The creatures of Austrasia

27/02/2016

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

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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.

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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”?

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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.

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Dead birds

12/11/2015

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.

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

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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.

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Nature’s a tough old bird.


Do magpies grieve?

29/10/2014

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 …

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Whallop!

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.

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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!

16/04/2014

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.

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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.

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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.

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And this morning a gigantic fungus!

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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

29/03/2014

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.

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The gasworks is full of fungi.

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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Yes, autumn really is getting closer.


Kidney disease

11/02/2014

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This is the Styx

24/01/2014

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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.