Later: We’re in Hawaii now, ready to sack out for a good long while. The trip was blessedly uneventful. We had interesting chats along the way with an elegant family of Fiji Islanders standing in front of us in the QANTAS check-in line in San Francisco and later with an Australian heading for his home in the Papua New Guinea bush. (He advised us to come there for birding and pooh-poohed our concerns about safety (as long as one stays out of the cities).)
This was our first trip on QANTAS, and we found it to be rather jolly, with quite good food. And they have found a technique to make the trip feel less interminable; they project a computer display showing constantly updated maps and charts of the plane’s progress across the Pacific, with speed, height, and so forth, which succeeds in conveying the idea that there will be an end to it all.
I spent the trip reading a collection of Wodehouse gems, e.g.,
A small tapping sound that might have been the first tentative effort of a very young woodpecker just starting out in business for itself.and then a fascinating book called The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. This is by Jared Diamond, the UCLA physiologist who writes a column for Natural History magazine. Diamond’s book attempts to explain the evolutionary basis of some of mankind’s good and bad behaviors and to warn of the need to overcome “natural” tendencies, such as xenophobia, that were once adaptive but now threaten to wipe out our entire species. Along the way, he has some very interesting things to say about a number of areas of human behavior, such as mate selection. (Married couples tend to be more closely correlated in the lengths of their middle fingers, the lengths of their earlobes, and the distance between their eyes than in their IQs, for example.)
One of his most interesting topics is the role of human beings in extinction of other species over the past 40,000 years (beginning with the rise of anatomically modern people):
Several types of evidence testify to the effectiveness of Late Ice Age people as big-game hunters. Their sites are much more numerous than those of earlier Neanderthals or Middle Stone Age Africans, implying more success at obtaining food. Numerous species of big animals that had survived many previous ice ages became extinct toward the end of the last Ice Age, suggesting that they were exterminated by human hunters’ new skills. These likely victims . . . include the mammoths of North America, Europe’s wooly rhino and giant deer, southern Africa’s giant buffalo and giant Cape horse, and Australia’s giant kangaroo. Evidently, the most brilliant moment of our rise already contained the seeds of what may yet prove a cause of our fall.He goes on to discuss the archaeological evidence of major extinctions whenever humans first reached an island. One example is the death of the Moas (giant flightless birds) in New Zealand not long after the arrival of the Maori:
Thus, when the Maoris landed, they found an intact New Zealand biota of creatures so strange that we would dismiss them as science-fiction fantasies if we did not have their fossilized bones to convince us of their former existence. The scene was as close as we shall ever get to what we might see if we could reach another fertile planet on which life had evolved. Within a short time, much of that community had collapsed in a biological holocaust, and some of the remaining community collapsed in a second holocaust following the arrival of Europeans. The end result is that New Zealand today has about half of the bird species that greeted the Maoris, and many of the survivors are either now at risk of extinction or else confined to islands with few introduced mammalian pests. A few centuries of hunting had sufficed to end millions of years of moa history.Similarly, there were two waves of extinction in Hawaii:
From all the main islands of Hawaii, paleontologists Storrs Olson and Helen James of the Smithsonian Institution have identified fossil bird species that disappeared during the Polynesian settlement that began around A.D. 500. The fossils include not only small honey creepers related to species still present but also bizarre flightless geese and ibises with no living close relatives at all. While Hawaii is notorious for its bird extinctions following European settlement, this earlier extinction wave had been unknown until Olson and James began publishing their discoveries in 1982. The known extinctions of Hawaiian birds before Captain Cook’s arrival now total the incredible number of at least fifty species, nearly one-tenth the number of bird species breeding on mainland North America.He goes on to discuss the evidence that the post-Ice Age extinctions in Australia and the Americas that left those continents with almost no large mammals were also due to the arrival of hunters. He points out the tremendous irony of this for the Americas:
A few dozen horses helped Cortes and Pizarro, leading only a few hundred Spaniards each, to overthrow the two most populous and advanced New World states, the Aztec and Inca empires. . . . Ironically, relatives of the horses that Cortes and Pizarro rode had formerly been native to the New World. Had those horses survived, Montezuma and Atahualpa might have shattered the conquistadores with cavalry charges of their own. But, in a cruel twist of fate, America’s horses had become extinct long before that, along with 80 or 90 percent of other large animal species of the Americas and Australia. It happened around the time that the first human settlers—ancestors of modern Indians and native Australians—reached those continents. . . . No native American or Australian mammal ever pulled a plough, cart, or war chariot, gave milk, or bore a rider. The civilizations of the New World limped forward on human muscle power alone, while those of the Old World ran on the power of animal muscle, wind, and water.The point of his arguments was not to condemn prehistoric peoples; the extinctions they were causing were too gradual to have been noticed over a lifetime. However, the ones we are causing today are not, and they are likely to impoverish our grandchildren as badly as the descendants of the first Americans were impoverished.
We’re hoping for a glimpse of some of the remaining native Hawaiian birds tomorrow.
We had breakfast in our room, phoned my parents to wish them happy birthdays, and then set off for the Honolulu Zoo in the hope of seeing some Hawaiian birds in the few hours we have here.
The 70 species of endemic Hawaiian birds that still existed when Captain Cook got here were apparently derived from only 15 different ancestral stocks. As on other islands, when birds that had been blown to Hawaii in storms managed to survive at all, they tended to evolve rapidly and radiate to fill unoccupied niches. The most remarkable case in Hawaii is the honeycreepers, which arrived here with the slender curved bill of a nectar eater, but evolved into about 30 widely varying species, including the Maui Parrotbill and the Palila, which has a thick, conical, finch-like bill.
About forty percent of those 70 species are now extinct, and half the remaining are threatened or endangered. Loss of habitat is an important culprit, especially in the case of the lowland birds. Introduced predators have also done a great deal of damage, as have avian diseases acquired from introduced birds. (It seems to have taken a long time for people to realize that introducing birds here is not a good thing; indeed, until recently there was a ladies’ club whose purpose was to introduce birds, especially songbirds.)
This is the first time either of us has seen anything of Hawaii other than Paradise Airport, but much of it looked familiar as we passed Waikiki Beach repeatedly while circling the Zoo looking for a parking place. (That’s when we spotted a rather eccentric looking white-haired man riding a motor scooter with a Crimson Macaw and a Hyacinth Macaw perched, apparently happily, on the back.) The beaches and parks were full of families celebrating the Fourth.
We finally parked under a row of lovely big trees that were raucous with the cries of some attractive pigeons, all white with red eyes. Mating season was in full swing. Several of the birds were building nests. We photographed another in its nest with a downy young.
The Zoo itself is beautifully planted with rain-foresty trees and wonderful flowers, but the aviaries were a bit disappointing. They had a small, very assorted collection of birds from here and there around the world, but only four native species. A pond near the entrance had Hawaiian Gallinules and Hawaiian Stilts (endemic subspecies of the Common Gallinule and the Black-necked Stilt of North America). These were quite handsome, but only slightly different from the ones we know from home. (We’ve read that there is an Hawaiian legend that the Gallinule got its red frontal shield from stealing a burning branch from the gods to bring fire to the people of Maui.)
We were fascinated by the big pen containing Hawaiian Geese (or Nenes). These are thought to be derived from Canada Geese, but now have a very different life-style (and appearance—they’ve black heads, beige necks, and mottled grey and black bodies). They have adapted to life high in the lava fields of the Hawaiian mountains, where there are no bodies of standing water, so in the wild they never have the opportunity to swim. However, we noted one paddling about in a small tub of water with obvious pleasure, despite the fact that they’ve lost much of the webbing between their toes. Their Hawaiian name describes their call; it means “cry of distress”, which seems quite accurate. They sound nothing at all like Canada Geese. The Nene is endangered, but seems to be coming back from the edge of extinction, due to breeding programs in England and Hawaii.
The fourth native species was a real delight, the Apapane, one of the Hawaiian honeycreepers, bright red and quite lovely. There were several of them in a small air-conditioned building, with temperature and plants simulating the high mountains in which they live naturally. As we stood watching them through a big window, a young Hawaiian family of Polynesian ancestry came up. The wife said, “Oh, look, it’s an Apapane!” to which her husband replied, “I’ve never seen one!” The Apapane is the most common of the surviving honeycreepers.
The birds we saw loose on the Zoo grounds were all introduced species:
After we’d finished going through the Zoo, Lee delivered me back to the motel to get some more sleep and went off to see the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and the preparations for Fourth of July celebrations. When he returned, we had dinner in our room while watching clouds roll in over the mountains. Then we sacked out (to the muffled sounds of fireworks in the city) until time to leave for the airport.
Our room is quite high and looks out over Cairns’ marvelously sheltered harbor, deep in an inlet from the Coral Sea. There are mountains on the other side of the inlet, very green and misty, and plants everywhere on balconies and rooftops in the city. The scene says “tropical island”. (Even the plantings around the small parking lot behind the hotel are remarkable. Think of every foliage-type houseplant you have ever seen and grow it to be 20 feet tall and then arrange them all along the front of a tall brick wall, and you will have the idea.)
Lee didn’t sleep long and was soon up and out making arrangements for the next few days and bringing back treasures, such as a bottle of “Tropical-strength” insect repellent and a poster of the shorebirds of the Cairns Esplanade (from which I have gained a longing to see a Mangrove Heron).
After I was finally human again, late in the afternoon, we drove back to the airport grounds, where earlier we had noticed a sign to a boardwalk through a mangrove swamp. (Driving out to the airport, we passed the Captain Cook Motel, which has a 30-foot figure of Captain Cook out front; Captain Cook seems to have looked exactly like George Washington.) The swamp was wonderful—a completely unfamiliar world, dark and quiet except for occasional loud plopping sounds that we were unable to identify. The mangrove trees stand on lacy networks of stilt roots in dark grey mud that is bare of any other plants. However, the mud is brightened by red-and-white crab claws extending from a multitude of holes.
After a long history of draining and filling the mangrove swamps, people have come to recognize the economic value of the natural swamps. The mangrove trees shed masses of leaves the year around and these become the beginning of an important food chain, as the tides wash the leaves out of the swamps and into the shallow seas nearby, where they are eaten by small sea animals and fish.
We heard a few birds calling and saw fewer, one of which was probably a Varied Honeyeater. (I should warn you that Australia has more than fifty honeyeaters, most of which are various combinations of olive, yellow, white, and black. The Varied is described as “like Singing Honeyeater but yellower”.)
There were plenty of flying creatures, however, mostly mosquitoes and sanderlings. And we hadn’t put on any of our new repellent. We certainly paid for that oversight. The mosquitoes went after Lee and the sanderlings after me. We were both soon covered with welts.
But that didn’t take away the fascination of the place, nor detract from the view of the city over the tidal mudflats when we got to the observation tower at the end of the boardwalk. Building the boardwalk, which appears to be quite new, must have been a tremendous job; I doubt they could use much machinery in all that mud. We were grateful that they had gone to the effort, as we wouldn’t have been likely ever to get the feel of a mangrove swamp otherwise.
We had an early dinner, and then not even the itching could keep us awake.
Feeling much more relaxed then, we headed for the park across the street to look for birds. Right away, we saw Indian Mynas, Willie Wagtails, and Peaceful Doves, but it wasn’t long before we also saw something new to us, a large olive-backed bird with a bright yellow breast and a patch of red skin around its eyes. He very obligingly sat in a tree in the sun and preened himself for about ten minutes, giving me time to identify him as a male Figbird and Lee plenty of photo opportunities.
From there we wandered across another street to the Cairns Esplanade (a park along the waterfront). As we were photographing another Figbird in a flowering bush, a woman passing by advised us to go to the Botanic Garden, and as we were photographing a Welcome Swallow that had astounded us by sitting still, a man passing by advised us to get up earlier if we wanted to see birds. He seemed to be right about that, as the tide was out so far that we could just barely make out a large number of herons and ibises and curlews at the far edge of the mudflats that lie between the park and the open water. However, there was a large party of Australian Pelicans still sleeping quite close in.
We stopped in a coffee house for a breakfast of sinful pastries and then headed off to the train station to take the Kuranda Scenic Railway to the small town of Kuranda, which sits at the edge of the Atherton Tablelands, the plateau behind Cairns. The Kuranda rail line was built a hundred years ago for hauling freight and farm produce, but is now mainly a tourist attraction, so there was a guide providing commentary throughout the ride (21 miles in length with a rise of 1050 feet over an hour and a half, with 15 tunnels and half a dozen waterfalls).
The first part of the trip gave us a chance to see some of the neighborhoods of Cairns itself. Many of the houses are raised on stilts, to make them cooler. The yards are lush with blooms, including enormous poinsettias, and are full of birds. Flocks of Sacred Ibises sat on some of the roofs. We spotted several Masked Plovers (Masked Lapwings), a large black, white, and beige plover with bright yellow wattles on its face. The race here has much more extensive wattles than the race we saw in the southeast during our last trip. (Another name for these birds is Alarm Bird, because they always raise a screeching cry whenever one approaches them, thereby scaring away all the other birds one had been trying to photograph.)
We passed a cemetery where victims of a 19th Century Bubonic Plague epidemic are buried. Then, before starting the ascent, we went through the extensive sugarcane fields, which are very pretty at this time of year, with lacy purple flowers waving above the tall green cane. At one stop in the cane fields, I tried futilely to identify a kingfisher on a power line, but the light just wasn’t good enough.
The change from cane fields to rainforest was abrupt as we started to climb, and soon there were views of the sea and of islands out on the coral reef, followed later by views of the rocky wall of the other side of the narrow valley we were climbing up.
This was our first experience of tropical rainforest. The trees are all wonderful—totally unfamiliar and even bizarre. Surprisingly, many of the understorey plants and epiphytes are quite familiar; they are the foliage houseplants we have been seeing all our lives. I could even name many of them. The effect was to make the whole scene feel somewhat unreal.
The epiphytes are one of the distinguishing characteristics of rainforest. (Epiphytes are plants that grow on a tree but are not parasitic. That is, orchids are ephiphytes, but mistletoes are not; the orchids get support and a place in the sun by growing on their host tree, while a mistletoe also steals nutrition from its host.) Big old trees here look like hanging gardens; they are covered with ferns and mosses and orchids and many other kinds of plants.
Every once in a while we passed a stunningly beautiful tree covered with large red-orange flowers. We learned later that this is a tulip tree introduced from Africa, which has established itself quite well here.
We had heard that we should visit the gardens at the train station in Kuranda, and it was good advice. They were really lovely. And the overhanging eaves of one of the buildings had been made into a showcase for a collection of enormous ferns, especially maidenhairs and staghorns.
Examining a flowering bush, we saw a tiny, beautiful bird flying rapidly from blossom to blossom, sometimes hovering before the flowers like a hummingbird and other times clinging upside down from a twig to reach its slender curved bill into a flower. He had an olive back, a very bright yellow breast, and an iridescent blue/purple gorget. I needed a while to identify him as a male Yellow-bellied Sunbird, because the picture in the book didn’t begin to portray the brilliance of the live bird. After he flew away, we walked over a wooden bridge toward the village and there found a tree full of the Sunbirds, which Lee struggled to photograph as they flitted about and the light failed further as a misty rain began to fall.
The trees along the sidewalks were alive with birds. We got a very close-up view of a Rainbow Lorikeet working over the flowers in a typical Australian flowering tree (with “bottle-brush” flowers). How do I describe a Rainbow Lorikeet? It is a medium-sized parrot done up all in primary colors: red bill, blue face, yellow collar, green back, red upper chest shading into orange and yellow at the sides, blue lower chest, and then yellow under the tail. But to get the real effect, one also needs a sound recording—they are very noisy and convivial. They live primarily on nectar and have brush-like tongues for gathering it.
We had tickets for a performance of the Tjapukai Dance Theatre, a troupe of Aborigines who have performed around the world, but who have their own theatre here in Kuranda. We have enjoyed the CD of their music that we got in London, so we were really looking forward to the performance, which turned out to be even more of a delight than we were expecting. Our first sight, upon entering the theatre, was the splendid stage curtain, an enormous Aboriginal painting done in fiery colors.
The performance began with digeridoo music and silhouette views of a dramatic mythical fight seen through a thinner curtain, the story of a demon who stole the people’s fire-sticks. After that, the troupe came out on the stage, dressed in red loincloths with human-hair belts and painted with white and ochre, each in designs appropriate to his clan. They sat in a circle on the floor and introduced themselves (“If you’ve never seen an Aborigine before, now you see’em”) and talked a bit about Aboriginal culture, especially about the culture of the people who lived here in the tropical rainforest. The show continued, alternating dramatic dance scenes portraying the story of the people recovering their stolen fire-sticks with soft-spoken (and somewhat wry) conversations and demonstrations of Aboriginal culture. After explaining how to make a good digeridoo from a piece of wood that has been hollowed out by “white ants” (termites) and then showing how one gets it to make all those amazing sounds, the digeridoo player showed that one can get very similar sounds by playing a section of PVC pipe.
As the story being protrayed in the dance sequences neared its climax, there was a pause for a demonstration of making fire using fire-sticks. For that one needs some dry grass for tinder (not always easy to find in a rainforest), so one of the dancers explained that he always carries his own in his loincloth, adding that, “This is not that smoking kind of grass.”
The dancing was beautiful and quite athletic, and the conversations were very good-humored. The overall effect was really enchanting. One learned something about Aboriginal culture and also learned to admire people who could sustain a loss of so much of their world but retain their sense of humor. It was over much too soon.
Our next destination was the butterfly sanctuary at the other end of town. Possibly even more beautiful than the butterflies was their setting, an enclosed section of rocky rainforest gorge. A stream ran down the length of the building, splashing over rocks covered with wonderful mosses and ferns under lush rainforest vegetation. And the air was full of butterflies! The most stunning were the incredibly blue Ulysses butterflies, impossible to do justice to with words. The Cairns Birdwing butterflies were also very beautiful. The female has black, white, and yellow wings with a red-and-yellow body, while the male is a vibrant green striped with black. (I remembered this morning to dress in red to attract the butterflies, and it really worked.)
By the time we left the butterflies, the rain had become serious, but we hiked a ways along a rainforest hiking trail anyhow, with nobody else around, and it was awesome. The birds, being more sensible than we, were sheltering from the rain so we saw few, but we did manage to spot a female Shining Flycatcher (bright rufous with black head and white underparts) on the ground under a bush.
Well soaked, we dashed for the train, grabbing a bit to eat at the station before beginning the journey back to Cairns, following that with hot showers, a room service dinner, and a quiet evening.
As we stood at the edge of the flats, binoculars and camera in hand, a grey-haired man in the uniform of a park worker came up to us and introduced himself, “I’m a local birder.” My response was, “Oh, good. What’s that?”, and he confirmed my tentative conclusion that it was a Bar-tailed Godwit. Then he pointed out the Mangrove Heron standing only about 20 feet away, beautifully camouflaged against the mud, and the Whimbrel that I hadn’t noticed because I had set my mind to dismiss any bird with a down-curved bill as just another curlew. His next comment was, “You’re using the wrong bird book.” (I had to agree with that; we have two and I don’t care for either, but I doubt that that’s my problem.)
So, we were properly impressed and gave him our attention as he started spewing out advice on where we should go to see this bird or that, writing down phone numbers for us and handing out business cards and brochures of people who lead birding tours or have accommodations in areas that are good for Cassowaries, kingfishers, etc. When I told him that we particularly wanted to see all the kingfishers here in the North, he pointed out the call of a Sacred Kingfisher from further down in the park. (I have such a hard time learning bird calls, and it’s a real handicap.)
