Animals, Australia
Comments 18

The Predator Above

Breakfast, when I’m living alone, is the only meal of the day I consistently enjoy. For months now it’s been taking place in the park here in Sandgate after a few miles of seaside wandering in the good light just before and after dawn. That hour or so before the summer heat (forget what your calendar says — it’s Summer) and glaring light reach intolerable levels is often my last taste of the outdoors until the sun’s low in the sky again in late afternoon. I’m a poor excuse for a Queenslander, I know.

Even that early, I’m rarely alone in there. There’s a group of ladies with a small herd of mop-like mutts, and then there are the three or four locals who gather daily under the rotunda or on a neighbouring bench and routinely start drinking beer by 6:30am. Sometimes they even bring an esky (“cooler” in American); it’s a big esky. They’re a pretty quiet bunch, at least until the second can or so, and the only conversation I’ve ever followed was an entertaining discourse on the correct preparation of frozen chicken nuggets and “square meat pies”, whatever they are. There are several boarding houses in Sandgate and Shorncliffe, and I’ll admit that I alternate between disgust at the beer-and-cigarettes-for-breakfast regimen and unfettered admiration for their carefree lifestyle. They’re like Bayside Bukowskis without the poetry, although that chicken nugget story came close.

But it’s the non-humanoid park-lovers that really mess with the tranquility. A variety of native bird species, all of them gregarious with their own kind but downright hostile with others, call the park home — and they don’t like to share. Scavenging purple swamp hens and dusky moorhens leave the lagoon to squabble over junk-food wrappers, periodically unleashing what must be among the bird world’s most unsettling shrieks. The calistemon (bottle brush) trees shading my bench are in constant motion and commotion as rainbow lorikeets divest their blooms of nectar and pollen, chattering between gulps. Noisy miners furiously attempt to drive them from their backyards.

A few ibis are always patrolling the lawn, the more enterprising individuals probing the garbage cans with their formidable beaks. Like the magpie which regularly visits my picnic table for a few crumbs (this is one magpie that won’t come diving at my eyeball next Spring), they’re quiet, at least, but the noisy miners will harass them anyway till they split the scene in frustration. The only bird that every other species can agree on hating is the crow. It’s always fun to watch the smaller birds dog-fighting (excuse the mixed metaphor) with a hapless crow till the park is safe again.

But the little corellas own that park, and they know it. Says Wikipedia:

The call consists of high pitched notes and screeches somewhat similar to the sulphur-crested cockatoo. Large flocks will call simultaneously and can create a deafening screeching sound audible from several kilometres away.

Those “large flocks” number several hundred at least. A clump of melaleucas (paper-barks) and a few taller eucalypts are favoured hangouts. A flock (or more than one — who can tell?) move in most mornings, smother the canopies in white feathers and shriek and screech for ages:

mmm

A few inquisitive corellas in the paper-barks.

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Like all cockatoos they seem highly intelligent as well as gregarious. I’ve had many a Skype session interrupted by their squabbles, and periodically a kind of collective unease seems to build in the group…

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These guys were watching me intently as I crept closer — finally, the wings went up and the shrieking changed tone.

..till it reaches critical mass and the entire flock takes to the air in a collective, shrieking madness, circling the park a few times in a fluid, feathered swarm, usually returning to rest — or whatever passes for rest — before the next episode:

mmm

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Dude, you missed your cue.

It’s fascinating to ponder what kind of organisation, if any, is at work during these episodes — what triggers them, who leads them and what their function is. Crowd psychology and all that, the madness of the group, the following of orders, moral panics, contagious hysteria. Then again, maybe it’s all perfectly organised and logical. Just this morning a group of apparently sane humans gathered at the waterfront to race penny-farthings along the waterfront as far as Woody Point. Put any large group of animals together and sooner or later they’ll start doing some weird shit.

A while back I was in the park, on a weekend morning, alone but for the birds and a couple helping their little girl get a kite into the air despite a pretty uncooperative breeze. This was an especially cool kite…

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Death Comes to Sandgate.

..albeit the kind that seemed designed to give a kid nightmares.

As soon as that shark was airborne, something fascinating happened. The corellas perched nearby became extremely agitated; presumably the large black shape hovering not far from their social club resembled a hawk, eagle or particularly diabolical crow. You could feel the ripples of unease in the flock mutate into outright panic.

Suddenly the flock took off in a cacophonous scramble and began swooping and circling the shark…

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..in a dazzling display of the safety-in-numbers principle.

It was better than any air show, although, disappointingly, there was no crash. The shark continued its patrol quite nonchalantly, and after a few minutes the corellas retreated, or at least retired, to their perches, their show of force complete.

It wasn’t quite over, though. Perhaps the avian version of drawing straws had occurred, or maybe a bold individual was making a bid for leadership. It might have been simple reconnaissance. He or she took off solo from the trees and returned to joust with the enemy one last time, hovering close, shrieking a few times…

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Note the flock watching uneasily from the treetops behind.

