Archive for March, 2015

30
Mar 15

Laughing Kookaburra: A Spectacular Australian Bird

The laughing kookaburra watched the ground intentently for possible prey. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The laughing kookaburra watched the ground intentently for possible prey. (G. Thomas Bancroft)   click on picture to see bigger version.

When I was young, I loved going downstairs on Saturday mornings in mid-winter to watch Tarzan movies. Johnny Weissmuller’s call would reverberate through the house to my mother’s vexation. In my pajamas, I would curl up in a blanket on the floor in front of our black and white TV and become engrossed in the show. The exotic animals and the jungle sounds spell bounded me. Later as I became fascinated with birds, I heard that one of the background jungle sounds in Tarzan movies was the call of the laughing kookaburra. Their call is loud and often many birds in a family group cackle together to defend their communal territory. The call resonates through the landscape, and this may be why movie producers use it. They think that a sound like the kookaburra’s call must be from the jungles of Africa or South America. Kookaburra calls appear in a number of other films including “Count Dracula,” “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Cape Fear,” and “Objective Burma.” Kookaburras live wild in Australia and not in the places these films depict. A kookaburra also calls in the forests of the “Wizard of Oz.” Maybe they do live in Oz?

Listen to a Kookaburra call recorded by Christopher. Thanks to him and soundbible.com for making it available.

 

Before my trip to Australia, I saw a live laughing kookaburra only once in a zoo in Florida. It sat majestically on a branch about 10 feet above the ground as I walked through its aviary. I stood and watched it for half an hour until my 5-year old daughter insisted we continue. The bird never called or even moved.

As I planned my trip to Australia, one of my quests would be to see and hear laughing kookaburras in the wild. They are native to eastern Australia, and people have introduced them to Tasmania. Kookaburras are the largest member of the kingfisher family, weighing about a pound, 18 inches in length, and they possess a large 4-inch bill. They live in eucalypt forests, open woodlands, parks and suburban neighborhoods. They rarely eat fish but rather feed on snakes, small mammals, birds, lizards, and insects. They sit motionless on a perch watching the ground and surrounding area for prey. When they spot something, they fly down to grab it, returning to their perch where they may whack it repeatedly on a branch to kill it and tenderize it before eating it head first.

To start my Australian odyssey, I flew to Hobart in Tasmania to meet up with my daughter, her husband, and his family. We planned to tour Tasmania for a week. I had the first morning free to explore on my own, so I hopped the first city bus in the morning that went southwest of Hobart, and I was the only person on the bus. I was surprised to discover that the driver could give me change for my ticket. No buses in the places I have lived in the United States give change for fear that someone will rob the driver. The money sat in a tray between the driver and me. The driver kindly looked at my map and helped me determine where to exit his bus so I could walk into the Peter Murrell Reserve. He worried that I would have too long a walk to come back to find the return bus, but I shrugged and jumped off the bus. Black peppermint trees dominate this dry sclerophyll forest. The forest contained a thick understory of shrubs and grasses. A few grassy meadows broke up the contiguous forest. Birders regularly find laughing kookaburras in this reserve, and I was out to find one.

Kookaburras occur in family groups with young staying for several years to help their parents raise subsequent broods. As I walked through the eucalypts along Coffee Creek Trail, I heard my first kookaburra. The call started as a low chuckle, growing through a series of trills, chortles, and into a full belly laugh. I stopped dead in my tracks to take it all in. Over the next 20 minutes one or more birds called. I tried to creep over to see them but never did find them. With this call, kookaburras defend their territories, which they keep throughout the year. If a kookaburra from a nearby family responds, all the members of the original group may join in a loud and rambunctious series of laughs that can last several minutes. The next day we drove into the western wet part of Tasmania, and I did not hear or see another kookaburra for almost a week.

I spent two days birding at Dandenong Ranges National Park and You Yangs Regional Park near Melbourne on the southern mainland of Australia. I had good looks at laughing kookaburras in both places but in neither case would the birds allow me to move in close. I wanted to see the details of their plumage and admire their massive bill.

My chance to observe them up close came when I visited friends near Warwick in southeast Queensland. Penny had told me that kookaburras would serenade me at dawn from outside the bedroom window where I would stay. Penny’s bed and breakfast is spectacularly situated in a rural landscape that is perfect for birds. The first morning I walked along their driveway where I could look through the eucalyptus trees toward the river below. I spotted one sitting on a branch with its head cocked slightly to one side. I crept slowly along the driveway until I could watch it carefully. A dark brown line extended from his eye to the back of his head, and he had a dark spot on the back of its head. A light creamy stripe of feathers ran above the eye, and the bottom of his head and collar were light gray. I couldn’t believe how massive his bill was. It reminded me of a large pair of needle-nose pliers. The dark brown feathers on his back and wings had white-tips, and I could see the textures of the individual feathers.  After a few minutes, he turned around so I could see his creamy white underside and even see the nails on each toe gripping the branch. I don’t know if it was a male or female for they look very similar. Females are often slightly bigger. His gaze at the ground became riveted, and then he flew down to the ground to probe among the grass stems. I could not tell if he caught anything before he flew farther down the hill. I stood for a few minutes taking in this splendid bird before I headed back toward the house for breakfast with my friends so excited to tell them of my find.

