Death and good fortune on Cowan Creek

Since reading the poetic prose of H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s story of how training Mabel the goshawk carried her through wild sadness that followed the death of her beloved father, it’s been all about the raptors around here.

Easter at Speers Point meant ospreys relaxing in the late afternoon sun.

And yesterday, on Cowan Creek, the contractual obligation white bellied sea-eagle.

Juvenile sea eagle belly horizontal

Juvenile white-bellied sea eagle

Then, just when I’d resigned myself to a pleasant if uneventful paddle after three hours on the water, there was an explosion of action right off my bow.  Two birds in an aerial battle, tumbling and squabbling over a kill.  The loser flew off, disgruntled; the death-dealer pulled up in the bright morning sunshine on a branch over the river, and waited for me to get out my camera.

A new bird!  One I thought I’d never seen on any waterway.  A peregrine falcon.

It turns out I had seen these birds before, long ago and far away – a pair tussling with ravens over a ledge to nest on at Malham Cove in Yorkshire.  Cliffs (or, if they are hard to find, skyscrapers) are one of the essential requirements of this beautiful raptor.  RB reminded me that peregrines used to nest in the ventilation towers of the tunnels under the River Mersey and high up in the Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, the enormous red sandstone building I could see from my desk during my decade as a Scouser.

Peregrines may be the most widespread bird in the world, living on every continent except for Antarctica and on many islands (although strangely, considering its status as a bird watching paradise, not New Zealand).  Its name is derived from the Latin for “the wanderer” although only five of the nearly twenty subspecies – those breeding in the northern Arctic – really migrate very far.

For all their capacity to adapt to life in the city – eating feral pigeons and nesting in highrises – peregrines are widespread but not really common.  Since they mostly prey on smallish birds, themselves often insect eaters, falcons bioaccumulate pollutants. The use of organochlorines in insecticides like DDT devastated their numbers in the second half of the twentieth century.  By the 1960s there were no peregrines in the Eastern US and the birds were declared an endangered species. Numbers have bounced back, in Australia and elsewhere, although they are still classed as  “rare” here.  And recent work in Europe and Canada has observed a new chemical – flame retardants – turning up in the blood stream of peregrine chicks.

Once peregrines find a good nesting site, it’s a keeper.  Apparently, a falcon skeleton found at the back of a cliff-top eyrie in Tasmania has been carbon dated at 19,000 years, which makes that spot the oldest known bird’s nest. As I noodled along the northern shore of Cowan Creek, I’d admired the 100 metre high cliffs of Looking Glass Spur, eucalypts halfway up the face finding impossible footholds in the sandstone.  I wonder if my falcon and its mate have a scrape there, high above the expanse of the estuary.  Peregrines don’t eat fish but hunting grounds by water offer the space for their deadly turn of speed.

I feel less disappointed by my failure to spot the raptor’s stoop or to capture the battle on film after I figured out what I was watching.  The fastest animal in the world, dropping  on its prey at nearly 400 kilometres an hour.  That poor bird clutched in its talons -maybe a galah, the favoured meal of the big-footed Australian “macropus” subspecies – never had a chance.

I watched for twenty minutes, as she plucked and dismembered her meal, unperturbed by the rowdy parade of jet skiiers, cruisers and powerboats.  Galah feathers drifted down from her branch, making a delicate trail of death across the bottle green water.

For a few dodgy moments, I thought the gobbets of galah might be joined by flotsam from my shattered craft as Egg was washed perilously close to oystershell sharpened rocks.  And, if I had the Bond-style rocket launcher I’ve often fantasised about while ploughing  through powerboat wakes on sunny Sunday mornings, fragments of several jet skis.

I’m guessing my peregrine was a “she”.  Females are a third bigger than the tiercels – the males – but I didn’t have the chutzpah to hurl a swiss army knife up the tree for scale.  The two mid-air combatants looked well matched – two males or two females. Definitely not a pair.  Since peregrines mate for life – up to 20 years – and often hunt cooperatively, it would seem to be unwise from the point of view of domestic harmony, anyway, to bicker over food.