He chatted with us for a bit longer and then went back to raking some debris in the park. He wouldn’t tell us his name, only that he is “known as the Birdman of the Esplanade”. We continued to have good luck, spotting a Royal Spoonbill, another Whimbrel, and an Eastern Golden Plover before giving up for the morning and heading off to get breakfast at the place we found yesterday morning.
This morning, we chose delicious apple-blueberry muffins. The man who owns the shop told us that he has to bring all his pastries in from Brisbane. (“That doesn’t say much for the local bakers, does it?”, he grumped, but I couldn’t help wondering why anybody would work as a baker here in all this heat.) Spotting our birding gear, he told us that he has recently replanted his garden all in native plants and now has several kinds of parrots coming to his feeders.
After packing and checking out of our hotel, we headed for a shopping mall to buy bird posters and the bird book recommended by the Birdman and then to Australia Post to buy one of their excellent mailing tubes to store the posters in. We discovered there that they sell ready-to-mail orchid seedlings, but trying to mail some home seemed hopeless, so we passed them by.
(Walking from the Mall to AP across a pretty park, we spotted some Spotted Turtledoves, a Chinese bird that is becoming common in several Australian cities; it is similar to our Mourning Dove, but has black shoulder patches with white dots.)
Then we headed off north, driving along the beautiful aquamarine sea in misty rain, stopping now and then to enjoy the scenery (the mountains come almost to the sea here, but wherever there is flat land it has been cleared for sugarcane fields). When we got to Mossman, we drove up to the Mossman Glen Park, which was quite lovely, with nice trails in to some rapids in the Mossman River. Then we were off to the other side of the river to the place we will be staying for the next few days, the Silky Oaks Lodge. One gets there by driving through more of the interminable cane fields, which are threaded together all over the state by a very narrow gauge railway that is used to carry the cane from the fields to the processing plants.
On the way, Lee spotted a pair of kingfishers on a power line, so we stopped and got a long enough look at them to identify them as Forest Kingfishers, all blue and white with a very noticeable white spot just above the long black bill. We also stopped by one of the recently cut cane fields, where Lee got quite muddy pursuing some Straw-necked Ibises that were hunting there and did not want to be photographed.
We arrived at the lodge around 4 in the afternoon and were quickly settled into our “treehouse”, a handsome, comfortable little house on stilts set in lush rainforest on the side of a hill overlooking Mossman Gorge. (On our way along the trail to our unit, Lee had a brief glimpse of a little animal that was probably a bandicoot.) Doing a bit of exploring, we found an aviary full of Rainbow Lorikeets near the swimming pool and two cages on either side of the entrance to the dining room, one with a pair of Red-collared Lorikeets (now considered a race of the Rainbows) and another with a Scaly-breasted Lorikeet (“the only lorikeet with a completely green head”—the “scaly” effect is due to the broad green edge of the yellow feathers on their breasts).
The people in the office have made reservations for us to go out on the Daintree early Saturday morning with the naturalist recommended by the Birdman, so we are now simply relaxing on our veranda watching the many birds fly past. It is raining quite hard, and we can hear the roaring of the rapids in the gorge below.
Later: We had a really elegant dinner in the dining room of the Lodge, which is on a veranda overlooking the gorge, with lights picking out a few of the particularly lovely old trees. We were served pork fillet with ground macadamia nuts and macadamia nut pie with cinnamon sauce (Lee loves macadamia nuts).
We have just been photographing a tiny, tiny frog that Lee found on one of the plants at the edge of our veranda. I hope we haven’t permanently destroyed its night vision. (The plant it is on looks as though it is a single giant fern frond, perhaps as painted by Henri Rousseau.)
Later, after Lee joined me, he noticed a large chestnut-colored bird landing in a bush beside our little house. Several searches through all three bird books decided us that it must be a juvenile Black Butcherbird.
When we went down the hill to breakfast, we noted that the lorikeets get strawberries for breakfast. We also learned that guests can ask for wallaby food in the dining room. (There is a big, well-landscaped enclosure for the wallabies, who understand quite well that the purpose of guests is to feed them.)
With the weather varying between mist, drizzle, and downpour (it is probably significant that each unit is supplied with a large umbrella and that there is a very large umbrella stand just outside the dining room under the Red-collared Lorikeets), we spent a leisurely morning sitting on our veranda reading. I was mainly studying the bird books, especially the kingfisher pages, trying to get the right search patterns wired into my brain.
Studying the list of local birds they gave us at the Lodge office, I was delighted to read that Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers build nests in the termite mounds right on the property and was then dismayed to read that they have all migrated to Papua New Guinea for the Winter. (Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers are just amazingly beautiful—blue upperparts, orange underparts, red-orange bill and legs, white back, and a blue tail with very long white streamers.) As much as I would love to see one, I cannot imagine ever coming here in the Summer—it is very, very hot even now.
After a nice lunch of Indonesian chicken satays (a kind of shishkebob), we drove to Daintree Village to find out how long we will need to allow for our pre-dawn trip tomorrow. Going through the cane fields nearby we flushed a Rainbow Bee-Eater, which had been sitting in the road. We had never seen one before, but it was immediately identifiable from below as it flew off over us: long thin black bill, yellow chin, black chinstrap, yellow-green breast shading into turquoise, black tail with two thin black streamers, and wonderful very triangular gold wings edged in black—very much more subtle than Rainbow Lorikeets. (Bee-eaters are members of the same order as kingfishers. This is the only bee-eater found in Australia. We had feared, from reading the bird books, that they might all have migrated north this time of year, too.)
Along the way, we passed about a hundred kingfishers on the power lines, and I suffered over not being allowed to stop to look at each of them. But after we had found the boat-launching area in Daintree and were driving back through the village, Lee spotted a kingfisher on a wire and stopped. It turned out to be a Sacred Kingfisher, and its mate was nearby. (The Sacreds are similar to the Forests, but they have more of a blue-green cast to their backs and their breasts tend to be buffy rather than white.) We watched the two of them hunt for quite a while; they let us approach close enough that we may have gotten some reasonable pictures despite the gloomy weather. (Several of the Australian kingfishers, such as the Forest and the Sacred, as well as the kookaburras, have abandoned the traditional kingfisher lifestyle. Instead of hunting for fish from a low branch, they hunt for insects and such from a slightly higher perch. But they still make wonderful whizzing kingfisher dives when they spot their prey.)
While we were watching the Sacreds, our attention kept being diverted by a pair of Sunbirds working over the purple flowers along a nearby fence—pure delight.
We stopped a few more times on our way back, once to identify a kookaburra, which turned out to be the Laughing; we are hoping to see a Blue-winged Kookaburra while we are in the North. (Kookaburras are large terrestrial kingfishers, mostly brown and white, with touches of blue and rufous.) We also passed a number of small birds of prey, each sitting on the next-to-the-top rung of a power pole. We stopped to look at one, but it grumpily turned its back on us and was then too difficult to identify in the growing gloom.
The weather cleared a bit after we got back, so we took a walk along the river and elsewhere around the resort. The plantings are wonderful, many flowers that I know no name for, groves of perfect palm trees, a grove of huge yellow bamboos, the odd orchid plant tucked in here and there. The water in the swimming pool is the same aquamarine as the sea—is that due to copper in the water?
We had a table at the edge of the veranda at dinner this evening; it was very lovely. Dinner was baked Camembert in puff pastry with a cranberry sauce and Barrimundi with a black sesame seed Hollandaise (presented with a sprig of dill and julienned vegetables, giving a seaweed effect).
After dinner, we found that the little frog was back in the same place, so he got photographed some more.
Chris is a retired Army surveyor. He designed his boat especially for viewing birds. It is small (6 passengers), and has a shallow draft for getting into creeks, a very quiet electric motor, and no canopy (because a canopy would obstruct views of birds). All of this is completely unlike the boats generally used for the river tours, which tend to be big and noisy and well-covered. Chris worked as a guide on one of the big boats for three years and found it very frustrating, so decided to go out on his own just a year ago.
When I told him that we had been appalled to see how low his rates are ($20 per person), he said that making it any higher would mean that the back-packers couldn’t afford it and added that he and his wife Denise have found they can make a good living this way, doing two tours a day, 7 days a week, with Denise driving to the resorts to pick people up for the tours (an additional $5 for the round trip). They are hoping soon also to start a B&B in their lovely old home, Red Mill House, which is nearby in the village.
The jetty area, where we were standing, has conspicuous signs warning people about this being an estuarine crocodile habitat, but Chris didn’t appear to be worried, so I tried not to be. While we were talking with him, awaiting the arrival of the other passengers, a Great-billed Heron (a large bronzy-brown heron) flew over. Chris keeps a mental list of the species sighted on each trip (which usually hits 40) and was delighted to get this relative rarity so early.
As soon as the others arrived, we headed out, with mist still rising from the river. Chris explained to us that the Daintree is an estuary, so it’s tidal, but more fresh than saline in this stretch. The trees that line the river, mangroves and native hibiscus, are salt tolerant. The hibiscus trees have lovely pale yellow blossoms. Chris told us that the flowers bloom for only one day and then drop into the river at night, where they become an important source of food for the fish. So many of the flowers were floating on the still surface of the river that it made one think there had been an elegant party there the previous evening.
The first thing we noticed when we got out onto the river was the perfume in the air. The blossoms of the hardwood trees exude perfume at night to guide in the bats that pollinate them. Early on still mornings, the fragrance still lingers over the river.
Our first bird sighting came very quickly, a Rufous Night Heron sitting on the river bank among the mangrove roots, just settling in for a good day’s sleep and not wanting us to disturb it. (This is a particularly handsome small heron, with a black cap, white belly, and rufous back. Because Spring is coming, it had the beginning of its breeding plumage, two slender white plumes falling down its back.) Then a few feet away, we found an immature Mangrove Heron.
Turning across the river, we soon came upon a really heart-warming sight—a Jabiru wading along a sandbar on the opposite bank. The Jabiru is Australia’s only stork, a big elegant bird with a purplish-black head and neck, white body with black sections on the wing and tail, and sturdy red legs. It was a joy to watch.
The morning continued as gloriously as it had started. Indeed, the two hours of the trip were among the most exhilarating of my life.
As we turned and headed up the river, we saw a number of waders and shore birds, a White-faced Heron, a group of Dusky Moor Hens, some Masked Plovers, and a sleepy-looking pair of Bush Thick-Knees (or Southern Stone Curlews), also settling in for the day. (I had a terrible time spotting the well-camouflaged Thick-Knees, even though they are quite large and we had just seen one at the Honolulu Zoo, so I knew what to look for. People staying nearby confirmed Chris’s description of their loud “wailing woman” cries throughout the night.) Little Pied Cormorants were flying low along the river, never letting us get close to them. White-rumped Swiftlets were swooping about just above the water catching insects. Welcome Swallows and Fairy Martins sat on a power line crossing the river, where they had roosted for the night.
Forest and Sacred Kingfishers were busy beginning to hunt from trees on the banks. (Chris says that a good way to see both of these is to get out one’s lawnmower. The birds have learned to follow lawnmowers to hunt for the insects that they disturb.)
Then, investigating another Night Heron on a sandbar, we spotted something really wonderful, an Azure Kingfisher—violet-blue upperparts, bright orange underparts and legs, and long black bill. Chris commented, “Well, I never expected to find an Azure Kingfisher sitting halfway up a Black Bean Tree, but I’ll take what I can get.” It was really dazzling.
On the other side of the river there were Quandongs in fruit, and there were many birds attracted to them. I have read that even when there is no fruit, birds prefer to land in the Quandongs because they are “emergents” (that is, they rise above the level of the canopy in general) and their foliage is quite sparse and open, so the birds can see at a glance that they contain no pythons or eagles. They land in the Quandongs and use them as a vantage point from which to inspect the surrounding area safely. In these Quandongs, we saw Spangled Drongos, red-eyed black birds with handsome “fishtails”, and Black Butcherbirds. In the trees along the bank underneath the Quandongs were Varied Trillers and Helmeted Friarbirds and Yellow-bellied Sunbirds.
Rounding a corner into a creek, we came across a Darter, the Australian species of Anhinga. These are large black birds (the female is buffy and black) that fish for a living, even though their feathers are not water-proof. They have long thin necks and swim quite low in the water, with little more than their necks and heads showing, which has earned them the name Snake Bird. They can dive deeper and more quickly because their feathers are not water-proof, but then must sit on the bank drying out once they’ve become water-logged. They sit facing the sun with their wings spread wide, looking for all the world as though they’d been hung out to dry on a clothesline, with a clothespin at the middle of each wing.
We paused to examine this one and noticed that it was making a suspiciously familiar plopping sound, but Lee convinced me that there could not have been that many Darters in that mangrove swamp at Cairns without our having seen at least one of them.
The creek we turned into was full of treasures. There were Quandongs and various palms bearing fruit, which in this part of the world means that there were fruit-doves, too, and those can be really spectacular. Here we found Wompoo Fruit-Doves (head and neck light blue-grey, breast plum-purple, abdomen yellow, upperparts green with a golden wing bar) and Topknot Pigeons (handsome grey birds with a crest that makes them look exactly as though they are wearing berets).
A bit further on was the real treasure of the day, another Azure Kingfisher. It was sitting about 4 feet above the water, on a stilt root of a mangrove. My first impression was of a small ball of intense blue and I heard myself whispering, “Look, look, look!” Chris slowed the boat and quietly brought it closer until we were only a few feet away, all sitting breathless (the only sound coming from Lee, who was quietly clicking away). The bird was busy hunting and obviously had decided not to let us get in its way. It ignored us and continued to gaze intently into the water. Then after a couple of minutes, it dove head-first into the water and soon flew out with a small fish in its beak. It landed on a tree a few feet away from us on the other side of the creek, swallowed its catch, and then flew off. I felt that the only two things I could still wish for in life were to see a Little Kingfisher and to see a Mangrove Kingfisher.
There were more treasures waiting, however. A little further on, Chris drew our attention to a really wonderful huge old tree right at the edge of the creek, all gnarled and laden with epiphytes and vines. He pulled the boat over to its base, so we could see the little birds flitting around in the vines. There were Silvereyes (small greenish birds with conspicuous white eye-rings) and Spectacled Monarch Flycatchers. The Monarchs were a surprise, because they don’t look particularly colorful in our bird books, but here in the subdued light of the forest, they scintillated. (Their bills and legs are blue and they have blue-grey backs, yellow-orange chests, and black “masks” on their faces.) We sat only a few feet away and had a very good look at them, but I could sense Lee’s frustration, as he tried futilely to catch one holding still long enough for him to focus on it.
We went as far up the creek as we could go and still be able to turn around, as Chris tried to find a Little Kingfisher for me. By then, it was getting late. (One suspects that Chris’s second tour of the morning almost always starts late.) We headed back to the jetty fairly directly, stopping only to see a wonderful pair of Crested Hawks (also known as Pacific Bazas) sitting in a tree along the bank. (These are really striking birds with grey heads and backs, intense yellow eyes, and chests that are conspicuously striped in black and white.)
Chris and Denise invited us all in to tea, but Lee and I had to dash away, because we had a 10am appointment for another birding trip back at Silky Oaks. We had arranged to be led by Lloyd Nielsen, a man who is greatly respected in these parts. (Chris’s comment was that Lloyd has had 40 years on the river to his 4 and that he knows its birds better than anyone else; he can instantly identify any of the birds by their calls.) Nielsen turned out to be a softspoken, unassuming man and wonderfully knowledgeable. It was really criminal on our part to waste the time of such a man by asking him to take us birding so late in the morning, but we have so little time here. We really enjoyed meeting him and listening to him talk, though the birds were relatively few. He was able to show us White-rumped Swiftlets (which he said breed in caves, in only four known places), Graceful and Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters, Little Shrike-Thrushes, Peaceful Doves, Spectacled Monarchs, Grey Fantails, Silvereyes, Chestnut-breasted Mannikins, Figbirds, Pied Currawongs, and Rainbow Bee-Eaters.
It was our first time to see one of the Bee-Eaters sitting still. (Chris told us this morning that yesterday morning he came upon a dozen of them huddled side-by-side on a branch, where they had roosted together for warmth over the “cold” Winter night.) Sitting, they are a rainbow of pastels—gold, green, and turquoise—with a black bandit’s mask. Flying about “hawking” for insects, they are an acrobatic delight, amazingly agile and graceful.
Lloyd walked us down a road to some power lines, in the hope of showing us some kingfishers, but even they were somewhere else hiding from the hot sun. The Ulysses butterflies were out in their full glory, however, and were constantly making me catch my breath. A book I’ve been reading has a perfect description of them:
A pair of shining blue Ulysses butterflies, looking in their fast zigzagging flight like flakes of sky falling down . . .I noticed right away that Lloyd has solved the problem of what to do with one’s bird book while using binoculars. He keeps his tucked into his waistband at the back.
He talked a bit about the problems here of introduced species, as we walked past masses of blooming Lantana (an introduced plant) and a bush full of pretty little Nutmeg Mannikins (an introduced bird).
He also told us about the problems with avian nomenclature in Australia, which is really a mess, because the names keep getting changed (and are just about to undergo another major revision). As a result, the three standard field guides and the big Reader’s Digest bird book between them may have four different common names and four different scientific names for the same bird and seldom agree across the board.
Lloyd was able to teach us a very useful piece of nomenclature, “LBJs”, for “Little Brown Jobs” (all those unidentifiable little brown birds). I was sorry when the walk was over.
We had a pleasant lunch on the veranda with a couple of economists from the University of Kansas. Then I took the afternoon off, while Lee drove down to Port Douglas to go through the Rainforest Habitat, three acres of enclosed rainforest, with high walkways for viewing the 60 species of birds and a number of other animals. He enjoyed it very much and took many pictures. We had another excellent dinner at the Lodge and another early evening. (On our way out after dinner, we chatted for a moment with the Activity Director, who asked how we had liked the trip with Chris Dahlberg this morning. She told us that she had been horrified some months ago when she discovered that her assistant was sending guests out on a small boat with no canopy, but then she tried it herself and saw how wonderful (and untouristy) it is.)
Chris greeted me with the news that they had seen a Little Kingfisher on his second trip yesterday, but only for a brief glimpse. We had another clear morning, and we got a slightly earlier start than yesterday, so we were in time to watch some of the tiny fruit bats settling down for the day. In a narrow channel between the shore and an island, there are some disused tour boats which the bats have claimed as their own. We watched them fly rapidly through the boats to check them out for snakes before deciding it was safe to alight, fold themselves up in their wings, and go to sleep.
Chris then pulled the boat over to the edge of that same channel and showed us something really wonderful, a pair of Papuan Frogmouths. Frogmouths are related to our nightjars but are quite a bit larger. When they roost, the sit on a bare branch with their heads pointed upward and then look exactly like the stump of a broken-off branch. Chris had to point them out to us with a little spotlight he uses, or we would never have made them out, even from a few feet away. Even looking straight at them, it was difficult not to lose them, unless they opened their eyes, which are bright red.
We saw some of the same water birds as yesterday morning and some different ones—Darters, Little Pied Cormorants, Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets, Plumed Egrets, Mangrove Herons, Rufous Night Herons, and Dusky Moor Hens. A special treat was an Australasian Grebe, a very small grebe that flew almost impossibly low over the water.
