The Coming of the White Birds

white bird

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo in our poplar gum

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita, Cacatuidae) are common around Townsville in the Dry season but are seen more often in open spaces (e.g. the parkland in and around the Palmetum) than in gardens. They do drop in from time to time, however, announcing their arrival with the most awful – or exhilarating depending on the listener’s attitude – Skraaaak!

That’s what I heard this afternoon, so I wandered out for a look. There were two of them, high in the poplar gum, fossicking around on the dead branches as though hunting for grubs or beetles:

white bird on branch

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo searching for a snack

They didn’t stay long but while I was trying to spot them I finally saw another bird I had been hearing for a couple of days, the Torresian Imperial Pigeon (aka Pied Imperial Pigeon or Nutmeg Pigeon, Ducula spilorrhoa).

Seeing the two species at once has reinforced my feeling that we are beginning to see a change of season, since the pigeons are Wet season migrants. They are here much earlier than they were two years ago. I wonder if the Wet will arrive earlier too?

The phrase I used for the title of my post, The Coming of the White Birds, is borrowed from a much more significant wildlife study: it’s the name of a new documentary movie about a fifty-year study of the migration of these pigeons to their breeding site on North Brook Island, just North of Hinchinbrook Island. For more about the study and the movie, visit this page on the Wildlife Qld blog.

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Dubai, city of the future

Keen-eyed regular readers of Green Path may have noticed that my recent posts about my European holiday were time-reversed as compared to the holiday itself. This post completes the sequence in that it begins in Dubai, the first stopover on the trip. However, it isn’t really about Dubai but about climate change and what it may mean to us in daily life. The connection is personal but direct.

When we flew into Dubai I was shocked by the barrenness of the landscape surrounding the city (it’s one thing to see photos, another to see the reality) and when we ventured on foot from the Metro to our hotel and then around the city centre I was appalled by the hostility to human existence of the weather (40C, endless grit underfoot and a dust haze which cut visibility to a kilometre or so). The streets were lifeless, as people and animals cowered indoors and even the toughest palms struggled to survive.

Shopping mall aquarium, Dubai

Shopping mall aquarium, Dubai

But then there was the public face of the city – consumer heaven, shiny tower buildings, a shopping centre with an indoor aquarium bigger than Reef HQ and a food hall boasting more US fast-food franchises than I dreamt existed, and (strangely highlighting the insanity of all the above) a kilometre-long, enclosed, airconditioned walkway from the Metro station to the shopping mall.

A view from the walkway: concrete, steel, glass and not much else

A view from the walkway: concrete, steel, glass and not much else

The contrast between the glitzy consumerism indoors and the drab, arid external reality was so violent as to be almost incomprehensible but a thought crystallised out of it: this is a typical city of the future unless we stop climate change. Dubai now, a collection of bubbles of high-tech living spaces sealed off from uninhabitable countryside, could be Perth in fifteen years, Adelaide in twenty-five, and so on.

That thought stayed with me for the rest of our trip and became a background to the way I experienced all the other places we saw. What would this place be like, five degrees hotter? Drier? Without fossil-fuelled transport? With the sea level a metre higher? Would it still be viable?

Athens is already dry and has already suffered catastrophic heatwaves and bushfires, both of which are likely to get worse with climate change, but it sits safely above sea level and is compact enough to function well without too many private motor vehicles. The region may lose the port of Piraeus to sea level rise but the stresses on Athens itself are likely to be chronic water shortage, heat waves and bushfires.

Karya nestles high in the hills and hadn’t changed much for centuries until the 1950s and 60s brought mains water and electricity. Its baby-boomers still remember what it was like to live in a pre-industrial culture where every village was almost self sufficient, and those abilities can be recovered. And the climate is cooler and wetter than that of Athens, making changes less threatening. The Roman causeway from Lefkada to the mainland will go under water, of course, but a little more isolation may not be a bad thing.

Venice? I’m sorry. Such a fragile place already, built on above a swamp in the middle of a huge lagoon on the edge of a low-lying plain. The top of a Venetian bell-tower may be higher than any land for twenty kilometres in any direction. Could levees save it? Unlikely, because they would have to enclose the whole lagoon. It might be time to look at radical solutions: if we ran a dam wall across the Strait of Gibraltar to the African coast, perhaps we could keep the rising Atlantic waters out and save all the coastal cities of the Mediterranean? It might be cheaper than watching them all go under water.

Cinque Terre was always a tough place to make a living from the land but should be as resilient as Karya, and for the same reasons.


View over the countryside from the old fortifications of Perugia

Perugia, Spello and Assisi didn’t appear in my blog posts but, as a small city and two villages in the heart of rich farming country with a mild climate, they are well placed to cope with change.


Looking over Rome from a vantage point near Villa Medici

Rome, our last stop in Italy, may not fare so well. It is already congested, and its large population (around 4 million) must make it more dependent on produce imported from considerable distances. More than that, however, it may well fall victim to the flood of displaced people looking for safety and work. Whether they are called climate change refugees or economic migrants, they look like being with us for a long time to come – see, for instance, recent reports in  The Guardian and The Washington Post.

