Return of the Moonbirds

I was thrilled to have this essay published in Griffith Review #30: Annual Fiction Edition. It’s a story about place, the migration of the shearwaters, relationships and fragility. I hope you enjoy it.

Return of the moonbirds: Migratory paths

Lyn Reeves

The wind off the sea blows hard and it is savagely cold, despite it being midsummer. It is 8 pm, but here at the southern end of the world night won’t fall for more than an hour. We’ve parked the car in the quarried-out gravel patch at the end of the dirt road and pulled on our jackets, distributing warm scarves and hats between the four of us.

A dozen or so people are already assembled near the barrier gate. They form a straggly semicircle around a young park ranger. Dressed in a red polar fleece, striped beanie snug on his sandy hair, he introduces himself as Rod and welcomes us into the group. People shift positions to make room for us and continue to pass a stuffed white-bellied sea eagle from hand to hand. When I hold the huge bird, I’m amazed at its lightness: it weighs less than a newborn child. A juvenile, its feathers are still brown but the rigid body is as large as that of a full-grown bird. The feel of its feathers, soft as talcum powder, elicits a light stroke from curious fingers and expressions of tender awe. The talons are tightly curled. The red glass eyes glimmer.

But we are not here for the sea eagle; it is just the infotainment before the real show begins. We have come for the shearwaters, to watch their return flight to their burrows after their day’s fishing out at sea.

More cars disturb the dusty road through the heath and our numbers swell to about forty: families with young children in tow and couples with grey hair and stooped shoulders.

We’ve brought Sadako, our son Tom’s partner. They are spending the Christmas holidays here; it is her first visit to meet us. We want to show her some of the rarities of this island, Tasmania, where we’ve made our home. The wind blows through us – our parkas can’t keep it out. We shelter Sadako as best we can, standing in the way of the blast.

Rod opens the barrier gate and leads the way along the sandy track lined with sagg and bracken fern. The yellow cones of the grevilleas, candle-bright by day, are dim; the honeyeaters that flit among them like sparks of light have gone to their nests.

At a turn in the path a fox is crouched among the coastal heath. This, too, is a stuffed specimen, placed there earlier. Rod instructs us on the dangers of foxes, reputedly introduced to the island only recently. They would devastate the native wildlife if their numbers increased. Some within the group express cynicism about whether the fox exists in Tasmania, with no proven sightings yet, though scats have been found. But Rod stresses the need for vigilance. He marshals us at a stand of pines on the leeward side of the hill’s crest. For a little while we are protected from the full force of the wind as we wait for daylight to fade and hear more about the shearwaters’ habits.

‘Is this the spot?’ I ask Paul.

‘No, further round.’

Rod takes from his box of props a stuffed adult muttonbird, as the shearwater is commonly known, and stretches out narrow tapered wings to their metre-wide span. He passes the grey-brown specimen around. The underwing, a paler brown, is soft to touch. The long beak is horny and slender with tube-like nostrils, the end hooked for gripping fish. Rod tells us about the birds’ clumsiness on land, shows us the webbed feet adapted for swimming. When they dive for fish they appear to fly through the water. The way their legs are positioned makes it difficult for them to take flight without the help of the wind, which is why they build their burrows on exposed headlands like this. 


 On this same headland, years ago, a man and his lover buried the man’s wife. By torchlight or faint starlight they dug a grave beneath the pines, planted as a buffer against the wind when this was grazing land, before the area was reclaimed as a conservation zone with tracks maintained and interpretation panels set in place.

A difficult place to get to back then, it was visited only by the occasional surfer or hiker or clandestine lovers. The grave went undiscovered. The pines spread their shade over the dune. Tussock grass and purple-flowering succulents resumed their hold. Some time in the 1980s the woman, out of guilt or fear for her own safety, led police to the site. The story of the murder haunted the hill for years and became folklore among the surfers who climbed the slope to read the swell of waves or share a bong.

Rod is explaining that the colony here is one of about 285 in south-east Australia where short-tailed shearwaters, around twenty-three million of them, breed. Between September and November each year the adult birds arrive at their rookeries after months at sea on a migratory journey that has taken them as far as the Bering Strait. Since their departure the previous autumn they will have flown more than thirty thousand kilometres in a northward dispersion, across the tropics to the Arctic regions via the Aleutian Islands. Their southward flight, in a rapid and direct movement across the central Pacific Ocean, leads back to their breeding ground where they finally touch down. Only during the breeding season do they come to land.

It was because of these long periods of flight that a Melbourne scientist, Professor F Wood Jones, avowed in 1933 that the ‘moonbirds’, as he called them, were proof that the moon dislodged from the earth, creating ‘the Pacific Void’. He argued that the space it left behind, the Pacific Ocean, was just the right shape and size for the now orbiting rock to occupy, and that when it fell away from the earth and spun into the ether the creatures that had lived on it became homeless. His notion was that these birds of St Peter, the petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses, continue to circle the moon void, searching for their former terrestrial habitat, landing only to breed on the sandy headlands and offshore islands.