In fact, Derek Ratcliffe describes exactly what I saw: “feet-grappling over disputed food items” which happens, he says, “at food-territory boundaries during the non-breeding season” (1993, 201).   It seems these battles are nearly always between birds of the same sex, although sometimes peregrines fight with other crag-loving birds as well.  RB remembers peregrines in springtime at the cliffs at Creagh Dhu, attacking ravens, stooping then zooming straight up to the heights to do it all over again.  Sometimes pairs of peregrines will even take on the great golden eagle over rare and valuable real estate.

So maybe there’s more than one pair of peregrines on that beautiful bit of country.  Perhaps I’ll see this magic bird again, or her mate, or her rival, until I’m as blase about a peregrine strike as a whistling kite soaring on a thermal. But yesterday, as I took my four hundred photographs while the peregrine peaceably disembowelled its meal, showing the equanimity that makes them the favoured hunting falcon, I felt truly blessed.

Peregrine in front of branch staring at me crop

Peregrine falcon watching the watchers

More stories about raptors in Berowra’s backyard (and mine):

The beautiful white morph of the grey goshawk in Bluetongue’s back

A hunting collared sparrowhawk in Nude trees and naughty birds

The whistling kites of Bar and Peat Islands in Two sad islands, three whistling kites

The many white-bellied sea eagles of the Hawkesbury and Lake Macquarie in Encounters with eagles

A bridge fetishist paddles to Brooklyn

I have a weakness for bridges.  Romantic trysts just happen to be arranged with the backdrop of the world’s first iron bridge.  Multiple crossings of the gorgeous Severn Suspension Bridge are absolutely essential for that work trip.  And in pride of place of the mantlepiece, of course, is a railway poster of the famous cantilever bridge over the Firth of Forth.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that my paddles lately all seem to end up under what it pleases me to call Brooklyn Bridge.  That’s not its real name, mind, but since it starts  on Long Island and takes you through the thriving metropolis of Brooklyn (population 744) I think I can get away with it.

Brooklyn bridge and stone pillars plus boat.jpg

There was that morning jaunt from Parsley Bay, past the oyster leases and beneath the swooping welcome swallows, to the top of Mullet Creek, where the Newcastle trains disappear into the Woy Woy tunnel, once the longest tunnel in the southern hemisphere.

I’ve been lucky enough to go on on some beautiful railway journeys in my life – from Montreal to New York in winter, past above-ground swimming pools frozen like giants’ ice-cubes; from southern Thailand to Bangkok, looking out at the richest of tropical orchards woven into the jungle; between snowcapped mountains and sea on the West Highland line to Hogwarts Mallaig.  But I reckon this journey along Mullet Creek, not a place that will ever be immortalised in the baby names of the rich and famous, is my favourite.  There’s something about a railway line that leaves roads far behind, forging its own way along the empty shore.

Sunrise at Brooklyn

If you ask the driver, you can get off near the top of the creek at Wondabyne, the only station sans road access in Australia.  Every now and then, you see people jumping off the train and straight into a tinnie, zooming off to the shacks on the other side of the river before their fish supper gets cold.

For a few years in the late nineteenth century, while the first Hawkesbury River bridge was being built, if you were travelling north by train from Sydney, you would disembark at Long Island, board the double-decker paddleboat the General Gordon, and steam off to Mullet Creek Station, then just north of Wondabyne.  Now people hop off here to do part of the Great North Walk – a 250 kilometre walk from central Sydney to the beautiful beaches of Newcastle – or to wander up to Pindar Cave.  Judging from the smorgasborg of rusted out craft I saw in the shallow water at the top of the creek, it’s also a place where people take their boats to die.

