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Sunday, April 13, 2014

76) Arctic Jaeger

Stercorarius parasiticus

Port Phillip Bay is huge. With an area of nearly 2000 square kilometres and a circumference of around 260 kilometres, it’s large enough to accommodate two sizeable cities on its shore: Melbourne, with a population of four million people, and Geelong, home to nearly one-hundred and eighty thousand.

Yet the size of the Bay is deceptive: despite its breadth it’s never deeper than twenty-four metres; much of it averages only eight metres deep. The Yarra and Werribee Rivers flow into Port Phillip Bay; they flow, too, through the Bay, and the meandering submarine passages of the rivers create shipping channels for vessels coming in and out of the Bay. Around the ancient river beds the Bay is shallow, and that shallowness makes it unusually susceptible to drying out: research suggests that the Bay has dried out and refilled several times in the last ten thousand years.

The most recent of drying these events, which took place perhaps as recently as one-thousand years ago, may have been due to a sandbar blocking the Bay’s sea entrance.  That entrance, between Point Nepean on the eastern Mornington Peninsula and Point Lonsdale on the western Bellarine Peninsula, is only 3.2 kilometres wide; this passage of water is so treacherous that it’s known simply as the Rip.

The same sands that once rose up to block the Rip and seal off the Bay emerge from the waterline about eight kilometres east of Queenscliff to form the Mud Islands.  The islands are poorly named, not just because they’re made of sand and not mud, but because – in the manner of Australian landmarks – the name makes them sound desultory, despairing, tossed off and temporary.  The Mud Islands are ephemeral, they shift and slide in shape and geography as the tides and the winds adjust the sand, but in essence they are permanent: a circle of three islands, with a circumference of five and a half kilometres, enclosing a central lagoon.  Temperate Victoria’s own tropical atoll.

The Mud Islands are invisible until you’re almost alongside them.  They rise only a metre above the waterline; the sea around them is so shallow, sometimes only a foot deep, that no vessel greater than a small-drafted speedboat can come near them.  Landing on the islands means dropping anchor offshore and wading in.  Once on the islands you’re at the mercy of the Bay and its infamously fickle weather: there is no shelter out there, all the vegetation is hardy stunted coastal shrubbery that in most places barely reaches your knees.  The only canopy is the sky.

But the Mud Islands are extraordinary, because what’s out there are birds.  Thousands of them, in ever-changing congregations: Terns (Sternidae) crowding the beaches with nests at the turn of each year; Black Swans (Cygnus atratus) in their hundreds feeding in the seagrass beds off the islands’ northern perimeter, the towers of Melbourne just visible behind them; Swamp Harriers (Circus approximans) quartering the air above the islands; Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) and White Ibises (Threskiornis moluccus) thronging the edges of the lagoon; and in the lagoon itself, in enormous numbers every summer, small birds at the edges and their larger, longer-legged cousins in the deeps, the Charadriiformes – the migratory waders.

More than any other group of birds, the names of waders evoke just how deeply ingrained is our fascination with birds: Knots; Godwits; Greenshanks; Stints; Snipes; Sandpipers; Sanderlings; Curlews. They’re ancient names: they speak of ancient people in the bleak landscapes of seabound northern Europe anticipating the annual bounty of these great travellers, which fly in their millions from the southern to the northern hemisphere and back again every year.  The Aboriginal people who lived around Port Phillip Bay must have had names for them, too – and it’s pleasing to imagine these birds, which live dual lives at each end of the planet, moulting from their breeding finery in the northern summer to their drab off-season plumage for their southern hemisphere retreat, passing also from one language into another as they fly.  The Knot gets its English name from Canute, or Cnut, the tenth-century king of northern Europe, who is said to have commanded the tide to stop rising.  The Knot, like all its kin, feeds at the edge of the sea; it parts the tide with its beak as it forages for tiny invertebrates in the mud.

This information was imparted to me by the guide who led me and twenty or so other people on a tour of the Mud Islands in the middle of February.  Sturdy and jovial, she’d been to the islands many times before and displayed an astonishing facility for bird identification that left me embarrassed.  With my cheap pocket-sized binoculars I was by far the least equipped of the whole tour group; whenever our guide set up her telescope, carried on her shoulder all the way around the islands, I was the first to line up for a view.  Truth be told I couldn’t tell one species of wader from another except by size, but I didn’t mind: I was happy just to be told what I was looking at, and to know that after twenty years of yearning for these birds I was finally gazing upon them.

We lunched among them.  Turning inland towards the lagoon we sat upon something like a meadow, what passed for a meadow on that remote sea-shaped landmass, and we unwrapped our sandwiches or rolls or whatever we’d brought along.  Tiny Red-necked Stints (Calidris ruficollis), all red long since vanished from them, pattered along the lagoon’s shore.  Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica), huge beside the other birds, probed the deeper water one-hundred metres out.  Right beside our picnic spot Curlew Sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea), long-necked and elegant, dabbled in tiny ponds set amid the heath.  The activity of the birds was endless: no basking in the midday sun for them, no sleeping through the heat.  No more than a month after we visited their islands they’d open their wings again and turn north-east, following the coast and then the open sea all the way back to vast summer swamps of the Arctic, there to breed and raise a new generation of migrants.  It’s an enormous flight and it requires enormous amounts of food to fuel it.

