Summer Migration.

Many birds travel stunning distances when the seasons call. Bird migration has been the subject of much study and many stories. Some fanciful, some exaggerated, some true. Many birds are defined by their migration journeys.

Many people travel lesser distances when the seasons call. Holidays have been the subject of much study and many stories. Some fanciful, some exaggerated, some true. Many people are defined by their holiday destinations.

In the past, people wanted to know where the birds went, what it meant when they came back and what hands guided them across the vastness of the world. Humans invented stories to account for these movements. Some fanciful, some exaggerated, some true. Storytelling as explanation may be hardwired into the brain, indeed storytelling may have given us our brain. Our storytelling brain gave us Swifts that live in the winter mud of ponds, geese that lived inside barnacles and the Bible.

It seems some stories have more tenacity than others!

Early humans probably lived in one place and then moved on. Hunt, gather, move. Movement was built into their lives, their brains also hardwired to take them elsewhere, to keep them in motion. In these journeys they would have seen things that were different from their most recent patch. They moved on to find pastures new, pastures less touched by human hands. They were eco-tourists. Just like us. Except they tended to eat what they found rather than write blogs about it. Today the urge to be elsewhere seems just as strong. Summer and Holiday fit together very nicely. The urge to be elsewhere may be older than we think.

Stories and movement – what else does a holiday really need?

One of my summer migrations takes me to Wilsons Promontory. Four hours from Melbourne, west and south. A National Park. A National Treasure. The Prom. I camped there in the first month I lived in Australia. Carrying way too much stuff, still tuned to the British summer, still expecting fog to descend and rain to fall. The Prom caught me that weekend and it has me still.

The Prom owes its existence to two things – Granite and Sand. The first formed from ancient, deep earth fire, the second by the slow erosion of the first. Where they burst though the surface the granite rocks are rounded and dome shaped. They bulge through the landscape like huge eggs or giant loaves of bread. They glitter in the sun with crystals, large and rough, which draw the hand. They invite contact and dreams of climbing. Erosion flakes the crystals away and they fall to become rounded and smooth. Paths are covered in ball bearings. It pays to take your time and watch your step.

Islands stud the sea around the Prom. From the air the coats looks like adolescence’s chin. Pocked marked and studded. Islands link the sea to the sky. They break the curve of the Earth into straight sections and hold fast to illusions of flatness. Without them you would see the curve of the Earth.

Jutting South into Bass Strait the Prom looks like a straightened fish hook, or a crooked and arthritic finger. It seems to be beckoning to Tasmania, the land that it lost, to come home. This is a flooded landscape, a modern landscape, a post glacial landscape. People used to walk to Tasmania through these hills and the islands would have been mountain tops. But the ice melted and the sea rose. This is a story that has occurred in human times. Not ancient times, not mythic times. We would do well to remember this.

Granite, sand and sea are the physical bones of the The Prom and they meld into one on the beaches that are held in the sheltering arms of harder rocks. Bays, large and small, are cut into the body of The Prom, and they are named in ways that summon pictures and hold memory. You can have a picnic at Whiskey Bay or a whiskey at Picnic Bay as mood or circumstance dictate. You can shuffle along Squeaky Beach, squeaking in the dry, regular sand. You can play with Oberon, King of the Fairies, in his bay, or play with smaller magical folk at Little Oberon Bay. You can meet your own Waterloo, large or small. Further on you can seek Refuge in a cove and walk where Sealers plied their bloody trade. But most people stay with Norman. Norman Bay is the focal point of The Prom for most visitors. Close to the camp site, close to the car parks, close to the security of the company and life guards. In winter you can have this stretch of beach to yourself, in summer it is crowded.

Golden granite and sand, seas that can change from blue to green and be all colours in between and the grey green of eucalypts are the main shades in the colour palette that draws The Prom. In the summer the all these can be brought up to startling intensity or sucked down into pale pastel shades by the mood of the sun and the time of the day. Noon and its clear flat light sucks the colour from the land, sunrise and sunset brings it out. In summer, the seeker of scenes is best to be up early or to bed late.

Passing through the parks gates on the journey to Tidal River, The Prom’s epicentre, is like stepping back in time. On one side of the gate is farmland, the other uncleared bushland. In a matter of a few meters the landscape changes from present to past. From manicured to maintained. On the outside of the park, farmland presses against the road, on the inside the bush presses hard against it.

Although reduced by fire, the bush dominates the drive in. At times suicidal wildlife waits in ambush; this is a road better not driven at night. Signs warn of animals, others remind you to drive on the left hand side. If the ‘roos don’t get you, the hire cars will.
A hill stands between the entrance to the park and many of its best secrets. Snaking through burnt bush the road climbs to the hills peak and The Prom explodes into view. From a vision limited by roadside trees the view opens to sweep away the claustrophobic dive in. Islands. Sea. Granite boulders. Bays of golden sand. They are all revealed here by a single bend of the road. All you need is for there to be a tall ship riding at anchor and the view would be film set perfect – and I know someone who has seen this.

In many ways this scene does not prepare you for what is to come at Tidal River. This is a honey pot, and crowd, a campsite, a car park. It is also a necessity, even if I don’t like it.