The biggest problem for Singapore will probably be sea level rise. It is only a small island (about 40 x 25 km) and its central hills were originally fringed by mangrove swamps. Some of these have been cleared and reclaimed, but the result is, of course, low-lying urban land. Still, it doesn’t even make it on to this list of the fifteen cities which will be hit hardest by rising seas, or this one (using different criteria) of ‘Nine Popular Cities Losing the War with Rising Seas’.

What this totally unplanned, idiosyncratic and personal survey brings into focus is that climate change will affect urban centres in all sorts of different ways but few will be unaffected. On the whole, it would be better if we can avoid the future which Dubai prefigures.

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Rock wallabies in suburbia


Contentedly browsing

I’ve written often enough about how the Dry season brings the birds to town, looking for water and food but the birds aren’t the only creatures on the move. These Allied Rock Wallabies, Petrogale assimilis, normally live on the upper slopes of Mount Stuart but have recently been venturing down to the edge of suburbia (in this case Wulguru) for any green food they can find.

Allied Rock Wallabies on the lawn

Allied Rock Wallabies on the lawn

A gap in the picket fence which separates this lawn from the lower slopes of the mountain, allows the wallabies to come cautiously through at dawn and dusk. There’s not much lawn left, in spite of the homeowners’ best efforts with the sprinklers, but it’s still far better than the hill. The homeowners have taken to sitting on the back step to watch their visitors and give them the occasional handout of rolled oats or carrots.

dry hillside

Why the lawn is so attractive: the lower slopes of Mount Stuart


Alert but not alarmed

The Allied Rock Wallaby is much smaller than the other common local wallaby, the Agile Wallaby, at around 4.5 kg as compared to 15 – 27 kg (i.e. cat size rather than dog size). Like other rock wallabies, this species lives on cliffs, boulder piles and rocky outcrops, and emerges into surrounding bushland at night to forage; Rootourism has more information about biology and habitat. They can often be seen late in the day at the Mount Stuart lookout and (almost any time) at the feeding station on Magnetic Island.

They particular animals look a bit moth-eaten but we think it’s just because they are losing their winter coats.


Poised to leave

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A tree full of birds

bright green and orange bird

Rainbow Lorikeet

In the few days since my last post the poplar gum has come into full blossom and the birds are loving it. The Rainbow Lorikeets have become regular visitors again, squabbling over the flowers and foraging for insects in the foliage. I’m not sure what the one on my photo is up to – looking for beetles, or perhaps trying to clean his dirty beak?

black bird

Spangled Drongo

Drongos are insectivores but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in a flowering tree. What, after all, do so many insects feed on? Nectar, of course, and the tree hosts a good number of bees, flies and butterflies.

brown bird

Juvenile Little Friarbird

I was going to call this post “Patience rewarded” to congratulate myself on getting better photos of the juvenile Little Friarbird I encountered a few days ago. There were at least two of them this time – “this time” being the forty minutes I spent sitting on our front steps yesterday, with my telephoto lens pointing up into the foliage to take all of these pictures.

grey bird

Female Leaden Flycatcher

Leaden Flycatchers are small, quick and quiet. I don’t know how long they frequented our garden before I first spotted one, but I have seen them quite regularly since then. As always, you’re more likely to notice something if you’re on the look-out for it.

Today is officially the first day of Spring. As I’ve said before, the four European seasons don’t have much relevance to our monsoonal tropical climate but we are – just – seeing signs that the season is changing. The humidity is up, and we even had a tiny shower or two overnight; one of our banana plants has decided to put out a bud; and temperatures, particularly overnight, have crept up enough to notice. We don’t expect any real rain until November but we’re now looking forward to our next Wet rather than backward to the one that failed.

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A garden full of birds

grey-brown bird

White-gaped Honeyeater

The Dry season always brings more birds to our garden. We’re well into it now, with no rain at all in the last month, and yes, we have birds. This morning, in a total of perhaps an hour in the garden, I saw Helmeted Friarbirds, Blue-faced Honeyeaters, White-gaped Honeyeaters, Brown Honeyeaters, Peaceful Doves and a White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, all of which are residents or frequent visitors (links take you to previous posts about them).

brown bird in tree

Probably a young Little Friarbird

There’s always something different, however, and today I saw not only a Figbird, an infrequent visitor, but what I think must have been a juvenile Little FriarbirdPhilemon citreogularis.

In some of the other photos I took it is clear that this bird, about the same size as the White-gaped Honeyeater above, has bare grey cheeks and a strong patch of yellow under the chin. Its back was a plain mid-brown. Friarbirds, of course, are members of the Honeyeater family, Melphagidae, so the resemblance to our other honeyeaters does point towards my ID. If that’s really what it was, and I think it is, it was my first sighting of the species in my garden.

I also saw a hawk and a White Ibis this morning but they were so high overhead that I can’t really claim them as “in” my garden. Still, seeing ten species this easily isn’t too bad, and adding to my running total of well over 50 is always pleasing.

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