Death and good fortune on Cowan Creek

Since reading the poetic prose of H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s story of how training Mabel the goshawk carried her through wild sadness that followed the death of her beloved father, it’s been all about the raptors around here.

Easter at Speers Point meant ospreys relaxing in the late afternoon sun.

And yesterday, on Cowan Creek, the contractual obligation white bellied sea-eagle.

Juvenile sea eagle belly horizontal

Juvenile white-bellied sea eagle

Then, just when I’d resigned myself to a pleasant if uneventful paddle after three hours on the water, there was an explosion of action right off my bow.  Two birds in an aerial battle, tumbling and squabbling over a kill.  The loser flew off, disgruntled; the death-dealer pulled up in the bright morning sunshine on a branch over the river, and waited for me to get out my camera.

A new bird!  One I thought I’d never seen on any waterway.  A peregrine falcon.

It turns out I had seen these birds before, long ago and far away – a pair tussling with ravens over a ledge to nest on at Malham Cove in Yorkshire.  Cliffs (or, if they are hard to find, skyscrapers) are one of the essential requirements of this beautiful raptor.  RB reminded me that peregrines used to nest in the ventilation towers of the tunnels under the River Mersey and high up in the Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, the enormous red sandstone building I could see from my desk during my decade as a Scouser.

Peregrines may be the most widespread bird in the world, living on every continent except for Antarctica and on many islands (although strangely, considering its status as a bird watching paradise, not New Zealand).  Its name is derived from the Latin for “the wanderer” although only five of the nearly twenty subspecies – those breeding in the northern Arctic – really migrate very far.

For all their capacity to adapt to life in the city – eating feral pigeons and nesting in highrises – peregrines are widespread but not really common.  Since they mostly prey on smallish birds, themselves often insect eaters, falcons bioaccumulate pollutants. The use of organochlorines in insecticides like DDT devastated their numbers in the second half of the twentieth century.  By the 1960s there were no peregrines in the Eastern US and the birds were declared an endangered species. Numbers have bounced back, in Australia and elsewhere, although they are still classed as  “rare” here.  And recent work in Europe and Canada has observed a new chemical – flame retardants – turning up in the blood stream of peregrine chicks.

Once peregrines find a good nesting site, it’s a keeper.  Apparently, a falcon skeleton found at the back of a cliff-top eyrie in Tasmania has been carbon dated at 19,000 years, which makes that spot the oldest known bird’s nest. As I noodled along the northern shore of Cowan Creek, I’d admired the 100 metre high cliffs of Looking Glass Spur, eucalypts halfway up the face finding impossible footholds in the sandstone.  I wonder if my falcon and its mate have a scrape there, high above the expanse of the estuary.  Peregrines don’t eat fish but hunting grounds by water offer the space for their deadly turn of speed.

I feel less disappointed by my failure to spot the raptor’s stoop or to capture the battle on film after I figured out what I was watching.  The fastest animal in the world, dropping  on its prey at nearly 400 kilometres an hour.  That poor bird clutched in its talons -maybe a galah, the favoured meal of the big-footed Australian “macropus” subspecies – never had a chance.

I watched for twenty minutes, as she plucked and dismembered her meal, unperturbed by the rowdy parade of jet skiiers, cruisers and powerboats.  Galah feathers drifted down from her branch, making a delicate trail of death across the bottle green water.

For a few dodgy moments, I thought the gobbets of galah might be joined by flotsam from my shattered craft as Egg was washed perilously close to oystershell sharpened rocks.  And, if I had the Bond-style rocket launcher I’ve often fantasised about while ploughing  through powerboat wakes on sunny Sunday mornings, fragments of several jet skis.

I’m guessing my peregrine was a “she”.  Females are a third bigger than the tiercels – the males – but I didn’t have the chutzpah to hurl a swiss army knife up the tree for scale.  The two mid-air combatants looked well matched – two males or two females. Definitely not a pair.  Since peregrines mate for life – up to 20 years – and often hunt cooperatively, it would seem to be unwise from the point of view of domestic harmony, anyway, to bicker over food.

