Exploring Wildness

Thomas' Wonderings

Hike to Burroughs Mountain, Mt Rainier National Park

Written By: Thomas Bancroft - Aug• 13•15
Mt Rainier just up the trail toward Sourdough Ridge from Sunrise. First Burroughs Mountain is on the right. Burroughs Mountain and Sourdough Ridge are remenants of andesite lava flows between 420,000 and 500,000 years ago when Mt Rainier was just begining to grow. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt Rainier just up the trail toward Sourdough Ridge from Sunrise. First Burroughs Mountain is on the right. Burroughs Mountain and Sourdough Ridge are remenants of andesite lava flows between 420,000 and 500,000 years ago when Mt Rainier was just begining to grow. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt Rainier is an iconic landmark that rises above western Washington in the United States. On a clear day, the white cone stands out against the landscape and can be seen from a hundred miles away. It has a presence that you can’t escape. The flight paths of many airplanes into the Seattle airport often go near the mountain and I have listened to the awe of passengers as they gazed at the volcano through the window. To be there, in Mt Rainier National Park, is a mythical experience. On 8 August, I went to Sunrise on the northeast side of Mt Rainier to hike into the park and experience this majestic mountain up close.

I arrived at the trailhead just as the sun rose above the horizon and began to walk up the trail toward Sourdough Ridge. I planned to hike west along the ridge and then up onto Burroughs Mountain, which sits right against the volcano. Climbing to the ridge I passed through a large alpine meadow. The grasses glowed golden brown in the morning sun and the dark green patches of subalpine firs and whitebark pines contrasted with both the meadow and the white glaciers on Mt Rainier. A pair of Clark’s nutcrackers squawked as they flew between conifers. The bowl shaped Burrows Mountain sat to the right of Rainier and represented my first target for the day. Burroughs Mountain has two more, slightly higher tops, behind the first.

Mt Baker rises above the Cascades north of Mt Rainier. The photograph was taken from Sourdough Ridge in Mt Raineir national Park. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt Baker rises above the Cascades north of Mt Rainier. The photograph was taken from Sourdough Ridge in Mt Raineir national Park. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A large andesite lava flow formed Burroughs Mountain and Sourdough Ridge several hundred thousand years ago. This flow occurred early in the life of Mt Rainier. I remain intrigued by the knowledge that Mt Rainier is less than a million years old. It is built near the eroded base of an older volcano in the Cascade Mountains. The drifting of plates on the earth’s crust helped to form Mt Rainier and the Cascades. The San Juan plate in the Pacific Ocean is slowly subducting under the North American plate causing the rise of the Cascade Mountains and the formation of volcanoes such as Mt Rainier. From the ridge, I looked north where I could see Mt Baker, another Cascade volcano, rising through the misty blue-hazed mountains.

Mt Rainier from 2nd Burroughs Mountain before the lenticular cloud formed. Emmons glacier flows down to the left and Wintrop Glacier flows down to the righ in front of Willis Wall. The small glacier in the middle is Inter Glacier and mountain climbers go up it to Steamboat Prow before they drop down to Camp Sherman for the night before their climb. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt Rainier from 2nd Burroughs Mountain before the lenticular cloud formed. Emmons glacier flows down to the left and Wintrop Glacier flows down to the righ in front of Willis Wall. The small glacier in the middle is Inter Glacier and mountain climbers go up it to Steamboat Prow before they drop down to Camp Sherman for the night before their climb. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The summit of Mt Rainier rises 14,410 feet above sea level and is one of the highest mountains in the contiguous 48 states. Glaciers begin at the summit and flow down the mountain. From Burroughs #2 I watched the Emmons Glacier flowing down the left side of my view and the Winthrop Glacier down the right side. Both are large rivers of ice several hundred feet thick. Lava that flowed when Mt Rainier was higher than it is today formed Willis Wall on the right and Little Tahoma Peak on the left. I still can’t imagine the Osceola Mud Flow that happened 5,600 years ago. Volcanic activity then caused a large chunk of the mountain to liquefy and many cubic miles of debris flooded the White River and crashed toward Puget Sound. The event decreased the height of Mt Rainier by more than a thousand feet, some have suggested even more. This slurry of rocks, mud, ice, and water reached the edge of where Seattle now sits. The possibility of another large debris flow represents a serious threat to people in the floodplains of all rivers originating from Mt Rainier.

