Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Part i. — Sun Days

In Idle Moment

“‘Are you not frequently idle?’ ‘Never, brother. When we are not engaged in our traffic we are engaged in our relaxations.’”— BORROW.

On the smooth beaches and in the silent bush, where time is not regulated by formalities or shackled by conventions, there delicious lapses — fag-ends of the day to be utilised in a dreamy mood which observes and accepts the happenings of Nature without disturbing the shyest of her manifestations or permitting ‘the-mind to dwell on any but the vaguest speculations.

Such idle moments are mine. Let these pages tell of their occupation.

As the years pass it is proved that the administration of the affairs of an island, the settled population of which is limited to three, involves pleasant though exacting duties. It is a gainful government — not gainful in the accepted sense, but in all that vitally matters — personal freedom, absence of irksome regulations remindful of the street, liberty to enjoy the mood of the moment and to commune with Nature in her most fascinating aspects. Those who are out of touch with great and dusty events may, by way of compensation, be the more sensitive to the processes of the universe, which, though incessantly repeated, are blessed with recurrent freshness.

The sun rises, travels across a cloudless sky, gleams on a sailless sea, disappears behind purple mountains gilding their outline, and the day is done. Not a single dust-speck has soiled sky or earth; not the faintest echo of noisy labours disturbed the silences; not an alien sight has intruded. What can there be in such a scene to exhilarate? Must not the inhabitants vegetate dully after the style of their own bananas? Actually the day has been all too brief for the accomplishment of inevitable duties and to the complete enjoyment of all too alluring relaxations.

Here is opportunity to patronise the sun, to revel in the companionship of the sea, to confirm the usage of beaches, to admonish winds to seemliness and secrecy, to approve good-tempered trees, to exchange confidences with flowering plants, to claim the perfumed air, to rejoice in the silence —

“Not learning more than the fond eye doth teach,

Which pries not to th’ interior.”

How oft is the confession that the fullest moments of life are achieved when I roam the beaches with little more in the way of raiment than sunburn and naught in hand save the leaves of some strange, sand-loving plant? Then is it that the individual is magnified. The sun salutes. The wind fans. The sea sighs a love melody. The caressing sand takes print of my foot alone. All the world might be mine, for none is present to dispute possession. The sailless sea smiles in ripples, and strews its verge with treasures for my acceptance. The sky’s purity enriches my soul. Shall I not joy therein?

Though he may be unable to attain those moments of irresistible intuition which came to Amiel, when a man feels himself great like the universe and calm like a god, one may thrill with love and admiration for Nature without resigning sense of superiority over all other of her works or abating one jot of justifiable pride.

Even in tropical Queensland there is a sense of revivification during the last half of August and first of September, and the soul of man responds thereto, as do plants and birds, in lawful manner. Perhaps it is that the alien dweller in lands of the sun, when he frisks mentally and physically at this sprightly season, is merely obeying an imperative characteristic bred into him during untold generations when the winter was cruelly real and spring a joyful release from cold and distress. The cause may be slight, but there is none to doubt the actual awakening, for it is persuasive and irresistible.

The lemon-trees are discarding the burden of superfluous fruit with almost immoderate haste, for the gentle flowers must have their day. Pomeloes have put forth new growth a yard long in less than a fortnight, and are preparing a bridal array of blooms such as will make birds and butterflies frantic with admiration and perfume the scene for the compass of a mile. The buff-and-yellow sprays of the mango attract millions of humming insects, great and small. Most of the orchids are in full flower, the coral-trees glow, the castanospermum is full of bud, loose bunches of white fruit decorate the creeping palms, and the sunflower-tree is blotched with gold in masses. The birds make declaration of attachment for the season.

Great trees, amorous birds, frail insects, perceive the subtle influence of the season, and shall not coarse-fibred man rejoice, though there be little or nothing to which he may point as special evidence of inspiration? He may feel the indefinable without comprehending any material reason why. He may confess, although there is but a trifle more sunshine than a month ago — and what influence a trifle where there is so much — and scarcely any difference of temperature, that Nature is insisting on obedience to one of her mighty laws — the law of heredity. Why, therefore, refrain from justifying the allusion? Why persist in declining the invitations of the hour? Far be it from me to do so. Is sufferance the cognizance of this Free Isle?

All my days are Days of the Sun. All my days are holy. Duty may suggest the propriety of contentment within four walls. Inclination and the thrill of the season lure me to gloat over the more manifest of its magic. Be sure that, unabashed and impenitent, shall I riot over sordid industry during the most gracious time of year to hearken to the eloquence and accept the teachings of unpeopled spaces.

