Do birds find me, or do I find them? I’ve never been able to work it out but it seems no matter where I go, in the most unlikely of places, interesting species turn up.
This thought came to mind on a rare non-birding outing when I took the recently-launched MR-1 ferry to the Museum of Old and New Art at Berriedale.
Until that time, I must have been the only person in Tasmania not to have visited MONA.
“And you can leave the binoculars at home, this is going to be a day free of bird-watching,” my wife had insisted as we left for the ferry terminal, recalling many a weekend excursion interrupted by chases for eagles and hawks seen along the route to our the destination.
I wasn’t in the mood to protest because I had overdone the birding, monitoring the autumn migration each day on Mt Wellington and was in need of a non-birding rest.
The gaily-painted fast ferry all the same offered a view of the Derwent I had not seen before. I had spent days watching its swift progress from up high on the mountain and was eager to give it a go.
Not more than 10 minutes into the trip, on the opposite bank of the Derwent to the Nyrstar zinc works, the ferry suddenly slowed and the captain announced with joy that a white-bellied sea eagle was sitting in a gum overlooking the placid waters of the river. For a brief moment thoughts of the art museum were forgotten for the passengers as they craned their necks for a view of the magnificent eagle, a male in prime, crisp white-and-grey plumage.
My slowness in going to MONA since it opened had nothing really to do with birding commitments, but more to do with my taste in art. I’m not really one for installations, and art that is designed to shock and confront. During a lifetime in the news business I have been confronted and shocked enough and I have always preferred a more tranquil form of art, that of the great British landscape artists of the early 1800s and later the Barbizon School in France, artists who explored “impressionism” in the fields as Monet, Van Gough and Renoir painted everyday life in the streets.
In this vein, I found myself irresistibly drawn to images of birds, and animals, in the galleries of MONA. I was fascinated by the beauty of a stuffed forest raven, ignoring a wider message about mortality contained in an exhibit which also contained two urns containing human ashes, and then was drawn to a treasure trove of nature’s art along with that of the hand of man in the Theatre of the World Exhibition. In Sidney Nolan’s Dog and Duck Hotel of 1948 I found myself focusing on the Australian shelduck in the picture instead of the wider message of translocation and loneliness presented by an outback pub.
By the time I had identified a stuffed masked owl as the Tasmanian sub-species with a richer colour of russet feathers, my wife announced it was time to leave, saying she would come on her own on another occasion.
The impact of MONA was not lost on me, however. Instead of looking for crested terns and black-faced cormorants on the return voyage my thoughts were firmly with a sculpture of a suicide bomber I had seen in the galleries, a work depicting the beauty of the human form rising from a base of entrails and blood and bone. I had been shocked and confronted after all. And when I saw the sea eagle again, this time well back from the river, I hardly gave it a second glace. Anyway, I didn’t have my binoculars with me.