Ringer’s Rules of Birding
BLUE MOUNTAINS, NSW, AUSTRALIA — The sweet young woman at the information booth asked if I wanted a tour book in a language other than English. Too late did I think of rattling something off in Tok Pisin — or of reciting the few Italian sentences I actually know (but they are from a song I never liked anyway). She really did mean to be helpful, and it wasn’t her fault if she didn’t recognize my accent. No harm, no foul.
It didn’t take me long to realize I had made a rather serious miscalculation. I should have listened to the little voice that reminded me about my jacket right as I left the hotel. Nah, I had thought. But Katoomba, I discovered, was very cold. As I stood on the corner waiting for the big red bus, my fingers started to go numb. All I had with me was a flannel shirt, which I regarded then as a cause for some concern. I did not know that the cold would become the least of my worries.
I got off the bus at stop 10, Katoomba Cascades. Crowds of tourists took the path to the right; I went left. I quickly came to a platform overlooking a spectacular vista. Eucalyptus trees grew thickly far below, and mountains rose ahead. White specks moving above the treetops below must have been Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. And when the wind gusted, I shivered and cringed.
The trail was broad and well-maintained. It wound through Eucalyptus forest, and the trees sheltered me from the cruel wind. A little silhouette caught my eye, and I raised my binoculars to see a dramatic black and white bird with a splash of yellow on the wing and a white eye. Then it was gone.
When I descended onto a boardwalk across a little ravine, I began to hear small-bird noise. I tried to follow the rapid movement of several birds moving low through the understory. Finally, I got the binocs on a richly colored bird with a long, decurved bill. Its white breast was bordered by broad dark swaths and had a dark blot right in the center. Several such birds chased each other around, around, and out of sight.
Then I heard a different call and moved forward. Something tiny flitted across the boardwalk right ahead of me and dove into a thick tangle just off the path. As I struggled to focus, I could see the bird’s fierce-looking face — fierce, I suppose because it was dark and marked boldly with a white line above and below the eye. It was very, very small and moved right along the ground. It reminded me of a wren, but it was rounder with less tail.
It continued coming closer, and I lowered binocs. It hopped out onto the boardwalk and came toward my foot, scolding softly all the while. It got within inches of my boot before turning away and taking shelter in the brush again.
I sat down for a consultation with Simpson and Day. The black and white bird was a honeyeater (when in doubt, it’s a honeyeater), but there were two that looked similar. New Holland Honeyeater was the one with a white iris. I couldn’t have imagined that, but I hoped for another look anyway. The richly colored, feisty birds were Eastern Spinebills (also honeyeaters), and the tiny little mouse-like bird was a White-browed Scrubwren.
On I went, and a soft sound of bark or twig arrested me and turned my head left. Through the leaves and branches, I saw bright red and blue — a parrot! It seemed quite unperturbed by my presence and continued with whatever it was doing. Its body was a beautiful red, spotted with black on the back. Its lower face and wings were rich blue, but not too dark — then there was a second bird — then they were gone.
I decided after looking at my map to turn around and go back the way I’d come. Along the way, I saw many more spinebills and New Holland Honeyeaters. I saw the honeyeaters so well that I could see the filamentous white plumes on their black throats. I saw Silver-eyes too, and I started seeing little brown birds that seemed to fit the kinglet niche. I looked for field marks but couldn’t really see any.
Completing my backtracking, I continued on the path that led to the falls. It led along a river lined with treeferns, which just about give me goose bumps even on ordinary days. From time to time I could see cockatoos through the trees, but none of them were black or pink or gray.
I reached an open area where several paths intersected. Small birds were active in the trees, so I decided to sit down, look around, and open my field guide again. The little birds in the trees were more of the brown ones I’d seen earlier. One looked different. The face seemed more strongly marked — streaky. I didn’t know what to make of that.
The parrots were Crimson Rosellas, I discovered. Then a few kids came up one of the trails and collapsed in the clearing, making themselves generally obnoxious. Right about then, I happened to see a small bird hop up over a low wall and into the open area in front of me. It was dark and rather plain, and I thought it was built like an Old World robin. Dark above, it was warmer cinnamon brown below. I noticed its pale throat, and when it hopped back up onto the wall, I saw that its tail was blackish. Then it disappeared.
Back to the field guide. The little brown birds were thornbills, evidently, and the multiplicity of species seemed almost as confusing as Empidonax flycatchers. I did not reach any conclusions and continued to the “robins” section. Nothing matched the small chunky bird I’d just seen, so I broadened my search.
Rockwarbler? Endemic to this very small sandstone region of Australia. Pale throat, blackish tail. I was stunned. Come back, little bird. Maybe I’d see more.
