Tuesday 6 March 2007

The accidental birder

I haven't had a chance to go birding recently. It's been too darned hot and I've been too darned busy/tired/cheesed off at life. So for a while now my bird watching has been restricted to seabirds at Williamstown and the more tolerant species around campus, in my garden and along freeways. Mind you, as that list includes pelicans, black-shouldered kites and the occasional wedge-tailed eagle, I'm not too despondent.

Although accidental birding has its moments in the temperate south-east, there's nothing quite like the tropics for spectacle. Here are a few of my favourite accidental bird watching episodes from Far North Queensland.

I was wandering around Tam O'Shanter State Forest near Mission Beach at night, looking for snails. As you do. I had a torch. I had a permit. I heard a rustle. Thinking that it was a small, ground-dwelling mammal, I followed the sound to its source. Not the paws of a bandicoot or pademelon but a very large pair of bird feet. One toe on each foot carried a big claw. A claw that was waaaaay longer than my index finger. I looked at the cassowary. The cassowary looked at me. Then we both pretended we hadn't seen each other and sauntered off in different directions.

A tropical low dumped vast amounts of rain on town, flooding roads and shopping malls and swamping parks and playing fields. The magpie geese had never had it so good. They took over the local oval, blanketing it in a honking, hooting black and white mantle. Every now and then, they'd rise in splendid disorder. All fun and games unless they were nesting within earshot.

I was on holiday with a friend on the Atherton Tablelands. While ambling around the back roads, we spotted some brolgas in a paddock. We parked at the side of the road. The cranes took off. What we had thought were half a dozen birds turned out to be about forty. And they were sarus cranes not brolgas, an even bigger bonus. We watched them until they disappeared into the distance. And then we had a celebratory beer at the Lake Eacham Hotel.

Crossing the Whitsunday Passage to the islands, I glanced up from the water (which I was scanning for dolphins) to see a frigatebird soaring above the boat. That more than made up for the absent cetaceans.

And the bustards at Fossilbrook. I think I've mentioned those once or twice.

When the birding is a bit sparse, I can always remember these moments. None of them planned but all of them prized.