Battle of the baby birds

There’s a festival of death going on in our neighbourhood at the moment.

Several times a day, amongst the robotic clicks of the bower birds and the squawks of the wattlebirds, there’s an insistent high pitched chittering call, often accompanied by the din of freaked out noisy miners.  I’m not 100% sure of its ethological or evolutionary significance, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a signal for me to drop everything and dart up our drive with my camera.  One of the resident pair of collared sparrowhawks – probably the male – has caught some small clueless bird and is perched in our neighbour’s radiata pine steadily eviscerating it.

He rips off the feathers and flings away less tasty bits (check out the beak mid-air above) all the while, often with his mouth full, calling out “Dinner’s up!” to his mate.

For the last few weeks she’s been spending much of her time in a the nest at the very top of another decrepit pine tree in the yard of next house along the way.  Sometimes he flies up to the nest with tasty chunks of flayed bird flesh in his claws, but I’ve also seen her fly in to the designated “disembowling” perch to join him a few times.  Occasionally, she seems to sneak away to do a little light hunting herself.  Risky, though, leaving the nest unattended.

There’s the pied currawong I saw hopping surreptitiously through the branches, warily inching towards the nest, until it was chased off by the indignant parents as it was virtually peeping over the side.  And the pair of cacophonous channel billed cuckoos I caught flapping around the neighbour’s garden a few weeks ago – apparently they sometimes parasitise collared sparrowhawk nests.

But I will be deeply unimpressed if the chicks that come out of that nest are bloody channel billed cuckoos, for all my secret admiration of those giant hornbill beaks and strapping crucifix silhouettes.

Because the sparrowhawks seem to have rid our garden of the plague of baby brush turkeys.

A whipbird seems to have taken up residence this spring.  Needless to say, I don’t have a photograph despite being nearly eye to eye with the noisy bugger once or twice.  So, tiptoeing round my backyard trying to catch a clear shot, I heard a scrabbling in the leaf litter.  “Ah, a baby brushturkey” I thought sagely.

And then it struck me… I haven’t seen a single baby turkey in our backyard this year.  Not one!  Last year, they were sleeping on top of the predator proof cage or standing outside in the daytime, gazing longingly at our flock of little baby chooks.  The year before one wandered into our pocketsized laundry and spent eight hours pacing the two foot long windowsill, failing to notice and thus escape through through the wide open door.  But this year… nada.

Collared sparrowhawks (unlike their lookalikes brown goshawks – so similar that it’s altogether possible they could be our resident raptors) catch most of their prey in flight, bursting out of their lurking places in the foliage to grab little birds on the wing.  But the baby brush turkeys that previously haunted our place do fly, right from the day they dig themselves out of their hatching place in their father’s mound of decomposing leaf litter, and start their life of unnaturally early independence.

So maybe the sparrowhawks have been catching them on those very first short flights from mound to chicken yard.

I don’t hate brush turkeys, but I do hate a having dozen brush turkeys hanging out in my backyard, sexually assaulting my chickens, nicking their food and, given half the chance, eating their eggs.  So the idea of generations of sparrowhawks breeding happily in the neighbour’s trees and keeping the local population to manageable levels is extremely appealing.

I’m starting to wonder if there’s a connection between the familiar sound of chainsaws and the plague populations of brush turkeys in Brisbane and the northern suburbs of Sydney over the last few years.  No dingoes, fewer foxes foxes thanks to baiting, and nowhere much for the local raptors to nest in suburbia these days, the tallest trees victims of fears about bushfires and death-dealing or at least car-damaging falling branches.

But today my endless blurry photos of the neighbourhood raptor nest brought good news: what seems to be a creamy ball of fluff snuggling up to its mum in the distant collection of sticks that is the sparrowhawk’s nest.  Bring on the next generation of brush turkey assassins!

