Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

28. Birds

Of course, not all the animals at Lawn Hill were deadly, dangerous or feral. The birdlife there was a constant joy. Karen and I set up a birdbath at the end of the verandah outside our donga and spent many hours watching a steady stream of avian visitors, mostly crimson finches and great bowerbirds, but often other species as well.

Spinifex pigeons abounded in the drier areas away from the creek. Sandstone shrike thrushes could be seen along the gorge walls. Kori bustards were common in the surrounding plains. A large variety of finches was on constant display in the campground. The park is a haven for birdlife, and well worth a visit for this reason alone.

We did have one favourite bird, however. His name was Al. Baby birds can be incredibly cute. Not the newly hatched, which are as ugly as sin, with bulging, blind eyes, bare pink skin, absurd tufts of thin feathers in ridiculous locations, and an open mouth ever begging for more food, but the older chicks, covered in down, that make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Such a bird was Al.

Al was a baby Barking Owl. He was found by a camper and had probably fallen out of the nest. He was a beautiful, little white ball of down topped by two huge, staring eyes that followed our every movement. Karen and I first saw him at the ranger station, perched unsteadily on the back of a chair. He had adopted John and Trisha, the assistant rangers, as his foster parents, and was accepting small pieces of raw meat dipped in water from the end of a small stick. Karen fell in love with him at first sight, and even I had to admit he was cute.


In the days that followed we were regular visitors to the office to check out his progress. He quickly became a lot steadier on his feet and more comfortable with strangers. He could not fly, but would occasionally jump to the floor in an eruption of wings and feathers. One evening John took Al outside and sat him on the railing of the ranger station veranda while we sat at a nearby table. He watched us for a while, then flapped down onto the lawn and proceeded to go for a short stroll around the gardens, occasionally practising his hunting skills by pouncing on invisible insects. Or perhaps they were invisible mice.

With the approach of the wet season we were forced to leave the park while we were able, so we have no direct evidence of what happened to Al. However, eighteen months later Karen and I were watching a travel documentary on television in which Glenn Ridge, normally the host of the Sale of the Century game show, was travelling through the Top End. One scene was filmed at Lawn Hill - an interview with John about working at the national park. Halfway through the interview, for less than a second, the camera cut away to show an owl perched on the back of a chair. It looked exactly like Al, except bigger, which was to be expected, so I have strong suspicions that he is still residing in the ranger station at Lawn Hill.

Barking Owls are so named because they make a call like a dog - a low, double bark preceded by a slight growling sound - or to put it another way - grrrr-woof-woof. Another bird species which confused a lot of people was the Grey-crowned Babbler, a gregarious bird bigger than a sparrow but smaller than a pigeon, which always looked like it was enjoying its life. Groups of them would hop around in the trees, chasing each other or other birds, always up to mischief, their markings giving them a masked appearance, like a thief. They have a variety of calls, but the one which caused the most confusion was a high pitched wailing noise that sounded exactly like the crying of a kitten. Both the barking owl and the grey-crowned babbler were common around the park, and particularly active at dusk and dawn..

"Do you have many wild dogs around the park?" I was once asked.
"I haven't seen any since I've been here," I answered.
"How about dingoes?"
"There's a couple around. Why do you ask?"
"Because I'm sure I heard a dog barking last night. My wife heard it too, didn't you Martha?"
"I sure did, George. It was going woof-woof, woof-woof, for a couple of hours."
"Oh, that wasn't a dog. That was a bird!"
George fixes me with a doubtful look.
"Yes. A Barking Owl. It sounds just like a dog."
"Okay, well what about cats then? Are there any feral cats around?"
"Haven't seen any of them here either. Why?"
"Because I definitely heard a couple of cats out there yesterday evening. Combined with the barking, it sounded like a real cat and dog fight. Eh Martha?"
"Right George. They were making a heck of a racket."
"That was a bird too."
"You're joking!"
"No, truly. The Grey-crowned Babbler. It sounds just like a lost kitten."
George is now trying to figure out if I'm pulling his leg.
"Well I also heard another sound last night. It sounded like Elvis Presley singing Blue Suede Shoes. I thought someone must have had a radio turned on, but I suppose you are going to tell me that it was a parrot or a lorikeet?"
"No, no," I answer reassuringly. "We don't have any parrots or lorikeets that sound like Elvis."
George seems relieved.
And then I added, "It must have been a cockatoo ..."

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