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.


Earth Week, 1976


I’ve had the great good fortune to be contacted by Kevin McDonald. Now retired, Kevin has devoted his professional and personal life to environmental education in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

The photo below (first published in the Newcastle Morning Herald in September 1976) shows Kevin and a group of Islington Public School students taking water samples from the reach of the creek behind the school; that is, the part of Styx Creek opposite the TAFE, just before it connects with Throsby Creek at Maitland Road.

The project was part of Earth Week in that year. Kevin, who was senior lecturer in biological and environmental sciences at the then Newcastle College of Education, says:

The project was part of a wider program of urban environmental education, and the then teacher-in-charge of the Awabakal Field Studies Centre, Brian Gilligan, produced a set of notes in booklet form. At the time, I was President of the Association for Environmental Education (NSW) and we had urban E.E. as a theme at our annual conference (in 1976).

The Herald article that accompanies the picture says, “Throsby Creek at low tide is an unpleasant site”. Well! A lot’s happened since then. Heavy industry has pretty well moved out of the city, but the pollution produced by individuals seems to have increased. We might not have to close the windows if the wind’s blowing the wrong way or hide the washing from clouds of soot but what the steelworks no longer provides we seem to have made up for in spades.

This evening there was a warm northerly barrelling downstream. Just by the confluence of the old Styx Creek (the “Chaucer Creek drain”) and the “canal” I came across this mini version of the Pacific Gyre, an aggregation of drink bottles, busted thongs and empty aerosol cans all caught up behind the skeleton of a rusty mattress that the wind had clothed with leaf litter and sticks.

It’s disheartening to come across this amount of trash. Have we learned nothing?

I think we have. There are many things that are worse in 2012 than in 1976 but there are many things that are better. As I sat supping a schooner in the Honeysuckle Hotel after a day spent muralling at the Museum the Trevor Dickinson I was reminded that the hotel was once a post-industrial nowhere land, the site of a disused power station. It took people with vision and energy to make the magnificent foreshore precinct a reality. We can do better. But then, I  guess I’m just a Pollyanna.

On an unrelated note, I was pleased to find this Christmas bauble the other morning. Every time I think “That’s it! Bauble season is over!” I find myself surprised by yet another of these cheerful little reminders of  Yuletide. It is impossible not to smile at the uselessness of a bauble. Even the word …

Hubble bubble


A couple of days of warm – almost hot – January days have made all the difference to the creek, but not in a good way. Only recently the area around the inspection covers (the metal ones used to take groundwater samples next to the gasworks and fuel depot) were looking bleached and moon-like; now, they’re back to black, tarry normality. They even smell like hot bitumen.

In the gasworks I noticed a phenomenon near the ELGAS plant: sticky tar erupting from soil and oozing out in small puddles. This is on the part of the gasworks near the creek. I’m not sure if it’s related to the recent hot weather or something else, but I do not like it.

(Footnote: I was surprised to see, in this report in the Herald on the Hunter’s pollution hot spots, that the gasworks does not appear on the EPA list.)

A waxing moon has brought the tide up. On Sunday morning it pushed right the way up to the Chatham Road bridge, bringing with it the litter that had been bobbing around the boom by the TAFE. I find litter endlessly fascinating, as much as I loathe it. Sometimes it just looks … pretty.

I tried to get a pic of the moon rising over the creek on Sunday night but I’m not good enough with the iPhone yet. Old Mate tells me it’d be a good night for prawning. I’ll take his word for it; the world of fishing and the way that seafood appears behind the counter of the Fishermens’ Co-op is a complete mystery to me and always will be.

I’ve been keeping an eye on a section of creek bank near the rail bridge. We had quite a few powerful flushes in the latter half of last year and they’ve taken their toll on the integrity of the concrete at this angled junction. This entire slab is starting to shear away from the vertical.

It mightn’t look much on this photo but you can get your hand in there. There are no reinforcing rods connecting the slab to the upright next to it and so I can see the whole lot wrenching off in the next big one. I’d like to cheer and think that this could be the beginning of naturally battered, grassed bankings but the reality of exposed earth against concrete is rapid erosion, which will probably be countered newer, bigger, harder, stronger slabs.

All this is too negative and I’m not a negative person. So, coming soon: my vision for Styx Creek.

Moggy alert


Coming back from the dog park last night, I ducked down into the creek near the TAFE as the tide was low; much nicer than walking the roads with Jambo on a lead. Just by the rail bridge I came across this dead blue-tongue lizard.

Is there anything more beautiful than a lizard, even when dead? His underside was spectacular, a mottled contrast to his dark, tea-coloured back.

I felt sad for him. I wondered if he was the same blue-tongue I’ve come across basking near the gap in the chain-link fence near by; it’s only about twenty yards away. But blue-tongues prefer the long grass, the undergrowth, the canopies of lantana. Seeing him here on the bare concrete was strange. What could have drawn him down here, or what kind of predator big enough to take him but drop him? I’ve seen swamp harriers around the creek but there were no talon marks.

Weirdly, his two front claws were gone. I couldn’t tell if they’d been bitten off or caught in a snare, whether they’d been cut off at death or lost and then healed over. Is this why he’d died? Had he lost them in a fight and then been unable to catch prey or feed himself?

I kept wondering about it, wondering about those stumps.

Then, this morning, I think I saw the culprit. Cats are usually very good at sensing human presence but this big feral moggy was completely engrossed in something in the beck, so engrossed that I got quite close (Jambo was off chasing rabbits in the gasworks).

We stared at one another for a while. This photo doesn’t do him justice: he was big and raggedy and looked like business. I have friends who are naturalists and the stories of how cats can wipe out an entire population of bilbies overnight are blood-chilling. I hope this fella isn’t going to take up residence in the gasworks.