A confluence of critters

dawn-small

Another sunrise, another paddle through a flooded river valley.  At Port Stephens the wide Karuah River meets the Myall as it meanders south, just behind the coastal dunes.

And where the water flowing from the network of wetlands and lagoons that is Myall Lakes joins the estuary, in a river delta protected from the destructive power of the Pacific waves, there’s Corrie Island.

A spot so fabulous for cautious amateur photographers in small and ancient boats, I circumnavigated it at the crack of dawn not once but twice over the silly season.  I may have been so exhausted I wept all over my Christmas crackers but it was worth it.

Just down the river from the RAMSAR protected wetlands at Myall Lakes, migratory birds that breed in the far north spend the arctic winters hanging out here.  I saw red knots (heads up: not very red in the non-breeding season) and grey tailed tattlers, far eastern curlews and bar tailed godwits.  In fact, I was treated to a bold dispay of the very barred tail of the bar tailed godwit, that tail that make the longest uninterrupted migration flight of any bird’s behind.

The eastern ospreys, in my previous experience elusive canopy lurkers, proved so indifferent to human proximity that I actually got bored with taking photos of them posing in the beautiful dawn light, and starting trying to snap the LBBs in the beachside brush, while the ospreys observed my inadequate efforts with golden eyes.

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osprey-looking-at-me-crop-square

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A pair of eastern osprey?  The females are larger.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, here come the dolphins.

The famous pod of Port Stephens dolphins – well, the easterly, sociable estuarine pod, one of two quite distinct groups that lives in the harbour – swung by to check me out.  I stopped still in the swell, watching them case the beach. At one point the still water by the boat upwelled and the tip of a bottle nose appeared above the surface for just a second or two a couple of metres off the bow.

island-with-dolphin-longer-fatter

Enter a caption

A couple of mornings later, I was back, having rashly promised my birdwatching brother dolphins, ospreys and eagles.  No need for a refund: they arrived one after another, right on cue.

And in between boat trips, it wasn’t just overeating and board games either.  There was also watching the local bird life overeating.

A baby sitella not quite sure how to handle the festive gift of a caterpillar…

And an Australian hobby enjoying Christmas dinner with us, swooping in to a branch above our holiday rental for some yuletide disembowelling.

I think we’ll be back.

egg-on-the-beach-at-end-of-da

In praise of sewage

“Cockle Creek? Ooo, I wouldn’t put in there” my sister’s mate, the local, said “They’ve been dumping heavy metals in that spot for years! And there’s the sewage farm up the river as well.  I’d steer well clear”.

I muttered to my sister as we walked away “What do you think? Are you worried about heavy metals and sewage?”

“Nah!  Let’s do it!”

Sunrise on Lake Macquarie

Sunrise on Lake Macquarie

The power of poo.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing a lot about it from my fabulous friend and colleague, Cath Simpson, at this very minute writing a documentary for Radio National full of plops and splashes.

Thanks to some bad experiences with cholera and typhoid, we modern city dwellers generally a bit iffy about human excrement. But the bacteria that dwell in and on us – our own personal ecosystems – seem to be quite critical to human health.   While I’m a huge fan of the toilet, poo is not all bad.  If you have a nasty case of Clostridium difficile, for instance – an infection that kills 30,000 Americans every year, often older people in hospitals who have had their bacterial ecosystems depopulated by antibiotics – a “faecal transplant” from a healthy donor is might well be your best chance of a cure.

If the much of Western world, with its convenient superphosphate fertiliser and cow-pat free central heating, has been a bit “ew” about excrement, one sub-culture has held the faith.  Bird watchers have never lost confidence in the value of ordure.

Cormorant diving crop for trim

Painterly pied cormorant fishing in Lake Macquarie

When Birdlife Australia asks “where’s your favourite birdwatching spot?”, do you choose an offshore island, fringed with white sand?  the lush splendour of the tropical rainforest?  Or choice number three, a sewage treatment plant? And you guessed it, the first comment is a ringing endorsement of the glories of the Alice Springs Sewage Ponds.

So I wasn’t really surprised at the new and exciting birdlife I saw up  Cockle Creek in amongst the drowned computer monitors, abandoned bridge footings and Impressionist riverscapes subtly enhanced by a discreet discarded tyre.

So many striated herons I got bored of taking photos.  White-cheeked honeyeaters.  Orioles.  Black faced cuckoo shrikes. White breasted woodswallows, showing off their 80s batwing styling.   Double-banded finches with their neat dress shirts, black ties and cummerbunds.

