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PO Box 5135 Burnley, Victoria
3121, Australia
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Ruffled feathers

This article was posted on Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The kookaburra, so Australian, such a unique call and stature.

Most importantly, it’s a meat-eating hunter with the patience of a statue, laser vision and pin-point accuracy in strike mode.

It is common knowledge that the feathered photographic icons, with the sharp horizontal beaks and deep throat, will watch a snake for ages before launching a high velocity ‘kill’ … which includes a constant roll of the beak, first left, then right … shaking the life out of the victim once captured.

Well, the last place you would expect to be attacked from a blind side, above your eye-line, is by a bird whilst sitting on a deck chair, enjoying the Queensland sun and pool side waiter service – fruit punch, club sandwich and a cardboard sleeve of salted French fries.

My wife, Kerry, was first to be targeted – or should I say – her caché of chips supported by a relaxed left ankle. My wife was slow to react. Good player out of luck.

The bird, at first, stationary like a sentinel … silent, processing possibility …

Then, take off … undercarriage tucked under belly … strong wings flapping in perfect harmony. The kind of image Leonardo da Vinci would have marvelled at … bird flight.

Plotted course … shortest straight line!!! Ignore everything else along the way.

Bucket of salty chips upended … toenail paint scratched by a determined beak … shout, shriek … ‘spotlight on sport’ … squawk.

“Mission accomplished”, a bomber pilot might shout into a handset.

Away went the bird, but not before several tasty potato morsels were rapidly ‘recovered’ from the poolside pavers. Take two!!

Safe ‘retreat’ to a metal guttering high above the poolside spectators. Where next … or who next? … or more importantly, what food looks best? Options?

Maybe the grating chuckling sound was confirmation of the heist?

Yours truly made sure it wasn’t going to be me next. I eyeballed the cheeky, complacent bird by pivoting my legs over the edge of the deck chair at right angles. We were face to face. The bird understood what I was up to …

My meal was consumed without incident … each layer of the club sandwich and every chip.

Soon after the commotion and my last chip had disappeared, Kerry handed me her remaining fries. The kookaburra, perched high beyond my right shoulder, fluffed his feathers … imagining another gob full of chips. I was finally distracted … in the blink of an eye.

I am now, toenails up, feet facing back towards to the magnificent infinity pool and sea beyond … oblivious to the alert mobile mind of the kookaburra.

I’d forgotten, he hadn’t!

But that bird could count too. Still 5 or 6 chips left. Now or never!!!

Just when I least expected it … saying to myself, “maybe a couple of French fries and a sip before settling into a more horizontal shape” …

Go, go, go!!! Lunge and accelerate toward the Tasmanian – legs like fluorescent light globes and very pale/white upper body – cardboard container extended in one hand beyond bent knees.

Then, out of nowhere … BANG!!! CRASH!!!

A massive hit on the container. Airborne fries soaring, end over end, in slow motion. Nothing I could do but watch and voice my disbelief … and smile.

KAPOWWW!!! Like a comic strip. 2 strikes in 15 minutes.


In tennis parlance, 30 love (2 winners).

20 minutes, later a bronze muscled European chap leaned forward to sip his coffee. Biscuit still precariously balance on the saucer.

Direct hit! Hot coffee spilt over the speedos … biscuit clamped, vice-like, in the bird’s beak.

Funny, actually, when it is happening to someone else … isn’t it?

European body language and gesticulation … arms waving, disbelief … foreign swear words neither the bird nor anyone else could understand. Not a happy chappy.

These stories are the rich tapestry of travel and the unexpected …

I’m sure many of you have even better, wonderful, encounters with our spectacular flora and fauna … especially in the wild?

Another encounter occurred when I once went on a ‘blind date’ with a kookaburra. A set up video story with a beautiful tamed bird … the opening line, tight 60-Minutes shot (head only in frame) … Channel 9.

“You know what it is like … you ask a bird to dinner or a date month after month – rejection after rejection. Well, tonight is the night she said, ‘yes’.”

Pull back to wide shot. Reveal.

Second shot. Max seated at white tablecloth, silver cutlery and wine glass. To my right, perched symmetrically … standing between the knives and forks is my calm, beautiful feathered friend, gazing knowingly into my eyes thinking “this bloke has the ability to feed me tonight”.

I suggest to the camera, an old cliché, “not a bad looking bird, eh?”

There in began an indelible evening – captured on video for a pilot program I was working on at the time … around 1998 – “Max Walker’s Birdworld”.

The project was a bit like the fishing programs we see today – action and hands on – not the Attenborough, beautifully shot, “life of birds”, which is the yardstick by which so many of these programs should be measured.

My budget was nowhere near the BBC’s, but my enthusiasm, creativity, television know-how and research, plus cameraman extraordinaire, Micky Purdy, enabled us to make a very compelling pilot (1 hour) about avarion birds. Hyacinth Macaws, Finches, John Gould art prints, airline strikes, illegal aviaries and rare birds … so much fun.

Unfortunately, at the time we could not make it ‘fly’ with the networks. Yes, some great concepts don’t become reality – programmers don’t believe, have a lack of courage or not enough budget, or it’s simply bad timing. “Max Walker’s Birdworld” is still a very good concept.

The third story I am recalling took place whilst shooting for the same program. We had Grace the wedge-tailed eagle, in impressive leather medieval headgear, on my arm … eyes blinking, razor sharp beak protruding, wings down.

My arm was perched on the driver’s side door of a brand new Mazda soft-top convertible. Supposedly; I was driving down a rural lane on the Mornington Peninsula. We brake momentarily …

To camera, “What more could a guy want, sports car, beautiful bird on the arm (Grace), blue sky, wind in the face …”

Now, the idea was to release Grace who had a wing span of 2 metres, straight at the camera that was following, parallel to us, on tram track ‘dollies’. Soar away into the blue beyond.

Didn’t work out that well on our first take – for the camera or the car … or Grace.

These birds have talons that crush rabbits, baby lambs and other prey at 3,500lbs/sq in. Those toenails were wrapped around my gloved forearm. When I released the tether, Grace, ever so awkwardly, slipped onto the windscreen, wings stretched wide. I’m unsighted, her toenails desperately seeking purchase on the shinny, slippery new British racing car green engine bonnet. Scratches eminent … How big? How long? How deep? 

This would be not like the normal return of a hire car. Explanations needed. Doubted they would believe me anyway … but you can’t make up this stuff … they had to … and they did. Plus they didn’t get upset. Lucky.

During this day we captured some amazing footage of falcons diving vertically at the ground from a great height, as they do, in the wide-open spaces … on cue to a whistle. Smack into the master’s leather glove. This was where the reward was – food.

I asked the Falconer how he was able to train these birds of prey to be so good.

He said, “Like this …”.

He placed a chunk of raw meat in the glove I was wearing for the “preview” take.

I barely heard the whistle … turned my head to the left.

Out of the tree line across the vacant paddock, 2 metres off the ground in full flight … a meat seeking missile at full throttle.

If the bird that was aiming its beak at me like an arrow hit me in the chest, I reckon the power / weight / speed ratio would have enabled a ‘fly’ straight through my rib cage.

Eyes only for the chunk of red meat.

It all happened in a matter of seconds. A blur. Now you see it, now you don’t. Hardly felt contact with the glove … a perfect capture. A perfect predator in their environment.

All 3 encounters memorable.

Love to share any stories you may have experienced.