Down by the mouth of Laverton Creek, at the Altona Foreshore Reserve in Melbourne’s west, songwriter Paul Kelly is watching about 150 gannets as they mass on Port Phillip Bay. From where we stand, even through binoculars, the gannets are just big white blobs on the water, about 500 metres offshore.
I’m not convinced Paul can even see the blobs through his binoculars, which he refers to as “Kellogg’s brand” – something he got out of a packet. Kelly has taken to watching birds in recent years, but, in the field, frankly, he’s a noob.
With us is Sean Dooley, editor of BirdLife Australia’s quarterly magazine. Sean and I have been watching birds almost all our lives; we met in early 1983. I rib Kelly that he would have been playing in his first band the Dots back then, but Kelly corrects me: he’d already broken the band up. I don’t think he likes being reminded about the Dots.
Lately, Kelly has been touring a stage production, Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds, now an album and his 25th studio recording: a collection of poems set to a neo-classical pop score, co-written and arranged with composer James Ledger, multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath and the Seraphim Trio. It’s an avian extension of 2018’s Nature, which became his second album to hit No. 1 on the ARIA charts. (The first, Life Is Fine, was released the year before.)
Kelly tells us that he remembers magpies from when he was a kid, growing up in Adelaide. The last song on the album, The Magpies, is adapted from a poem by a New Zealander, Denis Glover:
When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed
And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.
“That’s the sound I remember most,” Kelly says. “I was aware of birds but I wouldn’t know which bird was which. In some ways, I’m probably not that observant. Maybe I had my head more in books. But yeah, they were the birds I most remember most vividly, swooping and screaming.”
Kelly and Dooley have been acquainted for a while. They met at The Kick, a motley collection of Melbourne artists who would gather together in winter for the simple joy of chasing a footy around an oval. Dooley was writing comedy for Channel Seven’s Full Frontal back then and would occasionally sneak a bird-themed sketch through.
Dooley and I are lifelong Collingwood tragics; Kelly’s team, naturally, is the Adelaide Crows, but he’s got his well-worn black-and-orange Rockdogs Community Cup scarf. He can play a bit. “He’s bloody hard to tackle,” Dooley says. “He’d run at you, like he wanted you to tackle and then he’d sell the candy and just sort of shimmy around you.”
At home, Kelly says, he’s got a treasured copy of Judith Wright’s poetry about birds, two of which – Black Cockatoos and Thornbills – made it on to the album. “The thing I loved about Judith Wright’s book was that at the same time as the lightness, there’s also always the cruelty, the savagery, the threat of danger from the natural world.” He quotes from Thornbills:
Oh let no enemies
Drink the quick wine of blood
That leaps in their pulse of praise.”
Dooley loves the song. The skittering, bouncing music reminds him specifically of yellow-rumped thornbills, he says, one of 12 currently recognised Australian species. “It’s that synaesthesia,” he enthuses. “I was visualising the birds, the music suited what these birds do.” Even I look at him a little doubtfully at this point.
“Well, that’s a tribute to her words,” Kelly says politely. But Dooley’s not wrong, either: look along the fenceline of any paddock in south-eastern Australia and you may well see a flock of yellow-rumped thornbills, tiny balls of feathers, skittering and bouncing along, like Alice Keath’s banjo and Tim Nankervis’ cello moves through the song.
It’s freezing cold. Kelly kindly lends his Rockdogs scarf to me. On the shore, there are dozens of stilts – elegantly ridiculous black-and-white waders with bright pink legs that are, well, like stilts. Further away is a lone yellow-billed spoonbill, a bit bigger than an ibis, with a bill that is indeed yellow and spoon-shaped. Offshore, the gannets are starting to take flight.
“There’s still so much more to discover about birds,” Kelly says. “Like the gannets, when they fish, they fish by gender – the males fish at different times to the females. Just, why? Why is that happening? And they’ve been around for so long, they were around long before humans.”
The white blobs are rising in the air, circling now. But they no longer look like blobs: on the wing, they’re as streamlined as arrows and just as lethal. Gannets have spongy plates at the base of their dagger-like bills that cushion them on impact as they dive into the water, and nostrils that close over to stop water rushing in.
One by one, they wheel in flight, close their wings, and plummet vertically into the bay face-first, from a height of around 80 metres. Plumes of water geyser from the surface, before they struggle back up for air and hoist themselves aloft again.
And the three of us fall silent, just watching, with no music except for that made by the birds themselves, warbling away as they keep a wary eye on us, too.
First published in The Guardian, 25 August 2019