Great expectations

25/01/2016

I’ve been away for a few weeks on an important study tour, comparing the drainage systems of Newcastle with those of Cumbria. Unfortunately, my companion Jambo couldn’t make it to the UK. As I walked over the fells and sandy headlands of my old home I kept thinking how much he’d be enjoying himself. Instead, we hooked up with some visiting Kiwis, John and Val. We presented the opportunity as a house-sitting arrangement with the added extra of caring for a dog, when in truth it was caring for a dog with the added extra of having a house.

I got back on Saturday, and that afternoon the two of us returned to the drain.

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The big rains of December had scoured the bed, and the follow-up rains meant that there was barely a polystyrene cup or fag end to be seen.

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I was thinking, as I rounded the bend towards the railway bridge, how little had changed. There was a new roll-up next to the WORLD PEACE one. WORLD PEACE next to GODLESS seemed somehow … something. Not ironic; in fact, quite the opposite. The state things are in at the moment we’re more likely to see world peace in a Godless world.

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A black-shouldered kite swooped and heckled a grey goshawk, something I’d never seen before. I’d always considered these little kites to be quite delicate creatures but it really gave it to the goshawk.

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Here was something different though. As we arrived at the weir by the TAFE we saw a group of people with a dog and an electric remote-controlled boat. Jambo was fascinated and in he went. There was a time when he’d have swum over to find out was going on. If it weren’t for his incessant curiosity I’d never have got to know Old Mate and might never have written A Year Down the Drain. But this time he was content to stand and watch. Is he getting old? He did turn six on Boxing Day but that’s hardly old for a terrier.

Maybe things are changing around me more than I’d realised. What will 2016 bring? What will I think about the year when I re-read this post, in January 2017?

Which is perhaps a rather maudlin way of wishing you all a happy new year. I think!

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The hierarchy of harrassment

23/12/2014

Some days there isn’t much to see, other days it just doesn’t stop. The other day was one where it didn’t seem to stop, from the moment Jambo and I dropped into the creek to the when we hauled ourselves out 40 minutes later.

We often come across ducklings with mother duck and the pantomime in which Jambo charges up and down the creek while mother duck puts on the “injured wing” routine as her ducklings flee is so common as to go unremarked. Ducklings are brilliant at diving and spreading out so that they all pop up a few metres away from where they started, which is generally enough to confuse a predator. But I’ve never seen an adult duck do this, till today.

I’m guessing this fellow is old enough to have mature plumage but still young enough to use duckling tactics when threatened. We came across him in the beck, high upstream. Most ducks this point fly away; was he injured? He didn’t look to be in any discomfort.

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As soon as Jambo went after him, though, he took a deep breath and …

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Under he went, for a good 5 or 6 metres. When he did surface he kept a flattened profile, before diving again and making another few metres.

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It was all hugely interesting, and no ducks were harmed the process.

And that would have been enough for one walk, but there was to be more fun in the gasworks. The grass has been slashed, possibly just regular ongoing maintenance but perhaps part of the preparation for the forthcoming land clearance. The cut grass has exposed the small critters that creep, squirm and slither, resulting in the arrival of many more birds of prey than has been case in the last few weeks.

A pair of black-shouldered kites consider this to be their territory and haven’t taken kindly to the recent arrivals. I’ve seen a brown falcon down the drain and patrolling the bamboo by the rail line, but today he thought he’d try the pickings in the gasworks. The first I knew of it was an angry screech from one of the kites; his mate arrived and they soon drove the falcon off and into the fig trees over by the Hamilton Business Centre. This rubbish picture shows three tiny specks in the sky. It was very exciting in real life. Honest.

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And that, too, would have been enough for one walk. But wait! There’s more!

The falcon, harried into the fig trees, turned from bullied to bully. A huge bird rose out of the crown of the fig with great wafting wing flaps. At first I thought it was an eagle, but I think from the scale (to the falcon) and the tail profile that it’s a black kite.

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And see that smudge at bottom right? It’s the brown falcon, heading out of the sun. Tora! Tora! Tora!

