Willie Nelson is singing on my car radio he’s “gunna chase the sky forever” and on a winter’s day, I’m doing the same. The brilliant blue sky, dotted with fluffy white clouds, certainly appears never ending as I head north along the East Coast, tapping out the beat of the tune on the steering wheel.
Willie Nelson is talking of stealing a silver stallion to ride to the horizon. I search for another gift of nature, not to steal but to revel in its sublime beauty and perhaps get a glimpse into its remarkable life-cycle which sees it chase the sky, and the winds and rains, like no other species.
It is a bird born of the outback but I search for it today on the saltmarshes of Little Swanport. The banded stilt might be classed as a “shorebird” but it manages in its mysterious and magical way to straddle two completely different worlds, that of the seashore and that of the great brown lands of the interior.
The stilt – as its name suggests, perched on long spindly legs with a long straight beak to match – is nomadic, the gypsy of the bird world. It can turn up anywhere, at any time. Unlike other species, it is not tied to the seasons. Nesting is not annual, not in regular locations or even tied to the seasonal events like the flowering or seeding of particular plants, or the invertebrates attracted to them.
When it does breed, it is far from the coast, in lakes filled by unpredictable and infrequent rains.
Although often seen on mainland coasts, in Tasmania sightings of the stilts are rare and so when a reader contacted me to say that he had stilts roosting and feeding in the saltmarsh literally at the bottom of his garden, I couldn’t resist the urge to leap into my car.
In fact, I felt like the stilt itself, when it senses rain has fallen in the distant outback, and feels compelled to travel in that direction.
To better understand the movements of the birds, researchers at Deakin University tagged 21 banded stilts with satellite transmitters two years ago.
One bird flew to a saline wetland more than 1000 km away in less than two and half days. One tagged bird made overnight flights of 300 to 600 kilometres.
While ecologists are yet to understand how the birds sense rain has fallen thousands of kilometres away, they speculate they may be responding to changes in barometric pressure, the sound of distant thunder or the smell of rain carried on long-range winds.
Armed with all this knowledge, and speculation, about the stilts, it was with great excitement that I approached the stilt site at Little Swanport. However, as so often happens with sightings, the birds – a big flock of about 30 of them – had moved on before I could get there.
I searched all the saltmarsh I could cover in the immediate area and then, as the sun began to set, I looked to the distant horizon. Somewhere out there, the stilts were chasing a pastel yellow sky.