Early on the morning of Sunday, 16th January 1921, for — as far as observation goes — the second time during close on a quarter of a century, a flock of swifts passed over Dunk Island.
The species was not definitely ascertained; but it may have been the spine-tailed, the conspicuous feature of the “white-rumped” not attracting notice. Some flew so high as scarcely to be visible, while others hawked, close to the bosom of Mother Earth, in company with the ever-present swiftlet, in pursuit of termites then issuing from their dark, moist quarters with agitated haste. For over four hours the birds partook of the hospitality of the Isle, but when a gentle north-east breeze sprang up the call of the South became irresistible; still wheeling lingeringly, they responded, the only motes in the transparent blueness of the sky.
Whensoever during daylight flying termites emerge from the soil, they are subject to many perils. Lizards and ants seize them at their very doors, the former gobbling on the spot, the latter carrying them off. Among the birds none seems to appreciate the trifles as keenly as the swiftlets, which become, in so far as such mild and gentle creatures may, bold and fierce in their raids. Though showing no fear of human beings, even when the home cave is visited, swiftlets cannot be considered among the familiars of man. A bird that rarely rests during daylight, except when brooding, and is as free as the air, neither fears nor favours its admirers; but when the wings of ants and termites glitter in the light of the newly-risen sun they disdain the presence of onlookers.
Shall we stand for a while to watch the varied behaviour of banqueting birds this steamy morning, when the passing of the wet season is denoted by the mingling of the fragrance of the last blossoms of the tea-trees with the sweetness of the first of the wattles?
Wood-swallows swoop down on the swarms, cut through them time and again with quick alternations of soaring and fluttering, and resume their perch on the maimed bloodwood tree, there to vaunt tense white vests. Always prim and clean, always loving kinship, there they sit as close together as peas in a pod, and when one darts out for another mouthful, its relations, complacently twittering, shuffle away the empty space.
Confident in every movement, beautiful in every aspect, the rainbow-birds (MEROPS) circle with sunlit wings among the small fry in the unruffled style of the adept; but bees and other prey of like size must be borne to a convenient roost, there to be battered and swallowed gluttonously, with effort and exertion. Though the birds journey in companies in open order, meals are taken independently, each selecting a convenient resting-place and enjoying its pleasure somewhat sadly.
Clinking and clattering, the spangled drongo, solitary when family duties are over, scuffles among the crowd in brief raids, fidgeting and fussing meanwhile, an impatient spectator of more accomplished fliers, though an alarmist, a scoffer and a bully if a hawk intrudes.
Meek of voice as well as of demeanour, the leaden fly-catcher takes toll from the insects that drift nearest its lowly perch, where, apparently far away in spirit from any sort of adventure, it twists and turns in agitated expectation.
The rhythmic evolutions of the bolder of the feasters — a bewildering succession of curves and undulations — might be an unstudied ballet; or they might represent a throng of fairies weaving, with gossamer imperceptible to mortals, a complicated design on the blueness of the sky and the greenness of the foliage. For all the fervency and haste, no jostlings or conflict of claims to the best share of a profuse gift disturbs the harmony of the pattern.
On foot a hopeless cripple, on wing the picture of ease and grace, the swiftlet wheels in circles of varying radii, interrupted by turns of excelling certainty. Audaciously fearless, it often passes silently within arm’s reach; when on the instant it swerves within a few inches of your head, then and only then a wisp of sound may be heard.
Splendid are the gifts bestowed upon the little bird in compensation for degenerate legs, which, to vary Shakespeare’s phrase, nothing can but cling — eager, defiant, persistent flight, as swift almost as light, as silent as dawn, and sight marvellous in acuteness and adaptability. At one moment it flies as effortless as the drift of wind-blown thistledown, the next as unwaveringly as an arrow. Does it not often race the fast-fleeting light? In company with semi-blind bats it scours the dusk, taking toll of insects that sport boldly in the dark, and in an instant shoots over the hill and down through the gloomy jungle to its quarters, there to thread its way along crevices a hand’s breadth wide, and to alight without hesitation at the edge of its nest among hundreds of others on the roof of an obscure dormitory.
Swiftlets’ nests are unique among those of Australian birds. Restricted by reason of aerial life in the choice of material, the bird makes a framework of vegetable substances consolidated with saliva. In one cave all the birds had used as a base a grey-green moss, which hangs from trees in specially damp situations and can be seized during flight. Another and considerably larger colony favoured what appeared to be the stems of a thin, wiry grass, and on the only occasion on which they were caught in the act of nest-building all were filching dried “needles” from beach oaks (CASUARINA EQUISETIFOLIA), picking and choosing without slackening speed, each carrying off a single strand.
