Fly in, fly out

The first asparagus is up.  The greenflies are sucking the life out of the few broad beans plants that survived the gnashers of the garden’s winter visitors.  The bowerbirds are brutalising the new growth on the liquidambar, in a jaunty colourised style that makes me think we have a flock of Calamity Janes in the canopy.  Spring is here!

But what about the spring birds?  I haven’t heard the first koel of the season, but the channel billed cuckoos have squawked their way into our dreams.  And in the last week, a new rolling trill in the trees: the olive backed orioles have returned.  We rarely see them around here, but according to Michael Moorcroft’s “Birds of Australia” as “common”.  The emergent twitcher in me sighs.

I met a charming French skin specialist once, and asked her why she moved to Sydney.  “We have melanoma in France of course” she said “But really, if you are interested in skin cancer, Australia is the place to be”.

On the other hand, if you long for the sight of that first feathered visitor arriving from a epic transcontinental journey, you’re better off in the Northern hemisphere.  All the ocean in the southern half of the globe, moderating seasonal temperatures; barriers of forest and ocean; a less icy past; uncertain rainfall and an often arid climate; and (somewhat unconvincingly) weirdly, lots of  “V” shaped continents; all reasons I’ve come across to explain why we have so few migrating birds around here (Someille et al 2013; Dingle 2008).

Back home, two thirds of my French oncologist’s local birdlife would be part time residents.  But in Sydney, it’s maybe one in five.  In the outback there are nomads, roaming around trying to find things to eat in an arid landscape, but there are hardly any regular migrants at all.


Tasmanian silvereye mid-migration, Zosterops lateralis lateralis

What we do have lots of in Australia are “partial migrants”.  Somewhere between a third and a half of bird species have some sedentary individuals while others take off in the colder weather (Chan, 2001).  Most silvereyes, for instance, stay put, but many Tassie birds – chunky numbers with chestnut sides, like the one above – fly across the Bass Strait in winter, possibly island-hopping as they make their way to Victoria, NSW and Queensland.  On my way to work the other day, I was was befuddled by the strange appearance of a crew of migrants – on their way home, perhaps – milling around happily in the company a bunch of plain-brand silvereyes.

Hard working bird lovers have been tagging silvereyes for 30 years (Chan, 2001), so we know what these guys are up to.  But in general, partial migrants are tricky customers – figuring which of the identical birds you see are interstate visitor and which are locals is mostly pretty hard to do.

After reading a bit about research on bird internal navigation systems, I’m starting to think this kind of deviousness may be payback.

One set of experiments involved keeping captive birds and observing what corner of their cage they batter themselves against, driven by migration-restlessness or Zugunruhe (one of those cool German words for which there is no English equivalent).  Researchers messed with the heads of these captive birds, using mirrors to shift the apparent direction of the sun so they could see what new quadrant of their cage they try to escape through.  Other experiments placed caged birds inside a magnetic coil to warp their sense of direction – a research activity truly worth of evil genius from X-Men. Although I do find the thought of a bunch of 1940s songbirds flooding into a planetarium – another early experiment – quite charming (Burton 1992).



If you do see a trans-continental migrant in Australia, it will probably be a shorebird.  About 35 beach loving species migrate here (Dingle, 2008).  On a paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek last weekend, I was really happy to see one of them: an eastern curlew, its absurdly long beak mucky after joyously feasting on the mud-flat crabs off Spectacle Island.  Flying from Siberia will take it out of you. Between the bloody photographers, the houseboats and the jet skiiers, it’s not hard to see why these guys are classed as critically endangered around here.




Burton, Robert (1992) Bird Migration, London: Aurum Press

Chan, Ken (2001) “Partial migration in Australian landbirds: a review” Emu, 2001, 101, 281–292

Dingle, Hugh (2008) “Bird migration in the southern hemisphere:
a review comparing continents” Emu  (108), 341-59

Somveille M, Manica A, Butchart SHM, Rodrigues ASL (2013) Mapping Global Diversity Patterns for Migratory Birds. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70907. doi:10.1371/

Sunday afternoon service at the Church of the Double Bladed Paddle

7 degrees at daybreak and good company the evening before: no chance of making it out for dawn this weekend.  So it was the afternoon service for me in the Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle.  Down the end of our street, the Hawkesbury in the golden hour.

