A weekend away.

When you live in the city the dark never really is. Streetlights. Car headlights. Nightlights. They all make the dark less than dark and the night less than different. But drive away from this and the dark becomes real and the night becomes another world.

The car headlight swept over a hazel hedge as we pulled into the cottage. A visitor from overseas, transplanted into another land. Just like me. Too late for catkins, too early for nuts – a mid-stage in life. Just like me.

Torch light led us to the front door, where a bird awoken from its sleep decided to join us indoors. A Welcome Swallow indeed, although the limey gift on the floor was less polite!

The night was full of darkness, stars and the calling of frogs. Less than an hour and a half and a whole world away from Melbourne. You could see the outlines of trees, smell the damp mud by the dam, taste the air, but detail was hidden – detail was a surprise waiting for morning.

We awoke to a silence full of bird song and bright sunlight. We were not where we normally were. The quality of silence was different. Neither the muffled silence of snow nor the false silence of the city, this was different. It was a silence full of sounds, distant, close, clear and dull. This was the hum of a place alive with life.

Breakfast was eaten looking into a small valley, with a dam to one side and thick bush to the other. A kookaburra landed on post by a dam rippling with tadpoles and glided down to a small jetty to fish. Giving into to its history – kingfisher indeed. The air was full of song and my head was full of names. A catalogue of birds, some far away, some close at hand, sometimes right, often wrong.

“Look at the feeder” Sal said – and there was a pair of King Parrots, feeding on handouts from a gratefull public. “If you can be that red you must be good” thinks the female. “You really do want to have my babies” says the male. All without words, all with the language of colour and plumage. Remarkably bight - high value to say the least, breeding colours, honest advertising, an invitation to selection.

When you see some animals close up you understand that there is a gulf between you and them that can never be crossed. But you can imagine that there is intelligence behind the eyes of a parrot. The tilt of its head, the level gaze, the way it looks back at you rather than just through you. These are animals to be cherished and welcomed. The world would be diminished without them.

Satin Bowerbirds take a different course. The male is a uniform blue black that glows at times and darkens in other lights, a bird of secret passions and hidden skills. The female, green and scaled beneath. Both have a fondness for blue. The male builds a bower to stake his claim, and adorns it with blue finds. Bottle tops, pen caps, flower petals, scraps of paper. The female inspects and selects, and the bluer the better. The bowers here were not in good shape, flattened by male rage or female rejection; they looked just like flattened sticks. But sticks with a scattering of blueness. Why blue? Why not some other color? Is this just a trick of fate, where a single change years ago sent this species down the road on its love affair with blue. Is it a chance association or does being able to see blue signal something really good in male Satin Bower Birds. Something we may never see, never understand. Whatever the answer, the females are head over heels in love with blue and the males know it.

On the track behind the cottage there were Superb Lyrebirds, although you may not think them superb if you did not hear them sing. This bird looks surprisingly like the Road Runner – but it has far more to say that just “meep meep”. To hear a male Lyrebird in full flight is to hear the songs of the bush in one go. It is a bush-land chorus produced by a single bird. Strung together in some sampled sequence, the male Lyrebirds mimic the songs and sounds of its home. It some places, depressingly, these includes chain saws and dog barks, in which case the song becomes a funeral march even if the bird does not know it.

But here the song was full of others songs, and the birds seem safe. This is a bird of deep cover, a skulker in the undergrowth, given away by its song and the scratchings on the ground. It rarely poses for pictures.

These birds, the parrots, the bower birds and the Lyrebirds were doing what they do to reproduce. But without food reproduction is futile. Young need food and nesting females often need help. Life for one animal often means death for another, and here the Kookaburras brought death to smaller prey. We stood at the bottom of a long sloping field and a shape flew towards us. Growing larger and clearer is flew at us at head height , until at the last moment it flared its wings and stalled and a Kookaburra dropped on to a branch. This must be a vision to strike fear into many small animals.

