By MIKE GILLAM
Photos © Mike Gillam
Throughout November-December the ancient river red gums shed most of their fatigued outer bark to reveal the polished ivory beneath. Skinks dart from the cover of the old flaking bark to snatch termite alates pouring from a crack in a fallen log, a magnificent giant a mere decade ago, ultimately claimed by fire in the Todd River.
The sacred kingfishers have reclaimed their breeding hollow, evicting termites and removing the galleries of mud that sealed its entry portal. On one memorable occasion, my artist friend and birdwatcher the late Iain Campbell observed the kingfishers flying repeatedly into the packed mud using their large pointed beaks like demolition hammers.
One morning I photographed a pair; one of them, I’m not sure which gender, appeared to be offering to share food with its mate. The prey was a tiny arboreal skink with the latin name, surely longer than the lizard, of Cryptoblepharus plagiocephalus. The skinks are avid hunters of termites and themselves a favourite prey item of kingfishers. By mid December the kingfishers, working in frantic relay, must first incubate the clutch of three to six eggs (17-18 days), feed the brood of nestlings (up to four weeks) and for a further week to 10 days after they leave the nest.
These typical river inhabitants also nest in suburbia, commonly digging a tunnel into an earthen bank. One pair I know have ‘drilled’ into the fibrous, surely highly resistant trunk of a date palm where they’ve successfully raised a brood for the past four or five years. Doubtless most Australians have heard of North American wood-peckers and are less familiar with the remarkable abilities of sacred kingfishers.
According to Wikipedia the sacred kingfisher was said to be a holy bird for Polynesians. While I’ve heard amazing Arrernte stories concerning this species and parlkennge, the red-backed kingfisher, I can’t find any published references so they are best left for the right people to tell them.