Beautiful cirrus sky and skyline

Golden bubble water crop horizontal

A seaplane was parked out front of the ritzy Berowra Waters Restaurant, a few devotees of fine dining lingering over white linen, but otherwise the river was quiet.  Weekenders emptied of their winter visitors, off home to find socks and check homework.  Some stirrings in the sandy creek bed – stingrays? – but no fishermen and hardly a fish.

Some sun worshippers were receiving the blessing of the last rays on the southern shores of Calabash Bay.

And then, a true glimpse of the sacred.  The sacred kingfisher, that is.  I’d suspected they might be found around here, even in the winter.  There was that green flash out of the corner of my eye as I scrambled over the rocks onto Bar Island, and the briefest of glimpses, framed by mangrove leaves, my camera hopelessly buried, one morning in Bujwa Bay.

But this glorious creature showed no inclination to move from his place in the sun, calmly accepting the adoration of passing paddlers.

Sacred kingfisher facing slightly away horizontal crop tighter square

Sacred kingfisher

But even a sacred kingfisher can be profane.  I’m reverently gazing, barely taking a breath, and the big guy takes the opportunity to have a lightning fast chunder.  There’s a  familiar doggo look on his face as he sits there on his sunlit stick recovering.

But you expect veneration anyway, right, mate?  And you’ll get it too.

Sacred kingfisher other side 2 wide tighter

Last winter in Calabash Bay…

Burn-off at Bujwa Bay

The only trouble with living in paradise (apart from the long commute) is combustibility.  Our gorgeous view – mile after mile of incendiary eucalypts.  So the still, dry days and nights of autumn were thick with smoke, not from the big bad one we’re dreading, but hazard reduction burns in the bush all round the town.

Last time I went down to Bujwa Bay, it was the kind of cool and breathless day that must make the Rural Fire Service very very happy.   Mist hovered over the water in a bright line of morning light.  Forty minutes of silent paddling past the sleeping celebrities of Berowra Waters and I was round Oaky Corner and into the sunshine.

In the quiet there was a cryptic crunching noise.   Eventually, I spotted the pair of glossy black-cockatoos hidden amongst at the shore-line casuarinas.  My sense of being some kind of bird whisperer evaporated when, after fifteen minutes fooling around trying to get a decent shot of the cockies, I looked up to meet the eye of a bloody great big white-bellied sea eagle sitting directly above me.  And then, just round the corner, his pal taking in the rays.  They’re not stupid these birds, parked in the sunniest spot on the bay.

Having bonded with the local bird-life, when I heard about the burn-off, I was worried.   What happens to it all when the bush goes up in smoke?

Bujwa bay wide view 2 best small

Egg the kayak entering Bujwa Bay after the burn-off

Drooping bark and grasstrees for crop square

Back-burnt grasstrees at Bujwa Bay

It’s not all bad news.

Harry Rechter describes  birds enjoying a feast during a controlled burn in Brisbane Waters National Park, not so far from here.
“Although fuel loads in the… heath and woodland were high, and flames soared above the tallest trees and shrubs, birds moved easily in front of and above the fire to appear minutes later on the blackened vegetation to feed on less fortunate insects and small lizards”.
I missed the raptors and the insectivores that no doubt turned up at Bujwa Bay at the first sign of smoke, looking for Cajun-style chow. But chances are these blackened grasstrees will be bursting into flower next time I paddle by.  I might see lyrebirds too, raking newly formed clearings.  Ground-feeders and grain-eaters – corellas for instance – return in force after fires have passed.  The little insectivores – thornbills, wrens and robins – that build nests close to the ground don’t miss the scorched canopy, and enjoy the bugs that flourish on the flush of new growth.  The carbonised shrubbery might even give me the chance of catching a blurry LBB or two on film.
Burnt crown and cliff

After the burn-off: partly scorched eucalypts

It’s a nice idea to think that the burn-offs that protect the town are a boon for the local plants and animals too.   And there’s a euphonious catchphrase that goes with that idea: “pyrodiversity begets biodiversity”. Fire incinerates the garden escapes and wakes the soilbank’s astounding store of dormant seeds. If we burn little and often, it’s been thought, we make a mosaic of habitats: patches of open space and newly germinating seeds; places burnt a few years back; and refuges long unburnt, full of craggy trees, hollow logs and dense undergrowth.

