“As the sweet voice of a bird, Heard by the lander in a lonely isle Moves him to think what kind of bird it is, That sings so delicately clear, and make Conjecture of the plumage and the form.”
Frankly it must be admitted that the idea of retiring to an island was not spontaneous. It was evolved from a sentimental regard for the welfare of bird and plant life. Having pondered upon the destructive instinct which prevails in mankind, having seen that, though the offences which man commits against the laws of Nature are promptly detected and assuredly punished, they are yet repeated over and over again, and having more pity for the victims of man’s heartlessness and folly than regard for the consequences which man suffers in the blows that Nature inflicts as she recoils, the inevitable conclusion was that moral suasion was of little purpose — that there must be more of example than precept. In this particular case how speedy and effective has been the result will be seen later on. Man destroys birds for sport, or in mere wantonness, and the increasing myriads of insect hosts lay such toll upon his crops and the fruit of the earth which by the exercise of high intelligence and noble perseverance he has improved and made plentiful, that the national loss is to be counted by hundreds of thousands. In this, as in all other interferences with natural laws, we blunder unless we reckon
“With that Fixed arithmic of the universe, Which meteth good for good, ill for ill, Measure for measure.”
There may be a sort of satisfaction in the reflection, that for, perhaps, every insectivorous bird wantonly killed, some proportion of its weight in silver has to be paid indirectly by the country. But the satisfaction is of no avail to the dead bird nor to the species, unless the taxpayer feels the smart and becomes indignant. We want to save the lives of the birds, and the silver, then to moralise; not kill the bird and be compelled to spend the silver in destroying insects that the bird would have delighted to consume, and moralise upon the destructiveness of some hitherto insignificant bug or beetle, which has suddenly developed into a national calamity.
So it was resolved, as other phases of island life matured, that one of the first ordinances to be proclaimed would be that forbidding interference with birds. That ordinance prevails. Our sea-girt hermitage is a sanctuary for all manner of birds, save those of murderous and cannibalistic instincts. We give all a hearty welcome and make friends of them if possible. During the eight years of our occupancy many shy creatures have become quite bold and familiar; though I am fain to admit, with disappointment, that but slight increases in the species represented have been noticed. Four strange species of terns, which are wont to lay on the bare reef patches of the Barrier, now visit Purtaboi regularly every season, depositing their eggs among those of two other species, which in spite of disturbance by the blacks, year after year refused to abandon the spot. Possibly the fact that a haven of refuge has been established has not been widely promulgated among our friends. Those who are with us or visit us have peace and security, and are for the most part friendly and trustful.
Man — the late-comer, the last work, the perfect form — is not always kindly disposed towards the lower orders, though the dominion he exercises over them is absolute. Were not the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the very fish of the sea, given over to his arbitrary authority? Here the interest in birds is mainly protective. The printed law of the land says in ponderous paragraphs all duly numbered and subdivided, that it is unlawful to kill many Queensland birds; and the pains and penalties for disregard thereof, are they not set out in terrifying array? But who cares? Take, for an example, the lovely Gouldian finch. The law makes it an offence to kill the birds, or to take their eggs, or to have them in possession dead or alive. Yet trappers go out into the habitation of the bird and snare them by the thousand. Fifty thousand pairs have been sent away in a single season. Not one tenth of those which twitter so faintly and yet so sweetly to their tiny loves of their own land and their erstwhile freedom, ever live to be gloated over, because of their fatal gift of beauty, in London or on the Continent.
While this census ignores several birds of the island as to the identity of which doubt exists in the mind of the compiler, it acknowledges the presence of all permanent residents familiar to him, as well as casual visitors, and those which stay for a few hours or days, as the case may be, for rest or refreshment during migratory flights. Chastened by the half-averted face of irresponsive science, the glowing desire to inflate the list gave way to the crisper sort of satisfaction which is like the joy that cometh in the morning.
|BIRDS OF PREY|
|White Goshawk||ASTUR (LEUCOSPIZA) NOVAE HOLLANDIAE.|
|Wedge-tailed Eagle||UROAETUS (AQUILA) AUDAX.|
|White-bellied Sea-Eagle||HALIAETUS LEUCOGASTER.|
|White-headed Sea-Eagle||HALIASTUS GIRRENERA.|
|Black-shouldered Kite||ELANUS AXILLARIS.|
|Black-cheeked Falcon||FALCO MELANOGENYS.|
|Grey Falcon||FALCO HYPOLEUCUS.|
|Black Falcon||FALCO SUBNIGER.|
|Kestrel||CERCHNEIS (TINNUNCULUS) CENCHROIDES.|
|Fish Hawk or Osprey||PANDION LEUCOCEPHALUS.|
|Boobook Owl||NINOX BOOBOOK.|
|Rufous Owl||NINOX HUMERALIS.|
|Lurid Owl (De Vis)||NINOX LURIDA.|
|Pied Crow-Shrike||STREPERA GRACULINA.|
|White-winged Chough||CORCORAX MELANORHAMPHUS.|
|Manucode||PHONYGAMA (MANUCODIA) GOULDI.|
|Yellow Oriole||ORIOLUS FLAVICINCTUS.|
|Yellow-bellied Fig-bird||SPHECOTHERES FLAVIVENTRIS.|
|Magpie Lark||GRALLINA PICATA.|
|Brown Shrike-Thrush||COLLYRIOCINCLA BRUNNEA.|
|White-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike||GRAUCALUS HYPOLEUCUS.|
|Little Cuckoo-Shrike||GRAUCALUS MENTALIS.|
|Barred Cuckoo-Shrike||GRAUCALUS LINEATUS.|
|Caterpillar-cater||EDOLIISOMA TENUIROSTRE (JARDINII).|
|Pied Caterpillar-eater||LALAGE LEUCOMELAENA.|
|Northern Fantail||RHIPIDURA SETOSA (ISURA).|
|Ruffis-fronted Fantail||RHIFIDURA RUFIFRONS.|
|Black and White Fantail||RHIPIDURA (SAULOPROCTA) TRICOLOR (MOTACILLOIDES).|
|Leaden Fly-catcher||MYIAGRA RUBECULA (PLUMBEA).|
|Blue Fly-catcher||MYIAGRA CONCINNA.|
|Pied Fly-catcher||ARSES KAUPI.|
|Shining Fly-catcher||PIEZORHYNCHUS NITIDUS.|