In the trees, we saw Wompoos, Bar-shouldered Doves, Topknots, Brown Pigeons, Grey Fantails, White-bellied Cuckoo-Shrikes, Forest Kingfishers, Varied Trillers, Spectacled Monarchs, Shining Flycatchers, Helmeted Friarbirds, Graceful Honeyeaters, Yellow Orioles, Figbirds, Drongos, and Black Butcherbirds. This time we also got to hear the booming call of the Wompoos. The Shining Flycatchers actually do shine; the male is so black that it has a blue sheen. (It also has a bright red-orange gape that is quite conspicuous when it is squawking at somebody else, which seems to be quite often.) The Thick-Knees were back on the bank, and I could see them better this time. Rainbow Lorikeets flew over chattering loudly. There were more Sunbirds lighting up the bushes. Chris kept saying he saw pairs of Double-eyed Fig Parrots flying over, but I never saw a thing. Swallows and swiftlets danced over the water. We enjoyed the huge lacy white lillies blooming along the banks, and Chris searched out snakes for the delight of two snake fanciers in the party.
We went deep into a mangrove-lined creek that we hadn’t visited yesterday, in the hope of finding a Little Kingfisher. We had no luck with that, but did find a small crocodile, about a foot and a half long, which would have hatched in March. Chris was delighted with that discovery, as it will be handy for him to know where there is a crocodile hiding. On our way back, he identified the call of a Dachshund living on a property at the edge of the National Park and expressed dismay at its owners, who also have seven cats and a German Shepherd free to prey in the park.
Near the end of the trip, there was another special treat, a magnificent White-breasted Sea Eagle sitting on a branch out over the water. She was a huge regal bird, all pearl grey but for the white breast. She let us approach closely, having no fear of such inconsequential beings as we. Chris said that two weeks ago the eagles were mating and that it was an awesome sight.
After the trip, we all went to the Dahlberg’s house for tea, which was very pleasant. We sat on a sunny veranda, and they brought out their Spectacled Flying Fox, Sunshine, a beautiful large bat with brown wings and gold-and-brown fur. Sunshine is very soft to the touch and seems to enjoy being petted as she hangs from a rope strung along the veranda. It was fascinating to watch her groom herself with the claws on her wings.
Denise is quite knowledgeable about bats and rescued Sunshine and many others when a disease struck the bat camp, killing many of the adults and leaving the babies to die of dehydration. The babies responded quickly to honey-water and were kept until they were big enough to live on their own and were then released. Sunshine subsequently returned to Red Mill House with one of her wings very badly torn. It is mended now (though one can still see that the skin is thinner in the injured area), but she seems no longer to be confident of her ability to fly.
Chris showed us some large photographs he had taken, one of the Thick-Knees and another of three 3-day-old Night Herons. They were both excellent. He hopes to set up a gallery when they have gotten more of the house restored. (One of the finished bits is a large bathroom containing a huge, bright red, sunken bathtub.)
After tea, Denise drove us back to Silky Oaks. We had just started through the village, however, when she pointed out another wonderful bird for us, a Brahminy Kite, a gorgeous raptor with a white head and breast and chestnut back and wings.
I enjoyed the breakfast buffet in the dining room at the Lodge and then returned to Wallaby (our little house), where I was surprised to find Lee still there. He was just finishing writing me a note before going off on his expedition. He wanted me to know how to find the fruiting banana tree another guest had told us about yesterday; he had found it this morning and confirmed the rumor of its being full of birds.
I saw him off and then walked down the road that Lloyd took us on yesterday to see the kingfishers he had expected to be there. Sure enough, there was one, a Forest, but it soon flew off. So I went back up the hill and found that banana tree. It was glorious! I spent a very happy hour sitting cross-legged on the ground a few feet in front of it identifying all the honeyeaters that came to devour the bananas.
First of all, you should understand that these bananas are the personal property of a certain Helmeted Friarbird, who expends enormous energy trying to keep everybody else away from them. As soon as his back is turned, however, his bananas are once more covered with smaller honeyeaters rejoicing in the abundance of the soft fruit. (Helmeted Friarbirds are a bit difficult to describe; basically, they are large grey honeyeaters with knobby heads and beaks and are so ugly that they’re cute.)
This was my chance finally to learn to distinguish the Graceful Honeyeater from the Yellow-spotted Honeyeater from the Lewin’s Honeyeater, and, sure enough, I did it. Just when I had convinced myself that I had learned the difference, three of them, one of each, lined up in size order on a banana leaf long enough for me to confirm that I had got it right. What a feeling of accomplishment!
But more enjoyable was getting to know two of the rarer honeyeaters that I will see here or nowhere else. The Macleay’s is particularly lovely; it is brown and white and gold in a dappled pattern that looks like bargello embroidery. The Bridled Honeyeater is brownish green, like most of the others, but has very bright blue eyes and yellow markings on its bill that do, indeed, suggest a bridle.
After I was sure I had identified them all and had waited quite a while to see if anybody new would show up, I went for lunch and then another trip down the road to look for more kingfishers. There were none there, but I did get a good long look at a pretty little Grey Fantail and more of the wonderful butterflies. Another inspection of the banana tree revealed nobody new.
I noticed while I was showering after I returned to Wallaby that my arms have begun to tan slightly (despite my using prodigious amounts of sunblock). If this keeps up, I shall be in danger of losing my carefully cultivated nerd look.
I spent the rest of the afternoon reading an excellent, beautifully illustrated book called Visions of a Rainforest, which is about this area. In the past quarter century, there has been a revolution in how biologists view this rainforest. It had long been thought that the rainforest of Australia’s far north was derived from mainland Asia and had spread here after the motion of the tectonic plates brought Australia up close to Asia. But now people have come to understand that that is not the case at all. Although there is some admixture of flora and fauna (especially birds) from Asia, the Australian rainforest is actually native and very ancient, a small remnant of Gondwanaland (the ancient southern supercontinent that included South America, Africa, Antarctica, India, and Australia). The plants here have survived much as they were when Gondwanaland was whole, because it has chanced that this small area has kept much the same climate throughout the ages since then. As a result, its plants and animals are incredibly diverse and mostly unique.
Lee returned just before dinner, having really enjoyed his trip to Cape Tribulation. There is very little of the low-lying rainforest left; today he saw a bit that was saved just in time when people came to recognize how unique it is. He took many pictures, which I am looking forward to seeing when we get home.
After dinner, we packed all but one of the bags, and Lee started off to take them out to the car. He returned only a moment later, however, to grab his camera; he had just spotted a huge feral boar walking along one of the paths.
Our little frog was back tonight, too, but we decided not to shine lights in his eyes again.
At breakfast, another guest mentioned that staff members had escorted late diners back to their rooms last evening, but hadn’t told them that this was because of a boar.
After breakfast, we stopped to photograph a Leaden Flycatcher (a very handsome grey-and-white bird with a small crest) in a bush across from Wallaby and then went up the hill to check out the banana tree one more time and to photograph its collection of honeyeaters. Then, around 8, we very regretfully left Silky Oaks.
Lee allowed me two kingfisher stops on the way into Mossman; one turned out to be a Forest and the other a Sacred. I have been beginning to worry that we won’t see a Blue-winged Kookaburra, but Lloyd assured me that we should see many of them in Kakadu.
This time we had a beautiful, clear, sunny day for the trip back along the coast to Cairns. As soon as we arrived, we checked a bunch of our luggage in a locker at the airport and then headed for the nearby Botanic Gardens (which the Birdman had also recommended). It was too hot by then for many of the birds to be active, but the tropical gardens were really fascinating and we did see some birds. There was a lovely White-faced Heron working the bank of a mangrove-lined creek and a group of Straw-necked Ibises pretending to be pigeons. The trees in one area were full of Rainbow Lorikeets, who went bonkers every time an airplane took off and passed low overhead. A very co-operative Australian Pelican (they are enormous) paddled over to us and posed nicely.
We lunched in Gondwanaland (well, actually, in the Botanic Garden Restaurant, a nice little open-sided building set in the midst of amazing rainforest plants—tree ferns, grass trees, cycads, bromeliads, fanleaf palms, etc.). One of the trees just outside the restaurant was a beautiful example of a rainforest phenomenon known as “cauliflory”, in which a tree’s flowers grow straight from the trunk, rather than from the ends of twigs. In this case, the tree had already bloomed and fruit had formed from the flowers, golfball-sized bright red berries. The trunk and larger branches of the tree were still covered with them and there were more all over the ground around the tree.
After lunch, we decided to investigate the adjacent Mount Whitfield Environmental Park, which turned out to be a set of hiking trails over a small rainforest-covered mountain and through some adjacent eucalypt grasslands. We hadn’t time to take more than a peek into it, however, even if the heat hadn’t been so oppressive (and even if we hadn’t neglected to apply insect repellent this morning), as we had a bus to catch. We regret that we didn’t find out about these trails while we were staying in Cairns; they would have been wonderful early one morning, especially as they pass through Cassowary habitat. However, in the short while we were there we got a good look at a pair of Black Butcherbirds and three Orange-footed Scrubfowl, good-sized grey-and-rust colored birds with outsized feet that they use to scratch in the leaf litter for food. (The Scrubfowl build a large mound of rotting vegetation in which the female lays her eggs. The male is responsible for regulating the temperature of the mound while the eggs are incubating. He does that by adding or removing layers, based on his ability to measure the temperature with his tongue. When the young hatch, they must dig their way out of the mound, which they do lying on their backs.)
Then it was off to the Cairns bus station to catch the bus for our trip down the coast to the small town of Cardwell. We had some pretty views of mountains during the ride. Most of the time, we were passing through cane fields. The narrow-gauge railroads extend to here, and there are small railroad bridges on trestles and small switching yards and all the other paraphernalia of full-scale railroads. Toward the end of the trip, we came to fields of banana trees. Each bunch of bananas was encased in a large blue plastic bag. It must be a lot of work to squeeze through the closely planted rows of trees and wrap a bag around each bunch of fruit. We’re not sure what the purpose is. It might be for protection from birds, as we saw many fruit-pigeon-shaped birds flying about the area.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived in Cardwell, a pretty little seaside town. The bus stopped along the edge of a seaside park that was noisy with Helmeted Friarbirds giving their “poor devil, poor devil” call, and I saw a lovely Brahminy Kite soaring not far overhead. We started off walking to our motel, but were soon offered a ride by a friendly woman who runs a caravan park in town. The motel is right across from the Esplanade along the beach and has a wonderful view of Hinchinbrook and the other rugged granite islands out in the sea. We checked in and hurried out for a sunset walk along the beach.
There were swallows and pelicans all around as we walked out to the end of the Cardwell wharf to board the Miss Hinchinbrook. The weather was sunny and warm enough to make the sea breezes very pleasant. The sea and the mountainous islands were a thousand shades of blue. Small fish shone in the sunshine as they leapt alongside the boat. Looking back toward Cardwell, we could see a haze of smoke over the mountains that rise right behind it, from the burning of the cane fields.
Hinchinbrook Island is very mountainous and about 52 kilometers long by 10 kilometers wide. As we drew nearer, we could see that the mountainous portions are heavily forested. Between them (and presumably built up from drowned valleys) are very low, flat sections of mangrove swamp.
The trip lasted about an hour and a half. Lee took lots of pictures, and we were both fascinated by the persistence of the boat’s wake, which could be seen continuing to break a mile or more behind us. We had some pleasant chats with members of the crew and other passengers. There was a teenaged boy wearing a pink T-shirt that said, “Piping Hot Australia”, so, of course, I immediately wanted to know where I could buy some for piping friends. He explained that this is a common Australian brand of surfing gear, so finding them should be no problem.
We were let off on a small dock that led to a forest path with a sign saying, “Welcome to Splendid Isolation”. We were instantly back in rainforest again, but soon came to the main building, most of which is taken up by a large open-sided dining room furnished in comfortable bamboo furniture. We joined a few other new arrivals there for a short orientation and were then taken to our “treehouses”. (The capacity of the resort is about 50 guests—50 rather lavishly cared for guests.) The treehouses are really lovely half-octagon-shaped units, each suspended from a big pole on the side of the hill. They are reached by semi-aerial wooden walkways (quite a lot of step-climbing). The interiors are all blond wood and pastel fabrics, with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow a glorious view out onto the Coral Sea. As at Silky Oaks, there are ceiling fans everywhere. The units are surrounded by natural rainforest as at Silky Oaks, but the sound one hears from down the hill is the pounding of the surf rather than the roaring of a mountain stream.
We got settled in and headed back to the main building for a very nice lunch on the veranda. The trees around the veranda are swathed in epiphytic ferns, especially large staghorns and other basket-forming ferns. (We’ve read that some of the basket ferns in Australia’s tropical rainforests accumulate as much as half a ton of soil in them, including earthworms, and that tree kangaroos use them as sleeping places.)
Walking back after lunch, we saw our first goanna (or monitor lizard). Australia has a couple of dozen species of these extremely large lizards. This one was almost 5 feet long and was walking along a path quite unconcernedly, pausing now and then to flick out his forked tongue to gather particles from the air (which he then carried back to an organ in the roof of his mouth for analysis). The poor thing had a plastic “6-pack” holder caught around his neck, but he was rather too large for us to attempt to handle in order to remove it. (I’ve read that goannas have been known to climb up people to escape from danger, when there was no tree handy. They have very impressive claws and can move quite rapidly despite their ungainliness.)
After lunch, I decided to take it easy for the rest of the day, first napping and then reading stretched out on a comfortable sofa with the view of the sea in front of me. From here, the sea seems to be a thousand shades of green, and there are a few other islands marching off into the distance to add to the picturesqueness.
Lee headed out with his cameras to explore the beach at the foot of the hill and the surrounding woods. He came back after sunset, having photographed the setting of the sun from a promontory. He brought back a small piece of granite for our collection of rocks from places we’ve been. He had seen a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos flying along the shore and hundreds of Welcome Swallows flying out to sea (seemingly on their way to the mainland for the night).
I was too lazy even to go to dinner but Lee had a pleasant meal with several of the other guests, most of whom seem to be judges or doctors. When he returned, we agreed that it was just as well that Purmudgeon and Lightning aren’t with us; the skinks on our living room ceiling would drive them mad.
Lee wanted to check out Turtle Bay, too, where he had utterly failed to see any turtles yesterday afternoon, so we headed along the beach and then through a very dark, dense woods and out into the small sandy bay, where there were still no turtles at all. However, there were many, many birds. Passing through the woods, we had flushed a Scrubfowl, never actually seeing it, even though it was only a few feet away (and squawking at us quite loudly). Out on the beach, there were many honeyeaters enjoying some fruiting palms and several Spangled Drongos shrieking in the trees.
The beach at Turtle Bay is an excellent example of a phenomenon that one sees wherever rainforest comes down to the sea. What all the plants in a rainforest are competing for is light; everything else they need is there in relative abundance, so almost everything strange can be explained in reference to competition for light. Here, as in other places where the rainforest meets the sea, there are quite large trees with their trunks growing horizontally out from the forest over the sand. Their roots are as close to the edge of the sea as they dare be, because these trees can’t cope with salt water. They sacrifice a few branches to reach down into the sand to prop them up and they grow luxuriantly in all the sun they gain this way.
The most wonderful moment of the morning occurred just as we headed back into the woods to hurry along to breakfast. Then I had a good clear look at a Rufous Fantail, with the sun shining through its fully spread tail. This is one of Australia’s most spectacular small birds and was a sight to remember.
We both had quiet days, me reading quietly on our balcony in the treetops and Lee out exploring with his camera. I had the delight of watching one of the huge goannas slide down a series of board steps with practiced ease before leaning from the boardwalk to a tree and scampering up the tree. All the wildlife here seems to use the boardwalks as shortcuts. One has to be careful about the handrails, because they have a constant stream of ants. And the skinks love to sun themselves on the warm brown boards.
We lunched by the pool and I spent the afternoon reading about rainforests in the midst of one, looking about every now and then to confirm what the author was saying. Probably the most characteristic feature of the rainforest is the climbing plants. Climbing a tree gives the vine or liane (a woody climber) a head start on reaching the canopy. Once there, it may grow a huge crown and steal most of the light from its host. Some, such as the strangler figs are even more audacious. They sprout in a fork high in their host tree and send roots down along its trunk to the ground. Eventually, the roots merge together and form an almost solid cage around the host, constricting it and stealing its water, nutrients, and finally sunlight. The host dies and decays, leaving the fig to grow into one of the giants of the forest, but remaining quite hollow inside.
Lee came back to tell me of actually having gotten a glimpse of a Scrubfowl and also (this I consider to be highly improbable) of having seen a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos flying in formation. (I’ve yet to meet a cockatoo who seemed likely to fly in any direction but his own.)
We had a quiet elegant dinner, found the same skinks on the ceiling, and were in bed early in preparation for a more vigorous day tomorrow.
On our way along the beach on our way to breakfast, we spotted a wonderful little frog sitting in the sand and looking like a sand sculpture himself.
We had a pleasant breakfast with a young Australian wheat farmer and his wife and then hurried along to get ready for this morning’s boat trip. But before leaving, we got a view of a Leaden Flycatcher by our front step, and I saw a Mistletoe Bird from our balcony—the Mistletoe Bird is a perky, red, white, and blue flowerpecker that lives mainly on the fruits of mistletoes, of which there are many here, some with bright red flowers. (I rushed in to get Lee, saying, “There’s an unbelievably beautiful bird out there”, but it had left by the time he got out.)
While waiting on the pier for the boat to leave, we got to photograph another first, an Eastern Reef Egret (a large sooty-grey egret with yellow bill and legs), stalking about among the rocks of the shore. There was also a Sacred Kingfisher hunting among the rocks.
It was a beautiful day to be out on the water. The trip took us about halfway around the island into a mangrove-lined creek that cuts almost all the way through the island (about 3 miles). I sat watching the mangrove roots intently as the boat sped along the creek (eventually getting rather dizzy) and spotted two kingfishers among the roots. One had a very greenish cast and flew up into the trees as we went by. I’ve decided to declare that to be a Mangrove Kingfisher (also called the Collared Kingfisher), though it was by no means a positive identification.
I’m almost certain that the other was my much-longed-for Little Kingfisher. Chris Dahlberg’s booklet about the Daintree area describes a Little K. flying along a creek as looking “like a tiny blue-and-white rocket running out of fuel”. That’s exactly what I saw, but I never saw the bird at rest, so I can’t be sure. (The Little is only 12 cm. long, counting its long black bill.) It was all I could do to keep from begging the captain to stop the boat.
When we got to the end of the creek, we climbed up a ladder to a boardwalk through the mangroves that took us about a quarter of a mile to a really gorgeous white sandy beach on the ocean side of the island, where we immediately broke out the box lunches we’d been given. Not being much of a one for sitting in the sun, I headed back into the mangroves after lunch to look for more kingfishers. I got only sanderling bites for my troubles, but it was really very pleasant sitting by the creek until the skiff returned to pick us up.
The captain of the boat told me that the plopping sounds in the mangrove swamps are made by crabs. He had to steer a very careful course as we went in and out of the creek, as the channel through the sandbars is very narrow. We saw herons wading hundreds of feet out into the shallow water and not getting their knees wet. The sandbars were covered with other waders that were too far away to make out.
As we rode back to the resort, we chatted with a retired Australian couple who were exclaiming at the sight of the mountain they had climbed during the morning; they couldn’t believe they had gotten that high.
Back on shore, we spent a few quiet hours on our balcony reading and bird watching. I got another glimpse of a Mistletoe Bird. And then we spent 20 wonderful minutes watching and photographing a pair of Rainbow Bee-Eaters hawking for insects right in front of our balcony. Their wings seem to be made of rubber—they can turn in midair in the most astonishing way. Once they catch an insect, they land on a snag and bang the insect against the wood to kill it (and to remove the stinger if it’s a bee) before swallowing it.
Another quiet evening and early to bed.
There were many, many birds, so the air was full of jungle sounds. We identified almost none of the birds, however, as they were almost exclusively up in the canopy, many of them feeding on the fruits of various palms. I did, however, finally see a Noisy Pitta!