Such is the silence of the bush that the silken rustle of the butterflies becomes audible and the distinctive flight of birds is recognised — not alone such exaggerated differences as the whirr of quail, the bustle of scrub fowl, and the whistle and clacking of nutmeg pigeons, but the delicate and tender characteristics of the wing notes of the meeker kinds of doves and the honey-eaters, and also the calculated flutterings of the fly-catchers. In the whistling swoop of the grey goshawk there is a note of ominous blood-thirstiness, silent though the destroyer has sat awaiting the moment for swift and decisive action.

Seldom, even on the stillest evening, may the presence of the night-jar be detected, except by its coarse call, while the sprightly little sun-bird flits hither and thither, prodigal of its vivid colours and joying with machine-like whirring. The sun-bird exemplifies the brightness of the day. All its activities are bold and conspicuous. Aptly named, it has nothing to hide, no deeds which will not withstand the scrutiny of the vividest rays.

To work out its destiny the night-jar depends on secret doings and on flight soft as a falling leaf. It is a bird of the twilight and night. Startled from brooding over its eggs or yet dependent chicks, it is ghost-like in its flittings and disappearances. In broad daylight it moves from its resting-place as a leaf blown by an erratic and sudden puff, and vanishes as it touches the sheltering bosom of Mother Earth. Mark the spot of its vanishment and approach never so cautiously, and you see naught. Peer about and from your very feet that which had been deemed to be a shred of bark rises and is wafted away again by a phantom zephyr.

The chick which the parent bird has hidden remains a puzzle. It moves not, it may not blink. Its crafty parent has so nibbled and frayed the edges of the decaying brown leaves among which it nestles that it has become absorbed in the scene. There is nothing to distinguish between the leaf-like feathers and the feather-like leaves. The instinct of the bird has blotted itself out. It is there, but invisible, and to be discovered only by the critical inspection of every inch of its environment. You have found it; but not for minutes after its instinct has warned it to possess its soul calmly and not to be afraid. So firm is its purpose that if inadvertently you put your foot on its tender body it would not move or utter cry. All its faculties are concentrated on impassiveness, and thus does Nature guard its weakest and most helpless offspring.

While you ponder on the wonderful faith of the tiny creature which suffers handling without resistance, the shred of bark, driven by the imperceptible zephyr, falls a few yards away, and in an agony of anxiety utters an imploring purr, or was it an imprecation? That half purr, half hiss has been the only sound of the episode. It is a warning to be gone and leave Nature to her secrets and silences.

A month’s abstinence may not be a very severe penance for an island on which the rainfall averages 124 inches per year; but when vegetation suffers from the cruelty of four almost rainless months, promises and slights amount to something more than mere discourtesy. How genuine the thanksgiving to the soft skies after an incense-stimulating shower. Insects whirl in the sunshine. Among the pomelo-trees is a cyclone of scarcely visible things. Motes and specks of light dance in disorderly figures, to be detected as animated objects only by gauzy wings catching the light and reflecting it. Each insect, wakened but an hour ago by the warmth of the moist soil, in an abandonment of the moment, is a helioscope transmitting signals of pure pleasure. Drops still linger on myriads of leaves, and glitter on the glorious gold of the Chinese laburnum; the air is saturated with rich scents, and the frolicking crowd, invisible but for the oblique light, does not dream of disaster. Their crowded hour has attracted other eyes, appreciative in another sense. Masked wood-swallows, swiftlets, spangled drongos, leaden fly-eaters, barred-shouldered fly-eaters, hurry to the circus to desolate it with hungry swoops. The assemblage is noisy, for two or three drongos cannot meet without making a clatter on the subject of the moment. They cannot sing, but clink and jangle with as much intensity and individual satisfaction as if gifted with peerless note. It is the height of the season, and a newly matched pair, satisfied with an ample meal, sit side by side on a branch to tell of their love, and in language which, though it may lack tunefulness, has the outstanding quality of enthusiasm. But why waste clamorous love-notes on a world busy with breakfast? The sportful, tail-flicking dandy flits and alights so that he may address himself solely to his delighted and accepting spouse, peering into her reddish eyes the while, and in ecstasy proclaiming, in tones as loud and unmusical as her own, that life overflows with joy when mutual admiration surcharges the breast.

The noise stays a company of metallic starlings in headlong flight from the nest-laden tree in the forest to the many-fruited jungle. Though they most conscientiously search the fronds of coco-nut palms for insignificant grubs and caterpillars, starlings do not hawk for insects. Held up by the excitement — for by this time other birds have darted to the feast — the starlings alight among the plumes of the laburnum, interrogating in acidulous tones, their black, burnished, iridescent feathers and flame-hued eyes making a picture of rare vividness and beauty.