In fact, Derek Ratcliffe describes exactly what I saw: “feet-grappling over disputed food items” which happens, he says, “at food-territory boundaries during the non-breeding season” (1993, 201).   It seems these battles are nearly always between birds of the same sex, although sometimes peregrines fight with other crag-loving birds as well.  RB remembers peregrines in springtime at the cliffs at Creagh Dhu, attacking ravens, stooping then zooming straight up to the heights to do it all over again.  Sometimes pairs of peregrines will even take on the great golden eagle over rare and valuable real estate.

So maybe there’s more than one pair of peregrines on that beautiful bit of country.  Perhaps I’ll see this magic bird again, or her mate, or her rival, until I’m as blase about a peregrine strike as a whistling kite soaring on a thermal. But yesterday, as I took my four hundred photographs while the peregrine peaceably disembowelled its meal, showing the equanimity that makes them the favoured hunting falcon, I felt truly blessed.

Peregrine in front of branch staring at me crop

Peregrine falcon watching the watchers

More stories about raptors in Berowra’s backyard (and mine):

The beautiful white morph of the grey goshawk in Bluetongue’s back

A hunting collared sparrowhawk in Nude trees and naughty birds

The whistling kites of Bar and Peat Islands in Two sad islands, three whistling kites

The many white-bellied sea eagles of the Hawkesbury and Lake Macquarie in Encounters with eagles

Happy Easter from Morgan the syncretic leghorn

We have pommie chooks!  Or from somewhere north of the equator, anyway.  I’m not sure how they managed to make the perilous transcontinental journey before their cute fluffy butts made it to our place at a week old, but somehow they must have dodged border control.

4 fluffy butts horizontal crop

How do I know our feathered friends come from the far north?

Well, here in Sydney, we’re past the equinox and the nights are drawing in.  We may have had a February that smashed heat records, 1.3 degrees C above the longterm averages.   But it’s hours of daylight that tells chickens when to get laying (thanks to that sort-of-third eye) and the days are getting shorter.  Even as the world goes to hell in a handbasket, it is, nonetheless, autumn.

And yet my chooks have decided to start laying.  Just in time for spring with its baby bunnies, and peeping chicks, and Easter eggs, and its celebration of rebirth and renewal.  In the northern hemisphere, that is.

I love Easter.  Most religious festivals are a delicious mish-mash of stuff from the Big Book and whatever else people were into at the time.  But with Easter the syncretism is really out there, bouncing around with its ears pricked up, laying  coloured eggs in the spring greenery.  After witnessing the pre-Good Friday panic by shoppers terrified by the prospect of a day without ready access to a new packet of Cocopops, the nice young guy at the checkout reckoned  we might add a zombie apocalypse to the usual combo of vernal equinox, Passover, and frenzied confectionary consumption.  As he pointed out delicately, Jesus did after all, come back from the dead.

In the midst of this cultural mash-up, it seems appropriate that it’s Morgan the flighty leghorn, named after a Welsh enchantress in an Arthurian legend, who has marked the occasion of the (deeply seasonally inappropriate) Christian festival of rebirth with the gift of her first lovely white eggs.

A muddled pagan blessing to egg eaters, one and all.

 

Love, death and stray cats

It’s not often that I find myself on same page at Tony Abbott, Australia’s climate change denying PM.  But having exhausted the potential of their previous three word slogans, the conservative government recently moved on to a new one: “Kill the Cats”.  After this week’s events I think I could find some common cause with Tones on this theme.

I know you shouldn’t have favourites but Shyla was my favourite chicken.

She came to our place as a bundle of fluff and managed, uniquely, to survive our enthusiastic but doofus chick rearing.  She was the hen you would trip over at the chookhouse gate, where she would be pacing up and down the second the back door opened.  And then she would follow you round the garden waiting for lovely things like grapes or curlworms or weevil ridden comestibles and if none of those were forthcoming, peck your butt to see if it would make an adequate alternative.  Her response to a human approaching was to squat and jiggle in what I think translates loosely from hen as “ok, you can mount me now”.  Which was faintly disturbing, while at the same time suggested an affection of some strange kind.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that she was our one reliable layer, producing a daily egg all winter long.

