ON THE ROAD — While the Helmeted Honey-Eaters and other birds occupy the upper storey habitat in a large freeflight enclosure at Healesville Sanctuary, a family of Bush Stone-curlews (Burhinus grallarius) share the terrestrial zone with a few Black-breasted Button Quail (Turnix melanogaster). In Darwin we are used to seeing the Bush Stone-curlew around the streets and gardens but in southern Australia populations are in serious decline where Pizzey and Knight describe its status as “rare to wholly extinct in settled parts of south-east Australia”. With big eyes the Bush Stone-curlew is well equipped for night hunting when it takes insects, lizards and occasionally small mammals like mice. The Black-breasted Button Quail is a species listed as vulnerable in the wild under the Commonwealth’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
You don’t expect a wildlife photo opportunity in Brisbane’s CBD when on the way to photograph a wedding. But it happened in a small bit of very manicured parkland off Wickham Terrace in Brisbane. Just beside the path amongst the mulch and irrigation pipes was a very tiny Bush Stone-curlew chick and its parents. The chick hurried over to mum while dad made it plain they didn’t want to be disturbed, putting on a very effective threat display, including sound effects. While the Bush Stone-curlew (Burhinus grallarius) is doing well across north Australia, both in town and bush as far south as Brisbane, the latest information from Birdlife Australia is that it is declining in both New South Wales and Victoria. Closer to home, a tragic footnote to my blog on the Bush Stone-curlew sitting on two eggs in the front yard of a religious hostel at the end of my street. On my morning walk today, not far from the nest site, I found the mother bird standing over the bodies of the two tiny chicks on the roadway — victims of traffic and the reliance of BSCs on camouflage. The father bird was standing nearby on the footpath but the mother wouldn’t leave the dead chicks and get out of the traffic. I moved them to the grassy footpath and left the parents to their obvious state of grief.
Weird is not a descriptive word you expect to find within a species entry in a respected bird guide. Nevertheless, Pizzey and Knight found themselves using “weird” in listing diagnostics for the Bush Stone-Curlew (Burhinus grallarius). “Shy, watchful: moves weirdly, slowly, often with head lowered”, they note. Both in looks and behaviour, the Bush Stone-curlew is …well, a bit out there really. Not least of its weirdness is its call which has been known to send serious shivers up the spine of those hearing it for the first time when camping in the bush. P&K again: “…a far-carrying, eerie whistling call (or chorus) that starts low and quietly — a drawn out “wee-eeer”, repeated up to five times, rises, becomes a high-pitched, drawn out “keeleeoo, quickens, breaks, descends…”. Some folk think it sounds like a person wailing in distress, or, at the least, “it’s spooky”. The Bush Stone-Curlew is in trouble in parts of its range — rare to wholly extinct in settled parts of coastal SE Australia. It’s doing a lot better in the north and in Darwin it’s become part of the suburban scene. Indeed the pictures above were taken at the end of my street in the grounds of a hostel for missionary priests. Lying flat on the ground on grey and brown leaves and mulch it’s very well camouflaged and may choose to stay perfectly still until you get within a metre or so. At that point it rises up quickly onto its spindly legs — which can be unnerving if your thoughts were elsewhere at the time you enter its private space.It spends a lot of time in zen-like stillness — sometimes with one leg raised and its extra big yellow eyes staring into the void. It’s not big on making eye-contact, and would rather pretend you’re not really there. It’s a beautiful and charming neighbour — once you get used to that spooky shriek.