November 28, 2020. Day 243 In the time of coronavirus and just when I was feeling despairing about the fate of the planet and the degradation of wild places everywhere something unexpected and reassuring appeared like a sign. It happened close to where I live, around a bend in the bay on a blustery, summery Saturday morning. My friend across the inlet had invited me over for a row in the bay. She’d messaged saying ‘Come at high tide for elevenses. I’ll have the kayaks ready’. Her home and its garden spill down the hill to the water’s edge.
Another friend joined us just on the full tide and we set off. This is something my friend likes to do, take a break from making art in her studio to paddle into the inlet where she enjoys a leisurely morning tea drifting on the lazy tide. Today though the wind was scooping the sea into playful wavelets and a decision was made to leave the kayaks on the bank and use the wooden row boat instead. ‘I’ll row you to the shell bank’ she said. Skirt hiked up she pulled the vessel into the sea. We stowed the thermos and picnic basket under the seat in the stern.
The boat bounced on the green water as my friend rowed against the waves, using the considerable strength in her upper arms to manoeuvre the boat while we allowed ourselves to be transported, smiling from ear to ear, me whooping when the water sloshed over the sides, warm and salty onto my legs. I was a child again, carefree, joyful, riding the swell as the boat rode up the side of one wave and down the other. Ahead I could see the tower rising on its promontory, an icon viewable from miles around. I felt, in that moment a deep sense of having found the right place to live, of being where I am meant to be, even though there are still times of disorientation and surprise at how the path through the time of coronavirus, has taken me far from my birthplace, Otautahi, in the south on Te Wai Pounamu.
Stepping through the water, we pulled the boat around the mangroves, avoiding pot holes, and into the shallows. On a patch of pale grit and shell we spread the picnic rug, placing a tea towel at the centre, for the table and then unloading the contents of the picnic basket: vegetarian sandwiches, celery and ricotta sticks, rice crackers and homemade dip and three china cups pale mint in colour, the rim featuring a decorative band of terracotta pink on a dull cocoa grid. We each had the same thought. This was a scene from 'Swallows and Amazons' as we adventurers, much older than the children of course and with more refined tastes, picnicked on the shell bank.
Just then a bird flew in breaking the reverie — a flash of tawny feathers, the white underside with its flush of coppery pink momentarily revealed as it tipped and landed only a metre away. ‘It’s a dotterel,’ exclaimed my other friend. And she was right. It was the rare and endangered New Zealand Dotterel Tūturiwhatu — apparently there are only 1700 of the Northern species left making them more vulnerable even than some species of kiwi. We wondered if there were eggs nearby for November is the breeding season. And would they be okay? Dotterel take such risks, laying their eggs in a scuff of sand that leaves them horribly vulnerable to predators. Here the concern is the high tide that can sometimes swamp the low lying beach.
As I watched the bird hopping staccato-like in a succession of quicksteps drawing an arc around us I was reminded of an experience last year while on a writer’s residency at Karekare. I had been sitting on a sea-worn trunk in the Whatipu scientific reserve, a place where the dotterel is protected, observing the sea, vast and grey and mysterious out in front when a sound broke through my concentration. A dotterel, its eyes sharp and curious, was so close it was almost within arm’s reach. When I swivelled round for a better view it jumped away sounding the alarm.
For a time, keeping still, I continued writing in my journal, aware of the bird nearby. Eventually when I got up to leave there were two birds, not one and they hectored me, working as a team, sounding the alarm with a series of loud insistent cheeps, one on either side furiously attempting to shoo me away. They were pushing me out towards the surf, when I looked inland. And that’s when I saw them, three diminutive birds, no bigger than a seashell, jumping like their parents, only lightly, their calls just peeps…
I remember feeling elated as I walked away thinking to myself 'Two parents plus three babies, that makes five dotterels to expand the dwindling numbers.' I was so pleased I told another person sitting further down on another log writing in his notebook. He looked up and I saw something like hunger in his eyes. ‘Three birds?' He'd seen the eggs only a couple of days ago. Already he was striding down the beach, this man who just happened to be the bird recorder for the entire coastline, to spy the miracle.
I love it when the cosmos offers these serendipitous experiences. I like the circularity too. For here I am exactly a year later viewing the same endangered bird only this time in a vastly different setting, on the edge of a busy harbour encircling a major city. This felt like a sign from Nature that something is going right, that the species of this planet will survive but we must play our part in protecting them.