Following feathered dancers into the desert

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By MIKE GILLAM

From Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) to Kiwirrkurra in the Tanami, I’ve followed budgerigar murmurations – those magnificent formations in the sky created by thousands of birds –over many years. This obsession is mostly confined to summer months when flocks are boosted by fledglings especially during the high rainfall years.

The only form of luck I know is persistent searching, planning and imagining. Long meditative drives to check on the status of water in dams or claypans. Follow the falcons and think like a flock of budgerigars. Search out those plains of native oat grass and a safe place to drink, a daily requirement for these granivorous birds.

Hopeful stake outs in the perfect location if only the budgerigars comply in the right light, from the right direction, in the right numbers. Camping overnight in the mulga with a chirruping multitude, I fight the urge to sleep, and dream of success in the morning.

For weeks that quintessential image beckons like a mirage, just out of reach. Hot sleepless nights, hypnotic days. I resist the urge to record on video the balletic grace of the flock, a much easier path than trying to capture the perfect still frame.

Acrobatic budgerigars react to the threat of a black falcon.

Finally from the vantage of a dune crest I photograph a wide ribbon of budgerigars moving slowly over spinifex hummocks, the bright green birds contrasting sharply with a background pattern of shadows.

The feathered dance resembles a phalanx of stars and I return from the edge of madness, sunburnt, exhausted and smiling. And plan my next desert holiday. Few photographic moments can compare with the euphoria I feel in the presence of a budgerigar host.

One early morning in late September I followed flocks on their way to drink at a dam where I sat for a while trying to analyse the best photographic options. By 0730 there were already thousands of birds roosting in nearby trees and coming to drink in turbulent waves.

For the next hour or two, the numbers of budgerigars rose steadily as did the predators, black falcons an ever present threat at the water’s edge. Rashly I estimated the number of budgerigars to be upwards of 100,000 birds occupying every tree for several hectares and filling the sky much of the time in a complex layering of flocks.

I’m reasonably familiar with flocks of 1,000-5,000 but greater numbers are beyond my comprehension so there could have been many more on the day but surely no less.

Avian predators watch from the tree tops, resting after each failed attempt, recovering and waiting for a fresh opportunity. Hobby falcons seem to rule the outer approaches and black falcons command the water where they use the banks of the dam to conceal a low level attack, flying fast and hopefully seizing their chance in the panicked retreat and melee of drinking budgerigars.

Budgerigars resting in the mulga.

A pair of black falcons appear to be working cooperatively; one bird driving flocks of budgerigars from the water’s edge and towards the second falcon in the act of breasting the earth embankment that encircles the dam. Contemplating piracy, a couple of fork-tailed kites and a hopeful goshawk watch each manoeuvre intently, hoping to snatch up any young budgerigar felled and injured but not successfully clenched in falcon talons.

Sitting well back from the water’s edge and remaining motionless I allow myself a smile as young birds attempt to land on my shoulders. The predominant green plumage of the budgerigar constellation changes colour across three zones.

Top and bottom, the water and the sky reflect cyan and this dulls the plumage of the birds while pushing forward the true colour and vibrance of those budgerigars flying through the centre of frame where yellows are enhanced. The final image needs only a shallow veil of sharpness to cope with the blizzard of detail. Closer inspection will reveal that every leaf on the two trees is in fact a roosting budgerigar.

NEXT: For the photographer it’s imperative to keep well back from waterholes where wildlife, ever mindful of predators, are trying to drink.

AT TOP: Immense flocks arriving in the early morning to drink at a turkey’s nest dam. How many birds? Look very hard.

10 COMMENTS

  1. On a trip from Alice to Adelaide one Christmas I experienced one of these events. I was amazed by the sheer volume of noise generated by that many wings.

  2. More brilliant photos, Mike!
    In 1985 I was camped for a couple of weeks on the banks of a large dam on Huckita, and observed from the “cab” of the dozer, large flocks of budgies coming in most afternoons to the far bank.
    Late one afternoon I was sitting in my camp early enough to just watch them, and with binoculars.
    I noticed that quite a few budgies were drinking a meter or more “offshore”.
    Later that evening I went round to that spot and checked the depth – as I suspected, where I had seen them drinking, the water was almost up to my knees!
    These budgies had been landing on the water, and like little green ducks, quickly drinking while they floated, and then taking off again!

  3. Wonderful descriptions and photos as usual. It’s a long time since I saw a large flock of budgerigars, something I hope to see again, but failing that, your descriptive prowess and superb photos almost compensate for this lack. Thank you, Mike.

  4. I’m reliably informed that Hugo is a passionate naturalist so I feel compelled to answer his difficult question.
    Budgies choose an old growth tree hollow to lay their eggs (average four to six) and apparently the eggs will hatch after 18 days and the young birds are ready to leave the nest after a further 30 days.
    With their parents watching over them the young birds pour from the labyrinthine red gum hollows of major desert rivers, the coolibah hollows of the flood-outs and the gidgee hollows of minor drainages and form flocks of hundreds and then tens of thousands.
    These aggregations are a blend of training, travel and ceremony and the young birds quickly discover the power of flying together and the best ways to avoid predators while searching for food and water.
    In Australia’s inland I’d guess they are the largest organism in the sky for a time and their future depends on the protection of old growth trees that provide vital breeding hollows and healthy native grasslands for food.

  5. Mike: Local breeding can certainly go into overdrive after a good rainfall, but do we have any information on movement over longer distances? We know the Pelicans do it when water flows into Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre).
    It is conceivable that Budgies could move into the Centre after a big rain.

  6. Charlie, to my knowledge there has been no attempt to unravel the movements of budgerigars across the inland.
    It would be fascinating to know but NOT fitting radio transmitters to them is probably a good thing.
    I’m never certain that I’m following the same aggregations from one week to the next but I think it’s probable I followed a large coalition of flocks up and down the Stuart Highway over a period of a month from de Rose Hill station to Dresley Creek, south of Coober Pedy, a distance of about 500 km, before I ultimately lost them.
    I suspect they routinely range much further where surface water is available. In an essay posted on the Alice Springs News years ago, I mentioned a record of an escaped budgerigar that travelled from Victoria to a site between Maree and Birdsville, a distance of 1,100 km.
    The bird joined a flock and survived for over five years in the wild before it crashed into a Telstra tower cable. A leg band enabling people to determine its origins.

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