Thursday, July 25, 2024

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HomeVolume 29Moving closer to that elusive miracle of life and light

Moving closer to that elusive miracle of life and light


I strain to see the light reflecting on the surface of another dam in my budgerigar quest. Nature photographers understand the importance of being early, to anticipate is definitely preferable to chasing the light.

Sitting quietly in the predawn gloom I recognise the distinctive flight sound of incoming Bourke parrots, arriving in pairs but it’s too dark to see these secretive birds. 

At sunrise the sound of Bronzewing pigeons is quickly verified as I count seven adults and a few more hanging back in the shadows. Specular highlights of the Bronzewings, in green and bronze flash in response to the rising sun and family groups of mulga parrots follow, iridescent green head plumage competing for my attention.

A pair of galahs, several diamond doves and a family of crested pigeons appear on the opposite shore but their privacy is short-lived as a multitude joins the throng.

A tentative flock of thirty or so cockatiels completes a couple of circuits calling to one another and checking for danger before joining the reassuring grey of the crested pigeons.

Within a few minutes all are vastly outnumbered by the first waves of budgerigars.

In a discrete curve of the bank where “dead finish”, Acacia tetragonyphylla shrubs meet the waterline, small flocks of zebra finches arrive in nervous groups, drink hurriedly and return to safety within the spiky shrubs, their thirst momentarily quenched. A lone dingo approaches cautiously and it’s barely 7am.

Amongst other budgerigar fantasies, I wanted to photograph a flock and render them as soft green brush strokes passing across the flank of a dune with the desert receding to infinity.

Budgies in woodland.

A line of mesas hovered on the horizon, completing the theoretical photograph. But how to capture the blur of budgerigars moving across the frame? Was it a matter of patience, of returning to the same site at the prescribed time for several days in a row?

Frustratingly, I had a few near misses on the first two days as group after group flew past, behind me or above me or too far away, always just outside the perfect frame. Later that night, sitting on my swag contemplating the stars I had an epiphany. On the third morning I changed my shirt.

I had long since discovered that being open, conspicuous and moving slowly around wildlife was often better than sneakiness; swathed in camouflage while attempting and failing to hide.

On this occasion I reasoned that transparency was not enough. Could I intrigue even a few flock leaders to come for a closer look at this strange human and bring their minions with them?

Perhaps a modicum of heat stroke was informing my epiphany but I decided that wearing a fluoro-blue shirt might well appeal to budgerigars with their tetrachromatic vision, a feature that provided increased sensitivity in the ultra violet range. (For the record, I had nothing fluoro green or yellow to hand).

To complete my seduction, I resurrected a spindly broken Acacia where it had been thrust aside during roadwork, planting a tall and substantial branch into the roadside some five metres from my vehicle.

Certainly I’d watched budgerigars moving through landscapes often enough to know that they undulate up and down but also side to side, often veering within easy reach of shrubby vegetation either as a place to pause and rest or crouch and evade fast flying falcons.

For reasons unclear, luck or persistence, or the bright blue shirt that seemed to attract a marginally higher fly past of budgerigars, I finally managed to obtain a satisfactory image.


A few days later the budgerigars performed a mesmerising ribbon dance at dusk which I failed to capture in the manner I’d settled on.

The flock of perhaps two thousand followed the contours of dunes and swales moving in and out of sun and deepening shade, flying slowly at heights of between one and five metres above ground level.

This continued for perhaps 10 minutes whereupon the budgerigar ribbon moved to the tallest dune. Here, catching only the reflected light of the setting sun, the flock “ribbon” became a more rounded “serpent” following the dune crest for several hundred metres, and then abruptly angled skyward gaining height rapidly and shape shifting as it went.

No longer elongated, the mysterious cloud breaks into several smaller parts, folding over, coalescing and dividing once more, ever higher and then as light levels plunge, they vanish.

I know without reviewing any frames that my photographic attempts are unremarkable but there’s little time for despair and there’s always tomorrow.

Consoling myself I follow the flock’s trajectory, passing by the old railway ruins of Engoordina. When I saw the budgerigars settling into trees up ahead, I found a place to camp so I could enjoy their company at a respectful distance.

Ripening grasslands dominated by native oat grass, trembled in the evening breeze between the widely spaced dunes. The aggregation had chosen as their roost, a broad swathe of mulga with outlying desert oaks on all sides.

Collectively I believe there were 5,000 to 10,000 birds present but it’s impossible to know. I lay on my swag in a state of rapture listening to the chitter-chatter of so many voices and still after 9pm by the light of the full moon they continued to arrive in small flocks, guided to this precise place in a very expansive landscape, by what instinct? Wanting to make this time last I battled a strong need to sleep for several hours.

Euphoric in their presence, I gladly accept that most of the imagined photographs crowding my brain can never be realised in three life times.

Even in apparent failure I enjoy every photographic quest. With each attempt I move closer and closer to that elusive miracle of life and light, until on rare occasions I can literally bathe in something glorious. For some-one who remembers all too clearly a teenager’s existence in Melbourne, perhaps otherworldly is closer to the truth.

The alarm awoke me at 5am and I made preparations for the potential exodus, reasoning this would take the super flock west to the nearest water and conveniently past and over a blood red dune, one that had certain Saharan qualities.

I leaned against the trunk of a desert oak and waited patiently for the moment. At sunrise they rose in clouds and volleys, departing every which way except west.

In admiration I watched the bunched and disparate flocks unify and climb, steadily gaining height before flying south and then boomerang style they turned south-west and disappeared from view.

I did not take a single frame but my euphoria was unabated. Recounting this story back in Alice Springs, I cursed myself for failing to record their nocturnal voices on my phone.

AT TOP: Flight of budgerigars.


  1. Mike, the usual poetic prose of the highest order, with images to match, but I see that you’ll possibly NEVER get the perfect photo you are totally satisfied with.
    Maybe if you’re lucky, once or twice in your lifetime? You seem to have such a clear vision in your head of exactly what you want, but which remains forever elusive. Nature will not perform for you, and because of your impossibly exacting standards, perhaps such perfect images are out of reach.
    I’ve been privileged to see some of your many photos, and to my mind, they are exquisitely beautiful.
    I can’t wait to see a publication of your collected essays and accompanying photos. Thanks for having me on your mailing list.

  2. Thanks Faye, you’re probably right. Web reproduction of my photos is necessarily poor and while I cringe at times, accepting such limitations has inspired me to lift my investment in the writing side.
    I’d like to see a collection of these images in print one day but it’s reassuring to know that pirated images of this web quality are less likely to end up in some random travel brochure.
    I suppose its only a matter of time before written content is lifted also and regurgitated through AI so I’m motivated to conclude this round of photographic essays.
    I have a number of unfinished subjects ahead of me and some are difficult to investigate in every sense. Coober Pedy and the Eromanga Sea are coming soon.

  3. Hello Mike, I loved your description of the ribbon dancing budgerigars and all your personal efforts to record those beauteous images.
    Thank you for persisting to write (and click) about these wonders, in the face of ongoing horrors in our human societies.
    We definitely need many artists, like yourself, to confirm that we, ordinary mortals, can still have our spirits lifted, and be inspired.
    Thank you!


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