On our last evening in Port Fairy, I take a walk on Griffith Island with my youngest son, Ben. He’s reluctant to join me, but perks up when I tell him the Mutton birds may arrive.
I’m being hopeful about the Mutton birds. It’s late April and I’m well aware the Shearwater sea birds, as they are correctly named, may have already left on their journey back North, toward the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. On the treck to the fertile feeding grounds of the Arctic ocean, the Shearwaters will risk death from starvation and exhaustion. Some will end up on the shores of Japan and North America, but the majority of them will make it. They are a determined bird.
When I was Ben’s age I remember running wildly along the Island paths in late September as the evening sky came alive with the birds’ arrival back from the Arctic. A black mass first eclipsed the horizon; then wings of vigour, circling and divebombing the land. It was a terrifying, exhilarating experience. I want my son to feel it, but in the months we’ve been in Port Fairy the birds don’t seem to be as numerous. Each evening we watch for them to come back in from feeding during the day – but the mass of wings is lighter than I recall.
Short tailed Shearwaters usually arrive on Griffith Island on the same day in late September. We always remembered to look out for them on the day of the AFL Grandfinal – it was a day for cheering. The birds return to the same nests each year and raise chicks with the same breeding partner. They are constantly threatened by foxes, feral cats and dogs – but still they return and still they leave.
On my walk with Ben, we don’t see any birds return to their nests – perhaps they have already left. Ben sees a wallaby and skips along the stone wall near the lighthouse. He discoveres a rock with a square hole in it and and finds strange bones he thinks may be from a dead Portugese sailor. He hasn’t seen any mutton birds, but his experiences of the Island are rich. We share a love for the place, but we connect to it in different ways.
My youngest son walks in front of me and I think of the day when he too will fly away. He’ll face challenges unheard of when I was ten and the world will be a vastly different place.
But, as we walk around the Island I think that it’s likely he will return. As a species, we can be determined too.
Marg Hickey is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University.