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- The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 20/57 -


also. On the beach just above high water-mark was the headless carcase of one that must have been fully 5 feet long, and while it was under inspection an eagle circled about anxiously. Soon after the intruders disappeared the bird swooped down and resumed his feast, and presently his mate came sailing along to join him. The snake must have weighed several pounds, and apparently was not as dainty to the taste as the green arboreal variety, for after two days' occasional feasting there was still some of the flesh left.

Shrewd as is the observation of the white-headed sea-eagle he is not exempt from blunders. Though he pounces with authoritative certainty and precision, he does not discriminate until the capture is complete, between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Generally whatsoever is seized is carried off, apparently without inspection. Perhaps the balloon fish is the only one that is promptly discarded. The sea porcupine (DIODON), which shares with that repugnant creature the habit of exemplifying the extent to which the skin of a fish is capable of distention without bursting, is frequently picked up from the shallow water it favours. Short sharp needles stand out rigidly from its skin, forming a complete armament against most foes. The sea-eagle does not always devour the sea porcupine, which at the very best is nothing more than a picking. Amongst such a complex labyrinth of keen bones a hasty meal is not to be found, and the sea-eagle is not a leisurely eater. He likes to gulp; and so when he has indiscreetly blundered on a porcupine he frequently unlocks his talons and shakes himself free, while the fish, inflated to the last gulp, floats away high and light, bearing on its tense silvery-white side the crimson stigmata of the sea-eagle.

When misguided fish have blundered into the trap in the corner of the bay, the sea-eagle demands a share of the easily-gotten spoil. Perched on the tallest stake, he faithfully indicates the presence of food that he cannot obtain unless by goodwill; yet who would deny the bird of his right? Having fulfilled his duty as sentinel, he soars to an adjacent tree, uttering that sneering twang which is his one paltry attribute, and when a fish is thrown into the shallow water he swoops down and is away with it to his eyrie. If the sand is bare, however, he cannot, owing to his length of wing, pick up the fish in his flight. Unbecoming as it may be to tantalise by trickery so regal a bird, a series of trials was undertaken to ascertain the height from the surface whence a fish could be gripped. Twelve successive swoops for a mullet flopping on the sand failed, though it was touched at least six times with the tips of the eagle's outstretched talons. Consenting to failure, the bird was compelled to alight undignifiedly a few yards away, to awkwardly jump to the fish and to eat it on the spot, for however imperious the sea-eagle is in the air, and dexterous in the seizure of a fish from the water, he cannot rise from an unimpressionable plane with his talons full. On another occasion a fish was raised 4 inches on a slender stake. The sea-eagle dislodged it several times, but could not grasp it. Raised a further 4 inches the fish was seized without fumbling. Eight inches or so, therefore, seems to be about the minimum height from which a bird with 6 feet of red wing and a nice determination not to bruise or soil the tips, may grip with certainty.

WHITE NUTMEG PIGEON

No birds of the air which frequent these parts attract more attention than the white nutmeg or Torres Straits pigeons (MYRISTICIVORA SPILORRHOA), which resort to the islands during the incubating season. White with part of each flight feather black, and with down of pale buff, it is a handsome bird, strong and firm of flesh, and possesses remarkable powers on the wing. Half of the year is spent with us. They come from the north in their thousands during the first week of September, and depart during March. While in this quarter they seek rest and recreation, and increase and multiply on the islands, resorting to the mainland during the day for food. Their flights to and from are made in companies varying from four to five to as many as a hundred--but the average is between thirty and forty. Purpose and instinct guide them to certain islands, and to these the companies set flight. Towards the end of the breeding season, when the multitude has almost doubled its strength by lusty young recruits, for an hour and more before sunset until a few minutes after, there is a never-ending procession from the mainland to the favoured islands--a great, almost uncountable host. Soon some of the tree-tops are swaying under the weight of the masses of white birds, the whirr and rush of flight, the clacking and slapping of wings, the domineering "coo-hoo-oo" of the male birds and the responsive notes of the hens; the tumult when in alarm all take wing simultaneously and wheel and circle and settle again with rustling and creaking branches, the sudden swoop with whistling wings of single birds close overhead, create a perpetual din. Then as darkness follows hard upon the down-sinking of the sun, the birds hustle among the thick foliage of the jungle, with querulous, inquiring notes and much ado. Gradually the sounds subside, and the subdued monotonous rhythm of the sea alone is heard.

An endeavour, from the outset destined to be futile, has been made each season in succession, to estimate the number of nutmeg pigeons passing a given point per minute on their evening flight. With so methodical a bird, it was to be expected that the companies would have favoured points of departure from the mainland, and would fly along precise routes to a common destination. There are thousands of stragglers all along the coast, but the main bodies keep to particular routes. Most of those which rest on the islands in this neighbourhood quit the mainland between Clump Point and Tam o' Shanter, the trend of numbers being toward the latter point. Six miles separate these headlands, but the channel between Tam o' Shanter and Dunk Island is little more than 2 1/2 miles, so that the pigeons here become concentrated to a certain extent. Early in the season they pass Dunk Island at the rate of about 300 per minute, during the hour and a half preceding sunset. To speak more definitely, but well within the mark, those flying south, easily within range of sight from the sand spit here, may be calculated at something like 27,000. But in reality the procession of birds may cover a breadth of 2 miles, while only those flocks nearest to the observer are included in the estimate. No doubt, fully 100,000 come and go evening and morning. When the incubating season is at its height the number lessens; when all the young are hatched the unmarshalled procession trails along with but brief intervals between the companies--some flying low over the water, others high and wide.