Why are sewage treatment plants so great for birds?  Well, wetlands are a particularly threatened habitat – a third of Victoria’s wetlands have been drained over the last two hundred years, for instance – and old-style sewage ponds offer alternative places for birds to feed and rest, especially during droughts.  With plenty of nutrients, the settling ponds of sewage treatment plants actually offer more invertebrate snacks than natural wetlands, and sustain a greater range birds. Christopher Murray’s research in Victoria has found that newer treatment plants – the dynamic sounding “activated sludge” facilities – that take up less expensive real estate than old-fashioned waste stabilisation ponds (and smell better) are less appealing from a waterbird’s point of view.

If the news on sewage plants is pretty good, I’m not so sure about the heavy metals. Cockle Creek really has been a dumping ground for cadmium and lead, among other things, from the smelter in Boolaroo, on and off for more than a century.  There’s black slag from the plant tucked away in all sorts of unexpected places around the lake shore and lead, zinc, mercury and cadmium lurk in the creek’s sediment, 70 centimetres deep.

The smelter closed down in the noughties and the site is still being “remediated” for housing.  Previous “abatement” strategies seemed to involve scraping off a few centimetres of topsoil and (after most of the local pre-schoolers were found to have worryingly high levels of lead in their blood) urging kids to  “Wash wipe and scrape – you’ll be right mate!”. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the streets closest to the “The Sulphide” were rented out on the strict condition that the household should have no children or pets.

There’s a giant Bunnings there already, though, amidst the rubble.  Perhaps the logic is that the visiting DIYers are heading home to put a mallet through an asbestos wall, so where’s the harm in throwing in a spot of bonus lead?

The local birds seem to be doing okay, though.  A pair of ospreys nest at the top of a Norfolk pine at Speers Point, where Cockle Creek flows into Lake Macquarie, and this last year they’ve had chicks.  Osprey are locavores and since they’re at the top of the food chain, anything toxic in the fish they eat ends up in their chicks.  Eventually.  It takes a while for our endlessly updated array of contaminants – from DDT to teflon, fire retardants and hypertension medications – to make it into the bloodstream of the baby raptors.

Osprey wings bent crop wide

Osprey with fish at Speers Point, Lake Macquarie

I’ll be back to Cockle Creek for sure, to see what the local sewage has in store for me.  Trying to tread lightly, and hoping not to feel too much lead and mercury squelching between my toes…

D in canoe at dawn small more waterReferences

Murray, C. G. & Hamilton, A. J. (2010). Perspectives on wastewater treatment wetlands and waterbird conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47(5), 976–985. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01853.x

Murray, C. G., Loyn, R. H., Kasel, S., Hepworth, G., Stamation, K. & Hamilton, A. J. (2012). What can a database compiled over 22 years tell us about the use of different types of wetlands by waterfowl in south-eastern Australian summers? Emu: Austral Ornithology, 112(3), 209–217. DOI: 10.1071/MU11070

Murray, C. G., Kasel, S., Szantyr, E., Barratt, R. & Hamilton, A. J. (2013). Waterbird use of different treatment stages in waste-stabilisation pond systems. Emu: Austral Ornithology. DOI: 10.1071/MU12121

Murray, C. G. & Hamilton, A. J. (2012). Sewage ponds a refuge for wetland-deprived birds. ECOS, 175. http://www.ecosmagazine.com/?paper=EC12418

Old hands

I know I live on, walk on, paddle through, someone else’s country.  Guringgai country, and sometimes Darug lands, since Berowra Creek, or so I read, is a boundary line between people of the coast and river people. Sometimes, I venture north of the Hawkesbury – Deerubbin – into Darkinjung country.  I try hard to remember that I’m an uninvited guest in this land, and that I know next to nothing about it.  Because it’s important to know what you don’t know, if you know what I mean.

But sometimes what you don’t know jumps out and smacks you in the eye.  It happened out on the water, on Smith’s Creek, a couple of weeks ago.

Smith.  It’s a joke name, isn’t it?  The sort of name you use to check into a hotel for a dirty weekend with a person who isn’t the one you’re married to.  A name white guys use to be anonymous.  “Yes, I’m John Smith and so is my wife”.

I’m sure Smith’s Creek is named after a really very important Smith.  After all, at one time at the turn of the twentieth century, Kuring-gai Chase – specifically the bit of bushland between Smith’s Creek and Cowan Creek – was considered a possible location for the capital of the new Commonwealth. Magnificent scenery and handy for getting back to Sydney, what?  You have to wonder whether the sandstone escarpments of Kuring-gai National Park would have been quite such an amenable environment for roundabouts as Canberra. All in all, I’m very glad it didn’t happen. Aside from everything else, I don’t think I could handle a close encounter with Cory Barnardi at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning.

