Black princes, redeyes and floury bakers

My brother the twitcher has taught me the secret of finding birds.  Tune into sound: let your mind move out from the place where you are standing, into the space above you and all around you and listen.

All this summer, I’ve been listening out for the sparrowhawks.  Even lying in bed or sitting on the sofa, we could hear them begging for food or squabbling with the local cockatoos.

But come mid December, white noise and static started interfering with Radio Sparrowhawk.  The cicadas had arrived.

This year’s a biggie for cicadas in Australia.  Over 350 species of cicada have been described here, though there could be many more – we’re a diversity hotspot for these charismatic insects.  And this summer, some of the biggest and noisiest species – the cherrynoses, the double drummers and the razorgrinders – have appeared en masse around Sydney.  After maybe five or six years of living metres underground sucking on the tree-sap, the cicada instars crawl out of the earth and shed their exoskeletons for a short and noisy month or so as adults.   It doesn’t happen every year.  2013 was a big year for cicadas in Sydney, and before that 2010.  And now it’s on again.

Black prince 1 closeup nice background

Black Prince on a casuarina tree by the edge of Berowra Creek

No-one knows quite what triggers the horde of insects.  In fact, no-one knows much about cicadas at all, despite their presence on every continent except Antarctica and their impossible to ignore, earsplitting calls.  That long and decidedly boring youth, and the uncertainty about when they’ll re-emerge, makes researching them tricky.  Imagine deciding to study the periodic cicadas of North America and then realising your three years as a PhD student would be over long before the seventeen years the critters spend underground was up?

An ex cicada thanks to the local orb spiders

One theory is that by appearing so infrequently and irregularly cicadas could avoid the predators – bird, bats, all sorts of mammals – keen to feast on the insect bounty.  Very weird recent work from the US suggests that numbers of predating bird species start to drop around twelve years after the last cicada boom.  Could it be that these devious insects are manipulating the beasts far higher up the food chain?

In some ways, despite its wealth of cicadas, Berowra is less interesting for researchers than bits of Sydney not surrounded by national parks.  Australia cities are unusual, it seems, in that they still have cicada species in the heart of suburbia.  Silver princesses and green grocers survive in quite urban areas on the east coast. A local researcher (plants by day, cicadas by night) Dr Nathan Emery has been trying to work out how these species have survived, and whether there are others that can cope with city life. He’s set up the Great Cicada Blitz, a citizen science project crowd-sourcing information about when and where various species of cicadas can be found.

I’ve had a great time over the last month wandering around recording the din in our neighbourhood and trying without a lot of success to spot the earbleedingly loud cicadas to add to the Blitz database.  The male cicadas’ strategy to collectively produce a chorus so loud it hurts the ears of birds works on humans too, even those with the advantage of being partially deaf already. Apparently even the males cicadas “switch off” the equivalent of their ears (their tympana) to save their own hearing.

Thanks to helpful tips from the experts as they confirm my dodgy IDs, I’m slowly learning how to identify the common species around these parts.  Nathan Emery’s nifty little book A Photo Guide to the Common Cicadas of the Sydney Region has been really handy too. It has a lovely introduction from (and is dedicated to) Dr Emery’s scientist dad who took him and his siblings out cicada spotting as kids – inspiration to continue tormenting my offspring with my nerdy passions.  And who wouldn’t be nerdy about cicadas – an animal whose wings has in-built nanostructures that literally rip bacteria apart…

Graphical abstract

Graphical abstract for Aaron Elbourne, Russell Crawford and Elena Ivanova’s 2017 article “Nano-structured antimicrobial surfaces: From nature to synthetic
analogues” Journal of Colloid and Interface Science 508 603-616.
Shouldn’t EVERYTHING have a graphical abstract?

I should also thank the popularity of the big liquidambar in our front yard with the local insects for the chance to improve my cicada identification skills.  Adult cicadas like to latch onto thin-barked natives, but if push comes to shove they will feed on introduced trees, and liquidambars seem to be a favourite, of our local population of redeyes at least, although I think I’ve also heard calls from local tibouchina and robinia trees, as well as the local Sydney red and blue gums.