The river that knew

Mist and sky above Mooney Mooney Creek better

Looking upriver from the junction with Floods Creek

If I want a quiet morning on the Hawkesbury, my best bet is a paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek.  It’s a jet ski free zone, and that’s a very fine thing. In maybe ten jaunts on various reaches of Mooney Mooney, I’ve seen a handful of kayaks, a few fishermen and one very slow moving yacht.  Unlike Cowan Creek or Patonga, there’s no sandy beaches for frisking about on, and the oysterfarms can be navigational hazard at low tide. But if you prefer hanging out with eagles and herons to spending time with humans in charge of powerboats, Mooney Mooney Creek’s the go.

Azure kingfisher profile crop

An uncharacteristically still azure kingfisher

There are really three Mooney Mooneys, for my purposes anyway.  There’s the upper reaches, a pleasant morning’s paddle if you throw in tranquil tributary Flood Creek, lined with casuarinas and decorated with the blue and green streaks of kingfishers hunting (more on the scenes and ecosystems there in a future post).  The put-in for that trip is where the switchbacking Pacific Highway crosses the river, though if you paddle upstream you pass under the highest bridge in Australia, a symphony in soaring concrete.

Or you can go downstream, towards Lemon Tree Bay and maybe on a low-ish tide, see, on every bend and mudflat herons feasting, and if you’re lucky, spot a wedge-tailed eagle soaring overhead.

Herons in parallel back in focus

White faced herons hunting at low tide

Up there in the headwaters, you’ll often see other kayakers – there are sometimes guided tours to the area – and occasionally people camping, rather naughtily, by the side of the river.  The Great North Walk, that links Sydney and Newcastle, via most of the lovely places along the way including Berowra (of course), flanks the upper reaches of the river and once or twice I’ve heard voices of hikers walking along the track or crossing the suspension bridge that spans the top of Piles Creek.

Snake island backlit 3

Snake Island and Brisbane Water National Park

But I’d prefer to be paddling than driving and I’m a little bit lazy, so I usually put in my boat in closer to home, at Deerubbin, where the freeway crosses the Hawkesbury.  From there I paddle under the freeway and past Spectacle Island, stopping off to check out the Mooney Mooney spoonbill colony, and then upstream.  Once you get past Snake Island and Sailor’s Chest Point, there’s not much sign of human activity, apart from oyster poles.

But there’s plenty going on, even without too many of us humans around.  Last week’s outing was particularly rich in feathery encounters.  A masked lapwing family enjoying a day out by the water by the Mooney Mooney public wharf.

Comedy silver gulls ducking for crabs in the shallows near Spectacle Island.

Silver gull with crab square amend

A sacred kingfisher  in the morning sun near her burrow in an abandoned arborial termite nest.  She got so bored with me clicking away she had a nap.

A striated heron, one of the river side regulars, pretending to be a particularly striking bit of sandstone.

And further up the creek, the predictable but still wonderful sight of a pair of young sea eagles perched amongst the mangroves in the shallow waters of Fox Bay.

The young ones seem to be easier to get close to.  A bit curious and a bit clueless, perhaps, about strange legless creatures that float downstream with the tide.

Even in the peace and quiet, there’s a feeling that all the inhabitants of Mooney Mooney Creek know about us.  They know we’re there – mostly out of sight, maybe, but not entirely out of mind.  The freeway passes just behind the ridge much of the way up the valley. You see it as you pass Snake Island, the trucks and cars  appear briefly, lifted above the rocky escarpment.  Sometimes, further up the creek,  the wind shifts and you can hear the sound of the traffic.

I recently found out that the freeway’s original route went right through my tranquil paddling territory – along Pile Creek, to cross the river south of where the Pacific Highway runs.  Right through kingfisher country.

But someone in the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the late 60s or 70s stood up to the road builders and just said “No”.  No, you can’t build a bloody great big road right through the (then recently established) Brisbane Water National Park.  We’re not having it.  In the words of the surprisingly fascinating “OzRoads” website

This new route had a more expensive bridge and steeper grades than the preferred route but there was nothing the DMR could do about it.

