The creatures of Austrasia


There are some people who really hate Indian mynahs, people who think the only good Indian mynah’s a dead Indian mynah.


I think I might be one of them. I think I got this way when living in Alice Springs. I had lots of friends who worked as scientists trying to preserve remnant small native marsupial communities. The two arms of the pincers wiping out these critters at world-record rate were habitat loss and feral animals. In this community, “feral” became a byword for all that was bad. This is understandable; I’ve mentioned before the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s 2012/13 Wildlife Matters report which found that feral cats kill 75 million (yes, 75 million) native animals in every 24-hour period (yes, every 24-hour period). And that doesn’t account for the animals killed by cute Tiddles as she stalks the gardens and parks of our towns and cities.

But Indian mynahs?

I’m editing a thesis at the moment, a study of an Arnhem Land language by a non-Indigenous linguist. In it she talks about the blurring of lines and the changing roles and expectations as the researcher gradually learns the language under study and is slowly absorbed into the study community. There are even words for those who, through the act of “opening their ears” to the language become more than just speakers but become “indigenous” themselves. This is a very forgiving approach to newcomers, one that I – as a newcomer to Australia – could learn from. I mean, that dead Indian mynah was probably a 50th generation mynah, more “Australian” than someone whose ancestors arrived on the First Fleet. So why the beef?

Which takes me to this pair of carp that occupied the pond behind the TAFE weir for a couple of weeks.


They were big buggers all right, getting fat on the huge quantities of water weed and crustaceans that boiled around the warm shallow water after the recent rains and hot days. I was talking about these carp to a few Aboriginal fellas who were out eel trapping with their young sons off the Chinchen Street bridge, a scene that could have happened any time in the last X thousand years. I wonder whether they think that these carp are “introduced” or “feral”?


Anyway, as another scientist pointed out to me, none of this will matter in a few million years, when Australia crashes into South-East Asia. The creation of Austrasia and the removal of the Wallace geophysical region will see all manner of critters teeming back and forth. Then what?

I don’t think I need to lose too much sleep about it.

Dead birds


I see lots of them, and as much as I love birds I rarely react in the way that I do if I see, say, a dead puppy or drowned kitten.


Dead magpies are a dime a dozen, though disembodied ducks are a little more rare.


However, I groaned aloud when I saw this tawny frogmouth. Nooo! I don’t like the idea of these guys dying; I imagine them living a very long and much-loved life then going off the to Great Branch in the Sky to take up that funny posture of theirs and make that curious grunting noise with all their frog-mouthed friends. Not die of some parasite infestation and fall from a fig tree during the night.


Nature’s a tough old bird.

Do magpies grieve?


One of my first Australian memories is waking up in a pup tent at Katoomba on a freezing cold morning to the sound of magpies carolling. It was utterly gorgeous and a clear sign that, Toto, this sure ain’t Kansas. Or, in my case, Cumbria.

Australia is believed to be the home of the songbird, something that would have surprised the early British colonists, many of whom found Australia’s birdsong raucous or screeching or even – in the case of the satin bowerbird – “like the sound of someone dry-retching”.* But surely no one could ever not like magpies?

I was in Richardson Park with Jambo recently, the Tuesday morning after a huge storm. I’d been avoiding the edges of the park for a few weeks as a magpie pair had a nest in the figs and had taken up the habit of swooping; a couple of close calls (a loud beak clack next to my ear) and I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. But swooping season was over and so I was strolling under the gangly arms of the fig trees again.

Something moved in the grass. It was a young magpie, almost fully fledged. Another week and it would probably have been independent. Perhaps it had outgrown its nest and this had made it vulnerable to a sudden gust in the storm. I said, “Hello!” and it squawked back at me. I knew that mum must be around somewhere but couldn’t see her. Then …



She must have been watching me, waiting for the right moment to come boring in from behind. Such a powerful blow, it was like a punch to the back of the head. Thankfully I was wearing a hat and so I got away with just a nasty scratch.

