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”

Sea eagle at dawn long small

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.

Pelicans shouting at each other crop small

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.

Spectacle island mud flats lines abstract long and thin small

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…

 

Spoonbill fishing 3 cropped larger asymmetrical

Perhaps not a beautiful bird but certainly eye catching!

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

Golden bubble water crop horizontal

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.

Sacred kingfisher facing slightly away horizontal crop tighter square

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.

Sacred kingfisher other side 2 wide tighter

Last winter in Calabash Bay…

Burn-off at Bujwa Bay

The only trouble with living in paradise (apart from the long commute) is combustibility.  Our gorgeous view – mile after mile of incendiary eucalypts.  So the still, dry days and nights of autumn were thick with smoke, not from the big bad one we’re dreading, but hazard reduction burns in the bush all round the town.

Last time I went down to Bujwa Bay, it was the kind of cool and breathless day that must make the Rural Fire Service very very happy.   Mist hovered over the water in a bright line of morning light.  Forty minutes of silent paddling past the sleeping celebrities of Berowra Waters and I was round Oaky Corner and into the sunshine.

In the quiet there was a cryptic crunching noise.   Eventually, I spotted the pair of glossy black-cockatoos hidden amongst at the shore-line casuarinas.  My sense of being some kind of bird whisperer evaporated when, after fifteen minutes fooling around trying to get a decent shot of the cockies, I looked up to meet the eye of a bloody great big white-bellied sea eagle sitting directly above me.  And then, just round the corner, his pal taking in the rays.  They’re not stupid these birds, parked in the sunniest spot on the bay.

Having bonded with the local bird-life, when I heard about the burn-off, I was worried.   What happens to it all when the bush goes up in smoke?

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Egg the kayak entering Bujwa Bay after the burn-off

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Back-burnt grasstrees at Bujwa Bay

It’s not all bad news.

Harry Rechter describes  birds enjoying a feast during a controlled burn in Brisbane Waters National Park, not so far from here.
“Although fuel loads in the… heath and woodland were high, and flames soared above the tallest trees and shrubs, birds moved easily in front of and above the fire to appear minutes later on the blackened vegetation to feed on less fortunate insects and small lizards”.
I missed the raptors and the insectivores that no doubt turned up at Bujwa Bay at the first sign of smoke, looking for Cajun-style chow. But chances are these blackened grasstrees will be bursting into flower next time I paddle by.  I might see lyrebirds too, raking newly formed clearings.  Ground-feeders and grain-eaters – corellas for instance – return in force after fires have passed.  The little insectivores – thornbills, wrens and robins – that build nests close to the ground don’t miss the scorched canopy, and enjoy the bugs that flourish on the flush of new growth.  The carbonised shrubbery might even give me the chance of catching a blurry LBB or two on film.
Burnt crown and cliff

After the burn-off: partly scorched eucalypts

It’s a nice idea to think that the burn-offs that protect the town are a boon for the local plants and animals too.   And there’s a euphonious catchphrase that goes with that idea: “pyrodiversity begets biodiversity”. Fire incinerates the garden escapes and wakes the soilbank’s astounding store of dormant seeds. If we burn little and often, it’s been thought, we make a mosaic of habitats: patches of open space and newly germinating seeds; places burnt a few years back; and refuges long unburnt, full of craggy trees, hollow logs and dense undergrowth.

Pyrodiversity is popular amongst land management folks, and there’s some evidence that it works, at least in some places.  But not everyone buys the story that the frequent fires that protect people and property suit other critters too. Out in the mallee, near where I grew up, a fire and biodiversity project run by Deakin and LaTrobe universities has been laboriously checking the idea out.

For all the mallee’s underground lignotubers, ready to reshoot after fire, other parts of the ecosystem – large stretches of spinifex grass, for one, that shelter dragons and legless lizards – can take fifty or more years to return after a burn.  All of which makes me feel tremendously guilty about the swiftly abandoned spinifex-covered cubbies that my brother and sister and I used to make in the mallee scrub out the back of our house.  We will never know how many now-extinct species we displaced.

