Mungo in late November is hot. By 11.30am walking outside is unattractive, no matter how captivating the big mob of Emus look in the heat shimmer. The historic rough-sawn bulk of the Mungo Woolshed promises relief, so I duck inside.
Just above my head, a Welcome Swallow dismisses me with a glance. Elegant and haughty, swallows are creatures of the air, not of the land. Humans, it seems, are nothing more to them than builders of convenient eaves for swallow nest sites.
I scan the large room. No wonder the swallow seemed calm. The woolshed is full of swallows. I see thirty on the ceiling braces of one alcove. Each rafter holds a swallow, and every few minutes a soft blue blur reveals another swallow entering.
Welcome Swallows are high speed aerial acrobats. They fly endlessly without tiring, sometimes completing figures-of-eight around your legs as you walk across a park. Mostly when you see them flying they are hunting – the small insects they prey on are invisible to our eyes, but the swallow’s acrobatic manoevres are the hunter in pursuit.
But the middle of the day in The Outback is hot. Even the insects seek shade (have you ever walked into an Outback dunny* on a hot day to find it full of flies? They get hot too!) Perhaps the swallows find it hard to hunt in very high temperatures and take a siesta in the woolshed.
The Mungo Woolshed may have been built for humans to make money from wool, but it has another purpose now. Its the Mungo Swallow-shed.
Bird names are a bit like the English language – a lumpy soup of broken rules, throwbacks, dialects and slang. Some birds are named for their appearance: Tawny Frogmouth, White-throated Needletail; for their behaviour: Plains Wanderer, Bee-eater; for their similarity to other birds: Quail-thrush, Cuckooshrike, Fairywren; some for their calls: Laughing Kookaburra, Clinking Currawong and some for the region and habitat they live in: Atherton Scrubwren, Australian Reed-warbler.
Others are named for a combination of features, and some for reasons so twisted and mangled that they are nearly untraceable: Pitta, Cockatoo and the hilarious Drongo.
So when you look at a large, elegant, vermillion and emerald-green parrot, the name King-Parrot seems sensible. The plumage of the adult male is reminiscent of expensive velvet cloaks with shimmering satin linings. A flash of turquoise on the wing sparkles like a diamond bracelet.
Obviously King-Parrots are named for their appearance? Well, no.
Watch this elegant parrot for a while and you will see that they are special. They inhabit the cool, wet forests of eastern Australia. They are sensitive to heat and dryness. High in the mighty eucalyptus forests of East Gippsland you will hear their ringing call, but they are elusive and sometimes difficult to see. The ground level of us mere mortals is a long way beneath them.
If you own a bird feeder, as Sue & Glenn Herbert of Snowy River Homestead in Orbost do, you will meet many glorious Rainbow Lorikeets, Galahs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Crimson Rosellas, who crowd and squabble over seed treats.
Rarely, though, will you see a King-Parrot. They will wait until the others have gorged and then calmly appear. They will not squabble. They will not debase themselves. Somehow they know that you have saved a little seed for the most regal of visitors.
Okay, then King-Parrots must named for their behaviour? No, afraid not.
There is another way to name a bird. A name can honour a person. American naturalist Thomas Horsfield has a bronze-cuckoo and a bushlark named after him, artist John Lewin has a rail and a honeyeater, ornithologist John Gould has a finch and a petrel, and royalty are well represented by (Queen) Victoria’s Riflebird and Princess (Alexandra’s) Parrot.
Politicians and heads of state also get their share of bird-names-in-honour. Barack Obama, Indira Gandhi and Nelson Mandela all have birds named for them. But this is not just a recent phenomenon.
Philip Gidley King, Governor of New South Wales from 1800-1806 is the King-Parrot’s name source.
According to “Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide” by Jeannie Gray & Ian Fraser, the name King’s Parrot was proposed by George Caley to honour Governor King. Whether King ever saw or appreciated his namesake is not known. The poor fellow died in 1808, only 2 years after resigning his post as governor and returning to England.
What do children do if they don’t have toys? They make them! Baby animals are just the same as human children in some respects. They play with what they have.
Three Jabiru chicks were walking with their parent across a Top End, Northern Territory floodplain on a hot September day. We were lucky enough to be driving past, and did a quick U turn to watch.
Their cautious parent took them into the bushes upon seeing us, but after a few minutes the kids lost interest in hiding and started looking for some fun. A small tree on the open floodplain was calling them: “Come and pull me apart, why don’t you?” The temptation was too much.
Out they marched, one chick the ringleader. She ambled up to the small tree and grabbed hold of a dangly bit of branch and pulled. Her brother and sister looked on, uncertainly. The ringleader pulled and twisted until finally, the branch broke free. What fun! Brother and sister decided to try some for themselves.
All three chicks gave the tree hell for several minutes. It was so funny to watch. They pulled, they prodded, they grabbed high and low. Of course, when siblings play it often ends up in a squabble. “You stole my branch, bro! Give it back, or I’ll peck you! Ooooh, you’re asking for it…Give it back NOW”
But there’s a serious side to play. Baby animals play in ways that teach them how to use their bodies for serious adult life. Jabirus use their beaks for catching, killing and eating fish and carrion. So of course they must learn to use their beaks as babies. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? But think of how long it takes human infants to learn to use their hands to eat, or write! Motor skills take time to develop.
