Shooting the Magnificent Riflebird

James Hardy keeps a watch out for birds from his vantage point in the canopy.

James Hardy keeps a watch out for birds from his vantage point in the canopy.

By James Hardy

Very little footage of the Magnificent Riflebird had ever been shot, certainly none in High Definition, until September 2007 when John Young, his apprentice James Hardy and good friend Bob Hunt journeyed along the dusty roads of Cape York and into the great rainforests of Iron Range National Park. Having successfully filmed the courtship display of the Superb Lyrebird in July, the JYWE team was again contracted by U.S. production company, Pangolin Pictures, to film the spectacular courtship display of the Magnificent Riflebird in HD (high definition).

This was not the first time that John and Bob had been involved in filming the courtship display of the Magnificent Riflebird. Fifteen years ago the ABC production ‘Birdman of Paradise’ was filmed in the same area of Iron Range National Park and both John and Bob remembered it as an incredibly frustrating time. John had great difficulty in locating the display perches of the birds and once a perch was located, the bird would often fail to display in front of the camera. So, with only 2 weeks to capture all the necessary footage for Pangolin Pictures, everyone was hoping not to see a repeat of that situation.

Marshall's Fig-Parrot is the smallest race of the fig-parrots at only 13cm but can often be seen feeding on the many species of fig found in Iron Range National Park.

Marshall's Fig-Parrot is the smallest race of the fig-parrots at only 13cm but can often be seen feeding on the many species of fig found in Iron Range National Park.

This was my first trip up the Cape and I had been forewarned of the corrugated roads that make a long day of driving seem even longer. However, the roads had been recently graded and in many sections were smoother than some sealed roads in Brisbane. After leaving Cairns early in the morning, we made our first camp just out of Musgrave where John showed me the nest of a very rare raptor, the Red Goshawk. Unfortunately, the nest was not occupied by a Red Goshawk however it was occupied by a Black-breasted Buzzard which had taken the easy option and displaced the Red Goshawk from its nest.
As a first-timer to Iron Range I was given a variety of advice from John and Bob on how to stay alive in Cape York. Basically, all I had to do was not touch anything, swim in anything, walk on anything (particularly ground where the mine shafts are hidden) or sit on anything. That would be fine if the plants kept their barbs and stinging hairs to themselves, the mites stayed in their dead logs and the snakes didn’t try to drop on your head or put themselves under your foot.

We arrived at Iron Range National Park the following day in the afternoon. Much of the rainforest was badly affected by Cyclone Monica that passed through in 2006. The canopy was sparse and the undergrowth was very dense but there were still plenty of birds about. Soon after arriving at the camp, Riflebirds could be heard calling and by the end of the first day, 2 display perches had been located.

The Yellow-billed Kingfisher is one of Cape York's endemic birds. This attractive kingfisher often nests in one of the many arboreal termite mounds found throughout Iron Range National Park.

The Yellow-billed Kingfisher is one of Cape York's endemic birds. This attractive kingfisher often nests in one of the many arboreal termite mounds found throughout Iron Range National Park.

Over the next 2 weeks, 6 perches were located and 4 of them were filmed. When compared to the shoot John and Bob were involved with 15 years ago, the September 2007 shoot was incredibly successful. Over 5 hours of footage was captured which included many courtship displays by adult males, one of which resulted in a mating – a behaviour never before filmed in HD. Also recorded was one juvenile courtship display, which strangely ended in a mating with a bunch of leaves – another world first. We also filmed some of the other local characters of Iron Range including Yellow-billed Kingfishers, Eclectus Parrots, Black Butcherbirds, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Wompoo Fruit-Doves, Marshall’s Fig-Parrots and Pied Imperial-Pigeons.
Aside from being overwhelmed by all the birds I had never seen before, a definite highlight of the trip was the tree climb into the canopy, 25m above the forest floor.

Read more in the 2008 Cape Yorker magazine. Order your copy online today.