Early black beauties

Alerted to look up from my desk by whirling aerial activity outside, I saw about six Welcome Swallows flying round and round the back yard airspace.  It looked as frenetic as when the young first fly, but I haven’t noticed any nests on my verandahs or eaves.

There seemed to be other birds in the mix.

When some peeled off to perch, I spotted a Willy Wagtail, who typically did not stop still long enough to be more than a blur.

Then I gasped at this unmistakable fishtail shape.

A Spangled Drongo!

I know; in Australia it sounds like a joke…

I have only seen this bird twice before. It is the only Australian species of drongo, and it is most handsome, with its iridescent feathers, blueish spangle, and bright red eyes.

Today there were two, so I hope they will nest nearby.

Like swallows, they can catch insects on the wing.

However, my bird book says they are migratory, ‘arriving in October and leaving in March’.  We are still in August. Like the fire season, is August the new October?

One of the other dapper black-feathered birds in the yard at the same time was an Australian Magpie-Lark, female I think.

I have usually called them Pee-Wees (after their call) and berated them for attacking my windows, but now I have hung feathers in corks outside, they do not bother with those reflected birds.

As they mostly catch their insects on the ground, they were not competing with the flying food frenzy above. So they are back ready to nest too; theirs is of mud, and has been in the Jacaranda tree in the past. Hmm; but will they find some mud in this drought?

I will keep an eye out for all nesting activity.

Winter or?

I was waiting for the last Autumn leaves to fall from my ornamental grapevine before pruning it, as I have always done.

But this crazily warm Winter weather has confused the vine into sending forth new Spring growth shoots of leaves and flowers.

All along its length the bright green new leaves have lost patience with the old brown clingers, saying  ‘Don’t you know it’s Spring?’

Only it’s not.

I check in the yard: the Mulberry tree, properly wintry bare two days ago, has lost the plot too. Good luck, I think.

The small Native Finger Lime tree is covered in tiny buds and blossoms, but this is the right time for it.

Will there be ‘right times’ ahead for deciduous plants to awake?

How would they know to stay asleep until after the last frosts of winter?

When people in T-shirts at mid-day in mid-winter’s July say ‘What a lovely day!’, I can’t agree.

‘Actually, no, I find it scary that’s it’s so warm.’

Because this is wrong, out-of-kilter; I’m a human who can put clothes on or off, buy food out of season.

Plants and insects and birds and animals are inter-dependent; species are being thrown into not just confusion, but extinction.

Now, on 1st August, I read that:

‘Tinder-dry conditions in NSW have forced the Rural Fire Service to bring forward its bushfire danger period for parts of the state’s east coast and Northern Tablelands.
Twelve areas — Armidale, Bega Valley, Eurobodalla, Glen Innes Severn, Inverell, Kempsey, Mid Coast, Nambucca, Port Macquarie Hastings, Tenterfield, Uralla and Walcha — will all start their bushfire danger period from August 1, the RFS announced on Thursday.’

Traditionally, the official start to the danger period is October 1.’

Mid Coast: that’s me. Yep, scary.

Bright spots

Rainbows always make me smile; no corporation has found a way to despoil them yet, or to capture and sell them.

In less-than-bright times, with less-than-visionary (!) leaders, I need all the bright spots Nature can offer to keep my spirits up.

And then I realised the rainbow had a second fainter image, a pale double of itself. I choose to to take that as an arc of hope: next time Australia will vote for action on climate change, and not be fooled by the spin.

It is winter at last and still very dry here but a few plants like that, and are giving me great pleasure from their abundant blooms. This beauty has been moving with me though various homes and stages of my life for over 50 years!

These orchids came from one large overgrown clump, a gift from my cousin Kerrie, who has many varieties, about five years ago,. They made six pots, and right when I most need colour and beauty in life, their graceful arching stems are offering both.

And while not at all colourful, as so perfectly camouflaged in their casuarina tree, these two Tawny Frogmouths make me smile every time I see them. Not every day, not always in the same fork, and not always as a pair, although lately they have been. I think they are beautiful.

