Nature's Palette

By Trixie Benbrook

Birds, birds, birds - I was inundated - two more arrivals, (first a Rainbow Lorikeet, then thirty minutes later a Scaly Breasted Lorikeet) left me desperate for aviary space. I had just one left. Due to the awkward design of its corner door, I always left it till last. It would have to do. (One is always grateful for a donated aviary). It would be suitable for the Lorikeets. Perching branches secured, native flowers pegged to the wire, and just light mulch to add.

I searched everywhere for my bucket. Where did I put it? In the end I settled for a pot plant container close by - it just meant a few extra loads to and fro. A simple solution, but a catalyst for the unexpected. I had almost finished mulching, when the phone rang - Wildlife assistance needed. Before I left to help, I housed the birds.

Despite their spats, these two colourful clowns settled in. Frolicking about, exploring the pot and dirt digging, their tails up, legs flashing about.

Days later, an afternoon meeting was long and exasperating - outcome, a loss for the environment. Exhausted and hampered by traffic jams, I arrived home late. After a quick change of clothes, I rushed in and out of the aviaries collecting dirty plates, and the day's leftovers.

The lorikeets had been busy in my absence. The pot I noticed had been moved from where I had previously left it. Probably rolled or dragged, the pot's position now located, near the side and back wall, with the mouth of the pot facing the entrance. Not only was the pot half buried, the inside was padded with dirt and bits of mulch.

"You mischievous little guys", I muttered as I retrieved their food containers and rushed away. The next morning, my usual 4 a.m. start was interrupted with a wildlife call, followed with two more. Finally with food prepared, I started my rounds, finishing with the Lorikeets, then... "Ah...Not again", as I raced inside to answer the phone. I was caught up with a string of calls, mainly wildlife. It was mid morning before I continued my rounds, cleaning water bowls and replenishing them. When I reached the Lorikeets, I couldn't believe what I saw. Stunned - confused! Inside the pot lay one exposed egg! Puzzled, I'm sure that egg wasn't there earlier. I looked at the perching pair. "Hmm, What's this?" I cried. "Which one of you laid the egg?"

Throughout the day, when possible, I would sneak a peep into the aviary. Nothing changed. The egg lay unattended.

The second morning after the find, another surprise. Egg number two! No sign of either bird in the pot. Two lonely eggs in a Pot "Pad". Worthy of a photo shoot.

I had some questions. Who laid the eggs? Were the eggs in development when either bird came into care? Were the laid eggs infertile? Many questions - no answers.

On numerous occasions I trotted to and fro, camera in hand to capture the mystery. The eggs still lay exposed, so no closer to the answer of "Who's clutch were they?" Disappointed, I admitted defeat. As the day drew to an end, so did the noisy activities in the yard. After dinner, still curious about the eggs, I reviewed my photos. My thoughts were interrupted by a noise outside. I shone the torch around the yard, but found nothing. Just then, I heard a strange muffled sound coming from the Lorikeet's direction. Concerned, I approached with caution - the sound stopped. Moving the torchlight toward the aviary, I spotted Scaly perching alone. Then I saw Rainbow, snuggled into the pot, body flat, wings spread out, eyes alert and clearly focused on me. Hmm, very interesting. Well, at least now I knew who had laid the eggs.

Why hadn't I seen her sitting throughout the day? Then, it occurred to me, it was my human timing that was out of sync with Rainbows. With days being warmer than nights, less incubation was required - she knew exactly what she was doing. That's why I never saw her sitting on the eggs. Der!!!!!!!

I backed away, switched off the torch and stood silent in the yard. The muffled sounds resumed. It is hard to explain the sounds - a mixture of cooing and coaxing in soft tones and volumes. I've never heard such sounds before, and was moved by this experience. From that evenings encounter, and the days that followed, there was a mutual respect between mum Rainbow and me. However, when I approached with the camera, she felt threatened and would exit the pot, but she did allow me to observe close by. The cooing and coaxing sounds continued as she re-arranged the eggs under her breast, and using her beak to rearrange the mulch around her. All night she sat, vigilant, snuggled in the pot while Scaly perched alone. Through the day, she would pop out for a feed, a bath, to preen, and a quick necking session with Scaly. I was drawn in by her behaviour. Fascinating stuff.

Unexpectedly, one morning, I spotted what was left of an egg. Shell bits beyond the pot. Mum Rainbow was still incubating, snuggling, cooing and coaxing. Was it for a new life tucked under her body or encouragement for the remaining egg? Unfortunately, due to my days commitment elsewhere, I felt robbed of the opportunity to see if she had an offspring. I was a little miffed.

