A bird in the hand - two dawns.

The dawns are a few days and a whole year apart. Both days begin calm and still. Both days become hot. And on both days I am up and about before most of my neighbours are awake.

On one of the last dawns of 2011 I drive through the quiet suburban streets of Melbourne. Most of the traffic seems to be rubbish and recycling trucks. Some lucky people are having their bins emptied of all the excess festive glass and paper. Mine will have to wait until next week. In the pre-dawn light all the birds are black birds, just silhouettes on gate posts and street lights.
A law abiding couple wait by a pedestrian crossing, pausing before walking across an almost empty road with a closeness that suggests a first date, or a first walk home. Their fingers interlock and they seem to gently bump into each other more often than would have be caused by mere chance. Wrapped in their couple bubble they turn down a side street and walk towards the New Year.

The boom gates are shut across a rail crossing as a train grinds out of a siding. It’s only just gone six, but the driver is already wearing a cap and dark glasses. The slightly silvered carriage slides past with dark empty windows and dark empty seats. In the last window of the last carriage a person is leaning on the glass. I wonder if they have been there all night. The sky lightens behind me as I drive through the tunnel, over the bridge and out along the freeway. The clouds catch the rising sun and glow red and orange, Turner skies without the ships or smoking industry. I can’t stop to take any pictures – and if the truth be told the speed of the freeway makes even looking an adventure sport. Once I pull over I see rays of light cutting through low clouds, streaking down towards the Earth. A white-faced heron sits on a post and looks towards the light. The gate posts and wires are black against the sky. Behind me a field of sunflowers begins to catch the day. The light is stunning, even if it is over a sewage works. The Christmas dinners of the western suburbs are probably beginning to arrive through the pumps and pipes that link houses to here. Millions of litres arrive every day, tens of thousands of birds follow, and today a group of about 20 bird banders gather as well, all together in the brightening day at a place most people would rather forget.

Most of the banders have a fashion sense that swings more towards the practical than the decorative. Gumboots – still wellies in my mind – are par for the course, even with shorts, especially with shorts. There are wide brimmed hats and tee shirts from obscure birding locations from around the world. The plumage is worn around the edges and frayed, comfortable. Nobody looks sharp and nobody cares. It’s my kind of gathering.

The night before the nets had been set where the birds have been roosting. Pushed off the mud by the high tide they had gathered in the same place for the last few days. Today, of course, they are roosting just a few meters away. But the nets are set and a few meters may as well be a light year. The birds are not there to be caught and no amount of gentle persuasion – twinkling in the lexicon of the group – can move the birds to the place we want them to be. Behind the shelter of the cars most of us sit and wait. And drink coffee. And wait. Eventually we admit defeat for the morning, and leaving the nets in place we go bird watching instead.

Crakes and rails are normally elusive birds. Reed bed screechers, path dashers, dwellers on the edge between solid mud and water, where wetlands form a soup of soil and life. Today something seems to have happened. Either the rails have had a bumper breeding year, or they have developed a taste for theatre, because they are showing all over the place. Of course they are not “showing” at all, they just happen to be feeding where we can see them. Birds do what they do for their own benefit; it’s a human conceit to think it has anything to do with us. There’s no show, just behaviour. A range of scopes and lenses are pointed at the birds – mainly Spotted Crakes, but a Baillons also puts in a brief appearance. I even manage to spot one from a moving car. Although far more confident than normal, they are still easily spooked, dashing back for cover on long, pointed toes. But they soon re-emerge to feed in the mud, peck and move, peck and move. Above their heads Australian Reed Warblers call with great vigour, but little melody. One balances on a low branch and seems to pick insects from the water’s surface. But mostly they call and call and call, hidden from view inside the reeds and telling all the others that this is their patch. An energy investment in territory and fidelity, and again done simply and only for the need of the bird.

Over the lakes and pools, ‘lagoons’ as they are rather glamorously called in a sewage works, Whiskered Terns flicker on long, pointed wings. Our most freshwater of terns, they seem to fly in loose groups, snatching at the water and darting towards things unseen in the air. The energy of waste drives this place and the thick water is dense with life. Black swans and musk dusks, grebes and cormorants, pink-eared ducks and gulls. They all gather and feed.

