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

The shortest days and how to use them

The chickens let us know when midwinter’s come.  The fortnight after the winter solstice, no matter how bloody cold it is, the girls start serious egg-laying.  So even as you’re trying desperately to stash four different kinds of hot lemon pickle and a hundredweight of lemon marmalade, as you open the fridge, a dozen eggs roll out.

Lemon preserves cool closeup skinny

I went AWOL from the blog for the last six months, as the observant amongst you might have noticed.  The days just got shorter and shorter.  My garden kept growing and the Hawkesbury streamed uninterrupted to the sea, but time to write about these things just seemed impossible to find.  But now the days are lengthening (and I’ve finished my night classes), all that is going to change!

Eagle flyby long crop

White bellied sea eagle doing a fly-by of Gunyah Beach

The shortest day may have passed but it’s still pretty nippy at 5.30 in the morning when I get out of my lovely warm bed and drive off through the nautical twilight to put my kayak in the water.  When it’s 3 degrees and you have wet feet, the exact moment when the sun touches your frozen toes comes to be of critical importance.

I have a nifty little app on my phone, SunCalc, that shows just where the sun will appear over the horizon on any day of the year.  So I check the tide, and the wind, and then, on a winter morning, figure out where I’ll catch the very first light.  Putting in at Brooklyn and heading for open water is not a bad choice.

I’ve had some lovely paddles from Parsley Bay in the last year.  Quiet jaunts into Porto Bay, a shallow backwater frequented mostly by raptors and oyster fishermen…

Juv sea eagle long

Juvenile white bellied sea eagle

And, on a day with hardly any wind, I braved it across to West Head, stopping off at four beaches – Gunyah on the way and Eleanor on the way back; and on the other side of Cowan Creek, Little Pittwater with its tumbling stream and littoral rainforest and Hungry Beach and its a pair of sunbaking sea eagles.

Terns in front of Lion Island cropped closer small

Terns fishing off Gunyah Beach

I was almost bold enough that time to cross the invisible line – “limit of flatwater sailing” – that passes between Juno Point and Flint and Steel Beach, but bottled it in the end, just peeking round the corner towards Pittwater and the open Pacific beyond.

Clouds over the sea long and skinny

And last weekend, coldest it’s been on a Sydney morning in a couple of decades, I set out for Refuge Bay, where the pleasure craft rocked quietly, their skippers sleeping.  But not the kids, slipping away in their dinghies to fish and play under the waterfall on the beach.

And on journey there, what magic scenes!  The open waters of Broken Bay skimmed, concealed, curtained, framed, illuminated, by the fog.

Fishing boat and lion island

Fishermen and Lion Island

If there’s something to be said for the shortest days, it’s the long nights.  You can almost have a sleep-in and still get up before dawn.

Juno head mist dark sky

A confluence of critters

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

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

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

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

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

osprey-3-d-claws-crop

osprey-looking-at-me-crop-square

two-ospreys-2-square

A pair of eastern osprey?  The females are larger.

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

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

island-with-dolphin-longer-fatter

Enter a caption

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

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

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

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

I think we’ll be back.

egg-on-the-beach-at-end-of-da

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?

Bujwa bay wide view 2 best small

Egg the kayak entering Bujwa Bay after the burn-off

Drooping bark and grasstrees for crop square

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

Delta bravo!

Kylies from the headland 2011

Kylie’s Beach in Crowdy Bay National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swans horizontal

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

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

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

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

Island in river mouth small.jpg

Island in the delta

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

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

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

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

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

North brother reflection

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

More adventures on New South Wales’ coastal lagoons

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

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

Encounters with eagles on Budgewoi Lake

Moonlit bay lighter real

Moonlit night on Kylie’s Beach

Death and good fortune on Cowan Creek

Since reading the poetic prose of H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s story of how training Mabel the goshawk carried her through wild sadness that followed the death of her beloved father, it’s been all about the raptors around here.

Easter at Speers Point meant ospreys relaxing in the late afternoon sun.

And yesterday, on Cowan Creek, the contractual obligation white bellied sea-eagle.

Juvenile sea eagle belly horizontal

Juvenile white-bellied sea eagle

Then, just when I’d resigned myself to a pleasant if uneventful paddle after three hours on the water, there was an explosion of action right off my bow.  Two birds in an aerial battle, tumbling and squabbling over a kill.  The loser flew off, disgruntled; the death-dealer pulled up in the bright morning sunshine on a branch over the river, and waited for me to get out my camera.

A new bird!  One I thought I’d never seen on any waterway.  A peregrine falcon.