Away from regrets about the trail of ecological devastation I left in childhood and back to burn-off related angst. The research in these arid areas suggests it’s not pyrodiversity that’s important for a species-rich environment but having enough country that’s reached the right stage of maturity since the last fire.  As a person in mid-life, it pleases me to say that older vegetation often seems to sustain more species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including the rare ones. Even birds that like paddocks and open plains prefer unburnt land.  Some reptiles favour recently fired landscapes, but plant communities that haven’t been burnt for a decade or two harbor the richest variety of lizards and snakes.

I tried and failed to find the experts on biodiversity and fire on Hawkesbury sandstone.  But researchers studying both subtropical Queensland and foothill forests in Victoria said similar things.  A varied landscape is important, but

the richness of frugivore, insectivore and canopy forager assemblages is driven by the presence of structurally complex vegetation and old-growth canopy trees, which are more likely to be present in areas that have not experienced fire for a prolonged period of time (Burgess 2016)

Paston and colleagues put their conclusion bluntly: “prescribed fire is of little utility for the broadscale conservation of biodiversity” (2011, 3238).

And it seems, for birds at least, smaller patches of unburnt country won’t really do – it’s larger areas that haven’t seen fire for a while that are rich in species.  One bunch of researchers found that little islands of older habitat surrounded by new growth was grabbed by one or two aggressive predatory or colonial birds, rather than harbouring lots of different critters.  One recent paper, written about arid areas, sum it up:

Our results suggest a shift in current fire management thinking… is needed, away from a focus on creating small, unburnt patches towards preserving large, intact, unburnt areas (Berry 2015 493)

Burnt crown and dark silhouette from distance

What does all this mean for Bujwa Bay?

There was nothing moving in the incinerated trees on the ridgeline as I made my way up the creek at high tide, but then, it was early and damn chilly.  Even the herons had given up on fishing and were huddled in the trees, keeping their feet dry.

But the damp fringes of the mangroves were alive with silvereyes and yellow-faced honeyeaters, and I heard the plunk of a sacred kingfisher diving for breakfast.  Gullies are especially valuable habitats for birds at the best of times.  If they’re protected from fire by burning on the slopes nearby they can be an even better retreat when that big one comes.  The top of the creek was lush and green. I can only guess that the rangers and RFS know what they’re doing.

White faced heron in tree 2 square

Chilly looking white-faced heron

In the light of recent research, Taylor and his colleagues comment dryly “current fire management for avifaunal conservation may require substantial refinement” (Taylor, 2012, 525).

But let’s not fool ourselves.  Around here at least, fire management is not for the avifauna.  It’s for me, and people like me, who choose to live high on a hill, surrounded by the beautiful, burnable bush.

Additional references.  Because the whole thing is really is quite complicated and you might want to check I didn’t get it totally wrong.

Berry, L. Lindenmeyer, D, Driscoll, D. (2015) “Large unburnt areas, not small unburnt patches, are needed to conserve avian diversity in fire-prone landscapes” Journal ofApplied Ecology Vol 52 Issue 2

Burgess, Emma, and Maron, Martine (2016) “Does the response of bird assemblages to fire mosaic properties vary among spatial scales and foraging guilds?” Landscape Ecology March 2016, Volume 31, Issue 3,pp 687–699

Doty, A., Stawski, C, Nowack, J., Bondarenco, A. (2015) “Increased lyrebird presence in a post-fire landscape” Australian Journal of Zoology 63,9–11

Hope Ben (2012) “Short-term response of the long-nosed bandicoot, Perameles nasuta, and the southern brown bandicoot, Isoodon obesulus obesulus, to low-intensity prescribed fire in heathland vegetation” Wildlife Research 39(8) 731-744

Korczynskyj, Luke and Byron B. Lamont (2005) “Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) recovery after fire in two seasons and habitats” Australian Journal of Botany, 53 509-515

Kelly, Luke T. Andrew F. Bennett, Michael F. Clarke, and Michael A. McCarthy (2015) “Optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservationConservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 2, 473–485

Lindenmayer, David B., Wade Blanchard, Lachlan McBurney, David Blair, Sam C. Banks, Don A. Driscoll, Annabel L. Smith and A. M. Gill (2014) “Complex responses of birds to landscape-level fire extent, fire severity and environmental driversDiversity and Distributions 20, 467–477

Nimmo, D, Kelly, L., Spence-Bailey, L, Watson, S.J. Taylor, R.S., Clarke, M.F and Bennett, A.F. (2012) “Fire Mosaics and Reptile Conservation in a Fire-Prone Region” Conservation Biology 27 (12)

