For the first bird of our vacation, I am counting the Red-tailed Hawk that appeared late in the afternoon of our last day at work. Our colleague Steven came rushing into my office and said, "Melinda, come quick; there's a great big bird with an orange tail!" Sure enough, sitting on a low branch over the sidewalk that goes from Prospect to the Computing Center was a Red-tailed Hawk, looking huge from that close up and giving the impression that he meant to gobble down a user or two. (Laurie later told me that she and Alan had counted him for the Princeton Christmas Bird Count a few days earlier; they'd found him sitting on a lamp post by Washington Road.)
It was a bit mad to schedule ourselves to leave the house by 11am on the morning after Christmas, but it all worked out. Despite the rush, the traditional family dinners went well (only one crisis, as I realized while making the gravy that our new china set has, as yet, no gravy boat and had to call to Lee to find me a gravy boat fast), and it was good to have everybody together for the holiday. (Also good to have cousins upon whom I could unload the perishables from the refrigerator before letting them leave the house.)
While Lee packed the next morning, I walked over to the Computing Center to leave a pile of Christmas cookies and candies for our colleagues, and then we were off on the long, long flight, Newark to LA to Sydney. Many of the passengers on the LA-to-Sydney leg were students from Moorehouse University off on a geology field trip to Australia! It was a first flight for some of them, and they were wonderfully excited.
I spent much of the trip studying the field guides and the bird lists for the areas we'll be travelling in. There was a massive nomenclature change shortly after our last trip to Australia in 1993, so many of the birds we saw then have different common names now. For example, one of my favorites on that trip was the Bush Thick-Knee, which one must now remember to call the Bush Stone-Curlew.
After I'd done enough homework, I began reading an interesting book called Flight of the Kingfisher by an Englishwoman named Monica Furlong who had spent some months living in the Aboriginal community of Wirrumanu (or Balgo) just south of the Kimberley plateau. (The kingfisher is the totemic ancestor of the Kukatja people there. "Wirrumanu" can be translated as "the flight of the Kingfisher"; it is the name of the track made by the Kingfisher in the Dreaming, as he led the people from waterhole to waterhole.)
I warmed to the book when she described her delight in going out very early in the morning to hear the Pied Butcherbird singing. Its flute-like morning song is one of my fondest memories of our last trip. (The early morning was the only sensible time to be out in an area so hot that early explorers found the lead melting out of their pencils.) She also described well a moment I remember vividly from our first trip:
Most astonishing were the small flocks of budgerigars which would fly towards us at speed in perfect formation and then turn, suddenly, as they spotted us. As they turned, the sun glittered on innumerable emerald wings, and the beauty of the play of green light made me gasp. It felt like a moment of revelation.Her primary interest was in the question of the survival of traditional values and culture. The community in which she lived had a strong interest in preserving its culture, but also made concessions to the modern age. Now, for example, young men going off for their initiation ceremonies are picked up by a bus, rather than being escorted on a long walk through the countryside by their male relatives. I was left in doubt as to whether it is possible to prevent the ultimate homogenization of all human cultures, however; she described as a common sight families gathered around a camp fire in the evening watching a television set fed power by a cord coming from a nearby house. Surely television will inevitably be the death of oral tradition in all cultures.
The most heartening part of the book was her description of the birth of the Aboriginal Art movement. Among those she credits was Geoffrey Bardon; as a young art teacher at a desert school in the early Seventies, he was appalled that he was expected to teach Aboriginal children to draw in the Western tradition. He began a project to paint murals in the Aboriginal tradition and soon the adults in the community were more involved than the children:
Then something happened that was eventually to affect all the desert Aborigines, an extraordinary rediscovery of creativity in the hellhole that was Papunya. It was an explosion of art, what Bardon calls "an incandescence which in 1971-2 became a great artistic and spiritual conflagration among the desert tribes".The community in which Furlong was living was traditional enough that the women still often went out together to gather "bush tucker" to augment the foods they bought at the store. And such knowledge was still being passed on to the young, which made more surprising a rather appalling episode she described: a group of young women travelling in a truck stopped because they saw a tree full of budgie nests. They jumped out of the truck, climbed the tree, and took many of the nestlings out of their nests simply to play with them, with no apparent regard for which nests to put them back into when they were done playing. Surely, their ancestors would have been more respectful of life!
As our long trip got near its end, the flight attendants served breakfast and we began chatting with the folks around us. It was amusing to show a little boy in the row ahead a picture of some of the beautiful birds we hope to see and to hear him exclaim, "Oh, wow!" Lee was impressed by the young Australian sitting next to him who was coming home after three and a half years of travelling about Asia, Africa, and Europe. He plans to stay home just long enough to save some money and then head off to do the Americas. "I can do Australia after I get married."
Lee gets credit for the first bird ID after we landed, a Willie Wagtail that he spotted on the way out of the airport. (Willie Wagtails are an Australia-wide favorite. I've read that Aboriginal children are told that Willie Wagtails protect them from evil spirits by distracting the spirits with their chatter.)
Thanks to incredible efficiency in baggage handling, Immigration, and the taxi queue, we were in our room in a downtown hotel an hour after our plane landed and were soon catching up on our sleep. After we woke, Lee went out to do a bit of shopping and came back with lovely strawberries and blueberries.
We indulged in a room service dinner while watching a television program about autonomy for the Torres Strait Islands. (These are the islands off the northern coast of Australia, between Australia and New Guinea. We hope to visit one of them on this trip.) The Islands have only about 8,000 residents, 80% of whom are Islanders, but there are another 25,000 Islanders on the mainland, many of whom still have close cultural ties with the Islands. Although in appearance, the people of the Torres Strait Islands are much like Aborigines, their culture is quite distinct. They face the usual problems of a small minority in a modern bureaucratic state and hope to move to a greater degree of independence.
The television also had news of multiple cyclones in the north, one in the Gulf of Carpentaria (the west side of Cape York), which doesn't bode well for later in our trip.
But for now, the weather in Sydney is lovely. We've touched base with Neale and will see him and his family tomorrow.
We seem to have gotten our biological clocks resynchronized, so we were up at a reasonable hour and off to Paddington to a shop that specializes in folk music, where Lee selected a stack of CDs.
The rest of the morning was devoted to the "Indigenous Australians" exhibit at the Australian Museum. At the entrance to the exhibit was a sign stating that all of the objects on display had been cleared as not being too sacred for public display, but that if anyone felt that any of them should not be on display, the Museum staff should be notified.
On display were many wonderful objects, ranging from quite ancient to contemporary, the works of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Throughout the exhibition halls, there were also videos of indigenous Australians talking about their lives. These included very open discussions of the ill treatment many of them had received at the hands of the Aboriginal Protection Board, including the systematic abduction of children to be raised as servants in white families, and of the "breeding out" policy, which was aimed at "solving the Aboriginal problem" by encouraging inter-marriage. Many of the people in the videos told of being reunited with their families after twenty or thirty years, as governmental policies changed and information became available.
The works on display were splendid. I especially liked one room full of paintings of the Rainbow Serpent, and there was an intricately carved digeridoo that really took my breath away, as did the recreation of a wooden country chapel with an Aboriginal painting of the Last Supper.
One display centered around the "Carpet Case", a recent court case that established copyright protection for the works of Aboriginal artists. (The immediate cause of the court case was that a carpet manufacturer had made a (perfectly gorgeous) carpet with a rainbow serpent border without paying royalties to the artist.)
Also on exhibit was a replica of the "tent embassy" erected during a protest earlier in 1997. It was not a tent, actually, but a metal building, beautifully painted with Aboriginal designs. I was disappointed to learn that it was a replica; I'd had visions of a curator waiting breathlessly for the protest to end so that he could acquire the building.
After a delicious lunch in the Museum's cafe, we raided the bookstore. The other major exhibit on just now is about Australia's (many) spiders. We had to resist the temptation to buy one of the more striking souvenirs for our arachnophobic colleague Michael. We did load ourselves down with a stack of good books on natural history and Aboriginal art, as well as getting Lee a tie with an aboriginal design. The shop, like the exhibit itself, made a very clear political statement; many of the T-shirts for sale, for example, bore Aboriginal rights slogans.
Then we were off to another of our favorite places in Sydney, the Queen Victoria arcade, a beautiful and beautifully preserved Victorian shopping arcade. We wanted to visit an art gallery we'd read about that features works by some contemporary non-Aboriginal Australian artists. Most of the works had an eco-political thrust, e.g., a pet cat eating a Gouldian Finch, a cow and a kangaroo boxing for access to land, but all done in a light-hearted manner. We didn't buy anything, but we were tempted (and I came away with a mail-order form).
As we taxied past a nearby park, I caught a glimpse of Sacred Ibises (oops, they now want to be called Australian White Ibises) pretending to be pigeons.
By then, Lee was hobbling a bit, so we went back to our room to rest for a while, until our dear friend Neale picked us up about 4 and drove us to his house in St. Johns Park. It was great to see his wife Helen and her sister Fay and Fay's husband Graham, all of whom we've gotten to know in the course of visits back and forth over the years. Several other family friends arrived in the course of the evening, quite a jolly group. (And Lindsay had sent along a photo of Gnorman the world-travelling garden gnome, sitting placidly in the middle of a flower garden.)
We'd been invited for a traditional Australian "barbie", and Helen and Fay had outdone themselves. There were steaks, chicken shishkabobs, a "tomato gravy" ("Mum's recipe"), potato salad (also their Mum's recipe), a beautiful fruit tart and a big bowl of fruit. It was delicious!
We had a bit of difficulty following the rapidly-spoken Australian, but managed to understand except when the conversation turned to cricket, which remains totally incomprehensible. Helen and Fay had read over the itinerary we had emailed to Neale and they'd been boggled by this line:
Fly from Sydney to Cairns (pronounced "Cans"), Queensland"How else would you pronounce it?", they asked.
Fay and Graham are visiting in Sydney for a while (they live in Brisbane now) because one of their daughters is getting married in a few days. (Helen gave a "kitchen tea" for her niece yesterday and was laughing about having found the carefully-prepared sandwiches still in the refrigerator after all of the guests had left.) Everybody is hoping that Fay and Graham will move back to Sydney, as Neale's team needs Graham back as its pitcher.
Mick, one of the teammates, made us laugh with his tale of going to the U.S. for the first time and being served grits and of committing the faux-pas of putting sugar on them. And he had news of another friend who has just discovered that the old Harley he owns is one that was originally customized for Elvis. Heaven only knows how it got to Australia!
We also talked of Gretchen, whose wedding day this is. The weather in Minneapolis is probably not so nice as here.
Neale made us laugh by imitating his young daughters, who assume American accents when they play with their Barbie dolls.
Fay told us that in the Spring they have to be careful not to stray too near the nests of Australian Magpies, lest they be attacked. She carries a stick when she goes on her evening walk.
We regretfully left much later than we should have, as Neale was to drive us into the city and get back home again to grab some sleep before going very early to work in the morning.
He asked me at one point during the evening if I'd like to logon and read my email, and I said "no". I really am on vacation.
I gobbled down a small book we got yesterday, Daintree: Jewel of Tropical North Queensland, by Lloyd Nielsen, a brilliant birder whom we met briefly on our last trip here.
The rainforest of the Daintree-Cape Tribulation area, where we'll be going tomorrow, is some of the most ancient on earth and preserves a bit of the ancient super-continent Gondwanaland, with many plants found nowhere else (about 700 endemic species). It also has about 70 species of vertebrates that are found nowhere else; of those, 25 are considered to be endangered.
(In case you're wondering about the forlorn name "Cape Tribulation", it was given that name by Captain Cook, shortly after the Endeavor ran aground on a coral reef and nearly sank.)
Until continental drift was discovered and the history of the continents was worked out, the northern Australian rainforests were assumed just to be spillover from Asia or to have been derived from the dry forests of Australia, but in fact neither is the case; they have a completely separate history. This one small area of northeastern Queensland (about 1200 square kilometers) has happened to have a warm, moist climate continuously for 120,000,000 years and, so, has kept its rainforest intact as Australia and Antarctica split from Gondwanaland and then Australia split from Antarctica and rafted northward to collide with Asia.
The uniqueness of the area wasn't understood until after much of it had been plowed under for sugarcane fields and other development. Even after it was understood, the state government did everything it could to encourage development, including building roads and dividing the land into parcels for sale. Major protests didn't do much to change policy, nor did practical difficulties. (The honor party taking the first trip on a much-protested new road was bogged down in mud for days.) The strategy that finally succeeded in protecting the area was to get it listed as a World Heritage site. (The adjacent Great Barrier Reef was already listed, but the state government fought hard to prevent the listing of the rainforests.) Eventually, the state government's policy of allowing logging in the area was ended by the election of a new state government.
(North Queensland had already been swept clean of its natural resources in repeated waves: first by fishermen after sea cucumbers, then by pearlers, then by gold miners, and finally (in the 1870s) by lumbermen after the "red gold" of cedar trees. This last was probably the saddest, as all of the trees (some of which were 700 years old) were cut down but many were left to rot when transporting them proved to be too much of a challenge.)
Nielsen's book has wonderful photos of the plants and animals of the Daintree. Many of the plants exhibit "cauliflory"; that is, their flowers and fruits grow straight from the trunk. And many of the flowering plants exhibit the primitive feature of having numerous petals and stamens in the flowers. Nielsen describes one of the rarest plants found in the area:
One of the most interesting, Ribbonwood or Idiot Fruit, the only known representative of the ancient Idiospermaceae family, is common in only four creek systems in the Wet Tropics. With characteristics so different from all other plants, it is one of the most primitive. Until 1972 it was known only from fossils. In that year, cattle were mysteriously dying in the Daintree area. On examination, a veterinarian found large seeds in the stomachs of the cattle and these were sent to a herbarium for identification. Botanists could not believe what lay in front of them--the seeds from a tree believed to have been extinct for millions of years.Somebody now extinct who was big enough to swallow tennis balls and who could handle the poison!
Ribbonwood produces large red flowers which fade to white. The fruits, about the size of large tennis balls, are poisonous to all modern-day animals including birds. Aborigines respected the poisonous properties of the fruit and avoided it. One wonders then what agent or animal Ribbonwood depended upon for the dispersal of its seed. Today it is dispersed only by water and gravity.
Late in the afternoon, we headed back to the Victoria Arcade. I had mentioned to Lee that I hoped to get a Coogi sweater while we're here. (I find them appealing not only for their looks but also for their being an extreme example of the trend that started with the Jacquard loom of using computers to create complex textiles.) At first Lee hadn't believed me that there is such a thing, but reading today he found that there is a Coogi store at the Arcade, so off we went. After trying on lots, I chose two and left him to pay while I went to gaze at the black Broome pearls in the shop next door (which were way out of my price range, alas).
Then we headed for Sydney Harbour and the Opera House. It was nice to see, as we rode through the city, so many elegant old buildings being beautifully restored. Sydney is really a very handsome city.
We had dinner at the Harbour Restaurant in the Opera House: salmon in a bed of white asparagus and roasted tomatoes, with banana chocolate cake for dessert. Definitely civilized!
During dinner, we sat before a big window looking out into the harbor. The harbor was as full of life as we remembered it to be. There was lots of commuter traffic; at one point, we were amused to watch a very fast, sleek, modern catamaran full of commuters race past a reproduction of HMS Bounty full of tourists.
On the terrace of the restaurant, a hapless young electrician was tediously stringing strands of little lights over and around the big parasols above the tables, under the supervision of three artsy-looking types. For New Years Eve, there will be fireworks from the Harbour Bridge, and it is traditional to decorate the area around the harbor with lights. As we walked along the harbor from the restaurant to the playhouse, we could see other hapless electricians hanging lights on other parts of the Opera House under the direction of the same artsy types. (Unfortunately, we hadn't been able to arrange our travel plans to be here on New Years Eve to see the fireworks and the lights.)
At the playhouse, we saw a good production of Noel Coward's Private Lives and then walked along the harbor a bit enjoying the city lights before catching a cab back to our hotel.
During the flight I read a fascinating book called Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line. It is about Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer (with Darwin) of natural selection. From 1854 to 1862, Wallace travelled among the 13,000 islands of the Malay Archipelago collecting specimens of insects, birds, and other animals for sale in England. (He was from a poor family and quite penniless.) He read extensively and observed closely and thought constantly about the great natural history questions of the day.
His journey began in the western portions of the Archipelago, where he became very familiar with the Asian-derived birds that populated the islands. One day in 1856, he sailed from Bali to Lompok, a distance of only about 15 miles, and made an important discovery:
Walking up the beach, away from the thunderous sound of the rollers which toppled onto the black volcanic sands, Wallace heard a strange, loud bird call. The locals called the bird, onomatopoetically, "quaich-quaich". It was a Helmeted Friarbird, Philemon buceroides, closely allied with the friarbirds of Australia.Two years later, he wrote to a friend:
Where were the Oriental barbets, fruit-thrushes and woodpeckers, the same birds he had seen in Malaysia, Borneo, and Bali, the latter still clearly visible across the strait? Instead, the forests of Lompok echoed with the loud strangled screams of Australian cockatoos, and honeyeaters flitted through the trees.
From an evolutionary point of view, a naturalist would not expect an archipelago of physically similar islands to be populated with strikingly different animals on its western and eastern ends, let alone across a narrow channel. But this was the case between Bali and Lompok.
Between Sulawesi and Borneo, Wallace found the differences to be even more striking. In Borneo, across the Makassar Strait, the forests abounded with monkeys of many kinds, wild-cats, civets, otters, and squirrels. In Sulawesi, he found few indeed of these, but instead plenty of prehensile-tailed cuscuses; in Borneo, Oriental birds like woodpeckers, barbets, trogons, fruit-thrushes and leaf-thrushes; in Sulawesi, honeyeaters and parrots.
In the Archipelago, there are two distinct faunas rigidly circumscribed, which differ as much as those of South America and Africa and more than those of Europe and North America. Yet there is nothing on the map or on the face of the islands to mark their limits. The boundary line often passes between islands closer than others in the same group.This became known as the Wallace Line, a then "mysterious line, only 25 kilometers wide, that separates marsupials from tigers and honeyeaters and cockatoos from barbets and trogons".
The Wallace Line was one of the many strange facts that had to wait a very long time before being explained by plate tectonics. It is now understood that the southern half of New Guinea and some of the nearby islands are part of the Australian plate and travelled with Australia as it rafted across the oceans far from the influence of the flora and fauna of other continents. And often, when the sea level was lower, the land surfaces were contiguous, so the Australian birds and plants and animals could spread to what are now islands again.
The northern half of New Guinea and others of the adjacent islands are made up of various terranes swept up by the Australian plate (elevated sea floor, micro-continents, volcanic island arcs, etc.). These, too, received their inhabitants from Australia for the most part, as it was at first the only nearby source of living creatures.
Ultimately, the whole assembly smashed into Asia, and the islands offshore from Australia came to rest near islands that were part of Asia and that had Asian assemblages of plants and animals. Although Wallace couldn't have known it, it was significant that there is a very deep trench between Bali and Lompok, where one plate is being subducted under the other.
Of course, birds have wings, so many of the less sedentary started being exchanged between the continents as the distances grew less. For example, it is believed that the world's crows (including the Birds of Paradise) are all derived from an originally Australian bird. But, Australia (together with New Guinea and other nearby islands) still has a unique assemblage of birds. "It has no woodpeckers and no pheasants, familiars which exist in every other part of the world; but instead it has the mound-making brush-turkeys, the honeyeaters, the cockatoos, and the brush-tongued lories, which are found nowhere else upon the globe."
Cairns looked as it had before--a small city set down in the middle of Bali Hai, all green and misty in front of green, misty mountains. We were met at the airport by a young woman from the car rental agency who drove us into town in the bright purple Daihatsu four-wheel drive car we are renting for a few days. She explained her sleepless look by telling us excitedly that she'd been up all night birthing seven kittens, her first and the mother cat's first.
Our first bird at the Cairns airport was, as expected, an Indian Myna (which occupies the introduced starling niche here), but as we turned the corner from the airport onto the Captain Cook Highway, I spotted a pair of Bush Stone-Curlews standing in the grass by a barn and even remembered to call them Stone-Curlews, rather than Thick-Knees. These are wonderful birds, about two feet tall, brown-and-white with big yellow eyes. They give the impression more of solemn little men than of birds, as they stand straight and still, watching the world.
We should be seeing lots of other birds while we're here. The "Wet Tropics" (this section on the east coast of north Queensland) accounts for only 0.2% of Australia's landmass but has 18% of its bird species.
We had a very nice lunch sitting on a covered balcony above the harbor in the misty rain and then got slightly lost driving around Cairns trying to find a supermarket. They tricked us by calling it Woolworths, but we soon had our groceries and were headed north along the coastal highway towards Daintree Village.