Though some cicadas don’t seem to be too fussy about the trees they sup from, you have to worry for the next generation.  In the last year, 15,000 trees – 3% of the tree cover on private land in Hornsby Shire – disappeared, thanks to a rash of tower buildings replacing the old fibros with rambling jungly backyards that used to hug the railway line.  Next gen cicadas popping out about 2023 may find nothing taller than a cordyline to sing from and property developers taking over their traditional role local bloodsucker.

Rough barked tree with cicada shell bettersquare

An exoskeleton clinging to the bark of a tall tree in a local school

I’ve not seen any green grocers or yellow mondays or silver princesses around here.  There are double-drummers in the national parks down the road – they don’t do so well in back gardens, needing an expanse of acreage or bushland to survive.  And so far we’ve heard at least four species around our yard: razorgrinders, black princes, floury bakers and the locally ubiquitous redeyes.

One of a whole bunch of redeyes high up in a Sydney red gum raining down excess tree sap on me

How do I know the red eyes are one of the most common cicadas around these parts, even before I started collecting photos and audio?  Well, that’s the gossip from the local kids.

Cicadas weren’t a feature of my childhood, growing up by the River Murray in South Australia.  But they’re a big part of children’s lives around here.  Even the common names of the local species are courtesy of kids, which explains why they are named after colours or days of the week and not dead white European men as per normal service!

My younger daughter (Anonymous Bob as she wants to be known) gave me the low down on what Berowra kids know about cicadas:

“At school in the cicada season, when the teachers aren’t looking, people climb the trees to try to catch cicadas. They climb the big thick trees because that’s where you find them. The main cicada zone is the little mossy grove next to the library. We treat them like exotic pets and look after them, until they want to be free or they die.

Once, there was a little boy. An older boy gave him a cicada to look after – it was sort of like an adoption. But the little boy decided to let him go so he could be free.

Another time, a bunch of kindies robbed a guy of his cicada. It was freshly caught and it had one leg missing, so he was desperate to protect it. They wanted to call it Princess and he wanted to call it Jeffie. They threw a ball at it while it was clinging to his shirt. It nearly fell off and died. And then the kindies started chasing the guy saying “Princess! Princess!” and then they had an attempted robbery but then a teacher came.”

Jeffrey Princess

“It’s fun to look after the cicadas. They’re kinda cute. Most cicada collectors try to find other species because in our school the redeyes are the most common. We find what they eat and take care of them. The cicadas cling onto your clothes which makes them pretty portable pets.”

Red eye cicada

Red eye at our place

“A while ago we did a thing where we would prank the teacher with cicada shells.   At first it was just a joke and then it became a whole fiesta. It became a game and a compulsory activity. Not that the teacher said it was a compulsory activity, we just made it one.

Originally it was just seven cicada shells a day but it ended up with many many many shells from each person. We gathered cicada shells, and every day we would leave cicada shells around the classroom and she would have to find them.”

Many cicada shells

A very popular grapefruit tree in my neighbour’s garden

“We found the cicada shells everywhere – on plants, on trees, on everything. A few boys were the main gatherers. They did it at school, home, everywhere. They came in with huge plastic bags full: they were the main source of our cicada shells. Sometimes we used white out and sharpies to paint war paint onto the cicada shell to make them unique.

Cicada on key ring

Graphical abstract of cicada exoskeleton on teacher’s key ri

You know how cicada shells have a slit? We slipped that onto the teacher’s key ring and when she found it, she was like “Not again!”. We started making a joke that she was cursed by the demon of cicadas.

At the very end of the year a few of the boys laid the cicada shells in a big love heart on the carpet and put a huge pile of chocolates in the middle and wrote their names on a card with love to the teacher.”

 

Cicada love heart

The love for a teacher expressed in the language of cicadas

Maybe there’s another project to be done on cicadas – a children’s natural history of these rowdy, charismatic insects…

Do you have any stories of childhood exploits with cicadas, in Australia or further afield?  I’d love to hear them!

Russet trees & scarlet tails

Is that fall colour I see on the hillside as the mist parts over Calabash Bay?  Nope, wrong season, wrong continent.  It’s the golden-brown tips of the casuarina trees, the males that is, laden with pollen and catching the morning light.

