Tagged: Sean Dooley

Birding with Paul Kelly

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

Paul Kelly’s avian epiphany

Songwriter Paul Kelly spent most of his life “not noticing birds very much at all”. Then suddenly he opened his eyes and they were everywhere. To some extent, the songwriter’s eyes were opened for him. One influence was his partner of the past four years, Siân Darling.

Another connection was friend Sean Dooley, editor of BirdLife Australia’s quarterly magazine and author of The Big Twitch. Kelly met Dooley kicking a footy around St Kilda with a bunch of other locals. (Dooley remembers Kelly’s prowess: “He’s very skilled – runs low to the ground, deceptively quick, and from memory a raking low, left-foot kick.”)

Then Anna Goldsworthy, from the Seraphim Trio, contacted Kelly suggesting they team up with classical composer James Ledger. Kelly had worked with Ledger on an earlier collaboration, Conversations With Ghosts, and the latest idea was to set poems about animals to music.

Kelly liked the idea and wanted to work with both the Seraphim Trio and Ledger (with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath) but thought the subject too broad. Narrowing it down to the avian world, he began poring through hundreds of poems.

The end result is Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds, which adapts works by Emily Dickinson (“Hope” is The Thing With Feathers), Judith Wright (Thornbills; Black Cockatoos), Thomas Hardy, W B Yeats and others for musical performance. An album is due later this year.

Kelly says collaborators were all determined to include a song about a magpie. Dennis Glover’s The Magpies is the final song in the cycle: “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed / And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.”

Ironically, Glover is a New Zealander, and across the Tasman, where magpies were artificially introduced, the bird has become a pest. “The things you learn,” Kelly says – to which the magpie might simply quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle in reply.

Kelly is conscious, at least in hindsight, of environmental themes beginning to filter through his work, even before last year’s album Nature. “The beauty of this project is that it’s opened up a whole other world to me and that’s a never-ending world,” he says.

For Ledger, the whole other world was musical. “I’m sort of being dragged over to his rock/pop world and he’s being dragged over to my classical world, for want of a better word, and the end result is somewhere in the middle,” he says.

Kelly has a different perspective. “Different genres of music are much closer together than people think,” he says, asked how his folk-rock chords and Ledger’s more baroque arrangements work together. “It’s voice and notes in the end.”

They both agree, though, that Ledger ended up more in Kelly’s world, as Ledger began to email songs with guide vocals and melodies through to Kelly. Previously, he had stuck to arranging and embellishing. “I don’t know if I moved that much towards him!” Kelly says.

Ledger, however, was tickled pink. “To hear Paul singing the songs I had sung back to me was quite a thrill, because Paul has got that incredibly distinctive voice that most Australians would recognise.”

And for Kelly the project continued to open his eyes not only to birds, but to a new way of writing songs after 40 years. Despite his reputation, Kelly has always insisted he found writing lyrics the hardest and that the music always came first.

Conversations With Ghosts was the first time Kelly had tried to put music to other people’s words; after that came his Shakespearean project Seven Sonnets And A Song. Before that, he felt writing lyrics first would force the music to “run on too rigid a rail”.

Since then, a key has turned. “In a way, it takes the pressure off. I come up with music much easier than I do words, so to know there’s this whole world of great lyrics and poems and words out there that can be tapped is exciting.”

Naturally, there is a conservation message in Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds. “In each program for the shows, we pick a bird that’s under threat and then put a link to an organisation where people can do something about it,” Kelly says.

More recently, he says, he’s been reading about the crashing numbers of insects. “People are starting to realise that the biomass of insects is dropping all over the world and people have started to realise that we’d better measure this.”

After all, without insects, there’ll be no more quardle oodle doodling, or much of anything else. “It’s impacting birds, along with all the things you know – the loss of habitat and climate change, pesticides and so on – it’s a calamity happening right in front of us.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2019

Twitch and shout

For a bird-watching exercise, you don’t see a lot of birds on the Twitchathon. If you’ve never heard of this obscure sporting event, it’s a race: teams of birders pile into their cars and tear around the state, attempting to see or hear as many species as possible within an eight or 24-hour period. Because time is of the essence, once a bird’s call is recognised, actually spotting it becomes redundant. It’s on the list: go!

For this year’s Victorian event on 7-8 November, coordinated by Birdlife Australia as a fundraiser for endangered species, I was in one of the handful of 24-hour teams: the Manky Shearwaters. (It’s a pun on a type of seabird, the Manx Shearwater.) Others were in the more civilised eight-hour race: the Lame Ducks; the Filthy Flockers, the Soft Cockatiels. I’m not sure what lends birders towards this kind of self-deprecation.

There’s a hint of madness about the 24-hour version, though, which has necessitated some safety modifications over the years. Once, teams finished at the offices of what used to be Birds Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. With teams driving around the clock and totals docked by one bird for every five minutes after the appointed time, it was a speed and fatigue-fuelled lawsuit waiting to happen.

Now, with the re-badged and relocated organisation’s offices in the city, teams simply phone in their totals at the Twitchathon’s end from wherever they finish. It all works on an honour system: three members out of a team of four must agree on each species that has been seen or heard. So, too, does the mandatory three hours’ rest and a commitment to rotate drivers.

