Refuge

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa.

For many months, the moon continued its cycle in the sky, the seasons changed, but the drought stayed with us. We watched, helpless and devastated, as trees wilted, the flowing river turned to sludge and our food sources depleted slowly. The seasons had failed to provide enough rainfall for our habitat to thrive.

A warm Winter meant that we should expect a warmer than usual Spring and, already, danger loomed beyond the hills. Dense clouds were not rain clouds, our elders said, but clouds of smoke from bush fires, their heat so intense, all living things in their path perished.

Every Spring, mating pairs left the forest to breed elsewhere, away from the Powerful Owl, our most feared predator who made a meal of young chicks given the chance. But after this breeding season, I wondered how many families might not return.

Other Tawny Frogmouths had already abandoned the woodland and, likewise, my first mate and I made our exit. We ventured south. Bright lights lured us into the city where insects and nocturnal rodents were said to be in abundance. We settled for a majestic ghost gum reaching up between copious rooftops; a black silhouette against the full moon. Side by side on a limb, we became familiar with the dwelling below and the suburban surroundings. We hunted from rooftops, light poles and thin wires - ideal lookouts for spotting movement on the ground and in the air; rodents, moths and the like.

After a week perched above the tranquil garden, we set about collecting sticks for our first nest. We arranged them this way and that, ensuring a comfortable bed for our eggs. My mate laid three in the space of three sunrises and we took turns hunting in the dark and sitting on the nest. At sun-up, I assumed my duty to sit on the nest.

Quite unexpectedly one morning, as we swapped incubation duties, a Raven landed on our branch. It plucked an egg from our nest and took off. Its behaviour was sudden, unexpected, and shocked us. A sense of failure overwhelmed me as I realised how naïve I was as a parent, so ill-prepared for dangers. And not just the peril of large owls - now Ravens and Currawongs had to be included on the list. Those species in particular seemed to be abundant in the city.

‘We must be vigilant,’ I said to my mate when I spotted a cat prowling through the tall grass below us. Similar in colour to the Magpies that paraded through the garden below, it sat in the sun, and sometimes it hid in shadows, ears twitching. At night it watched, its yellow eyes piercing the darkness. We had seen the distress feral felines caused amongst our kind when they ventured too near, and I expected this creature to be just as cruel.

‘Took-took! Took-took! Danger!’ I warned my mate the night the creature leapt onto a branch below us. The terrifying shape clawed along the branch and crouched low, tail twitching, eyes fixed on us.

The beast had come too close.

‘Oom! Oom! Oom!’ My mate drummed, trying to distract it. I flashed my gaping bill, then snapped several times. But the cat held its stare. It snarled and flared its teeth. I dived at it, thinking my wide wing span would frighten it off. But the monster swiped me with exposed claws, plucked feathers from my chest and sliced my skin before it lost its balance. I swooped down onto the ground. It dropped down beside me and looked ready to pounce. With urgent steps, I hopped away from it and flew onto a branch as his claw reached out. I felt the sting in my wound and warm blood trickling onto my foot. The vicious creature hissed and slinked off into the shadows. I took the hissing as a warning that it would be back.

A few days later, a group of humans moved their belongings into the dwelling situated near our tree; two adults had a young one they called Sam. Sam explored the bushes and became excited whenever he discovered living things in his garden, like the dark, stringy things he pulled out of the dirt and wriggled in his hand. And fat lumpy green things that chewed on leaves, and hard crusty creatures with six legs, like the ones we devoured with gusto whenever they flew past us. He put out a lump of a mushy substance for the black and white fiend. He stroked its fur and it became his companion. Fortunately, the monster lost interest in us after Sam’s arrival. The young one also tossed morsels to the Magpies that became his regular visitors.

When Sam tried to climb our eucalypt, my mate and I sat very still, afraid we might be spotted. Fortunately, his legs were short and he could not reach the lower branches. However, I gave myself away one morning while preening the feathers around my healing wound. Sam saw me from an opening in the upper reaches of his dwelling. He raced outside and bounced up and down, making piercing, throaty noises. After that day, he watched us for long periods.

Sam was a happy human, even though he was on his own most of the time. He did seem to like the attention of the one he called ‘Mum’. From time to time, she came out to drape pieces of wet cloth onto a maze of lines. On one occasion, he pointed in our direction with a distinct eagerness to tell her of our existence. But she showed little interest in what he said; either that or she could not spot us, our camouflage being near perfect.

Just after Full Moon, our two chicks emerged, one day apart. They had insatiable appetites and my mate and I diligently took turns all night to hunt down suitable prey for them and ourselves. Our two hatchlings grew so quickly in ensuing days I realised that we were going to need a bigger nest the following year.    

On the day all the humans came into the garden, talking at length, sometimes with raised voices, I sensed something was amiss. Sam’s carefree behaviour had changed. He ran towards our eucalypt, arms spread wide.