Then there was this weekend’s jaunt, downriver from Deerubbin Reserve – a popular spot, right by the freeway, to fish or have a picnic for those who find the perpetual roar of traffic reassuring.  With the ever present possibility of a quick exit, I guess it’s ideal for the heavily pregnant or those who find their relatives a bit hard to take.  But I can’t really bag people for their passion for the internal combustion engine since I get all hot and bothered at the prospect of a paddle underneath (count ’em) three great big bridges.

This weekend’s jaunt took me past Spectacle Island Nature Reserve, under the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, natch, and around Dangar Island, swished along smartly by the current and the falling tide.

Have you ever been bored enough in an airport to try walking  the wrong way up a moving footpath?  Trying to paddle across the current to get to one of the beaches on the eastern side of the island was a bit like that.  It all seemed a bit too hard in the end, so I went where the river wanted to take me, downstream, floating just above perilous rocky reefs by off Bradley’s Beach and veering round the seagrass beds.

And then through the sailing boats, swaying and tinkling like expensive marine windchimes, to Sandy Bay, the best place in the world to be homeless.  The folks whose setup I saw there – a tarp flanked by a beached ramshackle boat and a solar panel – had no-one for neighbours but a horde of blue soldier crabs.  There was no sign of the human residents, but I now know what it’s like to be a celebrity, thousands of beady eyes watching and waiting on your every move.

Quite a few people live rough around Brooklyn.  “Good caves, a shower at Brooklyn Baths and walking distance to the bottle shop”, as RB commented with unseemly enthusiasm.  In the Depression, apparently, lots of people came to live in these parts for just this reason – shelter and a bit of space for chooks or a veggie garden.  I didn’t see a chicken run in Sandy Bay but Brooklyn does seem to have some kind of common flock, judging from these good looking fellas that we met down by the marina a while back.

I reckon the Hawkesbury estuary is Sydney Harbour through the looking glass – a parallel flooded river valley, bordered by bush instead of multimillion dollar apartments.  If the Harbour has its iconic Bridge, the Hawkesbury has its own engineering marvel – nearly three times as long, resting 50 metres and more deep in soft black mud.

The modern bridge is the second one to cross the river here.  The old bridge, finished in 1887, was the last link in the railway that spanned four colonies, connecting Queensland to South Australia.

Sir Henry Parkes, on the day of the bridge’s official opening, pronounced: “In this great system of material arteries which we completed today, we see the crimson fluid of kinship coursing through all the iron veins” (Sharp, 2001, 4).  Apparently the other grandees were a bit more underwhelmed by the prospect of a federated Australia, bound together with railways.  Nonetheless, the day after, the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald was headline was “United Australia”

Bridge silhouette 1

At the time it was built, the old bridge was the longest in Australia and had the deepest footings in the world – 180 feet below the high water line – though they still didn’t reach solid ground.

The Union Bridge Company from New Jersey won the contract to build it (on a pin-jointed truss system, as I’m sure you want to know), giving Brooklyn, the railway town that was set up to house the workers, its American name.  The tender being won by an American company was one in the eye for the old country, though it pleases me in some strange way that the riveted steel for the spans was made by Arrol Brothers in Glasgow, who also worked on the bridge across the Firth of Forth.

But the original Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge didn’t last.  Its piers, filled with rubble instead of solid concrete, fractured under the weight of the trains that crossed here, the only  bit of duplicate track on the line.  The piles were starting to crack in the 30s, but the problem only came to light when a US railway geek doing a bit of light recreational reading of an engineering textbook spotted that the piles weren’t built to the original specifications.  The death knell of the old bridge, though, was the extra rail traffic of the war.

The piers of the old bridge remain, like golden castles guarding the river.

Castles 2

The footings of the 1887 Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge.  Or castles as I like to call them.

I’ve had a great time reading the fantastically detailed history of the building of the new bridge by Major-General Albert Cecil Fewtrell, the Chief Civil Engineer of the NSW railways, who supervised its completion.

