Friday, September 21, 2007

Coucals and Cockatoos

Wooom, Ooom, Wooom Ooom, Wooom Ooom. The sound echoes back and forth across the trail. Two native pheasants or Coucals are signalling. They seem shy but their song is insistent. When I read the bird book I learn such interesting things about them, especially about how they fly (clumsily) and how construct their nests (painstakingly).

'The male and female climb high in trees, break off small leafy branchlets and let them drop to the ground. Then they drag the branchlets across the ground through the undergrowth to the nest site.' (Frith, 1976:301). They reach the top of the trees by going backwards and forwards from one tree to another, slowly gaining height. Then they glide back down. Back on earth they construct their nest from the pile of leaves and twigs they've collected, and when that's done, they grab some more leaves and branches from the surrounding vegetation, pulling them down to form a roof over their new home. The birdbook also tells me that: 'Newly hatched pheasant coucals are a startling sight.' I will keep a look out.

Not far from the booming voice of the Coucals I spy Willie Wagtail on a low eucalypt branch overlooking the river. He is chattering urgently, warningly. Higher up in the tree canopy there is a family of small raptors. It's too far away to make out which kind - falcon, hawk, kite? But the fledglings are learning to fly or so it seems. Wings flapping. Launch off the branch, a little circle, a short glide, then back to the safety of the branch.

A few days ago the parent hawk was gliding above the river, watching. Flying right beside it, shrieking loudly, was one lone cockatoo. As they passed me, a treeload of white cockatoos, also screeching, rose up out of the canopy of a nearby eucalypt. The hawk paid them no attention and flew slowly on.

I often share these bird stories with the other river walkers I meet along the trail. We stop to chat about the many birds we've seen. Today it's Wrens, Pardalotes, Willie wagtails. Cockatoos. Kingfisher. Brush Turkeys. Butcher birds. Magpies. Ravens. Currawongs. Kookaburras. And now the Coucals.

As we talk about how lovely it is here, the riverwalker remarks about the plethora of birds she sees. I agree, but tell her the story I heard last week from another of the regular visitors to this place, a local historian. She told me that she knows a couple of locals, elderly women probably in their mid to late nineties. They remember when there were just a few houses here. And in commenting on the river, they remarked how prolific the bird life used to be.

To me and the other river walkers I meet, this is a real sanctuary, with plenty of birdlife. Outside this special place we've become so used to the impact of development and tree cutting that we don't notice when the birds, bats and possums disappear.

But by visiting this precious pocket of bushland, we notice what seems to us to be an abundance of birdlife. We notice the difference. Knowing that years ago there were far more birds is important. Gathering stories from the elders, hearing about their memories of the river, brings a new perspective to the local ecology and a nostalgia for an often forgotten past.

Frith HJ, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Surry Hills, NSW, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd.