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?