Meet the Royals

Spoonbill looking back good portrait 2 wideTo be honest, I’m a republican more than a monarchist, but over the weekend I met one set of royals I have some time for: Royal Spoonbills.  They carry off the ceremonial garb beautifully without raiding the public purse for grog or helicopter rides, and their landed estates are mostly mud, swamps and reed beds, as opposed to, say 20 million acres of Britain’s finest arable land.

Royal Spoonbills are not uncommon birds – their conservation status is secure across much of Australia, and they can be found not just in rivers and coastal mudflats but  also in temporary inland waterways during times of flood, wading through shallow water, feeling for fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects with their vibration-detecting spoon-shaped beaks. They’ve also made it to New Zealand, where their numbers seem to be increasing.

But I’ve only seen them on two occasions in my weekly outings on the Hawkesbury, at the same time – early morning an hour or two after low tide- and in the same spot, in the mangroves near the shambling boatyards in Mooney Mooney.  It’s place with a splendid outlook but it won’t be appearing on the front cover of Vogue’s Marina and Oysterfarm magazine.  Unless they’re doing a special spread on “2017’s best retro refits for your partially sunken houseboat”

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White bellied sea eagle at dawn over Spectacle Island

The perpetually roar from the freeway, the piles of maritime junk and even the unchained dog wandering round the quayside didn’t seem to bother the herons, the pelicans or the spoonbills.  The tidal mudflats fringing Mooney Mooney and the nature reserve at Spectacle Island  across the way must make for good pickings, and the stands of mangroves by the boatyard a safe place to nest, over the water.

I’m pretty sure this is a regular hang-out for them.  Spoonbills living near the coast are sedentary and often use the same nests from year to year.  My failure to spot them over the intervening period is, I suspect, more to do with cluelessness about the best tide time to catch them, rather than a sign they wander around a lot.

Like darters, they breed in colonies with other waterbirds.  The first time I saw this group (or to use the proper collective noun, bowl) of spoonbills, in September last year, they were in the company of another wader I’ve rarely seen on the Hawkesbury, an egret. And this time, as well as the ubiquitous white-faced herons feeding en-masse on the mud flats at dawn and then later in the shallows, there were a flock of the much maligned white ibises – or “bin chickens” as urban Australian call them disparagingly – hunting in amongst the mangroves down the way.

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Apparently this is a male pelican (in breeding colours) chatting up a likely female!

I read that juvenile spoon bills have even been spotted grooming other species of waterbirds.  Shortsighted?  Or just very very friendly?

This time there was no sign of the spoonbills’ breeding plumage, a 20cm long crest of feathers on the back of the necks of both males and female (although the crest on female, like their legs and beak, is apparently shorter than the males’).  October to April is said to be the breeding season, so I must have caught them, last time, just before they paired up and started thinking about the next generation.  It’s probably lucky I didn’t catch them any later in the year, since it seems they’re very sensitive to disturbance when they’re on the nest.

Birds do seem to be more chilled around a photographer gliding along in a canoe than someone stumbling in the undergrowth with a camera.  It is pleasing to have this observation, made on the water over the past three years, confirmed by a recent paper, entertainingly called “Up the Creek with a Paddle”.  According to its authors, Hayley Glover, Patrick-Jean Guay and Michael Weston, the FID (flight-initiation-disturbance) distance of royal spoonbills is 23 metres if you are in a canoe, versus 55 metres if you’re on foot.  Mind you, driving up to birds in your car is also scientifically vindicated way of getting (slightly) closer to them before they make a break for it, but unless you want your SUV bobbing in the water next to the Mooney Mooney houseboat, perhaps not such a good idea in this instance.

Guay, Glover and Weston, having presumably spent quite some time running loudly (with a tape measure) through the reeds towards a range of species and then ramming them (carefully and scientifically) with canoes, recommend a “set back” from waterbirds for boaties of about 90 metres*. Which is a long way, even if you have a good zoom on your camera.  But I think, at least for the next few months, I’ll give the spoonbills a wide berth and let them raise their babies in peace.