And animals not so small as well. Later that day we noticed a Kookaburra in a tree over the river, with something in its beak. Something rather large. It was flicking its head to one side to beat the animal against a branch. This is what passes for humane slaughter in the world of giant kingfishers. Pluck your prey from the bank-side vegetation and beat it to death on a branch. The animal was a mammal of some sort, rat sized, but with a shorter tail and finer fur – possibly a bandicoot. But it was hard to tell because of the distance. The frequent, violent, contact with the branch did not make things any easier. I had the wrong lens with me, so photography did not bring any clarification. Whatever it was, it was clear that the kookaburra was ignoring the maxim about never eating anything bigger than your head! It may have weighed more than the whole bird! As night fell we saw a Magpie Lark swopping a Kookaburra as it prepared to roost. It seemed an uneven competition, but it was a fight the Magpie Lark seemed determined to have, and given the size I things I have now seen Kookaburras eat it seemed like a sensible act of self preservation!

We met a wombat on the drive home on Saturday night, uncertain in the headlights – finally making a dash across the road. That night we fell asleep again to the chorus of frogs, but the Swallow did not visit.

As we drove away on the Sunday morning it was clear that this little cottage was surrounded by an ocean. An ocean of trees. But this is an ocean that can burn, and in a fire the waves that would break over it would be waves of flame, about which nothing could be done. Tragically, less than a year ago, on the other side of the hill, this is exactly what happened.

Grampians - The animals.

Many of the animals in the Grampians are a bit less subtle than the plants. They spring to your attention. Often literally. Or they sleep predictable sleeps at predictable locations, or they eat predictable meals at predictable marsupial restaurants.
But apart from looking where you think they are going to be, one of the better ways to find the larger animals in the Grampians is to be going somewhere else. Just drive along and things will hop, slither, wander and generally meander out of the bush, across the road and off into the bush again. It’s wildlife and traffic hazards all over again.
In about a 40 minute drive three Shingleback’s (or Stump-Tailed Lizards) ambled across the road. Even “amble” really seems a bit energetic for this lizard, taking at least a minute to move across the road. Of course it takes longer when you have a man with a camera and two small children peering at you. So during that 40 minutes we happened to be in the right place at the right time three times – maybe a total of a five minute time window. It makes you realize how much you don’t see! For the other 35 minutes of the journey who knows what was crossing the road and where. These chance encounters on the road must only be a fraction of the possible, and the faster the animal the less chance you have of bumping into the moment you need to be able to see it. This could be why I have never seen Cheetahs in Australia. On the other hand……..

When you look at even a reasonably sized lizard you know you are looking at something really different. No mammalian empathy here. What do they see and how do they feel about the world? Does it speed up in summer and slow down in winter. How does time pass for them? Is summer a rush of experience and winter a long nothing. I take a while to get going in winter, tea and toast being essential, but that’s really not the same. Is the first frost of autumn a kind of premonition of death for them and spring a rebirth? Or is it all just nothing, but a nothing that runs at different speeds. Lizard days in winter must stretch on and on. Summer days dash towards the darkening night.

The colour variation between these lizards is marked, both within the east coast animals and between those on the east and west. They mate for life, give birth to twins and poke their tongues out and hiss at you in a show of defiance that can be quite startling. Especially so through the lens of a camera, when the animal looms large and scale is lost. Ray Harryhausen would have liked them I think, monsters to order as it were. The gape and the tongue poking act must do so good, although after the shock has passed, the poor old lizard is left there looking faintly ridiculous with its blue tongue stuck out and its jaws wide open. “If you come any closer, I’ll hiss at you again!”

For all their alien charm, lizards have one really annoying habit – they look like sticks! Or it might be better to say that in most lights, sticks have a wonderful ability to look like lizards. You pass a lizard basking on the side of the road, brake, pull over, do a u turn and go back. You find your lizard and disappointed put it in the back of the car and take it home to help you light the fire! It kindled the interest, now it can kindle the fire. The stick lizard must be one of the most common sightings on the road home!

Smaller lizards - skinks - rush from sunny spot to shelter as shadows fall. The sneak out, cautious and wary and do not settle long. They are living particles of sunwarmth, willing sun-bathers in a warming land.

A turtle of some sort shuffled across the road in front of us, looking more like an animated meat pie than an animal. Still coated in the mud from a winter retreat it was off to who knows where, straining neck leading the way, legs poorly suited to tarmac. I wished it luck and moved it to the side of the road, no harm in helping now and then. Being flattened by passing cars is hardly a selection pressure it needs to face. Frogs call to it from a watery home, but remain elusive.

