My default attitude towards birds is indifference. Except for the early morning cooing of birds that disturbs my slumber, mostly I don’t notice them. Birds are everyday and almost everywhere: in backyards, in the middle of cities, trapped inside shopping centres or airports.
The everydayness of birds is a quality that fosters avid admiration in some. Writer and The Birdist blogger Nicholas Lund says the accessibility of birds as a connection to nature is what drew him to birding. The rarest bird he’s seen is one he discovered after making a wrong turn in a housing development. ‘Instead of trying to block time to enjoy the natural world,’ Lund notes, ‘birders learn to tune in to the natural world that’s always around them.’
Those who do tune in seem to find the pursuit and discovery of birds a source of endless fascination and delight. Australian poet and birder Brett Dionysius describes seeing a new bird species as ‘like reading a new fabulous poem’. Dionysius’ poems are often about birds, taking their point-of-view or imbuing them with personality. In the poem ‘Black-throated finch’, he describes how the tiny birds drink
As if they are guilty celebrities scoffing a midnight treat
Their black cravats panting with excitement
Dionysius’ poems are also often about their downfall. Because once you become aware of birds, it is hard to ignore the threats facing them. The black-throated finch is a bird Dionysius has never seen, and it’s possible he’ll never get the chance. Endangered and elusive, the finches used to live all along north-eastern Australia, but are now extinct in New South Wales and sighted infrequently in parts of north and central Queensland.
The finch was spotted a few years ago by birders surveying a patch of central Queensland north of Alpha, on a farm and nature reserve called Bimblebox. It mattered a great deal at the time, because Bimblebox sits atop coal reserves that Waratah Coal, owned by Clive Palmer, wanted to extract from the ground. A rare bird had the potential to interrupt Palmer’s plans, but only briefly: both state and federal governments eventually approved the mine.
The project remains shrouded in uncertainty, with no holes yet to be dug, due to Clive Palmer’s financial woes – his Queensland nickel refinery went into voluntary administration in early 2016 – and reduced global demand for coal.
While there’s still hope, supporters continue to rally to keep Bimblebox a place for birds: 153 different species have been recorded there. One such advocate is artist and bird lover Jill Sampson. Sampson had made a move back to her family farm in South Burnett in 2010 only to discover the threat of mining loomed large. ‘Local talk was about exploration of minerals in every corner of rural living. I realised landholders have no means or rights to keep their land for agricultural production, for wildlife or even for their home,’ she said.
‘I thought if we can’t save Bimblebox, which was a protected nature refuge as well as operating sustainable beef production, then we could never hope to save the little farm I loved and had believed would be there throughout my life and my children’s lives,’ Sampson said. Nature Refuge agreements are signed between land owners and the government to protect conservation values in perpetuity – and this will be the first time such a covenant has been broken for mining.
As an artist herself, Sampson’s first instinct was to contact Bimblebox’s owners about bringing artists onto the property to creatively document the land and its wildlife. From this the Bimblebox Art Project was born, which has seen annual artists camps held on the reserve, with works being presented through exhibitions held across the country.
Sampson developed a deep affinity for Bimblebox and especially its birdlife. ‘When you live on Bimblebox for a few days, as the noise of your 1000km drive, the meeting of new friends and the general buzz of organising yourself to get there recedes – it is the quiet that begins to take you into the landscape,’ she told me. ‘But it isn’t really quiet. The birds are ever-present, their calls everywhere, and their movements, often caught only in the corner of your eye as you go about your day.’
It’s an avian world most people don’t get to experience. ‘They greet you on the fence-line as you enter the property for the first time – rainbow bee-eaters, wood swallows, thornbills and then Emus, sometimes with chicks. Throughout the night, owls and other night birds call near and far, while in the morning the dawn chorus enthralls everyone. It starts with one lone call, that gets repeated, others join and then it’s a cacophony of calls.’
In 2013 Sampson began to ask printmakers to create a work for each type of bird found on Bimblebox; it was the start of an incredible collaboration. Artworks were sent in from all corners of the country and around the world. The scope of the project grew. Brett Dionysius contributed his ‘Black-throated finch’ poem and joined Sampson in calling for other poets and writers to document one of the 153 birds. Bestselling author and environmentalist Di Morrissey wrote a piece about the black falcon. Writers recorded a spoken version of their piece, which were mixed with a musical interpretation of each bird’s call.
Some of the prints are unapologetically political. Rew Hanks’ depiction of the black-throated finch, The Coal-throated finch, portrays miner Gina Rinehart wearing a hardhat emblazoned with ‘No Fly Zone’. Other artworks are equally as passionate although gentler in style. There are beautiful, realistic, and poignant images, such as Milly Formby’s Blue-winged kookaburra (Dacelo leachii) museum skins where the bird is shown as a lifeless, curated specimen.
Writers, too, responded with passion for their bird subjects, using attributes of species to create elaborate impressions of the personalities and private lives of birds. South Australian Alicia King lovingly describes the ‘gypsy style’ of the Glossy Ibis:
I dream about your slender limbs, your hips, your eyes, your come-get-me grin
I’ve seen you standing at the water’s edge, your beak just parted and your neck outstretched
In The Australian Bustard #1, Kirsten Hannaford writes:
A bird of few
words, you prefer to scrutinize, study the day’s narrative,
make quiet retreat. Unless, of course, you’re headed
to the lek – to shake, sing, and perform your ‘boom boom
baby let’s go back to my room’ inflated throat sac of song
Whether the anthropomorphic ibises and bustards of the ‘Bimblebox 153 Birds’ exhibition can attract audiences and induce public outcry about the destruction of the birds’ habitat is yet to be seen. The exhibition had several showings in Brisbane in 2015, including the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and will appear at Gympie Regional Gallery later this year.
Sampson would love to take the unique and complex exhibition all across Australia. She believes in art as a way to connect and create a dialogue with people about the loss of Australia’s natural environment, and the animals that rely on it. But the outlook is grim.
The ubiquitousness of birds that allows us access to nature even in the middle of an airport is also illusory. A global study of pollinating birds shows more are moving towards extinction than away from it. It’s not just those who love birds that are affected when ecosystems dwindle: global pollination services that provide the food and plant materials humans need are estimated to be worth more than US$215 billion.
Habitat loss is a major cause of decline in bird species. Pockets of biodiversity like Bimblebox that support rich birdlife are impossible to replicate. You can’t simply move these birds on, as Clive Palmer suggested when he retorted, ‘Fortunately, the black-throated finch has wings and can fly.’
The question is, where will they land? Continued indifference to the plight of birds means all of our fates are up in the air.