Being watched, 30 May

‘The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary.’ John Berger[i]


A White-bellied Sea-Eagle soars over our picnic and slides north across Shelly Beach with no evident effort. Always an attention grabber, I scramble up and let loose a couple of shots. When I magnify the images in-camera I think the bird is looking down at us. It can easily see the flakes of pastry discarded by the sausage rolls Wyn made. An eagle in flight can reputedly sight a rabbit over 3 kilometres away.

The eyes of a White-bellied Sea-Eagle are a similar size to those of a human, even though the bird weighs no more than 4kgs. Their retina has much bigger concentration of rod and cone cells and see in four colours: UV, blue, green, and red, compared to our three. We see less than one percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. This eagle is flying in a sky bathed by ultraviolet light.

Their eye sockets are angled 30 degrees from the midline of their face giving a 340-degree visual field and excellent peripheral vision. Though they use both eyes together for excellent binocular vision and depth perception. They have the best vision we know of.

The eagle’s glance would be a gaze in Ann Kaplan’s view, a look is a process, reciprocal and interactive, whereas gaze sorties out from active subject towards a passive object.[ii] She also talks of the imperial gaze (colonial and white towards non-white. What is the gaze of a human to dolphin, a cockroach, a vulture, a Rainbow Lorikeet?

‘To hold in regard, to response, to look back reciprocally, to notice, to pay attention, to have courteous regard for, to esteem: all of is tied to polite greeting, to constituting the polis, where and when species meet.’ Donna Haraway[iii]


As we leave, a Magpie flies up into a Beach Acronychia and with the advantage of height stares at me. Like most birds, except raptors, they have eyes on the side of the head. To see an object directly in front of them, they can use both eyes together for binocular vision. This one looks at me so fiercely I am glad I’m not the size of a grub or earthworm, but I am imagining that, who knows what a Magpie is thinking?

The Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) native to Australia, New Guinea and introduced to New Zealand.

When I move away the Magpies starts it melodious song. Has anyone ever trained a Magpie to sing for their supper? I hope not.

‘In birds there is a large variety of responses to eye contact. In parrots, the eyes are part of a body language signal system that also involves posture, beak/tongue movements and subtle shifts in wing and body feathers. Staring down a strange parrot can get you bitten, while looking a parrot in the eye while opening your mouth and moving your tongue signals friendly behaviour.’[iv]


Primatologist Jane Goodall undertook field studies of chimpanzees in what is now Gombe National Park in Tanzania. She was sitting with David Greybeard, the first chimp to lose his fear of her. She offered him a piece of fallen fruit: ‘He looked directly in my eyes, took the fruit, dropped it (he really didn’t want it) and gently squeezed my hand. In that moment, we communicated in a way that seems to predate words, perhaps in a way that was used by our own common ancestor millions of years ago. It was an extraordinary feeling, bridging these two worlds . . . very close to a mystical experience.’[v]

But I like to keep my distance from birds and animals, though as a boy I caught wildlife and kept them. Pets are a huge environmental disaster, while millions of animals die for pet food and huge amounts of money is spent on pets, biodiversity and abundance of wildlife at all levels is declining. Paul Shepard worried that our increasing urban and technological culture is isolating from nature and the wonders of the wild. He wrote, ‘our profound love of animals has been . . . twisted into pets, zoos, decorations, and entertainment.’[vi]

Shelly Beach, Nambucca, 30 May

Afterwards, we went to the lookout searching for whales, the first few came past heading to their breeding grounds a couple of days ago.

View of Shelly Beach, 30 May


[i] John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ in About Looking, (1977), Pantheon, 1980, p2.

[ii] Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze, Routledge, 1997, pxvi.

[iii] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, University of Minnesota. 2008, p19.

[iv] Quora Contributor, ‘How Do Animals Perceive Eye Contact From Other Species?’, Forbes, Sep 20, 2016.

[v] Jane Goodall interview with Steve Paulson, ‘To the Best of Our Knowledge’, Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by PRX, 2011.

[vi] Paul Shepard, The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, Island Press, 1995. P40.


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