Long Distance Travel

Trying to catch shore birds is a matter of hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait. Setting the net needs to be done as quickly as possible, camouflaged, and attached to the cannons and then left. Sometimes the birds need to be encouraged to move into the catching area - twinkled as we call it. But for the most part it’s just a matter of sitting and waiting, sipping bitter flask coffee. The crackle of radio messages - “25 birds in the catching area”, “What just put the birds up?” “Peregrine”, “Arm” “three, two, one - fire”.

All hell breaks loose when the small red button on the firing box is finally pushed. Such a small button, such a lot of action. Birders, normally a sedate (some would say sedated) and reserved lot, now in the guise of banders, sprint for the net. Most put in an Olympic A qualifying time, many pull muscles, some lose their shoes, some fall and lose their dignity. A few years ago I broke a toe dashing towards a net of damp birds, but only found out about it a few hours later, after the birds had been processed and when the excitement levels had fallen. It really was rather painful, but for the best part of two hours I’d failed to notice.

The birds in the net are nonplussed to say the least and are telling us so with every call, squawk and whistle that they know. A net full of birds - many, many birds - is no place for the faint of heart. Orders, not requests are given, and the prime, the only, concern is for the birds. If you are likely to take offence at being told to move faster, pull harder or to stop gauping, then this is no place for you. The birds come first and ego a distant second. Standing on the net is a possible death sentence for the birds, and a certain one for you. There are few certainties in life, but not standing on the net is one of them. A dry catch is preferable, but a wet one is much more common and much more work. On some catches it pays not to look at what you are kneeling in as you extract the birds. Once extracted from the net the birds are placed into small, dark keeping cages where they wait with surprising calm.

To see the faces of people who have never held a wild bird before is to see something close to a childlike happiness in many adults. A kind of happiness that seems to grow from the wonder of what they are actually doing down here by the sea, here in the mud and sand. A kind of happiness that grows from the nearly miraculous stories that these birds have carried with them from far, far away. Smiles widen as Knot, Godwits and Stints are passed from the hands of the extractors to the “runners” moving the birds to the cages. The runners hold the larger birds with a kind of surprised reverence. They offer the birds to the keeping cages with the same look of concentration I saw on the faces of the people who were running communion when I was forced to sit through endless Chapel services - an unbeliever in the pews. But these birds have not undergone any form of transubstantiation; they were wild at the start and remain wild to the end. If there is a truth here, it’s that while you can hold a wild thing in your hands, you will never know the true wildness it knows. There may well be salvation in wildness, but you can’t find it if you hold things captive.

Once the blood pressure of both banders and birds has returned to the normal range, the next stage begins - processing. Here the birds are measured, weighed, banded and in this case flagged. A range of biometric measurements are taken - bill length, combined head bill length, wing length (but not if the outer primaries are moulting), weight - these are all taken and logged. The state of the feathers is minutely scrutinised to age the bird. A small metal band (ring in the UK) is put on the left leg and an orange “leg flag” on the right. Orange means SE Australia - see a bird with an orange flag and it could have passed through my hands. Retraps, or controls, always cause excitement, but often they are recently banded birds. In many ways this is reassuring, as it means the birds quickly recover from being handled. In fact it always surprises me how many flagged birds you can still see, feeding on the tide’s edge or washing their feathers, just meters from where we are processing their flock mates.

But if the looks on the faces of the people who have never held a bird are remarkable, then the stories that the weighing, measuring and retrapping reveal are doubly so. The migration of birds must have always played a part in the world of humans. Spring returns and autumn departures would have marked changes from famine to feast, from cold to warm. Migration was nature as augury. Even today this aspect may not be lost: people still write to the Times on hearing the first CXuckoo, Ted Hughes still sees the return of spring Swifts as a sign that the “world is still working“. Cranes. Geese. Winter Thrushes. Humming birds. They all come and go and we seek to know why. People have always invented stories to explain where the birds go. Gilbert White, whose book started all of this, thought that Swifts and Swallows hibernated in the mud at the bottom of ponds, but he was wrong. What we were doing on the beach, was helping resolve the truth of the matter.

These birds spend their non-breeding time in Australia, and breed in the northern hemisphere - they are like sun seeking tourists, maximising the daylight. Of course the language of such travel is difficult; these birds are not over wintering in Australia. It can be 40oC, there can be weeks without rain, so this hardly counts as winter - having said that what we have just been through in Australia hardly counts as a summer either.