So, as I say, there I was in “Smith’s” Creek, blessedly free of conservative crusaders and, indeed, showing little sign of human life at all.  In Apple Tree and Stingray Bay, the power boats were moored silently in rows like roosting birds.  Nothing stirred.

As I slipped with the tide towards Deerubbin, not a jetboat in sight, a wave of love passed over me for the sport of rugby.  More specifically, a feeling of warmth for the thrilling final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, broadcast to the sports fans of Australia at 2am the night before.  What a fine influence sport is on the nation!  How it improves the tone of the place!  All those worn out rugby fans, tucked up in their beds, or snuggled down in their bunks, dreaming of triumph or of despair, but more to the point, not, as yet, starting up outboard motors.

While the rugby fans were sleeping I paddled, more or less, back to Berowra, swaddled in fog that rolled down the valleys, smudging the pictures of my weekly sea eagle (curse it).  They slumbered on as I turned the corner into Smith’s Creek following the great big signs on the shoreline, papped some peeved looking cormorants, tried and failed to see any sign of rays in the sands of Stingray Bay.  In the stillness, I felt as if I was in a dream myself as I passed along sandstone cliffwalls, rippled and rainbowed, that slide down and down into the bottle green water, and beneath the smooth-barked gums that butt their way into solid rock a metre or two above a tideline line of oystershells.

The sports lovers were still sleeping when I had my magic moment – the one you wait for every trip – when moon and raptor met in the bright morning light.  So for all their shiny cruisers and thrumming engines, the rugby fans would have been no good to me at all if Egg the ancient kayak had drifted away, as it very nearly did, while I tried to find that damn whistling kite in what seems, through a zoom lens, like a very very big sky.  That would have been me, stranded in sparkling knee-deep water, with a ten k swim through the bobbing jellyfish, all the way home.

It wasn’t until I got back and uploaded my photos that I saw, in the corner of a picture, the ochre hand prints on the golden rock.  Who put them there and when?  I really don’t know.  Maybe someone not so long ago – the indigenous rangers of Guringgai take loads of school kids out to see the hundreds of carvings and paintings that are all over the park.  I bet a bit of print making happens here and there.  Could it be one of the people of West Head slain by smallpox – no accident it seems – just a few years after the convicts arrived? Surely not.  Someone in the time in-between, making their mark on country.  Still here, though many people were forced far away, as far as Yorta Yorta country, on the borders of Victoria.

I just don’t know.  Those hands told me, at least, to remember that I don’t.

Of gods and map readers

I’m running out of map!

It’s not a real cartographic apocalypse – a Ken Loach-influenced Dr Who episode in which all the world’s maps are stolen away by some evil alien civilisation heavily invested in NavMan shares. But after a year with my canoe, there’s not much unexplored territory on this part of the Hawkesbury.  I’ve nearly done with the alchemy of my Saturdays: transmuting ink on paper into trees and water and mist.

Maybe it’s my fading memories, but as I paddled just after dawn from Deerubbin to Kimmerikong Creek, I kept thinking of the west coast of Scotland.  Something about morning fog: the sea eagles appearing and vanishing; mist spilling over the ridgelines and pouring down the slopes like an evanescent avalanche.

I remember my first view of Glen Coe through the bus window, RB naming each hill as we passed.  What a gift, I thought, to know a place like this so very well.

I was at a disadvantage this Saturday: I forgot my map, carefully folded into its extra large, double-sealed “Hercules” zip lock bag and left on the kitchen table. Google Earth is one of those things that prove we really do live in the future.  And RB is always complaining about how rubbish Australian mapmakers are compared to the unsurpassable Ordinance Survey.  Even so, I still think maps make us into gods.

With a map you know what’s going to happen next: what’s beyond the next hill or around the next corner.  Geological maps and navigational charts are even better – you see into the depths of ocean or stare right through the surface of the earth.  Short of being an X Man with laser eyes or clairvoyant powers, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

If you’re going to claim someone’s country or rewrite its history, of course, a map is a magnificent weapon.

Of course, the untraversed parts of the map are the tricky ones, a little bit too far away from a put-in, further than the old easy jaunts.  So it’s through known country to the unknown: past the Whirlpool of Death and Bar Island’s grumpy whistling kite, beyond the verdant urine-fertilised fields of warrigal greens at Back Beaches, though not quite as far as Ant Hill Point (saving that excitement for a really slow weekend).  Just when you feel you are truly in the wilderness, with only cormorants for company, you turn a corner and there’s a line of houses that look like they’ve been helicoptered in from deepest suburbia.  I half expected to hear a solar powered leaf blower or hedge trimmer.

