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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

64) Australian Wood Duck

Chenonetta jubata

The night begins with an excuse: if I go for a walk to the creek, the path will take me past the house of somebody I want to see.  I send her a text message; I ask her if she’d like to join me.  We’ve walked the same route once before.  She replies that she’s not at home, and with that small announcement – less than one-hundred and sixty letters, a smattering of pixels on a screen smaller than the palm of my hand – I’m absolved.  There’s no reason to go for a walk which I never really intended to take and which was only ever an excuse for something else.  If I stay at home and watch television instead nobody will ever know.

Yet there’s a part of me, always, that insists that such subterfuge and deception – however innocent, however innocuous – is somehow corrupting.  There’s a noisy part of my mind that insists that an action, once declared, must be acted on.  So I put on my shoes and I walk towards the creek, down the street, into the cool mid-summer twilight.

I decide to take the high road, left along Clifton Hill’s esplanade and then across the old stone bridge that carries Heidelberg Road across the Merri Creek.  In places such as this, at odd intervals here and in North Fitzroy, the creek cuts a deep gorge and is flanked by cliffs five or ten metres high on either side.  In a recent winter, in a heavy downpour on a poorly lit road at night, a woman missed a corner and drove her car into just such a gorge, injuring herself and killing her elderly mother.  Perhaps I’m thinking of this when I walk along the footpath across the bridge and a car passing barely a metre from me in the other direction has a loud and sudden blow-out: it happens right next to me, and I leap and shout in shock and fright, and when the car stops twenty metres down the road I hesitate and then go to make sure the driver is okay.  She is; she leans across from the driver’s seat and asks me what the damage is.  I look and tell her that her front left tyre is completely ruined.  She asks: and the back?  The back’s fine, I assure her, and she thanks me, and so I feel myself absolved of obligation.  I continue on my walk.

The sound of traffic on Heidelberg Road is ever-present, as is the sound of the Eastern Freeway a kilometre away, but between them is Yarra Bend National Park which in places has the appearance of almost pristine bushland.  On the western fringe of the Park the bike path along which I’m walking skirts across the top of the highest cliff above the Merri Creek: signs warn of danger but at one point a look-out has been built so that walkers and cyclists can gaze at the trickling water below.  That water is at this moment clogged with algae; yet the creek is distant enough that it appears picturesque all the same.  I’m moved to take a photo on my phone, looking north.  Across the creek, to the west, somebody has several years ago carved in the grass of the hillside an enormous representation of a Heron (Ardeidae), like the chalk Horses (Equus ferus) found in the English countryside.  Behind me I hear the usual commotion of Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) flying in screeching formation high in the open air; something moves me to turn and watch them and when I do so I notice the unmistakable shape of a Goshawk (Accipiter) flying above the eucalypts.  Goshawks are predators of small birds, and even this far into summer the Noisy Miners (Manorina melanocephala) and other birds chase it, harassing it in the sky lest it should think to descend into the trees and hunt for their young offspring.

I leave the lookout, trying to chase the Goshawk too in my own restricted, earth-bound way; but by the time I rejoin the bike-path the bird has already disappeared into the trees.  But I’m walking again, anyway, and so I continue, and reaching a point where I might turn back I feel suddenly that to go home now would be too soon, so I continue, along the bike-path, around the corner, under the high concrete arches of the freeway where young Pigeons (Columba livia) are cooing tremulously.

I cross the small footbridge over the Merri Creek adjacent to the freeway; only a few metres to my left is the broad Yarra River.  The water is dark, though at eight PM the sky is still light.  In a large expanse which until only a month ago housed demountable buildings and refurbished shipping containers there is now just bare earth, though grass is starting to regrow.  Just out of site, below the steady roar of Dight’s Falls, bright new metal houses the new fishway which has been completed at last, just when it seemed that it never would be.  Through the grilles you can see the water rushing through ever-narrower chambers, rising gradually but inexorably from the lower river to the elevated water above the falls.  Perhaps fish are passing there already, discovering new routes and mapping them in their minds.

The sound of all that water collapsing in on itself fades quickly as I walk back towards the creek’s ingress.  I find a gravelly ramp down to the water and I squat there, watching a Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) stretch its long wings like a scarecrow on the far bank.  I take my eyes off it for just a moment, to play with my phone, to write something on twitter – unthinkable for me only six months ago – and when I look up, inexplicably, silently, the Cormorant has been joined on its log by an Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia).

The new bird is in its breeding plumage: great fronds of wispy feathers erupt from beneath its wings, and as the Cormorant folds its black wings and tucks its head to sleep the Egret passes its beak carefully over those brilliant white plumes, putting each filament in order, moving its head down the shaft of each feather again and again until its plumage is tightly zipped back in place.  Down by the water the temperature is dropping and even as I begin to shiver the day-time birds are huddling deep into themselves, nestling in the warmth of their own feathers.

Tiny creatures, fish or insects, unseen, disturb the river from below, and the water is pricked with a thousand shifting holes and interruptions as the surface is broken by miniscule mouths.  From time to time the wind stirs and gives the river goose-pimples.  As the sky slowly becomes pale and then begins to darken, clouds of insects begin to hover above the river, and as I gaze through the swarms towards the Egret and the Cormorant on the far bank it’s as if the birds are being projected on old film stock, rich with speckles and blemishes.

Abruptly, my attention is interrupted by an unfamiliar call: a sort of squelching yelp, a quack and a croak all jumbled together as one.  I look sharply to my left and see gliding down the river, low above the water, from some unseen hidden roost, a Nankeen Night-heron (Nycticorax caledonicus).  It is only the fourth one I have ever seen in my life; only a week and a half earlier I had never seen one at all.  I’m astonished that a bird that long seemed so elusive and unseeable should be so casually flying down the Yarra River.  I’m even more astonished when it alights on the same log already occupied by the Egret and the Cormorant.  They look up briefly from their roosts at the newcomer but return without fuss to their sleeping positions: heads tucked, legs straight, perfectly still.  The Night-heron has been still all day, and now it begins to hunt in its crouching, hunch-backed way, peering intently into the water.

The Night-heron’s activities are just beginning, but every other bird is turning in to roost.  A pair of Australian Wood Ducks swim past me, up stream; a male and a female.  They see me and briefly turn towards me, and for a moment I can see the feverish activity of their legs beneath the water, beneath the serene stillness of their bodies as they glide against the current.  After inspecting me from a slight distance they turn again and continue on their way.  The male is rich chocolate brown and pale grey, and as he swims across the surface of the river, which is now still with evening, the colour of the trees and sky reflected in the dark water match his plumage exactly.

As I watch the birds come and go I have my phone in my hand: some strange new urge is making me share the scene before me, posting on Twitter, crowding all my wonder and delight into so small a space.  A year ago I would have decried just such an action; I would have denounced myself had I been able to see it.  Yet now, unexpectedly, I find that it is the urge to share everything in this odd medium that has kept me rooted to the spot, kept me from wandering away out of boredom, for nearly an hour, as the river ripples and settles around me.  When it gets dark, and I get hungry, I stand up and turn for home, blissfully happy.

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