And it’s not often you hear freeway builders say that.  I’d love to  know the full story of who in Parks fought the good fight with the Roads folk.  Everytime I paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek now, I’ll be thinking about them and saying a little thank you.

Sea eagle facing away profile crop

Other paddles from Deerubbin Reserve

Up the Hawkesbury to Bar Island

For the ambitious, further in the same direction to Marramarra Creek

Into the heart of Muogamarra National Park up the winding Kimmerikong Creek

Downriver under the gorgeous if structurally challenged Hawkesbury River Bridge

 

Further references

Boon, Paul (2017) The Hawkesbury River: a social and natural history CSIRO Publishing

 

 

Welcome back, beautiful stranger

Sparrowhawk square crop old

It shows a certain lack of character and imagination to be keen on raptors, but I can’t help it.  I love them anyway.  Even the whistling kites and white-bellied sea eagles I clock every single weekend out in my boat on the Hawkesbury give me enough of a thrill to  clog up my computer’s hard drive with a thousand pictures of them in every conceivable posture and mood.

So two years ago, when I caught this beauty in my backyard, I was beside myself with excitement.  It’s a collared sparrowhawk, one of three species of Acciper found in Australia, along with the very similar brown goshawk and the hauntingly beautiful grey goshawk.  So beautiful that on my one and only encounter with one (whilst pegging out the washing) my camera fainted and so in its barely conscious state was only capable of producing a groggy quasi-mystical image of the world’s only pure white raptor.

I know our beautiful visitor in 2015 was a sparrowhawk and not the very similar looking brown goshawk, having been schooled on the key differences.  Brown goshawks are slightly grumpier and more threatening looking, with a beetle brow and chunkier legs.  Both species, it is said, waggle their tail on landing, but the sparrowhawk does it a tiny bit more rapidly.  As my brother, a much more expert bird watcher than I am, points out, this has to be the most arcane and pointless advice for distinguishing two very similar looking birds.  “Sorry lads, the video of your tail waggling was slightly out of focus.  Can you just circle round and land side by side on that branch again?”

Collared sparrowhawks also have another feature – the absurdly long middle toe of the collared sparrowhawk, used to grip its prey while it systematically plucks them (starting at the vent) and then devours them.  It’s moments like these you’re grateful not to be a sparrow or a silvereye, isn’t it?

But is that enough to tell the difference between a goshawk and a sparrowhawk?  Both apparently have these long middle toes – the sparrowhawks’ toes are just longer and more delicate.

There are other differences too.  Goshawks have a rounded tail, and a smaller eye.  So is it welcome back stranger… or good to see you, lifer?

Both the collared sparrowhawk and the brown goshawk are widespread through their range in Australia and New Guinea – they can be found in arid areas as well as woodlands and suburbia.  They are one of the few raptors that will perch and hunt in gardens, as I saw today.  The fact that they’re partial to a snack on introduced birds like sparrows, starlings and newly hatched chickens (gulp!) may be one reason why they’re considered “of least concern” to people who worry about the current mass extinction event.

But still, they’re not exactly common. Numbers declined from the 1940s through to the 1980s thanks to DDT, although the effect of this insecticide – thinning the shells of eggs – seems to have been less dramatic for them than peregrines and some other raptors.  Loss of habitat for the small birds that sparrowhawks like to eat and competition from pied currawongs that will (somewhat implausibly to my mind) attack both adults and chicks are other threats.

It’s been a long couple of years since that last wonderful visit.

But over the last few days there’s been a new sound from the decrepit pine trees that stand (or should I say lean) between our place and our neighbours’.  At first I thought it was a whiny juvenile wattlebird begging for a feed – the call was a kind of feeble high pitched kik-kik-kik-kik.  And then I saw a creamy coloured bird with wide striped wings and a blunt head, superficially like the “green” satin bowerbirds that hang around here all year round scrounging off my chilli bushes and demolishing my bean plants.

