Letter to Mr Rollins, 28th June 1932
28th June, 1932.
Dear Mr. Rollins,
I read with interest the paragraph in the "Daily Herald" 15.4.32, dealing with your work amongst the birds at Glanton. It recalls happy memories, because it was in that district that I spent most of my leisure time in days gone by, and the divine silence of the Chevior Hills. The study of the wild flowers, birds and animals was always my object and supreme joy. Happy days with badger, otter and moles, and long treks amongst the hilly vastnesses to get a view of master Reynard at home. I was always amused at the efforts of the pee-wit calling us away on a fools errand from her nest on the furrow, and the first call of the cuckoo a joy because of the dawn of summer and more genial days! The song of the blackbird has brought tears to my eyes, when first I heard his mellow note after a particularly severe winter, as also has the trill of the skylark in the Alexandre Gardens, Melbourne, when I felt the loneliest creature on earth in that large city! A link with the homeland of beautiful golden song.
But it was not my object to speak of the birds with which you ore so familiar, but of some of our feathered friends here in Australia, that I have seen and heard and loved! We have many birds, similar in size and shape to European birds, as well as the imported sparrows, starlings and skylarks etc. but different in colour and song. The "blue”' thrush is a slatey blue in colour and becomes quite friendly and has a cheerful song. A yellow robin is also friendly disposed, and quite as perky as his red breasted brother of the frost and snow. Tiny wrens of brown plumage are generally accompanied by a gloriously purple breasted male with wedge shaped tail held proudly erect. A real joy to behold. At mating time it is a wonderful sight to see a block of them at play in the scrub rising and falling like a feathered cascade. At the moment of writing a pretty water hen has strutted by, pale blue on the breast and black over the body, with a fine white undertail and brilliant red horned head, make her a pretty bird who loves the cool retreat of the swamps. The tail is frequently wagged up and down which shows to full advantage the snowy white underfeathers. Magpies and pee-wits both black and white, only that the pee-wit is about half the size of 'Maggie! and the colour scheme reversed: where ‘Maggie’ is black, the pee-wit is white and vice versa. Painted finches that live on the pollen and honey of the gum blossom, are greatly sought after for bird aviaries, much to my regret! They are very small and even less than the tiny tits in England. The numbers and colourings of the parrots and parakeets are legion. Some of them fairly hold you spellbound when first you see the brilliant lines. Reds, blues, greens and yellows in prodigal variety, yet harmonising in every detail. The black cockatoo is a sure weather prophet, and when in Victoria, we always knew of the approach of rain when these dusky sulphur crested fellows came calling up the creek. His white brother is also sulphur crested and a very noisy bird, but a capable talker when properly trained to do so. We had a pair nesting in a dead eucalypt on the orchard, but a gale blew it down and the pair sought pastures new. Dainty little 'white eyes' (a sort of tit) that is also ruthlessly destroyed because the orchardist thinks he destroys his fruit. Few of them know that for the greater part of the year they are clearing his trees of the destructive aphis and other pests and is fully entitled to his little share of fruit at harvest time! The nest is beautiful in construction and is woven in fine hair and web into a shapely cone over a small fork of a branch, and neatly concealed by the leaves. I have often peeped into them, and the silver eye knows no fear if unmolested.
I must include the wonderful Lyre bird in my survey. In shape and size much like the English pheasant, only that the plumage is dark and unattractive but the beauty of construction lies in the tail. Fully two feet long and the outer feathers shaped like the ancient Lyre, with the inner ones of finer texture. It is this attraction that often spells its doom through vandal souvenir hunters. Of all the song birds he is the most wonderful, in my humble observation. I have seen him strutting proudly upon a fallen log hidden amongst the beautiful tree ferns, going through a full dress rehearsal of all the songsters of the bush. Not a bird but he mimics beautifully, going from one to another till he finishes his whole repertoire, and what a range of musical effort: thrush and robin, kookaburra (Laughing Jackass) and Magpie, whip-bird and jay, parrot or crow as well as including such sounds as the fall of the woodman's axe, and even the whistle of an old dame calling her fowls! I have seen his dancing mould, but have never had the pleasure of seeing him at his courting antics thereon. He must be seen and heard in his own native habitat to get the real thrill of one of Nature's most wonderful creations.
