The Sound of One Cow Mooing

It’s only when you go back into the country that you realise now noisy cites can be.  Even if you wake in the night, it’s rare for the background hum of cars to be silent.  You may jolt awake thinking, “what woke me?” to hear the hoo-ha wail of a fire engine or ambulance.  It may be the noisy clatter of possums on the roof, or the animated chatter of party goes, weaving their way home.  But it is rare to wake to anything resembling silence.

It was chill outside, but warm in bed.  Unfading bright light leaked through a gap in the curtains.   I could tell that it was a blue-sky day and that the scudding clouds of the day before had blown away.  And by the silence, I could tell we were in the country.

Then a cow mooed and the kids laughed at the comedy of the unfamiliar sound.  It did not have the deep resonance of the cartoon moo beloved of TV shows.  It was more a bellow of shock that spoke of ambush or surprise.  Almost inevitably the small people starting impersonating the cow.  Laughter. The world could no longer be described as silent.

Down hill from the back of the house, the rough green fields ran into a small wooded valley that hid a stream.  A wire fence, marked at its four corners with wooden styles, separated the garden from the field. Sal said she thought the styles looked English.  I said I thought they looked normal.  I suppose we were both correct.  If you ignored the calls of the Black Cockatoos and turned a blind eye to the gum trees, the landscape looked English.  A small landscape of folds and fields tended and farmed.  I started to remember the things I no longer see. Such a reaction is probably a form of landscape-sickness, rather then home-sickness, and I immediately feel somehow saddened by the intrusion of thoughts of there when I am here.   How long do I have to wait before the comparisons fade and I don’t reach for references well past there sell by date?  Landscape-sickness indeed.  

In the valley floor woodland, the trees were bent and old, covered in moss, with branches that reached down into the leaf-rich soil.  It was a place where you could hear water trickling and dripping even when you were stood away from the stream.  The damp greenery reinforced the vision of England.  A fleeing swamp wallaby shattered it.  Thornbills, tiny and suitably sharp, moved in talkative groups through the canopy.  Such places as this put me between two worlds – the world of memory and world of now.  My kids jump the stream and climb the mud formed path.  They are both better clothed and healthier than I was at the same age, but they both have the same desire as I did (do) to look into holes in the ground and wonder out loud about what made them.  They both collect eye threatening sticks and muddy shoes.  They both carry cut knees and scratched shins with unfashionable pride.  This place may remind me of my childhood, but to go there in my mind, when I am with them in their own world, feels like a form of abandonment.  I need to leave memory for another time.   I need to get my knees dirty too, looking down a wombat hole.  I need to leave the “do we go left or right?” decisions to them as well.  When all roads lead to Rome it does not really matter which way you go, because eventually, you will come home.

Above the damp of the stream bed the land opens to ferny heathland, studded with single gum trees and the occasional blow in birch.  On the open ground pellets of rabbits and wallabies have been left behind.  At a stone that forces its way through the soil an edge marker has been left by a fox.  The memories of the now and then blend with the evidence on here and there.  From the clearings on the hill there are long views over the sea towards Wilsons Prom.  In the crown of a mature gum tree a small flock of smaller birds half fly and half walk along the branches.  Individual birds spiral along the limbs, pecking here, picking there.  The birds are Varied Sitellas.  On a dull day these bird would pass for nuthatches, birds that do not occur in Australia. 

Cogs spin and something drops into place.  For all the differences between here then there, the nature of nature makes things the same.  Convergence from distance points to arrive at (not quite) a singularity of form and function.  The two birds, only distant relatives, have come to use the same niche in different lands.  Surely, in such ecosystem of interest there is a niche here for me as well.  Another wallaby spooks from cover.  The sitellas turn tail and fly away.  In the distance the black cockatoos call.  Interest enough I’d say.

That evening a blood moon rises through a heavy sky.  We see little but brief glimpses though breaks in the cloud.  The Moon looks purple and blue, like a two-day-old bruise on the road to fading.  The next night is almost cloud free and in the early darkness there is a better lunar show.  A fox walks over the lip of a slight hill and pauses, all concentration and bright busy tail.  It lifts its head to sniff the air, a short, dog like gesture.  Wood smoke and cooking smells.  Humans and maybe even a hint of whisky – Scottish, thick with peat and a second layer of smoke.  Whatever it smells, it’s too much for the fox, who turns brush and leaves.  Minute by minute the Moon creeps higher, painting the landscape with a pale silver wash.  Kookaburras cackle in the distance.  Burning logs shrink and settle in the firebox.  The chill air smokes my breath.  I step inside to warm air and bright light, as a cow moos goodnight to anybody who cares to listen. 