Pastro, Louise L., Christopher R. Dickman and Mike Letnic (2011) “Burning for biodiversity or burning biodiversity? Prescribed burn vs. wildfire impacts on plants, lizards and mammals”  Ecological Applications Vol. 21, No. 8, pp. 3

Robinson, Natasha, Leonard, Steven, Bennett, Andrew, Clarke, Michael (2016) “Are forest gullies refuges for birds when burnt? The value of topographical heterogeneity to avian diversity in a fire-prone landscape” Biological Conservation 200, pp.1-7

Sitters, Holly , Di Stefano, Julian, Christie, Fiona, Swan, Matthew, York, Alan (2016) “Bird functional diversity decreases with time since disturbance” Ecological Applications, 26(1), pp. 115–127

Smith, Annabel, C.Michael Bull, Don Driscoll (2013) “Successional specialization in a reptile community cautions against widespread planned burning and complete fire suppression”Journal of Applied Ecology 2013, 50, 1178–118

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

Darter from behind close crop shorter

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)

Big lake

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.

Osprey bum bigger long

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.

Three darter chicks snuggling crop tighter

Juvenile Australasian darters snuggled together in what remains of their nest

 

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.

Sunrise corner sky

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.

Noisy friarbird getting food crop

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.

* * *

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

A bridge fetishist paddles to Brooklyn

I have a weakness for bridges.  Romantic trysts just happen to be arranged with the backdrop of the world’s first iron bridge.  Multiple crossings of the gorgeous Severn Suspension Bridge are absolutely essential for that work trip.  And in pride of place of the mantlepiece, of course, is a railway poster of the famous cantilever bridge over the Firth of Forth.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that my paddles lately all seem to end up under what it pleases me to call Brooklyn Bridge.  That’s not its real name, mind, but since it starts  on Long Island and takes you through the thriving metropolis of Brooklyn (population 744) I think I can get away with it.

Brooklyn bridge and stone pillars plus boat.jpg

There was that morning jaunt from Parsley Bay, past the oyster leases and beneath the swooping welcome swallows, to the top of Mullet Creek, where the Newcastle trains disappear into the Woy Woy tunnel, once the longest tunnel in the southern hemisphere.

I’ve been lucky enough to go on on some beautiful railway journeys in my life – from Montreal to New York in winter, past above-ground swimming pools frozen like giants’ ice-cubes; from southern Thailand to Bangkok, looking out at the richest of tropical orchards woven into the jungle; between snowcapped mountains and sea on the West Highland line to Hogwarts Mallaig.  But I reckon this journey along Mullet Creek, not a place that will ever be immortalised in the baby names of the rich and famous, is my favourite.  There’s something about a railway line that leaves roads far behind, forging its own way along the empty shore.

Sunrise at Brooklyn

If you ask the driver, you can get off near the top of the creek at Wondabyne, the only station sans road access in Australia.  Every now and then, you see people jumping off the train and straight into a tinnie, zooming off to the shacks on the other side of the river before their fish supper gets cold.

For a few years in the late nineteenth century, while the first Hawkesbury River bridge was being built, if you were travelling north by train from Sydney, you would disembark at Long Island, board the double-decker paddleboat the General Gordon, and steam off to Mullet Creek Station, then just north of Wondabyne.  Now people hop off here to do part of the Great North Walk – a 250 kilometre walk from central Sydney to the beautiful beaches of Newcastle – or to wander up to Pindar Cave.  Judging from the smorgasborg of rusted out craft I saw in the shallow water at the top of the creek, it’s also a place where people take their boats to die.

Then there was this weekend’s jaunt, downriver from Deerubbin Reserve – a popular spot, right by the freeway, to fish or have a picnic for those who find the perpetual roar of traffic reassuring.  With the ever present possibility of a quick exit, I guess it’s ideal for the heavily pregnant or those who find their relatives a bit hard to take.  But I can’t really bag people for their passion for the internal combustion engine since I get all hot and bothered at the prospect of a paddle underneath (count ’em) three great big bridges.

This weekend’s jaunt took me past Spectacle Island Nature Reserve, under the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, natch, and around Dangar Island, swished along smartly by the current and the falling tide.

