“You missed my Christmas music concert,” I called jokingly when the door lock clattered in the other room. I’d taken advantage of my Laddie’s absence at a softball game to bang out some carols on the keyboard, sans headphones. Although I still found it hard to muster much holiday spirit in summertime, this year I had a particular reason for cheer. In less than seven days, we would depart for a three-week holiday in New Zealand. I’d been planning it since August. Our itinerary brimmed with adventure: hiking, kayaking, and shamelessly reenacting Lord of the Rings scenes at filming sites. After two years of COVID-constrained travel, I had even justified splurging on a wildlife cruise to the sub-Antarctic Islands. The promise of novel seabirds delighted my photographer’s heart so much that I’d improvised new lyrics for Joy to the World, celebrating nature rather than nativity.
Eager to share it, I bounced into the hall. My Laddie sat on the foyer floor with a thick bandage wound around his knee. Stricken eyes found mine. “I think it’s my ACL.”
Birds flew from my mind as I launched into medic mode. I helped my shaking partner inside, quickly made a physiotherapist appointment, and performed diagnostic tests on his knee with the help of several YouTube tutorials. (My paramedic protagonist in Beat in Her Blood would have been proud!) For the next several days, I held out hope that his sports injury was a simple sprain that would improve with a weekend of rest and ice. But an MRI confirmed our fears: a torn ACL and meniscus. My Laddie could scarcely limp across the house, much less tramp the rugged trails of Aotearoa. With only 72 hours before our flight, he encouraged me to go solo rather than miss the opportunity. His willingness to put my ambitions before his own comfort made my decision clear.
I expected to spend today photographing sunrise over the glacial lakes of Aoraki before striking out for the Otago peninsula’s wildlife colonies. Instead, I’m acting recovery-ward monitor while my Laddie shakes off the aftereffects of surgical anesthesia. And I’m glad of it. If I’d traveled, he wouldn’t have been able to get ACL reconstruction until January. How could I let him spend weeks in unproductive pain while I went on safari? Forsaking New Zealand is a disappointment, no question, but it’s more important to get my birdwatching buddy back on his feet. We still have many more miles to explore together. Our expeditions must will remain local for a while, until he heals, but that doesn’t lessen their value.
Too often, urban residents like me think of nature as external, perhaps confined to a national park, where we travel and stroll through like a living museum exhibit. We forget that it exists all around us. As a reminder of this, I’ve compiled my Top 10 Local Bird Encounters of 2022. Rather than my best wildlife photography, these episodes represent a memorable avian experience within a few miles from home.
When some friends reported southern boobooks nesting in their suburb, I undertook a dusk expedition to observe Australia’s smallest owl. Insect-like chirping sounds emanated from a tree on the corner lot of a residential block. Craning my neck, I squinted up into the boughs. Large golden eyes shone back. Five birds—parents and their three chicks—scampered through the boughs. Darkness made photography challenging, but I didn’t fuss over high ISOs. No picture can capture the thrill of a juvenile owl peering down at me, doing a bouncy dance. When night fell, the family took off for breakfast, gauzy silhouettes against the moon. I watched until a thunderstorm chased me back to my car. As a diurnal creature, I rarely meet my nocturnal neighbors. That rare mingling of worlds made my evening with the boobooks all the more magical.
Gang Gang Family Portraits
The creaky, cork-popping call of gang-gang cockatoos may be common in my backyard park, but I never tire of photographing the charismatic birds. So when I spotted a female on my after-work stroll, I stole closer for a few pictures. Two feathery heads popped out of the cavity behind her: teenaged chicks, a brother and sister. The goofy family portrait mimicked a human holiday card, while the snuggled siblings would have graced any proud parent’s wallet. I’d walked past that tree countless times without suspecting that it concealed a vulnerable bird nursery. Now my eyes linger on it each time, hopeful that more species will thrive in this pocket of urban bush.
Fun With Feathers
A adult male gang-gang cockatoo treated me to one of the most charmingly quirky displays of animal behavior I’d ever witnessed. While grooming, he lost a flight feather…and turned it into a toy. He gnawed it like a cigar, dangled upside down with it, and carried it around the branch like a flag, squawking. I laughed so much that I could barely hold the camera steady. To me, the display seemed comical. But what significance did it hold for the cockatoo? A mourning ritual for a lost feather? Curiosity at exploring a typically unseen element of himself? Simple amusement at a novel object? Beyond the entertaining gags, the gang-gang’s feather dance prompted me to ponder the mysteries of bird brains.
