Interspecies Travel: A Wide-Eyed Wander in the Wetlands

Halting on the red dirt trail, I squinted against the brightening sky. It had been overcast when I left on my Saturday long run, but now sunshine leaked through the dawn clouds. I should have brought my sunglasses! Or, having completed my mileage, I could switch to an entirely different type of lens. After a season of uncharacteristically rainy weather, a few dry hours presented a welcome opportunity to get out with my camera. Still in my sweaty workout gear, I popped down to a favorite birding spot at the local wetlands. I mostly wanted to experiment with some camera functions (having learned photography on film cameras, I still have much to learn about the technical aspects of DSLRs). But outings with low expectations are often when nature deigns to delight us.

A few steps from the carpark, I saw a pair of red-rumped parrots feasting on using a chain-link fence to access seedy grass. A clever adaptation: the high stalks would have been difficult for the bird to reach or bend, but perching on the wire afforded an easy seat at the table! The parrots climbed the wire using beaks and claws. Maybe it’s the science fiction writer in me, but the image held a hint of dystopia: a rusty metal barrier unable to hold back nature, overgrown with foliage that sustains jewel-toned wildlife.

Traversing a woodland section towards the pond, a chorus of birdsong drew me down a side path. The undergrowth seethed with small birds! I counted at least five different species. Scrub and fairy wrens and scampered through the undergrowth. Had I stepped into one of those cheesy Disney movies where birds flock about the princess in an enchanted forest and sing with her? “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere… ” Before I could launch into my solo, this tiny thornbill seized a starring role in the musical. Amazing that this diminutive puffball can produce such a loud, robust buzzing sound! He sang a rhythmic bass line to the high reed and string melodies of the other birds.

The trees gave way to an open grassland cut, and a much quieter fairy wren perched among dense reeds. He was too distant for my usual close-framed portraiture, but one of the camera techniques I’d intended to explore was journalistic shots that capture the bird’s environment. The result pleased me with its geometry and limited color palette. A few red-browed finches flew overhead as I moved around the reed bed, and perched in a tree surrounded by wattles. I waited, hoping they’d move to the yellow blossoms for an attractive picture. They did something better: descended to the grass and began plucking seeds. Lighter than the parrots, they could sit directly on the stem to feed. Fronds waved back and forth between us with each breath of wind. It took several shots, and a quick shutter finger, to catch one unobstructed.

A silvereye that had tagged along with the finch flock stayed in the tree. Dangling upside-down from a branch, it stretched out to grab the top of a grass stalk, pulled the whole thing back to its perch, and snacked on the seeds. Silvereyes have often charmed me with their sprightly feeding antics, butI’d never witnessed this funny “fishing” behavior before!

I left the birds to their brunch and started around the pond. A white-faced heron preened on the bridge. I couldn’t continue without going past, so I approached slowly, trying not to startle the bird. It let me get almost close enough to touch. Plumage that seemed flat grey at a distance revealed a lush bouquet of textures, on a color spectrum from white to blue to mauve. Not all the heron’s ablutions looked so dignified. It scratched its face like a dog, combing up a mohawk of head feathers. Awkward unilateral stretches of wings and legs gave it the aspect of an uncoordinated yoga student. When it finally removed to a nearby fence, it lifted his tail and squirted a liquid stream of dung that landed splat in the stream. I suppose I wouldn’t flatter myself, either, if some nosy photographer intruded on me getting ready for work in the morning!

The stream led me to a family of black swans. Mom and Dad raised their necks in the long grass, forming a bizarre mirrored image. I kept a respectful distance and crouched where I could watch their chicks grazing. Next time I’m having a bad day, I’ll look at this photograph of cygnets eating clover: it’s like a visual happy pill. Once they’d nibbled their fill, their parents herded them back into the water and sailed off through the pink water ferns. Unlike some types of algae, it’s an indicator of good ecosystem health. It also makes for pleasantly unusual colors in wildlife photos.

Rosy aquatic plants made a dramatic backdrop for a star appearance. A large white bird waded through the pond: I assumed it was one of the resident ibises, an ideal subject for experimenting with exposure compensation on pale feathers. But it moved more briskly than the “bin chickens” I’d so often observed there. Creeping closer, I caught my breath: it was a royal spoonbill. I first saw a member of this species in May, when we stopped to walk along Lake Colac on our long drive back from the Great Ocean Road. Clad in simple monochrome, he’d put away his pompadour for the season.

This dandy, by contrast, was dressed to impress. He strutted around like a rock star with a lavish crest and vivid yellow eyeliner. (The erectile neck feathers are called the “nuchal crest”. Both sexes have them, but males sport longer ones, up to 20cm. It can go from greaser to fro in seconds.)  And like a rock star, he’d won a camera-toting groupie who followed him around the shoreline, captivated. Observation quickly taught me his feeding pattern, which let me anticipate his movement. When he paused in sweeping his flared beak for food, I’d crank up the shutter speed and fire off a burst as he fly-hopped to a new spot.

I finally peeled the viewfinder from my face and made myself appreciate the spoonbill with unaided eyes. The magnificent being that had consumed my awareness for the past half-hour shrank on the landscape’s stage. Open space left me almost dizzy. Marsh grass swept past the pond, towards the city skyline peeking over the trees beyond. I blinked against a slight disorientation, similar to what I’ve sometimes experienced getting off a long plane flight: the sensation of being transported without feeling like I’ve moved.

Arriving Australia in mid-2020, border restrictions have denied me the ambitious travel I’d once hoped to pursue. Yet my local parks have kept me enthralled for more than two years. They might not be as exotic as the tourist hotspots, but immersing myself briefly in other creatures’ lives is a form of travel. I’ve sang in the bracken with the wrens; soared across the wetlands on a heron’s wings; nestled in the clover with swan cygnets; and hunted the shallows beside a spoonbill. Those intimate interspecies journeys have left greater impressions on me than any change of geography.

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