The farmhouse has sugarcane fields on three sides and a cane train track opposite. As we turn off the old Bruce Highway, our son Joe opens the gate and the dog runs barking to greet us.
Later, we stand in the yard and talk, watching evening fall over the mountains as our grandsons have a final play on the swings. A cane train rumbles by. Flocks of starlings swoop down and settle on the grass, then fly off to the power lines. The air is full of birdcalls and the whooshing sound of the breeze in the cane fields, as constant as waves on a beach.
One birdcall is insistent – the chatter of willy wagtails. Above the front door is a tiny, round nest, with three pointed beaks sticking over its rim. The wagtails have babies. The parents are chattering to warn off potential threats.
Like everyone else in Queensland, I’ve known birds all my life – pelicans, crows, magpies, pee-wees and rainbow lorikeets – but it wasn’t until I was older that I began to take an interest. Bird-watching is one of those hobbies, like family history, that comes upon us as we have leisure to take notice of the smaller, less urgent things in life.
Years ago, I bought a Simpson and Day bird book, now stained and worn. Swamp hens and crested pigeons, honeyeaters and wattlebirds, apostle birds and blue-faced honeyeaters, spangled drongos and the common koel: now we know them all, by sight and by their calls.
One of my favourites, and one of the prettiest, quirkiest and most commonly-seen, is the crested pigeon, that stripy, colourful bird with pink feet and a jaunty crest of feathers on its head that walks around making soft whoops, and when disturbed takes off with a creaking, metallic sound in its wings.
The Simpson and Day has become our travel log, reminding us that in Halls Gap we saw a spotted pardalote, and when walking out to Nobby’s Head, Newcastle, we came across a flock of ruddy turnstones, pecking among pebbles on the shoreline.
We see interesting birds everywhere on our regular road trips. Everywhere, that is, except in those temperate climate towns that have filled their parks and gardens with exotic trees – liquidambers, oaks, poplars, willows, plane trees – and cleared out all the eucalypts. They’re beautiful in autumn, those foreign trees, but our native birds don’t like them. In those towns, sparrows and Indian mynahs are often the only birds to be seen.
Now, waking up on our first morning, I listen to the hissing whistle of old friends – tiny, beautiful, blue and yellow sunbirds.
I also hear unfamiliar calls – bell-like whistles and cheeps. Con and I take a stroll down the cane train track and spot, perched on long fronds of grass, the birds making those mysterious sounds – beautiful little fellows with orange chests and black and white stripes. Chestnut-breasted mannikins.
We’re excited, but Joe snorts in disgust.
He regards bird watching as an old people’s habit, involving irritating language and sudden halts to stare at the sky or peer into the undergrowth, mutterings about crested shrike-tits, or white-browed babblers.
“Hear that che-che-che?” I ask Joe. “That’s a crimson finch!”
He grunts and returns to his on-line news stream.
I could tell him about a chiming wedgebill we heard in a car park at Shark Bay, Western Australia. It said, “Why did you get drunk?” just as the bird book told us it would. Joe wouldn’t want to know.
He can’t help liking the willy-wagtails, though, being a new parent himself. Mother and father bird are on duty all day long, bringing insects back to the nest to feed those three wide-open little beaks, and angrily hunting away anyone or anything that comes near the nest.
A couple of days later they move their three fuzzy babies out of the nest and into a shrub near the front fence. Next morning, in spite of all the protection and feeding, there are only two babies to be seen; and the next day, just one. The predators of the cane fields have been busy.
In the evening, we take a walk again, down the headland between the cane fields. A pigeon flies over, and Con turns his binoculars to the sky. “It’s a bronzewing!” he says with pleasure.
From deep in a scrub-filled gully, we hear the familiar, dying-away “Woop woop woop woop woop” of a pheasant coucal.
I’ll send Joe a bird book of his own. He won’t use it, but we grandparents will, whenever we visit. And we’ll show our little grandsons some of the interesting and beautiful creatures that surround us everywhere in Australia, whether we notice them or not.