Wildlife reboot: birds 2.0

Another January, and another trip to Ganguddy, on the western site of Wollemi National Park.  Same marvellous geology, same refreshing dam water, same hot weather.

But some things were different this year.  After the stupendously dry winter, the eucalypt forest was parched, the undergrowth sparse and the leptospermum flowers of last year’s visit few and far between.  We found a patch of sphagnum moss perched in a bowl of sandstone boulders so dry it crunched underfoot.

A “green” satin bowerbird panting in the heat

We spotted plenty of lizards, and the diggers were out in force – lyrebirds wandering through the camp as they tried to scratching their way down to moisture and a wombat turning up to twerk on a picnic bench.  But up in “kingfisher alley”, just before the Cudgegong River disappears into the reed beds, there were fewer blue and green flashes by the water.

Around the camp site, the bowerbirds and treecreepers panted in the heat.  Apart from the ubiquitous reed warblers, there seemed fewer birds altogether.  No sign of the friarbird teenagers of last year, and even the baby swamp hens seemed thin on the ground.

You have to wonder what it takes to change ecosystems irrevocably.  How many dry winters before the old inhabitants decide living and breeding here is just too tricky?  And who would move in to fill their place?

Back at Berowra after the trip, there are changes in the garden too… surprising ones.

We knew we’d be losing the sparrowhawks soon enough, but the family has dispersed in an unexpected orderThe adults disappeared off the scene weeks ago, and by the time we made it home with our ridiculously overloaded vehicle and small and ancient fleet of boats, the siblings had parted too.  There’s just one young’un now.  He seems lonely.

There’s a constant plaintive calling from the trees out back, that seems to intensify when he has prey on hand.  I’m not quite sure if he’s warning his imaginary sibling off or calling him to come and share a meal.

And that’s not the only shift in the soundscape around here.  The sparrowhawks have cut a swathe through the bird population on the premises.  Baby brushturkey numbers have fallen from previous plague proportions, noisy miners are few and far between and the “house” birds of yesteryear – red and little wattlebirds – are now just occasional visitors.

But as the numbers of resident raptors has dropped, a new set of critters have settled in.  Lewin’s honeyeaters which we’ve only seen once or twice in the backyard over the last seven years, have made our backyard their new home.  And we also appear to have acquired some brown thornbills, a raptor snack food if ever there was one.  And the local eastern spinebills, another tasty morsel for a sparrowhawk, are spending more time around here too.

The only explanation I have for the change of personnel is that the hawks have bumped the notoriously territorial wattlebirds, leaving the field open for new arrivals.

I’m pretty happy to have a new set of birds in the garden.  My dream scenario, I have to admit, would be to order up some songbirds that are a bit easier on the eye.  My birdwatching brother puts Lewin’s in a honeyeater “bin taxon” of pretty similar and drab looking birds it’s hardly worth distinguishing between.  Cruel, perhaps, but fairly accurate.

So, why not some new holland honeyeaters, for instance – gorgeous looking locals.  Or (still, my beating heart!) what about some pardelotes?  Just one or two?

On the other hand, it’s possible that all the vibrantly coloured small birds in the neighbourhood have been made into multicoloured meals over the past three months by our family of raptors.  After all, there’s got to be some evolutionary reason for all those SBBs*.

*note: this is a throwaway remark absolutely unsupported by any science.

 

Previous posts about Ganguddy

A bit about Ganguddy’s history and geology – and a little Tim Low on the side

Snakes versus whining teenagers – last year at Ganguddy

 

More on our sparrowhawk summer

Death and sibling rivalry

The new generation of sparrowhawks emerges from the nest…

Baby brush turkeys versus nestling sparrowhawks… the battle of the backyard baby birds

The collared sparrowhawks return to our backyard… or are they brown goshawks?

A first glimpse of the sparrowhawks… and a beautiful white goshawk visits the washing line

 

Further reading

Stephen Garnett, Donald Franklin, Glenn Ehmke, Jeremy VanDerWal, Lauren Hodgson, Chris Pavey, April Reside, Justin Welbergen, Stuart Butchart, Genevieve Perkins and Stephen Williams (2013) Climate change adaptation strategies for Australian birds: Final Report, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility

Office of Environment and Heritage, Premier’s Department (2011) New South Wales Climate Impact Profile Technical Report: Potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity

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!

