Acrobats in the Canopy - January 23rd 2013

on 19 Feb 2013 

Just outside the house yard, looking west, are three very large Athel Pines, Tamarisk aphylla, planted very close to each other. Each canopy overlaps and it looks like there is only one huge tree. Dense shade is provided for all types of birds and invertebrates (and possibly reptiles and mammals) in times of relentless heat and wind stress. But this introduced species is a Weed of National Significance, ‘classified as a sleeper weed because it was present in Australia for some time before it became weedy, being first promoted as a useful tree in arid and semi-arid areas from the 1930s onwards.’ Today they are filled with honeyeaters as the trees are heavily in flower. All day the birds have been busy working the cream flowers along multi-branched influorescences.

I place my chair nearby and sit with binoculars and camera under dappled shade of a planted eucalypt on the front lawn. Performing all types of acrobatic feats, Singing Honeyeaters and White-plumed Honeyeaters hang upside down and sideways to get to the nectar-rich flowers all found in terminal spikes at the end of last year’s branches. The Singing Honeyeater wipes its beak on a branch, enough for the time being. Another one is hanging vertically downward with its head twisted 180° to get to some flowers. It has won my vote for the best contortionist act of the day. A Brown Honeyeater perches precariously onto a many-branched flower spike, probing each flower with its beak, busily working all the flowers on that branch. The spike bends down with its light weight. Does the bird need to grip even tighter, I wonder?

A few spots of rain are hitting the ground (and my page). The air is humid and thunder is occasionally rumbling as a huge cloud darkens the sky. Cloud formation is building and a shower may eventually drench a tiny portion of this thirsty landscape. As I sit I feel tiny beads of sweat running down the middle of my back. A white-plumed Honeyeater aggressively hunts off another, as if it ‘owns’ that branch. This tree has dozens of branches producing a massive number of flowers (and eventually seeds).

I have been watering the surrounding lawns constantly, keeping the garden green. It looks aesthetically pleasing and reduces the risk of fire taking the house in a severe bushfire situation. Wherever I stand the billions of small ants climb onto my shoes and up my legs, making bird watching a little difficult. I must spray my shoes with fly spray next time. Ants occupy nearly every space on the ground. One cannot stand anywhere without being invaded by ants – on green grass or dry sand.

A Brown-headed Honeyeater has grasped the terminal end of a flower spike and is swinging from side to side as its beak probes each flower in its reach. Chip chip sounds constantly remind me and other birds of its presence. A few Brown-headed Honeyeaters fly off, giving a quick chatter as they do. There would have to be at least 50 birds in this tree, coming and going from pre-dawn to dusk. Spiny-cheeked honeyeater is heard calling nearby. A Whistling Kite is heard in the distance to the south of the house where the lagoon is located. This lagoon is fed constantly with artesian water from the bore, some 50m from the Tamarisks.

A huge cloud mass has moved on from here and opened up, producing a heavy shower to our north. Two Major Mitchells fly over the house, their beautiful pink plumage a picture against a grey sky. There is continual rumbling associated with the heavy downpour. The sun is now shining through a thin whisper of white cloud as it slowly heads for the western horizon. It is 5pm and time to go indoors to think about dinner. I don’t want to go in. My senses are alive with a mix of heat, humidity, thunder, birds chattering and a frog calling from the bore behind the tree. I hear a Restless Flycatcher, its distinct call giving it the nickname of ‘scissors grinder’.  The odd bolt of lightning reminds me of the ever-present threat of bushfires often started in dry storms here. I am looking forward to this evening’s sunset which will be spectacular once again with a cloud presence on the horizon.

What lies ahead for tomorrow? Another day, another story. Suddenly a wave of anxiety engulfs me.

Dianne Davies

Leighton, S. Tamarisk – a real risk for New South Wales. 14th Biennial NSW Weeds Conference 2007