A confluence of critters

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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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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.

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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.

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Midwinter lagoon

It’s past the shortest day of the year, but, in spite of her scrapes and dings, Egg the elderly wooden kayak doesn’t seem to be ready for drydock yet.  Perhaps it’s that last unseasonable whirl of autumnal warmth, caught alongside the coast in the East Australian Current, that’s keeping the sea a balmy 20 degrees.  Or perhaps it’s just the lure of still, winter water all around.

Since Egg was first laid in our driveway a year ago, I’ve been seeing Sydney differently.   Those long roundabout routes from A to B via M and Q and P, punctuated somewhere along the way by a bridge or two, suddenly make sense.  The city of roads and buildings retreats and, I feel, just out of sight on every side, the presence of water.
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This is our backyard, encircled by the salty embrace of the Hawkesbury estuary.  But it doesn’t end here, with the secretive topography of flooded river valleys. All the way up (and down) the New South Wales coast, the shoreline is flanked by coastal lagoons. I’m not complaining, even the tiniest little bit, about all these sheltered waters.  But I’ve started to wonder what geographic accident has given a timid canoeist so much to feel grateful for.

Along with marshes and flats, coastal lagoons make up maybe 10% of the world’s seaboards, and in NSW lots of us live by them, many more than by the ocean itself. Lagoons (or wave-dominated estuaries – there are ongoing hissy-fits around these definitions) appear where low-lying plains, rather than dramatic cliffs, meet a shallow gently sloping seabed.  Usually, they are found on shores shaped mainly by waves rather than big tides, with underlying rock that crumbles nicely into beach sand not finer, silty sediment.

The more sand the better – perhaps our generous continental shelf harbours this bounty from a time when the Sydney Basin was a enormous braided river delta, like the Ganges today.  But you don’t want too much rain – lagoons are usually fed by an underwhelming little creek or even just groundwater – that doesn’t (or doesn’t often) burst through the land between waterway and ocean.

To make a lagoon*, you need a barrier to the open sea.  In the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century, coastal geomorphologists duked it out over just how these barriers were born.  Did breaking waves make for ever-rising off-shore sand bars?  Did encroaching seas submerge coastal dunes? And then there’s the third, attractively named “spit accretion theory” (Davis and Fitzgerald, 2004).  Not, as it might sound, a creation myth where bunyips drool into puddles between the dunes; just sand clinging to rocky headlands as it is carried along the coast by the (delightfully piratical) longshore drift.

It turns out that everyone was right, at least some of the time.  Which is nice.  It’s hard to keep the heat in a scientific controversy when lots of the evidence, hidden beneath the surface of the sea in the first place, has been washed away or covered over during the last few millenia by terrestrial silt or aeolian sand.  Who could be angry with such mellifluous and frankly otherworldly-sounding geomorphologies in play?

Most lagoons have only been around for a little while, geologically speaking, formed after sea levels began to rise as glaciers melted 18,000 years ago or thereabouts. Many, like Narrabeen Lake, which we whizzed round on our bikes in the company of half the population of the North Beaches a few weeks ago, are even younger, not seven thousand years old. A blink of the eye for people who were here 50,000 years before.

Strangely, lagoons move.  Today’s surfers walk across the relics of yesterday’s drowned lakes.  Barrier beaches migrated landward, emerging from the ocean just as “marine transgressions” (that’s advancing oceans, not the naughtiness of waves) slowed.  Shaped in stable times, coastal lakes still don’t hang around for long.  This shouldn’t surprise me – I know that, despite appearances, beaches are really rivers of sand.
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If the tides were higher, if the rivers was faster or siltier, if Australia wasn’t so seismically serene, the lagoons would fill up and dry out or be washed away, and the cormorants would have to hunt elsewhere.  In fact, for all our dredging and draining, it’s happening right now.  Like life itself, coastal lagoons are a transitory phenomenon, a passing pleasure.
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But sometimes, under the fresh sand and brackish water there are older and odder things. The beautiful Myall Lakes, where we not long ago spent a glorious weekend, lie in the bed of an ancient river, separated from the sea not just by dunes that arrived ten minutes ago (okay, 2,000 years ago) but also by the Inner Barrier, deposited before the last glacial maximum and thirty times older.
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And then there’s the gyttja, something so very special it’s found nowhere else in Australia, and helps qualify Myall Lakes as a unique protected wetland.  What is it?  Well, rotting pondweed.  No, I’m underselling it: it’s up to 70cm of  “a highly mobile and organic mud that has a gelatinous appearance”, a “flocculent green–brown material” (Drew et al 2008), “an uncompacted, anoxic and sulphurous ‘ooze'” made from “the decomposition of charophytes, macrophytes, cyanobacteria and algae”.  Strangely, not so much about the ooze in the National Parks brochures.  But it’s an ooze that’s been there for, perhaps, a thousand years.

I’ve been thinking about lies beneath the surface of the water and the windblown sand.   But paddling through the Broadwater two weeks back, in a startling moment I found myself not gliding above the mysteries of quiet waterways, but surrounded, right amongst it.  A huge flock, a murmuration almost, of little black cormorants, perhaps returning from a fishing trip, passed above and on one side and on the other without a single cry but with a sound I’ve never heard before: the white noise of hundreds and hundreds of moving wings.

The sound of the midwinter lagoon, all around me.

* Be warned: there’s a chance my account of the origins of coastal lagoons is completely wrong.  After all, the New South Wales coast “has provoked many questions and various degrees of controversy” (Thom, 2010, 1238).  And perhaps it’s “premature to attempt a comprehensive analysis of coastal lagoon evolution and dynamics when so many lagoons have been so little studied” (Bird, 1994, 13). In case you want to check my workings:
References
  • Bird, Erik (1994) “Physically setting and geomorphology of Coastal lagoons”  in Kjerfve, B. (ed) Coastal Lagoon Processes, Elsevier
  • Davis, R. and Fitzgerald, D. (2004) Beaches and Coasts, Blackwell Science
  • Drew, Simon Iona Flett, Joanne Wilson,Henk Heijnis, C. Gregory Skilbeck (2008) “The trophic history Myall Lakes, NSW, Australia”  Hydrobiologia 608
  • Eyre, Bradley and Damien Maher “Structure and Function of warm temperate east Australian lagoons: implications for natural and anthropogenic changes” Coastal Lagoons: Critical Habitats of Environmental Change, dited by Michael J. Kennish, Hans W. Paerl
  •  Martin, Louis and Jose Maria Landim Dominguez (1994) “Geological history of coastal lagoons” Kjerfve, B. (ed) Coastal Lagoon Processes, Elsevier
  • Masselink, Gerhard and Hughes, Michael (2003) Introduction to Coastal processes and geomorphology, New York, Oxford University Press
  • Thom, Bruce, Hesp, Patrick, Bryant, Edward (1994) “Last glacial ‘coastal’ dunes in Eastern Australia and implications for landscape stability during the Last Glacial Maximum” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 111 (3-4)
  • Thom, Bruce (2010) “New South Wales” Eric Bird (ed) Encyclopaedia of the World’s Coastal Landforms, Springer