For most of us living in Melbourne, our world shrank in early August to a five-kilometre radius from home. Our only connection to the wider world was couriered boxes left on the doorstep, the internet, TV or radio. We tuned in every day for Dan Andrews’ press conference where the premier’s “Everybody right to go?” became as familiar a prelude as Dee Dee Ramone calling “one-two-three-four” at the start of every Ramones song.
But there was another set of messengers from the outside world that was a little different in that they offered variety, even a dash of joy, and hope. Birds.
Birds became a bright spot in otherwise dark times, a reassuring reminder that not everything had gone crazy and there was beauty in the world, even right in your own backyard. To keep myself amused I decided to see how many birds I could count in my permitted exercise zone and put the challenge out to others to do the same.
I’m lucky enough to live in bayside Melbourne, where a daily walk along the Bay Trail not only invigorated the senses, it also quickly ramped up my local lockdown list. Complementing the regular urban birds such as the glorious rainbow lorikeets and (thankfully) friendly magpies, were coastal birds such as pelicans and gannets which would corral balls of bait fish against the shore. The pelicans would scoop them up, the gannets bombard them in spectacular dives, all accompanied by a cacophony of terns and gulls squabbling over the tiny fish panicking in the shallows.
I explored parts of my neighbourhood that I’d previously overlooked. I found a swan nesting on the edge of a pond in a park I’d never visited. I watched a flock of tree martins, a close relative of the swallow, hawking insects over some open ground I had previously driven past without a second glance. I learned where the common bronzewings — a plump native pigeon — would congregate to feast on fallen seeds.
I found a few rarities, including a beautiful little white-throated gerygone, with lemon-yellow underparts and a rollicking, sweet warble. A swift parrot, a stunning jewel of a bird now down to less than a thousand pairs because we insist on logging their remaining nesting and feeding sites, very considerately landed in the tree next door while I was on a work video call. Luckily my colleagues at BirdLife Australia understood the imperative to abandon them so I could drink in long views of such a beauty.
By the end of lockdown I had managed to see 75 species in my 5km zone. I know I missed a few more because I wasn’t the only one out there noticing the birds we shared our suburbs with. Social media was ablaze with Melburnians taking note of the birds outside their window. Tallies came in from all over the city, with some of the highest totals reported from people living in the inner city with access to a surprising range of habitats, including tremendously birdy places such as Royal park and the Yarra. It appears Melbourne’s birdiest suburb, however, was Eltham North, with Monash University ornithology lecturer Dr Rohan Clarke clocking up an astonishing 131 species within five kilometres of his home.
But it wasn’t just twitchers who were embracing their local birds. People who would never have considered themselves birdwatchers before the pandemic were seeing their city afresh through the prism of birds. When we talk of nature, we often think of it starting at the gates of a national park. The experience of lockdown has opened our eyes to how nature begins as soon as we step outside our doors and, even our largest cities are brimming with wildlife if you just take the time to look.
This week people have been looking in unprecedented numbers and submitting what they see to the Aussie Backyard Bird Count, BirdLife Australia’s annual snapshot of the health of the populations of birds that we share our daily lives with. With the weekend still to count, we have already drawn level with the number of surveys submitted in last year’s count. It seems I’m not the only one for whom birds have provided solace during these long, drawn out months.
The Aussie Bird Count provides the opportunity for us to harness this newfound passion for our birds into one of our largest citizen science projects, with each individual count providing one more pixel to contribute to a much clearer picture of what’s going on with our birds. We have long known that birds are a barometer of the health of our environment, but for many of us in 2020 they have also been a measure of the health of our interior worlds as well.
• Sean Dooley is national public affairs manager at BirdLife Australia