Chasing birdsong

Chasing birdsong

Birds have been in my life for as long as I can remember, as my parents were avid birdwatchers. My early memories are of being taken on long bushwalks, and being frequently hushed and halted as my father held up a cautionary finger to make us three girls stop dead in our tracks. The almost unrelenting boredom was mitigated by my eldest sister’s parodying of the elusive bird calls, with her ironic droll repetition of ‘tweety, tweety, tweet’. My other sister and I would attempt to stifle giggles, as my father earnestly cocked his ear to the bird songs while hissing angrily at us to be quiet. Eventually he would plunge forward through the bush, swearing because the bird had flown, and we chirruped merrily.

These bushwalks were interspersed with long vigils at dams and other watercourses, as my parents trained their binoculars on far-away waterfowl while we sat and waited in the burning sun. They never seemed to suffer from the boredom and hot fatigue of waiting, watching and peering into the far distance that we did. They could sit for what seemed like hours, breathlessly whispering, ‘Darling, I think it’s a Pink-eared Duck’ or ‘Surely not a Musk Duck, out here?’ and other enraptured exclamations.

Josie as a child. Image: Josie McSkimming

My father even went through a phase of recording bird calls on a tape recorder, followed by his flat commentary intoning, ‘Brown Songlark, Mudgee, 1969’. After my mother said he sounded like Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone, even he couldn’t bear the sound of his increasingly flat vowels. He then invited me as a spirited nine-year-old to provide the voiceover for these barely audible, amateur bird recordings. We still have those cassettes of my cheery younger self, explaining with mock excitement, ‘Ground Lark, Bathurst, 1969’.

Strangely, this inauspicious introduction to birds has left me as an adult with an almost spiritual enthrallment with the activity of watching, identifying and tallying birds in locations all over Australia. My interest began when I was a young adult and peaked when I went on an overland trip of the Simpson Desert. To encounter the most exquisite birds, such as the Crested Bellbird and Bourke’s Parrot, in what appeared an unforgiving landscape allowed me to meld the earth with the fauna, experiencing a transportation into imagination. It was no accident that this trip occurred the year after my eldest sister died, and I was deeply grieving.

The Australian poet, Dorothy Porter, and her sister, Josie. Image: Josie McSkimming

When Dorothy (Doddy, as I called her) was dying in hospital nearly ten years ago, I took her on a guided meditation through one of our earliest childhood walks in Blackheath, New South Wales. We marvelled at brilliant Crested Shrike-tits, impossibly lovely Beautiful Firetails and cheerful, hopping blue wrens as we walked the path together. We heard the beauty of the Golden and Rufous Whistlers, and wondered at the varying songs of the Grey Butcherbird. I treasure this imaginary walk we undertook together, remembering that after she died she believed, as the ancient Egyptians did, that our souls return as birds. When I now see the streak of green Rainbow Lorikeets or hear the bell-like tinkling of King Parrots, I wonder which bird she inhabits, or whether she is sailing on a comet beyond our galaxy somewhere, heading off to discover the extraterrestrial life she dreamed of.

In my current day-to-day life as a psychotherapist, for stress management I practice yoga and meditation and I do believe in the healing power of the breath. But to truly relax, replenish and release pent-up trauma from my whole body, there is nothing that compares to birdwatching. For me, there is no activity so spiritual, engrossing and distracting as being engaged in the beauty of birds’ private lives.

Josie’s granddaughter refers to the Regent Honeyeater as ‘Grandma’s Honeyeater’. Image: Josie McSkimming

Everywhere I go, I’m looking and seeing birds living their lives unobserved by almost everyone else. Even in intensely urban landscapes, I see Nankeen Kestrels, Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Red-browed Finches, Spotted Pardalotes and of course kookaburras, currawongs and cockatoos. My heart beats with joy at the sight of a figbird or Spangled Drongo on the wire that no one else has seen, or a Golden-headed Cisticola singing her little heart out while people around me remain plugged into their phones, oblivious, uncaring.

My plan at this stage of my life is to come back as a Regent Honeyeater. My granddaughter calls it ‘Grandma’s Honeyeater’, and I have never been paid a greater compliment. At the very least, I hope that seeing this bird after I’m dead may give my family some joy and calm. We must never let it, or any other of Australia’s matchless birds, become extinct.

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