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The black-shouldered kite hung back. I’m surprised at how often this hierarchy works itself out: a willie wagtail will harass a magpie and a magpie will harass a goshawk but not a willie wagtail; a brown falcon will be harassed by a smaller black-shouldered kite but will itself harass a much larger black kite.

And a cairn terrier will always hassle a duck.


Supper time

12/08/2014

When I was a lad (How’s that for a start? Settle in.), the midday meal was ‘dinner’ and the afternoon meal was ‘tea time’. When I say that dinner was at midday I mean exactly midday: 12 noon. Tea time was at 5 o’clock. Which left a hell of a long time before tomorrow’s breakfast. What did we do? We had supper, of course.

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m all modern now, or a bit middle class, or living in Australia, but I don’t get to do the supper time thing much any more. I used to look forward to a bit of toast or something with a milky drink at 9 o’clock – though never cheese or bananas, which (it was widely acknowledged) cause bad dreams.

But on dusk last Sunday I found someone out for a bit of supper. It was late in the day, the sun dipping towards the Indian Ocean. Its last rays lit up this black-shouldered kite above the gasworks.

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He hovered and moved, hovered and dropped…

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… came up empty handed (or empty taloned?, hovered some more …

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… found something promising, adjusted his trim, controlled the yoke …

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… then … then …

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Drop!

And off he took with his bit of supper to his favourite power pole, the one next to the drain by the railway bridge. And there he sat, filling his belly till tomorrow’s breakfast, as the super moon in all its brilliance crept up from the Pacific Ocean to shine down on us all.

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How long would it take to all fall apart?

21/04/2013

Newcastle is very good at contrasts. I was thinking how crisp and glorious and beautiful the creek was this morning, after the foaming brown slurry that it was yesterday. Cloudless blue skies after banks of dull grey; warm sun after none. But even as I thought all this I was reminded that I’ve thought it many times before. In fact, almost every time we get a downpour  the days that follow are   the most perfect imaginable.

When it did finally give up raining yesterday evening I took Jambo upstream and round about because he was totally stir crazy. The underneath of a bridge after rain is a strange, dank and other-worldly place.

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There’d been a bit a litter build-up at the TAFE, but in general terms it wasn’t too bad.

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But by this morning it had all gone. The brown goshawk was being mobbed by a pair of black-shouldered kites. Not as spectacular as the peregrines when they’re in full acrobatic show-off mode but it still made great viewing. Who’d be a goshawk? As soon as he rolled his eyes, gave up the territory and sloped off across the gasworks the family of magpies that have taken up residence on the naphtha tower decided that they’d have a go too. And then a flock of noisy minahs! What a life.

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The gasworks is looking pretty wild at the moment. There’s a tall kind of grass that takes over the place if it’s left uncut. At the moment it’s two metres high in places; the last time it got this long was a couple of seasons ago. The owners sent in a tractor slasher and worked the place over, probably after pressure from the people at ELGAS, who must look across the fence and think “FIRE!” The result was short grass, an influx of rabbits, and a huge number of dead blue-tongue lizards.

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This big water tank  seems to have no use any more other than to act as a gigantic reedbed and frog nursery. Which is fine by me!

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But it made me wonder what the area would look like if we all stopped maintaining everything. If Dave and the boys stopped coming down with their whipper-snippers, the grass didn’t get slashed, the weeds poisoned, the concrete repaired.

This fig tree near Chinchen Street bridge typifies Nature’s spirit. It’s been pained over, someone’s tried to tear its roots away from the wall, it’s in a poorly watered, over-shaded position, and yet if it were left to its own devices it would probably break that wall to pieces in a couple of decades.

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Virtually every outlet you look down has some kind of flora bursting from it. Each plant on its own doesn’t look particularly threatening, but it’s the endless, attritional way that Nature just throws one small fern after another, one raindrop after another, one sunbeam after another, that give it such remarkable power. All things must, in time, succumb.

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The bankings were concreted in the 1920s or thereabouts, slightly later in some places, but to look at them you’d be forgiven for thinking they were built in the time of the Pharaohs. All that smooth concrete surface has gone; the beach pebbles hauled up for the mix are exposed, many of them breaking away and washing downstream.

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I reckon that within two generations, three at most, the place would be barely recognisable.

Oh, how much I would love to see that.