I thought, this little fella’s going to be all right with a mum like that to care for him.

Is there something more than pure instinct at work here? Was it just DNA that made mother magpie hurl herself at full speed at this gigantic lumbering creature threatening her offspring? Is it possible that there’s some deeper feeling at work, or am I just being romantic and naive?

Sadly, I was wrong about mum’s ability to look after junior. Two days later I came across him, cold, and with no mum or dad to guard him.


I wonder if his parents simply flew off to start a new nest somewhere else with nary a thought. Or did they feel something – a pang a sadness or regret – when junior lay down and didn’t get up again. I don’t mean a fully formed humanoid wailing and gnashing of teeth but just something, some feeling.

I know that I did.

*Tim Low explains it all very well in Where Song Began.

Ooh! Fecundity!


I usually map out a blog post as I’m walking with Jambo. I use the VoiceMemo app on the phone to record bits and pieces as I think of them; for a strange reason that I haven’t been able to fathom I always start each memo with the words, “Something about …” as in “Something about the huge eel under the railway bridge” or “Something about the way all the aerosol cans washed up in the right order, like a paint chart”.

Unfortunately, while I had it all sorted inside my head, I didn’t record any of the brilliantly articulate and witty thoughts that were going to be the contents of this post. The only thing I can remember was the title, “Ooh! Fecundity!”, which in my head was uttered in the kind of voice Frankie Howerd used in Up Pompeii!

I know. I blame my English childhood.

I think the forgotten post was all about the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness that’s going on at the moment. The other night the sky was filled with flying foxes against the full moon, squadrons of them swooping to catch great gulps of water from the creek.


Around dusk on another evening I came across a sight I’d not seen before so far upstream: a large school of mullet bottom-feeding in the shallow muddy water of the beck. They were so densely packed that their fins jostled and bumped against each other, their tail fins sitting vertically out of the water as they nosed the rich slurry of the creek bed. They barely stopped even when Jambo waded in to investigate.


It is nearly Easter after all, which in my mind will always be a springtime event but in Australia is a signal for the onset of cooler nights, of ANZAC Day parades and dark mornings. And, for these guys, the mullet runs up the coast.

A pair of falcons whizzed overhead to perch on the fuel depot towers. I recorded their call but I don’t know what they were; by profile I thought they were peregrines (with the distinctive scimitar-like wing profile) but they had pale underbellies and seemed too small. Hobbies, perhaps? Or grey falcons? Do we get grey falcons this close to the coast? Either way, they’ve been busy.


And this morning a gigantic fungus!


My mole at the CMA thinks it might be “an Agaricus of some sort”. Which means nothing to me. But it does rather sound like a character from Up Pompeii!, some sexy Nubian slave lady whose top falls off whenever Frankie Howerd shakes his sistrum.

Madam! Titter ye not!

A nip in the air


March hasn’t been able to make its mind up: it hasn’t let go of summer, neither has it embraced autumn. At night I’m still throwing off the doona then pulling it back on, hot one minute and cold the next, and my hay fever’s all over the place.

Nature’s in limbo too, though I do feel a quiet sense of urgency starting to gather its grip around the creatures of the creek. We don’t have an arctic winter in Newcastle but we do get a cold time, and so if you haven’t got a layer of fat on you by now then you may struggle in May. If you’ve been so rash as to have a clutch of chicks, well, you’re pushing your luck, I reckon.


The gasworks is full of fungi.


The big tall bamboo-like grass on the banks of the Styx has exploded into fat candles of seedheads.


There’s a native grass in the gasworks which, given the chance, will spring up after a slashing and some rain. At sunset the heads of the grass catch the slanting rays, and the whole area seems to glow as though a soft pink mist had settled across the land in a way that I don’t have the photographic skills to capture. Trust me!


A Darwin friend happily Facebooked the other day to say that the dragonflies had arrived, a sure sign of the forthcoming dry season. Here, the dragonflies are getting dopey and starting to crash into the ground, into each other, into clumps of lantana.


