Patrolling dingo, Central Ranges. © Mike Gillam
By MIKE GILLAM
Concealed by a river red gum I watched as the dingo, an adult female patrolled the shoreline of the permanent water hole. Tail up and nose down she moved at a steady trot, pausing regularly to investigate some odour of interest. The place was a library for the dingo’s nose, her sense of smell reputedly up to 100 times more acute than our own.
Here where a cat had buried its scat or a euro had crouched to drink; a little further the scent of her partner where he had marked a red gum. Now she dropped onto her belly and cautiously shimmied forward to investigate a clump of sedges, a place where she’d had success before.
A sheltered alcove frequented by a family of grebes, coming ashore to snuggle together on a cold winter’s night? She stood up, scanned the shoreline ahead and continued patrolling its edge. The saucer of flattened reeds was unoccupied.
Her ears rotated back and forth registering far off campground sounds or much closer now, the footfall of people walking towards the gum-fringed waterhole. Magpie larks sounded the alarm. Something caught her eye in the shallows ahead and she moved with greater urgency, stopped abruptly and with her right paw, scooped a large bony bream out of the water.
Human voices became louder. She sniffed briefly at her find and satisfied, seized the dead fish in her jaws and trotted downstream. She was visible holding the large silver fish for a couple of seconds and I was left cursing at my failure to focus.
I followed downstream as quickly as I dared, rock hopping where possible to avoid the clink of rounded stones making sharp contact under foot. A couple of times I had her in the view finder but I didn’t want the shutter clicks to startle her for no real benefit.
The dingo began to scale a midstream embankment and I lost sight of her amongst the Tea tree, Melaleuca glomerata, but located her tracks in damp sand a few minutes later. I paused for several long minutes listening but she had vanished. For the next couple of hours, I worked both sides of the creek to no avail.
My luck changed in the form of an old friend, a park ranger who’d lived at Ormiston for years. We met on a walking track and sat in the shade to compare notes, park management crises and the general state of the universe. I mentioned the dingo and he smiled broadly.
“Actually you’re very close to the den.” And he pointed. “I saw the pups last week at the entrance. It’s just below the brow of that ridge.”
We parted company and I scoped out the area pausing in the middle of the river channel to watch. Emerging from the den, a low horizontal overhang of modest proportions, the adult male dog paused to sniff the breeze and I held my breath. He passed my position and trotted off downstream, a picture of languid grace but with ears sharp and tail tightly curled, ever ready to accelerate or pounce.
Dingo eyes, © Mike Gillam
The log was alive with tiny black ants, Iridomyrmex spp., a common species belonging to the family Formicidae and an important element in arid zone ecosystems. These tiny dark ants, a mere two to three millimetres in size are very irritating, earning them the common name ‘piss ant’.
According to Wikipedia the term piss ant does not originate in Australia, rather it has its origin in the word ‘pismire’, a fourteenth century term for ant.
I always thought it was because they generally piss off most living things including the dragon sitting at the other end of the log with his eyes shut and ants swarming all over his body. Why was he there, surely there was ant-free shade near by? Was he getting a scale cut and polish? The ants were shocking and I had to move.
Frantically I scanned the scene; it was hopeless, this was far and away the best spot, elevation, wind direction and concealment.
A stream of logic came to my rescue. Lie very still, like the dragon, let the ants crawl over you and whatever you do don’t squash a single one. If you release that pungent formic acid smell they will go crazy and the swarm will start biting, not that their bite even rates on the pain scale.
I thought of my friend, Mitsuaki Iwago working in the Serengeti year after year, risking his life photographing lion behaviour up close and intimate with a wide angle lens! What kind of wildlife photographer are you? Channel your inner dragon and enter a trance while you wait for the return of the male or female. Then the pups will come out and you will get an image and crawl away having paid your dues. Simple.
The first ten minutes was bearable as the ants swarmed over the tripod and camera. Then they explored the photographer and still I kept my cool. Ants entered my button-up shirt and, trapped in underarm hair, a few started to bite but I did not waver and refused to brush them away for fear of the dreaded formic acid release.
When they crawled up my nostrils I gently blew them out but they came repeatedly, so very soon I was inhaling and nose blowing in a circular breathing process, a kind of hyper-ventilation. I decided to close my nose between thumb and forefinger and started to dream about the insect repellent back at the Toyota.
The numbers moving on my scalp were disconcerting but fortunately they weren’t biting, so maybe there’s a hair loss advantage in this story. One or two ants crawling about in my eyelashes were insufferable so I closed my eyes and flicked them off. I sought relief in day dreaming for a while, trusting that the ants might settle down. They didn’t but it was the ears that finally broke me.
It was mid-afternoon and getting hot. The day was overcast and the light on the dingo den was diffused and photographically viable. I knew I had to keep still but the humble piss ants had eroded my self discipline. Slowly I moved out of the shade and into the full sun, reasoning the ants were happier in the shade. I took off my shirt and tossed it into the open sand. Half an hour by my reckoning and the ants were definitely retreating. I turned the shirt over a couple more times until it was wearable.
I pinched my nose shut and forced air out through my ears (anatomically impossible but it created a satisfying pressure effect) and this seemed to promote an exodus. In truth, the word ‘exodus’ is an exaggeration because two or three tiny ants in the ear canal can feel and sound like a battalion of beetles.
Moving carefully, I retrieved my hat and sat baking in the sun for a further hour while the camera and dragon at opposite ends of the Eucalypt trunk shared the shade with 300,000 or so ants.
They were flowing back and forth in highways and parallel columns extending from the horizontal decaying log (the nest site) up the vertical trunk, spanning most of the tree’s girth and into the far reaches of the upper canopy. A total height of perhaps 25 metres.
Doubtless this torrent of ants, an immense community, was performing a very beneficial cleansing of insects from the entire tree. They were probably farming aphids and cleaning protein detritus from old nests and hollows and underneath the flaking bark. They’d clearly invaded a termite colony at the base of the tree and the termite’s citadel probably extended throughout the central column of the tree. The magnificent Eucalypt was very likely in excess of 500 years old and estimating the total surface area patrolled by the piss ant super colony would challenge any mathematician.
I was sweating steadily and the smell of ammonia was growing every time I moved. Of greater concern was my heightened visibility sitting in the sun when I was supposed to be concealed lying alongside the log. My friend the dragon was a large male with breeding colours of maroon on the side of his angular head, contrasting with the bright white of his jawline. His eyes remained firmly shut and his composure only served to mock my own lack of forbearance.
Time passed slowly and our one-sided relationship became slightly irrational. I bet those nostrils are too small for ants to enter, and those ears, well there’s no exposed canal, only a primitive external tympanum, I whispered.
There was no sign of the dingo female or her paramour and I decided to change tactics and slide back to the log and behind the tripod. I checked the viewfinder, turned the camera on, vigorously shook a fresh swarm from my hands and cupped my palms to amplify a series of yelps. By the fourth or fifth yelp the first of three pups emerged at the entrance to the den and looked expectantly in my direction. I froze behind the camera and tolerated the ant surge.
For a few minutes the pups variously paced and sat while I took a series of images. Finally, the trio lost interest returning to the recesses of the den and I beat a hasty retreat. My spirits were high, the dingo pups had posed beautifully. The perfect image with one of their parents bringing food would have to wait for another day. Bring repellent!
Pups at their den, Ormiston Gorge. © Mike Gillam