Inter Glacier. Mountaineers hike up through Inter Glacier to go over the top of Steamboat Prow and drop down to Camp Sherman for the night before the acsent to the summit. The ranger cabin sits on the backside of Steamboat Prow and most mountaineers seem to camp on the glacier snow behind the hill. Emmons and Winthrop glaciers split at Steamboat Prow with Emmons on the left and Winthrop on the right. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Inter Glacier. Mountaineers hike up through Inter Glacier to go over the top of Steamboat Prow and drop down to Camp Sherman for the night before the acsent to the summit. The ranger cabin sits on the backside of Steamboat Prow and most mountaineers seem to camp on the glacier snow behind the hill. Emmons and Winthrop glaciers split at Steamboat Prow with Emmons on the left and Winthrop on the right. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Behind Steamboat Prow, I saw where the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers separate from each other. I had a hard time imagining how hard the rocks of Steamboat Prow must be to resist the erosive power of these glaciers. The smaller Inter Glacier sat in front of the Prow and I tried to envision what it must be like to be a mountain climber trying to ascend to the summit of Mt Rainier. Climbers using the route from the White River, tend to cross the Inter Glacier and drop down behind Steamboat Prow to rest at Sherman Camp before launching their summit attempt. They begin their ascent in the middle of the night and climb Emmons Glacier to the summit. They want to reach the summit by dawn so they can descend the glacier before the warmth of the day increases the danger of crossing the glacier.

A lenticular cloud forms over the top of Mt Rainier. A landslide came down part of Willis Wall while I was watching. I heard the crack and saw dust rise as the debrey crashed down to the glacier below. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A lenticular cloud forms over the top of Mt Rainier. A landslide came down part of Willis Wall while I was watching. I heard the crack and saw dust rise as the debrey crashed down to the glacier below. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Looking down on the Winthrop Glacier from the top of Burroughs #3. I am at 7800 feet right now. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Looking down on the Winthrop Glacier from the top of Burroughs #3. I am at 7800 feet right now. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

While I climbed to Burroughs #3, a flock of gray-crowned rosy finches flew by and I begged them to stop amongst the lava rubble, pumice, ash, and scrappy vegetation. I wanted a good look, but they ignored me and flew on. This represented my first every view of this alpine species. At the top of Burroughs #3, I felt as if I could reach out and touch the mountain. The scene mesmerized me as I inspected the Winthrop Glacier and Willis Wall. I heard a crack and saw rocks tumble down the edge of Willis Wall and onto the glacier. I could hear water cascade around the glacier as the warm temperatures increased melting. From the edge of Burroughs, I looked more than a thousand feet down to Winthrop Glacier and contemplated the erosion these glaciers do to Rainier.

Looking east from Burroughs Mountain #3 and down the White River Valley. Broken slabs of andesite dot the hill below my position. The trail up to Burroughs #2 is visible on the slope to the left. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Looking east from Burroughs Mountain #3 and down the White River Valley. Broken slabs of andesite dot the hill below my position. The trail up to Burroughs #2 is visible on the slope to the left. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Looking north from Buroughs #3 across Mt Rainier National Park and up the Cascades. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Looking north from Buroughs #3 across Mt Rainier National Park and up the Cascades. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Looking south along Burroughs Mountain #3. The big valley beyond the tundra is White River Valley that Emmons Glacier goes into. I did not walk out where that guy is standing. It looked too narrow for me. The rocks ar Andesite Lava. Burrows Mountain is over a 1,000 foot thick flow of andesite lava from an eruption a long time ago. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Looking south along Burroughs Mountain #3. The big valley beyond the tundra is White River Valley that Emmons Glacier goes into. I did not walk out where that guy is standing. It looked too narrow for me. The rocks ar Andesite Lava. Burrows Mountain is over a 1,000 foot thick flow of andesite lava from an eruption a long time ago. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I found the view spectacular from the 7800-foot top of Burroughs Mountain. Looking east across the rubble of andesite, I saw my hiking path and could gaze down the White River Valley. To the north and south, I became enthralled by the Cascades, which now had clouds drifting over and had taken on the blue cast of the afternoon. Clouds had now covered the summit of Mt Rainier. I spent more than an hour just sitting, enjoying the view, and slowly consuming my lunch. A pair of ravens lazily flew along the ridge above where I sat and called repeatedly. Several other people rested on the ridge and appeared as enthralled with the place as me. I could have stayed much longer but needed to get back before dark.