Early the next morning the dairyman’s clock calls again.  The low gruff call a counterpoint to a high pitched twittering that flows all around the house.  The staves of the wire fence are dotted with musical note welcome swallows.   Each with their own space, they don’t huddle like the pictures in kids books and bird guides.  Some look softer and fluffier than their not too near neighbours, I suspect they are this years birds, heading north from Tasmania for the first time.  An autumnal internal exile for this spring bird.  At some unhuman signal the birds leave almost as one, leaving the fence to a scarlet robin and his wife.

At the gate out on to the dirt road we have a choice – left or right.  Lighthouse or hill.  We choose to go right, we choose the hill.

Mount Bishop overlooks Tidal River, the busiest part of Wilsons Promontory National Park.  The car park at Tidal River is busy with people and vans.  Some people are coming back from sandy beach walks, but most are getting ready to start a journey.  We just want to buy some jelly snakes – the Lembas Bread of our family walks.

At the beginning of the walk we check we have enough water and (of course) jelly snakes.  Everything is present and correct as we walk along the start of a well made, gravel crunchy, path.  Grass-trees, which are neither grass nor tree, line the side of the paths.  The rough leaves only let you run your hand one way along them – like stiff cat hair, rubbed the wrong way.  I am surrounded by the shuffle crunch footfalls of my family.  In the distance I can hear the muffled crump of waves breaking over rocks; of the sea at war with the sea.  Birds call from the dry brown leaf litter, from the open branch treetops and the open blue sky, high above.  Such days are rare.  Such days are a gift given to us by nothing and no one.  But they are gifts none the less.

The path leads into the cool shadows of tall timber and keeps our backs to the sea. To the left the land slopes up and away towards the top of Mount Bishop.  To the right the land falls steeply away towards a sometimes stream.  A view of the roots and the canopy from a single path.  The anchor and the sail. 

At a path junction we stop for a drink of water and a taste of way-bread.

A left at the junction starts the climb up the hill.  Cutting the contours gently the path weaves a seemingly uncertain path towards the summit.  It’s not a tall hill and it’s not a long path.  Purple mushrooms with a slick sheen distract us from the journey.  Parrots in the canopy call to each other, in bright feather conversations.  As we round the shoulder of the hill the sea comes into view, studded with rounded, granite islands.  Bare patches of the same stone form parts of the path, smoothed by the passage of feet in some places, thick with moss and lichen in others.  The bones of the landscape show through the growth.   It’s a stone that calls to be touched, by more than just feet.

At the summit we sit to eat simple sandwiches and take in the view. Both are world class.  Both feed a necessary hunger.

Finger headlands stab outwards to the sea, webbing beaches of pale sand fill the gaps between the digits.  To the south lie the islands of Tasmania and the open waves of the southern ocean.  This is place to breathe deeply on the cleanest of clean air, even if, deep down, I know that it holds the faint taint of industry.  A silver gull drifts overhead, drawn no doubt by the chance of crumbs and gifts of crusts.  A dozen shades of green, washed with grey, blue and white.  Golden yellow rocks pounded down to golden yellow beaches.  A light wind, which if it held colour would be silver.  A bright autumn day.  The distant beaches hold few people, and the path to the summit was almost empty.  We saw just two other families on the path to the top – and on the journey down we see none at all.

On days like this is there is barely any need for the jelly snake incentive.  But the lack of need increases the enjoyment.

Down on one of the beaches the sand is noisy underfoot.  The whim of tide and time has sorted the grains, so that all of the sand on Squeaky Beach is of a similar size.  And when they roll over each other – pushed by sliding feet – they squeak in answer to the movement.  Most of the few people who are on the beach can be seen walking, flat footed, in the dry beach top sand.  And the beach squeaks back its answer.

People gather at one end of the beach; human moths drawn to the spectral charm of the still close car park.   With at least a kilometre of beach to choose from people sit within blanket flicked sand range of each other.  Two hundred paces down the beach there are few scuffed footprints and even fewer people.  The shouts of children fade behind me.  The waves hiss over compact sand.  I walk to the far end of the beach to look for sooty oystercatchers.