Now these birds undertake a north south journey of staggering endurance and distance. The birds that come to SE Australia breed in Alaska - which in terms of Melbourne to Anchorage is over 12,400 km away from the beach where we caught them! Before they do this journey many immature birds will have gone on a relatively short “day trip” across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand - a mere 2600 km! These journeys are completed by a bird with a mass of no more than 600g for a large female. This is the same mass as a couple of large apples, less than a family sized pizza, or 10 mars bars! And yet they fly to Alaska. Now this would be remarkable enough if they did it in a series of short hops and skips - a little bit here and a little bit there. But no, that’s not good enough for our Godwits. They fly from Australia to the South China Sea more or less in one go, then feed up again before heading for Alaska. Impressed yet? Well I hope you’re sat down. On the return journey they fly over the Pacific in one go - all 10,000 km and 8 or 9 days of it. 70-80 km an hour for hour after hour after hour. It’s the longest known non-stop migration flight of any bird. If you take the round trip to be 20,000 km our oldest know bird (24 years old) has flown 480,000 km just on migration. This does not include the flights when it pops down to the shops for food or has to fly away up the beach because it’s been disturbed by banders! Now 480,000 km is more than the distance between the Moon and the Earth. I’m running out of comparisons here - but I need you to be impressed! And on a surprisingly chill January morning I sat on a beach in Australia and weighed and measured one of the greatest travellers that evolution has produced, knowing that in a few months it would be off north again. Pulled by instinct and the spin of the Earth through space.

Of course the birds come to Australia to fatten up, to put on condition to allow them to breed the next year. So they feed on shrimps, beach worms and such like and store the Australian sunlight energy that has passed along the food chains and take it back to Alaska, via China. I suppose it’s just another form of mineral export.

You very quickly begin to tell the bigger females from the males - they are a real handful and their beaks can be longer than the whole head and beaks of the males. Rather annoyingly the female’s head and beak length can be longer than the callipers we use to measure them with as well - these are not small birds. They are weighted by being placed in a plastic tube and after being banded and flagged are released into the wind, back down to the waves where they wash and start to feed. It’s a remarkable feeling knowing that when we are in our coldest months, these birds will be in the far north with hour after hour of sunlight in each day, and only instinct to bring them back to this beach.

As we walk away from the beach a kind of calm settles; the Godwits, all legs and stick thin beaks, the plump and dumpy Knot and flighty Stint, scatter and regather at the water’s edge. Joggers pound along the firming sand, dogs run and sniff. The normality of an Australian beach morning returns, with only scuffed sand and a few orange tagged birds to show that we were there. If, on your journeys around the world you happen to meet a Godwit with VJ on its leg, say hello, wish it good luck, and then let me know.

A short walk at Wilsons Prom - on 2,6,8 and no legs at all.

Another return trip to Wilson’s Promontory, this time with the kids in tow. The camp sites are busy with families packing up and wondering how they ever managed to get all their stuff in the car last time. Yellow patches of sun-starved grass mark the tents’ departure, and sun browned teenagers wave goodbye to holiday romances. But as ever, the paths away from Tidal River are not crowded, and soon we only hear the crunch of feet on gravel paths. Well, the crunch of gravel and the occasional question about whether we are there yet!

A Varied Sword-grass Brown butterfly lands in the bushes, and one of the few groups of walkers we see all day pass it by without lifting their heads. They pass between lens and butterfly and I’m tempted to photograph the side of the walker’s head - but I don’t bother. I doubt they would have noticed anyway. A flighty Yellow Admiral refuses to sit still, and a Common Brown rests briefly on the sandy bank. Its tongue unzips and probes the ground, searching for minerals. After a few minutes we move on.

A cry of “snake!” rends the air and both kids chatter with a combination of excitement and surprise. Slithering across the path is a dark looking snake, with just the hint of pale stripes on the sides - I think it’s the dark form of a Tiger Snake. These snakes have a reputation for being aggressive, but this one just passes before us, tongue tasting the air. The apparent effortlessness of their limbless movement is always fascinating and somehow strange. We seem to privilege legs over other forms of movement, things that gallop or vault being better than things that crawl and certainly better that things that slither. But we don’t want too many legs, six is a push and eight far too many! Head up and alert, the snake moves around and under fallen branches and dead leaves. If it knows we are watching it does not seem to care, moving as does it with slow, deliberate care. Hunting as it moves. Within a few meters it seems to disappear, hidden under the leaf fall branch junk that lies under the scrub. I am constantly being told “don’t put your hands where you can’t see them” - and this disappearing snake explains why. Contrary to popular rumour Australia is not awash with snakes, but it pays to take care! I like the fact that the kids showed a combination of both surprise and excitement at the snake - it was their first one in the wild. No need to be scared, every need to be careful, look, but don’t touch.