|White-eared Fly-catcher||PIEZORHYNCHUS LEUCOTIS.|
|Spectacled Fly-catcher||PIEZORHYNCHUS GOULDI.|
|Black-faced Fly-catcher||MONARCHA MELANOPSIS (CARINATA).|
|Tawny Grass-Bird||MEGALURUS GALACTOTES.|
|Rufous-breasted Thickhead||PACHYCEPHALA RUFIVENTRIS.|
|Sun-bird||CINNYRIS (NECTARINIA) FRENATA.|
|Dusky Honey-eater||MYZOMELA OBSCURA.|
|Yellow White-eye||ZOSTEROPS LUTEA.|
|Varied Honey-cater||PTILOTIS VERSICOLOR.|
|Fasciated Honey-eater||PTILOTIS FASCIOGULARIS.|
|Yellow-tinted Honey-eater||PLILOTIS FLAVA.|
|Friar Bird||PHILEMON CORNICULATUS.|
|Helmeted Friar Bird||PHILEMON BUCEROIDES.|
|Flower-Pecker or Mistletoe Bird||DICAEUM HIRUNDINACEUM.|
|Black-headed Diamond Bird||PARDALOTUS MELANOCEPHALUS.|
|Eastern Swallow||HIRUNDO JAVANICA.|
|Swallow||HIRUNDO NEOXENA (FRONTALIS).|
|White-rumped Wood-Swallow||ARTAMUS LEUCOGASTER.|
|Shining Starling||CALORNIS METALLICA.|
|Noisy Pitta||PITTA STREPITANS.|
|Large-tailed Nightjar||CAPRIMULGUS MACROURUS.|
|Roller or Dollar-Bird||EURYSTOMUS AUSTRALIS.|
|Blue Kingfisher||ALCYONE AZUREA.|
|Little Kingfisher||ALCYONE PUSILLA.|
|Leach Kingfisher||DACELO LEACHII.|
|Sacred Kingfisher||HALCYON SANCTUS.|
|Mangrove Kingfisher||HALYON SORDIDUS.|
|Bronze Cuckoo||CHALCOCOCCYX PLAGOSUS.|
|Channel-bill||SCYTHROPS NOVAE HOLLANDIE.|
|Red-collared Lorikeet||TRICHOGLOSSUS RUBRITORQUIS.|
|Glossy Cockatoo||CALYPTORHYNCHUS VIRIDIS (LEACHIT).|
|White Cockatoo||CACATUA GALERITA.|
|Red-winged Lory||PTISTES ERYTHROPTERUS.|
|PIGEONS AND DOVES|
|Rose-crowned Fruit Pigeon||PTILOPUS EWINGI.|
|Purple-crowned Fruit Pigeon||PTILOPUS SUPERBUS.|
|Purple-breasted Fruit Pigeon||MEGALOPREPIA MAGNIFICA.|
|Allied Fruit Pigeon||MEGALOPREPIA ASSIMILIS.|
|Nutmeg Pigeon||MYRISTICIVORA SPILORRHOA.|
|White-headed Fruit Pigeon||COLUMBA LEUCOMELA.|
|Pheasant-tailed Pigeon||MACROPYGIA PHASIANELLA.|
|Barred-shouldered Dove||GEOPELIA HUMERALIS.|
|Ground Dove||GEOPELIA TRANQUILA.|
|Little Dove||GEOPELIA CUNEATA.|
|Little Green Pigeon||CHALCOPHAPS CHRYSOCHLORA.|
|Brown Quail||SYNAECUS AUSTRALIS.|
|Scrub Fowl||MEGAPODIUS DUPERREYI (TUMULUS).|
|Bald Coot||PORPHYRIO MELANONOTUS.|
|Little Quail||TURNIX VELOX.|
|Pectoral Rail||HYPOTAENIDIA PHILIPPINENSIS.|
|Crane or Native Companion||ANTIGONE AUSTRALASIANA.|
|Stone Plover||BURHINUS (OEDICNEMUS) GRALLARIUS.|
|Long-billed Stone Plover||ORTHORHAMPHUS (ESACUS) MAGNIROSTRIS.|
|Turnstone||ARENARIA (STREPSILAS) INTERPRES.|
|Pied Oyster-catcher||HAEMATOPUS LONGIROSTRIS.|
|Black Oyster-catcher||HAEMATOPUS UNICOLOR.|
|Masked Plover||LOBIVANELLUS MILES.|
|Red-capped Dottrel||AEGIALITIS RUFICAPILLA.|
|Black-fronted Dottrel||AEGIALITIS (MELANOPS) NIGRIFRONS.|
|Red-necked Avocet||RECURVIROSTRA NOVAE-HOLLANDIAE.|
|Barred-rumped Godwit||LIMOSA NOVAE-SEALANDIAE|
|Common Sandpiper||TRINGOIDES HYPOLEUCUS.|
|Greenshank||GLOTTIS NEBULARIUS (GLOTTOIDES).|
|Crested Tern||STERNA BERGII.|
|Brown-winged Tern||STERNA ANAESTHETA.|
|Sooty Tern||STERNA FULIGINOSA.|
|White-shafted Ternlet||STERNA SINENSIS.|
|Black-naped Tern||STERNA MELANAUCHEN.|
|White-capped Noddy||MICRANOUS LEUCOCAPILLUS.|
|White Ibis||IBIS MOLUCCA.|
|Straw-necked Ibis||CARPHIBIS SPINICOLLIS.|
|Plumed Egret||MESOPHOYX PLUMIFERA.|
|White Egret||HERODIAS TIMORIENSIS.|
|White-fronted Heron||NOTOPHOYX NOVAE-HOLLANDIAE.|
|Reef Heron||DEMIEGRETTA SACRA.|
|Little Mangrove Bittem||BUTORIDES STAGNATILIS.|
|Yellow-necked Mangrove Bittem||DUPETOR GOULDI.|
|Little Cormorant||PHALACROCORAX MELANOLEUCUS.|
|Masked Gannet||SULA CYANOPS.|
|Red-legged Gannet||SULA PISCATOR.|
|Brown Gannet (Booby)||SULA SULA (FIBER).|
|Lesser Frigate Bird||FREGATA ARIEL|
|Black-throated Grebe||PODICIPES NOVAE-HOLLANDIAE.|
|Black Duck||ANAS SUPERCILIOSA.|
|Grey Teal||NETTION (ANAS) GIBBERIFRONS.|
Why have we no residential parrot, though cockatoos are plentiful; no scrub turkey though the megapode scampers in all directions in the jungle; no common black crow, nor butcher bird, though other shrikes (the magpie for instance) come and go; no wren, no finch, no lark? Scrub turkeys (TALLEGALLA LATHAMI), mound builders like the megapode, are plentiful all along the coast, at certain seasons visiting the scrub which margins the opposite beach, but they are not found on these islands. The blue mountain parrot (red-collared lorikeet), the red-winged lory, the black cockatoo (Leach’s), and other well-known species, fleet and venturesome, to whom two miles and a half of “salt, estranging sea” cannot be any check, certainly do not use the island for nesting as birds of “innocent and quiet minds” might. Gauze-winged butterflies flit across the channel, occasionally in great numbers. What law restrains virile birds from the venture?
The absence among the residents of swimming birds, save the beach frequenters, is due to the lack of open fresh water, though there are indications of the past existence of at least one swamp, and also that it was drained naturally by the fretting away of a sand ridge by the sea.
How is it, that though we have echidna in three different colours — black, grey and straw — there is no typical marsupial, large or small, no iguana (rather, monitor lizard), though a fair variety of other reptiles, from white, house-haunting geckoes to carpet snakes? Though the CYCAS MEDIA is plentiful on the seaward slopes of the adjacent mainland, no trace of that interesting old-world plant has been discovered here. and but one casual representative has been found of the graceful fan palm (LICUALA MUELLERI), another relic of the far beginning of Australia. No doubt the seed whence the single fan palm sprung would be brought hither by a nutmeg pigeon; but there is no bird-carrier for the CYCAD, and the set of the current is opposed to its transport by the sea.
In birds and in mammals and in plants, wide-spread Australian groups are unrepresented.
Before there is any visible sign of the break of day, some keener and finer perception than man possesses reveals it to the noisy pitta, or dragoon bird, which in duty bound makes prompt proclamation. 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. He scents the sun as the ghost of Hamlet’s father the morning air. His version of “Sleepers, wake,” echoes in the silence in sharp, staccato notes. Seldom heard during the heat of the day, they are oft repeated at dusk and late in the evening. Of all the birds of the day his voice is the last as well as the first, and from that the natives derive his name, “Wung-go-bah.”