How thin becomes the throng! Last night’s shower, the morning warmth of the soil, have brought forth a gush of life that wheels and sparkles in the sun and becomes bait for birds. Are droughts designed by Nature to test endurance on the part of animal and vegetable life? Leaves fall from evergreen trees almost as completely as from the deciduous, and even the jungle is thickly strewn, while every slight hollow is filled with brittle debris where usually leaves are limp with dampness and mould. The jungle has lost, too, its rich, moist odours. Whiffs of the pleasant earthy smell, telling of the decay of clean vegetable refuse, do issue in the early morning and after sundown; but while the sun is searching out all the privacies of the once dim area, the wholesome fragrance does not exist.

Drought proves that certain species of exotic plants are hardier than natives. Wattles suffer more than mangoes, and citrus fruits have powers of endurance equal to eucalyptus. Whence does the banana obtain the liquid which flows from severed stem and drips from the cut bunch? Dig into the soil and no trace of even dampness is there; but rather parched soil and unnatural warmth, almost heat. Heat and moisture are the elements which enable one of the most succulent of plants to bear a bunch of fruit luscious and refreshing, and when heat alone prevails, the wonder is that the whole patch of luxuriant greenness does not collapse and wither. But the broad leaves woo the cool night airs, and while the thin, harsh, tough foliage of the wattles becomes languid and droops and falls, the banana grove retains its verdancy, each plant a reservoir of sap.

A noteworthy feature of the botany of the coast of tropical Queensland is its alliance with the Malayan Archipelago and India. Most of the related plants do not occur in those parts closest to other equatorial regions in the geographical sense, but in localities in which climate and physical conditions are similar. Probably there are more affinities in the coastal strip of which this isle is typical than in all the rest of the continent of Australia. One prominent example may be mentioned-viz., “the marking-nut tree.” When the distinctiveness of the botany of the southern portions of Australia from that of the old country began to impress itself on the earliest settlers, the miscalled native cherry was the very first on the list of reversals. The good folks at home were told that the seeds of the Australian cherry “grow on the outside.” The fruit of the cashew or marking-nut tree betrays a similar feature in more pronounced fashion. The fruit is really the thickened, succulent stalk of the kidney-shaped nut. The tint of the fruit being attractive, unsophisticated children eat of it and earn scalded lips and swollen tongues, while their clothing is stained indelibly by the juice. Botanists know the handsome tree as SEMECARPUS AUSTRALIENSIS, but by the indignant parent of the child with tearful and distorted features and ruined raiment it is offensively called the “tar-tree,” and is subject to shrill denunciations. The fleshy stalk beneath the fruit is, however, quite wholesome either raw or cooked, but the oily pericarp contains a caustic principle actually poisonous, so that unwary children would of a certainty eat the worst part. The tree, which belongs to the same order as the mango, has a limited range, and there are those who would like to see it exterminated, forgetful that in other parts of the world the edible parts are enjoyed, and also that a valuable means to the identification of linen is manufactured from it. A tree that is ornamental, that provides dense shade, that bears pretty and strange fruit, an edible part, and provides an economic principle, is not to be condemned off-hand because of one blot on its character.

An Indian representative of the genera produces a nut which when roasted is highly relished, though dubiously known as the coffin-nail or promotion nut, but there is no reason to believe that it is specially indigestible unless eaten in immoderate quantity.

One of the many bewilderments of botany is that plants of one family exhibit characteristics and habits so divergent that the casual observer fails to recognise the least signs of relationship. Similar confusion arises in the case of plants of the same species producing foliage of varied form. One of the figs (FICUS OPPOSITA) displays such remarkable inconsistency that until reassured by many examples it is difficult to credit an undoubted fact. The typical leaf is oblong elliptical, while individual plants produce lanceolate leaves with two short lateral lobes, with many intermediate forms. As the plant develops, the abnormal forms tend to disappear, though mature plants occasionally retain them. There seems to exist correlation between foliage and fruit, for branches exhibiting leaves with never so slight a variation from the type are, according to local observation, invariably barren. The leaves, which, when young, are densely hairy on the underside, on maturity become so rough and coarse that they are used by the blacks as a substitute for sandpaper in the smoothing of weapons. The fruit is small, dark purple when ripe, sweet, but rough to the palate.