A trio of these chicken sized birds stands on the waves cleaned rocks at the end of Squeaky Beach.  Waves run up deep gullies between rounded rocks, and the birds seem happy to keep water between them and me.  They have impressive red beaks and a ring around the eye – otherwise they a silky black that holds onto light with a surprising vigour.  In certain lights they can look like bird shaped black holes moving about on an illuminated field, a kind of shadow puppet.  The birds are pushed down onto the un-favoured sand by a passing of a group of walkers.  As the walkers shrink in the distance the birds give up their wave rhythm beach run and fly back to the rocks.  It’s clear where they feel at home.

I leave the birds to their oysters, their rocks and the waves.

Halfway back towards the crowds, a brown blocky shape moves slowly at the angle where the beach turns to dune.   A person stands next to the shape, holding their arms in front of them in strict point and shoot camera stance.  The blocky shape ignores the person.  I sit down a few meters away and the shape ignores me too.

Once a wombat is feeding it may be one of the more single-minded animals in the world.  Fine green blades push up through the pale sand, and the wombat grazes with a surprising intensity for an animal with such a small brain.  A small crowd soon gathers; wombats are the star animals of Wilsons Prom.  Most people do as I have done and sit down to watch.  The wombat ignores the crowd and keeps eating its sandy snack. 

A child – a girl – arrives and slowly walks closer and closer to the wombat, which ignores her.  She holds out her hand in classic “pat the cute animal” stance, and moves forward again.  Remarkably the wombat does not move as she pats it on the back.  More people arrive, and a general feeling of surprise grows at this display of marsupial tolerance.  The girl’s sister and mother arrive and join in the fun – which pushes the wombat over the edge of its tolerance range.  It moves a couple of metres away at surprising speed, stops and beginnings feeding again.  The mother gives each of the girls a bag of carrot sticks, which they start to throw towards the wombat. It completely ignores their gifts, which upsets the girls. They throw the remaining carrots at, rather than to, the wombat, which continues to ignore their offerings.

At this point my blood pressure is only a little above normal.

Now the first girl throws down the empty carrot bag and strides towards the wombat and tries to pick it up.  This is a brave, even foolhardy move, given the relative sizes of the two animals involved.  Unsurprisingly the wombat does not take well to this advance and dashes up a wind blown gouge in the dunes.  Both girls and the mother chase after it!

At this point my blood pressure is rapidly moving into the near fatal region.

My kids arrive just in time to see the wombat turn tail and run into the dunes.  When a nine year old looks at you and says, “Why are they doing that? Are they stupid?” you know that there is some pretty dumb adult behaviour on show.  

I can hear calls of encouragement and squeals of excitement coming from on top of the dunes.  I’m sure none of this noise is coming from the wombat.  I’m at loss what to do.  Challenge the behaviour and risk conflict that will solve nothing.  Ignore the behaviour and walk away feeling like a moral coward.  I tread a middle road and talk to some of the people around me – they are as shocked as me.  One man, my age, but taller, says very little.  I ask him what he thinks – and he says that the “girls are just having fun”.  I say that I would not mind hearing the wombat’s side of things.  For a brief second he smiles, but then he works out that I’m not joking.

He walks away, to be joined by the adult and the two young girls; his wife and kids it seems.  I can’t help but think that some people should watch more TV and play more computer games.  It really would be better for everybody.

There are kangaroos and emus on the way home, but no more wombats.

At the gate off the dirt road I wonder what we would have seen if we had chosen the lighthouse.


Looking for somethings

Northern Cardinal
It probably does no harm to have a plan; to have thought about what you would like to happen, and then, with a plan in place, to do as much as you can to make it happen.  That seems to be a recipe for getting the most out of the bumpy ride that is opportunity, for making sure that what little time you have is well spent.  But too much planning can get in the way of the delightful surprises and shocks that come along to mess up your day in the best and most unpredictable way. Failure to prepare has well known consequences, but over preparation turns you into a clock watching bore and a trip into a timetable.

I had not planned to go to Arizona, so I thought it more necessary than usual to prepare.

It was an opportunity that dropped into my lap in an otherwise work dull morning.  It was a gift horse and appropriately I have no skill or interest in dentistry. Outside my office window it was early autumn, but in Arizona it would be early spring.  And in spring, a young man’s mind turns to thoughts of returning migrants.  Or roadrunners.  Or hummingbirds.  Or something.