As the dawn hastens a subdued fugue of chirps and whistles, soft, continuous and quite distinct from the cheerful individual notes and calls with which the glare is greeted, completes a circle of sounds. Wheresoever he stands the listener is in the centre of ripples of melody which blend with the silence almost as speedily as the half lights flee before the pompous rays of the imperial sun. This charming melody is but a general exclamation of pleasure on the recovery of the day from the apprehension of the night, a mutual recognition, an interchange of matutinal compliments. Those who take part in it may be jealous rivals in a few minutes, but the first impulse of each new day is a universal paean, not loud and vaunting, but mellow, sweet and unselfish.
The cackle and call of the scrub fowl (MEGAPODIUS DUPERREYS) are nocturnal as well as sounds of the day, being repeated at intervals all through the night. Rarely venturing out of the shades of the jungle, the eyesight of this bird is, no doubt, specially adjusted to darkness and subdued lights, and is thus enabled to detect and prey upon insects which during the day lurk under leaves and decayed wood, or bury themselves in the surface of the ever moist soil. Astonishment is excited that there can by any possibility be any grubs or beetles, centipedes and worms, scorpions and spiders left to perpetuate their species, when the floor of the jungle is raked over with such assiduity by this powerful and active bird. 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.”
The inclusion among the birds of the air of such an inveterate land lover, a bird which seldom takes flight of its own motive, is permissible on general principles, while its practical exercise of rare domestic economy entitles it to special and complimentary notice. Reference is made elsewhere to the surpassing intelligence of the megapode in taking advantage of the heat caused by the fermentation of decaying vegetation to hatch out huge eggs. Long before the astute Chinese practised the artificial incubation of hens’ and ducks’ eggs, these sage birds of ours had mastered it. Several birds seem to co-operate in the building of a mound, which may contain many cartloads of material, but each bird appears to have a particular area in which to deposit her eggs. The chicks apparently earn their own living immediately they emerge fully fledged from the mound, and are so far independent of maternal care that they are sometimes found long distances from the nearest possible birthplace, scratching away vigorously and flying when frightened with remarkable vigour and speed, though but a few hours old. I come gladly to the conclusion that the megapode is a sagacious bird, not only in the avoidance of the dismal duty of incubation, but in respect of the making of those great mounds of decaying vegetable matter and earth which perform the function so effectively. In a particularly rugged part of the island is a mound almost completely walled in by immense boulders. In such a situation the birds could hardly have found it possible to accumulate by kicking and scratching so great a quantity of debris. The material was not available on the site, and as the makers do not carry their rubbish, it was puzzling to account for it all, until it was noticed that the junction of two boulders with an inclination towards each other formed a natural flume or shoot down which most of the material of the mound had been sent. As the rains and use flatten the apex fresh stuff is deposited with a trifling amount of labour, to afford an illustration of “purposive conscious action.”
The megapode seems to delight in flying in the face of laws to which ordinary fowls are obedient. While making a law unto herself for the incubation of eggs, she scandalously violates that which provides that the size of the egg shall be in proportion to the size of the bird. Though much less in weight than an average domestic fowl, the egg that she lays equals nearly three of the fowl’s. Comparisons between the egg of the cassowary (one of the giants among birds) and of the common fowl with that of the megapode, are highly complimentary to the latter. A fair weight for a full-grown cassowary is 150 lb., and the egg weighs 1 lb. 6 oz. A good-conditioned megapode weighs 3 lb., the egg 5 1/4 oz.; ordinary domestic fowl, 4 lb., egg 2 oz. The egg of the cassowary represents 1 per cent. of the weight of the bird, the domestic fowl’s 3 1/8 per cent., and that of megapode no less than 11 1/2 per cent of its weight.
When these facts are considered, we realise why the homey head of the great cassowary, the layer of the largest of Australian eggs, is carried so low as she bursts through the jungle; why the pair converse in such humble tones and why, on the other hand, the megapode exults so loudly so coarsely and in such shocking intervals, careless of the sentiments and of the sense of melody of every other bird.
Though the powers of the flight of this bird are feeble it inhabits islands 3 and 4 miles further out to sea than their most adjacent neighbours. The laboured way in which a startled bird flies across the narrow expanse of my plantation proves that a long journey would never be undertaken voluntarily. Not many months ago some blacks walking on the beach on the mainland had their attention attracted by a bird flying low on the water from the direction of Dunk Island, 2 1/2 miles away. It was labouring heavily, and some little distance from land fell exhausted into the sea. When it drifted ashore — a godsend to the boys — it was found to be a megapode — and the feat was camp talk. None could credit that a “kee-rowan” could fly so far.
The swamp pheasant, or pheasant coucal (CENTROPUS PHASIANUS) 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. He does use the fluid phrase mentioned, but his notes and those of his consort cover quite a range of exclamations and calls. Just as I write a pair appeal for a just recognition of their accomplishments. That which I assume to be the lord and master utters a loud resonant “Toom! toom! toom! toom” a smooth trombonic sound, “hollow to the reverberate hills,” which his consort answers with a series of “Tum! tum tum! tum!” on a higher but still harmonious key, and in accelerated tempo. This, I fancy, is the lover’s serenade, and the soft assenting answer; almost invariably the loud hollow sound is the opening phrase of the duet. “Sole or responsive to each other’s note,” the birds make the forest resound again during the day, especially in the prime months, and even these notes find varied and pleasing expression. Free and joyous as a rule, occasionally they seem to indicate sadness and gloom. During and after a bush fire the birds give to the notes a mournful cadence like the memories of joy that are past, a lament for the destruction of the grass among which last year’s dome-shaped nests were hidden. The swamp pheasant also utters a contented, self-complacent chuckle, that resembles the “Goo! goo! goo!” of a happy infant, and occasionally a succession of grating, discordant, mocking sounds, “Tcharn! tcharn! tcharn!” The chuckle may be an expression as if gloating over the detection and assimilation of some favourite dainty, and the harsh notes a demonstration of rivalry, anger and hostility. The more familiar and more frequent note is the “Toom,” repeated about fourteen or sixteen times, and the thinner, softer response.
The bird resembles in plumage a pheasant. Cumbersome and slow of flight, clumsy in alighting, he frequently loses his equilibrium, and is compelled to use his long tail as a counter-balance, as he jumps from branch to branch ascending a tree, in order to gain elevation, whence to swoop and flop across the intervening space to the next. When compelled to take wing from a low elevation, the flight is slow and laboured in the extreme. He is a handsome fellow, the ruling colours being glossy black, brown and reddish chestnut. One writer describes the bird as half hawk, half pheasant, another as a non-parasitic cuckoo; another “really a cuckoo”; another a swamp or tree parrot with the foot of a lark. Without daring to attempt to dispute any of these descriptions, I may say that the bird is a decided character and possesses the charm of originality. He has become so confiding that he will perch on the gatepost as one enters, assuming a fierce and resentful aspect, and he will play “hawk” to the startled fowls. He eats the eggs of other birds and kills chicks; but his murderous instincts are rarely exhibited, and then only, perhaps, when his passions are aroused. He does not (as far as my observation goes) kill for food, but merely because Nature gives him at certain times and seasons a fiery, jealous disposition, and a truculent determination to protect his family.
