There are few days when I don’t think of her. Wonder. Try to remain hopeful that she’s a wild one, an adventurer at heart, and simply taken flight to explore whiter sands and bluer seas, make new friends. Try not to let my imagination take me to dark places. What if …?
The irony of Australia Post taking so long to deliver the large canvas of my favourite photo of her, supposed to arrive by Christmas as a present for myself, meant that by the time it turned up she’d been gone for nearly two weeks. So, when I gingerly unwrapped the package to reveal her image, three times her actual tiny size, that quizzical expression I remember so well, head upturned, eye to the sky, her perfect plover plumage … she seemed so present. Yet …
I met KW White (the flag on her right leg) early in 2020, at the start of the pandemic and lockdowns. Being immunocompromised at the time, I’d relocated to Ocean Grove, taking an extended sabbatical from my teaching job. Living mostly alone during that period, sighting KW and her partner, JU Orange, on my regular beach walks became the highlight of my days. I first met them with a group of other hooded plovers flocking on the stretch of beach between Collendina and Point Lonsdale. When I sent photos of them to a local birding group, one of the members recognized the flags and contacted me with the birds’ history. KW hatched on the Mornington Peninsula at Koonya West around two years ago and JU seven years ago on the Surf Coast. Along with the information came a photo of KW being released after banding as a juvenile. In the photo is Karen Wootton, Mornington Peninsula volunteer after whom KW is also named. The expression on Karen’s face as she watches the young Sweet Pea, as she named her, fly off is sheer rapture. The image is seared into my mind, and I think my own love affair with KW began after seeing it, knowing how many hours would have been willingly given to wardening her as a chick for the thirty-five days or so until she safely fledged. I can imagine the near misses with dogs off-leash, the hours of speaking to the beach-going public and redirecting them away from the chick to give it a chance to get to the water’s edge to feed.
As the days and weeks and months progressed, I came to know the pair, as much as a human can come to know beach-nesting birds, and was made privy to a host of their Hoodie habits. Many days the beach would be deserted, and it was just me and KW and JU. Camera equipped with telephoto lens in hand I was privileged to enter their world and witness them foraging for food – tiny invertebrates in the sand, watch them preen, sliding their beaks methodically along each feather, then daintily stretch out a leg behind and unfold a wing in a choreography of delight. My patience, lying prostrate in the sand with camera poised, was often rewarded with the birds coming towards me within several metres, seemingly comfortable enough in my presence. And to my amazement, on five separate occasions, I was awarded the opportunity to witness them copulate. And the highlight, at the start of spring, to come across their scrape containing three mottled eggs.
Unfortunately, this breeding attempt failed along with several others for the pair. I saw the fox prints with my own eyes. I don’t know what happened to the eggs on the other occasions, but if it wasn’t a fox, they are likely to have been taken by gulls or magpies.
Another pair of Hoodies in Pt Lonsdale were luckier and managed to produce two chicks. So, over January I went on a roster with other Bellarine hooded plover volunteers to help guard them. One chick subsequently disappeared but the other survived to fledge – with almost around-the-clock assistance from the small team of dedicated Hoodie protectors. As thrilled as I was for this success, secretly, in a tiny part of my heart, I felt pulled away from my own patch of beach and my search for KW. Now in February back teaching part-time in Melbourne, on the few days a week I make it to the beach, I carry a heaviness that won’t dislodge. Every cuttlefish shell is KW. Every distant silver gull. Every movement out of the corner of my eye is her flying in to greet me.
KW was last seen by another BirdLife Australia friends of the hooded plover volunteer on January 10. JU has taken up with a new unbanded partner.
Oh, Sweet Pea, where are you? I think of that flight all the way from Koonya West, out over the waves to Collendina. Have the winds called you to take flight again, little explorer? You know I’ll be searching for you no matter what beach I visit in life. Fly free, darling Hoodie, wherever you are.
(For more backstory to ‘Missing … a Love Story’ see my personal essay, ‘Hoodwinked’.)