Things I learned from last weekend’s paddle from Lake Macquarie’s Shingle Splitters’ Point to Dora Creek:
1. When kayaking on the largest permanent salt water lake in the southern hemisphere, always remember fetch. Fetch can defined as the distance of open water over which wave-creating winds blow. Where does the word “fetch” come from, I hear you ask? From the cries of sinking kayakers as they disappear behind the white tops: “Fetch the emergency services!”
(Don’t be deceived by the apparent smoothness of the lake surface here – once the wind picked up I was too busy thinking about staying afloat to take any pictures)
2. The lyrics of Kenny Rogers’ immortal song “The Gambler” don’t just apply to card sharks, but also amateur bird photographers. “You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done”.
Because the few seconds you spend checking to see if that wildly optimistic over-the-shoulder shot caught the hunting osprey mid-dive, will be ones in which the hungry raptor wheels around and splashes down again, right next to your boat. And flies off before you can get the lens cap off your camera.
3. While adult Australasian darters are the most sinuously elegant of birds, poetry in snake-like motion, their offspring are actively disturbing.
What is it about these baby darters? They’re very very fluffy. Like a gorgeous soft baby panda. A delightfully fluffy decapitated panda with the head of a snake. A sweet duo of snake-panda in a nest white-washed with guano. And they didn’t think much of me either.
In South America, they’ve found are darters in the fossil record that weighed 17 kilos – more than eight times as heavy as these not-insubstantial characters. Just imagine how unnerving it would be in a kayak under that humungous reptilian chick when it let fly.
There’s no danger of modern darters – anhinga to give them their formal name – vanishing like their massive forebears. Like humans, darters like deep, still water not choked with vegetation, as long as there are overhanging trees to nest and perch on. And they don’t mind introduced fish like carp and perch, so they’re doing better than birds that prefer marshy wetlands or are fussier about their diet.
A few weeks back, my brother and I watched with a fine male hunting from the shore of Lake Macquarie in the golden light of the late afternoon. Even after the bird vanished below, we could follow its progress by the tiny fry that leapt from the water. The sinuous head reappeared moments later, a fish impaled on its beak. It took him a few goes, but finally he managed to flick it into the air and gulp it down.
I’ve seen plenty of snake birds, as they’re sometimes called, over the last couple of years as I’ve paddled around the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury and the rivers and lagoons along the Central Coast. Familiarity hasn’t dulled my enthusiasm for them – the males geometric abstracts, the females russet in the sun, their elegant necks holding poses as striking and absurd as those of modern dancers. But I’ve never seen the young ones before.
Darters breed erratically, it seems, whenever and wherever conditions are good. They will fly long distances – up to 2000 ks in the non-breeding season – and will nest inland when floodwaters linger. Maybe the stretch of Dora Creek where I saw them is a regular breeding spot. In one fecund tree I saw two empty nests, along with two brim full of snake-pandas and guano. Or perhaps the vacant real estate belonged to other waterbirds, since darters seem to like to nest in company. Down the river, egrets, cormorants and partly-fledged juveniles were hanging out on a branch together, not far from this perturbed looking male with his runaway egg.
One way or another, the younger chicks seem to prefer intimacy to solitude, finding comfort, as they crouched in their absurdly flimsy nest, in the softness of their siblings’ breasts and the predatory encircling of each others’ snakey necks.