Pyrodiversity is popular amongst land management folks, and there’s some evidence that it works, at least in some places.  But not everyone buys the story that the frequent fires that protect people and property suit other critters too. Out in the mallee, near where I grew up, a fire and biodiversity project run by Deakin and LaTrobe universities has been laboriously checking the idea out.

For all the mallee’s underground lignotubers, ready to reshoot after fire, other parts of the ecosystem – large stretches of spinifex grass, for one, that shelter dragons and legless lizards – can take fifty or more years to return after a burn.  All of which makes me feel tremendously guilty about the swiftly abandoned spinifex-covered cubbies that my brother and sister and I used to make in the mallee scrub out the back of our house.  We will never know how many now-extinct species we displaced.

Away from regrets about the trail of ecological devastation I left in childhood and back to burn-off related angst. The research in these arid areas suggests it’s not pyrodiversity that’s important for a species-rich environment but having enough country that’s reached the right stage of maturity since the last fire.  As a person in mid-life, it pleases me to say that older vegetation often seems to sustain more species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including the rare ones. Even birds that like paddocks and open plains prefer unburnt land.  Some reptiles favour recently fired landscapes, but plant communities that haven’t been burnt for a decade or two harbor the richest variety of lizards and snakes.

I tried and failed to find the experts on biodiversity and fire on Hawkesbury sandstone.  But researchers studying both subtropical Queensland and foothill forests in Victoria said similar things.  A varied landscape is important, but

the richness of frugivore, insectivore and canopy forager assemblages is driven by the presence of structurally complex vegetation and old-growth canopy trees, which are more likely to be present in areas that have not experienced fire for a prolonged period of time (Burgess 2016)

Paston and colleagues put their conclusion bluntly: “prescribed fire is of little utility for the broadscale conservation of biodiversity” (2011, 3238).

And it seems, for birds at least, smaller patches of unburnt country won’t really do – it’s larger areas that haven’t seen fire for a while that are rich in species.  One bunch of researchers found that little islands of older habitat surrounded by new growth was grabbed by one or two aggressive predatory or colonial birds, rather than harbouring lots of different critters.  One recent paper, written about arid areas, sum it up:

Our results suggest a shift in current fire management thinking… is needed, away from a focus on creating small, unburnt patches towards preserving large, intact, unburnt areas (Berry 2015 493)

Burnt crown and dark silhouette from distance

What does all this mean for Bujwa Bay?

There was nothing moving in the incinerated trees on the ridgeline as I made my way up the creek at high tide, but then, it was early and damn chilly.  Even the herons had given up on fishing and were huddled in the trees, keeping their feet dry.

But the damp fringes of the mangroves were alive with silvereyes and yellow-faced honeyeaters, and I heard the plunk of a sacred kingfisher diving for breakfast.  Gullies are especially valuable habitats for birds at the best of times.  If they’re protected from fire by burning on the slopes nearby they can be an even better retreat when that big one comes.  The top of the creek was lush and green. I can only guess that the rangers and RFS know what they’re doing.

White faced heron in tree 2 square

Chilly looking white-faced heron

In the light of recent research, Taylor and his colleagues comment dryly “current fire management for avifaunal conservation may require substantial refinement” (Taylor, 2012, 525).

But let’s not fool ourselves.  Around here at least, fire management is not for the avifauna.  It’s for me, and people like me, who choose to live high on a hill, surrounded by the beautiful, burnable bush.

Additional references.  Because the whole thing is really is quite complicated and you might want to check I didn’t get it totally wrong.