We had intermittent rain on the drive and misty views out over the Coral Sea. The developed areas seemed to extend considerably farther outside Cairns than during our last visit, but we were soon out to undeveloped areas, where the mountains (and the rainforest) run right down to the sea. There were flowers everywhere, including an especially striking red-orange mimosa-like tree that was in bloom all along the way. As we were going through one wetland area, I spotted a Royal Spoonbill flying low over us.
We stopped at a lookout to savor the view out to the reefs. In the water there was a boom similar to those used to contain oil spills, but it was being used to keep jellyfish out of a small area for swimming. A wooden stand nearby contained a bottle of vinegar for applying to jellyfish stings. Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Doves were pecking around in the grass.
Our first bird in Daintree Village was a Peahen. There seems to be a flock of Peafowl established here. There were also extensive flocks of mosquitos. I had to start slathering on insect repellent the minute we got out of the car. Fortunately, we were well prepared for that.
We are staying at Red Mill House, a Bed & Breakfast established by Chris Dahlberg and Denise Collins, whom we met on our last trip. They recently sold it to a charming Englishman named Malcolm Hardwick, who showed us to our comfortable room decorated with beautiful red flowers and some of Chris's great bird photos. Red Mill House is an old traditional "Queenslander" built on stilts to be cooler, but like many, it has been filled in; our room is on the bottom level, cooled by a ceiling fan.
Malcolm showed us up to the porch overlooking the garden and told us that we would find breakfast laid out there in the morning. He also introduced us to his partner Helen, who had just arrived from England. The two were planning to celebrate her arrival and New Years Eve by going to Silky Oaks for the night. We assured them we could get our own breakfast in the morning (we're the only guests just now).
We sat on the porch and chatted with them for a while and watched the flock of Indian Peafowl wander through, including a number of chicks. But there were also native Orange-Footed Scrubfowl, genuine Gondwanan descendants.
Malcolm told us that a Little Kingfisher (one of my Most Wanted birds) lives along the stream that flows through the garden and that he thinks there is a Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher nesting somewhere in the back. ("Paradise" usually denotes a bird with a long tail, as it does in this case. This Paradise Kingfisher is the reason I was willing to come to the Tropics in Summer, and I very much want to see it.)
Across the street is a bat camp containing many thousands of Flying Foxes (large fruit bats). They were all hanging by their feet when we arrived, but began waking up and flying off as we were walking down the village street looking for dinner. (Nielsen says that the bats do perceive the world as we do, not upside down; when they are curious about something, they turn their heads right side up to get a better view.)
Walking down the village street, we found a Yellow Oriole, a Laughing Kookaburra, a Yellow-bellied Sunbird, and a Forest Kingfisher, all very common birds in this area. We ate lasagna on the restaurant terrace and watched the bats continuing to stream out of the camp for their night's work of pollinating the rainforest trees. There were many flowering trees around, including some primitive ones I recognized from Nielsen's book. A Sunbird played around the terrace, and Figbirds and Helmeted Friarbirds worked over the trees across the way. Dessert was a lovely yellow watermelon and the best grapes I've ever had. And still the stream of bats continued.
After dinner, we walked back to Red Mill House and sat on the porch in the dark watching the Flying Foxes feed on the nectar of the trees blooming in the garden. Instead of fireworks, we had the croaks of frogs to celebrate New Years Eve.
We'd been on Chris's trip the last time we were here, so we knew to expect it to be wonderful and we were looking forward to a different mix of birds (as the last time we were here was in mid-Winter). We were joined in Chris's small boat by a very pleasant American couple who had little bird-watching experience, but who seemed likely by the end of the trip to become converts.
Here is the official list of what we saw (Chris FAXed it to us after the trip; he's become very electronic since last we met):
Common Green Tree Snake, Spectacled Flying Fox, Ulysses Butterfly, Darter, Little Pied Cormorant, Little Black Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Green Pygmy-Goose, Great-billed Heron, White-faced Heron, Great Egret, Little Egret, Black Bittern, Masked Lapwing, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Pied Imperial-Pigeon, Bar-shouldered Dove, Rainbow Lorikeet, Brush Cuckoo, Gould's Bronze-Cuckoo, Pheasant Coucal, White-rumped Swiftlet, Azure Kingfisher, Little Kingfisher, Forest Kingfisher, Large-billed Gerygone, Helmeted Friarbird, Yellow-spotted Honeyeater, Brown-backed Honeyeater, Shining Flycatcher, Yellow Oriole, Figbird, Varied Triller, White-breasted Woodswallow, Welcome Swallow, Yellow-bellied Sunbird, Metallic Starling.
Chris is a big bearded man who loves birds and seems to love showing them to people. He told us that since our last visit here, he'd turned 50 and been to Africa. (Like me, he harbors a longing to see all of the kingfishers in the world.)
I mentioned when we met that I am especially interested in seeing kingfishers and he promised to do his best, but warned that there would be no Sacred Kingfishers here this time of year.
At the start of the trip, he pointed out the bats returning to their roosts. He explained that all of the crying is the mothers locating their babies, which are now of a size that their mothers don't carry them with them when they are foraging. They will soon be able to fly out with their mothers. In the meantime, each mother locates her baby by call on her return and flies off to her day roost with the baby clinging to her underside. Chris also pointed out the Peregrine Falcon flying very fast toward the bat camp to select breakfast.
The pretty little Green Pygmy-Goose was a bit of a surprise, swimming along all by itself. It may be the one that Chris rescued after it had apparently flown into a wire and been knocked down onto the road. Pygmy-Geese have their legs set so far back on their bodies (for swimming efficiency) that they can barely walk, and this one wasn't going anywhere when Chris drove over it (without hitting it). He stopped and picked it up and took it to the river, and it swam right off.
We did get a glimpse of a Little Kingfisher, flying very fast along one of the creeks. I didn't see it well enough even to say what the color was, but Chris told us to look for it up at Red Mill House later in the morning, as it is "always" there.
We kept hearing the Paradise Kingfishers but not seeing them. Sigh. However, we had a couple of good views of Azure Kingfishers, which are incredibly lovely (azure backs and orange breasts--similar to the European Kingfisher).
The White-breasted Sea-Eagles were wonderful. We had good views of both the male and the female. And we had two nice views of Pheasant Coucals (in breeding plumage). We hadn't seen a Coucal before; it's a lovely large black bird with wonderful golden brown wings that it spreads in an elegant display.
Chris is particularly proud of his nesting Great-billed Heron (with chick), as this is a rarity. The nest, which is high in the canopy, can be seen with some difficulty from one of the mangrove creeks. Chris says the nest was much easier to spot when it was first used a few years ago. It has grown heavier as it has been added to over the years and now weighs down the bough it's on, so it is somewhat hidden from view.
The Black Bittern is another real rarity, and we must have seen a dozen of them today, so many that we stopped paying attention to them.
We watched the Brown-backed Honeyeaters building their hanging nest. Chris says the nest will be parasitized by cuckoos but that that's all right, as the cuckoos do such a good job of eating insects.
There is a power line running across the river that usually has swallows sitting on it, so Chris always stops to examine them. He told us that they had recently found sitting there what they believe to be the first Pacific Swallows in Australia, and they are trying to get the sighting recognized.
He stopped the boat beside a grassy bank because he could hear Lovely Fairy-Wrens calling in the grass, but they stayed well hidden. Drat! That's another bird I would really like to see.
But we did see something the same wonderful iridescent blue as the Fairy-Wrens, the Ulysses butterflies. Though I've seen hundreds over the years, I still must catch my breath every time I see one.
We could see flock after flock of Pied Imperial-Pigeons streaming in from the islands offshore to feed on rainforest fruits during the day. They will go back to the islands at the end of the day to feed their babies. Chris says there are believed to be about 30,000 of them in the vicinity.
The trip lasted two hours, and, as always, was over way too soon. On our way up from the river, we noted the highwatermark for last year's terrible flood, 11.8 meters! The banks of the river were considerably damaged. Chris says, for example, that "ninety percent of our lilies" have been lost.
The other couple had asked about books at the end of the trip, so we suggested that they come to Red Mill House to buy a copy of Nielsen's book. When they did, we also gave them a small Australian bird book that we didn't really need, and they seemed very pleased.
We found a note on the porch overlooking the garden with Malcolm's instructions about breakfast. He'd made a lovely fruit salad and left it in the refrigerator. He'd also left a bowl of fruit on the table, and we laughed out loud when we saw it, because somebody had greedily ripped open one of the bananas (I suspect a friarbird).
We sat on the porch having a lazy breakfast as a lazy rain began to fall. We got a great look at a Wompoo Fruit-Dove eating fruit in a nearby tree. We'd only ever seen them way up in the canopy before. A pair of Nutmeg Mannikins is building a nest in a little tree right by the porch, and a Sunbird looked dazzling sipping nectar from the flame-red ginger flowers. Rainbow Lorikeets (very colorful nectar-eating parrots) made a racket as they worked over the blossoms in a lacy red tree at the back of the yard, and we got a good look at the Peafowl chicks (about 8 inches tall), which have the nubs of plumes on their heads already.
There were also Figbirds, Laughing Kookaburras, and Yellow Orioles, but no Little Kingfisher. I kept going down to the stream and standing quietly until I couldn't bear the mosquitos anymore, but never saw him at all.
It was very pleasant sitting on the porch with the rain falling, but when the rain stopped the temperature rose quickly, so we decided to drive to Port Douglas to visit the Rainforest Habitat, which is essentially a rainforest zoo. We had three wonderful views of Pheasant Coucals by the road on our way to Port Douglas. We stopped in town for a rather odd lunch of Nachos, Australian style, and then stayed at the Habitat until it closed for the day.
The Habitat consists mostly of a few very large, walk-through aviaries, good-sized sections of rainforest under a very high screen. They've an amazing array of birds (more than 100 species), and with care one can see most of them.
A good many of the larger birds have tamed themselves. As we entered the entrance hall, which is also a shop, we were greeted by a Galah (a pink and grey cockatoo) and a Darter (an anhinga), who had figured out how to get through the barriers that are supposed to keep them in the aviary. They both called out greetings to each new arrival. The Darter, however, soon decided to go back into the aviary, as she had spotted one of the keepers carrying her kind of food.
Shortly after we entered the aviaries, we were trying to identify a small dove, when a pleasant Australian man came up and told us that it was an Emerald Dove and then suggested that we be sure to see the rare Red-necked Crake nearby. That was really lovely, slate grey with a rich rust-colored throat and head.
Many of the birds were in breeding plumage, especially the herons and egrets, which were really spectacular. The Buff-banded Rails were having a population explosion; there were adults and fluffy black chicks all over the place. (One had to take care not to step on them on the boardwalks.) The Magpie Geese had a troop of goslings, and there were Plumed Whistling-Ducklings being brooded by their mothers.
There was a brief downpour, so we stopped in a nice picnic area inside the aviary that had a white canvas cover over it. The birds were free to fly over the canvas cover and to walk on it, which gave the amusing effect of disembodied shadow feet walking about above us.
The birds are fans of the picnic area, too. Rainbow Lorikeets may have evolved their brush tongues for eating nectar, but they are also willing to use them for eating ice cream. At one point, a couple of them were clambering about on Lee, hoping he'd share his cone, so I grabbed his camera and started shooting.
We were entranced with the birds in the aviaries. A Pheasant Coucal came up on the boardwalk and walked beside us for a while, displaying as it went. A Sacred Kingfisher stood on my bird book and studied the Rosella page. We had good close looks at a male Victoria's Riflebird (this region's Bird of Paradise, velvety black with blue-green irridescence) and also managed to find and identify the non-descript female, as well as a male and female Satin Bowerbird.
One very amusing sight was a Jabiru (now officially a Black-necked Stork) kneeling. Its knees bend in the opposite direction from a human's, which looks very strange. We hung around for a while to see if it would/could get up, but it seemed to be planning to stay in that position.
About halfway through, we ran into the couple from this morning's boat trip. They were clutching the bird book we'd given them and were really enjoying the birds here. (They'd also gotten to see a crocodile, which had been their original reason for taking the boat trip.)
There was also a Cassowary, a close relative of the Emu and the Ostrich, a huge (70 inches) flightless black bird with a blue face and neck, striking yellow eyes, and long red wattles. It is becoming very rare in the wild, unfortunately. Three young Australian men walked up as we were looking at the Cassowary rather hidden behind some trees, so I pointed it out to them. They'd never heard of a Cassowary! Even after I showed them the picture in the bird book, it rang no bells. The last Cassowary in the Environmental Park at Cairns was killed a year or so ago by a jogger's dog (the jogger had ignored the prominent "No Jogging" and "No Dogs" signs, of course), but people can't be expected to care if they've never even known that such a wonderful creature exists. Sigh.
It was nice to have a close-up look at the very elegant (and very large) Pied Imperial-Pigeons. They are mostly snow white, but have black along the edges of their wings and tails.
There were lots of Lorikeets and Rosellas and other parrots, including bunches of King Parrots and Eclectus Parrots. Their squadrons use the elevated boardwalks as flyways, so one must look both ways before crossing.
When closing time came, I tried to shoo away an Eastern Rosella that had taken to riding around on Lee's shoulder; I got bitten for my efforts. One of the keepers helped us out by shooing it more vigorously than I dared.
Before leaving, we made one last visit to the beautiful Red-necked Crake, as we are not likely ever to see such a shy bird in the wild.
It was only after we had left that we realized that we had kept intact our record of never being able to spot a Noisy Pitta in an aviary. Moan.
We drove to Silky Oaks to have dinner on the veranda overlooking Mossman Glen. (There were flocks of Imperial-Pigeons flying toward the sea as we drove along.) The view from the dining veranda was as beautiful as we remembered. Because of all the rain, the river was really roaring down the lovely gorge. The couple at the next table (not birders) told us that they'd seen a Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher in the Glen today.
The meal was luscious, salmon with saffron sauce and macadamia nuts. For dessert, I had a chocolate tart with orange sorbet and Lee had a frozen mango souffle with passionfruit.
Driving back to Daintree Village, we heard on the radio that the coast highway is closed further south because of flooding from the cyclone.
When we got back to Red Mill House, we chatted with Malcolm and Helen on the porch for a while. Malcolm had heard the Paradise Kingfisher in Mossman Glen this morning, too.
The boat was full this time (about 9 people). One was a real birder who had come down from Kingfisher Park for the morning. He assured me that we will find Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers all over the place when we get to Kingfisher Park a couple of days from now.
Here is the list of sightings for the trip:
Common Green Tree Snake, Spectacled Flying Fox, Ulysses Butterfly, Darter, Little Pied Cormorant, Little Black Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Australasian Grebe, Purple Swamphen, Great-billed Heron, White-faced Heron, Great Egret, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Black Bittern, Masked Lapwing, Wompoo Fruit-Dove, Pied Imperial-Pigeon, Bar-shouldered Dove, Rainbow Lorikeet, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Azure Kingfisher, Little Kingfisher, Laughing Kookaburra, Forest Kingfisher, Large-billed Gerygone, Helmeted Friarbird, Yellow-spotted Honeyeater, Graceful Honeyeater, Brown-backed Honeyeater, Little Shrike-Thrush, Shining Flycatcher, Spangled Drongo, Yellow Oriole, Figbird, White-breasted Woodswallow, Black Butcherbird, Welcome Swallow, Yellow-bellied Sunbird, Metallic Starling.
Before we set out, Chris rescued a White-lipped Tree Frog from the dock by putting it into one of the other boats to hide from predators for the day.
During the trip, he made two excursions into the little side channel where yesterday we'd seen the Little Kingfisher to try to get me a better look, but we didn't see it there at all. Later, however, when we were stopped in Barratt Creek to let everybody see the Great-billed Heron and its chick, a Little Kingfisher zipped by quite low along the creek and I got a much better view. I finally feel that I can say I've seen one; I could tell that it was brilliant blue and white and very tiny (about 4-1/2 inches). A minute later, an Azure Kingfisher zipped along the same path, for comparison. (It is much larger, about 7 inches.)
We again had several Black Bitterns, and this time a male posed on a snag and let us approach quite closely and even turned around to give us views from all angles. I could finally see the orange throat stripe that the books show.
Chris was pleased with the trip, as the Great-billed Heron, the Black Bittern, and the Little Kingfisher are the three rarities that people come here for.
We again heard the Paradise Kingfisher repeatedly. Nearby we heard the cackling calls of a Bush-hen, but didn't see that either.
The Wompoo was sitting in the sun and gave us a good view of his bright yellow abdomen and plum-colored breast.
We got a good close look at one of the Channel-billed Cuckoos flying over. This is a large (23 inches), pale grey bird with a big ivory-colored bill and red eyes. Chris is puzzled by there being so many in the area now (we saw at least half a dozen), as they normally lay their eggs in the nests of Crows and there are no Crows nesting here. He has seen a Peregrine Falcon attacking a Channel-billed Cuckoo and wonders whether the Channel-billed parasitizes the Peregrine. Pretty gutsy!
As we said goodbye, he gave us advice on a tour to take when we get back to Cairns. "Tell him you want to see the Collared Kingfisher, and he'll find it for you."
Back at Red Mill House, we had breakfast and said goodbye to Malcolm and Helen. I made the mistake of going up to breakfast on the porch with neither my glasses nor my binoculars, and of course the garden was full of birds, including what I think must have been a Scarlet Honeyeater (but all I really know is that my myopic eyes saw something small that was brilliant red and black and white). I made a huge clatter knocking over an ashtray as I rushed to get my binoculars and found no red birds when I returned. I was then able to identify a Dusky Honeyeater, however.
We stopped at the village grocery on our way out of town and found that Chris had managed somehow to leave us a copy of this morning's list before he headed out for his second trip of the day.
Then we were off to Cape Tribulation. The first adventure was the ferry across the Daintree, which pulls itself along cables across the river. From there we had several hours of driving along a reasonably good road through wonderful lowland rainforest.
As the road started to climb, we stopped at the Alexandra Range Lookout for a lovely view of the Daintree entering the Coral Sea. No works of man were visible at that distance.
We stopped later at the Daintree Rainforest Environment Centre, which has an excellent boardwalk through very thick rainforest. The area is Cassowary habitat, and the young woman at the desk told us that they do see Cassowaries there, but at this time of year food is abundant enough that they tend not to come near human habitations. A sign said that there are believed to be only 54 Cassowaries remaining north of the Daintree, alas.
While we were there, we watched a portion of a video that had some amazing footage of a gardener in a zoo being attacked by a Cassowary. They have a very powerful kick. (Only one person is known to have been killed by a Cassowary, a boy whose dog attacked one of the birds back in the Twenties.)
We bought a small book about Cassowaries and found that it was dedicated "to those who worked to establish the Wet Tropics World Heritage areas in north Queensland, Australia, and to those who continue the work of nature conservation everywhere". It points out that "the expansion of logging and other human activities in Papua-New Guinea and Irian Jaya may soon threaten the only other cassowary populations in the world".
Before venturing out onto the boardwalk, we slathered on extra insect repellent from the handy dispenser near the door.
It's hard to describe the lushness and variety of the rainforest here. There are palms and ferns and ferntrees and cycads and epiphytes and many, many vines. Even bamboo grows as a vine!
And they'd really done an excellent job of putting the boardwalk through the forest and of writing the guide that explained it all. We stopped at one point to wait while a ranger replaced one of the boards in the boardwalk; he said that it's an unending job. I didn't envy him doing manual labor in the terrific heat and humidity.
We continued on our drive in intermittent rain. There were frequent "Floodway" signs and occasionally signs warning us to slow down because Cassowaries crossed there. (They seem to prefer the wetter areas.) Every now and then we had to ford a stream, none of them too deep for our little purple car.
Further along, we stopped at the Marrdja Botanical Walk, another boardwalk through lush rainforest, but this one suddenly crossed into a mangrove swamp. There were many birds calling, including, I think, a Bush-hen like we heard this morning. The mangrove swamp had extremely clear water a couple of feet deep; we could see large fish swimming around below us. I heard a bird calling that sounded like what I imagine a Mangrove Golden Whistler would sound like, but we saw no birds at all.
Some of the trees in the swamp had enormous fruits on them, which reminded me of one of the first controversies that Wallace became involved in as he travelled around the Malay Archipelago (eagerly reading the journals from England when they finally caught up with him):
Wallace scoffed at the belief that animals had been created entirely for the benefit of Man who was, alone, graced with an appreciative and aesthetic sense. This view held that the elephant, for instance, had been created docile so that humans could use it. And it had been created in exactly such a region where it could find suitable food for itself.Back on the road, we were in rich lowland rainforest with the ocean just down the hill. This area seems to me to be defined by the spectacular Fan Palms. Their fronds form full circles about six feet in diameter that appear to be pleated. The Fan Palms are said to require very high rainfall and humidity; otherwise, I'm sure they'd be used as ornamental plants all over the world.