As the sun shines over the range, the plaintive cooing of the little blue dove, such as picked the rice grains from the bowl beside rapt Buddha’s hands, comes up from among the scented wattles on the flat, the gentlest and meekest of all the converse of the birds. The nervous yet fluty tones are as an emphatic a contrast to the vehement interjections and commands of the varied honey-cater (PTILOTIS VERSICOLOR)— now at the first outburst — as is the swiftly foreshortening profile of the range to the glare in which all the foreground quivers.
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!” And darts out with a fluster from among the hibiscus bushes on the beach away up to the top of the melaleuca tree; pauses to sample the honey from the yellow flowers of the gin-gee, and down to the scarlet blooms of the flame tree, across the pandanus palms and to the shady creek for his morning bath and drink, shouting without ceasing his orders and observations. He is always with us, though not always as noisy as in the prime of the year — a cheerful, prying, frisky creature, always going somewhere or doing something in a red-hot hurry, and always making a song of it — a veritable babbler. His love-making is passionate and impulsive, joyous almost to rowdyism.
The drongo shrike is another permanent resident; glossy black, with a metallic shimmer on the shoulders, long-tailed, sharp of bill and masterful. He has a scolding tongue, and if a hawk hovers over the bloodwoods he tells without hesitation of the evil presence. He is the bully of the wilderness of leaves, bouncing birds vastly his superior in fighting weight and alertness of wing, and clattering his jurisdiction to everything that flies. When the nest on the nethermost branch of the Moreton Bay ash is packed with hungry brood, his industry is exhilarating. Ordinarily he gets all the food he wants by merely a superficial inspection; but with a family to provide for, he is compelled to fly around, shrewdly examining every likely looking locality. Clinging to the bark of the bloodwood, with tail spread out fan-wise as additional support, he searches every interstice, and ever and anon flies to the Moreton Bay ash, and tears off the curling fragments of crisp bark which afford concealment to the smaller beetles, grubs and spiders.
With the loose end of bark in his bill, tugging and fluttering, using his tail as a lever with the tree as a fulcrum, and objurgating in unseemly tones, as the bark resists his efforts, the drongo assists the Moreton Bay ash in discarding worn-out epidermis, and the tree reciprocates by offering safe nesting-place on its most brittle branches.
The drongo is a bird of many moods. Silent and inert for months together, during the nesting season he is noisy and alert, not only the first to give warning of the presence of a falcon, but the boldest in chiveying from tree to tree this universal enemy.
He is then particularly partial to an aerial acrobatic performance, unsurpassed for gracefulness and skill, and significant of the joy of life and liberty and the delirious passion of the moment. With a mighty effort, a chattering scream and a preliminary downward cast, he impels himself with the ardour of flight — almost vertically — up above the level of the tree-tops. Then, after a momentary, thrilling pause, with a gush of twittering commotion and stiffened wings preternaturally extended over the back and flattened together into a single rigid fin, drops — a feathered black bolt from the blue — almost to the ground, swoops up to a resting-place, and with bowing head and jerking tail gloats over his splendid feat.
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.
Perhaps the most interesting and entertaining of all the birds of the island is that commonly known as the weaver or friendly bird, otherwise the metallic starling, the shining calornis of the ornithologist, the “Tee-algon” of the blacks. Throughout the coastal tract of North Queensland this bird is fairly familiar. In these days it could not escape notice and comment, for it is an avowed socialist establishing colonies every few miles. There are four on Dunk Island, and though not permanent residents, spending but little more than half the year with us, they are among the few birds who have permanent homes. In some lofty tree they build perhaps two hundred nests in groups of from two to six. With all these nests weighting its thinner branches the tree may look wearied and afflicted, but it obtains direct benefit from the presence of the birds. The nests, deftly built of tendrils and slender creepers and grass are domed, the entrance being at the side, and so hidden and overhung as almost to escape notice. Each August the birds appear, coming from the north. and until the middle of March, when they take their departure, they do not indulge in many leisure moments. There are the old nests to renovate and new ones to build in accordance with the demand of the increasing population, and loads of fruits and seeds and berries to be conveyed from the jungle to the colony. The shining calornis is a handsome fellow, gleaming black, with purple and green sheen. The live bird differs so greatly from the dull, stuffed specimen of the museum that one is tempted to endeavour to convey by similitude its wonderful radiance. A soap bubble, black yet retaining all its changing lights and flashing reflections, is the nearest approach to a just description, and then there are to specify the rich, red eyes, eyes gleaming like polished gems. Until after the first year of their existence the young are brown-backed, and mottled white and bluish-grey of breast, and would hardly be recognised as members of the colony, but for the shrill notes and restless activity and those flaming eyes — living gems of wondrous radiance, and the eyes epitomise the life of the bird which is all flame and fever.
Twenty or thirty may be peering about in a bloodwood, and with a unanimous impulse and a call in unison they slip through the forest, and shoot into the jungle, flashing sun-glints. Eager, alert, always under high pressure, the business of the moment brooks of no delay. The flocks come and go between the home and the feeding-ground with noisy exclamations and impetuous haste. With whirr of wings and jeering notes they swoop close overhead, wheeling into the wilderness of leaves with the rapidity of thought, and with such graceful precision that the sunlight flashes from their shoulders as an arc of light. Work, hasty work, is a necessity, for their wastefulness is extreme, or, rather, do they not unconsciously perform a double duty, being chief among the distributing agents — industrious and trustworthy though unchartered carders for many helpless trees. When the company darts again out of the jungle, each with a berry in its bill and each shrilly exulting, many a load is dropped by the way, and many another falls to mother earth in the act of feeding the clamorous young. Berries and seeds having no means of self-transportation are thus borne far from parent trees to vegetate in sweet unencumbered soil. Other birds take part in this generous dispersal, but none engage in it so systematically or so openly.
Beneath the tree which is the head centre of the colony is a carpet of debris several inches thick. Old and discarded nests, fragments of unused building materials, the nutmeg with its lacing of coral-red mace, the blue quandong, the remains of various species of figs, hard berries, chillies, degenerated tomatoes, the harsh seed-vessels of the umbrella-tree, samples of every fruit and berry of attractive appearance, however hot and acrid, all go to form a mulching of vegetable matter such as no other tree of forest or jungle gets. Prodigal and profuse as she may be, Nature is the rarest of economists. Out here in the forest is springing up an oasis of jungle, every plant of which owes its origin to the shining calornis.
It must not be thought that all the notes of these most engaging birds, symbolic of light in plumage and in flight, are shrill and strident. When they feed — and they seem always to be feeding or carrying food — their chatter is perpetual and varied in tone. Occasionally a male bird sets himself to beguile the time with song. Then his flame-red eyes flash with ardour, his head is thrown back, a sparkling ruffle appears on his otherwise satiny smooth neck, and the tune resembles that of a well-taught canary — more fluty but briefer. But the song is only for the ears of those who know how to overcome timidity and shyness. Birds naturally so impetuous are restless and uneasy under observation. One must pose in silence until his presence is forgotten or ignored. Then the delicious melody, the approving comments of the songster’s companions, and the efforts of ambitious youngsters to imitate and excel, are all part of a quaint entertainment.
All the forest brood do not plot mutual slaughter. Some live in strict amity. Here in the Moreton Bay ash, taken advantage of by the shining calornis, a white-headed, rufous-backed sea-eagle nests, and the graceful, fierce-looking pair come and go among the glittering noisy throng without exciting any special comment. Of course it would be impossible to detect any certain note of remonstrance, for the smaller birds are generally commenting on something or other in acidulous tones.
