Flying lawnmowers

There’s aren’t too many workplaces that have their own bird list.  Or offices that you can use as a hide for stalking coy marshbirds.

Buff banded rail with raised leg long and skinny

The elusive Buff Banded Rail of Mars Creek

On the 5 k walk that bookends my train commute from Berowra to Epping, I might see a tree creeper or a figbird, a scrubwren or a fairy wren, a flock of silver-eyes or gerygones or red-browed finches, a eastern rosella or a crew of glossy black-cockatoos.  But the twitching doesn’t end when I arrive, because Macquarie University, where I work, is no mean place for bird watching either.

On occasion I’m asked to explain to prospective “customers” why they should study with us, rather than one of the other fine educational institutions in Sydney.  This kind of sales-pitch is not really my strong point – I’m a teacher, not a real-estate agent.  I find myself fatally drawn to talk, not so much about the passionate lecturers, the interdisciplinary subjects, the fancy technical facilities or even the light-drenched underground train station with tranquil majesty of a church, but mostly about the parrots.  Which, unfortunately, seems to be a niche interest from a teenaged point of view.

Upside down coot horizontal small lighter

So when I found myself surrounded by maybe a hundred birds – magpies, swamp hens and miners mixing it with the galahs and cockies – on my walk home, I wasn’t too surprised.  But the long-billed corellas – their red slashed throats and preposterously dangerous looking beaks – were a new one on me.  For a start they aren’t meant to be in Sydney at all.

According to my bird book and the Michael Morecombe app on my phone, corellas are birds of the inland and the south. But for all that, there are plenty of of them around the cities of the eastern seaboard these days.  So very many in fact that in fact, a corella poisoner has been at work in the Central Coast, killing scores of birds from the flocks that roost in parks on the shores of Lake Macquarie.

Mob of corellas crop smaller

A flock of little corellas at Speers Point on the Central Coast

So how did the corellas get to Sydney and Brisbane anyway?  One idea, as put about by Martyn Robinson from the Australian Museum, is that corellas moved east from the plains during the drought.  But even he agrees that flock numbers have swelled  – along with the wild birds’ English vocabulary – thanks to escapees from cages.  Long-billed corellas in particular are apparently wonderful talkers.

On the face of it, looking at the huge flocks creaking and wheeling over ovals and golfcourses, this sounds like an unlikely idea.  But tracking back through Trove, the wonderful searchable archive of Australian newspapers digitised by the National Library of Australia , it seems that corellas have been going rogue for a long time.

The first reference I find about these birds as pets in New South Wales is a story in 1878 in the Australia Town and Country Journal in about Mr D.E.Dargin bringing them 500 miles overland to join “collected goods of every sort” at the Bathurst Show.  And by 1879 we have the first Sydney corella reported missing:

Lost corella jpeg

It’s a fine thought – these long-lived, clever and social birds breaking out of their cages and joining their wild confederates.  My friend Rose has a beautiful story about a tame galah passed on to her after its previous human died.  She kept it in an aviary outside and most days a flock of wild galahs would land and spend some time on the grass nearby.  One bird in particular would always linger by the caged bird after the rest of the flock departed.

Eventually Rose decided to open the aviary door and let the two love birds fly off together into the sunset.  Galahs can live for up to eighty years, and while they form permanent pair bonds, they will find a new mate if their partner dies.  I like to think of the two of them out there somewhere, enjoying a late-life romance with a side serve of onion weed.

Galahs two heads together corellas background crop

Some people – especially farmers – see corellas as pests. Apparently the long-billed species are a particular blight on ovals and golf courses, thanks to the six inch deep holes they can dig for roots and corms with their spectacular beak.  To be honest this habit endears them to me – there’s a fine radical history to the defacing of golf courses.

Dandelion at MQ extreme closeup

There was obviously good eating to be had last week on Macquarie’s sweeping lawns. I wonder, though, if the very oldest parrots that visit the campus still remember the finer pickings from the time, in the sixties, when it was all market gardens, orchards and chicken farms.

Long beaked corella with grass in front of sign long and skinny amend

A flash of gold and a stash of blue

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Season of mists and mellow tinnies: the Hawkesbury in fall

Autumn lasted for aroundabout a fortnight this year.  The endless summer of an apocalyptic El Nino wrapped up in mid-May, giving the deciduous trees an extremely tight schedule to dispense with their leaves before this weekend’s torrential rain.

We’ve had autumnal glory in the kitchen as well.  When Keats talked about the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m not sure he was thinking about bananas.  In theory our crop of tiny fragrant fruits should have been perfect for lunchboxes, but I made the mistake of describing the first-ripened one as “Geoffrey”.   After this, not only Geoffrey but all his brothers were deemed “too cute” to be eaten.

