The Kingfisher Theory - Part 3

It was my turn to get the paper. As I drove I tried to ignore the bird on the telephone wire. I tried to believe that it was a mistake – but it wasn’t. I tried to believe that I had slept in and that it was the afternoon – but I hadn’t. It was a kingfisher, it was the morning and The Theory was in ruins. I could not even take sanctuary in the old adage that “it’s exceptions that prove the rule” – because they don’t. It’s basic science that exceptions disprove rules. Exceptions no more prove rules than internal belief makes things true in the outside world. The kingfisher was not there on the way back, and neither was The Theory. It was back on the drawing board, and a theory that says “kingfishers only sit on the telephone wires in the afternoons (except on Thursdays)” does not really have the feeling of elegant symmetry that good theories often have. I was so distressed that I had an extra piece of toast when I got home. And another cup of tea.

We drove past the wires again on the way to find our boat. I could hardly bring myself to look, but I did. There were Fig Birds, there were White Fronted Woodswallows, and Bee-eaters, but no kingfishers. I tried to forget about The Kingfisher Theory for a while, but even though it had only been dead an hour or so I really missed it.

We were greeted at the dock by a Rock Wallaby and a Brahminy Kite. They were both studiously ignoring us and each other. Our boat was still on land, although Cliff the owner, and our guide for the day, was just about to manoeuvre it into the water. The boat looked like a WWII landing craft, complete with drop front and vertical sides, although it lacked a machine gun, and it was most certainly not camo green or battleship grey. If you are not able to visualise the kind of vessel I am describing, think of a shoe box with the front, narrow section able to be moved up and down at will. That’s about it. It had a shallow draft that could float over coral reefs that would have been shredding other boats and was able to land us on beaches that other boats could not get into. Its boxy construction gave it a ride that was more percussive than comfortable, but what it lacked in grace it made up for in practicality. It had the sweeping lines and elegance of a house brick, but Cliff, who had built the boat in his back yard, clearly loved his boat. In the end we felt that way too.

Within minutes of leaving the harbour H had taken control of the helm. He would remain more or less glued into this position for the majority of the trip. This did cause a degree of consternation as all his previous driving experience had been gained on the computer and had almost inevitably ended in fiery disaster. Not today though. Our vessel plugged through the water with surprising speed. The coast slid past and birds of prey – osprey, kite and eagle – drifted overhead. As we round one bay we find a large egg shaped rock perched on a headland. There is a little window to the other side of the bay at its base. Sprawled across the top of the stone is a White Bellied Sea Eagle’s nest. A nest on an egg, rather than an egg in a nest. But we don’t see any eagles here. Later in the week we find another nest in the same bay – so maybe this nest has been abandoned, with the birds moving into a more desirable treetop house. On the boat the depth finder pings happily, but starts to squawk in distress as we approach a coral reef.

Like the ones near the shore, these reefs do not give the crystal clear BBC Wildlife Unit views. The rippled water and reef combined to give a feel of what was under there, rather than a full view. It was like looking at a naturally occurring impressionist painting. No blocky colours or straight lines, but hints of depth and contour. Splashes of colour that you knew were near the surface without ever really knowing how you could tell. The depth sounder was near to psychiatric breakdown. We got into our wet suits, which is a process so lacking in any elegance that I refuse to describe it. Just let it be said that was a process that was richer in humour than it was in grace.
The kids soon got cold, but we stayed in the water longer, watching. Sharp edges and rounded, fluted pillars. Fish, coloured darts of energy and sheen, flash past and hide under ledges, dive into tiny caves or disappear into the distance. Around towers of coral – bommies – the fish gathered in greater numbers. They were bigger too. I chose to ignore the magnifying effects of the face mask and enjoyed the scale of the fish, close by or suddenly distant. Waves broke over the pillars and bounced us around – living flotsam, wave washed and, for a few seconds, at the mercy of the sea’s own rhythm. But the wet suits are buoyant and we were in no danger, however it was strange to feel yourself being picked up and put down. It was rather splendid really – and I should remember that when my kids ask me to lift them up, to spin them like tops. It’s a brief second when you break free of the pull of gravity and fly, a brief second when the constraints of the normal give way to the reality of dreams. Swimming in places like this really does feel like flying. We are spun back on to the boat, with a kick of the feet and a twist of the arms. Water drip drops from our noses and ears. We smile and ignore the faint chill of the wind. The kids laugh at their parent seals and the boat moves on.

