IT'S DUSK in south-west Sydney and against a rose-tinged, streaky-clouded sky and the rapid click, click, click of hand-held counters, scores of Australian white ibis are returning home for the evening after a hard day's toil, foraging at rubbish dumps, landfill sites and rubbish bins across the city.
Each month, autumn, winter, spring and summer, for what will soon be a decade, Helene Forsythe, the bird woman of Bankstown, has faithfully visited Lake Gillawarna, in suburban Georges Hall, clutching her clipboard and counter. It's the role of Ms Forsythe, team leader, environment and education for Bankstown City Council, to monitor the population of the local white ibis colony.
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Ibis on the lake
Helene Forsythe at Lake Gillawarna, for a count of the Ibis population at dusk.
Each night 1000 of the distinctive long-legged, long-beaked native birds, amid much clamour and a pervasive perfume, come to roost, nest and breed on a man-made island in the middle of an artificial wetlands-like lake at the site. It's surely, along with the nightly flying fox migration over the Sydney CBD, one of the most remarkable spectacles of nature to be witnessed in the metropolitan area.
Now is the breeding season for the Australian white ibis. If their numbers rise too high above that 1000 figure, local residents can get in a flap, creating the potential for population control measures such as robbing eggs from the island.
But Ms Forsythe prefers to engage and educate ratepayers who get irate about the Australian white ibis, carefully explaining that they are a protected native species and therefore can't be dealt with in a draconian manner like, say, rats. While it's easy to dismiss the Australian ibis as a kind of ubiquitous feathered cockroach, its numbers have actually declined over the past 30 years.
In reality, as Ms Forsythe points out, the birds are resourceful refugees, having fled to Sydney from inland NSW in large numbers in 2003 to escape one of the state's worst droughts. There may be no turning these avian asylum seekers back, either. "Sydney has provided [the white ibis] with a massive welcome mat," she says. "It provides them with everything they need. We may have them as neighbours for a long time.
"I'd have to admit that in Bankstown I am the ibis champion. They are unfairly maligned. They don't have a good image but people don't realise that they're a native species. I often think that if blue, yellow or pink they'd be better loved by Sydneysiders. They are often seen not at their best diving into litter bins, with their plumage not always as white as it should be."
As night envelopes Lake Gillawarna, Ms Forsythe and colleague Robyn Young count, in the few hours before sunset, 650 ibis, including chicks already on the island, and 366 additional "arrivals". But if you still think 1016 ibis are 1016 pesky ibis too many, then the Birdwoman of Bankstown would beg to differ.