Down by the sea, where the river ends one journey and a new one begins, flocks of Red-Headed Avocet stand in the shallow water. Many have their slim curved bill tucked under a wing, sleeping. Some preen, some feed and some seem to do nothing at all. A light dusting of Banded Stilts is scattered through the flocks, straight billed and bright white in the sun. All the birds are just a little too far away, and the heat haze of the building day make the views less than good. A contradictory cool breeze moves through the hide windows as we eat lunch. I decline an offer of mouldy cake, sip some water and wonder about the tendency of beautiful birds to stand just too far away.
Back at the nets the waders now prove a little more cooperative, or at least more susceptible to twinkling. Soon a flock of a couple of hundred Red Necked Stints gather in the catching area. A button push, an electric surge, and the bang of gunpowder flashes the net over them. Some escape, they always do, but most are trapped. Thankfully this is dry catch. The net has deployed over smooth, dry mud and the birds are under the net rather than in it. Quickly covered in shade cloth they calm down and, one by one they are removed and placed in keeping cages. This is always the most frantic time, and there is only ever one priority – the birds.

This is a bread and butter catch, vanilla ice cream – our most commonly caught bird, but it’s still special to see. A stint from China with its hard to read soft band and a misplaced sharp-tailed sandpiper are highlights. When you hold a bird in your hand you can’t help but be struck by the outstanding improbability of the whole thing. It’s not a miracle it’s evolution – migration is a strategy called “crisis relocation”. In other words, when things are bad in one place, it’s best to be elsewhere. These little bundles of northern sunlight have abandoned their breeding grounds as the summer failed, and headed south for better days. It makes sense really.

For a day forecast to be over 40 it started with a surprising chill. It sent me back into the house for a jumper of sorts, it made me glad I had made some coffee. I was up even earlier this time, and the roads were quieter still. This time I drive east, out along the freeway towards the sun. Out through an industrial hinterland full of square buildings designed with the subtlety of a shoe-box and the grace of a sly kick. I am surprised to see people already waiting in a golf course car park. Waiting to play a round of the world’s second dullest game. (Rugby league in case you wondered about the first).

In faint hollows and slight valleys a mist gathers, its flexible fingers sometimes reaching out towards and over the road. This is a flat land, where landscape is measured in inches, and the slight differences are normally hidden. I am passed by a convoy of boat trailers - fishermen heading for the morning tides. Eventually I pull off the road and park, and we gather for the briefing. We bump over rough paddocks and farm land and park behind a screen of tall plants.
The nets are already in place, and we approach with care and caution. The tall plants are no longer habitat, they are cover, and the landscape becomes terrain as we inch forward. Apart from the crackle of the radios and occasional beeps and clicks from cameras all is quiet. I lie back in the grass and look at the brown yellow of the stalks and the blue of the sky. Pure Australian summer. A Swamp Harrier quarters the fields and Silver gulls call. “Get ready” comes over the radio and we sit or crouch depending on age. The cannons fire and we are off. It’s only a short dash to the net, but it needs to be even quicker than normal.

The birds – Red-Necked Avocets – were roosting in water and the net needs to be taken off sooner than soon. Some people are already stood in thigh deep water and others are lifting the middle section into the air. The birds make a dash for the dry land provided by the “tent” and they are safe. Two or three make bids from freedom out the side of the net. Some succeed, some end up in the cooler. The normal level of activity is ramped up even higher until the birds are safe and covered. Thankfully taking the birds from the net is like “shelling peas” – easy and rapid. The day has grown warm already as we start to process the birds. A sense of haste remains, as the birds can’t be kept for more than a couple of hours in the keeping cages. They develop problems with their legs if they are.

These are stunningly beautiful birds. The long reversed curved beaks turn with a final flourish at the end, and the long legs are blue grey. The very tip of the bill is thinner than a single grain of sand. Their heads vary in gingerness – a sign of their age - and some have speckled necks. Red-Headed Avocets breed whenever the conditions are correct – true opportunists – so the flock is a mix of adults and the very young, almost adults and not really juveniles. Compared to the northern visitors this is a highly variable flock of birds, showing that the idea of breeding season may not always apply in Australia, where the variation of rain and drought are not the same as elsewhere in the world. There are also three Banded Stilts in the flock, a great by-catch, and another classic boom and bust breeder.

By the middle of the morning we have processed, banded and flagged over 170 avocet. This is the largest single catch of this species ever made – I’m on the phone to Guinness Book of Records but they seem more interested in nail swallowing or naked bear wresting.
The birds gather in the shallow water, washing the human memory from their feathers, preening and fussing at their wings. It’s eleven in the morning and it’s already almost 40. I tip some water over my head, trying to wash away the heat. We bump back over the fields to the freeway. I turn on the cricket and head for home. The birds are still in the sea, waiting for the chance of climate and food to come together once more, bearing little orange flags that we hope will help us know them better.

A sock in the washer.

