There was still life in the old, dead tree

There was still life in the old, dead tree

The view from the back veranda of my parents’ house is typical of rural areas of north-east Victoria: open paddocks spreading for miles across the valley floor before reaching the forest-clad rolling hills. As a child, I spent many hours on the veranda looking out across the countryside. Beyond our small farm dam, just over our boundary fence, a huge eucalypt interrupted the monotony of the agricultural landscape. It towered above the surrounding pasture, its grey, leafless branches leaning ever so slightly to the south as they stretched skyward. It was dead and, judging by its weathered appearance, it had been for a considerable time.

This simple yet striking sketch of the old, dead Red Gum was drawn from Rowan’s memory. To his knowledge, there are no existing photos of this once magnificent tree. Image: Rowan Mott

Even though this old Red Gum had long ceased to live, it still nurtured life. Its twisted branches were pitted with hollows; small ones and large. Every year, as winter drew to a close, a pair of Nankeen Kestrels took up residence in one of the larger hollows. With the arrival of spring, the sight of a kestrel perched in the leaning branches became a constant. And I became a constant on my parents’ veranda, my eye trained through an astronomical telescope repurposed for birdwatching. The kestrels provided endless hours of captivation. I’d watch with joy as the pair would call their soft, shrill song to each other. I’d smile as one would excitedly head-bob when potential prey had caught its attention. And I would sit spellbound while a mouse was brutally pulled into bite-sized morsels and consumed.

Sometimes the Red-browed Finches in the backyard would give an alarm call, and the entire flock would make a dash to the nearest bushes. I’d look up to see one of the kestrel pair coursing through the sky at a great rate of knots, its speed seeming incongruous with the effortlessness of its flight. Occasionally, the first sign I would see of the kestrel would be it emerging from behind some foliage having caught an off-guard finch. Whether successful or not, the kestrel would invariably return to the old, dead Red Gum, and so would my gaze.

Nankeen Kestrels are best known for their penchant for hovering. They make flying look like a breeze. Image: Rowan Mott
Nankeen Kestrels are one of the most common birds of prey in agricultural landscapes. They delighted Rowan during his childhood as he watched them nesting in a dead Red Gum. Image: Rowan Mott

On a dark autumn night, we returned home from an evening out. As our car rounded the corner at our front gate, the old, dead Red Gum stood candle-like in the blackness. Flames were billowing out of a few of the hollows, sending a shower of sparks and embers skyward. The farmer on the neighbouring property had been burning off to rid his pasture of rushes, but the fire had spread to the base of the dead tree. The hollow trunk had caught alight, funnelling flames upwards like a chimney until the tree was ablaze from ground level to treetop. My first instinct was to try to put it out by running back and forth from our dam with buckets of water, but very quickly I realised that it was too late for that. Once again, I sat on the veranda watching the old, dead Red Gum – this time, not with a sense of wonderment, but rather forlorn hopelessness.

The Red Gum, once home to a pair of Nankeen Kestrels, was tragically burnt down years ago. Image: Rowan Mott

When I woke up the next morning, I went straight to the veranda. The old, dead Red Gum lay collapsed on its side. Smoke was still rising into the cool morning air as the remnants of the tree smouldered away to nothing. More than fifteen years have passed since my tree burnt down. The telescope has scarcely been touched since. The kestrels must have moved away to a new nest site because they were never a common sighting in the subsequent years. However, my dad tells me he is seeing a pair quite commonly of late. He has built a nest box for them and put it up in a tree near our small farm dam, not far from where my old tree used to stand. The nest box hasn’t been used yet, but here’s hoping that, very soon, the view from the veranda will once again be as absorbing as when that old, dead Red Gum used to break the monotony of the agricultural landscape.

Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

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