A touch of light: mistletoe magic

Mistletoe bird © Mike Gillam

 

By MIKE GILLAM

 

 

A friend rang one day with devastating news. “You know that area you were waxing lyrical about, west of Ellery? I’m looking at the satellite imagery right now and a wildfire is about to engulf it.”

 

I felt physically sick, recalling a walk on the steep south side of the west MacDonnell Range through scaffolding Sarcostemma reaching the crowns of small trees and trailing vines heavy with bush banana. Stands of mallee, Eucalyptus socialis, thickened and grew taller in the well watered soils between the dolomite outliers and the base of the high range country.

 

Looking back into the sunrise the mallees were dazzling, adorned with pendulous mistletoe in fiery tresses of red and yellow. Tantalisingly close but just out of photographic range spinifex birds crossed my path ahead, their flight low, tails strangely drooping.

 

Reaching places where the elusive spinifex birds were most active, the mallees and huge circular hummocks of spinifex (no recent fire history here) met minor drainages of moisture-dependent shrubs and grasses in a tongue and groove inter-zone.

 

Spear-bush hung heavy with zebra finches and gorgeous clumps of trumpet shaped flowers. The place was alive with the secretive rustle of birds gulping down the purplish ripe fruits of Myoporum and a constant stream of visiting honeyeaters sipping from the best mistletoe flowers. The early morning birdsong was sublime.

 

More than once I found what looked to be possum poo, more elongated and narrow than rock wallaby. I try not to think of the carnage and I’ve not been back. That was back in January 2019 and I can’t begin to imagine the acute trauma of those living within the catastrophic fire zones of NSW and Victoria later in that year through to early 2020.

 

As far back as I can remember the mistletoe birds have nested in the shadow of Teppa Hill every year. They must have been excited when we planted a fence line of mulga generously donated by the Land for Wildlife program.

 

First we removed the compacted gravel and cracker dust of an old stand off area used by trucks and machinery for many years. Only then did we realise the meaning of hard work. The layer of WW2 bitumen and compacted soils resisted the crowbar and shovel so we hired various post hole diggers and jack hammers to break it up.

 

Finally, there was a sink hole that suddenly appeared after a big rain event, revealing buried construction rubbish. Patiently we removed it all and acquired replacement top soil before planting the mulga grove.

 

The area was completely devoid of shade so we placed stakes around each tree, crowning them off with leafy tepees we’d fashioned from someone’s discarded prunings. We installed an irrigation system and with their ‘natural companion shade’ to attenuate the lash of summer, the mulgas grew rapidly.

 

Within a few years we were fending off the early attempts of colonisation by mistletoe, courtesy of the mistletoe birds.

 

After feeding on the sticky berries the mistletoe birds defecate and it would seem with a high strike rate manage to attach the seed onto a narrow mulga branch. The parasitic mistletoe embeds its roots into the sap (water and nutrient) flow of the mulga host usually creating a bulbous enlargement that supports a dense pendulous plant with beautiful red and yellow flowers.

 

There are many Acacias in our vicinity and at least three common species of mistletoes, one with large dark red fruit and another with perfectly round fruit that resemble pearls.

 

As the mulgas grew into mature trees we had to use a chain pole saw every couple of years to thin out the mistletoe much to the disgust of our tiny red and black feathered gardeners. The mistletoe tresses make great mulch and we always leave plenty on the tree to keep the mistletoe birds fed, the caterpillars in fodder, the honeyeaters and various other birds in precious nectar.

 

Cutting out the mistletoe is problematic because the dense shady clumps are favoured by nesting birds, especially petite honeyeaters. We use an extension ladder to inspect them first and make sure there are no nests or others close-by that are active.

 

In wet years the mistletoes seem luxuriant, well almost rampant and the mulgas seem to tolerate them well. In dry years we’re more watchful lest the strain of the mistletoes causes the demise of our mulga.

 

Mistletoe caterpillar © Mike Gillam

 

There is at least one serious omission from our mistletoe community that would greatly reduce our need to wield the pole chainsaw.

 

Even if we could bring back the brushtail possums – and now I hear the howls of protest from possum-hating trolls – the slaughter would be immediate. There are just too many dogs and cats running loose around town, their owners apparently ignorant of the immense damage their pets are causing. 

 

We mostly see them Friday night – “let the working dogs out to self-exercise because I’m trying to relax with a beer”. Then there’s the drug dealer’s dogs with heads the size of mountain lions and wide leather collars with silver metal studs – just looking for fun. Finally, the underfed dog pack looking for a feed.

 

We do our best to trap them all, to track down the owners in various housing estates and frequently, mop up the blood. Town Council rangers provide dog traps and do their best to help but a trap-shy dog can take weeks to apprehend. The owners pay the fine and sometimes the whole routine is repeated again and again. Then there’s the cats, but that’s another story.