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Spectacle Island mudflats at dawn

References

Glover, Hayley K., Guay, Patrick-Jean and Weston, Michael A.  (2015) “Up the creek with a paddle; avian flight distances from canoes versus walkers” Wetlands Ecological Management,  23:775–778

Guay, Patrick-Jean; McLeod, Emily M; Taysom, Alice J and Weston, Michael A. Are vehicles ‘mobile bird hides’?: A test of the hypothesis that ‘cars cause less disturbance’. The Victorian Naturalist, Vol. 131, No. 4, Aug 2014

McLeod EM, Guay P-J, Taysom AJ, Robinson RW, Weston MA (2013) “Buses, cars, bicycles and walkers: the influence of the type of human transport on the flight responses of waterbirds”. PLoS ONE 8:e82008

Mo, Matthew (2016) An apparent case of interspecific allopreening by a Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia. Australian Zoologist: 2016, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 214-216.

  • Glover, Guay and Weston are undoubtedly bird lovers and did their research with the greatest sensitivity and care.  I just always find it funny / slightly disturbing to read about the things animal researchers sometimes do to expand the range of human knowledge.  Most poignant I’ve read in recent times: releasing migrating songbirds into a planetarium and allowing them to try to navigate by the stars…

 

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Perhaps not a beautiful bird but certainly eye catching!

Mother-of-millions takes to the waves

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You know a weed is a baddie when it will grow without dirt and entirely surrounded by salt water.  The Mother of Dragons inspires GoT fans and baby names but Mother-of-Millions – the stowaway on this attractively decrepit boat moored off Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury – inspires a deep and abiding hatred in bush regenerators, whose job is to try to get rid of weedy garden escapes like this one.

Mother-of-millions – a native of Madagascar – was imported to Australia in the 1950s as a drought tolerant garden plant.  It’s now a restricted invasive plant in Queensland, and can’t be given away, sold or released into the environment.  Here in coastal NSW and the northwest slopes and plains, it’s a declared noxious weed which means landowners (or in this case boat-owners) have a legal requirement to control it.  Like two-thirds of Australia’s noxious weeds, it’s a garden plant that got away.

To add to its charm, mother-of-millions (aka bryophyllum delagoense) is also toxic to humans, pets and livestock.  If animals eat enough of it (5 kilos for an adult cow) they quickly die with heart failure.  If they just have a snack, they’ll get bloody diahorrea, drool saliva, dribble urine and then die of heart failure.  Fortunately cattle are probably safe from this particular crop of bryophyllum.  Unless they are bovines with boats, or like a good swim.

You can pull mother-of-millions out by hand but it is, apparently, a soul destroying job.  The plant can reproduce from tiny seeds, dispersed both by wind and water – I’ve certainly seen colonies in bushland by Berowra Creek.  I hate to think how far and wide the seeds from this estuarine Typhoid Mary have spread.  The seeds remain dormant in the soil for ages, so getting rid of mother-of-millions is not a one-time-only job.  Like its toxic relative bryophyllum pinnate – the evocatively named resurrection plant – little plantlets growing on the leaves can also detach as you’re weeding.   Any tiny fragment of leaf can generate a new infestation.  You can spray it with herbicide, leave it in a black plastic bag to die, or hope for a visit from the (also introduced) South African Citrus Thrip which burrows through the leaves’ waxy coating to lay eggs on its flesh.  But none of this horticultural horror show works as well as setting it on fire.

We all have a biosecurity duty, of course: “any person… who knows (or ought to know) of any biosecurity risk, has a duty to ensure the risk is prevented, eliminated or minimised, so far as is reasonably practicable”.  And as a responsible gardener and card-carrying greenie, I take those duties seriously.  However I’m not sure the owner of this rickety vessel would embrace the idea of a passing kayaker with a molotov cocktail torching his boat, for all its mother of infestations.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

A confluence of critters

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Another sunrise, another paddle through a flooded river valley.  At Port Stephens the wide Karuah River meets the Myall as it meanders south, just behind the coastal dunes.

