*Under the title 'Two Ticks', this article won second prize in the 2006 BBC Wildlife Magazine/Bradt Travel Guides Travel Writing Competition.
Searching the rainforests of north Queensland for an elusive kingfisher, Bridget Martin finds she has attracted the attention of a very much larger bird.
Like bushy eyebrows on the pate of a bald man, the tropical rainforests of Australia cling to the edge of the continent.
A sparse woodland of wiry, drought-resistant trees, with tough names like ironwood and stringybark, struggles to clothe the vast, parched savannalands which stretch across much of the Top End, but the north-eastern coastal strip, thanks to a conspiracy of geology and meteorology, is overindulged with rainfall; it luxuriates under a cloak of rainforest which would look more appropriate in neighbouring New Guinea.
Indeed, the Australian and New Guinean rainforests have much in common, sharing animal species which are foreign to the rest of Australia: birds of paradise and kangaroos which live in trees, striped possums and cassowaries – enormous, flightless birds with a mean reputation.
Some birds, innocent of international borders and immigration niceties, live in both places, migrating seasonally.
Arriving in north Queensland in summer, I hope to see some of these – an opportunity to gain a few more ticks in my bird book. I particularly want to see the kingfisher gracing my book’s cover. A medley of blue and orange, with coral-red beak and feet, this spectacular bird is encumbered not only with an unwieldy name – the buff-breasted paradise-kingfisher – but also a pair of 18-centimetre-long, white plumes for a tail. At the beginning of each summer it flies all the way from New Guinea, trailing its magnificent tail behind it, to nest in the termite mounds of the north Queensland rainforests. I’ve had a tip-off. A pair is, apparently, nesting along a certain track.
The dense forest canopy affords instant relief from the searing sun but no escape from the oppressive humidity. Trees stretch high above me, their upper branches bulky with epiphytic ferns. Roots of a strangler fig weave their deadly embrace around the trunk of an unfortunate host. The hooks of a blindly ambitious lawyer vine clutch at my sleeves, eager to attach to anything which might provide a step up from lowly origins on the forest floor. All are greedy for light.
An electric-blue butterfly zigzags, idiotically, along the track and a brush-turkey, its yellow wattles dangling from its neck like a badly-fried egg, scuffles unconcernedly in the leaf litter. A drongo calls, discordantly, nearby. Cicadas deafen.
As I pause to untangle myself yet again (locals call this vine “wait-a-while”) I notice a large lizard clinging upright, and motionless, to the side of a narrow trunk. A forest dragon, its crest and back are lined with tooth-like scales. I move forward, camera poised, but it sidles around the trunk.
I realise then, that I am being watched. Standing on the track, not ten metres away, is a cassowary. It is huge, its body covered with black plumage more hairlike than feathery. With its neck fully stretched, it is easily taller than me. The horn-like casque on its head, a jaunty helmet which could render it ridiculous, simply enhances its stature. And its attention is fully, unblinkingly, on me.
I freeze. The cassowary turns its head and regards me with its other eye. The red wattles dangling from its blue neck wobble slightly. Then it takes a step forward. Its feet are those of a science experiment gone wrong, an ill-conceived, genetically-modified, giant chicken or a recreated dinosaur. Scaly, solid, with pointed, sharply-clawed toes, they furnish the powerful legs with a formidable weapon; this cranky bird has a reputation for delivering a lethal kick.
I know not to flee – it could easily outrun me – so I step into the protective embrace of a generously buttressed tree trunk. Following the example of the lizard on the adjacent tree, I press myself, motionless, close to the trunk.
Sweat pooling under my eyes overflows and trickles, like tears, down my cheeks. A large green ant bites me. More are tickling my neck and I try, surreptitiously, to brush them away. A leech loops its way up my boot. I wonder where the cassowary is. There is a long silence.
Eventually, heart in mouth, I peer around the tree and catch a glimpse of the cassowary’s back as it plods, unhurriedly, into the forest. I was of no more than passing interest to it. As I watch it depart, a flicker of white catches the corner of my eye. A red beak materialises and then, cheekily, the kingfisher flicks its double-plumed tail and flies off.
Panic gives way to elation. With shaking hands, I open my bird book and insert two new ticks.
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