 

So I don’t know how possums become a pest in various cities but they’d have no chance here. In Alice Springs there must be as many dogs as humans, due in part to widespread public concern about crime and an investment in dogs as a deterrent, a kind of cheap security guard.

 

I confess we never see the dogs belonging to more sensitive folk who tie colourful scarves and bandannas around the collar to distract from their real purpose. Everybody, please set aside the artifice: I know security cameras are a bit of a negative social signal but they would be cheaper and far less destructive for the mental health of so many neglected dogs and the wildlife they torment, terrorise or kill!

 

It’s tough enough for the urban macropods, recognised as climate change losers, coping with ever present dingoes and the bright Leds of mountain bikers who have incorporated the macropods’ ancient pads into a recreational network.

 

Imagine if locals could take a vow of no more cute puppies that turn into under-exercised psychos or cats that roam widely and kill everything that moves. They’d discover some brilliant lizards taking up residence, even macropods for those living on the rural edges. I’m dreaming of course, of a time far in the future when the residents of Alice Springs learn to befriend their urban wildlife, equally beautiful, eminently more fascinating and critically in need of our help.

 

As I said: dreaming! Trends are changing far too slowly. Even in the untrammelled bush the great gaping holes in ecosystems are enlarging and reverberating. Much of suburbia is close to ground zero.

 

The ferals are taking over, placed on a corrupt pedestal by animal lovers who turn a blind eye to our treacherous indifference as the wild ones fade away. I do understand why these questions are painful, why a great many people reserve empathy and kindness for a dog or cat and simply don’t want to bear witness to the terrible truth that is lying dead and mangled on their door mat.

 

I count myself lucky to have seen one wild brushtail possum in Centralia. That was 40 years ago during a spotlighting survey of a river red gum watercourse. I vividly remember the large red eyes and furry face peering from a hollow in the upper canopy and the euphoria after several nights of searching.

 

I took a photograph with an inferior telephoto lens, manually focussed by torchlight and with a large Metz flash that struggled to penetrate the distance and the darkness. It’s an old and pretty ordinary transparency but maybe I’ll pay to have it scanned one day.

 

I’d like to think there are still some possums in remote Centralian refugia eating the mistletoe and giving the host trees some reprieve but the facts give little cause for optimism. The descendants of the possum I photographed would have to contend with more than cats and foxes as wildfires fuelled by buffel grass wreak havoc on the old growth gums.

 

Brushtail possums declined sharply after European settlement and this trajectory has continued for a suite of reasons (see Kerle et al, reference below).

 

The arid lands of Australia hold the appalling world record for most mammal extinctions over the past 200 years. Nationwide we’ve lost 34 species, 17 in the NT. Compare this with the USA, the alleged temple of capitalism: just one mammal species lost over a larger land mass and much longer period of colonisation (see Woinarski et al, reference below).

 

Here in Alice Springs the town council frowns on roaming dogs and cats and loans out traps so I’d urge residents to make a small effort and start trapping. The resulting fine imposed on the dog or cat owner will remind your neighbour of their responsibilities.

 

At a Federal or Territory level I don’t recall a Minister for the Environment who behaved like a real champion for their portfolio. Wouldn’t it be great if there were consequences for negligence or indifference, even ministerial KPIs coupled with the loss of all those nice perks if a species becomes extinct, nationally or regionally, during your term in office.

 

Perhaps local and shire governments could stretch beyond their comfort zone of rates, roads and rubbish and include a ‘No local extinctions on our watch’ policy.

 

 

Notes:

 

 

Kerle, J.A., Foulkes, J.N., Kimber, R.G., and Papenfus, D. (1992). The decline of the brushtail possum, Trichosurus vulpecula (Kerr 1798), in arid Australia. Rangelands Journal 14, 107-127.

 

Woinarski, J. C. Z., Murphy, B. P., Legge, S. M., Garnett, S. T., Lawes, M. J., Comer, S., Dickman, C. R., Doherty, T. S., Edwards, G., Nankivell, A., Paton, D., Palmer, R., & Woolley, L. A. (2017). How many birds are killed by cats in Australia? Biological Conservation214, 76-87. 

 

 

Recently in this series:

 

A touch of light: Dead finish and friends

 

A touch of light: Willy wagtail, the gardeners’ friend

 

 

 

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  1. Rod Moss
    Posted July 2, 2020 at 5:31 pm

    I recommend your columns Mike, to whoever will listen, locals & others. I’ve waited decades here in the Alice for just this kind of juicy material, the best of its kind, nurturing, broad spectrum, at once hooking my attention with fine detail & painted with a passionately concerned pen.

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