Birds of the Burnett River, Queensland, Australia
Birds of the Burnett River, Queensland, AustraliaReport Abuse
The Burnett River is a big slow-moving sort of river, turbid from eons of moving silt up and down. Where the Moose is anchored, eight miles up from the sea, the direction changes twice a day as the tide comes in and then ebbs. At high water the mangroves are fully awash and at low the muddy shoulders of the bank slope down to the flow. The birds work the river in two shifts: the cycle of the tides and the rising and setting of the sun.
The Aboriginals believe that the sun is pulled around the skies by a god and that he times his appearance by listening for the insane call of the kookaburra just before dawn. And it is true; the kookaburra is always the first bird to awake. It is a taboo among the Aboriginals to imitate the call of the kookaburra because it might cause the sun to be catastrophically brought out at the wrong time. The kook’s call is a long drawn out and maniacal laugh that rises and falls in a series: “hu, hu, hu, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha….” The bird looks like a large, thick-billed and poorly dressed kingfisher, which in truth it is. Often the kooks will begin their pre-dawn reveille in a two, and even three, part chorus, one coming in over top of the other. It’s a near human sort of sound and it demands attention; probably because there’s (obviously) a wonderful joke out there, and you just slept through it!
It doesn’t take much of an uproar from the trio of kookaburras to get the rainbow loraquets fired up. They roost, in the hundreds, in the gum trees across the river, and in fact they’ve been squabbling all night long. They chatter away about who shouldn’t be on this branch at all, but should be down lower, with his “own” clan, where he belongs. These single arguments are audible, but they don’t take on any more significance than wallpaper does, they’re only background noise. But when a breakaway part of the whole flock wheels over the boat, conversation is blown away by the wave of sound. It’s like a train with the brakes locked, screeching to a halt. But with loraquets there is never a halt; they’re like a schoolyard where the bell never rings.
Under cover of this racket the egrets and herons have left their nighttime hunting stands and struck out deliberately for home. Tonight they’ll be back, landing with a solitary “croak” on a derelict wharf, or perhaps a yacht’s mooring line that hangs over a school of baitfish.
On the point, up by the slipway, an Australian pelican is preening in the first rays of the sun. At this distance you can’t tell that he’s the size of a Christmas turkey. He’s a solitary bird now, because last week a bull shark came up under his mate and took her in one crunching bite and a swirl of brown water. It’s low slack water now – the brief intermission between the tides – and he will soon come down along the river’s edge. Last evening at slack water he paddled slowly past the boat. At that distance his size was evident and he looked like a galley making stately progress; and snapping up little silvery prizes along the way. The pelican’s food includes tadpoles, crustaceans and small turtles as well as fish – they will even drown a young gull and swallow it headfirst. This morning he opened his wings wide in the air – air that seemed to have a fluid, sunny mass – and with three sudden smacks of his feet was aloft. He came down the river at mast height, took an early thermal off the mudflat and banked up over the mangroves. Only the albatross can equal the pelican for grace - solid, muscular elegance in the air. He’ll be back, probably in an hour, with the first flow of tide up the river. He’ll be floating along with only the slightest dignified effort, fat and full from fishing and he’ll spend the rest of the morning putting every feather back in place, as proud as a Zulu.
Through the heat of the day most birds are resting. Only the Australian white ibis is working the riverbank. In groups of three or four they wander among the arched mangrove roots, cocking their un-feathered Egyptian heads and pushing those long curved bills into any promising wormhole. The ibis favors crayfish and mussels, which it breaks on rocks before eating. They look very exotic and Asian here, but they’d be just as happy going through a rubbish container behind a fast food outlet. The ibis has a solid tradesman-like approach to work, very blue-collar and probably union.
Later in the afternoon, in vivid comparison, three White-bellied sea-eagles arrive for their inspection of the shoreline. They are a family, a breeding pair and a live-at-home teenager. The adults are a ruddy brown with white underbodies and heads; the juvenile has a mottled pattern on the top of his wings. Their legs are featherless. They all have a short, strong, broad-winged configuration, with a wingspan of three feet. At this time of day the sea breeze runs up the river; it is generated by hot air rising off the land and sucking cooler air in from the sea. The eagles soar on this stream of wind, with their wingtips up in their distinctive “V” shape. They bank and wheel to double check some possible scrap or a fish lazing at the surface, but I’ve never seen them take anything, neither game nor carrion. Sometimes two of them will play, flying fast through the trees along the bank and calling to each other in almost purring tones, a sound like “Kiiiaaaaaaarrrr”. Perhaps they will expend a few strokes in flight, but overall the impression is one of royal effortlessness.
And as the afternoon deepens, the actors of the morning retake the stage. The night birds arrive at sunset, make a landing, a squawk of territorial possession and set up shop. But one thing in the cycle is different. As the last glow is doused in the west and the sky goes felt-hat grey, there is a quarrelsome, nasty noise that rattles and flaps in the mangroves under the bridge. Thousands of fox-faced bats that have been hanging upside down in the foliage begin to wake and protest. On some unknown signal – perhaps only that it’s almost full night – they flutter up and mill around over their roosts. More and more rise until, from a mile away, they look like the smoke of a poked fire. Then they form up into routes; one goes down the south bank and over the town; another files along the north. It passes over the mangroves on its way to the orchards of stone fruit out along the coast. Right over top of the Moose it flows, dipping and rising; thousands of bats flying drunkenly into each other’s paths, nearly colliding, over correcting and then nearly hitting again. They come on and on, almost endlessly. The moon has by now come up, and only a few late or confused ones circle or fly back toward the roosts – as though they had meant to stay home for the evening. And then they’re done and gone and the night will be punctuated only by the odd rasp or croak. Until, at last, toward dawn, a mad, foolish laughter will begin, and come cackling out of the eucalypts and across the river.