The trail hugs the southside of Burroughs Mountain. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The trail hugs the southside of Burroughs Mountain. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Goat Island Mountain rises across the White River Valley from Burroughs Mountain #1. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Goat Island Mountain rises across the White River Valley from Burroughs Mountain #1. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Outflow from the Emmons Glacier forms the White River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Outflow from the Emmons Glacier forms the White River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Heading back to the trailhead, I took a different route. Between the First and Second Burroughs, I hung a right on the trail that curls around the south side of Burroughs giving me spectacular views into the White River Valley. Meltwater from Emmons Glacier formed the headwaters of the White River. Goat Island Mountain sat across the river. A lava flow well before the birth of Mt Rainier formed Goat Island. To think that during the last glaciation, this valley had been filled with more than a thousand feet of ice continues to captivate my imagination. Scientists have determined that the lava flow that formed Burroughs Mountain and Sourdough Ridge happened during a glacial period and the lava flowed along the sides of the glacier forming the ridge on which I hiked. The once colossal Emmons Glacier has now receded to its present but still impressive size.

Hiking back to Sunrise on the Rim Trail allowed me to pass through subalpine meadows and forests. Juncos, sparrows, and siskins flitted from grass stems as I passed. Washington received little rain during this summer than normal and the meadows had already taken on fall colors. The yellows, golden browns, and greens gave a wonderful warm mood to the close of a wilderness experience.

Plan a visit to Mt Rainier if you are in the Seattle area. The grandeur of the mountain will capture your soul and revive your spirit. The Sunrise Area in the Park is open from June to mid fall. The Paradise area on the south side of the mountain is open all year. This mountain continues to captivate me. How does a mountain or mountains affect you?

Fall colors had begun in Sunrise Meadow. The trail along Sourdough Ridge is visible in the background. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fall colors had begun in Sunrise Meadow. The trail along Sourdough Ridge is visible in the background. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Here is a video tour of my hike.

Australian Pelican: A magnificent flyer

Written By: Thomas Bancroft - May• 29•15
The Australian pelicans fixed their seven-foot wings and began to glide in an effortless manner. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Australian pelicans fixed their seven-foot wings and began to glide in an effortless manner. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

“Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!

His bill holds more than his belican.

He can take in his beak

Enough food for a week.

But I’m darned if I know how the helican.”

Dixon Lanier Merritt

I lived in Florida in the US for over 23 years and became extremely familiar with Brown Pelicans and the American White Pelican. Brown pelicans nested and fed all along the coast of Florida and when I lived there from 1975 to 1997 their populations were recovering following the ban of the pesticide DDT. DDT caused the shells of pelicans as well as many raptors such bald eagles and peregrine falcons, to thin. The parent would crush the eggs when they tried to incubate them. Large numbers of the larger American white pelicans winter in Florida when they come south from their breeding areas in north-central US and central Canada. The brown pelican feeds by plunge-diving from a dozen or more feet above the water. The white pelican feeds by plunging its head into the water while often swimming in a cooperative line with many other individuals. Both use their incredible bills with the large extendable pouches to capture fish in a manner similar to a fisherman using a net that he drags through the water.

When I planned my recent trip to Australia, one of the birds I hoped to see was the Australian pelican. This bird has the longest bill of any living bird in the world. Some males can have bills up to 20 inches from the tip to the gape. Females have shorter bills. Males often weigh 8 kg or more, which translates into close to 20 lbs, and they can fly superbly. I first heard stories of Australian pelicans in the late 1970s when large rains in interior Australia flooded many of the landlocked lakes such as Lake Eyre. Pelicans and other wetland birds moved in large numbers into interior Australia to exploit the “boom” cycle of aquatic organisms that multiply and breed in these periodic floods. Lakes like Lake Eyre have no outflow. They fill only periodically when heavy rains occur within their watershed. In many if not most years, these lakes have little to no water and pelicans avoid them, staying instead along the coast. In 1990, Lake Eyre and the Australian Pelican again made international news when upwards of 40,000 pairs attempted to nest at the Lake. I would not be in Australia at the right time to see these large breeding colonies, but maybe I could still see this bird.

The Australian pelicans rose on steady and strong wingbeats from the shore of the lake, circled overhead before settling back to the water of the lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Australian pelicans rose on steady and strong wingbeats from the shore of the lake, circled overhead before settling back to the water of the lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Paul Hackett of Melbourne Birding Tours agreed to take me to the Werribee Wetlands just southwest of Melbourne to see what wetland birds we might find. As he picked me up at my lodging near Melbourne, he thought we might have a good chance of seeing Australian pelicans at the wetlands. The Werribee wetlands are a complex system of lagoons, wetlands, small lakes and coastal habitat. Hundreds of thousands of ducks, shorebirds, terns, gulls, cormorants and swans frequent this place. BirdLife International, a network of conservation groups across the globe, has this site listed as a “globally significant Important Bird Area.” The concentration of wetland birds and the fact that the site supports individuals of the endangered orange-bellied parrot warrants that this site receives international recognition. The site stretches from the mouth of the Werribee River to the town of Geelong in Victoria Australia. I worked on wading bird conservation issues in the Everglades of South Florida and was excited about what we might see in these wetlands. Wetlands will always have a special place in my heart.