Berry, L. Lindenmeyer, D, Driscoll, D. (2015) “Large unburnt areas, not small unburnt patches, are needed to conserve avian diversity in fire-prone landscapes” Journal ofApplied Ecology Vol 52 Issue 2

Burgess, Emma, and Maron, Martine (2016) “Does the response of bird assemblages to fire mosaic properties vary among spatial scales and foraging guilds?” Landscape Ecology March 2016, Volume 31, Issue 3,pp 687–699

Doty, A., Stawski, C, Nowack, J., Bondarenco, A. (2015) “Increased lyrebird presence in a post-fire landscape” Australian Journal of Zoology 63,9–11

Hope Ben (2012) “Short-term response of the long-nosed bandicoot, Perameles nasuta, and the southern brown bandicoot, Isoodon obesulus obesulus, to low-intensity prescribed fire in heathland vegetation” Wildlife Research 39(8) 731-744

Korczynskyj, Luke and Byron B. Lamont (2005) “Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) recovery after fire in two seasons and habitats” Australian Journal of Botany, 53 509-515

Kelly, Luke T. Andrew F. Bennett, Michael F. Clarke, and Michael A. McCarthy (2015) “Optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservationConservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 2, 473–485

Lindenmayer, David B., Wade Blanchard, Lachlan McBurney, David Blair, Sam C. Banks, Don A. Driscoll, Annabel L. Smith and A. M. Gill (2014) “Complex responses of birds to landscape-level fire extent, fire severity and environmental driversDiversity and Distributions 20, 467–477

Nimmo, D, Kelly, L., Spence-Bailey, L, Watson, S.J. Taylor, R.S., Clarke, M.F and Bennett, A.F. (2012) “Fire Mosaics and Reptile Conservation in a Fire-Prone Region” Conservation Biology 27 (12)

Pastro, Louise L., Christopher R. Dickman and Mike Letnic (2011) “Burning for biodiversity or burning biodiversity? Prescribed burn vs. wildfire impacts on plants, lizards and mammals”  Ecological Applications Vol. 21, No. 8, pp. 3

Robinson, Natasha, Leonard, Steven, Bennett, Andrew, Clarke, Michael (2016) “Are forest gullies refuges for birds when burnt? The value of topographical heterogeneity to avian diversity in a fire-prone landscape” Biological Conservation 200, pp.1-7

Sitters, Holly , Di Stefano, Julian, Christie, Fiona, Swan, Matthew, York, Alan (2016) “Bird functional diversity decreases with time since disturbance” Ecological Applications, 26(1), pp. 115–127

Smith, Annabel, C.Michael Bull, Don Driscoll (2013) “Successional specialization in a reptile community cautions against widespread planned burning and complete fire suppression”Journal of Applied Ecology 2013, 50, 1178–118

R2D2 in black and white

I’ve been spending a lot of time with magpies lately.  “Model magpies” as my nine year old aptly described these two who spent the day  posing in the Japanese maple and prancing around the back deck.  Oddly enough, the companionship steps up in intensity whenever I stop typing for a snack.

This gang of youngbloods don’t spend all their time begging for food and doing catalogue shoots, though.  There’s also the occasional training session for the Olympic synchronised vogueing competition.

And, of course, plenty of carolling.  The juveniles spent a lot of time last week singing for their supper, until one of the grown-ups got jack of the whole thing and flew down to show them how it was done.

But not before the youngsters did their party trick.  In amongst all the mellifluous warbling, my ear caught some distinct moments of robotic squeaking and clacking. The magpies were doing a bowerbird impression.

Apparently Australian birds are uncommonly good at mimicry.  Lyrebirds are famous for it, but all sorts of implausible suspects have a line in impressions as well: magpies, mistletoe birds, silver eyes. Apparently the minute brown thornbill has been recorded mimicking a pied currawong – a bird forty times its size.

Why do birds mimics the songs of others?  Pretending to be something bigger and tougher for self defense purposes seems to be one motive.  Bowerbirds have been observed doing raven impressions while being mobbed by a colony of those rather nasty bell-miners, for instance.

Another seems to be showing off to make yourself look good to potential mates.  Researchers have found that male bowerbirds that can only manage a one or two rubbish impressions (singing “like a kookaburra with bronchitis”, as the researcher cruelly remarked) have less mating success than those who can effortlessly produce a good five.

