Golden Bowerbird

Golden BowerbirdJanet de Morgan

Near the end of our trip, rain pelted the roof of our B&B so the next day we prepared for its return. On a rural road near Cairns, Del, our local guide and driver, pulled our bus off and parked in a place where there were no signs or anything to indicate this spot was special. We disembarked as usual and Del beckoned us to follow him down an overgrown dirt track.  The fittest of us stuck with Del leaving the rest to come at their own pace. We were moving surprisingly fast, over and under fallen logs and brushing past still-wet grasses and bushes that were working hard to reclaim the abandoned road.

In ten minutes, the trail faded and Del turned onto another path that dived to the side into the brush and trees. He slowed down and signaled for quiet. Then he pointed to a spot of bright yellow on a low branch back in the underbrush. Del whispered, “Golden Bowerbird”. The robin-sized bird hunkered peacefully as we maneuvered for a view.


I love bowerbirds. Food is so easy to come by in this place that the males spend much of their time building fantastic bowers of upright twigs to attract the females. Each male has his own design, stabbing one end of the twigs into the ground to form two sides of an arch and then decorating the ground around it with colorful bits of flowers and in recent years, pieces of plastic. Each bird has a favorite color, red, blue, green, white. This bower bird was not near his bower, but others we saw had carefully sorted collections of plastic bits to adorn their love magnets. One we saw had the red pieces of broken tail lights and candy wrappers arrayed on the right and the white bits on the other side.

I studied the Golden Bowerbird, its bright yellow body and long tail with some yellow-olive on its wing and head.  As I shifted my position to let others see better distant screaming broke the quiet. At first I was annoyed, worried the bird might fly. He looked in the direction of the commotion, but did not seem perturbed.

I recognized the voice of my friend, Sally, so I turned to retrace my steps back up the trail. She continued her yelping, interspersed with short periods of quiet. I met two other birders who said they had found leeches, picked them off and kept on moving. But Sally was going nuts.

The area was prime leech habitat, warm, moist and brushy like my first encounter in Madagascar, again after rain. I checked my clothes, found a few of the thread-thin creatures and flicked them off.

Sally was near hysterics when I found her. After rattling off her story of how she had fallen behind, missed a trail and then found one leech and then many more, she announced that no bird was worth all of that. I spun her around and we hastened to the bus.

Next to the bus, I began a thorough inspection of clothing and body. Leeches are really quite innocent, though the first time I saw one hiking up a companion’s sleeve, I was as disgusted as Sally though not as verbal. Land leeches are about an inch long and move like an inch-worm. They wait on the end of a blade of grass or twig for anything warm-blooded to brush by and they grab hold, like ticks I encounter at home. Leeches hunch upward or through clothing until they find bare skin and clamp on for some dinner. A fat, blood filled leech is the most disgusting form to find hanging from some personal body part. They inject a blood-thinner so when they drop off the wound bleeds for a few minutes, often the only indication they were even there, which is my preference if I am to be a dinner donor. It is better to find them before their dinner begins. They can be flicked off clothes relatively easily, but once they find skin, even if you try to move them, they clamp tight and hang on and flicking only results in a leech attached to the flicking finger. I know of one famous birding woman who carried fingernail scissors for a sure fire solution in this situation.

Sally and I were almost done with our own inspections when the others arrived, checking and picking as they walked. After we individually thought we were leech free, we climbed back on the bus. But it wasn’t over. As we began to relax, another shout shattered the peace. Someone had found one of the persistent devils in mid feast. It had probably been unwisely flicked off onto the bus floor and, of course, the leech was unfazed. It just headed for the next warm body.

All to see a bird. Was it worth it?

Of course it was.