If abundant alliteration alarms you, I suggest you avert your attention to an alternative article, as I’m feeling phonetically flamboyant on this fine Friday morning.
Wildlife watchers or flora and fungi fans will probably agree that repetition reaps rewards, particularly in rainforests.
While new destinations are often exciting, revisiting the same terrain will often reveal surprises.
The time of day, weather, season, and number of walkers on the track all affect observations.
Recent rambling at Ravensbourne National Park resulted in several new bird sightings. On one particularly successful trip, I spotted white-headed pigeons, brown cuckoo- doves, a wonga pigeon, and my first wild wompoo fruit dove.
I casually mentioned my wompoo sighting to Ralph, an avian enthusiast I’ve known since those heady days of university over thirty years ago. This revelation resulted in him giving up his precious leisure time to share a walk with me at Ravensbourne.
Back in the old days, I sometimes assisted Ralph with entomological expeditions and through these trips came to discover his birding passion. As most of us do when fostering friendships, I tried to participate in his interests.
However, attempting to enter the world of the committed birdwatcher (or twitcher, as many prefer to be called) is fraught with peril for the unsuspecting novice. I was definitely a fungi fanatic, not a budding bird buff. My early attempts resulted in an embarrassing gaffe that developed legendary status over the years. There’s a reason I became known in some circles as the “Starling Darling”.
While looking through a window at the University of Queensland grounds in the late 1980s, I spied what I thought were extremely rare birds. Sunlight highlighted their distinctive speckled patterns and iridescent green sheen. In my eyes they were startlingly beautiful. Heart racing, I bounded down the steps to the coffee room on the next floor, where Ralph and his colleagues were congregated, and informed him of my amazing avian discovery.
A little sceptical of my rare observation, but not willing to risk missing a “tick” for his species list, Ralph hastened to the window. In my defence, I’d grown up in rural areas where most households owned free-ranging domestic cats. These purring pets are pernicious predators, and when left to roam, spread disease and kill many native Australian species. Due to their success, my childhood list of backyard bird sightings was short, indeed.
The story of my “rare” European starling was a source of amusement to other birders (as well as the entire university department.) While it is no longer discussed, the memory survives in my own mind as an invisible indicator of my lack of birding expertise. By showing my wompoo to Ralph, I hoped to banish my birding blunder into oblivion, restore my ragged reputation, and also cement a smile on his face.
And here is where I reveal why Ralph requested a pseudonym and that I not expose his face. In his opinion, it is embarrassing for an Australian twitcher to reach his fifties not having seen a wompoo fruit dove. In fact, he refuses to call himself a twitcher these days due to his lack of dedication.
Like many of my university friends, Ralph’s environmental science career was curtailed by the corporate cage. Research funds are often rare, unpredictable, and short term. In order to pay bills he now spends his days closeted in an office tackling mountains of paperwork, attending meetings, and answering hundreds of emails instead of examining dung beetles in poo. Rainforest jaunts are extremely rare.
So it was with an element of excitement and a huge sense of responsibility that I took Ralph to one of my regular Ravensbourne routes. Would we spot the Wompoo again? I was confident, probably over- confident, but when enthusiasm strikes, one must run with it!
I hadn’t even unbuckled my seatbelt when Ralph rushed out of the car gripping his bulky binoculars. A flash of feathers in the rainforest canopy had caught his attention. Craning his neck, he was now in full stalking mode. This was not to be a casual Sunday amble, but a serious avian quest.
I saw another flash of wings and recognised the deep purple of a wompoo’s chest. Would Ralph have his wompoo wish satisfied before we’d even left the carpark? This seemed too good to be true. It was too good to be true.
Even though I was sure it was my wompoo, according to twitching rules, my identification doesn’t count. Ralph had to positively identify it himself and he wasn’t 100% certain. He needed to see it in more detail. After half an hour of unsuccessfully scanning the carpark canopy, I suggested we hit the trails as there may be other birds to spot and I expected the wompoo would return once we disappeared for a while.
Ralph was naturally sceptical. The Starling Darling did not have a remarkable reputation when it came to birding. After entering the dense rainforest we were quickly rewarded with the sights and sounds of whipbirds, brown cuckoo-doves and white headed pigeons.
Pulses remained steady though as these species were ticked years ago and not the purpose of this trip.
The distinctive call of a wompoo jerked Ralph’s head upwards. Here is a link to a recording made by Andree Griffin and R.J. Swabby and shared on the Birdlife Australia site. There is no mistaking their calls and you can understand why they are called “Wompoo.”
The next couple of hours were spent scanning the canopy in search of a clear wompoo sighting to satisfy strict twitcher protocol.
Periodically hearing their distinctive sounds from different directions teased poor Ralph. I feared for his sanity and felt guilty for putting him through this torture. Fifty year old necks aren’t as flexible as those of twenty year old students.
If you’re a twitcher, or intimately connected with one, you may be aware of the love/hate relationship some have with their passion. At one point Ralph’s mood suggested he’d declared war on the wompoo.
