SUNRISE AT SUNDOWN

November 1991

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The fracas erupted much as any bar room brawl.  The two antagonists, males overdosed on testosterone, suddenly flared upright, a few paces apart, spitting, snarling, sub-vocalizing barely coherent obscenities at each other, designed more as reassurance than intimidation.  They circled each other slowly, awaiting the right moment to lunge forward; each wary, prepared to parry any thrust from the other.

The female at the centre of the altercation had moved off to one side, at a safe distance from the anticipated threshing but close enough to bestow her favours on the eventual victor, the future father of her next batch of children.  A fluttered eyelid, a pregnant pause, a provocative wriggle of the hind quarters and she’d set out the scene, issued the challenge and the two males would fight it out until only one of them remained to claim the prize of coupling.

It was the smaller of the two males that initiated the first sally.  He reared himself up to full stretch, raced forward and lunged at his opponent’s exposed neck.  Sharp fangs sliced through skin, blood oozed forth, trickled down to trace a red tramline towards the chest.  The larger male initially staggered back a step under the force of the attack and before he could regain balance, composure, that first backward step had extended to several paces. 

It was but a momentary lapse.  Regaining his equanimity, the larger male used his sheer strength and height advantage to shake off his smaller adversary and then turned defence to offence, going for the soft underbelly.

The smaller antagonist had speed where he lacked physical presence and almost immediately rebounded before the other could deliver a second, perhaps a more telling blow.  They grappled at close quarters, teeth gnashing, claws flaying, subdued snorts now replacing earlier bravado.

The larger male suddenly backed up against a tent guy rope and spilled over backwards, bringing the smaller male tumbling down with him.  In an instant the first rolled over, seeking to gain the advantage of his bulkier frame and deliver the killer blow but his more slightly built rival refused to adopt this scenario and managed to heave himself around to continue the roll down the slight incline.  Their reptilian grunts punctuated the tense atmosphere around the campsite.

As the pair rolled heavily against the barbeque brickwork their grasp on each other slackened and in an instant they parted, stared at each other from apace, hot steam spilling from their nostrils.  Clearly sheer exertion was beginning to take its toll, especially on the smaller male who now took his first deliberate backward step.  The larger male advanced, rising himself onto tiptoes to present a more formidable image. 

The smaller male took a second backward step and effectively sealed the outcome of the fray.

The pair engaged in a little more wrestling but by now it was only a matter of time before the smaller of the males would accept inevitable defeat and withdraw, leaving his larger opponent to enjoy the spoils of victory.  When the end came, it came suddenly.  As the larger male appeared to ease his grip, no doubt to readjust his hold in preparation for a last blow, the smaller turned tail and scurried off amongst the nearby trees.  The victor gave a passing thought to pursuit but noted the female by the fencepost and decided that a sperm planted now was better than a promised grope later.

Jim Whittle estimated the confrontation had lasted 17 minutes; I suspect it may have been a little longer.

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It was the first time Fay and I had witnessed this more aggressive trait in the Lace Monitor Varanus varius.  It was our first ever visit to the Sundown National Park and the spectacle of reptilian prowess no doubt goes at least some way towards explaining our lasting admiration for this spot, isolated in Queensland’s southwest corner.  We’ve returned a number of times since, twice in 1996, and have yet to feel that the long four- to five-hour drive is not worth the tiring trek.

It was here that we finally “ticked” the elusive Little Eagle Hieraaetus morphnoides

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Image by Julian Robinsonv via OzAnimals.com

 

and where I managed to waste an entire roll of film on a poorly-lit Brown Treecreeper Climacteris picumnus- only slightly compensated for by a few “average” to “barely passable” transparencies of Jacky Winter Microeca fascinans and Varied Triller Lalage leucomela.

The magic of Sundown National Park was further enhanced at the time of that first visit by an arduous trek across pebble creek beds, up steep hills and along narrow goat tracks in an unsuccessful attempt to find Chestnut-rumped Heathwren Hylacola pyrrhopygius.  It was not the only miss on that occasion; indeed, birding is fraught with misses, near misses and occasions when it would have been better to have stayed at home to sip another glass of shiraz!

