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  A love affair with birdsDr Clifford and Dr Dawn Frith
 
  Adult male golden bowerbird on his bower perch with a bower decoration at Paluma (Photo: Cliff and Dawn Frith).  
 
  Adult male golden bowerbird on his bower perch with a bower decoration at Paluma (Photo: Cliff and Dawn Frith).  

Having lived on Phuket Island, Southern Thailand, for four years, studying mangrove ecology, fiddler crabs, amphibians, snakes, hornbills and other birds, we eagerly planned to then travel to tropical Australia to study birds living in rainforest. We had read about a small mountaintop village called Paluma, 85 kilometres north of Townsville, at the southern end of what was to become Australia’s Wet Tropics. One could look down from Paluma (900 metres above sea level) upon the Coral Sea and the Palm Island group from within rainforest in which four species of bowerbird and one species of bird of paradise lived. This sounded like a paradise on earth to us!

We purchased a Land Rover in Sydney and drove the 2,000 kilometres north to Paluma where we ended up spending the next 13 years (1978-1990) studying bowerbirds and other birds in the rainforest (as well as in Papua New Guinea). For the first three years we worked intensely in the 50 hectares of our study site, most daylight hours of every day. Within this study area we had almost all bowerbirds individually marked by a combination of different coloured leg bands. As a result we were able to follow the intimate day-to-day lives of all of the bowerbirds we came to know as bower-owning adult males, immature males or females.

When we started our bowerbird studies the golden bowerbird was seen as the Holy Grail of the ten different bowerbirds found living in Australia. This was because of its remote and romantic tiny north Queensland mountaintop distribution, the vast stick bowers that the gloriously yellow-plumaged, long-tailed, adult males build, and the fact that nothing else was known of it. While its bowers are typically twin towers built on the ground, exceptional ones can be single or twin towered ones built entirely above ground (see photograph opposite). The bird itself is only the size and weight of a common starling.

The other three species we studied were the black-eared catbird, tooth-billed bowerbird and satin bowerbird. During our Paluma-based years we also made observations on other birds in our rainforest study area, including the Victoria’s riflebird (a bird of paradise), fernwren, chowchilla, and grey-headed robin, with particular reference to their breeding biology. All of these birds are peculiar (or endemic) to tropical rainforests of the Wet Tropics, save for the satin bowerbird that is, however, an endemic subspecies.

Following these years at Paluma, during which we saw our study area (and very much more of the habitat) become part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area, we moved to our own block of upland rainforest near Malanda. We purchased our rainforest block (now a wildlife sanctuary) because it is home to the above four bowerbirds and Victoria’s riflebird. We named our place ‘Prionodura’, after the scientific genus name of the golden bowerbird Prionodura newtonia. We are fortunate indeed to be able to enjoy and study these birds at our own place, while continuing to visit our study site and colour-banded bowerbird populations at Paluma.

Our experiences with these endemic Wet Tropics birds have been immensely exciting and rewarding, for we have enjoyed the privilege and pleasure of being the first biologists to observe and record much about their private lives. We were able to describe for the first time in scientific journals much about their complex courtship displays and nesting biology.

Male golden bowerbird (Photo: Mike Trenerry)

Determined not to restrict our findings to fellow biologists we also decided to produce a series of small popular books and magazine articles that included details and photographs of these birds and also of the plants and other animals of the Wet Tropics. Some of our wildlife photography also illustrated large hardback books about the Daintree and Hinchinbrook Island, both within a World Heritage Area. In producing these publications we not only had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know many people with similar interest in, and appreciation of, the Wet Tropics wilderness, but we also learnt much about natural history publishing.

Having now lived for thirty years within upland rainforests of the Wet Tropics, studying, photographing and writing about its animal life, with particular reference to its endemic bird life, we continue to gain as much pleasure and knowledge from it as ever. There are lifetimes of fascinating work to be done and pleasure to be had within our own few acres of rainforest, let alone within those of the Wet Tropics as a whole. We are fortunate indeed to be able to enjoy and to learn from the rich, diverse and glorious Australian Wet Tropics.

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Dr Clifford and Dr Dawn Frith

Talented writers, photographers, publishers, researchers and nature lovers of the Wet Tropics, Cliff and Dawn have spent 30 years presenting the Wet Tropics to the world. They are world experts on bowerbirds and birds of paradise and have photographed and written books on tropical birds, orchids, butterflies, reptiles and frogs. Initially without external funding, they produced some of the first publications depicting the World Heritage values of the Wet Tropics. Their publications include The Birds of Paradise: Paradisaeidae by Clifford B. Frith and Bruce M. Beehler (1988); The Bowerbirds: Ptilonorhynchidae by Dawn and Clifford Frith (2004); Bowerbirds: Nature, Art & History by Dawn and Clifford Frith (2008); and Australia’s Wet Tropics Rainforest Life by Dawn and Clifford Frith (1992).

Dr Clifford and Dr Dawn Frith

Talented writers, photographers, publishers, researchers and nature lovers of the Wet Tropics, Cliff and Dawn have spent 30 years presenting the Wet Tropics to the world. They are world experts on bowerbirds and birds of paradise and have photographed and written books on tropical birds, orchids, butterflies, reptiles and frogs. Initially without external funding, they produced some of the first publications depicting the World Heritage values of the Wet Tropics. Their publications include The Birds of Paradise: Paradisaeidae by Clifford B. Frith and Bruce M. Beehler (1988); The Bowerbirds: Ptilonorhynchidae by Dawn and Clifford Frith (2004); Bowerbirds: Nature, Art & History by Dawn and Clifford Frith (2008); and Australia’s Wet Tropics Rainforest Life by Dawn and Clifford Frith (1992).

 
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