Heartstruck by hoodies
At first, I don’t see them. Then all at once I’m upon them, almost too close. I’ve been walking along the waterline, the tide on its way in, scanning the area around the high tide mark where they can usually be seen. My camera is in hand and my bichon poodle, Milly, is in tow.
What I see next is a photographer’s dream shot. I involuntarily let out a little ‘Oh!’. Five hoodies are snuggled together in a perfect line, all with their heads aligned in the same direction, tucked back into their wings. They are hunkered down behind a small mound of sand, close to the dunes. They blend in perfectly with the flotsam of broken cuttlefish shells, dried out seaweed and driftwood fragments.
Eastern Hooded Plovers (Thinornis culcullatus culcullatus) used to make their homes all along the beaches of the southeast coast of Australia from South Australia to southern Queensland, including Tasmania. They are now locally extinct in both northern New South Wales and Queensland, and listed as Vulnerable under both National and Victorian Threatened Species Legislation. Any sighting of ‘hoodies’ is special for me. I have fallen in love with them. So exquisite and so vulnerable. My mission is to produce a portfolio of photographs which captures the specialness of these birds. Maybe one of my photos can be used in the campaign to save these precious beach-dwellers from extinction.
I take a quick look up the beach to check for other walkers. No one close. Good. Heart in mouth, I make a ninety-degree turn and creep up towards the high tide mark, keeping Milly on a short lead. When I’m level with the hoodies I crouch down low and pray they keep their eyes closed. I waddle closer, careful not to breach the birds’ comfort zone. These little Aussie battlers deserve to enjoy their afternoon siesta undisturbed. Plus, I know that one step too close will wreck this one-in-a-million photo opportunity.
I motion for Milly to drop. Thank goodness she’s compliant and clever. It’s a sunny day and the sand is not too damp, so I ease myself down onto my elbows and knees, then lie flat. I’ll worry later about getting these old bones back up again without dousing my camera in sand. Please God, let my invisibility cloak buy me enough time to check my camera settings.
Out of nowhere, two walkers with their off-lead staffy approach. They take a line halfway between the low- and high-water mark. I’m sure they eyeball me but they keep walking. Within seconds the staffy is amongst the hoodies.
As the staffy bounds up to the hoodies they scatter into the air, their combined bodies a tangle of alarm. Shocked, I cry out in dismay. The walkers give me looks of disdain. They continue to approach and make no attempt to control the dog. Alarm and incredulity must be written all over my face, but they remain indifferent and keep advancing. Even if they had failed to spot the hoodies, as I had nearly done, a woman sprawled out on the sand in the middle of winter, metres away, with a camera and telephoto lens lined up in front of her would surely be visible. And mightn’t she be photographing something of import?
The dog continues to bound and chase, and again the hoodies rise into the air. I can’t fathom the owners’ lack of response. A rush of anguish sweeps through me as I realise I’m powerless to stop this horror. I feel momentarily light-headed, my stomach on fire with indignation and a burgeoning rage.
Hoodies need to inhabit beaches that are strewn with large amounts of seaweed in order to source the seaweed-eating invertebrates that make up their diet. And to do this, they are often forced to share their habitat with a recreation-loving human population. Various threats prevent the hoodies from breeding successfully. These threats have increased over time as the human footprint has impacted the hoodie habitat. According to Birdlife Australia, threats include introduced weeds, foxes, cats, off-leash dogs, human feet and car tyres. When disturbed, the adult hoodies can respond by sneaking away from the nest or sending the chicks into hiding. But if they are kept away for too long, this exposes the eggs to harsh temperatures and leaves the chicks without food, both of which can be fatal. This list doesn’t include the impact of climate change: sea level rise, higher tides and storm events.
I’m new to this hoodie business… sort of. I can’t remember a time I haven’t been fascinated with birds. To me, their exquisiteness is breathtaking. But it’s more than that. I’m enamoured by and irresistibly drawn to them. Maybe in another life I was a bird? Over my many years I’ve had pivotal moments with various individual birds. These have been transformative, life changing and in one case, lifesaving. I feel an affinity with birds. When I am with them my soul smiles, and at my core, I feel connected to something larger, beneficent. It’s like being heard by a friend. Or perhaps my experience with birds is similar to what Wendell Berry describes in his poem, ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, in which the peace found in watching birds on the water, who live only in the moment, forestalls a sense of fear and despair over bleak visions of the future.
My journey with hoodies began decades ago when they were known as Hooded Dotterels and I’d see them on my beach walks at Ocean Grove while staying over the summer holidays. So tiny! Unless you had your binoculars with you, it was impossible to see their detail.
2020 was to be my year of the great escape. I was to take a sabbatical from my teaching job and fulfil a lifelong dream of living for several months in a small village in France. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, I decided to take my sabbatical anyway and stay at our house in Ocean Grove. What I didn’t expect was that five tiny birds would capture my attention so completely and be instrumental in cracking the door open to a community of hoodie-loving people with whom I could feel very much at home.
Our house is a short drive to the ‘dog beach’, a year-round off-lead area. My lockdown ritual included a walk along this section of beach with Milly and on towards Point Lonsdale and into hoodie territory. During the course of one of my walks early on in the lockdown, I happened upon a group of Hooded Plovers foraging for food by the water’s edge. They made a magical sight, lit by the late afternoon sun, their perfect reflections in the shallow water. It would have made a stunning photo. I decided to return on the morrow with my camera.