From the example of English trees and fruits, it was plainly obvious the small fruits always grew on lofty trees, so that their fall would be harmless to humans. Large fruits trailed on the ground. In the Malay Archipelago, Wallace pointed out that two of the largest and heaviest fruits known, the Brazil-nut and the Durian, grow on lofty forest trees, from which they fall as soon as they are ripe, wounding or killing any hapless native inhabitant wandering beneath. "From this we may learn two things" he said dryly, "first, not to draw general conclusions from a very partial view of nature and secondly, that trees and fruits, no less than the varied productions of the animal kingdom, do not appear to be organized with exclusive reference to the use and convenience of man."
It was early afternoon by the time we arrived at the Coconut Beach Rainforest Resort at Cape Tribulation. We parked near the road and were taken up a steep hill to a lovely cabin on stilts set in very thick rainforest overlooking the Coral Sea. Minutes later, the rain turned to a downpour that continued well into the night, but it was not a problem for us, as all we wanted just then was a nap and a hot shower.
When we woke from our nap, the first thing Lee said to me was, "You were right when you said we should bring the rain gear." I found that my purse and my cosmetic case had been overrun by ants, and I was reminded that when Wallace was travelling around in the islands north of here, he made a habit of setting the legs of his worktable in coconut shells filled with water to keep his precious bird-skins from being eaten by ants.
We sat with the wooden jalousies open and listened to the rain as we looked out to "Where the Green Turns to Blue". (The World Heritage rainforest runs right to the World Heritage coral reef here at Cape Tribulation.) We could hear birdsong and the crash of waves, but much louder were the sounds of cicadas that came in waves of crescendos and decrescendos.
We roused ourselves to head downhill through the downpour (how I love my Gore-tex parka!) to the restaurant, which is across the road (there's only one road here) in the bit of rainforest just at the edge of the beach. It is a tall, airy wooden building approached via a boardwalk through a lovely swamp. The interior is decorated with wonderful wooden artifacts that appear to me to be from New Guinea. The dining tables are set around a pond that is half inside and half outside the building. As we waited for our meal, we watched a long-necked turtle swim about and climb up on the rocks. And what a meal! (How do they find people willing to be cooks in this heat and humidity?) I had excellent salmon with an avocado sauce. For dessert, we chose a lovely meringue with tropical fruits and chocolate sauce.
And then back up the hill through the rain, to fall asleep to the sounds of waves and cicadas.
The rainforest comes right down to the high tide line, and the trees at the edge of the beach had lots of Spangled Drongoes (such a wonderful name!--they are large black birds with striking red eyes).
There were several dramatic signs warning about the jellyfish hazard and others warning about the crocodile hazard. (Nobody seems to worry about the shark hazard. I suppose one doesn't get that far.)
We had a very pleasant breakfast in the lodge (excellent pastries and tropical fruit). We were glad to see that there were now several of the long-necked turtles swimming about in the pond. Last evening, we had thought that there was only one, which would have been sad for him. We bought a few gifts in the gift shop and then were on our way (pausing only to identify some Bridled Honeyeaters flitting among the Fan Palms).
We had chatted in the gift shop with a limo driver who had been stranded at Cape Tribulation overnight; the road had been impassable because of the heavy rain, but he said it was open again, though he'd heard there was a tree partially down across the road.
The water running over the causeways was, indeed, quite a bit higher than on our trip up yesterday, but we had no problem with it, and our little car fit under the leaning tree. We saw several big Brown Cuckoo-Doves along the road, and there were umbrella trees blooming along the way. (These have bright red flowers growing in clusters that look like the ribs of an umbrella.)
When we got back to the Daintree Ferry, I noticed that a dozen Welcome Swallows were riding back and forth on the ferry (and I was inevitably reminded of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "We were very young; we were very merry; we rode back and forth all night on the ferry."). The swallows rode on the front edge of the ferry and waited to jump off until the last moment before that edge smashed into the bank. I can't see what is in it for them; the ferry isn't so speedy that it seems likely to scoop up bugs. Perhaps they were also just feeling merry.
We were soon headed up onto the tablelands behind the coast. The views out toward the sea along the way were splendid. When we got high enough, we could see the offshore islands where the Imperial-Pigeons nest.
By early afternoon, we had reached the Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge near the tiny town of Julatten and were being warmly greeted by the proprietor, Ron Stannard. (Kingfisher Park is a world-famous place for birders, a nice piece of rainforest in the midst of an agricultural area.) Ron showed us a map of the property and told us where to find the hide for viewing the Red-necked Crakes and where a pair of Pacific Bazas (handsomely striped birds of prey) seem to be thinking of building a nest and where to look for a Platypus at night.
As soon as we had the car unloaded, we went out for a walk. Although the brochure mentions that Kingfisher Park's "position in the mountains offers a milder and less humid climate", it was terrifically hot and humid.
We immediately saw lots of Emerald Doves and soon were being scolded by a pretty little Spectacled Monarch. The trees were noisy with Rainbow Lorikeets.
When we got to the orchard, there were a pair of Orange-footed Scrubfowl scratching about in the undergrowth. The Scrubfowl are about 20 inches tall, slate grey and reddish brown with very strong, very orange legs. They are members of the Megapode (literally "big foot") family, one of the bird families unique to the Australian plate.
Megapodes don't sit on their eggs to incubate them. Instead, they bury their eggs where they will be kept warm naturally. The babies must dig themselves out as soon as they have hatched; they are then able to care for themselves. (They know to run into the woods as soon as they get out of the hole their egg was buried in.)
The typical male megapode builds a mound of rotting vegetation in which passing females lay eggs. The male frequently tests the temperature of his mound (by digging a hole in it and using his tongue as a thermometer) and adds or subtracts material as required. However, some species of megapodes have learned to take advantage of geothermal heat, and I've read that in Brisbane another megapode species, the Australian Brush-Turkey, is known to take over compost heaps in suburban gardens.
We saw no Crakes nor (more importantly) any Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers, but there were many birds. It was so hot and humid, however, that my glasses kept fogging up.
We went to our room to cool off for a while, but I couldn't rest until I'd found a Paradise Kingfisher, so I went out again to look for help.
I walked through the lovely courtyard, which has two nectar feeders that attract lots of honeyeaters, including the Blue-faced (not to mention a few Rainbow Lorikeets, for whom drinking from the feeders is a real struggle, as the feeders were designed for much smaller birds). The birdbath is another attraction; it was surrounded by beautiful little Red-browed Firetail Finches. ("Firetail" describes the bright red on their tails.)
I soon ran into two other guests, Diana, an American who has been birding around Australia since October, and Chris, an Australian birder whom she met on a pelagic (a boat trip to see sea birds) shortly after her arrival. (We already knew of Diana from the birding-aus list.) They will be at Pajinka when we are and have been spending a few days birding in this part of Queensland before leaving for the far north. They are clearly both very expert (and dedicated) birders. Diana has seen more than 350 species of birds since she arrived here on what she calls her "mid-life adventure", a six-month holiday from her work as a massage therapist in Boston. Chris, who is a metallurgist for a steel company in Wollongong, had 620 birds on his Australian life list when he started this trip and that number is growing daily. (The are about 760 species of birds in Australia.)
The two of them had been out on the Daintree with Chris Dahlberg this morning and had really enjoyed it. They saw the Great-billed Heron and a few Black Bitterns, but not the Red-rumped Swallows. They, too, had seen the Little Kingfisher only zipping by while on the trip, but Chris had told them to go stand by the stream at Red Mill House and they had almost immediately gotten a good look at the Little perched there.
Chris had also shown them three adult Tawny Frogmouths and a young one roosting in a tree along the river. Envy! I'd love to see a baby Frogmouth. (These are amazing birds related to our nightjars, but much bigger. They have very wide, frog-like mouths. When they roost, they sit upright on a branch and point their mouths upward and suddenly look absolutely like the stump of a dead branch. Their coloring simulates bark perfectly, so that they become almost impossible to spot until they open their large brightly-colored eyes.)
Diana and Chris very kindly showed me the nearest Paradise Kingfisher nest. There is a sort of outdoor dining room with a roof but no walls near the bunk house (like most Australian lodges, this one offers accommodations for a variety of pocketbooks). One can sit at a picnic table there and be only about 15 feet away from the nest, which is dug into a small termite mound on the ground between two parking spaces in front of the bunk house. The nest seems to have been fully excavated (there is quite a pile of tailings out in front of it), but it doesn't seem to have eggs yet. (The roughly hemispherical termite mound is made of dirt and is about 2 feet in diameter. The entrance to the kingfishers' burrow is only a couple of inches up from the ground.)
Diana and Chris showed me the places where they had seen the birds perching and then sat with me until I'd seen both the male and the female. The birds seem to come by their nest fairly often, as though patrolling the area to make sure they've no competition.
They are incredibly beautiful! They are about 12 inches long from the tip of their long red-orange bills to the end of their long white tails, but half of that is tail. The underside is a bright yellow-orange; the upper parts are a rich, deep blue with a black border between the blue and the orange, and a white stripe down the back. The legs and feet are also red-orange. The main part of the tail is blue, but the two very long central feathers are white. (The female's tail is a bit shorter than the male's.)
I was so happy finally to see these birds and they were so stunningly lovely, that I found myself wiping away tears.
(I was disappointed on our last trip to Queensland that because it was wintertime we wouldn't see the Paradise Kingfishers, which winter in New Guinea. It was certainly worth coming all this way again in all this heat finally to see them.)
Diana and Chris were going to Mt. Lewis with Ron to look for Blue-faced Parrot-Finches and they invited me to come with them, but I couldn't bear to leave the Paradise Kingfishers. After I had seen those several more times, I went to get Lee (still cooling under the fan in our room), stopping in the office on the way to buy myself a shirt with Paradise Kingfishers embroidered on it.
I showed Lee the feeders in the courtyard, one of which now had a Macleays Honeyeater, one of my favorites from our last trip (it looks as though it has been upholstered in Bargello embroidery), and the beautiful little firetails. (This area seems to be blessed with extraordinarily red flowers and birds.) There were many of the wonderful blue Ulysses butterflies, and a Red-legged Pademelon (a kangaroo-like marsupial) grazed on the lawn.
We sat together in the outdoor dining area and both had good looks at the kingfishers. Several times, they zipped right through the building, passing within inches of us. There were also lots of Figbirds, and a big (16 inches) Laughing Kookaburra that was being harassed by somebody very tiny. (The Laughing Kookaburra is the world's largest kingfisher. It occurs naturally only in Australia but has been introduced into New Zealand, too, as well as into parts of Australia where it wasn't originally found.)
Late in the afternoon, we decided to attempt the trip to Mt. Lewis ourselves. Lee had writeups about it from three "where to find birds" books, so we thought we'd be able to find it, but none of the three guides mentioned how bad the road is. We found what turned out to be the right road but after going along it for a while we decided that couldn't possibly be it and kept looking, which led us into several mile-long driveways. There were kangaroos hopping along now and then. At one point, we got to a sign that warned that the property was a nature preserve and that any cat or dog not on a leash would be considered to be a feral animal and would be shot on sight.
We finally gave up on Mt. Lewis, and I was glad to have a chance just to sit and watch the kingfishers some more (along with four kinds of doves, several honeyeaters, Silvereyes, gerygones, Scrubfowl, Kookaburras, and many Figbirds).
We drove to the nearby town of Mt. Malloy to have dinner at the hotel. The food was unattractive, but we had an amusing conversation with an elderly man who was obviously delighted to have new ears to bend. He had come to Mt. Malloy in '42 with his three horses to make his fortune. (He'd been born down on the coast but couldn't stand the climate there.) He had difficulty believing that we had come so far to look at birds but agreed that they are very beautiful and added that people shouldn't shoot them.
The trip to Mt. Malloy and back took us through lychee orchards and other farmland. Although this area is up the first mountain range, it is still very wet. There were many floodways across the road. It must once have been mostly rainforest; there are still pockets left.
We got back to our room in time for the evening chorus of maniacal laughter from the Kookaburras.
I headed straight for the picnic table and sat there watching for the kingfishers. Diana stopped to chat for a moment as she headed out for a trip around the grounds. She was back shortly exultant over finally having found the Red-necked Crakes; she had watched the two of them near the edge of the orchard for several minutes.
She mentioned that she had asked Ron if he had anything to remove the mold that was growing in her hat and he had said, "Leave it to me!" He lent her another hat to wear while he works on the moldy one. (The sun is so intense here that one's hat becomes a major factor in one's life.) Chris joined us, and the conversation turned to the endless struggle to keep the mayor of Cairns from paving the Esplanade (one of the all-time great bird-watching places in Australia).
The two of them headed out to look for Buff-breasted Button-Quail, but I stayed to get one more look at the kingfishers. And I got a very good look! The male flew up and sat in the open on a nearby branch and began calling. After several minutes, the female flew up and perched near him. I was completely contented.
By then, Lee had us packed and the car loaded, so it was time to leave Kingfisher Park. We went to the office to say goodbye to Ron and pay our bill. There was a lovely Wilderness Society poster of a Paradise Kingfisher on the wall of the office and I was hoping to buy a copy of it, but Ron had none left. He did search around and find us a couple of very nice smaller photos, however, so now I can carry a Paradise Kingfisher in my purse, tucked into the small edition of Whitman I keep there to make standing in lines bearable.
As we drove out past my kingfisher-watching bench, we saw that a film crew had taken the area over, and there were cameras and lights all pointed toward the termite mound with the nest. I was very grateful that I'd had so much time alone with those wonderful birds.
We hadn't gone far when I was pleased to spot an immature rail (fluffy and black) at the edge of the woods.
We drove south through the tableland, a few hundred meters above sea level. There were zillions of tall pointy termite mounds (a different kind of termite than the ones that build the small rounded mounds that the Paradise Kingfishers prefer--and when I say tall, I mean 10-15 feet, though one sees tiny startup mounds in mowed areas). We were in drier forested areas and farmlands. There were lots of birds of prey soaring above us, mostly Whistling Kites (which have a wonderful laughing call), and now and then we saw a kangaroo bounding along.
Late in the morning, we stopped at the village of Kuranda. Since our last visit, it has devolved from tacky to garish unfortunately (though it still has some ethereally lovely rainforest). Our goal was a "bird aviary" that has most Australian parrots and many of the finches. When the man at the desk (apparently the proprietor) saw that we were carrying a field guide, he escorted us into the aviary and pointed out the rarest and loveliest birds. Although it's hard to feel comfortable with such an operation, the birds seemed to be in good condition and he was obviously proud and fond of them.
He had a wonderful collection of parrots and lorrikeets and cockatoos, and there were several nests with babies. The finches were stunning, especially the Blue-faced Parrot-Finches and the Star Finches and the Zebra Finches and the Gouldian Finches; well, actually, all of the finches were stunning.
I noticed a big Black Butcherbird flying close along the outside of the screening trying to find a way to come in for lunch (though I suspect he'd have had trouble from some of the larger cockatoos).
When we got way down to the bottom of the aviary (it is built on a hillside), Lee pointed out a small bird in a clump of bamboo about 10 feet away from the path. It was a female King Quail and she was behaving very strangely, repeatedly sliding one leg down the slanted bamboo branch on which she was sitting. We thought at first that the branch was just too slippery, but then I realized that her other foot was caught in the bamboo and she was struggling to free herself, so I rushed up to the entrance to get the proprietor, telling him that one of his birds was in serious trouble. By the time we got back to her, she was hanging upside-down by the one foot, clearly exhausted (it was terribly hot). He went to get some gear and then came back to free her and brought her over for us to see. She looked very tiny and frightened, wrapped up in a towel. Fortunately, she seemed not to have broken her leg. He was amazed at the trouble she'd gotten herself into. "They don't usually go up that high off the ground." And he added, "Thank you on that!"
By the time we left the aviary, it was time for lunch, but we'd had enough of Kuranda, so I ran into a grocery store to grab us some cold drinks and we headed on down to the coast through a section of the World Heritage forest. The views were again spectacular.
On our last trip, we made this descent by train. (There is also a cablecar.) One of the best parts of the train trip was passing close to several high waterfalls. We've since read that in the dry months, they turn the waterfalls on just before the train comes into sight and then turn them off again after the train passes.
On our way into Cairns, we stopped near the base of the cablecar ride at the new Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park:
One of the nicest memories of our last trip was attending their dance theatre, which was then in Kuranda but is now in a very handsome new building at the Park. This time our goal was the shop, as its art gallery has a good reputation.
The gallery was very nice, so nice that we spent a couple of hours there. I was delighted to find a copy of the Kingfisher and Fan Palms print we'd liked in our room at Kingfisher Park; it will be the perfect souvenir of this trip. We also selected a few small gifts, including a necktie for Lee's father.
And then we spent a lot of time examining the paintings. When I asked for assistance, the gallery manager, Colin Jones, came over and we had a delightful long conversation with him. He described himself as being of Aboriginal/Tahitian/English ancestry, but he clearly identifies mostly with the Aboriginal. An intensely intelligent and articulate man of about 50, he has a history like so many others of his era of having been separated from his family to be raised in a mission, but says however that he learned much from his Aboriginal grandfather. He described the importance of the recent Freedom of Information Act, which has not only allowed Aborigines to find their families but has also given them insight into some of the things that have happened to them. In his case, he had not understood why he was made to leave school in his early teens until he looked at his records and found an entry saying that he learned well and thus "might tend to become cheeky" if allowed to continue in school.
He is an artist himself and also a lecturer. He showed us reproductions of his own work and paintings by his daughter and a cousin. Then he very helpfully walked us through the gallery explaining the stories behind each of the paintings we were interested in.
(We both boggled a bit when he pointed out a Flying Fox and its eggs in one of the paintings, but that's clearly what it was, so we politely didn't object that bats are viviparous. (As Chris Dahlberg says, "Bats can do anything a bird can do except lay eggs".) Ah well, I suppose there are few cultures today in which the artists are as up on natural history as their ancestors were.)
We talked for at least an hour until I felt quite guilty for taking up so much of his time, but Lee and I were both enjoying the conversation immensely. I was struck by the parallels between Jones' life and that of the Native American artist Carl Gorman, particularly the forced separation from family early in childhood and the mission schooling, so I resolved to send him a copy of Gorman's biography when we get home.
We finally settled on a very contemporary (and very political) painting that shows the rainforest dwellers of this area being shot and hanged by soldiers. (I know it sounds gruesome, but it's actually quite a lovely painting and very moving.)
This time, unlike on our first trip to Australia, we made sure not to buy a painting that was too large to be shipped, lest we have to carry it around with us for the rest of our time here.
Jones asked a bit about us, as he said the artist likes to know about the people to whom his paintings go. When he heard that we are computer programmers, he grinned and said, "Ah, yes, I consider computers to be White Man's Magic!"
We will consider this painting to be a gift from Klaus Uhlenhut, the organizer of our trip to Pajinka (starts tomorrow!). Klaus recently sent Lee a note saying that the price of the trip had been decreased substantially, and since we had already budgeted the original price, what better to do than buy a painting that we'll both treasure?
From the gallery, it was just a short drive into Cairns and we were soon settled in a hotel relishing the air conditioning. Lee's job was to go stock up on insect repellent, as we were getting dangerously low, and mine was to do the laundry. We've now had a room service pizza and have gotten all our nice clean clothes packed and have arranged to leave two of our three suitcases here at the hotel until we return from Pajinka.
We actually had sunshine when we arrived in Cairns, but now it is raining heavily again. From the weather forecasts, it appears that the cyclone forming in the Coral Sea east of here should not affect our flight to Bamaga tomorrow morning.
As we waited for our flight, the departure area began to fill up with obvious birder types (or "birdos" as they're called here). There will be 18 of us on this "8 Day Birding Adventure". Among the first to arrive were Diana and Chris, who had just come down from Julatten. Diana proudly showed us her sparkling white, mold-free hat; Ron had performed a miracle on it. Chris and Diana had, of course, gotten several more rare birds since we parted from them yesterday morning.
Another with whom we chatted was Michael, a young electrical engineer from Weipa, a small town on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria about 150 miles south of Pajinka. Weipa and Pajinka are both so isolated that the most practical way for him to get from the one to the other is to fly south to Cairns in order to fly 400 miles north to Bamaga (the airport nearest to Pajinka).
This trip to Pajinka is our primary reason for coming to Australia. It is a gift we decided to give ourselves last January in celebration of Lee's recovery from the series of illnesses that turned out to be due to infections in his gall bladder. Then, we were almost forced to cancel the trip a couple of months ago when he hurt his back and was able to walk only with great difficulty. He couldn't bear to cancel it, though, after so many months of anticipation, and insisted that he would be well enough to come (and then convinced his doctors to agree).
The event at Pajinka is an annual one, the "Cape York Bird Week". The Bird Week "is timed just before the wet season and after the arrival of the last migrant from New Guinea, the beautiful Red-bellied Pitta. Only now are all migrants present, plus the other endemic birds of the upper Cape York region, including two species of Birds of Paradise." (The migrants are birds that winter in New Guinea but come south to Cape York in the summer to breed. The Paradise Kingfisher is one of these, but it spreads out over much of Cape York, whereas there are others that come no further south than the tip of the Cape, so we must go to them.)