And where the water flowing from the network of wetlands and lagoons that is Myall Lakes joins the estuary, in a river delta protected from the destructive power of the Pacific waves, there’s Corrie Island.

A spot so fabulous for cautious amateur photographers in small and ancient boats, I circumnavigated it at the crack of dawn not once but twice over the silly season.  I may have been so exhausted I wept all over my Christmas crackers but it was worth it.

Just down the river from the RAMSAR protected wetlands at Myall Lakes, migratory birds that breed in the far north spend the arctic winters hanging out here.  I saw red knots (heads up: not very red in the non-breeding season) and grey tailed tattlers, far eastern curlews and bar tailed godwits.  In fact, I was treated to a bold dispay of the very barred tail of the bar tailed godwit, that tail that make the longest uninterrupted migration flight of any bird’s behind.

The eastern ospreys, in my previous experience elusive canopy lurkers, proved so indifferent to human proximity that I actually got bored with taking photos of them posing in the beautiful dawn light, and starting trying to snap the LBBs in the beachside brush, while the ospreys observed my inadequate efforts with golden eyes.

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A pair of eastern osprey?  The females are larger.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, here come the dolphins.

The famous pod of Port Stephens dolphins – well, the easterly, sociable estuarine pod, one of two quite distinct groups that lives in the harbour – swung by to check me out.  I stopped still in the swell, watching them case the beach. At one point the still water by the boat upwelled and the tip of a bottle nose appeared above the surface for just a second or two a couple of metres off the bow.

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Enter a caption

A couple of mornings later, I was back, having rashly promised my birdwatching brother dolphins, ospreys and eagles.  No need for a refund: they arrived one after another, right on cue.

And in between boat trips, it wasn’t just overeating and board games either.  There was also watching the local bird life overeating.

A baby sitella not quite sure how to handle the festive gift of a caterpillar…

And an Australian hobby enjoying Christmas dinner with us, swooping in to a branch above our holiday rental for some yuletide disembowelling.

I think we’ll be back.

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Sunday afternoon service at the Church of the Double Bladed Paddle

7 degrees at daybreak and good company the evening before: no chance of making it out for dawn this weekend.  So it was the afternoon service for me in the Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle.  Down the end of our street, the Hawkesbury in the golden hour.

Beautiful cirrus sky and skyline

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A seaplane was parked out front of the ritzy Berowra Waters Restaurant, a few devotees of fine dining lingering over white linen, but otherwise the river was quiet.  Weekenders emptied of their winter visitors, off home to find socks and check homework.  Some stirrings in the sandy creek bed – stingrays? – but no fishermen and hardly a fish.

Some sun worshippers were receiving the blessing of the last rays on the southern shores of Calabash Bay.

And then, a true glimpse of the sacred.  The sacred kingfisher, that is.  I’d suspected they might be found around here, even in the winter.  There was that green flash out of the corner of my eye as I scrambled over the rocks onto Bar Island, and the briefest of glimpses, framed by mangrove leaves, my camera hopelessly buried, one morning in Bujwa Bay.

But this glorious creature showed no inclination to move from his place in the sun, calmly accepting the adoration of passing paddlers.

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Sacred kingfisher

But even a sacred kingfisher can be profane.  I’m reverently gazing, barely taking a breath, and the big guy takes the opportunity to have a lightning fast chunder.  There’s a  familiar doggo look on his face as he sits there on his sunlit stick recovering.

But you expect veneration anyway, right, mate?  And you’ll get it too.

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Last winter in Calabash Bay…

Delta bravo!

Kylies from the headland 2011

Kylie’s Beach in Crowdy Bay National Park

It’s lucky that travelling in reverse is just as easy as going forwards in Egg, my decrepit wooden kayak (currently held together with duct tape), because lately my paddles seem to be taking me back in time.  Back to old haunts and old holiday snaps, but also really really far back into the geological past.

