A First Hand Account Of Cyclone Larry

An Excerpt from the March Newsletter of Naturalist, Alan Gillanders (See panel for contact details).

1. Weather
What weather? The cyclone blew it all away! Cyclone Larry, a Category Five Storm with winds of up to 290 km/hr proved to be a very predictable beast. This was because the driving winds of the middle and upper atmosphere were stable and predictable. On the morning of Monday, March 20, Larry rushed ashore near Innisfail, raced up the Palmerston, moved across the Atherton Tablelands and headed west. It was still a cyclone after having crossed the bottom of Cape York Peninsular. Cyclone Larry was a large, deep system but produced little flooding here as it moved quickly on.

Alan Gillanders is the proprietor of “Alan's Wildlife Tours” based in Yungaburra. He is happy to guide parties, day or night, to view tropical Queensland's unique wildlife including rare and beautiful birds, animals and plants. If you are visiting Far North Queensland, check out Alan's website at:

www.alanswildlifetours.com.au

or call him on (07) 4095 3784

In Yungaburra the gale force winds began from the west about 7 a.m. and continued for three and a half hours. That the cyclone was moving so rapidly was a great advantage in shortening the time we were subjected to the strong winds. By 8 o’clock a number of trees in our yard had lost small limbs, about as thick as one’s thigh. By 10 o’clock as many as seven of our trees had blown over and all the tall ones still standing looked more like poles, side branches and leaves nearly all gone. Our neighbours’ shed broke up, squashing his cars and scattering iron around. Fortunately it was caught in our vegetation and none reached our house. By 11 o’clock I was outside clearing the road with a neighbour. Many of the National Parks are closed as I write this, one and a half weeks PL (Post Larry) but it will not be long before they are made safe and open to the public again. The forest will take a little longer to recover.

While we had phones for a while, the batteries at the exchange went flat on Tuesday. Water was only being released into the system for four hours a day but as we are at the bottom of the hill we never lost water. Power was restored to our part of the village on Saturday afternoon. It was good to have a hot shower and to have email contact with friends and relatives again.

2. Birds, Butterflies and Cyclones
I have only found two dead birds. A male Scarlet Honeyeater which I grieved over and a Common Myna which . . .

During the storm, birds went to ground. As the winds eased I went out to survey the damage and disturbed the following birds from the ground in dense vegetation; five White Headed Pigeons, one Barking Owl, two Macleay's Honeyeaters, three Dusky Honeyeaters and a Bush Thicknee which was in ferns and covered by fallen leafy branches.

At about 10.30 when the winds had dropped to gale force we saw two birds fly along our patio. They were a Lewins Honeyeater and an immature Metallic Starling. They stopped in a little bush with berries where they fed for some time, no more than a metre above the ground and mostly out of the wind.

By 11.45 the winds were light and birds and butterflies were everywhere. From huge female Cairns Birdwings to Orchard Swallowtails to tiny Blues, Darts and Skippers, the butterflies lightened our spirits as we looked at a couple of months work cleaning up the garden. A few flocks of Topknot Pigeons flew over heading west towards the storm.

The birds in the garden were very hungry and confiding. Around mid-afternoon I was clearing a fallen Grevillea with my chain saw while a Dusky Honeyeater fed about two metres away on the branch I was cutting. Later I was working in amongst fallen wattle leaves to about knee depth when I was surrounded by a flock of gleaning Fairy Gerygones. Scarlet Honeyeaters fed to within a metre of three enthralled children and myself. I was able to approach to one of the preening Barking Owls until there was less than three metres between us. Even the black tree-ants were not biting. The only animal showing aggression was a male Blue-banded Eggfly. These are the most agro of all butterflies; I once saw one chase off a Willy Wagtail!

The Noisy Friarbirds have left, being replaced by the more usual Helmeted Friarbirds. We had the Noisy Friarbirds move in during the dry but did not retreat when the rains came last year. Some years ago, during a drought, there was a general movement of friarbird species towards the coast. This happened again last year despite the fact that it was only a dry year and not a drought.

A Black-faced Monarch has taken to feeding on our patio, taking the insects attracted to the lights at night. In the afternoon the bird returns to try its luck for spiders driven by the heat from their hiding holes under the roof.

The two nights after the storm the Barking Owls may not have left the yard as I slept fitfully and heard their quiet chortling very time I surfaced. They have now moved on and are roosting down by the creek I believe.

A Peregrine Falcon spent some of the second day sitting in the top of one of our denuded Tallowwoods. The local pair of Wedgetail Eagles has been seen at my possum and tree-kangaroo site on three occasions. I hope they are eating carrion. Green Ringtail Possums camp out on Branches during the day and have been taken by Wedgetails in the past. Now there is almost nothing to hide their presence.