On my last day at Penny’s place, I woke well before dawn, and as I lay in bed, I heard a loud chorus of laughing kookaburras tune up in her yard. They called back and forth amongst themselves for several minutes, and I drifted back to my childhood and those Tarzan movies. For a few minutes, I thought maybe I was again 9-years old. But no and I quickly rolled out of bed to go out to see these magnificent birds. Several birds hung out in the scattered eucalypts in their yard.

Here is a recording of the morning chorus that I made a few days later in the Atherton Tablelands of northern Queensland. The morning was just waking up and several species called in the first light of the day.

 

Seeing this unique bird and especially hearing their raucous calls will remain a cherished memory of my Australian adventure. Do you have a birdcall that you just love to hear and that brings back fond memories?

The laughing kookaburra turned around to show its creamy white chest and belly. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The laughing kookaburra turned around to show its creamy white chest and belly. (G. Thomas Bancroft)   click on picture to see bigger version.

18
Mar 15

Purple Sea Star and Algae

The tide was going out and I found this ochre sea star on the side of a rock with various algae.  The sea star didn't move in the 20 minutes I stood nearby watching.  I was intrigued by the design formed by the sea star and the brown algae. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The tide was going out and I found this ochre sea star on the side of a rock with various algae. The sea star didn’t move in the 20 minutes I stood nearby watching. I was intrigued by the design formed by the sea star and the brown algae. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

I am excited to announce that I have a photograph hanging in the Wilderness Forever 50th Anniversary Photography Exhibition. My photograph of a purple sea star and algae taken at Scotty’s Bluff along the coast of the Olympic Wilderness received an honorable mention in the wildlife category. The exhibition is on display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, DC through the end of the summer in 2015. I am incredibly flattered that the judges chose this photograph out of more than 5,000 submitted to participate in the celebration. If you make it to DC in the next few months, stop by to see it and let me know how it looks.

Congress passed the Wilderness Act, and President Johnson signed it into law on September 3, 1964. Wilderness is a protection overlay applied by Congress to public lands managed by one of four federal agencies: the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, or Bureau of Land Management. The Wilderness Act defined a process for designating Wilderness in national parks, national wildlife refuges, and national forests. In 1976, Congress added lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management when it passed the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act. Congress has designated more than 109 million acres including almost 4.5 million in Washington.

Congress has designated over 90% of Olympic National Park as Wilderness including portions of the strip of land that borders the beach along the Pacific Ocean. I took this photograph when I hiked south along the beach from Third Beach where I had camped. Tom Martin, my friend who leads American Forest Foundation in Washington, DC, had told me to check out Scotty’s Bluff because the tidal pools are spectacular there. I rose early so I could reach Scotty’s Bluff by 6:15AM when low tide would just be beginning. As he predicted, the tidal pools and surf at Scotty’s Bluff glowed in the morning light, and I found some great things including this purple sea star.

At the time I took this photograph; I was taking an online photography course with William Neil. William Neil creates landscape photograph art of wild country. His work is mesmerizing and inspirational. As I composed this shot, I went through the checklist of techniques he had taught us. Bill’s guidance paid dividends that day and continues to enlighten my photography.

Thank you Tom and Bill. I thank all of you who enjoy my photography too. You inspire me to keep growing.

15
Mar 15

A Good Day for Bald Eagles on Whidbey Island

A bald eagle sits on top of a dead snag in dense fog on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

A bald eagle sits on top of a dead snag in dense fog on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

The fog created an eerie feeling to our walk on the beach. It wrapped around us like a winter quilt. I could feel the dampness on my cheeks, and the air tasted salty. We had come to North Whidbey Island to see what birds we might find. To our left, we could hear the rhythmic lapping of waves and to our right the fog completely obscured any view of vegetation at the beach’s edge. We wondered if we would see anything. I joked to my friend that a large bear, mountain lion, or marauding band of Vikings could suddenly appear out of the fog, and we would not have a chance to escape.

A weak, flat, whistle made us stop in our tracks. Initially, we could not pinpoint its direction, turning to look in all directions. The sound added to the eerie mood. We then heard 3 or 4 whistles at one-second intervals followed by 8 or 10 rapid whistles. Their tone varied, and it sounded almost as if the “beast” stuttered. The call puzzled me initially as I ran through all the possibilities that it might be. After a few more calls, my friend and I simultaneously said bald eagle.

