Adventures of a Young Attenborough

Adventures of a Young Naturalist – the Zoo Quest Expeditions

David Attenborough

Two Roads, 2017

This substantial volume is a re-issue of Attenborough’s first three Zoo Quest books, recounting his expeditions to Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay in the late 1950s, “slightly abbreviated and updated from the originals,” as he says in the Introduction.

The Zoo Quests were joint projects of the London Zoo and the BBC in which minuscule expeditions set out to collect wildlife for the Zoo with a TV cameraman recording the process. Collecting expeditions were regular operations of all zoos at the time, and I for one grew up loving Gerald Durrell’s very funny books about similar expeditions, but making one into a TV show was a novelty since nearly all TV of that period was ‘live’ in the studio.

As a young BBC TV producer with “an unused zoology degree” in his recent past, Attenborough was well placed to pioneer the genre. A short initial trip to Africa was successful enough that a longer one to South America was approved, and the rest we know.

As Attenborough says, the world has changed considerably since then and what was then adventure writing now reads as history – a lively history, to be sure, but not an account of the world we live in. It’s no worse for that, since such a fresh, open-eyed description of that world can tell us much about our own, and it’s still entertaining. Two or three young blokes improvising their way through wild country with the help of chance-met (and often strange) guides could hardly be dull, and Attenborough’s love of nature’s oddities was as infectious then as later.

Reading these Adventures of a Young Naturalist reminded me of a whole epoch of pioneering nature writing which has almost been forgotten by those old enough to have read it when it was new and therefore unknown to younger readers. Should I jog the collective memory? I think so.

Most of these appeared in the 1950s and 60s and will appeal to Attenborough’s audience in one way or another. In no particular order:

  • The Quest of the Curly-Tailed Horses by Noel Monckton
  • The People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
  • The Bafut Beagles, A Zoo In My Luggage and others by Gerald Durrell
  • Seal Morning by Rowena Farre
  • The Ring of Bright Water and its two sequels by Gavin Maxwell
  • Pilgrims of the Wild by Grey Owl
  • Born Free and its sequels by Joy Adamson

Christmas approaches as I write, so I’m going to suggest Adventures of a Young Naturalist would make a suitable gift or holiday reading, both for baby-boomers with an interest in wildlife and for younger people who have enjoyed Attenborough’s TV work for years but missed its early stages.

Bowerbirds at Paluma

We stopped at Birthday Creek on the way back from Paluma Dam (last-but-one post) to see if we could see two bowerbirds known to live there, and perhaps a platypus as well. We scored, I reckon, 1.5 out of 3 – no platypus, one abandoned bower, and one bowerbird in full song.

Birthday Creek
Birthday Creek from the bridge on the Paluma Dam road

We watched for platypus from the bridge but saw none although this stretch of Birthday Creek looked like platypus heaven.

Golden Bowerbird bower
Abandoned bower of Golden Bowerbird

We were not much luckier with the Golden Bowerbird, the one which some of us had hoped to visit a few months ago. We found the bower easily enough by walking fifty metres down a track from the Birthday Creek carpark, but it was collapsed, obviously abandoned.

Each species of bowerbird has its own style of bower. The Golden male makes towers of twigs around two adjacent tree trunks and links them with a branch from which he calls, and my photo show the larger of the two towers. This video from Marc Anderson shows what we missed.

Bowerbird on perch
Tooth-billed Bowerbird


Just a metre or two from the edge of the carpark we saw and heard the male of another bowerbird species, the Tooth-billed Bowerbird, Scenopoeetes dentirostris (aka Tooth-billed Catbird, Ailuroedus dentirostris).

His bower hardly deserved the name, being merely an ornamental carpet of fresh-cut leaves on a cleared patch of ground, but he was singing his heart out from his perch on a branch above it. (As Slaters’ Guide puts it, “Voice: most variable, vigorous and loud song at bower, making bowers easy to find.”) He was so oblivious of us that I got close enough to make a video, mainly for his song. Clicking on the photo above will take you to a brief excerpt from it.

