Friday, September 21, 2007

Coucals and Cockatoos

Wooom, Ooom, Wooom Ooom, Wooom Ooom. The sound echoes back and forth across the trail. Two native pheasants or Coucals are signalling. They seem shy but their song is insistent. When I read the bird book I learn such interesting things about them, especially about how they fly (clumsily) and how construct their nests (painstakingly).

'The male and female climb high in trees, break off small leafy branchlets and let them drop to the ground. Then they drag the branchlets across the ground through the undergrowth to the nest site.' (Frith, 1976:301). They reach the top of the trees by going backwards and forwards from one tree to another, slowly gaining height. Then they glide back down. Back on earth they construct their nest from the pile of leaves and twigs they've collected, and when that's done, they grab some more leaves and branches from the surrounding vegetation, pulling them down to form a roof over their new home. The birdbook also tells me that: 'Newly hatched pheasant coucals are a startling sight.' I will keep a look out.

Not far from the booming voice of the Coucals I spy Willie Wagtail on a low eucalypt branch overlooking the river. He is chattering urgently, warningly. Higher up in the tree canopy there is a family of small raptors. It's too far away to make out which kind - falcon, hawk, kite? But the fledglings are learning to fly or so it seems. Wings flapping. Launch off the branch, a little circle, a short glide, then back to the safety of the branch.

A few days ago the parent hawk was gliding above the river, watching. Flying right beside it, shrieking loudly, was one lone cockatoo. As they passed me, a treeload of white cockatoos, also screeching, rose up out of the canopy of a nearby eucalypt. The hawk paid them no attention and flew slowly on.

I often share these bird stories with the other river walkers I meet along the trail. We stop to chat about the many birds we've seen. Today it's Wrens, Pardalotes, Willie wagtails. Cockatoos. Kingfisher. Brush Turkeys. Butcher birds. Magpies. Ravens. Currawongs. Kookaburras. And now the Coucals.

As we talk about how lovely it is here, the riverwalker remarks about the plethora of birds she sees. I agree, but tell her the story I heard last week from another of the regular visitors to this place, a local historian. She told me that she knows a couple of locals, elderly women probably in their mid to late nineties. They remember when there were just a few houses here. And in commenting on the river, they remarked how prolific the bird life used to be.

To me and the other river walkers I meet, this is a real sanctuary, with plenty of birdlife. Outside this special place we've become so used to the impact of development and tree cutting that we don't notice when the birds, bats and possums disappear.

But by visiting this precious pocket of bushland, we notice what seems to us to be an abundance of birdlife. We notice the difference. Knowing that years ago there were far more birds is important. Gathering stories from the elders, hearing about their memories of the river, brings a new perspective to the local ecology and a nostalgia for an often forgotten past.

Frith HJ, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Surry Hills, NSW, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd.

Mystifying Place

Solastalgia is the concept created by Glenn Albrecht from Newcastle University to explain the feelings of distress associated with loss of place. Solace + Nostalgia = Solastalgia.

In his cleverly titled blog (, Albrecht explains that ‘solastalgia’ describes 'the pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the present state of one’s home environment'. He defines it as 'the ‘lived experience’ of loss ... manifest in a feeling of dislocation', or a sense of homsickness even when you are at home. When a place is irrevocably changed, when the environment is damaged through human activity or natural disaster (flood, fire, earthquake), the result can be solastalgia and also grief, pain and trauma.

But sometimes the changes to local city environments are so small initially that we may not notice the changes, or pay attention to them until it is too late. One tree here, one old house there, and suddenly the place is filled with high rise concrete walls along the river, polluted air, roads clogged with traffic and no place to walk and restore (human and nature).

Randy Haluza-Delay (1997) says we need to remystify the cityscape. To do this 'is to reawaken a sense of wonder and to alert ourselves to the marvels of familar things...the first step is to look around...explore...make the unfamiliar familiar...expand awareness...and envision the type of world you want to live in'.

So find beauty. Seek spendour. And take care. Elizabeth Halpenny (2005), in her overview of research into the relationship between pro-environment behaviours and place attachment, has summarised several studies which indicate a connection between place attachment, place satisfaction and environmental care. You may be attached to a place but be critical of its environmental quality. She concludes, citing a study of lakeside residents in Wisconsin (Stedman, 2002), that those attached to special, local and even city-places but dissatisfied with them were more likely to get involved in actions to protect their local environment.

So being attached to a place like the river on an emotional, functional and cognitive level encourages environmentally-responsible behaviour. Connecting to place and caring for it then are crucial practices to ward off the pain of Albrecht's solastalgia.

References cited:
Halpenny E, 2005, Pro-Environment Intentions: Examining the Affect of Place Attachment, Environmental Attitudes, Place Satisfaction and Attitudes towards Pro-environmental Behaviour, paper presented to the Eleventh Canadian Congress of Leisure Research, Nanaimo, BC,
Haluza-Delay R, 1997, 'Remystifying the City: Reawakening the Sense of Wonder in Our Own Backyards', Green Teacher, 52, Summer.
Stedman RC, 2002, 'Toward a Social Psychology of Place: Predicting Behavior from Place-based Cognitions, Attitude and Identity,' Environment and Behavior, 34, 5, 561-581.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Visitor

The giant sniffs the air. 'Fi Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an earthly man,' he chants rubbing his hands together with glee. It was the story of Jack and the Beanstalk that came to mind when the visitor came curling down the bamboo at the bottom of the garden. The 2.5 metre python, glorious in its tiger-like stripes, was on the hunt for something warm to consume. The only trouble was it snaked its way into the garden and came face to face with another creature. Neither expected to see the other.

Carpet Pythons used to be abundant along river bank. But with the drought, the decline in small mammals, housing development, removal of bushland, and kidnapping (or should that be snake-napping) to sell to petshops, these beautiful reptiles seem to have vanished from their riverbank home. But happily not all.

The big orange cat had gone to sit in the courtyard to watch the dark and listen to the night air. Then I heard an urgent scrabble as his paws scuffled though the stones. I found him cowering in the corner, his eyes wide, and his tail plumped with fur on edge. We watched as the carpet snake went spiralling lanquidly back up the bamboo and off through the leafy canopy.

From all accounts this was a rare event. The night holds mystery. This one was a wonderful surprise - and a real privilege to see such a magnificent creature still patrolling its haunts on the look out for morsels to eat. The EPA says that Carpet Pythons have the ability to detect temperature changes of less than one-thirtieth of a degree through their heat sensors called 'pits' located along the lower jaw. Using these heat sensing pits, the python smells out warm blooded animals like possums, rats, mice and on this occasion, a big orange cat by the name of Hamish.