Australian hobby, and it sees everything that moves in the Top End.
It’s been estimated that raptors have eyesight up to eight times as powerful as that of a human. So much information gathered with every glance. What would you choose to remember? Not an easy choice, in this fantasy forest of fire and graves.
Well, not exactly graves, although they certainly startled the first Western explorers. These bizarre monoliths are the work of compass termites, which align their mighty constructions with the poles. It is thought that they do this to prevent their nests overheating, which might easily happen if one side faced the full wrath of the southern sun. As it is, only the narrow side is cooked.
But everything here is strange to a non-Australian eye.
Night falls and wakes the dingoes – one lopes across the road in front of our car, but there’s no time for a photo. Australia’s only native canid leaves us with a memory in our minds instead.
Other hunters do tarry. A southern boobook – a small owl – pauses in a tree.
It has only been a brief trip to Australia, but the tantalising glimpse of the forest leaves its mark.
Fire, water, termites and heat.
It is good to know that somewhere out there, right now, a hawk is watching them all.
The forest has Fire, but it also cradles this:
Water roars off Litchfield’s sandstone plateaus, but like everything here, it is seasonal. May is still early in the Dry season and the land is ridding itself of the liquid acquired in the Wet.
Or call it Yegge, if you prefer; the Aboriginals traditionally recognise six seasons in Australia’s Top End.
The high rivers support saltwater crocodiles – and other, more delicate living things. None are more beautiful than the rainbow bee-eater, which swoops over the pool hunting insects.
Wherever there is water, there are birds. And they just keep getting stranger.
And more entertaining.
And more impossible in hue.
Fire. These forests are built on it.
It destroys, but it also cleans. Flames flicker in Australia’s Northern Territory in May – deliberate small fires sparkling under a thousand stars. To the minds of people, this prevents catastrophic wildfires later in the dry season. To the minds of birds, fire brings food.
Black kites swarm over fire fronts, seizing small fleeing things. Traditional Aboriginal belief claims that kites set new blazes by dropping smouldering twigs. It has never been scientifically documented, but if true would be almost the only example of fire being managed by something non-human.
Red-tailed black cockatoos hunt in the ashes.
And one of the bush’s strangest creatures looks after itself as best it can.
I met this ball of prickles as it waddled down a road in Litchfield National Park. Not a hedgehog, not like anything else on earth – it is a short-beaked echidna, one of only four species of mammal that lay eggs. It is also quite intelligent and can live for 50 years.
That is many years of watching the forest burn and regrow.
Draw a squawk that squawks for the sheer love of squawking.
Roll it into bird-shape.
Dip it in a paintbox.
Set it loose in the trees.
Red-breasted parakeet – Singapore
Red-tailed black cockatoos – Litchfield National Park, Australia
Sulphur-crested cockatoo – Mary River National Park, Australia
Galah – Kakadu National Park, Australia
Little corellas – Mary River National Park, Australia
King of birds.
I rarely photograph captive animals, but made an exception at this moment.
This majestic Philippine eagle is part of the conservation programme run by the Philippine Eagle Foundation in Davao City, southern Philippines. According to the order of wild things, the Philippine eagle is the undisputed apex predator of the sweltering tropical forests of this complex archipelago. Unfortunately, like top predators everywhere, they have not fared well in human company and their status in the wild is now extremely precarious.
The foundation where this eagle lives is the species’ lifeline. Hopefully, one day it will be easier to see them in the wild again.
‘Wild’ still exists elsewhere, of course. My recent travels slipped briefly into northern Australia, a land of fire and termites which I will relate in later posts.
And over those flickering forests soars another of the world’s great raptors – the wedge-tailed eagle. I spotted this one perched on the carcass of a roadkilled-wallaby, and it flew calmly into the tree.
It is related to the golden eagle of the northern hemisphere, and has been heavily persecuted by Australian farmers in the past, although the Northern Territory protects them.
Two eagles but one sky. It would take a lifetime – many lifetimes – to learn all the living things in the forests of south-east Asia and Australasia. This journey only caught a snapshot, but I will relate its highlights over the next few days.
They stretch from sand to stormclouds with enough lordliness for hornbills to choose them as a throne.
They sprout nuts and fruit alien to the English visitor, but welcomed by a hungry plantain squirrel.
They clothe fences built by people, sheltering reptiles in their sprawl.
This is Singapore.
People have had creative ideas about what to do with this island for generations, but for all the skyscrapers, golf courses and godowns, there is no doubt that this is first and foremost a humid, beetle-buzzed, rain-lashed benevolent dictatorship run by plants. Every square metre where something can grow, something does. They even scramble over each other, climbing high like children.
Epiphytes – plants that live harmlessly on the surface of other plants, usually trees – are as common as daisies here. Amongst them, more lizards lurk.
It would take several lifetimes to document the bewildering variety of wild living things in south-east Asia. I’m travelling around the region for the next couple of weeks, revisiting some places, venturing into new ones.
There are many more moods of plants to learn.
Henry VIII was not a nice man. Apart from his well-documented personal life, he embraced a crusade against ‘bad’ British wildlife. He was hardly original – wolves at least were being exterminated by royal decree as far back as Norman times – but Tudor law eventually placed one of our most spectacular and harmless raptors firmly in the bounty hunter’s sights.
But most madness does end. The red kite – this forked-tailed scavenger that clears up carrion and delights birdwatchers everywhere – is once again widespread in British skies. Reintroductions have been highly successful in England, although rather less so in Scotland where illegal poisoning of wildlife sadly continues.
The North Downs has been adopted by kites reintroduced to the Chilterns. They follow tractors across the hills like outsized gulls.
Strange, really, to look at the kite through the eyes of a 16th century countryman who probably genuinely believed that it was harmful to livestock. In an era when there were so many real dangers, human nature seemingly demanded that people imagine more.
Today, kites make most people smile. I often meet hikers on the North Downs Way who pause in their long journeys to admire the acrobat in the sky.
The hills are a better place with them dancing above us.