A small group of Australian pelicans slid by me almost at eye level. I could really appreciate their immense size and their amazing atheltic abilities. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small group of Australian pelicans slid by me almost at eye level. I could really appreciate their immense size and their amazing atheltic abilities. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

We arrived just before noon after having spent the morning in the wet forests north of Melbourne. In Werribee wetlands, we found numerous ducks, swans, shorebirds, gulls and cormorants, and we could easily observe them from the car as we drove the network of dikes and dirt roads. I  saw a few pelicans in the distance but none very close. About 2:30 PM we rounded a corner to find a large flock of birds including a few thousand Australian shelducks roosting on the far side of a small lagoon. The flock included a hundred or more pelicans. The birds immediately, unfortunately, took flight. The pelicans rose quickly on strong, steady wing beats and then began to circle and glided right down by, over, and in front of us to resettle in the lagoon. I felt like I could reach up and touch one of them as they passed by. The wings stretching 7.5 to 8.5 feet (2.3-2.6 m) created large moving shadows across the landscape. Several groups came close as they drifted back to the water and I could see the details of their black flight feathers and white wing coverts and their enormous pale pink bills. I couldn’t have asked for a better look.

The Australian pelican turned with fixed wings and started to sail right toward us. He looked like a equisite ballerina coming down from a high jump. As it slid by me, I could see the details of its bill, pouch and feathers. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Australian pelican turned with fixed wings and started to sail right toward us. He looked like a equisite ballerina coming down from a high jump. As it slid by me, I could see the details of its bill, pouch and feathers. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A week later, I was birding with Jonathan Munro of Wildwatch Australia in northern Queensland. We stopped at Centenary Lakes Park near Cairns late one afternoon and discovered a single Australia pelican paddling across the pond. The dull pink bill extended down toward the waterline to a yellowish hook at the tip. The yellow ring of bare skin around its jet black eye made it look like a pirate and a small chuckle escaped me. The fine white covert feathers on its wing hung down over the black flight feathers like a scarf on a beautiful woman. As it drifted through an open patch of water, the water created a perfect reflection of the bird. We stood and watched it glide elegantly along the water, making a small ripple behind it.

As we strolled along the lakes edge, I realized that while we watched the pelican, I had been shifting my weight back and forth from each leg and my mouth had become dry. This truly is a magnificent bird and I was so lucky to have seen it so well during my trip.

Have you ever watched a large bird fly and wonder what it must be like to fly?

The Australian Pelican cruised along the shallows looking like a stately yacht whose proud owner is showing it off to an audience. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Australian Pelican cruised along the shallows looking like a stately yacht whose proud owner is showing it off to an audience. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Pale-headed Rosella: one gorgeous little bird

Written By: Thomas Bancroft - May• 22•15
A pale-headed rosella flies to a branch after feeding on grass seeds along the trail. The scalloping on its back was striking in contrast to the pale-yellow head feathers. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A pale-headed rosella flies to a branch after feeding on grass seeds along the trail. The scalloping on its back was striking in contrast to the pale-yellow head feathers. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

Have you ever been walking through the woods and seen a bird, animal, or flower that just stopped you in your tracks? I had an experience like that in Northern Queensland. We had stopped at a camping area near Mt Carbine to look for birds in the dry forests in the area. For half and hour, we had been hiking around the campground checking on various things we saw and heard when we turned to walk down a grassy lane. I first saw the pair of rosellas feeding on the ground among short grass stems. These birds even at a distance stood out as striking in color and elegance.

I began to creep forward, hoping not to flush them so I could have a closer look at their distinctive plumage. They grabbed ahold of grass stems pulling the stem through their beaks to strip the seeds from them. One also bit off small fresh light-green leaves from a short plant and ate the leaves. I must have frightened them for they flew up to a low branch beside the trail to eye me closely, but this perch gave me a chance to study their plumage.

The birds had pale yellow feathers on the tops of their heads and napes that contrasted with their jet black eyes and dark eye ring and their white cheeks that had a light blue wash on its base. The feathers of their head, cheeks, and throat helped accent their greyish bill. The black feathers on their backs had crisp pale yellow margins giving their backs a scalloped texture and their steel grey-blue tail projected behind them almost the length of their body. These birds are a little over a foot long. Darker blue wings stood out against the other feathers. One turned around on the branch so I could see its bluish chest and belly feathers and the blood red vent feathers. The chest and belly feathers had a thin black scalloping to their edges. I suspect my mouth was open as I stared at these exquisite looking birds.

