North and South

It’s a touch past six in the morning, in the dog day weekend between Christmas and New Year.  It’s the time of year when the only things you can do are ones that are unimportant, but seem to get done none the less. The roads are almost empty, but perversely, I have been stationary for at least five minutes.  Road works and diversions cause delays whenever and wherever they occur. 

I drum my fingers on the wheel and reach to take a sip of tea.  I’ve been looking at the back of the same car for a while.  It’s clear that it (and its owner) have been dragged into the same diversion as me.  I can see through the back window, past a faded newspaper, to where the driver sits.  Even from behind his body language is clear.  Steam drifts from the open slot of my travel mug, an unfamiliar but welcome companion in the chill of the morning. Steam also seems to be coming from the ears of my fellow traveller.  The driver’s side back panel of the car in front has faded down to a lighter shade of red than the rest of the car.  One of the brake light glasses is broken, although the light still works.   The left hand indicator drops in and out of synchronisation with mine; both seem redundant, as we have no option but to turn left.  I try to make words that use the letters in the car’s rego plate; they all seem to be swear words.  Maybe the steam pressure is building in my head too.  I start to sing; it’s a well-practised pressure release system. The lights turn green and we are waved through by a man in a painfully bright orange jacket.

We move about 100 metres and the whole process starts again.  The only difference is that a woman wearing the same sort of flame bright jacket is controlling the next set of lights.   This kind of start to the day could get old very quickly.

Eventually I clear the road works and I’m able to start moving at a speed more in keeping with the 21st century.  I may have imagined it, but I’m sure there were people waving flags in front of each car for a while.  I take the final sip of tea and realise I am going to be late.  I start singing again.

A dust cloud is being kicked up in the distance and what little traffic there is, slows down.  A lawn mower on steroids is slashing tall grass by the side of the road.  The dust is a testament to the lack of rain.  The need to do this is testament to the fear of fire that stalks our summer landscapes. Paddocks flank both sides of the road – we don’t have fields – the grass cooked down to a dun brown, the colour of cheap paper bags.  It’s not the heat (that will come later), but the lack of rain that has stripped the plants of green.  “Grass fire” sounds benign when compared to “forest fire” – a paper cut compared to a sword slash – but that’s not the truth.  Fast moving, they can burn to the back fence of homes that are far from forests, where people can think fire preparation is about buying wood for winter.  It’s in places like this, where fires reach into tightly packed estates that the fear of fire should be keenly felt.

On other early mornings the paddocks have held low lying clouds, maybe even mists.  But today the air is shimmeringly clear.  By 6.30 the sky is beginning to bleach to a kind of powder blue that promises sunburn to the unprotected and harsh shadows in the landscape.  I keep thinking, wrongly, that the next junction is the one I want.  It takes a surprisingly long time until that’s correct.  I arrive at the meeting point late – just – and I can see a convoy of cars in the distance.  Birders and bird banders often travel in groups, so I push a little harder with my right toe and catch them up at a locked gate.

Werribee.   Christmas gone.  New Year not arrived.  It means wader banding.  

If slightly care worn clothes, rubber boots and hats bordering on the eccentric are the order of the day, then, so it seems, are small SUVs.  There is a marketing opportunity here for Subaru, maybe even a chance for sponsorship.  A few people, faces I don’t recognise, commit the cardinal sin of becoming separated from their food.  On days out with Clive I’m more likely to leave my own head in the car than to become sundered from my lunch.  A couple of hours later a small convoy of cars reunites the hungry with their glad wrapped sandwiches and leftover mince pies.  It’s like watching a family reunion – except there are fewer arguments about past Christmas presents and everyone talks to each other.

This band of birders gathers on a raised roadway, with a dry ditch to one side and open, damp looking lagoons on the other.  Patches of vegetation are surrounded by silver water, and a cooling wind ruffles hair, standing pools and hat brims.  Later in the day people will curse its gentle hand when the sunburn it masked comes out.   A trail of willing sherpas move a mountain of materials from the backs of cars to the welcoming mud flats that lie just beyond a water ringed island.   Foot falls firm a track from cars to catching area. A little gully forms in the dry vegetation that runs down from the road top.

All activity flows from and through Clive. Idlers are identified and allocated tasks.  Setting the net, an inexact science at best, is directed with NASA like accuracy.  Everything is checked and double-checked, circuits are made and remade.  The net that will trap the birds is deployed by cannon-fired projectiles, the angle and explosive load of which are subject to high level discussions.  Camouflage is laid in cryptic patterns over the furled net.  A firing position, with a clear view of the catching area is set up, where the box with the big red button is stationed. It all sounds rather military, but the bearing of most of the banders is more Peace Corps than Marine Corps.  Everything has a name that would baffle the general public.  Keeping the “chocolate blocks out of the water” means that electrical connectors need to be kept dry.  A “two metre marker” has nothing to do with a person’s ability to play basketball.   And a “jiggler” is a line of bits of cloth attached to a thin cord, rather than a bad dancer.  Its purpose, if asked, is to move birds into the “catching area” without “putting them up”.   

