Around lunchtime on Valentine’s Day this year, a stooped, balding, bushy-browed chap named Traj drove from his house at one end of Cooktown’s main street to park under the mango tree at the other, down at the wharf. Traj lives in the scrub with three cats, three dogs and the ailing Mishka, whom he nurses with daily ministrations of oats, cuddles and flyspray. Mishka is forty-two, which is very old for a horse. Although Traj, short for Tragedy, was given his nickname forty years ago because of his real name, John Kennedy, it seems to have stuck to him for all the sad, disaffecting reasons that see a lot of lonely men drift north, far north, to Cooktown.
Valentine’s Day waxed hot and heavy. During the torpor of the Wet, swinging by the wharf is a Cooktown custom; everyone likes to ‘do a wharfie’ because it’s something to do, and there’s a chance of a breeze. Also at the mouth of the Endeavour River that Thursday was a group of orange-vested council workers on their lunch break, eating fish and chips under the mango tree and surrounded by a small flock of expectant gulls. As Traj got out of his car, he followed the men’s gaze to where some gulls were dive-bombing another sitting on a lamppost. It was a paler, much bigger gull. A chip poked from its massive black bill.
‘Holy Jesus, have a look at the size of that!’ Traj said. But then the men already were. Big critters have always been appreciated in tiny Cooktown. Big pythons, big crocs, big groupers, giant geckos and big cats—panthers mostly, but locals say there are sandy-coloured mountain lions out there, too. Traj himself has seen a big cat, ‘black as a billy-goat’s arsehole’, as have several of the lunching workers on the wharf. But no-one had ever seen a big gull.
Traj and the orange men conferred briefly. The verdict was unanimous: the gull was a) big, b) hungry and c) ‘not one of ours’. Traj is Cooktown’s wharfinger, aggrandised in the local manner to harbourmaster. As the collector of mooring fees, Traj felt the newcomer was his responsibility. He scuttled off to the parks and wildlife office about fifty metres away, next to the fish-and-chip shop, to tell the ranger. ‘There’s a giant gull down there,’ he said, pointing.
‘It’s panting a lot and looks hot and bothered. I reckon it might be from Antarctica. Or Tasmania.’
The ranger promptly took some pictures and e-mailed them to head office in Brisbane. No-one down there had a clue. Ornithologists were consulted but they, too, were stumped. It was an adolescent gull in winter plumage, they surmised, from the Northern Hemisphere. One thought it might be from Alaska. At twelve minutes to midday the next day, a Friday, as the gull was guzzling its second labourer’s lunch of chips and batter, the following e-mail appeared on a national newsletter of ‘hot’ bird sightings: ‘There is a juvenile gull new to Australia at the Cooktown wharf now.’
To twitchers, a subgroup of bird watchers who are obsessed with the length of their species lists, the report was the ultimate come-on. Within minutes grown men were calling sickies, googling gulls, standing up loved ones for the weekend, booking flights to Cairns as well as hire-cars for the four-hour drive from Cairns to Cooktown. It didn’t matter that no-one knew what species it was; that could be sorted out later. The main thing was that it was entirely ‘tickable’—of the four or five species in the running, none had been seen in Australia before. The first twitcher, from Newcastle, arrived in Cooktown that very night, at three a.m., having braved flooded causeways and 200 kilometres of unfenced road through pitch-black cattle country. He stayed till lunch. Half a dozen twitchers followed over the weekend, and scores more in the next fortnight, from as far as Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth. The first Big Twitch of 2008, as bird nerds knew it, represented an off-season tourism boom for Cooktown’s barrel-scraping restaurateurs and guesthouse operators. ‘I call it the Big Wharfie,’ says Rex Button, who, from his Cook’s Landing Kiosk, observed about 100 ‘twitchy types’ swinging by the mango tree. ‘That gull’s been very good for business. For next year, I’m thinking I might bring out a penguin.’