Frigate Birds and Lesser Crested Terns have been spotted on the Tablelands and a friend in Julatten had a Pied Imperial Pigeon feeding at his place three days before the cyclone. These birds rarely make it to the Tablelands.

3. The Forest, two weeks Post Larry

The Curtain Fig and Cathedral Fig are both still standing and in good condition as are the Twin Kauris at Lake Barrine. After Cyclone Winifred the Golden Pendas, Xanthostemon crysanthus, had an additional flowering. It will be interesting to see if that is repeated. The first trees to produce huge flushes of new growth then were Plum Satinash, Syzygium wilsonii ssp cryptophlebium. The hot pink columns in the forest were the first major sign of recovery. The reason they were in columns is that the side branches were missing and the leaves were sprouting from epicormic buds under the bark on the trunks of the trees.

The fallen fruit is now largely eaten or gone rotten and the leaves are brown. The animals are very hungry but not yet starving. There are new leaves emerging which gives one hope for the foliavores but it will be some time before there is much fruit around. The problem for the trees is that there is now so much pressure on the few remaining ones. Silver Ash, Flindersia schottiana, have produced some new leaves on most trees and the Coppery Brushtail Possums are enjoying them. If African studies can be extrapolated to here it is likely that leaves grown under stress will produce higher phenol and alkaloid levels. This puts more strain on the animal’s digestive system and liver. In one small fig tree at our place we had about seventy Double-eyed Fig-Parrots. All the ripe and near ripe figs were eaten in a few minutes.

There is the smell of a new dead animal, probably a mammal, in the forest. Perhaps it died of old injuries sustained in the cyclone but starvation cannot be ruled out as there is very little for them to eat.

Lomatian Oak, Lomatia fraxinifolia, is in flower. Beetles are the major pollinators of this tree but they are eating most of the flowers so I think that seed set will be reduced. In January I reported on the remarkable flowering of the Silver Quandong. The fruit set was not wonderful and many trees were in bud or flower for a second time when Larry struck. Now they have lost all that flower and fruit. This is the case for many trees. It means that there will be little fruit on any of the Quandongs of any species until the end of 2007. During the dry season the smaller fruited Quandongs are important food sources for pigeons, bowerbirds and other frugivores. Kuranda Quandongs, Elaeocarpus johnsonii, are in flower where they had some protection from the blow. These are beautiful trees with large glossy leaves which turn an orange-red before dropping. The flowers are white, pendant bells to 2 cm with fringed margins. The occasional plant has flowers with a pink tinge. The fruit are a dull blue-green and are eaten by Cassowaries. The seeds are eaten by native rats and people. The taste is like that of the flesh of a mature coconut.

The Red Bauple Nut, HIcksbeachia pilosa, is in flower. The racemes of this small understorey tree can be almost a metre in length but are usually more like 40 cm long. Flower colour varies from almost black, through purples and maroons to light pink. The red fruit split fairly easily to reveal an edible nut. The palatability of the nuts varies like most wild food and can be improved with roasting. Helicia nortoniana, Norton’s Oak, is also in flower. The greenish yellow flowers are small on a raceme of about 6 cm. Pigeons will be grateful for any seed which sets this year. Rats also like the 1 cm nuts.

We have seen three of the Tree-Kangaroos since Larry: Kate, Jill and Jill’s at heel young. Rex’s big trees are still standing but there is no sign that he has been using them. They are very open at the moment. Green Ringtails have been feeding in the fallen branches but now the leaves are getting past it. The Tulip Oaks have more leaves than most of the trees but no Greens have been observed feeding in them. The leaves of Ficus copiosa, the Plentiful Fig, have been the main source of food. A few smaller specimens of this tree have fruit which is ripening and there is some fruit to come on Ficus septica.

Fewer reptiles have been seen than our usual numbers except for Chameleon Geckoes which have not been seen at all. This could be because it is so difficult to observe the forest floor with all the trash about but we have made a concerted effort without success.

Butterflies and moths are in good numbers. While it is not uncommon for these to feed on fruit, it seems to be a major food source at the moment. Those little flies which breed in rotting fruit appear to have completed a cycle since the storm as they are everywhere. One only has to take out a piece of fruit to have them gather round. Other tiny insects are also out in great numbers at night. I believe them to be flies but 10X magnification was not enough to be sure. Many huge Longicorn Beetles are to be seen on the fallen timber. They will lay their eggs in the logs, aiding the breakdown of the wood. Other wood beetles assist by opening the timber, allowing water and fungi in. Their feeding produces saw dust. Passilid Beetles even chew wood to feed their squeaking larvae. Mosquitoes have bred and are even to be encountered at my nocturnal tour site. There are at least four species sitting on the screen doors right now. Before the cyclone a mass of slug like larvae of one of the blue butterflies was denuding a Pouteria obovoidea, Yellow Boxwood. These caterpillars were grey, flat, with yellow stripes. Now it does not look out of place in the forest at all.

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