2. Among the Eucalypts

Five days into our trip, Chris Dahlberg, the naturalist with Daintree Nature Tours, drove us north from Cairns on the coastal road to Port Douglas and Mossman. We were looking for birds that inhabit a eucalyptus dry forest, rich with birds not seen on Queensland’s wetter Atherton Tablelands. Australia is home to about 900 species of “eucalypt,” the continent’s iconic forest trees. Eucalypts evolved from ancient rainforests and continue to adapt well to the Australian environment that faces increasing droughts, fire, and poor soil.

During the cool morning, Chris helped us find some birds new to me, including the Wandering Whistling-Ducks that have a high pitched, almost squeaky call; a Forest Kingfisher with a rich metallic blue on its back and head; and a social flock of Rainbow Bee-Eaters, the only bee-eaters found in Australia. Like other bee-eaters, the rainbow bee-eaters have soft colors—in this case, buff, green and turquoise—that are accentuated by a black tail, wing feathers, and eye stripe.

As the day warmed up, we opened the van windows and enjoyed the cooling breeze as Chris, the picture of health with his sandy hair and deep tan, drove down a desolate road. He enthusiastically offered information on the area’s birds, noting how the vegetation thinned until only patches of tall, skinny eucalyptus trees dotted the barren savannah. Soon, a moisture-sucking, hot wind whipped the brown grasses seared by months without rain. Chris explained that the area usually has a short rainy season when the grasses grow rapidly and then die off to survive a long dry season. When we visited, the expected rainfall had not yet arrived.

 

Bikkies & Ginger Beer

At midday on a lonely country road, Chris pulled into a combined gas station/cafe/store that reminded me of the little all-purpose store in southern Oregon close to my grandmother’s ranch. In the 1950s it served as an outpost in a rural and sparsely populated area, and all the locals picked up their mail at this gathering spot. This Australian store, unlike the one in Oregon, seemed to be a way station for passing motorists and was certainly a supply depot for the campground we could see across an expanse of bare dirt.

All sixteen of us trooped into the small store, looking to buy something to supplement our box lunches. I headed for the refrigerated case to grab a stubby brown bottle of Bundaberg Ginger Beer, a strong nonalcoholic drink I had enjoyed on earlier trips to Australia. Then I scanned the shelves for bikkies, the English/Australian slang for biscuits, which could be sweet or plain. I was relieved to find packets of ANZAC biscuits, the only remotely healthy snack for sale in the entire store. (ANZAC is an acronym for Australia New Zealand Army Corps.) I don’t know if it’s the history of ANZAC biscuits that I like, or that they are quite tasty. Made with lots of rolled oats, shredded coconut, and golden syrup, these biscuits are surprisingly good given that they are made without eggs. The recipe was developed during World War I for Australian and New Zealand “Mums” and wives who baked them for their loved ones fighting in the Great War (World War I). These sweets kept well on the long sea voyage to the war zones and the men in uniform greatly appreciated the nostalgic treats from home.

 

Oscar the Grouch with Feathers?

Once we finished our snacks outside the little store, we followed Chris to the campground across the way and walked into a thin stand of small eucalyptus trees that provided little shade. No birds sang in the stifling midday heat. A light afternoon breeze teased the firm eucalyptus leaves above us, clacking them together like tiny castanets. The primitive campground offered tables and a pit toilet for the handful of campsites. Only two sites were occupied, both downhill from the road and next to a dry stream bed. I liked that spot—remote, few people, peaceful.

Chris was looking for a Tawny Frogmouth, a most unusual bird that he swore he could find in this area. He explained, “Frogmouths are found throughout Australia. They prefer open woodland and savannah and grasslands with some deciduous trees near the occasional streams, just like this campground.”

We learned that frogmouths are nocturnal, hunting at night for small reptiles, mammals, and spiders. They are territorial and will often sleep in the same small area during the day, relying on camouflage for safety. Chris paused for a moment in his description of this unique bird, then added with a smile, “Some people compare the tawny frogmouth to Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch with feathers. They have a big mouth and are rather sloppy looking.”

The comparison to Oscar the Grouch made me cringe, especially while standing in this pristine natural environment far from television and Sesame Street, but I got the point. As it turned out, we were fortunate that Chris was our guide because the tawny frogmouths are surprisingly difficult to locate, even though they grow up to twenty-one inches long. After several minutes scanning the light- gray tree trunks, Chris nodded toward a nearby tree and whispered, “There it is.”

I squinted but saw nothing that looked like a bird. And then, ten feet up in the crotch of two branching limbs, another stub the exact color of the grey branches poked up in the air. On closer inspection, the surface of that broken branch appeared softer than the other branches. Birds that depend on camouflage remain still because even a tiny movement will attract a predator. Suddenly a big eyelid opened just a crack and we could see it wasn’t a branch stub, but a tawny frogmouth! We were so close to the bird we put away our binoculars and just stood and stared in awe. Then the bird closed her strange eyelid and I had to admit to myself that it did seem remarkably similar to Oscar the Grouch—slow-moving and with a large face. After the whole bird became obvious, I wondered, How could I have missed it?

“Oh, I thought it was an owl!” my friend Sally whispered.

“No, it looks like an owl just sitting in a tree, but an owl would not sit in the crotch of a tree like that,” Chris noted. “Owls catch prey with their strong, sharp claws, but frogmouths grab their prey with their beaks and their feet are not all that strong. The owl and the frogmouth are not at all related.”

While looking for the bird’s feet to verify what Chris had just said about frogmouths, there was another surprise. Under the bird’s belly I spied two smaller but wide-open eyes watching us! The frogmouth chick never flinched, never blinked, as he hunkered next to his fluffy mom. I was taken with the sweetness of the image and impressed with how frogmouths are secure in their ability to camouflage and become invisible even in full daylight.

What a privilege it was to enjoy the close presence of these tawny frogmouths without disturbing them. We studied the two birds, took copious photos, and then tiptoed away to leave them in peace.