On a dull day the single white egg seems to glow as if it were slightly phosphorescent; perhaps that effect is produced by a slight reflection from the grey gelatine which forms a considerable part of the nest.
Delicately formed, sober in tint, with a fluff of grey at the base of the tail, short of beak and woefully lacking in leg, the swiftlet is well proportioned and planned for its part in the scheme of Nature; this is to keep in check certain winged insects of destructive character, that otherwise might make the life of man miserable and defeat his efforts to become a habitant of lonely places. What quantity does a single colony dispose of between dawn and dusk? When the local supply runs short, the daily range for forage must be considerable; but what is distance to a creature whose speed may be safely estimated at over a mile a minute? The rivers of the mainland, the mangrove swamps, the lily lagoons are pleasant and profitable resorts, and the open spaces miles further inland are available at the cost of a trifle of time. It is safe to assume, too, that a bird of such high power must exhaust its vital force rapidly, and that there must be constant renewal. Two or three colonies represent, therefore, free agencies operating for the benefit of man to an extent and worth beyond estimation.
When the homing birds appear at dusk there is no slackening of wing. They have flown and feasted, probably without cessation, all the hours of light, and now for rest. Daylight abroad is not for chatter either; but do they ever shuffle each into a tiny nest or cling beside a brooding mate, without greeting associates with a gritty sort of twitter? — just the sort of sound appropriate to a home in the hollow heart of a granite boulder, bewilderingly dim on the brightest noon.
Deprived as it is of the impulse of legs, how does a frail, light bird, submissive to all the functions of life on the wing, rest and incubation excepted, rise from a flat surface on the rare occasions when it alights? Fly-like, it clings to the slanting roof of its home, thence drops, and is away. That is easy enough. But it has been seen to rise from unlittered, level sand, and the feat is performed so quickly that the effect is as if it were tossed upward by a force foreign to itself. No doubt the instantaneous impact of both wings against the sand gives the initial impetus. Scores brooding breast deep, and one after another popping into the air, present a sight that few have had the privilege of witnessing, and for that reason a recital of some of the features of the scene in which the feat is performed may be acceptable.
A few miles from its mouth one of the rivers of the mainland is constricted by an encroachment of sand which has edged its course against the opposing side; there a high, muddy bank, reinforced by the matted roots of water-loving plants and trees, resists erosion. The swirling stream runs in a sharp curve round the tail of a bank whereon crocodiles drowse in the sun. If they themselves do not happen to be apparent, the furrows of hasty launchings are there as evidence of the presence of ill things in these lovely waters. There, too, on the sand squat swiftlets, easy of conscience and not to be flustered by a passing boat. With a flicker, as each wills and wishes, it is on the wing, to gorge in the teeming air. You listen for the sound which should accompany so explosive a movement, and catch merely the melodious calls, the whimpers and twittering of birds of but trumpery skill in flight; and you wonder which gets the best out of life — the pampered dwellers in the paradise of slim-shanked palms, where swamps and sludge belch clouds of delicious insects, or the adventurous wanderers that set distance at naught, that are silent, that share with crocodiles the comfort of warm sand and rejoice in the liberties of the upper air with eagles!
Since the swiftlet is among those birds of Australia whose habits and manners have not yet been studied closely, it is incumbent on the part of an individual who has opportunities for observation denied to expert ornithologists, to record trivial and homely facts illustrative of its life-history, as well as its conspicuous qualities. In this consideration a cloistered virtue ought not to be ignored.
From early infancy the chicks observe the most primitive of sanitary laws, being at pains to avoid the fouling of their own nests. Though it would, perhaps, be absurd to suggest that they may be endowed with a special sense of delicacy because of the singular fabrication of the nests, it may not be beyond reason to assume that the offspring of creatures that delight in the cleanly air may manifest instinctive dislike to dirt and discomfort.
Of what are known as “true swifts,” four are attributed to Australia. Two of them breed in Siberia and Japan, and travel as far south as Tasmania; another, the builder of the edible nest, is said to be an occasional visitor to the extreme North of our country. The swiftlet, herein referred to, is the only one of the family known to breed here; moreover, its breeding-places are confined to the coastal tracts of the North. It is the duty, and should be the pleasure, of North Queenslanders to see that so useful and distinct a bird for ever escapes the penalties of rarity.
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