Snakes vs whining teenagers

 

Tiger snake curled face crop longThis is what people who hate camping think it’s all about, right?  I suspect spiders, high winds and rowdy neighbours also make that list.  Yep, a big tick next to them too – it’s all to play for when you camp in the summertime in Wollemi National Park.

But Ganguddy, or Dunn’s Swamp, to give its inaccurate and charmless non-indigenous name, was just as marvellous this January as it was when we first visited this time last year.

Sunrise corner sky

Ganguddy in early dawn light

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View from the pagoda lookout

Yes, there were more reptiles – lethal and benign – but to balance it out, there was also less torrential rain.  At no point this year did it seem likely that the full set of adult campers, each clinging to a leg of the kitchen-gazebo, would take off and fly over the pagoda rock formations like a quartet of grubby Mary Poppinses.  It rained, but not inside any of the tents.  And the whining teenagers weren’t my delightful children but the feathered offspring of the camp ground locals.

Noisy friarbird getting food crop

Juvenile noisy friarbird wants a snack

It seems a bit unfair for such giant children to be demanding food, although Gisela Kaplan in her fascinating book “Bird Minds” suggests some evolutionary advantages to having hungry teenagers hanging around.  Apparently adults noisy friarbirds only feed the young’uns for three weeks after fledging -hard to believe this galumphing one was so close to being a fluffster.

But you can see where all that food goes.  You reckon your adolescent’s feet are big?  What about junior purple swamphen‘s clodhoppers?

Unhygenic as it sounds, the drop dunny seemed to be a particularly popular spot for a snack.  The baby grey fantails spent a lot of time looking deliberately cute there in order to get a feed.  If you were still uncertain about the superiority of the earth toilet, this little guy is a clincher I reckon.

The white-browed scrubwren also enjoyed loitering out around the toilets.  I didn’t see any juveniles, but then this one looked so stern, perhaps they were there but just too nervous to beg for tucker.

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Grumpy looking white browed scrubwren

The suspiciously touselled looking eastern yellow robin – a juvenile perhaps – had worked out that the best place for tucker is definitely the barbecue.

I’m not sure if the adult reed warbler had gone into head down, bum up, to feed some chicks, or if it was just going to extreme lengths to avoid facing the long-lensed papperazzi.  I was rather pleased when after two years of trying I finally got a picture of one, without even having to visit the Rylstone Guns and Ammo for a flame thrower to thin out that pesky, snap obscuring habitat.

And, miracle of miracles, I found an azure kingfisher without ADD.  I reckon I can put away my paddle now – 18 months of kayaking have not been in vain.

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At last – a sluggish azure kingfisher

The invasive gambezi minnows that fill this reservoir – built in the 30s as a water supply for a concrete works – seem to be an optimal snack size for the kingfishers – I saw plenty of them, along with a randy musk duck, the ubiquitous Eurasian coots and a pair of Nankeen night herons that alighted, mockingly, in the trees opposite the campsite, just after it got a tiny bit too dark for a decent photograph.  But there was nothing larger – no whistling kites, for one.  Judging from the frustration level of the fisherman in our party and the track record of these mosquitofish of outcompeting native rivals, I suspect there weren’t many more substantial meals to be had (on the bright side, possibly thanks to the fish, there weren’t too many mosquitos making meals of us either).

With all these LBBs – and all the fast moving ones I didn’t get a decent shot of – busy flocks of brown thornbills high in the canopy, white-throated tree-creepers spiralling their way up the tea trees, the baffling grey strike-thrush, the white-eared honeyeaters darting around in the dew drenched dawn – I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the snake that sidled through the camp site or or the one slithered along the ironstone tops.  Let’s hope the top predators were more successful at catching the flighty little buggers* than I was.

Western country rocks

Rock formations near the dam

Sunrise over swallow rocks

Dawn over “Swallow rocks”

 

*Okay I know red-bellied blacks mostly eat frogs, which is why they were down by the reedbeds near the camp. But I bet they don’t object to the odd gormless yellow robin if it’s available.