The most conspicuous of all the animals are the mammals, especially the kangaroos. They gather in mobs to eat, rest, fight and generally bounce about a bit. A single Short Beaked Echidna waddled (and that really is the best, possibly only word, for its gait) across the road in front of us. But it was on a blind corner, so no pictures. This ant eating monotreme is always a highlight, but in this case a rather uncooperative, badly timed one. Shoulders like a lizard, egg laying like a bird (although not with hard shells) and warm blooded as well, it’s an interesting mix. And people have the nerve to say there are no intermediate forms. Are they blind? There are none as blind as those who will not see.

Kangaroos are a big draw card in Halls Gap. Although familiar they remain fascinating. Just like the Echidna they really are different. But these are no throw back to a past age (and neither is the Echidna for that matter), but wonderfully adapted modern animals. The view of marsupials as lowly and inferior to placental mammals is a kind of intellectual colonialism brought from North West Europe. Everything from there was viewed as superior and everything here of lower, dismissible quality. This found its most distasteful expression in the treatment of the native people. They were looked down, mocked and hunted and the same went for the animals they shared this land with.

Kangaroos are built to cope with a variable, low nutrient environment. Unlike their placental betters (!) they are not as energy demanding and can vary their breeding cycles to the lottery of drought, fire and flood. When a kangaroo moves it uses less energy than any other animal of a similar size. Much of the energy is stored and reused in those long legs. Breathing occurs through momentum rather than muscular action, these animals are nature’s great energy savers.
But they are also fun to watch. The adolescent’s fight and spar, playing at being adult, getting ready for the serious business of life. Finding a position in the mob, positioning themselves for the best chance of sex. Here the parallels with human behaviour are clear, it’s Saturday night down at the pub every day of the week, and just like adolescent humans, the fur can fly when tempers flare.

The rain that has fallen this year has triggered reproduction, and most of the females have pouch young. Many were probably already pregnant again, although it may be some time before they female gives birth. In Grey Kangaroos the embryos can enter diapause, a pause in development that will cease when the older offspring permanently leave the pouch. This is not the behaviour of a primitive beast that has only survived because “proper” mammals were not on the scene. We need to consign such thinking to the dustbin of history.

The smaller young, the pouch dwellers, are skittish and frisky. Dividing their time between the wonders of the outside world and the safety of the pouch. They dive, head first into security at the first sign of danger and somehow their heads emerge to survey the scene. When resting in the pouch legs and tails can protrude, giving the females an unbalanced look. Some young even feed on the grass from the warmth of the pouch, breakfast in bed.

At times we even found them under the house - eating soil, scratching at the dry earth. Whatever they were doing it delighted my daughter, but it would have nice to know what they were up to.

Grey Kangaroos became famous as Skippy – The Bush Kangaroo. This remarkably intelligent beast was able to communicate with the rangers at will: “What do you mean Skip, there are poachers in the park? Where are they” “tch, tch, tch tcccch” “Really, by the old mine, I’ll get the helicopter fired up!” But when you look into the eyes of this animal you know there is very little going on in there! Enough to get by and no more.

But I can’t go by the birds, and while my forgetfulness had robbed me of my binoculars, the larger and especially vocal birds are a constant companion. Parrots are a real thrill – I will have become bored of life when it is “only a parrot” or it’s “only a Kookaburra” for that matter. They are never just “only”.
My brother once said he liked herons because if you saw one, you felt like you had actually seen something. The same goes for me and Kookaburras. How can the world’s largest Kingfisher become boring? (“When it wakes you up in the morning” I was once told by a friend “My kids throw rocks at them so they can go back to sleep” – Bushman’s Clock indeed.) The call, their jizz, their personality, make then deeply watchable even when they sit doing very little.
A 45cm (17 inch!) Kingfisher that eats lizards and snakes and lives in one of the driest continents on earth! How can that ever be “only a Kookaburra”?

I visited the Grampians in the spring. For once it was wet. Good weather for duck as my father would have said. And there was evidence to suggest that this time he was right.

Grampians - Spring Flowers.

Driving in the Grampians in spring can be a tricky business. The risks are many: unmade roads, damp with unfamiliar rain, feel has if they are surfaced with finely engineered ball bearings, suicidal kangaroos, often accompanied by their equally depressed friends, hop into the road with remarkable frequency, flowers. It all adds up – loose surface, crazy marsupials, flowers.