This guy even crashed into me, staggered around a bit, took a breather on my finger before humming off to do whatever it is that dragonflies do in late March.


A pair of brown falcons have been gliding around at dusk, working the area normally worked by the black-shouldered kites. Have the muscled the territory? A few weeks back a pair of grey goshawks were nesting in the one of the few tall trees on the railway land, which I didn’t comment about until their chicks had fledged and moved on.

I came across this grim kill site; maybe a young sulphur-crested.


The trail spread right upstream. This was no chick, it must be an adult bird.


Or, erm, a feather-stuffed pillow. Whoops!


And then, just as I was laughing at myself, I found these feathers in the feathers.


Yes, autumn really is getting closer.

Kidney disease


Apparently the collective noun for cormorants is a flight, but what happens when they’re just standing still?


The ownership of waterways within Newcastle’s Throsby Creek and Cottage Creek catchments is about as mixed and varied as you can get. Hunter Water owns most of it, but Newcastle City Council owns chunks and other parts are in private hands, or pass through buried channels with easements over privately owned properties.

The result is that our waterways’ maintenance is divided between many different parties. Hunter Water relies on rates and catchment contributions for work on major stretches of the Hunter River and its tributaries, with larger works (such as the work on Throsby Creek’s banks in recent years) coming from federal government. Smaller grants are available for community groups, and I was pleased to see this one from Islington Public School:

Islington Public School is located in the Newcastle City Council area and its student population take an active role in serving their local community. Hunter Water’s grant will go towards raising awareness about the conservation of Styx and Throsby creeks with a project that will use recycled materials to filter runoff from the school playground and surrounding area before entering Styx Creek. This project will help keep Styx Creek and ultimately Throsby Creek clean.

I also got a newsletter from Council with my latest rates notice. In it was information on two rehabilitation projects Council has funded and carried out: one at Coal Mine Creek (Richley Reserve) and another at Gunambi Reserve, Wallsend.

This is heartening stuff. My stretch of the Styx works non-stop on its own rehabilitation. I sometimes wonder how long it would take for Nature to reclaim the drain. Imagine that the zombie apocalypse has come and gone and there are no more clean-up crews to cut back the grass and poison the reeds and shrubs and grasses that occupy the skinny cracks in the concrete bankings.


Some trees were cut down on Bates Street a year or so ago. Their response? Get the root ball to send a few suckers down into the creek.


It really does make the place look a bit prettier. Not much, but a bit. The interesting aspect about this is that Hunter Water and the Hunter – Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority has over recent years produced several publications that encourage landowners to protect reed beds and filtering plants on their properties as these plots are “nature’s kidneys” and reduce the inflow of pollutants and agricultural fertilisers into the water system. I suppose the sad fact is that, by the time we get to this stretch of the Styx, we’ve all given up on any chance of pollutants being filtered out. Nature’s kidneys are, by Hamilton North, effectively knackered.


I hope the kids at Islington Public School have some success in turning attitudes around. I look forward to seeing what they get up to.

And here’s a rat who was so perfectly camouflaged that I nearly stood on him. I don’t think he’d mind though; I have a feeling he might be a bit under the weather.


This is the Styx


Because of the tide times I’ve been altering my morning walks with Jambo. Instead of going downstream towards the TAFE I veer off southwards and follow the small water course that enters the drain just east of the fuel depot. This is the original Styx Creek, the one that shows up on the old maps and heads down Samdon Street and, many moons ago, through what is now Gregson Park and on to its headwaters.


It’s a nice walk in the morning. The bamboo, which had grown up since Google Maps took the aerial photos at the height of the drought, provide a screen from the train tracks and give it a secluded feeling. It’s now channelled and appears on maps as “Chaucer Street drain” though, if I had my thinky hat on, I could probably come up with some quip about this being the entrance to the underworld or the gateway to Hades, and the wagon of coal could come in there too … but, well, I can’t think of anything.

