My first encounter with Bush Stone-curlews was a rather unsettling one. Picture this: camped with our two young children in a floor-less tent in an unpowered camping reserve (no lights), and in the middle of the night I wake to a frightening sound akin to that of a wailing old woman. I shine a torch over the kids to check that they’re alive and well, then wriggle down into my sleeping bag hoping we all survive the night.
Daylight came, and I asked a fellow camper about the screaming in the night. “A Curlew”, he says. “A strange bird that sleeps by day and screeches by night.”
I consulted my bird guide: drawn out mournful wail or screech mainly at night. Mystery solved. And thankfully we were fortunate enough to get an up-close look at the culprit to put a face to the call.
Since that meeting, I’ve always been rapt and amused to set eyes on the odd, gangly-legged Bush Stone-curlew performing what it believes to be a disappearing act – it’s bulbous unblinking eye all that betrays its existence as it blends into the surroundings.
A summer trip to Far North Queensland this year scored several Bush Stone-curlew breeding observations, and ‘captivating’ hardly seems descriptive enough.
We also discovered that these peculiar birds can aggressively ward off intruders with a raspy hiss and dramatic defensive posturing to rival a far bigger and scarier beast. So well-camouflaged are these birds as they sit on their eggs, that we didn’t see mother curlew as we strolled around Yungaburra until she reared up at us like a raging bull, startling the daylights out of us. I reckon she could probably see off a wayward dog or cat that got too nosy. I hope so.
Further into the Atherton Tablelands (at Mt Malloy), we happened upon a pair of curlews with a pair of chicks. What adorably peculiar babies, body prostrate on the ground with bill pointing out the front of the flattened fluff-ball body, and fat knobbly legs stuck out the back. Both parents wandered off innocently, bobbing up and down diverting attention away from the youngsters. We admired the chicks for a few moments, and then left the family to carry on.
As always, I felt privileged to get a glimpse into the breeding habits of our native birds – albeit unwelcome from the birds’ point of view.