Tough and tricky

The cliffs here are rough and rugged; not sheer drops, but lurching staggers and slides.

One has a stern Old Man of the Sea orating to the endless waters.

As you walk along the clifftop paths, lined with Casuarinas and Banksias, their sharp drop-away edges are usually hidden, until suddenly a bare opening seduces you to edge closer, to slip down its loose gravelly slope.

We don’t, watching for whales from well back…

But is from here that we see across to the next cliff, and spy a large bird busily feeding on something; what, we can’t see, even with the help of my camera zoom. The bird is totally preoccupied, does not even look over to our voices.

I think it is an Osprey, that most specialised fisher raptor, so its dinner is likely a fish, caught in one its spectacular feet-first plunges into the sea. 

The water here is so clear that its hunting would be easy. Perhaps it has its large stick nest somewhere in that rugged cliff face. Binoculars needed, I remind myself.

It’s not only the rocks that act tough and take on strange shapes. Termites have given this dead Banksia a head to surpass any of May Gibbs’ Banksia Men.

A vine forms a perfect circle before beginning its climb to the light. Why?

I know Spotted Pythons exist; is this a Mottled Python, or more muscular vines tricking us with their beautiful intertwined shapes and lichen blotches?

Next post I must praise the many wildflowers out now in this Kattang Nature Reserve, but as you see, have had trouble getting past its more solid features.

I love them all.

Ain’t Nature grand?

Kid stop?

Hearing a lot of chattering outside my window, I saw two green parrots on a far branch opposite. Lorikeets, I assumed as there had been a lot of those about in weeks gone by. But these were too big, surely?

Leaning past my desk to look down, I could see the bird water dish along the fence. It had only before attracted a sole Peewee, or that I had noticed.

Now there was a mighty flurry and fluttering of seven of these same green parrots, jockeying for turns at sipping the water, swapping places on the fence, teetering and balancing on the wire.

There were nine of them all up. But what were they?

Then my memory of my Mountain Kingies started to rev up. These looked like female King Parrots, which are mostly green except for the red lower breast and belly… were they young ones, who have similar colours to the females? The young have brown irises instead of grey, but I was too far away to see such detail.

There I was used to having plenty of the more colourful males about, with much more red on head and front…and an occasional female.

Never had I seen a whole gang like this.

One of them might have been developing the male colours, as it had a paler green strip along its wing.

They took off very quickly. Had it been a brief pit stop for the whingeing kids? ‘Mum, I’m thirsty!’

Mental note: keep that bird water dish full! Who knows what else it may attract?

Mighty mangroves

The tidal rivers and creeks here, close to their ocean destination, are edged with mangroves and mud. Despite growing up near mangrove-fringed Erina Creek on the Central Coast, I had never thought them attractive, never stopped to look more closely. I knew almost nothing about mangroves.

Now they are my neighbours, I need to learn.

Until I came here I hadn’t thought of mangroves as actual trees; the only sort I knew grew low and dense like big shrubs. These clearly are trees, stretching and arching out for long distances.

In fact, mangroves come in trees and shrubs.

We have at least five species in NSW; here they are the taller Grey Mangroves, and perhaps the fringing shorter River Mangroves.

I used to wonder about all those short spiky things that you saw when the tide was out. ‘Ouch’ was my first thought! Shoots, I imagined. But they are ’peg roots’, the air-breathing roots of these plants, so cleverly adapted to tidal inundation and salt.

You can see the mangrove fruits fallen amongst the peg roots, as well as the resulting young seedlings.

These residents of the zone between land and sea are essential: as buffers protecting coastal land, as filters and carbon sinks, as habitat and food, as breeding grounds for many species of, for example, fish or prawns and crabs. 

They and their accompanying salt marshes are too often considered ’wastelands’ and cleared and filled for development.

While we have ‘lost’ about 17% of our mangroves since white settlement, the salt marshes have fared worse, with around 30% gone… and now listed as ‘vulnerable’.

Next to this salt marsh is an isolated mature mangrove, surrounded by its roots and its seedlings: I now see it as a mother tree.

Not pretty… pretty scary, actually! Bare feet not advised.

I haven’t seen the little crabs that must live in these mangrove mudflats but their patterns are as artistic as their beach counterparts, if a little murkier.

I promise to pay more attention to my front yard, come high or low tide!

Mirrorland

It’s not very often that this river is still enough to be a perfect mirror, but as I was out early after sunup this morning, I was treated to perfection.

The mountain usually takes my eye above all, but today the ‘mackerel’ sky of altocumulus cotton buds and its watery reflection was the most impressive.

At my feet, the clouds dissolved into oyster-studded rocks, blurring perceptions.

The she-oaks lean over clouds… and rocks.