But there’s something distinct and decisive about the way raptors fly.  I eventually got a good look as the bird chilled out in the trees, waiting to ambush passing little passerines, which they catch on the wing.  I’m really hoping they have a taste for noisy miners.

good sideways distant crop wide

These really are very low-key birds.  “Often lives unnoticed in mature-treed suburban parks and gardens” one ornithology site comments about sparrowhawks… “easily overlooked”.  Having spent quite a bit of today staring slightly hopelessly into the naked branches for an immobile, unconcerned and well camoflaged bird of prey I can confirm this.   “Trusting and approachable“, the Peregrine Trust’s turn of phrase for a collared sparrowhawk, seems like a slightly embarrassing description for a predator.

Sparrowhawk profile crop tighter still

A gorgeous profile on display.  One very chilled out bird.

The grumpy reputation of Brown Goshawk is apparently not just a consequence of their Resting Bitch Face.  They’re also apparently quite aggro around the nest.  True to form, sparrowhawks are said to be calmer.

Perhaps this parental behaviour will be the solution to my ID problem.  There’s a nest made of sticks high in the neighbour’s pine tree, a spot I saw the sparrowhawk returning to several times today.  If there’s anything better than grown up raptors in your backyard, it’s a clutch of baby raptors.

nest rop

Could this be a sparrowhawk nest?

Stingray Bay: lost and found

After years of denial, I have finally accepted that I’m a map hoarder.

Though my other half has long been known by the moniker “Map Man”, it’s me that whiles my evenings away at the Lands and Property Information’s map shop, and I’m the one who takes our topographic maps on most of their little outings on the water, snug inside their “Hercules” double zip-lock plastic bags.  There have been some unfortunate errors – we have a few maps of dull little patches of agricultural wasteland with a bit of barely navigable waterway in one corner.  But despite the ridiculously small slices of this wide brown land that can fit on any given 1:25000 map, they really are quite useful things.

Although possibly less useful – without a compass – in a white out.

Egg going into the mist

Setting out from Appletree Bay

Fog and mist are picturesque, right?  “In…mist, the picturesque artist can celebrate obscurity, lack of clarity, indistinctness, that which is veiled… the picturesque tourist is prepared to spend days in fog” (Murray, 2004, 874).  Or possibly, not so much prepared to spend days there as trapped there for indefinitely unable to find their way out, as you can see from the baroque twists and turns captured on my phone’s GPS on my last jaunt to Stingray Bay. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to fish it out of its dry bag and consult it for directions!

I often laugh at the giant directional signs you see on the waters edge of the Hawkebury – they really look like they belong by a freeway, not a pristine riverside – but if it hadn’t been for a bloody great sign looming up through the fog, I might still have been floating aimlessly around Cowan Creek days later.

I was quite keen, back in April, leaving the boat ramp at Appletree Bay on a high and rising tide, to check out Stingray Bay. It’s a decent step – about sixteen ks, slightly more if you decide to do baffled pirouettes mid-stream – but not an epic yomp.  A trip up Smith’s Creek is a good one to do when the tide rising steadily rather than on the turn, since you can go with the flow on at least half the journey, and ride the current on last leg home.

I’d had a pit stop there at Stingray Bay before, on my way further up Smith’s Creek.  The Hawkesbury in these parts is a steep-sided sandstone gorge, flooded these last six thousand years with bottle green water, so this is a rare spot where you can get out of a canoe to stretch your legs.  You will most likely standing in knee deep water but that’s not so bad, unless you happen to step on the eponymous sting rays.  We worry more about sharks, but apparently after blue bottles, stingrays – most likely round these parts the common stingaree – cause the most injuries to beachgoers in Sydney.

They’re not aggressive animals.  Richard Wylie, a marine biologist from Monash University, described them as “wonderfully inquisitive and gentle marine animals“.  Stingrays give birth to live young and in Yolgnu communities in the far north, stingrays – specifically the mangrove whipray or Gawangalkmirri – were seen as devoted parents, the sort we humans should aspire to be.  And while I feel might fret about an encounter with a ray, indigenous communities have long seen them not as a threat but as an important and delicious food source.

