Chapter 8 - Feathered Dinosaurs
Bird watching is a popular pastime in Australia and there are 760 good reasons for it. Australia’s birds, however, are not only nice to watch, they are also remarkable vocal artists. And one of my favourites, besides the magpie, is the tawny frogmouth…
When I heard a tawny frogmouth for the very first time, I thought the couple who camped in the station wagon next to us were having sex. It was past midnight on a very crowded campsite in the Kimberley. The moon was high up in the sky illuminating the camp. The noise had woken me up from a deep sleep and, being in a very petulant mood, I was about to jump out of the van, ready to knock at their car window and tell them to show their affection for each other in a less noisy way. But when peering out of the window, I could see neither a telltale rocking movement of their car nor any other suspicious signs indicating that our neighbours were still awake. In fact the whole camp was still and silent. The strange sound stopped but after a while it started again. Mhmmm .….. Mhmmm ……. Mhmmm…….. It was a rhythmic moaning or – to sound less sexist – a noise you can imitate by counting with a closed mouth v..e..r..y slowly from one to ten.
Before I continue with the story, I must tell you about a few advantages of sleeping in a van to sleeping in a tent. No fiddling around with tent poles, no pumping up airbeds and, most importantly, no cover above you to block your views. Instead windows all around which allow you to gaze into the stars while going to sleep or to watch night birds and other nocturnal animals from your own private hideaway. As the day had been hot and the night was expected to be warm we had not only left the rear hatch of our van open but also the sliding door. Only a mozzie net separated me from the world outside and through this I finally spotted the noisy element that had woken me up. It was a tawny frogmouth sitting on a tree less than 3 m away from me.
I had never seen a frogmouth before but I knew this peculiar looking bird from photos and instantly recognised it. Its bushy eyebrows and broad bill gave its identity unmistakeably away. I held my breath and watched it moaning, its breast rising and falling. Regarding the call of the tawny frogmouth a persistent mistake circulates in Australia that has even found its way into some field guides in which the moaning is described as sounding like »mo pok«. Somebody must have got something terribly wrong because »mo pok« is the call of the southern boobook.
Another interesting fact not included in many guide books is that the moaning varies slightly from region to region. In the eastern states, frogmouths count faster, so fast that they actually sound more like an engaged signal – it may have something to do with the fact that life is a bit more hectic in the east as everyone will readily confirm who has ever driven along the Bruce Highway. The frogmouth I was watching in the Kimberley was decisively more relaxed, a bit like a Tibetan monk absorbed in his om chants. It kept om-ing for quite a while, then suddenly turned around and stared at me. We eyed each other for a minute or two before it took off. It was a wonderful experience – comparable to catching a 30 kg barramundi (to make it clear for the fishermen among my readers).
After the frogmouth flew off I stirred to life, first waking my partner Jens when crawling very un-fairy-like over him to get the »bird-bible« and then waking the couple in the station wagon next to us when pulling the book out under a carefully balanced pile of stuff which noisily collapsed. I didn’t care – as a bird watcher I am above such basic needs like sleep, and social etiquette is soon forgotten when faced with a new sighting. So I didn’t hear the door of the station wagon opening and didn’t care about Jens who asked me grumpily whether I have lost my senses, adding even more grumpily that I probably never had some. I sat happily on the bed with the book in my lap, turned the light on, looked up »frogmouth«, opened page 154 and put a satisfying tick beside its name. Isn’t life wonderful?