Death & sibling rivalry

Both birds eyes crop better again

The sibling sparrowhawks in their favourite tree… in my backyard!

It’s happened. Our babies, only three weeks or so out of the nest, are now out there in the big wide world, killing for themselves.  It brings a tear to your eye.

Distant with second bird flying crop

Keeping an eye on little brother or sister

But it’s not all cheery dismemberment:  there’s trouble in the nest.  The siblings to have an uneasy relationship.  I often see them perched on adjacent branches, and when they’re further apart they call out to each other every now and then.  And when one takes off to hunt, the other often falls into line, disappearing suddenly in a simultaneous dive.

But there’s also a certain amount of what might be described in human siblings as petty jealousy.

Yesterday I stood on a chair on the deck for an hour watching one of the sibs engage in  a comprehensive preening session / extended tai chi practice.  I wonder whether this serious self-care might have been the consequence of getting tangled up in one of the humungous org spiders webs stretched out between the trees to catch dragonflies, cicadas and, for the really ambitious arachnid, a passing sparrowhawk.

Preening headless profile tail out crop b&w

… and the headless sparrowhawk

I found the “revenge of the headless raptor” impressive, but his nestmate, looking on from a high branch, seemed rather unimpressed.

Distant top brother looking down b&w

Jeering at silly sibling

But both martial arts and sneering were set aside when the fledgling in the upper branches spotted something tasty beyond the neighbour’s yard.

Juvenile sparrowhawk wings raised square

I’m off…

There was a simultaneous stoop, and then a fracas in the jungle at the bottom of the garden.

White cheeked honeyeater crop

Dinner… a white cheeked honeyeater I prepared earlier

I don’t think the squawking was the work of dinner – an unfortunate white-cheeked honeyeater (rarely seen in our yard.  I wonder why…).  I reckon the ring-ding battle was between the sibs.

The winner landed, very conveniently for me, right next to my washing line, showing the total indifference to human proximity that seems to characterize most young raptors.

 

Sparrowhawk profile left with untouched prey

The lucky sibling with significantly less lucky white cheeked honeyeater

This diffidence did not extend to the presence of little brother or sister though.

Juvenile looking behind for rival

Keeping an eye out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juvenile with head turned mouth open amended

 

Just a few moments after the winner landed with their prize, there was another skirmish.  Luck favours the prepared, and this youngster was in position, with wings spread out protectively around the prey like a sort of meat umbrella. Ew, what a nasty image.

The hungry one had another go, and to be honest, I’m not really sure who was successful, since neither juvenile has any distinctive marks (like a scar over one eye or a dragon tattoo or anything) I am completely unable to tell them apart.

Juvenile plucking the prey

Settling in for a good plucking

Anyway, someone had a lovely meal of raw songbird and someone sat nearby looking on and feeling sorry for themselves.

Sibling watching

Luckless sibling looking on at the feast

Nevermind, buddy.  I’m sure there’s be some tiny, tasty, rather slow birds on the menu for you sometime soon.

The backstory of the serial killers in our backyard…

The new generation of sparrowhawks emerges from the nest…

Baby brush turkeys versus nestling sparrowhawks… the battle of the backyard baby birds

The collared sparrowhawks return to our backyard… or are they brown goshawks?

A first glimpse of the sparrowhawks… and a beautiful white goshawk visits the washing line

Battle of the baby birds

There’s a festival of death going on in our neighbourhood at the moment.

Several times a day, amongst the robotic clicks of the bower birds and the squawks of the wattlebirds, there’s an insistent high pitched chittering call, often accompanied by the din of freaked out noisy miners.  I’m not 100% sure of its ethological or evolutionary significance, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a signal for me to drop everything and dart up our drive with my camera.  One of the resident pair of collared sparrowhawks – probably the male – has caught some small clueless bird and is perched in our neighbour’s radiata pine steadily eviscerating it.

He rips off the feathers and flings away less tasty bits (check out the beak mid-air above) all the while, often with his mouth full, calling out “Dinner’s up!” to his mate.

For the last few weeks she’s been spending much of her time in a the nest at the very top of another decrepit pine tree in the yard of next house along the way.  Sometimes he flies up to the nest with tasty chunks of flayed bird flesh in his claws, but I’ve also seen her fly in to the designated “disembowling” perch to join him a few times.  Occasionally, she seems to sneak away to do a little light hunting herself.  Risky, though, leaving the nest unattended.