Just across the other side of Berowra Creek, Muogamarra Nature Reserve is deliberately kept something of a secret.  It’s only open to the public six weekends of the year, in early spring.  There is a field station there, and in the water of Kimmerikong Bay scientists have been testing those Qx resistant oysters I regaled you about a couple of months back.  The reserve was originally declared in the 1930s to protect the many rock carvings, hand stencils, scarred trees, middens and grinding grooves there: this is a landscape long and intimately known.  However, I guess National Parks are trying to stop this particularly lovely part of Hawkesbury sandstone with its 14 mammal species (including tiger quolls!), 900 plant species and 140 varieties of birds from being “known” in a biblical sense; that is, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed.

I hear that Cowan, the town that sits on the edge of Muogamarra, had a crime-wave a while ago.  Since no-one locks their cars, a street’s worth of gps’s disappeared in a single night.  A sign was put up in the window the general store: if all the missing devices turned up outside the community hall there’d be no need to call the police.  Everyone got their Tom Toms back.  This story gives you a hint of how the people of Cowan might view the official regulations preserving the sanctity of Muogamarra.  Since I was an incomer from Berowra, a good six kilometres away, however, I figured I was safer keeping my feet in my canoe as I wound my way through down Kimmerikong Creek, deep into the reserve.

The creek, looping from the cliffside on one side of the valley to the escarpment on the other, looks nothing like it does on the map, but exactly as it does from space, the shroud of mysterious grey mangroves slowly falling back as you paddle upriver, exposing the glint of the creek to a satellite’s view.

Google Earth may have imaged the mangroves of Kimmerikong Creek to its satisfaction but I know I haven’t captured it to mine.  Somehow my wan photographs of these flooded forests fail to catch the sense of invisible ferment, mysteries hidden between the hoary tree trunks and their reflection, the hush that hints at unknown things slowly emerging.  I imagine a wading Ent, striding and squelching towards me through the mire, hairy-legged with pneumatophores and flanked by an bevy of miniscule leaping fish, wearing a National Parks and Wildlife uniform and demanding payment of that $3,000 dollar fine.

No Ents this time, though, and no bird photos either.  I heard, I think, maybe 138 species of bird as I ducked and crashed through the overhanging branches, and didn’t see even one.  Perhaps I need to get up even earlier – 4 am? 3 am? – to capture the mangrove’s magic, as The Goat the Wrote does in his stunningly beautiful photos.  The stalwarts of the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic can paddle all night, so why can’t I?  111 kilometres in a one day – with that kind of stamina the folds of the map would open up like a flower.  Ant Hill Point here I come!

I’ll have to work on it.  This time there was no bonk, but the pied cormorants of Milson’s Passage looked on pityingly as I swirled downriver through the tidal race, kermit-armed, back home to my plans and my maps.

Broken Bay at low ebb

Last weekend I decided to explore the lower reaches of Mooney Mooney Creek from its meeting point with the Hawkesbury, riding on a rising tide. After my spooky solo paddles in Mangrove Creek, I had a hankering for the open horizon and a bit of human life around me. From my put-in at Deerubbin Reserve beside the freeway, and all the way round Spectacle Island, a nature reserve in the mouth of the creek, the constant hum of the traffic and the echoing rumble of trains crossing Brooklyn Bridge remind you that “civilisation” isn’t far away.

Low tide at Mooney Mooney Creek means mud and oyster leases.  The lingering blue haze from last week’s hazard reduction burns descended on the poles and frames, forlorn in the shallows, blurring them into beautiful abstracts.

The story of oyster farming in the Hawkesbury in recent times is a sad one, full of strange historical ironies.

People have been harvesting shellfish from the shores of the river for a very very long time and Sydney rock oyster has been farmed in Broken Bay since the 1880s.  In those days oysters were dredged from the estuary floor and after the meat was eaten, the shells, along with those from ancient middens, were burnt to make lime for mortar.

But in 2004, after a hundred years of farming oysters here, Qx disease hit the Hawkesbury.

The “Q” in the name stands for Queensland.  The Sunshine State produces a 10th of the oyster harvest it did in the nineteenth century, thanks to Qx and to the oyster-infesting mudworm (introduced from New Zealand in the 1880s along with imports of oyster spat). The “x” was a scientific shorthand for “what the hell is this anyway?  We really don’t know”.   Since then, researchers have figured out that Qx is caused by Marteilia sydneyi, a single-celled organism that during the summer infects oysters, causing them not just to slowly starve to death, but also to reabsorb their own gonads (nasty!).  The parasite then releases spores that cycle their way through a polychaete worm, Nephtys australiensis, in the winter, before reinfecting the oysters the following season.