But a bright spot in my day — and my life — whenever they choose to inhabit my place.

Colour chemistry

Here on the coast, we lack the crispness to create stunning avenues of Autumn colour as in the Southern Highlands or Canberra.

But my Glory Vine, or Ornamental Grape, does its best. It has been moving with me via cuttings from the Mountain original. It colours differently here, but then our Autumns are not the same under global warming. Mid-day is still too warm here.

Despite the stunning cyclamen pinks and burgundies of leaves up close, surprisingly, overall it creates a more orange effect, as the still green leaves mingle with their fellows further along towards their deciduously bare winter fate.

Here’s an explanation of the colour change process from the ’www.sciencemadesimple.com’ site: 

‘During winter, there is not enough light or water for photosynthesis. The trees will rest, and live off the food they stored during the summer. They begin to shut down their food-making factories. The green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves.

‘As the bright green fades away, we begin to see yellow and orange colors. Small amounts of these colors have been in the leaves all along. We just can’t see them in the summer, because they are covered up by the green chlorophyll.

‘The bright reds and purples we see in leaves are made mostly in the fall. In some trees, like maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. Sunlight and the cool nights of autumn cause the leaves turn this glucose into a red color.

‘The brown color of trees like oaks is made from wastes left in the leaves.’

Veins of green chlorophyll amongst mottlings of the other pigments like the carotenoids, responsible for the oranges, with the subclass xanthophyll responsible for the yellows and the sugar-making anthocyanin favouring the reds.

A chemical riot!

Shades of purple

I am fortunate to have Jacaranda trees outside my house, splashing my skies and carpeting my road with purple. I call it purple, but is it really somewhere in between lilac and purple?

In fact, my Spring garden has many variations on a theme of purple, like the ubiquitous but still lovely Agapanthus plants, which were here.

I grew to dislike them due to municipal overuse, but that is similar to disliking Greensleeves because of Mr Whippy’s appropriation of it…

The nearby large and beautifully drooping branches of what I think is Duranta repens, commonly called Geisha Girl or Golden Dewdrop, was here, and its flowers are dark enough to be called purple.

The Plumbago I planted is much paler, not even aiming for purple and having trouble making lilac.

The Buddleia or Butterfly Bush is only slightly darker lilac, but deepens in the buds along its arching spires.

A pretty sight, although I am still waiting for the butterflies to find it!

One year’s promise

Having now been in this new home for a year, I am seeing the first Spring of my plantings, a promise of what my envisaged garden will be like.

Planting citrus trees was a priority, given that I grew up on an orange orchard and I still find the scent of orange blossom the most heavenly of all. I have eight little trees in; nine if you count the Kaffir Lime.

For any fruiting plant to survive the winter and burst forth with the buds that herald the fruit to come is great; the perfume of citrus is a bonus.

The most exciting for me is the spiny Native Fingerlime, absolutely covered in buds. I am sure they won’t all become those bliss bombs of limes, but surely many will?

Other flowers, like this shallot, are the first of my vegie crops to begin their next cycle of flowering, seeding and new plants appearing where they fall.

Having carried cuttings with me of favourite plants from the Mountain, like my Glory Vine, I love seeing those tiny sticks reshoot here in their first spring. By next year my verandah railings will hopefully be as bedecked in green through to Autumn pinks and reds.

The Glory Vine and the Mandevilla Laxa will mingle with my old Mountain favourite, a Crepuscule Rose.

My town Crepuscule Rose is not from a cutting, but newly bought here — because I miss it! — and looking happy. It is flanked by baby Mandevilla seedlings.

When Crepuscule gets going, as here at my Mountain cabin, it’s a wonder of recurrent ragged apricot blooms. I can’t wait.

Other newbies here having their first flowering is this ‘blue’ Solanum, in planters, growing up a trellis erected to urgently mask a most unaesthetic garage at the end of my verandah. It grew and climbed very swiftly, but it really wants to keep heading skywards, so it was perhaps not the best choice. Nevertheless, its delicate flowers, albeit unscented, are a welcome sight.

