It was the plumage that set it apart. Though in size it was indistinguishable from the House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) with which it was travelling, in the dull autumn light the white of its breast and – more particularly – the crisp delineation of the borders between the various fields of colour on its body, made the bird stand out immediately even in the brief instant in which it flashed across my field of vision.
It was an Eastern Spinebill, a small species of Honeyeater (Meliphagidae) common throughout south-eastern Australia. What it was doing with a group of Sparrows, I can only guess at: although it’s not uncommon, especially in the bush, to see mixed flocks of small birds foraging together, what unites the birds is usually a shared food – but the diets of Sparrows and Spinebills are nothing alike. Most likely it was just simple chance that placed the Spinebill among the Sparrows just as I happened to glance in their direction on my way home from the local shop – and saw the Spinebill burst from the flock in a flash of bold plumage.
The Eastern Spinebill is far from being the most colourful of birds; it’s not even the most colourful of Honeyeaters, a large group that includes such resplendent species as the Scarlet Honeyeater (Myzomela sanguinolenta) and the Regent Honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) (as well as more drab species such as the Wattlebirds (Anthochaera) and Friarbirds (Philemon)). However, with its elegantly composed plumage of chestnut and brown, black and white, the Eastern Spinebill is a handsome bird, a dapper and immediately recognisable animal – at least once a person has learned what it looks like.
The Eastern Spinebill was also the species that sparked my love of birds, about twenty years ago, when I saw one in a Grevillea bush in the front garden of my parents’ holiday house. Without the Eastern Spinebill I may never have become a birdwatcher, and although I’ve long since let the hobby lapse, the skills I learned from birdwatching are with me to this day, and will be with me forever.
When I was a child, before I started birdwatching, I would never have noticed the Spinebill among the Sparrows. I never would have noticed the difference in the plumage in that split-second window of identification. As a young child I was notorious in my family for my lack of basic observational skills: if asked to find something, I’d flick my eyes over a room without engaging with that room’s contents at all. Objects hid safely from me in plain sight, never to be discovered – at least not until somebody who actually cared to look properly took over the search from me.
Of course this is not an unusual trait in children. We’re prone to diagnosing hyperactivity in every child we encounter these days, but we forget that a high degree of activity is a simple fact of being a child: the world is astonishing, and full of distractions; and the human body at that age is burning with energy, and the mind impatient for exploration.
When I was a child, on the cusp of adolescence, Birdwatching taught me, for the first time, to look at what was in front of me. Not only to examine an object or a scene at leisure, but also to instantly isolate an essential detail in a fraction of a second. Even now I can instantly recognise many Australian birds simply by the particular pattern of their flight in passing, or by the way they hold their bodies when they perch. Birdwatching taught me also to listen to the world, to use my ears as much as my eyes to understand what was happening around me. These are the kind of lessons that once learned cannot be unlearned; they’re the kind of lessons that overflow from the niche field from which they’re derived to fill every aspect of life.
Ever since Jonathan Franzen became a passionate birdwatcher there’s been a link in the minds of the reading public between birdwatching and writing, and I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that few things have been more important to my writing as my ten or so years of passionate birdwatching. Like any art form, writing is as much craft as art: as much practical skills as blazing inspiration. One of the most fundamental of those skills is observation; even the most dedicatedly autobiographical of writers must be able to understand, to some extent, the broader world in which his or her life takes place. A writer, by inclination, is constantly watching, and noticing, and recording or remembering. Some, inevitably, are better at it than others; I wouldn’t care to try to rank myself in such stakes against anybody else, but I know without any doubt that birdwatching has been a boon to my writing. I’m constantly astonished by how unaware of the world most people seem to be – I can’t begin to guess at the number of times I’ve seen somebody I know on the street, and not been myself observed. I can imagine a parallel life in which I was such a person – a person who doesn’t notice the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) flying overhead; who doesn’t notice a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) investigating a potential nest hole; who doesn’t even notice what’s happening on the other side of the world, or at the next check-out in the supermarket – and that life seems infinitely poorer than the life birdwatching has given me.
Yet it was a near-run thing. If it had been any other bird than the Eastern Spinebill in the Grevillea bush that afternoon when I first saw the bird, twenty years ago, I may not have taken up birdwatching at all. I may have remained the chronically unobservant person I was then. When I picked up my parents’ copy of Slater’s field guide to the birds of Australia, and determined that the bird I was looking at was a Honeyeater, I couldn’t find anywhere in the book an illustration that matched the bird in the garden before me. For the next two weeks I became obsessed with the bird; I fancied, in my childish way, that I’d identified a new species; I imagined fame and fortune (for how could the identification of a new species of bird not lead to such wonders?). When I eventually found an accurate illustration of the Eastern Spinebill, in Simpson and Day’s excellent field guide, I was astonished that the venerable Slater could have got his illustration so wrong as to make the bird unidentifiable; but also, I was fascinated by all the other birds. Flicking through the Simpson and Day field guide in Collins Bookshop in the bottom of the Canberra Centre that day in the early 1990s, I was enchanted by the hundreds of birds of all shapes and sizes, all hues and habitats, illustrated within. I bought the book with my pocket money, and when next my parents took me to their holiday house the book came with us, displacing the ancient Slater guide. I began eagerly identifying all the bird species I saw on the property, and listing them in the back of a slender notebook which already contained my father’s catalogue of plant species. It would be some years more before I started to become a writer, but the skills were already being put in place.
Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org