Exhaustion, starvation and storms all take their toll, especially on newly fledged birds. The bad weather of 1999 led to hundreds of dead shearwaters washing up on the Tasmanian coastline. Every day, walking my dog on the beach, I would find the drowned bodies with their sad hooked beaks and oily feathers half-buried in the sand. Many become entangled in gill nets. The Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement is now in place to monitor their population and try to protect them.

On return from their astounding flight shearwaters reunite with their mates, recognising each other by voice and gesture. They refurbish the burrow they left the year before, repairing it and lining it with grass and leaves. If their nest has been destroyed – by fire, storm or off-road vehicles, or by cattle or people trampling the areas where they nest – they will dig a new one in the soft sand amid the succulent vegetation. They then set out for the Antarctic on a feeding trip lasting almost three weeks. Back at the colony, the female lays a single white egg that both parents will, in turn, incubate. Like many birds, they remain faithful to one partner.

We leave the treed area and head closer to the bluff where the burrows are clearly visible a metre or so apart. The ground is sparsely covered with fleshy-leaved plants. Little openings, like rabbit holes, slope downwards. A week from now, all the eggs secreted here will hatch. What appears to be a barren headland is pulsing with hidden life. The air is heavy with a strong fishy smell.

I remember the Sydney summers of my childhood: crowding onto the beach with other sun worshippers, roasting our bodies to achieve a perfect tan. We would line up to be sprayed with tanning lotion whose special ingredient was muttonbird oil from the Bass Strait islands. The smell of coconut predominated; I doubt the lotion would have been so popular if the muttonbird reek prevailed.

Muttonbirds are still harvested for their oil, used in pharmaceuticals and as a food supplement for racehorses. Their under-feathers are filling for pillows and doonas. Their salted flesh is considered by some a delicacy, with a taste similar to mutton. Early sealers in Bass Strait called them ‘flying sheep’.

Each year the state government allows the Tasmanian Aboriginal population recreational and commercial harvesting of the chicks on the grounds that the practice is a link with their traditional past. It is the only Australian state that continues to allow birding. More than a million are killed each year. The chicks, fattened on the oil-rich diet of molluscs and krill their parents regurgitate for them, are pulled from their burrows and their necks broken.

Those chicks that survive their precarious beginnings, threatened by predation and damage to their burrows, soon begin to transform from plump fluffy bundles. The body fat that has nourished them since their parents left two weeks earlier for the northern hemisphere has melted away. Flight feathers replace the soft down.

Then, in late April or early May, under cover of darkness to evade marauding gulls and ravens, the fledglings will waddle down to the sea. Without any guidance from experienced birds they will spread their sooty-brown wings into the wind, lift off, and instinctively follow the flight path mapped out in their cells.

The sky is darkening. We walk out onto the viewing platform that extends over the dunes towards the beach. Sadako is wrapped in Tom’s arms. He has given her his woollen scarf. I notice the tenderness they display towards each other. It is a strange feeling to watch my son, now grown, finding his own way. His journey has already taken him to another hemisphere. Letting go, especially letting a son go to the care of another woman, is not easy, though Sadako has won our hearts as well. I wish these young lovers safe passage.

We are huddled together facing a sea the same slate colour as the sky. The headland at the southern end of the beach is a deep-grey shadow. Strips of light, like polished steel, band the horizon. While we wait, hunched into the collars of our jackets, Rod shows us a blade-shaped wing.

‘It’s because of this aerodynamic shape,’ he says, ‘that the birds can glide above the water with no effort. Even when they are flying at high speed they appear to hover just above the surface. That’s how they get the name shearwater.’

He offers a prize to the first person to see a returning bird. Our eyes search the water. There are a few false sightings. We think we can make out rafts of them on the ocean’s surface as they wait for darkness before coming in to land. Or is it the wind patterning the waves? There is no moonlight. A star flicks on, and then another.

Sadako calls out, ‘There!’

Suddenly the sound of wings swishes through the air; a dark shape swoops above our heads, so close. The soft thud of a bird landing, followed quickly by another and another. Before long there’s a rush of movement all around us as thousands of birds descend. Their loud wing beats fill the sky, now dense with their swift shadows and drenched with their fishy odour. We hear their crooning, kooka rooka rah, as they call to their mates, and their shuffling progress through the tussock to their burrows.

And then, just as suddenly, it quietens down. People begin to talk among themselves again, occasionally spotting a late arrival stumbling through the vegetation.

Elated and exhausted, we make our way back to the car. Paul shows me the place. The pines that grew there have been cut down to clear more space for the burrows and the remnant stumps are overgrown with pigface.

I relate the murder story to Tom and Sadako.

‘Why would anyone do that?’ Tom asks, mystified.

‘Who knows?’ I say. ‘Passion. Jealousy. Only last month the courts have been trying the case of a lovers’ triangle that ended in murder and a beach burial just north of here. In the same bay, in fact.’

We are all shivering. ‘Who’s for a mug of hot cocoa?’ Paul asks. We hurry out of the bitter night, eager for the warmth of home.

As we leave, there’s a rustle in the bush beside the path and our torchlight catches the glint of eyes. A creature – most likely a feral cat – is stalking the moonbirds.

First published Griffith Review Edition 30, Summer 2010

References available on Griffith Review website.

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