(The last time we were in Australia, we failed to spot a Noisy Pitta even in the aviaries at the Sydney Zoo (and even though one of the keepers told us that they had so many of them that they’d separated the males from the females). We looked in aviary after aviary and never saw a one. Noisy Pittas are ground-dwelling birds about the size of a quail and are described as “head, throat black; crown chestnut, black central stripe; rich green above; shoulders, rump iridescent turquoise; buff below; black central stripe extends to red vent; short green tail”, so they shouldn’t be hard to see.)
We’ve been looking for a Pitta for days now. Finally, this morning, walking along a steep section of the trail, we heard a loud rustling in the undergrowth. I was walking a few feet ahead of Lee and managed to duck down and see the Pitta just before it disappeared, but Lee has still never seen one.
After breakfast, we showered and packed our bags and then relaxed on our balcony among the birds. Lee finally got to see a Mistletoe Bird, and the Rainbow Bee-Eaters were hawking again (in better light this time). Several of the trees near the balcony were in flower, so I got to see the last of the honeyeaters I have been looking for in this area, the White-throated (olive-green back, black head, white underparts).
At lunch on the terrace beside the pool, we shared a table with a retired Australian couple who had taken the boat over from the mainland early this morning and then hiked from Macushla Point to the resort; it was a bit rugged in this heat, but they do a lot of hiking and seemed quite fit. As we sat chatting with them, a very large goanna (about 5 feet long) came out of the woods and walked slowly about the terrace inspecting the people eating lunch (his tongue constantly flicking out to sample the air). Having satisfied his curiosity, he ambled over to the swimming pool, took a good long drink of the water, and headed back into the woods, after which conversation resumed.
We had a bit more time to spend walking along the beach but then we had to go to the dock to catch our 3 o’clock boat back to the mainland. On the boat, we talked with another of the departing guests, a doctor from Melbourne who is an ardent birder. When he heard that we will be in Yulara soon, he suggested that we contact a man there whom he got to know when he was in the Flying Doctor Service. His friend is also a birder and owns a tour service that specializes in nature trips.
There were even more little fish skipping along the water by the boat than on our trip out. The young captain, Myles Challenger, explained that they are fleeing what they perceive to be a predator. I was amused to watch him casually steering the boat with his bare feet. At one point, when he announced that the radar showed a school of dugongs ahead, the boat began listing, as everyone moved to that side, but nobody claimed to see a dugong.
We are staying in Cardwell tonight, at the same motel as before, and will be off again early in the morning.
We called a cab to go to the bus stop. The young Aborigine woman driving it told us about a plan to build a new resort at the edge of town and that “the greenies and the pensioners” are opposing it, which she felt to be unfair to the young people.
On the bus trip back north to Cairns, we went through the town of Mission Beach, which has “Cassowary Crossing” signs and “Do not Feed the Cassowaries” signs, but we saw no Cassowaries. (I see that I haven’t described a Cassowary yet. The species here is the Southern Cassowary. They stand about 2 meters tall and are shaped much like an Ostrich or Emu. They have glossy black feathers, blue necks and faces, and two long red wattles hanging down their necks. Their heads are topped by a brown “casque”, a sort of bone helmet, which is thought to protect them when running through woods. The male Cassowary has sole responsibility for incubating the eggs and rearing the young.)
The book I’ve been reading tells about a major cyclone a few years ago that stripped all of the leaves off the trees in one of the rainforest areas. As a result, the four or five dozen Cassowaries that lived in that area became badly heat-stressed and started coming to people’s lawns to stand under their lawn sprinklers. They were starving as well, since all the fruit had been destroyed, so people shipped in fruit from great distances in order to save them.
Shortly before we reached Cairns, we drove through a downpour, so it was really hot and humid when we got off the bus in Cairns. (I’ve gone native enough now finally to have stopped wearing pantyhose under my bluejeans—it’s just too hot.) We went out to the airport, retrieved our belongings from the locker, checked in for our flight to Darwin, and then grabbed a cab to Mt. Whitfield.
Unfortunately, the hiking trails were full of joggers and people with dogs. The dogs are strictly forbidden, because Cassowaries are terrified of them and can smell them from some distance. There are signs warning joggers that the sound of their running feet may make Cassowaries aggressive (because it sounds much like another Cassowary invading their territory). My personal opinion is that people who jog in nature preserves should be pecked to death. (We had this same problem on our last trip, trying to see Lyrebirds early one Sunday morning in another nature preserve.)
At any rate, since it was dreadfully hot and it soon became clear that we wouldn’t be seeing anything but other people, we gave up on Mt. Whitfield after about half an hour. (We did get several fleeting glimpses of a largish bird that was making wonderfully cat-like sounds. I would like to think that it was a Spotted Catbird, a member of the family that includes the Bowerbirds and the Birds of Paradise.)
We headed on down to the Botanic Garden to go through some more of their wonderful tropical plantings. We learned there that the Rousseauian “fern” by our veranda at Silky Oaks was a Torch Ginger from Indonesia. One here was blooming—the dark pink flowers come up on separate stalks from the leaves and are too bizarre even to begin to describe. We also visited the Fernery, which was fabulous, and saw a teak tree in bloom (bouquets of pale yellow flowers at the tip of each branch) and a lichee tree bearing fruit. After a cool drink in the restaurant, we headed back to the airport to catch our plane.
As the plane approached Darwin (near the center of the northern coast), the captain announced that he was having to detour a bit to avoid the smoke. We could see the lines of fire in the dark below us. (Most of the fires are deliberately set to burn the undergrowth in these eucalypt woodlands. These dry woods thrive under such treatment, whereas the rainforests we’ve been in up until now are totally destroyed by fire.)
We picked up a rental car at the airport and were soon at our hotel, the Beaufort. The lobby is decorated with exquisite Aboriginal art, and there was an attendant serving champagne to the people standing in line to check in. Our room has a lovely view of Darwin harbor and is quite posh. (A new height of the ridiculous—the “sacred point” (see David Macauley’s Motel of the Mysteries) is embossed with the Beaufort’s logo, a “B” with the center formed by a fleur-de-lis.) Unfortunately, the room reeks of cigarette smoke and the ventilation is poor, so we are glad that we were unable to get a reservation to stay here when we return to Darwin later. However, the shower and the towels and the room-service meal were all luxurious, and those were what we most needed.
The stationery in our room is embossed with a silver Brolga, indicating that the hotel has achieved the “Brolga Hall of Fame” (the Brolga is the tourism award for the Northern Territory and seems to be a Big Deal), so I couldn’t resist writing a letter to one of our nephews before going to bed early yet again in preparation for another early morning.
Driving through the outskirts of Darwin, we saw a number of signs of the Second World War, during which Darwin, which had many military facilities, was bombed.
It took only a short while to get to bush country, and the country here is dramatically different from the strip of northeastern Queensland where we’ve been until now. This is “dry sclerotic woodland”, with very sparse vegetation. We shortly began seeing in the distance the sandstone escarpment of Arnhemland.
Among the most striking features of this area are the numerous termite mounds, many of them substantially taller than a person. Coincident with the start of the mounds, we noticed that signposts and the poles for powerlines began all to be made of metal rather than wood.
After about an hour’s drive, we reached the turnoff for Fogg Dam, a well-known haven for birds. Along the road to the dam, we spotted several wallabies grazing on the dry grass or simply looking at us through the fences. We stopped to try to photograph one, but it quickly scurried off.
The dam itself looks like little more than an earthen roadway built across a low area. It rises about 10 feet above the ground level, but is sufficient to cause the area on its upstream side to retain a small amount of water all year long. (The dam was built as part of a scheme to cultivate rice that failed almost immediately. Fortunately, the area was then made a nature preserve.) The wet areas are full of rushes and of waterlillies in bloom, in pink and blue and white. And there are birds everywhere.
You can see a shot of the view from the dam in Crocodile Dundee, a short scene in which thousands of birds take wing. It was much the same scene this morning, and it was just glorious. One of our first sights was a large tree decorated with dozens of white birds dozing in the early morning sunshine. Oddly, about half of them were serene and elegant Plumed Herons and the other half were totally unserene Little Corellas. (Corellas are a mostly white cockatoo, with a bit of pink and blue about their faces. They live in noisy flocks and have a call resembling a calf bawling.) As we stood watching, the birds began waking and leaving their roost for the day, the Herons gracefully and the Corellas raucously.
We walked slowly along the dam, stopping to admire and photograph. On the drier side, there were several large kangaroos browsing and many birds, including Purple Swamphens, Masked Plovers, and both Forest and Sacred Kingfishers. A pair of the Forests sat in a tree not far from the dam and glowed blue-green as the bright sun shone on their backs, while Straw-necked Ibises grazed among the kangaroos nearby.
On the wetter side of the dam were thousands of Magpie Geese (a large black-and-white goose with a red bill and a striking knob on its head). A mixed flock of hundreds of Plumed Whistling Ducks (with long curving beige feathers decorating their brown wings) and Wandering Whistling Ducks slept one-legged on a bank, where a few Darters were also hung out to dry.
Down among the lilypads were Green Pygmy Geese and Comb-crested Jacanas. The Jacanas are wonderful black, white, and buff birds with pronounced red wattles on their heads and very long toes, which enable them to walk on the lilypads. (They have several other common names, including Lilytrotters and Jesus Birds.)
Here and there were Royal Spoonbills (white with black bills), Burdekins (very handsome black-and-white ducks, also called Radjah Shelducks), and Pied Herons (really elegant medium-size herons with a charcoal grey crest, white neck, and grey body). In the trees were many Rainbow Bee-Eaters and another bird that was new to us, the Crimson Finch.
One tree on the dam was full of Tree Martins. These literally proved to be Lee’s downfall, as (trying to get a better angle from which to photograph them) he backed right off the dam. However, both he and the camera were unhurt (though more than a bit dusty).
We walked along the dam for an hour or so enjoying ourselves thoroughly and then spent a while going along a boardwalk through the adjacent paperbark forest. The paperbark tree does indeed have a trunk from which thin layers can be peeled. Paperbarks like to stand in water for part of the year, and these were growing in the now-dry spillway from the dam. There were many birds among them, but none that we managed to identify.
Reluctantly, we got back into our car and headed on. I could have stayed for days. We stopped for lunch in a tourist trap (there being no other choice), where Lee got to feed bananas to an albino water buffalo while I swatted flies in the intense sun.
Our next stop was well within the Kakadu National Park, at Mamukala Billabong. (A billabong is basically a pond.) Mamukala is reached by a short hike through a relatively thick woods and has a nice hide for bird viewing. We were all alone there with thousands of birds. There were many Magpie Geese and all the white egrets (Great, Plumed (or Intermediate), and Little), as well as Jacanas and Pygmy Geese. We got to see our first Pacific Heron, a large, dark heron with white neck and striated breast.
The trees in the surrounding woods were also full of birds. Two very large raptors sat on a branch near the hide, but we were unable to identify them after much effort. That tree also held a bird we never saw, which made a sound rather like it was practicing to be a Laughing Kookaburra.
We resolved to return to this wonderful place early one morning and headed off to the small town of Jabiru, where we checked into the Gagudju Hotel, the world’s only crocodile-shaped hotel. Certainly, when I first heard of this hotel, I imagined the most awful kitsch, but that is not the case. The shape makes sense when one considers that the hotel belongs to the local Aborigines for whom the crocodile is a major totem. (They built the hotel with proceeds from their uranium mine nearby.) The crocodile’s legs are stairways; the guest rooms are in its body; the restaurant and lobby are in its head; and staff rooms are in its tail. Looking carefully, one spots its eyes and claws and teeth and eggs, as well. The gardens and ponds in the central courtyard form the crocodile’s internal organs as in the “X-ray” style of Aboriginal art.
Our room is quite comfortable, with excellent Aboriginal art, and the public rooms are resplendent with art. We had a fine meal in the restaurant and a quiet evening.
We got to the birding hide at Mamukala Billabong while there was still barely a red glow in the East, so we were all alone with the birds and a beautiful dawn. There were thousands of Magpie Geese taking off in small V’s and circling overhead before going off foraging for the day. As the sky brightened a bit, we began to see egrets and jacanas among the rushes and lilypads in front of the hide. A small tree nearby seemed to be a roosting place for Rainbow Bee-Eaters; it was full of them.
The two big mystery raptors were in the tree by the hide again. They were very co-operative, sitting still for minutes at a time while I looked at them and then flying low out over the billabong so I could see their flight profile and then flying right over me so I could see their underwing pattern. I kept paging through our books, looking at the pictures and then looking at the birds and finally felt certain that I had correctly identified them as Whistling Kites. Just then, Lee ducked into the hide to tell me that he had seen one of them making that almost-Kookaburra sound, which clinched the identification (and kept us from looking further for another mystery bird in the same tree). I don’t understand the advantage to a bird of prey in being so noisy, but I think I shall always know that call from now on.
After it was fully light, we walked about a quarter of the way around the billabong to another hide. On our way, we flushed what I think must have been a Blue-winged Kookaburra, but all I got was an impression of the right colors (turquoise and white and rufous). The billabong is bordered by light forest that was just teeming with birds. We stopped to photograph some Sacred Kingfishers and a pair of Varied Lorikeets. A flock of Red-collared Lorikeets kept sweeping around us, but they were impossible to photograph. We were able to photograph a whole family of Crimson Finches lined up on a palm leaf. We also saw a new finch, the Double-barred—a lovely little thing with blue bill, white face, brown back, black-and-white speckled wings, and two prominent dark bars across its breast.
At the second hide, we saw more egrets and herons and jacanas and Gull-billed Terns. On our way back, we flushed what was probably another Blue-winged Kookaburra, but had no luck following it through the woods, although we really tried.
Driving back to the hotel through the dry woodland, we saw some areas still burning from yesterday’s fires, and there were plumes of smoke in the distance. We spotted a Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike in a tree along the road, and then I had a wonderful sight, a group of half a dozen Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos on the ground by the road. These are very large birds and just gorgeous, especially when the sunshine catches their tail feathers. The males are like an elegant silk opera cape, black with a bright red lining—when they spread their tails, a panel of intensely red feathers is revealed. The females are more taffeta than silk. They, too, are black, but lightly speckled with white, and their tail panels remind one of the most luxurious plaid taffeta; the feathers shade from red to orange to yellow and are crossed by scalloped bars of black. As we drove by this group, two of the males flew up into the air a few feet, giving me a dazzling glimpse of their red feathers, but I was too enthralled to point them out to Lee until it was too late, so he missed them.
After a pleasant breakfast at the hotel, we headed to Nourlangie, one of the most famous sites for Aboriginal rock paintings. There are rock paintings throughout Kakadu, along the Arnhemland escarpment and in other places where outcroppings of rock occur. The escarpment is visible from quite a distance, being basically a pink sandstone wall 200-300 feet high. The same sandstone once covered the area we are in but eroded away, except for the occasional residuals of especially resistant rock. Both along the escarpment and among the large residuals, there occur many overhangs where people have sheltered during the past 20,000 years. These shelters were used most during the Wet Season, for protection from the very violent thunderstorms and lightning. (We are well into the Dry Season now.)
The area called Nourlangie has very extensive cliffs. We could see it from quite a distance, as we drove along roads that had frequent “Floodway” signs, with gauges to measure the depth of the water, so drivers can know their chances before entering. (During a few months each year, most of the roads here are impassable.) There is a parking lot not far from the cliffs. Walking from there, we were surrounded by bird calls, including what we decided must be cockatoos too far in the woods to see.
I hadn’t dreamed that the paintings here would be so extensive. There were hundreds of them, in many different styles from primitive hand outlines to the sophisticated “X-ray” style. (During one period in the last century, blue from laundry blueing became common in addition to the black and ochre and white used traditionally.) The subjects are mostly animals—long- and short-necked turtles, wallabies, kangaroos, birds, Tasmanian tigers, barrimundi and other kinds of fish. But there are also many mythological figures, the most famous one here being a painting of the Lightning Man, with a hoop of lighting encircling his body. Some of the paintings were old friends long known from books; others were new joys. We lingered over them, taking time to photograph and savor.
We toured gallery after gallery, relishing every moment, and then arrived at one of the more pronounced overhangs, Anbangbang Shelter, just as a young ranger was beginning a talk. She pointed out some of the different styles in the paintings and the superposition of newer paintings over older. Ranges of dates for some of the paintings have been established based on subject matter—for example, the man carrying a fan made of the wing of a Magpie Goose would have been painted after the end of the last Ice Age, when the sea level began to rise and this region became less dry and hot than previously.
She told us about the archaelogical digs in the floor of the shelter, which had accumulated about a meter and a half of occupation layers. She had brought along a collection of artifacts, some of which had come from the digs and some of which were modern but made by the same techniques as artifacts from the digs. She let us handle a wonderfully polished barbed wooden spear, a human-hair belt, a dilly bag made of bark twine, a stone axehead, fire sticks, and various implements made of bone and shell, all of exquisite craftmanship. One of the objects from low in the dig was made of bamboo, which must have been traded from quite a distance. The ranger also pointed out to us the round hollows on top of one of the big flat table-height stones that had fallen from the shelter roof long ago, hollows made over hundreds of years by people grinding food and ochre and other substances.
Leaving the shelter, we immediately noticed how much hotter it was outside. We decided to go look for the cockatoos we had heard earlier and soon found ourselves at Anbangbang Billabong, a beautiful shallow waterhole full of white waterlillies and surrounded by pink cliffs. And home to hundreds of birds.
Lee had just begun taking pictures and I was trying to decide whether the nearest bird was a Pied Cormorant or a Little Pied Cormorant (it was a Little) when a young British couple seated at a picnic table under a big tree called us over. They had a bird book open on the table and were trying to identify some large grey birds that were panhandling at their table. They were Great Bowerbirds! I must admit to being somewhat disillusioned to see them panhandling, but it was such a treat to get a close look at bowerbirds that we stayed and helped feed them breadcrumbs. Or, I fed them while Lee photographed. (Bowerbirds are related to Birds of Paradise. Male bowerbirds build very elaborate structures of sticks, moss, etc., often several feet high and usually decorated with found objects of specific colors. The females visit the bowers and choose a mate based on the artistry of his bower.)
After a while we left the bowerbirds and began walking around the billabong. In the water were a goodly collection of herons and egrets and jacanas and ibises. A few Sulphur-crested Cockatoos went almost unnoticed as we passed under their tree; they seemed to be trying very hard to keep quiet, but couldn’t help muttering at us a bit. Pacific Black Ducks and Wandering Whistling Ducks sat on the shore. We soon spotted an Australian Hobby hunting from a dead tree.
Then we stopped entranced as a flock of about 20 Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos flew noisily into the trees not far ahead of us. Their squawking was unbelievable. They made the Little Corellas we saw yesterday seem meek and quiet. And, oh, they were lovely! I stayed mostly behind a tree while Lee crept closer to photograph them. The birds were flying from tree to tree, but I could see that he was getting some reasonably good shots. Then a gorgeous male flew to a tree about 20 feet ahead of him and landed on a low branch with the sun shining through the red feathers of his tail, and I watched with overflowing sympathy as Lee frantically changed his film. The bird flew off as soon as Lee began focusing on him, of course, but by then a large goanna had wandered close, so at least the film wasn’t wasted.
As we continued walking around the billabong, several Whistling Kites circled overhead and I finally got to see one of them call. There were four Bee-Eaters in a single tree. Another small tree had six species of waders sitting in it. We flushed what surely must have been a Blue-winged Kookaburra, but again failed to get a good look. This is another place that we must return to.
