My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XX

Swifts and Eagles


Among the resident birds one of the most interesting from an ornithological standpoint is that known as the grey-rumped swiftlet (COLLOCALIA FRANCICA), referred to by Macgillivray as “a swallow which Mr. Gould informs me is also an Indian species.” That ardent naturalist is, therefore, entitled to the credit of discovery. Sixty-one years had passed since Macgillivray’s visit, during which no knowledge of the life-history of the bird which spends most of its time hawking for insects in sunshine and shower had been revealed, when a fragment of a nest adhering to the roof of a cave on one of the highest points of the Island attracted attention. Submitted to an expert (Mr. A. J. Campbell, of Melbourne, Victoria), the identity of the builder was guessed. Subsequently I had the satisfaction of finding a colony close to the water’s edge, on the weather side, where the birds had frequently been seen darting among blocks of granite almost obscured by jungle.

No nests were found in crevices deemed to be favourable spots, though the predilection of the genus for gloom was appreciated, but upon the exploration of a confined cave the excited flutterings of invisible birds betrayed a hitherto well-kept secret. When my eyes became accustomed to the dimness I saw that the roof of the cave (which is fairly smooth and regular with an inclination of about thirty degrees) was studded with nests. Fifty-three were placed irregularly about the middle of the roof, some in pairs, none on the walls. Some were not quite finished; twenty contained a single white egg each; none contained young. All were adherent to the stone by a semi-transparent white substance resembling isinglass, with which also the fine grass, moss, and fibre composing the nests were consolidated. The vegetable material of the first fragmentary nest (found September 17, 1908) was quite green and the gluten moist and sticky. Those now described (two months later) were dry and tough, the dimensions being 2 to 2½ inches across and about ¾ inch deep. The cave is only about 30 feet above high-water mark and the entrance the birds favour is, strange to say, averse from the sea and much obscured by leafage.

After the first fright the birds became quiet and confident. A young one flew into my half-closed hand, and I detained it for a while and it never struggled. Another tried to snoodle into the shirt-pocket of the black boy who accompanied me. Several brushed against our faces. Clouds partially obscured the sun and what with the screen of foliage and the prevailing gloom of the cave we could not always distinguish the nests. When the sun shone brightly all were plainly discernible, those with the single pearly egg being quaintly pretty. As they flitted in and out of the cave, the birds were as noiseless as butterflies save when they wheeled to avoid each other. Those which were brooding, as they flitted over the nests or clung to the edges, uttering a peculiar note hard to vocalise. To my cars it sounded as a blending of cheeping, clinking, and chattering, yet metallic, and not very unlike the hasty winding up of a clock.

One bird flew to her nest a foot or so from my face and clung to it. To test its timidity or otherwise I approached my face to within two inches, but she continued to scrutinise me even at such close quarters with charming assurance. Then I gently placed my hand over her. She struggled. but not wildly, for a few seconds and then remained passive with bright eyes glinting in the gloom. She was a dusky little creature, the primaries, the back of the head, neck, the shoulders, and tail being black, but when the wings were extended the grey fluff of the base of the tail was conspicuous. After a few minutes I put her back on the nest, and she clung, to it having no shyness or fear. I noticed that the beak was very short, the gape very large, the legs dwarfed, and the toes slender.

We remained in the cave for about half an hour, during which time the birds came and went indifferent to our presence. As far as I am aware members of the species never rest save in their headquarters, clinging to the roof or the nests and never utter a sound except the reassuring, prattle upon alighting on the edge of the nest. It was interesting to note that while many young birds were fluttering about in the cave none occupied a nest, and eggs were in successive stages of incubation, as proved by appearance and test.

The fact that the nests of these swifts are cemented with coagulated saliva establishes analogy with that other member of the family which builds in the caves of frowning precipices near the sea, making edible nests greatly appreciated by Chinese gourmands, some of whom maintain the fantastic theory that the swift catches quantities of a small, delicately flavoured fish which it exposes on rocks until desiccated, to be afterwards compounded into nests. The ancients were wont to believe in the existence of hostile mutuality between the swifts and the bêche-de-mer, though they have little in common in respect of appearance, attributes, and habits. If memory serves, one of the genera had the specific title of HIRUNDO, founded on the faith that the swift, by flying over the sea-slug exposed by receding tide, and vexing it by jeers, caused it to exude glutinous threads which the swift seized and bore away to its cave to be consolidated and moulded into a nest. To the fable was appended a retributive moral, viz., that the bêche-de-mer occasionally revenged itself by expelling such a complicated mass of gluten that it became a net for the capture of the swift, which was slowly assimilated by its enemy. The Chinese, it may be said, with but slight perversion of fact, show equal partiality for the respective emblems of speed and sloth.