As well as the gold in the fruitbowl, there’s been plenty of gold in the trees.  The yellow-tailed black cockatoos are back in force, mewling and crunching in the radiata pines.

Yellow tail and autumn leaves horizontal

Fly by from a yellow tailed black cockatoo

And for the first time this year, I’ve noticed the migrating yellow-faced honeyeaters.  Thousands of them pass through the Blue Mountains most autumns, it seems, but this year they’ve been funnelled between the mountains and the coast, through the Hunter Valley.  I first spotted them darting through the riverside casuarinas at Karuah National Park, on our trip north, but since we’ve been back, I’ve seen flocks of them with their travelling companions, the noisy friarbirds, pouring up the Hawkesbury.  I’ve even seen them on the way to work, taking a moment out on their journey to watch the commuters boarding the morning train at Berowra Station.

But not all the autumnal excitement has been touched with gold.  Last weekend, halfway through detaining my broad beans (fencing, netting and a mulch of lavender and liquidambar – doubtless all in vain) I spotted a little collation of royal blue underneath the pomegranate tree. Nerf gun ammunition, the lid of a milk container, a peg.  Signs that we need to tidy up the yard, and a hint that randy bowerbirds might just do it for us.

 

More autumnal reflections from our backyard:

Let them eat light!

Autumn in terminal decline?

yellow sunset medium.jpg

Backyard gold

Experiments with kiwifruit

Thanks to exhaustive if faintly intrusive matchmaking with a ladder and a paintbrush back in October, we have a bumper crop in the kiwi arbor.

Four years ago the northern wall of the kitchen was occupied by a dank lean-to, usable only for turning your bike into the kind of rust-bucket that can be safely left overnight at train stations.  But we don’t need these kinds of amenities.  If you leave your bike unlocked outside the pub in Berowra, it might get taken by a drunk on his wobbly way home, but if it does, the bartender will recognise the miscreant on the CCTV footage and leave a friendly message on the guy’s answering machine to return it in the morning.  Even the pelotons of MAMILS leave their featherlight carbon-fibre bikes untethered at the end-of-ride coffee shop.

great sky near Berowra for crop

Blue skies over Berowa

So, with no need for a bespoke bicycle corroding zone, we replaced the corrugated iron over the frame of the lean-to with couple of precociously fruitful Sweetie kiwifruit vines, a low chill variety from Daleys Fruits in Maleny.  Last year we had a handful of fruit that the possums seemed enjoy.  If they’re planning to eat the whole crop this year they’d better be hungry.

I’m feigning disinterest in what happens to my kiwi harvest but let’s be real – the last few years have turned me from a lentil-eating hippie into an antipodean Mr McGregor, the pointlessly enraged gardener who would love to turn Peter Rabbit and his fluffy little brothers and sisters into a delicious warming casserole.

Don’t get me wrong, while I do covet the infinitely soft possum-fur jumpers that vengeful New Zealanders knit from our invasive marsupials, I’m not spending my nights under the kiwi trellis with a gun in my hand.  That said, the rugby-league style gum shield I wear overnight to stop me grinding my teeth to dust (expensive, but since it doubles as a contraceptive, probably good value) does date from about the time I started trying to grow fruit in the backyard.

No, I’m taking a less brutal and more scientific approach to harvest-management.  I have a control – the fruit I’m leaving untouched on the vine.  And I have two intervention groups – there’s the kiwis I’ve picked early, hard as furry brown rocks, and left to ripen in the fruitbowl, and then there’s the bunches I’ve put into protective custody in mesh exclusion bags.

I maintain a cautious optimism that I will get to eat at at least some ripe fruit.  This upbeat attitude has nothing to do with early success.  While commercial kiwifruit are usually picked unripe and can be kept on ice for two months or more, so far my early harvest has withered slightly but maintained a mouth puckering acidity, as evidenced by our school holiday Ph testing activity.

I can’t seem to kick the habit of growing red cabbages, despite the fact that no one in the house, myself included, really wants to eat them.  They’re just so pretty!

Purple cabbage leaves wide crop

Red cabbage abstract

So apart from feeding the leaves to the cabbage white butterflies that my 9 year old keeps in her bedroom as “pets”, what else can you do with leafy brassicas too chewy for coleslaw?  Well, you can boil them up and use the purple cooking water as a very cool litmus test.

There’s nothing kids like more than squeezing out half the toothpaste tube, making potions out of bicarb, tomato sauce and milk, or filling every single glass in the kitchen with disgusting viscous liquids.  We even ended up with a boys v girls Ph contest – boys obviously preferring alkaline household products, while as we all know, historically girls inevitably favour acids.  Including our long-cossetted kiwifruit, which turned our cabbage water a pleasing deep pink.