The ocean is large and our boat so small. Even with the shore in view you could feel the space around you. Something happens to scale and distance on the sea – the near recedes and far can rush up with unexpected haste. All sights are good fortune, encountered on a vague path that may never be taken again. You cannot place things, judging distance is hard and a shape on the water may just be the wind and waves, or it may be, sometimes, something else.

A green dust-bin lid turns into a turtle swimming past. It’s going one way and we’re going the other. The vectors combine to make it pass by in the twinkle of an eye. It’s just a fleeting glimpse really, but it’s a highlight. This was not the torchlight procession to a breeding beach, but a chance collision between the watched and the transient. Such encounters have the feel of a found object. An item of chance that could have easily been missed and passed over.

At first glance the beach seems empty expect for a line of old footprints that were slowly being washed away. The boat was anchored both ways, one against the pull of the tide, the other against the push of the wind. We walk the tide line in search of shells and recent treasure. P finds shell after shell, sea bright and damp. H finds stones and rocks with familiar shapes that only he sees.

On the edge of the beach, where the sand meets the trees, Bush Stone Curlews run and hide – confident in the camouflage they carry. Sitting on reverse bent knees, relying on their cryptic nature they stare with wide eyes. One of the birds seems much redder than the other, but they allow me to get close before they rush off and hide again. Behind the beach the trees hold a flock of Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos. Huge birds with crests that rise and flatten with the bird’s mood. They sit and watch – sometimes reaching out for a seed pod which they shred with practiced ease. Standing still and listening for the falling of broken pods is the best way to find new birds. Eventually they seemed to have had enough of me and my cameras and as one they lifted off and flew inland. How did they do that? What was communicated?

We pull up the shore-side anchor and pull the boat out to sea on the other line. It feels like the boat is stationary and the land is moving. Waves slap on the flat sides and bottom of the boat. The water deepens. In the distance a shape moves in the water – and we all look in the same direction. The shape reappears, dark and sleek. I think I know what it is, but it should not be here yet. Then a large fluke tail fans up from the surface and we are left in no doubt. It’s a whale. Then it becomes two whales – which we take to be a mother and calf. They disappear for a few seconds that feel like disappointing minutes, then they surface much closer to us. Then closer still. This does not seem like a collision between an interested observer and a disinterested other – it feels like we are both checking each other out. The whales move between the shore and us and then vanish again. When they break back to the surface they are only 10’s of meters away. They swim towards us. Eventually I can no longer focus on the whale with my longer lens. How can it be possible to need a wide angle lens to photograph whales! Then in a perfect recreation of the “we’re going to need a bigger boat” scene from Jaws, both of the whales swim under the boat. The mother’s fluke heaps water up at the surface as she dives, the calf close by her side. The whales move away from us, up the coast, and we stand almost speechless – my kids aren’t speechless, they never are; but at least, for a short time, they seem a little quieter than normal. I’m reluctant to leave, but there’s no reason to stay. The whales have moved on, going up the coast to wherever they were going before they came over to check us out.

The coast line changes in a flash as we move from one geology to another – a vertical cut in the shore marking the place where we move from one age to another. How long has it taken for this change to make its way to the surface and show in the land? I can’t help but think about the size of the sea and the age of the Earth. Both huge beyond real comprehension, but understandable nonetheless. Numbers on this scale seem so unobtainable, and push us towards thinking that measures the world only in human scale. This seems to be a mistake. I wonder if the whales consider their migration trips to be long (assuming that they even have an idea of “long”) and I come to think that they would not. It would be normal. Just because we tend to peak out at heights around 2m does not make things beyond that big – they are just not two metres. Encounters with animals of such scale, in a place of such size, can make you think like this.
But the day was not over yet. On the long run back to dock – H firmly back at the the helm after P had led us a merry, fluid dance – there was another shape in the water. A brief shape, with a huge head and no dorsal fin. There was a brief glimpse of tail and it was gone – I think it was a dugong! I can’t be sure, but I don’t really care. We are not looking at “beyond all reasonable doubt” here. I think I know what it was, and on a day like this one it seems more likely than not that it was.

