Wendee Holtcamp

The Rainforest at Warrawee

An Adventure Down Under with Colorful Australian Birds and Strangler Figs.

By Wendee Holtcamp

Published in WildBird Magazine, May 1997.

Clutching tightly to my seat, I peered out the window at the damp, green world that passed before my eyes. We seemed perilously near the cliff's edge as the van rounded curve after curve of upward winding road. As we turned onto the bumpy driveway, the rainforest welcomed us with a shower of warm rain.

At the end of the driveway a wooden sign proclaimed "Welcome to Warrawee." cabinWarrawee means "you are welcome here" in the local aboriginal language, and is the affectionate name given this research center poised in the hills of northeast Queensland, Australia. I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime: to live, breathe, and study tropical rainforest ecology.

The intensity of my first rainforest evening was matched at daybreak with a chorus of tropical birds proclaiming their territory. Like an unrehearsed symphony the raucous catbirds cried out, joined by the chattering of crimson rosellas and echoes of the wompoo pigeon. The volume of the dawn chorus is quite a shock to the temperate visitor - no need for an alarm clock in these parts.

My first trip into the rainforest was a short hike to a one-of-a-kind hollow strangler figstrangler fig tree. Standing nearly seventy feet tall with an eight foot basal diameter, and a windowed latticework of thick intertwined roots for a trunk -- it was a truly majestic sight. Aptly named, the strangler fig's life began when a bird deposited his seed-laden feces in the host tree's canopy. The seed germinated, quickly sending roots toward the forest floor. The roots grew larger over the years, entangling the host tree's trunk and usurping nutrients and light which the host needed. The host died, leaving the strangler to feast at its decaying mass. Over the years, the host tree completely rotted away. In its place now stands the marvelous hollow fig, like an entombed statue at Pompeii.

Strangler figs play essential roles in the ecology of the rainforest. They fruit year round and provide food for birds and mammals when other foods are scarce. Ecologists refer to strangler figs as a "keystone species," an ecosystem component that many species rely on for survival. I got my chance to climb up the fig, and as I gazed across the forest canopy, I felt glad to be alive.

As we continued our walk, I noticed the forest interior had a moist feel to it, and light was dim. The trees spread their leaves up high to form a canopy, competing with their neighbors for light. There were many plants growing directly on the trunks and branches of trees, called epiphytes. Epiphytes use the exterior of tree trunks as a place to live, but do not parasitize. Their nutrients come both from the rain and from organic matter which accumulates around their base. While epiphytes are not unknown in temperate forests -- mosses and lichens, for example -- rainforests host a remarkable diversity and abundance of these plants..

TullyMost of the rainforest trees had thick buttressed bases, seeming to act as props so the giants keep their balance. There was little leaf litter, which is often thick and deep within temperate forests. The constant moisture and abundant soil microbiota in rainforests work quickly to decompose organic matter.

The magnificently colored birds were the most visible animal life during the daytime hours. Though the chorus had lessened in its intensity since dawn, bird chatter was evident throughout the day. Pairs of brilliant red and green king parrots tarried at the forest edge, carefully selecting berries to feast upon. Already I recognized the calls of rose-crowned pigeons -- an accelerating hoo-hoo- hoo-hoo. The pigeons were adorned with brilliant green wings, rose crowns, or purple breasts. In fact, most of the Australian rainforest birds were brilliantly colored. The rainbow lorikeet, which travel and feed in flocks, came to be my favorite. Their name suits them, for they have brilliant blue heads, emerald bodies, and orange, yellow, and red breasts. As the flocks swoop through the sky they seem to change colors with their changes in direction.

As we strolled along, I nearly stumbled over a mound of leaves and earth nearly three feet high and ten feet in diameter. Before I could wonder what the mound might be, a large black bird with a red head and yellow wattles appeared from the brush and eyed the group nervously. We had approached his nest. This was a scrub turkey, the Center's Director told us, from the family of incubator birds or megapodes.

The male builds the mound by scratching together fallen leaves, earth and sticks. The vegetation quickly begins to decay, generating heat which will incubate the eggs. After mating with the male, the female lays a single white egg. The egg she deposits may not even be the guardian males offspring, for brush turkeys are polygamous - females and males may have many partners. The female lays over twenty eggs, one each time she mates, over the course of a few weeks. The male guards the mound defensively from other males, and ensures the internal temperature is optimal for incubation. He gauges the temperature by inserting his beak into the mound. If the temperature is too high, he kicks away leaves, and adds them if it falls low. The chicks emerge precocious and fully feathered seven weeks later and must fend for themselves. Scrub turkeys are quite common and I spotted them often while I was at Warrawee.

The rainforest and all its splendor became familiar to me over the next three months. I learned to identify the birds by both sight and sound, and bird-watched at dawn through the forest and along its edges. Lectures were held outside, and sometimes within the forest itself. We hiked through the forest, and swam at beautiful Millaa Millaa Falls. We learned a vast amount within those short months -- ecology, botany, research techniques. Never was there a boring moment.

One evening, towards the end of my time at Warrawee, I climbed the hill sunsetbeyond our cabin to observe and reflect upon nature. Rays of red and gold glistened as the sun set behind the dewy rainforest. Birds called and passed overhead. I was in awe of the world that surrounded me and the lifetime experience I was immersed within. At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: I wanted to become an ecologist, so that I could study the interactions between living organisms and their environment, and pass my fascination onto others. My greatest joy is writing about nature, hoping that I interest others in the subjects near to my heart.

Warrawee, officially known as the School for Field Studies (SFS) Center for Rainforest Studies lies 45 miles southwest of Cairns, along the Gillies Highway. In the northern foothills of the Atherton Tableland, the closest town is tiny Yungaburra. If you want to visit the Warrawee scientists and students, it's best to coordinate with the SFS home office in Boston before you go. Better yet, if you are interested in the SFS semester or summer program, contact the SFS office at www.fieldstudies.org or 1-508-927-7777.


Copyright © 2005 Wendee Holtcamp