by Jamie Walker
I was having a good day. At Ewen Maddock Dam, I had been watching a White-bellied Sea Eagle eating a fish on top of a tall post in mid-water. It was being harried by a hovering Whistling Kite which applied its species’ well known distract-and-snatch tactics. They failed: and the eagle fed on unperturbed.
I had stood still, enthralled by this, for a considerable time, when I noticed a small, brown bird fussing in the bottom of a rush tussock at the water’s edge, about a metre from my feet. This was a Little Grassbird – a secretive resident of wetlands.
The species is not rare – and its call, ‘p-pee-pee’, is familiar – but all we usually see (if we are lucky) is a swift flight low across the water’s surface, from one tussock to the next, where it dives into hiding among the stems. This bird had not recognised me because I was still.
Black Bitterns are another species difficult to see. If they are aware of us, they freeze in waterside vegetation or up in tree branches. Then the advantage is with them and most of us will pass by, unaware of what we have missed.
I once put one up from vegetation on a shingle bank and afterwards wondered whether it would have emerged and behaved naturally if I had simply stood still and waited to see what passed me by.
Both wetlands and dry bush harbour many wary creatures. Most of us know the Carpet Python and the Red-bellied Black, but the Marsh Snake which slips in sinuous silence into the water as our footsteps approach, is rarely noticed. That is its intention.
It is not only snakes that take secrecy and aversion to human company to highly anxious levels. I had almost given up any hope of seeing a Pale-vented Bush Hen – a bird that, unlike its Moorhen cousin, sems incapable of tolerating our presence. Its loud calls are often heard, but its movements and behaviour are an enigma.
It was by the Mary River that it happened. I had stood in one spot for some time and my mind had wandered. Lodged in shaded water, close to the bank, was a half-sunken tree branch. Suddenly, I realised that I was looking at a Bush Hen standing on this log.
It continuously flicked its tail in nervous agitation, turned its head to look one way then another and took quick, feverish steps in different directions, before dashing out of sight under riverside bushes, for no apparent reason. This bird was grey, unglamorous and, to the eye of an unexpecting birder, wholly wonderful.
Careless movement, distraction of mind, indifference and, worst of all, the intrusion of human voices all serve to separate us from the natural world and what it might reveal. Stillness can be hard to achieve. Yet, if you can manage it occasionally, it might just make your day.