December 13 2014
Driving up here from Sydney last week I saw a collection of birds in a swampy area outside the little settlement of Craven. Craven is something of a ghost village, with a death sentence on its head. One of the coal mines wants to dig up that particular piece of land where a row of houses sits, so the road is going to be moved some kilometres to the west to accommodate this completely reasonable desire. It hasn’t happened yet and the houses in Craven continue to be inhabited, and the gardens continue to grow, but everything looks a little impermanent and tenuous. I’m not sure if it depends on the price of coal rising or falling, but whatever it is, Craven is situated in limbo.
Outside Craven, on the Gloucester side, is one of the very few straight stretches of road on Buckett’s Way. The rain has filled the ditches with water and any low-lying paddocks with swamps, and it was in one of these temporary swamps that I saw a small group of waterbirds. A number of egrets and two enormous birds, bodies the size of pelicans but with long legs, bodies a rounded mound of black and white feathers and beaks thinner and pointier than a pelican. It was only when I looked in the bird book that I realised how lucky I had been to see them, as they were jabirus. They do, apparently, come as far south as this, although I had always assumed them to be birds of the tropical wetlands.
So this week, as we drove up, I looked very closely as we came out of Craven. Nothing on the swampy area – more swampy than ever, thanks to continuing blissful rain – but then, further into the paddock, it was there again. We did a u-turn at the top of the hill and came back down, got out of the car and crossed the road to watch it stalk, elegant, reaching down and moving on, flamingo-like with its legs that joint backwards. It patrolled the paddock, walking down then back again – big body, stick legs – a complete anomaly in a field that doesn’t usually contain anything more exciting than a cow.