We walked, waited, watched, and listened at regular intervals, but a definitive identification continued to elude him. This wompoo was wary.
It is not surprising really that Ralph is both an avid golfer and a birder. Like golfers who battle inclement weather and may spend many hours and funds practising to improve their handicap, twitchers may go to extraordinary lengths to increase their ticks. For some, adding to their list only produces a short-lived “high” followed quickly by a need to focus on the next “hit.” It can be quite addictive.
If you doubt my words have a quick read of this ABC article by Bec Whetham Twitching: The Obsessive World of Extreme Birdwatching about Australian, Kay Parkin, who won the Big Year Record Twitching Award in 2010. She actually started ultra-marathon running to take a break from twitching. Here’s a small excerpt:
“Twitching is an expensive and emotionally taxing obsession. Kay’s obsession has come at a great cost. “Dead broke”, she worries about the day a cop pulls her over for a balding tyre on her car. Since starting serious birding in 2009, Kay has hopped onto a plane every fortnight in pursuit of birds. But it’s the birding anxiety — the “real medical condition that all twitchers suffer from” to the point of vomiting, nightmares and anxiety attacks — that catches her. Kay recounts the first time this extreme anxiety really dawned on her. It was 2015 when she finally convinced her birder friend to go on his first twitch.
That night the two of them booked flights to Sydney and left for Penrith first thing in the morning. He was a “nervous wreck” — the unbearable pressure and anxiety of putting time and money on the line in pursuit of a bird you may not see was all too much. Despite finding the bird he hated the experience and swore never to do it again. Kay found it hilarious.”
I suggested to Ralph that he may derive some joy from ground discoveries but unlike me, he’s not a mycological minion.
Fan-shaped and fuzzy fungi did not flame his fervour. I started to have doubts that I would be able to satisfy Ralph’s feathery fantasy.
I also tried to cheer him with the variation in trunk surfaces at Ravensbourne.
Feather-shaped leaves were colourful but not equal to a wompoo.
Even these fine ferns and lovely lichen didn’t serve to elevate Ralph’s mood.
As we wandered and wondered (and in my case, worried) if our Wompoo would materialise, we passed diverse vegetation.
Where, oh where, was wompoo? He wasn’t in the piccabeen palms, despite the presence of fruit.
He wasn’t in the vine thickets.
Was he in the eucalypt forest?
No sign of him there.
On the rocky ridges? No.
Was he in the sandstone caves?
A dove silhouette on the floor sent a flood of adrenaline flowing.
But it was only a white-headed pigeon…again.
In fact, hundreds of tracks on the sandy floor indicated this was a favourite haunt.
I don’t blame them. I’ve taken shelter from the sun and rain on a few occasions.
Flowers don’t have wings so are easier to spot than wompoos.
And spider webs tend to be stationary also.
Smaller birds are common in the area. The yellow eastern robin is my favourite and I never tire of its curious nature and melody.
Brightly coloured wrens near the sandstone outcrops always lift my mood.
Occasionally I spot yellow-tailed black cockatoos.
White-browed scrub wrens flitter about the dark leaf litter by the paths, usually evading my capture.
A wonga pigeon appeared, but despite also beginning its name with “wo,” it is not the same as a wompoo and Ralph had ticked it off his list long ago.
The mood was quiet to say the least as we plodded the last hundred metres back to the carpark. It takes a lot to completely kill my enthusiasm, though.
I sent a silent wish to the wily wompoos to make an appearance so Ralph could end his frustrating walk on a high, but even I didn’t expect what followed. As soon as we reached the carpark, a wompoo flew right past Ralph to perch on a tree branch just above my car!
I assume you’d like to see more than its fluffy rear end so here are two pictures from my first sighting several days earlier.
I wish I could tell you that Ralph whooped with wonder at the wompoo, that he issued squeals of delight, that he jumped for joy and yelled, “Hallelujah!” The reality was rather an anti-climax. Ralph was surprisingly subdued. Instead of celebrating the moment, he seemed eager to drive home as soon as he’d confirmed the identification.
After questioning him later about his quiet demeanour, he gave an explanation. At the time he mainly felt overwhelming relief rather than excitement because at last, after so many years, an embarrassing omission from his bird list had been corrected.
I hadn’t read the ABC article about Kay back then. It seems Ralph’s reactions are not uncommon among the twitching fraternity. Commenting on her birding trip to Bruny Island, Kay said:
“That rush of adrenaline is immediately followed by this remarkable sense of relief but then, until you get all 12 (birds found on Bruny Island)… you go ‘okay, forget that one, what’s next?'”
I suspect the hours of neck craning along with my unrelenting childlike enthusiasm may have also wearied Ralph, although he was far too polite to suggest this.
Has the experience helped me shed my Starling Darling label and transformed me into the Wompoo Whisperer? Sadly, I’ve not had another sighting since this quest. I can’t help wondering if the wary wompoo may have wearied of so much worship…