During the fulness of the wet season, a diminutive orchid, the roots, tuber, leaf, and flower of which may be easily covered by the glass of a lady’s watch, springs upon exposed shoulders of the hills. So far it has not been recorded for any other part of Australia, or, indeed, the world. Science has bestowed upon it the title of CORYSANTHES FIMBRIATA, for it is all too retiring of disposition to demand of man a familiar name. Probably it may be quite common in similar localities, but its size, its brief periodicity, and inconspicuousness, contribute to make it, at present, one of the rarities of botany. Beneath a kidney-shaped leaf a tiny, solitary, hooded, purple flower shelters with becoming modesty, the art of concealment being so delicately employed that it seems to preserve its virginal purity. There is proof, however, that the flower does possess some “secret virtue,” for if the plant be immersed in glycerine the preservative takes the hue of the flower. Nature having ordained that the plants should be elusive, they appear in remote spots and unlikely situations with foothold among loose and gritty fragments of rock, and with cessation of the sustaining rains disappear, each having borne but a single leaf and produced but a solitary flower. The leaf does not seem to be attractive to insects, nor is the flower despoiled or the tuber interfered with. The first dry day sears the plants, and succeeding days shrivel them to dust and they vanish. What part in the great scheme of Nature does the humble flower fulfil? Or is it merely a lowly decoration, not designed to court the ardent gaze of the sun, but to brighten an otherwise bare space of Mother Earth with a spot of fugitive purple?

Widely different are the ant-house plants, of which North Queensland has two genera. One is purely an epiphyte, growing attached to a tree like many of the orchids. In both genera the gouty stems are hollow, a feature of which ants take advantage; they are merely occupiers, not the makers of their homes. Few, if any, of the plants are uninhabited by a resentful swarm, ready to attack whomsoever may presume to interfere with it. It is discomposing to the uninitiated to find the curious “orchid,” laboriously wrenched from a tree, overflowing with stinging and pungent ants, nor is he likely to reflect that the association between the plant and the insect may be more than accidental.

Some of the commonest wattles exhibit singularity of foliage well worth notice. Upon the germination of the seeds the primary leaves are pinnate. After a brief period this pretty foliage is succeeded by a boomerang-shaped growth, which prevails during life. Botanists do not speak of such trees as possessing leaves, but “leaf-stalks dilated into the form of a blade and usually with vertical edges, as in Australian acacias.” If one of these wattles is burnt to the ground, but yet retains sufficient life to enable it to shoot from the charred stem, the new growth will be of pinnate leaves, shortly to be abandoned for the substitutes, which are of a form which checks transpiration and fits the plant to survive in specially dry localities. Several of the species thus equipped to withstand drought are extremely robust in districts where the rainfall is prolific. There are no data available to support the theory that such species in a wet district are more vigorous and attain larger dimensions than representatives in drier and hotter localities. In her distribution of the Australian national flower, Nature seems to be “careless of the type,” or rather regardless in respect of conditions of climate.

Human beings, and occasionally animals lower in the scale, deviate distressingly in their conduct from the general. Plants, too, though lacking the organ of brain, are subject to aberrations of foliage almost as fantastical as the mental bent which in man is displayed by the sticking of straws in the hair. “Phyllomania” is the recognised term for this waywardness. One of the trees of this locality, the raroo (CAREYA AUSTRALIS), seems singularly prone to the infirmity, for without apparent cause it abandons habitual ways and clothes its trunk and branches with huge rosettes of small, slight, and ineffective leaves, evidence, probably, of vital degeneration.

Among the beautiful trees of this Island there is one, PITHECOLOBIUM PRUINOSUM, possessing features of attraction during successive phases of growth. The young branches, foliage, and inflorescence, are coated with minute silky hair, as if dusted with bronze of golden tint. The dense, light, semi-drooping foliage produces a cloud-like effect, to which the great masses of buff flowers add a delightful fleeciness, while the ripe pods, much twisted and involved (to carry similitude as far as it may), might be likened to dull lightning in thunderous vapour. The tree flourishes in almost pure sand within a few yards of salt water, and, being hardy and of clean habit, might well be used decoratively.

Standing with its feet awash at high tide, the huge fig-tree began life as a parasite, the seed planted by a beak-cleaning bird in a crevice of the bark of its forerunner. In time the host disappeared, embraced and absorbed. Now the tree is a sturdy host. Another fig envelops some of its branches, two umbrella-trees cling stubbornly to its sides, a pandanus palm grows comfortably at the base of a limb, tons of staghorn, bird’s-nest, polypodium, and other epiphytal ferns, have licence to flourish, orchids hang decoratively, and several shrubs spring aspiringly among its roots. But the big tree still asserts its individuality. It is the host, the others merely dependents or tenants. Most of the functions of the tree are associated with the sea. Twice a year it studs its branches with pink fruit, food for many weeks for a carnival of birds, the relics of the feast dully carpeting the sand. Before the first fruiting the old leaves fall, and for a brief interval the shadows of branches and twigs, intricate, involved, erratic, might be likened to unschooled scribblings, with here a flourish and there a blot and many a boisterous smudge. Soon — it is merely a question of days — the swelling buds displace millions of leaf-sheaves, pale green and fragile, which fall and, curling in on themselves, redden, and again the yellow sand is littered, while overhead fresh foliage, changing rapidly from golden, glistening brown to rich dark green, makes one compact blotch. And when the wind torments sea and forest, and branches bend and sway, and creepers drift before it, the white blooms of the orchids, so light and delicate that a sigh agitates them, might be “foam flakes torn from the fringe of spray” and tossed aloft.