Have you ever been bored enough in an airport to try walking  the wrong way up a moving footpath?  Trying to paddle across the current to get to one of the beaches on the eastern side of the island was a bit like that.  It all seemed a bit too hard in the end, so I went where the river wanted to take me, downstream, floating just above perilous rocky reefs by off Bradley’s Beach and veering round the seagrass beds.

And then through the sailing boats, swaying and tinkling like expensive marine windchimes, to Sandy Bay, the best place in the world to be homeless.  The folks whose setup I saw there – a tarp flanked by a beached ramshackle boat and a solar panel – had no-one for neighbours but a horde of blue soldier crabs.  There was no sign of the human residents, but I now know what it’s like to be a celebrity, thousands of beady eyes watching and waiting on your every move.

Quite a few people live rough around Brooklyn.  “Good caves, a shower at Brooklyn Baths and walking distance to the bottle shop”, as RB commented with unseemly enthusiasm.  In the Depression, apparently, lots of people came to live in these parts for just this reason – shelter and a bit of space for chooks or a veggie garden.  I didn’t see a chicken run in Sandy Bay but Brooklyn does seem to have some kind of common flock, judging from these good looking fellas that we met down by the marina a while back.

I reckon the Hawkesbury estuary is Sydney Harbour through the looking glass – a parallel flooded river valley, bordered by bush instead of multimillion dollar apartments.  If the Harbour has its iconic Bridge, the Hawkesbury has its own engineering marvel – nearly three times as long, resting 50 metres and more deep in soft black mud.

The modern bridge is the second one to cross the river here.  The old bridge, finished in 1887, was the last link in the railway that spanned four colonies, connecting Queensland to South Australia.

Sir Henry Parkes, on the day of the bridge’s official opening, pronounced: “In this great system of material arteries which we completed today, we see the crimson fluid of kinship coursing through all the iron veins” (Sharp, 2001, 4).  Apparently the other grandees were a bit more underwhelmed by the prospect of a federated Australia, bound together with railways.  Nonetheless, the day after, the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald was headline was “United Australia”

Bridge silhouette 1

At the time it was built, the old bridge was the longest in Australia and had the deepest footings in the world – 180 feet below the high water line – though they still didn’t reach solid ground.

The Union Bridge Company from New Jersey won the contract to build it (on a pin-jointed truss system, as I’m sure you want to know), giving Brooklyn, the railway town that was set up to house the workers, its American name.  The tender being won by an American company was one in the eye for the old country, though it pleases me in some strange way that the riveted steel for the spans was made by Arrol Brothers in Glasgow, who also worked on the bridge across the Firth of Forth.

But the original Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge didn’t last.  Its piers, filled with rubble instead of solid concrete, fractured under the weight of the trains that crossed here, the only  bit of duplicate track on the line.  The piles were starting to crack in the 30s, but the problem only came to light when a US railway geek doing a bit of light recreational reading of an engineering textbook spotted that the piles weren’t built to the original specifications.  The death knell of the old bridge, though, was the extra rail traffic of the war.

The piers of the old bridge remain, like golden castles guarding the river.

Castles 2

The footings of the 1887 Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge.  Or castles as I like to call them.

I’ve had a great time reading the fantastically detailed history of the building of the new bridge by Major-General Albert Cecil Fewtrell, the Chief Civil Engineer of the NSW railways, who supervised its completion.

There’s some entertaining reading between the lines.  When it came to putting the metal spans onto the concrete footing, it seems some fool had a plan to float the 1,600 tonne metal spans over to the pilings at water level and then haul them out with giant cranes perched on the piers.  But Major-General Fewtrell soon sorted them out:

“Consideration had been given early to the proposal to float out the spans at low level … The decision [was made] to revert to the high level method of floatation following the return of the Author from active service in 1943” (Fewtrell, 1946, 27)

The prep they did for the task of floating the massive spans from the construction docks – the cuttings still visible on the north shore of Long Island – onto the concrete pilings at high tide also gives you a sense of the guy.

A large board, representing the land and water at the site of the new bridge, was laid down in the southern tunnel. Model piers were accurately fixed in position in the “stream,” and miniature spans, pontoons, and equipment were used so that the men could practice in detail movements and prepare for emergencies.

Don’t you want to play with those 1/32 scale tiny cranes and miniature pilings?  I really really do.

