Think airports, think runways, planes lined up awaiting take off, their great titanium wings plowing upwards cutting through air. And conversely on descent, that illusion of slow motion, still at great height and distance until suddenly plowing into the final approach and touchdown. Wheels grab tarmac which hurtles by at breakneck speed, before the great bird comes to a shuddering halt. Parallels before my very eyes as I sit on the deck, one crutch propped against the chair four weeks post hip surgery, still somehow quiet and a bit brain-woozed, gazing over the garden as the kookaburras make their entrance.
Another season has turned, late spring, the perfume of the Frangipani redolent. Several days ago I had an inkling that perhaps the breeding season had begun. ‘Our’ family of seven kookaburras have a nest in a hollow high in the trunk of one of the great eucalypts on our foreshore to which they return each breeding season. My hunch is correct and in the following few days one or two kookaburras appear on the balcony railing to take from our hand a small amount of offered food. Accustomed as they are to landing on the railing, they sit patiently, sometimes for a good half hour or more, awaiting the food they have learned to expect. They are well atuned to the nuances of the situation – their large heads cock slightly as they watch and listen to us approach the refrigerator in the kitchen. Heads cock again to the sound of the fridge door opening, then closing. As I reappear with the small pink plastic container of meat in hand, they once more cock their heads in recognition, glancing at me and as I near them, their velvety brown eyes look directly into mine, then looking to my outstretched palm to pluck small pieces of meat with their large beaks. The meat has been carefully mixed with Insectivore, a powdery substance made from ground insects, providing all the protein obtained in their natural diet. We’re discouraged from feeding the native birds but it’s an irresistible force availing us very close interaction with nature. But if we are to do the ‘wrong’ thing, at least let’s ensure we do it as ethically as possible, so I follow the instructions of the bird carer community.
A few days later it is a different proposition altogether. Several kookaburras now appear in a constant succession of landings, presumably because the babies in their tree hollow are growing, and with them, their appetites (and we are back at the airport scene- imagine the accompanying soundtrack, a child’s imitation of a plane landing, nyeaaihh). Just as with planes, wings outstretched, high speed approach, wheels down/feet forward; and there it is, a sudden and precise landing right in front of me on the railing, air scattering. If we have placed a piece of meat on the railing, it will be scooped up even before touchdown; but more frequently we are there with palm outstretched from which the pieces are gently plucked. Sometimes it’s eaten immediately; at other times they hold it in their beak for a few seconds, hesitating, eyes elsewhere, senses alert, indicating to me that they are going to take it back to the nest…take it to baby, I say, pointing toward their tree and off they fly, accompanied by a specific cluck cluck cluck sound, which I have learned to recognize as a message to the young, or perhaps to co-feeding adults, that they are on their way.
The departure – they are following the aerial runway in a slight curve from balcony railing to the end of our garden before veering to the right past densely foliaged trees to disappear out of sight to their nesting tree a little further along the foreshore.
In 2017 our community took a direct hit from Cyclone Debbie, a massive 4.5 category cyclone with gusts reaching category 5, almost 300 km per hour. A couple of huge coconut palms crashed to the ground in our garden and, to a lesser extent, a small number of very large trees on the foreshore. But enormous limbs and smaller branches were torn off everything, all foliage ripped off the trees leaving a completely devastated-looking garden and landscape. But here’s the glory – from our deck a sky full of birds was revealed. At a sudden we had an 180° view right along the beach and, for the first time, an unobstructed view of the hollow in the kookaburra’s nesting tree. We were then able to observe the entire process of that breeding/feeding season as the birds landed on the balcony railing and took off again in a direct line to the tree. Now, four years later, with foliage fully replenished, we only see the ‘take off’ via the end of our garden after which they disappear behind large trees en route to the hollow in their nesting tree a little further along the foreshore.
For those unfamiliar with kookaburras at close range, it is difficult to convey just how charming and idiosyncratic these stocky, sizeable birds are (about 40-47 cm in length). So tame are our group that they not only land on the railings but will perch on the back of our chairs or land on the table where we spend so much time sitting. Whoops, incoming incoming, speeding toward us along the aerial runway, the beat of wings fans air onto my face and one fella lands on the back of the chair on which I am sitting. I feel his presence behind me, then, unusually, feathers brushing against my neck! I turn sideways just enough to stroke the tail feathers. He is facing away from me and seems perfectly content to allow this as I chat to him using the terms of endearment to which they are all familiar-Kookoosh kookoosh, I coo, still surprised that he is allowing this amount of touching before finally relocating onto the railing a few metres away.