The technical description of a fairly common tree — IXORA TIMORENSIS— is silent on a quality that appeals to the unversed admirer almost as strongly as the handsome flowers, which occur in large, loose panicles at the terminals of the branches. Boldly exposed, the white flowers as they lose primal freshness change to cream, but last for several weeks. The omitted compliment from formal records is the singular fragrance of the flowers — strong, sweet, and enticing, though with a drug-like savour, as if rather an artificial addition than a provision of Nature. During December the perfume hangs heavily about the trees, being specially virile in the cool of evening and morning. Being confined to the tropical coast, away from the centres of population, and flowering at a season when visitors avoid the north, the scented Ixora has so far remained uncommended. Those who are familiar with it in its native scene dwell on its unique excellence, and are proud to reflect that when a comprehensive catalogue of the flowering and perfumed plants of Australia comes to be compiled it will stand high in order of merit, being unique and characteristic of the richness of that part of the continent in which it exists naturally.

Twice during lengthy intervals have I been perturbed by the conduct of the sea-swallows (terns) which breed in this neighbourhood. They select for their nurseries coral banks, depositing large numbers of eggs beyond the limit of high tides. In obedience to some law, the joyful white birds began to lay in September, five or six weeks earlier than usual. It seemed to be a half-hearted effort to maintain the strength of the colony, the unanimous and general purpose being postponed for three months, when numerous clutches and marvellously variegated eggs embellished the coral. But that which was a perfectly safe and wise undertaking in September was a foolish and dangerous experiment in December. The tides then approach their maximum, flooding areas denied three months previously. Wholesale tragedy was inevitable. The full moon brought bereavement to many parents, for the sea overwhelmed the nurseries, or the best part of them. Many wise birds had laid their eggs above the limit of the highest tide. Others screamed in protest against the cruelty of the sea, for eggs and fluffy chicks do not surely represent legitimate tribute to Neptune. Several fledglings were found half buried in sand and coral chips, some with merely the head with bright and apprehensive eyes obtruding. Why were not the whole of the parents of the colony prudent when in default the penalty was inevitable? Five score were wise, five hundred were foolish, and the natural increase from the second brood must have been seriously diminished. Several of the parent birds had brooded over their eggs until overwhelmed by the surges and drowned. Some on the tide limit squatted buried to the eyes in sand and seaweed. Of one the tip of a wing only protruded. It was alive, fostering unbroken eggs.

The metallic starlings have again built on a favourite tree — not massive and tough, but a slim though tall Moreton Bay ash, the branchlets of which are not notoriously brittle. They withstand a certain weight, beyond which they snap. Why do these otherwise highly intelligent birds so overstrain branches with groups of nests that “regrettable incidents” cannot be averted? First there came to the ground a group of four, and then twenty nests, all containing eggs or helpless young. By these and similar mishaps during the season the colony suffered loss to the extent of at least a hundred.

“But, like the martlet,

Builds in the weather on the outward wall

Even in the force and road of casualty.”

How often, too, do we find nests in places absurdly wrong? Wonderfully and skilfully constructed nests are attached to supports obviously weak, and eggs are laid on the ground right in the track of man and less considerate animals. Some birds seem to lay eggs and rear young solely that snakes may not lack and suffer hunger, while how large a proportion of beautiful and innocent creatures are destined to become prey to hawks?

Years ago scientific visitors to a coral islet found almost innumerable sea birds and eggs. The multitude of birds and their prodigious fecundity inspired the thought that the “rookery” for the whole breadth of the Indian Ocean had been discovered. Investigations showed that the islet was also the abiding-place of a certain species of lizard which subsisted entirely on eggs. It was calculated that not one egg in several hundred was hatched out; yet in spite of such an extraordinary natural check the islet was enormously overpopulated. Thousands of birds every year laid eggs for the maintenance of fat and pompous reptiles, without reflecting that there were other and lizardless isles on which the vital function of incubation might be performed without loss. Years after other men of science sought the isle. Birds seemed to be as numerous as ever, but the lizards had disappeared. Had the birds been wise enough to perceive that the plague of lizards had been sent as reproof for overcrowding, or did the lizards become victims to physical deterioration incident upon gluttony and sloth?