Fewtrell thought that everything had gone swimmingly.  But the new bridge, the bridge that was supposed to last 200 years, is crumbling.  After years of delays, just this last week, work started on repairing the concrete footings and its rusting reinforcing steel. When I paddled past, there were huddled men in high vis jackets and mysterious icons dangling from the bridge deck – all the signs that a new engineering miracle is about to begin.  And I’m sure it’ll happen.

But at this stage, once again, I reckon it’s Hawkesbury River 1: human engineering 0.

Old hands

I know I live on, walk on, paddle through, someone else’s country.  Guringgai country, and sometimes Darug lands, since Berowra Creek, or so I read, is a boundary line between people of the coast and river people. Sometimes, I venture north of the Hawkesbury – Deerubbin – into Darkinjung country.  I try hard to remember that I’m an uninvited guest in this land, and that I know next to nothing about it.  Because it’s important to know what you don’t know, if you know what I mean.

But sometimes what you don’t know jumps out and smacks you in the eye.  It happened out on the water, on Smith’s Creek, a couple of weeks ago.

Smith.  It’s a joke name, isn’t it?  The sort of name you use to check into a hotel for a dirty weekend with a person who isn’t the one you’re married to.  A name white guys use to be anonymous.  “Yes, I’m John Smith and so is my wife”.

I’m sure Smith’s Creek is named after a really very important Smith.  After all, at one time at the turn of the twentieth century, Kuring-gai Chase – specifically the bit of bushland between Smith’s Creek and Cowan Creek – was considered a possible location for the capital of the new Commonwealth. Magnificent scenery and handy for getting back to Sydney, what?  You have to wonder whether the sandstone escarpments of Kuring-gai National Park would have been quite such an amenable environment for roundabouts as Canberra. All in all, I’m very glad it didn’t happen. Aside from everything else, I don’t think I could handle a close encounter with Cory Barnardi at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning.

So, as I say, there I was in “Smith’s” Creek, blessedly free of conservative crusaders and, indeed, showing little sign of human life at all.  In Apple Tree and Stingray Bay, the power boats were moored silently in rows like roosting birds.  Nothing stirred.

As I slipped with the tide towards Deerubbin, not a jetboat in sight, a wave of love passed over me for the sport of rugby.  More specifically, a feeling of warmth for the thrilling final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, broadcast to the sports fans of Australia at 2am the night before.  What a fine influence sport is on the nation!  How it improves the tone of the place!  All those worn out rugby fans, tucked up in their beds, or snuggled down in their bunks, dreaming of triumph or of despair, but more to the point, not, as yet, starting up outboard motors.

While the rugby fans were sleeping I paddled, more or less, back to Berowra, swaddled in fog that rolled down the valleys, smudging the pictures of my weekly sea eagle (curse it).  They slumbered on as I turned the corner into Smith’s Creek following the great big signs on the shoreline, papped some peeved looking cormorants, tried and failed to see any sign of rays in the sands of Stingray Bay.  In the stillness, I felt as if I was in a dream myself as I passed along sandstone cliffwalls, rippled and rainbowed, that slide down and down into the bottle green water, and beneath the smooth-barked gums that butt their way into solid rock a metre or two above a tideline line of oystershells.

The sports lovers were still sleeping when I had my magic moment – the one you wait for every trip – when moon and raptor met in the bright morning light.  So for all their shiny cruisers and thrumming engines, the rugby fans would have been no good to me at all if Egg the ancient kayak had drifted away, as it very nearly did, while I tried to find that damn whistling kite in what seems, through a zoom lens, like a very very big sky.  That would have been me, stranded in sparkling knee-deep water, with a ten k swim through the bobbing jellyfish, all the way home.

It wasn’t until I got back and uploaded my photos that I saw, in the corner of a picture, the ochre hand prints on the golden rock.  Who put them there and when?  I really don’t know.  Maybe someone not so long ago – the indigenous rangers of Guringgai take loads of school kids out to see the hundreds of carvings and paintings that are all over the park.  I bet a bit of print making happens here and there.  Could it be one of the people of West Head slain by smallpox – no accident it seems – just a few years after the convicts arrived? Surely not.  Someone in the time in-between, making their mark on country.  Still here, though many people were forced far away, as far as Yorta Yorta country, on the borders of Victoria.

I just don’t know.  Those hands told me, at least, to remember that I don’t.