Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Oystercatchers' Fugue

South West Cape Walk, Part 3


A fickle sun lights offshore rocks, Hidden Bay 
The next morning we’re up late, a little sore perhaps, but still mightily pleased. Despite the worst that weather, mud, spills and strains have thrown at us, we are actually here. We’re out amongst some of the most exquisite wilderness you will ever find: part of more than 600 000 hectares of country in which the presence of the modern human is near enough to zero.


So what is it like being here? How does it feel to be immersersed in such an extraordinarily wild landscape, surrounded by so much that is more-than-human? Need I be ashamed to admit that a fair bit of our focus remains on the ordinary? We still fuss around getting food; preparing it, cooking it, eating it, talking about it and comparing it to the food of others.

We also take care of bodily functions, and – surprisingly perhaps – even talk about such things. If we’ve been out here long enough, and feel/smell/look rank enough, we may even go and bathe.

And then we busy ourselves getting more comfortable. We amuse each other with witty banter, or games, or perhaps readings. We eat and drink some more, and possibly sleep some more, especially if the showers return and our tolerance of wet and cold becomes too low. In other words we do what most other humans do during most other days that they’re suspended between this extraordinary sphere and the heavens above.

But eventually I find the raw wildness, the unfiltered otherness of the place, beginning to work on me. I get up to explore, walking alone along the shore, prodding the wrack for its secrets. Large, slow thoughts begin to coalesce as I witness the patterned, thunderous chaos of the waves, or observe the ponderous progress of bellied rain clouds, ready to empty a part of themselves over me at any moment.


Pied Oystercatchers take flight 

I turn towards the semi-shelter of the rocky shore, where an overhang becomes my poor man’s umbrella. There I settle to watch a pair of sooty oystercatchers (Haemotopus fuliginosus) as they hop and poke their way along the scraggy shore. Sooty oystercatchers are the rarer, and slightly heavier, relations of pied oystercatchers (Haemotopus longirostris). These two species, the former having all black plumage, the latter mixing black with white, have roughly divided the coast between them. Pieds prefer sandy and muddy shores, and sooties tend to stick to rocky shores.


A pair of Sooty Oystercatchers on a more tranquil shore 
I watch and listen as the pair of sooties move slowly southward along the rocks, just above the wave zone. They converse softly, mewling like newborn kittens. Now and again they let out louder semi-alarm calls; mostly they go silently about their business of finding morsels such as crabs, shellfish and other marine invertebrates.

For close on an hour I watch as they perform their fugue along the rocky shore, one hopping, the other following, all to the basso continuo of surging waves and thrashing kelp.

Despite the watery chaos of the rocky shore, I only once see the birds surprised by the wash from a wave. On this occasion, where they have usually hopped out of harms way, one of them actually flaps its wings perfunctorily. With little seeming effort it lifts momentarily, until the wave recedes, then lands afresh of another rock.

Towards the end of the hour Lynne joins me, and we chat quietly about birds and life in general. I wonder aloud whether the birds are watching us back. Do they possibly note – and here I slip into gentle mockery of the naturalist – our “atypical quietness and strangely non-aggressive behaviour”? I have an urge to tell them that perhaps our long, slow openness to what is happening here, now, has begun to slow us to wilderness pace. When the birds finally turn a corner and are beyond sight, we leave our watching post with a deep sense of contentment.

Later, as the weather brightens, the others join us on the beach and we all wander, sometimes all together, sometimes in smaller groups, but more or less in the same direction. We communally share our discoveries, a shell here, some driftwood there. Out to sea Maatsuyker Island and other off-shore islets are occasionally spot-lit by a fickle sun; a dramatic backdrop to our amazingly ordinary meandering.


Tiny treasure: an opalescent screw shell  (photo Lynne Grant) 

By the end of the afternoon we’re surprised, given the weather, to find that a couple of us are sunburnt. But I suspect we’re even more surprised by the treasures we’ve been able to share together just by being here.




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