Nine herons hunting… could it be the beginning of a carol for Christmas-in-July? Not a bad sound track, perhaps, for a paddle on a wintry 25th down Mooney Mooney Creek.
There were (roundabout) eight cormorants, some of them cacking….
… three posing pelicans
… two eagles soaring
And a kingfisher in a mangrove tree (no photo, naturally).
But realistically, I could only get all the way through the twelve days of anti-Christmas by including the many invisible mud-loving animals that all those herons were stalking. And I’m not quite sure if I have the alliterative and euphonious verbs to use for them. Twelve isopods…. idling? Eleven worms a-wobbling? Ten crustaceans crawling?
Even if it can’t offer swans a-swimming or geese a-laying, Mooney Mooney does pretty well for both visible and invisible animals, considering how damn noisy it is.
I first started dreaming about paddling this creek as we swooped above it, across the lofty freeway bridge. It’s a gorgeous structure, if you are partial to well-formed concrete: elegantly curved, arching vertiginously above the treetops of Brisbane Water National Park. An endless stream of cars and semis cross the valley on the F1, the main route north from Sydney, on the tallest road bridge in Australia, the still water 75 metres below.
The Pacific Highway, looping its way down to its own modest crossing point, has plenty of traffic too: bikers switchbacking their way up the old road. This Saturday, I didn’t see a soul in three hours on the river, but for a mile or more I could hear the hiss of compression brakes and the revving of engines.
And yet, if I had to pick a place, of all the waterways I’ve paddled so far, to find and fail to take a picture of a kingfisher, this rowdy river is the one I’d choose. The traffic noise seems to keep the humans at bay, but not the herons. What’s going on with the wildlife around here?
There’s plenty of evidence that traffic noise bothers birds. I particularly like a recent experiment where researchers planted speakers in a long line to create a phantom road. That’s just what the freeway feels like from Mooney Mooney Creek – a road you can hear all over but mostly can’t quite see. The phantom road, with its invisible traffic masking mating and alarm calls and the sound of approaching predators, cut numbers by a quarter, and drove two species away from the area entirely.
Some cope better than others. High pitched songs are less likely to be blocked out by the roar of traffic, and so squeaky voiced birds are more likely to hang around in noisy places. Species with a little vocal versatility often start to sing a bit higher, a little slower or in purer tones, just to be heard.
If you’re carnivorous, being able to hear the critters scuttling around in the bushes is a boon. Seeds and nectar are less likely to make a break for it, so background noise seems to be less of a big deal for the plant-eaters. Also, birds that feed on the ground seem to mind the noise less – perhaps there’s more obstacles between them and the din.
Everyone agrees that in loud places, birds spend more time on the alert for predators – a high maintenance lifestyle. That said, some nest-robbers are also put off by the rumble of traffic, so for some species, chicks hatching in noisy nests have a better chance of survival. If you can handle the decibels, you may have a competitive advantage.
What does all this tell me about the plentiful birdlife of Mooney Mooney Creek? Thinking about it, I saw high-pitched squeakers, mud-hugging stalkers and sharp-eyed hunters (see, I’m getting into the swing of this avian carol singing thing!) I’m guessing striated herons don’t echolocate for crabs. This white-faced pair were happy to ignore not just the distant thunder of trucks but the much more immediate annoyance of a nosy canoeist with a camera.
“The mud is like a Christmas tree”, my eight year old said, hearing the story of my low-tide adventures, “and the bird were excited to find all their presents”.
When the eating is this good, it seems, the soundtrack scarcely matters.
Francis, CD and Jesse R Barber (2013). A framework for understanding noise impacts on wildlife: an urgent conservation priority. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 305–313. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/120183
Patricelli, Gail L. and Jessica L. Blickley (2006) “Avian communication in urban noise: causes and consequences of vocal adjustment” from The Auk 123(3): 639-49