Soon my mind was spinning with the possibilities of the things I could see – I discovered that there are in fact two species of roadrunner (three if you include the Warner Brothers creation) and hundreds of species of humming birds.   From this basket clutch of diversity I managed to narrow my aim down to the Greater Roadrunner and Anna’s Hummingbird.  This was the shortest of short lists, but despite my best efforts to think otherwise, Arizona was a work trip not a birding expedition.  I needed to keep things in perspective.  Better a sip of single malt than a bottle of backyard hooch.  Quality over quantity.

It rapidly became clear that identifying a roadrunner would not be much of problem.  This ground living cuckoo looks like very little else on Earth – the resemblance to a skinny chicken is clear and its snake chasing abilities legendary.  If I saw one I was sure I would know what it was.

Broad Billed Hummingbird
Hummingbirds?  Well that would be a horse of another colour.

And colour seemed to be the fundamental problem. As far as I could tell from my rather old guidebook, hummingbirds are basically green, with long beaks and the ability to fly backwards and sideways at high speed.  And they can do this whilst concealing the few distinguishing feathery marks they possess. To be fair, the book did mention differences in throat colour, but that seemed like asking people to differentiate between inevitably red Ferraris by the shape of their wheel nuts – possible in theory, but only ever achievable by fanatics (or my son!). I’ve been a birder of some sort on an off all of my life, but my ability to identify rapidly moving, often disappearing, green blurs is still rudimentary. 

I did not feel confident. I decided I needed professional help.

I am still jet lagged and eating my plastic spoon breakfast when my phone chirps.   Laurens, my guide for the day, is outside my motel in Scottsdale – about half an hour early due to light traffic and an early start.  We talk over what claims to be coffee.  I liberate a couple of breakfast bananas for lunch, grab the small mountain of gear I insist I need, and head for the car. 

Almost immediately the day list starts to grow – grackles in the car park, doves and ravens by the side of the road, and overhead an adult Bald Eagle.  This last bird generates even more interest that a normal eagle sighting – a bird unusually out of place and worth noting. An American kestrel on a roadside wire. Flocks of distant dark birds, which are probably more grackles.  I watch treetops and wire spreads, damp ditches and irrigation canals.  I hope Laurens watches the traffic.  A Great Blue Heron from a roadside pond, its wings, legs and neck tangled and splayed – once it the air it regains some semblance of order, with tucked neck and trailing legs.

The slow tick tock of conversation bounces from seat to seat, as two people who have never met find a shared ground of birds seen and missed, and in the language of habitat and ecosystem.  Birds of a feather, flocking together.  There is no talk of earth energy or crystals.   There is talk of physics and biology, of form and function, cause and effect.  And eventually, inevitably, there is talk of the possibility of hummingbirds and roadrunners.  Which is really talk of probability and chance. The car heads west on roads made familiar by their total newness.  I recognise a few plants from the trip to Sedona and beyond.  My uncertain internal compass, skewed by another change of hemisphere, spins and misses even the cardinal points.  I know the sky is up and the ground is down.  All else is conjecture. I feel lost.  I am pulled back by conversations of home, of things I knew, of places I had been.
Broad Billed Hummingbird
We pull off the road and over popcorn gravel into a car park.  Boyce Thompson Arboretum looks like a garden centre, with pot plants spread on wooden trestle tables, offered for sale.  The compass point spins and spins.  Why are we here?  A charm of lesser goldfinches lifts from the car-side plants, and by the gate a Northern Cardinal, blood red and obvious, feeds on the soft berry seeds of head-high bush.  The question is answered.  The compass point settles. 

The garden beds and pathways are slightly down at heel, but clearly not unloved.  Plants, some labelled, some not, drift over the edges, softening the lines of human design.  Where garden beds meet at corners, damp patches, faint with moss, form. Grackles shuffle peck through the greenery, seeking food, flicking away the unwanted, the inedible.  Dark feathers ripple through black and blue.  Although they are a common bird, they remain undiminished by abundance.  I try to get close enough to take photographs, but the corner shadows resist, placing a black bird in darkness.  I take another two steps forward and immediately lose interest.