Another occupant of this nestful tree is the sulphur-crested cockatoo, whose eggs are laid deep down in a hollow. Two or three hundred of the shining colonists, a brood of sea-eagles, white-headed, snowy-breasted and red-backed, and a couple, perhaps, three, screeching white cockatoos, represent the annual output of this single tree, in addition, of course, to its own crop of sweet savoured flowers (on which birds, bees, beetles and butterflies, and flying-foxes feast) and seeds in thousands in cunning cups.
How feeble and ludicrous are the voices of the fierce hawks and eagles. The white-headed sea-eagle’s puking discordant twang, the feeble cheep of the grey falcon — the cry of a sick and scared chicken — the harsh protest of the osprey, are sounds distinctive but frail, conveying no notion whatever of the demeanour and characteristics of the birds.
Now the white-headed sea-eagle, with its sharp incurved beak, terrible talons, and armour-plated legs, is a friend to all the little birds. He has the “stately face and magnanimous minde” that old writers were wont to ascribe to the Basilisk, the King of Serpents. They know and respect, almost venerate him. A horde of them never seeks to scare him away with angry scolding and feeble assaults, as it does the cruel falcon and the daring goshawk. Domestic fowls learn of his ways, and are wise in their fearlessness of him. But I was not well assured of the reasons for the trustfulness and admiration of the smaller birds for the fierce-looking fellow who spends most of his time fishing, until direct and conclusive evidence was forthcoming. Two days of rough weather, and the blue bay had become discoloured with mud churned up by the sea, and the eagle found fishing poor and unremunerative sport. Even his keen eyesight could not distinguish in the murky water the coming and going of the fish. just below the house is a small area of partly cleared flat, and there we saw the brave fellow roaming and scooping about with more than usual interest in the affairs of dry land. At this time of year green snakes are fairly plentiful. Harmless and handsome, they prey upon small birds and frogs, and the eagle had abandoned his patrol of the sad-hued water to take toll of the snakes. After a graceful swoop down to the tips of a low-growing bush, he alighted on the dead branch of a bloodwood 150 yards or so away, and, with the help of a telescope, his occupation was revealed — he was greedily tearing to pieces a wriggling snake, gulping it in three-quarter-yard lengths. Here was the reason for the trustfulness and respect of the little birds. The eagle was destroying the chief bugbear of their existence — the sneaking greeny-yellowy murderer of their kind and eater of their eggs, whose colour and form so harmonises with leaves and thin branches that he constantly evades the sharpest-eyed of them all, and squeezes out their lives and swallows them whole. But the big red detective could see the vile thing 50 and even 100 yards away, and once seen — well, one enemy the less. Briskly stropping his beak on the branch of the tree on which he rested, and setting his breast plumage in order, much as one might shake a crumb from his waistcoat, the eagle adjusted his searchlights and sat motionless. In five minutes a slight jerk of the neck indicated a successful observation, and he soared out, wheeled like a flash, and half turning on his side, hustled down in the foliage of a tall wattle and back again to his perch. Another snake was crumpled up in his talons, and he devoured it in writhing, twirling pieces. The telescope gave unique advantage during this entertainment, one of the tragedies of Nature, or rather the lawful execution of a designing and crafty criminal. Within ten minutes the performance was repeated for the third time, and then either the supply of snakes ran out or the bird was satisfied. He shrewdly glanced this way and that, craning and twisting his neck, and seeming to adjust the lenses of his eyes for near and distant observation. No movement among the leaves seemed to escape him. Two yards and a half or perhaps three yards of live snakes constituted a repast. At any rate, after twenty minutes’ passive watchfulness, he sailed up over the trees and away in the direction of his home in the socialistic community of the shining calornis.
The white-headed sea-eagle is a deadly foe to the pugnacious sea-serpent also. On the beach just above high water-mark was the headless carcase of one that must have been fully 5 feet long, and while it was under inspection an eagle circled about anxiously. Soon after the intruders disappeared the bird swooped down and resumed his feast, and presently his mate came sailing along to join him. The snake must have weighed several pounds, and apparently was not as dainty to the taste as the green arboreal variety, for after two days’ occasional feasting there was still some of the flesh left.
Shrewd as is the observation of the white-headed sea-eagle he is not exempt from blunders. Though he pounces with authoritative certainty and precision, he does not discriminate until the capture is complete, between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Generally whatsoever is seized is carried off, apparently without inspection. Perhaps the balloon fish is the only one that is promptly discarded. The sea porcupine (DIODON), which shares with that repugnant creature the habit of exemplifying the extent to which the skin of a fish is capable of distention without bursting, is frequently picked up from the shallow water it favours. Short sharp needles stand out rigidly from its skin, forming a complete armament against most foes. The sea-eagle does not always devour the sea porcupine, which at the very best is nothing more than a picking. Amongst such a complex labyrinth of keen bones a hasty meal is not to be found, and the sea-eagle is not a leisurely eater. He likes to gulp; and so when he has indiscreetly blundered on a porcupine he frequently unlocks his talons and shakes himself free, while the fish, inflated to the last gulp, floats away high and light, bearing on its tense silvery-white side the crimson stigmata of the sea-eagle.
When misguided fish have blundered into the trap in the corner of the bay, the sea-eagle demands a share of the easily-gotten spoil. Perched on the tallest stake, he faithfully indicates the presence of food that he cannot obtain unless by goodwill; yet who would deny the bird of his right? Having fulfilled his duty as sentinel, he soars to an adjacent tree, uttering that sneering twang which is his one paltry attribute, and when a fish is thrown into the shallow water he swoops down and is away with it to his eyrie. If the sand is bare, however, he cannot, owing to his length of wing, pick up the fish in his flight. Unbecoming as it may be to tantalise by trickery so regal a bird, a series of trials was undertaken to ascertain the height from the surface whence a fish could be gripped. Twelve successive swoops for a mullet flopping on the sand failed, though it was touched at least six times with the tips of the eagle’s outstretched talons. Consenting to failure, the bird was compelled to alight undignifiedly a few yards away, to awkwardly jump to the fish and to eat it on the spot, for however imperious the sea-eagle is in the air, and dexterous in the seizure of a fish from the water, he cannot rise from an unimpressionable plane with his talons full. On another occasion a fish was raised 4 inches on a slender stake. The sea-eagle dislodged it several times, but could not grasp it. Raised a further 4 inches the fish was seized without fumbling. Eight inches or so, therefore, seems to be about the minimum height from which a bird with 6 feet of red wing and a nice determination not to bruise or soil the tips, may grip with certainty.
No birds of the air which frequent these parts attract more attention than the white nutmeg or Torres Straits pigeons (MYRISTICIVORA SPILORRHOA), which resort to the islands during the incubating season. White with part of each flight feather black, and with down of pale buff, it is a handsome bird, strong and firm of flesh, and possesses remarkable powers on the wing. Half of the year is spent with us. They come from the north in their thousands during the first week of September, and depart during March. While in this quarter they seek rest and recreation, and increase and multiply on the islands, resorting to the mainland during the day for food. Their flights to and from are made in companies varying from four to five to as many as a hundred — but the average is between thirty and forty. Purpose and instinct guide them to certain islands, and to these the companies set flight. Towards the end of the breeding season, when the multitude has almost doubled its strength by lusty young recruits, for an hour and more before sunset until a few minutes after, there is a never-ending procession from the mainland to the favoured islands — a great, almost uncountable host. Soon some of the tree-tops are swaying under the weight of the masses of white birds, the whirr and rush of flight, the clacking and slapping of wings, the domineering “coo-hoo-oo” of the male birds and the responsive notes of the hens; the tumult when in alarm all take wing simultaneously and wheel and circle and settle again with rustling and creaking branches, the sudden swoop with whistling wings of single birds close overhead, create a perpetual din. Then as darkness follows hard upon the down-sinking of the sun, the birds hustle among the thick foliage of the jungle, with querulous, inquiring notes and much ado. Gradually the sounds subside, and the subdued monotonous rhythm of the sea alone is heard.
