The shortest days and how to use them

The chickens let us know when midwinter’s come.  The fortnight after the winter solstice, no matter how bloody cold it is, the girls start serious egg-laying.  So even as you’re trying desperately to stash four different kinds of hot lemon pickle and a hundredweight of lemon marmalade, as you open the fridge, a dozen eggs roll out.

Lemon preserves cool closeup skinny

I went AWOL from the blog for the last six months, as the observant amongst you might have noticed.  The days just got shorter and shorter.  My garden kept growing and the Hawkesbury streamed uninterrupted to the sea, but time to write about these things just seemed impossible to find.  But now the days are lengthening (and I’ve finished my night classes), all that is going to change!

Eagle flyby long crop

White bellied sea eagle doing a fly-by of Gunyah Beach

The shortest day may have passed but it’s still pretty nippy at 5.30 in the morning when I get out of my lovely warm bed and drive off through the nautical twilight to put my kayak in the water.  When it’s 3 degrees and you have wet feet, the exact moment when the sun touches your frozen toes comes to be of critical importance.

I have a nifty little app on my phone, SunCalc, that shows just where the sun will appear over the horizon on any day of the year.  So I check the tide, and the wind, and then, on a winter morning, figure out where I’ll catch the very first light.  Putting in at Brooklyn and heading for open water is not a bad choice.

I’ve had some lovely paddles from Parsley Bay in the last year.  Quiet jaunts into Porto Bay, a shallow backwater frequented mostly by raptors and oyster fishermen…

Juv sea eagle long

Juvenile white bellied sea eagle

And, on a day with hardly any wind, I braved it across to West Head, stopping off at four beaches – Gunyah on the way and Eleanor on the way back; and on the other side of Cowan Creek, Little Pittwater with its tumbling stream and littoral rainforest and Hungry Beach and its a pair of sunbaking sea eagles.

Terns in front of Lion Island cropped closer small

Terns fishing off Gunyah Beach

I was almost bold enough that time to cross the invisible line – “limit of flatwater sailing” – that passes between Juno Point and Flint and Steel Beach, but bottled it in the end, just peeking round the corner towards Pittwater and the open Pacific beyond.

Clouds over the sea long and skinny

And last weekend, coldest it’s been on a Sydney morning in a couple of decades, I set out for Refuge Bay, where the pleasure craft rocked quietly, their skippers sleeping.  But not the kids, slipping away in their dinghies to fish and play under the waterfall on the beach.

And on journey there, what magic scenes!  The open waters of Broken Bay skimmed, concealed, curtained, framed, illuminated, by the fog.

Fishing boat and lion island

Fishermen and Lion Island

If there’s something to be said for the shortest days, it’s the long nights.  You can almost have a sleep-in and still get up before dawn.

Juno head mist dark sky

Fly in, fly out

The first asparagus is up.  The greenflies are sucking the life out of the few broad beans plants that survived the gnashers of the garden’s winter visitors.  The bowerbirds are brutalising the new growth on the liquidambar, in a jaunty colourised style that makes me think we have a flock of Calamity Janes in the canopy.  Spring is here!

But what about the spring birds?  I haven’t heard the first koel of the season, but the channel billed cuckoos have squawked their way into our dreams.  And in the last week, a new rolling trill in the trees: the olive backed orioles have returned.  We rarely see them around here, but according to Michael Moorcroft’s “Birds of Australia” as “common”.  The emergent twitcher in me sighs.

I met a charming French skin specialist once, and asked her why she moved to Sydney.  “We have melanoma in France of course” she said “But really, if you are interested in skin cancer, Australia is the place to be”.

On the other hand, if you long for the sight of that first feathered visitor arriving from a epic transcontinental journey, you’re better off in the Northern hemisphere.  All the ocean in the southern half of the globe, moderating seasonal temperatures; barriers of forest and ocean; a less icy past; uncertain rainfall and an often arid climate; and (somewhat unconvincingly) weirdly, lots of  “V” shaped continents; all reasons I’ve come across to explain why we have so few migrating birds around here (Someille et al 2013; Dingle 2008).

Back home, two thirds of my French oncologist’s local birdlife would be part time residents.  But in Sydney, it’s maybe one in five.  In the outback there are nomads, roaming around trying to find things to eat in an arid landscape, but there are hardly any regular migrants at all.

silver-eye-chestnut-4-crop-larger

Tasmanian silvereye mid-migration, Zosterops lateralis lateralis

What we do have lots of in Australia are “partial migrants”.  Somewhere between a third and a half of bird species have some sedentary individuals while others take off in the colder weather (Chan, 2001).  Most silvereyes, for instance, stay put, but many Tassie birds – chunky numbers with chestnut sides, like the one above – fly across the Bass Strait in winter, possibly island-hopping as they make their way to Victoria, NSW and Queensland.  On my way to work the other day, I was was befuddled by the strange appearance of a crew of migrants – on their way home, perhaps – milling around happily in the company a bunch of plain-brand silvereyes.

Hard working bird lovers have been tagging silvereyes for 30 years (Chan, 2001), so we know what these guys are up to.  But in general, partial migrants are tricky customers – figuring which of the identical birds you see are interstate visitor and which are locals is mostly pretty hard to do.

After reading a bit about research on bird internal navigation systems, I’m starting to think this kind of deviousness may be payback.

One set of experiments involved keeping captive birds and observing what corner of their cage they batter themselves against, driven by migration-restlessness or Zugunruhe (one of those cool German words for which there is no English equivalent).  Researchers messed with the heads of these captive birds, using mirrors to shift the apparent direction of the sun so they could see what new quadrant of their cage they try to escape through.  Other experiments placed caged birds inside a magnetic coil to warp their sense of direction – a research activity truly worth of evil genius from X-Men. Although I do find the thought of a bunch of 1940s songbirds flooding into a planetarium – another early experiment – quite charming (Burton 1992).

 

dawn-moon-best-tight-crop

If you do see a trans-continental migrant in Australia, it will probably be a shorebird.  About 35 beach loving species migrate here (Dingle, 2008).  On a paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek last weekend, I was really happy to see one of them: an eastern curlew, its absurdly long beak mucky after joyously feasting on the mud-flat crabs off Spectacle Island.  Flying from Siberia will take it out of you. Between the bloody photographers, the houseboats and the jet skiiers, it’s not hard to see why these guys are classed as critically endangered around here.

 

 

References

Burton, Robert (1992) Bird Migration, London: Aurum Press

Chan, Ken (2001) “Partial migration in Australian landbirds: a review” Emu, 2001, 101, 281–292

Dingle, Hugh (2008) “Bird migration in the southern hemisphere:
a review comparing continents” Emu  (108), 341-59

Somveille M, Manica A, Butchart SHM, Rodrigues ASL (2013) Mapping Global Diversity Patterns for Migratory Birds. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70907. doi:10.1371/
journal.pone.0070907

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?

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Backyard gold

The silver river

Deerubbin – the Hawkesbury proper- doesn’t normally look like this: not when I’m there, anyway.  I’m used to the view out our back window: the valley full of fog, the hilltops islands in a foamy sea.

Hazy foggy view from deck

Mist over Sam’s Creek

You know the fog will be spilling across the highway as you swoop down from the ridgeline before dawn.  But when you reach the freeway bridge that stretches half a mile across the  Hawkesbury, the wind picks up and the mist is gone.

But not this Sunday.  The cloud was down and the river was silver.

Pixillated tinnie in distance

Fisherman in the mist

I’ve wrestled with this mist before.

I can say with confidence it’s not freezing fog, hail fog or upslope fog.  For all the salt in the air, it’s not coastal fog – moisture condensing over cool water – not with sea temps a balmy 24 degrees.  And is it valley fog? Damp cool air might slide down the hills in the night… but Sunday’s haze followed midnight downpours not clear skies.

Having thought about it rationally and analytically, I can only conclude that this was magical fog, sent to stop me paddling all way to the secret heart of this part of the Hawkesbury, Marramarra Creek.

Mist over over mangrove saplings for horizontal shorter

Big Bay

I’ve nearly made it there before, as far as Big Bay, with its great lagoon full of mangroves and the riverbed chocabloc with critters. No houses on the ridgelines, no way in except by water.  In the 1830s a surveyor’s wife didn’t think much of it: “these dreary solitudes might serve for the abode of a misanthrope so utterly are they secluded from all approach and so entirely destitute of all comfort”.  But I’m longing to paddle all the way to the source of the creek, through country with an indigenous past even I can read.

But this time it wasn’t just the fog and the march of time that stopped me.  The birds were in on it too, perching photogenically on the wayside oyster poles, feathery sirens luring me away from my upriver odyssey.