Norman Bay is close by, and many people camp here. Camp site by lottery. Neighbours by chance. Impressive homes of canvas and nylon are built, some with all mod cons, so with none. For many (just like me) this time of year means The Prom, although I choose to stay outside the park. Each camp site pushes against the other and at times it looks like a refugee camp for displaced families from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs – boats, surfboards, deck chairs and even fridges. Four-wheel drives, camper vans. Young children, looking dirty and happy. Teenagers hanging around, wishing they well elsewhere and loving every minute of the day.

Where there are teenagers there will be romance. But the tents push close to each other and every rustle and movement is a public event. Camping like this must be a form of aural contraception. Rustles in the bushes must strike fear into the hearts of parents.

To escape the crowds you must walk, not far, but walk you must. The slippery paths lead away from Tidal River and into a less human place, to overlooks and headlands. With only H for company I walk to Pillar Point. Not far. Far enough if you’re seven says H! We have the point to ourselves and can see many other sharing Norman Bay. Lizards, quick and flashy are common. Parrots light up the bush. New Holland Honey Eaters add a spark of yellow, with the harsh calls and pugilist nature. Fighting for space, fighting for food, displaying for mates.

Far out to sea I see an eagle. A second later it is a swallow calling as it flashes over my head.

The Prom is summer is about distance and space. The wildlife disperses to less hectic places. Campsites replace wombats. Children play where winter parrots mine for food. Although a late evening Egret surprises and delights and Sooty Oystercatchers still probe the sand. Flighty, but still there.

The Prom in winter is a different place. But we must wait through the burning months of summer for this to arrive. T minus six months and counting.

Footprints in the sand(s of time).

In a comment about my last post RB talked about the work the Charles Darwin had done on the movement of seeds on the feet of birds. That got me thinking about some pictures I had not used.

So here they are.


Looking at footprints is like looking into the past. A kind of ghost image that allows you to pay attention after the chance moment of observation has slipped by. Sand, mud, feet, claws. All linked to form a pattern and the pattern tells you something. Something different from seeing the (in this case) bird, something different from having the bird in the hand. It’s a different way of knowing the same thing.

Seeds and birds feet. Islands and colonization. It make me wonder what role cars, boots, sleeping mats and fishing nets play in the movement of weeds.
What travelers do we bring when we visit the special places we love? What footprints do we leave that others may find? What do we bring that could spell change for the islands of naturalness we visit?

The Joy of Sewage.

Trip to a sewage works anybody? No?

How about getting up at 4.30am two days after Christmas? No?

Still not interested?

I know! Let’s get up at 4.30am two days after Christmas and visit a sewage works!

So here I am, early in the morning, possibly the only person awake for 500m in any direction, getting ready to drive to the Werribee sewage works – rebadged as WTP (Western Treatment Plant), but it’s not fooling anybody.

The trip along the Geelong Road was unsurprisingly quiet. Yet even here there were things to be seen. Mists hugged some fields and fled from others. Some fields were bare, others clothed in white. There seemed to be no pattern. Cows floated, seemingly legless in the mist. The scene looked African. On a side road, a fox dashed from the mist, seeking food, a hare froze, seeking sanctuary in stillness. The mist cleared to show the You Yangs, Melbourne’s asymmetrical western hills. If these were the Pap’s of Melbourne they would be scheduled for cosmetic surgery.

Werribee lie between Melbourne and Geelong, in a flat coastal area. The You Yangs cast a rain shadow over the sewage plant. In the past this helped with evaporation, even if it did nothing about the smell. Each day Werribee receives a nutritious, if rather fragrant, gift from western Melbourne. Almost 500 million L of the stuff each day.

In the past this was treated in the open air, and property values in the nearby town of Werribee reflected this. Now, a much larger covered treatment plant has reduced the aroma, although I am not sure if there has been a property as a result.
But the simple fact of the matter is that all this waste, processed for over 100 years, has led to an ecosystem bursting with life. Awash with it really. Natural coastal lagoons were enlarged and linked and as the nutrients flowed, life flourished. Flourished to such an extent that it is listed as a wetland of International Significance under the Ramsar Convention. Not bad for a sewage works, and the management was no doubt flushed with pride when the listing was made.
And finally we are at the point of this. Birds – often in huge numbers can be found here. As drought has dried other wetlands, the 500 million L of water guarantees that this wetland is actually, well, wet! 50,000 Pink Eared Ducks. At times up to 30% of all wildfowl in Victoria. Significant numbers of migratory waders – Red Necked Stints, Curlew Sandpipers, Sharp-Tailed Sandpipers. Rails. Ibis. Black Swans. Whiskered Terns. Growling Grass Frogs (I’m not making this up!). At times you forget you are at a functional sewage works – you half expect a man in pale trousers and a blue shirt to pop out of the bushes. “Nice shirt, Sir David” “Thank you, and get out of my camera shot!”

As the tide in Port Phillip Bay rises, the birds are pushed off the bay and onto the “tanks” ie lakes in the sewage works. They roost and feed. One tide pushes then off the bay, another tide fertilizes and provides food. The waders are at the end of a journey from their breeding grounds in the Northern Hemisphere – far north. They will have flown south through Korean, stopped in Northern Australia and now settle down to some serious feeding courtesy of Melbourne’s sewage.