Since she was such a useful, friendly and characterful girl, she was obviously the first choice for a midnight snack when a great big feral cat came visiting our yard in the dead of night this past week.  I don’t want to sound callous but the bloody thing could have taken Snowball the silky bantam – smaller, ancient, more visible in dim lighting, huffy around humans, laying eggs only when the weather and the tides are just right.

But no, it had to grab Shyla, the life and soul of the backyard. The Top Chook took one for the team.

Everyone’s very subdued down in the bottom of the garden now, accepting the indignity of being carried, half-asleep, from their perilous perch on the edge of the fig tree barrel, to secure lodgings in Palm Beach, the long-abandoned vernacular modernist chicken coop.

Shyla was the victim of our hubris – the one who paid the ultimate price of six years without locking the chooks up at night.

So what changed in our suburban ecosystem?  I reckon it’s the departure of the (somewhat annoying) little yappy dog next door.  The neighbours on the other side have a laconic German Shepherd who doesn’t even chase the chooks.  But the yapster would have given a cat a run for its money.  If Tony and cronies want to get rid of feral cats, it’s not red-necks with guns that will do the job.  Scientists reckon the best strategy is to restore the top predators – dingoes.  Based on anecdotal evidence – the death toll in our backyard – I reckon they’re right.

With sufficient vigilance we can protect the chooks but we can’t do much for the bandicoot that still noses its way through the veggie garden at night.  Bandicoots recognise dingoes (and dogs more generally) – they know to avoid them.  In fact, some scientists have argued that this makes dingoes – placentals, only here for 50,000 years or so – natives.  But bandicoots still haven’t figured out cats.

I’m trying to find some positives in the situation.  My latest planting of broad beans has sprouted, magically unmolested.  I could attribute this success to my lavender mulch, or to the carefully secured veggie net, or the cold weather that has probably driven the local rodent population indoors (where we live.  Gulp.)  But perhaps the feral feline took a few rats as a chaser after devouring poor Shyla.  It’s a choice, it seems, eggs or beans.  Not fair!  I want both!

It’s all very sad.  Our eight year old got it right as she sobbed herself to sleep the other night: “you know where there’s someone in your care and you can’t protect them, you feel like there’s a hole in your heart”.  Yeah, babe I do.

I’ve been thinking about another lost lovely one this week.  The twelfth anniversary of our son’s death has just passed us by.  Born, unexpectedly, with a lopsided and innovatively organised brain, he was a bonny baby boy, whose plump little body suffered many seizures and would never really do quite what he wanted.  He had a short but lovely life, that ended suddenly and surprisingly (we shouldn’t really have been surprised) before dawn on on a beautiful winter’s morning, just like these last glorious days.

For a time, during the relentless rumination that followed our sleepy newborn’s diagnosis, I spent a lot of time thinking about stray cats.

Stray cats crapping in our pocket sized backyard.  Stray cats with a payload of toxoplasmosis gondii, “one of the most successful parasites on Earth”.  It inhabits the bodies of around half of the world’s human population, and plenty of other warm blooded animals too, but only reproduces only inside pussycats, emerging to infect other creatures, the parasite transmitted through cysts lurking in its poo.

Recently there’s been a pop science fascination with the consequences of toxoplasmosis infection.  While (most of the many many) infected people are asymptomatic, researchers have found that rats with the parasite become risk takers.  Losing their natural fear of cats, some even become attracted to the scent of their predator (not coincidentally, the parasite’s host).  Humans with toxo, too, seems to have somewhat different personalities than those without.  This idea, that humans – philosophers and planet conquerers – might have our very selves shaped by a single celled organism, disturbs and fascinates us.

If you are unlucky enough to be infected for the first time in the early weeks of pregnancy, your baby can be born with congenital toxoplasmosis, with possible serious consequences for the child’s health.  Toxo can cause problems with vision and hearing, seizures and intellectual disability.  Which is why I found myself thinking so long and hard, a decade or so ago, about my lack of gardening gloves and the roaming neighbourhood moggies.

In the end, my ruminations about infected cat shit went nowhere, like the dwelling upon dioxins from the incinerated corpses of foot-and-mouth infected cows that filled the air that year, or my endless Googling on the chromosonal origins of pachygyria (“Come back if you have another one with the same thing” the genetic counsellor suggested.  We were floored.  Although not quite so amazed as when she asked us, the Scotsman and the Australian, if we were cousins)

Very very occasionally Tony Abbott, MP, is accidentally right: sometimes shit just happens.