There’s the pied currawong I saw hopping surreptitiously through the branches, warily inching towards the nest, until it was chased off by the indignant parents as it was virtually peeping over the side.  And the pair of cacophonous channel billed cuckoos I caught flapping around the neighbour’s garden a few weeks ago – apparently they sometimes parasitise collared sparrowhawk nests.

But I will be deeply unimpressed if the chicks that come out of that nest are bloody channel billed cuckoos, for all my secret admiration of those giant hornbill beaks and strapping crucifix silhouettes.

Because the sparrowhawks seem to have rid our garden of the plague of baby brush turkeys.

A whipbird seems to have taken up residence this spring.  Needless to say, I don’t have a photograph despite being nearly eye to eye with the noisy bugger once or twice.  So, tiptoeing round my backyard trying to catch a clear shot, I heard a scrabbling in the leaf litter.  “Ah, a baby brushturkey” I thought sagely.

And then it struck me… I haven’t seen a single baby turkey in our backyard this year.  Not one!  Last year, they were sleeping on top of the predator proof cage or standing outside in the daytime, gazing longingly at our flock of little baby chooks.  The year before one wandered into our pocketsized laundry and spent eight hours pacing the two foot long windowsill, failing to notice and thus escape through through the wide open door.  But this year… nada.

Collared sparrowhawks (unlike their lookalikes brown goshawks – so similar that it’s altogether possible they could be our resident raptors) catch most of their prey in flight, bursting out of their lurking places in the foliage to grab little birds on the wing.  But the baby brush turkeys that previously haunted our place do fly, right from the day they dig themselves out of their hatching place in their father’s mound of decomposing leaf litter, and start their life of unnaturally early independence.

So maybe the sparrowhawks have been catching them on those very first short flights from mound to chicken yard.

I don’t hate brush turkeys, but I do hate a having dozen brush turkeys hanging out in my backyard, sexually assaulting my chickens, nicking their food and, given half the chance, eating their eggs.  So the idea of generations of sparrowhawks breeding happily in the neighbour’s trees and keeping the local population to manageable levels is extremely appealing.

I’m starting to wonder if there’s a connection between the familiar sound of chainsaws and the plague populations of brush turkeys in Brisbane and the northern suburbs of Sydney over the last few years.  No dingoes, fewer foxes foxes thanks to baiting, and nowhere much for the local raptors to nest in suburbia these days, the tallest trees victims of fears about bushfires and death-dealing or at least car-damaging falling branches.

But today my endless blurry photos of the neighbourhood raptor nest brought good news: what seems to be a creamy ball of fluff snuggling up to its mum in the distant collection of sticks that is the sparrowhawk’s nest.  Bring on the next generation of brush turkey assassins!

Welcome back, beautiful stranger

Sparrowhawk square crop old

It shows a certain lack of character and imagination to be keen on raptors, but I can’t help it.  I love them anyway.  Even the whistling kites and white-bellied sea eagles I clock every single weekend out in my boat on the Hawkesbury give me enough of a thrill to  clog up my computer’s hard drive with a thousand pictures of them in every conceivable posture and mood.

So two years ago, when I caught this beauty in my backyard, I was beside myself with excitement.  It’s a collared sparrowhawk, one of three species of Acciper found in Australia, along with the very similar brown goshawk and the hauntingly beautiful grey goshawk.  So beautiful that on my one and only encounter with one (whilst pegging out the washing) my camera fainted and so in its barely conscious state was only capable of producing a groggy quasi-mystical image of the world’s only pure white raptor.

I know our beautiful visitor in 2015 was a sparrowhawk and not the very similar looking brown goshawk, having been schooled on the key differences.  Brown goshawks are slightly grumpier and more threatening looking, with a beetle brow and chunkier legs.  Both species, it is said, waggle their tail on landing, but the sparrowhawk does it a tiny bit more rapidly.  As my brother, a much more expert bird watcher than I am, points out, this has to be the most arcane and pointless advice for distinguishing two very similar looking birds.  “Sorry lads, the video of your tail waggling was slightly out of focus.  Can you just circle round and land side by side on that branch again?”

Collared sparrowhawks also have another feature – the absurdly long middle toe of the collared sparrowhawk, used to grip its prey while it systematically plucks them (starting at the vent) and then devours them.  It’s moments like these you’re grateful not to be a sparrow or a silvereye, isn’t it?