“Into every instinctive act there is an intrusion of reasoned act.” No doubt; but in the case of the terns — sea-frequenting and sea-loving — which had not the wit to lay their eggs beyond the reach of spring tides, the reasoning is the merest intrusion. Yet an instance of what seems to be the reasoned act of a wasp may be cited. The insect had selected a dead log of soft wood as a site for its egg-shaft. It was at a spot to which the occupations of the season took me daily, so that the boring operations were watched from beginning to end. The work was done rapidly and neatly, and when all was ready for the deposit of the eggs the insect constructed from papier-mache-like material a disc-shaped lid exactly fitting the mouth of the excavation, to which it was attached on its upper edge by a hinge. Then round and about the disc similar stuff was plastered, so as to form an irregular splash, imitative of a bird’s droppings to the-degree of perfect deception. In the centre was the lid with the hinge, and whensoever the insect visited its nursery the lid swung up, closing behind it. On departure it fell into position. Unless the insect by its presence betrayed its secret, the shrewdest observer at close quarters would have been misled.

There are reasons for the belief that green tree-ants understand and respect the laws of neutrality. There are several communities in the mango-trees, and since some of the trees overhang the fence, the top wire is used as a highway. When a gate is opened traffic is suspended. In a minute or two of a busy day there will be considerable gatherings on the latch-style, and if the intervening space is narrowed by the swing of the gate the impatient insects begin to make a living bridge across the perilous gap. At one particular gate, which is opened and shut many times a day, it has been noticed that the ants never seem to resent interruptions or to be vexed by them. If they happen to get on the hands or fingers, they submit to be restored to the gate; but go to the formicary on the mango-tree half a dozen yards away and offer a friendly finger, and you will find dozens of pugnacious individuals ready to defend their home. Do they recognise that they are but pilgrims of the fence, enjoying certain rights on sufferance, that it is a path of peace on which belligerents must not intrude, a neutral tract under the custody of the law of nations, which ants, as well as men, must respect? Whatsoever the reason, the deportment of the truculent ant on the highway is that of an upholder of peace at any price. It is to be doubted if the animal world holds more illustrious examples of heroism than a green tree-ants’ nest. Two or three individuals may be despised as long as their assaults are confined to the less sensitive parts of the body; but let a huge colony up among the branches of an orange-tree be disturbed, and the first army corps instantly mobilised, and it will not be cowardly hastily to retreat. So eager for the fray are the warriors, so well organised, so completely devoted to the self-sacrificing duty of protecting the community, that two distinct methods of advance and attack are exercised forthwith in the midst of what appears to be calamitous confusion. Swarming on the extremity of the branches among which the formicary is constructed, the defenders, projecting their terminal segments as far into space as possible, eject formic acid in the direction of the enemy. Like shrapnel from machine guns, the liquid missile sweeps a considerable area. Against the sunlight it appears as a continuous spray, and should one infinitesimal drop descend into the eye the stoutest mortal will blink. Attacks are made singly and in detachments. Heroes actually hurl themselves from the branches, and, failing to reach the enemy, run along the ground and, scaling his legs, inflict punishment on the first convenient patch of unprotected skin. Detachments muster in blobs, fall in a mass to the ground, and charge. If one of these forlorn hopes happens to be successful, the observant man will retire with little of his dignity remaining.

It is interesting to note how readily birds acquire tastes for the sweet fruits which man cultivates. One of the honey-eaters, the diet of which ranges from nectar to the juice of one of the native cucumbers, as bitter as colocynth, has become an ardent advocate for the thorough ripening of bananas. While on the plant the fruit is not appreciated, but after the bunch has been hung for a week or so and the first fruits are changing colour the bird is enthusiastic. Formerly bunches were ripened in a thatched building for the the most part open, and the bird got the very best of the bunch. Now the process takes place where the bird has to venture through wire-netting. It has no fear, entering without ceremony, loudly complaining when inadvertently disturbed, and flying to other parts of the house to express remonstrance when the supply is exhausted.