How do we make sense of these things, the deaths of our beloved children and the untimely demise of our pet chickens?  How are they connected, the miraculous germination of broadbeans and the midnight movements of predators?  The passing of parasites and personality traits from rats to cats to cat lovers?  The hidden life of the soil and the secrets in our bloodstream that can elate us and destroy us, often at the very same time?

Two sad islands, three whistling kites

It’s 7 o’clock on a midwinter Sunday morning.  It’s five degrees C.  And I’m about to go canoeing.

The thought that I may be slightly mad has passed through my mind.  A key motivation for hauling myself out of bed before sunrise was to try to get a better look at the whistling kite that hurtled past me into the distance last time I put the kayak in at Mooney Mooney.  And as I’m standing in my innovative Milan-style long-johns and wetsuit combination, what do I spy, perched in a dead tree right above the car park, but a whistling kite, defrosting in the first light.  Tempting get that pic and hightail it back to bed.

But no, Bar Island is calling me.  I’m heading back to the spot where I first decided, on a boatie camping trip just up the river at Back Beaches, that my mental health demanded the purchase of a cheap canoe.  And halfway across the river, when the first rays of the morning sun hit me, I feel truly blessed.

Bearing in mind my favourite quote from Antonio Gramsci (“pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”), I started out my jaunt by heading across to Olga Bay. Last time I was there, a magnificent white bellied sea eagle swooped through the golden afternoon sunshine and snatched a fish from the briny right in front of the boat.

Unfortunately, convinced that the Hawkesbury was going to sweep me out to sea, at the time I had my head down, as I blasted my way across the river.  The David Attenborough moment passed while I was fumbling around in the dank reaches of the canoe for my much abused camera.

Needless to say, the sea eagle didn’t do a repeat performance, though that Australian darter that I pursued heartlessly from perch to desperate perch up the Wyong River last weekend had an unpleasant surprise on that therapeutic holiday to a little hire cottage on Milson’s Passage that the doctor ordered.

Bar Island greeted me with the green flash of (what I think was) a sacred kingfisher watching from the mangroves as I clambered awkwardly (camera-less, of course) over the slippery rocks to the shore.

To be honest, I found it a gloomy place, weighed down by history and hemmed in by trees.  They’re important trees – casuarina glauca for the glossy black cockatoos and red ash which, according to the informative signs, feeds the copper jewel butterfly.  Perhaps I’ve been living with a Scotsman too long.  I have started to share his culture’s love of denuded landscapes and the sweeping views created by sheep, deer and industrialisation. We’ve dubbed the accompanying fear of excessive greenery “wood psychosis”.  There was a bit of wood psychosis going on in Bar Island this weekend.

And then there’s visible colonial history of the place.  St John’s Church was built on Bar Island in the 1870s, and the grave stones of some of the sixty or so European settlers who are known to have been buried there remain, along with reminders of the troubled history of the Hawkesbury as a brutal contact zone.  “A difficult time” as the plaque commemorated Sarah “Granny” Lewis carefully puts it.

The best spot to be on Bar Island on a chilly winter morning was, not coincidentally, the wooden seat near the midden on the northern tip of the island.  The midden’s metres deep, accrued over thousands of years of shared oyster eating by Darug, Darkinjung and Guringai people, whose country meets here.

And not far away, the resident kite and her nest, were also basking in sunlight.  RB has been working here, on and off, for three years, and the nest has been there for at least that long, renovated and extended each season.  The kite wasn’t moving, despite the clumsy paddling and clicking camera.  It’s her island now, and she knows it.

I thought I was smart, timing my trip upstream with a rising tide.  I wasn’t feeling quite so clever heading downriver again as I tried to take a racing line across an sharp S bend, with the current and the tide battling it out all round me.

First I ploughed exceedingly slowly, on that perfectly still day, through a stretch of strange standing waves.  And then I found myself swirling through a sequence of weird vortices, that churned up silt and the occasional jelly blubber.  I read Lisa-ann Gershwin’s Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceans a while ago.  She concludes, to put it bluntly, that we should enjoy fish while they last, as the jellyfish, floating around in the oceans since the pre-Cambrian, are on their way back with a vengeance, thanks to acidified, over-fertilised and over-fished oceans (not to mention climate change).