In fact, anything shooting after dormancy is welcome! Nature is so clever — and generous.

Sunkisses

This is an extract from Chapter 16, ‘Let the sun shine’ in The Woman on the Mountain. It was also included as a stand-alone piece in an anthology by Catchfire Press called Stories for a Long Summer (2006).

Summer once meant glorious, golden sunshine, for outdoor playing and swimming, from sunup to sundown if we could wangle it. Painful sunburn and peeling skin was inevitable, every year, for everyone except those with foreign, that is, not English, Irish or Scottish, skin. We soothed the burns by dabbing with vinegar or cut tomatoes, picked at the dry skin as it peeled, and drew satisfaction from extra long strips removed. Noses and shoulders were always the worst and most frequently burnt. As new freckles appeared we joked about ‘sunkisses’. I could count mine then.

By my fifteenth year it was all about sunbaking in bikinis, a race to ‘get a tan’ quickest, grilling our bodies like skinny sausages, assisted by a coconut oil baste. This ritual was interrupted only by an occasional stroll to the water, mainly to see and be seen by the unattainable golden boys with their goods on show in Speedos. As our costumes shrank to four brief triangles, soft and virginal bands of flesh burnt so badly the pink turned livid, yellowish, and school uniforms and seats could hardly be borne on Mondays. But we persevered, for white skin had the connotation of slugs, not porcelain. Not that I’d ever have the choice again, having by now acquired a permanent shawl of sunkisses.

Fifteen years later, summer meant the annual angst in front of unfriendly mirrors and lying saleswomen over whether we could still get away with wearing a two-piece costume. It was spent supervising sandcastles and shell collections, soggy towels and gritty kids, with hardly a minute to ourselves for sunbaking. As we still did, with suntan lotion overall, zinc cream or sunscreen only applied to acknowledged vulnerable bits. We did wear hats.

These days summer brings danger. Sunbaking, suntanning, sunkisses – such antiquated words, such tragic innocence. Forget sunscreen; with the hole we’ve made in the ozone layer, we need sunblock. Slip, slop, slap. Kids are growing up with sunblock as their second skin, they swim in neck-to-knee lycra and aren’t allowed to play outside at school without a hat. They are taught to be as afraid of our once-beneficent sun as of strangers. It’s like science fiction come horribly true. I dread the announcement that constant exposure to sunscreen has been found to be carcinogenic, but I won’t be surprised.

My swimsuit mostly functions as a relic of my past, to be found scrunched in the back of a drawer along with lace handkerchiefs, suspender belts, French knickers and tired G-strings. Summer glare and heat are too savage for me to want to be outdoors at all. Instead of exposing winter flesh, I cover up more, never leaving my verandah without throwing on my sunfaded Akubra hat and the longsleeved cotton shirt, usually a man’s work shirt, second-hand, that will be hanging there.

Too many threatening spots and lumps have already been removed, after hiding amongst the thousands of freckles of my inappropriate Celtic skin. I go to my skin cancer clinic every six months for a checkup. The doctor, genetically brown-skinned and unfreckle-able, shakes his head at the mottled map of my youth each time I take off my shirt.

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Winter blooms

Kind of creepily flesh-like, with its pairs of pointy-toed pink ‘legs’ and that gaping orifice;  kind of disgustingly gooey, with those red wet lumps, which yet are almost like the secretions of raw wounds.

The pink fleshy stems add to the plant or animal dilemma (hence the ‘phalloid’ species). But the ‘yuck’ factor increases at this stage of its life, as its spore-slime glistens in the centres, like faecal flowers.

And indeed, from a distance, these fungi do look like red flowers scattered amongst the grass in the paddock. But flies, not bees, are attracted to that brown goo by the ‘rotting meat odour’ of this stinkhorn fungi, Asero? rubra,  commonly called Red Starfish, for obvious reasons. The flies obligingly carry away some spores on their feet to deposit elsewhere and spread the species.

Interestingly, this was the first fungus recorded for Australia, collected by Labillardière in 1792 beside Recherche Bay in Tasmania. He named it for its stellar shape, so why not Astero?? Typo?

