FIRST ENCOUNTERS BY PAULA PEETERS
Five years ago, I was asked to create a colouring book about the Plains-wanderer and its riverina grassland habitat. So in the high summer of 2015, off I went to NSW’s Hay Plain in search of this strange bird.
In the morning, I walked across low sandhills between Black Box trees. They spread their arms wide, dead claws arching over and reaching down. A Crested Pigeon whoo-ed, and Red-rumped Parrots made high-pitched squiggles with their voices. Noisy Miners argued about something. Choughs flew about in conspiring groups like teenage girls. Beyond the trees, I came out onto the grasslands.
To me, it’s a harsh, dry, sun-blasted landscape. Most of the plants are dead and crispy.
How could this little bird survive in such a place?
How could I create an interesting colouring book from this bleak expanse of nothingness?
But then, I looked closer. Each plant is gamely surviving in the 40-plus degree heat of summer. Each plant is spiky and plucky and tough and ruggedly tenacious, in its own way.
As I walked, I imagined—from the dried husks of plants—this same place in full-flower, last spring. Here’s a field of pink Ptilotus Lamb’s Tails, interspersed with golden Chrysocephalum Paper Daisies. Then, in this patch, the golden Paper Daisies dominate, and are mingled with white-petalled Rhodanthe daisies, the white flowers of the Grey Germander, and all around the soft blues of the various saltbushes and copperburrs. Grasses would have been growing up and all around: light green with fresh growth, seed heads poking up and waving over. Tiny crinkled rosettes of the saltbush seeds are still plastered on some Maireana stems, like miniscule satellite dishes, miniature hollyhock towers. Absent now (hidden as seeds and bulbs in the soil, but no doubt beautiful last spring) are the nodding heads of pink and purple pea-flowers; the slight, erect garlands of Vanilla Lilies and Early Nancies; and the white-pink open faces of Convulvulus, the bindweed, on scrambling stems.
But I still hadn’t seen the Plains-wanderer, the lead role, the star of the show.
The sun had set, and it was still 38 degrees. The rising moon hung like an orange medallion over the wide brown plain.
And then Matt Cameron and David Parker came to my rescue with a spotlight and 4WD. Once the light left the sky we drove slowly over the grasslands, spotlight combing the ground.
Finally, there it was, among the straggly plants, in the searing heat. Head held high, peering at us gamely with its imperious yellow eyes. Scalloped back, curious upright stance. It tried to walk away from us, tripping over sticks and grasses. It preferred to run rather than fly.
I peered intently though my binoculars, trying to drink it in, to remember. It was the first and might be the last time I ever saw a Plains-wanderer in the wild.
This wide brown expanse is its home. Somehow, (with the help of people like Matt and David), it persists.
By Paula Peeters. Discover more of her writing and artwork at www.paperbarkwriter.com