We had planned to visit another of the rock art sites, but by the time we got near it, it was 3 o’clock and extremely hot, so we went back to the hotel and showered and changed and then explored the town of Jabiru a bit. There is quite a pretty little lake. As we walked along one side of it, we watched a crow chase a kite all the way across the lake. As they passed over us, we could actually hear the blows as the crow repeatedly attacked the much larger kite. Later, I noticed a tiny spot as a raptor flew high above the lake and was very pleased when my binoculars revealed it to be a White-breasted Sea Eagle. In the light woods near the lake, we got two more new birds, a Blue-faced Honeyeater (it has prominent patches of bare blue skin on its face) and a Black-tailed Treecreeper.
We returned to have an elegant dinner seated among the art in the hotel restaurant and then Lee gave me a much-deserved foot massage.
It turned out that Lee and I were the only ones on the first part of the tour; the other people would be arriving by plane later in the morning. The first part of the tour was the trip to the uranium mine. As we got on the bus, the driver/guide, a pleasant thirtyish man named Craig, noticed our binoculars and cameras and asked if we are interested in birds. When we replied that we are, he told us that he is a “passionate birder”, to which he added, “There are lots of birds at the uranium mine.” We picked up on that clue immediately and assured him that we’ve very little interest in uranium mines, a sentiment he appeared to share.
So, we spent a couple of hours “touring the uranium mine”, concentrating mainly on the holding ponds. (These aren’t involved in the mining or milling; they simply hold all rain that falls on the mine property as a safeguard.) Some of the sights: a Restless Flycatcher diving down to lilypads to catch insects (the male Restless is black and white—we mistook him for a Willie Wagtail at first), a White-faced Heron stalking along a sandbank, Little Pied Cormorants, a Sacred Kingfisher hunting near the Flycatcher, and a group of ducks that we were all embarrassed not to be able to identify (Craig felt that they must be immatures).
In the end, we went through the motions of a mine tour. The buildings near the guard gate were covered with wonderful Bougainvillaeas, reddish-purple flowers and white flowers all blooming on the same bush. At the gate, Craig was given a beeper, in case he needed to be warned to evacuate. The mine itself is just a big hole in the ground with big machinery at the bottom, but there were lots of birds in the woods around it. The mill was actually somewhat interesting (brought back to mind all my chemistry courses). Everything is on an enormous scale, including gigantic tanks of concentrated sulphuric acid, kerosene, and anhydrous ammonia. As Craig was driving us through the mill and talking us through the ore reduction process, I pointed to a beautiful little finch (blue head, red bill, black-and-grey body) sitting on a valve handle, and he stopped in mid-sentence to say “Long-tailed Finch”—there was no question as to what was really of interest here.
He told us that the Australian government buys all the uranium and sells it overseas for non-weapons use only. The open-pit mine will be closed soon because it is almost played out, but there are plans for an underground mine that will go under the nearby escarpment (and Aboriginal sacred sites that must not be disturbed).
After we left the mine and mill, we drove through an area that was a village for the mine workers until about four years ago, when everybody was moved into Jabiru (which is quite new). It was interesting to see how quickly the land has recovered to an appearance much the same as the undisturbed areas outside the former village. Craig did point out mango trees that wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t been planted in people’s backyards.
He talked to us a bit about Kakadu itself, which is the third largest national park in the world (13,000 sq. km.). It contains an entire river basin; all of the South Alligator River is within the park. The climate of the region is quite extreme—for seven months of the year, there is no rain; during the other five months, 6 meters of rain fall. The park extends clear to the coast, so it contains several kinds of ecosystems, including some “monsoon rainforests”, which differ from the rainforests of North Queensland in that they undergo an extended dry season each year, during which the plants must depend on ground water. (These patches of monsoon rainforest occur mostly in protected gulches.) The dry woodlands, such as we were then driving through, are burned every few years by the Park staff, guided by the advice of the “traditional owners”, local Aborigines. Craig said that one begins to see green growth within four days after a burn.
We asked Craig a bit about himself. He used to be a Yellow Waters boat guide and still lives in a caravan by Yellow Waters. His wife lives in Darwin, and they visit one another on alternate weekends. He clearly loves his work and describes himself as being “very lucky to be able to watch birds for a living”. Like other people we’ve talked to here, he views himself as owing his job to Paul Hogan. (Crocodile Dundee showed the Kakadu to the world and enormously increased the tourism here.)
We stopped at the airport to pick up several other people, including a geology professor from California and his wife and two teenaged sons. The drive to Ubirr was very interesting, with lovely views of the escarpment and many interestingly eroded rock formations. There were several kinds of trees in bloom: Kapok Bushes (flowers like dogwood, but bright yellow), acacias with wispy yellow bottlebrush flowers, and handsome silver-green Fern-Leafed Grevilleas with orange bottlebrush flowers.
When we got out of the bus at Ubirr, there were bushes full of tiny beige fairy-wrens, which we think are the Red-backed Fairy-Wrens in eclipse plumage (some of them seemed to have hints of pink on their backs).
The paintings at Ubirr are as wonderful as the ones at Nourlangie, and Craig’s explanations were very helpful. I am particularly fascinated by “contact art”, the art of societies that have just come into contact with other societies, in this case the paintings the Aborigines made when they first came into contact with Europeans. We saw a few examples at Nourlangie yesterday, such as pictures of rifles. There are more examples at Ubirr—a man smoking a pipe, a man with his hands in his pockets, and other figures with lines drawn around their bodies to indicate clothing.
There are several rock shelters here that have long histories of use by humans. Indeed, some of the flat-lying rocks are polished from contact with so many bodies over the millennia. And there are more examples of rocks that have been used as grindstones.
After going through the galleries, we climbed up to the lookout at the top of Ubirr, from which we could see an extensive floodplain, now lightly clothed in bright green grass with the occasional pond with herons and Magpie Geese and such. (This lookout was used in another scene in Crocodile Dundee, which Craig played out for our amusement.)
As we were coming down from the lookout, there was another tour group (from another tour company) waiting to come up. The following exchange insued:
Craig: Is this Ayres Rock, mate?
Other Guide: You’ve found it.
Craig: It wasn’t as hard to climb as I’d heard it would be.
OG: Did you see the Olgas while you were up there?
Craig: I looked for them, but I couldn’t find them.
OG: Let this gentleman through, folks; it’s his first day as a tour guide.
When we returned to the bus, there were fresh orange sections (Australian oranges are very good) and icy towels to wash away the dust. (This explained something from our plane trip. Shortly before our QANTAS flight landed in Darwin, the attendants came down the aisles handing out towels. I reached for one, expecting it to be steaming hot, and was appalled to find that it was not only cold, but even slightly frozen. I couldn’t conceive of how anyone could imagine that to be pleasant. Now I understand.)
We continued on to the South Alligator River, which has a very extensive floodplain. The lowest parts of the floodplain have only grasses growing on them. Slightly higher, there are big stands of paperbark trees, which can tolerate being waterlogged. Further back, there are open forests of pandanus, a sort of “universal plant” that provided the Aborigines with many of their material needs; for example, they made twine by rolling strips of its bark on their thighs. Some of the pandanus trees here are the Spiral Pandanus, which has projections spiraling down its trunk to catch dew and mist and guide them down to its roots.
We had a pleasant fish-and-chips lunch at a restaurant near the river. Its heavily-planted courtyard was full of Little Corellas, with Black Kites and Whistling Kites sitting higher in the trees. Then we drove back to the river and stopped at the river bank by trees that had even more Corellas in them, squawking and screeching and, often as not, hanging upside down. There Craig turned us over to “my mate Barry” for the river tour. Standing waiting to board the boat, we saw an impressive “willy-willy” (a dust devil the size of a tornado) moving very slowly across the flood plain. Craig says they are common here and have enough power to overturn caravans.
Once we were aboard the boat, Barry asked for a show of hands between those who wanted to see birds and those who wanted to see crocodiles. It came out almost even, so he first headed down the river to see birds for a while, before turning up the river to see crocodiles. (This was better than I’d been hoping for—I think Craig put in a good word for us.)
Almost immediately, we were treated to the sight of a Jabiru flying over, and then there was a Jabiru wading along the bank, with a pelican nearby. A while later, while we were stopped to see a crocodile, we got a good long look at a Mangrove Heron standing on a sandbar, and soon there was a tree full of Rufous Night Herons. A Brahminy Kite flew over, and then a Whistling Kite sitting on a branch a few feet above the water allowed us to come to within a few feet, remaining quite unperturbed (but very fierce looking) as we snapped away.
Barry is another who clearly delights in his job. He stopped to show us where his wedding ceremony was held—on his tour boat moored at the entrance to Bat Creek (“the best sunset view on the river”) just at sunset one evening two years ago.
In all, we saw about a dozen crocodiles, some of them quite large. It was actually interesting to get a close look at one; we could see quite clearly the two big teeth in its lower jaw projecting up through openings in its snout. It was also interesting to see how quickly a crocodile can move.
Going along the river, we saw Rainbow Bee-Eaters about every 50 feet. I still get a smile on my face every time I see one—they are so beautiful! There were several kite nests in the trees along the banks, some with their owners nearby. Barry also pointed out the nest of a pair of White-breasted Sea Eagles, but there was nobody about. And he paused to let us see a family of Burdekin Ducks walking along the bank (not far from a large crocodile, but they seemed to know what they were doing). But we didn’t see a Mangrove Kingfisher and we didn’t see a Blue-winged Kookaburra.
As soon as we got on the bus to drive back to the hotel, Craig wanted an account of the birds we had seen. He doubted that we had really seen Rufous Night Herons so close to an estuary and suggested that they were probably actually Black Bitterns. I countered that we had definitely seen Night Herons on the Daintree, but of course that isn’t so saline. Rats! I wish we’d had a closer look.
Craig also said that he doesn’t see how we could have walked around Anbangbang Billabong without seeing a Blue-winged Kookaburra. He described the tree where there is “always” one to be found. It sounded exactly like the tree from which we saw a turquoise-and-rufous blur flying away. Sigh. He once saw one of the Blue-wingeds dive into the billabong and capture a fish, just as though it were a normal kingfisher.
As we drove back to the hotel, the geology professor was very disappointed to learn that he’d missed the tour of the uranium mine. When he asked us about it, we simply told him it had been very enjoyable. As we left the bus, Craig told us we’d made his day.
At dinner, Lee finally broke down and asked about the “Lamb with Rosella Sauce”; he likes lamb but didn’t want to eat a beautiful Crimson Rosella, so he was glad when the waitress assured him that Rosella is an herb. I had been shocked this afternoon to hear the geology professor say that he couldn’t wait to find out what Emu tastes like. However, I almost forgave him later in the evening when he brought me the new John Varley he had been reading on the bus. (Lee had mentioned to him that I’m a Varley fan.) Now, I will have to try to be sensible and not stay up reading half the night.
We drove to the town park, just a few minutes away, and were there before the sun rose. There were a dozen or so egrets and several Little Pied Cormorants. A small flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos flew back and forth across the lake, squawking all the while. After the sun rose, we walked the length of the lake, stopping to photograph cormorants on posts and a Silver-crowned Friarbird feeding in a grevillea. Soon we came upon two female Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos feeding in a tree and muttering warnings at Lee as he crept closer.
We were almost ready to leave the park when Lee saw a movement on the gravelly shore of the lake. It took me a couple of minutes of effort to see what he was pointing at, a small bird not more than 6 feet away from us, but perfectly camouflaged. Even once I had spotted it, I lost it again repeatedly. We watched it for about ten minutes and finally identified it as a Black-fronted Dotterel. The Inland Dotterel is said to be even more well camouflaged, so I suspect we shall never see one of those.
We returned to the hotel to savor their breakfast buffet one last time, after which we checked out and headed back to Anbangbang Billabong. It was as wonderful as before, alive with birds. We soon saw our second Pacific Heron and watched as the Hobby flushed a flock of Magpie-Larks and then returned to its tree to be photographed. We heard the Wandering Whistling Ducks whistling and saw some Little Corellas being quiet. A male Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo took over the Hobby’s tree and sat in the sunshine scolding us for 15 minutes while we photographed him. When we returned to our car, we noted a Pied Butcherbird, looking rather like a big black-and-white kingfisher, sitting on a branch right in front of us. He wasn’t happy to be photographed, but stayed for a while anyway.
We returned briefly to the galleries at Nourlangie to photograph some of the paintings in different light. A tour guide was telling his group of the brouhaha a few years ago when a documentary film-maker hired some Aborigines from a different part of Australia to come here and do some paintings on the walls of one of the main galleries so that he could film them doing it.
We then drove a few kilometers to another parking area, from which to hike to the Nanguluwur gallery. The walk was about 1.7 kilometers each way, with an easy grade, but very hot and dry (and I stupidly didn’t carry enough water). However, once we were there we forgot all other considerations. The paintings are wonderful and we were all alone with them, in a quiet broken only by the distant screeching of cockatoos. (One suspects that the reason that the road is brought no closer is simply to keep down the number of visitors.)
It was just lovely, the two of us all alone going slowly from painting to painting, some of them thought to be as much as 20,000 years old. (These are a group of dozens of hand outlines made by blowing paint to leave a stenciled image on the rock. They are up very, very high, probably made by standing on a rock ledge that fell about 800 years ago, burying earlier occupation layers.)
There are several examples of contact art here, the most spectacular being the white painting of a Macassan prau (sailing ship) with the anchor chain clearly shown and a dinghy being towed behind. There are also a series of paintings of hands and forearms crisscrossed with a design that is thought to represent the lace gloves worn by European women in the early days of contact with Europeans. These galleries also have some especially spectacular X-ray paintings (probably dating to the past 1000 years) superimposed on paintings in earlier styles.
It was a wonderful experience, but it was a relief to get back to our air-conditioned car and some lime mineral water (which we’ve discovered is refreshing even when warm). We drove on to Coorinda and checked into the motel near Yellow Waters. I chose to take it easy and settle down with the Varley after a shower, but Lee went to Yellow Waters (a large permanent waterhole) to look around. He came back to report that there were fires burning very near the parking lot by the tour boat dock and that hundreds of Little Corellas had been flying around totally panicked and hanging upside down from the tree branches even more than usual. He also saw kites hunting along the fire line, capturing small animals that were fleeing the fire. (We have read that Black Kites have been known to carry burning sticks to unburned areas to start fires to flush out more prey.)
We had made reservations for the early seating in the restaurant because we wanted to be back in our room in time to watch a television program on the plight of Gouldian Finches (one of the most beautiful of all birds and rapidly disappearing—we might have seen some in the wild here but that would have taken great good luck). However, we realized before dinner that there is no television in Coorinda, so we took our time over the meal, which was excellent.
I had spent some time this afternoon working through the Kakadu bird list studying all the birds we’ve not yet seen, so I immediately recognized our last wonder of the day. It was already quite dark when we left the restaurant to walk back to our room through the lovely gardens. We were almost there when we heard an amazing sound coming from high in a big old tree: “Woof-woof, woof-woof, woof-woof”. This was something I had had no hope of our actually seeing, Barking Owls! A pair of them sat side by side looking down at us and continuing to bark as Lee madly photographed them. What a delight! They finally flew off, but we succeeded in following them for a while. Looking for them gave us another pleasure; it forced us to notice the sky, so stunning here with so few lights around—the stars seeming very close and the Milky Way very conspicuous. It has been a day of wonders.
There were waterlilies in bloom everywhere, the most striking being banks of the Red Lily, which is a very deep pink with a yellow center. We had the joy of stopping to watch a pair of Forest Kingfishers sitting in a sapling beside a big bank of the Red Lilies.
Around a bend, in a big dead tree right next to the water, sitting side-by-side on a branch, were a pair of White-breasted Sea Eagles. The boat paused under the tree, so we got a wonderful chance to look at them. We could also see their big nest made of sticks high in a nearby tree and even got a few glimpses of their downy white eaglet peeking over the side of the nest.
There were Black Kites and Whistling Kites and (in the distance) more of the eagles. One tree was decorated with about a dozen Darters and Little Pied Cormorants all basking in the morning sunshine. There were Plumed Whistling Ducks everywhere and Whiskered Terns skimming about. And Rainbow Bee-Eaters and White-bellied Cuckoo-Shrikes and Magpie Larks.
On a branch right over the water, two Tawny Frogmouths were sound asleep and looking every bit as much like dead branches as the Papuan Frogmouths I saw on the Daintree.
Right at the end of the trip, I looked up and saw a tree full of Red-winged Parrots (mostly parrot green, but one noted the red of their wings and their blue rumps as they flew off).
The first thing we did after the trip was buy tickets for tomorrow morning’s trip!
After getting some breakfast and buying me a beautiful kingfisher T-shirt, we headed out for a walk along the river (well, not right along the river—there are crocodiles here). Our most dazzling find was a beautiful pair of Shining Flycatchers, the male gleaming black and the female orange-rufous and white with a black head. They let us stay quite close for several minutes. Later we saw a female Leaden Flycatcher, dark-grey and white with an orange throat.
We got to stand near a Forest Kingfisher and listen to it sing for quite a while. I immediately recognized the song as one we have been hearing all along; I hope I will be able to identify it in the future. We kept seeing charming little brown Fairy-Wrens (their tails stand up in quite an identifiable manner); I am feeling more confident that they are the Red-backed, though their backs are not red this time of year.
We returned to the motel for lunch on the terrace of the bistro and enjoyed watching Torresian Crows and Great Bowerbirds clean the left-overs from plates. There are also kites hanging about looking for opportunities to snatch some food. We have read warnings about not eating picnic lunches out in the open, lest a kite be tempted to steal food from one’s hand (or even mouth). Craig told us yesterday that one of his friends had gotten quite a nasty gash across his cheek that way.
I chose to take a nap while Lee drove to Mirrai, an isolated promontory that provided an interesting hike and spectacular views in all directions, especially toward the escarpment.
When he returned late in the afternoon, we went to the Yellow Waters dock area and walked around. There were a number of wallabies browsing in the grass, and a Willie Wagtail sat on one of them pretending to be an oxpecker. We saw many of the same waders as this morning, plus some pelicans. In the light woods nearby was a White-throated Honeyeater. And as we walked back to our car, we got a good long look at a Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, quite a small bird and very graceful as it hawked for insects and returned again and again to the same perch.
When we returned to the motel, I wandered around the grounds among the blooming native trees and bushes and got Dusky and White-gaped Honeyeaters and then watched some of the Great Bowerbirds settle in for the night in blooming Frangipani trees.
Dinner was barrimundi with a passionfruit-peppercorn sauce. After dinner, we went out with our newly-acquired flashlight and searched for the Barking Owls, but they were nowhere to be seen (or heard).
At one point during the boat trip, while we were stopped to look at a Darter, I spotted an Azure Kingfisher in the bright sunshine on a low branch. It was so near that I could almost have touched it, and it stayed to let us ooh and aah for several minutes, finally turning its dazzling purple-blue back to us. I could hear Lee clicking away, but the boat was not steady so we won’t count on good results.
We got another view of the Sea Eagles, one sitting and the other flying to their nest, and a few more glimpses of the eaglet. (It hatched two weeks ago according to our guide.)
One experience I shall never forget is watching a male jacana and his four chicks. (Jacanas have a body about the size of a Mourning Dove, but with larger heads and long greenish legs and very long toes for walking on lilypads without sinking. They are white and black and buff and have a red comb on top of their heads.) The male has full responsibility for incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks. These chicks were quite young, four little balls of dappled yellow down with long greenish legs and long, long toes.