I’m willing to travel for birds, so it’s a treat when the birds travel to me. Oriental dollarbirds winter in New Guinea, returning to Australia for breeding in warmer season. I had only glimpsed them twice, too far away for a decent photo. Elusiveness lent them an aura of fortune, like the gift money in red envelopes that my Chinese aunt used to send on my birthday. “Third time lucky” proved true with this species. My third encounter came shortly after I acquired a 600-900mm zoom lens I affectionately call my “bazooka”. Mounted on a crop-sensor body, it provides an effective range of 900mm. That investment paid off with the dollarbird. I finally got a good look at this handsome voyager, and even captured the coin-shaped white wing patches that inspired its moniker. That lens has been worth every penny. The intimacy it affords with wildlife, and the images it captures, are priceless.
Flying With A Kite
Driving back from our Great Ocean Road Trip, my Laddie and I spotted a striking black-and-white raptor along the highway. But one does not simply pull over on the M1 to birdwatch (like I did on a deserted highway in Queensland). Afterwards, I consulted a field guide and tentatively identified the bird as a black-shouldered kite. Raptors fascinate me, so I particularly lamented the lost addition to my species catalogue. A few months later, it found me. The unmistakable plumage appeared overhead on a walk in my local wetlands. But it was the amber eyes that arrested me. Even from a height, they blazed like the eyes of Horus himself. No camera could truly capture their intensity. That didn’t stop me trying! I sprinted across a field, bazooka lens atop on my shoulder, to follow the kite between perches. It only deigned to spend a few minutes with me before soaring off, but those breathless minutes seemed transcendent. The memory of that searing stare still sends a delicious shiver down my spine.
Horus isn’t the only Egyptian deity represented in my local wetlands. I can’t see white ibises without recalling Thoth, god of science, art, and writing (if a great ancient civilization combined these disciplines, why our insistence on separating STEM from the arts, making a modern educational cult of the former while diminishing the latter?! But I digress…) Sydneysiders snidely dubbed these birds “bin chickens” for their habit of foraging in trash cans (as if habitat loss from human encroachment hadn’t destroyed their natural food sources and driven them to such distasteful extremed! But I digress…) My wetland ibises, at home in a suitable environment, are usually more dignified. But not on a blustery day. Gusts barreled so strongly across the lake that it almost blew these large birds off their branches. They flapped and fumbled for balance. However, my favorite image from the outing is one of stillness. I crouched on the shoreline, trying to photograph an ibis perched on a log in the water. Grass as tall as I was grew along the bank. I couldn’t get my lens over or through the botanical barrier. While I focused on the distant ibis, wind rustled the fronds in the foreground, creating a lovely impressionistic effect. I dare any city snob to tell me that bird isn’t the epitome of elegance, poised in the face of an unsettled atmosphere.
After so much time observing ibises, I knew immediately that the large white bird I spotted while wandering the wetland last month was no “chicken”. It moved too briskly. Creeping closer through the reeds, I gasped at the ivory glory of a royal spoonbill in full breeding plumage. With his lush erectile crest, yellow eye markings, and strutting poses, he reminded me irresistibly of an 80s glam metal star. Ever since seeing them in an A-Z Birds book as a kid, spoonbills and their unique facial utensils have intrigued me. Watching one in the wild felt like that exotic illustration had come to life almost in my own backyard.
Although the wetlands are my go-to spot for birdwatching, my Laddie and I were too lazy to drive there for an after-work walk one afternoon, and opted for an easy loop of a city park instead. It surprised me with a glorious sight: a blossoming shrub that bubbled with silvereyes. Dozens of these sprightly little birds foraged amid the branches. It was a living visual haiku. The moment seduced every sense simultaneously. Floral fragrance wafted around me on a breeze flavored with mineral earth. Damp soil softened my every step. Birds shook the blossoms in a joyous tempest of pink and gold, chirping their passerine conversations. I spent half an hour circling the shrub, enthralled. Everything beyond faded from my awareness, as if I’d been captured in a springtime snowglobe. The silvereyes finally moved off, shattering the spell. But the enchantment lingers. Even now, when headlines about extinction rend my spirit, I remember the silvereye shrub and rekindle hope for nature’s resilience in the most unlikely places.
Every small pond in eastern Australia comes equipped with a grebe. Compact habitats are a photographer’s best chance at capturing these skittish little divers, so I check them every time I pass. On a recent hike, bright morning sun off the water dazzled me too much for a proper inspection. But my Laddie paused, scanning the pond with his ever-observant, laser-corrected eyes.
“Are those grebelets?” he asked.
