Summer has really started with temperatures soaring to a record high of 44.4°C a few days ago. The bad news about those extreme conditions is that bush fires are an almost common feature this time of the year – and we already had some eerily close. Apart from their beneficial effect on the germination of native plants, uncontrolled fires can be devastating for men, property and wildlife.
While taking some pictures of blooming Christmas Trees a few weeks ago I noticed a raptor cruising the high skies while using the early afternoon thermal currents. Excited as a young kid I started to look for its perch, and to my big surprise I managed to locate the nest about 300 metres from where I first noticed the bird! According to the distinctive high-pitched call there was no doubt I had found the hide-out of a family of Whistling Kites (Haliastur sphenurus), a medium-sized raptor found throughout Australia and New Guinea. Mum and dad perched on the high branches of a tall Marri tree, but my discovery held more surprises when I spotted the couple’s offspring checking me out curiously. After fiddling around with my new 500mm lens I took some shots and left the scene. At that time I didn’t realise I might not see them back…
Later that day I excitedly reported my adventures to my wife and couldn’t wait to show her the nest. But at the time we were ready to walk down the deafening noise of a low-flying airplane drew our attention – shortly followed by a circling helicopter. The gravity of the situation became clear when I identified a second plane flying over as a Bomber608 Air Tractor, a fire-bombing aircraft operated by the WA government. Despite the fact a wildfire was raging nearby we decided to walk out, but the closer we got to the park’s entrance the more apparent it became the nest was under severe threat. My last hope to check the bird’s situation got dashed when we were stopped by a fire fighting crew coming back up a steep slope, and as they couldn’t get closer to the fire the area was going to be water-bombed and closed off. According to my visit earlier that day this was about to happen exactly at the location of the kites’ nest.
On our walk back home I spotted one of the kites high up in the air again, flying away from the smoky scene. Hope for a happy ending sprang up into my heart. And questions. Were they save? Were they even hanging around the place to hunt for fire-fleeing prey? Would they come back? I realised I had to wait a while in order to find possible answers. The next day I found out the fire had stopped well before it could reach the nesting tree, but apart from scores of insect-pecking magpies there were no kites to be seen. And as I haven’t been able to trace the family in subsequent visits my only hope is they’ll be back next year again. In the meantime I cherish the amazing moments of that magic afternoon.