The fact that the sewage pools are called tanks adds to the military feel of trapping these birds. Dawn meetings at secret locations. Pre-trip recces of roosting sites. 4WD vehicles filled with strange bags and odd boxes. People wearing pale clothes. Detailed radio communications. Cannons.

Real cannons, explosive, loud thundering type cannons. They are used to deploy (see you can’t avoid the military feeling!) large nets over flocks of roosting birds. The nets are concertinaed on to themselves and the cannon dug in (!) behind this line. Large projectiles are attached to the front/top of the folded net. Once the nets are set there follows a period of waiting for the birds to return. Once they are in front of the net, but not too close and not too far the net can be fired. There is a countdown that really does go “Armed, 3,2,1 Fire!” The cannons are fired and the net shoots out over the birds (well that’s the plan anyway). It’s all rather spectacular. It’s loud and it causes all hell breaks loose, both among the flock of birds and the attending birders.
At this point the safety of the birds comes first. Gentle souls would be advised to avoid this part of the day. Fragile egos will be trampled on, self confidence shattered. The timid would be best off seeking shelter in the long grass. People who should know better, and people who should not be doing it at all, sprint to the net. At this point one of life’s 3 golden rules comes into play. These are: 1. Never kiss your sister. 2. Don’t eat the yellow snow. 3. Never, and I mean never, stand on the net. It’s the last one which is most important here, although you should never forget the other two either!

If it is a dry catch (and it rarely is) the net can be left in place, and the birds covered with shade cloth. If the catch is wet, the net and birds are rapidly moved onto dry land, then covered. The shade cloth calms the birds down and they are extracted a bird at a time. This can take a little while if you have caught 500+ birds. The knees suffer. The back aches. Extraction is like trying to undo a 3D jigsaw puzzle where the pieces keep moving and some of the pieces try to bite you! The extracted birds are moved to large, shaded, keeping cages. For a while calm descends on both birds and birders. The birds take comfort in the darkness, people take comfort in food. People gather in small groups. They drink coffee, eat Christmas cake, recover.

If catching the birds smacks of a military operation, the next stage looks like some form of industrial production line. Processing the birds involves a number of stages. The birds are banded (ringed if you are in the UK), and flagged. The rings are unique to each bird, the orange flags are unique to Victoria. The birds are measured, weighted, have their feathers checked to age the bird and are finally released. This is paying attention of a scientific order of magnitude. Even for the more common species, each new measurement is a data point on the road to understanding. A way point to knowledge.

One of the key measurements taken is the number of juvenile birds. This is used to measure how well the bird has done on its northern breeding grounds. The more juveniles, the better the year. This is not quite true as the birds could have had a good year on the breeding grounds, but lost most of the young on the trip south. But the more juveniles that are being recruited into the population the better. This of course does not apply to housing estates and cinemas, where generally people are more than happy to see very few juveniles about! Juveniles can often be told by their plumage (again there is a human parallel), differing patterns and colour grades mark then out. They probably listen to loud music as well. When you hold a new Red Necked Stint in your hand you cant fail to be impressed. About 20 weeks ago this bird was an egg in the northern hemisphere, probably in Siberia and now it’s feeding up on the south coast of Australia.

That’s an impressive journey for a bird the weighs about grams! At 25 g per bird you would get about 18 to the pound or about ¼ of an apple! When you have them in the hand it is remarkable to think of what they can do. Migration distances for old birds would get them way out past the moon. And that assumes they fly in a more or less straight line and that they never pop down to the shops because the run out of milk or some other stint essential.

Sitting there taking the measurement of bird after bird, normally of the same species, you can’t fail to notice the variation between them. Some have longer wings, shorter beaks, fatter legs, longer bills, bigger heads. These measurements are being taken on a single species, which means you are measuring the feedstock of evolution. Variation. Here it is, in the flesh, in the feather, in the bill. It’s a remarkable thing to actually witness because we don’t normally detect such differences. I think it’s a thing all biologists should do at some time, and a thing that all creationists should do right away.

Variation, competition, time, biodiversity. The Red Necked Stint is closely related to 87 other wading birds. And they all came into being because of variation, competition and time. It’s a recipe so simple, so powerful, so well established, that it’s hard to understand why it’s in the slightest way controversial. I suppose that many people are simply not exposed to the idea, but for many there is no excuse. “Stupidity is a condition, but ignorance is a choice” (Thanks Rich!)

Before the cannons roar and the after final extraction a kind of peace can be found. And into that peace things will walk, fly and crawl. When you are in interesting places, being quiet and keeping your eyes open you see things. When I returned to the car the get my lunch, calling from the tall vegetation was a male Golden-headed Cisticola (which is pronounced “sis-tickaler” not “sis-t-cola”). It’s a cracking little bird with a cracking long name. It’s not rare, it’s common. But that is of no significance.

It’s surprising what you can see, what you can learn by getting up early and going to sewage works. Put it on your to do list now.