When we told Chris Dahlberg that we were headed for Pajinka, he expressed strong approval and praised Klaus highly. Indeed, we'd learned about Klaus via a link from Chris's Web page. Klaus's page is:
The plane was a bit late leaving and then travelled along the coast to keep between the two major weather systems, one in the Gulf of Carpentaria and one in the Coral Sea (both working themselves up to become cyclones). We couldn't see much but clouds until shortly before touchdown, when we had a view of dry-looking forested land, mostly quite flat, with dirt roads showing the bright rust-red of the soil, and then the small dust-red town of Bamaga.
We were met at the airport by the famous Klaus. He is a very healthy-looking man in his 30s, well tanned, with sun-bleached hair, and dressed in crisp khakis. I knew I'd like him as soon as he flashed his infectious grin.
But he wasn't grinning when he gave us the bad news that some of the luggage had been offloaded just before the plane took off from Cairns so that extra fuel could be loaded. My first thought was that Lee's binoculars were in our bag, so I was thankful to see it being carried in from the plane. Unfortunately, Diana's bag was among those left behind. It sounds as though there is little chance of its arriving before tomorrow.
(Klaus has lived in Australia for 16 years and is a citizen, but he's still German enough not to be very accepting of such a screw-up. I suspect he will stew until the luggage all arrives.)
As we were about to leave the airport, Klaus asked a group of us whether we were surprised that it's no hotter than it is. When we agreed that we were, he grinned and said that that could happen. So far, at least, it doesn't seem to be any worse than it was 400 miles to the south.
We had an hour-long bus trip from Bamaga to the Pajinka Wilderness Lodge at the very tip of Cape York. The bus was driven by Rusty Williams, an elder of the Injinoo Aboriginal Community, which owns the lodge. Before we started, Klaus said to Rusty, "Of course you should stop if you see any Palm Cockatoos."
The beginning of the trip was through dry woodland. When we got to the rainforest, we stopped to stretch our legs and do a bit of birding. We heard, but didn't see, a Magnificent Riflebird, one of the two Birds of Paradise found here (and a "target bird" for just about everybody in the group).
It was certainly the driest rainforest we have ever seen. There has been almost no rain yet; that is, the Wet hasn't yet begun. Rusty can't remember the Dry ever lasting so long after Christmas. This will likely affect the birding.
But there are lots of Paradise Kingfishers (Lee was the first to spot one as we rode along in the bus).
We arrived at the lodge around 2:30. A yellow, black, and red Aboriginal flag hung in front of the entrance, which is just 400 meters south of the northernmost point of the Australian mainland. The grounds are full of flowers and flowering trees. Six low wooden buildings with four guest rooms each are scattered about the grounds.
A very nice lunch was waiting for us, served buffet style in an open (but roofed) dining area near the pool. Each of us was immediately handed a beautiful tall cold glass of fruit juices, shading from red at the bottom to yellow at the top. It was very welcome. I feasted on oranges, steamed vegetables, and potato salad, but there were also giant prawns and many other dishes.
During lunch, Klaus gave us a brief orientation. In addition to the usual warnings about crocodiles and insects and too much sun, he warned that we will find that the red, red soil here (known wryly as "Bamaga Red") is a permanent dye.
He asked for volunteers to help those with missing luggage, so I was glad that I'd had a panic attack at the Sydney airport and (afraid that I'd run out of clean ones) had bought half a dozen pairs of socks. I was soon handing out socks and the little bottles of hotel shampoo that I always compulsively stash in our overloaded suitcases.
After lunch, we quickly dumped our things in our very pleasant room (jalousies on three sides and a wonderful population of skinks on the ceiling), changed into cooler clothes, and headed off on a tour of the immediate area with Klaus, Gordon, and Peter as our guides.
Gordon is Gordon Beruldsen, a noted Australian birder. He is the author of a book on identifying birds of prey, but his primary area of expertise is bird nests. He has seen more than 500 species of Australian birds on their nests and seems to remember them all. He is a 60ish man, recently retired from the insurance business and devoting much of his time to volunteer work at museums. He started these Cape York Bird Weeks ten years ago.
Peter is Peter Slater, the primary author (along with his wife Pat and their son Raoul) of one of the standard field guides to Australian birds. He has also written extensively on Australian birds and is a noted bird painter. He is a slim, 60ish man with a trim grey beard. Everyone is in awe of him, but he has a definite twinkle in his eye and seems to be totally unpretentious.
We walked first to the Pacific Ocean across what seems to be an old lava flow. We held onto our hats as we stood on the windy cliff and looked across to Mt. Adolphus Island, which we are to visit in a few days to get three rarities that don't occur on the mainland.
As we were walking along, somebody teased me about carrying "the wrong field guide". There are three main field guides to Australian birds, Slater's, another known universally as Pizzey, after its first author, and the Princeton Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (better known as Simpson and Day after its authors). I was (naturally) carrying the Princeton one, partly because I had discovered that I'd packed the wrong edition of Slater, the one with the old nomenclature. The teasing was due to the fact that Peter was right behind me, so I replied that we'd brought our Slater along to be autographed, to which Peter warned, "That will cut its value in half!"
We had a few glimpses of small birds as we walked across the tip of the peninsula, Brown-backed Honeyeaters, Fairy Gerygones, Varied Trillers, and Leaden Flycatchers. A Pheasant Coucal was difficult to see high in a tree. We flushed some handsome Rajah Shelducks. There were Agile Wallabies and lavender-leaved Cape York Lilies (just beginning to open their white and yellow blossoms--they are behind schedule because of the drought).
The land was all very dry, including areas that should be swamps by now. A boardwalk through a paperbark swamp stood high and dry.
One slightly damp area of several acres was all rooted up and had no vegetation remaining. We were told that the damage had been done by feral pigs. I am reading a book about Cape York (Kie Daudai: Notes and Sketches from Cape York by Edwina Toohey) that has this to say about the origin of Cape York's feral pigs, the Captain Cookers:
Sailing away with its sketches of "gangarru" [kangaroo] and samples of rare flora, the Endeavor left behind its own unwelcome sample of exotica, a litter of European domestic pigs. While the ship was moored, the pig sty on board was brought to shore. In a grass fire, one pig was burned to death, while a sow and her litter escaped into the bush. Predominantly black, buff-coloured, or spotted black and white, the "Captain Cooker", original descendant of the European wild boar, made its first official entry into Cape York. Prior to this accidental introduction, Cape York had remained free of porcine species. Boar tusks, sharpened for use as knives and ceremonial ornamentation, had always been obtained through trade from Papua.When we got to the Indian Ocean side (well, the Gulf of Carpentaria), the wind was even more fierce; I could feel my skin being sand-blasted. There were a number of waders about, but I'm hopeless with them and identified only the Common Sandpiper.
I enjoyed the sight of a female Lesser Frigatebird soaring high above us and was reminded of our first Frigatebird, a Magnificent, two years ago in Belize. It flew quite low over the garden in which we were standing and the first word that came into my mind as I became aware of this enormous dark primitive-looking creature above us was "Pterodactyl!"
Walking back to the lodge, we stopped to watch a pair of Yellow-bellied Sunbirds building a nest. Nearby, we saw a baby Varied Triller sitting in its nest and one of its black-and-white parents on a branch close by.
When we got back to the lodge, we spent a pleasant time sitting in the shade by the pool chatting (and having a nice cool drink). We enjoyed getting to know Mavis, an intelligent, no-nonsense lady from Perth who told us about participating in wader counts during Spring and Fall migrations. She is a kingfisher fan, too. She has seen nine of the ten Australian kingfishers and is here primarily to see her tenth, the Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher.
Like most of the rest of the party, Mavis is also hoping for the Red-bellied Pitta that appears prominently on the front of Klaus's brochures. In Australia, it is found only near the tip of Cape York. (I believe that this Red-bellied Pitta is the same as the Blue-breasted Pitta on our new china set, which features birds of India.) Gordon assured us that the Red-bellied Pitta is much easier to see than the Noisy, which is certainly encouraging. (The Noisy P. is the one we keep failing to see even in aviaries.)
We had a very pleasant dinner chatting about birds and trips to see birds. It is quite a delightful group. Except for us, Diana, Manfred (an ebullient German engineering professor), and Bob (a British geologist who works in Australia), everyone is Australian. We are obviously the least experienced birders here, but I think we can keep from being a drag on the group.
Gordon told us that all of the food for Pajinka comes up by barge and that the barge captain takes a holiday at Christmas time, so they go a month with no deliveries and depend more on what can be found locally. "We had prawns five nights out of six, not that I'm complaining." (The giant prawns are very expensive elsewhere in Australia.)
By the time dinner was over, it was dark, so we headed out to look for a Papuan Frogmouth just on the grounds. It was in its appointed place and Klaus held a light on it long enough for us to get a really good look--a very impressive bird. (Frogmouths are active at night and then look like owls rather than like dead branches.)
He also showed us some of the dreaded Cane Toads. They're ugly, warty things and are everywhere on the grounds, ready to poison anybody unwary who eats them. (The poison is apparently concentrated in the "canes" on the shoulders.)
Shortly after we got back to our room, it began raining. Good!
As this is the eleventh year of the Cape York Bird Weeks, Klaus had sent us a list of the birds seen during this week in the previous ten years, so I've studied the birds in that list. He very helpfully included the number of years each bird has been seen, so we know we can pretty well count on seeing the 10's, but will be lucky indeed to see the 1's. For me, the most relevant part of the list is, of course, the section listing the kingfishers and the closely related bee-eater:
I've never seen the Collared and Yellow-billed Kingfishers and would dearly love a really good look at the Little Kingfisher. On the bus trip here this afternoon, I had my first-ever view of Blue-winged Kookaburras, two of them flying low in the sunshine so that their blue wings showed beautifully.
The other name for the Collared Kingfisher is Mangrove Kingfisher. The Bird Week list also includes the Mangrove Robin and the Mangrove Golden Whistler (both 5's). That made me think of the wonderful painting of a pair of green-and-white Mangrove Penguins teetering precariously on the curving stilt roots in a mangrove swamp in one of the spoof field guides by Sill, Sill, and Sill.
Observation hint: Occasionally a homesick bird will be seen in iceberg lettuce fields.
While we were stopped, a falcon flew over and the consensus was that it had been a Peregrine, although Gordon (also a bird-of-prey expert) had never seen one here before.
We drove into the rainforest on the road (well, track) that services the resort's dam and spent the first part of the morning hiking about there. Gordon doesn't hesitate to leave the trail, so we charged into the woods after him. (I think the theory is that all of the really poisonous snakes here are active only at night.) He did stop a number of times to point out kinds of trees and bushes that we should learn to avoid touching because of their unobvious thorns. (I managed to puncture my thumb on one before the lesson sank in.)
Early on, a Brush-Turkey was walking along the road ahead of us. This is another of the Megapode family, a large brown bird with very strong legs and feet and a curious vertical tail. We've seen them further south on earlier trips; there, they have red necks and heads and a yellow collar/wattle. This one, however, had a purplish-white collar. Gordon says that these don't interbreed with the others and are clearly a separate species, but they aren't recognized as such.
Another early sighting was some Lovely Fairy-Wrens, another Cape York specialty. (Australia's Fairy-Wrens are all stunningly beautiful, which is why they have names like Lovely, Splendid, and Superb.) The male Lovely Fairy-Wren has iridescent blue on its head, a blue tail, white breast, black throat, and chestnut sides; the female is blue and white. Despite Gordon's best efforts, I got only a glimpse, but Lee saw them well and says they're really beautiful.
Then we heard a male Red-bellied Pitta calling and chased after that. Chris stopped me just in time to prevent my walking into a huge spider's web and showed me the spider, which was at least 6 inches across. (When I asked him at dinner this evening what kind of a spider it was, he said, "We call that a Bloody Big Spider.")
The Pitta was nearby proclaiming his territory from a high branch, and we got a very good view, especially the vivid red belly. Simpson and Day describe the Red-bellied Pitta thus: "forehead, crown dark brown; brown-red nape; chest, rump, shoulders, bright blue; black line divides chest from red belly; back, wings, tail blue-green". As you can imagine, it was well worth the chase. (You can see it on Klaus's Web page.)
A while later, we heard the calls of the Noisy Pitta. Gordon told us to stand where we were, and he went around behind the bird to try to get it to move toward us, but without luck.
We kept hearing a male Magnificent Riflebird calling (a loud whistle), so we chased it through the woods but finally gave up. Gordon concluded it was not a mature male displaying, but simply a younger one moving around while feeding, so it wasn't worth the bother to chase it further. (The Birds of Paradise have quite spectacular displays, so that's what one looks for.)
Throughout the morning, we had sightings of Paradise Kingfishers, mostly streaking by, but a couple of good perched views. Gordon pointed out a number of their nests, including an unusual one that was dug into a termite nest that was low in a tree rather than on the ground. None of the nests had eggs yet (we got down and shone a flashlight into each one to check), but Gordon said that several were completed and should have eggs as soon as the rains come.
Another new creature for us was the Green Ant, a large ant (about half an inch) that leaps onto one from every side and has a nasty bite. We got to know them well.
We had a lovely view of a pair of Shining Flycatchers by the dam. Later, we heard the calls of my longed-for Yellow-billed Kingfisher and Gordon showed us a nest (which was in a different kind of termite nest high in a tree).
We had a very good look at a little male Yellow-breasted Boatbill. It was fiercely chasing away all other birds, including a very much larger Yellow Oriole, so Gordon says it must have a nest nearby.
We headed back to the van for some cold water and fruit, but didn't stay long because Gordon led us off to follow the call of a Frilled Monarch, a pretty black and white bird with bright blue rings around its eyes. Nearby, a Grey Whistler eluded me, but Lee got a good look.
It was wonderful watching Gordon in the rainforest. Like all really good birders, he finds birds primarily by ear. He knows all of the calls of all of the birds here and is conscious at any moment of which birds are around him and where they are, even though he may not be able to see any of them. It's a skill we don't have and don't expect ever to have, alas. Watching somebody who can do that is like watching our house-bound cats when we open a window and they rush to sit on the sill so that they can "smell out". One can only try to imagine what it must be like to have another sense.
(Klaus and Peter are just as good at this, of course, as are Chris and Diana. Later in the day, Peter told us about an incident a few days ago when he and Klaus both heard an unfamiliar call and became instantly alert, looking around for the unknown bird, only to have their companions laugh at them and explain that it was the backing-up call of the bus.)
Gordon had other birds to show us, so we headed off to drier open forest, stopping to see a tree full of nesting Shining Starlings, with many nests per branch. Sometimes when it rains, the weight of the wet nests breaks a limb. There was one of these broken limbs on the ground, so we got a good look at how the globular nests are constructed.
Our goal, though, was to find the one Cape York-only bird that we're likely to see on this trip, the White-streaked Honeyeater. (Only two of the birds here occur nowhere else in the world, as most of the Cape York endemics also occur in New Guinea. The other is a parrot that doesn't occur in this immediate area.) We saw a bunch of the White-streakeds, unremarkable largish honeyeaters in brown, white and yellow.
The area where the White-streaked Honeyeaters were is usually flooded by this time of year. Gordon found the spot a few days ago while looking for bowerbird bowers. He heard Rainbow Lorikeets as he drove along, so he knew there was nectar and therefore that there would be honeyeaters, too. In addition to the White-streaked, we found Dusky and Brown-backed. (You don't want to know how many different honeyeaters Australia has.)
On the road back to the lodge, we stopped in an open area where there is a huge mango tree that was planted by the Jardine's. (The Jardine family put a 6-mile fence across the tip of Cape York in the 1860s and made it into their own fiefdom, becoming very wealthy from cattle and pearling.) The ground beneath the tree was covered with mangoes, so we chose two to take back with us. There were many birds eating the mangoes, including a Tawny-breasted Honeyeater (closely related to my favorite Macleay's Honeyeater).
When we got out to inspect the tree, we flushed a Sulphur-crested White Cockatoo and Gordon dead-panned that it was an albino Palm Cockatoo. The Palm Cockatoo is another Cape York specialty that we are all eager to see, an enormous black cockatoo with a red face and a prominent crest. It is Australia's largest parrot and is notable for making a tool (a drumstick that it uses to drum on hollow trees to proclaim its territory).
A bit further on, we surprised the Peregrine Falcon eating a Pied Imperial-Pigeon on the ground a few feet from the road. He flew off to a tree very annoyed with us and we got out to look at his kill. He had decapitated the pigeon and had been plucking it when we came along. There were lovely black and white feathers scattered about. The falcon stayed nearby and we got very good looks at him; there was no question this time that it was a Peregrine, a gorgeous, powerful bird.
Back at the lodge, we chatted with Mavis, who was a bit disappointed that she had had only glimpses of Paradise Kingfishers streaking by during the morning.
After a very nice lunch, the less energetic among us headed to our rooms for a siesta. Lee was greatly pleased to find a White-lipped Frog spending the day sleeping on the outside wall of our room, snuggled between two strips of molding. This is a largish frog, chartreuse in color with (not surprisingly) white lips. Nielsen says that they often choose a daytime resting spot around human habitation:
Sometimes one of these frogs will establish a resting spot on a rafter just a few centimeters beneath a hot, galvanized iron roof. There it will sit, seemingly unperturbed by the searing heat of a tropical summer's day! One such frog at my house chooses the wooden top of a set of wind chimes suspended near the back door. As daylight breaks, a cacophonous clatter of melodious chimes rings out as he leaps from nearby foliage to his daytime resting place. Nature's alarm clock!Lee decided his legs had had enough abuse, so he took the afternoon off. I joined the others at 4. All of the lost luggage had arrived, so folks were wearing clean clothes and describing their joy at being reunited with their toothbrushes.
While waiting to leave, we watched a male Brush-Turkey that has a mound on the other side of the pool. He was brushing leaves onto the recently swept sidewalks with the apparent objective of adding them to his mound. His wattle is definitely purple rather than yellow.
We headed out with Gordon in a larger group to see a couple of very special nests, using a scope to get really good views. The first was a Riflebird nest. I could see one little mouth agape begging. Others got a look at the mother Riflebird, too.
The next stop was truly spectacular, a male Superb Fruit-Dove sitting on his nest. Simpson and Day describe him: "Crown purple; cheeks pale green; throat, breast blue-grey; hind neck, collar orange; upperparts green, spotted black; tail tip white". The purple crown was really more a bright lavender-plum that managed not to clash with the bright orange neck. The bird was just gorgeous, and we had very good looks, going into the woods one-at-a-time to peek through the scope without disturbing him. Before we left, Gordon went to get Rusty from the bus so he could see it, too.
We stopped by the big mango tree again, to see who might be eating the fruit. We had Tawny-breasted Honeyeaters again and a Helmeted Friarbird (a large knobby honeyeater, the "quaich-quaich" that Wallace heard calling as soon as he landed on Lompok). We spotted a female Figbird across the way and saw her fly into her nest (and were surprised to learn that there was a nest here that Gordon hadn't already found).
The rainforest across the road from the mango tree is called the Lockerbie Scrub. (Lockerbie was the Jardine's ancestral home in Scotland.) We plunged into the Scrub to chase a Red-bellied Pitta, but had no luck with that. We did get a Gould's Bronze-Cuckoo, however.
And we had a superb 10-minute view of a Paradise Kingfisher sitting close by on a low branch. Mavis was delighted, and I was as pleased for her as I had been for myself a few days earlier.
As we came out of the woods, we found a little Brown Quail pecking around on the ground completely unconcerned about us.
We walked down the road a bit hoping for Fairy-Wrens, but no luck.
Chatting on the bus on our way back, Peter said that he had once found a tree where Red-tailed Black Cockatoos had been moulting. The ground beneath it had been littered with thousands of black and crimson feathers.
When we passed the poor Imperial-Pigeon, little was left of it but black and white feathers.
We got back to the lodge tired but happy. I was pleased to see that Lee seemed well rested. The folks who hadn't gone with us to see the nests had gone to the mangroves in a boat and had been very successful. They had seen both the Little and Collared Kingfishers. A Trumpet Manucode (the other local Bird of Paradise) had displayed for them on a low branch for five minutes.
We again sat by the pool before dinner talking of birds. I mentioned how gratifying it is to be among Australians who really treasure their birds; on our first trip here, people seemed horrified when we said we were bird-watchers. When I mentioned how surprised we had been that nobody at our motel in Alice Springs (in 1989) had noticed the constant stream of little birds swooping down to drink from their swimming pool, Peter laughed and said we shouldn't have told them, because they probably then tried to put a stop to it. He guessed that the birds were Fairy Martins, as they will do that.
