A bird of stardust: the Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon of Australia’s Top End

In the Top End there’s a bird made of shadows and stardust.

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He is Doddorok*, the Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon. He is one of those people that you remember, but you don’t know why. Every glimpse of his subtle form is burned into my mind, even eclipsing the equally momentous Sandstone Shrike-thrush and White-lined Honeyeater seen nearby. Its like the stars that have sprinkled his plumage have also gifted him with touch of cool magic.

As a long-time lover of pigeons and doves, I wanted to meet him so badly.

On our first visit to Kakadu we had underestimated the Swedish sauna heat of a September day and had started the Gubara Pools walk late – around 10am. Its only 6km. Allow 3 hours, ‘they’ say. 3 hours!!?? Is everyone a birder up here? Well, ‘they’ were right – by the time we reached the thin monsoon forest strip where the Gubara Pools hide we were knackered and all our water was gone.

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the walk into Gubara Pools

But the pools were peaceful, shady and fair dinkum it had to be 10 degrees cooler beside them. So we loafed there for several hours, letting our bodies renew and the heat subside.

After an hour or so we started exploring – shady spots only! At one point Roger came rushing back from high in the rocks, waving and shushing me – he had found a pool, and a resident big dark pigeon. He thought it might be Doddorok but, good man that he is, he came to get me so we could make the discovery together. We had to go quietly he said, and hope that the bird hadn’t been disturbed.

You’ve never seen two people climb so furtively as we did. Step, look around, step again, like an overacted old movie. Doddorok would have been chuckling: “look at these two southerner idiots. They think I can’t hear them!”

Eons later (it seemed) we reached the pool. We sat. We waited, looking up at the shady shelf where Roger had first seen him. Doddorok tested our patience a little. Did we respect him? Had we paid our ‘ top end time tax’ to the spirits of Gubara? Eventually we passed the test and a dark head appeared and looked at us.

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Don’t be fooled by pictures showing a drab, dark bird. This pigeon has the loveliness of a tropical night. His dark head and neck is splashed with stars. Bluish eyelids close over dark eyes as he enjoys the silence in his shady enclave. A splash of the red rocks of his escarpment home shows in his wings when he flies.

The second time we saw him was powerful again. We had discovered that Nanguluwur, a short walk to a rarely-visited art site near Nourlangie, could be accessed very early. The walk is charming. Tropical savannah grasslands with pandanus and fern-leaved grevillea forest are visited by yabbering Grey-crowned Babblers, wisps of finches and red-backed fairywrens, singing Pied Butcherbirds and the occasional Diamond Dove. The forest rings with the maniacal calls of friarbirds and lorikeets.

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a tiny Diamond Dove on the walk in to Nawurlandja

On reaching the art site, the birds went quiet. I developed itchy feet, so on a whim, took off my shoes and made the final climb barefooted. It was like walking into a cathedral and removing one’s hat.

We whispered, pointing out the ancient and post-contact art on the overhang, not wanting to damage our tender connection with history. There’s something about being alone at an Aboriginal Rock Art site – the very silence makes you realise you’re not alone at all. We were being watched by at least one being. On an outcrop above our heads he sat, framed by red ochre paintings. He wasn’t disturbed. This is his place. Doddorok – the pigeon of the rock.

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Each time we go we look at every faded splash of red ochre and every diamond-spattered rock hoping to see him again. We can imagine his dark calm eyes watching, through a curtain of stars.

Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeons Petrophassa rufipennis live in the sandstone country of Kakadu and Arnhemland in the Northern Territory’s Top End. The population size is not known, but they appear to be stable in their preferred habitat, much of which is protected.

*Doddorok is the Kunwinjku, Gundjeihmi and Kuninjku language name for the Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon. To say the name go to this wonderful site of Bininj names of plants and animals: http://mayh-dja-kundulk.bininjgunwok.org.au/plant_or_animals/chestnut-quilled-rock-pigeon

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