So I’ll have to come back to Marramarra.  Maybe next time I’ll bring our full flotilla of mismatched craft and camping gear and stay overnight halfway up the creek in the old orange orchard.  The noisy kids should to  scare away the temptations of the sirens… and, of course, the silvery silence.   So perhaps I’ll follow Odysseus and bring some ear plugs too!

Related posts – other paddles on the Hawkesbury from Deerubbin Reserve

Two sad islands, three whistling kites: a paddle from Deerubbin to Bar Island

Of gods and mapreaders: a trip up Kimmerikong Creek in Muogamarra National Park

A bridge fetishist paddles to Brooklyn: paddles up Mullet Creek and around Dangar Island

Broken Bay at low ebb: a short jaunt around the oyster beds near Spectacle Island at the end of Mooney Mooney Creek.

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.

 

How to murder your monster shrubbery

The short answer is “slowly and with feeling”.  But let’s not rush into anything.

I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of by-law in Hornsby Shire against putting your kids to bed with a recitation of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.  Something along the lines of the “Unsafe and age-inappropriate use of modernist poetry act of 1987”.  But when your eight year old requests read T.S.Eliot, what can you do?

 

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when if I say that T.S. seemed to be a teeny bit negative about ageing.  One can only speculate on how different this poem (and indeed his whole oeuvre) would be if Prufrock had focussed less on getting lucky with the sirens of the sea and more on pruning.

Because, let’s face it, gardening is an oldie’s game.  When, yet again, the annual spud harvest fits in a single soup bowl; when your carrots are absurdly abbreviated; when another fruitless year passes for the ungrateful kiwifruit vine, the middle aged gardener shrugs her shoulders and thinks “next year”.  The seasons tumbling past faster and faster just means a shorter delay before you have another go at germinating those ruby brusselsprouts.

Our Fraser Island creeper finally did its gaudy thing – flaunting great big, hot-pink clusters of flowers in the oddest place, not up where the growing fronds reach  towards the light but way, way down in the gloom underneath the rampant Sweetie kiwifruit vine.  It flowers on old wood.  What a fine turn of phrase!

The Tecomanthi hillii not alone in dragging its feet.  Here’s a wall of shame – some other plants that have taken their sweet time to do anything exciting at all.  At least the “Bower of Beauty” has finally decided to flower on our side of the fence, rather than, like it did last year, offering a display exclusively to he neighbours.

It seems fitting, then we’ve taken what might be politely described as a contemplative approach to the execution of the massive weeds that tower over our back garden.

Our broad-leafed privet rivals the great redwoods of North America.  We have a Japanese honeysuckle vine as gnarled and vigorous as a strangler fig, which scrambles through a hibiscus “bush” as tall as a two story building. If only the mystical growth potion that the erstwhile owners  poured on these doughty invasive plants would seep down the hill into my peaky looking zucchini plants.

I like to think incremental approach to weed-murder has some ecological justification.  Some weeds in some places – lantana, for instance – form a critical habitat, particularly for the smaller birds that have been disappearing from cities.  If you clear it without replacing it, the LBBs vanish too.

So over the last couple of years, as well as installing a spiky tangle of hakeas, callistomens, sorbs, grasses and vines in an out of the way corner of the yard, I’ve  been tracking down native fruit-bearing plants to replace the  tainted bounty of the privet and honeysuckle berries.  Purely in the interest of hungry birdlife, you understand.  Nothing to do with fetishistic plant-hoarding.

Daleys up in Maleny and The Good Karma Farmer in Newcastle are my bushtucker dealers.  In my experience, you can tell if it’s bushtucker because the critters get it before you.  Following this logic, I’ve put in lillypillies, native gardenia and Davidson’s plum, koda for the Lewin’s honey eaters and the brown cuckoo doves and blueberry ash for the wonga pigeons.  I’m fairly confident the birds won’t turn their noses up at the mulberries, the persimmons, my grapes, my persimmons and my cherries either, damn their eyes.

I’m still working on substitutes for the honeysuckle and the fine looking but weedy red trumpet vine we inherited from our house’s old occupants.   Along with the hibiscus, they’re a favourite of our regulars, the little wattlebirds, and the gorgeous eastern spinebill, an all too occasional visitor.

I’m slowly sliding the wonga wonga vines, the Bower of Beauty, the dusky coral peas and the guinea vines amongst the potato vines and the honeysuckle.  Lulling the evil invaders into a false sense of security before I strike… there will be time…

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

You see, Prufrock definitely has the makings of a gardener.  You may well murder and create after your hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, but don’t forget that cuppa tea*.