When I mentioned that I really want to see the Little Kingfisher, Peter said that he had had the best view of his entire life here a few days ago. The Little was perching and then hunting and coming back to its perch. So, there's hope for me.
We had another pleasant dinner. Chris made us laugh describing his ten days of birding in the rain earlier in his trip. His biggest problem was that if he put his tent away wet, then it wasn't waterproof the next night. "And then I found out about the Backpackers Lodges! They give you a dry bed and breakfast and a dinner coupon all for only $15!" After that, no more camping out for him.
During dinner, Klaus told us that he had talked to the Council office on Saibai Island. "There are no birdwatchers on Saibai", but he was told that it had rained and that there were birds about, so the trip is on. It will be an adventure, as neither he nor Gordon nor Peter has ever been there. (Saibai is one of Australia's northernmost islands, very near Papua-New Guinea.)
The Saibai trip is an optional extra. We have both decided to go, Lee because he loves to travel in general and me because of the faint hope that we might find a non-Australian kingfisher there. Birds of New Guinea shows 22 kingfishers (of 87 world-wide), including six Paradise Kingfishers and three Kookaburras. There is some overlap with the ten Australian kingfishers but many of the ones in New Guinea are quite unlike any of the Australian kingfishers. (There are red kingfishers and white kingfishers and stork-billed kingfishers and many more. Dream.)
When we got back to our room, the frog was still asleep by our door, but he soon climbed down onto a bench on the porch and sat there for a while working up his enthusiasm for a night of hunting.
There is a skink that stays on the outside of our bathroom window; that lets us really see the suction pads on its feet. We make it happy when we turn on the bathroom light and attract bugs.
It's not really understood why the rainforest occurs in pockets here, rather than everywhere, although certainly some of the drier open woods are kept open by being burned annually by the Aborigines. (And some forests were cleared by the Jardine's when this was their domain.) It seems rather amazing to me that the rainforest can survive at all on so little rain, but it seems to preserve its own environment.
Klaus's main goal for the morning was to find us two of the endemics, the Magnificent Riflebird and the Northern Scrub-Robin. As he said at dinner last evening, people come to the Bird Week not for absolute numbers of species but for the rarities.
On our way to the rainforest, we stopped near the big mango tree to look at a Barking Owl that had been killed by a car. It must have happened after our afternoon trip yesterday.
Throughout the morning, we heard Riflebirds, but we had no success in finding them or calling them to us. However, it was a great morning!
We had some nice views of a Trumpet Manucode, the other Bird of Paradise here (also black but without the iridescent bib of the Riflebird). Though he wasn't displaying, the Manucode was close enough that we could see his nape plumes and his red eye.
Even better, we had a really good look at my longed-for Yellow-billed Kingfisher. It's quite unlike any of the kingfishers I'd seen before. The bill and legs are yellow. The head, collar, and breast are a rich gold, the back is a deep golden green, and the tail is blue-green. The eyes are black, and there are two black eye-spots on the back of the head. He was in a tree right beside the road, and he sat still long enough for us all to have several long looks through the scope. He was just wonderful!
While I was looking through the scope watching the kingfisher calling, a Mistletoebird (a very pretty red, white, and blue flowerpecker) perched in the same tree, but I wasn't willing to take my eyes off the kingfisher long enough to see it.
After the kingfisher flew off, another Trumpet Manucode came to see us. Then as we were walking along the road, we heard a Red-bellied Pitta and went into the woods to find it. Chris was actually the one to spot it; it was another male proclaiming its territory from a high horizontal branch. Klaus soon had the scope set up to give us all a really good view of it.
While we were taking turns at the scope, Klaus heard a real rarity (a 3), the Black-winged Monarch, and called it in with the tape. It was a very pretty bird, pearl grey head and back, black face, wing, and tail, and orange breast. (All of the monarchs are much prettier in life than one would suspect from their pictures in the field guides.) Chris was ecstatic, as this was one of his most-wanted birds (what he calls a "beer bird", i.e., one worth going out to celebrate).
We also had another good look at the endemic Frilled Monarch, quite a pretty black-and-white bird with a conspicuous blue ring around its eyes. This time, I could see the white "frill" on the back of its head.
During one of our trips into the woods to chase a Riflebird, Lee spotted a Wompoo Fruit-Dove. Klaus was pleased, as they'd neither seen nor heard one here so far this season (they are late because of the drought). We also had good views of a Gould's Bronze-Cuckoo and some Fairy Gerygones.
As we walked along the road, Klaus suddenly clapped his hands loudly several times, causing several White Cockatoos feeding in a mango tree to fly off squawking noisily. He explained that if you go under the mango tree without first making a noise, the cockatoos drop their mangoes on you when they notice you and fly off. (Again proving that Wallace was right about large fruits.)
And soon we came to a pair of the rare Northern Scrub-Robins, in the bushes near the road. Chris was again delighted, another target bird for him. I'd been expecting nothing more than a little brown bird and was pleased that they were really quite handsome; the white face has a striking black vertical bar through the eye and the wings are boldly marked in black and white.
Then we were off to find the Yellow-legged Flycatchers. The group who were here yesterday had seen them putting the finishing touches on their nest (in thick rainforest but near the road). The nest appears now to be finished and there was no-one home, so we waited until they returned. When they arrived, they flitted about too fast for me to get a good view, but Lee had a good look and assured me that the legs are distinctly orange.
As we were standing there, Klaus heard a Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo and called it in with the tape. It sat in one place long enough for us all to get good looks through the scope, a really handsome bird, deep rusty orange below, slate grey above, with yellow rings around its dark eyes and the usual grey and white banded cuckoo tail. It stayed so long that Klaus said he was surprised it hadn't yet been mobbed (it is a parasitic cuckoo). This was another bird Chris had particularly wanted to see, so he was having a tremendous morning.
I've noticed that the spots where the "good" birds are found are often marked in some way. Klaus or Gordon or Peter will have left a marker for the others and to help to remember the spot himself. The marker for the Yellow-legged Flycatchers' nest was a stick stuck into the ground with a Coke can on top. When we got to the marker for the Tropical Scrubwrens, Klaus laughed out loud and said, "Who did that?" The marker was a pig's skull with a feather in its cap.
As I was trying to make out the discontinuous white eye-ring around the red eye of a flitting Tropical Scrubwren, Mandy (a young pre-school teacher) called our attention to a Black Butcherbird attacking a 5-foot long snake a short way down the road.
By then it was time to return to the lodge for lunch, all of us very pleased at such a successful morning. At lunch, Klaus announced that the folks who had not been with us during the morning would go to the Red-bellied Pitta spot this afternoon with Gordon and Peter and the tapedeck to try to see both the Pitta and (more urgently) the Black-winged Monarch.
The six of us were now to have our turn for the trip to the mangroves. I'd been looking forward to this, of course, so at lunch I asked Klaus if there were a chance we'd see the Collared Kingfisher. I could see that he was trying to ask an embarrassing question in a kind way when he said gently, "Would that be a new bird for you?" It is a bird that can be found in mangroves from the Red Sea to Samoa; indeed, it is so widespread that it has 50 subspecies. But, it would be a new bird for me, so I explained that I'm trying to see all of Australia's kingfishers and I still lack the Collared Kingfisher and the Red-backed Kingfisher (which is also not a rarity).
I added that I didn't expect him to provide the Red-backed (it's a bird of dry country), and he said the best way to see them is to watch power lines. "So", he grinned, "you have to go somewhere that has power lines." (Pajinka does not, of course.) He added that the Collared was a possibility this afternoon, though they've not seen any this year so far.
I also mentioned that I'd very much like a good look at the Little and told him what Peter had said about having the best view of his life. He was pleased at that, as he'd been with Peter at the time and hadn't realized what a treat he'd given him.
I went off tired and happy for our afternoon siesta. It rained heavily while we read. I'm reading a beautiful but horrifying novel called Lori (by John Wilson). It is the first-person story of an Aboriginal child named Lorikeet growing up in a family that has lost its culture and replaced it with alcohol. ("I was born in a canefield, amongst the long stalks late at night. There mother squatted down and pushed me screaming into this world, this life, this pub in Kirai.")
In the middle of the afternoon, we headed off down the beach (on the Indian Ocean side) with Klaus and Rick, the lodge's naturalist (a nice young American herpetologist).
The first treat, as soon as we got out of the van, was a Beach Stone-Curlew, a new bird for us, a close relative of my favorite Bush Stone-Curlew. The Beach ones are similar but have more pronounced markings, and their bills are twice as big.
Klaus and Rick had a terrible time getting the dinghies launched, even with Chris's help, as the tide was very low. While we waited for them to do the hard work, we watched the Stone-Curlew and a Sea-Eagle and a Gull-billed Tern.
There were eight of us altogether in the two small motorboats. Once we were underway, I was alarmed to see Klaus putting on his sandfly suit. He always dresses in shorts and short-sleeved shirts and sandals and doesn't appear to believe in hats or boots or raingear, but now he was pulling on an outfit that covered everything but his head and hands. That made me feel very vulnerable in shorts and short sleeves, so I slathered on more insect repellent. He had warned us earlier to be prepared for sandflies and now explained that they drive him crazy "immediately". Chris explained that with most people it's at least 12 hours before they know they've been bitten, and that he never knows himself until 36 hours later, so I guess Klaus has gotten sensitized over the years.
We were soon in a mangrove creek in bright sunlight. There weren't many birds at first, but almost immediately Rick was joyously pointing out a Mangrove Monitor on a stilt root. "I wish I'd brought my camera; I told myself it couldn't possibly be here three days in a row!" And he added, "That's my favorite of all the creatures here." The monitor was about two feet long, pale with dark spots. Rick estimated that it was about a year old. They grow to be very much larger.
We stopped to wait for the tide to rise so that we could get into some of the smaller creeks. Now and then an Azure Kingfisher would streak silently along the creek and now and then a pair of Eastern Curlews would streak along calling loudly.
There was a muddy spit a few feet from where we sat. A Common Sandpiper flew up and began working over the spit completely oblivious to us, even though we were practically close enough to grab it. I'd certainly never been so close to one before (nor seen the characteristic tail bob). Someone joked after a while that he was expecting it to swim over to the boat next. It failed to become alarmed even when we started the engines to move to another area.
We stopped next for a very close-up view of a Red-headed Honeyeater sitting in the sun. I didn't know anything could be so red!
There were also Fairy Gerygones and Large-billed Gerygones (one needs to make out the two half eye-rings to identify it). The Gerygones are warbler-colored (yellow breasts and grey-greenish backs), so they used to be called Australian Warblers or Fairy-Warblers, but the name was changed because they aren't really warblers. "Gerygone" means "born of sound"; it can't be pronounced.
A Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove flew over us but I didn't get more than a green dove shape. Chris, however, spotted the yellow tip of the tail, which is diagnostic, so we can count it.
Klaus kept hearing Collared Kingfishers calling and identifying the call for me. We heard it so many times that even I may now be able to keep it in my mind. I kept hoping and Diana sat there willing one to come out of the woods for me, but none did. We did see another Azure zip by.
Finally, Klaus said he was disappointed that there was so little kingfisher action, but it was time to go, so we headed back up the creek. We weren't far from the end of the trip when Rick called out that he'd just seen a Little Kingfisher flying along. Both boats turned back and we searched the area and found that it had been an Azure. It was sitting out in the open and giving us a lovely view (these are terribly beautiful blue and orange birds) as it occasionally dove into the creek to catch a fish and then returned to its perch to eat it.
After we'd been watching a minute or two, I glanced to the side and saw a tiny bright spot of blue about six feet beyond the Azure. Rick had been right after all! I heard myself calling "Little!" even before I had gotten my binoculars raised to see it. And it was! Tiny, glowing royal blue, with a white breast and white ear tufts, a very short tail, a long black bill, and black legs. It was a wonderful view. I could see every detail except when my vision was blurred by tears. We watched for ten minutes as the two birds fished and returned to their perches. After a while, the Azure chased the Little away, but it didn't go far.
I was just enraptured. As though from a distance, I heard Klaus ask kindly, "Does that take off some of the pressure to get you a Collared and a Red-backed?" Without taking my eyes off the bird, I assured him that I couldn't possibly be happier than I was at that moment.
The Little Kingfisher finally disappeared into the woods, so we headed back to the beach. I confidently informed Klaus that I didn't think I'd gotten any sandfly bites.
I was drained, but we were barely out of the boat when the indefatigable Diana was pointing out an Eastern Reef Egret (grey morph) down the beach. But even she preferred to drive back to the lodge rather than walk. (It was just as well; at dinner somebody reported having seen crocodile tracks on the beach this morning.)
The other group had gotten a good look at the Red-bellied Pitta but hadn't had a peep out of the Black-winged Monarch. They had, however, had a good close look at a Palm Cockatoo. We were talking with Bob before dinner and he told us he'd been amazed at its size and at the fact that its crest is extended even when it's at rest.
Sitting by the pool before dinner, we met Phil, a young Injinoo man who is studying to become the lodge's naturalist. He has a nice shy smile.
At dinner we talked mostly with Mavis and Harry. Harry is a delightful doctor from Brisbane with a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor ("If you should ever make the mistake of coming to Brisbane..." and "The only reason I travel third class is that there is no fourth class.") The two of them were advising us on other places to go birding in Australia on future trips. They discovered that they agreed on precisely which B&B we should stay in in Tasmania (it's run by a zoologist), so we have definitely added that to our list. They didn't have to say much to convince Lee that we must also go to the Kimberleys someday.
Klaus is having to rearrange schedules every day because we have not yet been able to start going in small groups by boat to Mt. Adolphus Island. It is quite near, only a few kilometers away, but the winds and waves continue high. Chris is becoming concerned, because he "needs" all three of the birds that we'll see only there. (One, the Pale White-Eye, is described in Slater as "Range: common in thickets on islands of Cape York Peninsula from about mid Torres Strait to Eagle Island". Not a bird one comes across casually.)
Back in our room after dinner, we witnessed a titanic battle (from underneath) as our bathroom window skink fought off an intruder who was trying to usurp his prime territory.
I woke up in the middle of the night longing for a bottle of Stingo. I've never seen any Stingo and don't know what it looks like, nor even if that's how it's spelled, but Chris says it's what Australians use on mosquito bites, so now I am lying awake having Stingo fantasies.
When we woke this morning, we both found that we had indeed been bitten by the sandflies. My shoulders were a mass of tiny welts. Lee had none on his shoulders, but both elbows were solid welts, even though he'd been wearing a fairly heavy long-sleeved shirt.
Klaus had decreed an even earlier than usual breakfast this morning, because we had a long trip before us. The morning was made more exciting by the discovery that there was no water. We had a bare trickle in which to brush our teeth and then there was none. Fortunately, Lee had filled our water bottles last evening.
Our destination was the Jardine River, but of course we stopped along the way whenever there was a good bird. Our van kept missing the Palm Cockatoos, although we did finally get a view of three of them in flight. They really are huge.
We all got out in a dry forest area to go to the place where last year two white-phase Grey Goshawks nested. Their nest had been in the same tree with dozens of Shining Starling nests. The Starlings were still in that tree, but the Goshawk nest was gone, though we did see a grey-phase Grey Goshawk fly nearby, and that caused the Starlings to go berserk and fly off squealing. Gordon said it had been amusing to see them with the Goshawk nest in their midst. They weren't at all concerned about it as long as the hawks were on their nest, but they became extremely alarmed whenever one of them flew in or out.
At another stop, we had a good view of a Brown Falcon. We stopped later to see a military DC3 that crashed in 1945 and is preserved as a memorial to the people who died in the crash.
As we were walking along the road beyond the DC3, Michael called out "Goanna!" and pointed to a paperbark tree in an open area about 30 feet from the road. Gordon stopped us from going any closer, saying, "Klaus is the expert in this." We watched as Klaus sneaked out toward the tree always carefully keeping the tree between him and the animal. When he was standing just on the other side of the tree from it, he raised his arm up and Gordon called, "Higher". When Klaus's hand was at the level of the animal's neck, Gordon told him it was right, and Klaus reached around the tree (still unable to see the animal) and grabbed it by the neck and brought it over to us (angry but unharmed).
It was one of Australia's famous Frilled Lizards. And it had its frill fully extended as it threatened us all, mouth agape. (The extended frill seemed to be about 2.5 feet in diameter; the lizard wasn't as long as that.) It had to endure being photographed a bit and was then released unharmed.
Walking along the road, we saw White-throated Honeyeaters and Little Friarbirds and had a rear view of an Australian Ibis in a tree (it was the first time I'd ever seen one that wasn't hanging around human habitation--I'll never forget the one we saw fly off with a child's hot dog at the Taronga Park Zoo).
One of our companions commented that he had never been anywhere in this country where there was so little wildlife (kangaroos, etc.) visible. Gordon replied that in 1997 there were ten months in which not a drop of rain fell here.
We were surprised then when we got to the Jardine River, as it is quite broad and deep. Klaus said that there had been a theory that one of the rivers in New Guinea went underground and reappeared here, but an attempt to prove that by introducing dye into the river had failed.
We stopped at a large shelter next to the river to have some fruit and water and then walked a short way to a section of riverine forest.
Klaus led us through some bushes into a small clearing and there we found a wonderful little building. It was shaped like this:
+-------------+ | | | | | | +-------------+ +-------------+ | | | | | | +-----------------------------------------+
and was about two feet tall at the high part. It was made of thin twigs standing vertically. An oval of ground around it had been cleared down to the soil. A few sprigs of bright green berries adorned the grey twigs. It was a bowerbird's bower.
The shape of the bower and the use of the green berries to decorate it identified it as belonging to a Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, the rarest of Australia's bowerbirds. Male bowerbirds build and decorate their bowers in order to impress passing females. (The first Europeans to see bowers assumed that the Aborigines built them for their children as playthings or cradles. This one looked at first glance like an architectural model.)
This species has one of the most elaborate bowers but other species use more elaborate decorations. The Satin Bowerbird (whom we saw at the Rainforest Habitat) decorates its bower with blue items; traditionally Satin Bowerbirds used the blue tail feathers from Crimson Rosellas but today they favor blue plastic clothespins, bottletops, and the like. The Spotted Bowerbird uses bones as decorations and may accumulate many hundreds of sheep vertebrae around its bower. The Great Bowerbird (whom we first met pan-handling at a picnic table in the Kakadu) uses several colors of decorations but segregates them into different areas around its bower. (I've seen a photograph of a Great Bowerbird's bower that had the red plastic toothbrushes here, a child's aluminum teaset there, and so forth. Great Bowerbirds especially like shiny things; their bowers may be decorated with purloined car keys, silver coins, etc.; in some parts of the country, one finds opals in Great Bowerbird bowers.)
The point of the bower is to prove the male's fitness, so the more rare the decorations, the better. I've read that one of the bowerbirds in New Guinea uses only the feathers of a particularly rare Bird of Paradise. But this Fawn-breasted Bowerbird builds such an elaborate structure that he need decorate it only with the green berries (although, of course, he is expected to replace those when they start to darken).
The primary goal of today's trip was to see the owner of this amazing little building. Klaus asked if anyone could give him the bright yellow flap off of a film box. One was quickly produced and torn into a couple of pieces. One piece was placed on the cleared ground near the bower and then we all went away.
Gordon asked that half the group come with him to look for other birds, as the Bowerbird certainly wouldn't come with so many people around. (We volunteered, as this was not such an important quest for us as it was for many of the others.) The ones who remained stood quietly about 25 feet away, where they could view the bower and wait for its owner to remove the terrible yellow blight. (Gordon says that yellowed leaves work just as well as Kodak boxes.)
We followed Gordon through the thick woods for a while looking for Sooty Owls but finally concluded that the temperature/humidity/mosquito index had gone well beyond acceptable limits, so we found a relatively open area in which to rest. While I was sitting numbly on a log, Lee found a bush full of Lovely Fairy-Wrens. He and Chris got a good look, but I again had only a glimpse of their fantastic sky-blue iridescence.
Others began to fade out, too, so after about half an hour a group of us headed back to the shelter. I just wanted some cold water, but the Australians were frantic for hot tea. They had teabags, water, a "billy" to put the water in, wood for a fire, but no matches. They grew more and more distraught as they gave up on a lighter found in the bus (empty) and on a magnifying glass (too overcast) and had to just sit waiting for their tea.
After an hour or so, the Bowerbird came by and removed the disgraceful blemish from his bower. The folks who managed to see him then gave over their places to others of us. I've still seen it only from photos; it is a medium-sized (10 inches) pale grey bird with a pale yellow breast. Seeing the bower was a thrill I'll always remember, but I didn't want to see the bird badly enough to endure an hour of standing in such heat while being chewed on by mosquitos. (I guess I'm never going to be a real birder. Sigh.)