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..before returning in glory to its appreciative tribe.

The shark, unperturbed, dipped and fluttered a few more times, before the family hauled the line in, landed their catch, and wandered off. They hadn’t shown any obvious interest in the drama in the skies, but that was just one of dozens of cool things I’ve seen from my front-row bench.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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18 Comments

  1. You did see a lot of things in the sky and on the ground. I wonder what you had for breakfast when the ladies sitting close to you,having a great time drinking and eating. The photographs of the cockatoos is amazing.

    • Thanks, Ranu. Breakfast is always a flat white (milk-based coffee) and some form of bakery item, usually toasted banana bread or a date scone. I’ve already walked three or more miles by that time and it’s another mile to get home (where I might have 2nd breakfast, a hiker tradition!).

  2. Great Stuff Ian especially your musings on bird psychology.. saw a sea hawk weaving with a model aeroplane years ago off the Coloured Sands cliffs past Tewantin . Never forgot it .. The guy with the aeroplane played with it for ages.. ..

    • I think I must be getting old, Barb — increasingly fascinated by birds, have a feeder in the yard in the U.S., and yesterday I fed a magpie in the park out of my hand and almost cried with joy when it accepted my offer!

  3. May I ask Goat do you already know the exotic names of birds, wild life, plants, trees that you capture when you start out on your treks each day or do you snap pics and then research them ? Intrigued.

    • A little of both! I think your average Australian is more familiar with a lot of their local birds because they’re a lot more in your face, part of the urban experience, than in other places I’ve spent time. America is pretty good, but birdlife was far less visible and prevalent in Japan (always struck me walking through monocultures of forestry trees how silent those places were), and in Korea there was just one bird you saw all the time, their version of a magpie. But over here there are always 10 or 12 species that are in your yard, on your verandah, on the telephone lines, on the lawn, in the park, etc, very visually and audibly in your awareness (just yesterday I got swooped by another bird, a plover) — so you tend to learn the common ones when you’re a kid. Also, in this beachside neighbourhood there are lots of helpful signs illustrating and naming the common waders and other wetlands birds. Useful!

      Trees and plants are a bit harder, and that’s an ongoing project for me as I’m not very good with native flora. Some perspective: Australia has around 20,000 plant species! The blog is good training for me as I like to try to identify any plants I photograph, but sometimes I just give up and just write “Look at this pretty flower!” or similar!

      • Thanks for that. Wow, must be crazy to see that kind of wildlife strolling around your street. I traveled to Key West last spring and couldn’t believe the chickens and roosters wandering around on the sidewalk and in parking lots. That was probably the craziest thing I witnessed so Australia would be a treat for sure. Ha, I like the “pretty flowers” anyway. That’s the way I’d describe them and I’m a writer. Cheers!

  4. You made me laugh with the suburban Bukowskis. I too envy and abhor those lucky drunks I see in the windows of pubs on my way to work in the morning. Great post.

    • Thanks, Carl. Lately one of the Bukowskis has taken to waving and giving me a “How ya goin’, mate?” I think we’re ready to take the relationship to a new level…

    • I’m on a roll with this post-every-three-days thing, and now I’m always thinking two posts ahead! It’s a form of madness and I had to stop drinking wine at night as I was getting too tired and not getting my picture work done.

      • Haha…I’ve kind of got over my fear of blogging now and am enjoying it. The only problem is that I usually have three posts in my head that I want to do at once and find it hard to focus on getting one completed! I have trouble deciding which one to do next. It’s a weird feeling after having lost my desire to write for a good while. Weird but productive! 🙂

  5. Kathleen McCormick says

    I, too, love the Bayside Bukowski’s alliterative phrase. I think you’ve coined a new one.

    I also have been envious of the camaraderie that those who are considered to be “down and out” have with their fellows. Struggle brings us closer, hey?

    I am impressed with your knowledge of bird species. Strange how so many types of birds are in some environments and not so many in others. You would think that various bird species would be plentiful in all park and rural settings. I can understand less variety in very urban environments.

    I have noticed that I don’t hear the birds as much as I did as a kid. I wonder if this is a kind of silent spring phenomenon?

    Of course I wouldn’t be interested in any of this if your writing wasn’t so damn good btw…

    • Thanks very much, I don’t think I’m much of an expert — my mother is a lot better! She and my father are avid feeders of local birds. I think the proximity of water where I hang out is a big avian drawcard. Also delighted that a lot of the wetlands where I grew up are now RAMSAR-protected migratory bird habitat. Blows me away how far some of those guys travel.

      I saw a program the other night about a decline in small woodland birds. Maybe it’s connected to the decline of bees etc. And a friend recently pointed out that the little backyard skinks we remembered from our childhoods have vanished. I hadn’t even noticed that but it’s true. I remember they were always on the ground or walls and fences. Haven’t noticed one in years.

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