Outside the suddenly confluent spheres of Traj and bird tragics, the arrival of the gull went unheralded. Living in Cairns, the first I heard of it was five weeks later when a friend from Hobart rang to ask if I felt like a trip to Cooktown. Angus being Angus, I guessed instantly there were birds involved, but he was coy about the gull. In the twenty years I’d known him, Angus, a fisheries biologist, had made a concerted effort to temper his twitching tendencies. ‘I just like to watch,’ was his line. It was my line, too. But I knew he maintained lists. I knew he consorted with other bird nerds. And I knew he went on ‘seabirding’ trips, where birders hire a cray boat and head into the wild blue yonder in the hope of adding oceanic species to their terrestrial tally. The biggest giveaway to Angus’s urges, however, was the vehemence with which he repressed them. ‘Twitchers are gung-ho, like hunters,’ he used to tell me. ‘It’s a macho thing. For them it’s all about the chase and the competition, and not about the bird.’
I’ve argued this point with Angus. The twitchers I know—all right, I’ve done a little consorting in my day, too—are nothing like hunters I’ve met. Twitchers are unnerving in a different way. Like train-spotters, or teaspoon collectors, the base instinct manifesting itself isn’t hunting but gathering. Even so, it’s still not about the bird.
I told Angus I had a free weekend in a fortnight. There was a long pause. ‘That’s too late,’ he said. ‘I need to go now.’
Then it all came out. About the gull; how he’d itched to join the Big Twitch but had held himself back; how the gull didn’t seem to be going anywhere; and how the longer it hung around, the more he longed to tick it. Almost every day for the past month he’d gone on line to check for updates, potential flights and fresh gull pictures. He was losing sleep over it, he said.
‘Angus, it’s okay,’ I said. ‘Give in and come out. Stop living in denial. You’ll feel much better.’
‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ve relapsed. I’m a twitcher. I’m a hunter.’
‘So you really just want to “tick” this gull?’
‘You don’t care how it got here?’
‘You don’t care that it is young and lost and lonely and probably being picked on by local gulls?’
Two days later, a new, out-and-proud Angus arrived in Cairns. On the brief walk from the plane’s steps to the airport hall, he brandished his binoculars to twitch a crimson finch on the grass by the tarmac. Lugging the bag with his telescope and other twitching paraphernalia through the car park, he rubbernecked shamelessly at anything winging overhead. The man was giddy with possibility. He had vague plans to stay a week but told me this would depend on the execution of his twitching strategy—he’d compiled a target list of species and mapped their likely haunts. Birding intelligence is highly specific: Angus was to find the rare blue-faced parrotfinch, for instance, in the very trees by the very clearing along the very mountain track where he’d been told to look for it. Twitchers neither amble nor go sightseeing; they march and they tick. Veni vidi tici, goes one tragic’s motto. And so the new Angus and I high-tailed it to Cooktown.
By this stage Traj, who does up to ten wharfies a day, had seen the gull every single day for almost six weeks. Initially it looked tired and off-colour, but its diet of greasy chips, battered fish and fried chicken seemed to fortify it. The other, smaller gulls soon learnt to keep a respectful distance. ‘Whenever someone sat down with their tucker, it would come hurtling in to send the other gulls packing,’ says Traj. ‘They wanted no part of this bastard.’
The gull quickly developed a routine. It roosted on a nearby lamppost, breakfasted on crumbs at the nearby Cook’s Landing Kiosk and then hung out at the wharf, where fishermen might toss it left-over bait. People grew rather fond of it. The bird reminded them of a huge groper called Barney, who, until his mysterious death a few years ago, also used to alternate between the wharf and kiosk, forever getting hooked and released, feeding off scraps and even rolling over in the shallows to allow Rex Button, the kiosk owner, to clean the algae off his belly with a broom.
Jack Degney, a kiosk regular who lives on the river, recalls how Barney was hooked by an English tourist. ‘He was jubilant, shouting, “Check it out, man. Check it out!” So four locals went over and said, “Mate, you’re going to let him go, aren’t you?” He said, “No way.” They said, “Mate, you are.” Then they decked him.’
Degney says the gull can expect similar protection. ‘It’s our gull now, so we’ll look after it.’ Traj is doing his bit: ‘She worried me at first, I must admit. The birdos said she was the rarest bird in Australia, and here she was toddling across the road to get a drink of water from a puddle after people had been feeding it salty chips. Some of the locals roar along here. A couple of times I had to gee her along so she wouldn’t get run over.’