The eastern side is covered in dense bamboo and lantana. The other day I heard my first whip bird in there in AGES, and it’s a favourite place for the black ducks to nest. Foxes like it, and Old Mate reckons there are escaped and feralised guinea pigs rustling around the place. Which sounds bizarre, but I’ve no reason to doubt him. On the western side is the pristine lawns of the fuel depot.


Not so pristine is the leakage from the fuel depot. On sunny days you can see beautiful rainbows in the water.


The other morning I saw my shadow self, and Jambo’s shadow self, trotting along the banking.


As we got closer to the creek the air began to buzz with flies and a certain smell began to attack our nostrils. Well, attack mine. I think to Jambo it was like the delicious odour of a barbecue on a weekend afternoon. I’ve seen dead cats in the creek before but never one that shows signs of having been trapped, killed and thrown off the Chinchen Street bridge. It was still partially bagged and in it’s deathly rictus.


My nose was too sensitive to check whether there was a coin for the ferryman in pussy’s mouth. I’m guessing not, but last seen s/he seemed to be bobbing happily towards the Gates of Hell. Hamilton North style.

Start them young


The warmer weather loosens us up and brings us out into the world. Though a tip to blue-tongue lizards: while warm bitumen can be a wonderful boon to the process of thermo-regulation, like sun beds for humans, it does come with potential hazards.


The recent rains have spruced up the creek no end. The grass shoots are green where the kids recently tried to start a fire near the railway bridge (this burnt back the lantana quite a bit, but it’s recovering) and the bamboo on the eastern banking is so thick as to be almost impenetrable. Lantana and bamboo are of course introduced species but they do at least afford some level of protection for the reptiles and insectivores that have been driven out of our suburbs by our relentless demand for neatness.


Having the little stuff in place allows the big stuff to thrive. I’m seeing more raptors, or sometimes just the evidence of raptors.


And yellow-tailed black cockatoos, right overhead! I often seen small family groups commuting over Hamilton North but it’s rare to get this close to them roosting. I was trying to get up close to this fella so that I could get a nice shot with my puny iPhone. He watched me for a while, turning one beady eye on me and then the other, before growing impatient and flapping off with the rest of the family. How I’d love one of those tail feathers for my hat!yellow-tail_black_cockie

It’s not just the non-human fauna that’s on the move. I happened upon another family group in the Styx spending some quality time together. I can imagine that certain people would be outraged by a young father teaching his son how to vandalise public property, teaching him that it’s not just OK to break the law but that it’s actually cool. There could be something in that and yet I was charmed at this young dad’s enthusiasm to be with his son, sharing some skill that he, the father, had mastered. And though it might be outside the limits of what is legal I’d say that this young fella may long cherish these shared moments with dad. I didn’t see Fagin and a pickpocket apprentice; I saw a young dad (a very young dad!) who obviously enjoyed being with his son.



I’d say the boy was barely into primary school but there he was, not just with his dad but with a small group of his dad’s friends. There are entire programs centred around getting fathers to interact with their infant and young children, particularly boys, and it’d be churlish to lecture this guy on the moral lessons he’s imparting to his boy. Besides, they seemed like nice folk, and I’m sure this boy will grow up knowing right from wrong – even if his moral compass does point to a different north to mine.



The bad mother


I seem to remember that “barbecue stopper” was a phrase coined, or at least popularised, during the Howard government; the kind of topic that the hollow men tested on focus groups to gauge the reaction of carefully selected representatives of Everyday Australia. I reckon the two words “bad mother” would not just stop a barbecue but kill it faster than slapping someone else’s child. Just type “bad mother” and “feminist theory” into Google and see how many quatrillion hits you get hit by.