The trail I chose led down through the dense forest, providing breathtaking views of cliffs, boulders, waterfalls, trees, ferns, and distant mountains. I lingered at one vista, and a slender red parrot with green wings flew into view. Then a whole flock of them swept up from farther down the canyon, and I could see cockatoos and Crimson Rosellas there too. I concentrated on the beautiful new parrots, and I saw other birds that were grayish-green with red bellies. Females? Another species?
As the parrots all moved away, Pied Currawongs flew back and forth over my head. And thornbills worked nearby trees. Looking at one, I saw fine white streaks on its crown and a white eyebrow. Striated Thornbill! Maybe there was hope. I turned my attention to more thornbills behind me and finally got a good look at a crown — brown with little scallops. Brown Thornbill!
Then came a moment of decision. The signs pointed the way. I could return to the bus stop and ride to another location. Or I could plunge down the side of the mountain, follow a trail far below the top of the cliffs, and climb out again much farther along. I looked at my watch. 2:30. There’d be enough daylight. And down I went.
Various informational signs promised lyrebirds, Golden Whistlers, and other gems, but I found the forest fairly silent. After I’d gone a long way, the bright afternoon sunshine disappeared behind massive walls of rock. I began to worry. But even as the light faded, strange and fantastic bird sounds came from every side. I could see nothing and so did not slow my pace. Once, though, I did see a small bird in the mid-story and was able to study it briefly. I knew it was a fantail — it held its tail slightly spread. It was plain gray above with white dots on its face and while edges on various wing feathers.
Finally, the calls lured me to stop, and I looked up at the trees above me. They were very tall, but I could just begin to make out tiny movements at their very tops. I got quick looks at a brownish, creeper-like bird, but my arms shook, and my neck pained me too greatly to look for long. Nevertheless, I continued to stare, and I saw a flash of yellow, black, and white — a Golden Whistler? There was a Gray Fantail up there too, and I kept trying to get good looks at the treecreeper. Then there was another black-white-yellow bird, not a whistler — a shrike tit? Oh, I couldn’t see, I was in pain, and the light was fading. But I stayed. All kinds of birds called from far, near, but I couldn’t see them. I could never see the tiny birds above me, and finally worry and frustration drove me on.
I started to run along the path, thinking that I’d not help matters if I sprained my ankle but not wanting to get stuck in the bush when darkness fell. And so I hurried, not daring to look at my watch. I finally came to a sign. One staircase up to the top lay back in the direction from which I had just come. I couldn’t bear to think going back, but the trail in the other direction gave no clear promise of a way out. What if it ended at a sheer cliff face? With a quick prayer, I jogged off toward Fern Bower, unwilling to turn back.
Then the path turned into a metal stairs in the mountainside, and I knew I’d found a way up. I tried to hurry, but as the stairs and cutbacks went on, on, on, I began to gasp for air, and my legs burned. I’m not sure when the thought first came to me, but I slowly realized that the busses did not run all night. Even if I did make it up to the top, what would I do if I’d missed all the busses?
Every step was agonizing; every rest increased my fear. So there on the side of the mountain, Ringer’s First Rule of Birding came to me in a flash: When birding alone, on foot in a foreign country, do not venture into the bush unless you know exactly where you are going and how long it will take.
I don’t know how long the climb took. Gulping the water was a mistake. Daylight held, if dimly. I finally sensed I was nearing the top. Currawongs called, and cockatoos flew over occasionally. Then I started hearing traffic. I was sure that each whoosh was the day’s last bus, leaving me behind. Then there was the road, and there was the bus stop.
I collapsed beside the sign for stop 16 and pulled out my timetable. The last bus to stop 16 came at 4:54. My watch read 4:59. A small restaurant nearby was closed, but there was a car outside. I decided there was no use feeling defeated; I might as well go for help. As I rounded the corner and knocked on the door, I looked back toward the road.
A big red bus rolled past, around a curve, and out of sight as I waved in pathetic desperation. An Asian woman looked at me through a window. It was too cruel to be believed, but I was too defeated to protest.
That’s when Ringer’s Second Rule of Birding came to me: If you think you’ve missed the bus, wait a few moments more.
I would walk back to town. The restaurant owners pointed out the road but did not offer to drive me. I probably did not look like the sort of person to whom one wants to offer a ride.
By the time I finally reached the train station and was headed up the stairs to the platform, I heard a whistle blow. I knew it was the train back to Central Station, but somehow I didn’t even care. I walked across the street and found a pizza place. While I waited for my pizza, I looked through Simpson and Day again. No treecreeper, no shrike tit, no Golden Whistler. I just hadn’t seen enough.
The pizza was hot and delicious, and it restored me. An hour later, I was on the train back to Sydney. And so the First Corollary to Ringer’s Rules of Birding is this: Even if you break all the rules, never panic. It might still be OK.