Even when we finished lunch and crossed the lagoon, wading past the waders, they broke at the last possible instant: they watched us warily as birds do but they allowed us to approach more closely than most birds would.  Perhaps every second counts when you’re feeding to fly the length of the world.  In the distance a great cloud of White Ibises lifted into the sky, and beyond them, high above, approaching the island on broad wings spread over the bay, we saw a young White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), speckled and brown in its juvenile plumage.  The sands around the lagoon were scattered with the remains of long-dead ibises, bones and feathers and briny stink.

We completed our circuit of the island quickly; we arrived back at our starting point half an hour before the boat was due to return.  The company that organises the tours runs them once a month throughout summer; the previous month, our guide told us, the beach upon which we landed had been filled with thousands of Crested Terns (Thalasseus bergii), each pair with a near full-grown chick.  The beach was empty now, with no sign that such a hatchery had so recently existed.  Walking across the sand was quick and easy.

Travelling back across the Bay to Queenscliff was easy, too, when the boat came.  We sat and did nothing and in twenty minutes we were back.  Yet that ease was deceptive: when the boat came we watched from the beach as the men piloting it ran out two anchors to secure it in the undulating water; then we had to wade out to it one by one and clamber up the ladder and into our seats; don our lifejackets, ensuring they were properly fastened; try not to move too much as the small boat rocked from side to side.  Once the anchors were up we turned around sharply and raced back towards Queenscliff, our ears full of the roar of the engine and our faces splashed by the salt-water chopping and sluicing up over the sides of the boat. Travelling the nine kilometres between the Mud Islands and Queenscliff might have been conveniently managed but it was nonetheless a cumbersome affair, an awkward and unnatural movement across an alien environment.  Our small boat smacked the water, jolting us with every wave, tracing a hectic and jerking line across the Bay.  When, midway through our journey, a dark gull-like bird briefly flew parallel to us and just out of reach, its ease of movement, wings beating at the air like oars, brought into relief the absurdity of our quest to be among the birds.

We idolise birds for their flight; it sends us into raptures.  Even as we recognise how unlike us they are, we envy them.  I visited the Mud Islands because I’m earth-bound.  Having become accustomed to travelling overseas every few years I now find myself, after a period of financial uncertainty and employed in a low-paying job, unable to afford to fly anywhere.  I live month to month, paycheque to paycheque.  Migratory birds accumulate fat before their great flights; humans save up money in order to fly, but I cannot do so at this moment in my life.  So instead this year I’m staying closer to home, to see the places I’ve previously ignored for their proximity.  I’ve been living in Victoria for ten years now; I’m finally getting around to visiting it.

From the boat, approaching Queenscliff, our guide immediately and uncannily identified the dark bird at our shoulder, just as she had been doing all day.  It was an Arctic Jaeger, she announced – a small species of Skua, a piratical group of birds who make their living by forcing other seabirds to relinquish their food.  “Arctic Jaeger” is an old name for the bird: nowadays it’s more properly called the Arctic Skua or the Parasitic Jaeger.  But bird people hold sentimentally to the old names: I still call Fairy-wrens (Maluridae) “Blue-wrens”, and our guide named the bird that briefly joined us as an Arctic Jaeger, so an Arctic Jaeger it was.

It had bred in the northern summer, six months before we saw it.  As the early chill of the Arctic autumn had begun to grow, the Jaeger had opened its sharp wings and turned south.  It had crossed the equator some time in September, flying down Australia’s east coast, taking shelter in bays, always looking for other birds returning from a feed.  It had chased and harassed numerous other birds – gulls, terns – until they’d dropped or disgorged the food they were carrying.  It had seen many boats, and on one warm fine day it had, briefly, flown alongside one, paying it no particular heed, at the edge of a great bay, from where it could see through a narrow gap in the land the wild sea beyond.

Like so many of the birds I’d seen that day, the Jaeger would soon be going north again, flying the many thousands of kilometres back to the Arctic.  The journey is not without danger and nor is it without cost; yet millions of birds the world over do it every year, and have been doing so for uncountable generations.  Measured against that scale of life the impression made by one dark bird on one happily wind-blown human is nothing at all; yet it’s the only metric I have by which to measure the experience.  When I saw the Jaeger – and more so, when I heard our guide name its species – a thin, bright line was traced for me half way across the world, from the high Arctic to southern Australia.  I’ve been to the Arctic twice, once ten years ago by myself on money borrowed off a credit card, and once four years ago with my father on a trip he paid for and for which I always intended to reimburse him but have never been able to.  The Arctic is vast and to describe it as a single place is absurd – the Arctic I know, inland, among hills and valleys and fresh water, is radically different from the Arctic known to the Jaeger and its migratory fellows – yet there is a connection, for in our naming we have made it so.  The Arctic is the Arctic, and increasingly I feel its pull on me, as if I need to return to it every few years.

In all likelihood I won’t get to go back there for many years yet.  I’ll have to hold tight to my memories of its silence, its crisp air, its wildlife.  But it’s a comfort to know that it comes on feathers to visit the part of the world I live in, every year; it’s good to know that I can travel only a few hours from home, and by proxy find myself transported to the planet’s highest latitudes.  The birds are strong enough to fly that great distance, there and back, every year – to carry me with them is not so great an ask.

The Jaeger turned with the wind and flew away, out over the Bay, as easily as we might turn a corner on a footpath.  When we returned to Queenscliff, and dry land, having left and then journeyed back, a couple who I’d met on the tour offered to drive me to Geelong; from there I got a train back to Melbourne, and less than two hours after stepping off the boat I was back in my bedroom.  Homebound again, all too soon.  I’m already planning my next trip to the Mud Islands, at the end of the year, on the other side of winter, to meet the birds again upon their return.

Image sourced and adapted from

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