When I first got into birding many years ago, I would travel around Adelaide visiting different reserves and parks looking for birds I had not seen before. It was such a thrill to see something new. Back in those early days of birding my cousin mentioned a little patch of remnant vegetation out in the Murraylands called Talbots Reserve. My Uncle had been there with a group which was led by a knowledgeable birder. This birder had shown them several interesting and rare birds, many of which we had not seen before. So, without hesitation we decided to visit.
The reserve was fascinating and packed with about six dozen native plant species. There were patches of Southern Cypress Pine rich in greens and standing in their lovely pinnate form. South Australian Blue Gums and Mallee Box Gums thrust their leaves to the sky on twisted and bent branches, though some weighed down by the lurking and uncanny mistletoes which hung their red and green flowers among their own fleshy leaves. The flowers of Sticky Hop-bushes would draw a multitude of insects and the doo-le doo-do of calling Peaceful Doves would waft calmly through the warm air. The reserve did indeed have birds that we had not seen before, particularly species which occupy drier habitats away from the more mesic Adelaide Hills where I spent most of my time. Diamond Firetail Finches with their scarlet rumps, white diamonds on their black flanks and their red becks coupled with a tiny black mask were one of the most beautiful and delicate of the new bird prizes. Then the Restless Flycatcher, attired with a dark satin sheen on the upper parts with brilliant white on the lower, projecting their scissor-grinder call to their yet unseen prey.
The most memorable new bird I saw was the White-browed Babbler. I remember a group of these peculiar birds jumping around in low dense shrubs with big tails and decurved beaks making an array of interesting noises. Once I got a good look at one, I said to my cousin, “I think that’s a babbler”. At the time I did not fully understand how I knew that. I was not the sort who went through the field guide and knew every bird I could possibly see before I went out into the field. I would go out, see what birds I saw, and check back with the field guide after the fact. When I was five, I got a field guide from my cousin’s family for my birthday. Back then I looked at a few birds in the backyard but did not delve deeply into the avian world. In hindsight, what I think happened that day was that I dredged up information deposited deep in my mind from flicking through the pages of that field guide when I was five, around 15 years earlier. Nowadays, babblers still bring me joy and curiosity when I see them, and sometimes I ponder the workings of my own mind.
I did multiple trips to the reserve over the years and it was only after perhaps half a dozen trips that I began seeing only birds I had seen before. As well as the reserve containing the interesting and new birds, other aspects of the reserve began to catch my attention. The array of plants of various forms, the large ant holes a few centimetres in diameter punctuating the sandy soils at frequent intervals, ferns and occasionally orchids nestled into rocky crevices on granite outcrops, and interesting wasps and other busy insects visiting bushes flush with flowers.
Over these trips something else developed within me. A peacefulness, something almost spiritual related to this place. I found I could stand among the trees listening to the gentle whooshing of the breeze through the leaves and the calls of the plentiful birds and my mind could rest. This place could provide respite from daily life and the ordinary churnings of my mind. I’ve been to plenty of wild places and only a few have really provided me this sensation. I have pondered why this is, and there are several facets.
People: I have never seen another person walking around in the reserve that I do not know. I have some level of social anxiety, particularly in large crowds but also when I am out in the bush and there is someone else walking around that I don’t know. The barriers I put up within myself to deal with social interactions, or the potential of, are costly. To let these barriers fall away is a huge relief.
Space and composition: Talbots Reserve and the reserve across the road are only about 22 ha combined, but I can stand within them on the sides of the low hills and imagine what the whole landscape looked like before much of the land was cleared for agriculture. This is something that is pretty special in these parts as most of the areas have been cleared, at least at some stage.
And finally, sound: the sound of an environment is something that often gets forgotten about, or at least the less conspicuous things, like the rustle of a skink in the leaves or the buzz of an insect flying by. But sound to me is as vivid as sight and often it tells me more about what is going on in a place. At the reserve there are very few sounds that can be attributed to humans. There is a dirt road, though cars pass infrequently. This may seem relatively unremarkable. If you get far enough away surely there are not human derived sounds. However, there could be the rubble of a car off in the distance on some remote track, a plane flying high in the sky or even the vibrating of a wire fence in the wind. It is amazing how far sound travels particularly from highways. On a clear night I hear trucks on the freeway over 2 km from my home. In the bush, I can pick out the high-pitched calls of secretive birds from among the calls of other birds and the wind that others cannot hear. However, my perception of soundscapes has boundaries. In a crowded restaurant, I have difficulty holding conversations because my brain cannot separate the background conversations from those of the people I am conversing with. This can make for some awkward situations and why nightclubs were never a good place for me to meet people when I was younger. At Talbots, though, I can sit and listen to the wind through the trees, the birds calling, with whistles of a Crested Pigeon’s wings as it flutters from its perch, the buzzing of a little black wasp as it inspects a stick, without intrusion.
I recently went back to the reserve after several years of not visiting and the magic has not worn off. Not only were interesting birds doing interesting things, but still I got my moments of peace and tranquillity to recharge. A group of Varied Sitellas fluttered around in their frantic way with their almost needle like upturned beaks collecting food for a nestling that sat in its tiny nest in the V of a dead branch silhouetted against the overcast sky. A female Purple-backed Fairy-wren popped into its nest in a pile of sticks on the ground surrounded by dry grass. Two coloured males diligently bringing food. A juvenile Hooded Robin perched on an old dead tree trunk, which, grey with age, was topped with lime green lichen. And one of the Brown Treecreepers loudly protested our presence.
Wild places do not always have to be great swathes of untouched wilderness, not to say these places should not be protected, or even created. But small reserves like Talbots can provide many of the sensations and feelings that wilderness can provide. Additionally, and most importantly, they provide a refuge for the plants, animals and other organisms that live there, a growing necessity in our current world.