Sunday, 2 September 2007

Beachcomber's bird concerto

In 1897, Edmund James Banfield left his job as sub-editor of the Townsville Bulletin and moved with his wife to the tropical solitude of Dunk Island. Banfield's health was suffering and he felt that the shift away from the stresses of work and civilisation might restore it.

It was a brave decision. His misgivings started on the boat journey to the island:
... it was an inauspicious landing. With September begin the north-east winds, and we had an average experience that afternoon. Was it not a farce--a great deal more than a farce: a saucy, flippant imposition on the tender mercies of Providence--for an individual who could not endure a few hours of tossing on the bosom of the ocean without becoming deadly sick, to imagine that he possessed the hardihood to establish a home even in this lovely wilderness?

But the couple kept going. They built a house at Brammo Bay, planted fruit and vegetables, kept goats and cattle and made a life for themselves on their "Isle of Scent and Silence".

Banfield's Confessions of a Beachcomber — filled with his observations of the natural history of Dunk Island — was published in 1908.

Here are some of his notes about the birds of Brammo Bay and their calls. (As a journalist, Banfield was no stranger to whimsy.)

Noisy pitta
Man trusts to mechanism to check off the watches of the night; birds to a self-contained grace more sensitive if not so viciously exact. The noisy pitta bustles along the edge of the jungle rousing all the sleepy heads with sharp interrogative whistles before there is the least paling of the Eastern sky.

Orange-footed scrub fowl:
During the day the megapode is sometimes silent, but ever and anon it gives way to what may in charity be presumed to be a crow–an uncouth, discordant effort to imitate the boastful, tuneful challenge of the civilised rooster. In common with "Elia" (and others) the megapode has no ear for music. It seems to have been practising "cock-a-doodle-doo" all its life in the solitary corners and undergrowth, and to have not yet arrived within quavers of it. It "abhors the measured malice of music."

Pheasant coucal
The swamp pheasant, or pheasant coucal ... is also an early bird, and a bird of varied linguistic capabilities. Folks are apt to associate with him but one note, and that resembling the mellow gurgle of cream from a bottle, "Glooc! glooc! glooc! glooc!" An intimate knowledge of his conversational powers leads one to conclude that there are few birds more widely accomplished in that direction.

Varied honeyeater:
Once aroused, the varied honey-eater is wide awake. His restlessness is equalled only by his impertinent exclamations. He shouts his own aboriginal title, "Go-bidger-roo!" "Put on your boots!" "Which--which-which way-which way-which way you go!" "Get your whip!" "Get your whip!" "You go!" "You go!" "None of your cheek!" "None of your cheek!" "Here-here!"

Though denied fluency of utterance, the spangled drongo has no rival in the peculiar character of the notes and calls over which he has secure copyright. The shrill stuttering shriek which accompanies his aerial acrobatic performances, the subdued tinkling tones of pleasure, the jangle as of cracked china, the high-pitched tirade of jarring abuse and scolding at the presence of an enemy, the meek cheeps, the tremulous, coaxing whistles when the young first venture from the nest--each and every sound, unique and totally unlike that of any other bird, indicates the oddity of this sportful member of the crow family.

"Moor-goody" ... has the most tuneful and mellow call of all, and in obedience to the general law which forbids beauty to sweet-voiced birds, is soberly clad in two shades of brown, cinnamon the breast, dust the back. But it is of graceful form, and soft of flight as a falling leaf; the eyes are large and singularly tender and expressive. Often terminating in a silvery chirrup, the note, varied with melodious chuckles and gurgles of lulling softness, is exceedingly pleasing, the expression of a bird of refinement, content and sweet temper. Coming at frequent intervals from the jungle or the heart of the mango trees or acalypha bushes, and wheresoever foliage is thickest, the sound is always welcome, as it tells of some of the most desirable features of the tropics--quiet, coolness, and the sweet security of shade. It tells, too, of the simple life spent in seclusion in contradistinction to the "envious court" of the roysterers in the glare of the leafless flame-tree.

Dunk Island, with its feathered divas, remained the couple's home until Banfield's death in 1923.
Others may point to higher ideals and tell of exciting experiences, of success achieved, and glory and honour won. Ours not to envy superior qualifications and victories which call for strife and struggle, but to submit ourselves joyfully to the charms of the "simple life."

Edmund James Banfield ((4 September 1852 – 5 June 1923)


budak said...

beautiful! these old natural history observations should be required reading for both lit and bio classes!

Snail said...


And bravo to the Gutenberg Project for making all these works so readily accessible.