I don’t suppose that flowers make it on to the list of road hazards in many places, but here in the spring and especially after rain they most definitely are. Just as you are rounding a corner, tires only just keeping grip on the surface, you see a patch of orchids on the left hand side of the road. You lose concentration trying to get a better look, and all of a sudden the trees on the right hand side of the road are much closer than they should be. Panic. Brake. Swear. Regain control. Often not in that order.

The Grampians are famous for their spring flowers and a good way to find them is to pull into the side of the road wherever it looks like somebody else has run off it! “I swerved while trying to get a better look at some orchids” is never going to look good in a police report or an insurance claim, but a set of parallel tracks diving into the bush for no apparent reason are a good indication that you have hit upon (although not with as much force as somebody else) a botanical hotspot. Accident frequency and biodiversity seem to go hand in hand here.

If you survive the drive, the Grampians can yield wonderful finds of flowers. Thin soils formed from the sandstone rocks give rise to a rich botany. Here you do not have the fertility to allow some species to dominate, the plants are diverse, the rewards high.

I have never seen the Grampians carpeted in flowers, they seem to take on a more elusive character. This is a pointallist landscape. Small fragments of colour building to a whole. The charm of these plants lays in their scattered nature, not for them the brutal charm of the field of canola, or the slabs of blue purple in a carpeted Bluebell wood.

Finding these flowers needs a shift of focus, and while many are common and abundant they do not form the eye catching drifts of elsewhere. A single orchid – a patch of orange in a grey green bush – changes the scale at which we look. Movement on hands and knees is rewarded here; to find what you seek here you need to move slowly, watching for the star burst of colour that would be missed by the rapid scan.

When the flowers give themselves up easily as they sometimes can do, it can come as a bit of a surprise, and you realise the bush you are looking under is itself covered in flowers. Scale can be a real problem here.

Heatherlie Quarry, near Halls Gap, is an excellent place to find flowers – and it is a relief to no longer rely on road traffic accidents as guide.
The quarry has given up its stone since the 1880’s, and finally ceased production around the start of the Second World War. From that time on the bush has slowly been reclaiming the site, and now its shattered soils given up a more delicate yield – orchids and other flowers. Here we have a great case of not judging a book by its cover, or in this case a habitat by its history. It would be easy to overlook an abandoned industrial site as having little to offer – but you would be wrong elsewhere and you would be wrong here. Trees grow through the frames of abandoned stone trucks and orchids bloom in the thin soils. Greenhoods – the same genus that once lived in my nature strip – are common, Wax Lips are a burst of purple, Leopard Orchids stalk in orange, yellow and black, and strangest of all, Mantis Orchids grow with their roots in falling brickwork and broken walls. It would be fascinating to be able to watch the slow evolutionary dance that has been played out between this orchid and its pollinating thynnid wasp. Pseudocopulation by the males results in pollination and seeds follow. They grow in colonies and I found 25 flower spikes on one small back. Only 3 were in flower, but just the possibility of a patch of more than 20 of these remarkable flowers is exciting. You have to wonder what happened first – a wasp that mistook a flower or did the flower change first and lure in the male wasps. No intelligence, no design, no guiding hand: just time and the forces of nature – variation and differential breeding success. The fit beget more than the unfit, and the rest really is history.

Other flowers, stars, discs and bells of colour can be found if you look, but the orchids seem to be the stars of the show. There sheer complexity makes them attractive, but we should not overlook the more simple structures to be found in flowers with a less well developed PR department. The simple blue star of the Blue Tinsel Lilly would be a flower of renown in other places.
Grasstrees survive fires and thrive afterwards. The tallest example in these pictures is over 3m tall. They flower after fires and their tall spear like flower stalks seem to stand guard over a damaged, but recovering landscape.

Some of the most noticeable plants at this time of year in the Grampians are the Sundews, plants that are both insectivorous and photosynthetic. They fascinated my kids and time and time again they had to check if the sticky, glistening leaves would trap them. My kids are young and small, but not that small, so they always escaped. The ground hugging Scented Sundew formed most of the ground cover in some areas that had been recently burnt, while the Pale Sundew grew tall, with a thin, twisting habit. Each mining animal protein for their own use. Each seeming to contradict the common view of plants as passive, unresponsive things which are barely alive. I don’t suppose the flies being slowly digested on the adapted leaves would call them unresponsive.