But if you do happen to frighten stingrays – for instance, stomping on them while they’re hiding in the sand – you can get a sting from the toxin-bearing barb on their tail.  Apparently it hurts like hell. Immersing your feet in hot water denatures the toxin and takes the pain away, apparently, although a lot of people need pieces of barb removed from their wound and sometimes stitches and antibiotics too.

Seagrass and sand

Seagrass and sand in Stingray Bay

I’ve never stepped on a ray, though I have seen them, just once, in the shallows of Calabash Bay in Berowra Creek.  But just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there.  If you walk around in shallow estuarine waters, it’s best to have footwear and shuffle rather than stride.  Fortunately, my bum is usually so numb by the time I stumble out of my kayak that shuffling around stirring up the sand with my protective booties is not so much safety measure as a physical necessity.

I paddled straight over the sting-ray shallows, though, back in April, past yachts barely stirring in the morning mist and moody cormorants staring out at the post-apocalyptic blankness.

Even at half tide, you can skim safely above the seagrass and on up the creek.  There’s a deep swimming hole, and above it, two tiny waterfalls tumbling into a bowl of rocks.  Despite my morbid fear of breaking my precious and ancient wooden boat, I even managed to clamber out onto the rocks for a comfort break and a look around.  It’s a really lovely spot – a great place to come for a picnic and a splash around in warmer weather.

And not a bad place to hang out if you’re a baby fish either.  There may not have been any stingrays, but there were certainly plenty of little fishlings when I visited again, in very different weather, last weekend.  So very many fishies, swirling away from the paddle like living iron filings toyed with by slightly sadistic magnet… yet so surprisingly difficult for a bumbling amateur to photograph.

Stingray Bay certainly looks different (if possibly less picturesque) when you can actually see it.

Buoy with plain blue background

And the journey there and back again’s not too hard on the eyes either.  Except when you’re paddling straight into the morning sun.

The cormorants, the escarpment and the sun-touched tree tops might have been perfectly visible and, thanks to months with virtually no rain, the clear green water might have offered a vertiginous view of sandstone slabs sliding into the depths, but not all the mysteries of Cowan Creek were revealed to me on my paddle back to Apple Tree Bay.

Was it that persistent dive-bombing tern that plunked so heavily into the water behind me, leaving only a ripple by the time I spun around to see?  Did some underwater creature make that line of bubbles I paddled through on the way past Waratah Bay?  Could it have been dolphins?  Or more worryingly, a bullshark?  Maybe it’s better not to know.

But not while you’re navigating!

Bobbin head sign

References

Emma Macevoy  (2004) “Picturesque” from Murray, Christopher ed  The Encyclopaedia of the Romantic Era 1760-1850, Vol 2, Taylor and Francis

Join the war effort: grow your own luffa!

Given my history of coldly executing generations of zucchinis in babyhood, it was a high risk endeavour to attempt to grow luffa.  But the charmingly named “dish-rag gourd” is described on-line as a “large aggressive climber“, and apparently is an invasive weed in Uganda.  So I thought I would give it a go.  In fact, maybe I should only attempt to grow plants that sound like they should be banged up for burglary and GBH.

Luffa is a dual utility crop, a bit like our big boofy chickens Shima and Apricot.  We don’t like to mention it when they’re around, but as well as being pretty good at layers, Barred Rocks (like Shima) and Light Sussexes (ie Apricot) make pretty good eating.  Allegedly.  We won’t do it, girls, we really won’t!

I’m not sure how toothsome baby luffa really are but there’s not many vegetables that can be used as a backscratcher, a pillow, a sound-proof liner for steel helmets, a device for cleaning car wind-shields or a filtration system for ship’s boilers, so perhaps we are asking too much for it to be haute cuisine.