The most hilarious explanation I’ve read for bird mimicry is to chill out sexual partners.  Researchers reckon that R2D2 style squeaks and clicks that satin bowerbirds make while courting can freak out their mates:

“by interspersing melodic mimetic laughing kookaburra and Lewin’s honeyeater calls between episodes of harsh mechanical calls, males may calm females and improve the likelihood of that females will stay for additional courtship and copulation” (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015)

The idea that a sudden explosion of kookaburra calls would mellow you out and get you in the mood gives me a good picture of why certain male bowerbirds (and possibly particular male ornithologists) might be unlucky in love.

While not as famous as lyrebirds, bowerbirds do some pretty amazing impressions, not just of individual sounds but of whole acoustic scenes.  How’s this, observed from a toothed bowerbird?

A male started with the sounds of a group of people talking as they moved through the forest with their machetes cutting bushes and dogs barking, and continued with the sounds of machetes being used to fell a tree, complete with the rattle of shaking leaves after each blow and eventually the sound of the tree falling and hitting the ground with a crash (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015, 97)

The humble magpie doesn’t do badly either.  They’ve been recorded copying 21 different species of bird, as well as the sound of horses, dogs, cats and humans.  Magpies, it appears, only imitate critters that share their territory, not just the blow-ins and passers by, so it makes sense that our youngsters copy the satin bowerbirds that seem so spend much of the year in the garden, eviscerating my beans and kiwifruit vines and making free with my broken pegs.

I’ve got a whole new agenda in the backyard now.  There’s those in-flagrante males doing kookaburra impressions to listen out for.  As yet, I haven’t found any references to magpie calls appearing in the satin bowerbird repertoire.  Maybe this will be my contribution to science.  Better still, maybe I’ll catch a bowerbird in the act of ripping off a magpie doing a remix of another bowerbird.  Or the other way round.

Additional references

Borgia, G. and Keaghy, J. (2015) “Cognitively driven cooption and the evolution of sexual displays in bowerbirds”in Irschick, D., Briffa, M and Podos, J. (eds) Animal Signalling and Function: an integrative approach, Wiley Blackwell

Kaplan, Gisela (2015) Bird Minds, CSIRO Publishing


A flash of gold and a stash of blue

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Season of mists and mellow tinnies: the Hawkesbury in fall

Autumn lasted for aroundabout a fortnight this year.  The endless summer of an apocalyptic El Nino wrapped up in mid-May, giving the deciduous trees an extremely tight schedule to dispense with their leaves before this weekend’s torrential rain.

We’ve had autumnal glory in the kitchen as well.  When Keats talked about the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m not sure he was thinking about bananas.  In theory our crop of tiny fragrant fruits should have been perfect for lunchboxes, but I made the mistake of describing the first-ripened one as “Geoffrey”.   After this, not only Geoffrey but all his brothers were deemed “too cute” to be eaten.

As well as the gold in the fruitbowl, there’s been plenty of gold in the trees.  The yellow-tailed black cockatoos are back in force, mewling and crunching in the radiata pines.

Yellow tail and autumn leaves horizontal

Fly by from a yellow tailed black cockatoo

And for the first time this year, I’ve noticed the migrating yellow-faced honeyeaters.  Thousands of them pass through the Blue Mountains most autumns, it seems, but this year they’ve been funnelled between the mountains and the coast, through the Hunter Valley.  I first spotted them darting through the riverside casuarinas at Karuah National Park, on our trip north, but since we’ve been back, I’ve seen flocks of them with their travelling companions, the noisy friarbirds, pouring up the Hawkesbury.  I’ve even seen them on the way to work, taking a moment out on their journey to watch the commuters boarding the morning train at Berowra Station.

But not all the autumnal excitement has been touched with gold.  Last weekend, halfway through detaining my broad beans (fencing, netting and a mulch of lavender and liquidambar – doubtless all in vain) I spotted a little collation of royal blue underneath the pomegranate tree. Nerf gun ammunition, the lid of a milk container, a peg.  Signs that we need to tidy up the yard, and a hint that randy bowerbirds might just do it for us.


More autumnal reflections from our backyard:

Let them eat light!

Autumn in terminal decline?

yellow sunset medium.jpg

Backyard gold

Delta bravo!

Kylies from the headland 2011

Kylie’s Beach in Crowdy Bay National Park

It’s lucky that travelling in reverse is just as easy as going forwards in Egg, my decrepit wooden kayak (currently held together with duct tape), because lately my paddles seem to be taking me back in time.  Back to old haunts and old holiday snaps, but also really really far back into the geological past.