The floral diversity that can be found in the Grampians is such a clear example of what evolution through natural selection can produce that they should put notices on the park boarders for creationist – “Warming: This Park Contains Materials That Will Contradict Most of What You Believe.” Or “This Park is Open – Which is More Than Can Be Said For Your Minds.” But enough.

Without question many plants were overlooked, some not yet in flower and some reduced back to bare leaves. Which is a good enough reason to come back next year and look again. Which is exactly what I intend to do.

Grampians - Soundscape.

No matter where you are going, or how you plan to get there, you always pass through the same small town, although sometimes it’s a village or even a suburb. It’s called “If you have forgotten something it’s too late to turn back now”. It’s twinned with that other place called “Did you lock the back door?”, and both are vital locations on any journey. We had passed the “it’s too late to turn back” point at least an hour before when I realized I had left my binoculars in the study.

In my own car this would have been no problem, but we were not in my car. I carry a pair of binoculars, hidden, Jason Bourne style, under the front seat for bird watching emergencies, for rarities on the by-pass, passage migrants on the journey home. “Oh dear!” to say the least.

But it made me do something different, something not always to the fore. It made me listen. Now I always listen, who can stop? (Well my kids seem to be able to stop and start at will, but that’s a different issue!) But this seemed different, more intense, more vital somehow. It was as if I had a greater access to the soundscape of the place I was in. It was as if I was listening in a different way. Rather than being a pointer to something I would look at, sound became a focal point (if that’s the appropriate phrase) in itself, a way to know I was somewhere different. A way to define where I actually was.

The soundscape of a place can sink into the background of your perception, so that you only notice a difference when it stops altogether or the change is gross and unmissable. As a kid I could wake up some days and know, without having to bother to look, that the world would be blanketed in snow, or that the promised snow had failed to arrive. Snow brought with it a soundscape like no other, a deeper silence than anything else, a sort of muffled hush that was beyond normal, beyond those short fragments of time when everything stops, for an instance, before pushing onwards. It was not a silence that was forced, not a church kind of silence where you can feel noise under the surface trying to escape, but a simple reality, with no resistance to the change it brought.

The evening soundscape of where I live is a strange mix, almost emblematic of what Australia once wanted to be and what it actually is. You get a mix of the mellow organ trills of Australian Magpies, the rattle squawk of Wattle Birds and the song of Blackbirds. The native and the introduced, the real and the imagined. Blackbirds cause a good deal of trouble in my head, so very familiar as they try, and try again, to be more imaginative, more fluent than Song Thrushes. They always fail. But they never fail to take me back to where I am from. Blackbird song in a spring evening is a kind of homecoming, a sound which is both difficult and wonderful at the same time. A here and there in the closing of the day.

As I got out of the car in Halls Gap, visitor central for the Grampians, I was immersed in a set of sounds different from usual. The background squeal of tram wheels on tram tracks, the buzz of cars, the flat whine of lawn mower engines – surely the anthem of suburbia – was gone, replaced by a different set of sounds. Each sound blended together in way that seemed new, even though I had been here before, stayed in this very house, at this time of year, for the last 4 years. Was I already listening, when in the past I would have been looking?

That night, as I collected logs for the fire, I heard a coarse call, plaintive, repetitive and unknown. The source remained hidden that night, although a glimpse of something flying through the night’s sky suggested it was a bird. The next night armed with a torch I heard the call and found the bird, an owl, probably a young Southern Boobook, calling for food. Being “armed with a torch” may not seem to be the thing to do if you are intent on listening. But I actually found the bird (more or less) before I saw it. By standing still and just listening I was able to pin down the source to a few branches, silhouetted against the clear sky. The torch just let me get down to the actual branch, and did not reveal much more detail. Much later that night I woke to hear the call of the adult and a distant reply, owl conversation.