Pearl Harbour was obviously a tragic event, but one little known casualty of the bombing of the US Navy was the sudden disappearance of luffas from bathrooms throughout America.  Japan had been the main commercial producer since the 1890s, and so when America entered the war, the luffa supply was suddenly cut off.  In the words of economic botanist W.M.Porterfield: “the same catastrophe that stopped their importation enormously increased the need for them” (1955, 212-3)  and the US War Production Board forbad their delivery, sale or use for anything except filtration systems for ship’s boilers.

I am quite grateful that I’ve not been required to turn over my luffa crop to the authorities for some kind of military emergency.  While I consider it to have been a success, that is relative to my usual abject failure on the gourd growing front.  I managed to grow four mature fruits from three plants.

Dried luffa closeup

Luffa are tropical plants and need a long growing season.  Given that my whole garden is plunged into shade around about the equinox, it was nip and tuck whether the fruits would get big enough to make a decent sized back scratcher. As with zucchini, you have to be patient.  The first rather lovely yellow flowers, appearing in mid-summer, were male and only very late in the season, just as I was about to give up on it as yet another curcurbit failure, did female flowers and tiny perky fruits emerge.

On the positive side, the little luffa plants proved very easy to move around the garden so they could follow the sun – from  little pots on the windowsill in spring, to hefty tubs on the sunniest spot on our patio.  Since they’re actually a pretty vigorous plants for growing in a pot, I ended up moving one plant yet again, to the base of my “black widow” trellis.  This spot had previously been the kiss of death for any vine I attempted to grow there.

Innumerable generations of passion fruit and even a choko plant have turned up their toes on that higgledy-piggledy bamboo lattice (what can I say: I’m a slow learner).  By some kind of miracle, the luffa survived despite the fact I violated innumerable transplanting by-laws by moving a metre long vine covered in leaves in the middle of summer.  It survived the chooks (more evidence that luffa are probably not worth eating), and produced a haul of three fruits.  Okay, Porterfield reckons 20 fruits per vine is “to be expected”, but I find it’s best to cultivate low expectations.

There are lots of videos on YouTube sharing advice on getting the fibrous “skeleton” out of the luffa gourd.  Which would have been more helpful if they weren’t a sequence of mutually contradictory tips.  The smart money seems to be on leaving your luffas to dry as long as possible.  Some of mine dried out a bit while hanging on the vine, but I left the rest on a sunny windowsill for a couple of months.  In theory that skin should go hard, brown and leathery and then you can just peel it off, shake out the seeds and voila, there’s your luffa.

The alternative suggestion for those who were too impatient to wait for dry skin or, whose luffa (like mine) seemed likely to rot away in the meantime, involved cracking and carefully peeling off the skin and then squeezing and massaging out the remaining flesh and seeds in a bowl of water.  Whacking the flaccid luffa a few times on the sink to help shift the flesh was also recommended by one YouTuber.  The whole thing had a faintly sordid feel, like some sort of low rent vegetable s&m club, but did seem to work reasonably well in the end.  After a few days of drying out on the windowsill, I now have a suite of firm, fibrous and faintly grubby looking luffa that my children will no doubt refuse to have anything to do with.

So what’s new?  The vision of excited children running into the verdant backyard to pluck ripe organic snowpeas and strawberries has never really gelled with the scorched earth look of our chicken-denuded yard and proliferation of high-security possum-proof vegetable beds made of wire sock drawers found by the side of the road.  So I’ll let yet another self-sufficiency fantasy go.  The kids will remain (un-ex?)foliated but I’m still a seed saver – I’ll give “the dishrag gourd” another go.

 

References
Porterfield, W.M. (1955) “Loofah: The Sponge Gourd” Economic Botany, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1955), pp. 211-223

 

Meet the Royals

Spoonbill looking back good portrait 2 wideTo be honest, I’m a republican more than a monarchist, but over the weekend I met one set of royals I have some time for: Royal Spoonbills.  They carry off the ceremonial garb beautifully without raiding the public purse for grog or helicopter rides, and their landed estates are mostly mud, swamps and reed beds, as opposed to, say 20 million acres of Britain’s finest arable land.

