Persistent twitching in Weed Central

This is my argument for an active commute:

My view about halfway through my morning commute from deepest suburbia. Beats the back of the car in front, doesn’t it?  Okay, except if it’s this car:

Cornish witches' vehicle small crop.jpg

As soon as we’ve had breakfast, fed the chickens and wasted a small but irreplaceable part of our lives looking for a missing shoe,  there’s the walk via school to the train station.  It’s a twenty five minute rail journey – just long enough to get depressed by the newspaper – and then the last three k on foot from Epping Station to Macquarie Uni.  I’m ashamed to say it took me several years to figure out that the cash I save on therapy by hoofing that last leg well and truly pays for the expended foot-leather.

I’ll admit, it’s a pleasant, if hilly walk, down leafy suburban streets and across the bridge at Terry’s Creek, a tributary of the Lane Cove River.  In fact, over time, I’ve come to feel rather attached to this spectacularly weed infested rivulet – I’m tempted to say it’s not Terry’s, it’s mine.

I think it would be fair to describe this waterway as a colourful year-long festival of invasive and noxious species, as you can see above. And I haven’t even included decorative photos of the willows, the trad or the waving walls of bamboo that line the way.  Terry’s Creek is so densely hemmed in and overhung by broad leafed privet that walking down the path towards Brown’s Waterhole feels like stepping into a suburban remake of Apocalypse Now.

Danger high voltage square

Danger! High voltage!

What with the perpetual roar of Epping Road and welcoming ambience of the nearby electricity substation, your first thought wouldn’t be “valuable wildlife sanctuary”.  But in the 10 minutes I spend each morning and afternoon walking through through this part of Pembroke Park, a 500 metre strip of weeds and scrub, I’ve seen more small birds than I’ve seen over six years in beautiful Berowra, surrounded by national parks and with the freshest air in town.

Firetails flying off horizontal crop

The superb blue wrens, willie wagtails, red-browed finches and eastern spine bills are regulars.  My photographic evidence of the yellow thornbills and silver eyes consist of a sequence of butt-shots and blurry silhouettes – my white-browed scrubwren is only marginally better.  I’ve often been tempted to hunker down for an hour or two with a view to improving my collection of snaps but somehow I don’t think it would play well if I failed to rock up to my own lectures because I was busy with a long-lens camera behind a bush.

So there’s no proof I ever saw that startled pair of white-headed pigeons and or an eastern whipbird, the only one I’ve ever actually eyeballed. I suspect I snuck up on it, gallumphing footfalls obscured by traffic.  However, a few weeks back, I was dead chuffed to snap a very distant dollar bird having a rest in the overhead powerlines.

But according to a habitat survey from a few years back, there’s still loads of locals I haven’t seen.  Pardelotes!!  Powerful owls!! Someone bring the smelling salts!

Firetails alert plus wren crop closer

I’m not quite sure why this is such a good spot for LBBs (and LRBBs – little red and brown birds, LBBBs – little blue and brown birds, LYBBs etcetcetc). There’s the creek of course, and the lantana and the privet berries, and the tangle of bamboos and morning glories to hide in – weedy or not, the kind of dense multilayered cover that small birds need to survive, as this beautifully specific guide by the Habitat network points out.

There’s also plenty of native grasses, vines and trees, some quite recently planted, many pleasingly photogenic but also lots of the kind of spiky unglamorous bushes that are favoured by smaller birds as hide-outs –  kunzea ambigua, for instance.  This part of Pembroke Park, scrubby and not at all fun to bushbash through, is part of a line of green spaces stretching north to Lane Cove National ParkSmall birds need such “stepping stones” – contiguous patches of cover – to flourish.

The wrens and finches seem to particularly enjoy the grassy area a wee bit back from the main road, even during recent months when guys in high viz outfits driving tiny diggers would regularly park up around there and talk seriously about sewage pipes.  I suspect the more knowledgeable would call it an ecotone – an area where a number of different habitat types meet (… main road, suburban grass deserts, bush, privet rainforest, bike path…)

Equally interesting is what I don’t see in this little patch of scrub and noxious weeds.  I’ve spotted a wattlebird or two, but the mynahs and the currawongs seem to prefer the closely shaved lawns and unlovely topiary of adjacent suburbia only a few hundred yards away.

It’s lucky, probably, that the water dragons don’t share my landscaping snobbery.  They seem equally happy basking on the buffalo grass by the kerb, nestling under the hateful row of aloe plants, or zipping into the hinterland of privet, ehrharta and abandoned tyres.  I guess a suburban lizard’s gotta do what a suburban lizard’s gotta do.

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4 thoughts on “Persistent twitching in Weed Central

  1. G’day MccnMatt, species richness in urban and industrial spaces can surprise. I’ve noted this herehttps://artlikker.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/re-wilding-in-melbournes-west/
    and here https://artlikker.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/wild-creature-become-new-residents-in-towns/
    Is it possible some species use places of human habitation as refuges from predators? Seems unlikely with fox populations higher in cities than the countryside, but these individuals probably scavenge rather than hunt. I am guessing the presence of humans and their dogs means predators find easier food and cannot roam freely to hunt at will. Cheers and enjoy the walk

    • You could be right about predators, artlikker. Some comments about this blogpost on a facebook bird group noted that some smaller birds get some protection from predators via traffic noise which is an interesting one. The smaller birds calls are high pitched and are less likely to be “blocked” by traffic rumble, according to some digging around I did on this theme a while ago ( here: https://berowrabackyard.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/nine-herons-hunting/ ). A lot of posters were commenting on the value of long grasses in a relatively open space on roadsides and unmowed areas for flocks of birds like finches as well. I’m jealous of your red-tailed cockatoos! We have glossies around here a fair bit – I have a few nice pics – which is fantastic but I’d like to see the red tails… I’ll have to travel I think! Thanks for reading.

  2. Fantastic to see how many small species are thriving in these habitats. More and more I’m seeing only the larger species of birds such as currawongs and magpies taking over in my suburb as yards and parks are becoming more manicured. Even though the lantana in a native reserve near me is a pest, I do see a lot of smaller species such as you’ve described using it. They need the protective dense shrubbery. Thanks for the great pictures and thoughtful writing as usual. I always appreciate your point of view. Best wishes.

    • Thanks for reading Jane. The “big trees and grass” formula that seems to be popular in suburban parks does seem to favour the generalists like magpies and currawongs, doesn’t it? One of the comments on this post on a group I belonged to was talking about the evolution of bush regeneration from earlier days where a scorched earth approach to weeds was favoured – not so now, it seems. I suppose I should be grateful for my bamboo hedge that is weedy but does a good job of providing cover. Hope you are feeling better these days!!

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