By the end of the second or third day the sounds had become familiar. The squeak wail of the Corella’s was a near constant, sometimes loud and overhead, sometimes faint and distant. The whistled bell chime of Crimson Rosella’s clear and far carrying, often accompanied by a flash of colour, reds, yellows and blue. The bursts of laughter from Kookaburra’s prompting a echo in my kids. The creaky-gate call of Gang-Gang Cockatoo, males grey and red and in need of oiling.
Each of these would have been a punctuation in my normal soundscape, a reason to stop and pause, but here they became wonderfully normal. But the falling call of Horsfields’s Bronze-Cuckoo was enough to stop me in my tracks, unheard at home and different enough to punch through the background here. A delight in difference.

It’s hard not to add a personality to the sounds you hear, the sad sounding owl begging for food, the comical kookaburra. The Australian Raven, not a bird of death as elsewhere, voices disapproval when disturbed, offers criticism of our every move – it would do well in some work places I know – and flies off with heavy wings, pushing air towards us, offers sounds to be heard.

Grampians – Rain and Water.

The Grampians sit West and North of Melbourne. A four hour journey by car, longer with kids, an eternity if they are bored, restless and fractious. Luckily eternity does not beckon.
We drove in rain along the Western Highway, the road hiss of wet tires, the rhythmic swish flap of the wipers battled with the rhythms of the music – thankfully yours, not the soul destroying banality of the Wiggles or some such outrage. It was the day after the Grand Final; the gulls were missing this time, just Cats flags – deep in Geelong territory. Missing also were the legions of South Australians that had accompanied us in the past, returning home disappointed, no flag, just flagged spirits and hopes for next year.
Rain, water on the roads, water in the fields (paddocks really) and water in the dams. Nothing unusual for most places in spring, but here it was a novelty. Ten years of drought has robbed the land of its water. Is it really just drought or is it the first real impact of climate change? All I know for sure is that my kids have never seen a wet winter, never seen average rainfall, always known water restrictions. This is not drought for them; it’s just the way things are. Hot, dry and guilt ridden after a five minute shower.

But the last month had been different, rain had fallen across the state, the catchments were filling, slowly oh so slowly, and we had a month of above average rainfall. Not much above average, but after a decade of failure the land would take whatever spring had to offer. There were “Caution: Water on Road” signs which must have been long forgotten, even moth balled. I imagined I could smell naphthalene. There were no animals in pairs anywhere to be seen, but there was talk in the air of a good harvest, you could hear the optimism in the reports, feel that this was not the same as the past few years.

The sandstone ridges of the Grampians produce a landscape rich in rock faces, steep and bulging. The eye follows inviting lines and memories of past climbing - a lifetime and a different country ago - spring to mind. Fingers wrap round the round edges – elephant bums – and reality pushes memory away. I would need more skill than I ever had to scale most of these cliffs. But the sandstone, and the long hand of time, has produced soils which are thin and bitter; plants struggle. Fire and drought add to the mixture and only the strong survive. Surprisingly such conditions lead to diversity, and in the spring the Grampians are famous for their flowers.

It was not the flowers that caught my eye, but the flow of the water. Rivers ran and in places broke their banks; walks were accompanied by the white noise of water as it pushed its way down stream. Bridges, long reduced to simple convenience, became needed again, allowed walkers to pass over long forgotten creeks with dry feet. Some creeks hid pools streaked with foam, others show rocks carved by past floods that mock the currents flow. “Permanence at rest and permanence in motion” as it says elsewhere, but waters fail and rocks can be worn away.

You could see how this land could drink all the water you could pour into it. The soil, sand rich, crystalline and porous would seem to simply take anything the sky could offer and still ask for more. Yet the rivers ran, the waters fell and this was a different place to be this year.

Silverband Falls, just a tourist walk from the car park was popular, had water, it was close to the road, and it was mainly downhill. A small stream ran through the valley that approached the falls. The bush on the stream side was recovering from the fires of 2006 which had burnt much of the park and almost taken Halls Gap with it. In this small valley you could see the two forces that have shaped much of Australia’s ecology: fire and unpredictable rain, with the first feeding off the second. The ecology of the valley had not been destroyed by the fire, and now the spring rains were pushing it along towards a kind of recovery, allowing fresh growth that would feed the next fire when, not if, it comes. Spring rain followed by summer heat can build the conditions for fire.