Pale-headed rosellas nest in hollows in trees. The female incubates the eggs and the male feeds her during the incubation period. Both parents care for the young. This species is closely related to the eastern rosella that replaces it in southeastern Australia. The eastern rosella has red feathers on their heads. Both species seem to be doing well and have adapted to suburban life as well as their natural dry forest habitat.

I looked back several times as we climbed back up the little hill toward where we had parked our car. Still thrilled with the sighting. I would love to hear if you seen a bird or animal that has just taken your breath away?

The pale-headed rosella turned around so I couls see the blue breast and chest feathers and the blood red vent feathers. These contrasted nicely with the pale yellow head feathers. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The pale-headed rosella turned around so I could see the blue breast and chest feathers and the blood red vent feathers. These contrasted nicely with the pale yellow head feathers. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Saltwater Crocodile: What do these words bring to you?

Written By: Thomas Bancroft - Apr• 03•15
Storm clouds form over the Daintree River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Storm clouds form over the Daintree River. (G. Thomas Bancroft) Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Saltwater crocodile: what goes through your mind when you hear these words spoken: Maybe man-eater, vicious, cold-blooded killer, scary reptile, tropical Australia, or maybe Crocodile Dundee movies? For me, I think magnificent crocodilian, prehistoric predator, an animal from the time of dinosaurs, and oh, do I want to see one in the wild.

As I planned my trip to Australia, I began to look into options that might allow me to see one. I wanted to go to Carnes in northern Queensland to see tropical birds and I discovered that some people did guided trips along the Daintree River, which is only 110 km north of Carnes. Maybe an excursion there would find one? Wild Watch Australia offered an early morning trip up the Daintree River followed by a full day of birding in the Daintree and Carnes Area. I contacted Jonathan Munroe, the owner of Wild Watch Australia to see about possibilities. I ended up booking a 4-day tour with him in which the last day would be in the Daintree River Valley.

We arrived in Daintree Village just as the sun was about to go down. I checked into Daintree River Lodge, which sits on a bluff above the River. I could look down on the River from the deck in front of my room. The deck sat about 15 meters (45 feet) above the river. Jonathan told me that last year during the rainy season, the river rose to within a dozen centimeters of the deck. I stood in awe, sweat running down my face in the 90° F temperature, staring down at the river trying to imagine what it might look like if the water was almost lapping at my feet. I guess when it rains it sometimes really rains. The River drains a watershed of over 2,000 square kilometers and is part of the wet tropics of Australia. More than 2 meters of rain occurs here each year and it often comes as a torrential downpour, which can cause the river to flood. Thick lush vegetation grew right up to the edge of the deck. I could hear frogs chirping and insects squeaking in the bushes to my left and honeyeaters still buzzed around in the tops of trees near the river. Fine leaf palms along with banana palms pushed through the vines and bushes on the steep slope. Rain clouds covered the setting sun and I wondered if we might have rain tonight.

The mount of Barratt Creek along the Daintree River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The mouth of Barratt Creek along the Daintree River. (G. Thomas Bancroft) Click on the picture to see a larger version.

We met William at 6AM by the dock below the lodge. He is a thin tall Aussie about my age with a thick accent and his small boat sat low to the water. I wondered how easily a crocodile might come up over the side and into the boat. I had read reports of crocodiles lunging out of the water, grabbing an unsuspecting fisherman and pulling him to his death. At least the boat has nice swivel seats. The tide was out so William had pulled the boat up to the edge of the sand for us to board. A young couple from Brisbane joined us for the cruise; they too were out to see birds along the river. I asked William what our chances were of seeing a crocodile this morning. He said they had not seen any on cruises during the last week. With the warm weather, the crocodiles don’t need to bask in the sun and tend to stay hidden.

The crocodiles yellow eye with its black pupil stares right at us just a dozen feet away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The crocodile’s yellow eye with its black pupil stares right at us, just a few meters away. (G. Thomas Bancroft) Click on the picture to see a larger version.