The mountain narrows to meet itself in water image.

How fortunate I am to be in lockdown in a place where it’s so worth rising early!

Kooka competitors

From my desk I could see these two on high alert for movement on the ground. They seemed to have divided the territory.

One scored before the other and got the worm. It had the better territory, as the ground was more cleared that side.

Its mate still kept watch on its own side, but with somewhat ruffled feathers…

On a new branch, the loser seemed to be rethinking that allotted territory… ‘Should I turn around and compete for it?’

Yes.  And what’s more it appeared to be even more determinedly alert and ready to dive. I wished it luck!

Beach or bush?

I do love my new area, but I have one gripe: too many of the councils allow 4WDS on their beaches.

My heart sinks when I walk out onto such an uninhabited beach as this early of a morning and find it unnaturally defaced, scored with tyre tracks running the length of it …just for fun, just because they can.

The footprints of people, dogs, birds and crabs do not distress me; they belong or have earned the right to be there by being amongst Nature to get there.

I face south and it is the same. Indeed, worse, as I can see vehicles parked there. But perhaps they are there to fish… does that make it OK?  No, past generations of fishermen would have walked, or known where the bush access tracks where to the best spots along that beach. 

I’d better look down, between the tyre tracks, at what the tide has left; I am somewhat heartened that there does not seem to be plastic pieces amongst the shell fragments. Or are they so tiny as to be invisible to the naked eye? Pessimism, or realism?

I think I’d better take to the beachside bush instead…

There are three access or picnic spot tracks to this long Dunbogan Beach, each named after a tree, although at these mainly unburnt spots those trees are not obvious to me nor marked: Blackbutt, Cheesetree and Geebung. The signs at these spots tell only of the battle against the invading Bitou Bush all along the coast.

The drive to Blackbutt does wind through what I think is a Blackbutt and Banksia forest.

I am told at the Diamond Head camp National Park office that there are no brochures or leaflets anymore, on flora or fauna. Budget? What about the purpose of national parks to educate?

I suspect I am more in tune with bush than beach, and marvel at the lichen patterns on this tree trunk.

Then I turn and see this fine goanna sunbaking in the open. It hears my camera click on, and turns its head. ‘Hello, you’, I say, as is my wont with all the wild creatures I meet.

Once again, the intricate patterns that Nature has invented make all our human design attempts pale in contrast…

Diamond Head rocks

I have confessed my fascination with — and ignorance about — rocks before.

Cliffs are just bigger rocks.

At one end of Diamond Head Campground Beach these two striking sentinels called me closer.

But when I reach them I see one is a cliff, part of the land, and one is but part of a past cliff, so can I call this one a rock, albeit a very big rock? 

And did you spot the kookaburra poised at the top? On sentry duty on a sentry rock.

To reach that stunning slit to the sea, you have to make your way over a sward of tumbled rocks large and small, deceptively not fixed, ready to cause a grandma to twist an ankle.

Reaching the safety of sand again, I look back and marvel at how lucky I am to be near such a place of natural wonders.

I pass a nonchalantly lazing kangaroo mother and joey by a picnic table. This is a national park after all…

The beach isn’t bad either…

Diamond Head rocks!

Not sacred nor scarce

In these seemingly permanent wet times, the grounds here are either soggy or full-on watery. The most frequent bird visitor is thus a wader, the Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca). Those long curved beaks are perfect for these shallow waterlogged areas.

Usually I see them only on the ground, while the kookaburras and lorikeets own the trees.

But the other day this one flew up to perch outside my windows and peep in.

Then, to its apparent surprise, it was joined by another one. Not for long; I was glad it took off again, as it seemed to have only one leg, not great for balancing.

They are sometimes called the Sacred Ibis — or were. Until the droughts of the late 1970s drove them eastwards they were rarely seen in our cities. They bred in the Macquarie Marshes, where now they are rare.

These days they are so common and in such numbers that they have become a pest, to the point of needing to be culled in some areas like Sydney’s Centennial Park. Tourists complained of their smell!

They are now more commonly called ‘Tip Turkey’ or ‘Bin Chicken’ as they have adapted to scavenging in rubbish bins… or swiping a sandwich from an unwary picnicker.

Because of that dining practice, their pure white is often tinged a rather grubby brown.

So not sacred and certainly not scarce!

Tuckeroo stone garden

I am slowly exploring this Camden Haven area of the NSW mid north coast, taking any turn-offs that catch my fancy. ‘Tuckeroo car park’ in Kattang Nature Reserve was one such. The word intrigued first, then the tree itself that invited me to the green tunnel ahead.

A large specimen with wrinkly elephantine bark, it was loaded with bunches of creamy-lemon blossoms, buzzing with bees.