When others drifted back to the shelter, matches were found, tea was made, and the sumptuous lunch was unpacked. (I still luxuriate in finding passionfruit in a green salad.) After lunch, some of the bowerbirdless folks went back to the bower (some had stayed there without getting lunch at all, of course) and others of us followed Gordon into a hot, sandy, lightly wooded area to look for other birds. (I was glad Lee decided to give his legs a rest.) I was too hot to concentrate well and missed some good birds, including a Pale-headed Rosella (like the one that bit me at Port Douglas) and a Silver-crowned Friarbird. I did get good views of a White-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike and some Grey-crowned Babblers. (Babblers do; it's a wonderful sound, rather like a babbling brook.)
There were White-streaked Honeyeaters in the trees by the river, and Klaus teased Peter about his having described them in his field guide as an "untidy looking dark brown honeyeater", adding that he thought they looked very tidy. Peter agreed and said he'd never seen a living one when he wrote that. (I believe he used bird skins from museums when he was painting the plates for his guide, in order to get the details.)
When it was time to leave, there were still some folks who were sadly bowerbirdless, so Klaus said that seven could go in the van to the Black Swamp, where they would be sure to see a Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, although without a bower, while the rest of us would go home in the bus (which can't negotiate the road to the swamp). There were enough serious questers to fill the van, so we chose the bus. Harry, who has become a general favorite, was so dazed from standing at the bower forever and not seeing the bird that he almost got onto the bus by mistake, but Chris called out to him just in time that he should get in the van, and he grinned and thanked us all for looking after him.
Before we left, Gordon (mindful that Pajinka might still not have water) told us all to fill our water bottles from the river. Of course, I'd never in my life drunk water straight from a river, but he assured us that the water is perfectly pure. He did, however, call out to us to "watch the water" as we went down to the bank to fill our bottles. It took me a moment to figure out that that was a euphemism for "watch out for crocodiles".
We headed back to the lodge via Bamaga and its port town of Seisha. At the port, we stopped to look for birds and had a Reef Egret, some Common Terns, Silver Gulls, and a Lesser Frigatebird. Klaus was greeted by the owner of the boat that is to take us to Mt. Adolphus Island and was assured that things are looking more promising.
When we got back on the bus, Diana mentioned to Chris that Klaus had told us that people walking their dogs along the beach here have been known to have those dogs get eaten by crocodiles. He replied that it couldn't happen to a more deserving animal.
We stopped in the rainforest to see if we could get a better look at the Yellow-legged Flycatchers. They weren't about, but I did finally get a really satisfactory look at the Tawny-breasted Honeyeater, as well as a couple of good looks at Paradise Kingfishers.
We walked along the road trying for Riflebirds. They were calling all around us. (Even I now instantly recognize their call (and think of it as taunting).) Mandy got a glimpse of a female flying over, but that was all we had.
The best was yet to come, however. As we drove along the rainforest road, Klaus suddenly called out to Rusty to stop the bus, as he thought he'd seen a Red-necked Crake. We didn't dare get out of the bus for fear of spooking it, so we all sat quietly and watched as it came out of the woods to drink from a big puddle of Bamaga Red water in the middle of the road ahead of us. It didn't stay long, but then came back again for another drink. When it had gone again, Klaus asked (as he always does) whether there was anybody who hadn't seen it. I had had a good view, but Lee couldn't even see the road, as we were sitting behind someone who had stood and blocked Lee completely. So, I asked Klaus if he were really sure it was gone, and he looked again. Just then, it came out of the woods and this time it spent five minutes taking an exuberant bath in the muddy red puddle (and Lee got a good view).
As we watched, somebody called out, "No wonder they have red necks!" Its neck and head were, indeed, Bamaga Red. And then somebody else called out, "Oh, Harry isn't going to like this!"
By the time the bird finished bathing, the windows of the bus were fogging up from all the heavy breathing.
When we got back to the lodge, we were relieved to discover that the water was flowing again, as we were all ready for our own exuberant baths.
When the others returned from the Black Swamp, we were glad to hear that Harry had seen the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird. He'd also seen a White-browed Crake, which isn't on the ten-year list at all, but, even so, he hated missing out on the Red-necked, which has an even more limited distribution.
We talked with Mavis for a while before dinner. She is particularly fond of Fairy-Wrens and once spent a whole summer photographing a family group that had become accustomed to her presence and would allow her to come quite close. I'd love to see her photos!
When we were chatting with Klaus at dinner, he told us that his house has Paradise Kingfishers nesting on the grounds. He has only a few neighbors in a good-sized block of rainforest but all of the others keep dogs and let them run wild. They not only kill the wildlife, they have also broken into Klaus's guineapig cages and killed the guineapigs.
There was talk of John Crowhurst, the Birdman of the Esplanade (whom we met on our last trip). Klaus had talked to him several weeks ago and had learned that he had been in and out of the hospital for several months, but someone else at the table had talked to him more recently and learned that he is now well enough to go to the Esplanade some days to help the visiting birders.
After dinner, Klaus announced the plans for tomorrow's flight to Saibai Island. It will be a strenuous day, and Mike (a doctor from Sydney) urged us all to take extreme precautions against mosquito bites, because of both malaria and Dengue Fever. (There are 15 cases of Dengue Fever in Cairns just now; but it has been a couple of years since any cases have been reported here, which is a good thing, as I have a couple of dozen mosquito bites.)
There is a skink in our cupboard tonight, along with the one on the ceiling. Bless them for eating the mosquitos!
Thinking back over the day, I am chagrined with myself for having been such a wimp about the heat. A few weeks ago, I read a new biography of Thomas Henry Huxley (aka, "Darwin's Bulldog"). He was here as a young man, as a physician's assistant on HMS Rattlesnake, which was exploring and mapping in the Coral Sea and the Torres Strait. He was a very energetic person and an ardent invertebrate biologist. He should have been in his glory in the Coral Sea, which is full of invertebrates, many not then known to science. Instead, he spent six weeks doing almost nothing and making no entries in his notebooks, completely debilitated by the heat. That made me worry, before we came, that I'd be like that the whole time, too, but it really hasn't been too bad most days. Still, it is appalling to know that I sat on a log today in preference to looking for a bowerbird. Sigh.
Aukam of Saibai wove mats by the light of the moon. The woman did no other work.We were up at 4:30 and on the road at 5:30, heading to the Bamaga airport in the bus. The trip started inauspiciously when the bus killed a Papuan Frogmouth in a head-on collision. Further on, Gordon asked Rusty to stop the bus because he had spotted an injured Barking Owl at the side of the road. He and Peter and a couple of others went out. Bob was soon back and told us that it had not been a pretty sight; one of the owl's wings was badly broken. Peter took the injured bird across the road and stood with his back turned to us. After a minute or so, he laid the bird down gently by the side of the road, no longer suffering.
When the moon rose at night, she took dry coconut leaves and began to weave. When the moon set, she lay down her work and slept.
It was always her way--Aukam of Saibai wove mats by the light of the moon and at no other time.
The moon saw that she worked only when he was present and believing the reason to be that she loved him, came down one night and took her up to the sky.
Within the bright circle of the moon's embrace, Aukam still weaves her mats, as all may see.From Tales of the Torres Strait edited by Margaret Lowrie (University of Queensland Press)
At the airport, we had a better view than yesterday of Palm Cockatoos flying over.
We flew to Saibai in two small planes, one with 9 passengers and the other with 5. Some of the ladies were a bit nonplussed at having to stand on a bathroom scale to be weighed before getting onto the plane. (I heard Peter explaining to someone who was nervous about a trip in such a small plane that it was important that she feel confident, because a plane won't fly unless at least half the people on board believe that it will.)
Saibai is only four kilometers south of Papua New Guinea and is situated just a bit east of the border with Irian Jaya. The flight was less than an hour, going low over the Torres Strait. We could see many islands below, some with coral atolls.
When we reached Saibai, our pilot circled around the island so that Peter could get an idea of the layout and look for likely birding spots. Although several of the neighboring islands are quite mountainous, all of Saibai is low and flat. As we circled the island, its 37 square miles looked forbiddingly dry, though we could see large numbers of some pale-colored bird.
We landed on a grass runway in the midst of the town, which is on the north shore of the island and is the closest Australian settlement to Papua New Guinea.
We knew that the entire island had been abandoned after World War II when it was flooded by king tides and all the fresh water ruined. (Most of the population moved to Bamaga, as it happens.) Now, however, there are people who have moved back to Saibai.
The planes let us out at the end of the strip, just across the road from the seawall. I was immediately stunned by the heat, and it wasn't yet 8am.
We walked along the shore to get the waders before the tide came in. After getting an easy one (a Black-winged Stilt), I left the sorting out of the rest to our companions and enjoyed the sight of two Jabiru (Black-necked Stork) standing in the water just off the next point.
After the waders had all been cataloged, we walked inland along the airstrip toward a lightly wooded area. Two men passed us in a 4X4 carrying about a dozen black-and-white Magpie Geese that they'd shot.
There were Masked Lapwings everywhere. These were obviously the birds we'd seen from the air. I'd never seen so many anywhere else. (It is characteristic of islands that they have fewer species and that the species they do have tend to be more common than on the mainland.)
We also found a mixture of terns, mostly Gull-billed, and some Sunbirds. Elsewhere in Australia, one has to struggle to differentiate the various crows by their calls. Torresian Crow is usually one of the possibilities, but here I was willing just to assume that the ones we saw were Torresian by definition.
There were a good many raptors in the distance, mostly Whistling Kites, and we saw a flock of several hundred Magpie Geese flying further inland. There were tidal ponds about, which gave us a Little Pied Cormorant and a Little Egret.
We soon had what for me was the most memorable sight of the day, the pair of Jabiru flying, something I'd never seen before. It's hard to describe, but one of our companions came close when she said, "Very storklike". Pizzey describes it as, "soars high, looking skeletal", and he's exactly right. Except for the bright sunshine, it could have been All Hallow's Eve with skeletons flying about the sky.
We had a 9am appointment at the Council office, so we drifted back toward the town. The main street follows the shoreline, with the seawall on one side and a row of houses and a few businesses on the other. Many of the houses are on stilts and most have towers beside them with tanks to catch the precious rainwater. The sky was very blue, and a strong wind was coming from the sea.
At the Council building, we talked with the chairman, the vice-chairman, and one of the council members. They clearly had no experience with birders but gave us some ideas of where we might look for birds. Their only maps of the island were from a survey that covered just the developed areas. The chairman added, "You must understand that we have drought here, just as in PNG." That was obvious, of course; we could see that everything was parched. (It was becoming clear that mosquitos were not likely to be a major problem for us.)
We headed further along the road, passing a church painted in once-bright colors that had a memorial to the men from Saibai who had died in World War II. The list of names was surprisingly long.
We soon came to an area of mangrove swamp that had no water in it because the tide was out. Somebody spotted an owl being harrassed by Willie Wagtails and honeyeaters, so we plunged into the swamp and soon had a good view of a sleepy looking Barking Owl. Of the honeyeaters, there was only one that was new to us, the Rufous-banded. (Peter says that this is quite a common bird across the north of Australia, but it doesn't seem to stay around Pajinka in the summer.)
Walking around in the swamp in the hot sun wasn't actually a lot of fun. The mud was very slippery (and had a slightly nauseating smell), so I was glad when everyone agreed that we had seen everything that was there. We were all quite hot, so we sat down for a while on the seawall, in the shade of a big tree and let the wind cool us. When the others got up to charge off to the next swamp, Lee whispered the tempting words, "They'll have to come back this way", and I succumbed immediately.
So he and I sat on the seawall looking across to Papua New Guinea, home of so many dreamed-of birds, knowing that this is probably the closest we will ever get to them. Huge plumes of smoke rose in the air obscuring half the sky all the way to the horizon, and we realized that we were watching the forests of New Guinea burn.
There was quite a bit of motorboat traffic across the narrow channel, as New Guineans came across to get groceries and water. "We have no water at home", one man said.
People were passing by on foot and in 4x4's. There were children everywhere and they seemed to be treated very affectionately. We saw lots of lap-sitting and hugs and piggyback rides. As the tide rose, children swam from the rocks a few feet below us (presumably the breakwater is too rocky to be crocodile habitat).
There were also lots of dogs, mostly sleeping in the shade.
I lay down on the seawall and could have fallen asleep in the shade myself except that I was afraid I'd roll off into the water. We had a few honeyeaters in the tree above us, which was in bloom.
After an hour or so, the others started straggling back looking extremely bedraggled. We joined them walking toward the center of town and were soon watching them guzzle down 1.5 liter bottles of cold water they'd bought in the little grocery store. I was comforted to learn they'd gotten no kingfishers, as I would never have forgiven myself if I'd missed a new one.
There was lots of activity in the center of town. Everyone was out of doors. I noticed one little girl of 8 or 9 sitting in front of her house with her nose in a book, and my heart went out to her.
Almost all of the adults were obese, and we saw lots of trips into the grocery store to buy a sugary soft drink and a package of cookies. I imagine that diabetes is a major problem here.
Most of the clothing was very brightly colored, often featuring themes from the Torres Strait Islands flag (blue and green with white plumes).
There was an Australian government sign explaining the quarantine rules. Few plant products can be brought here from New Guinea, nor moved from here further south. The islands of the Strait are divided into several quarantine zones, going from north to south, and there are a couple more on the mainland. Fruits and such can't be moved between any of the zones. (Indeed, a note Klaus sent us before we got to Australia warned us not to bring fruit from Cairns to Bamaga, and we won't be allowed to take it in the other direction either.)
Our cooler chests containing lunch were soon fetched and brought to a nice shady place by the seawall across from the grocery store (which was convenient for getting more cold drinks).
After lunch Lee and I went a short way to where a group of New Guineans had set up a market, only half a dozen people. Most of them were selling beautifully made pandanus mats such as Aukam wove by moonlight. The mats were very handsome (and are legal to take through the quarantine), but we all had at least two trips in small aircraft ahead of us, so buying such large mats would have been impractical.
One young woman was selling hand-made string bags, however, and I happily chose a turquoise and white one to replace the plastic laundry bag I'd been using to carry our water and slather. (Our one real oversight when hurriedly packing the morning after Christmas was not to throw in a backpack.) The woman looked stunned when Lee gave her the asking price for the bag and was all grins as she helped me transfer our stuff from the tattered laundry bag.
The interesting thing about the market was that nobody made any attempt to hawk his wares. They all just stood quietly and waited for us to inspect what they had for sale. I regretted not being able to buy more, as I'm sure they needed the money, but their lovely mats would have been a real struggle for us to take home.
After lunch, the Council provided a flatbed truck to take us further around the island. Plastic chairs were quickly loaded onto the back of the truck from a local meeting hall and we clambered on board. We made quite a spectacle, especially with a few parasols raised against the sun. As we drove along, the townspeople came to their doors and windows to look and laugh, but it was OK because we were laughing too.
We drove for a long while through very dry, sparse pandanus plains. Our first goal was "the dam", but I'd seen it from the air and knew that it had almost no water and was surrounded by bare soil, so I wasn't surprised that we found only a few Lapwings. We kept going, trying to find something approaching a forest. We stopped several times for raptors and also had some Golden-headed Cisticolas (but always flying, never perched).
One of the raptors (I had only a glimpse of it) was thought to be a Grey-headed Goshawk, but we lost it before anyone had a good look. (The Grey-headed is not an Australian bird, so it would have been a prize.)
The sun was unbelievably fierce, and I could feel my face and hands and arms being burned. I kept putting on sun screen but that seemed only to accelerate the frying of my skin. I noticed that Michael was wearing some little mits that covered just the backs of his hands. They seemed like a wonderful idea. He agreed, adding that, "they're good for mozzies, too".
We finally came to "some real trees" and Mandy spotted a male Eclectus Parrot, a real find, but it flew off immediately. Lee got a good view of it flying off, but Diana and I were blocked. I was too cooked really to care, but Diana was very disappointed.
I couldn't really believe that we were all going to traipse into the woods to look for the Eclectus, but we did. It turned out to be a mangrove swamp that hadn't seen water in a long while. We crunched along on the air roots, making so much noise that no bird in its right mind would have stayed around. One could easily imagine this forest burning, too, like the ones across the strait. We saw no birds at all, and I was grateful when Peter declared that it was mad to be out in such heat and asked Diana and me if we'd like to go back to the truck. (Poor Peter was limping along because the sole was coming off of one of his boots, but he was cheerily making the best of it.)
When the others gave up on the swamp, we headed slowly back to town, stopping a few more times. When we got back to town, we climbed down, got together some money for the driver, and ran for the shade. I was glad to settle on the seawall again while Lee went to buy us some cold drinks and Gordon went to phone to see if the planes could come to get us earlier than had been arranged.
It turned out that the small plane could come early, but the larger one would be late. Manfred and Diana and Bob and Lee and I headed back to Bamaga in the smaller plane. When we got there, we all sacked out on benches in the terminal to wait for the other plane. Diana recovered quickly, as one would expect, and she and Bob went out to look for birds, returning after a while to tell us that they'd gotten Red-shouldered Parrots and Olive-backed Orioles. By the time the other plane arrived, Rusty had come with the bus, and we had a rather quiet ride home.
At one point, Mike pointed out a a feral pig running across the road ahead of us and someone called out, "Get him, Rusty!"
Closer to home, we stopped to see a big Amethystine Python by the road. Rusty wanted it for the lodge grounds, so it was loaded into one of the cooler chests.
Klaus was waiting for us, looking worried (we were rather late), but laughed when we presented him with the chest and he opened it and found the python. He looked crestfallen, though, when we told him that we didn't think that Saibai was likely to become a noted birding venue.
We quickly dropped our things in our room, washed our burnt faces and hands, and headed back to dinner. I drank three Cokes with my meal and then indulged in two helpings of chocolate cake with ice cream.
As we began recovering from the heat and dehydration (and culture shock), our spirits brightened and there was much laughter about the adventures and misadventures of the day. Bob said he'd been trying to imagine the reaction of the people in his native village in England if a group of Papuans had come there and ridden around in a truck looking at everything through binoculars.
As for the birds, we could all see that Saibai would have had lots more of them if the rainfall had been normal. (And, of course, everybody else saw many more than Lee and I did.) The consensus was that if we'd gotten better looks at the Goshawk and the Eclectus, we would have considered it to be a successful day. (And as an opportunity to visit a totally non-touristy South Sea island, it couldn't be beat.)
When people were listing the birds they'd seen on Saibai, I was disappointed to learn that I'd missed a Dollarbird. It isn't rare, but it is Australia's only Roller and I've never seen it. (The Rollers are closely related to the Kingfishers.) Such are the wages of wimpery!
After dinner, Rick brought some "herps" to show us, each in a little cloth bag. He had several wonderful snakes that he took out one at a time; he had gathered them all on the road last night. He also had a White-lipped Frog (Lee is sure that it's "ours", which has gone missing) and a skink that had lost one eye (probably to a bird). The skink was dehydrated and starving when Rick found it, so he plans to keep it for a while and get it pumped back up before he releases it.
I don't think I'd ever enjoyed a shower as much as the one this evening.
While we were still at the breakfast table, Klaus came around to ask each of us which birds we most want to see in the short time remaining and whether we want a trip to Mt. Adolphus Island. We told him we would go to Mt. Adolphus only if it works out that there is room left after the people who really need to get those three birds are accomodated. (Going would give me another chance at the Collared Kingfisher, but it would likely also give me a chance at sea-sickness.) Unfortunately, the sea is still too rough for any trips today.
The group's trip this morning was to find another endemic, the White-faced Robin. From the field guides I can see that it's a pretty little bird, but it will have to wait until another year, as both Lee and I decided to take the morning off, to rest up and keep our burned skin out of the sun for a while. The decision was made easier by the news from those who hadn't gone to Saibai yesterday that the Marchflies have come out here all of a sudden. (We hadn't had them at all before yesterday.)
I spent the morning in bed reading a small book called Fairy Penguins and Earthy People by Pauline Reilly, a former president of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union. It told the story of a thirteen-year study of the Fairy Penguins on Australia's southern coasts by the Penguin Study Group, volunteers who endured a lot of heat and cold and discomfort to accumulate information about these tiny (14 inches) penguins in order to learn how to protect them.
They had to develop techniques for banding penguins and for marking chicks, so that they could follow their progress. They also had to become inured to being bitten and even more to being smelly:
Some of the early eggs failed too, but we left them in place to discover their eventual fate. While I renewed the number on an old egg, I remarked that it had had a chequered career when--bang--the heat of the sun caused it to explode. The sheet in the burrow book bears silent testimony to this day but I was not so silent as the stinking contents showered all over me.They followed known individuals over the course of the study and saw their chicks disperse as far as 1100 kilometers away, while the parents returned each year to the same burrow or another nearby (and to the same mate or another nearby). They studied the penguins in good years and bad, developing an understanding of the elements required for them to breed successfully.
