Townsville’s dry season begins

Pied Imperial-pigeon in treetop
Pied Imperial-pigeon in the topmost branches of our poplar gum

Easter seems to me to mark the usual turning point between Wet and Dry seasons here in Townsville, and it has certainly seemed so this year. Cyclone Debbie was looming as we left for Bali on March 25 but by the time we returned, a week ago, humidity had dropped right off, nights were noticeably cooler, the frangipanis were losing their leaves and the prospect of more real rain seemed to have evaporated.

I would love to be proven wrong on this, because Ross Dam is at 17% capacity, which is historically (and alarmingly) low for the end of the Wet, as I write. If we count December as part of the Wet, our 2016-17 season amounts to just on 500 mm. It follows a close-to-average 950 mm in 2016 and a record-low 400 mm in 2015. It’s not looking good.

Browsing the BoM’s Climate Data Online for Townsville confirms, more or less, my feeling that Easter marks the change of season, since April is consistently much drier than the first three months of the year. Daytime maximum temperatures don’t drop much but overnight minimums do drop about 3C from March to April – enough to make a significant difference to our comfort.

Some seasonal signs haven’t yet flipped, however: I heard this Pied Imperial-pigeon this afternoon and caught it on camera a few minutes later. Incidentally, the latest word from Ian Montgomery of Birdway is that the “Pied Imperial Pigeon has been split into four species. The Torresian Imperial Pigeon occurs in New Guinea and northern Australia,” so I’m using the wrong common name, but our visitors are still Ducula spilorrhoa as I said four years ago when I described them.

Pheasant Coucal in the suburbs

Pheasant Coucal
Pheasant Coucal in the batwing coral tree

Coucals are infrequent visitors to our suburban Townsville garden but we saw this one this afternoon after seeing another, or perhaps the same one, a couple of days ago. As chance would have it, a friend I spoke to this morning mentioned that he had seen one in Annandale, just on the other side of Ross River from us, in the last few days.

We were inclined to think that they come into town along the Ross River parkland, which forms a continuous wildlife corridor from the (rapidly drying) Ross Dam to the mangrove-fringed estuary in South Townsville.

This post presents more information about the species, so I won’t repeat it here.

Dry-season butterflies in Townsville

Cairns Birdwing
Male Cairns Birdwing

I don’t like to brag, but we have so many Cairns Birdwings in our garden that I rarely bother pointing a camera at them. When one poses as beautifully as this, however, and I happen to have a camera in my hand, I do take advantage of the opportunity.

At the moment we have at least two semi-resident male birdwings spending their time chasing each other away from the Aristolochia vines while hoping a female will turn up. They may not have too long to wait, since we do see females as often as males.

Also around the garden in this unusually damp ‘dry’ season: Common Eggfly (male and female), Chocolate Soldiers, Grass Yellows, Skippers,  Plumbago BluesLemon Migrants and Crows (links will take you to older posts and photos). I think that’s about all, other than the solitary Lurcher which popped out of the shrubbery yesterday. It may be the same individual we found at the end of July, since this one is clearly no longer young.

Lurcher butterfly
Australian Lurcher on sacred bamboo

Mistletoebird and Flycatcher

Leaden Flycatcher in shrubbery
Leaden Flycatcher

We’re well into the Dry season now and, as I said when I introduced the Leaden Flycatcher two years ago, the bird population of our garden builds up as the surrounding countryside dries out. We’re going to see even more this year, actually, since Townsville has just gone on to Level 3 water restrictions, meaning that parks and most gardens will also dry out while our bore water will keep our garden green.

Photographing the smallest birds is a special exercise in patience and luck. Many of them like to forage in dense shrubbery where they can move freely but bigger birds can’t, and where they are safer from attack. They are also safer from the paparazzi, since they rarely offer a clear shot (the oddly blurred background of the photo above is out-of-focus foliage) and they are often in shadow or dappled light.

Which species am I talking about? Particularly Sunbirds (11 cm), these Flycatchers (15 cm) and White-throated and Brown Honeyeaters (both about 14 cm). (By way of comparison, the Cairns Birdwing butterfly has a wingspan of 12 – 15 cm.) Spice Finches (11 cm) are just as small but at least they tend to feed in the open.

The Mistletoebird, Dicaeum hirundinaceum, is another member of the list. At 10 cm and 9 gm (the weight of two teaspoons of sugar) it is one of our smallest, and it flits about erratically, high in the tree canopy.

Mistletoebird high in our paperbark tree

As Bird in Backyards notes, Mistletoebirds are found Australia-wide and feed on berries of the plants they are named for, having an important role in distributing the seeds. Mine is a male; the females are basically grey, darker above than below. The species is our only member of Dicaeidae, the Flowerpecker family. Its nearest Australian relatives seem to be Sunbirds.

Dry season, 2016

Just over a year ago I wrote:

The Dry arrived this week, with an almost-audible thump: humidity halved between Tuesday and Wednesday. After hanging around the high fifties (RH at 9 am, figures from this chart) for the first three weeks of [April], it was 22, 32 and 52% on Wednesday – Friday this week …

The same change of weather hit us yesterday and last night, three weeks later than last year. For me, at least, it’s the confirmation that our Wet has truly ended – not that we really needed one, since the only rain we had in April was about 20mm in the middle of the month, as per the BoM data, and we’ve only had a bit of drizzle this month. The garden has been telling us, too: the frangipanis are shedding their leaves and the Cape York lilies have died back, amongst other indications.

In the six months November-April we’ve had rainfall totals of 26, 111, 76, 95, 558 (March was a good month!) and 21 mm respectively, for a not-so-grand total of 887 mm. March alone put us well above our record-low 2015 rainfall total but we would still have liked more. Ross Dam is at 26%, an alarmingly low level for the start of the Dry. I may say more about that in a follow-up post but, meanwhile, the TCC chart here will show you what’s going on.