The Kingfisher Theory

It was cold, damp and impolitely early when Mick the Taxi said “It’s all good”. My kids had never been up so early unless they were ill. If the truth be told I had not been up this early for a long time either, unless of course the kids were ill.

The journey to the airport was as uneventful as you could have wished for. Melbourne was generally asleep, or only half awake. The world seemed to move in a collective feather warmth, and few of the buildings we passed had lights at the windows. The roads were quiet. The kids were quiet. But you could sense the excitement. When we arrived at the airport all hell broke loose.

There were too many people, there were not enough staff. Instructions were contradictory at best and absent at worst. People were improvising, and people were getting it wrong. The kids were still excited, the staff were flustered. I was both. Simultaneously. The sparrows that had amused me as I stood in line for previous flights were nowhere to be seen. When I found them, they were being forced back against the rafters of the roof by the sheer volume of stress being generated in the queues below. Occasionally you could see them shake their heads, and comment on how poorly evolved people were – “how difficult is it to fly?” Eventually, after being told we had done the wrong thing and then being congratulated for being the best organised family in the queue we checked in and handed over our bags. I think if you could bottle the feeling that getting rid of your bags generates you would be able to sell it hand over fist.

Drinking small bitter coffees we sat and watched the planes come and go. How long will this last? This ability to up sticks and travel? My kids have a combined age that only just breaks double figures but they were about to go on a journey longer than any my mother ever undertook. My father only travelled like this because of the invasion of Poland and the needs of the British navy. We take this for granted and forget that most people have never done this and never will. We seem to live in a bright window of time where all things are still possible, and the consequences of this freedom have only just begun. The next few years will, to say the least, be interesting. And now we will fly for 3 hours. Heading north to Queensland, which would be a whole country, or maybe two, in Europe. To Townsville and then to Magnetic Island. The flight passes with food and books, drinks and iPods, small heartfelt disputes about window seats and who gets to sit with mum. Time slows. Kilometres slide by. The horizon flares bright red, then silver and finally day sky blue.

Townsville is surprisingly cool and sharp without the wet blanket humidity of my last visit. We put on shorts. The locals say it’s cold. We beg to differ, but they only laugh and pull the up the collars on their coats. If it was not for the currency in my wallet you’d have to think you were in a different country. When we get on the ferry I start to think that we may be. There is a “polite notice” that says that alcohol will not be served before 10am. Given that it’s almost mid-day the bar is open and mixed drinks are in evidence. This I should point out is on a ferry which is to all intents and purposes a public transport vehicle! Most people are wearing a jacket and shorts. Almost everybody is wearing thongs – that’s the flip-flop footwear type. These shoes (and I use the term loosely) are cheap, nearly ubiquitous and utterly without a single redeeming feature.
A Brahminy Kite soars around the ferry terminal. Two or three silver gulls drift on the water and fight over food scraps. As the kite turns the sun turns its chestnut body a deep shade of red. It lands on a roof top and settles with a wing flap and a burst of preening. I watch the water. I look for terns. The eight kilometre gulf between land and island shrinks and the Island grows on the horizon. Some people just called it Maggie Island – but I can’t come at that. Too many political overtones, too many shrill speeches, that handbag. We arrive at what I discover is the least attractive part of the island. The foreshore is dominated by an apartment building which is a classic of the “softened Stalinist school” of architecture. It was clearly designed by somebody with a fear of curves and a love for anonymous concrete. It’s with a sense of relief that we pile into the car and head for the other side of the island.

Up over the hill we go and then down the other side. P declares that this place is “just like a twopical island” – and we almost crash with laughter. Another Brahminy Kite drifts into view. We find our house, which is all curves and open space. We unload the car. Lizards dash over the wooden deck and green ants commute along the handrails. Helmeted Friarbirds talk in the tree tops, their calls including a “chack” which sounds like Jackdaw. I look up, confused. The nearest Jackdaw is probably half a world away. Chequered butterflies, that look black and white in the patchwork tree light, scatter from the undergrowth. A kookaburra laughs from a nearby tree and a flock of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos dash overhead calling wildly and flying with tumbling style. Doors are opened, windows slid back, the house is explored. We make some tea, we try the chairs, we settle in.

