I had my Local Hero moment in the lonely, sea-washed phone box at AdventureBay on BrunyIsland one morning, a phone call to the metropolis that became a communication with nature.
For those who don’t know of the film Local Hero, it tells of a young American oil company executive who is sent to Scotland to persuade the residents of a remote, picturesque fishing village to sell up so a giant oil refinery can be built on their ancestral land.
To take orders in secret from head office in Texas, the oil executive has to use a telephone booth on the quay, from where he one night witnesses the astral lightshow, the aurora borealis.
The beautiful and mysterious lightshow, and the light in sheds on the traditional and happy lifestyle of the people of the village, puts the oil executive’s own existence, devoid of the spirit of community and the wonder of nature, in a different perspective.
My call was a little more mundane, phoning the Mercury newsroom to make sure my latest bird column had got through, because I had a bad line from the commuter terminal I was using on Bruny and I had mislaid my mobile phone.
It still nonetheless provided a link between not just the city nestling beneath the blue silhouette of Mt Wellington I could see in the distance, but a largely unspoilt sea and beach environment as seen by Tasmania’s first Aboriginal inhabitants, and explorers like Captains Cook and Bligh who came to Adventure Bay after them.
An early morning stroll in sight of the phone box, killing time before the Mercury had opened for business, had revealed a threatened species, hooded plovers, scurrying across the virgin sand, still to be disturbed by walkers and their dogs. And out at sea I could make out the shapes of shearwaters dotting the horizon, rising and falling with the wind.
Oystercatchers probed the wet sand washed by waves and further along the beach I could see a pair of sooty oystercatchers forsaking their usual environment of rocky shore for a spot of sun-bathing at the tide line.
I have bird-watched from some strange and unfamiliar places, usually killing time during my reporting career waiting for offices to open, or contacts to get back to me, but there are none as magical, or beautiful as the lone call box overlooking the ocean at Adventure Bay.
It might be a little eccentric for a birder to have a “phone box checklist” but I recall a booth in Scotland from which I saw common eiders, bobbing on the stretch of water that links the Scottish highlands with the Isle of Skye, and a booth in the northern Botswana town of Francistown from where ground hornbills probed the long grass on a vacant lot for snakes.
And closer to home, a box on the outskirts of Townsville where I received an angry stare from a black-shouldered kite perched on a nearby telegraph pole. The jangling of change for the phone had scared off the zebra finches the kite had eyed for prey.
Now, on a summer’s morning on BrunyIsland, I counted the birds seen from the AdventureBay box: a gannet plunging into the ocean and emerging with a wriggling, silver fish; welcome swallows and tree martins hawking flying insects; crescent and new holland honeyeaters after blossom. I thought that a flock of fast-flying swift parrots, darting between flowering blue gums near the seashore, was the highlight for my Telstra checklist but there was a final surprise.
Hanging up the phone, I could see a group of holidaymaking bird-watchers I had met the previous day hurrying across the street, and I followed them to the beach.
I soon realised why there was excitement in the air. Out on the ocean, about a kilometre off-shore, were thousands of short-tailed shearwaters. They had suddenly arrived while I had been on the phone.
Without exaggeration, the ocean was covered with birds, the water boiling at the edges of this black carpet that was spread about four kilometres from east to west.
A birder far more experienced than myself, who knows his seabirds, estimated that the flock of shearwaters numbered at least 15,000 birds.
My Local Hero moment might not have involved viewing the borealis in its Australian form, the Aurora Australis or the southern lights, and I’m still looking for it at night, but for the time being I’m happy to settle for 15,000 shearwaters instead.