Since the dates mentioned it has been ascertained by personal observation that the breeding season of the swiftlet extends over four months, during which probably four young are reared, each clutch being single. The nests do not provide accommodation for more than one chick, which before flight is obviously top large for its birthplace. Looking down into the cave, the eggs well advanced towards incubation seem to have a slight phosphorescent glow. The earliest date so far recorded of the discovery of a newly laid egg is October 14th, but there is reason to believe that the breeding season begins at least a month earlier. On January 10th this year (1910) half the nests in the cave originally described contained eggs, in most of which (judging by opacity) incubation was far advanced, while in several were young birds, some newly hatched, others apparently ready to depart from their gloomy, foul-smelling quarters. These latter clung so determinedly to their nests with needle-like toes that the force necessary to remove them would certainly have caused injury.

It may be remarked that the breeding season of the nutmeg pigeon is also protracted over a third of the year — from September to the end of January, two or three single successive clutches being reared. The pigeon is a visitor, the swift a resident.


At the outset it is almost incumbent to announce that this is not a fish story. It is not even a story, though fish play a secondary part in it. Therefore it should not make shipwreck of the faith of those who smile and sniff whensoever a fish or a snake is informally introduced in print. The imagination of some observers of the wonders of natural history paints incidents so extravagantly that their illustrative value is depreciated if not entirely distorted.

As I would wish to establish a sort of general confidence with any chance reader of these lines who, like myself, finds no need for exaggeration in the chronicling of observations, being well aware that Nature with the ease of consummate art outwits the wisest and laughs at the blotches of the boldest impressionist, it seems but common politeness to explain that though the Island may be romantic, the art of romancing is alien from its shores, albeit (as some one has hinted) that in imagination reverently applied lies the higher truth.

The distance from the mainland is not so great as to deprive the Island of generally distinctly Australian characteristics. It was, no doubt, in the remote past, merely a steep and high range of hills separated from other hills and mountains by plains and lagoons. Delicate land shells, salt-hating frogs, and subtle snakes are among the living testifiers to past connection with Australia, but while all the animals and nearly all the birds native to the island are common on the mainland, several mainland types are conspicuously absent.

If, therefore, the birds and mammals seem in these literal chronicles to have little ways of their own, may they not owe obedience to true and abiding circumstances — a kind of unavoidable fate — due to isolation? It would indeed be singular if an island so long separated from Australia as to possess no marsupial did not impress certain idiosyncrasies upon its fauna and flora. It would be absurd to contend that as a rule, the untamed creatures carry any marks of distinction, but I have had the opportunity of studying facts of which I have never been fortunate to have confirmation either by reading or by “swapping lies” with other students of Nature.

Occasionally when bewilderment has come I call to mind what Mrs. Jarley said of her waxwork, and let the case pass: “I won’t go so far as to say that, as it is, I’ve seen waxwork quite like life but I’ve certainly seen some life that was exactly like waxwork.” When I see a crab not easily distinguishable from a piece of sponge and a piece of sponge far more like a crab generally than the crab, that unconsciously mimics it, and possessing just as much apparent animation, I am content to be tricked in many other ways by the good mother of us all.

Having ventured so far by way of preface, it is quite possible that the reader may have concluded that something exceptionally marvellous is to follow. Disappointment was inevitable from the first. The relation of some of the quaint distinguishing traits of the Island fauna must be left until the historian imagines that he has established a reputation for subduing, rather than heightening, the tone of his facts. This introduction has not a particular but a wide bearing.

Chief among the birds of prey are the osprey, the white-headed sea-eagle, and the white-bellied sea-eagle. The great wedge-tailed eagle (eagle-hawk) is a rare visitor, and is not a fisher. The others are resident and are industrious practisers of the art which, according to their interpretation, is anything but gentle. As they indulge in it, the sport is so rough and boisterous and clumsy that one wonders that so many fish should be caught. Each soars over the sea in circles at a height of about 60 feet or 80 feet, and when fish are seen flies down and, plunging into the water, seizes its prey with its talons. Unless the bird is watched closely its attitudes while preparing for the downward cast and during the descent are misunderstood. “And like a thunderbolt he falls” is quite, according to local observations, an erroneous description of the feat performed by the fishing eagle. Take as an example of the others the actions of the noble bird the white-headed sea-eagle. As it circles over the blue water its gaze is fixed and intent. Flight seems automatic — steady, fairly swift, rippleless. Immediately a fish is sighted, attitudes and poses become comparatively strained and awkward. Flight is checked by the enormous brake-power of outspread tail, and backward beating wing. The eagle poises over the spot, stretches out its legs, and extends its talons to the utmost; flies down in a series of zig-zags, and with the facial expression of the dirty boy undergoing the torture of face-washing, plunges breast first with outstretched wings with a mighty splash into the water. Disappearing for four or five seconds, it finds it no easy task to rise with a two-pound mullet.