‘No...no!’ I heard him say. Amongst his other sounds, one stood out. The word ‘cut’ made me sit up. That word spread through our forest like an unwanted disease. It meant humans were to fell our woodland with some noisy cutting apparatus. However, we learnt in time that those humans only felled sick or dead trees, never healthy ones. So why threaten to cut down this healthy tree, I wondered?

The surroundings were quiet for several days. Then, an apparatus with four wheels and long arms brandishing a wide beak appeared in the garden. A human sat on the menacing tool and drove it at the bushes. It ripped out the grasses and created a mountain of tangled rubble and clouds of dust. In just one day, it demolished Sam’s garden. 

Deprived of our sleep, we watched this dreadful destruction. Escape from this disaster was unthinkable as the safety of our helpless hatchlings was paramount. Our instinct was to protect them, not abandon them. Unaware of impending consequences, our curious little chicks peered out and watched the devastation with interest.

Eventually, the machine retreated without attacking our eucalypt. Sam danced around its white trunk, clouds of dust rose around his feet. But did this mean our tree was safe?

We endured more sleepless days while the humans rearranged what they had destroyed. They brought in rocks and clay pots. They lay dead tree stumps along the ground and added a plantation of green strappy trees. The humans seemed pleased with their efforts. But not Sam. He sat under the eucalypt, his adventurous spirit depleted. He could no longer explore under bushes, search for bugs, or run through green grasses. He did look up into our tree occasionally, and when his keen eyes first spotted our chicks, his face glowed like a full moon. Their fluffy white bodies bobbed about beside me as they peered back at him with big dark eyes.

By the time we saw the next Full Moon, our chicks began to fledge. They stepped out of the nest and practised balancing on the limb. Sadly, the opportunity to practise spotting rodents and other night creatures below our tree had been removed. Our bigger chick, eager to take his first flight, perched beside his mother and waited for her instructions. The smaller one, still wobbly on her feet, stayed close to the nest.

Some time later, the rains came. Thick grey clouds and rumblings of thunder rolled in from the west. Lightning flashed across blackened skies. Torrential rains pelted us for two nights and two sunrises. Many seasons had passed since we had seen a storm as fierce as this and it was our first as parents to two helpless fledglings. I felt their little bodies tremble as we huddled close together. With ruffled feathers, we tried to keep them and ourselves warm and dry.

The rain stopped as the sun rose in the east on the third rainy day. Exhausted and hungry, we shook the wet from our backs. All that day, our young ones were unsteady on their feet as strong wind gusts howled through the branches.

The eucalypt swayed. We huddled closer, trying to keep our chicks from being blown away. When the eucalypt shuddered, I suspected danger. I looked at my mate.

‘Took-took! Took-took!’ I said. ‘Take him and go.’

She hopped across the branch away from the nest and the larger fledgling followed. She spread her wings and beckoned him to do the same. Together they flew off into the Ironbark nearby and landed on a wide limb. He wobbled backwards and forwards but managed to stay on the branch.

The ghost gum tilted further. I hesitated, heartbroken by my little one’s helplessness. I prepared to make my escape but my wings weighed heavy with guilt. The eucalypt tilted further. I spread my wings. Too late! I became entangled in the branches as it crashed to the ground. Stunned, unable to move, I was trapped beneath its branches, our little chick crushed beside me.

The humans rushed from their dwelling. Young Sam screamed and pointed to us.

‘Oh no!’ I heard him scream. ‘No! No! No!’

A man stepped over broken branches, lifted the heavy weight off my body and raised me from the tangled mess. My heart pounded in my chest. His hands were firm but gentle. Sam came closer. His eyes watered over as he stroked my feathers.

He made vocal sounds and looked pleadingly at the man. The man ran his fingers across my bones and spread my wings wide. I felt pain in my back and on the left shoulder. He placed me on the ground and I hopped away, then tried to fly off, only to drop back to the ground. I struggled, but endured the pain as I flew onto the fence. I reached my family with my next effort. We huddled together. My mate’s closeness and warmth was comforting.    

We watched the man lift our chick from under the rubble and place her crushed body in Sam’s waiting hands. He stroked her soft feathers while the man dug a cavity in the ground. Sam placed our young chick into the hole and covered her with soft earth. He placed a ring of pebbles around the mound and a sprig of gum leaves on top.

That night we stayed in the Ironbark. We made it our new home where we could keep an eye over the mound. Sam kept a watchful eye on us.   

We hunted in that zone until two Full Moons had come and gone. By then I was free of pain and our young one had mastered his flying technique and hunting skills.

Then one night, we agreed to revisit our old home in the hope of finding revival in the forest, the river flowing as it once was, knowing that the following Spring we would be back. 


Artwork courtesy of Chris McCormack.