Barking Mad

I opened my eyes early the next morning, the predawn glow already lightening the eastern sky through the window above my bed. We had spent the night back at the Reef Palms in Cairns, and I was awoken by the Rufous Owls immediately outside my window duetting about 3am. It was now a little after 6am, and I turned on a light and started re-packing my bag. In less than an hour, we were leaving for the Cairns airport to catch an early flight to Darwin in the Northern Territory. We were scheduled to get in late morning, and Neil had already sketched out a madcap afternoon of birding all around the Darwin metro area. I was very excited to see what Darwin would be like. Although I had visited Queensland and New South Wales before, I had never been to Australia’s Top End. I picked up my phone, and saw that I had a text message from Jetstar. It said that my morning flight to Darwin had been canceled. Well THIS was going to throw a spanner into the works!

When Neil got out of the shower and got dressed, we spent 45 minutes on the phone with Jetstar. We never got an explanation as to why the flight was canceled, but we were able to get rebooked on another flight to Darwin in the late afternoon of the same day. Hanging up, we stewed a bit in frustration. We had already seen all of our target species around Cairns, and now we were stuck here another full day. We had also planned an aggressive itinerary in the Top End, and losing most of a day was going to force us to make some difficult choices about what to leave out in the days ahead. Neil was surfing around eBird just on the off chance that something unusual had showed up, when he sat bolt upright. “Little Kingfisher was seen yesterday at the Cairns Botanic Gardens,” he exclaimed.

Careful readers of this blog will know that we searched in vain for Little Kingfisher earlier in the trip near Daintree, and Neil was bitterly disappointed that we had dipped on this uncommon specialty. Now another one had shown up only 15 minutes away. We had a plan for the day! While packing the car, we picked up a flock of Metallic Starlings in the park across the street, a new bird for the trip! We also stopped by the Esplanade, because it was directly on the way and Neil has a deep, almost unnatural love for shorebirds. I took a silly panorama of the beach at sunrise while Neil stared intently through his scope. He did pick out some Red-capped Plovers, another new bird for the trip! After a rotten start to the day, we were on a roll.

Arriving at the Botanic Gardens, we spent a pleasant but Kingfisher-less half hour prowling its last known location. After a while, we bumped into another birder who had just seen the Little Kingfisher in the ponds across the park. We got precise directions, and then set off. “It was right there! You can’t miss it!” he called after us. My heart skipped a beat. If it’s one thing that you never, ever say to a birder chasing a rarity, it’s “you can’t miss it.” Because, dear reader, you very much CAN miss it. In fact, that’s why they’re called “rarities” – they show up rarely, are sometimes very hard to find, and often disappear without a trace. And the worst karmic curse one birder can bestow on another is telling them “you can’t miss it.”

We missed it. One hour stretched into two. We walked all of the trails along the ponds, through the gardens, along the small stream, through the forest boardwalk, and back again. Over and over. The Little Kingfisher is, in fact, quite small: less than 5 inches from tip to tail, about the size of a sparrow. And it is quite shy and somewhat sedentary. It will often sit quietly, tucked away on a small branch overhanging the water, just out of view amongst the foliage. Walking back to the car, I was hot, frustrated, thirsty, hungry, dusty, and tired. I was also wishing some rather uncharitable unpleasantness on Mr. Can’t Miss It. Neil’s brows had furrowed so deeply I contemplated planting some seeds in there. As I turned my head towards the pond, something whipped by my peripheral vision and zipped into a well-vegetated branch near the pond. I looked white and … blue? I scanned with my binoculars, but saw nothing. Then, I saw a small bird dipping its tail. It was … “Little Kingfisher!”

Neil had one panicked moment in which he couldn’t find it, but eventually we both got very satisfying views. Looking over my shoulder, I noticed that we were standing about 20 feet from where we had parked the car. Relieved and happy, we piled into the our vehicle and headed out for some well-deserved lunch. Later in the afternoon we headed to the airport for the (fortunately uneventful) flight to Darwin. At the Cairns airport I stopped for a wrap and found myself face-to-face with another one of Australia’s mysteries:

I ate one, but I’m not sure that it changed my lifestyle that much. Landing in Darwin after dark, I was in favor of a quick dinner and an early bedtime. All of the airline and kingfisher drama had really wiped me out. Neil, of course, had other plans. “I have a place for Barking Owl in Darwin!”

I tried to argue that tomorrow night would be better for owling, but our lost day in the Top End was looming large over both of us. So I agreed to at least scout out the location. Neil’s “place” turned out to be an outdoor movie theater in the heart of Darwin’s urban core. We parked across the street from the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, and began to walk around the tiny park on the edge of the harbor. It was a very small area, and I didn’t hear anything except for the movie playing in the outdoor cinema below. There was the sound of two actors arguing, the rippling laughter of the audience, and a dog barking. A dog barking….? I quickly queued up the call of the Barking Owl on my phone and pressed it to my ear. The sound was nearly identical. Pocketing my phone, I took a couple steps down towards the cinema entrance, and suddenly a Barking Owl appeared in the trees above.

Barking Owl – photo by Neil Hayward

It barked at us for a few minutes, as if chastising us for interrupting the movie, then flew back down towards the cinema to catch the car chase scene. As Neil drove us to our hotel, my heavy eyelids drooped and my mind replayed the events of the day in bursts and flashes. It was not the day I was expecting, but it was a pretty great one nonetheless.

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