Since then I see every jellyfish as a portent of doom.  Given this slightly apocalyptic worldview, after about an hour and a half trying to escape this turbid hellhole (okay, it was about ten minutes) I began to worry that one of those whirlpools were going to suck me down into the bowels of the river, just the icefloes in this extremely spooky youtube find.

Needless to say, I survived The Whirlpool of Death.  In marked contrast to many of the people who went to live at Peat Island, which I paddled past on the last leg of my route home. Built to detox alcoholics early in the twentieth century, the site was used for over ninety years mainly as an asylum for people with mental illnesses or learning difficulties.  From all reports it was a horrifying place where inmates were caged, neglected and sexually abused.

The last residents, treated somewhat less brutally than those who came before, left in 2010, and the site is now padlocked and empty, awaiting redevelopment into a 250 berth marina and suite of five storey apartment blocks.  Because there’s nothing that says “high density living” and “brownfield site” like a place with national parks on all four sides.

I spotted one last whistling kite – in fact, a whistling kite actually whistling – in the Norfolk Pines on the island.   And in the distance, somewhere out of view, the elusive sea eagles, honking away like a pair of castrati ducks.  I know it’s sentimental in the light of these grim tales of the river, but I hope the birds are still there when the jet skiiers come to stay.

Ghost chickens

We have poultry visitors from beyond the grave.

RB had a wild look in his eye after a visit to the henhouse last week.  “I just saw Luna!!”  That’s Luna the barred Plymouth Rock, who sadly, quietly, died about three weeks ago.  And then, the next day, I saw her too, or at least her fluffy wraith-like behind, evanescent in the half-light by the woodshed.

You may doubt the evidence of our eyes*.  I invite you to compare this spectral butt with the large as life hindquarters of Luna the barred rock in better days.  The resemblance is uncanny.

And now Shyla the Australorp, thankfully still hale and hearty, has been possessed by the feisty spirit of the late, great Andy Ninja.

Never having shown any signs of Houdini-like qualities while Andy was in this world, she now greets us every morning from the back step.  The garden gate, sturdy as an upcycled Ikea bedhead could ever be, and previously an impenetrable barrier, now presents no obstacle to her fulfilling her urge to join us in the dining room for breakfast.

Clearly Shyla has been inhabited over by a chicken possessed of both wisdom and wanderlust.  Andy Ninja walks amongst us again.

* or indeed you may suspect that this fluffy behind belongs to the authors of our adventures in passive scrumping, the Barnevelder-cum-Australorp-cum-(possibly)-barred-Rocks from next door.  You may be right.

The waste management business

Heavy rubbish day.  Or as it’s known locally, the council cleanup.  No words strike more fear into the hearts of your loved ones, if you are a gardener with an ample shed and an insatiable love of junk.

I was left momentarily unsupervised today, and all the good work of a weekend of chucking stuff out began to go into reverse.  I know it’s a sign of my hoarding pathology, but I really struggle to imagine why someone would ditch a barely scratched inch-thick slab of gorgeous red gum about half as long as my kitchen.

Here’s the only plausible explanation I could come up with: it had been used in the commission of a mob murder.  “I know, I know, Vinnie had to go… he knew too much… but since he “went on holiday” I just don’t feel the same about that big chopping board…”

Another road-side acquisition of the last 48 hours (the coffin-sized item pictured below) also suggests restless nights and guilty secrets.  I swear the pruning saw was in-situ before I even considered taking this photograph.  Such measures may be necessary when “spring cleaning” for those of us who only have possession of an electric mulcher, suitable strictly for lighter duties.

Okay, not quite long enough, but there's always the pruning saw.

Okay, not quite long enough, but there’s always the pruning saw.


All this “waste disposal” has perhaps been a bad influence, since today I had to do a piece of work.  I got a place ready, somewhere nice.  No need for concrete boots (or indeed blood and bone) just a very old pair of Blundstones and some hair clippings at the bottom of a hole.  We had a problem: our new associate, low-chill Tropical Sunshu nashi pear, had to be put in the ground.