Great as the company of birds seems, it is small compared with the myriads that favoured the islands in years gone by. Pioneers tell of the days when blacks were wont to make regular expeditions, returning to the mainland with canoes ladened with fledglings and eggs, which in accordance with tradition were devoured by the older men and women. The youngsters of the tribes were nurtured in the belief that if they partook of such luxuries all the pigeons would fly away never to re-visit their haunts. Strange as it may seem, the vast quantities eaten by the blacks did not seem to decrease the numbers. But since the advent of the white man, with his nerve-shattering gun, a remarkable diminution has been observed in some localities. No doubt it could be successfully maintained that the gun is responsible for an insignificant toll compared with that taken by the blacks of the past. But the birds were then deprived of their nestlings and eggs quietly, if remorselessly, while the noise of the gun is more demoralising to the species as a whole than the numbers actually killed.

Nutmeg pigeons are frequently shot by the hundred as they reach their nesting-place and mass themselves on the trees. Some of their nurseries lie far away from the usual tracks of the sportsman. Yet a single expedition during the breeding season to one of the islands may cause immense destruction and unprofitable loss of life. Though in lessening numbers they venture much further along the coast to the south, they keep well within the tropical zone. The most favoured resorts within many miles are the Barnard Islands, 14 miles to the north of Dunk Island. The whole of the tribes, therefore, though scattered for feeding over an immense area of the coast congregate on four or five islands--miles apart--to rest and breed. The assemblages are indeed prodigious; but they represent the gathering together of clans which have a very wide dispersal. Crowded together the host appears innumerable, but on the mainland during the day (when only the hen birds stay at home) the pigeons seem scarce. An occasional group may be met with, and they may be heard fluttering and flapping on the tree-tops (they are generally silent when feeding), but they are too thinly distributed to afford sport. Any other species of native bird which took to gregarious habits might seem as numerous as this. If all the sulphur-crested cockatoos, scrub turkeys, and scrub fowls scattered over an area of the mainland corresponding in extent with the feeding-ground of the nutmeg pigeons were massed each night in four or five communities, the numbers would seem startling; but because the poor pigeon, conspicuous and heedless, has the instinct or habit of association, it is argued that they outnumber all the other birds, that their legions are infinite, and that that fact is sufficient licence for the destruction of thousands during the breeding season. Compared with some species, nutmeg pigeons may be considered scarce, although their breeding establishments extend over hundreds of miles of the eastern coast of North Queensland. But it must be remembered that the birds breed only on the islands. To preserve them effectually certain islands should be proclaimed sanctuaries, and genuine sportsmen will never indulge their propensities when haunted by the thoughts of the consequent cruelty.

There are many contradictory statements in popular natural history works with reference to the habits of this bird, and it may not be out of place to quote what one authority says:--

"This singularly shy bird has acquired its popular name from the well-remarked habit it has of exclusively frequenting the wild nutmeg tree (MYRISTICA), in the tops of which it may be said to pass its life, except during the brief pairing season. Then it commonly selects the denser scrub or the mangroves, most probably guided by their contiguity to fresh water. Here it makes its nest, a more than ordinarily careless structure, the few crossed sticks barely sufficing to prevent the single egg it is destined to receive, from falling through to the ground. The fruit of the nutmeg is undoubtedly swallowed whole by the bird, and to the powers of deglutition is left the separation of the nutritive portion which we know as mace, from the hard and indigestible nut which is voided in flight. Thus this elegant little creature becomes the useful means of disseminating the remarkable nutmeg-tree, and it is found that some chemical treatment corresponding to that which it undergoes during sojourn within the body of the bird, is actually necessary before the nut can be fertilised and induced to take root. So strictly arboreal is this pigeon in its habits that it is questionable if it ever alights upon the ground, and so timid that it is impossible to procure specimens unless stratagem is resorted to."

Some years of repeated observation enable me to offer certain amendments to this narrative, evidently written by one who has been impressed by half the life-history of the bird--the half spent on the mainland. The food of the nutmeg pigeon is multifarious. All sorts of nuts and seeds, and even fruits are consumed--quandongs, various palm seeds (including those of the creeping palm or lawyer vine, CALAMUS), nutmeg (MYRISTICA INSIPIDA, not the nutmeg of commerce, though resembling it), the white hard seeds of the native cabbage (SCOEVOLA KOENIGII), the Burdekin plum (PLEIOGYNIUM SOLANDRI), and all sorts of unpromisingly tough and apparently indigestible, innutritious woodeny nuts and drupes. Moreover, it fattens on such diet, but still the wonder grows at the happy provision which enables nuts proportionately of such enormous size to be swallowed by the bird, and ejected with ease after the pulp or flesh has been assimilated. As the birds alight on the island after their flight from the mainland, a portion of the contents of the crop seems to be expelled. A shower of nuts and seeds comes pattering down through the leaves to the ground as each company finds resting-place. Perhaps those only who are suffering from uncomfortable distention so relieve themselves. The balance of the contents of the crops seem to go through


The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 20/57

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