It’s Birdlife Australia’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count this week, something that’s been going for quite a few years. You download an app and then, every day if possible, you stand outside and note the number and type of birds you see in a twenty minute period. It’s a brilliantly simple app, too, that adjusts to wherever you live, so that if you think you’ve seen something unlikely in your region then it’ll offer suggestions of what it might actually be. The whole idea is to keep track of the changing bird population as droughts and climate changes pushes some to different areas, and others to extinction. This is just a few weeks after another competition when Birdlife Australia teamed up with the Guardian newspaper to find Australia’s most popular bird. The perky Superb Fairy Wren won the day and I swear the little group of them that spends the day close to my house were louder and more cocky the day the winner was announced.
Living in Australia, I’ve become pretty good at identifying birds, although there’s plenty more to learn. Since moving to the country, most mornings I wander through our place with my binoculars just to see what’s happening. Today, for instance, there was a big flock of corellas down by the road, eating the few remaining nuts on the pecan trees. They’re like a small cockatoo without the flamboyant crest and they have a very distinctive, wavering call. They used to be more of a desert bird and if you go way out west, somewhere like Broken Hill, then you’d find vast flocks of them. But with a shifting climate and prolonged droughts, that’s all changing. There’s been a resident flock near my place in Sydney for well over a decade now.
Today I also noted the Pied Butcherbird’s nest, a rather wonky arrangement high in a jacaranda tree. Each day I’ve been watching how diligently each parent waits for the other to arrive with food before leaving to search for more. The two chicks are now quite large and today I saw them flapping their little wings so I expect they’ll be off soon. It just fills my heart to see them doing so well. The Pied Butcherbird has the most melodious, fluting call, the sound of the Northern Rivers region, and they follow you around whenever you mow the grass, diving down to grab a tiny lizard. I once saw one even take a rat.
Nearer to the house, I heard a new sound and saw a couple of little birds darting among the purple flowers of another jacaranda tree. They were brown birds with long, curving beaks designed to probe tubular flowers for nectar. A quick flick through my bible, The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, and I find that they are, in fact, the rather unimaginatively named Brown Honeyeater. There are plenty of brown birds in Australia and these had a tiny yellowish spot close to their eye, making them easy to identify. The way they flitted through the jacaranda flowers was as graceful and delicate as hummingbirds.
The annual Bird Count does a great job of encouraging you to really notice your surroundings, whether from an inner city balcony or a place in the country. It’s a wonderful exercise in mindfulness, heightening your awareness and making you realise that everywhere is simply filled with life. Yesterday, I sat on the front step, app open in my hand. I was expecting to find it hard to keep up, given we have such an abundance of birds here, but just as the ache disappears the moment you step into the doctor’s surgery, so the birds seemed to do a disappearing act. In fact it was a full five minutes before anything showed its face. In the end I managed the usual suspects – magpies, ibis, finches – but the moment the twenty minutes ended, a gorgeous Red-backed Fairy Wren dipped into a nearby birdbath, a crimson Mistletoe bird flitted past, and doubtless a flock of condors did acrobatics overhead (okay, not likely). But that’s the thing with nature – it’s a happenstance thing and doesn’t do what we want it to do when we want it to do it. And for that, each morning, I am truly grateful.
What’s the best twenty minutes of your day?