ON THE ROAD — At about 8-9cm in length the Weebill (Smicrornis breviostris) enjoys the distinction of being Australia’s smallest bird. Usually such a small bird is hard to photograph in its usual haunt in the tops of trees, but at Newcastle Waters the elevated approaches to the bridge put us a little above the eucalypts in which this little bird was foraging, probably for insects and lerps.

ON THE ROAD — The bridge over Newcastle Waters, north of Elliott, usually spans a dry creek bed but on Monday 9 February the creek was in flood.Below the bridge, a fence-line draped in grass and other flood debris was emerging as the flood dropped. A great many small fish had followed the flood up from waterholes far downstream and were making a noisy meal of food brought down by the muddy waters. A mix of perhaps 20 cormorants, darters, egrets were taking a rest from feeding, sharing perching space on trees in the middle of the flood. An interesting sight was a whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus) who kept busy working the waters. The whiskered tern is equally at home in fresh water, brackish water and saltwater. In the Northern Territory its range extends as far south as the Tropic of Capricorn but also migrates into south-east Asia and is found in Eurasia and Africa.

The Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax) is the largest of the Australian raptors and females may have a wingspan greater than 2.8 metres. A mature female may weigh as much as 5.77kg and the males a little less. They build huge stick nests and often successfully rear only one chick because stronger young may kill weaker siblings. They are magnificent to see riding thermals in the Australian outback and have been recorded at heights of up to 1800 metres. Their prey includes introduced rabbits, foxes and cats as well as smaller native marsupials, birds and lizards. Despite the good job they do dealing with feral animals Wedge-tailed Eagles were widely shot for most of the 20th century in farming areas, particularly in sheep farming country. This caused the Tasmanian sub-species to be listed as endangered, with fewer than 200 pairs left in the wild. The Wedge-tailed Eagle, superimposed on a map of the Northern Territory is the emblem of the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service. The eagle pictured was one of three seen near Winton in western Queensland in 2013. In Western Arnhem Land this bird is known by various names in the dialects of Bininj Kunwok — Mailarrhwaken, Namaddol andKayimarri are three of those names.

The Northern Blue-tongue Lizard (Tiliqua scincoides intermedia) responds to threats with an aggressive bluff posture and some darting displays of its unique blue tongue. The Blue-tongue, or Kurri in the Kundejdnyenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok, is a large member of the skink family and adults range from 30-40cm in length. Kurri is viviparous and gives birth to from five to 20 of the cutest little lizards you’re likely to see. It’s found in Darwin as well as the bush and good to see in your back yard because it will be on the lookout for nests and the babies of feral black rats.

The mounds of the termite Amitermes meridionalis align more or less north-south which earns them the common names of magnetic termites or compass termites. But the positioning has nothing to do with magnetism, rather the shape allows the nests to be warmed in the mornings and afternoons, while in the heat of midday a minimum of their blade-like structure is exposed to the sun. These termites are endemic to Australia and are often found on ground which is inundated in the wet season and dries out during the dry season. Their mounds enable them to avoid flooded living quarters during the wet while maintaining their preference for relatively high humidity and stable temperature. More than 1,000,000 termites may occupy a mound. The mounds are often found in clusters, looking like a graveyard of grey tombstones. They feed on grass, which they harvest in the dry season and store away as hay for the wet. This is one of the biggest mounds I have seen. At waist height the mount is probably less than half a metre thick, tapering to a sharp edge at the top. Photo by Pat Woolley.

The Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata) is a signature denizen of the northern floodplains. Its range was once more southerly and extensive but hunting and habitat loss associated with British colonisation have reduced that range considerably. Nevertheless the IUCN conservation status for this species is “least concern” and it is still abundant across the north of Australia and into southern New Guinea. The Magpie Goose is a unique member of the order Anseriformes, and arranged in a family and genus distinct from all other living waterfowl. The white feathers in their black and white plumage are usually stained brown from spending much time with their beaks searching in mud for their favourite food, the water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis), a smaller but very sweet Australian form of water chestnut. The water chestnut and the magpie goose are both staple foods of indigenous people from the wetlands of north Australia. In the Arafura Swamps of central Arnhem Land indigenous people there developed a particular style of bark canoe to pole their way through the swamps to gather goose eggs towards the end of the wet season. Throwing sticks were also used to bring down birds roosting in trees and specialised goose spears with shafts of the cane grass Phragmites were used to bring down birds on the wing. Contemporary indigenous people from the Arafura Swamp area re-enacted much of their traditional goose hunting skills in the 2006 film Ten Canoes by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr. The photos above were taken in Kakadu National Park near the South Alligator River at the the start of the wet season.

The Black Necked Stork

The Black-necked stork aka Jabiru (Ephippiorhyncus australis) is a BIG bird of the wetland, standing 1.4m tall and with a wingspan to two metres. In languages of western Arnhem Land it is known also by two names — Kandji and Djanarra. The standing bird above is a male, distinguished by a dark eye while the bird flying above the burned acacia scrub is a female with a distinctive yellow eye. The two lower shots were taken from a helicopter on the way back to camp after surveying for rock art on Gumarrirnbang Creek and the standing bird was photographed at Yellow Waters in Kakadu. The bird in silhouette was enjoying time in Darwin, photographed against late afternoon sun at Rapid Creek. Kandji is found in singles, pairs and families in coastal and sub-coastal north Australia and also in Papua New Guinea.

It’s that time of year in Northern Australia — the temperature and humidity are rising and the Build Up (or kunumeleng in Bininj Kunwok) begins. The bush is preparing for the coming of the Wet (kudjewk).
One of the great seasonal events of this time is the eruption of swarms of flying termites. Winged female and male alates fly out of nests in coordinated swarms in the hope of meeting up after landing and founding new colonies.
I watched one of these events at Kabulwarnamyo on the Armhem Plateau. The workers built a hollow tower out of sand and soldier termites began to guard the structure.The winged alates began to pour out and upward, like a plume of smoke in the air.
In no time skinks were gathering to feast on the fat bodies of the fallen termites. They were soon joined by Grey Butcher Birds (Cracticus torquatus).
An analogy of termite colonies with plants is apt when it comes to dispersal, as like many plants they reproduce by allowing “seeds” to be dispersed — in this case the seeds are the winged male and female alates. Alates are generally poor fliers and do not travel very far  — understandable given that male and female alates need to meet up and dispersal flights of more than a few hundred metres reduce the likelihood of this happening. It may also disadvantage a colony with significant genetic investment in adaptations to a local environment to have long dispersal flights that risk leaving that environment.
Northern Australia is a big country shaped in significant part by the termite. In many places the very look of northern savannas owes much to the mounds built by colonies of this insect. North Australian savannas have one of the most diverse range of termite mounds in the world: from the enormous buttressed “cathedrals” of spinifex termites, to the remarkably aligned “magnetic” mounds (pictured) and miniature cities of columns built by various Amitermes species.
Picture of swarm: Peter Cooke
Picture of magnetic mound: Pat Woolley
Source (in part): Savanna Explorer website