Much as our own flute noted blackbird has thrilled me, I must give the palm to the bird that has held me speechless during the beautiful spring mornings at Kinglake, Victoria. The whip-bird mentioned above has a long drawn out note ending like the crack of a stock whip. The jays (not so attractive as the European species) have a peculiar song that is interpreted by the bushmen to different words as the locality may decide. The Kookaburra ere now will have made the world laugh through the Cinesound. He, or generally three or more of them awake the echoes with their rollicking laughter. Generally you feel that they have chosen to mock you doing some menial task. I have rocked with quiet amusement at the antics of Mother and Father Jackass teaching a young family their first laughing lesson in the magic solitude of our bushland orchard. He is really a giant king fisher, of which there are several varieties in Australia. 'Kooka' alone is worth a volume, but I must pass on.
Our 'ain folk' must have been taught - very wrongly - that Australian birds have no song, but I have learned very pleasantly to the contrary. I think that it is our own joy at the ending of the long and dreary European winter, added to the song of Thrush, Linnet, Lark and Blackbird in springtime that makes their songs so noticeable and attractive. Here, the native bush trees are evergreen, all the year round, and I think it is this fact that detracts from the quite pretty songs of some of our Australian birds. One could go on indefinitely with the subject that is dear to the heart of a native lover.
At the moment of writing I am acting as voluntary keeper on an Island Sanctuary in Lake Macquarie N.S.W. I have been a long time unemployed and have taken this welcome opportunity to further study the bird and animal life peculiar to Australia. The island is called Bulba , which in native vernacular means 'Island' and is about 160 acres in extent, and rises to about 200 feet at the highest point. The shores at places rise steeply out of the water, while pretty cave-lined coves and sandy spits add variety and accessible landing places. It is heavily timbered and its hillocks and valleys make ideal shelters for the wallabies and kangaroos, and the many hollow pockets in the fantastically shaped gum trees are ideal homes for the many different kinds of 0' possums that we have in this sanctuary. The outline of Lake Macquarie is a regular jigsaw puzzle and one might wander for weeks in its numerous inlets, without finding the outlet at Swansea. It is fed by two creeks, the names of which are Cockle Creek and Dora Creek. The lake is the most picturesque sheet of water and wooded mainland that I have ever seen, not even excluding the beautiful first view of Naples from the ocean! On Bulba there is a huge Eagle Hawke's nest which looks to be about 6' x 3' when viewed from the ground. As it is at an elevation of about 200 feet it must be considerably larger than that. The bird often planes above the tall trees and the rest of the feathered tribe are very quiet and still, when that grim shadmv falls from above.
We have a blue wallaby named 'Topsy' and also another of the brown variety called 'Bess' that frequent the house and follow us bout on all our patrols around the Island. Two emu's were also household pets, but unfortunately, human vandals have slain both of them. They were want to raid the fishermen’s nets and maybe it was this perverted taste that led to their untimely ends. I will give you a peep into the doings of the Island, just as dusk falls. One has to keep very still if others than the regular keeper is present, and eyes and ears tuned to fullest capacity. A slight sound and movement from the direction of the swamp and a brown furred animal comes hopping along towards the house in front of which is spread out potatoes and corn. The creature, as quaint as any in fairy lore is a kangaroo rat. Just like a miniature kangaroo about the size of bunny rabbit, and the banquet is begun. Another shadow, from the hillock this time, in quick hopping strides, trailing his long tail behind, a friendly grunt and number two joins the repast. This goes on in the deepening shadows till five or six of these quaint fellows are present, grunting and fighting if too close to one another's tit bit. Hush! Keep very still, for I see another bushy tailed form stealing along on all fours, but with a different sideways movement. A silver grey o'possum has made his bow, and with a playful spring reaches the banquet amid the startled grunting and acrobatics of the rats, but in a few moments all steal back again and the feast proceeds. This goes on till sometimes ten rats and four silver grey o'possum are present and sometimes a very rare visitor with a white patch on his rump, who makes a