How many years must a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea? The Bob Dylan hit of yesterday was blaring from the car radio as I started on the twisting, winding drive down from Mt Wellington, at the end of another uplifting day of bird-watching.
I was thinking not so much of how long our precious mountain will be around before it is turned to grit and sand but of the here and now and what a vital refuge the mountain provides for wildlife so close to a major city. It also provides a refuge for humans escaping the human world, with a desire to connect to the natural one through bird-watching.
The mountain is wonderful for such an exercise. Not only does it provide many different habitats – attracting different birds – but its trails and the way they hug contours often bring the canopies of even the tallest trees up close and personal, so species which are often tree-top dwellers, like strong-billed honeyeaters, can be viewed easily. The observer can become part of their lives.
I found a party of the usually rare and elusive strong-bills on my latest mountain sortie and my study of them over a couple of hours raised all sorts of questions about their natural history. As I headed home, Bob Dylan might have been posing questions about the longevity of mountains, but I was thinking about the lifespan and lifestyle of the fragile, delicate creatures I had just been viewing. I soon had some answers to my own questions about the loyalty and fealty of these intensely social birds and of our bond to them.
As my car picked up speed to the rhythm of folk-blues, I heard a sharp smack on the windscreen. As bad luck would have it, I saw what looked like a strong-billed honeyeater tumbling away to my right.
Braking rapidly, I glanced in my rear-view mirror and could see a bungle of feathers by the roadside. The bird was not moving. I parked the car quickly and hurried back along the road. The strong-bill was now sitting upright, clearly alive, if a little stunned. The bird – I could not determine whether it was a male or female – was not trying to fly at all, merely blinking and moving its head from side to side.
It looked as though it was concussed and I decided to take the honeyeater back to the car, place it in the darkness and quiet of the glove compartment and drive it to a vet I knew who specialises in the care and rehabilitation of wildlife.
Around me in the woody tea-tree bushes hemming the road I could hear other strongbills twittering nervously, one or two in a small flock fluttering close to assess the fate of one of their own.
I held the injured strongbill in the open palm of my hand as if to reassure the other clan members that, literally, the bird was in good hands. I was to be its protector and when he or she was well I would bring the bird back to this very spot, and release it.
There was no need. The strongbill suddenly raised its head, stretched its wings and lifted from my hand, flying into the tea-trees, to the welcome of the flock. As I watched it vanish into the woods, I pondered the event which had brought us together, and how we had both come to be in this place at this time. Travellers on the same remarkable journey, mine a little longer I know, but a journey all the same in which the beginning is known, the end a mystery. Two creatures on earth bound together by this thing we both know as life.
I’m still thinking these things a little later, seated in the Fern Tree Tavern, sinking a pint of pale ale. A radio is playing and Bob Dylan is singing, When we were born in time.