And yet there were also the successes offered by Sundown.  The Turquoise Parrot Neophema pulchella dropped into sight, and into our Lifelist, as we walked to the Ranger’s house via his small refuge dump; the parrots were foraging keenly among the human debris and seemed totally oblivious to our presence – until I raised my camera to eyelevel!.  The Southern Whiteface Aphelocephala leocopsis was flitting obligingly around the Silky Oak Gravillia robusta outside the Ranger’s house.  We’d actually been forewarned about this particular tree by Joy Lock.

Other successes took a little longer to accomplish.  The White-browed Woodswallow Artamus superciliosa involved a reasonably gentle stroll of around 800 metres and some concerted neck craning to search among canopy birds.

The heathwren, alluded to earlier, was certainly birding at the more extreme end of the pastime.  Peter Hazelgrove, the Sundown Ranger, had originally suggested the expedition as we unpacked our gear in one of the allotted camping “bays.”  John Hadley was with us at the time, idling chatting, filling us in on which species had been recorded by early [Friday afternoon] arrivals at the campsite.  John, a little over five feet tall in his socks, was always ready for a hike.  Another Pom among the Queensland birding fraternity and worth double his height or his weight in gold.

Fay and I had he heathwren pencilled in as second only to the Southern Whiteface on our Sundown “wish list.”  There was no question of our participation.  Both John and Dee McKenzie, two other members of the “Redcliffe Rabble,” were keen and wild horses wouldn’t keep Graham Palmer [yet another birding Pom] away – even if wife Elizabeth invariably remained behind reading or knitting!  Ron Dowling, ex-Army type, agreed to come along simply to keep the visiting Dutch student, Gijs Kurstjen, company.

Having a bone dry river saved us a wet crossing but using the waterless river bed as the main highway played havoc with unfit calf muscles and unsupported ankles faced imminent danger of sprains as rocks shifted underfoot.  Thankfully most of the party had packed walking boots for the weekend; for Fay and I, a salutary lesson learnt long ago on Cannock Chase gravel.

One problem remained that Peter had observed the heathwren at a number of locations along the River Severn and suspected that the species could as easily appear almost anywhere along the banks on either side.  We tended to split into three groups to cover this contingency; some hugged one bank, others the opposite bank while a third group followed a central line.  Any likely spot was thoroughly explored, all bird movement closely investigated.  The day pressed on and the heathwren failed to put in an appearance.

It was just as about most of us felt the need for a break, a drop of tea, a nibble to refortify flagging muscles that we came to the hill- a large, exceedingly steep hill which involved a difficult scramble with lungs heaving, gasping for the next mouthful of air.  But this was Peter’s prime location for Chestnut-rumped Heathwren and that in itself should have served as sufficient refortification.

All our sustained efforts were to no avail.  We saw a feral goat, higher up the hill, seemingly mocking our paltry efforts as it moved off beyond our reach with gracefully leaps and bounds.  In the blinking of an eyelid it was gone.  Our sole reward remained in the knowledge that we had at least tried – rather akin to the last runner in a major marathon being congratulated for having entered into the spirit of the event.

The return to camp did however provide some compensation, another triumph in the collection of “ticks.” 

Finding the male Red-capped Robin, Petroica goodenovii perched on a low bush alongside the “flying fox” contraption was rewarding enough but the bird remained in situ long enough for both Fay and I to have exceedingly good views of its colour nuances, to particular note the brilliant red cap and breast feathers. 

A second success came when we explained our joy of the Red-capped Robin to … well, given the current litigious atmosphere prevalent in modern society… we’ll call him “Old Hand”…  Most organizations have a character akin to “Old Hand,” the self-professed mouthpiece of all knowledge, the member who can top anything any other member has seen or done.  In our case, “Old Hand” suggested, in a tone a little beyond condescension and just loud enough for every camper within a 50m radius of us to hear him, that we had misidentified a Rose Robin Petroica rosea which he himself had seen at the “flying fox” earlier that morning.