Once we have set the net we retreat back to the road, splashing through water that is now ankle deep.  The sea itself is invisible over the horizon, but its effects can still be felt.  As the tide pushes higher the lagoons respond in kind and the water level rises.  Flocks of birds, some large, some small, begin to appear and land on the mud in front of us.  Generally they land where the net is not. 

Flocks take to the wing, unhappy with their accommodation, and try elsewhere.  Pale underwings, white rumps and wing-bars blur into a coordinated flock which flies like a single giant bird – or pale smoke.   Wing tips buckle.  Tails twist.  The birds don’t collide.  Responding faster than we can see they fly as one and land in flight fast order – outside of the catching area.  I look ahead and miss two Brolgas behind.   Such moments test your patience.  The energy stored in the cannon’s charges waits to break the slowness of the hour.

The circuit whole.  The charge released. The net becomes a magic carpet that flows out from the ground, scattering birds and carefully lain camouflage. 

Four puffs of white smoke, soon wind blown to one and blends with a mist of missed birds. The energy of movement. The light hare outruns the tortoise sound, and we see before we hear.  And when we see, we run, towards wing sounds and the dancing net.  A masked plover, which escaped the net, calls and calls and calls. 

The birds are strangely calm, as if evolution has not keyed them for such an event.  As if they know we mean no harm.  Shade cloth is placed to protect the birds from the bright sun.  One by one the birds are removed from under the net and in their releasing they are named.  Stint. Sharpie. Curlew.  The uber pedants call out “curlew sand” to remove an ambiguity that does not exist.  I offer up an “osprey” – I may be kneeling to extract the birds, but I can’t resist a bit of stand-up.  People who know me laugh; people who don’t quickly move to another part of the net.
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. (AKA "Sharpie")
The whole scene is alive with energy.  The movement of hands and the urgent call of voices, the lingering smells of gunpowder from the cannons, the skin sharpening brightness of the summer sun.  And the birds; always the birds.

Later in the day, when we work bird by bird through the catch, the startling energy of the situation comes back to mind.  A red-necked stint, tiny in the hand, shows us feathers with a buff edge.  A light red wash, different from the more common pale cream white.  Unnoticeable in the field, this shows this bird is juvenile – this year’s bird.  A bird that a few months ago was an egg in the light and insect rich habitats of the northern hemisphere.  Now it sits in my hand, on the south coast of Australia, almost a world away from its birthing nest.  It’s a package of northern sunshine, from a place where the turning of the Earth has dimmed the lights.  A feathered flow of energy from north to south.  And if it dies here, as many surely will, the energy will pass on, until, lost as heat it drifts into a universe made of no more than energy itself and its sibling matter.  But if it survives the hot Australian sun, and travels back north, it will take with it a cargo of southern sunlight to lands where the sun seems never to set. 

When I open my hand to let the bird fly away I do not feel the loss of the weight.  It’s tiny.  But it made it here with the same energy that drives my own cells.

There’s something about that I find comforting. 

Curlew Sandpiper (AKA - Curlew Sand)


David said...

Holding and releasing a bird when banding certainly gives one a very special feeling.

Yamini MacLean said...

Hari OM
Oh Stewart - I felt every inch of the stint as you described its energy. That you too have flowed from the North to the South lends something to these words...and you have me likening myself to the bird which flew North again. Words as wonderful as ever!! YAM xx

OceanoAzul.Sonhos said...

thanks for sharing

thewovenspoke said...

What a day you had, you made it even if a little late. You all worked hard catching and banding all those birds. Great post.

amanda | wildly simple said...

You're a brilliant & beautiful writer, Stewart. I truly enjoy each word, you have a gift for bringing the reader to the site of your experience.
And I had to smile, because I recall last year's banding.. I may have been acquainted with your writing earlier, I'm not sure - but I distinctly remember the banding & thus marks one year of following along with you in the land of the hot sun.

Vagabonde said...

I had to read carefully and pay attention to your words – first I thought you were on a bird watching trip, then I thought you were on a bird hunting trip and then I realized, as your let the birds go, that you were banding the birds. About how many birds were there approximately? Did you get any that had already been banded from earlier times? That must be have been an exciting day.

Gene Adcock said...

Have been a struggling reader all my life but I found myself glued to this posting. Your description of the start of your day and the activities of the catch kept me engulfed as if I were with you. Nature as a subject also is a favorite.

•°°• IcyBC •°°• said...

What a fantastic post! I have never seen a "sharpie" before. Beautiful photos, Stewart!

David Gascoigne said...

As usual, a first class read.

PerthDailyPhoto said...

Beautifully written Stewart.. I must admit the annual migration of birds has always fascinated me. That small creatures like the Welcome Wren can fly such impossible distances each year is almost unbelievable. Your work as a tagger must be so rewarding, providing valuable information for future generations and the survival of the birds.

Linda said...

Stewart, your photos are lovely!