Long before Jeff Young met his wife Gwen, birds were targets for his slug gun.
Sparrows were “spoggies”, red-browed finches were “beetroot eaters” — at least that is what his Dad told him on their Port MacDonnell farm in South Australia’s south-east.
Since meeting Gwen in 1996, the farm has become a haven for 122 species of birds many of which Mr Young can now call by their real names.
In 20 years they have planted thousands of trees and covered 9 of their 72 acres with native corridors, changing their landscape — and their relationship — forever.
Gwen’s lifelong love for birds
Growing up on a tiny dairy on the northern coast of New South Wales, Gwen Young knew the eastern species as well as anyone.
On the 2.5-kilometre walk through the bush to and from school each morning, she and her sister would document any signs of birds they came across.
When their older brother was given an Australian bird guide for his 15th birthday, they were all thrilled.
“Every day we were looking at that book and finding out what the birds around us were,” Mrs Young said.
Dollarbirds, bowerbirds, finches, honeyeaters.
“We’ve just been birding ever since. I just love them,” Mrs Young said.
In the decades of endless bird trips and surveys since, she has clocked up sightings of nearly 600 different bird species.
“There’s another couple of hundred to go but I’m never going to get there, too old now,” Mrs Young said with a chuckle.
Transforming their property
Many of those birds have been in the Youngs’ backyard.
Over the past week, the couple has been noting down the different species around their property for the Aussie Backyard Bird Count.
The tally by Friday was 27 species, which was a little down on last year’s total, Mrs Young said.
But it was about 27 more than when Mrs Young first visited Jeff’s farm in 1996.
“When I first came here you couldn’t see the bush,” Mrs Young said.
“There were really only magpies and sparrows … that was basically about it.”
Mr Young’s father had cleared a lot of the native trees on the property years ago.
“The good thing about it is that he didn’t clear it all; some properties were all cleared,” Mrs Young said.
In 2000, the Youngs acquired a little over $1,000 from the government to fence off a corridor and start planting again.
After a few years Mrs Young was able to collect her own seeds.
“That was really satisfying being able to collect seeds off trees that I’d planted,” she said.
On a “good day” they would plant 600 trees. Sometimes Mrs Young would spend four days a week planting.
“I just loved doing it,” she said.
And they both loved being out among nature. “I love the bush,” Mr Young said.
Build it and they will fly in
Native scrubland now covers 9 hectares of the Youngs’ property.
“I’ve no idea how many superb fairy wrens we’ve got but there must be hundreds of them,” Mrs Young said.
“There are also a lot of birds that just come now and then.”
When it’s wet, the swamps become a hub of activity.
One winter they could see spoonbills, egrets and hundreds of ducks from their kitchen window.
“It was just magic,” Mrs Young said.
Closer to the house, Mr Young is often accompanied by scrub wrens in his workshop.
Birds will nest almost anywhere — even in pot plants and hay bales.
For one audit of the dairy, Mr and Mrs Young had to hide a swallow’s nest during the inspection.
“[Jeff] took the brush with the nest on it and took it out the back until the auditor left,” Mrs Young said.
Jeff’s new appreciation for birds
Mr Young has become used to his wife’s obsession.
“We can’t bypass a national park, we’ve got to go into it,” he said.
While he does not have the same fascination with all birds as his wife does, he is interested in the species he sees on his property.
“It didn’t take him too long to start to notice different birds,” Mrs Young said.
He now comes home after a day in the paddocks with a run-sheet of species he saw, or questions about a visitor.
“He mightn’t know what they were but he knew there was a different bird down there,” Mrs Young said.
Other farmers following suit
The Youngs’ commitment to greening their property has made an impact.
“There are quite a few other people who have planted little strips along their fences,” Mrs Young said.
“Even the neighbour is changing his ways … he’s planted a hell of a lot of trees on his high ground,” Mr Young said.
“There has been a lot done over the years since we started,” Mrs Young added.
As far as birding goes, Mrs Young has made inroads with two of her three daughters. Her grandchildren have not shown as much interest.
“But now that their mothers are [birding], maybe they will,” Mrs Young said.
While back and hip issues have put a halt on Gwen Young’s dreams of new bird sightings, most of her favourite memories involve everyday birds.
One day in the Grampians National Park stands out.
It had started to rain, so she took cover under some flowering shrubbery.
“This spinebill came along and he was drinking out of the blossoms just there, a few inches from my face,” Mrs Young said.
“I grew up with spinebills, but to see one right in front of your face … That was a pleasure that I’ll never forget.”