Growing up, one of my family’s favorite picture books was Lynne Cherry’s The Great Kapok Tree. It follows a laborer in the Amazon rainforest who, wearied by his toils, naps beneath the tree he’s been hired to chop down. As he sleeps, animals who call the tree home whisper pleas for him to spare it (my father provided full voice casting for the creatures while reading aloud, from the sibilant boa to the slow rumble of a sloth). Despite its simple structure, the story introduces the idea of ecosystems: a single tree can support a vast community of interconnected organisms.
The twenty-year-old tale recently resurfaced in my memory when I visited a park recommended by a birdwatcher colleague. First impressons didn’t promise much: it lay only a few blocks from the urban center, beside a cluster of drab government offices. But a few steps down the trail, the bush swallowed everything. Rabbits, roos, and tangled undergrowth dominated the landscape. A cacophony of bird calls made the air vibrate faintly against my skin. I wandered along the track until the woods opened into a field, where a pair of willie wagtails skimmed over a pond. Agitated chitters pricked my ears, and I caught my breath: the wagtails weren’t alone.
They were scolding a nankeen kestrel, Australia’s smallest falcon. I’ve seen kestrels a few times before—their unique hover-and-plunge hunting technique is hypnotic—but always at a distance. Now I had a ringside seat to a feathery fight. The kestrel’s perch by the pool must have been too close to the wagtails’ nest. When shrill cries didn’t dissuade it, the parents attacked with incredible pluck. Tiny claws drew flinches and hisses from the interloper. Visibly annoyed, it flew off. I charged after it, sprinting through the waist-high grass with my camera held overhead like a spear. Stalks whipped at my legs. Exhilaration soared through my veins with every heightened heartbeat. Is this how my ancient ancestors felt, hunting on the savannah?
Defying snakes and sprained ankles, I followed my quarry in a dizzy loop around the field before the kestrel returned to a stump near the pond. Keeping a tree between us as cover, I crept up and shot through a gap in the foliage. The result was one of my favorite photos from the day; its movement and color capture something ephemeral about my experience with the bird. Blurred edges from my leafy hideout give the impression of watching takeoff from the prey’s perspective.
The kestrel alighted in a tall gum tree, reuniting with its three fledgling chicks. Stubby little wings flapped in anticipation, but when no treats appeared, they resumed basking in the sun. I stifled a delighted squeal. Raptors are an uncommon treat for amateur wildlife photographers, but a good look at the young is rare. If I hadn’t tracked the bird, I might have left without ever spotting these adorably fluffy little predators!
Enthralled, I circled the base of the tree, studying the quiet little family. Then shrieks shattered the somnolent afternoon: a flock of noisy miners chased a magpie across the field towards us. At least eight of them harried the larger bird with the ostentatious aggression of a motorcycle gang stuck on the freeway behind a putzing Prius. Disrupting a friarbirds courtship display in another tree, they dispatched their adversary and alighted in the gum tree to proclaim victory. Solo or in pairs, miners are charming. In large groups, however, they’re hooligans. A startled galah bolted, but the adult kestrel hardly ruffled her feathers when the miners swooped her. Disappointed, they moved through the branches in search of someone else to bother.
Following their antics through my zoom lens, I discovered that the tree housed numerous other bird species. Several pairs of red-rumped parrots nested higher in the canopy. One sat stubbornly in her cavity, refusing to let the noisy fly-by disturb her eggs. Another couple defended their branch with squawks and spread wings. One of the interrupted friarbirds came across to watch with a disapproving ruby eye. Perhaps it was he who sent a sulfur-crested cockatoo to perch near the kestrel chicks with all the ivory-winged serenity of a guardian angel.
Thwarted, the miner gang flew off in search of new amusement. The galah returned, and a pair of eastern rosellas arrived in a blur of rainbow tail-feathers. I stopped photographing and stood transfixed. The diversity of bird life in a single tree astonished me. It was like a whole bird city, with layers of ceaseless activity. None seemed bothered by the carnivorous kestrels’ presence. Maybe the kestrels only hunt rabbits (there were certainly plenty to be had) or maybe the smaller birds have simply made peace with the ecosystem’s mechanics. If I were an ecologist, I’d dedicate a whole study to the unique biome of the Great Kestrel Tree!
And that’s when it struck me. The long-dormant passion for photography I’d rediscovered this past year was less about pure imagery than about illustrating the countless small nature dramas that play amid the self-absorbed daily rhythm of human activity. Like the 35mm film negatives that first taught me the art, these visual narratives display the reverse of the environmental themes in my fiction. My books explore how humans cope with altered nature, and my photographs capture how nature survives the anthropocene epoch.
So I’ve expanded my website to include nature photography. Blog posts like this one will chronicle the stories behind the pictures, while themed galleries will showcase select favorites. I hope you’ll accompany me on my adventures (but if curling up if a book is more your style, don’t worry—I just completed a new novel, so expect news on that soon)!