An endeavour, from the outset destined to be futile, has been made each season in succession, to estimate the number of nutmeg pigeons passing a given point per minute on their evening flight. With so methodical a bird, it was to be expected that the companies would have favoured points of departure from the mainland, and would fly along precise routes to a common destination. There are thousands of stragglers all along the coast, but the main bodies keep to particular routes. Most of those which rest on the islands in this neighbourhood quit the mainland between Clump Point and Tam o’ Shanter, the trend of numbers being toward the latter point. Six miles separate these headlands, but the channel between Tam o’ Shanter and Dunk Island is little more than 2 1/2 miles, so that the pigeons here become concentrated to a certain extent. Early in the season they pass Dunk Island at the rate of about 300 per minute, during the hour and a half preceding sunset. To speak more definitely, but well within the mark, those flying south, easily within range of sight from the sand spit here, may be calculated at something like 27,000. But in reality the procession of birds may cover a breadth of 2 miles, while only those flocks nearest to the observer are included in the estimate. No doubt, fully 100,000 come and go evening and morning. When the incubating season is at its height the number lessens; when all the young are hatched the unmarshalled procession trails along with but brief intervals between the companies — some flying low over the water, others high and wide.
Great as the company of birds seems, it is small compared with the myriads that favoured the islands in years gone by. Pioneers tell of the days when blacks were wont to make regular expeditions, returning to the mainland with canoes ladened with fledglings and eggs, which in accordance with tradition were devoured by the older men and women. The youngsters of the tribes were nurtured in the belief that if they partook of such luxuries all the pigeons would fly away never to re-visit their haunts. Strange as it may seem, the vast quantities eaten by the blacks did not seem to decrease the numbers. But since the advent of the white man, with his nerve-shattering gun, a remarkable diminution has been observed in some localities. No doubt it could be successfully maintained that the gun is responsible for an insignificant toll compared with that taken by the blacks of the past. But the birds were then deprived of their nestlings and eggs quietly, if remorselessly, while the noise of the gun is more demoralising to the species as a whole than the numbers actually killed.
Nutmeg pigeons are frequently shot by the hundred as they reach their nesting-place and mass themselves on the trees. Some of their nurseries lie far away from the usual tracks of the sportsman. Yet a single expedition during the breeding season to one of the islands may cause immense destruction and unprofitable loss of life. Though in lessening numbers they venture much further along the coast to the south, they keep well within the tropical zone. The most favoured resorts within many miles are the Barnard Islands, 14 miles to the north of Dunk Island. The whole of the tribes, therefore, though scattered for feeding over an immense area of the coast congregate on four or five islands — miles apart — to rest and breed. The assemblages are indeed prodigious; but they represent the gathering together of clans which have a very wide dispersal. Crowded together the host appears innumerable, but on the mainland during the day (when only the hen birds stay at home) the pigeons seem scarce. An occasional group may be met with, and they may be heard fluttering and flapping on the tree-tops (they are generally silent when feeding), but they are too thinly distributed to afford sport. Any other species of native bird which took to gregarious habits might seem as numerous as this. If all the sulphur-crested cockatoos, scrub turkeys, and scrub fowls scattered over an area of the mainland corresponding in extent with the feeding-ground of the nutmeg pigeons were massed each night in four or five communities, the numbers would seem startling; but because the poor pigeon, conspicuous and heedless, has the instinct or habit of association, it is argued that they outnumber all the other birds, that their legions are infinite, and that that fact is sufficient licence for the destruction of thousands during the breeding season. Compared with some species, nutmeg pigeons may be considered scarce, although their breeding establishments extend over hundreds of miles of the eastern coast of North Queensland. But it must be remembered that the birds breed only on the islands. To preserve them effectually certain islands should be proclaimed sanctuaries, and genuine sportsmen will never indulge their propensities when haunted by the thoughts of the consequent cruelty.
There are many contradictory statements in popular natural history works with reference to the habits of this bird, and it may not be out of place to quote what one authority says:—
“This singularly shy bird has acquired its popular name from the well-remarked habit it has of exclusively frequenting the wild nutmeg tree (MYRISTICA), in the tops of which it may be said to pass its life, except during the brief pairing season. Then it commonly selects the denser scrub or the mangroves, most probably guided by their contiguity to fresh water. Here it makes its nest, a more than ordinarily careless structure, the few crossed sticks barely sufficing to prevent the single egg it is destined to receive, from falling through to the ground. The fruit of the nutmeg is undoubtedly swallowed whole by the bird, and to the powers of deglutition is left the separation of the nutritive portion which we know as mace, from the hard and indigestible nut which is voided in flight. Thus this elegant little creature becomes the useful means of disseminating the remarkable nutmeg-tree, and it is found that some chemical treatment corresponding to that which it undergoes during sojourn within the body of the bird, is actually necessary before the nut can be fertilised and induced to take root. So strictly arboreal is this pigeon in its habits that it is questionable if it ever alights upon the ground, and so timid that it is impossible to procure specimens unless stratagem is resorted to.”
Some years of repeated observation enable me to offer certain amendments to this narrative, evidently written by one who has been impressed by half the life-history of the bird — the half spent on the mainland. The food of the nutmeg pigeon is multifarious. All sorts of nuts and seeds, and even fruits are consumed — quandongs, various palm seeds (including those of the creeping palm or lawyer vine, CALAMUS), nutmeg (MYRISTICA INSIPIDA, not the nutmeg of commerce, though resembling it), the white hard seeds of the native cabbage (SCOEVOLA KOENIGII), the Burdekin plum (PLEIOGYNIUM SOLANDRI), and all sorts of unpromisingly tough and apparently indigestible, innutritious woodeny nuts and drupes. Moreover, it fattens on such diet, but still the wonder grows at the happy provision which enables nuts proportionately of such enormous size to be swallowed by the bird, and ejected with ease after the pulp or flesh has been assimilated. As the birds alight on the island after their flight from the mainland, a portion of the contents of the crop seems to be expelled. A shower of nuts and seeds comes pattering down through the leaves to the ground as each company finds resting-place. Perhaps those only who are suffering from uncomfortable distention so relieve themselves. The balance of the contents of the crops seem to go through the ordinary process of digestion. Thus, by the medium of the pigeons, there is a systematic traffic in and interchange of seeds between the mainland and the islands. The nutmeg pigeon resorts to islands where there is no fresh water, and builds a rude platform of twigs, and occasionally of leaves, on all sorts of trees, in all sorts of localities. Palms and mangroves, low bushes, rocky ledges, saplings, are all favoured, no particular preference being shown. It rears generally two, but sometimes three young, one at a time, during the long breeding season, which continues from the end of September until the end of January, and for each successive egg a fresh carpet of twig or leaves is spread. A rare nest was composed of fresh leaves of the Moreton Bay ash, with the petioles towards the centre, forming a complex green star. No doubt the arrangement of the leaves was accidental, but the white dumpy egg as a pearl-like focus completed a quaint device. Another egg reposed carelessly at the base of a vigorous plant of DENDOBRIUM UNDULATUM, the old-gold plumes of the orchid fantastically shading it.
