A flash flood of budgerigars

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Budgerigars rising from waterhole.

Part Two by MIKE GILLAM

The first of three budgerigar stories in the Alice Springs News prompted a reader to  recall “the sheer volume of noise generated by that many wings.”

I admit it’s a unique and difficult sound to describe. I’ve used the term feather storm to convey the contradictory mood of a soft roar, perhaps the tonality of driving rain in reverse or surf crashing on rocks filtered by distance but words can’t accurately describe it. Suffice to say, it’s my aim not to generate a feather storm in the first place because such intimacy is likely to cause unnecessary stress for the flock.

I do recall an unexpected 20 seconds or so, more a feather torrent than a storm, forever etched in my memory. I was driving sedately down a dirt track one late afternoon searching for a waterhole when I suddenly encountered a huge budgerigar murmuration performing one of their late afternoon flock bonding rituals.

Turning a bend, I was confronted by a serpentine river of green filling the road ahead. With the energy of a flash flood, the flock flowed along the road canal just above ground level. Fortunately the windows were shut and I gasped as the leading edge of the torrent opened up and swallowed the vehicle.

Massed budgerigars.

I immediately turned off the engine and the vehicle rolled down the dirt track, engulfed in a whispering cloak of green. The numbers created a dense wall on all sides and I strained to see through the flickering chinks of light as the emerald energy became a swirling kaleidoscope, myriad hues of green, black and yellow.

Time slowed and although the vehicle had stopped, I rode in a magical chariot, carried forward by the impetus of the flock sweeping past. The spell broke suddenly and the budgerigars were gone.

I can confirm that not a single budgerigar was harmed by this interaction. Recovering from this encounter, I was startled by another flock of five hundred rising up to join their friends and managed to take an image through the still closed and grubby side window. I call it budgerigar rain.

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

Accordingly, I decided to buy a remote trigger for my camera, and thus equipped, located a small waterhole where budgerigars were focussed. Unfortunately the not very high end Bluetooth device fell short of its suggested range. Frustrated, I returned to town and commissioned my electronics guru to chop up a cable release and connect 25 metres of cable between the camera and activation button.

The cable reel worked perfectly and I rushed back to the ideal waterhole where I would float my cleverly camouflaged camera to capture the descending flight of budgerigars coming to drink.

Predictably the birds had moved on and I commenced the frustrating process of locating their current drinking places with some success a few days later. Unfortunately the waterhole was huge and the budgerigars were spread out in various points around its edge. There was little point deploying my twin catamaran raft incorporating two plastic decoy ducks on this occasion.

Returning through Apatula (Finke) I follow the track that takes its name from the Ghan railway line tracing the complex interzone between Lhere Pirnte (Finke River) and its floodouts to the west and Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) to the east.

During the second year of a La Niña event I spent several days trying to photograph flocks of budgerigars revelling in the bounty of seeding grasses, their incursion into the desert country aided by recent rain that had filled ephemeral claypans and outlying dams of the neighbouring Finke cattle runs.

At dusk and next morning I watched the direction taken by numerous small flocks numbering up to 500 and studied the maps in an effort to identify a viable water point.

There was a dam from a bygone era that seemed like a good candidate but there was no track of any description leading to it. The sun was already high and the temperature uncomfortable for my 38 degree core but still I decided to use the low yield midday hours to do a recce.

I planned to walk the eight km and check it out but underestimated how long this would take, given wide detours to check on promising clumps of verdant green or climb yet another high mesa to scout the surrounds.

Budgerigars, dunes and mesas of Munga Thirri (Simpson Desert).

Already muscle soreness in my calves was tinged with a heaviness that indicated a build-up of lactic acid but maybe the next stony plateau or the next would reveal the elusive dam. The presence of high circling hobby falcons was a strong indicator that prey were present in numbers but still there was no water.

In several more hours, walking like this without shade and economising on water, I’d likely feel the first stomach cramps and dull ache as blood supply, beginning with the non-essential organs, begins to shut down.

At this point I’d seek a shady tree, drink water and rehydrate because ignoring stomach discomfort will lead to head issues: possibly confusion and mistakes, walking in circles and given enough time, potentially hallucinations. Fast forward a couple of days to the point of organ failure and death, or a kidney transplant and the life of an invalid if by some miracle I’m rescued.

Numerous tracks criss-crossing the sandy country are a reminder that camels, the harbingers of change, are becoming a real consideration for bushwalkers across much of the arid zone. Further west in the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts the browse lines are evident where camels have stretched to graze the foliage of trees and quandongs are fast vanishing from the landscape.

I feel privileged to have seen this desert wonderland before the onslaught of buffel grass, camels and wildfires of growing intensity. Of course, for all its magnificence, the ravaged biodiversity that I first encountered as a young man had already lost so much of its richness and vigour during the initial waves of colonisation and the introduction of rabbits, cats, foxes and grazing livestock.

Diamond doves, small flocks and family groups moving among the tussocks in characteristic short bursts of flight, are music to my ears. A startled button quail joins the ensemble and I take care not to step on a hidden clutch of eggs.

The camels, led by an emotionally unstable blubbering and salivating bull, were the last straw. Fortunately I saw them first and began a long and unplanned detour, circling around and detouring again when I came across a camel pad that was clearly a well-used highway.

The presence of useful trees that a nervous photographer might realistically climb to safety were limited and I was forced to accept the dam had been reabsorbed by time and regrowth.

Sensibly I returned to the vehicle by a more direct route, guzzled a litre of water laced with electrolytes and lay down in the shade provided by its reflective white skin.

NEXT: A fluoro-blue shirt worked better than camouflage in Mike’s encounter with his feathered friends.

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