The largest of the Kingfisher family, two of the four species of kookaburras inhabit the Australian mainland, the Laughing Kookaburra (so named for their laugh-like call -go online to hear it) and the Blue Winged. We awaken at dawn each day to a cacophony of ‘laughter’ as the mob call and interact with one another. The two species look very much alike- same size, same colouration, both possessing a large head and powerful beak but the Laughing, which are the ones that come to us, have brown eyes that emanate a kindly expression. The wings of the blue winged kookaburras are more intensely blue and they have light coloured, cold-looking eyes and an entirely different call. Both types are present in our area but have clearly demarcated territories. We never see the Blue Winged at our place and conversely, our friends up the road never see the Laughing. The territorial boundary is some ten houses further along the road and on occasion I see a row of the blue winged ones sitting on a balcony above the road calling in their unfamiliar voices. I have also on occasion observed territorial warfare, a great fracas overhead as the two species have engaged in an aerial battle, swooping and flying at one another filling the air with noise.
Yes, the season has turned and with it a few other delights- the Peace lily on my balcony in bloom, the giant bromeliads throwing elegant tall orange flower heads, the phalaenopsis orchids still flowering but just starting to drop a few flowers…and Bertie, the nine- month old Dachshund from next door treating us like his favorite auntie and uncle, graces us with his sausage -like presence almost daily. He appears at the top of the external stairs, checks out the deck for possible remnants of meat which the kookaburras have inadvertantly let slip from their great beaks before heading into the kitchen and awaiting his little treat from Jon; and then he sometimes falls asleep in my arms, both his and my heartbeat slowing to meditation-something to be said for lap-sized dogs!
And then Roz my nearby girlfriend ,sends an SMS with a picture of a Tawny Frogmouth and its baby nesting in a tree on their property. I decide to venture out in the car, one crutch at the ready, to take a look before the little one fledges. Another unique Australian bird, they look very much like owls but bear no common lineage to them and, in fact, are more closely related to the kookaburra. The behaviors of these two birds, however, are quite different. The Frogmouth, like an owl, is nocturnal, and during the day perches on a tree branch. They are masters of camouflage often making it extremely difficulty to spot them as their feather colouration and design is so similar to tree bark. Note in the photo below how carefully one must look to spot the baby! If they feel threatened they assume a ‘frozen’ position sometimes referred to as ‘branching’, elongating their body to look like a tree branch. Their nest is a loose platform of sticks, usually placed in the fork of a tree branch. Given their large size, (a little larger than the kookaburra), I am surprised to note how relatively small the nest is on which the adult and young perch. The kookaburras crane their necks in our direction when watching for us to appear bearing food. But as I start talking to the Frogmouths in the tree before me, both adult and baby remain motionless in a frontal position moving only their large heads from side to side from the shoulders, like an exotic Balinese dancer, big eyes staring out.
As I am about to post this after another night of heavy rain, air freighted with humidity, not three metres in front of us a tiny olive-backed sunbird hovers over a chair on the deck followed immediately by its mate. One hovers mid air as if suspended, wings beating fast. Then its mate mirrors this behavior in front of a large potted plant a short distance away behind where Jon is sitting. It is enough to silence us – the wonder of their proximity, fearlessness and this gymnastic, mid-air display. It is a rare sight. In the twenty three years we have lived here, only once have they appeared on the deck to build their hanging nest but discarded it shortly thereafter. We do, however, often see them taking nectar from various flowers we have planted throughout the garden specifically to attract the honey eaters. Clearly they are seeking a place to make a nest and hopefully they make a wiser choice. Their most recent attempt resulted in a perfect nest suspended from our washing line, and not for the first time. This required some an adjustment on my part as to how to hang the washing leaving sufficient space for the birds to feel comfortable flying to the nest. Sadly by the very next day as I came to look, the nest had been ruined, half of it lying on the ground, probably destroyed by a kookaburra or butcherbird seeking eggs or young upon whom they prey. Little sunbird, find a safer place to build your next nest but please come visit again soon. And then a lorikeet with new fledgling lands and feeds its spring baby.
So, late spring brings new life and now, with summer only days away, early rains and wild storms have drenched much of the east coast of Australia. While our garden and immediate area flourish, extensive flooding has ruined crops just recovering from extended drought in many places in Queensland and NSW and rivers inland continue to rise. The world spins in its usual turmoil with much to worry about both locally and internationally and a new Covid variant emerges in S.Africa. All in all, a salient reminder to count our blessings and take daily pleasure in even the the smallest details of our lives.
Dear friends, stay safe and well and happy.