Saying It with Flowers: Australia’s Golden Bowerbird
by Marie Read
October 15, 2009
Scrambling down the damp, slippery slope, with thorny shrubbery snagging my shirt, I struggled to keep my balance under the weight of a heavy camera pack and tripod. I stopped to catch my breath, looking around for landmarks to tell me I was in the right place. The fallen tree, the odd-shaped hole in the ground—yesterday they seemed so easy to recognize. Today though, under different lighting, the forest looked unfamiliar. Finally, I caught sight of my goal—the camouflage fabric of my photography blind. And beyond it was the courting bower of the bird I had come to photograph: Australia’s Golden Bowerbird.
Not knowing when the owner of the bower might arrive, I hurriedly got into place, set up my camera gear, and then settled down to wait. As a bird photographer, I’ve been in this situation of self-enforced captivity countless times—lurking in a cramped canvas box, my only windows onto the world being my lens and a small netting-covered hole in the blind fabric. Sound takes on a new importance, never more so than in this forest in the Wet Tropics region of northern Queensland, Australia, full of bird calls that were new to me.
Waiting gave me the perfect opportunity to marvel at the bower. It was amazing to contemplate a small bird building such a structure—two pillars several feet tall, made of hundreds of twigs that the male Golden Bowerbird arranges around adjacent saplings. Even more fascinating was the bower’s décor: a multitude of lichens and colorful natural objects, such as berries and flowers, which the male arranges artfully on a horizontal perch between the two pillars. It’s there that he courts visiting females. As soon as the berries and flowers fade, the male replaces them with fresh material. This perfectionism pays off because the females pay great attention to a bower’s appearance, preferring males with larger and more elaborately decorated bowers. Superior bower builders attract and mate with more females than do their less talented neighbors.
An hour or more into my vigil, a flash of yellow appeared in the camera’s viewfinder, and there was my prize—a gorgeous male Golden Bowerbird posed on the lichen-decorated perch, carrying a sprig of small pale flowers in his bill. I slowly inched my hand toward the shutter release, remembering to breathe only after taking several images. The male tucked the flowers into one side of the bower’s perch, and looked around as if to take stock of his artistry. Then, as suddenly as he had arrived, he was gone. He would not return for more than two hours.
In a normal year at this time—late October—Golden Bowerbird breeding would have been in full swing. The male would have been tending his bower throughout the day, or perching nearby giving his bizarrely mechanical, whirring calls to invite passing females to check him out and admire his work of art. But this year, 2006, had been far from normal. Six months earlier, Cyclone Larry had ripped through the area, stripping the forest canopy of branches, leaves, and—most important—the fruit upon which many local forest birds depend.
I’d been warned by local naturalists, one of whom had shown me this bower, that the 2006 breeding season of Golden Bowerbirds was significantly delayed and I would be lucky to see much activity. These fruit-eating birds were finding it tough to get enough food. A male Golden Bowerbird spends a huge amount of time and energy in building, decorating, and maintaining his bower, as well as defending it from neighboring males. The very next day I would see a neighbor make off with a beakful of lichens from the bower. Normally the bower owner would chase such a thief away immediately, but my male was undoubtedly off foraging or searching for decorating material. Faced with a food shortage, the balance between bower maintenance and getting enough to eat is a delicate one.
Over the next few days, the male seldom visited his bower, so I felt fortunate to have photographed his activities. And as I was leaving, I hoped that the forest would quickly regenerate and fruit become plentiful, returning life to normal for the Golden Bowerbird—the bird that says it with flowers.
Marie Read is a freelance writer and photographer based in Freeville, New York, and a frequent contributor to this magazine. Visit her website at www.marieread.com.