But is that enough to tell the difference between a goshawk and a sparrowhawk?  Both apparently have these long middle toes – the sparrowhawks’ toes are just longer and more delicate.

There are other differences too.  Goshawks have a rounded tail, and a smaller eye.  So is it welcome back stranger… or good to see you, lifer?

Both the collared sparrowhawk and the brown goshawk are widespread through their range in Australia and New Guinea – they can be found in arid areas as well as woodlands and suburbia.  They are one of the few raptors that will perch and hunt in gardens, as I saw today.  The fact that they’re partial to a snack on introduced birds like sparrows, starlings and newly hatched chickens (gulp!) may be one reason why they’re considered “of least concern” to people who worry about the current mass extinction event.

But still, they’re not exactly common. Numbers declined from the 1940s through to the 1980s thanks to DDT, although the effect of this insecticide – thinning the shells of eggs – seems to have been less dramatic for them than peregrines and some other raptors.  Loss of habitat for the small birds that sparrowhawks like to eat and competition from pied currawongs that will (somewhat implausibly to my mind) attack both adults and chicks are other threats.

It’s been a long couple of years since that last wonderful visit.

But over the last few days there’s been a new sound from the decrepit pine trees that stand (or should I say lean) between our place and our neighbours’.  At first I thought it was a whiny juvenile wattlebird begging for a feed – the call was a kind of feeble high pitched kik-kik-kik-kik.  And then I saw a creamy coloured bird with wide striped wings and a blunt head, superficially like the “green” satin bowerbirds that hang around here all year round scrounging off my chilli bushes and demolishing my bean plants.

But there’s something distinct and decisive about the way raptors fly.  I eventually got a good look as the bird chilled out in the trees, waiting to ambush passing little passerines, which they catch on the wing.  I’m really hoping they have a taste for noisy miners.

good sideways distant crop wide

These really are very low-key birds.  “Often lives unnoticed in mature-treed suburban parks and gardens” one ornithology site comments about sparrowhawks… “easily overlooked”.  Having spent quite a bit of today staring slightly hopelessly into the naked branches for an immobile, unconcerned and well camoflaged bird of prey I can confirm this.   “Trusting and approachable“, the Peregrine Trust’s turn of phrase for a collared sparrowhawk, seems like a slightly embarrassing description for a predator.

Sparrowhawk profile crop tighter still

A gorgeous profile on display.  One very chilled out bird.

The grumpy reputation of Brown Goshawk is apparently not just a consequence of their Resting Bitch Face.  They’re also apparently quite aggro around the nest.  True to form, sparrowhawks are said to be calmer.

Perhaps this parental behaviour will be the solution to my ID problem.  There’s a nest made of sticks high in the neighbour’s pine tree, a spot I saw the sparrowhawk returning to several times today.  If there’s anything better than grown up raptors in your backyard, it’s a clutch of baby raptors.

nest rop

Could this be a sparrowhawk nest?

Stingray Bay: lost and found

After years of denial, I have finally accepted that I’m a map hoarder.

Though my other half has long been known by the moniker “Map Man”, it’s me that whiles my evenings away at the Lands and Property Information’s map shop, and I’m the one who takes our topographic maps on most of their little outings on the water, snug inside their “Hercules” double zip-lock plastic bags.  There have been some unfortunate errors – we have a few maps of dull little patches of agricultural wasteland with a bit of barely navigable waterway in one corner.  But despite the ridiculously small slices of this wide brown land that can fit on any given 1:25000 map, they really are quite useful things.

Although possibly less useful – without a compass – in a white out.

Egg going into the mist

Setting out from Appletree Bay

Fog and mist are picturesque, right?  “In…mist, the picturesque artist can celebrate obscurity, lack of clarity, indistinctness, that which is veiled… the picturesque tourist is prepared to spend days in fog” (Murray, 2004, 874).  Or possibly, not so much prepared to spend days there as trapped there for indefinitely unable to find their way out, as you can see from the baroque twists and turns captured on my phone’s GPS on my last jaunt to Stingray Bay. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to fish it out of its dry bag and consult it for directions!

I often laugh at the giant directional signs you see on the waters edge of the Hawkebury – they really look like they belong by a freeway, not a pristine riverside – but if it hadn’t been for a bloody great sign looming up through the fog, I might still have been floating aimlessly around Cowan Creek days later.

