Funny things happen when society is caged in. Some turn to religion, some watch Netflix, some bake bread, and some people look at the sky. Has anyone else been noticing birds everywhere, like never before? Pre-pandemic they were as arbitrary as street lights, but now every time I step onto my balcony I'm searching and listening for my friends.
I thought perhaps the slowed traffic and industry were encouraging colourful green parrots back into my neighbourhood in Newcastle West, but Birdlife Australia ecologist Mick Roderick thinks it's because we've had more time to observe and also the recent flowering of the spotted gum trees in the region. These trees provide a huge nectar flow and only bloom every three-to-four years, bringing in the honeyeaters like the lorikeets I've been spotting.
"There's a lot of birds in Australia that feed almost exclusively on nectar. In other parts of the world where the forest are dominated by conifers, there's not as much nectar. Look at all the honey and gum trees, banksias, grevilleas, bottlebrushes. Australia has a wealth of nectar-producing plants and a lot of nectar-feeding animals," he says.
He reckons people are seeing more rainbow and musk lorikeets around, but also these birds stand out.
"There could be an influx of ducks, you wouldn't notice. These birds are more obvious, people hear them. If you do live in a suburb like Rankin Park [Newcastle] that has a lot of spotted gum trees, you'll definitely notice that they're around," he says.
Local landcarer Julia Brougham said birds are hard to appreciate from far away.
"Birds fly past very quickly, you don't see them in great detail," Brougham says." If you can look at a bird closely, even the noisy miners, there is the most exquisite pattern in their feathers that people don't [usually] see."
She's not just a bird watcher, she also a member of the Hunter Wildlife Rescue. Like her father, Jan Stephanus Joubert, she's always loved all animals, including birds. She remembers returning to Australia via ship after living in South Africa. She was five years old.
"Mum could never understand it. Dad is South African; he was a seaman, so when we came back to Australia, dad and I could stand by the side of the ship. He'd hold out something treaty that the seabirds would like to get. Mum was able to poke the camera out; we've actually got a snap of me and dad by the ship. That would have been 72 years ago," she says.
Brougham returned to Australia where she lived in Western Australia and South Australia. In 2002 she moved to Newcastle. A longtime member of the Kooragang Wetlands volunteer program Friends of the Schoolmasters House, she says that you can spot over 200 species of birds at Ash Island and the Hexham swamp.
The Schoolmasters house is the historic cottage once home to the headmaster of the local Ash Island school. Here Brougham and other volunteers stopped a family of magpies from swooping by feeding them handfuls of shredded cheese. They also had masked lapwings, (often referred to as plovers) which are known for laying their eggs in strange places.
Roderick thinks one of the tricks to getting people to conserve wildlife is simply by demonstrating its magnificence.
"I'm really keen on trying to promote not just birds but nature-based activities, getting people to read the cues in nature. [For example] if you see all these insects arriving on your windscreen, I think just trying to learn from nature and trying to understand gives us a better appreciation. People take nature for granted, don't see it, even see it as an obstacle. People say 'why are you trying to save that bird?' It comes back to a moral thing in a way," he says.
Local environmentalist George Woods remembers specifically the time in her life when she started noticing birds. It was after a dear friend died of cancer.
"I was spending a lot of time at the rock platform behind the ocean baths, a terrific spot for birds," she says. "They were just there. Like they had been there all the time. I was in the right quiet slow frame of mind to observe them."
She spotted birds like whimbrels, ruddy turnstones, sooty oystercatchers and gannets.
"It's surprising to think I wasn't noticing them. That was when I decided I wanted to buy binoculars," she says.
It takes a while to train your eye to notice them. She loves crested terns and lyre birds and many more. She enjoys the mourning and hopeful song of the butcher birds and the turquoise eyes of the little cormorant. She explained how different birds play different rolls in the ecosystem. Some pollinate flowers. Raptors and eagles eat small animals. Seed eaters spread seeds. Some birds, like the lyre bird, help suppress fire by scratching the ground and burying forest and leaf litter while speeding up decomposition.
Roderick said threat levels go from vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and then extinct.
Woods is concerned about endangered birds in the region including little terns and pied oystercatchers.
Australia has three bilateral migratory bird agreements with Japan, China, and the Republic of Korea which provide a basis for cooperation on activities for the conservation of migratory birds that move between each country.
Despite these agreements, Woods worries migratory shorebirds, particularly in the Hunter estuary are not as protected as they should be. She mentioned vulnerable powerful owls in the suburbs of Lake Macquarie which need hollows in the trees to nest
"Anything that needs hollows to nest often end up on the endangered list," she says.
Swift parrots are another example of birds which need hollows, Roderick explains. They breed in Tasmania and then in autumn and winter they migrate up to the mainland, some as far north as the Sunshine Coast.
Roderick knows this because he and his volunteers regularly search for them. Right now there are still around 2000 swift parrots in the wild, but they're listed as critically endangered. They're endangered because invasive sugar gliders have invaded their breeding hollows in Tasmania, eating their eggs and killing the females.
