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!

Persistent twitching in Weed Central

This is my argument for an active commute:

My view about halfway through my morning commute from deepest suburbia. Beats the back of the car in front, doesn’t it?  Okay, except if it’s this car:

Cornish witches' vehicle small crop.jpg

As soon as we’ve had breakfast, fed the chickens and wasted a small but irreplaceable part of our lives looking for a missing shoe,  there’s the walk via school to the train station.  It’s a twenty five minute rail journey – just long enough to get depressed by the newspaper – and then the last three k on foot from Epping Station to Macquarie Uni.  I’m ashamed to say it took me several years to figure out that the cash I save on therapy by hoofing that last leg well and truly pays for the expended foot-leather.

I’ll admit, it’s a pleasant, if hilly walk, down leafy suburban streets and across the bridge at Terry’s Creek, a tributary of the Lane Cove River.  In fact, over time, I’ve come to feel rather attached to this spectacularly weed infested rivulet – I’m tempted to say it’s not Terry’s, it’s mine.

I think it would be fair to describe this waterway as a colourful year-long festival of invasive and noxious species, as you can see above. And I haven’t even included decorative photos of the willows, the trad or the waving walls of bamboo that line the way.  Terry’s Creek is so densely hemmed in and overhung by broad leafed privet that walking down the path towards Brown’s Waterhole feels like stepping into a suburban remake of Apocalypse Now.

Danger high voltage square

Danger! High voltage!

What with the perpetual roar of Epping Road and welcoming ambience of the nearby electricity substation, your first thought wouldn’t be “valuable wildlife sanctuary”.  But in the 10 minutes I spend each morning and afternoon walking through through this part of Pembroke Park, a 500 metre strip of weeds and scrub, I’ve seen more small birds than I’ve seen over six years in beautiful Berowra, surrounded by national parks and with the freshest air in town.

Firetails flying off horizontal crop

The superb blue wrens, willie wagtails, red-browed finches and eastern spine bills are regulars.  My photographic evidence of the yellow thornbills and silver eyes consist of a sequence of butt-shots and blurry silhouettes – my white-browed scrubwren is only marginally better.  I’ve often been tempted to hunker down for an hour or two with a view to improving my collection of snaps but somehow I don’t think it would play well if I failed to rock up to my own lectures because I was busy with a long-lens camera behind a bush.

So there’s no proof I ever saw that startled pair of white-headed pigeons and or an eastern whipbird, the only one I’ve ever actually eyeballed. I suspect I snuck up on it, gallumphing footfalls obscured by traffic.  However, a few weeks back, I was dead chuffed to snap a very distant dollar bird having a rest in the overhead powerlines.

But according to a habitat survey from a few years back, there’s still loads of locals I haven’t seen.  Pardelotes!!  Powerful owls!! Someone bring the smelling salts!

Firetails alert plus wren crop closer

I’m not quite sure why this is such a good spot for LBBs (and LRBBs – little red and brown birds, LBBBs – little blue and brown birds, LYBBs etcetcetc). There’s the creek of course, and the lantana and the privet berries, and the tangle of bamboos and morning glories to hide in – weedy or not, the kind of dense multilayered cover that small birds need to survive, as this beautifully specific guide by the Habitat network points out.

There’s also plenty of native grasses, vines and trees, some quite recently planted, many pleasingly photogenic but also lots of the kind of spiky unglamorous bushes that are favoured by smaller birds as hide-outs –  kunzea ambigua, for instance.  This part of Pembroke Park, scrubby and not at all fun to bushbash through, is part of a line of green spaces stretching north to Lane Cove National ParkSmall birds need such “stepping stones” – contiguous patches of cover – to flourish.

The wrens and finches seem to particularly enjoy the grassy area a wee bit back from the main road, even during recent months when guys in high viz outfits driving tiny diggers would regularly park up around there and talk seriously about sewage pipes.  I suspect the more knowledgeable would call it an ecotone – an area where a number of different habitat types meet (… main road, suburban grass deserts, bush, privet rainforest, bike path…)

Equally interesting is what I don’t see in this little patch of scrub and noxious weeds.  I’ve spotted a wattlebird or two, but the mynahs and the currawongs seem to prefer the closely shaved lawns and unlovely topiary of adjacent suburbia only a few hundred yards away.

It’s lucky, probably, that the water dragons don’t share my landscaping snobbery.  They seem equally happy basking on the buffalo grass by the kerb, nestling under the hateful row of aloe plants, or zipping into the hinterland of privet, ehrharta and abandoned tyres.  I guess a suburban lizard’s gotta do what a suburban lizard’s gotta do.

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.

Timber!

We’ve had a mob of at least fifteen yellow tailed black cockatoos hanging around in the last few days, mewing like strangled cats and being chased around by magpies and (I think) even noisy minors.  We get the yellow tails quite often around these parts, especially in the winter-time, thanks to the large and sickly but apparently tasty radiata pines that loom over our place.