Fay and I re-checked our field guides [we use Simpson & Day and Slater respectively] and compared their descriptions with our own field notes.  No, Rose Robin did not fit the bill.  The red cap was unequivocal.  And yet…we were comparatively new to Australian birds; Old Hand had been on the local birding scene since Noah’s Ark had grounded atop Mt Ararat.  The doubt was seeded…

…and keeled over at the evening’s campfire “bird call” when several other birders acclaimed the Red-capped Robin and only Old Hand put forth Rose Robin.  His wife, a competent birder in her own right but who had accompanied her husband that morning, had not recorded Rose Robin on her list but rather Red-capped Robin.  Peter Hazelgrove hadn’t seen a Rose Robin in that particular part of the park in the past month or more and felt that Red-capped was the more likely species.  Mrs Old Hand agreed.  Smirk mode!

Sundown was to offer us other opportunities to smile.  If it wasn’t the birding itself, and October 1996 was a particularly lean time in this respect, then it was the “avian politics” and the bedroom farces that materialized when only one spouse was an active birder and spent weekends away from the non-birding partner.  The Godfather and his Painted Lady offered much amusement with their inept attempts to discreetly sneak in – and out again – of their respective tents.  The thrust and parry of the Janus types in power and those who enjoy wielding power in a comparatively small and insignificant pond, usually maintaining a smile while poised with dagger ready to stab once an opponent’s back was turned, was the source of much amusement for those of us beyond the pale, the unwashed masses who bordered on being social pariahs.

However, if nothing else, there remains a special magic associated on awakening with sunrise at Sundown.

Sundown Birdlist [block capitals indicate Lifelist entrants]

 

 

Maned Duck

 

Pacific Black Duck

 

Eastern Cattle Egret

 

Black-shouldered Kite

 

Wedge-tailed Eagle

 

LITTLE EAGLE

 

Masked Lapwing

 

Common Bronzewing

 

Peaceful Dove

 

Bar-shouldered Dove

 

Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo

 

Galah

 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

 

Cockatiel

 

Scaly-breasted Lorikeet

 

Little Lorikeet

 

Crimson Rosella

 

Pale headed Rpsella

 

Eastern Rosella

 

Red-rumped Parrot

 

TURQUOISE PARROT

 

Australian King-Parrot

 

Red-winged Parrot

 

Pacific Koel

 

Channel-billed Cuckoo

 

Horsfield’s Bromze Cuckoo

 

Fan-tailed Cuckoo

 

Brush Cuckoo1

 

Powerful Owl

 

Tawny Frogmouth

 

Spotted Nightjar

 

White-throated Nightjar [H]

 

Australian Owlet-nightjar

 

Oriental Dollarbird

 

Laughing Kookaburra

 

Sacred Kingfisher

 

Rainbow Bee-eater

 

White-throated Treecreeper

 

Brown Treecreeper

 

Variegated Fairywren

 

Superb Fairywren

 

Yellow-faced Honeyeater

 

White-earred Honeyeater

 

Fuscous Honeyeater

 

White-plumed Honeyeater

 

Bell Miner

 

Noisy Miner

 

Blue-faced  Honereater

 

Little Friarbird

 

Noisy Friarbird

 

Striped Honeyeater

 

Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater

 

Brown Honeyeater

 

Speckled Warbler

 

White-browed Scrubwren

 

Weebill

 

White-throated Gerygone

 

Yellow-rumped Thornbill

 

Yellow Thornbill

 

SOUTHERN WHITEFACE

 

Grey-crowned Babbler

 

Eastern Whipbird [H]

 

Grey Butcherbird

 

Australian Magpie

 

Pied Currawong

 

White-breasted Woodswallow

 

WHIUTE-BROWED WOODSWALLOW

 

Dusky Woodswallow

 

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike

 

White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike

 

White-winged Triller

 

Varied Sittella2

 

Australian Golden Whistler

 

Rufous Whistler

 

Grey Shrikethrush

 

Willie Wagtail

 

Grey Fantail

 

Rufous Fantail

 

Magpie-lark

 

Leaden Flycatcher

 

Torresian Crow

 

Apostlebird

 

Hooded Robin

 

Jacky Winter

 

RED-CAPPED ROBIN

 

Welcome Swallow

 

Fairy Martin

 

Rufous Songlark

 

Common Myna

 

Mistletoebird

 

Diamond Firetail

 

Red-browed Finch

 

Double-barred Finch

 

Australian Pipit