Silverband Falls drop over a steep, but not intimidating cliff and disappears almost immediately. The water just sinks into to ground, leaving just a trickle at the surface. Although it’s not caused by the drought, the land seems to be drinking all the water it can get – taking it back to itself to use later. The steam reemerges a short way down the valley, smaller than expected, flowing onwards. But the Falls themselves are a plunge to nowhere, a river the losses itself in the rocks only to emerge later on. Thoughts on the meaning of this are lost behind the noise of boys with their heads in the sprays edge, wet and happy, young and stupid. I return to the car in more rain, with my thoughts turning to the noises of the bush.

Gulls, Gulls, Gulls.

On the 19th September I was sat in the Melbourne Cricket Ground awaiting the start of a much anticipated Australian Rules Football (AFL) match, with the winner progressing to the Grand Final – The Holy Grail of AFL. The clash was between Geelong, the surprise losers in last year’s grand final and Collingwood. Winning would give Geelong the chance of sporting “redemption” after last year and Collingwood its first chance of the “flag” for a number of years. I was barracking for Geelong, not because I support them, but on a point of principal – they were playing Collingwood! The crowd grew strangely silent as the start of the game approached and as it started and the ball was bounced down the crowd roared, the air filled with conversations about …….. seagulls!

While I have to concede that some of the crowd had a point and that there were a lot of birds about, I could not see a single seagull – all I could see were gulls, Silver Gulls to be precise. I can’t help it, but seagulls don’t exist outside the pages of children’s books. They are gulls. Just gulls. No need to add the sea bit – and anyway most people would see them elsewhere anyway. You may as well call them tipgulls, or inthemiddleoftowngulls or hangingaroundthechipshopgulls, as seagulls.

Equally interesting was that the gulls really looked wonderful that night. Under the bright glare of the nightlights they shone as only a Silver Gull should. Bright specks of pure silver in the overarching sky, mobile stars outshining those on the field. The fact that they seem to occupying a number of key positions in the Collingwood forward line was not endearing them to the crowd, but I loved it. Here in the heart of sport crazed Melbourne, during one of the most anticipated football matches in a long while, nature had intervened to put on a spontaneous show that had more theatre, more speed and more pure energy than the planned event. And most people were ignoring it. In fact in the days that followed moves were made to hire Wedge Tailed Eagles to scare away the gulls on Grand Final day lest they distract from the spectacle. Well each to their own, but I think the AFL would have to change many of the club nick-names if it wants to exclude nature entirely. Needless to say the bid to remove the gulls failed, and on Grand Final day there they were, bold as ever, still occupying the forward line.

As you may have guessed I like Gulls. They are a kind of environmental constant throughout the world. If you tried I suppose you could avoid them if you wanted to, with trips to the Amazon or the middle of the Sahara unlikely to yield much in the way of gull watching opportunities, but that’s only a guess. Where ever I have been gulls have been there waiting for me. Laughing in America, offering me Herring in the England and nuggets of pure Silver in Australia. I deeply resented the Black-Headed ones, as most spotty teenagers do, but I forgave them eventually.

As a child I did not live that far from the sea, but you can’t if you live in UK, and the gulls that flocked behind tractors, squabbled on the local tip and (OK so I admit it) walked on the beach and the sea shore were always there. Initially mysterious with varying sizes, shapes and plumages, they all conform to the same basic pattern. Grey, black and silver plumage, bills and legs of yellow, red green, eyes with a wild stare and a tendency the squabble at the slightest opportunity. In the end they do give up their secrets, but the sight of massed gulls is good enough without the need to name each and every one, even though I do try! They were there in my childhood and they are here now, constant, reliable and always worth a scan on the off chance of something different being hidden in the flock.

I lived in a 20 story student accommodation block for two years, and the sight of the upper surface of gulls in flight always captivated me. The swoops and acrobatics of the Black – Headed Gulls that were necessary to catch bread crusts thrown from windows was remarkable to see. Watching from above was an added bonus. As darkness fell and the crust dropped into the street lights gloom, you could not help but wonder “how do they do that?” At times I began to believe the Jonathon Livingstone Seagull (why, oh why, oh why did they have to do that!) was simply a documentary about the gulls below my window.

In many places gulls must represent one of the last opportunities people have to see large wild animals around where they live. Rather than scare them off we should look at them for what they are; remarkable, often attractive and full of strange and different behaviors. Gulls have been with us for much of our history I think we would miss them more than they we miss us if either should disappear.