Dry, dusty inland Australia – the sky belongs to raptors and ravens. The land ‘belongs’ to humans to do with as ‘they’ see fit.
I don’t agree that particularly thirsty crops like cotton and rice have a place in Australian agriculture, but, I do appreciate the expertise, employment, and economic value and sense of pride that goes with these industries in rural communities. Travelling west from Hay in the Riverina, vast paddocks of cotton spread across the landscape, giving way to even bigger paddocks of wheat stubble. Not a tree in sight. Wait. There’s one. Just imagine the noisy scuffles in those branches when the whole bird kingdom feels the urge to nest at once.
Murrumbidgee River irrigation gives way to Murray River irrigation as we drive into the Riverland district of Renmark and Berri. Acres of quality vineyards and citrus orchards butt up to parched Mallee and saltbush country. The strategic placement of dripping water produces lush and bountiful fruit crops, not a drop goes elsewhere.
The might River Murray, according to records, is apparently nowhere as mighty as it once was. Over use and mis-use. I can’t verify that, but to my eyes, the Murray is still a splendid river, running wide and clean, lined with grand River Red Gums and weeping Willows. But I am just an on-looker.
And, I was overjoyed to see for myself that water is being allocated to maintain wetlands vital to water-birds’ health and wellbeing. What progress it is to see Murray River water diverted into wetlands surrounded by saltbush and sun-baked earth. Governmental view of environmental needs is finally making some slim changes that evoke hope.
As we prepare to leave the Murray River, I feel sure we won’t find another that can stand anywhere near its grandeur until we trip around Australia and find ourselves back here.
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.
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!
Two large trees were down over the forest road preventing us from continuing the drive we’d planned from Paluma on top of the Paluma Range. As Grahame manoeuvred our vehicle away from the road-block, a pair of Rufous Fantails put in a surprise appearance.
Although we’d seen Rufous Fantails often before, this was the first nesting we’d observed. The nest is very similar to that of the Grey Fantail with a small, very tight and neat cup with a ‘tail’ of about 10cm underneath. Both parents-to-be incubated the eggs, swapping over, and feeding close by.
A spectacular bird with it’s bright orange/tan fanned tail, it flitted about with amazing agility. But with all the rainforest in which to build a home, they chose a spot just a meter off the road. With all the impending noise and ruckus of chainsaws and workers removing the fallen trees, I do hope the fantails cope with the disturbance at their front door.
I was thrilled to briefly watch the behaviour of the fantails. If the road had not been blocked by fallen trees, we would not have seen this delightful activity. Grahame was rapt to get some photos of a bird that is usually too quick to be snapped well.