Saturday, September 29, 2007

Spoonbills on the Tide

On the trail we meet one of the regular river walkers with her black and white dog. 'Have you seen anything exciting today?' she asks. And I tell her of the wonderful bird we saw at the mouth of Sandy Creek.

The tide is out. Only a little water is flowing in the Creek - but right at its mouth a Royal Spoonbill is working the mud from side to side. It's the first I've seen along this stretch of the river. Wading among the mangroves, the Spoonbill is searching for small fish and crustaceans. The bird books says that these gorgeous birds are nomadic and fly in formation similar to Ibis. And while I have seen flocks of Ibis fly across the city, I have not yet seen a formation of Spoonbill.

Ibis can often be seen fossicking around the river. But today I spy them in what seems like quite an unusual place. Not far from the river we pass by a swimming pool where many of the locals are lined up to go for a swim. Several Ibis and Black Ducks are already sitting on the water, while others wait at the edge of the pool. No humans are in sight. It looks like the birds have taken over and they're having one gigantic water party.

Being on the river is so uplifting. Each day there is so much to see. The Brush Turkeys are guarding their mammoth mound, the Lorikeets and Rosellas are flying from one honey tree to the next, the Corellas and White Cockatoos are screeching through the treetops, Noisy Mynahs are annoying the Currawongs, while the beautiful song of the Coucal and Butcher Bird ring out across the water - this place is a haven for human as well as bird.

In the 1890s the remarkable William James noted that when we are attentive we can change the way we think about things and the way we feel. Restoration researcher Stephen Kaplan has used this theory of attention to show how our experiences in the natural world lead to improved attention and mental restoration including a reduction in feelings of fatigue and stress. These changes are affected by the type and quality of the environment (wild, bushy, green), the involvement we have with the environment, our familiarity with the place as well as the amount of time we spend there (Kaplan, 1995; 2001).

The lesson from his research? Spend time in beautiful places in nature. Be immersed in birdsong and the generous movement of the tides.

James W, 1890, 1983, The Principles of Psychology, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Kaplan S, 1995, 'The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework,' Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
Kaplan S, 2001, 'Meditation, Restoration and the Management of Mental Fatigue,' Environment and Behavior, 33, 480-506.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Spirit Longing

The river holds a deep and symbolic resonance amongst people who live in this river city.

There is something touching about being close the river. In an ABCTV interview with Lance O'Connell, a deckhand on the CityCat river ferry, O'Connell says how much he enjoys being on the river: 'I've always loved the river so I guess I'm lucky to have a job that allows me to spend my days surrounded by it. Can sure think of worse things I could be doing.'

There is something new to see and experience every day, he adds, like the time a whale swam up the river right into the heart of the city: 'We've even had, well, dolphins as far up as here and also once, just once, we had a whale that went up to the Story Bridge, turned around and went back out the river.' A whale in the river?

Over the weekend I joined many whale watchers on a fund raising trip for the inspirational environmental organisation Sea Shepherd. Three boats loaded with passengers went out to sea to greet the Humpbacks as they travel to Antarctica on their annual migration. We encountered two pods and watched them frolicking, rolling and jutting their heads out of the water or 'spyhopping'. And then they swam off.

Seeing them on their annual migration to the southern ocean was heart-wrenching. On one hand we relished seeing them; the size of these Humpbacks is awesome and experiencing them, up close, was very moving. The expression on the faces of the passengers was testament to the power of these creatures to move people. Many shouted with joy and excitement as soon as the whales appeared or had tears in their eyes.

To know that they will be going down south to face being slaughtered by the Japanese industrial factory ships is too much to fathom. This year will be the first year that the International Whaling Commission has allowed Humpbacks to be killed along with Minke and Fin Whales. The IWC website states, 'the Government of Japan has authorised a new special permit programme in the Antarctic, JARPA II, in which the take of minke whales has been more than doubled, and fin whales and humpback whales have been added to the list of targeted species.'

The song of the male Humpbacks sits with me as I write this, as does the superb footage of Humpback ballet from Cousteau divers and the evocative poem from Mary Oliver 'Humpbacks' which ends with:

'Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,

its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones

toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire

where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.'