It is properly called Cupaniopsis anacardioides, and also commonly known as Beach Tamarind, or Carrotwood. Birds love it too, because those flowers are followed by orange-red fleshy berries containing showy orange seeds.

The surprising reward at the end of the short walk was a rocky headland, the northern end of the long unbroken Dunbogan Beach.

I gravitate to small coves and clumps of rocks like this, but what was surprising here were the forms the rocks had taken…

Iron-rimmed geometric shapes, infilled with millions of pebbles…  what gardener had been at work here?

Some still held seawater; at a certain point of tide change the higher rocky rims would be stepped moats.

Other rocks ran in parallel like railroad tracks, or formed crosses in this pebble-crater’s garden.

Others formed backbones for arching ribs…

Or enclosed miniature sea lettuce pools and waterfalls, with small oyster-like shellfish…

Brooding over the stone garden was this ancient wrinkled giant lizard, its smooth head lifted, on alert for any misdemeanours — or for dinner?

Banksias and bijous

On such an exposed part of the Connors Track, the banksias grew low, their golden candles safe from being extinguished by the wind.

On the walk up to that headland other banksia species grew tall and woody, covered in an enormous number of dark seed cones like hairy hand grenades.

Other banksias in that coastal woodland were sized in between, sporting slim pale new candle flowers, older lemon and amber and woody ones all at once.

It is truly a banksia garden, all growing virtually on sand.

Around the Hungry Gate campground, hoary old paperbarks and strangely grown figs dominated, all reaching great heights just in sand.

On the walk, many tiny dainties graced the sandy banks, often making just one appearance. I had to be sharp to spot them; I am sure I missed many such jewels, as I only saw some on the way back.

On some it was the seed pods that caught my eye more than the flowers.

Others, like this vine, literally stepped in front of me, flaunting its curlicues and brilliant colours.

These Isopogons, also called Coneflowers or Drumsticks, are relatives of the banksia and also have woody seed heads.

This solitary large sample turned out to be a fungus, not a flower at all.

And these three were the only sundews I saw, boldly flashing their sticky red rosettes to lure insects.

The trackside bank held many surprises, from the tiniest mosses and flowers to virtual hedges of lilli-pilli.

But the whole walk was full of surprises. Next time I’ll go the whole way and be prepared for more…

Cold coastal wonders

Having moved to the coast, I expected warmer climes, tempered by the nearness to the sea…

But in this recent cold snap, apparently experienced in many places unused to such low temperatures, I find myself needing to rug up at night and early mornings as much I ever did at the Mountain. 

In 2007 I did this illustration for The Woman on the Mountain (the publishers didn’t use illustrations in the end) and apart from the ‘primitive’ desktop Mac instead of my present Mac laptop, I am wearing much the same now! 

But I am near the coast so I took my new/old/2006 VW 4motion camper to Hat Head National Park recently to briefly test it out. I learnt it needs a lot of work to make it suitable for my off-grid type of camping…

While there we did part of the Connors Walking Track, along a stunning coastline where kangaroo-mown lawns slope down to dark craggy cliffs and an endlessly rippling sea.

It is always hard for me to lift my gaze from the ground, especially on an exposed headland like this, where treasures will be small and shy

Also, as I do not cope well with heights, I stay well back from cliff edges and admire the views from afar.

Up close, I could see hundreds of native yellow paper daisies, snuggled amongst the cropped grass and growing low to avoid the wind.

There were few rocks to afford extra shelter, but plants took advantage of those, with bright pigface and greener grass savouring the lesser evaporation.

Making it as far as Third Beach, I focused on the rocks there, black and round boulders, lichen-painted and dotted, multi-formed and -coloured as they were.

Yet again I wished I knew more of geology to understand how so many disparate shapes and patterns came to be together.

The tide had receded, leaving lines of tiny earth offerings… including hundreds of tiny bits of plastic, most too small for my camera to pick up. Plastic bottle tops were many and obvious, but it was these small bits that appalled me.

So it was a relief to see bird tracks large and small… although would their crops be full of such tiny plastic particles?

As we left the beach, I spotted an isolated clump of Pandanus/Breadfruit trees, propped on their sticklike legs amongst the rocks edging the sand. I am always amazed at the way small pockets of different ecosystems find their perfect niches.

And after the flood and the move, I found I’d needed that brief break as a reminder of the whole natural world of wonders out there awaiting me…

Cats – the enemy, not the musical

My Mountain wildlife refuge was 90 minutes from a town, so too far for lazy folk to drive up into the forest and dump their unwanted pets… like cats.