Traj followed the debate about the gull’s identification with interest. In the first week, each of Australia’s top five twitchers (it was their 802nd, 776th, 768th, 767th and 756th bird respectively) came to tick it, yet it would be another week before they knew what they’d ticked. At the time they wrongly told Traj it was a Mongolian gull, a form of the Eastern Siberian gull. One of them let Traj look through his telephoto lens. ‘That lens must have been two foot long. Christ almighty, it could have bought a bloody four-wheel-drive. But still they couldn’t tell what gull it was.’
The final identification had to be left to experts based in Norway, England, the United States, Japan and Hong Kong, working from detailed photos. They determined—though not unanimously—that it was a young, female Slaty-Backed Gull, which breeds in Siberia and winters in Japan, Korea and China. The poor thing must have ridden every storm and boat going to get past Taiwan, through the Phillipines, across the Equator and around Papua New Guinea. Global warming may or may not have been a factor: on the one hand, the warmer it gets, the less far a bird should need to migrate in winter; on the other, global warming may mean global storming. Regardless, some Cooktowners don’t buy it. They prefer a local theory that the gull is a mutant bird that landed in toxic waste at the local dump. ‘The government knows this,’ a man who performs his wharfies on a yellow scooter told me. ‘All this stuff about it being from Manchuria is just a cover-up.’
As we neared Cooktown, Angus became jittery. He’d stocked up for the trip with a bag of crystallised ginger sweets, which he’d decided tasted like toilet cleaner, yet now he was chain-munching them.
We sped past waterlily lagoons, melaleuca-lined rivers and magnificent look-outs. Whenever I slowed down to take in a view, such as of the Annan River Gorge or the other-worldly Black Mountains, which appear to consist solely of black boulders, Angus would stare ahead stonily and say, ‘The gull, the gull.’
We drove unseeing down Cooktown’s picturesque main street. The Endeavour River lay glinting in the sun. At the wharf, a team of men was replacing the decking timbers. Their machines were very noisy. No-one was fishing. No-one sat under the mango tree. And there was no gull.
Angus leapt out of the car and made for a small jetty. He peered up the river, down, and across to the other side. Still no gull. In the water below us swam a school of fat mullet and some slender garfish. A large yellow-banded batfish lurked beside a weedy buoy rope. I pointed it out to Angus. ‘Fish shmish,’ he muttered. ‘Stop trying to distract me.’
I left Angus at the river’s edge, next to a crocodile warning sign. At the fish-and-chipper I was told the gull had been sitting on the adjacent lamppost that morning. The post was covered in guano. Further up, at the river kiosk, Rex Button said he’d fed the gull just hours before. ‘He’s a beaut bird, twice the size of anything else. You can’t miss him. He likes it here; he’s not going anywhere.’
I went looking for Angus to let him know the gull was around. I found him in the mangroves, being attacked by sandflies (midges). He was grumpy, and suspicious. ‘These people run tourist businesses,’ he said. ‘Of course they’re going to say the gull is here.’ We hailed a very hairy man doing a wharfie in a rickety ute. ‘I haven’t seen the gull in three days, not since the weather fined up,’ he said. ‘I’d say it might have pissed off. But if you’re into birds, look behind you. That sea-eagle just plucked a fish from the river. Beautiful, that is.’
Angus did not give it a second glance. An hour later, we returned for a second wharfie. Still no gull, though the Cooktown Local News was chuffed to spot Angus, bedecked as he was in his khaki gear, floppy hat, telescope, waterbag and binoculars. ‘We’ve been meaning to snap one of you twitchers for ages,’ said the paper’s reporter, Sarah Martin. (Angus made that week’s front page.)
On our third and final wharfie we were in luck, sort of. Angus had spotted a dot on a distant sandbank that appeared larger than several surrounding dots. He set up his telescope, leant down and, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Hel-lo Miss Slaty-back!’
He let me look. It was a gull all right, preening itself. It was pale and motley, not slaty-backed at all, because Miss Slaty-back was in winter smock. I was underwhelmed. As Great Moments in Natural History went, it needed a crocodile to rear up from the river and snatch it. But Angus was deeply, deeply satisfied. ‘It’s a tick,’ he said. ‘A very “speccy” tick. That bird is hot, hot, hot.’
NOTE The Slaty-Backed Gull stayed in Cooktown for forty-nine days—one more day than Captain James Cook did when repairing his ship from reef damage in 1770. No-one knows where it has gone.