More than ever, even in the age of digital photography, which can be so easily manipulated, a birder’s reputation is everything. The punishment for those who break the code – such as the observer who confessed to hoaxing a house crow to falsely claim the Victorian “Big Year” record in 2014 – is disqualification, social exclusion, and a lifetime supply of derision.

The trick to the Twitchathon is twofold. The first is covering as many different habitats as possible, for each ecosystem supports its own distinctive array of avifauna (hence the long hours spent behind the wheel). The second is not trying too hard to find rare birds; rather, it’s about not dipping on the common ones. It’s surprisingly easy to miss, say, a rainbow lorikeet when you’re the one on the fly.

Team member Sean Dooley – editor of Birdlife Australia’s quarterly magazine and for over a decade the record-holder for the most number of birds seen within Australia in a calendar year (703, if you must know) – says part of the allure of the ’Thon is the thrill of seeing a plan come together. “I just want that perfect day of birding, where everything falls into place and you don’t miss out on a thing.”

Which, naturally, never happens. But there’s a lot of what’s known in the game as “sussing” in the weeks and months beforehand – checking out locations, finding hot-spots, avoiding dead zones, and crunching numbers: charting distances and times to destinations, working out how many hours (or minutes) to spend in each of them, and calculating how many species can be relied upon to reveal themselves.

The Manky Shearwaters’ quest begins at the Nobbies, which juts into Western Port Bay from the far end of Phillip Island. We’ve got a telescope locked onto a Peregrine Falcon, on its eyrie above Seal Rocks. Behind us, a penguin’s backside sticks half-way out of its wooden box burrow. Cormorants and a lone oystercatcher are visible on the rocks below; around us gulls and terns mill and scream.

IMG_5216
L/R: Chris Watson, Sean Dooley, Steve Davidson

They’re all on the list within seconds of the 4pm start, then we’ve got just a few minutes to scan the ocean. I spot a surprise: the hulking shape of a Giant-Petrel close inshore. Sadly, though, not close enough: where the bill tip of a Southern Giant-Petrel is pale green, a Northern Giant-Petrel’s is reddish. And none of us can confirm which it is before it veers away. Bird identification often rests on such details.

Within an hour, our total is up to 71. But we’re already missing species, too. Observation Point fails to produce either Whimbrel or Eastern Curlew, large shorebirds that can usually be relied upon here. Fisher’s Wetland, which held a pair of Black-tailed Native-hens half an hour before the count, is closed. We won’t see them again. A sick Sulphur-crested Cockatoo sits forlornly on a lump of seaweed in the salt water.

From there it’s off to Bunyip State Park, near Gembrook in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. It feels more like rally driving: at one point we nearly collect a four-wheel drive head-on. We pull up on blind corners with nary a thought for what’s around the bend. It’s wet forest country, and nearly everything we add is heard rather than seen; calls we have to parse from the expert mimicry of the local lyrebirds.

After listening for night birds (unnerving nearby campers with bad imitations of the falling bomb-like whistle of Sooty Owls), we drive to Terrick Terrick National Park, in the state’s far north, taking our designated rest period between 2.45 and 5.45am. Once, the native grasslands here were the Victorian stronghold for the endangered Plains-wanderer; now they’re down to just a handful of pairs.

DSC01018By the next morning, this sense of loss is becoming a theme. Birds are scarce. As we scour the box-ironbark woodlands of Heathcote, struggling to locate previously common species like Speckled Warblers and Scarlet Robins, Dooley reflects on the silence: “Whenever I come into these forests in particular, no matter what I see, I’m just struck with this overwhelming sense of tragedy that haunts the forest.

“I palpably, viscerally feel the loss of the birds that used to be here. It becomes this really bittersweet exercise. You could go through your notebooks, and you probably wouldn’t notice that much of a difference in terms of what species you’ve logged over the years. You’d probably still manage to find them, but what’s not reflected is the lower numbers, and the extra time and effort it takes to do so.”

We finish at the sewerage treatment works at Werribee. It’s a Mecca for waterfowl and waders but, again, numbers are down. We have to search for a Curlew Sandpiper, a handsome Siberian migrant which once occurred in flocks of thousands here over summer. The population using the east Asian-Australasian flyway is now critically endangered due to habitat loss in the Yellow Sea.

A Freckled Duck (on the wondrously named Lake Borrie) is our 200th species as we approach the finish line; we’ll only add one more. There’s a few tame high-fives on the stroke of four but, mostly, the feeling is anti-climactic, like a drawn AFL grand final: players slumped to the turf, not knowing if they’ve won or lost. The results won’t be announced for another two days. We’ve covered just shy of 1000 kilometres.

As it turns out, we could have knocked off at midnight: our total of 201 beats our less experienced 24-hour campaigners by more than 80, but well short of the record of 225, the sort of total only attainable with a lot of luck in an exceptional year. Still, we’ve raised a fair amount of cash towards the protection of mallee birds, some of which are only a single bad bushfire away from permanent obliteration.

Later, once our bodies have sufficiently uncrinkled themselves from the vehicle, talk will turn to 2016 – the extra time we’ll spend sussing out sites; the mistakes we won’t make; what parts of our route we’ll change to save time or potentially add new species to the list. All in search of that perfect birding day which, like a rainbow, seems to recede further and further away every year.

First published in The Saturday Paper, December 19 2015