Frogmouths

It had been a long, bonejarring drive over the corrugations and through the dust of the gravel highway leading up the Cape York Peninsula. I was pleased to stop for the night at a roadhouse.

Halfway through the evening meal a fellow traveller reported a large night bird perched on a termite mound across the car park. I grabbed a spotlight and hurried out of the room to the call of “Hey, your dessert!” But I didn’t stop: dessert could wait.

In the torch beam I could see quite clearly a Papuan frogmouth, a larger relative of the tawny frogmouth found commonly in Sydney’s backyards. They resemble owls but have a very wide bill for catching insects whereas owls have sharp beaks for tearing small mammals. Frogmouths have weak feet too, unlike an owl’s talons.

Pairs sit in their regular trees all day waiting for nightfall, when they come to life. They have been known to perch in the same tree for many years and householders come to see them as part of the family. Approach frogmouths and they take little notice – although if they do become alarmed they stretch their necks, and then look uncannily like the branch on which they are roosting. Once, one landed on my bedroom window sill. It stayed all day – unmoving as if dead. I was tempted to poke the bird to see if it would move. But common sense prevailed. I left it alone.

I’d not seen a Papuan frogmouth before. It gazed back at me showing no fear. I took plenty of time studying the bird; its huge cherry-red eyes (compared with the yellow of the tawny frogmouth), its mottled plumage and wide gape. When I’d had my fill of frogmouth viewing my thoughts turned to my stomach: I was now ready for dessert. But as I approached the roadhouse a voice called, “Go back to your birdwatching. Dessert tonight was ice-cream and yours just melted!”

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