Those pigeons who elect to incubate on the ground discard even the rude platform of twigs, which generally represents the nest of those who prefer bushes and trees, but gradually encircle themselves with tiny mounds of ejected seeds, until the appearance of a nest is presented. At the termination of the breeding season these birthplaces of the young are indicated by circular ramparts, in the composition of which the aromatic nutmeg predominates. Personal experiments on the spot prove that these nutmegs germinate less readily than those taken direct from the tree. Planted with the red mace still adherent the nuts are quite reliable; others which have been swallowed by the pigeon and ejected, though submitted to like conditions, fail in considerable proportion. So that the oft-repeated theory that the Queensland nutmeg requires primarily to undergo some chemical process similar to that which takes place in the crop of the pigeon to ensure germination, has no foundation whatever in fact. The part the pigeon performs is to transport the nut to free, unstifled soil.
No bird is more precise and punctual in its visits. It comes to its nesting-places and departs with almost almanac-like regularity. It is a large bird as pigeons go, and becomes wonderfully tame and trustful when undisturbed. Specimens may be procured in thousands. Blacks, understanding their habits, climb particular trees known to be well patronised, and as the birds swoop down to rest, kill them easily with a swoop of a long slender stick, or hurl nulla-nullas into the home-coming flocks, just as they alight. It is not a good table bird, the flesh being dark, tough, and of an earthy flavour — far inferior to the generality of pigeons, and not to be compared with ground or aquatic game.
The tyrannical fig-tree of the species referred to elsewhere, in full fruit — pink in colouring until it attains purple ripeness — attracts birds from all parts, and for nearly a quarter of the year is as gay as a theatre. From sunset to sunrise birds feast and flirt with but brief interludes. A general dispersal of the assemblage occurs only in the tragic presence of a falcon, whose murderous deeds are transiently recorded by stray painted feathers. But the fright soon passes, and the magnificent fruit pigeon — green, golden-yellow, purplish-maroon, rich orange, bluish-grey, and greenish-yellow, are his predominant colours — resumes his love-plaint in bubbling bass. “Bub-loo, bub-loo maroo,” he says over and over again in unbirdlike tone, without emphasis or lilt. “Bub-loo, bub-loo maroo,” a grievance, a remonstrance and a threat in one doleful phrase; but to the flattered female it is all compliment and gallantry. That other, known as the allied — so like his cousin that his dissonant accents, “quok — quok — quoo,” are more to be relied upon as ready means of identification than any striking difference in plumage; the white-headed, the pheasant-tail, the gorgeous “superb,” the tranquil dove, Ewing’s fruit pigeon — most timorous of the order — are regular patrons, and each of the family has the distinctive demeanour and note. All save the allied — which is too full of assurance and fruit to be disconcerted by the presence of man — may flutter into the jungle, and then, as the momentary disturbance subsides, a study, whimsical and rich, begins.
With one exception the fruit pigeons, however gay the colouring of the throat and breast and under parts generally, are green of back, that passing falcons may be deceived by resemblance to leafy environment. Yet the “superb” and Ewing’s and Swainson’s have the richest of crowns — crowns pink, or shimmering rosy purple. Why this fanciful decoration if not to carry the delusion further by resemblance to a flower?
These glorious pigeons are but a few of the many birds that come to the tree with its millions of pink figs, and enliven the scene with soft notes and eager whistles. Varied and fasciated honey-eaters, black and white, and Jardine’s caterpillar-eaters, the tiny swallow dicaeum, in a tight-fitting costume of blue-black and red (who must bruise and batter the fruit to reduce it to gobbling dimensions), the yellow white-eye (who pecks it to pieces), the white-bellied and the varied graucalus, the drongo, the shining calornis — these and others have been included time after time in the one enumeration.
Cockatoos do not visit the fig-trees as systematically as might be expected. When they come they waste almost as lavishly as the flying foxes at night, nipping off branchlets and dropping them after eating but two or three of the figs.
When the grey falcon soars overhead the birds display varied forms of strategy. The inconspicuous pigeons crouch motionless but alert, their eyes fixedly following the circles of the enemy; the readily detected graucalus fly straight to a forest tree, whence there is a clear get-away; the companies of yellow white-eyes, with a unanimous note of alarm, dart into the jungle; the caterpillar-eaters and the honey-eaters, peering about, drop discreetly down among the lower branches, and silence prevails.
No serious heed is taken of the white-headed sea-eagle. Though the fruit-eaters do not recognise the lordly fellow on the instant of his appearance, he may perch on the topmost branches of the tree to scrutinise the shallows, and they will resume their feasting and noise. But a falcon is as a death’s-head, and alas! too often a sanguinary disturber of the peace, as the tufts of painted feathers tell.
One of the most self-assertive of birds of the island is also one of the least — the sun-bird (CINNYRIS FRENATA). Garbed in rich olive green, royal blue, and bright yellow, and of a quick and lively disposition, small as he is, he is always before his public, never forgetful of his appearance, or regardless of his rights. Feeding on honey and on insects which frequent honey-supplying flowers, the sun-bird is generally seen amid surroundings quite in keeping with the splendour of his plumage. The best part of his life is passed among blossoms, and he seems to partake of their beauty and frailness. The gold of the gin-gee, the reds of the flame-tree, the umbrella-tree, and of the single and double hibiscus are reflected from his shining feathers, as he flutters and darts among the blooms, often sipping on the wing after the habit of the humming-bird — which he resembles even to the characteristic expansion of the tail feathers. When in September the flame-tree is a dome of red, sun-birds gather by the score — the gayest of all the revellers. Uncommon length of bill enables them to probe recesses of flowers forbidden others, and they seem proud of the superiority. The varied-honey-eater visits flower after flower with something of method. The sun-bird flashes from raceme to raceme, sampling a dozen blooms, while his noisy rival sips with the air of a connoisseur at one. There is a spell in the nectar of the flame-tree as irresistibly attractive to taste of birds as the colour is to the sight of man. Although the tree bursts into bloom with truly tropical ardour, they await the coming banquet with unaffected impatience. Then one of the prettiest frolics of the sun-bird is revealed. Time cannot lag with such gay, saucy creatures, so while they wait half a dozen or more congregate in a circle and with uplifted heads directed towards a common centre sing their song in unison. Whether the theme of the song is of protest against the tardiness of the tree, or of thanks in anticipation, or of exultation in race, or of rivalry, matters not; but one is inclined to the last theory, for none but males take part in it. The sun glints on their burnished breasts, their throats throb, their long bills quaver with enthusiastic effort, and the song still matters not, for it is but a thin twittering, so feeble and faint as to be inaudible a few yards off. Patience and stillness are the price of it. And with a squeak in chorus the choir disperses, to meet and sing again in a few minutes in another part of the reddening tree.
Aptly imitating its most frequent note, blacks have given the name of “Moor-goody,” to a sedate little bird rarely seen away from the jungle, and then only in the shadiest of bushes. Many of the birds are distinguished and named in accordance with their notes. “Wung-go-bah” describes the noisy pitta; “Wee-loo” the stone plover; “Coo-roo” the tranquil dove; “Piln-piln” the large-billed shore plover; “Kim-bum-broo” the fasciated honey-eater; “Calloo-calloo” the manucode; “Go-bidger-roo” the varied honey-eater, and so on.