When I took this photo of beautiful Kylie’s Beach in Crowdy Bay National Park in 2011, for instance, I wasn’t thinking “My, what a fine example of a barrier dune system in a wave dominated estuary!”

And  this snap from North Brother Mountain, taken on the same trip five years ago, demonstrates that I wasn’t paying enough attention to geomorphology at the time.  It’s not a bad shot of the 100,000 year old Pleistocene sand barriers that protect Watson Taylor Lake from the crashing waves of the Pacific.  But, in retrospect, I should have given the picturesque tree on the right the flick, and made sure I squeezed in a view of the mouth of the Camden Haven River.

Because, for the New South Wales anyway, this is a pretty special place.  As you can see in the pic below by a more geologically literate photographer, enfolded in the lake is a classic river delta – a rare sight in this part of the world.  It’s a mini-Mississippi, sloughing off its sediment as it flows into stiller waters, leaving muddy banks along the way and a cluster of little islands at river’s end.


Watson Taylor Lake.  Bias, Gene. watsontaylorlake.jpg Pics4learning July 2004. 9 May 2016 <;.

Sad to say, I didn’t notice all this deposition and composition as I paddled down Camden Haven Inlet at dawn, skimming over the seagrass and the sand. Even when I got stuck in the mud – sorry, fluvial sediment – right in the middle of the lake. At high tide.  Next to a bunch of knee deep swans.  Sometimes I reckon I’m not the sharpest knife in the knifeblock.

Swans horizontal

Black swans smirking while I try to get afloat after running aground in the middle of the lake

It was only back at camp at Kylie’s, over a first reviving brew-up, when I stumbled on Rod’s Northern Rivers Geology blog with its intriguing story of the missing coastal deltas of New South Wales that I figured out what I’d seen.

Thinking back, I realised I’d been somewhere very similar just a few weeks ago, in another one of the New South Wales’ magical coastal lagoons.  Where Dora Creek – home of freakish panda-snakes – empties into Lake Macquarie, the very same levees march, both sides of the river, far out into the open water.

Dora Creek doesn’t have mangrove topped islands at its mouth, like the Camden Haven. Perhaps their beginnings were washed away by the waves that scoot across five kilometres of open water to scare the hell out of unwary kayakers.  In the same way storms, waves and the East Australian Current sluice river sand and sediment out into the Pacific or up the coast, leaving barrier beaches in place of river deltas all along the Eastern seaboard.

Island in river mouth small.jpg

Island in the delta

But in the sheltered estuary of Watson Taylor Lake I got to enjoy all the rare pleasures of a river delta.  Mosquitoes, for instance.  More than I’ve encountered anywhere, even my backyard, locally famous for its blood buffet and chubby and contented microbats.  With the mozzies come the mozzie eaters.

I stopped to take pictures of the wood swallows, but in fact, this little beach, at the very end of the Camden Haven’s levees, had almost as many birds as it had bugs. Honey-eaters in an array of colours: brown, striped and yellow-faced. Noisy friarbirds, mobs of them, bursting from the casuarinas to wheel and chatter. Wagtails and fantails.  Crested terns chilling out away from the surf.  A drongo (I’m not being insulting – it’s a gorgeous bird).  Not to mention a special treat – the rarely sighted fungus-faced thornbill.

And, as I wended my way through the maze of islands with the help of the handy map in my Paddlers Guide to NSW, an unflappable young sea eagle, rising majestically above the cloud of biters.   It takes a genuine love of raptors to continue taking snaps while half a dozen mosquitos are sucking on your eyelids.

But as RB just reminded me, if Australia’s eastern coast is wanting for river deltas now, it’s not always been so.   It was an enormous braided river delta, like the Amazon or the Ganges that laid down the golden Hawkesbury sandstone, a couple of hundred metres thick, right across the Sydney Basin, 230 million years ago.

Perhaps this is an approach to marketing I can put to the NSW Tourist Board. “Volcanos!  Dangerous megafauna! Epic braided river deltas! Go back far enough in time, and New South Wales has it all!!”