For all their evocative latin label – named after their cassowary-like foliage – the casuarinas are a mournful kind of tree, I think.  The wind whistling through the wispy branchlets of the she-oaks takes me straight back to solitary times in childhood.  Even Wikipedia notes, rather poetically, how quiet it is in a she-oak forest, sound muffled by the blanket of fallen “needles”, in an understory where other things refuse to grow.

Not so quiet this morning, though.  Just as I was cursing my missed train, there was a “kraaaaak!” and a flash of red in the trees between the commuter car park and the RSL.  New guys in town (or new to me anyway): glossy black-cockatoos.

Two young fellas and an older female, I reckon – a typical little group for these birds, it seems, unlike the yellow and red tailed black-cockatoos that stay in bigger flocks.  The two lads flapped from tree to tree, red tails glowing in the sun, while mum (or cocky-cougar?) chilled out next to Berowra Car Care, having a good old preen.

Glossy black-cockatoos are fussy eaters.  The penny has dropped for yellow-tails that they need to diversify their eating habits and these days they’re doing okay, thanks to pine trees like the great big decrepit ones in our yard.  But these birds really only like the woody fruits of the allocasuarinas  – and turn their noses up at even some of those.  The black she-oak, casuarina littoralis, is a particular favourite and, now I’ve started to notice them in their winter finery, it seems there’s plenty of them around here.

But the black oaks don’t come back too well from big, hot fires.  And the glossy black cockies are competing with galahs, corellas, sulphur cresteds and mynahs – birds that don’t mind land being cleared and subdivided.  Humans knock down the big old trees, feral bees nick the nesting hollows and possums steal black-cockatoo eggs.  Perhaps it’s not surprising I haven’t seen these lovely birds before.

Or maybe they’ve been here all along, “inconspicuous and cryptic”, leaving a trail of half-chewed casuarina orts, just a red flash in the golden silence of the she-oak trees.

Backyard bounty

Okay, only metaphorically our backyard… but we got there on foot in less than ninety minutes, and that’s at child pace.  In my own garden, the cut the critters take makes me want to weep.  It’s a lot more fun watching the surplus of Waratah Bay feeding the locals.

A crab-eating goanna was a first for me.

Even a bunch of yelling kids couldn’t drive this white-faced heron from a great seafood buffet.

No pics of the circling white-bellied sea eagle, but you’ll be pleased to know, it too caught a fish.

Cloud inversions and sunsets: a year of backyard skies

Maps in bloom

Perhaps I’ve simply been oblivious before, but this year it seems the bush around Berowra is awash with flowers –  white posies crowning the Sydney red gums (Angophora costata) that now appear to be on every street corner, ridgetop and slope.

There’s something strange about this foam of blossom appearing across our familiar view, as if, while we weren’t looking, a stagehand unrolled a new backdrop to our lives.  I’ve become a tiny bit obsessed by capturing this new scene on camera. Here’s a small sample of my multiples.  Andy Warhol eat your heart out.

Closer to town, the jacarandas are also out.  I love the way this royal bloom redrafts the map of the suburbs, rerouting your eye from the usual lines of roads and railways and wires, to a new dot-to-dot of superbly laden trees.  The city shifts on its axis.  Or better, the city’s axis, the radial city itself, retreats behind a mist of purple flowers.
 .

Of course, this new cartography of living things is still a map of privilege, of the breathing space between people.  They don’t call affluent parts of town “the leafy suburbs” for nothing.

Creating and keeping green space gets more urgent as cities get hotterAn article in the Harvard Gazette reports research on the way inequality, heat and green space correlate.  “Heat” says Joyce Klein Rosenthal, who teaches in Harvard’s School of Design, “is an environmental stressor, unevenly distributed in places where there are less trees, less green space, and associated with poorer housing quality”.   “At every scale” she noted “income levels are associated with surface temperatures. Poorer neighborhoods are hotter; wealthier neighborhoods are cooler”

Street trees have magic carpets beneath them, not just lilac flowers, but shade.  And on a stifling day the breath of wind across a city park – old-school evaporative airconditioning – is almost as good as the breeze off the water.  Just now, the City of Sydney is trying to green streets and villages, beating the urban heat island effect by shading concrete, weaving plants into walls and sowing seeds on roofs.