Negotiating Christmas

Christmas can be a difficult time for anyone wishing to live ethically without offending family and friends by appearing to reject their goodwill. The frenzy of gift-giving is a big issue. On the one hand, Christmas has been commercialised beyond belief, becoming yet another pretext for blatantly wasteful over-consumption; on the other, giving is always a good thing (and receiving can be nice, too). The religious aspect may also be problematic, since the endless barrage of sentimentalised carols and nativity scenes is irrelevant at best, and may be oppressive, for atheists or members of non-Christian faith communities. And then there’s the obligatory socialising with co-workers, members of your sporting club, or those members of your extended family whom you do your best to avoid during the year. It has its good side but enough is enough, surely?

We can’t do much, individually, about the superfluity of Christianity or conviviality but we can certainly do something about the material waste. This seasonal blog post has been slowly evolving for nearly ten years, with that objective in mind. An earlier version of it was called “Give Twice for Christmas,” my first strategy for getting as much good as possible out of the obligatory gift-giving.

Give twice with every gift by finding gifts which benefit as many people as possible, and especially those in need.
  • Buy from charity shops which handle third-world craft products (e.g. World Vision). Some of the money goes back to the maker, and the rest supports the charity’s other projects.
  • Buy Fairtrade goods if you can, rather than the standard commercial equivalents.
  • Make a donation in the recipient’s name to a charity whose aims they support. Kiva, which provides micro loans in poor countries with Western help, is worth considering here alongside Red Cross, WWF, the ACF and the rest.
  • Remember that Unicef, CARE and Oxfam sell gift certificates whereby the purchaser buys school books, a solar panel or a well for a third-world family. Buy one in the name of the recipient, who will receive a card with details of the donation.
  • Buy gifts from local art galleries to support struggling artists (and believe me, nearly all artists are struggling).
  • Buy cards, calendars, t-shirts, Christmas cakes, etc, from the Heart Foundation, BirdLife, the Wilderness Society or similar organisations. The goods may be mass produced but at least the profits are doing some good.
If you can’t give twice…
  • Make or grow something yourself: a cake, herb sachets, a framed photo, or a pot-plant in flower.
  • Maximise the benefit to your own community by buying from locally-owned independent shops and keep the profits in the community instead of sending them to the Cayman Islands.
  • Minimise waste, and still keep the money in the community, by giving services, subscriptions or memberships rather than goods – vouchers or gift certificates from theatres, restaurants, gardening services, yoga studios, the local cinema club, etc.
And always…
  • Give according to your own values, as well as the recipients’ wants. If you care about native birds, giving your friend a kitten may make you feel guilty for years, so find something which you have no doubts about instead – a bird-bath, perhaps.
  • Ask, suggest or hint that others do likewise. Use this article as a starting point if you like, and put it on Facebook or email it to people you know. You don’t have to say, “If you were thinking of giving me something, I would prefer,” which could be kind of awkward; just say, “I think this is a good way of thinking about Christmas.” You could bring a lot more happiness into the world by doing so – and isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to do?

Walking in the Paluma rainforest

Paluma Dam track
The walking track

A recent trip to Paluma Dam with the good people of Wildlife Queensland was enjoyable for the wildlife and just being in the rainforest but was far from strenuous. We walked across the dam wall and along a vehicular track to the west of the dam, took a side track to down to the dam shore, and returned the same way before lunching at the camping ground. Birds were constantly audible but frustratingly invisible, so most of my photos are of invertebrates.

Paluma Dam forest
Looking into the forest below the dam wall
Paluma Dam
Looking across Paluma Dam

These two butterfly species were the commonest on the day but are unfamiliar around Townsville. Braby notes that both are ‘common but local’ in their territory, the Wet Tropics. The upper wing surfaces of the Grey Albatross are white and pale grey with darker wingtips, so both shone out brightly in the shadows of the forest.

‘Puddling’ is the proper term for butterflies’ habit of landing on wet sand (as here) or beside shallow puddles (as here) to suck up some water.

These two spiders were both found in the camping ground, one on our picnic table and the other on the brim of a hat. The brown one is certainly Tetragnatha sp. but even the new Field Guide to Spiders of Australia calls it ‘unidentified’.  The green one? I suspect it may be a Mesida, in which case it belongs to the same family, but I’m not at all sure.

A miscellany.

Robber flies are aerial predators like dragonflies – note the huge flight muscles – but are ‘real’ flies unlike dragonflies or butterflies.

The hopper, a sap-sucker (Hemiptera) only about 5mm long, looks like it’s standing on something coarse and wiry but that’s only because of the magnification. In real life, the leaves are beautifully velvety.

leaves at Paluma Dam
Soft new foliage – gorgeous!