in between them is the Intermediate Egret. Right now the Intermediate Egret just below Yarra Bend is displaying its long, filament-like breeding plumage – though it can be hard to tell, as the bird is almost always on the far side of the river from the bike path. Perhaps that’s why it seems to go unnoticed by most of the walkers and cyclists who use the path. Perhaps it simply doesn’t draw enough attention to itself: depending as they do upon the catching of fish and other aquatic animals, Egrets are still and quiet birds, slowly stalking through shallow water and watching carefully for movement below them before stabbing with astonishing speed at whatever small animal has been unfortunate enough to grab their attention. But like the Red-rumped Parrots living on the urban fringes of Australia’s southern and eastern cities the Intermediate Egret is there – if not always, then often enough. It would, undoubtedly, rather not be noticed by humans than be noticed – the one time I saw it on the near side of the river, I so spooked it by stopping to stare that it flew across back to the far side – but it’s there. You’ve just got to keep an eye out. And if you learn to keep an eye out for birds and other animals living in urban environments, I think you may be pleasantly surprised by just how much else you notice.