Birdwatching doesn’t make me forget Covid, but it helps me see life anew | Debbie Lustig

Last month, events in Melbourne took a memorable turn, for all the wrong reasons. Protests and the earthquake fed more tension into our interminable, sixth lockdown. But for me nothing equalled what happened one morning, when a spotted pardalote appeared through the window outside my living room.

It’s hard to describe the thrill of seeing such an exquisite bird so close. I’d heard one for months, tinkling its three-note call all over the neighbourhood, but could only look for it in vain.

These birds are so small, Wikipedia says they’re “seldom seen closely enough to enable identification”. Yet this one landed in a tree, close enough for me to enjoy its small, stubby bill, its yellow bib, red rump and the tiny, white spots on its wings.

And then it was gone.

Australian bird of the year 2021: Meet the 'birdians' – video
Australian bird of the year 2021: Meet the ‘birdians’ – video

It turns out your home can be a giant bird hide, where you can see birds but they’re oblivious to you.

Like the brown thornbill, plain grey and brown. It has buff and black stripes on its throat and calls as loud as a bird 10 times bigger.

I hear them in the garden, buzzing their alarm or burbling their sweet, descending trill. Outside my window, it’s a different story.

Every day, one arrives and flings itself against the glass. It softly smacks its reflection with its beak, over and over, until I tap on the inside. I’m worried it may hurt itself but luckily, it never has.

My guess is it’s trying to confront another bird on its “patch”. I’m glad it doesn’t fly at full speed and knock itself out. (To prevent this, you’re supposed to put stickers on the window.)

Neither of these “living-room birds” is rare. Yet I didn’t notice them; I wasn’t paying attention.

A close-up of a tawny frogmouth, with its yellow-ringed eye
The tawny frogmouth ‘swooped silently from the park on to somebody’s fence like a pale, feathered ghost’. Photograph: Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

For five million Melburnians, this lockdown feels worse than the others. Every day’s the same. Nothing has happened (including my long-planned birthday party).

But the days I saw birds are days I instantly recall. Each sighting was an almost stupidly small event, but they mattered, in a tremendously satisfying, yet private way. They’re part of the texture of my lockdown life.

Like the two yellow-tailed black cockatoos I saw on a walk near the railway line; big, noisy, wonderful birds I’ve never seen around here. Or the posse of noisy miners mobbing a young butcherbird. Or the tawny frogmouth that swooped silently from the park on to somebody’s fence like a pale, feathered ghost.

Then there were the three Pacific black ducks I watched in the park – which has no lake, not even a puddle. Like nature’s little jokers, they puttered among the picknickers, then flew off over the trees.

And a family of little ravens with a massive nest, high in a gum tree. The young ones shrieking got my attention. They played, slipping on and off their perch like kids on the monkey bars.

Has birding helped me get through the pandemic? I’m not sure anything could do that.

I’m frightened by coronavirus, the underlying threat that threads through our days. Some nights I barely sleep. I have family in frontline healthcare and others who are anti-vaxxers.

Not a bird in the world could allay that anxiety or soften those fears.

A pair of rainbow lorikeets on a stump
‘My friend Helen loves rainbow lorikeets – plentiful around here.’ Photograph: Rita VP/Guardian Community

But some days I walk with my friend who’s becoming something of a birding protege. Helen loves rainbow lorikeets – plentiful around here – and she can identify a red wattlebird at 100 paces. She gets that magpie-larks are not baby magpies, even though both are black and white.

What fun it is to be at the start of someone else’s birding journey! Curiosity and wonder are so often only acceptable in children.

Birding teaches us what writer Alexandra Horowitz describes in her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes – how to “bring new attention … to the things we see every day and the things we don’t even know how to see”. Sharing birds with a friend is like learning how to see birds anew.

Another friend says birding “lifts you up”. But not even a spotted pardalote or a squeaky black cockatoo can give comfort for long when it feels like the world’s falling apart. There are no miracle cures for Covid nor ways to fudge the terrible realities we’re living through.

Maybe there’s a Brigadoon somewhere, an idyllic place where time has stopped. There’s no coronavirus and people break out in colourful song-and-dance numbers.

But the likes of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse haven’t been seen in Melbourne lately. There’s nothing to do but wait (and watch birds).

Recently, the spring equinox arrived, with its promise of longer days and more sun. Life is emerging from the long, pandemic winter. And with it, for me, the hope of birding further afield than the streets of my suburb or the four walls of my flat.

Debbie Lustig is a Melbourne writer, birdwatcher and occasional wildlife rescuer


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