Reasons to be cheerful, parts 1-6


Part 1: A shiny new train (whoops, “loco”) crossing Broadmeadow Road. Always a cheering sight.

Part 2: A fallen blossom in a puddle.

Part 3: A washed-up Christmas bear.

Part 4: Soccer practice in Richardson Park, as sure a sign of the turning of the seasons as the disappearance of the channel-billed cuckoos.

Part 5: An odd assortment of litter from the creek.

Part 6: And, finally, Clean Up Styx Creek Day!

It was the last day of the school holidays but, in spite of my generous offer of a free Warm Inner Glow, neither of my children wanted to come down the creek and pick up other people’s crap with me. Kids these days!

Rain was forecast for tomorrow and I felt that if I didn’t do it now then this mass of rubbish would get washed away. So I took to the creek with a roll of garbage bags, a determined set to my jaw and a steely resolve. Thirteen bags later and I’ve kind of broken the back of it, or perhaps (given the number of fag ends I bent to pick up) it’s broken the back of me. I have to say that the pile of bags in the picture looks disappointingly small. I thought it would add up to a tiny mountain.

The following is a short list of things I learned about litter:

  1. There are more fag ends in the world than there are sheep in New Zealand.
  2. There are nearly as many of those squishy little ear plug things as there are fag ends.
  3. Our city’s junkies are a conscientious bunch: every one of the syringes I found had been carefully capped. Thank you!
  4. It’s easier to pick up the big things than the little things.
  5. But you must pick up the big things because, if left, they break down into little things. This is particularly the case with polystyrene: after three hours my arms were covered in sticky little white balls of the stuff.

Tomorrow I might just take a carrier bag and focus on the eighty-six gazillion fag ends I missed today. And get me one of those picky-uppy things that real litter people use.

The sheer volume of it


Back from a camping holiday at Jervis Bay. Cave Beach camp site sits between an open beach and a brackish lagoon and yet, mysteriously, the birding was curiously lack lustre; it took me and a friend three days to get to fifty birds. While we did see the endangered bristlebird and a plenty  of southern emu wrens, I didn’t see a single white-faced heron, coot, moorhen, magpie-lark or any of the “boring” everyday birds that I see, well, every day down the creek. Weirdly, I missed them.

They were all there when I went down the creek on the weekend. And, as a pleasant surprise, I almost trod on a couple of brown quail in the gasworks – which makes me hopeful that my recent sighting of a feral cat down the creek was a one-off.

What wasn’t a one-off was the litter. At Cave Beach we picked up the usual open-beach detritus: a flipper with a busted ankle strap, the discarded wrapper from an Australia Day stubbie holder, a couple of glow tips – the kind that rock fishermen use for night angling. Back in Styx Creek though it was city rubbish: an endless flood of plastic drink bottles, polystyrene boxes, syringes (and a green Christmas bauble: yay!).

Here’s my dilemma. For some reason, if it’s a busted flipper or a glow tip at Cave Beach I’ll stoop to pick it up, carry it back to the camp site and bin it. If it’s a large, foam vegetable box or a bicycle helmet in Styx Creek I feel less inclined to lug it home, ditto the ten thousand Fanta bottles. I think it’s the sheer volume of the trash that somehow paralyses me. I could easily fill three wheelie bins with recycling rubbish and two with general trash tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.

I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to do. Do I contact Council and ask them to park a few bins on Bates Street for my personal use? Or perhaps Hunter Water might do it? I know that HW has a scheme whereby they scoop the litter boom by the TAFE but that’s only once per quarter, or something equally ineffective.

I think I just need to drill down, think small and nibble at the edges. One small bagful per day is, at least, one less bagful in the ocean tomorrow. In the meantime, your suggestions gratefully accepted.

It will always be a drain to some


Since getting an iPhone my mind has been opened to the world of apps. Most apps appear to involve the user being chased around ruined temples by gangs of monkeys, or slashing watermelons, or changing the user’s friends’ faces into fat men, bald men, old men, ginger-haired men etc. However, I’ve finally found a useful app. It’s Michael Morcombe’s e-guide to the birds of Australia, recommended to me by Max Elliott. It’s a revelation!

The other evening, around dusk, a shape flitted past me towards the gasworks. At first I thought it was just a flying fox but then I heard the unmistakable, cricket-like trill of an eastern grass owl, Tyto longimembris. I know that it was “the unmistakable, cricket-like trill of an eastern grass owl” because a couple of taps on the screen of my phone and there it was: picture, description, range and even an audio file.

This made me happy, but what happened next did not.

The creek bank is studded with outlet pipes. Many of these are decades old and usually link back to the industrial sites that formerly crowded around the Styx.

Most of these outlet pipes are defunct, though one (which comes from the ELGAS depot) was recently brought back into use to horrible effect. The ELGAS folk, or one of their subcontractors, had painted a fenced-off area with grey paint. And, once the job was finished, they’d cleaned up their brushes and spray equipment and … washed it all down the nearest drain.

