25 August 2023

Jess’s journey learning the language of native birds

| John Thistleton
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man, woman and dogs

Jess van Groningen and her partner Dave Mills enjoy the bush for different reasons, but both share a mutual interest in German shorthaired pointers. Photo: Sammy Mills-Withers.

Most days of the week, Jess van Groningen and her partner Dave Mills are in the bushland around Chatsbury near Taralga.

Jess studies birds and deepens her understanding of the land. Quite separately, Dave works as a rural contractor spraying weeds and eradicating feral pests like foxes, pigs and deer.

Learning the language of birds and patiently observing them over many hours led to Jess winning Taralga Art Show’s animal representation award earlier this year with a striking photograph of a pair of rare gang gang cockatoos exploring a nesting hollow.

She photographed them in Canberra, a bird mecca under the city’s urban forest including the Australian Botanical Gardens and flanked by Namadgi National Park.

Other metropolitan populations are not so fortunate to have such a diversity of birds and contend with pigeons, Indian mynas and only the hardiest of Australian birds.

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Nevertheless, Jess has found communities of birds, including rare species, closer to home. Her patient study has revealed rare diamond firetail finches nesting in a grassy woodland close to her home and robins, wrens, red-browed finches, pardalotes, swallows and several species of birds of prey.

In one breeding season among the yellow box, stringy bark and grey box eucalypts she counted in two trees seven or eight nests of five different native bird species.

Raised on the Central Coast, how Jess came to the Goulburn district where Dave was born and raised has more to do with their mutual interest in German shorthaired pointers than observing birds.

An article in Dogs NSW magazine featuring Jess and her German shorthaired pointer Mojo with a trainer demonstrating exercises caught Dave’s attention.

“He asked the guy I was training with for my phone number and he said absolutely not,” Jess said with a chuckle. Another mutual friend put the two of them in contact with one another. They have been together for 11 years.

“We are a funny couple, it works for us,” Jess said. “We spend a lot of time on our own in the bush, if we go out on a property for a day trip, he will going in one direction and I will go in another direction.”

They’re together again at day’s end, each with a story of what animals they saw, heard or tracked.

gang gang cockatoos

Photographing this pair of nesting gang gang cockatoos in late 2022 landed Taralga Art Show’s award for animal representation earlier this year. Photo Jess van Groningen.

Jess has completed a course with environmental educator and media personality Andrew the Bird Guy and a network of followers learning nature connections. They’re not twitchers, nor do they tick off birds on a list. They are learning the language of birds and building a relationship and knowledge to understand what’s happening around them in the wild.

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Jess previously lived a pretty wild lifestyle from an early age in bushland at Pearl Beach, near Umina on the Central Coast.

“My childhood memories are of hours and hours with my best friend exploring,” she said. “We would be up in the caves, at the waterfall, swimming hole, exploring for hours on the end.”

She is still exploring, and connecting with people knowledgeable about the land’s earliest history, including Ngunnawal woman Jennie Gordon of Goulburn.

“I do a lot of observing, my senses are constantly heightened, going slowly, treading lightly, not making much noise and really listening. Not just listening with my ears, but listening with my whole body,” she said.

A diamond firetail finch near its nest is one of several rare birds that are studied almost daily to help Jess van Groningen in her ongoing relationship with the bush. Photo: Jess van Groningen.

One of her best outdoor experiences was an overnight hike into back country with nothing more than her camera and a small tent. The trek raised friends’ eyebrows for going out alone overnight.

“But I wasn’t by myself,” Jess said. “I was with the river, trees, and so many birds and other wildlife, I never felt alone at all. It was such an incredible experience.”

“I was listening to this lyrebird go through its repertoire and then it did a black cockatoo call. So I immediately looked up to the sky thinking, oh, there are black cockies here, then I quickly realised it was the lyrebird and had a little chuckle to myself that he had totally fooled me.”

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