They were all walking about on the lilypads feeding when our boat approached. The father gave an alarm call and the chicks came running toward him. As each one arrived, he tucked it up under one of his wings, the first two on his right side, then the third on his left side, with all those wonderful little toes dangling out below his wings. Number four had been far away and took quite a while to get to its father, running as quickly as it could. At one point it stepped off the edge of a lilypad and had to swim about 5 inches and climb up on another lilypad, but finally it arrived safely and was quickly tucked away, after which the father raced away to safety with the little toes still dangling. This all took 2-3 minutes. I sat enthralled just a few feet away, with Lee behind me taking many pictures. I had never heard of this behavior before but have since read that jacanas also sometimes move their eggs this way, if the water rises and threatens to drown their nest.
Nothing could top that, but we also enjoyed seeing the Red-winged Parrots again as the boat drew near the dock. Then, when we were almost back at the dock, we had the pleasure of seeing dozens of White-breasted Woodswallows sitting in nearby trees, huddled close together in rows along the branches.
Back on shore, we followed a ranger on a nature walk for a while. We got to see some of the wallabies “boxing” with one another. The ranger pointed out the deep cracks that form in the ground during “the Dry” and explained that these form an important microenvironment and are home to insects, frogs, snakes, and other reptiles. Some of the cracks go a meter deep. When the rains finally come, birds of prey stand by the cracks waiting for little creatures to come crawling out of them.
After breakfast at the motel, I went out looking for honeyeaters while Lee packed (he prefers it that way) and then we started off on the long drive back to Darwin. While we were driving, we finally spotted a Blue-winged Kookaburra on a power line, but there was nowhere to pull over, so we had only the glimpse.
Back in Darwin, we checked into the Darwin Travel Lodge, which has the distinction of being one of the few buildings to have survived Cyclone Tracy, which devastated Darwin a few years ago. We are again right across the street from the Esplanade, with a nice view of the harbor. Shortly after we arrived, we stood on our balcony watching a “tall ship” sail across the lovely aquamarine water of the harbor. Even though we are on the tenth floor, there were hundreds of Tree Martins (I think) flitting around our balcony, seeming to play in the updrafts caused by the building.
After a shower and a nap, we went for a walk along the Esplanade. One landmark we had noticed looking down at the park from our room was a straight line in the grass, going from the street to a refuse can about 30 feet away. Checking that out when we got down to the park, we found that it to be a narrow (3-inch) path worn in the grass by ants.
Further on in the park, we annoyed a Sacred Kingfisher by watching it for quite a while. I finally had a chance to see it make the “tail-flick” that the bird books describe as identifying it. And I could see the buffy spots in front of its eyes as it glared at us. There were many more of the Martins swooping about and a pair of Figbirds sitting in a tree. With some trouble, we identified a female Varied Triller, after which we left the park to walk around in the town for a while before returning to the hotel.
When we were in Darwin a few days ago, we checked in the Northern Territory phone book for Neil Hermes, the man whose tour service was recommended to us by the doctor we met on Hinchinbrook. We had no luck, but today’s NT newspaper has a picture of Hermes in Darwin to receive a Brolga award for his company, Uluru Experience. (This also explains why we couldn’t get a room in the Beaufort, which is where the award ceremony was held.)
We ended the day with a room-service dinner and a quiet evening.
The park, which is about four years old, is really lovely. The land has been left almost entirely in its natural state, mostly dry woodland. The animals on display are all either native to the Territory or ones that have been introduced here over the years. The exhibits are arranged around a long circular track, with natural woodlands between them. There is a small train that one can take between the different exhibits.
We headed straight for the aviaries, which are very nicely done. There are eleven of them, each containing plants and birds of a specific environment in the Territory, plus a large walk-through aviary at the end. It was almost as if they had asked us for a list of the birds we had failed to see—except for the birds of prey, they were almost all there, and it was wonderful finally to be able to see them. For the record:
The Gouldian Finches are heartbreakingly lovely—“grass-green above with cobalt-blue rump, black tail drawn into fine, thin wisps, lilac chest and yellow abdomen, ivory bill with red tip, face black in most but crimson in some”. What a pity it will be if they become extinct. (They are named for their discoverer’s wife, a lovely gift.)
The last of the small aviaries, the one with the Blue-winged Kookaburras and the Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos, was an especially raucous place, but we could have stayed much longer, taking picture after picture.
As much as I enjoyed seeing all these birds, I am finding it more and more difficult to deal with the idea of birds in captivity. Many of these seemed content; for example, the Common Bronzewings had a nest and were sharing incubation duties. But all of the honeyeaters seemed frantic, flying wildly around their enclosures constantly seeking a way out. One of the female Blue-winged Kookaburras repeatedly smashed into the glass separating the birds from the people. And the Bush Thick-Knees in the large, walk-through aviary had worn a path around the perimeter and kept walking along it looking outward.
The walk-through aviary is very nicely done and had many other birds, most of which we had managed to see in our travels. It was odd that the Pied Herons seemed to prefer to be high above the ground, up with the lorikeets. There were many of the white-and-black Torresian Imperial-Pigeons, which Lee had seen on his trip to Cape Tribulation, but which were new to me. There were several ducks that we neither had seen before, and we got a much closer look at the lovely Red-winged Parrots than we had at Yellow Waters. There were also said to be several kinds of honeyeaters there that we’ve not seen elsewhere, but we’ve still not seen them.
Leaving the walk-through aviary, we found ourselves on a boardwalk through an awesome monsoon rainforest, which appeared to be very old and well-established. There was a stream running through it, and that was enough to make this area vastly different from the surrounding woodlands. They must have chosen the site for the park because of this beautiful place.
We had lingered so long in the aviaries that there was no time to stop in another area to see the Brolgas and the Bustards. What a loss! (The Brolga is one of Australia’s two species of cranes, a tall pearl-grey bird with a red head, famous for its elegant mating dance. Bustards are long-legged grasslands birds related to cranes but considerably smaller.)
We grabbed a quick lunch at the park headquarters and dashed to the airport to catch our flight to Alice Springs. The trip was uneventful, and we are now settled in the same motel we stayed in when we were here in “The Alice” four years ago.
Then I settled down for a day of reading and napping while Lee drove off to the west to explore the West MacDonnells National Park, a long narrow park that starts near Alice Springs and extends about 160 kilometers to the west, including a vast block of the McDonnell Ranges. There are numerous streams flowing out into the desert from these mountains, with spectacular gorges full of wildlife. (Most of the streams simply run out into the desert and dry up without ever connecting to another river.)
He returned after dark, having very much enjoyed his 300 km. trip. He had hiked (and photographed, of course) in Ormiston Gorge, Serpentine Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge, and Ellery Creek Big Hole, and had seen the Aboriginal Ochre Pits. He reported that the dramatic, arid landscapes had been brightened by numerous flowers. He had seen many birds and had photographed a Coot, a White-faced Heron, an immature Pied Heron, and a group of four of the beautiful Spinifex Pigeons. (These are a rich antique gold, with black and grey barring across their backs, a very pointy crest on their heads, and red masks around their eyes.)
He is especially hoping that he got good pictures of a group of Splendid Fairy-Wrens. The Splendid Fairy-Wren is somewhat variable (but always gorgeous); it is represented in this part of the continent by a sub-race called the Turquoise Fairy-Wren. It is about 6 in. long, counting the tail, which stands straight up. The body and tail are a brilliant deep blue; the cap and back are an iridescent turquoise; and the chin is a paler iridescent turquoise. There are bits of black here and there to throw the marvelous blues into sharper relief. (It hardly seems fair that one country should have Splendid Fairy-Wrens, Superb Fairy-Wrens, and Lovely Fairy-Wrens, and those aren’t even all of the bright blue ones.)
We had a quiet dinner together at a table overlooking the swimming pool and then settled down for the evening. (Incidentally, we have seen no birds swooping down to drink from the swimming pool on the wing, as we did last time we were here. We think now, after four years of mulling it over, that the ones we saw last time were Tree Martins.)
Lee had picked up several newspapers, including one devoted to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Since we’ve been here, the papers have been full of discussions of the “Mabo Decision”, a decision made by the Australian High Court extending Aboriginal land rights. (Mabo was an Aborigine who made a claim against one of the mining companies. He died before the decision was handed down.) This is, of course, a very emotional question and involves large amounts of money. There seems to be some strong backlash (e.g., fiery speeches warning that the Aborigines will be claiming possession of people’s backyards), but our impression is that most people are more disturbed by the backlash than by the decision.
The Aboriginal newspaper also had a depressing article on the high incidence of diabetes among native peoples in northern Queensland (about 25 percent). This is reminiscent of the similar statistics for Mexican-Americans. In both cases, it seems simply that metabolisms selected to thrive in environments where the traditional diet was especially low in fats provide little defense against a “modern” diet.
It is a pity that we leave Alice early tomorrow morning without having had a chance to shop for Aboriginal art, as we did the last time we were here, but we are looking forward to being in Yulara again.
The bus made a few stops along the way. The first was at a camel farm. Camels are not native to Australia, but do well here and were an important means of transport before the railroads. Neither of us really wanted to try a camel ride, and the flies were quite bad, so we were just as happy to get going again.
The next stop, at the junction of the Stuart and Lasseter Highways, was more pleasant. There was a short wait for the arrival of a connecting bus, so we walked about trying to identify the birds we saw. There were parrots and such whizzing about tantalizingly, too fast or far away for our limited skills. I think the bird atop the communications tower was an Australian Kestrel, but our only positive identification was of an Emu in a large pen with some kangaroos and wallabies.
From there to Yulara (about 250 kilometers), all the land we crossed belonged to only four cattle stations. Growing cattle on this land is just barely economically viable, if that. The land supports only about three cows per square mile. People suspect that the stations get more income from their roadhouses than they do from cattle. One of the four stations now belongs to Aborigines. The next one belongs to a member of the ultra-right National Party. We were told that there have been many legal difficulties between those neighbors.
We saw many birds from the bus. Twice, turquoise-and-green parrots streaked past (presumably either the Mulga Parrot or the Port Lincoln Ringneck). White-breasted raptors sat in distant trees scanning for prey. (They were probably Black-shouldered Kites, or possibly Grey Falcons.)
It was delightful finally to come over a rise and see Ayres Rock in the distance, lavender against the blue sky. (Ayres Rock is an enormous monolith, extending far beneath the surface. The portion above the surface is about 3 kilometers long and 350 meters tall. It is composed of arkose, a coarse sandstone that weathers to rust-red but may appear any color from purple to orange, depending on the distance and the lighting.)
And we are pleased to be back in Yulara, the pretty town about 20 kilometers away from “The Rock”. The hotel we’re staying in is an ochre-pink like most of the rest of the buildings here, to blend with the desert. (As our bus driver said, “Yulara has the only pink police station in Australia.”) The central portion of the hotel is surmounted by large curving white canvas sails, to reduce the amount of the sun’s heat that reaches the building. The effect is quite handsome. The hotel is built around a central courtyard containing a large swimming pool with lovely gardens and other shallow pools; the pools make it a mecca for birds. The town is built around a large circular park, desert land left in the natural state, but for a few footpaths.
We are in a very attractive “Rock-view” room done all in pastel fabrics, blond wood, and good Aboriginal art. After we had had lunch by the pool and then had rested a bit, I phoned Uluru Experience to arrange for some tours. Then we went along the beautifully planted walks from the hotel to the Vistors’ Center, where we picked up a bird list and other literature. We were touched to see an Aboriginal family with several children sitting there viewing a video about the history of relations between the Aborigines and the European settlers. (We had already noted with relief that there is no longer a “NO THONGS” sign at the entrance to the restaurant in our hotel.) That at least proves that some Australians come to Ayres Rock; it isn’t only Americans and Germans and Japanese.
Late in the afternoon, we went out into the park in the center of Yulara to see birds. We were saddened to note how badly the park has been eroded by foot traffic since we were here last. We also found few birds, but there were many outside the park on the opposite side. We watched a few Yellow-throated Miners mob a couple of Torresian Crows repeatedly, as the crows tried over and over again to sit in a tree that the Miners clearly considered to be their own. There was a sapling nearby that had got another Crested Pigeon sitting in it every time we looked back at it, until there was hardly room for another. (Yellow-throated Miners are large grey-and-white honeyeaters, with touches of yellow on their wings, heads, and throats and patches of bare bright yellow skin behind their eyes. Crested Pigeons are pretty beige pigeons with blue-grey faces, red eye-rings, tall pointy black crests, and iridescent patches on their wings. Torresian Crows are like all other crows, and I won’t swear that these were Torresians.)
Heading back through the park, we spotted a Little Woodswallow (a very smooth-looking, black-masked, brown-and-grey bird reminiscent of our waxwings). We stopped on the hill in the center of the park, so that Lee could take the requisite series of pictures of the Rock as it changes color during the sunset. There was still enough light when we got back to the hotel and its gardens of native plants for us to get a good look at a group of White-plumed Honeyeaters flitting around in an espalier. (Their bright yellow faces make them much prettier than the books indicate). Then I knelt down and peered inside a small flowering bush to see who was making it sway and found a Singing Honeyeater (yet another little grey-brown, white, and yellow honeyeater, the one that the Varied was described as being like when we were back there in Cairns). We are happy to see so many of the native plants in bloom, despite this being the dead of Winter; there are sure to be other honeyeaters enjoying them.
The hotel’s restaurant is still as good as we remembered it to be. We had a lovely meal, but were disappointed to be told that the “Quandong and Macadamia Nut Tart” on the menu is not available because the local quandongs are not yet ripe. We had ordered the tart because quandongs were recommended so highly by the birds along the Daintree, but further research shows that these quandongs are quite different from the ones found in the tropical rainforest (not surprisingly). During dinner, we noticed the geology professor we met in the Kakadu sitting with his family, so we took the opportunity to return his book.
Shortly after dinner, we were picked up by a van from Uluru Experience and taken to “The Observatory”, where a knowledgeable man with a good (and highly computerized) telescope led us in an exploration of the wonderfully dark desert sky. There was a quarter moon, which made it a bit too bright to allow us to see the Magellanic Clouds, but the Milky Way was very conspicuous in the sky, much more so than it ever is at home. We looked at Jupiter and saw its bands and some of its moons. We saw the rings of Saturn and the Southern Cross and Alpha and Beta Centauri (and made out that Alpha is a double star) and the Jewel Box cluster and a couple of globular clusters. It was a delightful way to end our first day back in the desert.
This time we had enough light but almost no birds. A pair of Galahs sat prettily on one of the pink towers of the hotel, but out in the park we couldn’t see the few birds we could hear. (No repeats of the glorious sight of flights of Budgerigars undulating in the sunshine that we had so relished four years ago.) On the other side of the park, the Yellow-throated Miners were still chasing the crows. When we returned to the hotel courtyard, one of the crows was sitting on a maid’s cart, exerting great effort to pull sheets of paper out of a clipboard and throw them on the ground one-by-one. The Galahs were still sitting on their tower; we are wondering whether they have a nest up there. They look gorgeous sitting so pinkly on the pink tower with the vivid blue sky behind them.
The fruit buffet at breakfast in this hotel is one of our fond memories of our last trip, so we made sure we were back in time for it, and it was as good as we remembered. We spent a lazy morning and then grabbed a quick lunch of fish and chips in the town center before our afternoon trip to the Olgas. (The Olgas are another stunning formation of red, red rocks—pillow-shaped monoliths, the tallest of them half again as tall as Ayres Rock.)
Our guide for the afternoon was a young woman named Lisa. She graduated from college recently with a degree in Botany and Japanese and has been a guide here for three months. She grew up on a banana farm in New South Wales and told us that bananas are bagged to speed up the ripening and that she hates bagging bananas. She also told us that we won’t be meeting her boss Neil Hermes, because he is still in Darwin (she added that that they were all very excited about winning the Brolga and that Hermes had had to borrow a tuxedo for the ceremony).
Our first excitement of the afternoon was being stopped by a policeman about 100 yards before we got into the national park. He was insisting that there were more people in the van than is legal, but was finally persuaded actually to count us, at which point he let us go on. (Lisa had never been stopped by a cop before, but handled it well. When we got to the ticket booth at the entrance to the park, the two young women working there were all atwitter and began asking her, “What did he say to you?”, etc.)
We stopped after a while to get out and look at some of the desert plants. The Spinifex Grass is surprisingly stiff and sharp. The Desert Oaks (not oaks at all, but sheoaks) are quite interesting. For the first several years of their lives, they look like hairy poles—just a straight trunk with dark green “hair” and no branches. Their leaves are actually tiny scales on the hairy twigs; the twigs look and feel rather like the needles of evergreen trees. The young trees put all their energy into growing a taproot, rather than into growing branches. Once the taproot reaches the (slightly saline) acquifer, then the tree is secure and can begin putting energy into ramifying. It changes from a tall pole to a normal-looking tree with large and small branches. Some of the other desert trees have learned to take advantage of the taproot of the Desert Oak; they have “semi-parasitic roots” that tap into its water supply.
We were struck by how much greener the land is than the last time we were here (although there is still considerable bare red sand between plants). Lisa said that they have had a three-year “wet spell” and unusually heavy rain recently (7 inches in a month). Another nice surprise was that the road to the Olgas has been paved. It was a real bone-breaker before.
Shortly before we got to the Olgas, Lisa stopped to talk to a group of Aborigines standing by the road. Their car had run out of gas, so she dropped us off at the entrance to Olga Canyon and then went back to get some gas for them and rejoined us later.
(This national park, like Kakadu, is Aboriginal property. Both parks have management boards on which the “traditional owners” have a majority vote. They especially play a role in the stewardship of the land, such as deciding when it is time to burn an area.)
We were pleased to see that the parking area at the Olgas has been moved back from the entrance to Olga Canyon, so that one isn’t conscious of buses while walking in the canyon. The canyon is very interesting. It obviously began as a crack in the monolith that eroded into a large “V” over the millenia. The red canyon walls are composed of a conglomerate, with large and small boulders embedded in a matrix of the same arkose that forms Ayres Rock.
It was pleasant in the canyon, really lovely and not too hot. We hiked most of the way into the canyon, along a small stream lined with gum trees. We heard some birds singing, but couldn’t make any of them out. The almost-vertical canyon walls have small caves in them that are obviously used as bird roosts. Lisa says that we should manage to see Port Lincoln Ringneck parrots and Red-capped Robins while we are in this area. (Talking to the group at one point, she paused to say, “I just swallowed a fly!” We have managed to avoid doing that so far ourselves, but just barely.)
After hiking back to the canyon entrance, we drove a mile or two to a low hill and walked out into the sand to watch the Olgas during the sunset. They change colors as spectacularly as Ayres Rock does. It was quite enjoyable, especially as there were no other people about, unlike on the “Sunset Strip” by the Rock. While the sun was setting, we kept hearing Crested Bell-Birds singing their ringing call, but they always stopped when we got too near, so we never managed to see one of them.
We had a pretty drive back to Yulara with the stars coming out in the dark, dark sky. After dinner at the hotel (still no quandongs), we climbed up into the Galahs’ tower and found that it has no roof, so there is nowhere they could put a nest. We decided that they must just like the tower because of the height and the color scheme.
Before we fell asleep, Lee noted that he has taken 2400 photographs so far.
Jenny is also a recent college graduate. She is from Sydney and has been a guide here for nine months. She misses her family, her cat, and her horse, and after nine months of 6-day weeks, sunrise to sunset, is ready for a leave of absence. She mentioned that her father, who is a college professor, has been building a rainforest around their house for some years now. Her mother reported in their most recent phone call that her father had just been delighted by the arrival of “a rainforest pigeon”.
