Mighty red kangaroos, Macropus rufus, are named for their colouration that matches desert sands. So too is the rufous treecreeper. Although their earthy colours are supremely camouflaged against the iron-stained mallee soils, the orange hue of a rufous treecreeper glows like a beacon when illuminated by a patch of sun.
Small, loose flocks of these alluring birds keep in touch with a staccato ‘peep’, delivered slightly higher and more urgently than the microwave-like ‘beep’ of the spotted pardalote. Their penetrating calls can even be heard over the footy commentary when driving at 80km/hr. They demand attention and I rarely resist the urge to stop and watch out for these busy birds, gliding between mallees on barred wings. Unlike the equally appealing sitellas that work for insects as they jump down tree trunks, treecreepers purposefully hop up old mallee trunks, probing for bugs or spiders under the bark.
Treecreepers typically nest in a golf-ball-sized hole in an old mallee, which they silently dart into. Too small for cats or goannas, these portals provide security from most predators. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that rufous treecreeper folklore recalls a fearsome marauder that was once their greatest nemesis. “Keep quiet so Ngintingkaparrtjilaralpa doesn’t find us”, the treecreepers may have warned their noisy nestlings as soon as the sun sets.
A century ago, an agile marsupial predator occupied the entire range of the rufous treecreeper from southern Western Australia to Eyre Peninsula. Active at night when the treecreepers were roosting, the carrot-sized red-tailed phascogale once leapt through the mallee canopy, brush-tipped tail trailing behind like a rudder. With males living less than 12 months and having to consume 30% of their body weight every day to satisfy their turbo-charged metabolism, phascogales were incessant, voracious hunters. Any animal weighing less than them, including nestling treecreepers, were fair game.
The Secret Rocks treecreepers were enjoying the best season for over a decade following record rains last January. Nesting pigeons, little eagles, babblers and honeyeaters also flushed wherever I walked. This was the season the birds needed to bounce back from the drought, heatwaves and fires of 2018-19. Treecreeper calls once again rang out in the Mallee Refuge exclosure, where the goats, rabbits, roos, cats and foxes had been removed.
But I wasn’t birdwatching, I was witnessing a drama unfolding in a dense tea-tree from which the ping of a radio-collar was emanating. We had recently released the first phascogales on Eyre Peninsula for more than 100 generations. No-one had radio-tracked immature phascogales in a new environment and we were anxious to learn if the zoo-bred animals knew how to hunt in the wild and would remain in our sanctuary.
Concerned that they would not be able to forage long enough over the unseasonably cold nights, we provided them with boiled eggs, roo mince and mealworms near their nestboxes, expertly crafted by the Cleve and Kimba Men’s sheds. But like any ravenous and inquisitive teenagers, our young charges ventured away from the safety of their boxes. With a thermal scope I watched spellbound as these arboreal gymnasts darted through the foliage of bushes and scurried well above my head-hight up the same tree trunks that rufous treecreepers foraged on by day.
Although they are spunky, endangered and a national priority for reintroductions, I worried that our new phascogales may, in turn, endanger the treecreepers.
As I was pondering the potential repercussions of reintroducing these spectacular little hunters, a repetitive pigeon-like cooing started up in the blackness of the mallee night. The bright object glowing in my thermal scope temporarily paused its frenetic activity, perhaps innately recognising the call of the tawny frogmouth that could swallow it in one gulp. I too was nervous. Although we had removed cats and foxes, we couldn’t protect our naïve little marsupials from birds of prey.
My heart raced; then dropped.
A Barn owl had just completed the quinella of our new predator’s predators!
Ensconced in her hollow, I can imagine Mrs Treecreeper comforting her brood. The owl’s curdling screech that strikes fear into small nocturnal mammals is comforting for diurnal, or day active, birds. Her brood will be safe tonight with the owl or frogmouth sure to pick off any Ngintingkaparrtjilaralpa naïve enough to venture up the unprotected trunk to her hollow.
We will watch, worry, wonder, hope and dream.
Wonder if enough phascogales can survive predators and misadventure and again establish on Eyre Peninsula. Hope that owls, goannas and maybe even carpet pythons will keep phascogale numbers in check through countless more Mallee Thrillers, so the treecreepers can keep ‘peeping’ in the mallee. And dream that farmers will also embrace and benefit from phascogales picking off locusts and mice in remnant scrub, like hyperactive little pest controllers.
John L. Read, PhD, author-ecologist
Wakefield Press, Dear Grandpa, Why? Reflections From Kokoda to Hiroshima