“Is ‘grebelets’ even a word?” I countered, training my lens where he pointed. Four tiny, striped fluffballs bobbed on the ripples. I squealed. “If it’s not, it should be!”
I spent the next half hour photographing the grebe family. Wildlife biologists frown on anthropomorphizing subjects, but it’s hard not to feel an affinity for such familiar behavior. The chick clambering onto its parent’s wings for a boat ride, only to be plucked off with a beak, recalled my own parents’ groans when teenaged J.K. attempted a piggyback: “ugh, you’re too big for that now!” Mom and Dad would disappear beneath the lilies, resurfacing with minnows to feed the kids. I found their interactions so delightful that I returned a few weeks later, specifically to watch them. The chicks striped were already fading. They dove with more confidence and stretched their stubby wings in anticipation of flight.
The Bush Paparazzi
Spring brought rare visitors to our part of Australia: a nesting pair of glossy-black cockatoos. Two photographer friends had found the birds’ preferred area, and led us on an expedition to see them. We climbed a steep track strewn with wildflowers, ears tuned for the crack of she-oak cones (the only food these glossy gourmets will eat). Halfway to the mountaintop, we spotted them foraging quietly in a tree. Casuarina branchlets veiled them from our cameras. Like bush paparazzi, we staked out the tree at a respectful distance, hoping the cockatoos would move for a clear shot.
They barely stirred. Our lenses wandered in search of nearby subjects. Several kangaroos browsed down the slope. A brown treecreeper hopped up a trunk and disappeared. Then raucous laughter tore through the canopy. Four kookaburras alighted around us, calling as they sailed between perches. Sunlight brought out their gemstone colors, turquoise and copper bright against the green gum leaves. After a few minutes of antics, they flew off. Our photography posse exchanged grins.
“Did you get that?!”
“Yeah, but my lens is so long that I could only fit three of the four in the frame!”
The kookaburras’ antics brought a charming allegro interlude to the languid largo of a warm afternoon.
Lord of the Magpies
Magpies might be among the most common birds in my area, but I never tire of them. Their cleverness, personality, and charming carols have won over both me and my Laddie. Flocks of them often congregate in a nearby park, where play fights and real squabbles turn the grass into a flurry of monochromatic wings. But one day this spring, these sociable birds inducted a new member into their clan. I think it was the granola bar. My Laddie ate one while walking, and the shiny wrapper immediately attracted the attention of several magpies. Even after he tucked the foil in his pocket, the birds followed. Perhaps his black and white outfit gave the impression of a giant magpie, some revered figure from avian myth. When he sat on a bench, they joined him. One perched on the seat adjacent, another on the backrest behind him. A third serenaded him from his feet. Almost a dozen congregated around him. He never fed them, only watched with a boyish grin on his normally stoic face. It was the cutest animal encounter I’ve witnessed since our move to Australia (it even topped feeding kangaroos at a sanctuary in Tasmania).
When my Laddie went for surgery, COVID rules forbade me hanging around the hospital. Rather than stare at my phone and worry, I went for a walk. Magpies toddled around the path. I asked them to watch over my mate during his procedure so that he could visit them again soon. The bird deities graciously answered my prayer. Although he’ll spend Christmas as “Titan Tim” on undersized crutches (the physio didn’t have any tall ones in stock), I look forward to strolling together soon. Walking at ACL rehab pace will give us more opportunities to catch the little marvels in our everyday biome. Our bush parks might not be as postcard-worthy as New Zealand, but I can’t feel too bereft with such a bounty of birdlife in my own backyard!
2 thoughts on “Best Local Bird Encounters of 2022”
Oh, man, I’m sorry about your partner’s knee. Having borked mine a few times, I feel for him– and you, for having to miss the trip!
Love the pictures, *especially* the owls! (I’m of a nocturnal nature, and love me some owls!) Okay, and the magpies. And the kite. And… the pictures, I guess!
Have the best holidays you can! My lady is here at LEAST through Christmas, so we’re both happy with the holidays. Her boss is SUPER-AWESOME, and will keep her off the schedule as long as possible, MAYBE even through New Year’s, if the new hires all work out.
Stay safe, stay sane, and enjoy!
Thanks for the kind wishes! The patient is recovering well. Having to cancel our trip is definitely a bummer, but what can you do? (Bird)sh*t happens. After our wild ride moving overseas during a global pandemic, we’re pros at making the best of non-optimal situations. We’ve still got each other, plenty of festive food, and an adorable mudlark who visits the porch to eat bugs off my potted plants. May you and your lady enjoy a very merry holiday and a happy new year!