Monday, September 26, 2011

Serpentine bird

Everywhere you look on the Daintree River are sinuous lines, no straight edges. Mangrove roots and trees and vines tangle together. Green tree snakes tangle themselves around branches like tiny garden hoses. And the Great-billed Heron has a neck like a serpent, with a life of its own.

Great-billed Heron, Daintree River, Queensland, Australia
This is Australia's biggest heron, and then its bill is over-sized in proportion to the rest of its body. Shy, skulky birds, they lurk, standing like statues, waiting to stab passing fish.

We had all but given up hope of seeing this bird after a couple of hours on the river. We'd had Wompoo Fruit Dove making their spooky wollocky-wom-pooo call, Papuan Frogmouth so much like tree bark, Little Kingfisher flitting, impossible to photograph. But no Great-billed Heron, until in the gathering gloom, what seemed like one of the muddy, twisted tree roots unfurled great wings.

The photos I took where you can see the bird in all its plumage somehow don't capture the essence of the bird. Sometimes truth gets lost in the details. It's in silhouette that you can see its Great-billed Heron-ness. That gigantic bill, that snaky neck, the predator crouching like a cat.

Sunset, Daintree River, Queensland, Australia

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Egrets, I've had a few...

The whole time I was in Far North Queensland, the lyrics from The Go-Betweens "Cattle and Cane" kept running through my head in a loop. Coming from Brisbane, I especially loved that band because in the '80s who else sung about being in our corner of Australia?
I recall a schoolboy coming home
Through fields of cane
To a house of tin and timber
And in the sky
A rain of falling cinders
I was scared even of fireworks when I was little, yet I remember the sight of a whole cane field ablaze by the side of the road when I was on holidays seeming awesome and cool, not frightening.
The railroad takes him home
Through fields of cattle
Through fields of cane
Home. It was weird being back in Queensland, because it at once felt so normal -- as normal as the sight of my own hands and feet -- and so exotic. Trees that look like roots and vines that look like trees, not worrying all that much when it's red-bellied black snake that crosses your path because at least it isn't a brown or a taipan or a tiger snake, having to brake in the middle of a winding road for Brahman cattle that look like they just wandered off a Delhi street, and the Cattle Egrets that follow them everywhere, eating the bugs the cattle kick up in their wake.
This species is expanding everywhere in the world that land is being turned over for grazing. They came to Australia from Asia, and multiplied like crazy. Their huge numbers in Far North Queensland are a sign that the ecosystem is out of balance, that too many trees have been cut down for hamburgers -- yet even environmental mistakes can make a beautiful sight. The egrets fly in great numbers down the Daintree River each night to roost. I can't blame them. When I think of true stillness and peace, I think of the Daintree River. (Well, I think of those things and giant crocodiles.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rainbow Bee-eater

The thing I love most about watching birds is that exciting moment of confusion as the eyes and brain try to make sense of a random flash of color, to resolve it into something knowable. A burst of blue-green from the corner of my eye; we're near a pond; this is Far North Queensland, Australia. A kingfisher? No. Brain flips rapidly through the rest of its files . . . images remembered from a field guide . . . Rainbow Bee-eater!

Rainbow Bee-eater, Centenary Lakes, Cairns, Australia
These are not rare birds, but they were to me, as somehow I had never seen one before. For twenty minutes or so, Frank and I watched as it flew precise sorties, to pluck dragonflies from the air and return to its perch to dash the insects against a branch before gulping them down. It was gorging itself. So many dragonflies were meeting their doom that I lost count. It seemed the bird couldn't possibly fit anymore in its tiny stomach, yet somehow it kept going.

At first glance, the bee-eater is like a gorgeous piece of jewelry, a decorative folly of iridescence and tail streamers. But to an insect, it's a killing machine. Beneath all that finery is a nervous system wired to hunt. This bird sat on its perch in a state of complete alertness, scanning for any movement, and it almost never missed its target, many metres away in midair and invisible to my weak human eyes.

I love this bird's name. Rainbow Bee-eater, Rainbow Bee-eater, Rainbow Bee-eater. So improbable sounding. Yet for once, this bird has a name that actually makes sense (shock!) as it does eat bees. It eats wasps, too. It rubs them against branches to get rid of the stingers and venom glands.