North brother reflection

Reflections of North Brother Mountain on my way back to the put in at Camden Inlet

More adventures on New South Wales’ coastal lagoons

Geomorphology and dawn reflections on a midwinter lagoon at Myall and Narrabeen Lakes

A paddle across scary Lake Macquarie to see the snake-pandas of Dora Creek

Encounters with eagles on Budgewoi Lake

Moonlit bay lighter real

Moonlit night on Kylie’s Beach

What do you get if you cross a snake with a panda?

Darter from behind close crop shorter

The geometric art on the Australasian darter’s back

Things I learned from last weekend’s paddle from Lake Macquarie’s Shingle Splitters’ Point to Dora Creek:

1. When kayaking on the largest permanent salt water lake in the southern hemisphere, always remember fetch.  Fetch can defined as the distance of open water over which wave-creating winds blow. Where does the word “fetch” come from, I hear you ask?  From the cries of sinking kayakers as they disappear behind the white tops: “Fetch the emergency services!”

(Don’t be deceived by the apparent smoothness of the lake surface here – once the wind picked up I was too busy thinking about staying afloat to take any pictures)

Big lake

Heading across Lake Macquarie from Shingle Splitters’ Point

2. The lyrics of Kenny Rogers’ immortal song “The Gambler” don’t just apply to card sharks, but also amateur bird photographers.  “You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table.  There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done”.

Because the few seconds you spend checking to see if that wildly optimistic over-the-shoulder shot caught the hunting osprey mid-dive, will be ones in which the hungry raptor wheels around and splashes down again, right next to your boat.  And flies off before you can get the lens cap off your camera.

Osprey bum bigger long

Departing osprey

3. While adult Australasian darters are the most sinuously elegant of birds, poetry in snake-like motion, their offspring are actively disturbing.

What is it about these baby darters?  They’re very very fluffy.  Like a gorgeous soft baby panda.  A delightfully fluffy decapitated panda with the head of a snake. A sweet duo of snake-panda in a nest white-washed with guano. And they didn’t think much of me either.

In South America, they’ve found are darters in the fossil record that weighed 17 kilos – more than eight times as heavy as these not-insubstantial characters.  Just imagine how unnerving it would be in a kayak under that humungous reptilian chick when it let fly.

There’s no danger of modern darters – anhinga to give them their formal name – vanishing like their massive forebears. Like humans, darters like deep, still water not choked with vegetation, as long as there are overhanging trees to nest and perch on.  And they don’t mind introduced fish like carp and perch, so they’re doing better than birds that prefer marshy wetlands or are fussier about their diet.

A few weeks back, my brother and I watched with a fine male hunting from the shore of Lake Macquarie in the golden light of the late afternoon.  Even after the bird vanished below, we could follow its progress by the tiny fry that leapt from the water.  The sinuous head reappeared moments later, a fish impaled on its beak.  It took him a few goes, but finally he managed to flick it into the air and gulp it down.

I’ve seen plenty of snake birds, as they’re sometimes called, over the last couple of years as I’ve paddled around the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury and the rivers and lagoons along the Central Coast.  Familiarity hasn’t dulled my enthusiasm for them – the males geometric abstracts, the females russet in the sun, their elegant necks holding poses as striking and absurd as those of modern dancers.  But I’ve never seen the young ones before.

Darters breed erratically, it seems, whenever and wherever conditions are good.  They will fly long distances – up to 2000 ks in the non-breeding season – and will nest inland when floodwaters linger.  Maybe the stretch of Dora Creek where I saw them is a regular breeding spot.  In one fecund tree I saw two empty nests, along with two brim full of snake-pandas and guano.   Or perhaps the vacant real estate belonged to other waterbirds, since darters seem to like to nest in company.  Down the river, egrets, cormorants and partly-fledged juveniles were hanging out on a branch together, not far from this perturbed looking male with his runaway egg.

One way or another, the younger chicks seem to prefer intimacy to solitude, finding comfort, as they crouched in their absurdly flimsy nest, in the softness of their siblings’ breasts and the predatory encircling of each others’ snakey necks.

Three darter chicks snuggling crop tighter

Juvenile Australasian darters snuggled together in what remains of their nest