* * *

There’s more info about the history and geology of Ganguddy in my previous post from here: In other sandstone country

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.

How to murder your monster shrubbery

The short answer is “slowly and with feeling”.  But let’s not rush into anything.

I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of by-law in Hornsby Shire against putting your kids to bed with a recitation of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.  Something along the lines of the “Unsafe and age-inappropriate use of modernist poetry act of 1987”.  But when your eight year old requests read T.S.Eliot, what can you do?

 

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when if I say that T.S. seemed to be a teeny bit negative about ageing.  One can only speculate on how different this poem (and indeed his whole oeuvre) would be if Prufrock had focussed less on getting lucky with the sirens of the sea and more on pruning.

Because, let’s face it, gardening is an oldie’s game.  When, yet again, the annual spud harvest fits in a single soup bowl; when your carrots are absurdly abbreviated; when another fruitless year passes for the ungrateful kiwifruit vine, the middle aged gardener shrugs her shoulders and thinks “next year”.  The seasons tumbling past faster and faster just means a shorter delay before you have another go at germinating those ruby brusselsprouts.

Our Fraser Island creeper finally did its gaudy thing – flaunting great big, hot-pink clusters of flowers in the oddest place, not up where the growing fronds reach  towards the light but way, way down in the gloom underneath the rampant Sweetie kiwifruit vine.  It flowers on old wood.  What a fine turn of phrase!

The Tecomanthi hillii not alone in dragging its feet.  Here’s a wall of shame – some other plants that have taken their sweet time to do anything exciting at all.  At least the “Bower of Beauty” has finally decided to flower on our side of the fence, rather than, like it did last year, offering a display exclusively to he neighbours.

It seems fitting, then we’ve taken what might be politely described as a contemplative approach to the execution of the massive weeds that tower over our back garden.

Our broad-leafed privet rivals the great redwoods of North America.  We have a Japanese honeysuckle vine as gnarled and vigorous as a strangler fig, which scrambles through a hibiscus “bush” as tall as a two story building. If only the mystical growth potion that the erstwhile owners  poured on these doughty invasive plants would seep down the hill into my peaky looking zucchini plants.

I like to think incremental approach to weed-murder has some ecological justification.  Some weeds in some places – lantana, for instance – form a critical habitat, particularly for the smaller birds that have been disappearing from cities.  If you clear it without replacing it, the LBBs vanish too.

So over the last couple of years, as well as installing a spiky tangle of hakeas, callistomens, sorbs, grasses and vines in an out of the way corner of the yard, I’ve  been tracking down native fruit-bearing plants to replace the  tainted bounty of the privet and honeysuckle berries.  Purely in the interest of hungry birdlife, you understand.  Nothing to do with fetishistic plant-hoarding.

Daleys up in Maleny and The Good Karma Farmer in Newcastle are my bushtucker dealers.  In my experience, you can tell if it’s bushtucker because the critters get it before you.  Following this logic, I’ve put in lillypillies, native gardenia and Davidson’s plum, koda for the Lewin’s honey eaters and the brown cuckoo doves and blueberry ash for the wonga pigeons.  I’m fairly confident the birds won’t turn their noses up at the mulberries, the persimmons, my grapes, my persimmons and my cherries either, damn their eyes.

I’m still working on substitutes for the honeysuckle and the fine looking but weedy red trumpet vine we inherited from our house’s old occupants.   Along with the hibiscus, they’re a favourite of our regulars, the little wattlebirds, and the gorgeous eastern spinebill, an all too occasional visitor.

I’m slowly sliding the wonga wonga vines, the Bower of Beauty, the dusky coral peas and the guinea vines amongst the potato vines and the honeysuckle.  Lulling the evil invaders into a false sense of security before I strike… there will be time…

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

You see, Prufrock definitely has the makings of a gardener.  You may well murder and create after your hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, but don’t forget that cuppa tea*.

*Health and safety warning: this is a gardening blog, not a work of literary criticism.  No responsibility is taken for any adverse horticultural outcomes of incorrect readings of the Western literary canon.