Where the wild things are

[This was written when we were living at Binna Burra, near Bangalow, in 2000.]

I live in a small cottage between a Big Scrub rainforest remnant and a creek. A paddock separates the cottage from the remnant. This is an ideal place, a ready-made hide almost, from which to observe the animals and birds that live in those habitats, or must pass through from one to the other in search of food, water and mates.

A lace monitor (Varanus varius) occasionally wanders past the house on its way from the creek to the remnant. It’s an impressive beast, about 1.5 metres long. It saunters along heavily, in a seemingly relaxed fashion, but can put on an enormous burst of speed if it feels threatened. It spied me looking at it one day, and took off like a rocket. Lace monitors feed on insects, reptiles, small mammals, carrion and nestling birds. I’ve seen it 4 metres up a gum tree, possibly looking for those nestling birds.

Lace Monitor, photo by Quartl, Wikipedia Commons

At least two brush turkeys (Alectura lathami) come through a couple of times a day. Once I saw three together. They usually come through separately, on their way to or from the remnant, and stop for a peck and a poke on the lawn or in the garden. The poke sometimes turns into a hole, but I’m more than happy to sacrifice the odd plant for their service in eating bugs. They seem to like digging up the tubers of sweet potato. I’ve read that they also eat seeds and fallen fruit, and sometimes young, tender plant shoots. If they come through together, it’s usually in a rush as the male (with the bigger yellow fold of skin under the throat) chases the female intently. They then zoom through the grounds, zigging and zagging like the roadrunner in Bugs Bunny, and dive into the trees near the creek. But mostly it’s a sedate meander by one or other of the birds.

I often hear the noise of the turkey before the bird disappears. It’s a loud deep sound like the clearing of a big throat – a-hum. I usually respond with ‘hello, turkey’. It cocks an eye in my direction and continues its careful progress across the grass, one foot in front of the other, while looking intently around. To ‘clear its throat’, it lowers its head, pulls its head into its neck, and inflates its yellow skin-folds.

Brush turkey

One turkey got the shock of its life when a vagrant peacock appeared. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. The peacock marched regally across the paddock, straight past the brush turkey, whose eyes were bulging almost out of its head. It stared until the peacock disappeared from sight up the hill, then continued across the paddock as if nothing had happened.

Sometimes I think brush turkeys are too relaxed for their own good. Black Angus cows with their calves roam the paddock, and I saw a calf charge a turkey. The bird stood looking in a transfixed sort of way at the calf who was running at it full bore; then at the last minute the bird roused and flung itself into the remnant. I’ve only once seen a brush turkey running full tilt. It looked like a jet going down a runway, its neck stretched out, body still but legs whirling, before it took off and actually flew. That’s the only time I’ve seen one fly.

There’s a brush turkey nest near the river. It consists of a pile of leaves scraped together, about 2 metres long and 1 metre high. Apparently nests are used season after season, created and tended by the male who made it. The leaf litter rots and heats up – perfect for incubating the eggs that several females lay in them. The male adds or removes leaves according to the temperature needed, which is between 33 and 38 degrees Celsius. He sticks his head into a hole he digs to tell the temperature. Females may lay in many mounds, and mounds can contain up to 50 eggs. Males can make and tend more than one mound.

We also have a lot of laughing kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), who do a lot of cackling over their territories. A family of kookaburras usually occupies a territory of about 10 hectares, but it can be larger if there’s not enough food and water in the area.

Laughing kookaburra, photo by Louise Docker, Wikipedia Commons

Kookaburras like to sit on a perch and scan the ground for food. A clothes line will do as well as a branch. One bird spotted a lizard and swung down to the ground. It then waited, and took a little hop to one side while raising the wing on that side. It waited some then did the same thing. In a little while it hoped to the other side and raised the other wing. At last it dipped its head and came up with a skink. It flew back to the clothes line, bashed the skink about a bit with its beak on the metal rods, and tossed it down its throat. I’ve seen rainbow bee eaters (Merops ornatus) do the same thing with bees.

Rainbow bee-eater, photo by Peter Firminger, Wikipedia Commons

Kookas eat reptiles, insects, earthworms, crayfish and rodents, according to studies. They also take other birds. I’ve seen them eat caterpillars, the hairy kind. Picnickers will be well aware that they also relish chops, sausages and sandwiches if they can get them (and they can be very quick when you’re not looking!)