It’s a reminder of the creek’s industrial heritage, of the way in which this beautiful waterway was (and, in some cases, continues to be) abused. And a reminder that to some people it’ll never be a creek, just a drain.

Cycley watery ways


One of the great things to come out of the success of the book has been the people I’ve got to know, all of them with their own take or story or snippet or project that relates to Newcastle’s creeks and drains.

Steven Fleming is a lecturer in architecture at the University of Newcastle. In between pipe smoking, swishing around the cloisters in a flowing robe and whatever else it is that academics do these days, Steven and his research team have developed an amazing concept: a medium density Newcastle water/cycleway loop that takes in Throsby, Cottage and Styx creeks, linking inner city sites with affordable housing on currently unoccupied real estate. He’s off to meet with Hunter Water shortly to discuss the project in detail as they too are excited about the idea.

After a few emails back and forth we decided it was time to get together and trade ideas. The result was a leisurely Sunday afternoon cycle ride down the creek, yarning and generally gasbagging, followed by a cuppa tea and more philosophising.

For those interested in Steven’s other obsession (cycling), check out his Behooving Moving blog and you’ll get some idea of where he’s coming from (personally, if not academically!).

Next project for me after the cycle loop is a short documentary on the Styx, from its headwaters in the bush around Adamstown to its industrial confluence near Maitland Road.

What will come of all these things? Who knows; maybe nothing. But while it’s all happening I’m having a ball.

A good summer


My wife didn’t “get” Christmas until she came to live in England with me, way back in 1986. It wasn’t the cold or the wet that she hated about the British winter: it was the dark. So when we hit the solstice she suddenly understood the urge to dress up, celebrate, get drunk, go a bit crazy and stare at the horizon, waiting for the sun reappear.

I’m a bit the same with Australian summers, but in reverse. The December just gone was beautifully cool, probably not great if you own the lease on a pluto pup franchise at the beach but perfect for creek mooching. I always feel that if I can get through December then I can face anything that January and February can throw at me. Heat? Humidity? Bring it on!

In spite of the cool end to the year, Nature got on with doing what it does best. Light + warmth + water = fecundity. I’m now seeing less of the showy flowers and more of what happens next. Seed pods are beginning to bulge.

They’re still green but soon they’ll brown off, start bursting or shedding or doing whatever it is they have to do to get out there and start the process again.

The more short-lived the species the quicker the cycle. There are still opportunistic plants, insects and animals punching out one more crop or one more brood, always pushing boundaries.

As always, the price of this bounty is a massive death toll. Lots of carcasses down the creek every day, dead stuff getting washed into the water to break down and keep the circle rolling along.

I’m happy, though. I’ve made it to mid January and I’ve still got blankets on the bed. This has been a good summer.

Crook cormorant


Took Jambo to the gasworks on Saturday night. I walked down the western side of Styx Creek and completely failed to notice this cormorant (Phalocrocorax carbo) huddled in the outlet from the Chaucer Street drain.

The brown feathers tells me it’s an immature bird, or perhaps just a younger bird in non-breeding plumage. Though that’s kind of irrelevant: the thing to note was that this was a not-well bird. No bird would allow me to approach so closely if it wasn’t ailing in some way. I tried to work out if it had an injury to a wing or leg but nothing was apparent. Was the injury internal? Had it swallowed something objectionable from the water around the litter barrier by the TAFE?

It was still feisty enough to let me know when I’d gotten too close: hissing, arching its wings and fanning its tail feathers. But I wasn’t confident for its future.

What did I do? Perhaps I could have brought a blanket, wrapped it up and taken it to WIRES. People do that kind of thing. Not me. I left it there. Tomorrow it might be dead, or not.

I sound pretty dispassionate. A bit cool, unlikeable. What would you have done?

Dam you all


I recently finished reading At the Water’s Edge by British natural history writer John Lister-Kaye. In one chapter he talked about “the claim”, his term for for “the natural processes of species moving in and grabbing opportunities … the rugger-scrum urgency of nature muscling in”. It’s a term I like, being much more assertive than succession or colonisation.

In recent months I’ve noticed a small fig sprouting from a crack in the Chatham Road bridge‘s concrete work, and a part of the concrete banking beginning to shear away from the vertical by the railway  bridge. These are opportunities for nature to stake its claim; muscle in. And once a species has a toe in the door: watch out!

I was thinking of this as I looked at the series of dams and weirs that have developed over the last year, created by large chunks of concrete breaking away from the banking or creek bed and being bundled downstream by the force of successive floods. At some point these chunks become lodged in the beck, creating micro pools and riffles.

I don’t see it as a bad thing. In fact, I like the idea of nature taking the creek back (or perhaps that should be “reasserting its territorial rights”). At some point though I expect that the Controlling Body (Hunter Water? Newcastle Council? I can never work out the division of ownership and responsibility over the waterways, the banks, the beds, the water that flows in and on them) will come in with jack-hammers and remove them.

Until then, nature will continue its work: claiming, claiming, claiming.