It turns out I had seen these birds before, long ago and far away – a pair tussling with ravens over a ledge to nest on at Malham Cove in Yorkshire.  Cliffs (or, if they are hard to find, skyscrapers) are one of the essential requirements of this beautiful raptor.  RB reminded me that peregrines used to nest in the ventilation towers of the tunnels under the River Mersey and high up in the Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, the enormous red sandstone building I could see from my desk during my decade as a Scouser.

Peregrines may be the most widespread bird in the world, living on every continent except for Antarctica and on many islands (although strangely, considering its status as a bird watching paradise, not New Zealand).  Its name is derived from the Latin for “the wanderer” although only five of the nearly twenty subspecies – those breeding in the northern Arctic – really migrate very far.

For all their capacity to adapt to life in the city – eating feral pigeons and nesting in highrises – peregrines are widespread but not really common.  Since they mostly prey on smallish birds, themselves often insect eaters, falcons bioaccumulate pollutants. The use of organochlorines in insecticides like DDT devastated their numbers in the second half of the twentieth century.  By the 1960s there were no peregrines in the Eastern US and the birds were declared an endangered species. Numbers have bounced back, in Australia and elsewhere, although they are still classed as  “rare” here.  And recent work in Europe and Canada has observed a new chemical – flame retardants – turning up in the blood stream of peregrine chicks.

Once peregrines find a good nesting site, it’s a keeper.  Apparently, a falcon skeleton found at the back of a cliff-top eyrie in Tasmania has been carbon dated at 19,000 years, which makes that spot the oldest known bird’s nest. As I noodled along the northern shore of Cowan Creek, I’d admired the 100 metre high cliffs of Looking Glass Spur, eucalypts halfway up the face finding impossible footholds in the sandstone.  I wonder if my falcon and its mate have a scrape there, high above the expanse of the estuary.  Peregrines don’t eat fish but hunting grounds by water offer the space for their deadly turn of speed.

I feel less disappointed by my failure to spot the raptor’s stoop or to capture the battle on film after I figured out what I was watching.  The fastest animal in the world, dropping  on its prey at nearly 400 kilometres an hour.  That poor bird clutched in its talons -maybe a galah, the favoured meal of the big-footed Australian “macropus” subspecies – never had a chance.

I watched for twenty minutes, as she plucked and dismembered her meal, unperturbed by the rowdy parade of jet skiiers, cruisers and powerboats.  Galah feathers drifted down from her branch, making a delicate trail of death across the bottle green water.

For a few dodgy moments, I thought the gobbets of galah might be joined by flotsam from my shattered craft as Egg was washed perilously close to oystershell sharpened rocks.  And, if I had the Bond-style rocket launcher I’ve often fantasised about while ploughing  through powerboat wakes on sunny Sunday mornings, fragments of several jet skis.

I’m guessing my peregrine was a “she”.  Females are a third bigger than the tiercels – the males – but I didn’t have the chutzpah to hurl a swiss army knife up the tree for scale.  The two mid-air combatants looked well matched – two males or two females. Definitely not a pair.  Since peregrines mate for life – up to 20 years – and often hunt cooperatively, it would seem to be unwise from the point of view of domestic harmony, anyway, to bicker over food.

In fact, Derek Ratcliffe describes exactly what I saw: “feet-grappling over disputed food items” which happens, he says, “at food-territory boundaries during the non-breeding season” (1993, 201).   It seems these battles are nearly always between birds of the same sex, although sometimes peregrines fight with other crag-loving birds as well.  RB remembers peregrines in springtime at the cliffs at Creagh Dhu, attacking ravens, stooping then zooming straight up to the heights to do it all over again.  Sometimes pairs of peregrines will even take on the great golden eagle over rare and valuable real estate.

So maybe there’s more than one pair of peregrines on that beautiful bit of country.  Perhaps I’ll see this magic bird again, or her mate, or her rival, until I’m as blase about a peregrine strike as a whistling kite soaring on a thermal. But yesterday, as I took my four hundred photographs while the peregrine peaceably disembowelled its meal, showing the equanimity that makes them the favoured hunting falcon, I felt truly blessed.

Peregrine in front of branch staring at me crop

Peregrine falcon watching the watchers

More stories about raptors in Berowra’s backyard (and mine):

The beautiful white morph of the grey goshawk in Bluetongue’s back

A hunting collared sparrowhawk in Nude trees and naughty birds

The whistling kites of Bar and Peat Islands in Two sad islands, three whistling kites

The many white-bellied sea eagles of the Hawkesbury and Lake Macquarie in Encounters with eagles

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.