A touch of light: booms, busts and budgerigars



All photos © Mike Gillam

Within 15 minutes of the mid-October shower, the first inteleyapeyape (Yeperenye moths) were emerging and next morning the damp ground was pock marked with exit holes where beetles, spiders, ants and centipedes had emerged en masse from a period of subterranean stasis.

The barking spiders cleaned out their holes overnight and applied a fresh ceiling of fine silk and radiating trip ‘wires’ to signal the nearby movement of potential prey.

Sticky tarvine, already well advanced and ready to receive hawk-moth eggs, was spreading rapidly. Within a few weeks the extensive vines supported a crop of Yeperenye caterpillars fattening the predatory birds, wasps and lizards.

Our two local dragons were already digging egg chambers. Gravid females would be conspicuous within weeks and the hatchling dragons would appear in late December and early January.

Hordes of sap sucking bugs continued to congregate on the fresh growing tips of Atalaya hemiglauca (white woods). The duel between tree growth and sugar loving bugs was well advanced and soon the invertebrates would turn to the developing bunches of white flowers forming a blanket of December snow. I selected a damaged seedling bleeding sap and licked off the crystalline liquid to check out the sweet flavour.

The great galah hunger was over and my favourite cockatoos now had a diversity of early Acacia seed and plentiful soft fruits of the bogan flea burr, a favourite, to choose from. Breeding had commenced and baby galahs were visible in hollows.

I was attracted by the sharp ping of berries striking the corrugated iron roof and instinctively peered into the dark green foliage of the white cedar tree (a native of NSW) searching out the ringneck parrots.

A pair of willy wagtails stepped forward to introduce themselves and I noticed the object of their concern, a perfect cup shaped nest with its silken lining of spider web.

The piping call of ringnecks accompanied a fresh clatter of cedar berries and I returned to the onerous task of pulling buffel grass seedlings.

A flight of budgerigars passed overhead. I heard them coming; a rhythmic chirrup, as if the wing beats of the flying host needed to keep time, like rowers in a race across the cloudless sky. Perhaps the flyway over our house is influenced by the presence of nearby hills but I think it’s more about tree cover, shade and lower surface temperatures within the street. In direct contrast much of the surrounding industrial estates are essentially treeless, all rising heat, bitumen and iron roofs, shunned by most birds.

The BOM meteorologist was right when she predicted the probability of a developing La Niña. Repeated rainfall in Darwin at the beginning of October, an early onset to the wet season, seemed to confirm the likelihood of drought breaking rain coming to Centralia this summer.

Over the past three weeks we’ve received some modest showers and lower temperatures that have kept the topsoil moist and increased the sap flow of growing plants. Elsewhere, across the region, localised thunderstorm super cells dumped heavier rain causing minor drainages to flow while less fortunate places missed out altogether.

Stating the obvious, surely there was never a better time to turn your back on exotic failures in your garden and embrace endemic solutions. Try to choose high quality plants carefully cross-matched to local soil conditions. Most species won’t thrive in the full spectrum of alluvial, colluvial and sandy soils, so choosing wisely matters.

If necessary, hire some-one with a post hole digger to help because appropriate preparation of every planting hole is critical. We are mostly focussed on planting trees, less so shrubs, and generally dig a cluster of two or three closely spaced holes collapsing the margins to form one hole, often 70 cm deep. An added benefit of digging so deeply is the occasional discovery of builder’s rubble and waste which must be excavated and removed before planting. (Contractors please note, this dumping is antisocial, at the very least).

Some mulch is added and mixed with soil to reduce compaction, assist water infiltration and rapid development of roots. A couple of wooden stakes straddle the hole and support leafy branches (prunings) that are secured with wire twitches, providing partial shade and summer respite for the young plant. Mulch will help to retain surface moisture.

Regular rainfall and the cooling temperatures that accompany a wet summer will greatly assist planting success.

Tragically, given government inaction around the world, we must anticipate and plan for significant releases of methane and commensurate increases in summer temperatures.

Today’s baby boomers will not bear the brunt of climate change but I can’t believe anyone is feeling relaxed about what’s coming. Wake up, it’s not enough to invest in more and more split system air conditioners and simply retreat from the challenges facing the biosphere. Planting significant and long lived shade trees is harder today than it was twenty years ago and in all likelihood it will be harder next spring than it is right now.

I believe we have a duty to plant vigorous local trees for future generations who might still enjoy the benefits of gardens that embody resilience and the wisdom and generosity of their forebears.

