Shorebirds can be difficult to identify by a shorebird-novice like me. But for someone who appreciates the nuances of animal behaviour, they can be endlessly entertaining, even without names.
Cudgeon Creek estuary at Hastings Point on the north coast of NSW proved to be a great place to watch the comings and goings of sand dwelling birds – our first stop on our around Australia caravanning trip.
Other sand flats and rock walls gave up surprise encounters with fascinating birds too. Like the Osprey, a raptor that generally preys on water-dwelling creatures, but is not immune to opportunism created by humans. I watched a woman catch a garfish and secure it to a bigger fishing rod in the hope of tempting a table fish to her hook. But the Osprey had its name on that garfish. It swooped to steel the live bait from the line and flew off to feed on it from a high perch. Brilliant!
And bath time always provides plenty of amusing antics. Crested terns scooped water up with their bent wings, splashing like children for longer than necessary. They all bath differently. Ospreys stand alone in the shallowest of water, tentatively dipping headfirst, throwing water onto their back, with its mate on patrol in a nearby tree.
A Mangrove Heron skulks among the rock-pools searching out tiny fish, freezing like a statue, then thrusting its bill into the water at such speed that I always miss the catch. The heron did not miss.
Birds with long straight bills like straws, others curved downwards, poking and prodding the sand for morsels of food – birds that have flown halfway around the world. How is that possible? Incredible.
She was hanging in the garden in a huge web tinged with gold. A BIG spider. A scarily BIG spider. I first saw her while I was having breakfast outdoors. She darted to the bottom of the web pouncing on a brilliant blue butterfly. The butterfly escaped, and Mrs spider returned to the centre of her web, awaiting another hapless insect.
How do I know it was Mrs? Because in the spider kingdom, the female is usually hundreds of times larger than the male. At a close inspection, two tiny spiders were hanging out in the outskirts of the web, presumably waiting for a chance to impregnate the impressive mama, and probably get eaten in the process. It’s tough being a male spider.
During a late afternoon tropical shower, a dove flew through the web, leaving half the silky net in tatters. And then to make matters worse for the spider, the clumsy bird flew straight back again, almost taking out the spider.
More rain through the night, and when I checked out the spider in the garden, I was amazed to find a finch caught in the web. Now, the finch was only a little smaller than a House Sparrow, so that’s really some achievement for the spider’s silk – known to be stronger than steel of equal size. Nature is awesome.
The bird was still alive, and the spider showed no interest in the potential meal, so the owner of the Park rescued the bird and carefully plucked off all the silk fibres connected to its wings and legs. After a stumble, the bird flew off.
This is what I love about nature. All the little details. All the daily behaviour and mystery. And that’s why I notice Mother Nature’s subtle, yet wondrous stories. Because I don’t just look, I experience. Yes, nature is awesome.
They’re common birds. I see them every day. Yet they still provide interest and delight to a genuine lover of nature. With one wing lifted and spread out, the dove rolls over and appears dead in the midday sun, presumably enlisting the heat to evict parasites. Its mate joins in the ritual. Then they get up, shake, spread the other wing and stretch out on the grass. Finches feed around them. Suddenly, with a whirr of frantic wings, birds large and small move as one, disappearing into the undergrowth. The brown torpedo-shape of a juvenile Black Butcher-bird darts low over the feeding grounds, diving into the undergrowth. The predator emerges empty-billed, and the pray remain silent and still until the clearing is again safe.
Nature plays out extraordinary sequences of well-being and survival, dedication and loss, life and death, everywhere, every day and night. To the human who appreciates and is fascinated by the details of nature, these sequences are always interesting, often entertaining, sometimes laugh-out-loud amusing, and with limitless beauty and wonder.
Whilst travelling, I meet other birdwatchers/photographers. Some are pleasant company, more are so obsessed with the end result of their hobby (ie: the number of ticks on their species list, or the perfect photo) that they miss the point of nature entirely. They emit stressful, threatening energy that repels the very birds they’re chasing. That self-serving vibration repels me too. I wander off in search of the natural peace that nature IS when nature is left to BE. And because I have no agenda, all I want from nature is to enjoy the beauty and magic of the moment, whatever that moment might produce, PEACE is granted to me.
Thousands of mangled kangaroo carcasses litter the roadside – some desiccated fur and bleached bones, others fresh and being devoured by ravens and raptors. A ghastly sight, but not much is wasted.
Mobs of kangaroos suffer the midday sun, searching out a morsel of grass worth eating. As brutal as it might sound, motorists unintentionally running the roos down are doing them and their kind a favour. The drought is harsh.
Creeks are bone-dry, rivers reduced to chains of stagnant puddles, farm dams are not much better. Emus wander aimlessly across abandoned paddocks, camouflaged against the grey bushland.
