I do not know why this creature had come to fix its feet in the woodchips of a city garden. But there it was. A goshawk, glaring at me. I was twenty-one years old and I had no idea what it meant to look a raptor in the eyes.
There had been time, and a camera handy, to take this photograph before the goshawk flew off. I showed the photo to a girlfriend, who identified it. She lived above the park, and had an aviary of visitors – her birds. She fed cubes of steak to the local kookaburras. There was a grey fantail who often described its tricky loops amongst the leaves of her backyard.
I envied her closeness with these birds. A few months later, I came upon a cohort of about thirty green rosellas in the flowering gums, on the non-descript street in which I rented a room in the hills of Launceston. I felt suddenly that this was an emblematic animal; they appealed and squealed together, arrowing between the ornamental trees.
There were wattlebirds in my yard then. In a later home, on the other side of the forests of the Cataract Gorge, I watched these bellicose birds hassle and chase the others, including the larger kookaburras. The kookaburras sat forlornly on the powerlines, obsessing over the possibilities of food beneath their beaks. In the spring, black cockatoos frolicked in the hakea hedges, cracking woody seedpods like they were macadamia nuts. One morning we woke up to find a tawny frogmouth wedged on the rail of the rampway down to the backyard, squished up against the weatherboards of our house, in plain sight, undisguised.
Over the years, I suppose, I have been lucky enough to make most parts of this island a base, of one or another kind. In the mountains I have approached bassian thrush, black cockatoo, pink robin; on the coast I have been near to sea-eagles and gannets.
Where I am now living, spinebills cling to the windowframes and trill their choruses. Fantails knit their brows in frustration as the insects that congregate in my room remain secure from this predator’s snippy beak behind a thin pane of glass. Native hens run amok out of sight, down by a neighbour’s dam, their call “affirming the society of life”, as the poet says; indeed, I am at the very least brought a bit of good cheer from their rambunctiousness.
I have been fortunate to spend some months with these birds, on the property of a woman who has generously allowed me to rent a room from her. I am grateful to have been among friends that enjoy avian companions too, and it is not much of an exaggeration to say that almost the best thing of these past months has been interplay with birds: efforts to mimic, to meet them on their terms, to learn their patterns, and perpetually to be surprised by them.
(Some things cannot be personified. I found myself recently underneath the imperturbable flight path of a white goshawk. I imagined her coming from a haunt on the nearby mountain, emerging from her mysterious eyrie. But even with that imagination I did not sense that I had glimpsed anything of her secrets.)
I should say that I eventually did stare into the eyes of a raptor once more. I was hiking up a well-worn path to the plateau; emerging through an aperture where the creek began to fall into the forest, I found, maybe three paces from me, a wedge-tailed eagle. It looked imperiously at me, indignant, as if I had caught it in a moment that was supposed to be private. There was seemingly some reason for it to be sheepish, standing on a boulder slab in its hairy breeches, rather than soaring wildly above that stony country. It radiated intensity, for a brief moment that lasted a lifetime, and then launched upwards, in a spiralling vortex that may well be the shape of life, far beyond my comprehension.