Scarcity of surface-water sharpens the powers of observation of some birds and increases the trustfulness of certain species towards human beings in a region wherein they are held to have rights on equality with those of their superiors in the animal world. For years, during the few weeks which generally intervene between the disappearance of accustomed water reserves and the beginning of the wet season, with its super-abundance, the metallic starlings have been wont to obtain refreshment from a hollow far up a huge tea-tree, the supply in which seemed to be inexhaustible. The tyrant’s plea, necessity, ordained the destruction of the never-failing tree, and now the starlings descend by the hundred into the deep and shady ravine whence water is pumped, and drink also from the cattle-trough and bathe therein with noise and excitement of happy children on the beach. It is quite within the mark to compute the starlings by the hundred. The trough is edged nearly all day long by thirsty or dirty birds, while scores sit round among the shrubs waiting turn and commenting on the frolics and splashings of others in excitable tones. When, perhaps, there are but a poor dozen or so round the trough, you may chance to see the birds in attitudes more varied than those of Pliny’s doves, and catch the shadows of burnished necks darkening the water, as in that famous mosaic, and even the glistening reflection of the red, jewel-like eyes. Other birds, with far less assurance and shrill clamour than the lovely starlings, visit the trough regularly and by the score. Two species of honey-eaters are seldom unrepresented. The barred-shouldered dove, the spangled drongo, the noisy pitta, the red-crowned fruit pigeon, the pheasant-tailed pigeon, are less frequent visitors; and though the purple-breasted fruit pigeon — the most magnificent of all — talks to his mate in coarse gutturals from the trees above, he has not been seen actually drinking. So shy and furtive a bird would choose his time for refreshment when there is little likelihood of interruption. In the ravine there are often metallic starlings by the dozen, and little green pigeons — for those domiciled come and go at all hours of the day. Occasionally a sulphur-crested cockatoo comes sailing down to the diminishing pool through interwoven leafage noiselessly as a butterfly; but scrub fowls, scared by the apparition in white, scamper off with a clatter, scattering the dead leaves. In such narrow quarters, birds are under restraint, and show anxiety and apprehension. There is no sport or play. They drink quickly and with faculties strained, and flutter off excitedly on the least alarm. Well may they be suspicious, for is not the cool spot attractive to the sly enemy, the green snake, which conceals its presence by faithful resemblance to the creepers among which it glides? Here, too, come millions of industrious bees, and in the dusk the big pencil-tailed water-rat, which the masterful dog kills with as little ceremony as he does the bird-scaring snakes.

It was late for cockatoos to start on their daily flight to the mainland from the big tree close to the twin palms half-way up the hill, and as they flew hastily and in close company they scolded each other in unmannerly terms. The language must have been vexing, for as they sped along far above the passionless sea one jostled the other. It was just the sort of action to provoke hungry, peevish birds to vindictiveness. That which had been jostled turned on the offender with angry shrieking, and instantly a clamorous fight was in progress. Claws became interlocked, and they fell each with distended crest, like a gilt-edged cloudlet following the setting sun. Shadow and substance met with a splash. The sea momentarily swallowed the combatants. Then a yellow note of exclamation appeared, and with laboured flutterings, using his enemy as a base, one rose and struggled to the beach oaks. Frantic wing-beating showed that the other bird was in serious difficulties. It was a hundred yards out, but the enjoyment of a sunbath after a sea frolic enabled one to proceed to the rescue without preliminaries. Half drowned and completely cowed, the bird was now confronted by a more awful peril than that of the sea. A bedraggled crest indicated horror at the steady approach of the enemy man, whose presence stimulated the sodden bird to such extraordinary efforts that it succeeded in rising and in making slow, low flight to the beach.

At dawn a bat flew into a spider’s web spun during the night, the extremities of the wings being so entangled that struggling was almost impossible. A big spider pounced on it. Not a minute elapsed from the entanglement until the bat was released, but the venom of the spider had done its work. There was not a sign of life. The spider is dark grey in colour, bloated of body, slothful, and of most retiring disposition. Huddled up into almost spherical form, it lurks in dark places, which it soon makes insanitary. In the open it crouches among dead leaves which have gathered in the fork of a tree, and will construct a web which spans the coconut avenue with its stays. From one aspect its rotund body invites a good-humoured smile, for the marking exactly simulates the features of a tabby cat, well fed, sleepy, and in placid mood. Venom of virulence to kill a bat almost instantly would be severe enough to a human being. This dirty, obese spider deserves little consideration at the hand of man.

