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?

Experiments with kiwifruit

Thanks to exhaustive if faintly intrusive matchmaking with a ladder and a paintbrush back in October, we have a bumper crop in the kiwi arbor.

Four years ago the northern wall of the kitchen was occupied by a dank lean-to, usable only for turning your bike into the kind of rust-bucket that can be safely left overnight at train stations.  But we don’t need these kinds of amenities.  If you leave your bike unlocked outside the pub in Berowra, it might get taken by a drunk on his wobbly way home, but if it does, the bartender will recognise the miscreant on the CCTV footage and leave a friendly message on the guy’s answering machine to return it in the morning.  Even the pelotons of MAMILS leave their featherlight carbon-fibre bikes untethered at the end-of-ride coffee shop.

great sky near Berowra for crop

Blue skies over Berowa

So, with no need for a bespoke bicycle corroding zone, we replaced the corrugated iron over the frame of the lean-to with couple of precociously fruitful Sweetie kiwifruit vines, a low chill variety from Daleys Fruits in Maleny.  Last year we had a handful of fruit that the possums seemed enjoy.  If they’re planning to eat the whole crop this year they’d better be hungry.

I’m feigning disinterest in what happens to my kiwi harvest but let’s be real – the last few years have turned me from a lentil-eating hippie into an antipodean Mr McGregor, the pointlessly enraged gardener who would love to turn Peter Rabbit and his fluffy little brothers and sisters into a delicious warming casserole.

Don’t get me wrong, while I do covet the infinitely soft possum-fur jumpers that vengeful New Zealanders knit from our invasive marsupials, I’m not spending my nights under the kiwi trellis with a gun in my hand.  That said, the rugby-league style gum shield I wear overnight to stop me grinding my teeth to dust (expensive, but since it doubles as a contraceptive, probably good value) does date from about the time I started trying to grow fruit in the backyard.

No, I’m taking a less brutal and more scientific approach to harvest-management.  I have a control – the fruit I’m leaving untouched on the vine.  And I have two intervention groups – there’s the kiwis I’ve picked early, hard as furry brown rocks, and left to ripen in the fruitbowl, and then there’s the bunches I’ve put into protective custody in mesh exclusion bags.

I maintain a cautious optimism that I will get to eat at at least some ripe fruit.  This upbeat attitude has nothing to do with early success.  While commercial kiwifruit are usually picked unripe and can be kept on ice for two months or more, so far my early harvest has withered slightly but maintained a mouth puckering acidity, as evidenced by our school holiday Ph testing activity.

I can’t seem to kick the habit of growing red cabbages, despite the fact that no one in the house, myself included, really wants to eat them.  They’re just so pretty!

Purple cabbage leaves wide crop

Red cabbage abstract

So apart from feeding the leaves to the cabbage white butterflies that my 9 year old keeps in her bedroom as “pets”, what else can you do with leafy brassicas too chewy for coleslaw?  Well, you can boil them up and use the purple cooking water as a very cool litmus test.

There’s nothing kids like more than squeezing out half the toothpaste tube, making potions out of bicarb, tomato sauce and milk, or filling every single glass in the kitchen with disgusting viscous liquids.  We even ended up with a boys v girls Ph contest – boys obviously preferring alkaline household products, while as we all know, historically girls inevitably favour acids.  Including our long-cossetted kiwifruit, which turned our cabbage water a pleasing deep pink.

Litmus test from the side cropped

The results of the purple cabbage litmus tests

Early indications are the mesh exclusion bags aren’t doing much better than the fruit bowl in the protection and ripening caper. I can’t remember a pre-masticated fruit being present when I tied the bag around this bunch.  We seem to have a Houdini of the rodent world somewhere on the premises.  The outcome so far is not as dismal, at least, as 2014’s doomed attempt at protecting peaches.  The mammal and insect pests deployed a pincer movement – rats gnawing a hole in the bags and fruitflies pouring through to finish the job.

No, my optimism about getting to wrap my laughing gear around some home-grown kiwifruit sorbet is based on the barely nibbled fruit discarded the ground under the vines.  Whatever is chowing down on my crop just isn’t very keen.  Perhaps they have a sweet tooth.

How, I hear you ask, can you tell when to harvest your kiwifruit?  Well, apparently if you cut one open and the seeds have turned black it’s ready for harvest: its starches will turn slowly to sugar in storage. But there is a more scientific way.  Sugar solutions refract light, particularly polarised light, differently from your ordinary tap water. So your go-to-device for measuring sweetness (reported in Brix) is a refractometer.  The savvy kiwi farmer picks her fruit at a bit over 6 degrees Brix, it seems.  Let’s just hope the brush tailed possums can’t tell their pouches from their polarising light and the satin bowerbirds couldn’t track down a refractometer on ebay.

Happy International Year of Soils!

I’m not kidding.  The UN has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils.  And not before time.  Everyone should be preoccupied with dirt.  I know I am.  What is going in down there, under the ground? Are my veggies growing in podzol or mycelium? Hang on, that’s soil profiles in Minecraft, not in Berowra.