A small wooden shade building sits at the meeting of three or four paths.  Around the base of the building are plants heavy with brightly coloured flowers.  Hanging from the roof of the building are small bird feeders, charged with a clear liquid.  And surrounding both are hummingbirds. 

Lots of hummingbirds.

Laurens starts to name the species.  Anna’s.  Coasta’s.  Broadbilled.  Males. Females.  Look left.  Look right.  Just look.  It’s a jump-start kaleidoscope of biodiversity.  Surprising in the extreme and wonderful to behold.  I had seen hummers the day before, but with the exception of a ten second view in Sedona, they had been tree top silhouette, robbed of colour, identifiable only by their remarkable, defining outline.

These birds were alive with colour and speed.  Flying jewels of emerald, with flashes of brightness at throat and tail tip.  Photography was rendered almost pointless by the abundance of possibility.  Where to look? What to focus on?  The buzz of wings behind and to the side, a flicker of fire here and there.  I did not want to see these sights as just more TV, filtered through the eye of the lens.  I just wanted to watch. 
Anna's Hummingbird
The sight of these birds, just a short walk from the car park, and their apparent abundance was surprising in at least two ways.  Firstly it seemed too easy; as if nature had given up a gift with too little work on my behalf.  Surely, such things should only be seen on mountain tops, or deep in the heart of forests, untouched by blade or sharp toothed saw.  This, of course, is nonsense.  Nature is not conscious of any of my efforts, the birds are here for their own purposes alone, and I am nothing more than an obstacle to easy flight.  A mobile, and sometimes scary form in a landscape mapped by food plants and nest sights, with territory edges maintained by hormones, display and bright colours.  The fact that their world and mine overlap is a coincidence for them and a boon for me.

The second surprise runs deeper, all the way back to a flickering black and white TV in a chill house in Somerset.  All the way back to a man in pale trousers and light blue shirts, speaking in hushed whispers about things I would never see.  About whales, wombats and wide-open spaces, red deserts and tall mountains.  About bowers and birds of paradise.  And sometimes, about hummingbirds too.

Such birds seemed impossibly exotic, and frail beyond belief.  How could they fly as they do, migrating away from the cold of the winter, being drawn back by the longer days of spring?  Even on the grey scale TV you could see the frantic energy needed to drink from hanging flowers.  A high-octane lifestyle that I would surely never witness.  But here they were and here I was.  Enchanted.  I could have stayed all day, but the birds moved on in search of sweeter pastures, and so, reluctantly, did I.

And just around the corner it all started again.

This time the birds seemed a little more cooperative; sitting on bush branches while I moved slowly forward, feeding on hanging flowers for more than a second at a time.  Time enough to focus.  Time enough to compose.  Time enough to know I could put the camera to one side, and just watch.  Which is what I did.

We moved off to a small pool, where swallows hawked for insects. American Coots, looking less bald than the ones I am used to, proved that bad-temperedness is a family trait as they chased each other around the weedy edges of the pond.  New birds kept coming – sparrows, wrens, thrashers – but the cup was already full and more became just more again as it overflowed.  I kept seeing hummingbirds and the wonder never ceased.

But finally, something did break through and almost top the bejewelled hummers.  Walking down a path flanked with pale barked gum trees – a vision and smell of home – Laurens stopped to listen.  He had his head tipped to one side, in a pose that favoured sound over sight.  I could hear nothing different, but then my ears were full of unfamiliar sounds.  The familiarity of the trees clashed with the alien soundscape, and I had no idea where to look or what to listen for.  The trees formed a skeleton of familiarity, but the sensory cloth that hung from it was unknown.   With the still head and fast hands of a well practiced watcher Laurens lifted his binoculars to his eyes.  “There!  Vermillion Flycatcher”.  Following his eye line into the treetops there it was.  A patch of pure, blood red colour.  Even when I could see in the field of my own binoculars, and watch its beak open and close, I had difficulty linking the movement to its call.   Photography was next to impossible, too high, too distant, too small.  But the view through the glasses was stunning.  I could but hope that a female unseen in the trees appreciated the show as much as I did.  This was, for me, an unexpected bird, a treat bird, a bird unlooked for.

Anna's Hummingbird

On the way back to the car park it dawned on me that we had not seen any Roadrunners.  Was I disappointed? – well, yes.  But did it concern me? – not really.  On a day of emeralds and rubies, it would have been greedy to ask for more.