Litmus test from the side cropped

The results of the purple cabbage litmus tests

Early indications are the mesh exclusion bags aren’t doing much better than the fruit bowl in the protection and ripening caper. I can’t remember a pre-masticated fruit being present when I tied the bag around this bunch.  We seem to have a Houdini of the rodent world somewhere on the premises.  The outcome so far is not as dismal, at least, as 2014’s doomed attempt at protecting peaches.  The mammal and insect pests deployed a pincer movement – rats gnawing a hole in the bags and fruitflies pouring through to finish the job.

No, my optimism about getting to wrap my laughing gear around some home-grown kiwifruit sorbet is based on the barely nibbled fruit discarded the ground under the vines.  Whatever is chowing down on my crop just isn’t very keen.  Perhaps they have a sweet tooth.

How, I hear you ask, can you tell when to harvest your kiwifruit?  Well, apparently if you cut one open and the seeds have turned black it’s ready for harvest: its starches will turn slowly to sugar in storage. But there is a more scientific way.  Sugar solutions refract light, particularly polarised light, differently from your ordinary tap water. So your go-to-device for measuring sweetness (reported in Brix) is a refractometer.  The savvy kiwi farmer picks her fruit at a bit over 6 degrees Brix, it seems.  Let’s just hope the brush tailed possums can’t tell their pouches from their polarising light and the satin bowerbirds couldn’t track down a refractometer on ebay.

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?

Bandicoot in the Sacred Garden

Is it just me, or does this sound like the title of an atrocious 1970s Australian erotic film? Admittedly I’ve never heard a bloke describe their wedding tackle as any kind of marsupial.  Is this a failure of the national imagination? Possibly.

Anyway, the “sacred garden” is not as lewd as it sounds – it’s the name our eight year old has given the veggie patch that shelters beneath the frame of our ancient trampoline.

I’m not quite sure why she views it as a holy site.  It could be the shape.  In the organic gardening world, it seems, circles, mandalas and spirals have some mystical life-giving power that doesn’t flow through your old fashioned rectangular plot.   I’m skeptical, but at this stage in our death-match with the brush turkeys I’ll take any advantage I can get.  From chook dome to remodelled tramp to recycled children’s bicycle wheels, there are no corners here.

And the Mandala of Aviary Wire does seem to have worked its magic on my brassicas, despite extreme flimsiness.  Having been abandoned by the side of the road after a rich and full life getting between bouncing children and broken ankles, the trampoline net is more a spiritual than a physical barrier to aerial raiders, held in place by optimism and zip ties.  But to date, my newly planted garlic – positioned, of course, in a protective ring around the broccoli – has remained in the ground and my crop of red mustard and baby bok choi, while small, is perfectly formed.

It’s not looking so good on the broad bean front, despite a lavender and rose geranium mulch that makes the chook dome smell like a seniors’ underpants’ drawer.  I’d like to think a benevolent long-nosed bandicoot is squeezing in under the wire to snaffle the curl grubs amongst the asparagus crowns.  But I suspect that in reality I’m hosting rodents with keen insights into the politics of eco-nationalism.  “When you go in and take the beans, Rupert, make sure you leave a cone-shaped hole.  That way the marsupial-loving hippie will never dare leave rat poison out again.”  If only I owned an infra-red video camera with a motion sensor I might find out for sure – or at least collect some footage of hirsute visitors for that retro Ocker erotica.

 

Ecosystems of evil

Okay, I know there’s no such thing as evil ecosystems.  You create plenty, and things come.  Plenty of chicken food and regular eggs, you get nine teenaged brush turkeys, slouching around your backyard, eating anything that’s not nailed down.  Lots of grapes vines and your resident possums bite their way through the mesh exclusion bags and let in the fruit flies.  A yard littered with the sulphurous fermented droppings of a cocos palm (not to mention the ordure of those brush turkeys), you get loads and loads of flies.

I’ve had a red hot go at taking an aesthetic approach to the flies, with their sparkling metallic blue and golden armour and crazy eyes.  I’ve tried to think about them as simply part of the cycle of life, but I am starting to stare pointedly at my watch, waiting for the arrival of the cavalry, a wheeling flock of insectivorous SBBs (small brown birds) that will weave through the undergrowth and snatch the pests from the air without breaking formation.  I want one of those neat and tidy ecosystems, the ones where the annoying insects become a food source for endangered and good-looking avian visitors.

But no – desite my native shrubs and the absence of a horde of noisy miners, our place is rich in  bombastic generalists and SBBs are thin on the ground.  Your kookaburra – good for tidying up your left over sausages. Your cockies will make short work of the peach crop.  But both of them bloody useless at disposing of flies.  The garden skinks have been a disappointment as well.  Allegedly they are avid carnivores, and flies are a favourite treat, and we’ve got more Lampropholis guichenoti in the backyard than we have five cent pieces rattling around in the bottom of the washing machine.  But they, too, have failed to come to the party.  Once again, Gaia appears to be napping on the job.

