by Jamie Walker
For most of my life, my autumns were those of the northern hemisphere; marked by first frosts, gales and falling golden leaves. Autumn was a season of significant changes and was my favourite time of year – not least because of the arrival of flocks of wintering birds and rare vagrants.
When I first came to live in South-East Queensland, I thought that autumns here had little to distinguish them, apart from a general cooling. I just wasn’t looking properly.
Little by little, my notes became filled with telling observations. Raptors, which had been moulting during the summer and conserving their energy for raising chicks, were now fully feathered and soaring again over their regular territories; and Arctic-yearning shorebirds, leaving for the north, assumed bright breeding feathers.
I particularly noticed the Eastern Koel, and how its calls become progressively less complicated as the days’ length reduces. By the beginning of April, it has left us for Papua New Guinea and its last “coo-ee” notes have become a memory.
Apart from a few rare orchids, the only noticeable flowers which I had been accustomed to seeing were on the vines of common ivy. In Queensland, I was astonished by the mass flowering of Blue Quandongs and many eucalypts, and their noisy attendant flocks of nectar-feeding birds like Rainbow Lorikeets and Little Friarbirds.
Then there were gatherings of Straw-necked Ibises – newly returned from the south – foraging in the cattle pastures. Oriental Cuckoos, perhaps bound for Japan, fattened on caterpillars in our White Ash tree; while I noticed that Cicadabirds did the same with fruit. The subcutaneous fat these foods create is fuel for the journeys ahead of them.
Most autumn migrants are responding to shortening days. Some are north-south latitude travellers – others are altitudinal, escaping the onsetting chill of high ground and the reduction in food which goes with it.
The Rose Robin is a good example. It usually comes to us from much higher places; probably Lamington Plateau or Springbrook (where it is a canopy bird and hard to spot).
These robins will stay with us (at places like Baroon Dam, Maleny Trail and Bli Bli Lakes) while winter advances. But, after the solstice, they will be aware of seasonal change in another direction and will feel driven to slip away.
Climate change notwithstanding, all these wonderful things appear against this season’s clarified background – now free from heat haze. There are early morning ‘cotton-wool’ cushions of cloud layered into valleys and hollows – soon to be burned off by a kinder, lowered sun which now gives a different shine to the distant ocean’s surface.
Wildlife and landscape; Queensland autumn’s expressions. There for us all to see.