We pull into the road that will lead to our house. There are kingfishers on the wires and I remember The Theory. And I remember that it no longer works. They are gathering on a leafless tree and bathing in a bath! The bath is probably a horse trough now, but it really was a bath, complete with taps. The light has faded, and the photographs don’t flow. In the end I give up and just watch. Blue flashes from branch to water. Feather flicking and preening on the fence. The Kingfisher Theory is dead, but the kingfishers are alive and well, and at the end of a day full of surprises I realise that I don’t really mind at all.

The Kingfisher Theory - Part 2

In my mind the phrase “coral reef” will be forever linked to a Frenchman, seemingly made from leather, pushing the Zodiacs away from The Calypso. Small knitted woollen hats. An undersea world that was very, very far away, full of lithe divers, which, it now seems to me now, must have had been both exotic and faintly erotic. Even in the dull tones of black and white TV, you could tell that the living reefs were alive with colour. Yet the only coral I knew was cold and grey, turned to lifeless stone at the same times as the world swamps laid down and turn to coal. Sleeping the long sleep of a carbon sink. Waiting. The coral, weathered from cliff faces on the Mendips, found its way into my pockets and was eventually lost during teenage room cleanings – times when you throw away childhood treasure despite adulthood looking distant and difficult.

When I read that there was coral reef that you could walk out to at the end of Horseshoe Bay I have to say that my interest levels went up a notch or three. So at low tide I set off to find the reef, wondering if there would be any lithe Frenchmen there, or nut-brown marine biologists. When I got there it looked nothing like what I expected. It was largely grey brown, as if I was still seeing it on a black and white television, or a poorly tuned colour one. It seemed, well, dusty and uncleaned. It looked like it could do with a good spring clean. I was not really disappointed, but I was surprised. I slowed down to look and realised I had been tricked by the scale of things. There was abundant life, but much of it was small, hidden. Tiny specks of fish darted in the pools and crabs rushed to find shelter. Shrimps, transparent as living glass, worked their way from sand patch to sand patch, legs flashing in all directions. A blur of activity around an invisible core. A larger crab, hand sized, raised its claws in threat, or anger, or both. Dome shaped corals, with a surface that glistened like honeycomb pushed above the surface.

Herons and Egrets stalked through the shallow water, necks held as springs and eyes focussed on the flashes and movement of the water. If I came too close they eyed me with obvious wintry discontent, head held high, neck straightened. One step more from me and they took flight with two or three lazy flaps and glided to another part of the reef. The egrets took flight quicker, but landed sooner. Easier to spook, quicker to recover. I watched them catch tiny sparklings of fish which were swallowed, flip flap, with barely a pause. The slightly larger ones were first turned around head first to better slide down the curved, slender neck, then swallowed in a fluid gulp. As I would come to learn they were far better at fishing than I was. The more I looked the more I saw. The colours were not great, but the place was. Bursting.

I notice a circle, a hole in the ground, with coral scraps built up around it. A fish? A crab? Who knows, but it was not there by chance and it was not designed either. Complexity and order without design. Purpose, yes. But how that purpose is defined depends on what you select, on what you see being passed on. Small movements in the watery hole made me stop and wait. And wait. And whatever it was, waited as well, and outlasted me. I don’t suppose you live long if you are small, probably tasty and imprudent with your appearances. I moved on and left the hole and its dweller to its own devices. The exposed coral sand and mud hissed and pooped with the busy sounds of life. From hidden places the rocks themselves seem to spit in disgust at my human intrusion. But it’s just the sea-squirts those ancient, stiffened ancestors, squeezing short spurts of water into the air. I feel that it’s no way to great family, no matter how distant.

Coral as a sort of living rock messes with our ideas of what it means to be alive. And when I found something that looked for all the world like a pile of melted industrial rubber gloves I knew that I was looking at something strange and distant. The coral (if that’s what it was) lay slumped in one small part of the reef. It looked alien. It was slightly soft to the touch, yielding in a way that was strangely unpleasant.