We cruised first up the river, passing Steward Creek looking for birds before we headed down the river. About a mile down river from the boat landing, we came to Barratt Creek along the southern shore and turned to enter. The creek mouth, a dozen meters across gave us a nice entrance into it. Mangroves lined both sides and we started slowly up the creek. Jonathan and William spotted a crocodile simultaneously. He was lying close to mangroves roots and under several overhanging branches. Jonathan thought it might be 5 meters long. I said, “no way, maybe 3 meters at most.” William cut the motor and we drifted up the creek toward the croc. As it slipped along the edge of the mangroves, we realized it was much bigger than I first thought, at least 4 meters long, a very impressive beast.

A 4-meter estuarine crocodile glides out of the mangroves as we pass in a small boat. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A 4-meter estuarine crocodile glides out of the mangroves as we pass in a small boat. (G. Thomas Bancroft) Click on the picture to see a larger version.

I watched it through my binoculars as it glided in and out of the sun. Its yellow eye with its thin, vertical, black pupil looked straight at us and gave me the shivers even though it was already in the 80s. Several bone-like knobs made a ridge in front of the eye and a large bone crest extended behind its eye. More knots dotted the area behind its neck and its back and tail had large bone plates. Slight sinuous movements of its tail propelled it slowly through the water. After 5 minutes, the crocodile slowly sank out of sight into the water column. I wondered where it might pop back up; would it come up right beside us. I did not lean over the side to look for it under water. No, it was gone and we continued up the creek looking for other wildlife, birds, and plants. My blood flowed rapidly through my body; I felt flushed and breathed more rapidly than maybe I should. The thrill ran through me. I had seen a truly magnificent prehistoric animal and a big one at that.

Mangroves line Barratt Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mangroves line Barratt Creek. (G. Thomas Bancroft) Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Laughing Kookaburra: a Stunning Member of the Kingfisher Family

Written By: Thomas Bancroft - Mar• 20•15
The laughing kookaburra watched the ground intentently for possible prey. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The laughing kookaburra watched the ground intentently for possible prey. (G. Thomas Bancroft)   (click on picture for a bigger version)

When I was young, I loved going downstairs on Saturday mornings in mid-winter to watch Tarzan movies. Johnny Weissmuller’s call would reverberate through the house to my mother’s vexation. In my pajamas, I would curl up in a blanket on the floor in front of our black and white TV and become engrossed in the show. The exotic animals and the jungle sounds spell bounded me. Later as I became fascinated with birds, I heard that one of the background jungle sounds in Tarzan movies was the call of the laughing kookaburra. Their call is loud and often many birds in a family group cackle together to defend their communal territory. The call resonates through the landscape, and this may be why movie producers use it. They think that a sound like the kookaburra’s call must be from the jungles of Africa or South America. Kookaburra calls appear in a number of other films including “Count Dracula,” “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Cape Fear,” and “Objective Burma.” Kookaburras live wild in Australia and not in the places these films depict. A kookaburra also calls in the forests of the “Wizard of Oz.” Maybe they do live in Oz?

Listen to the call. What do you think about the call? Isn’t it a great sound? Thanks to Christopher for making this call available.

 

Before my trip to Australia, I saw a live laughing kookaburra only once in a zoo in Florida. It sat majestically on a branch about 10 feet above the ground as I walked through its aviary. I stood and watched it for half an hour until my 5-year old daughter insisted we continue. The bird never called or even moved.

As I planned my trip to Australia, one of my quests would be to see and hear laughing kookaburras in the wild. They are native to eastern Australia, and people have introduced them to Tasmania. Kookaburras are the largest member of the kingfisher family, weighing about a pound, 18 inches in length, and they possess a large 4-inch bill. They live in eucalypt forests, open woodlands, parks and suburban neighborhoods. They rarely eat fish but rather feed on snakes, small mammals, birds, lizards, and insects. They sit motionless on a perch watching the ground and surrounding area for prey. When they spot something, they fly down to grab it, returning to their perch where they may whack it repeatedly on a branch to kill it and tenderize it before eating it head first.

To start my Australian odyssey, I flew to Hobart in Tasmania to meet up with my daughter, her husband, and his family. We planned to tour Tasmania for a week. I had the first morning free to explore on my own, so I hopped the first city bus in the morning that went southwest of Hobart, and I was the only person on the bus. I was surprised to discover that the driver could give me change for my ticket. No buses in the places I have lived in the United States give change for fear that someone will rob the driver. The money sat in a tray between the driver and me. The driver kindly looked at my map and helped me determine where to exit his bus so I could walk into the Peter Murrell Reserve. He worried that I would have too long a walk to come back to find the return bus, but I shrugged and jumped off the bus. Black peppermint trees dominate this dry sclerophyll forest. The forest contained a thick understory of shrubs and grasses. A few grassy meadows broke up the contiguous forest. Birders regularly find laughing kookaburras in this reserve, and I was out to find one.