The call of the Laughing Kookaburra is one of the true songs of Australia. It sums up so much about our country: raucous, full of joy, spontaneous and fun. It is multi-layered and gregarious – only a family singing together can do it properly. Its not sweet or melodic, but it brings a mischievous smile to your face every time you hear it. Watch: https://youtu.be/t8mCEXWSO44
Kookaburras are only found in the Australasian region, so you won’t hear that marvellous call anywhere but downunder.
Australia and New Guinea are their strongholds: Australia has the famous Laughing Kookaburra, and shares the pretty Blue-winged Kookaburra with New Guinea. New Guinea has an additional three: the stunning Spangled and Rufous-bellied Kookaburras and the special, little Shovel-billed Kookaburra (which is different to the other four – its in a genus all by itself). The tiny Aru Islands of Indonesia, just between New Guinea and Australia, also have Spangled Kookaburras.
It is the Laughing Kookaburra of eastern and southern Australia that gives the group its fame. To look at he is nothing special – a brown and white kingfisher with a splash of blue in his wing. But seeing a kookaburra is not that important, its hearing them that counts. Their crazy wonderful call bursts out from a majestic gum-tree like the forest itself can’t surpress its happiness any longer and has to shout it to the world. Listen: https://soundcloud.com/nature-sounds/laughing-kookaburra-dacelo-novaeguineae It is a call of sunshine, and nature and life. The Anthem of The Bush.
Mimicing the song is not easy, partly because the call is not made by one bird – it is made by a whole family. One bird sings “koo koo koo”, her mate sings “Ka ka ka” overlapping, like singing a round. The children chime in and the song becomes complex, layered, thrilling. In fact singing together keeps the family bond alive.
If you live here, take a trip to the bush sometime soon (you can even join us on our Koala Conservation Day for Locals) and let the Kookaburra make you feel alive. If you live overseas, plan a trip to Australia and include a day outside of the city (the Koalas & Kangaroos IN THE WILD day trip from Melbourne is a great way to hear kookaburras). You’ll never forget hearing this song!
This week on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter we are featuring the beautiful Spotted Pardalote! #spottedPardalote week.
Spotted Pardalotes are gorgeous, tiny Australian Bush birds. They are only around 9-10cm long from beak to tail and weigh only 8 grams. They are one of Australia’s smallest birds.
Spotted Pardalotes are more often heard than seen – their penetrating call is bigger than they are! It is one of those calls that is persistent, continual – its so much a part of eucalyptus forests that you often don’t notice it until they stop calling!
Male Spotted Pardalotes have a brilliant gold chin/throat, black crown with white spots and scalloped black & white cheeks. You can tell them apart from female Spotted Pardalotes – she has a cream chin and yellow spots on her head and plainer cheeks.
Young/juvenile/immature Spotted Pardalotes are like females, but paler and plainer.
Strangley, for a tree canopy feeder, pardalotes nest in hollows dug into the ground. Watch this video to see what trouble this can get them into! https://youtu.be/8NrL4fOcqt8.
Spotted Pardalotes mostly live along Australia’s temperate east, south & west coast, and Tasmania. They do extend north to Cooktown, Queensland, in a thin band in the mountain forests. Spotted Pardalotes live in eucalyptus forests, both wet and dry including mallee. They need eucalyptus with good canopy. Their food is the insects, like psyllids, that feed on the leaves and insect exudates, like lerp. In his book “Where Song Began” Tim Low suggests that pardalotes’ spots might mimic their white lerp food. Pardalotes certainly do blend in with the leaves and can be hard to see high in eucalyptus canopy.
Spotted Pardalotes are not the same as Forty-spotted Pardalotes, though both species have lots of spots. Forty-spotted Pardalotes only live in Tasmania, whereas Spotted Pardalotes live both on the mainland and in Tasmania. I don’t know who counted the spots on Forty-spotted Pardalotes, but Spotted Pardalotes acutally have more spots: spots on their crown, wings and tail. Forty-spotteds only have spots on the wings. Maybe Spotted Pardalotes should be called Hundred-spotted Pardalotes! Read about Forty-spotteds here: http://birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/forty-spotted-pardalote
There are four species of pardalote in Australia. Striated Pardalotes (see here: http://birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/striated-pardalote) have more stripes than spots, as the name suggests, and they live in a wider band almost throughout Australia, except only the western deserts. The Red-browed Pardalote (see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-browed_pardalote) lives roughly inland of the Spotted Pardalote – almost everywhere the Spotted doesn’t go. They are like a Striated Pardalote with some spots on the crown.
Stay tuned for next week: exciting videos of kangaroo joeys! #EasternGreyKangaroo week
In the Top End there’s a bird made of shadows and stardust.
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.
But the pools were peaceful, shady andfair dinkumit 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.
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.
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.
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.