The CSIRO’s recently released Soil and Landscape Grid with its 3 dimensional digital soil attribute maps could resolve most Australian gardeners’ soil questions. In case you were wondering how these maps were developed, let me put you out of your misery:

“The spatial modeling was performed using decision trees with piecewise linear models and kriging of residuals. Fifty environmental covariates that represent climate, biota, terrain, and soil and parent material were used in the modeling. Uncertainty was derived using a bootstrap (Monte Carlo-type) approach to derive for each pixel a probability density function (pdf), from which we derived 90% confidence limits”

More kriging of residuals, I say!

Gags aside, this free online resource shows why Australia needs publicly funded science and why sacking researchers in the CSIRO to bankroll Gina Rinehart’s tax breaks is a major error (if you need more persuading, CSIRO scientists also invented WiFi, Aerogard, the permanent pleat, and the word petrichor, which describes the lovely smell of damp earth after rain).

After reading about the rocks in our neck of the woods, however, I’m not sure we are best placed to fully exploit the sophisticated visualising technologies of the Soil and Landscape Grid.  The geology around here is pretty danged boring. Other than the odd lens of shale, mostly on the ridge-tops (that is, under roads and houses) it’s Hawkesbury sandstone all the way down, 40 million years and 270 metres of it.  Or at least, all the way down to Berowra Creek where there’s an outcrop of more fertile Narrabeen Group of shales, sandstone and clays here and there.

Of course, we’re not alone in our preposterously deep beds of sandstone.  They’re on display in the Blue Mountains too, though with a few more layers clay and basalt intrusions to break up the tedium.

The humungous quantities of sandstone across a swathe of the Sydney Basin makes my sentimentality about the disappearing rock faces along the new railway cuttings of the Northern Line even more absurd.  After reading about the good exposures of Ashfield Shale between Hornsbury and Beecroft,  I’ve become a tiny bit obsessed with capturing the freshly exposed slices of Sydney Basin geology as they are revealed by the diggers and before they’re covered with nasty grey concrete.  Wordsworth was mortified by the ugliness of railway cuttings slashing their way through the nineteenth century British countryside.  Here am I mourning for disappearing railway cuttings, a slice of geological time revealed and then lost again.

Perhaps I should stop grieving the lost glories of the Pennant Hills trackwork and spend more time worrying about what my garden might be doing to the “quartz rich, nutrient poor” soils of Berowra.

My snake beans are kinda sallow – I reckon they need a side serve of well-rotted chicken manure.  But even as I contemplate emptying the compost tumbler, I can’t help but fret about where my vegetable garden sits, perched above the national park with its “rich and distinctive assemblage of species that thrive on poor soils” , “60-80 different plant species growing together on an area half the size of an average house block” (Benson, Howell, McDougall, 1996, 24-5).  Benson and Howell in their fascinating Taken for Granted: the bushland of Sydney and its suburbs (Kangaroo Press/Royal Botanic Gardens, 1990) mourn:

 “much of Hornsby’s rugged sandstone terrain remained undisturbed until after World War III when the increasing availability of the car and improved building technology made steeper, more remote sites available for housing.  As a result, bushland on ridge-tops and upper slopes has been totally destroyed, the bush remaining only where it is virtually impossible to built, and along steep gullies which have become drainage lines.  Virtually very catchment system includes some suburban development, stormwater run-off from which contains silt and nutrients.  These promote weed invasion of sandstone gullies… in newer areas such at Mt Colah and Berowra [the] invasion is beginning, and the consequences appear inevitable” (108)

And that’s us, in our mid-century twentieth century house, teetering on a steep slope in a fold of the hillside you might otherwise call a creek bed.  My painstakingly-made hot compost, my organic sugarcane mulch, the poo from my beloved chickens, all building nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus rich earth – garden alchemy.  I’m creating an anthroposol – a human made soil – and I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing.

As a homage to the UN’s declaration, I’ve stared in a  incomprehending way at a schematic cross-section of Hawkesbury soils, I’ve thought long and hard about our B horizon (by staring even longer at this quite marvellous online introduction to soil classification – thanks again, CSIRO) and I’ve double-checked Minecraft’s definition of “podzolic” with the kids but I’m not sure how far it’s got me.

Maybe this is the chthonic thinking – thinking about the soil and the communities, plant and animal that grow from it – that my friend Kate urges us all to do in her fab blog about the Armidale Community Garden, but it’s not so much grounded me as taken me directly to Hades via the Field of Punishment.  This is a special special place of suffering for people who long to understand rocks and dirt but can never remember whether the Devonian comes before or after the Carboniferous, no matter how many times they read David Johnson’s splendid Geology of Australia.  And that’s without wrestling with the geopolitics of topsoil loss or the impact of international agribusiness on pesticide residues or the links between soil, country and indigenous chlthonic law

The only solution to this torment, I feel, is another variant of subterranean thinking: that sense of mindfulness I get sitting in a darkened vehicle with a swag of empty shopping bags, gazing tranquilly at the carefully preserved, sandstone rock exposures in the underground car park of Berowra Coles.

Happy International Year of Soils everyone!

Cloud inversions and sunsets: a year of backyard skies