It’s been the summer of the tawny frogmouth. Wherever I have gone these mysterious but elusive birds have appeared, often in the Hobart suburbs not too far from the central business district.
And it has not just been me spotting the frogmouths. My email and post has bulged with frogmouth sightings in recent months, one pair deciding to nest in the gutter of a Hobart home.
The young tawny, two wide-eyes blinking from a round ball of fluffy feathers as the sun rose each morning, soon flew to a more appropriate location among a clump of wattles and gum trees.
The frogmouths might display the ultimate art of camouflage when they are fully grown, but as young birds they are extremely vulnerable when they first hatch. Surprisingly, the nest is usually in an exposed location in the fork of a tree. When the single chick hatches it makes an almost comical sight, this big round shape perched precariously on a thin platform of sticks.
Such was the case of a chick spotted by well-known bird guide Denis Abbott in the Peter Murrell Reserve in Kingston in early summer. Abbott, however, was pleased to note next day that the chick had been ushered by its parents to a nearby gum roost where it was less obvious. Within days the chick and its parents had merged into the woodland in true frogmouth fashion.
Kookaburra and cockatoo might be the traditional symbols of Australia’s birdlife but I always think of frogmouths when I consider the unique species of the island continent.
I have never forgotten my first sighting of tawny frogmouths in the Bronx Zoo, New York, many years ago when the curator of birds there invited me to travel on the subway from my Manhattan home to view them in quarantine.
“Can these birds be real?” I asked myself. I made the initial mistake of thinking they were a species of owl and was soon put right by the bird expert. I had never heard of frogmouths before and was surprised to hear they were members of the nightjar family, birds I had seen commonly in other parts of the world. Unlike many species of owl, nightjars and frogmouths do not roost in hollows by day and must ensure they cannot be seen by predators while they are resting.
There must be something about islands that produces the biggest of birds within a family. Not only is the kookaburra the biggest kingfisher, the frogmouth is the biggest nightjar. There are in fact three species: the tawny – found country-wide – and the marbeled and Papuan frogmouths found in the rainforests of Queensland.
Although our local species carries the “tawny” name the frogmouths appear more ash-grey than brown, although the female is far darker in colour than the male.
Many times I have found the generally sedentary frogmouths in the forests surrounding Hobart but, returning next day, I have had difficulty spotting the birds again. However, a lengthy scan of the immediate environment through binoculars always reveals them eventually. They really do blend into bough and bark like no other species.