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Friday, 01 August 2014 00:00

Part twenty-eight : The Winter Freeze

The cooler months, June to August, are called Wurrgeng in the Aboriginal calendar. The chilly nights and humidity-free days cool us down just enough to prepare us to cope with the slowly rising temperatures (albeit still very dry) of the season of Gurrung August to October.

The sometimes frenetic wet season plant growth has slowed to practically zero; annuals perceptibly fade to yellow; grass, no longer green unless regularly watered, turns a sandy beige colour giving the appearance of being crispy thin and fragile, crackling and snapping underfoot. Overcast skies with ripple-like clouds and windy days are not uncommon.

The scarlet gum, endemic to the sandstone country around Kakadu but occasionally seen in the Darwin area, flowers profusely at this time of the year providing plenty of food for the nectar-loving friarbirds all three vociferous varieties ! One of the species is called the noisy Friarbird for a very good reason ! These birds are very possessive of precious food sources and will attempt to keep all other birds from cashing in on 'their bounty' with loud vocal protestations and frenzied wing-flapping. Quite often, after I set the morning sprinkler going, they will start a loud, cheerful exchange of views about ownership rights to my banana flowers and/or any other flowering shrubs or trees that take their fancy.

Also flowering at this time is the Darwin woollybutt. Often mistaken for the scarlet gum, they both have golden to deep orange powder puff-like flowers that produce bird-edible fruit and nectar, and also those intriguing urn-shaped, pipe-like seed pods. Other dry season colours seen at this time in the woodlands around Darwin (but less and less in the town precinct) are the yellow kapok bush, the mauve (and white) turkey bush (calytrix) and the orange northern grevilleas all very necessary for our native birds. And the fluffy white flowers of the Darwin stringybark tree offer an interesting contrast to the woollybutt as they usually grow in close proximity to one another. My favourite is the Darwin City floral emblem, the northern kurrajong. With its beautiful soft red bell-shaped flowers seemingly growing on dead sticks, it is now seldom seen anywhere north of the Berrimah Line thanks to developers whose motto seems to be "...is that a tree ?...then knock it down !".

On the home front, we have recently had our marauding once-a-year visitors return to the park area. A small bevy of orange-tailed cockatoos appears at this time of the year flopping heavily (and screeching loudly to advertise their over-the-top presence) onto the tip end of branches of the eucalypt near my back fence. They would arrive at that really still, quiet time just before dusk, shrieking fortissimo, and proceed to strip the tree of its seed pods. These are the edible bits left over from the nectar-raiding Fat Francis the flying fox, after his nightly forays earlier in the year. As I stood and watched this birdfest I could distinctly hear the crack as the cockies split these woody capsules open with their powerful beaks to retrieve the soft kernels within. After three of these evening visitations, they were seen no more, presumably having stripped the tree bare of edible nuts and moving on to another restaurant.

Now for the disappearing ibis. Whereas in previous years they seemed to have taken up permanent residence in this enclave, they now only appear on a very spasmodic basis. The odd three or five are sometimes perched, hunched and sentinel-like, high in the branches of the old black wattle. Occasionally they descend to stroll the roads, paths and grassy areas searching for edible titbits. But, perhaps because of "austerity" measures imposed by the present government on various Departments, the cessation of the watering system in the public areas of this complex has rendered the ground rock hard and depleted the numbers of worms, crickets and grasshoppers to almost non-existence (in fact these insect nasties have migrated to our individual private gardens !). The ibis find it very difficult to get their long, sensitive beaks through the hard surface, much preferring soft, muddy patches to probe for their luckless, invisible prey. Ibis generally live in colonies, sharing with spoonbills and herons, and will sometimes travel thirty to forty kilometres searching for food. I'm afraid it is very 'bare pickings' here at the moment so 'elsewhere' seems to be a better alternative for the hungry ibis !

At this time of the year, all the frogs have 'gone to ground' so to speak, hiding away in cool, dank places that only frogs are able to find ! There they stay, snugged away until they sense climate changes heralding Gunumeleng the pre-monsoon season of October and November. I have placed hollow logs and plumbers' pipes, as well as the odd cement pagoda in suitable spots throughout the garden where frogs can sleep dreamlessly, safe from predators during these hot, dry days and cold nights until the rising humidity brings them out of hiding. Food, of course, is then a priority and woe betide any unwary bug, beetle, fly or caterpillar. But hopefully, some of those big wolf and huntsman spiders will fall prey to the humble frog diet !

Hope you all have a good Seniors' Month

Gayle Carroll