Perhaps its because of the hegemony of my unreconstructed phallocentricity that the phrase popped into my head the other morning (I’d like to kid myself that it popped in there ironically, but, well …). I’d just come under the railway bridge as the four-carriage train from Dungog sped overhead when Jambo spotted Mother Duck (from my previous post) and her clutch, now reduced to four ducklings. The tide was low but there was still plenty of deepish water pooled up from the litter boom by the TAFE. But did she gather her offspring and swim away towards the tidal pool as a good mother should? No. She ran out of the water and waddled along the concrete making bewildered noises. Of course, her ducklings came squeaking pathetically behind her.


Jambo’s chased ducks before, and ducklings. On one occasion he caught a few, carried them around in his mouth and put them down, at which point the still living ducklings lay, stunned, for a few seconds for racing into the water. Not this time. This is the first time he’s actually caught and killed one. I’m hoping it was an accident.

I was baffled by Mother Duck’s behaviour. Surely the obvious thing to do was to head for deep water. And she barely even bothered with the old “ooh I’ve heart my wing – chase me instead” routine. So the other day she’d been wantonly larking around miles from cover upstream, being stalked by two ravens. And now this. No wonder she only had four ducklings left. Ok, three.

But I need to be careful at this point. It’s not a huge leap from judging the maternal instincts of a duck to developing  Malthusian theories on the virtues of public housing. The fact is, Nature just gets on with it. Unless you’re at the top of the food chain then you’re fodder for something else. The creek’s littered with dead babies, such as this gorgeous blue skink.


This young myna was still limp and must have died only moments before I came across it.


And this blue-tongue, barely more than eight inches long.


Oh, and baby birds. Always baby birds.


Of course, for every “bad mother” there’s the feckless owner of an ill-disciplined cairn terrier. But would that stop a barbecue? I’ll take it to my focus group.

The raven himself is hoarse


It’s bird week! There are all sorts of things going on. You can vote for Australia’s favourite bird through BirdLife Australia, take part in the white ibis survey, or go to one of the “breakfast with the birds” events at various centres around the country.

Some birds in the favourite bird survey have campaigners behind them, and SBS telly’s Julia Zemiro has stuck her hand up for the Australian raven.


Look, they’re clever birds all right. But maybe too clever. Maybe a bit Hitchcocky clever. John Lister-Kaye wrote about their Scottish highland relatives, the hooded crows, and a wee trick the hoodies have developed. At lambing time two hoodies find a newborn lamb. First hoodie distracts the ewe while the other pecks out one of the lamb’s eyes. Just one eye, mind. Next day they’re back with the same trick, this time taking out the second eye. I think we can all work out the life expectancy of a blind newborn lamb on a Scottish hillside. It takes a few days for the lamb to die, but time is something that hooded crows have got plenty of.


I saw a similar trick down the drain on Friday evening. Jambo and I were heading back from the gasworks when I saw a mother duck and her brood of about nine ducklings. They were very far upstream; perhaps she was taking them to the outlet by the Chatham Road bridge to feed on the water grass that grows around there. Whatever her motive, it was ill conceived. The family was very exposed – a long way from deep water and no plant cover – and a pair of ravens were stalking them along the beck, one either side. Jambo saw the ducks and charged after them and so mother duck went into “ooh ooh catch me! I’ve got a broken wing!” mode. He obliged.


At least, until I’d got him back on the lead. By the time mother duck had circled round, though, an opportunity had presented itself for the ravens. All those little ducklings! Yum yum!


The mother got back and started rounding up the littlies, but by this time they were eight. And those ravens just kept up the distraction and the triangulation. She didn’t have a chance, and neither did the ducklings. Their usual “duck and dive” routine wasn’t fooling these guys, and if I thought I might scare them off then that wasn’t going to happen either, they’d just fix me a baleful glare, flap a few feet away and start the process again.


Soon they were seven …


Six ducklings eventually made it to the cover of the culvert entrance. That’s a 33% strike rate for the ravens, an evening’s work that even they’d be pretty pleased with. One each, and one to share for dessert.


For those of you with a literary bent, here’s Lady Macbeth’s raven soliloquy with the full raven blah. They won’t be getting any votes from me.