We walked cautiously up the beach moving closer to the upper edge of the beach to see if we could see it. After 100 yards, we spotted the faint outline of the bird on top of a dead snag. The adult bald eagle continued to call through the fog. We wondered if it was trying to locate its mate. As we strolled by looking at it, the magnificent bird looked one direction down the beach and then the other. It totally ignored us on the beach. The bird’s magnificence caused us to stop for several minutes to watch the bird call and gaze through the fog.

A pair of Bald Eagles fly along the beach on Whidbey Island calling to each other. (Thomas Bancroft)

A pair of Bald Eagles fly along the beach on Whidbey Island calling to each other. (Thomas Bancroft)

Later the fog partially cleared and we watched a pair of adult bald eagles fly together along the beach, one slightly behind the other and both calling back and forth to each other. They made the shorebirds and the ducks extremely nervous. The shorebirds flushed and the ducks dove, but the eagles didn’t appear to be hunting. We wondered if one of these was the individual we saw earlier.

About a mile farther down the beach I heard something behind us and turned to watch a juvenile bald eagle fly out of the fog and by us on steady, powerful wing beats. A one-year-old bird, it still had black plumage on its belly and above its eye. The bird passed overhead, and we could see its large hooked bill and yellow legs and hear the beat of its wings.

A good day for eagles!

A juvenile bald eagle flies along the beach on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

A juvenile bald eagle flies along the beach on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

7
Mar 15

A Family Outing

A rufous-bellied pademelon pauses from feeding to consider if danger is near and it should flee. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A rufous-bellied pademelon pauses from feeding to consider if danger is near and it should flee. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I rounded the corner and spotted her sitting beside a bush. Her fine features, dainty little hands, and smooth curves took my breath away. I couldn’t help but stare at her. She flexed open and shut her delicate small fingers and brought her hands together and then apart as she chewed quietly on something. Occasionally, her pink tongue would slip between her soft lips suggesting that the flavor of her food was satisfying. She cocked her head to one side as she gazed down the trail; she had not spotted me. Her brown eyes twinkled in the soft light. She did not appear disturbed by the light drizzle or the water droplets forming on her hair. Droplets coalesced into larger ones that meandered down her face. I stood frozen not able to take my eyes off such beauty, features so fine, such a marvelous example of life.

She turned toward some movement in the bushes and a smaller version of her hopped out from under a bush to sit beside her. Two miniature kangaroos, two pademelons, a mother and her half grown joey, sat right in front of me, not more than a dozen yards away. My blood raced through my arteries as my heart pumped as if I had run a marathon. I stared frozen in the rain as I watched these two magnificent animals chew on grass. I can’t believe that these miniature kangaroos, the mother only 18 inches tall and the joey only a foot tall, were so close. I worked hard not to move.

The cry, “Mummy, Mummy, can we go play in the playground, pleaseeee,” catches my attention and brings me back to Seattle. I am sitting on a bench in Cal Anderson Park in Seattle Washington. It has been two weeks since I returned from Australia and saw the pademelons in Tasmania, yet the image in my mind is still so vivid, so real as if it just happened and I keep returning to the thrill. I watch the boy, maybe 7, hop with his knees tight together down the hill toward his mother just like a kangaroo. He yells, “Please, mummy, can we go into the playground.” His mother roots through her purse for change for the parking meter. His brother, maybe 5, slips and falls as he tries to climb one of the cherry trees, hitting the ground with a thud but he simply stands back up to attempt to climb the tree again. I chuckle as I watch them. So much life in these boys it reminds me of when my daughter was their age.

My wife and I use to take our daughter to playgrounds when she was young. The Miami Zoo had wonderful playgrounds and we would tour the park looking at the animals and stopping at each playground for a little diversion. Our daughter would scramble over all the equipment: sliding, climbing, jumping, running, and falling. So much energy and life! Just like those two pademelons that appeared to be enjoying a fine meal and the drizzle wasn’t going to bother their outing. This trip to Australia was my first trip overseas by myself since my wife died. My daughter now lives in Sydney Australia and I went to see her but also to see some of this mythical continent with all its marsupials and unique birds. The boys’ mother must have said yes for they run into the playground and onto the jungle gym as she strolls up the hill past me. I drift back to Australia and remember that I moved just slightly when I no longer could hold my breadth and stiff stand on the trail. The mother kangaroo immediately saw me and began an intense stare trying to determine if I was dangerous. I panicked that they would flee immediately but after several moments she seemed to relax and she turned with her baby close behind and hopped slowly into the bushes and out of my sight. I turned to head back toward the lodge where we spent the night so I could have breakfast with my daughter, her husband, and his family. My wife would have liked Tasmania, those adorable miniature kangaroos and she would be proud of our daughter.

The rufous-bellied pademelon gazes intensely down the trail. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The rufous-bellied pademelon gazes intensely down the trail. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

This blog was first posted on The Travel Writers site.