To the victor go the spoils
It began with a spine-jarring drive along an unkept, heavily corrugated dirt road into Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula.
And it ended with a fight to the death that left me in awe of the courage and tenacity of the often under-appreciated Australian kookaburra – the blue-winged variety, to be precise.
I was on the Nifold Plain, known for its thousands of wedge-shaped magnetic termite mounds, and sometimes excellent birding – including the star finch, which was my objective.
But no star finches that trip. A long-running drought had seen off most of the wildlife and dried up the usual sources of water.
A kookaburra swooped
As I was preparing to tackle the return journey along the main park access road – once well maintained and now seemingly abandoned – a blue-winged kookaburra swooped low over the brittle stubble near my vehicle.
The bird had spotted a highly venomous eastern brown snake in the dry grass and it was game on! Both parties were quickly locked in mortal combat on the ground below my vehicle – a sensible place from which to observe, I thought.
The contest could have raged for 20 minutes, or maybe more. I really don’t know. It was so frenzied and engrossing that I didn’t even reach for my camera until it was almost all over.
Eastern browns are fast-moving and known for their bad temper. Indeed, they and other browns are responsible for more deaths every year in Australia than any other group of snakes.
Their venom is ranked the second most toxic of any land snake in the world. It causes progressive paralysis and stops the blood from clotting, which may take many doses of antivenom to reverse. Victims can collapse within a few minutes.
So, what chance the blue-winged kookaburra? Certainly, in the early stages of the fight, it didn’t look good. The snake had wound itself around the body of the bird and appeared to be constricting it.
A key advantage
But the kookaburra had a key advantage from the outset: it held the snake’s head firmly in its powerful bill – aided by a special groove near the end of the upper mandible, which helps in holding prey.
As do other members of the kingfisher family, the kookaburra subdued its prey by repeatedly bashing it on the hard ground and on some loose rocks. Eventually the snake loosened its grip on the bird’s abdomen and the victor set about swallowing a couple of metres of bloodied brown snake.
Although such tableaus are fundamentally what make the natural world go around, for me it was a rare opportunity to observe a skilful but seemingly under-armed aggressor successfully take on a potentially deadly opponent.
(Footnote: Rinyirru National Park covers 544,000 ha and is the largest gazetted park on Cape York. It is jointly managed by the Rinyirru Land Trust and the Queensland Government.)
©Natural Images 2018