Make mistakes!

December 22

First real day of summer and the northeasterly winds are blowing hard turning the ocean into a frothing mass. No surfing today at the exposed beaches or even the back beaches, which are out of the wind, for they are not picking up the crummy wind tossed swell. That’s ok though for we had bowerbirding to do all morning in the forest surrounding the experimental banana farm which is owned and operated by the city of Coffs Harbor. That too was a bit of a bust as it turned out. Despite tramping around for hours, hoping to track down new bowerbird bowers, we found none! Either we have already found the low hanging fruit (easy bowers) on that property or our own bower finding abilities are going down the tubes. The bowerbird can be super elusive when they want to be and you may walk right past a bower and never even know it.

I just processed some video from a camera positioned at one of the bowers we had previously found. And guess what? The footage is dripping with bowerbirds. During one half-hour period, no fewer than five bowerbirds came through. First, two young males were mucking about, displaying, but they got chased out by a mature male. Then second, two females were investigating the bower and the male came in and chased them up and down, back and forth, even through the avenue. I don’t know what on earth was going on in that sequence! I would have thought that he might court them. But what is most remarkable is the fact that had we not witnessed all this action on camera, we might have thought the place a bowerbird desert! After all, it was a bit hot and windy out and seemingly quiet in the forest as we stalked here and there looking for any signs of bowerbirds.

Sometimes a bowerbird makes what I call a “mistake” and bingo, we find the bower. His mistake could be one of many things. He could sit up high in a tree and go screech, screech, screech, generally advertising for a female and when he makes these calls, he is usually pretty close to his bower. This display we rarely see or hear. His next mistake might be zooming across an open field and diving low into the forest on the edge. When a male bowerbird does this you can be pretty sure that he is going “home”. The third mistake he might make is to not hear you approach while he is on his mat making his windup toy noises. It seems that they can get so absorbed in their “work” that they even miss detecting an animal as big as a human. And if we hear these windup toy noises coming from the ground, we can almost bet it is a bowerbird at his bower. But be careful, for if you hear the same noises coming from high up in a tree, it could just mean a young male is up there practicing his stuff. That can be a total diversion! Another mistake he might make is to build his bower within easy eyesight of a path, road, forest edge, or paddock. In these cases you would not even need to detect a bird, just blunder into a bower! This rarely happens and bowerbirds usually hide their bowers just enough so that you’d never find it unless you knew where to look.

Forest birds make fewer mistakes than suburban birds (which are often used to constant people-traffic). The forest birds can be super elusive and at times I even think that they are bothered when you are watching them, even from a great distance. A bird could be perched in a tree 100 feet away and if you sit down and keep an eye on it, hoping that it is going to make some kind of “mistake” it will just sit there and look right back. And I think it is even worse with binocular use. If you think about it, it makes sense. Birds have keen eyesight and I’d speculate that when they look at someone who is pointing binoculars in their direction, it probably looks like a huge owl or other bird of prey. Sometimes when I am patiently watching a bowerbird, I’ll tip my hat down real low and squint at them from the very edge of my vision, hoping that they won’t think that I am still watching them. Once I sat backwards to the bird and tried to use a mirror in my lap to keep check. That was difficult for everything was upside-down!

It is a challenge finding a bowerbird bower and I think in part that is what makes it all worthwhile. Days of bowerbashing can be frustrating, but in general more rewarding than deploying the next set of experiments at bowers you have already found. Bowerbird bower hunting is a bit like an Easter-egg hunt. There is a bit of suspense mired in a race against time. And sometimes you find a golden egg; a bower so well constructed and beautifully made, that you can hardly believe a bird did all that with his beak! These two blurry images show the male chasing another bowerbird right through his avenue. Check it out.

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