Poor lost souls

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There’s new sound in the garden just now.  A plaintive relentless cheeping.  But not the tiny piping tones of a naked, newly hatched chick.  No, it’s the muscular alto plea of the ginormous eastern koel chick to its diminutive red wattle bird parent.

And the wattlebirds are desperate.  I eyeballed the juvenile koel, lounging comfortably high in the canopy. Meanwhile its parent wheeled and fluttered in frenzied manner, perching here and pecking there, apparently driven to madness by the insatiable appetite of its parasitic offspring.

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No sooner was the mega-chick fed than it returned to its incessant harping, as if unloved and cruelly abandoned.

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As I crashed around trying to get a clear shot of the elusive ear-splitting koel, I saw, at the top of the very same tree, something I’d never seen here before, something genuinely sad and alone.

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A flying fox all by itself, a good twenty kilometres from the nearest bat camp way down the Pacific Highway at Gordon.

Flying foxes are very mobile, travelling up to 120 kilometres a night to feed.  We often hear them around our place on summer evenings, squealing and hurling fruit around.  During the year they migrate long distances following the peripatetic flowering seasons of eucalypts, melaleucas and rainforest trees, pollinating as they go.  Just like giant warm blooded bees, they carry pollen on their fur from one fragment of forest to another.  Flying foxes have been tracked moving as far as two thousand kilometres over the course of nine months and bat encampments have been described as more like railway stations or youth hostels than places of permanent residence.

But mega bats are sociable creatures and finding one on its own in the daytime like this is not a good sign.  I realised later I should have called the local WIRES group so someone with more expertise and a better head for heights than me could shin up its extremely tall tree to check it wasn’t injured by any of the usual suspects – barbed wire, open weave fruit netting or a dog bite.  But by the time I worked that out, it was the next morning, and the bat was gone – back to its digs in the local “Batpackers”, I hope.

I know some people feel about flying foxes the way I do about brush turkeys.  If you’re a fruit grower in NSW it is still possible to get a licence to shoot them to protect your orchards, although the mega bats actually prefer pollen and nectar as a food source – and  tightly secured, finely woven netting (one you can’t poke a finger through) protects crops better than a shotgun anyway.  In my backyard, the bats would be at the back of a very long queue for the ripe fruit anyway.  Ahead of me, of course, but behind the cockies and the possums for sure.

Deforestation means that there’s more conflict between flying foxes and humans these days, as the bats move into  the leafy suburbs where the fruiting and flowering plants are diverse and well watered.  They’re chatty critters with some “interesting” habits – urinating on themselves and then fanning their wings to cool down for one – which some people living nearby can find a hard to take (not to mention a couple of rare but deadly bat-borne diseases).

But the visibility of flying foxes in east coast Australian cities conceals the fact that (unlike brush turkeys) their numbers are in major decline.  One article suggests that at current rates, the grey headed flying fox, the type I found in my backyard, will be extinct by 2070.

The mega bats are particularly susceptible to high temperatures.  They start to “melt from the inside” in the words of a scientist, at just about the same temperature that is unsupportable for stingless bees, 43 degrees C.  A couple of years ago in Queensland,  45,000 megabats, mostly the tropical black flying fox, died in one day during a heat wave.  But high temperatures may just be the final straw when bats are short of food anyway.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been scores of baby grey-headed bats found dead in parks along the east coast.  Both habitat loss and the aftermath of an El Nino, according to researcher Peggy Eby, have led to a food shortage.

“The mothers are going through a difficult nutritional phase, and they’re reducing the amount of milk they’re producing and the young starve.  They hang on to the females for the first several weeks of life, when she flies from the roost at night, and they simply would lose the strength that they need to hold on.”

I’m not sure why this stray found its way to our yard.  I hope it wasn’t injured here.  We don’t have a dog or barbed wire and we use veggie nets to keeps the bowerbirds and the brush turkeys off the fig trees (or if we’re feeling cheap, old trampoline netting from the side of the road).  But we still haven’t raised the cash to chop down the nasty cocos palm that is so appealing and yet so dangerous to flying foxes.

I hope the neighbours’ pool gave was a spot for a cooling bellydip and the jungle at the bottom of the yard gave it somewhere to recoup, recalibrate its GPS and get ready to head back to its pals at base camp.  Lovely as it was to have the chance to take his photo, I hope we hear him but don’t see him again.

Snakes vs whining teenagers

 

Tiger snake curled face crop longThis is what people who hate camping think it’s all about, right?  I suspect spiders, high winds and rowdy neighbours also make that list.  Yep, a big tick next to them too – it’s all to play for when you camp in the summertime in Wollemi National Park.

But Ganguddy, or Dunn’s Swamp, to give its inaccurate and charmless non-indigenous name, was just as marvellous this January as it was when we first visited this time last year.

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Ganguddy in early dawn light

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View from the pagoda lookout

Yes, there were more reptiles – lethal and benign – but to balance it out, there was also less torrential rain.  At no point this year did it seem likely that the full set of adult campers, each clinging to a leg of the kitchen-gazebo, would take off and fly over the pagoda rock formations like a quartet of grubby Mary Poppinses.  It rained, but not inside any of the tents.  And the whining teenagers weren’t my delightful children but the feathered offspring of the camp ground locals.