Royal Spoonbills are not uncommon birds – their conservation status is secure across much of Australia, and they can be found not just in rivers and coastal mudflats but  also in temporary inland waterways during times of flood, wading through shallow water, feeling for fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects with their vibration-detecting spoon-shaped beaks. They’ve also made it to New Zealand, where their numbers seem to be increasing.

But I’ve only seen them on two occasions in my weekly outings on the Hawkesbury, at the same time – early morning an hour or two after low tide- and in the same spot, in the mangroves near the shambling boatyards in Mooney Mooney.  It’s place with a splendid outlook but it won’t be appearing on the front cover of Vogue’s Marina and Oysterfarm magazine.  Unless they’re doing a special spread on “2017’s best retro refits for your partially sunken houseboat”

Sea eagle at dawn long small

White bellied sea eagle at dawn over Spectacle Island

The perpetually roar from the freeway, the piles of maritime junk and even the unchained dog wandering round the quayside didn’t seem to bother the herons, the pelicans or the spoonbills.  The tidal mudflats fringing Mooney Mooney and the nature reserve at Spectacle Island  across the way must make for good pickings, and the stands of mangroves by the boatyard a safe place to nest, over the water.

I’m pretty sure this is a regular hang-out for them.  Spoonbills living near the coast are sedentary and often use the same nests from year to year.  My failure to spot them over the intervening period is, I suspect, more to do with cluelessness about the best tide time to catch them, rather than a sign they wander around a lot.

Like darters, they breed in colonies with other waterbirds.  The first time I saw this group (or to use the proper collective noun, bowl) of spoonbills, in September last year, they were in the company of another wader I’ve rarely seen on the Hawkesbury, an egret. And this time, as well as the ubiquitous white-faced herons feeding en-masse on the mud flats at dawn and then later in the shallows, there were a flock of the much maligned white ibises – or “bin chickens” as urban Australian call them disparagingly – hunting in amongst the mangroves down the way.

Pelicans shouting at each other crop small

Apparently this is a male pelican (in breeding colours) chatting up a likely female!

I read that juvenile spoon bills have even been spotted grooming other species of waterbirds.  Shortsighted?  Or just very very friendly?

This time there was no sign of the spoonbills’ breeding plumage, a 20cm long crest of feathers on the back of the necks of both males and female (although the crest on female, like their legs and beak, is apparently shorter than the males’).  October to April is said to be the breeding season, so I must have caught them, last time, just before they paired up and started thinking about the next generation.  It’s probably lucky I didn’t catch them any later in the year, since it seems they’re very sensitive to disturbance when they’re on the nest.

Birds do seem to be more chilled around a photographer gliding along in a canoe than someone stumbling in the undergrowth with a camera.  It is pleasing to have this observation, made on the water over the past three years, confirmed by a recent paper, entertainingly called “Up the Creek with a Paddle”.  According to its authors, Hayley Glover, Patrick-Jean Guay and Michael Weston, the FID (flight-initiation-disturbance) distance of royal spoonbills is 23 metres if you are in a canoe, versus 55 metres if you’re on foot.  Mind you, driving up to birds in your car is also scientifically vindicated way of getting (slightly) closer to them before they make a break for it, but unless you want your SUV bobbing in the water next to the Mooney Mooney houseboat, perhaps not such a good idea in this instance.

Guay, Glover and Weston, having presumably spent quite some time running loudly (with a tape measure) through the reeds towards a range of species and then ramming them (carefully and scientifically) with canoes, recommend a “set back” from waterbirds for boaties of about 90 metres*. Which is a long way, even if you have a good zoom on your camera.  But I think, at least for the next few months, I’ll give the spoonbills a wide berth and let them raise their babies in peace.

