We spent a week in the “Top End” (the Northern Territory) of Australia and had a really fun time in Kakadu National Park. While we enjoyed incredible river cruises and hikes, some of our best times were every night in a bus parking lot.
On this vast expanse of nearly 8,000 square miles, we were staying at the only lodge inside the park (Gagudju Lodge Cooinda). Towns, establishments, and human dwellings were few and far between. During the midday it was so incredibly hot, even the birds stayed hidden. Of our five days in the Park, all were in the high 90s by 9:30 a.m., and by noon it was over 110 degrees (F.). We adjusted to this (quickly) by leaving as close to dawn as possible, birding in the shade (sometimes from the air conditioned car), and returning to the room before noon. Most afternoons were spent at the swimming pool with a regular trip to the gift shop for ice cream bars.
Every night after dinner, after it had cooled down to the 80s, we walked around outside looking for you-know-what. We made friends with two college students who approached us one night. They thought we might be “twitchers” (birders) and had some good birds to show us. I’m not sure how they knew we were birders, perhaps because we were wandering around fully clothed in stifling heat (mosquitoes were fierce), our necks and chests covered with binoculars and cameras. To the rest of the campers inside their mosquito nets enjoying “coldies,” I suppose we were quite a sight. And yet nobody cared, so Australia.
One night after the students had moved on to their next destination, my partner and I became familiar with a bus parking lot adjacent to the campground. There were few buses in the lot and it was a great place for birding because it was surrounded by empty fields of scraggly grass and scrub brush. Honeyeaters were attracted to the red spiky flowers of the bottle-brush trees. It was a virtual wasteland to most folks, who were barbequing sausages on their portable grills and getting rowdier as the night grew on. To us it was an oasis of honeyeaters, imperial pigeons, songbirds, and cockatoos and we looked forward to it at the end of each hot and sweaty day.
We’d been enjoying cockatoos already on this trip, some were red-tailed blacks, some were the sulphur-crested. Cockatoos are great fun for people who live outside of Australia because they’re big (about 20 inches in length) and beautiful and fairly easy to identify. No more tiny white eyebrows on a skulking brown bird. I’m talking about a riot of colors on parrots the size of a cat who are vocal and raucous. They’re smart birds, quirky, and are known to aggravate residents for the crop and property damage they do. But for us non-residents they are great fun.
That night in the parking lot we saw a strange thing, couldn’t figure it out at first. There was a water pipe about four feet high, T-shaped, and it had two outlets. It looked like something a fire department would hook up to their hose, though it wasn’t what we in the U.S. identify as a typical fire hydrant. Curiously, walking the top of it was a sulphur-crested cockatoo; walking back and forth, and back and forth.
As we watched further we saw that he would bend his head down and open his big beak, sip a few droplets that had gathered from the dripping pipe. Then he would straighten up, straight-backed and militaristic, waddle eight paces to the other end, bend over, take a drink. The “cocky” was systematic and regimented in this process, drinking the drips of clean fresh water over and over and over again. He was mesmerizing to watch and I always thought something different would happen, but it never did.
After each day of fish eagles and crocodiles, mosquitoes galore, and searing temperatures not really appropriate for humans, we came back to the bus parking lot. And there he was, our friend the Cockatoo of Kakadu getting his nightly drink from the drippy fire hydrant. Cockatoos in the wild live 20-40 years. I like to think he’s still there enjoying his drink while the campers enjoy theirs.