Last year a very young kooka parked itself in our driveway. Good job we didn’t need to drive the car for the next 2 days! It sat there, very still, while its parents came and went, bringing skinks and large worms. I was worried it would become lunch for the lace monitor, but if that was to be its fate, then so be it. Lace monitors have to eat, too. The kooka had a sibling up a tree, and the parents brought food to it as well. Well-meaning neighbours (humans) wanted to ‘save’ it, but I thought it best to leave it alone. The parents were looking after it, and it would probably get itself up a tree eventually. That’s exactly what happened a couple of days later.

A barn owl (Tyto alba) put in an appearance one day. I startled it off its perch in a pine tree in the back yard, in mid-afternoon. It flew across to a gum tree, and would have been lost to sight if a Pacific Baza (Aviceda subcristata) hadn’t flown from its nest in the remnant to swoop at the owl. The owl settled back in the pine tree and stayed there dozing until dark. At sunset one of our cheeky feral rats (Rattus rattus) came out foraging in plain sight. It climbed up the lilly pilly about 4 metres from the owl. I was sending ‘mental vibes’ to the owl about the rat, so it could have a nice dinner, but the owl slumbered on. However, neither the owl nor the rat was there next morning. I haven’t seen the rat since. Here’s hoping.

Barn owl, photo by Jurgen, Wikipedia Commons

A pair of bazas spend time in the spring flying back and forward across the paddock, gathering material for their nest in the remnant. They glide silently, on still wings, and just when you are admiring their beauty, they crash heavily into a tree and cling on for dear life. Apparently they tug at twigs using their body weight, until the twigs break off, so that the bird then falls and rights itself while flying off. The crash also disturbs insects that it can then grab and feed on. Bazas eat insects, frogs, small lizards, some birds, eggs and nestlings.

Pacific baza, photo by Aviceda, Wikipedia Commons

And there’s an echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), not a fairy, at the bottom of the garden. It seems to like the ant-infested fence posts. It disappears into the weeds on the other side of the fence when it wants to hide. Guess I won’t be cleaning those up for a while.

Short-beaked echidna, photo by KeresH, Wikipedia Commons

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5 Responses to Where the wild things are

  1. Joy Window says:

    Here’s an animal encounter from where we are living now – I was sitting in my squatter’s chair (one of those with the leg extension that you can stretch your leg out and put your feet on) under the house where there’s cool breezes, trying to escape the heat. I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye, and a gorgeous lace monitor, about 1.5 m in length, walked *under* my footrest, stopped for a few seconds while tasting the air, then slowly ambled past! I froze, knowing that they react to movement and that their bite is very full of unfriendly bacteria. I could have reached out and touched it. The patterns on the skin were fantastic. It ambled to about 2 metres away, and stood there for a few minutes (seemed like forever) flicking its tongue – it must have detected me but, because I didn’t move, it didn’t feel threatened. What a privilege!

    Then it ambled off up the stone steps and out into the garden where I couldn’t see it anymore. Wow!

    There’s a myth that a goanna will climb up you if it thinks you’re a tree. At least, I hope it’s a myth! The reptile handling workshop told me that the ‘staying still’ applies to snakes as well, and it sure worked when I did an impression of a rock when a big carpet python came towards me. It went past me (sitting on the floor, boulder-like) and stopped under the “tree” next to me – a woman who was holding her breath!

  2. Joy Window says:

    Jane in Capetown, South Africa says: We have water monitors, aka leguaan (pronounced leg -o-vahn) which get up to 1.5 metres. I once encountered one in Knysna forest and got a major fright – as no doubt did it. They can issue a nasty bite, I believe.

  3. Cath Clark says:

    Fancy seeing a barn owl and Pacific Baza in the same tableu, I can see why you wanted to put it to “paper.” Looks to me like you left the Big Scrub for the Bigger Scrub.

  4. Rebecca says:

    If I ever saw a monitor lizard in the wild I would die of happiness! I did see Rainbow Bee-eaters while I was in Australia, and was transported with delight. Creatures that are fairly normal to you are exotic and amazing to me. Barn Owls we actually have in North America, oddly enough, but I’ve never seen one.

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