Earlier this year I moved into a small flat in the northern suburbs of Darwin. Among the factors that attracted me was that it was in a small complex in a quiet street, had a good jungly air to the yard and – tucked away at the bottom of the thin block – a small spa pool.
There is a pretty good local bird population but most of those are up in the trees and bushes – the Australasian Figbirds love their eponymous floral partner in the front yard and there is a constant variety of birds fluttering overhead in and out of the various fruiting and flowering palms and trees in the neighbouring yards. Right now a Calistemon has burst into flower outside my back door and there is no shortage of cantankerous Honeyeaters clamouring for the abundant nectar.
But there were few ground-dwelling birds in my yard until a few months ago when I noticed a brief flash of feathered chestnut skulking in the ferns near the pool. I didn’t think much of it at the time until a few days later I saw this most beautiful bird – a Buff-banded Rail Gallirallus philipensis – in full view.
Like any good flatmates, over the next few weeks we became more and more familiar with and tolerant of each other’s company. As long as I didn’t make any sudden movements or loud noises she (I have no way of knowing the sex of this bird but she sorta fits… I’m also very cautious about the traps associated with anthropomorphising – attributing human characteristics to – my companion) would quite happily poke around within a few metres of me.
She’d tolerate my presence in the pool, to which I adjourn most evenings with a drink and the radio for a half hour’s cooling solace from the heat of the day. She would sneak between the gaps in the neighbour’s fence, popping back in to pursue some hapless bug and unconcerned about my splashing about. At dusk she would flutter clumsily up into the leaves of a tall Drascena near to the pool and make her roost there for the night.
Last week I went away overnight for work. As I got to my door late the next evening I noticed that tell-tale smell of death that so often permeates Darwin in the build-up. At first I thought it was just a neighbour’s discarded fish-frame or someone’s barbeque leavings gone off in the sun and humidity. The next evening the smell still pervaded but less pungently. And skulking around in the shadows was a moggy cat from over the road.
That evening – and the next morning – no Buffy the Buff-banded Rail. Nor since. But the cats are still around providing choice targets for the odd chunk of rock.
I’ve not been able to find Buffy’s corpse but I’m satisfied that one or more of the cats got her. Bastards
So now I’m a bit like Tony Soprano and his ducks. I listen for Buffy’s piercing “swit” call in the pre-dawn and every evening as I lie in the pool I keep half an eye out for her coming through the fence. Or taking a quick dip in the pool.
Yet another reason why I hate cats.
And Buff-banded Rails are pretty common in this part of the world and can be found around most of the Australian coast and inland near to water. And they seem to have an affinity with – or supervisory caution – around snakes.
The Birding-Aus weblog recently hosted a few posts from various parts of the country about the activity of these birds in close human proximity.
Dean in Victor Harbour reports that:
Our resident BB Rail (which has been seen around our garden area since July 15) is very intrigued with snakes. We have a couple of Red-Bellied snakes around the place which we know about by the alarm calls of Fairy-Wrens and Scubwrens. On 2 occassions, we have seen the B-B Rail follow the snake keeping only a few inches away while it can see it. Yesterday (13/10) the snake had gone into a thick area where the Rail could not see it. The Rail anticipated where it might reappear and hurried around the area waiting for it to show, which indeed it did. It’s been fascinating to watch this activity. The Rail has become much less timid since we first observed it. One can generally walk around and it does not bother to move and goes on feeding. It is a very relaxing bird to watch as it methodically works over an area.
Tom from Samsonvale in SE Queensland reported that he:
Saw something very similar last Sunday at Samsonvale Cemetery (SE Qld). Marie and I were waiting for a Spotless Crake to reappear on the edge of a small wetland and I noticed a large snake (probably an Eastern Brown) moving slowly under the lantana. Whilst trying to point the snake out to Marie I noticed a Buff-banded Rail walking purposely behind it, obviously aware of the snakes presence. Unfortunately we didn’t see the outcome of the encounter but I felt that the rail was actively ‘stalking’ it’s mortal enemy.
And Gavin wrote in about some observations from Mango Hill in Brisbane’s northern suburbs:
I can remember witnessing this behaviour many years ago … albeit with a smaller non lethal snake – Common (Green) Tree Snake. This is the first time I can recall someone else mentioning this behaviour. Thanks for sharing the observation.
Rest in peace Buffy – the cat’s gain is our loss.