M. sydneyi isn’t always the kiss of death.  The parasite is found in estuaries all along the coast of NSW and Queensland, even in “low risk” areas where Sydney rock oysters are still being commercially grown. Environmental stress, it seems, triggers outbreaks of Qx and surprisingly few wild Sydney rock oysters, the ones I saw lining the rocky shores of Mooney Mooney Creek, die from Qx. Which is good, if mysterious, news.

So, facing of losses of over 90% of the harvest, what could save the oyster industry in the Hawkesbury?

It was noxious pest to the rescue.

The Pacific oyster, farmed in Japan for centuries, was smuggled into Port Stephens in the eighties and spread quickly through the intertidal zones of New South Wales.  It’s a fecund and fast growing bivalve, planktonic eggs and larvae travelling far and wide, crowding, outgrowing, and sometimes settling on and smothering native rock oysters. A “selfish shellfish”, in the words of one inspired Tasmanian subeditor.

The very qualities that have made the Pacific oyster such a hateful invader came to the rescue of the Hawkesbury farmers in 2005.  A process for producing sterile “triploid” Pacific oysters had been developed in North America in the 1980s, with the aim of pumping out meatier shellfish fast. When fertility mean spawning 40 million eggs in a season (not to mention changing sex several times over a lifetime) avoiding reproduction saves a lot of energy.

Local farmers restocked with these “triploid” Pacific oysters.  As well as being immune to Qx, they were ready to harvest in less than two years compared to the three and a half years it takes rock oysters to reach the table.  The new “tamed” Pacific oysters took the Hawkesbury by storm.

And then in 2013 disease struck again. Millions of oysters were wiped out overnight by a virus that affected Pacific oysters and Pacific oysters alone.

Like the oyster itself, the scientifically spawned sterile “triploids”, and indeed the settlers that farm them, “oyster herpes” or POMS (Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome), first seen in France in the late noughties, had circled the globe to Broken Bay.

Only three oyster farming businesses are still going in the Hawkesbury these days, hanging on for scant supplies of Qx resistant rock oyster spat, first found amongst the survivors of the Georges’ River outbreak in the mid 1990s.

Right now, the derelict oyster farms are mostly places for posses of pied cormorants to hang out.

But there’s still plenty of life to be found at Mooney Mooney at low water: globe trotters like the eastern curlew, exhausted after a long flight south, and locals like the rock warbler that only lives on Sydney sandstone, compensating for its drab colours and homebody ways with a goth-style nest of grass and spider webs it hangs in the darkness of caves and crevices. And I clocked a new heron record – twenty at least, catching crabs in the mud of low tide.

References

Michael C Dove, John A Nell, Stephen Mcorrie and Wayne A O’Connor “Assessment of Qx and Winter Mortality Disease Resistance of Mass Selected Sydney Rock Oysters” Journal of Shellfish Research 32(3) 681-87 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2983/035.032.0309

Wayne A O’Connor and Michael C Dove “The changing face of Oyster Culture in New South Wales, Australia” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 4, 803–811, 2009.

J.A. Nell “The history of oyster farming in Australia” Marine Fisheries Review 63(3), 14-25

Waterbirds of the Wyong River

Today, further adventures in Quaternary estuarine geology – a paddle along the lower reaches of the Wyong River, where it meets Tuggarah Lake.  With a brief stop at Lake Macquarie to photograph this heron hunting, that makes two young and lovely coastal lagoons in one day.  And both fine places to be a waterbird. After my recent insensitive remarks about coastal lagoons being fed by underwhelming little creeks, I’m a bit surprised we didn’t have any unfortunate upending incidents today.  The mighty Wyong River is forgiving.  And generous with darters.

And egrets, both intermediate and great.  I’ve got a feeling there’s one of each here.  Despite the name, the sure fire way of distinguishing them isn’t size, but a dark line that runs from the base of the beak beneath the eye.  The great egret’s commissural line runs behind its eye, the intermediate’s stops short just below.  But I still think you’re great, mate, despite your middle-of-the-road name and your meagre eye liner.

On the bank amongst the ducks, doing its best to be invisible, a clueless young black bittern.  Obviously it wasn’t listening when its parents gave it the talking to about bitterns hiding coyly in the riverside rushes.

And of course, the contractual obligation pelican on a post.  Thanks your offerings, this sunny Sunday, Wyong River.