When I took this photo of beautiful Kylie’s Beach in Crowdy Bay National Park in 2011, for instance, I wasn’t thinking “My, what a fine example of a barrier dune system in a wave dominated estuary!”

And  this snap from North Brother Mountain, taken on the same trip five years ago, demonstrates that I wasn’t paying enough attention to geomorphology at the time.  It’s not a bad shot of the 100,000 year old Pleistocene sand barriers that protect Watson Taylor Lake from the crashing waves of the Pacific.  But, in retrospect, I should have given the picturesque tree on the right the flick, and made sure I squeezed in a view of the mouth of the Camden Haven River.

Because, for the New South Wales anyway, this is a pretty special place.  As you can see in the pic below by a more geologically literate photographer, enfolded in the lake is a classic river delta – a rare sight in this part of the world.  It’s a mini-Mississippi, sloughing off its sediment as it flows into stiller waters, leaving muddy banks along the way and a cluster of little islands at river’s end.

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Watson Taylor Lake.  Bias, Gene. watsontaylorlake.jpg Pics4learning July 2004. 9 May 2016 <http://pics.tech4learning.com>.

Sad to say, I didn’t notice all this deposition and composition as I paddled down Camden Haven Inlet at dawn, skimming over the seagrass and the sand. Even when I got stuck in the mud – sorry, fluvial sediment – right in the middle of the lake. At high tide.  Next to a bunch of knee deep swans.  Sometimes I reckon I’m not the sharpest knife in the knifeblock.

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Black swans smirking while I try to get afloat after running aground in the middle of the lake

It was only back at camp at Kylie’s, over a first reviving brew-up, when I stumbled on Rod’s Northern Rivers Geology blog with its intriguing story of the missing coastal deltas of New South Wales that I figured out what I’d seen.

Thinking back, I realised I’d been somewhere very similar just a few weeks ago, in another one of the New South Wales’ magical coastal lagoons.  Where Dora Creek – home of freakish panda-snakes – empties into Lake Macquarie, the very same levees march, both sides of the river, far out into the open water.

Dora Creek doesn’t have mangrove topped islands at its mouth, like the Camden Haven. Perhaps their beginnings were washed away by the waves that scoot across five kilometres of open water to scare the hell out of unwary kayakers.  In the same way storms, waves and the East Australian Current sluice river sand and sediment out into the Pacific or up the coast, leaving barrier beaches in place of river deltas all along the Eastern seaboard.

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Island in the delta

But in the sheltered estuary of Watson Taylor Lake I got to enjoy all the rare pleasures of a river delta.  Mosquitoes, for instance.  More than I’ve encountered anywhere, even my backyard, locally famous for its blood buffet and chubby and contented microbats.  With the mozzies come the mozzie eaters.

I stopped to take pictures of the wood swallows, but in fact, this little beach, at the very end of the Camden Haven’s levees, had almost as many birds as it had bugs. Honey-eaters in an array of colours: brown, striped and yellow-faced. Noisy friarbirds, mobs of them, bursting from the casuarinas to wheel and chatter. Wagtails and fantails.  Crested terns chilling out away from the surf.  A drongo (I’m not being insulting – it’s a gorgeous bird).  Not to mention a special treat – the rarely sighted fungus-faced thornbill.

And, as I wended my way through the maze of islands with the help of the handy map in my Paddlers Guide to NSW, an unflappable young sea eagle, rising majestically above the cloud of biters.   It takes a genuine love of raptors to continue taking snaps while half a dozen mosquitos are sucking on your eyelids.

But as RB just reminded me, if Australia’s eastern coast is wanting for river deltas now, it’s not always been so.   It was an enormous braided river delta, like the Amazon or the Ganges that laid down the golden Hawkesbury sandstone, a couple of hundred metres thick, right across the Sydney Basin, 230 million years ago.

Perhaps this is an approach to marketing I can put to the NSW Tourist Board. “Volcanos!  Dangerous megafauna! Epic braided river deltas! Go back far enough in time, and New South Wales has it all!!”

