ON THE ROAD — on the way from Adelaide to Melbourne we took a little detour to visit the Ngarkat National Park which sits on the South Australian/Victoria border. Very few plants were in flower — we’d missed the nectar laden stems of the yakka grass tree and Banksia ornata was just coming into flower. We did see this white-eared honeyeater (Lichenostomus leucatis) waiting for better times. The flowering cones of Banksia ornata are a major food source for the two species of pigmy possums to be found at Ngarkat.
Taking a brief pause from his foraging amongst the leaf litter, the Orange Footed Scrubfowl (Magapodius reinwardii) at Casuarina Reserve, Darwin.
How does the name of an attractive bird like the Spangled Drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus) become a slang word for a dimwit or general loser? Drongo has been a widely used Australian insult since the 1920s although these days it has drifted out of common parlance into dictionary lists of quaint and outdated expressions. In Victoria in the 1920s a racehorse called Drongo, with impressive bloodlines and enthusiastic backers, started in 37 races and failed to win even one. Drongo did manage a few creditable placings, including a good second in the 1923 Victoria Derby. His problem was that his owners kept entering him in races where he was outclassed. In less prestigious races he could have done well. His owner, Dorothy Wood, daughter of a prominent racehorse owner, wouldn’t give up on him and secured the services of a leading jockey, Bobby Lewis, to ride him on many occasions. However his record of failure led to his name being used to describe losers of the human variety. As one journalist put it “an expression was born that one might be “bit of a drongo” — meaning a try-hard, an also-ran, or a champion that never was.” There is even a book devoted to the unlucky galloper — Drongo, the Story of a Champion Loser, by Bruce Walkley. A Drongo joke from the 1950s goes like this: One mornin’ the boss asks the drongo to hang a new gate off the barn. Off goes the drongo with ‘is tools and the gate. Come lunchtime he hasn’t been sighted, so we went out to look for ‘im. We found ‘im standin’ by the dam. The boss was hoppin mad. “What do you think you’re doin’? I told you to hang that gate!” “Sorry boss,”says the drongo. I couldn’t find no tree ter’ hang it on, so I drowned the bastard.
The Spangled Drongo is no loser. It’s a handsome creature whose “spangled” feathers reflect glossy colour in the right light. The Drongo is found across northern and eastern Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Asia.
The Urban Dictionary pretty much nails it: Galah: An “Old Australian” word; an derogatory term that means a “loud-mouthed idiot.” Named specifically for the galah, a native Australian bird that makes a distinctive (and quite funny-sounding) call.”Oh, Scotty, ya bloody galah! What are you ON ABOUT?!”
It is, fortunately, now an outdated Australian insult and these beautiful parrots are mostly spared being put in the same class as politicians and various other “fools, clowns, doofuses, sapheads, dickheads, dills and nongs”. Similarly the spangled drongo is also now spared such insult, although 40 years ago drongo was a common label for a dill…etc.
Galahs (Eolophus roseicapillus) are often seen in large flocks inland, especially in grain-growing country. The galah above and her/his mate were augmenting their diet with some weedy greens from the Nightcliff foreshore.
The Yellow White-eye (Zosterops luteus) is, like most Australians, a coastal dweller, favouring mangroves, acacia thickets, paperbark woodlands, riverine vegetation and gardens in costal towns. This bird was gathering nest material at East Point in Darwin. Its song is said to be canary-like and the loudest of any Australian White-eye.
On the Nightcliff Promenade today this Tawny Frogmouth’s camouflage was working well on a Casuarina Tree. It was only his/her distinctive call that gave the location away. In Western Arnhem Land the bird is known as Kuluyhkuluy, a name that echoes the call. Science calls the bird Podargus strigoides.
The Forest Kingfisher (Todiramphus macleayii). Photograph from the Liverpool River Arnhem Land. In Kundedjnyenghmi language djirrihdiddid is a generic name for all the kingfishers.
The orange-footed scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) has become a happy camper in the suburbs of Darwin, driving many a mulch-loving gardener to distraction. The Latin name Megapodius refers of course to “big feet” and those long robust claws and powerful orange legs can move mulch and soil at an amazing rate. Tidy minded gardeners wake up to find their carefully curated mulch strewn everywhere. Over our back fence is a house-block that is effectively a reserve for Megapodius and a mound about 12m in diameter and a bit over a meter high is a nest mound shared by a number of Megapodius couples. They excavate a hole, lay 6-12 eggs and back fill the hole with soil and leaves. The job of incubation is done by heat generated as the vegetation breaks down into compost. The chicks are hatched tough and fully-fledged they excavate their way out, with a little help from parents. The scrub fowl have a very loud call — a number of raucus monotonal shrieks followed by a phrase which our neighbourhood agrees says clearly “fucken hell!”. We’ve listened to them in other places around Darwin, and elsewhere the call couldn’t be construed as “fucken hell”. I’m not sure why they are so cheesed off around our way. They seem to have it pretty good really. They’re found in lowland rainforests and dry jungles of parts of the Kimberleys, the Top End and North Queensland. One of my photos shows a big foot digging down on top of the mound just this week.
In a great spreading Albizia tree beside the bike path at Rapid Creek a pair of tawny frogmouths (Podargus strigoides) have been joined by a new family member. The youngster is still a fluffy, mottled grey ball of down but is big enough to leave the nest, such as it is, and sit well camouflaged in the leaves above mum. Dad was still nearby, trying to catch some last shut-eye before sundown and work-time. The frogmouths hunt like kookaburras, sitting watchfully on a post or branch and then gliding silently down to take their prey with their BIG beaks. Their voice is usually a resonant, pulsing “oom, oom, oom, oom” — mostly — but they do have a variety of other calls.
The range of the Grey Shrike Thrush (Colluricincla harmonica) extends pretty much all across Australia — with exception of some arid areas in Western and Central Australia. Pizzey and Knight say “tame around habitation in Eastern Australia”. Certainly this cheeky chappy showed no wariness when Jan and I found him hunting around on the ground in a national park car park near Lorne in Victoria. Range extends to New Guinea, say P and K.