Splendid as the feat undoubtedly is, it does not coincide with the description usually given. Have we not often been told of the headlong, lightning like drop that almost baffles eyesight? The circumstance that baffles is that fish are so unobservant or so slow that they do not always, in place of sometimes, escape. For the excuse of the fish it must be acknowledged that very few members of the tribe are fitted with eyes for star-gazing. The eagle captures a dinner, not by the exercise of any very remarkable fleetness or adaptiveness or passion for fishing, but because of certain physical limitations on the part of the fish.

“As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.”

The subserviency of fish to the osprey was noted by the ancients, who attributed a fabulous power of fascination to the bird so that as it flew over the ponds the fish “turned their glistering bellies up” that it might take liberal choice. Certainly some limitation on the part of the fish seems to operate in favour of the osprey, otherwise the clumsy fisher would oft go hungry.

It goes against the grain to speak slightingly of the knightly, white-headed sea-eagle — a friend and almost a companion; but as any one may see that it fishes not for the sport but for the pot, and that the plunge into the water is a shock that is dreaded, no injustice is done. Some birds — and they the most graceful — seem to fish for sport alone. These three fishers fish because, like Kipling’s kangaroo, they have to — only the kangaroo hopped.

Now, the white-headed sea-eagle, which seems, and with good reason, to be proud of its ruddy back, appears to have no enemy of its kind. While the osprey and the white-bellied sea-eagle fall out and chide and fight, it looks down from some superior height and placidly watches the fish trap, for though knightly it is not above accepting tribute, for it likes fish though it hates fishing.

The great osprey seldom crosses the bay without a challenge from its stealthy foe, the white-belly. The voices of both are alike in their dissonance though different in quality and tone, and the smaller bird is invariably the aggressor. This is how they fight, or rather engage in a vulgar brawl which has in it a smack of tragedy. The osprey, with steady beat of outstretched wing, flies “squaking” from its agile enemy, who endeavours to alight on the osprey’s back. Just as white-belly stretches its talons for a grip among the osprey’s feathers, the osprey turns — and turns without a tremor in its long, sweeping wings — to shake hands with white-belly. For a moment the huge bird rests on its back, silhouetted against the luminous sky, to interlock talons with its nimble foe. But white-belly is fully alive to the risk of getting “into hoults” with so heavy a weight, for on the instant it swoops up with a harsh cry of rage or disappointment. With but a single flap and no quiver of wing the osprey rights itself and sails away (a methodic, unflurried flight) with fleeter white-belly in pursuit, which when within striking distance swoops again, to be faced by the grim, outstretched talons of the osprey, who has turned in flight with machine-like precision. So swift and sudden is the discreet upward swoop of the white-belly that it almost appears to be a rebound after contact with the bigger bird. So the scrimmage, or, to be exact, screamage, proceeds, for each party to it tells the whole Island of its valour, and business stands still as the series of most graceful, yet savage, aerial evolutions is repeated until the rivals are blotted out by distance.

Once I saw a bunch of feathers fly from the osprey’s back. The aerial capsize had not been timed with accustomed accuracy. Weight told, and it speedily shook itself free; but I am waiting for the day when, in mid-air, the osprey and the white-bellied sea-eagle shall clasp hands. It will be an exciting moment for the sea-eagle. The osprey is a cuter as well as a heavier bird, and, in the phrase of the blacks, “That fella carn let go!”

When the osprey comes skirting the hollows of the hills for cockatoos, its hunger will be unsatisfied until, by elaborate and disdainful manoeuvres, the cockatoos are induced to take flight. Perched on the top of a tree, they may jeer in safety as long as they like; but let the flock fly into the open and the osprey will be surprised if it does not get one, and that which is singled out it follows “like a grim murderer still steady to his purpose.” Now is the time for this, greatest of the three fishers, to, wax fat and become pompous, for its diet is to be varied with nutmeg pigeons, and the pigeons have come in their thousands and tens of thousands, and if the eaglets do lack and suffer hunger, it will be on account of the laziness of their parents.

For all its laborious fishing, the red-backed sea-eagle is sometimes deprived of its spoil by a bird much inferior in size and weight and which has not the slightest pretensions to the art. An eagle had captured a “mainsail” fish (banded dory) which loomed black against its snowy breast as in strenuous spirals it sought to gain sufficient height whence to soar over the spur of the hill to its eyrie. The fish, though not weighty, was awkward to carry, and the presence of the boat rather baffled the bird, which was shadowed in envious though discreet flight by a white-bellied eagle. Low over the water, close to the fringe of jungle the eagle flew, when a grey falcon dashed out, snatched from its talons the wriggling fish, and with one swoop disappeared under a yellow-flowered hibiscus bush overhanging the tideway. The falcon is no match for the eagle; but, most subtle of birds of prey, it had watched the perplexity of its lord and master, and with audacious courage taken advantage of a moment’s embarrassment.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50