A moonless, cloudless night. The little praam takes the ground in the bay a few yards from the beach, and in the midst of a constellation of “jelly-fishes” spherical in form and varying in size. The larger are so many pale blue orbs floating lazily in a luminous mist, the only visible manifestation of life being a delicate but rhythmical deepening of the central hue. The wash of my wading seems not to affect them. I become conscious of the sudden appearance and swift disappearance of lesser spheres of startling brilliance. They emerge from nothingness, pause for a moment, and shoot towards me with extraordinary impulse. Each is a mere globule, resplendently blue. The tint intensifies as with accelerated velocity the atom flies until of its own excessive energy it explodes with a shell-like flash, leaving a sinuous trail of golden light. To burst into sight, gather force, to flash and slowly vanish — such is the sum of life of a speck of sea-jelly. To be the centre towards which scores of the watery meteors gravitate, to witness their apparently spontaneous beginning, their swift, brief, but ineffectual career and lingering end, delights this night of darkness. How many of the race of man are there whose post-mortem glory outshines life tenfold?

Beneath a slab of dead coral on the reef there was revealed one of those primitive and curious marine animals which has no common name, but which science recognises as SYNAPTA BESELLI. It is a relation of the béche-de-mer, of snake-like form, with a group of gills differentiating the head. Playing about it were three or four little fish which immediately took advantage of the only remaining cover, the body of the Synapta, snoodling beside it so artfully that they were quite concealed. The protector did not appear to resent the close company of the fish, which remained perfectly motionless. In a few seconds the Synapta began to extrude its feathery gills, which had been partly retracted on disturbance. I counted the gills, and while my forefinger indicated the sixth, a little fish, not previously noticed, appeared at the focus and edged off to the margin of the pool, now and again making decided efforts to regain its sanctuary. It was about an inch long and a third deep, ruby red, with pink undersides and pink, transparent fins. Three narrow bands of silver edged with lavender extended across the shoulder. Life gave it jewel-like lustre. The companionship between the slow and feeble Synapta, one of the most primitive of sea things, and the brilliant, agile fish may be another instance of commensalism.

No one who parades a coral reef can fail to be impressed by the various means adopted by its weaker denizens to evade the consequences of conspicuousness. Among the vast multitude of creatures, mostly hostile to each other, few are more remarkable than the crabs, not only on account of form and habit, but for care of themselves during the periodic casting of their shells. They therefore represent an entertaining study and a never-ending source of pleasure to the observer, who, as he happens on some fantastic member of the family, wonders, remembering his Shakespeare, what impossible matter will Nature make easy next. Dreamy little ripples were laying on the strands sprays of seaweed, torn from the reef which was not quite out of the influence of the easterly swell. The conditions were ordinary, but one fragment made itself noticeable by slight, almost undiscernible, but still distinctive efforts to regain the water, whence it was separated by a few inches. Seaweed alone was visible as it rested on the palm of the hand. Presently it moved hesitatingly and with infinite slowness, and, being reversed, revealed itself as a “watery” crab under living disguise. The specimen was sent to the Australian Museum, Sydney, where it came under the hands of my friend Mr. Allan R. McCulloch, who devotes himself to the phenomena of the sea; and since his references to it are explicit and authoritative, they will be more acceptable than generalities from an uninformed pen: “The crab you sent is the second specimen known of ZEWA BANFIELDI, which I described from a dried specimen received from you some years ago. Not only the species, but the genus also, was unknown until you gave me the opportunity of describing this interesting beast. It is one of the spider crabs, or Oxyrhynchus, most of which have long horns projecting from the rostrum, and are more or less thickly covered with stiff curled setae, to which seaweeds, sponges, and other marine growths — selected according to the taste of the bearer — are attached. When these crabs shed their shells, which they must do periodically to allow of growth, they retire to a dark corner and draw themselves out of a slit between the back and the abdomen, legs and all, which must, I imagine, be a delicate and somewhat painful proceeding. After emerging, they are, of course, quite soft, and the setae on the carapace and legs are flexible. The crab then selects choice bits of weed from its old shell and fastens them to itself by the setae, which soon curl at the tips like the tendrils of a vine, and so hold them firmly. The weeds and sponges, requiring no roots, but merely a secure base, readily grow in their new position, and so cover their host with a sheltering disguise, enabling it to sally forth in quest of fresh loves and other adventures. I am sending the reprint with the original description and figure, also a sketch of the crab with its weedy garments. Much of the weed had become detached on its arrival here, which is, perhaps, fortunate, since the sketch would otherwise have shown merely a cluster of weeds.” It could be well wished that the specimen had retained the whole of its floral cloak, for then the sketch would have shown its deceptive qualities in perfection. Masquerading as a spray of seaweed, the crab eludes its enemies, the mask being of such high order that even man, with his perceptions, does not penetrate it unless he exercises his reasoning faculties. Because he knows that a spray of seaweed is not endowed with independent movement, when it does walk about he, at first, is as incredulous as was Macbeth when told of that “moving grove” of Birman.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/banfield/ej/b21td/chapter1.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32