I first heard the noise early one spring morning a couple of years ago. I lay in bed half-awake, the grey light of approaching dawn filtering through the windows. A strange squawking sounded from down our hillside, somewhere amongst the stringybark trees. I lifted my head up from the pillow and focused my ears to listen carefully. After five minutes or so of quiet, I heard it again. It was almost like a plover – a loud, really cranky plover. It was also like the sound of a water bird - which one, I couldn’t place my finger on. With the sea hundreds of kilometres away and not even a decent water course within cooee, I was puzzled.
I nudged my husband.
“Mmm?” His lumpy form under the blankets didn’t move.
“Are you awake?”
“Can you hear that noise? That bird?”
Bruce rolled onto his back and opened a bleary eyelid. We both lay still, waiting for the sound. After a few moments, I suspected Bruce went back to sleep while I strained my ears to hear. It was obvious I would have no luck in pinpointing the sound with an ear-witness.
Over the following week, each morning I lay expectantly in the dimness, trying to decipher the noise which invariably was gone by the time I got out of bed to find out more. It definitely wasn’t a small bird like the fairy-wrens or finches of the shrubs, or the sweetly chiming pardalotes who nested in earthen embankments. The medium-sized birds which made their homes in our section of bushland were all different in the calls they made. Currawongs and magpies boasted melodic songs, the noisy friarbird was just that – a noisy but comical frequenter of the tall trees. Kookaburras took their place as distinctive laughing birds no-one could be confused about. And there was certainly no risk of mistaking the quiet presence of the majestic wedge-tailed eagle, the aloof captain of the skies. All these birds were familiar creatures which I easily recognised.
Those times of breathless silence in the muted haze of pre-dawn passed and I no longer heard the noise. Summer drew on, the sun rose earlier than my waking thoughts and that mysterious bird was forgotten.
One morning, a year later though, I was again jolted from my fuzzy semi-consciousness with a strange squawking, this time in stereo. The first call was answered by an equally raucous call on another section of our gully. By the time I arose, had opened the curtains, and was wandering around the kitchen I was surprised to see a peculiar creature flying across our cleared hillside. This time, I was ready to investigate. My husband was a witness to this arrival, and we both admitted we’d never seen anything like it.
With a greyish bulky body similar to a pelican and a large bill akin to a toucan’s, I was sure this was some powerful bird who had travelled from afar. I was able to walk near the tree it was clumsily perching in, and got a better look at its features. With the aid of a bird book we identified it – at last – as a channel-billed cuckoo. This is a migratory bird who spends the winter in warmer climes such as New Guinea, and returns to temperate Australia to breed in late Spring.
I was excited! Roving birds who chose our block of land to breed in! While the idea of a cuckoo ‘hijacking’ another bird’s nest was a sad aspect I had to accept, I still thought it was a wondrous thing that something about our little portion of bush attracted these birds. They have roosted in tropical jungles full of brilliant colours and smells, travelled over seas and mountain ranges, grassland and forests, and experienced several different climates. And yet, this seemingly ordinary slope of eucalypts and wattles drew them to choose it as a place to rear their young.
The mornings became a noisy conversation of the cuckoos greeting each other after a good night’s sleep, and stretching their wings to fly across the clearing. A new family was expanding and calling this place ‘home’. I lay in bed, the warmth seeping into the bedroom with the rising sun, listening to their chatter, wondering what stories they could tell me of their gypsy life. And as the air temperature warmed, I felt a little warmth in my heart also, for these weird-looking outsiders that felt comfortable here. They were welcome anytime.
Summer came and went with hot days and stormy afternoons. The cicadas in the trees, moths fluttering against our windows at night, an orchestra of crickets in the darkness backing soloists of tawny frogmouths and boobook owls, the frogs chirping with the smell of rain in the air… my favourite season. Busy days harvesting vegetables out of the paddock, planting more seedlings… dirt in my hair, dirt in my boots, sweaty shirts and aching muscles. A season of extremes and one that can make me feel so tired and alive at the same!
I was so busy, it wasn’t until one day when the relative quietness of dawn enveloped me, that I realised the channel-billed cuckoos must have packed up and left again. How long they took for their journey north, I didn’t know. I wished them well.
And now another year has passed. The dry winter sucked all the water from our dam, our rainwater tank, and our soil. The winds became warmer and fire warnings were issued. Even our government leaders conceded the need to pray for rain. Their prayers were answered and a week of drizzle and storms brought 144 mm of rain to our place, replenishing water storage areas and giving hope to the farmers and country people.
It’s November. And in the early morning grey light, I hear a call, and another….
“Even birds and animals have much they could teach you: ask the creatures of the earth and sea for their wisdom. All of them know that the Lord’s hand made them. It is God who directs the lives of his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.” Job 12:7-10 (Good News Bible)