Spectacle island mud flats lines abstract long and thin small

Spectacle Island mudflats at dawn

References

Glover, Hayley K., Guay, Patrick-Jean and Weston, Michael A.  (2015) “Up the creek with a paddle; avian flight distances from canoes versus walkers” Wetlands Ecological Management,  23:775–778

Guay, Patrick-Jean; McLeod, Emily M; Taysom, Alice J and Weston, Michael A. Are vehicles ‘mobile bird hides’?: A test of the hypothesis that ‘cars cause less disturbance’. The Victorian Naturalist, Vol. 131, No. 4, Aug 2014

McLeod EM, Guay P-J, Taysom AJ, Robinson RW, Weston MA (2013) “Buses, cars, bicycles and walkers: the influence of the type of human transport on the flight responses of waterbirds”. PLoS ONE 8:e82008

Mo, Matthew (2016) An apparent case of interspecific allopreening by a Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia. Australian Zoologist: 2016, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 214-216.

  • Glover, Guay and Weston are undoubtedly bird lovers and did their research with the greatest sensitivity and care.  I just always find it funny / slightly disturbing to read about the things animal researchers sometimes do to expand the range of human knowledge.  Most poignant I’ve read in recent times: releasing migrating songbirds into a planetarium and allowing them to try to navigate by the stars…

 

Spoonbill fishing 3 cropped larger asymmetrical

Perhaps not a beautiful bird but certainly eye catching!

Mother-of-millions takes to the waves

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You know a weed is a baddie when it will grow without dirt and entirely surrounded by salt water.  The Mother of Dragons inspires GoT fans and baby names but Mother-of-Millions – the stowaway on this attractively decrepit boat moored off Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury – inspires a deep and abiding hatred in bush regenerators, whose job is to try to get rid of weedy garden escapes like this one.

Mother-of-millions – a native of Madagascar – was imported to Australia in the 1950s as a drought tolerant garden plant.  It’s now a restricted invasive plant in Queensland, and can’t be given away, sold or released into the environment.  Here in coastal NSW and the northwest slopes and plains, it’s a declared noxious weed which means landowners (or in this case boat-owners) have a legal requirement to control it.  Like two-thirds of Australia’s noxious weeds, it’s a garden plant that got away.

To add to its charm, mother-of-millions (aka bryophyllum delagoense) is also toxic to humans, pets and livestock.  If animals eat enough of it (5 kilos for an adult cow) they quickly die with heart failure.  If they just have a snack, they’ll get bloody diahorrea, drool saliva, dribble urine and then die of heart failure.  Fortunately cattle are probably safe from this particular crop of bryophyllum.  Unless they are bovines with boats, or like a good swim.

You can pull mother-of-millions out by hand but it is, apparently, a soul destroying job.  The plant can reproduce from tiny seeds, dispersed both by wind and water – I’ve certainly seen colonies in bushland by Berowra Creek.  I hate to think how far and wide the seeds from this estuarine Typhoid Mary have spread.  The seeds remain dormant in the soil for ages, so getting rid of mother-of-millions is not a one-time-only job.  Like its toxic relative bryophyllum pinnate – the evocatively named resurrection plant – little plantlets growing on the leaves can also detach as you’re weeding.   Any tiny fragment of leaf can generate a new infestation.  You can spray it with herbicide, leave it in a black plastic bag to die, or hope for a visit from the (also introduced) South African Citrus Thrip which burrows through the leaves’ waxy coating to lay eggs on its flesh.  But none of this horticultural horror show works as well as setting it on fire.

We all have a biosecurity duty, of course: “any person… who knows (or ought to know) of any biosecurity risk, has a duty to ensure the risk is prevented, eliminated or minimised, so far as is reasonably practicable”.  And as a responsible gardener and card-carrying greenie, I take those duties seriously.  However I’m not sure the owner of this rickety vessel would embrace the idea of a passing kayaker with a molotov cocktail torching his boat, for all its mother of infestations.

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