Today’s trip was to Kings Canyon. It’s only about 100 kilometers from Yulara, but it’s a 300-kilometer drive due to the sparsity of roads in this part of the world. Early in the drive, we were treated to a magnificent sunrise, even more spectacular than the sunsets we’ve been enjoying. The clouds and sky were all gold and mauve above the red desert.
We stopped in a small park around 8 for breakfast. In addition to Lee and Jenny and me, the party included two doughty retired schoolteachers from New Zealand, who were very good company. As we were sitting at a picnic table gobbling down our scones and blueberry muffins, everybody but me saw a Port Lincoln Ringneck parrot (green and turquoise with a black head and blue cheeks).
Kings Canyon has been advertised as “Australia’s Grand Canyon”, but that is an exaggeration. It is, however, beautiful and impressive. (The bottom of Kings Canyon is at the level of the surrounding countryside, which of course makes it very different from the Grand Canyon.) The canyon rock is golden with a red-brown oxide patina, very beautiful against the blue, blue sky. There were small flowers of many colors blooming from crannies in the rocks. The climb was pretty much straight up, on loose gravel, a bit more challenging than I’m used to. It was a hot day for such a climb, so Jenny made sure that we all drank lots of water. (She says that during the Summer they start the trip much earlier in the day.)
Once we got to the top, it was relatively flat going amongst weird rock formations, weathered by wind and sand and rain. The oxide patina is more resistant than the underlying rock, so much of the erosion occurs by undercutting, leading to unusual formations. We saw fossil ripples in the sandstone and delicious examples of cross-bedding. There were big cycads growing in crevices, survivors from very ancient times, clinging here wherever they can find enough water to survive. We also saw a Euphorbia almost identical to the one we have in our living room. Jenny says that the Aborigines use the sap to remove warts, which we found easy to believe, having been burned by the sap several times when moving our plant.
Standing at the canyon rim, we had a glorious view out across the desert. Dozens of Fairy Martins swooped about the sheer canyon walls. A narrow gorge led down to the “Garden of Eden”, where we could see more cycads and even fig trees.
The views and the rocks were so great that we hated to have to start back down. I was surprised to find myself getting a bit giddy from looking down during part of our descent; I’m not usually bothered by heights, but this was quite a narrow path clinging to the side of the canyon. I made it to the bottom with only a few slips, all in relatively safe places. I couldn’t help being a bit pleased to see Jenny fall (harmlessly) on her behind when we were almost all the way down. (She does this trip frequently and could obviously have done it in much less time than we needed.)
Once down, we drove to the new resort nearby for a late lunch, asparagus soup and wonderful oranges. The grounds around the resort have been left natural, except for beds of the red, red Stuart’s desert pea. It’s just astounding what a difference a tiny bit of water can make here.
We stopped on the drive back to see one of the numerous salt pans. There was still some water in this one from the recent rains, but several hundred feet of salt pan lay exposed. We walked out on it and discovered that the relatively thin layer of white salt crystals is underlain by nasty red sludge. Jenny showed us a hole somebody had dug. One could see rings of salt crystals around it, each marking a day’s evaporation.
As we drove back to Yulara, we were treated to the sight of Ayres Rock going from pink to blue to purple as the sun set. We had just time to shower before dashing out to the small amphitheatre nearby for a performance by a local musical group called Indigeny, who performed music of their own composition on digeridoo, guitar, flute, and drums, while a video behind them showed scenes of central Australia. The digeridoo player was amazing, and we really enjoyed the concert.
We had no trouble falling asleep very shortly after our late dinner.
We enjoyed the fruit buffet one last time and then met today’s guide, Amanda Coleman, in front of the hotel at 7. Amanda drove us out into the desert to a place where Uluru Experience maintains a hide for bird-watching. Once we were settled in the hide, she went home to feed her young son “his porridge”, leaving us to enjoy the birds. The hide is in an area where the desert vegetation is slightly thicker than usual—grasses, bushes, low Mulga trees. There is a brine pool a few feet in front of the hide, part of the desalination system for the resort. (The underground water is too saline for drinking without treatment.)
We began seeing birds whizzing by immediately, mostly honeyeaters, especially the Spiny-cheeked, which we hadn’t seen before, and the pretty White-plumed, with its bright yellow face. Soon there was a Mistletoe Bird, the first we had seen since Hinchinbrook. Then a Willie Wagtail came and sat on the fabric of the hide, only inches above our heads, and sang for a while. He was followed shortly by a male Crimson Chat, who sat on a low branch of a sapling, also just inches away from us. This chat is a bird we have especially wanted to see, a very small, very brilliantly colored bird, red, white, and dark grey.
We continued to watch, as birds were attracted to the blossoms on some wattles around the little pond. Our heads were spinning trying to identify whizzing birds, so we were grateful for the relatively slow-moving Crested Pigeons. Just about the time Amanda returned from taking her son to school, the viewing began to get even better. A pair of the Crimson Chats sat on a snag a few feet in front of the hide; I could hear Lee clicking away. Within seconds of one another, I spotted two new honeyeaters, the Pied (he was close enough for me to see the patch of blue skin under his eye) and the Black. (These are both black-and-white honeyeaters; the Black has an unusual solid black “V” on his white breast.)
We could hardly bring ourselves to leave, but Amanda had more to show us. As we walked back to the car (with a beautiful view of the Olgas, pink in the morning sun), we spotted a pair of Brown Falcons mating in a dead tree. As we watched, a Willie Wagtail jumped on the (far larger) falcons repeatedly. As Lee crept up to photograph the falcons, I hung back so as not to disturb them, but Amanda encouraged me to go, too, “Just follow those dingo tracks”. Lee was able to stand right under the tree and take several pictures, apparently without disturbing the birds at all.
We headed on to the “tip” in the hope of seeing some eagles (there were none) and then drove through an area of Spinifex and Mulga where there was rumored to be a Bustard. We never saw it, but when we got out and walked around for a bit we saw a Pink Cockatoo (Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo) flying some distance away and then pursued a Red-capped Robin, trying unsuccessfully to get close enough to photograph it.
Amanda had been advised to take us to the “Poo Farm”, where an area of desert has been turned into a eucalyptus forest with the help of the product of the sewer plant. These woods were very handsome and just full of White-plumed Honeyeaters, but those proved maddening to photograph, as they flitted from shade to sun and back searching the eucalypt leaves for insects. Some of them had such yellow faces that we had difficulty identifying them at first.
Amanda showed us several interesting edible plants and holes where rabbits had been digging for roots. (She does an edible plants tour regularly.) A bit further in the woods, some Yellow-throated Miners were shrieking at somebody, so we headed that way and soon found two beautiful raptors flying about in the trees and then realized that we were standing right under the nest they were building. We backed away quietly and stood watching them for quite a while, but never did get a good identification. Possibly they were Grey Falcons, but the Browns come in a wide range of colors and are more common, so that’s probably a better bet.
Coming out of the woods, we saw a Whistling Kite land on a nearby branch. He sat undisturbed for a while and then flew up and circled not far above us. It was wonderful to be able to see him steer with the feathers of his tail, moving them one way or the other to change his direction as he soared above us. He was so quiet that I had to get out the book and check his underwing pattern to believe he was really a Whistling. Amanda had never seen one before, so we had the pleasure of showing her something new.
Then it was time for her to deliver us back to the hotel, so we could begin our journey to the southern coast of Australia. The rest of the day was spent flying from Yulara to Alice Springs and from Alice Springs to Adelaide. It was dark (and cold) when we got to Adelaide. We were fortunate that the cab driver who picked us up at the Adelaide airport knew that the name of our hotel had been changed, and we were glad to discover that we not only still had reservations, but also had a letter from Lee’s father waiting for us.
We have just treated ourselves to room-service nachos and have cleaned up the mess from the can of Diet Coke that got punctured in one of the suitcases. There are chocolate Kookaburras on our pillows that probably won’t survive the evening, but we are off to sleep soon.
We had a quick breakfast and then caught a cab for the airport. Driving along the park, we could see parrots and cockatoos, but there was no time to stop to look. We were surprised by the number of flowers in bloom, as we are now on the southern coast of Australia, in the dead of winter, with nothing between here and Antarctica but ocean.
We were greeted at the airport by the news that we were allowed only 14 kilograms of luggage apiece, which was something of a problem, given that we have 56 kilograms between us. However, the people at the counter loaded it all on for us, saying that the flight isn’t full. We will hope for the same on our return trip.
We had a short, low flight across Investigator Strait to Kangaroo Island and got a good look at lovely green fields as we were coming in for a landing. The island is about 145 km. by 60 km. and is mostly flat, although perhaps 100 feet above sea level. One of its most striking features from the air is the very wide hedgerows, both between fields and along roads. Almost everywhere, strips of land 40-50 feet wide have been left wild, forested with native flora, which must be a tremendous boon to the wildlife. One wonders how such an enlightened custom could have come about.
A very friendly man at the car rental stand at the airport gave us maps and directions to the birding hot spots, particularly recommending the Kingscote tip and also telling us the best area for seeing the very rare Glossy Black-Cockatoo. He had the bad news that Murray Lagoon, which we had been told is an especially good place for birds, is currently inaccessible because the road is flooded.
There were many flowering bushes in bloom around the terminal. Driving from the airport into Kingscote, we saw clumps of daffodils blooming along the road, so we have arrived here in early spring, not winter, as we were expecting. The forested strips along the roads are full of birds, and we soon spotted three Black Swans in a pasture.
We stopped in Kingscote, the largest town on the island, to buy a few groceries (and some daffodils). A very helpful lady at the Park Service office in Kingscote gave us bird lists and advice. Driving on through the brilliantly green fields, we kept seeing birds and lovely views of shores and cliffs. The houses are almost all of a yellow-brown sandstone with roofs made of corrugated metal painted tile red. There are sheep in many of the fields. One field was full of small yellow flowers and Pied Oystercatchers.
It seems to us that each of Australia’s off-shore islands has managed to evolve its own unique pine tree. The Norfolk Island Pine that is a familiar houseplant at home is just one of these. On our last trip, we saw very unusual pines on Phillip Island. Kangaroo Island seems also to have one of its own, with thick needles standing up like candles on a Christmas tree. There is also a wonderful flowering bush with large red-orange flowers blooming all over the island.
We drove on to the small town of Penneshaw near the eastern tip of the island, where we had reserved a “chalet”. This turned out to be set rather oddly in the midst of a very handsome tropical rainforest garden, despite our being so far south of the tropics now. The ocean is just across the road. A sandy cliff leads down to the water. The cliff is full of Little Penguin burrows, which is why we have come here.
After getting ourselves settled in, we wandered across the way to the local pub for a good bar lunch near a fireplace with a big fire. (By now, it was raining lightly and the weather had gotten slightly blustery.) After lunch, I chose to take a nap, while Lee went out with his camera. (Like every other summer resort we have visited in wintertime anywhere in the world, this one is cold and damp; I finally got warm enough to sleep by donning two pairs of socks and putting a heavy sweatshirt on over my flannel nightgown.)
When Lee returned later, he told me of having photographed Galahs, Pied Oystercatchers, and Australian Magpies on one of the beaches and of having found a boardwalk that goes through one of the penguin colonies. One of the steeper sand cliffs has man-made nesting sites for the penguins, lengths of concrete pipe stuck into the hillside, each with a little sign giving its number, like a street address.
I spent part of the afternoon going through the bird lists for the island, which are almost overwhelming. Unfortunately, we will not be seeing the Kangaroo Island Pygmy Emu, which went extinct about 150 years ago as the result of its making such a delicious meal for the crews of passing ships. However, we can expect to see many birds, including more honeyeaters and many seabirds.
We had a good dinner at the hotel restaurant and then met Adele from the National Park Service for a penguin walk. We were the only ones who turned out for her tour, which made it rather nice. Adele is another recent college graduate (with a degree in environmental science and park management); she has been working on the island for almost a year and really loves it.
Adele told us that the local folks used to view the penguins as pests, because of their loud singing at night. (She has a friend who has a pair of penguins nesting beneath her bedroom window.) But attitudes have changed in recent years, in part because of the tourism revenue. Trampled sand hills are being restored; bushes are being planted to provide cover; and fences and boardwalks are being erected to keep people from walking on the burrows and collapsing them inadvertently. (Room is left at the bottom of the fences, so that the penguins can go under them.) Efforts are also being made to control dogs and feral cats, both of which are a great danger to the penguins, who are defenseless in their burrows when they are young and for a few weeks each year when they are molting.
The penguins go out to sea very early in the morning and return after dark, climbing up the sand hills and waddling to their burrows. Most of the burrows are within a few hundred feet of the water, but some are as much as a kilometer inland, which means that many of the penguins regularly cross the roads in the dark. Surprisingly few of them are killed that way, however. (There are many warning signs.)
The penguins nest under shrubs or rocks or dig burrows in the sand. Adele said she watched one burrowing a few months ago; the sand flew so furiously that some of it went into her eyes. We saw one place where a burrow had been dug at the edge of a road and had gotten partially collapsed within the past few days. It was empty when we first went by but when we came back by later, Adele’s flashlight revealed one small penguin huddled at the end of the burrow. (Although the penguins look black and white when one sees them by moonlight, up close they are really blue and white.) She is trying to come up with a scheme to protect this burrow from further damage. Fortunately, there seem to have been no chicks in it.
Many of the burrows do have chicks now. The chicks start out about the size of baby chickens, but grow rapidly. These are a few weeks old now and are as tall as their parents (about 12-14 inches). They must be fed until they are three months old and their down has been replaced with proper waterproof (and well-insulated) feathers. We watched one of the returning parents being pushed around by its very demanding offspring, who was insisting on being given more food. Adele says that some of the parents go somewhere else to sleep after feeding their chicks, so that they can have some peace.
We saw many penguins, some just coming out of the water, some climbing the hill, and others arriving at their nests. When we got to the restored hillside with the numbered burrows, Adele explained that this is a new experiment and seems to be working well, although they expect more of the pipe burrows to be occupied once the new bushes have grown enough to provide better cover. (The pipes end at wooden nest boxes, turned 90 degrees from the pipe to provide protection from the wind.)
Adele also described seeing the penguins fighting during the mating season; two penguins lock bills and then flail at one another with their flippers. We saw no fighting tonight, just chicks demanding to be fed and mates greeting one another with song. (Their greeting song couldn’t be described as pretty, but it is wonderful to watch a pair singing to one another, alternating phrases.) We are back in our room now, but can still hear the eerie greeting songs intermixed with the squawking of hungry chicks.
Our first stop was along a country road where we could see the bushes alive with small birds. That got us a good close-up look at a Silvereye, a small yellow-green bird with a very pronounced white eye-ring.
We stopped in a park along the American River (named for a group of American sailors who stopped here for several months in 1803 to build themselves a new ship). There we saw Black Swans and Musk Ducks. One never gets used to the beauty of the Black Swans, with their bright red bills. The Musk Ducks are very odd; I knew them at a great distance from studying the bird books yesterday. They are black ducks with thick-set heads, and the males have a large pouch-like lobe of black skin hanging down from their lower bills.
As we watched the swans and ducks and some cormorants, it began really to pour, so Lee retreated to the car, but I had to follow a pair of Superb Fairy-Wrens for a while. These are similar to, but slightly less spectacular than, the Splendid Fairy-Wrens Lee photographed in the desert. (They are less spectacular only in that they have brown wings, rather than blue.) I had had only one fleeting glimpse of a blue fairy-wren on our last trip and these were the first ones I had seen on this trip. As the day wore on, however, we saw hundreds and hundreds of them, mostly flying very quickly across the road right in front of our car.
Driving near the field where we saw all the Oystercatchers yesterday, Lee made a major find, a family of Cape Barren Geese. These are very endangered, large grey geese with bright yellow bills. This was a pair with four half-grown goslings. We stopped and got out to photograph them across a field. At one point, the goslings took fright when another bird landed nearby and ran to get under their mamma’s wings, which made us chuckle, as they were much too big to fit.
As the nice Budget man had told us, the Kingscote tip is really full of birds. We saw Australian Pelicans, White-faced Herons, Sacred Ibises, Black Swans, Australian Shelducks (beautiful big cinnamon, black, and white ducks), Pacific Black Ducks, Chestnut Teals (with iridescent green heads), Australasian Shovellers (with blue-grey heads and big “spatulate” bills), Masked Lapwings, Black-winged Stilts (black-and-white and very graceful on their long red legs), Silver Gulls, and White-fronted Chats (lovely little grey and white birds with pinkish eyes). These birds were all working over the tip and the adjacent wetlands.
Sitting on a low tree across the road was a Black-shouldered Kite, one mean-looking dude. He was not nearly as large as the Whistling Kites, but he was much fiercer looking—very sleek and snow-white, except for the shoulders and his bright red eyes. We watched him for a long time from quite nearby.
Driving further, we walked down on a dock and had the privilege of seeing a line-up of Pied Cormorants and Little Pied Cormorants, side-by-side, so that there could be no question about which was which.
Other birds for the day: Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers, Pacific Gulls (we watched one being mobbed by some much-smaller Silver Gulls), Crested Terns (with their crests looking rather tatty following a downpour), Galahs, Welcome Swallows, Blackbirds (introduced from England), Willie Wagtails, a White-eared Honeyeater, Magpie-Larks, Dusky Woodswallows (sitting on wildflowers in a field), Australian Magpies (the white-backed race, some of which had grey backs), and feral turkeys and chickens. (One turkey had a terrible limp and could barely make it across the road.)
Driving back to Penneshaw just before sunset, we stopped to look at some more of the beautiful Shelducks foraging in a plowed field. The females are possibly even lovelier than the males. Both have black heads and wings; the male is cinnamon elsewhere, while the female is more chestnut. The female’s eyes and bill are outlined in white, which is quite striking. They looked so pretty in the golden sunlight.
By the time we got back to our chalet, there was so much rain that we decided to forego a penguin walk this evening, but we have opened the door so that we can hear the singing.
We decided to try to get to Murray’s Lagoon (near the southern coast) despite what we’d been told, but we soon found the road barricaded. We got out to walk and immediately heard cockatoos in the woods and then twice flushed what just had to be a Wedge-tailed Eagle—we didn’t get a good look either time, but it was the right color and too enormous to be anything else (the Wedge-tailed has a 6.5 foot wingspan).
When we got to the edge of the lagoon, we also got to the place where the road really was flooded and quite impassible. However, we could see many birds from where we were (although we couldn’t get a clear view of the water, so there was much tantalizing quacking and rustling just out of view). We could see many Superb Fairy-Wrens and Grey Fantails in the bushes along the bank of the lagoon. We got our first look at a male Golden Whistler, a gorgeous bright yellow bird with a black-and-white face. We kept on hearing cockatoos but never seeing them. We also saw our first New Holland Honeyeater, a pretty black-and-white striped bird with splashes of bright yellow here and there. We had a clear view of the tail of a largish bird that had to be a cuckoo of some sort, but he was careful to keep us from seeing more. We could hear thousands of birds in the inaccessible area, but we didn’t have a boat with us, so we reluctantly left.
After a brief stop for a hot dog in a small town that seemed to have been left behind by time, we drove to Stokes Bay on the northern coast, in the area where we hoped to see a Glossy Black-Cockatoo. The Glossy Black-Cockatoos have almost disappeared. There are still a few in New South Wales. The population here is about 150, mostly males. They suffer from loss of habitat, both from feral bees taking their nesting cavities and from human beings cutting down the one kind of tree (the Drooping Sheoak) on which they feed. In appearance, they are intermediate between Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos and Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos, but smaller than either.
On the way to Stokes Bay, we spotted an Australian Kestrel sitting on a power pole. We stopped and watched him hunt for a while. He was very good at his job.
