Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

The Scene-Shifter

“We are all going to the play or coming from it.”— DICKENS.

In a few hours came “the season’s difference.” The scene-shifter worked with almost magical haste, with silence, and with supreme effect. The gloomy days and nights of misty hill-tops and damp hollows, where the grass was sodden and the air dull and irresponsive to sound, gave way to bright sunshine, cloudless skies, calm seas, echoing hills, and the tinge of that which for lack of the ideal word we call “spring.” Spring does not visit the tropical coast, where vegetation does not tolerate any period of rest. When plants are not actually romping with excess of vital force, as during the height of the wet season, they grow with the haste of summer. And yet immediately on the dispersal of the mists of July the least observance could not fail to recognise that a certain and elaborate change had taken place. The mango-trees had been flowering for several weeks in a trivial, half-hearted way, but when the sun sent its thrills down into the moist soil the lemons and pomeloes began to sweeten the air; the sunflower-tree displayed its golden crowns among huge soft leaves, and the last blooms of belated wattles fell, showing that it is possible for tributes representative of May and September to be paid on one and the same date.

The scene-shifter came softly “as the small rain upon the tender herb,” but with an orchestra of his own. Years of observation have shown that the weather does control the habits of some birds — birds of distinct and regular methods of life. Two such are common — the nutmeg pigeon and the metallic starling. Both species leave this part of the North during the third week of March, flying in flocks to regions nearer the equator. For several weeks the starlings train themselves for the long Northern flight and its perils, dashing with impetuous speed through the forest and wheeling up into the sky until they disappear, to become visible again as black dots hurtling through space when the sunlight plays on their glossy feathers as the course of the flock is changed. With the rush of a wind of small measure but immense velocity, the flock descends earthwards, among and over the trees, perfecting itself by trials of endurance and intricate alertness. The birds return during the first week in August, in small and silent companies, to reoccupy favourite resorts in common. The nutmeg pigeons are also of exact habit, the time for their return generally coinciding with that of the starlings. This year (1916) both birds were noticed just after the scene-shifter had swept the hills of mists, and now other birds seem to have awakened to the conditions which the starlings and the nutmegs brought with them from hotter lands. The swamp pheasants are whooping and gurgling, and that semi-migratory fellow, the spangled drongo — a flattering name, for he jangles but does not spangle — sits on the slim branch of the Moreton Bay ash which held last year’s nest and chatters discordances in the very ears of his responsive mate. They will start building a loose nest on the brittlest branch forthwith, and while the lady sits on her three eggs he will screech defiances to the high heavens and perform aerial gymnastics with delirious delight.

The sun-birds are searching the lemon blooms. The breast of the gay, assertive little bird is far richer in tint than the brightest of the lemons. A minute ago one perched on a ripe fruit as if to shame it by contrast, and the fruit has since seemed a trifle dull of tint, and with light-hearted inconsequence the pair are now probing narrow throats of papaw flowers. The ground has been too much overgrown with grass and weeds for the comfort of the little green pigeons which come strutting down the paths for seeds and crumbs. Dry soil, which may be easily scanned and scratched, is more to their liking, so they keep to the forest, where in some places the undergrowth of wattles is so dense that the sun may not visit the ground, and the bare places glitter with seed.

When rain was seriously deficient, proof was given that some proportion of the wattle seeds eaten by pigeons are not digested. In the crevices of logs supporting the water-trough, which proved to be a popular refreshment spot of many species of birds, clamorous with thirst, seeds were deposited, and when the rains came the trough was fringed and decorated with pinnate leaves of sprouting wattles, some of which grew so strongly, notwithstanding the absence of soil, save that which occurs from the slow decay of seasoned bloodwood, that if summary measures had not been taken the trough might have been embowered. The season seems to have been too damp for the night-jars, though quite to the taste of all species of pigeons. In the course of a few minutes the voice of the timid, tremulous, barred-shouldered dove came from among the yellow-flowered hibiscus of the beach, while the pheasant-tailed pigeon sounded its rich, dual note, the red-crowned fruit pigeon tolled its mournful chime, and the guttural of the magnificent fruit pigeon — often heard, but seldom seen — came from the jungle close at hand. Not one of these birds was visible, nor was the fluty-voiced shrike thrush, which answers every strange call and mimics crude attempts to reproduce its varied notes. The blue kingfisher is investigating the tumour made by white ants in the bloodwood wherein the nest is annually excavated, and soon the chattering notes of the pair will be heard. A week ago few signs of the approach of the scene-shifter were discernible. He has come, and plants and birds respond to his genial and becoming presence — plants with richer growth and more abundant flowers, birds with the unreflecting gaiety of nuptial days.

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