Early next morning, I saw what was left of the second egg. Shell fragments scattered close to Mum Rainbow snuggled in the pot. However, I noticed the familiar coaxing sounds had changed. The tone more throaty, a little sharper with short pauses. It was eerie. Was she mourning a loss? I felt quite emotional. I backed away and left her alone.

Later that morning, I saw Rainbow perched along-side Scaly, necking. Life was back to normal for the pair, or so I thought. I expected to find the pot empty of all but a few shell fragments. Instead, I discovered a blob, tucked right at the back of the pot - a distorted, patchy pink thing with tufts of white fluff. It appeared to be lifeless. Bewildered, I rushed for my camera - this was a must-have shot.

Oh boy, that created a new challenge. The 20cm diameter Pot nestled 13cm from the side wall, lay in direct line 70cm from the entrance. There was no room to crouch inside, eye level contact with my subject, impossible. I was not prepared to take the risk of opening the door wide for a clean shot. The only option, shoot through the 1cm x 2cm mesh from outside the aviary. Trial and error resulted in great shots of the mesh and lousy ones of the blob, leaving me grumpy and frustrated. I swapped lenses, allowed a 1/4 cm gap from the mesh to allow the auto focus to do its thing. Yay! Finally I achieved the knack. I reviewed my photos, curious about the blob. I magnified the image, increment by increment. What would the photos reveal that my eyes couldn't see? "What the...!" I magnified a little more - I was blown away! The blob became TWO nestlings! One curled tightly, like a letter "C" reversed, showing a tiny black beak, one eye barely visible, a tiny stumpy leg, and the other nestling partially hidden behind the first one. WOW! Thrilled by my discovery, excitement engulfed me. TWO PERFECT NESTLINGS! Satisfied, that mystery resolved, unaware another mystery was yet to unfold.

That evening, I decided to check in on "the blobs". Another surprise awaited me. Snuggled beside Mum was Scaly. "Hmm?" I was curious - why was he/she in there? Could he/she be a threat to the nestlings? Even though it was a tight fit in the pot, both appeared to be content. Another unanswered question, but I was to find out later.

Paired or singularly, I watched in awe the partnership these birds displayed. Mushing their food, descending to crop feed the young, and preen the fluffy tufts. Coaxing, cooing, while nudging the exposed nestlings underneath their warm bodies. Nothing left to chance - if a tiny leg protruded, it was gently tucked under. Just amazing to witness.

My camera worked over time. I had overcome the camera issue with the birds by leaving the camera in full view next to the aviary. In the end they didn't feel threatened when I aimed the camera through the mesh. I was intrigued with Scaly's close involvement. I wondered - did he father the nestlings, or, was she a surrogate Mum? More mystery. As the nestlings grew, Rainbow and Scaly's food intake tripled, and I was forever topping up their containers. The nestlings were never short of a feed as at times their fluffed bodies were rolly-polly fat, and, more often than not, their small crops were over-stuffed. At times, top-heavy, they would lose their balance, still sightless, wobble about the pot, and topple onto their side or back. Vulnerable on their backs, their little legs frantically punching the air, they would desperately try to right themselves. A faint panic call would send Rainbow or Scaly at speed into the pot, nudging or grasping to get them onto their feet.

Around 21 days, with the nestlings' eyes now almost focused, they became more adventuresome, and I saw them exploring their surrounds. Flapping their stubby wings, tapping the pot walls, and taste testing anything that lay before them. On reaching the mouth of the pot, however, they would retreat quickly to seek refuge at the back. Watching the antics of these little guys certainly had a hold on my life.

Also, around that time, I noticed a very light patch of colour emerging on their crowns. Could this provide some of the answers I was seeking? My trusty camera revealed a colour that was neither deep blue, from Rainbow, nor the apple green from Scaly. Nature appears to have mixed the blue and green on her palette, and come up with aqua!! As time went on, this colour extended from their crowns to cover their whole head (akin to Rainbow, but in their own beautiful aqua).

By week 4, their eyes were now fully focused and jet black, as were their beaks, and their breast pin-feathers were showing the unmistakable colours of Scaly. I found this very exciting, and, having waited seven weeks (3 weeks of incubation included), I was finally getting answers re "What went on!" Although I couldn't be absolutely certain, I was 99.9% sure now that Rainbow and Scaly were "Mum and Dad".

For those 16 weeks, from just a distorted blob, I followed their amazing journey, and documented it via my camera. Over that time, I became totally swept up in this wild bird's world - a rare privilege to witness. I devoured every moment.