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Reflections of North Brother Mountain on my way back to the put in at Camden Inlet

More adventures on New South Wales’ coastal lagoons

Geomorphology and dawn reflections on a midwinter lagoon at Myall and Narrabeen Lakes

A paddle across scary Lake Macquarie to see the snake-pandas of Dora Creek

Encounters with eagles on Budgewoi Lake

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Moonlit night on Kylie’s Beach

What do you get if you cross a snake with a panda?

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The geometric art on the Australasian darter’s back

Things I learned from last weekend’s paddle from Lake Macquarie’s Shingle Splitters’ Point to Dora Creek:

1. When kayaking on the largest permanent salt water lake in the southern hemisphere, always remember fetch.  Fetch can defined as the distance of open water over which wave-creating winds blow. Where does the word “fetch” come from, I hear you ask?  From the cries of sinking kayakers as they disappear behind the white tops: “Fetch the emergency services!”

(Don’t be deceived by the apparent smoothness of the lake surface here – once the wind picked up I was too busy thinking about staying afloat to take any pictures)

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Heading across Lake Macquarie from Shingle Splitters’ Point

2. The lyrics of Kenny Rogers’ immortal song “The Gambler” don’t just apply to card sharks, but also amateur bird photographers.  “You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table.  There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done”.

Because the few seconds you spend checking to see if that wildly optimistic over-the-shoulder shot caught the hunting osprey mid-dive, will be ones in which the hungry raptor wheels around and splashes down again, right next to your boat.  And flies off before you can get the lens cap off your camera.

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Departing osprey

3. While adult Australasian darters are the most sinuously elegant of birds, poetry in snake-like motion, their offspring are actively disturbing.

What is it about these baby darters?  They’re very very fluffy.  Like a gorgeous soft baby panda.  A delightfully fluffy decapitated panda with the head of a snake. A sweet duo of snake-panda in a nest white-washed with guano. And they didn’t think much of me either.

In South America, they’ve found are darters in the fossil record that weighed 17 kilos – more than eight times as heavy as these not-insubstantial characters.  Just imagine how unnerving it would be in a kayak under that humungous reptilian chick when it let fly.

There’s no danger of modern darters – anhinga to give them their formal name – vanishing like their massive forebears. Like humans, darters like deep, still water not choked with vegetation, as long as there are overhanging trees to nest and perch on.  And they don’t mind introduced fish like carp and perch, so they’re doing better than birds that prefer marshy wetlands or are fussier about their diet.

A few weeks back, my brother and I watched with a fine male hunting from the shore of Lake Macquarie in the golden light of the late afternoon.  Even after the bird vanished below, we could follow its progress by the tiny fry that leapt from the water.  The sinuous head reappeared moments later, a fish impaled on its beak.  It took him a few goes, but finally he managed to flick it into the air and gulp it down.

I’ve seen plenty of snake birds, as they’re sometimes called, over the last couple of years as I’ve paddled around the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury and the rivers and lagoons along the Central Coast.  Familiarity hasn’t dulled my enthusiasm for them – the males geometric abstracts, the females russet in the sun, their elegant necks holding poses as striking and absurd as those of modern dancers.  But I’ve never seen the young ones before.

Darters breed erratically, it seems, whenever and wherever conditions are good.  They will fly long distances – up to 2000 ks in the non-breeding season – and will nest inland when floodwaters linger.  Maybe the stretch of Dora Creek where I saw them is a regular breeding spot.  In one fecund tree I saw two empty nests, along with two brim full of snake-pandas and guano.   Or perhaps the vacant real estate belonged to other waterbirds, since darters seem to like to nest in company.  Down the river, egrets, cormorants and partly-fledged juveniles were hanging out on a branch together, not far from this perturbed looking male with his runaway egg.

One way or another, the younger chicks seem to prefer intimacy to solitude, finding comfort, as they crouched in their absurdly flimsy nest, in the softness of their siblings’ breasts and the predatory encircling of each others’ snakey necks.

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Juvenile Australasian darters snuggled together in what remains of their nest