The paddock is also blooming with lilac, or mauve if you prefer, in the brief beauty of this fungus before it fades to beige.

It is also plentiful.

My winter wildflower meadow is a wild fungi paddock.

Shaped by land

It’s Autumn, so many locals are burning off their grasslands, or setting fire to their stacked bonfires of fallen branches and creek logjam clearings.

Being Autumn, it’s also a time of misty mornings and low-angled sunray surprises in this valley.

This particular morning I was treated to a combination of them both, as the sun’s warmth rekindled the night-dampened bonfire into smoke and released the paddock’s dew into rising mist. Only the smoke’s more blue colouring gave it away.

Autumn evenings bring early dark to the valley, while the far escarpment holds the last of the setting sun’s light.  It also often holds the gathered moisture of the day in a long rolling breath along the ridgeline, hugging the last of the land before becoming sky clouds.

Shading to infinity

My Glory Vine is wearing its Autumn garb; when the leaves turn red, right? They look red, as I come out to the verandah, with the morning light behind it.

But then I step outside and look back at it and the shade of the main leaves externally is so different that I have no name for it: but no ‘red’ I can think of will fit. I mentally go through my old paintbox tubes with all the evocative names of colours. As for the small ones, well, ‘salmon’ perhaps?

And yet, a few metres further along, they choose more burnished shades, with only red herringbone veins.

On the eastern side they are opting to hold on to green, to refuse to give in to one red shade, choose reds only in blotches, or restricted to edges.

Twining through the Glory Vine on this side is the Mandevilla Laxa, (right) whose slender pendulous leaves are showing gold and red shades for the first time, with clearly defined stages and veins. How odd that they are donning Autumn garb more here nearer the coast than they did not at 3,000 feet?

I miss the Wisteria’s golden contribution from those days so I am welcoming this… and all the subtle shades to infinity that Autumn can offer, even here in subtropical Australia.

Post-deluge frogs

It’s autumn, and I welcome the cooler mornings, but we are also having daily deluges more like tropical summer storms.

In the first five days of March we had 124 mm — or six inches if you’re my age — and that’s on top of what we’d already received in 2017. 

By New Year it had become so dry that small native trees were dying, citrus were turning up their toes, my creek had stopped running and its isolated pools were becoming stagnant. 

But from January 2 we’ve now totted up nearly 15 inches!

These brief but astonishingly intense autumn rainbursts make a joke of my carefully planned drainage systems, with pop-up waterfalls taking much of my soil down to the creekflats below. 

They have filled and overfilled the ‘pond’ that has been bone dry for months.

Up close, they looked more like aquatic mini rats, with their pointy noses and long tails.

Next day they seemed to be less often swimming under the water than hanging from the surface vertically, blowing bubbles, opening and closing their mouths in air. 

Clearly not fish nor rats but growing amphibians… froglets, frogs, soon to be adding to the frog chorus here!

Building for babies

This Spring the Welcome Swallows and the Willy Wagtails have both chosen to raise their families on my verandah.

The Willy Wagtails built a tidy and solid new nest, a smooth cylinder of cobwebs and grass and bodily fluids.

building-2

The slack Swallows just re-used the old one; didn’t even shore up the crumbling structure, just did an interior makeover with more feathers.

But at least two of the Swallow babies survived and flew and still kept returning to the nest area as home base.

building-3

When the Willy Wagtail decided hers was good enough, she sat. And sat. A rare occasion for the hyperactive Wagtail to be still long enough for me to get a photo.

building-4

When she sat less often, I waited for the first peeps, but heard none. Compared to Swallow babies, these are quiet — just bundles of fluff and beak, huddled together in a tiny nest.

building-5

There look to be four of them, as yet far less handsome than their dapper parents. They are all keen to be ready for a feed when a parent appears.

building-6

The parents are kept frantically busy, catching food and returning to feed one chick at a time, putting their own beak right down the chick’s throat.

At this rate they’ll outgrow that nest very soon…



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