All the lapwings are called John

A lone female masked lapwing ( Vanellus miles, also: plover, bloody plover, melted cheese face) haunts the Blue Mountains Bushwalk exhibit at Taronga Zoo. Over 18-months of regular visits to the enclosure, we have developed a kind of kinship with John. One of the volunteers told us that all the masked lapwings are called John Travolta – regardless of sex – because they strut and have black head feathers that resembled his slicked back hair.

I have drawn John more than any other bird at the Zoo. The drawing above is the result of an exercise in changing perspectives: drawing for different durations – 10, 20, 30, 60 seconds – and from different (imagined) perspectives – bird’s eye, worm’s eye. Spending time observing John, with a pen carefully tracing her form as I take it in with my eye and imagining what she might look like from above or below, I bear witness to her existence.

Timo and John, in matching colours, June 2021.

My field notes mention John every visit. She has become an anchor for us, we often seek her out as soon as we arrive. We observe her and she seems to observe us – I am reminded of No-Face in the animated film Spirited Away, a silent and seemingly lonely companion. I also use her as a barometer to read the character of other visitors – the ‘bloody plover’ and aggressive children are not my kind of people. A quick sample:

22 Oct 2021—
T is sitting observing on the bench. I am squatting sketching John Travolta, when a RH flits to a rock between us, then perches in the tree opposite, with the precariously nesting peaceful dove. […] John Travolta struts past, Timo and I laugh — the most joy I’ve felt this week. We watch the videos and laugh again.

13 Dec 2021—
We spend some time with John Travolta and some very loud parrots. No sign of the platypus again. Few RH sighted. […] We don’t take notes in the RH enclosure. We sit and look at the CfP we’re there to write [for the Birds and Language conference] watch the birds and people — keepers throwing hibiscus flowers for the 3 hidden rock wallabys, parents with kids who range from awe-filled — LOOK! BIRD! — to assholes (Madeline, who aggressively chased John Travolta, ignoring her embarrassed mum half-heartedly telling her to stop). T tells me he can now recognise the peaceful doves at Centennial Park from listening to their coos here. We watch 3 [doves] take delicate baths in mossy puddles. There’s a turtle, a mix of living blue yabbies and fading yabby carcasses, but no sign of the platypus.

28 Jan 2022—
Mild anxiety — no John Travolta to be seen. A volunteer hasn’t heard any bad news, she may be behind the sandstone wall, or having a vet visit. She (the volunteer) tells us:
* The lyrebird is called Echo. Recently she was here alone and Echo did a siren, an ambulance and a baby screaming: a story.
* All the masked lapwings are John, all the peacocks are George.
* The platypus Raph and I saw once was probably Mackenzie, who comes out during the day. There’s a platypus pool at the ‘retreat’, ppl complained they didn’t see one so they moved active Mackenzie back up there and the shy Trey down here. Hence, no platypus spotting.
* For the first time, we see a whip bird, causing an avalanche of moss down the high rock wall. I marvel at how this bird’s throat opens to make the deep long ‘whiiiiiiip!’
* talking to the volunteer, her affection for this place, for the birds she clearly thinks of as unique characters, I have a real sense of community, in this space I often think of as ‘ours’ — T and I — and it expands my empathy + sense of affection for it.

The volunteer returns: “John does seem to be missing.” She too is now concerned.
The scaly breasted lorikeets are on dive bombing missions today.

It feels wrong – a sense of missing, a void – without John. Just as we’re leaving, she raises her head behind the rock wall and we are both visibly relieved. An easiness returns. A RH tells a story above us, as we inspect the huge tadpoles in the still pond, swimming up for air.

6 Oct 2022—
We seek out John Travolta. Timo spots her first, sheltering under a fern. We chat to her — ‘you must recognise our voices by now’, Timo says.

30 Jan 2023—
John Travolta gives me suspicious side eye, but stays close.

One response to “All the lapwings are called John”

  1. I like your style. I like birds too. And artists. And great blogs!


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