Aus­tralian desert reaches peak budgie as thou­sands daz­zle wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines / News - Patrick Ke­neally

A wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher has cap­tured stun­ning im­ages of budgeri­gars in a mur­mu­ra­tion of up to 10,000 birds near a wa­ter hole out­side Alice Springs.

Steven Pearce said the dis­play was rare, unique and rel­a­tively short­lived – last­ing for only about 10 min­utes. Pearce was able to shoot dozens of pho­tos dis­play­ing the birds’ agility and daz­zling splashes of colour in the mid­dle of the desert.

“The show only lasts for 10 min­utes in the morn­ing and then, af­ter they have a drink, they split up into groups of 50 or so and dis­perse into the wilder­ness,” Pearce said.

“Over the course of the morn­ing there was about 7,000 to 10,000 birds. It only takes a few se­conds for them to get their drink and then they’re off.”

Pearce said the birds were also quick to get a move-on be­cause of preda­tors, in­clud­ing fal­cons and kestrels.

The group had built up over a few days around a wa­ter hole in an undis­closed lo­ca­tion af­ter a long dry spell. Pearce had been tipped off to the event by a friend who is a bird­watch­ing tour guide.

“Wa­ter is al­ways the lim­it­ing fac­tor for all life in the desert, and in dry con­di­tions as the smaller wa­ter holes dry up, the bud­gies are forced to fly to larger wa­ter holes. They are seed eaters, so they need wa­ter ev­ery day.”

Budgeri­gars’ diet con­sists of na­tive herbs and grasses, such as salt­bush, and most of their drink­ing and feed­ing ac­tiv­ity is in the morn­ing.

Very large flocks like the one Pearce en­coun­tered are rare, ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Mu­seum, and are usu­ally only seen af­ter a sea­son of abun­dant rain­fall and food. Flocks usu­ally range from as few as three birds up to 100.

It had been five years since Pearce last sighted a group this size, and on that oc­ca­sion he was able to cap­ture footage of the event.

“It’s a pretty unique place to be, not ev­ery bird species con­gre­gates like this – it re­quires good com­mu­ni­ca­tion to gather in large groups,” Pearce said.

“It’s also unique be­cause bud­gies are not ex­otic, they are such as cen­tral part of our cul­ture and even our lingo – budgie smug­glers and so on – and this re­ally is peak budgie, the most spec­tac­u­lar form you can see them in.”

The noise of thou­sands of birds swoop­ing and div­ing was the most spec­tac­u­lar part of the event, Pearce said.

“One bird as it flies over you makes a kind of ‘whoosh’ sound – they’re re­ally fast. With a group of birds fly­ing in many di­rec­tions, that sound is elon­gated when turn­ing and changes in pitch and in­ten­sity, but it never re­ally stops.

“For me the sound is the most unique part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. You have to re­mem­ber that it is dead silent in the mid­dle of the desert.”

Pearce shot dozens of pho­tos on Fri­day 4 Oc­to­ber and had in­tended to re­turn the next day to film the event, but rain in­ter­ceded and the group dis­persed.

De­spite ev­ery­thing look­ing syn­chro­nised in the pho­tos, it wasn’t al­ways so, he said, with some crash­ing into trees or each other, but over­all the ex­pe­ri­ence had given him an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of just how much co­or­di­na­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion was re­quired for the birds to move to­gether in such mas­sive num­bers.

“They’re cool lit­tle things for sure.”

Pho­to­graph: Steven Pearce

Budgeri­gars pho­tographed in the desert near Alice Springs in cen­tral Aus­tralia on 4 Oc­to­ber.

Pho­to­graph: Steven Pearce

Bud­gies tuck their wings in as they turn and swoop.

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