Kite and bream © Mike Gillam
By MIKE GILLAM
It must be raining somewhere down south, I thought. The flow of very cold air had surely come from Bass Strait or the snow fields of the Victorian alps. From a 25 degree maximum when I was lying in the creek-bed photographing dingoes, the forecast for the next day had plummeted to a high of just 16 C. There would be no lizard activity tomorrow, even the smallest skinks would stay in their burrows, asleep and too cold to move.
I rose at 4.45 to return to the waterhole, enough time to melt the ice in the billy can, brew coffee and wake up. The eastern sky began to lighten, a signal to leave camp; some would say way too early but chasing the sunrise is a mug’s game, I prefer to stroll.
The lobes beneath my beanie had gone past feeling numb, now they were threatening to break off. I pulled down the beanie, hunched my shoulders and pulled in my head, tortoise fashion. It was likely not far off the predicted minus three in the campground and it would surely fall a degree or two in the valley of Ormiston Creek and the spectacular Kwartatuma (Ormiston Gorge). Given the condensate that’s steaming from my mouth I wondered how I was going to remain hidden from the wildlife.
Frost covered most low organic surfaces from leaf litter to ground covers and trailing couch grass runners to fallen logs. In the clearest air imaginable, birds create high fidelity sound; melodic butcher birds sang from the river red gums and the distinctive pan-pan-palella of a crested bellbird responded from the background mulga.
Layer upon layer of carolling, piping and chittering, honey-eaters, pardalotes and a rufous whistler. If you’re an experienced ornithologist (which I’m not), you can read the calls without ever seeing the birds. Ascending, descending, rolling and merging.
The droplet notes of spiny-cheeked honeyeaters in the Eucalypt canopies were supported by grey-headed, brown and black-chinned honeyeaters from the background mulga and witchetty shrubland. The morning’s birdsong crescendo was gifted by a pair of duetting arrpwere, magpies, urging the spiny-cheeked honeyeaters to greater effort.
Sometimes it’s difficult to leap from the comfort of a warm swag and experience the needle sharp shock of a frosty morning but I’ve never regretted saluting the sunrise in the company of birds. Like me the birds were cold but happy; all territorial disputes were suspended as their community exhilarated in the pre-eminence of the dawn chorus.
Kwartatuma (Ormiston Gorge) © Mike Gillam
In the low light some of the rock faces showed dark vertical streaks where fine seepages follow cracks in the intensely jointed rock walls. After rain I imagine these would trickle down to the water hole as frost melt and the sound would combine exquisitely with the dawn chorus. Over the aeons, this process of water movement and freezing has widened the cracks with the ice acting like wedges.
Ghost gums sparkled and spinifex flared white hot as the early morning sun struck the exposed backs of Mount Giles, Ormiston Pound and Range. From bright beginnings on the summit the vertical south-facing cliffs resisted the chiaroscuro of a weak winter sun.
Resembling ancient fortifications on an epic scale these stone walls stayed mostly in shadow, flaws in their vertical perfection revealed by lozenges of bright light splashed across gravity defying ledges.
I could see a pair of spinifex pigeons, those avian ambassadors of the Ormiston campground, warming themselves on such a ledge, thrust forward above the void and into the delicious sun. Later they would drop down in a whirr of wings to a pool for a mid-morning drink, not the main pool frequented by people taking selfies but a side channel where most of the avian action takes place. Most desert birds value privacy above water quality.
As the north trending winter sun rose, the southern walls of the gorge were more directly illuminated and this light bounced back across the divide to the shady northern cliffs.
With the reverence of religious icons details emerged from the recesses, overhangs and rocky grottos of the north. To desert pilgrims, the sacred mountain revealed the gestural forms of ghost gums and abstractions in lichen, oxides and quartz. It was enough to make the most accomplished sculptor cry.
It was bitterly cold and the dingoes were probably curled up with their pups. Overnight the number of tourists had increased exponentially with the arrival of school groups from the southern states and very likely our resident canids had adjusted their patrols accordingly.
Kites began calling as the morning sun warmed their Eucalypt woodland. Lilting and lonely stuttering calls, a quintessential sound of Centralia rolling around the gorge, rising, cascading and reverberating and I was profoundly happy to be cold and uncomfortable and not a dingo in sight.
I could see a couple of large bream floating on and near the surface gasping for air; kites would be coming once they were warm enough to hook their breakfast.