The drive took us through splendid old stands of eucalyptus trees, the tallest forests we’ve seen on the island, mostly restricted to the immediate areas of farm houses. For the most part, the rest of the land we drove through was pasture, with lots of sheep, but still with the wide hedgerows.
It was a bright, sunny afternoon and surprisingly warm. There was a strong wind blowing in from the ocean when we got to Stokes Bay. Dozens of Welcome Swallows sat on the beach facing into the wind. When one spotted an insect, it would rise up into the air and get blown away like a sheet of tissue paper and would then have to make its way laboriously back to the beach. It really didn’t seem efficient. There was another Kestrel overhead, also facing into the wind. Both he and the swallows could fly in place, but they had to flap their wings to keep from being blown away. The Silver Gulls could stay in the same spot in the air just by positioning their wings properly.
The (quite small) beach was just covered with birds. In addition to the swallows and gulls, there were Sooty Oystercatchers (black with stout bright orange bills) and Crested Terns. A White-faced Heron looked almost undignified, getting washed off-balance by the waves. A family of Fairy-Wrens was sheltering in some low bushes. A Willie Wagtail hopped about. A Pied Cormorant fled when Lee tried to photograph it. Galahs and Little Corellas flew about in the trees behind the beach.
There is a small wildlife preserve near the beach that is supposed to be the best place for seeing the Glossies. We drove slowly through it a couple of times but saw nothing that could be a cockatoo. We got out and walked for a while and noticed the head of a dog who was peering over a hill not far away. When we got back into the car and drove in that direction, we discovered that the head was actually attached to a Kangaroo Island Kangaroo, the first we had seen. (This is a race of the Eastern Grey Kangaroo, but larger and sort of a chocolate brown. The island has been separated from the mainland for 9,000 years, so there has been some divergence of the animals. More importantly, until very recently there have been no introduced predators (especially no dingos and for much of that time no humans), so the island has been a natural preserve.) We stopped to photograph the kangaroo, of course. It was content to let us do that until Lee climbed over the fence, at which point it loped off indolently.
As we started to drive back toward Penneshaw, it began raining quite hard. We were passing through one of the lovely wooded areas and got to see a large flock of Rainbow Lorikeets flying about protesting the rain. Driving further (and escaping from the rain), we stopped to watch another Kestrel and then got a short look at a flock of Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos flying low over us. (We had unconsciously dismissed them as a flock of ravens and almost didn’t notice them until it was too late. They are much like the Red-taileds, except for the obvious difference in the color of the tail panels.)
Shortly before sunset, we made another pass through the tip outside Kingscote. There were no new birds, but we had the happy sight of twenty Black Swans, many of them three-quarters-grown cygnets swimming elegantly along the nearby Cygnet River. The rushy areas around the tip were swarming with equally elegant Stilts.
We had a quiet dinner at the hotel in Penneshaw and then went out to the boardwalk through the penguin rookery and spent a delightful hour watching the returning penguins. All the chicks were eager for the return of their parents. (Although they are almost as large as their parents now, they are all covered with grey down, rather than the sleek feathers of the adults.) Some were so eager that they dared to go fifteen feet or so down the trail toward the sea before thinking better of it and scurrying back to their burrow.
We are now back in our room being lulled by distant penguin song.
We stopped shortly before getting to the ranger station, surprised by the sight of a couple of dozen Cape Barren Geese, more than we imagined could be anywhere. There were more when we got to the ranger station, including a pair with six small, striped goslings, all of whom were totally unafraid of people (and even cars). There were two Emus there too, one of them sitting down. (I had never seen an Emu sitting before—it immediately brought to mind a folding wooden lawn chair.) There were about a dozen kangaroos, as well, most of them sheltering on the porch of the ranger station to keep out of the misty rain.
We had a nice chat with a young ranger, who told us that she has never seen a Glossy Cockatoo. She had advice on where to see many other birds, however. While we were there, we bought a candy bar. Going outside, we discovered that the kangaroos all understood perfectly the significance of the act of unwrapping a candy bar. We had already read the signs asking people not to give the kangaroos anything containing glucose (which they can’t digest), so we we firmly refused their pleas. (They have the soulful begging look perfected possibly even to a greater degree than do cocker spaniels.)
We started along the trail to the platypus pond and quickly came to some trees with koalas sleeping in them. (A sleeping koala looks pretty much exactly like a beach ball covered with beige fur stuck in the fork of a branch.) Past the trees was a very large grassy area with grass that could have been a green on a golf course, except that golf courses don’t usually have so many goose turds. Walking about on the grass were hundreds and hundreds of Cape Barren Geese. They must have been a very substantial portion of the world’s entire population. They were totally unafraid of us as we walked by.
Past the geese’s lawn, the trail led into a beautiful damp forest with an amazing diversity of plants, almost none of which we’ve seen before. There were many birds, mostly honeyeaters, but the sky was growing more and more overcast, so the seeing was not good. I did manage to identify one new honeyeater, the Crescent, a pretty little, grey, white, and yellow bird with pronounced crescent-shaped bars on its breast.
The platypus pond and the woods around it were one of the most beautiful places we have ever been, with grand old trees heavy with mosses. We didn’t see a platypus, but we weren’t really concentrating on the pond, as there were so many birds. A male Golden Whistler let me watch from close up for several minutes and also sang a bit—spectacular! After he had flown off, an equally gorgeous Scarlet Robin let me follow him from bush to bush for several more minutes.
After enjoying that area for quite a while (and trying to identify some little birds who kept spiraling around the tree trunks), we started back (the trail is about 3 kilometers) because it had begun to rain fairly hard. We soon had the pleasure of seeing a Crimson Rosella fly screeching over. This is a lovely medium-sized red-and-blue parrot. We saw dozens of them on our last trip, but had not seen one before on this trip.
When we got back near the koala trees, I just had to stop because there were so many birds working over the flowering trees, but Lee wanted to get his cameras out of the rain. I soon figured out that the noise was coming from Rainbow Lorikeets (which are surprisingly hard to see, given their array of primary colors). There was also yet another small yellow-and-olive honeyeater that I would like to think was a Purple-gaped, but I didn’t get a good enough look to be sure.
I also kept seeing a larger honeyeater and spent several minutes struggling to identify it. By the time the sun came back out and Lee returned to photograph the koalas, I was able to greet him with the news that I had seen a Red Wattlebird (it is brown-and-white striped with little red wattles hanging from its cheeks). But then I couldn’t find one to show him.
One of the koalas actually moved around a bit, so we may have gotten a picture of more than a beach ball.
We were wet and hungry, so we went back to the ranger station and bought some pasties for lunch, which meant we had to run the freeloader gauntlet again. The noses were really twitching, and all eyes were fastened on us. One particularly sweet-looking kangaroo stood right in front of me pleading and making sure that I would notice her baby’s feet dangling from her pouch. It was very hard not to give in. Fortunately, about that time a family with young children bought a bag of kangaroo food from the rangers, so the pressure was off us.
We went to the picnic area, which is fenced to keep out the hopping freeloaders. That doesn’t keep out the flying freeloaders, however. As soon as we sat down at one of the tables and spread out our food, a Red Wattlebird flew up and landed on the fence. So, Lee sat there leisurely photographing the bird I had worked so hard to see. Another arrived soon. Lee sat there photographing with one hand, holding his food in the other. The second Wattlebird was amazingly fast. From 10 feet away, it could catch a bread crumb Lee threw, well before it hit the ground.
Soon we also drew the attention of an Australian Raven. There are both the Australian and the Little here, and I’m sure we’ve seen both, but we haven’t been bothering with trying to identify corvids. However, in this case he was so close that it was no effort at all to identify him on the basis of his hackles. (Later in the day, we identified a Grey Currawong, just to make our corvid list a bit more respectable.)
While we ate, a tour bus drove up and stopped nearby. By the time its doors opened, a welcoming committee of kangaroos had formed, ready to charm the disembarking passengers.
After lunch, we petted a few more kangaroos and then drove through more of the splendid forest out to Cape du Couedic, a point at the southwestern tip of the island. There is a trail through wonderful wind-swept dwarfed vegetation and then a boardwalk down the rocky cliff to a big sea cave where fur seals gather. Looking down through the cave, we could see many seals in the water and a few on the flat cave floor, a couple of whom were sparring with one another. Many more seals could be seen on the two rocky islands offshore.
The views from the point were splendid; we stayed there quite a while through alternating storm and sunshine. We were surprised to see a kangaroo way out on the point, but not surprised to see a Willie Wagtail.
From there, it was a short drive to “The Remarkable Rocks”, a group of very large, grotesquely-weathered boulders that sit on the next point to the south. I had seen photographs and had found them to be unimpressive, but as we drove up to the rocks, I was struck by their beauty. My first thought was, “Did Henry Moore ever see this?” I’m sure he would have loved it. (The dramatic shapes of the rocks are highlighted with touches of a bright orange lichen that is very pretty against the background of the blue-grey sea.)
The road on the way back is surrounded by low bushes and is supposed to be a very good area for seeing Emu-Wrens. These are tiny birds with very odd tails composed of only six “filamentous” feathers. I saw one quite briefly on our last trip, but have seen none so far this time. We found many little birds sheltering from the wind in the thick bushes, but seeing them in the dim light was not easy. We did make out some Silvereyes and what was probably an Eastern Spinebill, but no Emu-Wrens.
On the exit road from the park, we had the delight of seeing a large flock of Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos landing in some trees near the road. We stopped and watched them until they flew on and then later caught up with them again as they were landing around a small pond by the road. As each landed, it spread its tail and displayed the lovely yellow lining—they were like a bouquet of big yellow flowers (except that flowers aren’t usually so noisy). It was wonderful to have such a sight to end our last day here.
It was after dark by the time we got back to Kingscote. We had to drive slowly to avoid hitting any of the abundant wildlife. We checked into our motel, had an interesting talk with the owner (who wants to visit the U.S. so he can see the Spruce Goose), and then headed for a nearby bistro for dinner.
We are just across the road from the coast, so we are being serenaded by penguins one last time.
We had a great view of the city of Adelaide as our small plane flew back across the channel to the mainland. The trip from Adelaide to Sydney was uneventful, but after all this time away from cities, I was unprepared to deal with the late afternoon traffic on the expressway from the airport and then circling about the one-way streets in the center of the city trying to find the building in which we have rented a studio apartment for a few days.
But eventually we were settled in the apartment, which is quite attractive—the bedroom, bath, and laundry are in a loft above the kitchen and livingroom; the dining area is in front of a 20-foot tall glass wall that looks out over Darling Harbour. We are on the fifth floor; the Aquarium is directly below us; the old and new IBM Buildings are to the left; and some of the most festive areas of the harbor are right in front of us just beyond the Aquarium.
We sat together watching a dramatic sunset over the harbor, with cranes and boats silhouetted against red clouds, and then lingered while the many lights came on.
We had dinner at an Italian restaurant down the street and then phoned our dear friend Neale Ferguson to make arrangements to get together with his family and the family of his wife’s sister (all old friends). We last saw Neale a few months ago in Princeton, but we’ve not seen Helen (his wife) and Fay and Graham since their whirlwind visit to the U.S. four summers ago. We are looking forward to seeing them all and meeting the four children who have been born to the two couples since our last visit. (Neale and Helen now have three children under 3 and a half years of age.)
We spent some time poring over the newspapers. (The Mabo Decision is still big news.) We particularly wanted to find out whether we are likely to be able to see the new film The Piano while we are here. For the last two weeks, every paper we’ve read has been atwitter with news of it, as this is the first Australian film (and the first film directed by a woman) ever to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Lee is a great fan of Australian films, so we were pleased to see that The Piano will have its opening here tomorrow night. I’ve called and found that there are no reserved seats, so we will plan on fitting in a daytime performance, when the crowds are likely to be less.
Another thing we had planned to do while we are in Sydney is to go to the Kuring-gai Chase National Park, so we gathered up our jackets and such and headed down the street to the posh hotel where our car is staying. The doorman there assured us that “this is just a squall”. We drove for about an hour on Route 1 (which, like our Route 1, goes through every town possible). It is early Spring here, too; we saw many magnolias and camellias blooming, in addition to native trees and bushes, many of which are astonishingly beautiful.
By the time we got to the park, it was raining so hard that they weren’t charging admission, but we found a couple of nice rangers who had all sorts of advice on where to see birds, including Glossy Cockatoos. The park is really lovely, and it’s a very good thing that it was established when it was, because it is now surrounded by housing developments. The land is mostly temperate rainforest (ferntrees and such).
Despite the more or less continuous downpour, we really enjoyed driving through the park. Around noon, we stopped at a small shop along one on the inlets from the ocean to see if they had any raincoats. A very helpful lady there sent us across the way to a shop in the marina. She also called our attention to the song of a Superb Lyrebird coming from a nearby hill. We continued to hear the Lyrebird as we sat (or rather huddled) on a terrace at the marina while we ate lunch. Although the Lyrebird was clearly very near, the hill was very steep and muddy and we were very cold and wet, so we decided not to go in search of it.
We drove on to another part of the park, stopping at a wildflower garden, where parrots were whizzing about in fog that was so heavy we couldn’t make out their colors. A Pacific Black Duck was very happy about the weather, which had brought many fat earthworms out onto a flagstone terrace for his benefit.
As we got to West Head, a point projecting out into the ocean, the sky cleared and we had some sunshine and a fantastic view of the South Pacific and the coastline and a number of rocky islands. As we walked around on the point, there were many birds calling. We identified a Pied Currawong. The others were LBJs, except for a Lewin’s Honeyeater, the first we’ve seen since we left Hinchinbrook. We spent about twenty minutes enjoying it all and watching the birds enjoying it too, but then we could see another storm coming across from the next point with enough lightning to convince us that it was time to get back in the car.
We drove back to Sydney and had time to raid a bookstore near our apartment before getting dressed and driving to the Opera House. One can’t think of Sydney without thinking of the beautiful white shells of the Opera House sitting at the edge of the Harbour. On a nicer evening, we might have walked, but tonight we were glad that there is parking underneath the Opera House. We had dinner reservations at one of the restaurants in the Opera House, where we had a table with a view of the Harbour. The meal was quite elegant, and the waiter very efficiently asked us which performance we were attending and saw to it that we had our meal and the check in plenty of time. (I ordered blancmange for dessert, never having had it before. I was surprised (and pleased) when it turned out to be chocolate and in the shape of the Opera House.)
The performance was Offenbach’s La Perichole, a story of a pair of itinerant street musicians in a banana republic. The music was charming and the costumes and sets were very colorful. We thoroughly enjoyed it all.
Now back in our apartment, warm and dry, I can’t believe that I actually passed up an opportunity to see a Lyrebird singing in the wild.
Neale Ferguson picked us up at 4 to drive to the home of his sister-in-law, Fay Neill, and her husband Graham. We spent the hour of the drive mostly catching up on VM community gossip. As soon as we arrived at the Neills’ house, we went next door to photograph the famous world-travelling garden gnome, Gnorman, who was sitting sedately under his mailbox surrounded by flowers and looking innocent of any further plans to roam.
We were delighted to see Helen and Fay and Graham and all the children. Fay and Graham had four daughters when we were last here, and now have a son, Sam, as well. Neale and Helen have produced Kate, Ashley, and Adam since our last visit. The cousins are all very close, which is a pleasure to see (though Kate did announce at one point during the evening that Sam is no longer her cousin).
We were joined by Peter and Elise, who live nearby and are planning a trip to the American Southwest with Fay and Graham in a few months. Fay and Helen had prepared a traditional Australian “roast dinner”, which was delicious. The meal ended very traditionally with Helen’s exquisite “Pavlova”, a meringue topped with passionfruit. (Helen looked disdainful when I told her that I had noticed a carton of prepared Pavlova shells being unloaded at one of the resorts we stayed in.)
We talked for hours and hours, mostly about our trips and theirs. They asked what changes we’ve noticed since we were last in Australia. The two most striking differences are that Australians seem much more conscious of and prouder of their unique flora and fauna now and that there is much more use of Aboriginal art for public purposes (e.g., a huge mosaic in one of the new airports, textiles for clothing, murals and paintings in public buildings).
We had a wonderful time and were sorry to leave, but realized that Neale would be getting home very late after driving us back to town.
The trail started in moderately dry forest which became lusher and damper as we got closer to the ocean, where there was a spectacular hillside covered with palm trees and ferns, a combination we had never seen before. There were many, many Spring wildflowers blooming, and we stopped again and again to admire the scenery, especially the views of the sea.
The most prevalent bird was the pretty New Holland Honeyeater. We saw no Glossy Cockatoos (although we may have heard some, if we’ve interpreted the description of their call aright). But there was definitely a caucus of cockatoos, mostly the Sulphur-cresteds. We were fascinated by the calls of the Eastern Whipbirds, a pretty sound but like the cracking of a whip. There must have been dozens of them along the trail, some so close that the loudness of the whipcrack hurt our ears, but we never saw a one. We also heard Kookaburras without seeing any, but that is not unusual, as they tend to stay high in the canopy.
We got one last new honeyeater, the Little Wattlebird, which is very like the Red Wattlebirds we saw a few days ago, except that its wattle is brown and miniscule. We got some good close looks at Spotted Pardalotes, pretty little yellow, black, and white polka-dotted birds that glean insects from the leaves of trees and move very quickly (they were a challenge for Lee to photograph). There were also Pied Currawongs raising a ruckus in the trees.
Just after we had decided we must turn back, we were standing on the side of the fern-covered hill looking at Pardalotes when suddenly a gorgeous big parrot landed in a tree (in the sunshine!) about six feet away from us and sat looking us in the eye. Lee whispered, “What is it?”, to which I replied, “Gorgeous!” It was a male Australian King Parrot, mostly scarlet but with a blue-black tail and green back and wings with a scallop of lighter green across the wings. We gazed and photographed for several minutes until the parrot and his mate (whom we hadn’t seen until then) flew off together. What a way to end our last birdwalk!
We had a rather hot, dry hike back to the car and then headed toward Sydney, stopping in one of the suburbs to get a late lunch. As we parked in a residential street, we saw flocks of Rainbow Lorikeets wheeling low overhead. We lunched at a nearby Lebanese restaurant and then hurried back to the city to be in time for the early evening screening of The Piano.
The story takes place in 19th Century New Zealand, but the scenery is so spectacular that there hardly needs to be a story. The film begins with a young mute woman, her illegitimate nine-year-old daughter, and her grand piano being unloaded from a ship onto the beach. She has come from England for an arranged marriage to a man living in the New Zealand rainforest. Her new husband refuses to have the piano moved from the beach to his home, so she makes an arrangement with an illiterate neighbor to give him piano lessons in return for his rescuing the piano before it is destroyed by the elements. A good deal of passion and not a little violence ensue. I could never quite believe in the story, but I’m not likely to forget the film for a long time.
After that, there was nothing to do but return to our apartment and a dinner of microwaved quiche, followed by the tedium of unpacking everything to make a list of our purchases for Customs and then repacking it all in creaking suitcases.
We were surprised to learn that our scheme of stopping over in Hawaii meant that we had to go through Customs twice, once in Honolulu and once in Los Angeles, but the second time through we were carefully clutching a card that said “DOMESTIC”, so it wasn’t too bad.
The rest of the trip went smoothly; we were home early on Sunday morning and grabbed a few hours of sleep before heading to the Computing Center to see what surprises were waiting for us. Our Eskimo dancing bear sculpture and several of my teddy bears had grown rather becoming beaks, one a toucan’s bill, another a cockatoo’s, etc. (Some of the teddy bears still have streaming down their faces the tears of loneliness that were put there the last time we went to Australia.) We were not surprised to find that all problems had been handled quite well while we were away. It was very good to be home.
Love to you all,