There’s some entertaining reading between the lines.  When it came to putting the metal spans onto the concrete footing, it seems some fool had a plan to float the 1,600 tonne metal spans over to the pilings at water level and then haul them out with giant cranes perched on the piers.  But Major-General Fewtrell soon sorted them out:

“Consideration had been given early to the proposal to float out the spans at low level … The decision [was made] to revert to the high level method of floatation following the return of the Author from active service in 1943” (Fewtrell, 1946, 27)

The prep they did for the task of floating the massive spans from the construction docks – the cuttings still visible on the north shore of Long Island – onto the concrete pilings at high tide also gives you a sense of the guy.

A large board, representing the land and water at the site of the new bridge, was laid down in the southern tunnel. Model piers were accurately fixed in position in the “stream,” and miniature spans, pontoons, and equipment were used so that the men could practice in detail movements and prepare for emergencies.

Don’t you want to play with those 1/32 scale tiny cranes and miniature pilings?  I really really do.

Fewtrell thought that everything had gone swimmingly.  But the new bridge, the bridge that was supposed to last 200 years, is crumbling.  After years of delays, just this last week, work started on repairing the concrete footings and its rusting reinforcing steel. When I paddled past, there were huddled men in high vis jackets and mysterious icons dangling from the bridge deck – all the signs that a new engineering miracle is about to begin.  And I’m sure it’ll happen.

But at this stage, once again, I reckon it’s Hawkesbury River 1: human engineering 0.

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.

Low tide at Gunyah Beach

“The sea or not the sea?”

That was the question churning through my brain, as I set out for my first solo kayak on the Hawkesbury proper.  Let’s be kind and say I’m not a risk taker (there’s a reason I’m fond of chickens).  And my canoe is properly vintage, made out of wafer-thin plywood back in the early 70s, and now held together by a rich tapestry of epoxy based products and amateurishly applied fibreglass.  Don’t get me wrong – it was the best $100 I ever spent on ebay but our Egg is no ocean-going liner.

But setting off on a sunny Saturday morning with a light off-shore wind and a slack tide, I thought my decrepit boat and I might just be able to brave a three kilometre paddle along the widest reaches of the Hawkesbury Estuary, from Brooklyn’s Parsley Bay to Gunyah Beach in Kuring-gai Chase national park.

About midway across the 700 metres at the mouth of Porto Bay, I realised the weird rise and fall of the boat was swell, a new and disturbing experience for me as a canoeist.  Well, it was either swell or the kayak was being regularly nudged sideways by bull sharks.  Either way, I was not happy.   It didn’t help that the choppy water was full of floating branches, torn down by  last week’s big winds.  If the sharks didn’t get me, I’d be turned into a giant vegetarian shishkebab by a surfing pine tree.  I was in the ocean, and it was scary.

Of course, the Hawkesbury “River” is, kinda, the sea – a flooded river valley that has its tidal limit a hundred kilometres or thereabouts from its mouth.  Whenever I think about this, I imagine how strange it must have been for the people living on the plains that once stretched out from the current coastline under what is now the surface of the sea, as the ocean crept slowly up, over ten thousand years, claiming the valleys carved out by the river, pushing people before it into the hills.  Now that’s really going into the unknown.

In the end, of course, I made my little paddle with no problems at all, apart from an annoying lack of photographic evidence that there was ever anything to fear.  Gunyah Beach (boat access only) even had its own lounge suite on which an unnerved canoeist might rest and recover.  I’m pretty sure the contractual obligation white-faced heron had just stood up after a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive as I arrived.

Stumbling through the mud around the beach-side lagoon, I found myself in a maelstrom of silvereyes and white cheeked honeyeaters.  I’ve come to realise binaural hearing is a real asset for bird watching.  With one dodgy cochlea I spent half my time whipping my head wildly from one side to the other to work out where the chirping was coming from.  In the end taking random pictures of the bushes seemed the best way to avoid permanent neck injury. I was disproportionately pleased with the few photos that worked out. There’s something particularly delightful about the most minor victories over timidity and incompetence, even if you can’t convincingly frame pootling around in boats in your estuarine backyard as some kind of heroic feminist re-enactment of The Old Man and the Sea.