*Health and safety warning: this is a gardening blog, not a work of literary criticism.  No responsibility is taken for any adverse horticultural outcomes of incorrect readings of the Western literary canon.

Gymnastic bees, virgin fruit and the birds that ate spring

It’s the vernal equinox and out in the garden, the spring flowers are blooming.

It pleases me no end me to think that these little figlets are made up of hundreds of the most secretive of flowers, snuggled inside a hollow-ended stem.

As you can imagine, pollinating figs is an extreme sport.  It’s undertaken by the fig-wasp, which spends much of its 48 hours of life on a suicide mission for fig fertility.  The male wasps hatch, blind and wingless, gnaw their way to one of the as-yet-unborn females, mate with them (eww), chew them an escape tunnel (still not redeeming yourselves, guys) and then die without ever having experienced life outside their flowery prison.  The females emerge and flee, spreading pollen as they go, only to find and squeeze into a second syncope (the fig “fruit” to you and me) through a hole so tiny she rips her wings off in the process.  If she’s lucky she gets to lay her fertilised eggs amongst the miniscule flowers inside and promptly, you guessed it, dies.

It’s really quite a disturbing life-cycle.  It’s with some relief that I can say that my three fig trees – a White Adriatic, a White Genoa and a Brown Turkey – are, like most cultivated figs, sterile mutants.  That sounds bad, but it’s a walk in the park compared to the Gothic splatterfest of the caprifig’s lifecycle.

Figs are one of the very first plants to be cultivated by humans: they have been propagated by us since the Neolithic era, over eleven thousand years ago.  And the outcome of our long association with ficus carica is virgin birth.  Yep, that’s the meaning of parthenocarpy – the way that common cultivated figs produce fruit from female flowers unsullied by any male influence. Since their fruits are sterile, they rely on us to do the hard work of allowing them to reproduce. Bloody skivers.

Actually, humans are quite fond of producing such feckless fruits.  Bananas are a good example.  They’re sterile, thanks to their three sets of chromosones – just like those fast growing “triploid” Pacific Oysters I wrote about in my last post, reproducing thanks to genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters” that spring from the plant’s base.  Fig wasps and caprifigs have co-evolved – maybe in some weird cultural way, modern humans with their taste for large, fast growing and seedless fruit and our virgin orchards have done the same.

One way or another, people, myself included, seem to get a perverse kind of pleasure in frustrating plants’ attempts to have babies.

My broccoli, encircled by landcress that deals death to invading insects and safe inside the kids’ superannuated, net-enshrouded trampoline frame – has done really well this year.  Now the weather is warming up, however, it’s taking a real effort to thwart the reproductive desires of my brassicas.  Those tasty flower buds really really want to go the full distance and burst into bloom and it’s taking a serious commitment to broccoli-eating to cut them off at the pass.

I tried, but it’s too late for that for the rocket, the mizuna and the tatsoi – these spring flowers are in bloom, like it or not.

I’m happier about these vernal blooms: magnificently monochrome broad beans in all their line-print glory.

I was a bit worried about my broadies this year, incarcerated as they are beneath the chook dome, my first line of defence against the brush turkeys.  Would the pollinators be able to make it through the 1 cm square lattice of the dome’s aviary wire?  As I noodled around in the garden the other day I had my answer. A European bee hovered indecisively, making careful mental calculations or perhaps looking for a door handle.  Eventually, it seem to sigh and alighted briefly on a wire, adopting what can only be described as a pike position and plunging through for a perfect 10 entry.

It’s a bit early to say, but I think I can see a few tiny bean pods forming so I’m hoping that while I’ve been otherwise occupied we’ve been visited by other elite insect athletes up for the gymnastic challenge.

The local birds seem to be almost as ambivalent about the signs of spring as I am about my brassicas going to seed. The bowerbirds are doing their valiant best to rip all the buds off the liquidambar and the little wattlebirds have been paying excessive attention to the flowers on the chinese lantern.  They’re either defending them from insect attack or eating them – I’m not quite sure which.

I don’t think these red wattlebirds would be capable of doing any damage to the heavy duty flower of a gymea lily, even mob handed.  These monster blossoms are bird pollinated – the red colour scheme is a dead giveaway apparently.  I guess this is the honey eater equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Since you can roast and eat the roots and the young flower spikes it could even be supersized bush tucker for us humans too.

Enjoy the equinox: may all your spring flowers be excellent eating!