"Sugar gliders are cute and cuddly iconic Australian mammal; we've messed up the ecosystem. It's not their fault; they're just looking for a food source," he says.
Woods suggests anyone interested in birds should join birding clubs and also download The Great Backyard Bird Count app which allows you to record the birds you see. The data collected assists BirdLife Australia in understanding more about the birds that live where people live.
Poet singer songwriter Clark Gormley has an app on his phone to help him identify bird sounds.
"It's Morcombe's Birds of Australia. It has every bird in Australia on it, and you can narrow it down to which part of Australia you're in. It's got pictures of all of them and then it's got the calls. You can actually play the call and the birds respond. You're not supposed to, but I have done it with a cat bird once and they went absolutely bananas," Gormley says.
Australia has over 800 species of birds and on the apps you can track the number of birds you see. So far he's counted 50 different species, but he's sure he's seen more. He occasionally goes out to the wetlands to see them.
He recommends the Stockton Sandspit just north of the bridge to see bird migrating.
"It's a bit of mud really. I don't know why, it's quite close to industry. It's one of the best spots in NSW for migratory birds," Gormley says.
He's particularly interested in the channel billed cuckoos, which you can spot in suburban Newcastle.
"They fly down from southeast Asia in the summer. They're not a shore bird, they go over quite a bit of Australia. It's massive. It doesn't have its own nest; it'll nest in someone else's nest. They literally lay their egg when a magpie's out hunting. The magpies will raise it. The magpies will die from having to work so hard to get this thing food," he says.
(The Asian Koel Cuckoo is another cuckoo you can spot in Newcastle doing this.)
He's also a member of the Hunter Birds Observer group, of which Roderick is vice president. Roderick reckons is a great place to start if you want to get involved with birds.
Everyone seems to agree, once you understand how magnificent birds are, the easier it is to want to protect them.
On the topic of bird keeping Roderick reckons there's a big difference between someone who has a budgie in the cage in the corner and a bird keeper who spends a lot of time with the animals.
"I don't keep birds, and I wouldn't like to. I guess that's because I'm so into wild birds; I love that they fly. I'm not parking any judgement. In our Hunter Birds Observer Club, our interest is wild birds. In our club there's a definite subset who also keep birds. Often it's a family thing. They've become interested in birds via bird keeping," he says.
He adds that it's important to know about the birds you keep so you know to feed them the right diet.
Brougham has rescued a few birds of her own and occasionally kept them as pets in her home in Mayfield. She cared for a magpie, Magsy for about 11 months until it was nursed back to health and flew away.
She currently has a fig bird she got over six years ago. Her name is Lucky.
"She was a fledgling with a parent; we heard a monster noise in a tree, noisy mynas. She came falling out of the bottom of the tree, bleeding with the broken shoulder," she says.
Lucky survived but she can't fly and her molted tail never regrew.
Jewelry maker and self-proclaimed "crazy bird lady" Caitlin Lee has seven birds at her home and she thinks they're so beautiful to look at. She loves the colours and how different they are. She has galahs, alexandrines, a kakariki (New Zealand bird) and cockatoos.
The love came from her father, Peter who owned and bred a few of them. She loves to let them fly around her house.
"They have a personality people don't understand unless they're a bird person. I'll have a bird on my shoulder kissing and smooching and cuddling while we're on the couch. They do interact with you; they aren't just sitting in a cage," she says. "You can teach them to play fetch."
Most of her birds are rescues. She brought them in after multiple failed attempts to find their owners working with vets, RSPCAs and posting on social media.
She knows that not everyone loves the idea of owning birds.
"It's a tough subject, that one. A lot of people are of the opinion they don't belong in cages. Yes that's true, (but) there are so many species that wouldn't exist if they didn't go into captivity," she says.
While honeyeaters are the most common family of birds in Australia, the Regent Honeyeater is the rarest and most endangered. It also happens to be one of Roderick's passions. Critically endangered, 350 mature birds are estimated to be all that are left in the wild, ranging from Melbourne to Brisbane.
"When it was first noticed to be declining in numbers the population estimate was 3,000 and that was in the late 90s. That few of birds across such a large range makes it a very challenging bird to work with," he says.
Roderick is full of anecdote and facts, and upon writing this I've discovered everyone I know has an interesting story about birds. In these months of reflection, I've discussed birds like cassowaries, woodpeckers, emus, ostriches, peacocks, flamingos and humming birds. These creatures are fascinating, but rarely do most of us take time to think about or observe them. By simply paying attention, folks like Roderick, Broughan, Woods, Gormley and Lee are sparking compassion and care for the natural world. As we all adapt to uncertainty, l have found great comfort in looking up.
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
IN THE NEWS:
- Lions attack Shoalhaven zookeeper, woman in critical condition
- Approved 13-bedroom house not to be used for short-term letting
- Newcastle mum Cassie Johnston in the fight of her life as she battles clear cell sarcoma
- Hunter Indigenous leaders say still a fair way to go on road to reconciliation
- Newcastle art gallery, libraries start to reopen but museum stays shut
- Opinion: Through sands of time, the evidence is clear on Stockton Beach