Great expectations


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

That’s enough, thank you


I’ve spent more of my days on this earth treading Australian soil rather than English and yet, until the day I die I suspect, the month of May will always signal spring: buds in the hedgerows, lambs in the fields, new potatoes on my plate. Our April was beautifully mild, but May changed everything overnight. I consider myself a winter person and yet I had to agree with The Wife this morning, as we scuttled around the kitchen trying to drain the warmth from our mugs of tea, when she said, “That’s enough winter, thank you. Now I want summer back.”


Perhaps it’s a Newcastle thing. Our climate is so benign that we don’t handle sudden change well. If it’s boiling hot for a bit we always get a southerly buster to cool things down, but if that buster brings more than three days rain we all get sick of it. Most Novocastrians that I know have a wardrobe that’s suited for fair weather and temperatures of around 23 degrees; as soon as it varies by plus or minus 10 degrees we’re knackered. My kids insist on going to school in a T-shirt no matter what time of year it is or what’s happening outside. Bewildering.

I’ve been watching a pair of grey goshawks nesting in this tree for a few weeks now. I was a bit reluctant to reveal the location, for no good reason, but as a kid I was an egg collector (back in the days when this was considered a fine activity for young lad) and I still tend to guard “finds” like this.


It’s a beautiful giant on the edge of the Styx proper, between the fuel depot and the triangle of derelict railway land. At some point in the past a bunch of sleepers have been shoved down the banking and towards the creek and have come hard up against this tree, when it was much, much younger. Now they’re part of the tree.


I’ve looked and looked but I haven’t heard the goshawks since the cold winds came. The last time I saw them they were being harassed by a the black-shouldered kites, so maybe they’ve moved on to milder climes.

Can I come with you? Pleeeeease! I’m so cooold!

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.

Uh oh: change


There’s a saying along the lines of “You’ll know change when you see it because you won’t like it”. I was at my daughter’s school the other day as she collected her Year 9 laptop courtesy of the Digital Education Revolution (shortened form “DER”: no further comment needed). Her older brother’s been lugging this piece of landfill around for some time now. I don’t have a sense that the teachers have caught up with the best ways to use laptops in lesson plans (why would they?) and so his hard drive seems to be filled with games and movies swapped in the schoolyard.

But it’s the future, as we’re so often reminded. Even at primary school my kids were being told “The only certainty in your life is change” and “You may work in careers that have yet to be invented”. I don’t feel that these are necessarily good messages for young children but there you are: it’s change, and I don’t like it.

During the summer I went birding with a friend. We’re both 50+ but also both had iPhones with the Michael Morcombe birding app on board. This app is a brilliant innovation to my mind, one that neatly marries a need with a slick piece of technology. Back at the campsite, however, I felt uneasy. My friend’s daughter was scrolling through the app on her iPad, listening to bird calls. It’s how she was learning.

I learnt my bird calls (and here he draws himself up to his full rambunctious stature) by endless hours of birding, hours that were always pleasurable but many of which ended with a degree of disappointment; there was always the sense of having missed something or failed to make an identification. Because most birding is about what you hear, not what you see, the best way to learn is to go out (ideally with other more experienced birders) and keep at it until the magical moment when you actually get to put the call together with a confirmed sighting.

Having said that, my friend’s daughter will will be able to identify far more birds far more quickly than I ever could, so why I am complaining? Why don’t I like it?

Next to the gasworks the other day I heard a “slow, high, piercing ‘kieek-kieek-kieek'”. I had a pretty good idea what it was but the iPhone app allowed a neat confirmation. When the grey goshawk emerged from the lower trees behind a patch of lantana a black-shouldered kite came down to give it a hard time and so I had a visual confirmation.

So was what I did any different to what my friend’s daughter would have done? If there was any difference it was that she wouldn’t have had the endless disappointments of not seeing the birds that one hears but never sees, and surely that’s a good thing. And yet … bah.

The tides are high at about 8 am, which is about the same time that I take Jambo on his morning constitutional. With water still pouring down the creek it took a mighty effort to get the incoming saltwater to crest, but it did. About a minute after I took these pictures the tide surged inland.

Luckily I’d climbed up the metal rungs on the concrete banking and was walking along the grass by that point or I’d have been wet up to the ankles.

This afternoon things had calmed down. There were even moments of dappled sunshine between the showers.

It was a relief to know that in a world of constant change, some things stay the same.