In my decades there I never saw a feral cat, and only once did I see a wild dog. No danger of confusing the latter with a dingo, as sadly, after the government’s bounty on dingoes, and ‘the dogger’ visiting the area, I no longer saw our regular big ginger one or heard the distinctive howling from up the far valleys.

I did have Spotted-tailed Quolls, even nesting in my shed, so maybe they kept the cats away. Small mammal and reptiles and birds abounded, so the thought of my fascinating fellow wildlife being creatures being devoured by an invasion of cats is appalling.

My most plentiful parrot was the Crimson Rosella, beautiful and musical.

Cat eating a crimson rosella. Copyright C Potter

The Bimblebox Nature Refuge seems a long way from towns in our coastal hinterland NSW terms but it is surrounded by ‘farms’: large scale cleared grazing properties where it mostly seems neither trees nor Nature, distances nor environmental responsibilities matter much.

A farmer like my late father would say of Bimblebox, ‘It’s just bush.’ It was the accepted rural attitude. When Dad visited my mountain forest block in the 70s he said, ‘It’d look all right if it was cleared a bit; especially with a few fat Herefords on it…’

And the price of cattle is high right now, so what price a small and rare Squirrel Glider possum which needs old tree hollows for its nest?

I want to share these thoughts from Ian Hoch, at the ‘coalface’ caring for Nature at Bimblebox. Those who have read the Bimblebox book will know that Ian is a philosopher and poet as well as deeply committed to caring for the Refuge… to doing that hard work it daily involves. Last time I shared was mostly about efforts to halt the exotic flora invasion.

Below he talks about the feral fauna, on seeing this Frogs Friday infographic featuring the Squirrel Glider. The ending will resonate with me forever…

The Cat Wars

Enigmatic this little fella; don’t think he’s supposed to be here. I found one dead up on the netting and pretty sure it was Sonya (Duus) who sent it away to be identified as a Squirrel. Didn’t have the white tip which distinguishes him from the Sugar Glider.

From what I read and understand, these more delicate and vulnerable mammals were doomed from the day Cook claimed possession and liberated his pigs on Cape York and explains why Conservancy and Heritage go to all the trouble with exclusion fencing.

I’m as sick of finding bird feathers around water troughs as I am tired of shooting and trapping cats. All my efforts only create a temporary void for another tabby. After 150 years, predator and prey must have established an equilibrium of sorts with the native species either cat- savvy or exterminated, and populations of both being sustained by availability of food and refuge. 

I don’t know what to do about it but do know (as child of a cat lover mum) that top of menu for moggies is small birds and gliders. The rarer the tastier. A fluffy tail usually the only reminder of the delicacy that was. 

I have to fence roos and rabbits from this native plant nursery to tackle the same problem in the floral realm. The sweetest species don’t get a chance to reproduce. Especially those already on the edge of their range and resilience.

You might say hardly makes any difference, we’ve never really noticed their presence nor lament their loss and that’s true until you’re holding a Sugar baby or watching them glide in the moonlight between tall ghost gums, and it’s then you know what you’re missing.

I’ve seen 3 or 4 other elusive marsupials that I don’t think are listed on those sham EIS. And whether they’re listed or not is hardly the point. As the designation implies — we’re a nature refuge. The idea is to maintain habitat for wildlife for its own sake, not just for the things we happen to notice.

At the same time we wouldn’t kid ourselves these ephemeral or vulnerable species will be here for much longer. Or not without our concerted efforts to cater for them. 

Huge counter influences are at play out there now (at sister property Kerand) in the wake of the regional scale, near complete transition to full-on production. We’re in that shakedown period  and in 20 years we’ll know what’s been able to cope, and so far it doesn’t look too promising. At Kerand, it’s likely to have been 90% reduction in 50 years. I think that’s called decimation.

Can’t see how we can avoid the same from happening here. Or not at this rate. Not without ridding the place (or select parts) of pigs and cats and rabbits, buffel and secca. Ironically and cruelly those highly adaptive foreign species, unburdened by co-evolutionary checks and balances, are just way too strong for the unique niche and specialist natives.

It’s been that way the world over for centuries. Just so happens the tail end of the colonial frontier has swept through the central west in our lifetime. The ecodynamics are in continuous flux, goes on by the minute – and much we never know. Foxes and deer and goats and hares and cane toads have all come and gone from here but pigs and cats and rabbits found a perfect home and pick the eyes out of the local smorgasbord. 

As I understand, cats are at their most populous and gargantuan right across the arid zone. They’ve evolved into pumas and devastate what’s left of all those wee dainty bopping bundles of fluff that live out there in the spinifex.

We might yet get to appreciate the bunny and the tabby, and not torment ourselves with reminders of squirrel gliders.

Pumas indeed! A feral cat carrying a sand goanna in its mouth. Picture: Emma Spencer