Out in the car park Musk Lorikeets chatter in the trees, higher pitched and less terse than their Rainbow cousins. Some flutter their wings in submission or possibly courtship. Some dash along the length of branches in short sharp movements, their feet hidden by fluttering wings. They look like second rate stop frame animations, where all the money has been spent on colour rather than continuity. Their short pointy bodies and short pointy tails turn them into flying crosses. They fill the morning quiet with their voices and the morning sky with their wings. I pause to watch, then walk towards the pool.

The glide off the wall is a silky surge of freedom. You pop up to the surface, take one stroke and breathe. Three strokes, right. Three strokes, left. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I reach the far end and turn gracelessly. A fumble turn. Glide, stroke and breathe. Use your feet more. Lift your elbows. Watch the way your hands enter the water. Be here now, in this moment. Not watching TV in a hope that the time will pass, not counting seconds of sprinting. Arm over arm, kick after kick. The minutes pass and I try to keep going. Old men who have swum everyday for the past God knows how long plough up and down. Younger people with worse technique and less stamina than me rest at the wall. Eventually I join them. But it’s a later ‘eventually’ than last week. I dream of otters, of salmon, even of narwhal. I keep swimming.

Out in the car park the Musk Lorikeets are still there, with Noisy Miners and Wattle Birds. On the gravel path a small flock of sparrows half jump, half fly from puddle to puddle. Red Rumped Parrots look for seeds on the edges of the oval, and in the distance I hear a Butcher Bird. A dog Fox – or possibly a foxy dog – trots across the road in front of me. It sniffs the body of a dead possum and keeps walking. As I wait for a green arrow I see it walk over the cricket square, move down to fine leg and disappear over the boundary. Six and out. As I pull into my own driveway the car clock flicks over to 7.45 am. As I open the front door I can smell toast. It’s a good way to start the day.

Later in the week I swim in the ocean. Technically its summer, but you would be hard pressed to know. 7mm of neoprene should do the job. The wetsuits are blue on the inside and black on the outside, and I hope that they will stop me going blue on the inside. I help H into his suit. His arms stick out at a strange angle and I assume mine do as well. We waddle down to the Pier. We are at Portsea again, looking for sea dragons. The wind pushes the water against the shore and the sea looks choppy and dark. For reasons that I fail to understand at the time we are going to jump into the sea from a low platform rather than wade in from the shore. There are two other families with us and they seem less than keen to get in. So I go first.

There is only a slight northward migration of parts of my body as I enter the water which surprises me. The group leader had described the water as brisk, a word I had taken to mean almost debilitatingly cold. H jumps in after me and almost lands on my head. After a few moments of shock we both start to swim around. The other families still seem less than keen. Eventually everybody is in the water. The waves which looked choppy from the shore now look much larger. My eyes are at water level and the waves are way over the top of my head. Me and H bob like small corks in the water – we swap OK signs and head for the pier. It quickly becomes clear that the water is not. It’s a murky soup of foam and falling sand, of swirling bubbles and floating weed. The swell from the wind pushes us uncomfortably close to the wooded piles of the pier. I catch a brief glimpse of small fish and coloured weeds. I get a much closer view of somebody else’s fins as they kick me in the face. We head away from the pier and out towards more open water. In the open water I feel even smaller than before. The shore is really not that far away but you still lose sight of it in the dips of the waves. People cling on to the floating ring we have brought with us. This increases the sense that we are in a ship wreck of some kind.

A few small fish dart away into the weeds and we find a sea urchin and a star fish. But mostly we just see waves. In a miracle of observation we find a Flathead in the weeds. Named with a wonderful economy, this fish has a flat head and most the rest of it is flat as well. They make good eating, but after a few minutes it moves off and disappears into the gloom. Some of the other snorkelers move off as well and head back to shore, beaten by the chill of the water and their unwillingness to swim to keep warm. H is doing OK, but I can tell he is not having the best of days. We head back to swim beside the pier. There are more fish here, but it’s just not a good day.

When we try to get out of the water and on to the beach the waves bounce us around and taking off the fins is a nightmare. H gets cast up on some rocks and looks less than pleased. I fall over and H cracks up. We both end up being bounced around in the surf like socks in a washer. The other swimmers are gone by the time we get back to base and stand under thankfully warm water. We struggle with the wet suits and think of coffee or chocolate.But strangely it is a good day. Not everything goes to plan, but that’s normal. Wildlife is unpredictable – if you want certainty, go to a zoo. The water was cold, but it’s possible (for a while at least) to look after yourself in the ocean. In the car on the way home we spend as much time talking about the day as if we had seem heaps of stuff.

The next morning as I glide off the pool wall I find myself laughing. I can see us bobbing in the water, like half drowned corks, trying to make the best of it. I take a breath and keep on swimming.