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Home Issue 37 A touch of light: sublime Centralian Spring

A touch of light: sublime Centralian Spring

By MIKE GILLAM

All photos © Mike Gillam 

The country is slowly waking up after varying degrees of winter dormancy and death of course. After three years of drought body fat is low and hypothermia can take a toll on the old and sick.

Railing against the weather seems pointless, but every year at this time my friends complain that Spring is a truncated concept in Centralia. No matter how you look at it – the official date of 1 September, alternatively the Spring equinox in a couple of weeks, or through Arrernte optics (here and here) – Spring in Centralia is sublime.

My fingers are no longer frozen solid at dawn and long walks in the mountains can be taken without the weight of as much drinking water as in the Summer. With luck the most perfect weather in the nation might persist into October and luckier still we might get rain in November.

The BOM have reported early signs of a La Niña cycle developing. “This means the chance of La Niña forming in 2020 is around 70%—roughly three times the average likelihood…” 

Over the past month Sennas have flooded the under-storey of our gardens with glorious and exuberant yellows. Eremophilas planted, not for reasons of beauty and colour but the precious nectar needed for our honeyeaters, have followed. We rely on six species, two of which also support totemic caterpillars and as a collective they extend the seasonal availability of nectar well beyond that afforded by a single species.

 On the shoulder of August/September the mistletoes are setting early fruit and several of our Eucalypts, E.orbifolia and E.socialis continue to produce flowers to the delight of the honeyeaters and parrots. By now many Eucalypts have already set seed, and capsules are spent although the E.thozetiana seed is still developing and will be ready to collect in several weeks. River red gums generally flower later, in early November, dropping thousands of bright yellow flower caps that crunch underfoot.

Brown honeyeaters, the smallest of their community, are first to arrive at dawn, intent as always on avoiding conflict with the larger and more aggressive white plumed. These are next to arrive and a competitive flurry of possession and retreat ensues with spiny cheeked honeyeaters and yellow throated miners rushing to get a share of the meagre resource while enduring the cut and thrust of their rivals.

A pair of grey headed honeyeaters watch on nervously. Activity is frantic and the flowers are few, too few at this end stage to attract the waves of feral honey bees from their hollows in the red gums of nearby Charles Creek.

Within thirty minutes the Eucalypt flowers are looking rasped clean but the final onslaught comes with the ringneck parrots. No delicate rasping with long tongues here. The parrots chew the flowers and extract the last dregs of sweetness from their base (image at top).

Our ringnecks were sustained through the tough Winter months by the botanical diversity of our gardens, by the dependable ruby saltbush and the purple berries of Myoporum, but most of all, by the large orange fruits of Capparis spinosa (native passionfruit) which are fastidiously scooped out like ice-cream from a cone.

On the first day of September impatient galahs descended on early seed set Acacias, notably a mulga, Acacia aneura, littering the ground with hundreds of unformed pods, sometimes stripping half the available pods in their fruitless search for seed. They’ll have to endure several weeks more of frustration and hunger.

The south-easterlies of Winter will falter with the arrival of a determined west wind and soon after northerlies will herald the return of rainbow bee eaters from the Top End, New Guinea and Indonesia. North-easterlies and northerlies will likely strengthen as temperatures increase and the predicted La Niña develops.

Finally, the white woods, Atalaya hemiglauca, have produced fresh growing tips in response to the warmer weather and mild overnight temperatures. More than twenty years ago we chose this species as our medium height shade tree, carefully matched to soil profile and drainage. The success of those early plantings was greatly assisted by the planting of pioneer species.

It’s a great time to plant. If the site is somewhat barren, lacking shade and in need of soil conditioning we often begin with fast growing Acacias such as A.victoriae and A.kempeana. Relatively short-lived (say 12-20 years) both are endemics that produce abundant leaf litter, adding nitrogen to the soil and reducing evaporation.

Planting these useful pioneer species is an important step that greatly improves success and reduces the need to water the larger trees that we want to establish in the longer term. The pioneer plants provide companion shade for our long lived investments in shade trees because few plants can flourish in a frying pan. Most pioneer species are cut down within ten years or whenever we decide they’re competing with our preferred shade trees.

The reptiles have ‘woken up’ too and the common urban dragon with a very long Latin name, Gemmatophora longirostris, is especially active at this time. We anticipate seeing bearded dragons soon. At our place these muscular lizards have plenty of options to move between sun and shade.

Out bush they are especially fond of wild orange trees where they spend their days moving through the canopy in search of insects or simply waiting in the deep shade ready to pounce. A great many invertebrates are attracted to the ripening wild orange fruit and the bearded dragon is partial to both the fruit and insects.

The close association with bearded dragons and endemic wild orange trees is neatly transferred to the Alice Springs suburbs where exotic citrus trees are popular. By trapping feral cats, a major predator of bearded dragons, we are assured of constant control of the grasshopper swarms attracted to our citrus and are never reduced to spraying anything.

Early last Winter/Autumn I encountered a large and well patterned Atyunpe (Perentie) as I followed the high broken rim of a gorge in Tjoritja (MacDonnell Ranges).

