On the morning of the 20th of December a bushfire broke out in catastrophic weather conditions approximately 20 km from our home. The fire moved quickly razing much in its path including trees, bushland, houses, sheds and animals. By early afternoon we had evacuated our home as the fire headed directly for our town. Fortunately for us, but not so for many others, the wind changed direction and took the fire with it. My uncle’s farm was not so fortunate, and the wind took the fire there and beyond. Luckily, they were safe, as well as the house, sheds, hay, and by some extraordinary luck, the sheep and cattle.
After a couple of days I made my way into the fire ground to help fix fences to keep stock in. One thing that struck me was the number of big ancient-looking gumtrees that caught fire and collapsed, or were still on fire. The fire had got into the exposed heartwood and in some cases smouldered or burnt for weeks. Many of the younger gums remained relatively unscathed (I’m unsure if some may die later). One smouldering River Red Gum stood out to me. Broad-based, narrow topped, very gnarled. It had half a dozen small hollows on the side I could see.
In the canopy, a pair of Crested Shrike-tits foraged among its parched leaves. Shrike-tits are fascinating birds. They sport a little black and white crest which becomes erect when something catches their attention or they are in a dispute with some other bird. Though this is not to say they get into raucous encounters often. Most of the time they are unobtrusive, flitting through the canopy looking for food. Sometimes the only reason you know they are there is because you hear them tearing bark off trees with their can opener-like beaks. We have a pair that lives around our house and I know when they are about because I hear their little giggling or chuckling-like call. If you aren’t paying attention to the soundscape you could easily miss them. In addition to their fancy head and crest, they have a black or olive bib (depending on whether male or female, respectively), a yellow belly, and an olive back and wings making them a rather striking looking bird. Shrike-tits are vulnerable in the Mt Lofty Ranges and I’ve been told they have home ranges as large as 100 ha, so even if you are within their territory you still might not come across them often. They are no doubt my favorite backyard bird and I always get a thrill from their presence, no matter if I just hear them giggling or see them up close splashing in the birdbath.
Pondering the smoldering tree with the shrike-tits reminds me of the gumtree in our backyard. So many things happen on that one tree. Tiny psyllid insects sit on the leaves producing their waxy sugary little domes (lerps). The lerps attract Striated Pardalotes, who specialise in such delicacies and have nested every year in a small hollow in one of the branches. When its been a good year and the tree is flush with leaves the White-plumbed Honeyeaters build their nest within the green drooping masses. Willy wagtails, more confident in their ability to fend off undesirable company, place their nest on a exposed dead stick. Ants march up and down the trunk. Spiders face off with each other on a sunny day, seeking refuge under the bark when disturbed. And of course the shrike-tits ripping bark off to find a juicy invertebrate. By night Ring-tailed and Brushtail Possums stride along its branches looking for a vegetarian feast, where a Boobook or Tawny Frogmouth may have alighted only moments before. There are so many interactions between this one tree and the organisms around that it could be someones life’s work to record all such interactions and never record all that there is to record.
These fires, by burning down these trees, are erasing the history of the landscape, and with increasing frequency and intensity of fires our landscape will become poorer and poorer. With each tree lost we lose the history each tells in it gnarls, twists and hollows. It represents the disappearance of a node in a complex web of interactions that each tree has. When we loose hundreds of these magnificent trees in one brief inferno, it immeasurably increases the value of those that are left. We should cherish and protect those that are left, and help propagate more of these scribes of the landscape and nodes of complexity.