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Negotiating a desert summer

Published 13 Feb 2020 by Kyle Barton (Ethabuka Reserve Manager)

Early summer months (December-January) brought back the unrelentless dry heat to Ethabuka Reserve in far western Queensland. Temperatures soared over the mid-40s and rolling dust storms and haze always seem to arrive when you've just cleaned the house!

The soft, red country seems suddenly harsh and sunburnt with the intense luminosity fading the colour. Mirages and dust devils become common.

The spinifex has hay off once again and the annual forbs are just dried sticks that shatter when disturbed. The gidgee trees have gone from lush green to silver green – shutting down for the hotter months when water is limited.

Few animals are seen during the day, apart from the occasional Sand Goanna (which seem to love the heat) and a few snakes as the sun sets. It's during the night that things happen, as tracks on the road show, there's still a bit of activity as animals make the best of the cooler hours.

The extreme heat is never pleasant for anyone and we often remark that it feels like being in an oven. It's not unusual to wake up at 6am with temperatures of 35 degrees. Amazingly, you kind of get used to the temperature and yes, 38 degrees can seem pleasant after awhile! This heat is not only hard on the body, it's also hard on infrastructure with our electricity systems and internet often overheating.

A few things that can help get through the long summer days include:

Adapting the work and workload

We focus more on office work and planning for the coming year and less on outside work. We grade tracks (nothing beats an air-conditioned tractor on a hot day), check cameras for our monitoring programs and carry out jobs around the homestead.

Homestead insulation

New insulation in the homestead makes such a big difference as it allows us to escape the heat especially through the evening and nights, so we can recuperate from the heat of the day. This is such a massive difference from last year and allows us to stay on the reserve and keep things ticking along. A big thanks to all who were involved with the renovation and to our donors who helped make this happen.  

A dip in the pool

Or, in our case, an old trough! Anyway, a dip in some water at the end of a long summer day is a must!

The sight of a green lawn and vegie patch 

Trying to keep anything green around the house is an uphill battle. While grass doesn’t seem to mind the bore water, keeping the veggie patch alive during summer can be challenging.

This year our green thumbs provided us with watermelon, capsicum, zucchini, tomatoes and basil. It’s always nice to have homegrown veggies. The times between supermarket supply runs can test your creativity in cooking with tins and frozen food.

Permanent water around the house 

An old trough installed in the ground and few plant pot saucers around the house has been the best attractant of birds, particularly on the 45+ degree days when thousands of them gather.

It's such a great sight on these very hot days and we spend hours just watching them. Who needs a tv? So far we've had over 30 species come into the homestead. The most common are Zebra Finches but this year saw a lot of Crimson Chats as well, which added some colour to the trees over Christmas.

Some unusual visitors included Whiskered Terns, an Australian Wood Duck, a Pied Stilt and a Glossy Ibis. We suspect they were in the area visiting from other water bodies that dried up.

Red Kangaroos also come for a bit of respite in the cooler hours after the sun has set, leaving tracks at the trough. It's a very big contrast from the rest of Ethabuka where there's often no noise or movement apart from the wind.

February brings more humidity to the hot days, which is more uncomfortable then the dry heat of December and January. The birds are gone from the homestead and have spread throughout the reserve. The change of month brings the excitement of increasingly unpredictable weather. Daily storms build up to the west. Will they hit the reserve or the homestead? Only time will tell!

So far, we've had two good storms that brought a total of 30ml to the homestead. The rain refreshes the land, frogs emerge and call, the ground is covered by green fuzz as everything takes advantage of the water and the landscape wakes up again. Birds are more common through the reserve and their calls can be heard while walking along the tracks.

This respite is not without its own challenges. While only 30ml was recorded at the homestead, the water brings out the insects – mainly flies and mosquitoes. We also discovered that the front of the property appears to have received a bit more rain than the homestead as we tried to drive to Bedourie and realised we couldn't get through the access roads.

We can be cut off for days or weeks depending on where and how much rain falls. It really tests your preparation and food stores.

This year our last shopping trip was at the end of November and the rain has come just before we were to head out for our next supply run, which would have made it eight weeks between trips.

With the thunderstorms and the Georgina River in flood, we've been stuck two weeks longer so far and are learning hard lessons as newbie parents – always get an extra box of nappies so you're not caught short!

Budgerigars come in to the homestead where there's water. Photo Helene Aubalt. Budgerigars come in to the homestead where there's water. Photo Helene Aubalt.
Zebra Finches in a line at the water. Photo Helene Aubalt. Zebra Finches in a line at the water. Photo Helene Aubalt.
Crimson Chats bring some Christmas colour to trees around the homestead. Photo Helene Aubalt. Crimson Chats bring some Christmas colour to trees around the homestead. Photo Helene Aubalt.
Zebra Finches enjoying the sprinkler. Photo Helene Aubalt. Zebra Finches enjoying the sprinkler. Photo Helene Aubalt.
Claypans with water. Photo Helene Aubalt. Claypans with water. Photo Helene Aubalt.
Roads turn to rivers, and back again. Photo Helene Aubalt. Roads turn to rivers, and back again. Photo Helene Aubalt.
Storm clouds gather. Will we or won't we get some rain? Photo Helene Aubalt. Storm clouds gather. Will we or won't we get some rain? Photo Helene Aubalt.
Despite the challenges, it's been worth working on our vegetable garden for fresh supplies. Photo Helene Aubalt. Despite the challenges, it's been worth working on our vegetable garden for fresh supplies. Photo Helene Aubalt.

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