The day before I’d seen fresh tracks in the dry sandy watercourse cutting through the gorge, indicating a specimen about 1.6 or 1.7m in length, well under the 2.5 maximum for the fourth largest species of varanid in the world. I was puzzled by the size of the tracks given the low daytime maximums of the past few days.

That day’s maximum was a mere 19 degrees C., the perfect temperature for photographing hylid frogs sunbaking and viable for smaller lizards but I’d never seen large goannas active in such cool conditions. To my untrained eye the tracks looked no more than a couple of days old.

I could well imagine Atyunpe’s foraging circuit including the distant saltbush floodout inhabited by introduced rabbits, the high rugged rim above and the broad sandy creek-bed below; a home range offering different species of diurnal reptiles, especially dragons that a hungry Perentie might encounter.

I’d watched them catch fast moving lizards in the past with an explosive burst of speed but mostly they’re content with grasshoppers. Beneath the red gum canopies Atyunpe will routinely search the ground for stricken fledgling birds that have left the safety of the nest or hollow too early.

The sudden parting of tall flowering plants was the first sign that I had company. Crashing through the vegetation hoping to startle a dragon or grasshopper the goanna was preoccupied with foraging and didn’t seem to notice me.

The thrashing of vegetation stopped as Atyunpe raised its elongated neck and head to survey the ground ahead and I sank slowly to the ground. I was astonished to see such a large reptile actively hunting and hastily reverse Gurkha-crawled as the Perentie approached.

The goanna paused to dig at the ground and I made an educated guess at the direction it would take and moved ahead. With a 200mm telephoto lens I needed to keep some distance and look for a favourable position given the sunlight which was high and harsh.

Atyunpe is naturally afraid of humans and I felt sure its continuously flickering tongue would have my scent by now. Conveniently this goanna’s home range was situated within a national park and so it had never been hunted before.

I’d followed Perenties in the past and, despite my discretion and care, all had proven wary and anxious to avoid contact. On one occasion the animal leapt into a shallow waterhole, lying patiently on the bottom for several minutes. The water was clear and I could see the goanna watching me intently so I made a show of leaving it be.

Strangely this Atyunpe showed no fear or even curiosity. At roughly 8 kg I realised this magnificent goanna really had nothing to fear; it was probably too big and scary for a wedge-tailed eagle or lone dingo to tackle.

Atyunpe’s ancestors would have been hunted by humans and in turn they would have terrorised burrowing bettongs, a medium sized marsupial that became extinct on the mainland following European settlement and predation by feral cats and foxes.

Against the odds, Atyunpe was a survivor and successfully switched its preference for mammalian prey from the declining native bettongs to the invading feral rabbits.

I prefer to photograph large goannas at ground level or from directly above. For perhaps forty minutes the two of us continued in this skulking, sliding waltz. We made eye contact once or twice and I was able to keep track of the lizard’s movements by watching the tall stems of Ptilotus and the waving haze of blue Trichodesma flowers.

I acquired more and more prickles and burrs in my hands and frequent random jabs of spinifex but no acceptable frames of Atyunpe.

At one stage I paused briefly against some boulders assessing the best path to take while maintaining a non-threatening profile. I needn’t have worried, the Perentie accelerated and practically walked over the top of me, flicking its tail from side to side as it went. A wide angle lens moment for sure but too close for the telephoto.

Now the goanna turned and seemed to be heading for a natural ramp leading to a lower ledge. My Gurkha crawl became a crouching run and on reaching the edge of the rim I dropped to my knees and peered over the edge.

Several metres directly below my friend Atyunpe was briefly visible before vanishing into a rocky overhang. Three quick frames delivered one that worked in the soft shadowy light with the goanna striding across a rectangular plinth.

I approached the overhang cautiously, finding a narrow vegetated terrace retained by a low rock wall and a vertical plunging cliff to the watercourse below. Further back a rock platform – a basking verandah – was protected by a jutting overhang that would provide shade from the high summer sun but allow the low-angled north and east sun to penetrate deeply.

Atyunpe had vanished into a low horizontal crevice that extended at least five metres into the mountainside. The orientation was perfectly aligned to take advantage of early morning sun on a Winter’s day. Now I understood how Atyunpe could bend the rules governing a large ectotherm. I could see where the goanna would bask for hours until it was able to achieve a body temperature sufficiently elevated to hunt.

In Summer the furthest recesses of the overhang would be comfortable and cool, protected by an overburden of at least three metres of rock and a mantle of soil and plants. This Perentie was living a charmed life in a subterranean complex with enviable thermal mass and optimal orientation; perfect for many arid zone vertebrates.

I would be surprised if the temperature in the depths of this cave structure move much beyond 28 degrees C even when ambient temperatures reach the mid-40s. Sitting on the front porch of the Perentie’s palace I thought of future suburbs heavily reliant on energy and air-conditioning. I really should have built that earth covered house. The slumbering Atyunpe will be fully awake by now and hungry. Once my friend has recovered some weight and condition I plan to go back for a longer visit.

Last updated  10 September 2020, 1.49pm.

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