While the Cocos palm absolutely and definitively a weed (I like the nuggets of invective in the Grow Me Instead Brochure – “a blot on the landscape” “can give the appearance of a garden planted with telegraph poles”) my hatred for this vermin-attracting plant was masked for a while by a sense of gratitude.  After all, it did save the house and possibly the family from being crushed under a giant gum tree.

I was at work one day when RB called.  “I don’t want to worry you but a tree’s just fallen on the house”.

The SES was summoned: a marvellous mob of guys and gals with chainsaws who belayed themselves to the wonky car port and swarmed over the roof of the house, making short if noisy work of the tree.  The big gum had lost its grip on the ground and fallen sideways towards our verandah.  Fortunately a forked branch wedged itself across the Queen palm, holding the eucalyptus suspended just a smidgen above the roof. The sum of the damage: one branch lightly brushed a gutter and gave it a bit of a bend.

So, thanks for that, Queen palm (and, needless to say, the SES. You are legends.).  We’re grateful for the structural integrity of our roofline.

But if you think it’s going to stop us chopping you down, you couldn’t be more wrong. The possums might view your fruit as ideal picnic food but you’re a hazard for the flying foxes.  It’s a worry when you rely for 30% of your diet on something that gives you acid reflux, damages your teeth, chokes you and leads you to stumble around on the garden being mauled by suburban dogs.  Even Maccas isn’t that bad.  That’s an evil ecosystem if ever there was one.

And that’s leaving aside the trip hazard for someone as poorly coordinated and lazy with the garden broom as I am.  So unless I hear about a recipe for cocos palm wine before I afford a tree surgeon, Cocos palm, you’re cactus!

Jailbreak!

Cucumbers will go to desperate lengths to flee an attack-flock of brush turkeys, eh?

So is it better to die fighting than live in chains?  I’m not sure where my zucchini would stand on this one.

I’ve managed to keep the plants alive under an ancient perforated veggie net, held up by a rusty drum stand and contorted steel reinforcing wire.  Shyla the Australorp sneaks through to lay the odd egg but so far the brush turkeys haven’t spotted an entry-point.  Which is lucky, because if they made it in, there’s no way they would ever find their way out again.  I’d arrive in the garden one morning to find a turkey skeleton splayed out underneath the enormous hole these leaves are bursting through.

The bees don’t seem to have found the great big holes in the netting either.  Or perhaps the local pollinators suffer from claustrophobia.  I’ve seen loads of male flowers but the little golden zucchinis just seem to wither on the vine.  I’m trying to figure out if it’s (a) the plant aborting seedless, non-fertilised fruit (b) blossom end rot, thanks to insufficient calcium (c) rampant powdery mildew, caused by constrained circumstances (d) despair induced by a life Inside or (e) all of the above.

It hasn’t been a good year for jam making, either.  Here’s the breba crop which was looking so lovely mid-winter. Not really worth setting aside a day in the kitchen for preserving this one.  On the right, “dried figs”, but not as we know them.  A few hot days saved me the cost of a dehydrator, but I’m not sure gastronomy is the winner here.

And a sad discovery this morning –  the lone survivor of my bumper crop of coyly fleshy persimmon flowers ripened, unattended, and was demolished overnight, probably by a young possum taking a leisurely midnight stroll from his summer house above the air conditioner in the granny flat.  Only a few days back I was thinking if might be time to wrap the precious persimmon in one of the net exclusion bags sitting neatly folded on the bench in the toolshed.

Zero tolerance, it seems, is the only solution.  Imprisoning the chickens is mean,  imprisoning the possums and the brush turkeys illegal.  Whereas imprisoning vegetables, pollination issues aside, seems to work quite well.

Small scale vegetable prisons seem to do the business for seedlings and your slender or ground hugging plants, but now I have the frame of an aged trampoline at my disposal, I’m thinking big. And I’ve started looking at the superannuated chook tractor with a new eye.

Yes, it has traditionally been Andy Ninja’s lofty sleeping quarters, but with a bit of dusting off, what a fine brush turkey exclusion zone it would make.  Perhaps, Andy, it’s time you reconsidered the virtues of Palm Beach, the vernacular modernist architectural masterpiece I painstakingly made you and your feathered friends a year ago, now sadly abandoned by every damn chicken in the flock.  Even the brush turkeys don’t try to sleep there.

Now there’s an idea: if the new improved carceral complex with its walk-in prisons doesn’t protect my veggies from assaults by poultry, maybe I should start planting them in the chook house.