For days, however, the only bird I saw was the odd seagull. Finally, about a week later, the effort of lugging my heavy camera was rewarded. I discovered them one afternoon, higher up on the sand, the five of them busily foraging, their little beaks plunging into the sand like mini pile drivers, then running further along the beach to mine another area. It was fascinating to watch them being so focused and industrious, sticking close together. They reminded me of the chooks we had when my children were small; a lone bird would realise the others had moved on to peck in another area of the garden then run helter-skelter to catch up with the group. Even though my photos weren’t perfect, I still found myself enraptured by the small birds that came to life as I reviewed them in full detail on my computer screen.
‘Over my many years I’ve had pivotal moments with various individual birds. These have been transformative, life changing and in one case, lifesaving.’
Earlier in the year, I joined the local Bellarine Birdlife group. Members had been sending in birding news and photos from their various locales. I sent in a couple of photos of the hoodies. Two of the birds had been tagged, one bearing the orange tag JU, and the other, a white KW. I discovered that sometimes JU and KW hang out together as a single pair. Other days I found them with the familiar three or four sub-adult birds. Then, on one dark day, I discovered JU on his own, KW nowhere in sight. I walked home with a heavy heart, unable to dismiss the thought of a frisky dog or feral cat having put an end to her.
At home, I found myself gazing at photos of KW. What if these are the very last images of her? I thought of the Mornington Peninsula volunteers who banded her and their keen ongoing interest in her life journey. As much as I tried to focus on other things, KW consumed my thinking. What had become of her? I recognised this as a threshold moment. There was no turning back, no switching off my emotional investment in these precariously situated winged darlings of the south eastern coast of Australia. Like falling in love – there’s little you can do to reverse it. My heart had been captured by these teeny weenies.
I wondered whether I’d be able to summon the emotional distance to become a volunteer hoodie protector. If I felt this amount of angst about KW’s disappearance, how would I go monitoring chicks? Was I ‘warden’ material? What if I became invested in a breeding pair – say, JU and KW? What if they succeeded to produce chicks? How would I curb my anxiety for the length of time it takes them to fledge?
What if I witnessed a raven pinch the eggs, or a magpie take one of the chicks? A dog? It happens all the time. I’ve read the statistics. The survival rates are grim. What about interacting with the public, the dog walkers with their dogs off-lead in proximity to hoodie parents and chicks to whom I’ve invested my whole heart? And the training! I’d become obsessed and want to know everything! Am I cut out for this? Maybe I’ll stick to photography, to my original mission: capture the perfect hoodie shot to use in a campaign.
Several days later, with a bitter wind squalling, numbing my fingers as I tried to focus my binoculars to scour the coastline for signs of hoodie activity, a man appeared in the distance through my field of view. What was he doing? Looking for something on the high sand where the plovers might be? My mother hen urge to protect kicked in. He’d better not be disturbing them. As he drew closer, I saw that he, too, was sporting a pair of binoculars. ‘Are you looking for hoodies?’ I ventured.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘There’s a group of them back towards Point Lonsdale, beyond the rocks.’
‘Did you spot KW? She wasn’t with JU the other day. They’re always together. I’ve been so worried. I’m thinking a dog might have caught her.’ It all comes tumbling out.
‘Yes, she’s with the others.’ His tone was friendly and reassuring, but I wondered if I sounded nuts.
I heaved a sigh of relief and smiled at my luck in coming across this man, of all the people to meet on the beach.
‘Like falling in love – there’s little you can do to reverse it. My heart had been captured by these teeny weenies.’
‘Are you involved with the hoodie volunteers?’ I motioned towards his binoculars, hungry for any information I could get my hands on. He suggested I contact Birdlife Australia. The hoodies would be breeding soon. There had already been a report of a scrape (the shallow hole in the sand the birds create in which to lay their eggs) in South Australia – and it was only August.
Over the following week, I noticed that KW seemed to be more independent than I had thought. I saw her without JU and out and about with her other hoodie friends. I learned from other volunteers that the area of beach where JU and KW hang out is a ‘flocking’ area for the hoodies during the non-breeding season and is popular with the Mornington Peninsula sub-adults who may be looking for new territories and partners. When it’s time to breed, the flocks disband and the birds pair up. I realised I had a lot to learn and felt a pang of grief – or was it embarrassment – about my limited knowledge. I left JU and KW to sort things out for themselves.
Soon after, an email from Birdlife Australia arrived in my inbox. It outlined the process for becoming a volunteer for Birdlife Australia’s beach-nesting birds monitoring program – a friendly email ending with, ‘Welcome to the team’.
As I lie helpless on the beach, the staffy advances towards the birds – bound, pounce, bound, pounce. Then, mercifully, after an excruciatingly long moment, the dog loses interest and runs back to its owners, who by this time have sauntered past. It’s then I realise that the gods are smiling, because as much as I feel like extricating myself from the sand and pursuing the couple, a small miracle has happened. The dog has, in fact, herded the hoodies in my direction. They seem oblivious to Milly and me because of our prone position and my camouflaged camera lens. I might have lost the perfect shot of them all lined up napping, but this is surely the closest I’m likely to ever be to this little band of five: KW, JU and the three sub-adults. All fossicking busily, beaks thrusting in and out of the sand mere metres away. Time to start snapping.
Banner image of KW and JU courtesy of Carole Poustie
Carole teaches creative writing, is the author of two children’s novels and regularly has work published in literary journals and magazines. When she is not writing she is out with the hoodies, camera in hand.