By MIKE GILLAM
Photo© Mike Gillam
There is a reassuring circularity in this month’s return of Yeperenye caterpillars munching their way through pastures of thickening vines. These exquisite caterpillars featured in the second story I wrote for the Alice Springs News in March 2020:
“… In our locale we had such an abundance of these living dot paintings that we caterpillar ‘bombed’ a dozen sites where vines had been missed by the egg laying hawk moths…” Caterpillar bombing has become an annual event for the alliance of environmentalists lurking in Hele Crescent.
The predaceous green beetles have also returned in high numbers. A week after the rain, which I missed, the air was humming with insects and the sacred kingfisher brood left their tree hollow for the first time, under the watchful eye of their parents.
Wandering the stony desert country, hellishly dry, between Coober Pedy and Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre), I watched the BOM satellite updates for Alice Springs with glee. While the town area recorded falls of up to 90mm, higher still in the Tanami, rainfall tapered off to the south with locations such as Mt Dare receiving about a third of our total.
Still, the immense catchments of gibber country ensured that the waterhole at Eringa was deep enough to attract a solitary cormorant, an elusive heron and flocks of galahs. Mt Dare, with its permanent dam was a focus for numerous granivorous birds.
Closer to town, evidence of rainfall remained patchy. At day’s end we sought out relief in the high stony plateaux that offered flows of cooler air and the chance of fitful sleep. One day the breeze stopped.
The Acacia peuce reserve was like an oven in the late afternoon and we decided to keep driving. Between Andado and Allambi we encountered areas of roadside lushness and stopped to admire fringing Crotalaria with rods of exuberant yellow flowers crawling with insects. Biodiversity heaven for any entomologist.
I started counting and gave up. In the dying light of sunset, there were five species of wasp, maybe two or three bees, various flies, countless moths, a solitary hovering Intelyapelyape (the Yeperenye moth) and battalions of ants. We drove on and finally camped north of the Rodinga Range. Next day, with the mercury climbing from a high overnight base, we made an early start for home.
Most years I fight the soothing embrace of air conditioning and try to unplug and go bush for brief intervals over the summer. Occasionally there’s a touch of respite, even during the drought there was a cool break once or twice following rain somewhere over the horizon. Mostly it’s arduous and taxing but the rewards are usually there.
I look for places where rain has recently fallen, an isolated storm perhaps, where life and hope returns for beleaguered wildlife. The past two months have been glorious and I can’t recall a more enjoyable run of cool temperatures and enlivening rain during December through January.
Given our new found lushness, I thought a reminder might be useful, a backward glance to January 2019, when the impact of drought seemed relentlessly dire. By chance, driving through the heat haze, I happened across a small miracle in a very dry landscape.
The river gums looked fatigued and unwashed, as though they were covered in a film of talc and those mulgas in suboptimal locations appeared either dead or dying. Here I found a place where a truck had become bogged in the road and left a legacy of very deep and narrow ruts.
I’d seen faint tantalising columns of rain on the horizon the previous day and to my surprise one such cloudburst had filled the ruts with water. Apart from the miracle coolamons of water, the country in every direction was parched. I switched off the engine and studied the twin pools.
There was no sign of wildlife but the day was likely to reach 43 or 44 degrees C and the pools were exposed and highly visible from the air. I concluded it would probably evaporate within a few days and a stake out might yield results.
Given that resident birdlife were likely familiar with cars, the only viable hide location was inside the vehicle parked in the middle of the road at a distance of about twenty metres. I protected most of the windows with patches of shade cloth and settled in, long lens resting on the side window sill. There was no prospective traffic and little risk of blocking the road.
I didn’t have long to wait and the avian traffic increased rapidly as the sun reached its zenith. I spent the best part of four days in my, thankfully white, Hilux where I drank often and marvelled at my infrequent need to water the grateful herbage.
There were occasional periods of boredom but mostly the bird community whirred and wafted, in and out, an urgent choreography driven by heat and thirst, a community too tired to argue for position at the shrinking lens of water, aggression and fear, for the most part suspended.
I made a checklist of species, 21 visited the water and drank, a further seven species passed overhead or loitered nearby. On the last day when it became obvious that the water could not last much longer, it seemed the birds came faster and drank more desperately, anxious to get their share, and then they and the water were gone.
I knew of pastoral water points nearby, where the birds would likely return – a place where the numbers of raptors were scarily high. Such was the allure of a new water source, sweet rainwater and a chance to leave the build up of predators behind for a while.
Five species are contained in the image above: masked wood-swallows, crimson chats, a grey crowned honeyeater, a solitary white winged triller and the omnipresent willy wagtail.
I’d estimate that a population of over forty wood swallows visited the temporary water point and five or six chats. Interestingly most species were insectivorous; granivorous birds with their much higher need for water were mostly absent, doubtless committed to a reliable source nearby.
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