“Moor-goody” (shrike thrush) 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.
A final note in reference to the flame-tree may be permitted. As it is the popular rendezvous during September, pleasure was taken in cataloguing the greatest variety and number of birds congregated there at one and the same time. Several lists were compiled, the most comprehensive being:—
Honey-eaters (varied, fasciated and obscure),
Friar Bird (two species),
White-rumped Wood Swallow,
Black-headed Diamond Bird,
Honey-eaters were represented by a dozen or more; but were not so numerous as the sun-birds, which were difficult to accurately enumerate, owing to their sprightly behaviour. Next came the shining calornis (about ten), friar birds (about eight), wood swallows (six, all in a row — a band of white among the red flowers); bee-eaters (about the same number), and so on down the list in ever-shifting places and varying numbers.
The birds were more numerous about eight a.m. This hour may seem late, in consideration of familiar habits, but the flame-tree is in the shadow of the highest peak of the island, and consequently does not receive the earliest of the benedictions of the sun. Birds come and go to it in irregular pulsations. Their presence is constant, but their number variable. Comparative silence may exist for an hour or so after the first joyful feast of the day, to be broken by quite a gush of the sounds of revelry, and then the tree becomes again for a space as noisy as a merry-go-round.
To the manucode is ascribed practical interference with the laws of Nature. This handsome bird, of jet black glossy plumage, comes hither in September, adding to the pleasant sounds of the jungle a loud rich note, which closely resembles the frequent repetition of the name bestowed upon it by the blacks, “Calloo-calloo.” As are its visits so are its notes — casual, coming in erratic bursts and sudden sallies of whirling spiral sound. Its advent is hailed with satisfaction, for the belief exists that it causes the bean-tree — the source of a much-esteemed food — togrow more quickly. This faith has a substantial origin, for shortly after the bird’s first fluty notes are heard the bean tree blossoms, renewing the promise of plenty. While here, the “Calloo-calloo,” is remarkably shy, very rarely venturing out of the seclusion of the thickest jungle, and warning off intruders with a curious note of alarm, half purr, half hiss.
When the clattering corcorax puts in an appearance the blacks lift up their eyes unto the hills, firm in the faith that the birds cause in them an increase in height, or to put it in the vernacular —“Look out. Mountain jump up little bit!” When the flame-tree flowers, it is to tell of the coming of the nutmeg pigeon, when eggs and dainty young are to be obtained with little trouble.
Yet another red-letter time on the calendar is the laying season of the terns. Then the fancies of the blacks lightly turn to thoughts of “Tan-goorah” (bonito) and other strong-flavoured fish. So that the young shall not lack, nor suffer hunger, the hatching is coincident with the appearance of immense shoals of young fish which the bonito perpetually harass, driving them to the surface for the terns, with sharp screams of satisfaction, to dart upon. What with the strong, far-leaping fish, and the agile, acrobatic birds, the existence of the small fry is one of perplexity and terror.
Six species of tern take part in these gyrating, foraging campaigns. Three show almost purely white as they fly; the others, less numerous, as dark flakes in the living whirlwind. Ever changing in position and in poise — some on the swift seaward cast, some balancing for it with every fraction of brake power exerted in beating wings and expanded tail, some recovering equilibrium lost through a fluky start, some dashing deep, some hurrying away (after a spasmodic flutter of dripping feathers) with quivering slips of silver — the perpetual whirl keeps pace with the splashes of the bonito and the ripples of the worried small fry.
Could they enjoy the satisfaction of the fact the little fish might snigger when the terns are called upon to exert all their agility and tricks, vainly endeavouring to elude the long slim-winged frigate bird. This tyrant of the upper air observes, as it glides in steady, stately circles, the noisy unreflecting terns, and with arrow-like swiftness pursues those which have been successful. Dodge and twist and double as it may — and no hare upon land is half so quick or resourceful as the wily tern in the air — the frigate bird follows with the audacity and certainty of fate, until flustered and frightened the little fish is abandoned, to be snapped up by the air-ranger before it reaches the sea. As an exhibition of fierce and relentless purpose, combined with sprightliness and activity, the pursuit of a tern by the fearless frigate bird, and the impetuous swoop after and seizure of the falling fish, cannot be matched in Nature.
As the cries of the circling tern mark the movements of the distracted shoals, the blacks in canoes fit in to the scheme of destruction, taking a general toll. So preoccupied are the bonito, that they fall a comparatively easy prey to the skilled user of the harpoon. Sharks continue the chain of destruction by dashing forays on the bonito, and occasionally man harpoons a shark. With his frail bark canoe tugged hither and thither by the frightened but still vicious fish, the black, endowed with nerve, then enjoys real sport. Not the least in dread of the shark, his only fear being for the safety of his harpoon and line as the lithe fish leaps and snaps, the black plays with it until it submits to be towed ashore.
The birds’ eggs on the coral banks also make an item in the blacks’ bill of fare; while the frantic little fish hustled towards the shore are captured by the million in coffer-dams made of loosely twisted grass and beach trailers.
These observations of mine are admittedly casual and unprecise. Not the life of a single bird or insect has been sacrificed to prove “facts” for personal edification or entertainment. Cases in which points were inconclusive have been allowed to remain undecided. The face of the administrator of the law here is rigidly set against the enforcement of the death penalty, simply because the subject is beautiful, or rare, or “not understood.” With the aid of a good telescope and a compact pair of field-glasses, birds may be studied and known far more pleasurably than as stark cabinet specimens, and, perhaps, with all the certainty that the ordinary observer needs. Patience and a magnifying glass put less constraint on insects than lethal bottles and pins.
An observer who was prepared to satisfy doubts with the gun might, possibly with ease, bring up the Bird Census of the island to one hundred and fifty. Such a one may find pleasure in the future in demonstrating how much more than a seventh of the birds of Australia dwell upon or visit the spot. The present era of strict non-interference has resulted in an increase, however small, in the species represented. Whereas in years gone by but two species of sea-birds nested on Purtaboi, now at least six avail themselves of that refuge.
Birds that were driven to remote reefs and banks of the Barrier now make themselves at home for three months of the year within hailing distance. Tidings of goodwill towards the race generally are beginning to spread. Gladness compels me to record a recent development of the protective laws. Space for the rearing of families at the headquarters of the terns — Purtaboi — having been gradually absorbed during recent years, the overflow — comprising perhaps a thousand amorous birds — has taken possession of the sand spit of Dunk Island. So calm are they in the presence of man, so sure of goodwill, that when temporarily disturbed, they merely wheel about close overhead, remonstrating against intrusion in thin tinny screams, and settle again on their eggs before the friendly visit is well over. Not for ten years at the least have sea-birds utilised this spot. Realising their privileges elsewhere in the immediate neighbourhood, they have thrust themselves under official protection. They crowd me off a favourite promenade, mine by right of ten years’ usage. They scold every boat, affront passing steamers, and comport themselves generally as if on the assurance of counsel’s opinion on the legality of their trespass.
And so it has come to pass, that the example of the uninfluential Beachcomber, in the establishment of an informal and unofficial refuge for birds, has been warranted and confirmed by the laws of the country. A proclamation in those terms, those good set terms, which time and custom approve, forbids shooting on this and two neighbouring groups of islands. Is there not excuse in this flattery for just a little vainglory?
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05