Acacias are beginning to bloom – today is national Wattle Day. Occasional thickets of cypress and weeping wilga share the landscape with the wattle and eucalypts. Hundreds of kilometres of the grey semi-arid vegetation and dusty earth becomes monotonous, so we pull over to rest and watch the birdlife. It’s only when you stop and take the time to observe the land that the birds reveal themselves.
We left the tropical Queensland coast and mountains behind a few days ago. Instead of sandy beaches lined with palms, we now have sandy plains, bull dust swirling as a willy-willy whips up the bare ground, and scrub struggling to survive.
The further west we travel, the less traffic we encounter. An occasional caravanner dodging road-kill, like us, and road trains ploughing through them. Australia is a vast and diverse country and I feel fortunate to travel in comfort and safety, and although the scenery is dull in colour and sparse in density, there is beauty all around for those who appreciate the details of nature.
Sitting quietly allowing the birds to come to you can, and does, produce some amazing up-close wildlife encounters. I don’t dress up in cammo gear or hide behind bushes – I feel sure the birds can sense they are not threatened.
I parked my backside on my camp stool, hoping the Eastern Whipbird family would come closer. And it did. A juvenile did its very best to coerce its parent into giving up some food. It pecked mum’s cheek, quivered its outstretched wings as if performing some ritual dance, all the while uttering a strange whinging sound that could only come from a hungry youngster. It chased mum around, darting under the boardwalk where I sat, even jumping up and down at my feet in anticipation of a hand-out. But it went without.
Entertaining. But what came next was even more delightful. A pair of tiny mouse-like creatures poked their noses through gaps on the boardwalk, sniffing, then flattened their bodies, pulling themselves through to the surface of the boardwalk. Yellow-footed Antechinus (pronounced anti-kye-nus). They jumped about in search of insects like they had springs under their feet, slid off the edge, scratched around in the leaf litter, and climbed trees. The more adventurous of the two disappeared into a hole, re-emerging from a hole in the other side of the tree. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.
Wild nature touches my soul. Warms my heart. It’s such a privilege to be able to watch native creatures at close range in their natural habitat, and I’m always grateful for the gift.
And just as I considered moving further up the track, a totally awesome bird, the Crested Shrike-tit, perched right in front of me at eye level. Shrike-tits are usually hidden and elusive in the canopy, but this beautiful thing showed itself to me. All the forest animals ignored me as I sat still and quiet, unobtrusive and non-threatening.
For a moment, I too, am a part of my natural surroundings, at one with the earth and its creatures. And I am beholden to the beauty and wonder of Mother Nature.
Twenty years ago, on 14 February 1997, the newly formed group of birdwatchers had their inaugural outing. Ten birdos gathered at Arkarra Lagoons for a morning of bird spotting, recording 32 species.
Local bird enthusiast, John Knight, presided over the meeting, but there have never been any official office-bearers. Twenty years later, John still endows the group with his passion for native birds and habitat, recording sightings from weekly outings.
Now, between 25 and 30 members gather early every Wednesday morning at one of the 80-odd venues in the Fraser Coast area, splitting up into small informal groups, the more knowledgeable always offering assistance and expertise when requested. For me, it is always a learning experience as well as an enjoyable social occasion.
Following two hours of birdwatching, everyone meets for morning tea and some socialising. Then it’s time for the bird count. Those who wish to stay for another bird spotting wander, do so, and then meet for lunch.
To date, the group has identified about 300 bird species in the local district, with the usual weekly count between 50 and 80.
As the first meeting was held at Arkarra Lagoons, this was the choice for the anniversary meeting. More than 50 members and visitors celebrated the milestone with morning tea and a cake.
Observing the behaviour of Cuckoos, their young, and host birds is fascinating. Cuckoos parasitise nests of other birds, laying their eggs in nests of suitable birds, taking no part in incubation or parenting.
Channel-billed Cuckoos are Australia’s largest cuckoo, migrating to the north and east of Australia from New Guinea in spring to breed. They must lay their eggs in nests of large birds so that the host parents are up to the job of feeding the young. Pied Currawongs, Australian Magpies, crows and ravens are usually the chosen hosts.
According to BirdLife Australia, Channel-billed Cuckoo hatchlings don’t evict the hosts’ young like all other cuckoos – they simply demand all the food, and their massive size ensures they get it (thus, the hosts’ biological chicks perish).
While out with Birdwatchers of Hervey Bay at Arkarra Lagoons on 28th December 2016, we witnessed two Channel-billed Cuckoo fledglings being fed by a pair of Torresian Crows. This caused quite a bit of interest as the birdwatchers present (including me) had not previously seen a nest of two surviving cuckoos.
During the next week while Grahame and I were on a birdwatching trip to far north Queensland, we witnessed the same observation, with the host parents being Pied Currawongs.
It was an amusing and unusual spectacle, so we relaxed on our camp chairs in a park watching this odd family with very stressed and overworked parents. I’m sure my toddlers weren’t this much trouble!