Ahead the path-side vegetation opens to show a view back across Norman Bay, a view that would make any walk worthwhile. The kids prefer the jelly snakes and a drink. As we move up the hill the Tea Tree suddenly thins and we move into a form of coastal heath-land. Looking back it seems that a razor line has been slashed across the landscape, one place here and another there, a demarcation in conditions that I can’t see, but the plants detect and respond to. And so do the animals. This divide does not seem to mark the raggle taggle edge of some past fire, nor the patch by patch regrowth from windblown storm damage.

Large spider webs hang across the bushes, orbs with a hunter sitting in the middle of a sky-net of their own weaving. The webs often stretch over a number a meters and the spiders are large enough to catch even the most jaded attention. Some seem to be Garden Orb Weavers, with red legs and swollen bodies. Others have very different colours, but seem to be the same species. As you approach their webs they dash with surprising speed to the sanctuary of a leaf. I don’t think I’ve ever had to stalk spiders before, but here, in the tangled heath, one misplaced foot sends them dashing away. Seeing the spiders sat in the centre of the orb in the full light of day seems strange, contrary to the published wisdom that says they take their webs down at the end of each night. We watch a grasshopper blast into a web, the spider moves, but too late as the prey escapes, leaving behind a huge hole in the web. Spider renovations will be in order.

Robber flies and dragonflies dash around the hill top that is our aim and our lunch spot stop. People express surprise at seeing my kids at the top of the hill, as if gentle uphill walking would be beyond them. The March flies are slow and clumsy, and swatting them rather than waving them away damages my conservationist credentials. I wonder why the robbers and dragons are not feasting. Slackers.

Down from the hill top the path is a light strip of sand, where bull ants, with ferocious intent, and glinting blue wasps, seek food. The plants change again and again. Grass trees, scrubby looking gums, line the path. Smooth in one direction and sharply rough in the other, grass tree leaves conceal many things. Glossy brown beetles pass the day, hidden and feeding, thornbills flash past and on the high, dead, flower stalks New Holland Honeyeaters call. In the shelter of a tree a Hyacinth orchid stands tall with a naked stem and purple flowers. It’s a single streak of colour in the pale greys and greens of the woodland floor. In an instance the cicadas start to call - loud and shrill. How do they all start at once? Is this another signal that things respond to that I can’t sense? How much time would you have to spend here before you could tune into the calls and signals that dominate the lives of birds and insects? Would it ever be possible? Seasonal change still takes me by surprise, so what chance is there to feel the changes that happen second by second, hour by hour?

We stop again - on such days there is no need to hurry, it’s about having a good time, it’s not about making good time. Today there is no need to be haunted by the clock, bothered by the tick tock of modern time. Stop when you feel like it, drink when you need it. Under a rock face that is like a frozen wave of stone we watch the dragonflies and enjoy the shade. A group of walkers, moving up the hill, heads and eyes down seem not to notice us and are surprised when we say hello. As we pass around the back of the hill the sea comes back into view, and the distant specks of surfers and swimmers punctuate the waves.

The unwelcome roar of motorbikes drifts up from the road and we know we are on the final stage of our circular walk, but more spiders cause us to move with a studied slowness. The huge webs give the place a feel of autumn, but that can’t be right, it’s still summer. And the next day any illusion of autumn melts in the 40o heat. Seat belt buckles, baked in the car, are too hot to touch and you drive with finger tip control for fear of burning your hands; it feels like your cameras are melting. A jewelled green beetle walks on unsteady feet across the path and sits on excited hands for its photo call.
But this day has one more surprise left. As we walk along the edge fringing the swamp that follows Tidal River I start to see spots before my eyes, well spots under a bush if the truth be told. These require closer attention. On a network of silken threads, starting from a single point and spreading down like an inverted parachute, hang dozens, maybe hundreds of spiders and their parcelled victims. Closer inspection shows the spiders to be Jewel Spiders, brightly coloured, triangular shapes that stay still even when you poke them with a finger. The woven colony spreads for 10 - 15 meters under the bushes. It’s a good way to end the walk, and I know I would have missed them if our eyes had been down, walking fast and not paying attention.