Painted fire-tail finches. © Mike Gillam
By MIKE GILLAM
I was on time. The reflected light bouncing off the rockface would be perfect but what was that hubbub coming from the normally serene gorge?
Strange double wheel tracks winding up the creekbed did not bode well for a quiet hour or two taking photographs. I heard the amplified music a minute later.
This was the third day in a row with unseasonally high temperatures and ideal for photographing finches coming into water. Fortuitously, my spot in the crowded space was free and I turned my back on the revellers clustered around their temple, a giant esky with all terrain wheels.
The noise echoed off the cliffs and I wondered if any wildlife would come to water in these conditions. I needn’t have worried. The country was still in drought and this was the only real surface water apart from the odd leaking tap.
First came the Nyi Nyi (zebra finches), those water diviners of the desert, an all time favourite. Hundreds were gathered in a native fig waiting their turn and watching as each wave of forty or so returned from the sandbank. I knew they liked to drink every 20 minutes or so when the mercury went over 38 degrees C.
Today the Nyi Nyi were especially nervous, wading into the shallows and briefly pausing to sip but not to bathe before returning in a whirr to the safety of the Ficus.
Next came a group of tourists. Selfie sticks were deployed with military precision. Oxide cliffs providing the desired frame for portraits taken in haste, reviewed, re-taken and then they were gone. They didn’t see the Nyi Nyi or the old male euro waiting patiently in the shadows.
I couldn’t blame them. The noise was ridiculous and I questioned my decision to stay. So we had words and the music was turned down.
Finally, after 30 minutes and during a brief pause between music tracks, I heard their calls from the broken plateau above. Then I saw the first Painted (Painted fire-tail) finches rock hopping down a near vertical cliff.
Following fracture lines and narrow ledges they zigzagged towards the rock-hole. At each impasse they’d abandon the trail and with a flurry of wings drop a short distance to the next level, pausing to look for danger before resuming. It was a cautious descent.
More human voices joined the fray and the finches froze. A busload of school children appeared, their teachers bringing up the rear. One nodded a greeting and sensing a kindred spirit, he rolled his eyes in the direction of the Bali pool party.
The finches retreated back up the cliff reaching a point where they felt safe. The school group was quickly marshalled and directed back to the carpark.
After a few more false starts, the first Painted finch arrived at the stony ledge to drink. His clan maintained their distance spreading out to watch from the shadows. The first finch was quickly joined by the second and a third before the formation of watchers broke and descended in a rush.
The first birds retreated, flying back up the cliff to take up their role as lookouts. More tourists arrived, couples with daypacks and cameras. They took one look and turned on their heels and went back up the creek.
I remained in my cone of silence avoiding eye contact as the procession of people continued. Some familiar locals arrived and asked what I was doing. I showed them an image of painted finches and they gasped.
“Where are they now?” one wanted to know.
“They’ve gone back up the cliff but they’ll be back if you have the patience to sit and wait,” I said.
“And keep quiet I’m guessing,” added another, with a wry smile.
“That certainly helps, a bit of respect goes a long way…” I murmured.
Maybe the esky was dry. Whatever the reason the party was breaking up and within minutes I was alone. The silence punctuated by delicate bird calls was delicious. The old euro approached confidently, we exchanged a greeting and he drank among the clouds of Nyi Nyi.
The light was too high and too contrasty, but still I delayed soaking up the spirit of this special place. Peregrine falcons patrolled the cliffs once more and a lone grebe cowering in the furthest recesses of the rock hole returned to the serious business of finding food.
On the walk back up the creek I stopped to have a yarn with a ranger. We exchanged notes and I observed that legislation was clearly required to prevent what was once unimaginable. Behaviours that would attract the attention of multiple agencies in suburbia including the police and EPA were somehow acceptable in a national park. Surely it’s time to prohibit amplified music beyond the carpark at the very least.
I made a note to chastise the fool who coined the phrase “Parks are for People” while leaving out the word “Respectful”.
Like all granivorous birds in Centralia, Painted finches must drink to compensate for the very low moisture content of their seed. They mostly nest in spinifex tussocks and while they are a popular aviary bird, little is known about the species in the wild.
The scientific name Emblema picta pays homage to the exquisite beauty of Painted finches. The male birds are especially colourful, a design that reminds me of a starry night sky meeting a blood red dawn.
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