According to Aboriginal legend the emu is flightless because of a trick played by the jealous brush turkey. Emu succumbed to her “be like me” pretence and cut off her own wings. In revenge she tricked Turkey into killing ten of her twelve children.
I’m sitting at the living room table in the middle of the day. I look out the window through the tangle of trees and spot an emu in the drive. Kangaroos and wallabies have been co-residents of the villagers for a long time, but emus have, until recently, kept to the bush. They are now slowly declaring ownership of the town. People foolishly feed them and, like the dingos on Fraser Island, they come to expect food and begin to harass people who don’t offer it. They are beginning to show the unlikeable streak that took such savage revenge on Brush Turkey. They have taken a particular dislike to dogs: the other day one attacked a neighbour’s dog tied up in his yard and had to be hosed down to break up the attack. One (the same one?) chased an oblivious Cruz up the street, my son wondering about the propriety of donging it if it attacked. What has been a novelty is well on the way to becoming a liability.
In poetry the eagle is noble, his wings sacred. He’s the symbol of empires and the companion of Zeus, king of the gods. In fiction he has names like Farsight.
But in Potato Point the white-bellied sea eagle is the surprising victim of ongoing bullying by smaller birds. I never see him aloft without a tail of harrying birds a tenth his size, chivvying him through the air to the far end of the beach. One day, three cranky seagulls. Another, a willy wagtail. A third a magpie. He has no time for the graceful wind-riding I love to watch, and he’s reduced from the grandeur of his wingspan to a target of harassment.
In a West African folk tale, when Crocodile has toothache, it’s Plover who hops into his mouth with medicine to cure it, in return for safety and bits of fish for her children.
In my village, far away from crocodiles, plovers also live dangerously, and yet they seem to survive and breed. As I walk back from the beach I see mum and dad standing guard over three chicks, who, of course, all want to head off in different directions. The parents are torn between swooping me to make sure I keep my distance and herding the infants.
I see them twice more, once crossing the road out of the village, and once, much more safely, in the bed of the drying creek. I go away for the weekend and when I come back two days later they seem to have grown to adolescence. My son informs me there are two or three families. They lay their eggs in shallow hollows in the grass, often in pedestrian-heavy places and yet they survive. How they escape cars and dogs and hawks is a mystery.
The bird who comes down to walk upon the earth, the bird of rumour and voice, the enigmatic diamond bird who discards the cloak of invisibility to nest from https://birdsaspoetry.com/2016/03/14/the-bird-who-comes-down-to-walk-upon-the-earth/ which also offers magnificent photos.
We sit on the steps at the north end of Spud to take our shoes off to paddle back home. J spots movement in the grass covering the sandy bank, and we sit silent and observant. A tiny bird with wisps of grass in its beak perches on a dead branch eying us suspiciously. J whispers “It’s a pardalote. Look over there. The mouth of its burrow.” You can barely see the opening, but there are clawprints in the sand when you know where to look. The perching bird becomes impatient and flies off, obviously wishing we’d disappear so it can deliver its building materials. So we oblige and back off to a discreet distance, still watching closely. Before long he (or she – they share domestic duties) darts into the opening and then emerges empty-beaked to collect more grass.
If you look closely at this photo, along the vertical line that marks the first third you’ll see the darkness of the hole that is the burrow entrance and the scrabble marks of tiny claws in the pile of sand that is its doorstep.
BROWN CUCKOO DOVE
The Dove / On silver pinions, winged her peaceful way. James Montgomery, “Pelican Island”
Two brown cuckoo doves are regular visitors to a branch above the water bowls J puts out for birds just outside his living room window. They don’t have “silver pinions” but they are peaceful. One day they sit for an hour, snuggling up and grooming themselves and each other, barely stirring as I open the door. A week later they return. The slow courtship becomes more display: his tail fans out and lifts above his head. When I comment on their substantial tails J says: “Of course. That’s why they’re called Macropygia phasianella : it means big bum.” They visit his water two or three times a day, sometimes a flying visit and sometimes to canoodle, safe under cover of the trees from marauding predators
Over the west side of the mountain, /that’s lyrebird country. /I could go down there, they say, in the early morning, /and I’d see them, I’d hear them. /Ten years, and I have never gone. Judith Wright
I don’t have to go down anywhere to encounter lyrebirds. Often the first birdsong of the morning at J’s is that of the lyrebird. Up early after a night of deep sleep, I spot movement of something large and dark on the hillside outside the living room. When I creep to the window to investigate I see three young lyrebirds, scurrying over the edge into the bush below the house. J is pleased when I tell him. He hasn’t seen them round for a while, and the scent of fox has been strong.
Once, on the rocky hillside on the top side of the house, I watch a young male in his first bright lyre-feathers shimmer in dance, a dance just for himself, practising for the mating ritual of the future.
“Make way for ducklings” or is it “Seven little ducks went out one day”? Traces of picture books and rhymes from childhood
This clutch has been waddling round the Point for a few weeks now. My son swears there is a marauding duck who’s been kidnapping ducklings: when he first saw this lot there were 9, and a lone duck now has an unlikely one. My reward for Sunday morning shopping is an encounter with them beside the road. The little ones are picking energetically at the grass while the parents kept an eye open for danger. Unlike the plovers they let me get quite close, and when they hear another car coming they cross the road in good order.
One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding, four for a birth, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret that’s never been told. Traditional rhyme
One evening my friend and I take our wine and nibbles onto the deck. A magpie arrives, and perches on the deck rail watching us curiously. It is bright clear black and white and its eyes are unnervingly intelligent. Annette lines up a bud of white chocolate, a nut and a goji berry on the table. With no coaxing at all, it makes its choice and retreats to deal with the unaccustomed texture, returning for a second helping, after scraping its beak of residue. I can’t believe this presages sorrow.
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
And, I suspect, for all sorts of other reasons. In the red callistemon near my deck birds congregate to collect nectar and to scatter their leftovers in piles on chair and table, and in drifts on the floor. There is plenty for everyone so there are rarely squabbles. They scatter song too, a melée of different notes. I shake the chair clear and settle to listen and watch. The tiny scarlet honeyeater is hard to spot because its bright head is the same colour as the bottlebrush flowers and it’s visible only through its motion. The New Holland Honeyeater is bigger and easier to see with its golden wing panel and black and white streaks. It whizzes into the air, suspends, and then drops back to its chosen flower. One sits high on a leafless twig, turning slowly so I can note every detail. Eastern rosellas hang upside down swinging on the bright blossoms. I suspect something of a drunken orgy when birds begin crashing into the sliding doors. Briefly stunned, they lie on the deck or hang from the netting over the deck garden, and then fly off, following an erratic path, to sip some more. Sometimes the recovery isn’t immediate. One lies for ages unmoving until my son breathes on it. It stands up, still looking groggy. Another anxious wait for us. Finally it flies up and off. We return to dinner.
The song goes on.