The beach is a short drive away. Telephone wires hang limp between grey poles, and strung out along them are birds. Fig Birds with bright red eyes, Rainbow Bee-Eaters sweet with blue-green feathers and White-Breasted Wood Swallows, dapper in black and white. And there are also Kingfishers. Bright as blue buttons. None of these birds were there as we drove to the house, and now they are abundant. My mind starts to whir.
We arrive at the beach and park under pale blue skies and palm trees. It’s late afternoon and the light is already different, less intense, slightly warm and glowing. The beach really is a sweep of gold, coarse grained and clean. It’s fringed with palm trees. Far out to sea I see a bird with wide upswept wings; it grows larger as it approaches and it’s clear it’s a White-Bellied Sea-Eagle. It moves over the sea with little apparent effort. Then out of the corner of my eye I see another bird flying directly at the eagle. The birds are on a collision course and the sea-eagle banks and gains height to avoid the incoming bird. It’s an Osprey, closely followed by a second. The attack seems to have worked because the sea-eagle reduces in size as it heads back out to sea. The Ospreys fly back towards the beach, but veer off sharply to harass a Brahminy Kite! This all happens with two minutes of getting out of the car. We walk along the sand, looking for shells and sea dollars. But something is missing. There are almost no gulls. This will last all week. Within an hour I have seen more birds of prey than gulls – what’s going on?
The afternoon light quickly fades, and the horizon glows in a subtle sunset. No clouds. No fireworks. We return home in growing darkness. The early morning has taken its toll and we are in need of sleep. A Pheasant-Coucal, a strange and spiky looking bird walks by the side of the road, I U-turn to see it, but it’s gone. My family protest. They want their beds. Rock-Wallabies rush from the headlights and hide under the house. It really is bed time for the kids. Darkness has come quickly and the condensation runs down the outside of a beer bottle. Circles form on the table top. The night sounds begin. Bush Stone-Curlews scream into the darkness, the calls of local birds are picked up by more distant ones and soon the night is full of their strange song. The wallabies crash through the undergrowth. There is a metallic donk as one seems to collide with the metal poles beneath the house. It wanders off muttering to itself – it’s my first experience of marsupial swearing. To round out the day a bat joins us in the bedroom. After a few laps of the fan it lands on a metal beam and side shuffles into an invisible hole. We never see it again. Despite the primacy of the eye it becomes the ear that lets me know I am not at home.

The soundscape is a mixture of the known and the foreign. And some sounds are the familiar made strange. Familiar Cockatoos call in the distance, and now and then you can hear the song of the sea. Bush Stone-Curlews continue to call, weird and certainly unfamiliar. A Blue-Winged Kookaburra twists laughter into a maniac’s cackle, a broken humour that in humans would be sign of madness or a deep unreachable loneliness. In the end the Stone-Curlews outlast all the others and to their strange and foreign chorus we fall asleep.
By the next morning the sounds have sunk in, leached overnight into my brain, shifted from the frontground to the background. We wake slowly. Soft sunshine. Tree sounds. Small sounds.

There are no kingfishers on the wires. But there are Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos in the paddocks. They feed on the spilt and split grain meant for horses. They don’t seem very brave, flying well before I expected, but they are hungry and soon they return. The urge to feed overcoming the urge to flee. Tiny blue pigeons – Peaceful Doves – walk out of the long grass. Yellow-Bellied Sunbirds flash through the hedgelines, the male with a splendid blue bib, the female two-tone yellow and softened green. On days like this the trip to fetch the paper feels like a chance rather than a chore. When I return there are still no kingfishers. I wonder why. Maybe they are only there in the afternoon – it’s a theory at least. A Kingfisher theory. A theory in need of testing.


RBenz said...

Great birds. I am on my way (in a few days,) to another "twopical" place with a new variety of birds. I will be 7 days in the jungles of Belize and three on the coral reefed Caye Caulker. It is a similar environment and yet, many of the birds species are entirely different. Hey, Darwin thought that too! I wonder if the niches of the different birds are similar though. I'm sure that is the case. It would be great to compare niches and species between Magnetic Island and the Cayes off the coast of Belize. RB

Arija said...

Stewart your adventures have been a joy to read and make me 'homesick' for Townsville, Magnetic Island and the magical beaches beyond and of course the tropical birds. You also remind me of what it was like travelling with two pint sized children and LUGGAGE, especially for 4 seasons on sabbatical in Europe and the States.

Evocatively and beautifully written and those beach shots are pure magic.

Happy days . . .

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Stewart -- this is wonderful! Your photos are beautiful but it is the essay that I am so happy I read -- -- I'm choosy about which longish posts I read (my eyes are even older than the rest of me), but I am so glad I read this -- it rivals the finest travel magazine articles and I want to pack up and go right now.

(the part about flying -- the whole airport experience -- was funny and true to life everywhere I think. Glad your "littles" did so well!

august2011 said...

All I can say is:
More, more, more.
I want to read about the rest of your stay.
Actually, what I really, really want, is a novel. Maybe a little bit of sleucing thrown in? I'm not too demanding: 350 pages will do.

august2011 said...


Anonymous said...

Air travel is no fun, but I do love arriving at my destination.

Gorgeous shots - enjoy your hols.

Anonymous said...

As you may have noticed I am not a writer, I tend to let my pics do all the talking, I therefore appreciate even more the text surrounding your views. this in no way detracts from the cracking seascapes in this post!... wonderful light perfectly captured!....:)

holdingmoments said...

Great post Stewart.
The sands on the beach look superb.

Kathiesbirds said...

What a wide array of birds. The sea eagle is spectacular! Hope you get your kingfisher. I saw mine at Lake Ontario! Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Tammy said...

What a terrific place, and a great way to spend the day :)