The Smuggler's Tree
by Dale R. Thompson
This story is about observing Macgillivray's Eclectus (Eclectus roratus macgillivrayi) in the wild. In a guided trip to the Cape York Bacillarys of Australia primarily to observe Palm Cockatoos, we observed many other types of parrots in the Mellaluca forests. With a personal interest in observing wild Eclectus after reproducing over 600 in captivity, I was always on the look out for them. In 1985, I observed 27 Red-sided Eclectus (E. r. polychloros) in the highlands of New Guinea. Now I wanted to see the larger subspecies in Australia.
At the final camping spot towards the top of the cape, we saw the wonderful Palm Cockatoo and many softbills, such as honeyeaters and bowerbirds. Aggressively walking through the Mellaluca forests, I was very lucky to find an Eclectus nest approximately three miles out of camp (camping meaning roughing it with tents and outdoor pit toilets). With only one friend who was willing to do all the walking with me, at first I did not want to tell anyone else about the nest to avoid disturbing the site. But I knew I could not do that, so the next day the four-wheel caravan took the rest of the tour group of 15 people to the Smuggler's Tree.
The Smuggler's Tree had spike marks clear up to the top where bird smugglers had taken chicks out of nests in the previous season. This was an enormous tree. It took five of us with outstretched arms to surround the trunk at its base. I forget the tree's species, but it was over 120 feet tall. The trunk of this beautiful tree was covered with very thin, white bark that would not peel from the tree. It stood out from the other trees, which were mostly eucalyptus trees of the same height. Instead of having branches full of leaves along the trunk, its leafy branches were at the very top of the tree's crown. Thus, the area directly under the tree top was clearly visible. This is why I was able to observe the Eclectus.
The scene is still crystal clear in my mind's eye. A bright-red female with an outstanding head flew directly from a nearby eucalyptus to the white tree at a height of about 100 feet. This large red parrot flew horizontally in the labored flight so many of us are familiar with from Eclectus in captivity. She flew directly to a natural hole in a large white branch and landed on the entrance with her tail bent close to the tree surface underneath to balance herself. She disappeared in less than a second. Boy, was that exciting. She acted just like a nesting female Eclectus in captivity rushing into her nest box. But this was in the wild, and this Eclectus was bigger than any I had ever seen. What a glorious sight to see this brilliant-red fire-brand disappear into a white tree branch. And to think I had found it in the wilds of Australia.
It turned out that two active Eclectus nests were in the tree along with at least six nest holes. From what I could determine over the next five days, at least two of the holes were connected. A female would enter one hole and exit another. It was hard to tell at first just how many pairs of Eclectus were nesting in the tree. It was not hard to figure out that the birds were in their incubation period and not in the baby-feeding stage.
When the tour group was first driven to the Smuggler's Tree--most did not want to walk for a six-mile round trip--one of the guides did something that was simply disgusting to the group. When I showed the group the tree, the two females were in their nests incubating eggs. I told the group that there might be a wait before one of the birds exited. The guide was used to having bird watchers in the tour. To my surprise he picked up a large stick and hit the trunk of the white tree with a powerful thump. This, of course, set off a loud sound and vibration, and the females instantly exited their nest holes. The guide thought he had done a great thing in getting the birds out of the tree for the group to see. Boy was he mistaken. This was a group of aviculturists who were now angry aviculturists. Personally, I was so shocked at this action that I stood there stunned. One strong-willed women instantly took the guide to task and righteously told him never to do that again. One should never disturb a breeding Eclectus in its nest! Hurrah for us aviculturists.
The Smuggler's Tree had a large crown with high branches thickly covered with leaves that contained the communal nest of at least 75 Australian Glossy Starlings in its forks. The nest was similar to those of Monk (Quaker) Parakeet communal nests in Argentina. It was divided into many compartments and was made of twigs, grass, leaves, and fine twine from the trunks of palm trees.
Throughout the day a white falcon dive-bombed the starling nest trying to get an adult off a tree limb or a female as she came out of the grass-domed nest. We knew when the falcon was coming in for a dive because the whole group of starlings would scream with an awful noise as they madly escaped into the tree and the big nest. In all our watching the Eclectus nest holes, which were 25 feet below the starlings' big nest, we confirmed only about a half dozen kills of starlings by the white falcon. Most of these were when the falcon actually stuck one of its taloned feet into a starling nest and pulled out a large, half-feathered baby.
The Eclectus females never left or entered their nest holes when any commotion was going on above them. We knew this and waited during the quiet times to more carefully observe the Eclectus holes. The females spent from 42 to 115 minutes in the nests incubating eggs before leaving their holes. They did not spend much time out of the nest, 15 to 20 minutes, before they went back in to continue incubating their eggs. We hoped that an Eclectus eggs would hatch during the six days we were in the area, but this did not occur.
Two bright green males would approach the tree from the forest during the evenings. Their mates would hear them call and would exit the nests to see them and get fed. The males never went to the nest holes. Personally, I felt that they did not want to give away the locations of the nest entrances to predators. (However, I do know they go to the nests during the feeding of small chicks and regurgitate food to their mates who then feed the babies.) Once when one female exited her nest and met her mate in a eucalyptus tree about 75 feet away, she gave her mate a scolding and demanded food from him. He was reluctant before this, but this confrontation put him in high gear to feed her. It was so much like what I had seen in my captive pairs of Eclectus. The female bobbed in front of him then went high with her head, and you could see the male backing up with an almost falling-back stance.
On several occasions a pair of Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoos landed in the tree and inspected one of the larger entrance holes about 12 feet above the highest Eclectus nest. The Eclectus weren't bothered by the Greaters even though they were white like the falcon, but they were terrified of the falcon. The Greaters were at the beginning of their nesting time and were inspecting the hole they were interested in before the hen would lay her eggs.
We had a wonderful time enjoying Eclectus in the wild and many other creatures that came our way. We saw only three other male Eclectus besides the males of the two pair that were nesting. Every evening when we walked the three miles back to camp we saw hundreds of flying foxes (bats) methodically flying across the sky in the sunset and deepening darkness. On a few occasions we saw pairs of Palm Cockatoos flying low over the wooded forest to their roosting spot. Wonderful!
One evening we were so late that we ran across three snakes crossing our path in total darkness. It was quite a surprise to see a five-foot brown snake winding quickly across the path in front of me. We walked by flashlight, and it was spooky at times. The last time I went to the tree I did not bring a flashlight, and I almost got lost. But almost stepping on an eight-foot snake, probably a python, that was that 2 inches thick kept me going.
The Smuggler's Tree was the highlight of the Cape York trip because it was like a complete environment of many different avian species and behaviors, such as the feeding noises from starlings and the ear-splitting screams of the falcon. We spent most of the early mornings and evenings at the tree watching nature at its best. The sighting of the big red and green Eclectus was like a dream. I had always wanted to find an Eclectus nest in the wild. Finally I had.