I still remember the first time I ever saw a red-capped robin. It was in the mid-90s, and the bird was in the garden of my parents’ holiday house about 45 minutes inland from the New South Wales Far South Coast town of Bermagui. It should not have been there.
Red-capped robins are inland birds: among Australia’s ‘red’ robins in the genus Petroica they fill the semi-arid niche, taking over in the inland zones from their more coastal, tree-loving cousins the scarlet robins and flame robins. On a trip to the Mallee in the north of Victoria four years ago I saw them everywhere. There are one or two places in Melbourne, where I live now, where you can reliably see them, but those birds are the exception rather than the rule. But birds are highly mobile, and when conditions are bad in one place they’ll readily up stumps and relocate. Twitchers—that subset of birdwatchers ready to drop everything and travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres for a rare sighting—often follow the birds: reports filter out through word-of-mouth, or on the internet, and tours are organised, petrol is bought, binoculars are packed, and away they go.
There’s a piece of birdwatching vernacular for a bird that turns up way out of its range: it’s called a ‘mega’. In Victoria, 2018 has been a year of megas. It started in summer with an influx of scarlet honeyeaters: common up the east coast of Australia but rarely making it further south than the NSW border, suddenly they were popping up all over Victoria, with dozens of reports in Melbourne alone. The Victorian birdwatching community was delighted. Then peaceful doves started appearing: less conspicuous and far less numerous than the honeyeaters, but several reports over a period of a couple of months from various bits of Melbourne parkland. The call of these small doves was a familiar part of my family’s Christmas-time drives from Canberra to Adelaide when I was a child: I associate it with searing heat and blinding sun and searching for a patch of shade to eat lunch under by the Murray River.
Western gerygones—tiny, inconspicuous tree-foraging birds with a beautiful song—have become a fixture in inner Melbourne this year. In the last couple of months barn owls have been turning up everywhere in the city. A spangled drongo—more commonly seen in northern New South Wales and in Queensland—turned up in Rhyll on Phillip Island, of all places. In just the last week a black-eared cuckoo has been seen hanging around Royal Park right next to the Upfield train line when it should be happily munching on caterpillars somewhere around Mildura.
It’s happened regularly enough this year for there to be a familiar pattern: a report on Facebook, usually with accompanying photo, followed by a buzz of excited or astonished comments and ‘reactions’—the ‘wow’ react, the ‘love’ react—and congratulatory comments to the lucky birdwatcher, accompanied by calls to attention for others who might not have seen the post. Before you know it, a usually quiet suburban park is filled with eager birdwatchers dangling cameras and binoculars around their necks. I’ve been one of those birdwatchers on one or two occasions—I don’t consider myself a twitcher, but I’m not above getting excited by an unusual bird. I saw a young square-tailed kite that was hanging around inner Melbourne a few months ago and the site of it soaring in over the trees of Royal Park Golf Course, huge and trailed by the alarm calls of agitated smaller birds, is something I’ll have burned into my mind’s eye for many years to come.
But the reactions of birdwatchers to all these sightings, at least in public forums such as Facebook, don’t usually extend beyond the incredulous and the joyous. All birdwatchers want to see birds, obviously, and we all want to see birds that we haven’t seen before and might never see again so close to home. But most of us don’t want to think about why these strange birds keep turning up.
On Wednesday last week the NSW government announced that the entire state—100% of it—was in drought. As of the 1st of August 57.4% of Queensland had been declared as being in drought. The Bureau of Meteorology states that last month was the driest July Australia has experienced since 2002. In May, the BoM predicted a dry winter ahead for Victoria, and here in Melbourne I’ve bitten my tongue when I’ve heard friends and passers-by rhapsodise about the beautiful weather: sunny and dry. We still value weather by the level of physical comfort it provides us rather than whether it provides what the land needs. When rain has fallen in Melbourne these past few months it’s fallen all at once, in almighty downpours that flood rivers and creeks and don’t do much to replenish groundwater. Then it’s back to sunshine.
Meanwhile, unusual birds keep turning up, and all us birdwatchers get excited. In 2015 Jonathan Franzen—these days as famous for being a birdwatcher as he is for being a writer—was roundly criticised for an article in the New Yorker in which he noted, among other observations, that climate change might increase the diversity of North American birdlife, but he was articulating a kind of uncritical ‘look-on-the-bright-side’ mentality that many birdwatchers seem to have but prefer to leave unspoken. When the black-eared cuckoo turned up in Royal Park, I commented on the Facebook post in which it was first reported to ask if anybody else was worried about the implications of this latest arrival. A few people replied that they were, but I felt like the guy who calls the police on a party the instant the clock strikes midnight. The next day brought more photos and reports as people began to ‘twitch’ the cuckoo.
But I’m a worrier, and I can’t help worrying about what it all means: what does it mean when a thirsty, desperate bird turns up hundreds of kilometres out of its usual range? What does it mean when each year is hotter and drier than the year before it, and all we can find to say about it is, ‘Wow look at this amazing bird that’s never been seen here before’? We live in a time when human impact on the non-human world has never been greater, and you’d think and you’d hope that birdwatchers—people who spend often every spare minute and dollar they have on looking for and looking at birds in the wild—would be more concerned about the state of the natural world, and more attuned to the immense changes being wrought upon it by human action, than most other people.
But birdwatchers, of course, are just people, and most of all what people want to do is get on with their lives in peace and quiet and do the things that make them happy. That usually precludes worrying about the state of the world. Birdwatchers are eager to vigorously debate the ethics of playing recordings of bird songs to entice territorial birds into the open, or the ethics of intrusively observing active nests, or the ethics of getting so close to a bird that it raises its crest or opens its wings or performs some other threat-gesture that makes for a particularly good photo. But the ethics of celebrating the arrival of a bird whose very presence indicates an environment in terrible trouble is something we’d rather not think about. If we stop to think about the dire state of the environment then that environment may stop being a salve to us in difficult times.
To be a salve to stressed-out humans is a luxury that the environment can no longer afford to give us. We need to do better by it than just view it as a pretty backdrop for a day away from work. Which is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t take solace in it—but if we want any semblance of that natural world to still exist next year, or the year after that, or the decade after, or the century after, then we need to also force ourselves to be aware of what’s going on in the environment, and what’s going wrong. After all, for every bird that can open its wings and fly away from a collapsing environment there’s a mammal or a reptile or a fish or an insect or a plant that’s stuck exactly where it is.
It’s not enough any more to just look at the birds. We need to see their worlds, too.
Harry Saddler is a writer based in Melbourne. His writing is focused in particular on the interactions between people and animals. His book The Eastern Curlew is out now through Affirm Press.