As we make our way across the empty beach, the sun is giving last light to the bubbling clouds. We climb, a group of twenty or so excited nature-lovers, onto the cliff top. Around us, a babbling is beginning in the grasslands. The birds are coming in to nest.
“Sit down”, says Graeme Burgen, the ranger. He is a tall man. Somewhat imposing in the half-light, he towers above us. “You’ll see why in a minute.”
And we crouch on the sandy path as the shearwater birds flap and flutter and dive overhead, shooting in from their long day at sea to their cosy burrows. The whole show lasts about fifteen minutes. Showering the darkening sky with their busy wings.
The Shearwater Festival is bringing attention to these fascinating seabirds. Now in its third year, it garners the community on tiny Philip Island, near Melbourne, to a show of love and care towards their returning travellers. In winter, the shearwater leave their Island nests and fly North to Alaska, where they find the food they need to survive another year. Now, in mid-November, almost to a predictable day, the shearwater return.
For the Aboriginal locals, this was a feeding season for them, too. Aunty Doris Paton tells me that her people would camp here for months, feasting on “mutton birds”, as they are known and then, like the birds, moving to another landscape when the season demanded it.
Scratching our heads with wonder, we watch as Graeme shows us the flight path of the birds. He tracks them using modern computer technology and we see the cycles of a single male bird. Arriving back on Australian shores in November, the bird finds a mate and they lay a single egg. The parents then take it in turns to fly South, to Antarctica, to fill their bird bellies with protein-rich krill. After she has laid, the male takes first turn in the nest, allowing Mum to re-fuel after her delivery. Then they swap, each spending days in the krill fields, putting on weight and bringing home food for their chick.
When March comes around, the parents take a last visit to Antarctica, before embarking on a 12,000km trip north. We can see their route. Up to Japan, then all the way to the Bering Strait, where they make their second home.
The Shearwater Festival is organised by the Deep Listening Project. Championing a way of being which is rich in Aboriginal tradition, Deep Listening is the underlying concept of the art, song, dance and music in which we are all invited to participate.
Known in some Aboriginal languages as “Dadirri”, this way of knowing relies on listening not only with our ears, but with our eyes; with our hearts; and most importantly, with respect. Aunty Doris tells me that in contrast to our Western needs to “fill the gaps”, Aboriginal people are content to sit in silence. “In our way… we’re very comfortable with silence”, she says. “We can sit, and listen, and not talk”.
One of the highlights for me, alongside music from Kutcha Edwards; Yirrmal and the Yolngu Boys and Archie Roach, we have music from the Deep Listening Band. Ron Murray, a Wamba Wamba man, plays didge with the band. He tells me how he uses Deep Listening to “tune in” to his fellow musicians Michael Jordan and Steve Sedergreen. Each performance is improvised, each different, as the piano and the drums dance around the resonances of the didge, around the stories told by Ron. “It’s meditative”, he says.
Back up on the cliff, it’s 5am in the morning and the shearwater birds line up on the path, using it like a runway to get up speed for a take-off. Their bodies, so graceful in the air, so efficient in the water, waddle awkwardly like slender ducks, until their narrow wings catch the breeze and lift them up to the pre-dawn sky. The bobbling from the surrounding tussocks is frenzied now. The “whoop, whoop, whoop” of their wings as they approach airborne brings to mind the first aeroplanes. Surely we must have watched these birds for inspiration?
As the morning breaks overhead, the last shearwaters lift into the pale blue sky, leaving only a few nesting females behind. The landscape quietens, a swamp wallaby raises his gentle face in the distance and the small group of awestruck humans head off for a hearty breakfast.