Smells were all part of working with penguins. When the chicks in the study area were well-feathered, it was time to search elsewhere for banding en masse. Chicks were easy to locate. Nest hygiene dictates the practice of defecation outside the burrow entrance and the surrounding ground becomes noticeably white-washed. I had trouble explaining this to a Swiss couple who had joined the team. Their English was worse than my French. "Le blanc terre," I said pointing to the white-washed ground, "means un grand chick." Upending a well-feathered chick, I pointed to its excretory apparatus. "Ah!" exclaimed one as light dawned, "Shit?" When our laughter subsided, he added, "Factory teach me good Australian."
During banding most of us place the penguin across our laps, using both hands and an elbow to hold it in position. This leaves its tail end in the vicinity of the right hip, which soon becomes wet and soiled. One day after banding about 200 chicks, it began to rain. It was not until we clambered back into one small closed car that the full intensity of the smell hit us. We made for the nearest toilet block and shared our spare summer clothing. The weather had turned cold but 'twere better to shiver than to pong.
My favorite story from the book:
Penguins use any available cover for nests; under dense vegetation or overhanging rocks, in caves, or in hard cliffs where only a small cavity may be dug. Where they are accustomed to nesting near houses, they select boxes, timber, under the floor or anywhere else that offers shelter.On our last trip to Australia, there were several nights on which we enjoyed falling asleep with the songs of Little Penguins in our ears, but having them singing under the bed would be a bit much."Mummy I can't go to sleep," called the small visitor in a holiday house near Summerland. "The penguins are making an awful noise under my bed."He was right. The bed, with covers to the floor, made an excellent cave for the pair of penguins singing with great gusto the praises of their newly-acquired pre-fab.
"They're only singing under the house," he was told.
Ten minutes later he called again. "They're still making too much noise and I'm sure they're under my bed."
There was lots of talk when the others returned for lunch. Peter's group had had a sensational look at the Lovely Fairy-Wrens. The wrens had been displaying at a snake, so were out in the open and very visible for ten minutes. We teased them that taking along a snake to bring out the birds hardly seemed sporting.
Some of the other group had seen the Noisy Pitta, but Diana had missed it. (She now recognizes its call immediately, of course.)
I've noticed that when we are talking about birds whose names have been changed, the Australian birders keep correcting themselves to use the current names for birds they've known all their lives. (Sometimes, they have to iterate to get to the current one.) But they seem uniformly not even to try to use "Black-necked Stork" for the Jabiru. When I mentioned this at lunch, the immediate response from several of them was that, "It is a stupid name!" Peter commented that most Australians seem to assume that "Jabiru" is an Aboriginal word, but it's actually Portuguese. The same bird occurs in India and apparently got the name from the Portuguese in Goa.
After lunch, I lazed around some more. Lee dashed out once to photograph a mother Agile Wallaby and her half-grown young when we noticed them grazing just beyond our veranda. Later he went for a walk and came back with a small "chunk of Cape York" for our collection of rocks from places we've been.
At 3:30, we were off in the bus to the rainforest with Klaus and Gordon. As soon as we got into the bus, Mike told us that the Web printout Lee gave him this morning had opened his eyes to all sorts of possibilities, so we apologized to his wife in advance for having made her a computer widow.
As soon as we got into the forest, we saw a Red-bellied Pitta walking along the trail ahead of us. We had a good view of him and then of a Scrubfowl (which was the first one for Mandy).
Then we had a wonderful long, close, eye-level view of a Yellow-billed Kingfisher. I had a big grin on my face, because I had believed when we had that great view a few days ago that that would probably be the only time in my life I'd ever see one.
We played hide and seek with a Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo for a while and then Gordon led us to the Yellow-breasted Boatbill's nest. He had found the nest by going back to the place where we'd seen the Boatbill chasing away other birds a few days ago and waiting until the male went to the nest. Now, the female was sitting on the nest and we had a wonderful view of her (and could finally make out the boat-shape of the bill). As we watched, she called and the male flew over and took her place on the nest. He was the color of lemon-meringue pie.
A Noisy Pitta flew past us and perched not far away and Diana finally got a look. She then (very generously, as always) started pointing it out to me, but it flew and I barely saw it. (I had found one myself under a bush on Hinchinbrook during our last trip, but Lee didn't see that one, so I was glad that he got this one.)
Klaus led us off to try to lure their favorite Magnificent Riflebird to his main display tree. On the way, Gordon showed us a Little Shrike-Thrush's nest on the branch of a low tree; it had two eggs in it.
There is a hide at the Riflebird's display tree, and he has been filmed and photographed and watched there for several years, but this year he is no longer so co-operative. (Gordon says he's just too used to people now; he certainly no longer seems willing to come when Klaus plays the Riflebird tape, which is this bird's own voice.) We went to his other display tree and he teased us for a long time by replying to the calls from the tape, but he never came any closer and finally flew away. Klaus clearly hated missing him again.
Late in the afternoon, we had two fly-overs of Palm Cockatoos and got a better view than before, but we've still not seen one perched.
I was wearing my blue jeans, even though they're covered with mud from Saibai, because they're the only long pants I have with me. I was glad by the end of the afternoon, because Klaus's hands were bloody from slapping the Marchflies that were drinking from his bare legs.
As we left the woods, Gordon congratulated me on how well I've handled the heat "for someone who lives in air-conditioning". (Lee had told him that a few days ago.) All I could do is blush and feel grateful that my wimpery hasn't been totally obvious to everybody.
Chatting before dinner, we heard that the group who had gone out with Peter to do waders had gotten fifteen species plus a Jabiru. (Well, it was so far away that there was some debate as to whether it was a Jabiru or an Australian Pelican, but finally it had been declared a Jabiru.) Chris had been the hero of the day; they'd had a flat tire and discovered that the van had an incomplete set of tire tools, but he'd managed to change the tire anyhow. Peter and Klaus each bought him a beer (though I don't think he found any of his "beer birds" today).
Jan (our jaunty psychologist) said that she'd phoned Chris Dahlberg this afternoon to schedule a trip with him and he'd said he was "already expecting half of Pajinka".
We had a nice chat with Harry before dinner. He started by giving me a well-deserved scolding for having let myself get sunburned. I suppose Australian doctors see an awful lot of sun damage. Harry believes in long pants and long-sleeved shirts and urged us to get some of the little mits that he and Michael wear to protect the tops of their hands.
The conversation turned to the reasons people have for birding, and Harry listed some of them: that birds are so beautiful, that birding makes one stop and really look at nature, that it's a good excuse for travelling, that it's an enjoyable intellectual exercise, that for some it is a fiercely competitive sport. He ended with "that you meet such nice people". That's certainly true; it is one of the things we've enjoyed most about this trip. And I was reminded of the two nice Brits we met in Costa Rica who told us of being out in the wilderness and being approached by a fierce-looking dude carrying a big machete. They were rather tense until they noticed that he was also carrying a copy of Birds of Costa Rica. One simply doesn't anticipate anything but good will from anybody carrying a field guide.
Then Harry and Lee discovered that they are both train buffs, and all subsequent talk was of good train trips. (They share an allegiance to a book called The Thirty Best Train Trips in the World and are both trying to work their way through it.) Harry told Lee about doing the Trans-Siberian and was eager to hear about Lee's Norwegian train trip.
As we were going through the buffet line at dinner, the nice Injinoo cook recommended that we try the bread. "It's home-made damper; I made it myself this morning." She added that she'd learned to make damper when she was nine years old. She learned well.
At dinner, Peter told us that this afternoon he'd taken a photograph of Mike asleep with a copy of Pizzey in his lap. He joked that he's going to have it made into a postcard to send to Pizzey.
Talk turned to the Cane Toad scourge. They didn't reach this area until 1995. They are all derived from 102 that were released at Gordonvale, south of Cairns, in 1935. Peter said that a wave of extinction of the frog eaters (birds and other animals) follows the toads' expansion front. Then populations move in that have learned not to eat them or to eat them from the belly side and avoid the poisonous canes on the backs. But some native animals, such as the Spotted-tailed Quoll seem to have had their numbers permanently reduced as a result of the introduction of the Cane Toads.
Klaus caused joy when he announced at dinner that there will very likely be trips to Mt. Adolphus tomorrow. The seas are finally calm enough.
After dinner, we went out spot-lighting to get a good look at some birds that are active only at night. We quickly found a Papuan Frogmouth (with big red eyes) and then a Marbled Frogmouth (with big orange eyes). The Marbled is much smaller than the Papuan and has much more pronounced bristles around its mouth. (I thought at first that it had half-swallowed a very large dragonfly.) The Papuans tend to stay deeper in the woods, so we'd never seen one before.
We went on to the big mango tree across from the entrance to the Lockerbie Scrub, to look for a Barking Owl. We found one right away, but it flew and then flew again, so we were all looking for it and I had the very unusual (for me) experience of being the one to spot it. The owl silhouette just popped right out as soon as I glanced at the right tree, so I showed it to Diana and she rushed ahead to show Klaus, who was getting near the owl and was likely to spook it again. When he congratulated her on her spotting, she loyally said, "Melinda found it."
(It feels to me that matching a silhouette uses a different search routine in the brain than is used to spot a bird half-hidden in foliage. I am very bad at that (and find it very frustrating). I used to think it was just lack of practice, but Lee has no more practice than I do, and he spots half-hidden birds ever so much more readily than I do.)
We soon had the owl spot-lighted and got to hear a few barks, and later on, in the bus, I got to enjoy the rare pleasure of being asked, "How ever did you spot that owl?" I was disappointed, though, since this was the first time that some of our companions had heard a Barking Owl call, that it hadn't done as good a dog imitation as the two we heard at Yellow Waters a few years ago. I'll never forget that (nor the Japanese tourist bent over with giggles at those dignified-looking birds making such a silly sound).
At breakfast, I got up the courage finally to ask Peter to autograph our copy of his field guide and handed it to him with a pen. He handed back the pen but kept the book and said, "Let me take it and see if I can do something nice."
The conversation after breakfast turned to wildlife artists and what sort of training is best for them. Peter commented that William Cooper has taught a bird painting course at one of the universities and that he would take it if it were ever offered again.
Cooper's paintings of birds and animals and fruits and plants are radiantly lovely. The word "numinous" might have been coined just to describe them. I got to know his work from his illustrations for a book I found the last time we were here (Visions of a Rainforest: A Year in Australia's Tropical Rainforest by Stanley Breeden). Cooper's painting of a Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher in that book is what made it necessary for me to come here again.
The book-jacket blurb about the illustrator had mentioned that he was producing a six-volume work on the kingfishers of the world and their allies and that three of the volumes were already finished. As you can imagine, I began looking for the books when we got home, but I soon discovered that they were coming out as a limited edition set. The only ones we could locate in a search on the net were in a vault at Cornell, so I've still never seen them.
When I mentioned that this morning, Gordon said that he had subscribed to the entire set, which came out over a period of ten years. He added that he had considered selling his set at one point and his children (not birders) had protested. Peter said that he had recently bought himself just the bee-eater volume. (Bee-eaters tend to be done in "designer colors", mostly pastels, and the Rainbow Bee-eater is certainly among Australia's most beautiful birds, so I could understand why he had chosen that volume.)
The egalitarian in me doesn't much like the idea of limited-edition books, but after Peter described the care that Cooper took in seeing to the production of the books, I could understand that large print runs would have been impossible.
This morning, Klaus and Rick were taking the last group to Croc Creek (the mangrove area), Gordon was taking everybody who could fit in the boat to Mt. Adolphus (including Chris and Diana, fortunately), Lee was not going out because he had sprained his ankle slightly yesterday, and one or two of the others weren't going out either, which left just me to go out with Peter Slater. It was a tad embarrassing to have so much skill and knowledge devoted to an amateur like me.
Peter was thinking of our doing waders, but that's an intellectual exercise that I'm not yet good enough at really to enjoy. On the other hand, this would have been a great opportunity to have a private lesson from a master. However, little blisters have come out all over my poor burnt face, so I really didn't want any more sun. I asked if we might first go to the good Fairy-Wren place, which is just up the road from the big mango tree.
Before we left, Peter made Klaus prove to him that there was a full set of tire tools in the van we were taking. (I suppose he could guess that I wouldn't be anywhere near as good at changing a tire as Chris had been.)
As we were driving through one of the open woodland areas, I was surprised by his asking if I'd like to see a Sacred Kingfisher. (I thought they all had sense enough to spend the summer further south, where it's cooler.) I'd seen a zillion Sacreds on our last trip, but none at all this time, so I said yes, and we got out and found the one he'd heard calling. (This turned out to be the only sighting by anyone for the week.) Continuing on, we had a lovely view of a Pheasant Coucal.
And then we walked back and forth along the road listening for Lovely Fairy-Wrens. After a while, Peter identified the call of a Blue-winged Kookaburra coming from near the mango tree. I asked if we could go see it, adding that I'd never seen one perched. I felt enormously silly asking one the deans of Australian birding to show me such a common bird, but he was very gracious and suggested that we drive to an open area to get a better view and then come back to try the wrens again.
It took him no time at all to find me a Blue-winged Kookaburra perched on a low branch, and we were able to approach it fairly closely. It was filthy! Peter said he'd never seen such a dirty one, that it must have been digging in a termite mound. He added that the Blue-winged is his candidate for the ugliest bird in Australia.
(A group of us had been talking earlier in the week, trying to decide which is the most beautiful bird in Australia, and we all had different candidates. I, of course, voted for the Paradise Kingfisher, although some of the very common parrots, such as the Crimson Rosella and the Rainbow Lorikeet, are really quite lovely. Someone else had nominated the Superb Fruit Dove, and one certainly has to agree that it is a contender. Peter had said that he likes birds with long tails and that it would be hard to choose between the Paradise Kingfisher and the Princess Parrot. (The Princess Parrot is a relatively rare parrot confined to the desert center of the country. I've seen only photos, but Simpson and Day describe it: "Crown and sides of head pastel blue; upperparts and flight feathers light olive except for violet rump, light green shoulder and purple greater coverts; cheek, throat rose-pink; breast yellow-grey; abdomen pinkish-mauve". Slater describes it as: "Extremely elegant".)
As we were watching the Kookaburra, Peter said, "If you look it right in the eye, it seems quite mad." I could see what he meant. I think it's because the "white" of the eye is white. That seems to disturb people when it occurs in any non-human animal. Jane Goodall wrote that one of the chimpanzees she studied had eyes with "whites" that were white rather than the usual brown and that it made him look quite fierce.
I was pleased that I'd now gotten good perched views of eight of the ten Australian kingfishers on this trip, with still some hope of the ninth when we get back to Cairns. (Oh, my, I'm beginning to sound like a lister.)
Driving back to the wren area, we flushed a pair of Paradise Kingfishers who were excavating a nest in a termite mound right at the edge of the road. The male stayed just a few feet away in a spot of sunlight and gave us a lovely view. (We could see the Bamaga Red dirt on his bill, the result of his excavations.) When we got out to inspect the nest, we found that the burrow was only 3 or 4 inches deep so far. Before we left, Peter arranged a broken limb behind the mound to serve as a perch for the birds and facilitate viewing them.
I asked whether having the nest entrance so close to the ground doesn't make the birds very vulnerable, and he said that once when Lloyd Nielsen was here, he'd seen a goanna take the kingfishers from such a nest. Another time, Peter and his son had found a well-situated nest and had gone back to set up a hide so Raoul could photograph the birds, but when they got back, all they found was a pile of feathers. (Peter had retrieved one of the long white tail feathers and had worn it in his hat for years "until somebody stole it".)
Then, further along the road, we also came to a pile of white feathers. I thought at first that the Peregrine had gotten itself another Imperial-Pigeon, but when we got close I could see that some of the feathers shaded to yellow, so it had to have been a Sulphur-crested White Cockatoo. That must have been a rather raucous affair.
Peter stopped the car because he had spotted a Yellow-billed Kingfisher so near that we didn't dare get out to look. He spent three minutes (very frustrating for us both) trying to help me see it and, of course, I very much wanted to see it, but I didn't manage to do so before it flew off. (I didn't even see it fly off. Argh!)
When we got back to the wren area, there was more activity than there'd been earlier. We had a good view of a bunch of Fairy Gerygones, all chattering loudly. Peter thought at first that there might be another snake and that that might bring the Fairy-Wrens, too, but he concluded that it was "just something territorial" among the Gerygones.
We were surprised to see a vanload of our companions coming along the road. They stopped to tell us that the trip to Mt. Adolphus had been cancelled because the boat had blown an engine while coming to get them. They were headed to the Black Swamp to see the Bowerbird, so Peter asked me if I'd like him to follow them, but I really preferred to try to see the Fairy-Wrens, so we stayed.
Peter spotted half a dozen Gould's Bronze-Cuckoos near the top of a bare tree all calling and displaying at one another with their wings outstretched. "Now I understand why they have a gold patch under their wings," he said, and got out his little notebook to make some notes about what we had seen. (That was a relief to me, as it meant the morning wouldn't be a complete waste of his time.)
He found a place where a pair of Little Shrike-Thrushes are building a nest. We took a look at the nest and then waited some distance away. Both birds came and we got good looks; the female had a bay-leaf-shaped leaf in her bill, but she dropped it when she saw us and flew off right by us.
Wandering along, we got uncommonly good looks at three common birds, a Metallic Starling (I could really see the metallic sheen), a Spangled Drongo (which was making a very odd, pinging call--Peter says they have an amazing variety of calls), and a male Yellow Oriole (they're usually flitting high in the canopy--"You'll be the only one here this week who has actually seen one.")
We headed into the woods to look for a Riflebird that was calling. We were barely into the woods when we found a dead Frogmouth (which Peter identified as an immature Papuan), probably roadkill. (It's rather appalling how many owls and frogmouths get killed on this road, given that there are only a few vehicles passing along it each day.)
Peter found the Riflebird high in a tree, but again I was too slow to get a look before it flew off.
Back out on the road, we had a good look at a Scrubfowl, who was heading down the road toward us non-chalantly. Peter mused over the size of its head, "I wonder whether it has any brain at all?"
Since we hadn't heard a single Fairy-Wren call, it was clearly time to give up on them and call it a morning, so we headed back to the lodge chatting about beautiful birds. He has never seen the Common Paradise Kingfisher, a New Guinea bird similar to the Buff-breasted, but with a white breast (and racquets at the tip of its tail). The Common is listed in the Australian field guides and is even on the cover of Slater's, but it is included in the Australian lists only due to a now-disputed sighting on one of the Torres Strait Islands. (True to Sutherland's Law: "If it has 'Common' in its name, it isn't".)
As I was wearing the Quetzal T-shirt Sandra had given me for Christmas, the conversation turned from Paradise Kingfishers to Quetzals. Peter has never seen one and was surprised to hear that the long tail plumes undulate (just as I had been surprised a few days ago to see that the Paradise Kingfisher's long tail plumes are stiff). I mentioned that photographs and paintings don't seem ever to do the Quetzal justice and he described a painting of a Quetzal by Elizabeth Gould that I should try to see.
I was glad when we got back to find that Lee's ankle was much better. He and I were sitting by the pool before lunch talking with Mavis when Peter gave us back our copy of his field guide. Inside the front cover was a pencil drawing of the head of a Blue-winged Kookaburra, looking quite mad, with a note, "For the Varians, Blue-winged Kookaburra, Australia's ugliest bird, Pajinka, Cape York, Jan 98, Peter Slater".
I'm quite sure this doesn't cut its value in half. I was terribly pleased. When I showed Klaus later, he said, "Yes, he showed me", and then added with a grin and a conspiratorial whisper, "and he told me the story, too."
At lunch, Harry didn't want anybody to tell me that they'd had a ten-minute look at a Collared Kingfisher during their trip to Croc Creek this morning. But the only Little they'd seen had been in rocket mode, and they'd had no Azures at all, so I assured Klaus that I wouldn't have traded my trip to Croc Creek for that one.
I'd shown Chris the drawing Peter had done for us, so he opened our book up to the Eclectus Parrot page and teased Peter about the fact that the symbols for the male and female were attached to the wrong paintings in that edition. (The Eclectus is unusual in that the male is almost entirely green, while the female is bright red with a band of blue across the chest.) Peter explained that the publisher had "corrected" his plate, because it was so obviously wrong.
After lunch, Harry and Lee chatted some more about train trips. Harry made us laugh with his descriptions of travelling in Russia during the Soviet era; his best comment was that the Soviets "couldn't run a splinter up their finger".
Lee wanted to go out photographing this afternoon, especially as he hadn't yet made it to the tip of Australia, but I went with most of the group (and Klaus and Gordon and Rick) to the Lockerbie Scrub trail. As we left the lodge, Jan was sitting by the pool looking wan but much better than she had this morning, to everybody's relief.
Phil had found the display platform of a new, more cooperative male Magnificent Riflebird, just into the woods off the Lockerbie trail. The bird was displaying on its low horizontal branch when we arrived. It was at some distance from us, but we all managed to get a good look as it stood calling, with its bib iridescing. (We had to kneel down on the ground to get the right angle through the vegetation, each one in turn giving up the spot and showing the next where to put each knee.)