We put her in the ground, and we put her in a box.  In that order, suggesting I’m no wise guy.  Though I can say, hand on heart, that she’s gone to her narrow bed, to sleep the Big Sleep, since the box we put her in was constructed of not merely one, but two bed frames.  Those beds may never have concealed any horses’ heads, but they were absolutely and definitely products of the waste management business, a business I should clearly for the sake of my family (and my shed) try to leave behind.

Of snakes and snakebeans

This sight out the window as I stumbled into the kitchen for the first cup of tea of a Monday morning made the caffeine hit mostly redundant.   Snakey the diamond python’s back in town.

Last time we saw her was early spring a year ago. I looked up from the computer, wondering about the din the little wattlebirds were making, and there she was, stretching up for a sunny rooftop.

I’m worried about the timing of Snakey’s visit.  After a good five years of prevaricating, we finally decided to use rat poison near the house. You can predict and even understand when the vermin demolish your nearly ripe corn-on-the-cob – it’s almost obligatory for your quasi-rural pest population.  But when they won’t leave your broccolini alone it’s all gone too far.

Leaving the house on a late-night mid-winter drive, I saw a tawny frogmouth flash out of the dark.  Another evening a surprised visitor landed on the balustrade of the back deck, only to realise three humans, stock still with beers half-raised to their lips, were unexpected keeping the rodents away.  And we’ve seen Snakey wait, poised for hours, then suddenly strike a rat on a twilight mission for chookhouse grain.  A glorious sight.  But pythons might only eat one a fortnight – it’s that low energy lifestyle.  Sadly there’s no sign of such dietary modesty in the case of the sweet potato munching rattus rattus.

We tried humane traps too.  But what do you do with the terrified beasts, usually the littler, stupider ones, after their night in a cage?  Counsel them?  Release them in the nearest industrial estate?  Figure out some new, psychologically gruelling way of killing them, all the while deluding yourself that it might be somehow be painless?

So not so long ago we reluctantly, guiltily, laid down baits in inaccessible places and endured our penance, the smell of death.

So over my cup of Earl Grey, I anxiously inspected Snakey’s features for signs of toxicity.  She’d chosen her spot judiciously, beside our neighbour’s chicken shed and right above the rat run down to ours.   She looked torpid: had she taken a poisoned rat, one dying slowly and easier to catch than the others?  Wasn’t her jaw somehow slack and asymmetrical, her pose ungainly…?  All I can say is, don’t try phrenology or poker with snakes.  They are danged hard to read.

By the time I got home from work she was gone.  I must confess, in the subsequent days, I have become slightly more cautious with my footing as I head down to peg the washing on the line.

Snakey seems to have brought the subtropical summer with its run-to-the-washing-line storms.  I was that nervous commuter, glancing up at the looming alien mother-ship and hoping I’d get home before all hell broke loose.  Then, same thing, same time, next day. And the next. A regular 4 o’clock Apocalyse.

It’s like the Nile River Delta out back.  As you can see from the flood-art-installation above, every item a child or lazy BBQ tender has carelessly discarded in the backyard now has its own rich pile of alluvium.

The subtropical plants are glowing.  The tumeric has reappeared in the understory as just suddenly as the snake has in the vines.  It dies right down over the winter, and come early December, just when you think it’s a goner, the leaves start nudging through the soil.  Given my dodgy record with propagation, I’m specially pleased to see the this year’s young ‘uns.  Instead of wimping out and buying plants from the ever reliable Daleys, I buried some fresh rhizomes from my weekly organic veggie box and crossed my fingers.

Inspired the marvellous Sri Lankan cooking of my clever sister in law and her mum, I’m trying to grow the ingredients for my favourite mid-week meal of 2014, snake bean curry.  I probably don’t have the stamina to harvest and process my own tumeric powder, but thanks to the big rain, the “Red Dragon” yard long beans are leaping out of the ground, and my baby curry leaf plant – in a pot near the house where I can nip off its weedy berries and quash any suckers – seems to be doing well so far, despite attentions from a nearby lebanese cucumber.  Now, if only I could keep my coriander from bolting for more than 15 minutes I’d be ready to hit the kitchen.  With luck, I’ll still be under the steady supervising eye of Snakey.