By creating vestiges of useful habitat throughout the suburbs, we will assist wildlife visibly struggling to cope with climate change.

Over several years I regularly climbed onto my house roof and tried to photograph the budgie mobs as they hurtled overhead each morning. These events often lasted for several weeks as small family groups and larger flocks relocated, all flying in the same general direction and responding to information unknown, presumably following thunderstorms or acting on the knowledge of mature birds to locate a seasonal food supply.

Is it the ripening Mitchell grass to the north or the button grass to the south, the woollybutt grass out east or the native millet and golden beard grass I saw in that intermont valley out west?

The white rooftop was blinding and I’d invariably get a suntan under my hat, the sunglasses producing pale rings around my eyes, made infamous by a disturbing politician that keeps millions of people awake at night. Regardless, the roof got me closer and was worth the discomfort. I was after a specific image that showed the birds flying in unison, of a moment when the wings fold tightly to the body; when they somehow redefine and transcend the magic of flight as we see it. I made numerous attempts, out of focus failures most of them, until finally the flock morphed into surreal sky surfers.

Occasionally the wild budgerigars would stop and rest in one of several tall Eucalypts and catch their breath for ten minutes or so. They’d chatter animatedly in the shade and some might flutter down to take a drink at the bird bath near the front door, just a sip or two because they were in travelling mode.

The appearance of a solitary budgie outside my office one summer, calling repeatedly, was a little unusual and I stepped outside to locate the source bird. Clearly distressed, the bird was panting, its wings half open trying to cool down.

Apparently the stranger had overlooked the large pool of water that we provide and watched me intently as I walked to get water and seed. It drank with obvious relief as I stepped back from the ceramic saucer and quickly turned to the nearby scatter of ‘canary’ seed. I sat on the step to my office and studied our guest. This was a large and handsome male but the colour of green did not match the vivid plumage of the wild mob, he was a paler green, known in the aviculture trade as aquamarine.

The escaped pet practically inhaled the seed and finished off with another long guzzle of water before climbing into the mid section of a Grevillea tree outside my door. He was fast asleep within minutes and was still there in the morning, looking dazed and tired so I replenished his food and water.

We provide support as required to a regular stream of lost birds, injured orphans, refugees and needy pensioners and over the years we’ve had more than our fair share of homeless budgies. Most move on within a week to who knows where, perhaps they are compulsive travellers who grew tired of captivity and opted to become suburban nomads. 

Each day we expected the aquamarine would continue his journey into the unknown but instead he seemed to settle in, watching the other birds intently and becoming more and more adventurous.

I began taking photographs of the stranger and soon realised I’d been sent a gift. In the early weeks he’d cower motionless when the alarm calls of white plumed honey eaters and magpie larks reverberated around the garden. Mostly he sensed rather than saw the grey ghost, a sparrowhawk that floated through on silent wings.

Gradually he joined the community of birds and gained in confidence venturing further and further from my office. He was certainly much stronger and within a month he’d mastered the flight paths and airways in the surrounding area. Here in the garden maze at least, the predatory raptors were no match for his newly acquired turn of speed.

Of course there’s a world of difference between a sparrowhawk and a hobby falcon or a peregrine for that matter but the falcons were rare in the general area and never ventured into our gardens.

One day a friend brought their young son to visit the budgerigar, an almost permanent fixture in the Grevillea striata outside my office door. I asked for his help in naming the bird and without hesitation he suggested Maximo.

Weeks became months and Maximo’s behaviour highlighted deeper problems for a flock bird leading a solitary existence. Such a pity that gorgeous blue female budgerigar from earlier in the year didn’t hang around. His amorous approaches to a naturally standoffish crested pigeon were rebuffed but there was something else, something much deeper weighing him down.

The sound of budgerigars flying overhead would always stimulate a burst of frantic chirruping from Maximo and endless failed attempts to fly up and join them.

Foolishly we became invested in the tiny bird’s struggle and actually believed that maybe it was possible for him to make this leap. While the wild budgerigars were sometimes less than 50 metres overhead they were however flying at 60 kph and Maximo simply couldn’t catch them, until one day he did. At the first sound of chirruping Maximo rocketed skyward and promptly vanished, heading N.N.W.

Our intrepid friend returned several hours later utterly spent. He drank and rested but over the next week or so his mood seemed well, sad! He no longer tore around the garden chattering enthusiastically for the simple pleasure of harassing and flushing the flock of ground feeding galahs. Another week passed and the melancholy Maximo abruptly disappeared having lived in our garden nearly four months learning to be semi wild.