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Juvenile noisy friarbird wants a snack

It seems a bit unfair for such giant children to be demanding food, although Gisela Kaplan in her fascinating book “Bird Minds” suggests some evolutionary advantages to having hungry teenagers hanging around.  Apparently adults noisy friarbirds only feed the young’uns for three weeks after fledging -hard to believe this galumphing one was so close to being a fluffster.

But you can see where all that food goes.  You reckon your adolescent’s feet are big?  What about junior purple swamphen‘s clodhoppers?

Unhygenic as it sounds, the drop dunny seemed to be a particularly popular spot for a snack.  The baby grey fantails spent a lot of time looking deliberately cute there in order to get a feed.  If you were still uncertain about the superiority of the earth toilet, this little guy is a clincher I reckon.

The white-browed scrubwren also enjoyed loitering out around the toilets.  I didn’t see any juveniles, but then this one looked so stern, perhaps they were there but just too nervous to beg for tucker.

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Grumpy looking white browed scrubwren

The suspiciously touselled looking eastern yellow robin – a juvenile perhaps – had worked out that the best place for tucker is definitely the barbecue.

I’m not sure if the adult reed warbler had gone into head down, bum up, to feed some chicks, or if it was just going to extreme lengths to avoid facing the long-lensed papperazzi.  I was rather pleased when after two years of trying I finally got a picture of one, without even having to visit the Rylstone Guns and Ammo for a flame thrower to thin out that pesky, snap obscuring habitat.

And, miracle of miracles, I found an azure kingfisher without ADD.  I reckon I can put away my paddle now – 18 months of kayaking have not been in vain.

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At last – a sluggish azure kingfisher

The invasive gambezi minnows that fill this reservoir – built in the 30s as a water supply for a concrete works – seem to be an optimal snack size for the kingfishers – I saw plenty of them, along with a randy musk duck, the ubiquitous Eurasian coots and a pair of Nankeen night herons that alighted, mockingly, in the trees opposite the campsite, just after it got a tiny bit too dark for a decent photograph.  But there was nothing larger – no whistling kites, for one.  Judging from the frustration level of the fisherman in our party and the track record of these mosquitofish of outcompeting native rivals, I suspect there weren’t many more substantial meals to be had (on the bright side, possibly thanks to the fish, there weren’t too many mosquitos making meals of us either).

With all these LBBs – and all the fast moving ones I didn’t get a decent shot of – busy flocks of brown thornbills high in the canopy, white-throated tree-creepers spiralling their way up the tea trees, the baffling grey strike-thrush, the white-eared honeyeaters darting around in the dew drenched dawn – I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the snake that sidled through the camp site or or the one slithered along the ironstone tops.  Let’s hope the top predators were more successful at catching the flighty little buggers* than I was.

Western country rocks

Rock formations near the dam

Sunrise over swallow rocks

Dawn over “Swallow rocks”

 

*Okay I know red-bellied blacks mostly eat frogs, which is why they were down by the reedbeds near the camp. But I bet they don’t object to the odd gormless yellow robin if it’s available.

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There’s more info about the history and geology of Ganguddy in my previous post from here: In other sandstone country

Sulphurous romance

While hanging out the washing today, I witnessed a moment of cockatoo romance: a touching break-up-and-make-up scene.

A gang of sulphur crested cockies was chilling in our neighbour’s backyard jungle, napping, preening and crunching the odd stick.  I watched for some minutes (rather pruriently, I admit, but I had the excuse of avoiding housework) as a couple engaged in some heavy-duty necking.  Chewing the feathers around each others’ eyes:  it doesn’t get more intimate than that.  Then it all went wrong – there was a sudden squawk, a bout of wrestling and irritable pecking, and one took off to sulk in a nearby tree.

The remaining bird released a bit of tension by ripping off some chunks of bark and partially eviscerating a few palm fronds.  Then after about quarter of an hour (there was more than one load of washing), the huffy one came back.  He (I’ll say he, for no reason in particular) initially flapped over to the far end of the branch.  With an air of studied nonchalance, by turns looking diffidently about and intently examining his perch, he inched slowly towards his flame. It all ended up in some rather sultry ear whispering and gnawing.  Most satisfactory.

I know sulphur crested cockatoos are so common that many people view them as pests.  Particularly people whose balustrades or window frames or grain crops they’ve ripped apart.

But there is something magical about the sight of the big mob at dusk, floating across the valley, screeching and wheeling as they prepare to roost for the night.  They alight in one tree for a moment and then, all together, lift their wings and move on.  Drifting over the steep wooded slopes, passing across the creek and turning back again, they stitch together the sunlit and the shady side of the gully.  In their map of this place, I’m guessing, the switchback road and the marina, firetrails and bridges and cliff faces, the river a thousand steps below, fall away.

Watching the domestic scenes today: parents, siblings and lovers dangling and swinging in the branches, inspecting and deconstructing the palm tree, muttering, exclaiming, fondling and fighting, it’s easy to see how people want to keep these clever, beautiful creatures as pets.  And apparently while they can survive for forty or maybe even eighty years in the wild, they can live to be over a hundred in captivity.  So there’s something to be said for it, I suppose.  I’m reminded of those enthusiasts for longevity who have discovered you can live longer by eating less.  A lot less.  An extended life in which to contemplate the absence of pleasure.  For instance, here’s Cocky Bennett, a Sydney legend who apparently lived to 120, the last 20 years nude, mumbling “one feather more and I’ll fly”.