The first raptor came over slowly and surveyed the waterhole at height, completing a single circuit before turning sharply and diving. It came low and steady, both legs extended and talons facing forward, ready to rake the water’s surface.
Successfully hooking a heavy fish, the kite flapped its wings frantically to avoid crashing into the water. She touched the water momentarily but slowly gained height and with great effort was able to reach a perch on the opposite bank.
Soon after I photographed her eating the fish but the flash batteries had died in the sub zero temperature so fill flash was out of the question. While I watched the fishing kites I marvelled at the exquisite timing of the fish kill bounty coinciding with the birth of the dingo pups.
Dingo yawning © Mike Gillam
There is little point in rewriting something well crafted so I’ll explain the fish-kill with a quote from signage at Ormiston: “Fish-kills … mainly occur when there is not enough oxygen dissolved in the water… Also, some naturally occurring diseases can affect the efficiency of the fish’s gills. Both … can cause death by hypoxia – the equivalent of suffocation.
“Multiple factors may cause stress on fish… These include cold water, reduced food availability, pathogens and parasites, and reduced oxygen… In deep waterholes, relatively cold water often sits at the bottom and has very little dissolved oxygen.
“However, on particularly cold nights, the surface water can get even colder. When that happens the surface water sinks to the bottom … and fish are exposed to water with very little oxygen that is pushed up from the bottom…”
In my experience larger older fish appear to be most affected by hypoxia and bony bream, the largest of species inhabiting the upper Finke River catchment are the ones I usually encounter dead or dying in the shallows. (Geographically the Finke River begins just north of Glen Helen Gorge at the confluence of the Davenport and Ormiston Creeks.)
The easy protein provided by the dead and dying bream would surely make a real difference to the litter of dingo pups but would they have a future? They’d be protected on the park while they kept their distance from tourists but life on the surrounding pastoral lands is more precarious.
Are they in fact ‘pure’ bred dingoes? Genetically the threats to dingoes from cross breeding with domestic dogs are very real and widespread. The threats to livestock from cross-breeds are also likely to increase.
That reality is providing growing justification for their systematic destruction; the duty of protecting wild animals, in this case the dingo, is being replaced with the slogan and spectre of ‘wild dogs’ as pests. Obviously it’s tough to differentiate on genetic grounds and the dingo will simply be caught in the crossfire. The Thylacine was annihilated with ruthless efficiency and many landowners are now waging a war against wild dogs with renewed determination.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with a property manager for a big pastoral company. He was new in the district and seemed happy enough with the results of a dingo baiting program we’d provided but wanted more. Ambitious and impatient he was unlike most of owners I’d met on family run properties.
“Now there’s a lot of kangaroos here and they’re breeding up so what are you going to do about that? They’re eating the feed and damaging our fences.”
Politely I pointed out the consequences of removing an apex predator. “Basically roos are controlled by dingoes and wedgies full-stop. A pastoral lease does not guarantee exclusive use of pasture so I don’t think the government will accept it has a responsibility to control roos as well.
“Some experienced landowners manage to work with the country, to strike a balance between predators and herbivores.”
At this point my colleague, a ranger based in Tennant Creek, kicked me under the kitchen table and helpfully pointed out we were running late and had to hit the road.
Such intractable problems it seems will always be a part of life or should I say the tragic circularity of conflict and precious little resolution in the Northern Territory. The mantra of multiple land use disguises the reality of winners and losers in our fractured paradise.
Is the widespread baiting of dingos and wild dogs the best management strategy for the future? It all feels a bit 1980s to me and perhaps it’s time for change.
We might discover that a return to the established order of the ‘60s or ’70s holds some lessons. True in the days before 1080 baiting by government, pastoralists were using jaw traps and strychnine freely and perhaps too freely, given the grave risks to non-target species. Sodium monofluoroacetate (1080) offered a poison bait that more directly targeted canids. Nevertheless, back in the day not all pastoral properties used poison. A great many experienced pastoralists simply shot dingos and wild dogs wherever they were causing a problem.
If this approach was adopted by all landowners and greater focus placed on the shooting of obvious cross-breeds it could be an effective compromise that works for primary producers and the community at large.
Meanwhile in South Australia where dingoes are excluded by state sponsored predator fencing, feral goats have triumphed at great expense to the deteriorating natural environment and those agencies struggling to protect a number of national parks including the Ikara-Flinders Ranges.
Charlie Carter makes this point very well in these pages today.
Recently in this series:
A touch of light: The bounty (Part 1)