Budgerigars are born to be Olympians and those raised in aviaries, we might assume, are physically challenged. But perhaps Maximo eventually found his tribe in Centralia.

The view from the roof rack had me blinking in surprise, an immense whale was floating along, following a range on the northern edge of the Simpson Desert. As I reached for a camera, the whale stretched and morphed into a serpent, the telephoto lens resolving several large flocks of budgerigars coalescing and dividing as they approached my position. Closer and closer they pulsed and chattered on wings that murmured through the mulga.

They are quite simply the largest organism in the sky. Now the lead group of perhaps five hundred performed their shimmering water dance; a spectacular spiralling column of descending green and yellow flashing in the late afternoon sunlight, tails pointing to the water, their rate of descent controlled by the thirst of those drinking at the bottom.

Five thousand more converged on the dam and I drove slowly forward excited in the knowledge that I’d located their latest water point and evening roost.

Some of the photographs I took revealed the exacting tightness of the flock and particularly of family groups within it. Pairs were flying wing tip to wing tip with their offspring in a protective cluster, doubtless bonded tightly by the uniqueness of their repeated calls.

Next morning, I turned a bend in the road and rushing towards me, just above ground level, a torrent of birds filling and spilling over the empty road ahead. Why were they flying so low?

Answering my own question, I realised they were just having fun. Resembling a funnel shaped wave, some ten or twelve metres high and four metres at the base, the leading edge filled the red road and spilled out above and beyond the walls of dense roadside mulga.

Instinctively, I turned off the engine, allowing the vehicle to roll forward engulfed in a whispering cloak of green. I admit to grimacing with concern, bracing for the splatter of bodies on the windscreen and then gasping as the leading wave opened up and swallowed me in a tunnel of green, yellow and black punctuated with sharp chinks of sunlight.

The rustle of 10,000 wings was clearly audible through the closed windows and the sense of flying was accentuated by the speed of the passing birds and the momentum of the rolling vehicle. Beside me with a long lens attached sat the camera and I cursed once more that I didn’t own a second camera body with a wide angle lens at the ready.

At sunset the murmurations were spell binding and I felt a strange sense of guilt that I was the solitary witness of such an epic ballet. The view finder is never expansive enough or close enough.

It took all my willpower to stay the course, to hunt as a falcon might, seeking the single frames that tell a story and not surrender to the easy splendour of a cinematic sequence that captures the ballet but less so, the performers. 

Resisting the temptation to review what I’d captured I drove home on the power of memory alone, elated. Back in the office I downloaded the frames and began the task of editing. I’m never really content with the final results but there’s a few frames that make the effort worthwhile and tomorrow’s another dawn with potential murmurations at sunrise and sunset.





  1. Once more Mike, your lens on the world at our doors is greatly appreciated. Such a generous and wise account and so rare to encounter such quality in a newspaper. But then, the Alice News has proved to be a rare beast throughout its life.

  2. In early ’85 I was operating a dozer repairing a large dam on Huckita Stn, camped on the bank amongst a grove of gumtrees.
    Each evening I’d observe large flocks of budgies watering on the opposite side, some 50 metres away, and I eventually grabbed the binoculars. I was surprised how far from the bank many of them were apparently standing as they drank, while the majority of them drank at the water’s edge.
    The next day I went over to check the depth, and found that the budgies away from the edge were drinking in water up to my knees!
    Out with the binoculars again that evening, it was quite clear that substantial numbers of them were landing on the water like little green ducks, drinking while stationary, and taking off again.

  3. Yes Rod, at times they were doing it: as you say, bobbing around on the water like little green ducks.
    At different times I’ve also seen significant numbers frantically hovering, scooping water on the wing with tails dragging. The presence and activity of falcons can lead to more urgent and less elegant contact with water.
    I suppose getting wet may disadvantage birds by shaving off some of their predator avoidance speed. Under the right conditions, if it’s January and exceptionally hot they probably feel it’s worth the risk.
    There are some published records of mass budgie and zebra finch deaths due to heat waves. More on this next week. Thanks for your observation.
    PS: I absolutely agree with Rod Moss about the nature of the Alice Springs News and thank them for supporting this series of 32 published since March.
    From next week I’m going to wind back to a single image and a caption for the foreseeable future with an occasional essay when time permits.
    Thanks to readers for their generous comments and thanks to the trolls for remaining silent.


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