Simpson and Day describe this Riflebird: "Velvet-black, iridescent crown, broad blue-green throat-breast 'shield', central tail feathers iridescent blue-green, remaining underparts and filamentous flank plumes black, suffused purple-red". It really was quite splendid and well worth all the time we've spent looking for it.
When Klaus had satisfied himself that every single one of us really had had a good view, he broke into a big grin and looked tremendously relieved and then went off talking with Phil about building a hide there. Later, somebody was teasing him about having purposely made the pursuit of the Riflebird into a cliff-hanger, and he said, "Oh, yes, ve alvays do this", and mimed wiping perspiration from his brow.
Anything else had to be an anti-climax, but we headed onto the Scrub Trail and soon found ourselves in an enchanting moist rainforest. In no time, Gordon was showing us a Fairy-Wren nest and then a Red-bellied Pitta nest. Rick was leading, so we got herps as well. He waded into a pool and brought out a handsome big soft-shelled turtle for us to see. Futher on, we had another look at a Paradise Kingfisher nest under construction. (It's amazing how many of them there are.)
I was able to show Diana some blue-purple Quondong fruits on the ground. Rick said that they are a classic Cassowary-dispersed tree, but now that there are so few Cassowaries, one finds young Quondong trees only along watercourses (since the seeds are also dispersed by water).
The trail led to a small creek in a really primeval-looking area. One wouldn't have been surprised to see a dinosaur wander through. There were lots of ferns and even a few ferntrees. (Gordon told us that he's been told that these ferntrees are found only along this creek and are remnants of an ancient population. He added that one doesn't find any ferntrees elsewhere in the vicinity.)
The forest was full of beautiful huge old trees with enormous complex buttresses. Nearby, however, the hiking became difficult because there was an acre or two of the forest floor that had been badly torn up by the pigs.
We had a few birds, but I found myself more interested in the forest, which was by far the loveliest I've seen since we got to Pajinka.
When we got back to the road, the group who'd gone out after waders with Peter drove up, so Peter led a few of us into the Fairy-Wren area for one last try. I was at the end of the parade and saw only little birds flying, but I was glad that several others had gotten good views.
When we returned to the lodge, we found Jan by the pool looking her normal jaunty self. Lee had just gotten back from his late afternoon hike. He'd found a marker that showed that we are 15,000 kilometers from home. Luckily, when he got to the tip of Australia, there'd been a couple of other people there, so he'd taken a picture of them by the sign with their camera, and they'd done the same for him.
At dinner, Mandy told us that this afternoon she had seen a Black Butcherbird hunting skinks on our veranda. That probably explains why one who was clinging to the outside of the door rushed to the inside of the door as soon as I opened it.
During dinner, Klaus chided me (ever so gently) for not having seen the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird. He tries so hard to make sure that we all see all of the endemics that I hadn't the heart to tell him I'd rather see a beautiful bird than a rare one. (Of course, all Australian birds are rare to us. In our entire lives, we've had only a few weeks to look at them all, and we can't expect ever to have very many more weeks here.)
After dinner, we got together the list of what we've seen this week (not counting the trip to Saibai):
Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Australian Brush-turkey, Brown Quail, Australian Pelican, Lesser Frigatebird, Little Pied Cormorant, Little Black Cormorant, Radjah Shelduck, Green Pygmy-goose, Red-necked Crake, White-browed Crake, White-faced Heron, Little Egret, Eastern Reef Egret, Australian White Ibis, Black-necked Stork, Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattler, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Knot, Red-necked Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Bush Stone-curlew, Beach Stone-curlew, Pied Oystercatcher, Masked Lapwing, Grey Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Greater Sand Plover, Red-capped Plover, Silver Gull, Caspian Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Common Tern, Little Tern, Crested Tern, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Grey (White) Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, Brown Falcon, Superb Fruit-Dove, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, Wompoo Fruit-Dove, Pied Imperial-Pigeon, Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Peaceful Dove, Bar-shouldered Dove, Emerald Dove, Palm Cockatoo, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Rainbow Lorikeet, Red-winged Parrot, Pale-headed Rosella, Brush Cuckoo, Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo, Gould's Bronze-Cuckoo, Pheasant Coucal, Barking Owl, Papuan Frogmouth, Marbled Frogmouth, Large-tailed Nightjar, Fork-tailed Swift, Azure Kingfisher, Little Kingfisher, Laughing Kookaburra, Blue-winged Kookaburra, Forest Kingfisher, Sacred Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher, Red-bellied Pitta, Noisy Pitta, Lovely Fairy-wren, Red-backed Fairy-wren, Tropical Scrubwren, Fairy Gerygone, Large-billed Gerygone, Helmeted Friarbird, Silver-crowned Friarbird, Little Friarbird, Tawny-breasted Honeyeater, Yellow-spotted Honeyeater, Graceful Honeyeater, Yellow Honeyeater, White-throated Honeyeater, White-streaked Honeyeater, Brown-backed Honeyeater, Dusky Honeyeater, Red-headed Honeyeater, Grey-crowned Babbler, Yellow-legged Flycatcher, Northern Scrub-robin, White-faced Robin, Little Shrike-thrush, Grey Shrike-thrush, Grey Whistler, Rufous Whistler, Leaden Flycatcher, Shining Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Black-winged Monarch, Spectacled Monarch, Frilled Monarch, Spangled Drongo, Yellow Oriole, Olive-backed Oriole, Figbird, Magnificent Riflebird, Trumpet Manucode, Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Cicadabird, Varied Triller, White-breasted Woodswallow, Black Butcherbird, Torresian Crow, Yellow-bellied Sunbird, Mistletoebird, Metallic (Shining) Starling.
(When we got to the Black-winged Monarch, Peter grumbled that it must have been a mistake, but of course half a dozen of us had a really good look at it.)
Naturally, we hadn't all seen all 124 birds, but we had come close to doing that (thanks to Klaus's great care that we each see every possible bird). We had failed to see one bird that had been seen in all ten previous years, the Varied Honeyeater. We had added four birds that hadn't been seen in any of those ten years, the Little Black Cormorant, the White-browed Crake, the Peregrine Falcon, and the Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo.
Manfred made a nice speech thanking Klaus on our behalf and then it was time for Peter's slide show.
Some of the slides were Peter's and some were his son's. It was an incredible show! The first slide he put up was a Splendid Fairy-Wren, which is easily another candidate for "most beautiful Australian bird"; its feathers are all iridescent sky-blue except for a bit of black trim. When the slide went up, Harry called out, "That's it! Stop now! We can't stand any more!"
But he went on, and our mouths were hanging open. One of the most amazing was of a Pacific Baza (a beautiful grey raptor) on its nest using a small leafy branch to brush the flies from its chicks. (Peter had been sitting in a hide on a very tall tower when he took the picture. The bird had brought a rabbit to its chicks and that had drawn flies, so it went out and got the branch and brought it back to use to brush the flies away. Peter said that this behavior hasn't been recorded.)
One particularly lovely slide was just red sand with one of the glorious "plaid taffeta" feathers from the tail of a female Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. (The female's tail panel is a red-orange-yellow ombre pattern barred with black scallops. Anyone who has ever seen a pair of these huge black birds with the sun shining through their tail panels will remember the sight with awe.)
I particularly liked his son's photos of Bush Stone-Curlews. The first was the first bird photo he ever took (when he was only 8) and was quite presentable. The other two were taken some years later and were just amazing. As I've mentioned before, the Stone-Curlews are tall, thin, brown and white birds. They have big yellow eyes that bulge out on the sides of their heads. One of the photos showed that the bird can look backwards; the bird in the photo was facing forward, but its pupils were quite obviously focused on the photographer behind it. The other photo was even more amazing; it showed a Stone-Curlew looking around a tree, and all that one could see was the tree and the bulge of the yellow eye with its black pupil; no other part of the bird was visible. I understand now why they always stand so still; they can see in every direction without moving their heads!
We've been in Australia well over two weeks now, but I'm finding that my brain still doesn't always automatically un-do the Australian vowel shifts. Peter put up a slide of a Sacred Kingfisher and pronounced the "a" as a long "i", and I didn't parse it at all and thought for a moment that he was saying that he was showing us something I'd never heard of before. (But I suppose that that's partly because I'm always hoping for an unknown kingfisher.)
How sad we'll all be to leave here tomorrow!
At breakfast, we sat chatting with the others as we all watched a female Yellow-bellied Sunbird who has been building a nest for several days now in an ornamental plant by the pool. We talked of Australian films for a while and then of the economy. (The little news we've heard while we've been here has centered on the flooding in Townsville and the plunge of the Indonesian currency, which is impacting the Australian currency.) Jan made a strong point that she doesn't want an economy based on tourism, that she's been to places where that was the case, and it's not a good life for people. (Of course, one might say that this has already happened to Cairns, where most signs are in both Japanese and English and most businesses are involved with tourism in some way. Klaus says that 240 tours leave from Cairns every day.)
On the other side of the pool, the male Brush-Turkey was digging into his mound to check the temperature. Watching him turned our talk back to birds. Gordon said that he had recently returned to his childhood home in Adelaide and had gone out walking and had found the mound of a Mallee Fowl (another megapode) in exactly the same spot that he had first found it as a boy more than fifty years ago.
The morning was very hot, so we walked down to the beach. There we found Chris and Harry enjoying the relative cool and looking regretfully out at the very smooth sea. Not getting to go to Mt. Adolphus to see the Pale White-Eye was a big disappointment for them both. (Rusty's solemnly delivered analysis of the situation with the boat had been, "Bull shit!")
It was so hot that we just headed back to our room after we'd paid our bill and lay there reading. I'm reading a much more upbeat Aboriginal life story, Born Under the Paperbark Tree by Yidumduma Bill Harney. Although his father was white, his mother and stepfather managed to rear him traditionally. He later became a stockman and learned to move in both worlds. His older sister, Dulcie, had been taken away by the authorities to one of the mission schools, which made his parents doubly careful to prevent his being taken:
So my mum was very strict and careful that I didn't get taken away. She used to get this blackcurrant plum from the bush, and it makes your hair go black. My mum always used to crush the black plum together with a big heap of charcoal and put it all over my skin to make me go black, and when the Welfare would come along I'd be sitting right in the middle of those other blacks, and the Welfare bloke would call out, "Any yella kids? Any half-caste kids around here?"(Much later, he met Dulcie by chance. The first thing she asked him was her mother's name. The family was reunited and their mother got to know her grandchildren before she died.)
"No nothin' here," but I'd be sitting there with them all painted up black. Of course when the Welfare went away I'd go down the waterhole and dive in the water and I'd come back a half-caste again. I was the only half-caste that wasn't taken away from my mother to the islands, and when they were taken away they were put right outta sight for good.
From being a stockman, he went on to other careers, first becoming a tour operator and later an artist. He'd been taught traditional art as a child:
Old Joe Jomornji [his stepfather] was a painter and that's why I come to learn about painting, bush way, traditional way, on the rock. Old Joe and my uncles and grandfather taught us to paint, when we was a kid. They said, "You can't touch this till you went through this law [religious training]. When you get older, and we go, you can paint 'em."Meanwhile, Lee was going through his "where to find birds" books trying to figure out how to find me a Collared Kingfisher once we're back in Cairns. The problem is that they're common enough that most of the guides don't mention them, so we used the strategy of looking for pointers to finding Little Kingfishers. The Little Kingfisher fishes, while the Collared hunts invertebrates, but both live in mangrove swamps. Lloyd Nielsen (in another of his books, Birds of Queensland's Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef and Where to Find Them) did have one specific suggestion for Collared Kingfisher outside Cairns, so we decided to try the Botanic Garden first and the other if that failed.
For this rock painting we got red ochre on the banks of the creek, and we got white ochre, and we got yellow ochre, and all I got to do is just mix goanna fat together with those paints and rub it into the rock, and the fat and the paint never come off. That's why the rock painting is still there today. But if you do this with the water it will peel off straight away in the rain. But cattle get in there sometimes and lick it off--must be the smell of the fat I suppose, and they're licking the salt that was in the fat. But before I go, before I die like, I'll give them a good touch up. There's a couple thousand painting sites in the country in the Wardaman land, you know, and before I go I'll just redo the whole lot, and that will last for another two or three hundred years.
We'd been told to have our bag on the porch by 10 and were rather appalled to see that Klaus was the one carrying them all to the bus.
Soon, we were on the bus ourselves heading through the rainforest. We stopped to look at a really large megapode mound, built by generations of Orange-footed Scrubfowl. It is the size of a house and has a large tree growing from it, so it has been around for quite a while, but it is still in use. (Gordon said his Mallee Fowl mound was no larger now than when he was a boy.)
The group was rather subdued; I don't think any of us was ready to leave. Diana was quite pale; she'd been ill during the night and hadn't wanted breakfast.
Rusty was driving the bus, as usual, and gave us a tour of Bamaga and environs. There seem to be five separate towns, actually, split along cultural lines (Aborigines in some and Torres Strait Islanders in others). Almost all of the houses are on stilts. Everything is Bamaga Red; the dust clings even to the chain-link fences.
We were a bit late getting to the airport, but the plane hadn't arrived. Klaus is doing another tour starting today, but several of the people he was expecting were unable to come because of the very severe flooding further south. (They were coming from Townsville, but its airport is cut off from the town.)
As our plane took off, we could see Klaus waving goodbye. What a job he's done for us this week! His brochure quotes Einstein, "Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift." That has been very much the spirit of the week.
The flight was uneventful. We were greeted by Quarantine officers when we got to Cairns. When the luggage carousel started to bring out our bags, their fruit-sniffing dog (a beagle, I think, although I'd always pictured beagles as being bigger than that) jumped up on the carousel and walked over or around all of the bags, sniffing each one carefully. It was rather amazing to watch him, because he seemed to take such delight in his work. When he'd done all the bags on the carousel, he wandered around among the people standing there, sniffing the bags on the floor. When he got to Dianna's backpack, which she'd had with her on the plane, he all but broke out into smiles. His tail was wagging joyously and he was obviously very pleased with himself. He'd found what he was looking for. The officer asked Dianna to open the backpack. The only food was the packet of sandwiches she'd been given on the plane and had been too ill to eat, which was perfectly legal to have with her. So the little dog was patted and praised and persuaded to go on, but every once in a while he dropped by for another sniff. (It was amusing to watch him when the one bag left on the carousel came around again and again. He just couldn't bear to let it go by without being sniffed.) I asked the officer how long it takes to train them, and he said it's about six months. I'd guess that they must use rewards, rather than punishment, to get them to relish their work so.
The reason we were all standing around was that several of the bags hadn't come, including Diana's. As Chris was going to drive her to her lodgings in Cairns, we finally left her waiting still (with an offer to lend her some dirty socks if worse came to worse). But we were happy to see, after we'd picked up our rental car and were just leaving the airport, that she was coming out with her luggage.
We were soon checked into our hotel and reunited with our left luggage. The rest of the day was down time for us. I did the laundry and learned that Klaus had been right when he told us that Bamaga Red doesn't wash out.
The television news had appalling films of the flooding in Townsville. They had 22 inches of rain in 24 hours, and it is raining still. (As somebody commented this morning, it would hurt to stand out in rain falling that hard.)
We've only one more day in Australia.
We slathered on a lot of insect repellent (the Dengue Fever case count is up to 25 now) and headed for the Flecker Botanic Garden, one of our favorite places. As we walked along their mangrove-lined creek, I realized that Chris had been right when he suggested yesterday that although it might have Little Kingfishers, it probably wouldn't have Collared, because the mangrove area is a very thin strip, just along the creek, so there is no Collared habitat. The only kingfisher call we heard was that of a Laughing Kookaburra. But we did have a number of other birds, including the Mistletoebird I'd missed at Pajinka.
After a while, we gave up on the mangrove creek and headed along their lovely Rainforest Boardwalk (which passes from Pandanus swamp forest to lowland paperbark forest to tropical palm forest). We had Laughing Kookaburras again, deep in the swamp.
Our goal was the open-air cafe, where we cooled off with fruit drinks and looked at the wonderful plantings all around. The tree that had had huge red berries growing all over its trunk the last time we were here now has small white flowers growing all over its trunk. All around were plants with big surreal tropical flowers in every color imaginable. After Lee had used up all the film he had with him, we stopped in the shop and bought a few books.
A mounted Ulysses butterfly was on display in the shop. It was the closest look I'd ever had. Up close, the iridescent blue is even more wonderful. The book about Wallace that I was reading earlier in the trip has a section on butterfly wing patterns (Wallace was fascinated by them) that says that the velvety black bordering the blue and on the underside of the wing is the result of structure not pigment; the velvet effect is produced by the diffraction of light by an array of angled microribs on the scales.
I'd picked out a few gifts at a shop in the airport before we left for Pajinka and wanted to stop there and buy them now, so we headed for the airport. We hoped to see the Stone-Curlews on the way, but their lawn was being mowed, so they were not standing in their usual place.
Then, it was time for Plan B for finding the Collared Kingfisher. Nielsen said:
Thomson Road runs through sugar-cane fields where Crimson Finches and Chestnut-breasted Mannikins are easily seen. It leads to a boat ramp and mangrove channel where Little Kingfisher and Mangrove Robin are occasionally seen, though it is not always a reliable spot. Other birds such as Collared Kingfisher and Shining Flycatcher sometimes occur in the vicinity. A rough walking track, 150 meters before the boat ramp and running beside the Edmonton Fishing Club building, leads into a larger mangrove channel where most sightings have been made. Insect repellent is essential.We found Thomson Road and the sugar-cane fields and then the Fishing Club and the boat ramp. The boat ramp had a somewhat battered sign that said:
Nearby there was a newer sign that said:
That made me a bit nervous, but there were lots of birds around so I was willing to risk it.
We waited out a brief downpour, checking out a nearby kingfisher from the car. Definitely a Forest. When the rain was back down to a drizzle, we headed into the path and quickly learned why Nielsen had said insect repellent was essential. We had so much on that we weren't getting bitten, but we were just immersed in mosquitos; they were in our eyes and ears and noses and it was impossible to avoid breathing them in. Between the discomfort of that, the fear of Dengue Fever and/or crocodiles, and the fact that we weren't hearing anything even vaguely like a kingfisher, it didn't take us long to give up on that trail.
We drove around the area, stopping by the streams, listening for kingfishers but hearing mainly lorikeets. By the time we gave up, it was mid-afternoon, so we headed back to town for a very late lunch.
I opted for a nap but Lee went out to two of his favorite places, an Australian Geographic shop and an Australia Post postoffice; he returned with several treasures, including a calendar of Peter Slater's bird paintings.
I was beginning to reimmerse into my real life by reading Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents (a Christmas gift from Rita). Really mind-bending!
Late in the afternoon, Diana phoned and we arranged to get together for dinner. I pressed my one dress (which had been crumpled in the bottom of a suitcase since we left Sydney). It felt odd to put on a dress and street shoes and makeup for the first time in so long.
When we got to the restaurant, we were pleased to see that Diana was well again, though all she'd been able to eat yesterday was a bit of rice. It turned out that the problem with the luggage had been that several of the bags still had the "Rush to Bamaga" tags on them from their belated trip up. So, as soon as they were taken off the plane in Cairns, they were set aside to be rushed back to Bamaga. Fortunately, they'd been retrieved before that could happen.
Diana and Chris had gone out to the reef today and Diana had had her first snorkeling lesson (and was sunburned on the back of her legs as a result). She had gotten five new birds and Chris had gotten a tern that was one of his target birds for this trip. Diana made us laugh describing Chris standing in the rain holding his umbrella and his binoculars, looking for his tern. (His list is now 636, up from 620 when he left Wollongong.)
When we reported our lack of success in getting our ninth kingfisher, Diana got out her little notebook and said she should have mentioned a guide that we could have used. That made me remember that Chris Dahlberg had told us exactly who to get to find us a Collared Kingfisher when we returned to Cairns. So much has happened since we were with him on the Daintree that I'd completely forgotten his advice. Rats! (But, as Lee said, it's an excuse for another trip. In fact, it's an excuse for a trip to anywhere between the Red Sea and Samoa. He'll like that.)
Discussing the other folks we'd been with at Pajinka, we worried about whether Bob had gotten home to Brisbane. He'd been planning to drive from Cairns to Brisbane yesterday afternoon, but both the coastal and the highland highways are closed due to the flooding. This will be a problem for Chris, too, when he drives back to Wollongong, but he is planning to stay here a day or two longer; Jan told him about seeing a very rare sandpiper on the Esplanade just before she went to Pajinka, so he wants to try for that. We were comforted to know that Harry had been headed for Kingfisher Park, rather than Brisbane. "And he'll see the Red-necked Crakes there", said Diana.
Our trip home begins at 5 tomorrow morning.
Love to you all,