But, that hasn’t stopped the chainsaws round here.  New regulations in NSW, created in the name of fire risk-management, let householders rip, at least on trees ten metres or less from their place (oddly, it seems that trees in the middle of spectacular views present the greatest fire hazard).  What an irony: climate change, worsened by tree-felling, makes the Australian weather hotter and extends the bushfire season.  We fear the urban forests, just as we need them the most.

After years of cultivating a back yard the size of a large picnic blanket (that’s to say, a picnic blanket made of concrete) every day I bless the growing things I see from my window.  I may feel differently one day when the view from my back deck is Sydney red gums topped with flame rather than flowers.  Let’s hope I don’t find out anytime soon.

The inconspicuous, the insignificant and the underwhelming

Sure, to the swanky author of a well-received volume on gardening it’s a throwaway line: “has insignificant flowers”, “flowers are inconspicuous”.  But how about some consideration for feelings, eh?  What’s wrong with “reserved”, “low profile”, “unpretentious”?

My 7 year old drew me aside the other day and whispered conspiratorially “At school I drew a picture of a plant’s bits!!!” In the light of this insight, which I really hope she didn’t share with her teacher, perhaps we could even go with “modest flowers”?

To be honest, I find persimmon flowers faintly perturbing when upended and exposed to the rude light of day.  Much better to let them shelter under their curtain of leaves.

I do, however, need to be rather forward with my demure custard apple flowers soon.  They may not look like much but there’s the smell of perfume in the air.  Time to wave my magical pollinating paintbrush and help create some atemoyan fecundity.  Or, given my pruning anxieties and the consequent fact that most of the new flowers are more than two and a half metres off the ground, perhaps it’s time to fall off a poorly located stepstool, crashing through branches, crushing multiple flowers and possibly poking myself in the eye with pollen-dusted painting gear on my way down.

Thankfully there’s no need to hand pollinate the midgen berries to get tasty little purple-and-white fruits.  Otherwise I’d have to get one of those three-haired brushes they use to paint a portraits on a grain of rice.

And then there’s the flowers that are not so much shy as downright recalcitrant.  On the left, a NSW Christmas bush down the road.  On the right, the unimpressive shade-dwelling specimen in our yard.

And another offender: Kunzea ambigua doing its thing elsewhere on the left and in our garden, not even making the effort to take a decent photograph.  Very poor form.

Thank goodness for institutional plantings.  Just because councils like to plant it on the median strip doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see the blue flax lily producing its, shall we say, somewhat coy flowers in the shade under the maple tree.  If your camera is close enough, even the teeniest flowers are significant. Could that be a metaphor for this blog? Or is it just a sales pitch for a macro lens?

Black wattle and a pile of rotting logs

We missed the October snowstorm in the Blue Mountains by a week, dammit.  But as we walked the historic (if annoyingly snow flake free) National Pass last weekend I suddenly realised why my callicoma serrata has been struggling in its spot right next to a humungous, thirsty pine tree.

Despite the lack of a 200 metre waterfall in our garden, our black wattle is finally enjoying life enough to flower. A rainy August probably helped, but I reckon our extreme torpor also played a role.  A few weeks back, our helpful neighbours stacked the severed remains of a casuarina tree on our side of the fence, right round the base of the callicoma.  It took us a while to move the logs into the woodshed and I suspect the callicoma enjoyed the hyper-mulch experience.

This unexpected flowering made me think again about hugelkultur – growing stuff in raised beds on top of a moisture-absorbing stack of rotting logs.  The idea has some appeal and it’s not just the fact that the word reminds me of delicious German pastries.  I’ve sometimes toyed with ad hoc terracing of the part of the garden into which storm water is unceremoniously decanted after big rain.  Since the yard is full of piles of wood, “hugelswales” (surely the name of a lime green chest of drawers in the IKEA children’s department) may be the way forward.

I admit, there’s a faintly faddish feel about the hugeltalk.  I’ve got a pretty good idea that eventually it will go the way of my superannuated chicken dome, parked up like a rusted out combi van at the bottom of the paddock, only used by weary, equally superannuated chickens.  But what the hell, may as well give this hippie thing a bit of a spin before we put her up on the blocks.