The rule in Hornsby Shire is you can cut down a tree that’s within three metres of the foundations of your house.  If only there was some special by-law where the council chops down the tree for you for free if you can’t slip a paperback book between a towering pine and your bathroom.  One of these days I’ll be communing with nature and the nearest treebole will swell just that tiny bit further and burst straight through into the shower cubicle. That fresh piney smell with not a cent spent on disinfectant.

It’s been very very very windy in Sydney lately, and quite a few people have been unfortunate enough to experience that piney odour, quickly followed by plenty of refreshing indoor rain. We’ve been pretty lucky, but we’ve spent a lot of time staring anxiously out the window at various ominously swaying monumental specimens.  When I lived in Brisbane I used to be a bit judgey about the lawn to tree ratio in most peoples’ yards.  But if cyclones start creeping their way down the coast I may have to reconsider.

Yellow tailed black cockatoos are doing pretty well on the east coast, including urban areas, no doubt thanks to their penchant for pines.  But apparently they often struggle to find nesting sites, preferring hollows in trees a century or more old.  They seem to like our senescent radiatas, and spend time perched high on the various dead branches voguing.  I hope, when we finally save enough shekels to pull down the extensive array of dangerous trees in our yard, we still see them.

Bats about tamarillos

This time last year, a raid on my tamarillo crop had me pondering on possums.   What spidie sense tells the resident marsupials to gobble up your perfectly-ripe figs and grapes the very night before you plan to harvest them?  Are they tri-chromatic mutants like we humans, with gerry-rigged colour vision just good enough to grab a ripe mango before the visually well-endowed parrot gets it first? Or do they sniff out your glorious organic harvest in defiance of their typical mammalian red-green colour blindness?

But this year I’ve been mostly thinking about bats.

I’ve had a bumper crop this year off my quick growing and beautiful tamarillo tree, though not quite the 20 kilos that others brag about. So I’ve not been too miffed to find some of the ripe fruit scattered on the ground, flesh neatly scooped out, or to spot a few gnawed items left dangling on the tree.  All the other members in my household are either under ten or Scottish, and consequently I have no human competition for weird fruits of any kind.  It would seem churlish not to share with the local critters.

So who are my fellow tamarillo lovers?  I suspect the grey-faced flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus), the most common “macrobats” in this part of New South Wales.  While I haven’t eyeballed a single flying fox at our place, I’ve heard them playing cricket with the toxic fruits of the cocos palms for weeks.  Soon after lights out, there’s a sequence of companionable shrieks, rustles and thumps, and the palms start raining seeds onto the roof.

One of the many reasons cocos palms are a dangerous pleasure for flying foxes is that the fallen fruit lures them down where they can be chewed up and spat out by the local dogs.  Every morning for the last month or so I’ve found a little piece of installation art on a stump near the cocos palm – a few half-eaten fruit arranged with an eye to the design possibilities of the log’s in-house fungus.  I thought this was a convenient possum picnic spot, but I’m wondering if it’s a safe haven for bats who are obviously unaware that our house is guarded not by dogs but by night-blind attack chickens.

Our tamarillo tree (“Matimba”, as our eight year old has named her) is just beneath the hateful-but-expensive-to-remove cocos palm, in a jumble of shade-tolerating subtropical plants – galangal, ginger, bananas, naranjilla.  My kind of (sub)urban density.

Flying foxes are opportunists. They don’t just eat eucalyptus nectar, lillypilly fruits and mangrove leaves but take what they can find, and are willing to fly a long way to find it.  The closest bat “camps” to our place are in Gordon, Warriewood or Avalon – twenty kilometres or away or more.  Having come all that distance for a feed, only a bat-masochist who relishes the guts-ache produced by cocos fruits would turn up its nose at the delightful passionfruit-meets-apricot flavoured snack down below.

Unlike possums with their dud colour vision, megabats seem to be spoiled for choice when it comes to tracking down a ripe tamarillo.  When our mammalian common ancestor was hiding in a burrow and sneaking around in the dark to avoid veloceraptors, being able to see all the colours of the rainbow was less critical than decent night-sight.  Despite a largely nocturnal existence, fruitbats however have evolved the ability to see not just short wavelength but also medium and long wavelength light – and, like birds, can even see in ultraviolet, perhaps to spot flowers and fruits at dusk, at dawn and in bright moonlight.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that my surviving tamarillos were hiding underneath the banana and the monstera leaves, invisible to fruit bats cruising past above.  But flying foxes also have a pretty good sense of smell, so after the mysterious overnight disappearance of my first kiwifruit (and my mulberries, and my persimmons, and my grapes…) I don’t think I’ll chance it.

They may share colour vision with us primates and may even share some of our sexual peccadillos, but unless megabats evolve opposable thumbs and can open my back door, they’re not getting any more of my harvest this year.

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?