Kookaburras occur in family groups with young staying for several years to help their parents raise subsequent broods. As I walked through the eucalypts along Coffee Creek Trail, I heard my first kookaburra. The call started as a low chuckle, growing through a series of trills, chortles, and into a full belly laugh. I stopped dead in my tracks to take it all in. Over the next 20 minutes one or more birds called. I tried to creep over to see them but never did find them. With this call, kookaburras defend their territories, which they keep throughout the year. If a kookaburra from a nearby family responds, all the members of the original group may join in a loud and rambunctious series of laughs that can last several minutes. The next day we drove into the western wet part of Tasmania, and I did not hear or see another kookaburra for almost a week.

I spent two days birding at Dandenong Ranges National Park and You Yangs Regional Park near Melbourne on the southern mainland of Australia. I had good looks at laughing kookaburras in both places but in neither case would the birds allow me to move in close. I wanted to see the details of their plumage and admire their massive bill.

My chance to observe them up close came when I visited friends near Warwick in southeast Queensland. Penny had told me that kookaburras would serenade me at dawn from outside the bedroom window where I would stay. Penny’s bed and breakfast is spectacularly situated in a rural landscape that is perfect for birds. The first morning I walked along their driveway where I could look through the eucalyptus trees toward the river below. I spotted one sitting on a branch with its head cocked slightly to one side. I crept slowly along the driveway until I could watch it carefully. A dark brown line extended from his eye to the back of his head, and he had a dark spot on the back of its head. A light creamy stripe of feathers ran above the eye, and the bottom of his head and collar were light gray. I couldn’t believe how massive his bill was. It reminded me of a large pair of needle-nose pliers. The dark brown feathers on his back and wings had white-tips, and I could see the textures of the individual feathers.  After a few minutes, he turned around so I could see his creamy white underside and even see the nails on each toe gripping the branch. I don’t know if it was a male or female for they look very similar. Females are often slightly bigger. His gaze at the ground became riveted, and then he flew down to the ground to probe among the grass stems. I could not tell if he caught anything before he flew farther down the hill. I stood for a few minutes taking in this splendid bird before I headed back toward the house for breakfast with my friends so excited to tell them of my find.

On my last day at Penny’s place, I woke well before dawn, and as I lay in bed, I heard a loud chorus of laughing kookaburras tune up in her yard. They called back and forth amongst themselves for several minutes, and I drifted back to my childhood and those Tarzan movies. For a few minutes, I thought maybe I was again 9-years old. But no and I quickly rolled out of bed to go out to see these magnificent birds. Several birds hung out in the scattered eucalypts in their yard.

Seeing this unique bird and especially hearing their raucous calls will remain a cherished memory of my Australian adventure. Do you have a birdcall that you just love to hear and that brings back fond memories?

The laughing kookaburra turned around to show its creamy white chest and belly. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The laughing kookaburra turned around to show its creamy white chest and belly. (G. Thomas Bancroft)  (click on picture for bigger version)

 

Bald Eagles in the Fog along Puget Sound

Written By: Thomas Bancroft - Mar• 13•15
A bald eagle sits on top of a dead snag in dense fog on Whidbey Island in Washington.

A bald eagle sits on top of a dead snag in dense fog on Whidbey Island in Washington.

The fog created an eerie feeling to our walk on the beach. It wrapped around us like a winter quilt. I could feel the dampness on my cheeks, and the air tasted salty. We had come to North Whidbey Island along Puget Sound in Washington to see what birds we might find. To our left, we could hear the rhythmic lapping of waves and to our right the fog completely obscured any view of vegetation at the beach’s edge. We wondered if we would see anything. I joked to my friend that a large bear, mountain lion, or marauding band of Vikings could suddenly appear out of the fog, and we would not have a chance to escape.

A weak, flat, whistle made us stop in our tracks. Initially, we could not pinpoint its direction, turning to look in all directions. The sound added to the eerie mood. We then heard 3 or 4 whistles at one-second intervals followed by 8 or 10 rapid whistles. Their tone varied, and it sounded almost as if the “beast” stuttered. The call puzzled me initially as I ran through all the possibilities that it might be. After a few more calls, my friend and I simultaneously said bald eagle.

We walked cautiously up the beach moving closer to the upper edge of the beach to see if we could see it. After 100 yards, we spotted the faint outline of the bird on top of a dead snag. The adult bald eagle continued to call through the fog. We wondered if it was trying to locate its mate. As we strolled by looking at it, the magnificent bird looked one direction down the beach and then the other. It totally ignored us on the beach. We had to stop for several minutes to watch the bird call and gaze through the fog.