smash and grab raid and is off like lightning with a piece of tucker. The grunting of the rats and the spitting of the possums are at great pitch now that the food is rapidly diminishing. By now it is quite dark and the eyes having become accustomed to the gloom, we presently see a darker shadow drawing, near the house, and only noticeable at first by the flesh coloured snout. Keep very still! It is 'Sooty' that approaches and she is very timid and shy. I quietly call - 'Come on Sooty old girl'. When within a yard or so of where I stand she rears up and takes the proffered piece of bread from the hand, and retires quickly to a distance to enjoy it. About an hour or so later, she again comes to the front of the house this time, accompanied by her half grown kitten. She is not so shy this time and readily takes the proffered bread and squats down to enjoy it. The kittenhowever, is very timid, and one has to be very patient and coaxing. Slowly at last she comes and makes a hurried grab, and off up the nearest tree to enjoy the fare unmolested. 'Sooty' and her kitten are beautiful specimens of the black Tasmanian o'possum. Daddy 'Sooty' I have not met yet as he never approaches the house. It is full moon this week and we have been able to count between sixty and seventy young wallabies around the house feeding on the short grass. One has to be very still and quiet to see them because they scamper off at the least noise. We got a splendid view of a large 'Bennett' wallaby one night just at dusk: he is much darker in the fur than the other of his species. When I touched upon the beautiful Lake surrounding my temporary home, I omitted to describe the wonderful sunsets almost every evening. When at school I remember reading something about 'See Naples and die': this I would transcribe and say “See Lake Macquarie and live'! Naples as seen from the sea with her terraced white buildings and vineyards is really beautiful, but Lake Macquarie and the wonderful and fantastically shaped mainland with the endless expanse of bushland and the distant blue mountains is of a vastness to awe our feeble human minds. On 18th June, I was privileged to see one of the most beautiful sunsets and full moon effects at the same passing moments that I will remember till I pass the bourne whence no traveller returns. The diffused warm sunlight shedding a golden radiance through the crystal atmosphere o'er mountain range and wooded mainland, kissing with fire the calm surface of the lake and casting shadows in the depths of the coves; while on the other hand the slowly rising full moon was striking a bar of silver ripples on a breeze disturbed portion of the lake, and bringing out through a faint purple atmosphere every branch and leaf of the gnarled old gum trees on the Island. One could stand in awe of the majesty and beauty of it all, at this very near contact with the mysteries of old Dame Nature. Unmade the pen and unborn the artist who could convey a tinge of the beauty scattered with such lavish prodigality.
Like yourself I served my apprenticeship in an engineering shop, patternmaking, but early began to hate the reek of oil and the scream of whirling shafts and belting. I ran off to sea for a short period before I was seventeen years of age, having then served nearly three and a half years at the trade. A promise to my Mother brought me back to finish my time. Sounds like prison, doesn't it, and prison it was in reality to one who always longed for the open spaces. The vicinity of the Cheviots was a magnet that I could not resist, and almost every chartered holiday and many days that were strictly working days were stolen to ease the craving of this desire. Wooler, Ilderton, Wooperton and Glanton are well known to me, as well as the intervening moorlands right up Coldstream and Berwich. Happy hunting grounds in the days gone by. My 'hunts' were the search for natural history objects and subjects in their native places and the divine inspiration that one feels when the fresh cool breeze of the moors dispels the vile residue of city contact from our minds. The gull ponds on Whitson Bank, the grim silence of Pawston Lake, or the wonderful panorama from the top of Cheviot himself, are memories not easily forgotten. Interesting, yet repulsive, were the badger, fox, and otter hunts and the cruel slaughter of feathered game on the glorious 12th of August.
I hope I have not wearied you, and should this reach you safely, I hope you will pen me a little note of your work amongst the birds in "canny' Northumberland: in so doing, I feel sure I will again see the purple expanses of moorland and feel the tang of the refreshing breezes upon my brow!
Success to you in your interesting work, and believe me to be -
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