On the muddy sand behind the reef soldier crabs marched in ever changing formations. Splitting and reforming, pausing for no reason I could detect and then moving on. Like all good soldiers they dug when danger approached. In their Blues, their dress uniforms, down by the sea, could they be anything but Marines? They seemed to bypass a star fish lying upside down on the sand, the slight movement of its legs a signal that it would soon cease to twinkle. The water that flows over the sand is bath warm, and I stand ankle deep at the wave’s edge and know that, for this week at least, I have driven the cold winter away.

On the way back to the house for lunch there were no kingfishers on the wires. The Kingfisher Theory holds. On the way out in the afternoon they were there. The Theory holds again.
We parked by the road and walked uphill. It was bright but cool – perfect. Queenslanders walked past in jackets and hats. Tourists walked past in shorts and tee shirts. Most people seemed to be wearing sandals, as if snakes were non- existent and advice was meant for other people. With a well defined sense of superiority I tripped over and almost dropped my camera. H laughed. I wondered if my sandals were in the car.

We were looking for one of Australia’s icons, the Koala. We need to get a few things straight here – it’s not a bear, they don’t spend most of their time in drug induced comas caused by toxins in gum leaves and they don’t fall out of trees onto tourists as in a form of passive aggressive defence. In fact they are related to wombats, sleep whilst they are fermenting their food and only fall out of the trees if they are sick, too hot or dead. The other truth we need to deal with is that once you have found your koala they are not the most interesting thing in the world to watch. They have taken energy conservation to world record levels. Their brains have shrunk so that they no longer fill their heads. They don’t move that much at all. Basically all they do on a regular basis is eat and sleep. The males do a bit of growly shouting in the proper season, to which the females may or may not respond. It depends if they are asleep of not. Koalas also spend a short time each day developing ideas for reality TV, a task for which their shrunken brains are ideally suited, but this is not widely known. Watching a koala is a bit like watching a grey, furry, largely immobile, wooden canker. And while you are watching them you can’t help but smile.

Allegedly there is a thriving colony of Koalas on Magnetic Island. We found just the one. That’s Koala, not colony! It was sat in plain view in a brightly light tree doing almost nothing at all. It seemed to have a game eye, but it could just have been saving energy by keeping it shut. It did actually move its head as we were watching it, but that’s about it.

We walked on and came to an explosives bunker. The hill we were climbing was used during WW II as a look out and gun emplacement. It guarded the approaches to Townsville and never fired a shot in anger. Well not at the enemy anyway. Apparently the guns at the top of the hill had a design that gave them “deadly accuracy”. But when they fired on a small US navy ship that appeared without warning one day they missed! This was probably a good thing for all concerned, especially the ship being subjected to the deadly accurate fire.

Huddled on the roof of the bunker were three Bent Wing Bats. This information was provided on the same sort of signage as described the guns as “deadly accurate” – so they could be anything really, although I am convinced that they were bats! I found them by using the focus assist light on my camera as the world’s most expensive low power torch. In the brief glimpses I got of them, they seemed to be asleep. I found a spider in the same way, and that did not move either. Had I entered some Rumplestiltskin land where all the wildlife was asleep? It seemed that way.
I emerged from the bunker to some of the first living movement that was not part of my own family. A large blue speckled butterfly flew past and landed on a leaf – and stayed there. It was a Blue Tiger. And then it stayed there some more. I had caught it moving, and now it sat very still for a very long time. I’ve never seen such immobile wildlife before.

The top of the hill was covered in the kind of rabbit warren, functional concrete that kids enjoy exploring. Of course it was designed to allow boys only slightly older than H to rain death on equally young boys somewhere near the horizon. I did not feel obliged to point this out at the time. We were joined for lunch by a Pied Currawong.

The view from the hill top was remarkable – with small sandy beaches, forests and other islands in all directions. I was reminded of Turkey, where stories of unending horror were told in a landscape of bright, floral beauty. This place was not the same, but what would it have been like to sit surrounded by all this, waiting to kill, or waiting to face death? In such places this duality is so near the surface that it cannot be ignored. Life and death side by side. The beauty of the world and its other beastly reality hunched together on a small island.

As we drove home there were kingfishers on the wires. I had this place under control.