A pair of Bald Eagles fly along the beach on Whidbey Island calling to each other.

A pair of Bald Eagles fly along the beach on Whidbey Island calling to each other.

Later the fog partially cleared and we watched a pair of adult bald eagles fly together along the beach, one slightly behind the other and both calling back and forth to each other. They made the shorebirds and the ducks extremely nervous. The shorebirds flushed and the ducks dove, but the eagles didn’t appear to be hunting. We wondered if one of these was the individual we saw earlier.

About a mile farther down the beach I heard something behind us and turned to watch a juvenile bald eagle fly out of the fog and by us on steady, powerful wing beats. A one-year-old bird, it still had black plumage on its belly and above its eye. The bird passed overhead, and we could see its large hooked bill and yellow legs and hear the beat of its wings.

A good day for eagles!

A juvenile bald eagle flies along the beach on Whidbey Island in Washington.

A juvenile bald eagle flies along the beach on Whidbey Island in Washington.

A Family Outing

Written By: Thomas Bancroft - Mar• 01•15
A rufous-bellied pademelon pauses from feeding to consider if danger is near and it should flee.

A rufous-bellied pademelon pauses from feeding to consider if danger is near and it should flee.

I rounded the corner and spotted her sitting beside a bush. Her fine features, dainty little hands, and smooth curves took my breath away. I couldn’t help but stare at her. She flexed open and shut her delicate small fingers and brought her hands together and then apart as she chewed quietly on something. Occasionally, her pink tongue would slip between her soft lips suggesting that the flavor of her food was satisfying. She cocked her head to one side as she gazed down the trail; she had not spotted me. Her brown eyes twinkled in the soft light. She did not appear disturbed by the light drizzle or the water droplets forming on her hair. Droplets coalesced into larger ones that meandered down her face. I stood frozen not able to take my eyes off such beauty, features so fine, such a marvelous example of life.

She turned toward some movement in the bushes and a smaller version of her hopped out from under a bush to sit beside her. Two miniature kangaroos, two pademelons, a mother and her half grown joey, sat right in front of me, not more than a dozen yards away. My blood raced through my arteries as my heart pumped as if I had run a marathon. I stared frozen in the rain as I watched these two magnificent animals chew on grass. I can’t believe that these miniature kangaroos, the mother only 18 inches tall and the joey only a foot tall, were so close. I worked hard not to move.

The cry, “Mummy, Mummy, can we go play in the playground, pleaseeee,” catches my attention and brings me back to Seattle. I am sitting on a bench in Cal Anderson Park in Seattle Washington. It has been two weeks since I returned from Australia and saw the pademelons in Tasmania, yet the image in my mind is still so vivid, so real as if it just happened and I keep returning to the thrill. I watch the boy, maybe 7, hop with his knees tight together down the hill toward his mother just like a kangaroo. He yells, “Please, mummy, can we go into the playground.” His mother roots through her purse for change for the parking meter. His brother, maybe 5, slips and falls as he tries to climb one of the cherry trees, hitting the ground with a thud but he simply stands back up to attempt to climb the tree again. I chuckle as I watch them. So much life in these boys it reminds me of when my daughter was their age.

My wife and I use to take our daughter to playgrounds when she was young. The Miami Zoo had wonderful playgrounds and we would tour the park looking at the animals and stopping at each playground for a little diversion. Our daughter would scramble over all the equipment: sliding, climbing, jumping, running, and falling. So much energy and life! Just like those two pademelons that appeared to be enjoying a fine meal and the drizzle wasn’t going to bother their outing. This trip to Australia was my first trip overseas by myself since my wife died. My daughter now lives in Sydney Australia and I went to see her but also to see some of this mythical continent with all its marsupials and unique birds. The boys’ mother must have said yes for they run into the playground and onto the jungle gym as she strolls up the hill past me. I drift back to Australia and remember that I moved just slightly when I no longer could hold my breadth and stiff stand on the trail. The mother kangaroo immediately saw me and began an intense stare trying to determine if I was dangerous. I panicked that they would flee immediately but after several moments she seemed to relax and she turned with her baby close behind and hopped slowly into the bushes and out of my sight. I turned to head back toward the lodge where we spent the night so I could have breakfast with my daughter, her husband, and his family. My wife would have liked Tasmania, those adorable miniature kangaroos and she would be proud of our daughter.

The rufous-bellied pademelon gazes intensely down the trail.

The rufous-bellied pademelon gazes intensely down the trail.