I was quite keen, back in April, leaving the boat ramp at Appletree Bay on a high and rising tide, to check out Stingray Bay. It’s a decent step – about sixteen ks, slightly more if you decide to do baffled pirouettes mid-stream – but not an epic yomp.  A trip up Smith’s Creek is a good one to do when the tide rising steadily rather than on the turn, since you can go with the flow on at least half the journey, and ride the current on last leg home.

I’d had a pit stop there at Stingray Bay before, on my way further up Smith’s Creek.  The Hawkesbury in these parts is a steep-sided sandstone gorge, flooded these last six thousand years with bottle green water, so this is a rare spot where you can get out of a canoe to stretch your legs.  You will most likely standing in knee deep water but that’s not so bad, unless you happen to step on the eponymous sting rays.  We worry more about sharks, but apparently after blue bottles, stingrays – most likely round these parts the common stingaree – cause the most injuries to beachgoers in Sydney.

They’re not aggressive animals.  Richard Wylie, a marine biologist from Monash University, described them as “wonderfully inquisitive and gentle marine animals“.  Stingrays give birth to live young and in Yolgnu communities in the far north, stingrays – specifically the mangrove whipray or Gawangalkmirri – were seen as devoted parents, the sort we humans should aspire to be.  And while I feel might fret about an encounter with a ray, indigenous communities have long seen them not as a threat but as an important and delicious food source.

But if you do happen to frighten stingrays – for instance, stomping on them while they’re hiding in the sand – you can get a sting from the toxin-bearing barb on their tail.  Apparently it hurts like hell. Immersing your feet in hot water denatures the toxin and takes the pain away, apparently, although a lot of people need pieces of barb removed from their wound and sometimes stitches and antibiotics too.

Seagrass and sand

Seagrass and sand in Stingray Bay

I’ve never stepped on a ray, though I have seen them, just once, in the shallows of Calabash Bay in Berowra Creek.  But just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there.  If you walk around in shallow estuarine waters, it’s best to have footwear and shuffle rather than stride.  Fortunately, my bum is usually so numb by the time I stumble out of my kayak that shuffling around stirring up the sand with my protective booties is not so much safety measure as a physical necessity.

I paddled straight over the sting-ray shallows, though, back in April, past yachts barely stirring in the morning mist and moody cormorants staring out at the post-apocalyptic blankness.

Even at half tide, you can skim safely above the seagrass and on up the creek.  There’s a deep swimming hole, and above it, two tiny waterfalls tumbling into a bowl of rocks.  Despite my morbid fear of breaking my precious and ancient wooden boat, I even managed to clamber out onto the rocks for a comfort break and a look around.  It’s a really lovely spot – a great place to come for a picnic and a splash around in warmer weather.

And not a bad place to hang out if you’re a baby fish either.  There may not have been any stingrays, but there were certainly plenty of little fishlings when I visited again, in very different weather, last weekend.  So very many fishies, swirling away from the paddle like living iron filings toyed with by slightly sadistic magnet… yet so surprisingly difficult for a bumbling amateur to photograph.

Stingray Bay certainly looks different (if possibly less picturesque) when you can actually see it.

Buoy with plain blue background

And the journey there and back again’s not too hard on the eyes either.  Except when you’re paddling straight into the morning sun.

The cormorants, the escarpment and the sun-touched tree tops might have been perfectly visible and, thanks to months with virtually no rain, the clear green water might have offered a vertiginous view of sandstone slabs sliding into the depths, but not all the mysteries of Cowan Creek were revealed to me on my paddle back to Apple Tree Bay.

Was it that persistent dive-bombing tern that plunked so heavily into the water behind me, leaving only a ripple by the time I spun around to see?  Did some underwater creature make that line of bubbles I paddled through on the way past Waratah Bay?  Could it have been dolphins?  Or more worryingly, a bullshark?  Maybe it’s better not to know.

But not while you’re navigating!

Bobbin head sign

References

Emma Macevoy  (2004) “Picturesque” from Murray, Christopher ed  The Encyclopaedia of the Romantic Era 1760-1850, Vol 2, Taylor and Francis

Mother-of-millions takes to the waves

Mother of millions cabin close up crop small

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.

Mother of millions side and rope better cropped small