Tuesday, December 1, 2020

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Home Issue 45 A touch of light: cicadas and cuckoos usher in the summer

A touch of light: cicadas and cuckoos usher in the summer

By MIKE GILLAM

Photo © Mike Gillam  

Some years an extension of the subtropical monsoon from the north can result in significant precipitation through November and December gifting desert dwellers with restorative and energising spells of cooler temperatures up until Christmas. And there’s nowhere I’d rather be when it rains.

Then there’s January and unless it rains, that’s a harder sell. Still, without the lash of summer, Centralia would lose its harsh outback reputation and McMansions crowding the horizon line would surely follow. In the height of summer, less desert adapted locals often retreat to cooler climes and forsake the excitement of electrical storms, the hum of insects and a desert brimming with life.

Last week the raucous cry of the jungle shattered the stillness of a desert dawn and I looked instinctively skywards for the channel billed cuckoos. The world’s largest cuckoo with a voice to match, CBCs migrate from New Guinea and Indonesia to breed in Australia. They seem early this year, doubtless in step with an early start to the wet season up north.

My best guess has channel bills arriving in Alice Springs around 2000, perhaps the wet years of 2000-2001 might have some bearing on this. Local birders might have earlier records but a note from Bob Gosford in 2007 mentions the first appearance at Yuendumu: “…recorded there for about the last ten years…”

Having discovered the caring nature of our local crows that raise most of their offspring, the CBCs come back each year sometime between late November and early January. I couldn’t find an Arrernte name for this recent arrival.

This morning I watched a frenzy of iridescent blue black wasps, large females digging burrows, stoically focussed despite the bevy of suitors. Literally dozens of wasps active in a few square metres and beyond – nothing. Pheromones are amazing.

As daytime temperatures exceed 38 degrees C, Centralia’s first cicada nymphs have emerged from the ground beneath river red gums, their favourite host plant. While cicadas are visible in small numbers at the start of every summer, they experience major peaks, often every six or seven years. At such times, I’ve observed trees packed with numbers so great that their piss can create a subtle mist, doubtless expelled in my honour or alarmed by my presence.

In the rising heat of mid morning cicadas vibrate the airways, their song reaching a crescendo at dusk. The ‘underground’ nymph stage is called alkngirnere by Arrernte people and when it splits free from its outer shell, the winged tyerraye emerges.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Some idea of the earliest records of channel billed cuckoos in Alice Springs is provided by this report: “Alice Springs Conservation Commission staff are looking after a most unusual visitor – a channel-billed cuckoo.
    “The two-month old bird which was found at the Desert Palms Motel is only the third of its species to have ever been sited [sic] in Alice Springs.
    “The bird … has created quite a sensation in the world of ornithology but his celebrity status as a visitor to Alice Springs will be short lived.
    “Conservation Commission staff are feeding the youngster up to give it some much needed strength to continue on its migration which will probably end in southern Queensland.” (“VIP cuckoo off track in the Alice”, Centralian Advocate, 11/3/94).
    To place this story in context, it was published within a fortnight of the commencement of the Alice Springs News!
    It’s interesting to note the prevailing thought at the time was that this bird was “lost” but it seems more likely it was amongst the earliest cohorts of fledglings to be raised by the local crows.
    However, I was living in the old Eastside at the time and admit I can’t recall observing these cuckoos in town; however, when I returned to the same suburb in January 2000 their presence was highly noticeable.
    Thanks to the heavy rains that commenced in January 2000, food resources were abundant and a pair of crows near where I lived in Lindsay Avenue successfully raised a pair of channel billed cuckoo chicks – the only time I’ve seen that happen.
    I think the main food source crows rely upon to raise their parasitical broods are grasshoppers, especially the large locusts that plague citrus and vegie gardens in town during good seasons.
    With the ultra hot dry summers we’ve experienced in the last few years, grasshoppers have been almost non-existent and there seems to have been a corresponding decline in successful broods of cuckoo fledglings.
    One young bird perished from starvation in my back yard two years ago – when I picked it up it was nothing but skin and bones.
    I donated the luckless youngster to the Museum of Central Australia, and it turned out to be the first specimen of a channel billed cuckoo collected from Central Australia (and only the third from the NT).

  2. Thanks Mike and Alex. I first noticed the CBCs this year calling incessantly before dawn about 10 days ago, and like Mike I don’t remember them before around 2000.
    Perhaps the 1994 bird was a pioneer.
    My backyard is peppered with emergent cicada holes, and I scooped a dozen or so out of the pool this morning.
    A week or so ago I noticed several dead and dying cicadas that were deformed or seemingly only part formed.
    I was puzzling about the cause, perhaps extreme early heat, but realised I was seeing a biased sample, the healthy ones had already flown up into the trees, and joined the chorus.

  3. Hi Mike. The cicada spray doesn’t actually have anything to do with us. They’re producing it all the time because the nutrients in the sap they feed on are so diluted that they must constantly excrete the water. And it’s pretty much pure water, so no real need to avoid it! Another great article, thanks.

  4. Thanks, Mike, and everyone, for an interesting story.
    I’ve been monitoring (and filming) the channel-billed cuckoos for many years now.
    This year’s arrival date was fairly typical of what we’ve recorded over the past couple of decades – though quite a few of the eucalypt trees in which their crow-hosts make their nests have been cut down over that period.

  5. Thanks to all the readers for their illuminating comments.
    David’s about the loss of mature Eucalypts is particularly sobering at a time when we should be strenuously protecting and expanding these assets.
    I look forward to seeing his film on CBC.
    Private land is being developed intensively with little regard to conserving mature trees and public spaces are little more than frying pans in desperate need of amenity and commitment.
    Unfortunately political egos continue to trump good governance.
    Engineering solutions, expensive but immediate create a momentary media high but do not offer the lasting and myriad benefits of thoughtfully designed and implemented tree shade.
    Doubtless I’m preaching to the converted here!

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