A week after the fire, my brother and I walk to the next headland. We want to see the damage for ourselves. We know we probably shouldn’t stomp over the sandy fragile earth; we go anyway. We scrabble up the rocks and into the wasteland. A large stump is smoldering; overhead, the trees that are still upright creak and wheeze in the smoky air. Their trunks make a sharp black silhouette against the white sky.
We shuffle through the ash, past clumps of crew-cutted ferns, scorched banksia husks. We recognise what used to be the campground: there’s a skeleton of the toilet block, there’s a sign, seared orange, saying: REVEGETATION AREA. PLEASE KEEP OFF. The fence is mangled. In the derelict car park, there’s an information stand: a map on one side, peroxided out of existence; on the other, what we guess is a guide to the local wildlife. The plastic has bubbled and remolded itself like a pappadam. Only two sections of the sign remain: in the top right corner, three words: THREATENED SPECIES RATING, and, near the bottom, the face of a bird. It looks like she’s wearing a black cowl over her head, her eyes are red-rimmed, as if smarting from the smoke.
I know this is the face of a hooded plover. I’ve never actually seen one: not on the sand, not scratching in the foothills. On the beach we’ve just trudged along, there is a cordoned-off area where a pair nest: a low string fence pegged in the sand. At Christmas, there’s a pamphlet scrunched into the letterbox of our holiday house: Shorebird Recovery Newsletter: Sharing Our Shoreline. The newsletter tracks the nesting success of endangered birds in the region: little terns and pied oystercatchers and the 23 pairs of ‘hoodies’ in the Shoalhaven, from Culburra to Durras. Sometimes they include photos of the fluffy chicks or speckled eggs. An adult on the beach in the distance, out of focus, scraping about in the seaweed. The newsletter sits on the kitchen bench for a few days, then makes its way into the basket with the newspapers and kindling.
There’s another sign we always pass on our holidays. It’s on the quartzy path that leads to the beach, on the bend just before you see the bright sand and the big sky. We pass it three or four times a day: scampering down with our towels, clambering back for the sunscreen and aeroguard, searching for lost car keys, scratching our sunburn.
It’s an A4 card, handmade, smudged with dirt and black texta. Someone’s gone crazy with a laminator and covered it with plastic. The sign is fixed to a splintery garden stake, hammered unevenly into the dry earth. The corners are frayed, the paper’s mottled. Once, someone draped on it a pair of sun-starched undies they found discarded on the beach. Often, the dog urinates on it as he lollops home. The kids laugh and leap away; their summertime feet ignoring the sharp pebbles.
Every breeding season, the texta-smeared message changes.
Eggs laid 1; chicks 1; fledglings 0. Fox predation.
Eggs: 3; chicks: 2; fledglings: 0. Storm surge.
Eggs: 3; chicks: 0. Ravens suspected.
No nesting recorded. Erosion.
One year, they just wrote:
No eggs. Human intervention.
The Shorebird Recovery Newsletter tells me that hooded plovers are a ‘cryptic species’: their main defence from predators is not to be seen. You could say the same for the tattered sign. It’s there but it isn’t there: it’s fixed to the part of the walk that’s never photographed; the place in between the bodysurfing mornings and the afternoon naps.
The sign is not noticed during the school-holiday getaways, when we pass it overladen with uranium-yellow buckets to fossick for pumice and cuttlefish. It’s overlooked on the lone strolls, as we struggle against the wind in a raincoat and beanie. I’m always more interested in the ragged ocean, or the slate sky forming a sharp line against the horizon.
Eggs: 3; chicks: 1; fledglings: 0. Feral cat.
We don’t see it on the post-Christmas meanders, reeling from an abundance of wrapping paper and prawn shells, flicking away sandhoppers and blowflies, lumbering away from a sudden frothy wave that rips halfway up the shore.
Eggs: 2; chicks: 2; fledglings: 0. Bush rat.
The winter the lagoon burst. We stood there, drenched and mesmerised, watching the flow of casuarina branches and dead eels. When we were finally able to cross the stream, we found half the forebeach had been torn away.
Eggs: 1; chicks: 0. Dune blowout.
That September night, stumbling down in the dark to photograph the stars.
What was it I crunched underfoot?
Eggs: 3; chicks: 2; fledglings: 0. Lapwing harassment.
The time we played a game of hide and seek in the trees on the headland. Bark peeling off in strips of bronze and copper; the air heavy with eucalyptus sweat and the shrieking rattle of the cicadas. The dog, bored, sniffing, wandering off. He dawdled home two hours later, shaking the sand out of his fur.
Eggs: 2; chicks: 0. Unknown egg loss.
That New Year’s Day. Trying to play beach cricket in 46 degree heat. Skin-ripping sand, clutching at sarongs. Bands of sunlight streaking the beach. A hat flapping into the dunes: A nephew shrieks: does that count as six and out?
Eggs: 0. A scrawl of uneven capitals: KEEP YOUR QUADBIKES OFF OUR BEACHES.
That time the ranger spotted all of us: the dogs and kids skittering round the rocks. ‘I’m so sorry’, I lied. ‘I didn’t see the sign’.
My brother and I clamber away from the blackened headland, fumble our way home along the beach. The waves are clogged with black gum leaves. A washed-up log, charred. You can barely see the end of the bay; the surf and the air taste like bacon. There’s a narrow strip of beach between the eroded sand and the frazzled bushes in the dunes. We pass the place where the nest scrape should be. The string fence has frayed away. There’s a frenzy of bird tracks in the grey sand.
Just before I chuck the newsletter into the kindling basket, I read: ‘The Hooded Plover is not an ‘abundant’ species. It was probably never ‘common’ in NSW, and the natural threats have always been high. But add a suite of new threats and the population disappears’.
Eggs: 0; chicks: 0; fledglings: 0. Habitat depletion. Smoke. Fire. Christmas.
Joshua Lobb is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong. His stories have appeared in The Bridport Prize Anthology, Best Australian Stories, Animal Studies Journal, Griffith Review, Text and Southerly. His ‘novel in stories’ about grief and climate change, The Flight of Birds (Sydney University Press, 2019) was shortlisted for the 2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and the 2020 Mascara Literary Review Avant Garde Awards for Best Fiction. He is also part of the multi-authored project, 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (Open Humanities Press, 2019).