Bowerbirds in the Bunya Mountains, Australia

So far we’ve visited Africa and Asia on my “challenge on nature photography”-inspired journey of the seven continents, we now move to Australia.

I emerged from the depths of rainforest to a ridge of the Bunya Mountains in Queensland and gasped at the scene before me. I’d driven this route daily for nearly a month but never had the valley been quite so beautiful. The area’s namesake trees, Bunya Pines, towered above the fog-filled valley and silouhetted against the silvery landscape as if in an elegant Japanese painting. I pulled to the roadside and watched the sun’s first golden rays glint across the pillowy layer. As the fog began to dissipate, returning the scene to its more usual appearance, I grabbed my pack, squeezed below a barbed wire fence and began my trek across a lush pasture.

A bowerbird's bower lavishly decorated in feathers, flowers, cicada exoskeletons and blue plastic.

A bowerbird’s bower lavishly decorated in feathers, flowers, cicada exoskeletons and blue plastic.

I approached my target forest patch quietly, sneaking behind a veil of vegetation and glancing immediately through the leaves at my assigned bowerbird display. The bower, a paired line of upright sticks arranged caringingly into walls, stood empty. The space between and around the bower was heavily decorated with feathers, purple flowers, cicada exoskeletons, leaves and coveted blue plastic pilfered from nearby humans, but the owner of this elaborate structure was nowhere to be seen.

I dropped my pack, set up my chair and arranged my binoculars, data sheets and official time piece around me. I glanced at the clock and recorded the time. 5:01:23am. I shuddered. It seemed too early to be awake but the sun was up and I could hear that birds were active. I gazed at the empty structure for a while, then, knowing it could be a long time before the Satin Bowebird whose bower I was monitoring appeared, I picked up a novel and began to read.

6:38:52am. Had so much time really passed without a bird?

6:45:03am. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and looked up to see the shining black coat of a male Satin Bowerbird. Finally! I jotted the time and watched the bird closely. He pranced back and forth down the alley, nibbling at the sticks in the walls on either side. Was he going to paint? I strained forward in my seat, binoculars trained on his bill as I watched for signs that he might be marking his walls by painting them with a concoction of saliva and plants. Ben, the PhD student whose project I was volunteering on, would be thrilled if I recorded one of the behaviors he was specifically studying.

6:45:54am. The bird stood at one end of the bower and cocked its head. It gazed at the assorted decorations strewn across the bower’s apron.

6:46:12am. The bird left.

I sighed. No painting and this watch was almost over. In a few more minutes I’d pack up my stuff and rush down the field to my second morning watch.

6:51:36am. A green and brown speckled female bowerbird, looking nothing like its male counterpart, landed at the edge of the stick structure.

6:51:44am. The male swooped in front of the female and landed amidst its blue treasures.

I scrambled to record times as the male selected a large plastic cap to carry and began whirling in a circle, wings spread and emitting helicopter-like sounds. Seemingly oblivious to the male’s efforts the female inspected the bower, hopping along one wall then down the next with the male close behind. She paused to watch him a moment. The male dropped the cap and selected a clothespin, beginning his dance anew. The female flew. The male bower owner whirled around another time, dropped the pin and pursued.

6:57:05am. Male bowerbird inside bower.

Again, I watched for painting as the male nibbled at the walls. He walked up and down the bower, but then he yanked out a stick.

I was intrigued. I’d seen them add sticks before, but never take one out. I expected him to reinsert the offending stick in a more pleasing arrangement, but he tossed it aside and yanked out another. I recorded times and actions frantically as the bird went into a frenzy, pulling sticks from the wall, tossing them aside and recklessly repeating the action. Would the bower owner really be so destructive? As one wall nearly collapsed, I concluded this must not be this bird’s bower.

7:00:44am. As if on cue, a second male darted onto the scene and the destructive male sped away. The owner chased.

They disappeared into the foliage as my clock hit 7:01:23am. Time was up.

I stared at the scattered sticks before me and thought of the three little piggies and the wolf who huffed and puffed and blew their houses down. Somehow I felt complicit in the crime I’d just witnessed, but this was part of their system, part of the test of strong genes versus weak and part of how that lady bird would decide on her mate.

A male Satin Bowerbird in Australia's Bunya Mountains.

A male Satin Bowerbird in Australia’s Bunya Mountains.

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