Tree hugs?

Strangler figs are extraordinary plants, but this large one seemed to be a cannibal as well. It was likely newer aerial roots embracing the original fig… and who knows what sort of tree it had strangled.

The labyrinthine inner root system sat within the older one’s arms. No wonder fairy stories anthropomorphise trees…

At other times the figs cuddle up to a different species, embracing it so closely it merges. These two seem on equal terms as yet, but I know which will win in the end. Treehugging gone too far?

As always I am fascinated by the apparently wilful choices made by trees, like this small one on a heathland. Having decided ‘up there’ was too windy and exposed, it headed back down, curving in on itself in an almost embrace.

Curves are favoured by others, like these wattle seed pods. After popping open to release the seeds, they curl up into spirals as fascinating as the flowers were.

Isn’t Nature amazing?

The weird and the white

I am hoping somebody can tell me what these strange extra-terrestrial looking clumps are, congregating under the graceful weeping branches of the Horsetail She-oak, Casuarina equisetifolia.

With that grey-green colour, from afar I thought they may have been immature Flannel Flower (Actinotus helianthi) plants, not yet leggy and stretching skyward.  But hardly likely…

Yet a few weeks later, those weird clumps on the stony headland, where little else grew, had bloomed… indisputably with Flannel Flowers, though small and still unlike the usual ones, now also in bloom in sandier soil.

These open foliaged, taller Flannel Flowers are the norm… 

There’s a lot of white flowers now, although much of the Spring show has finished.

And is this an Isopogon???

But the most mysterious of all to me was this shrub or small tree that a few weeks ago was to be seen in profuse white blossom in much of the Reserve. So widespread and numerous was it that I expected it to be touted, like the Flannel Flowers, as one of the sights to be seen here.

Any clues?

Pretty and profuse, and equally unidentified.

As for weird, the nubbly bark of this Banksia tree takes the cake!

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?

Moving mountains

I would like to introduce everyone to my new home surroundings, and to my new mountain, which will be featured often in my blogs. It is Dooragan, or North Brother, near Laurieton. I am near both river and sea and two national parks, so I look forward to exploring and sharing sunrises, sunsets and clouds, and plants and creatures of sea, sand and rocks, mangroves, swamps and mountain forests.

Why am I here? Partly by force of nature.

It seems like an eternity, but is about six weeks since I woke up about 6.30 a.m., swung my feet over to stand on the carpet… and found that my bed was standing in water.

Floodwater.

Was I actually awake?! How could this be  real?

In water to my knees, I grabbed the torch I kept on my bedside table, and shone it about. The water certainly felt real; it looked real. 

Yet I was incredulous.

This was not supposed to happen; I had been unable to get flood insurance due to the zoning, but I had not worried as my neighbouring ‘constructed wetland’ forest had been a ’90s flood mitigation measure that had worked ever since.

Wading out into the hall, my torch showed two yellow discs bobbing about in. The halved skins of a passionfruit, they’d have been in my compost bin in the kitchen… I passed a large container of corn chips that would have been in a cupboard down there…

This was real all right.

Over the night of March 19 the flooded creek/river had silently far exceeded its expected reach, snuck up the hill on which my house sat, and into my house.

At 8.30 that night I’d checked and there was water only in the lowest bottom corner of my large yard, a not unusual occurrence.

I slept soundly. There was no sound, no SMS alert or warning, no knock on the door.

While up to mattress height in the bedroom part of my house, in the lower part (two steps down) it was up to kitchen bench height, and my fridge and furniture … and compost bin contents… were floating about.

My garage, further downhill, was flooded far higher; it was full of tools and camping gear, and most precious of all, the carefully stored boxes of my own books, taped with chalk inside to absorb any moisture, placed on pallets to avoid any dampness… !! They were now just a pile of mush. 

Irreplaceable. Heartbreaking.

As the SES boat took me and my few hastily grabbed possessions out, I only managed to take the above two photos.

My car in the carport even lower down was under many metres of water, and next day as the water receded, it was clear it would be a write-off… as it was.

When I was allowed back in, SES volunteers helped me take out heavy items like sodden mattresses. Once family could get through other flooded roads, days later, we frantically threw out ruined items large and small, and broke apart lower swollen cupboards and furniture to get the stinking clothes and books and albums out before worse mould set in. 

Fixed carpets were ripped up, large mats removed with hope they could be washed and salvaged. 

My grandkids dried and separated pages and peeled off photos in the oldest family albums… again, irreplaceable.

Several mountains of dumped belongings formed out the front, to be picked up by a Council excavator and loaded into trucks. Things like the fridge and washing machine looked OK, but were irretrievably ruined.

It took weeks to empty the place, but the cleaning began apace.  Friends and family were wonderful; some washed many loads of linen and clothes, others washed down walls with vinegar; others washed cupboard contents deemed OK to use again, like crockery and pans; I mopped the timber floors… five moppings so far!

Many of you know of this disaster that befell me because my friend David ran a fundraiser, and while I did not look at that until weeks later, a truly humbling number of people donated to help me out. I would not have managed without those funds and I am overwhelmed with gratitude to everyone, whether they gave $10 or much more. Knowing that such kindness and emotional support was out there helped me greatly.

I have since had to pay to have done, and do myself, certain flood-damage remedial work on the house, but being mostly built of timber and timber-lined, it has come up well. Only one added-on room was plasterboard… a costly mess. 

Once the underfloor foamboard insulation I’d installed was removed, the old floorboards slowly dried and uncupped. Amazing.

Chipboard does not cope with inundation well either… but the new vanity looks nice.

I’d been planning to sell and move to this smaller place on the coast. Folk had been booked to look at my lovely furnished and decorated house on the very Monday after the flood; in preparation I’d de-cluttered and put things in lower cupboards and moved much to the garage. A double punch to the guts for me; now what did I have to show or sell?

But a few weeks later, they still wanted to look at the empty and cleaned house, despite my being in process of touching up and fixing.

They made an offer; I accepted, and in a few weeks it will be theirs. Only one more trip for me back to finish painting… and say goodbye.

So now I live here. It’s small, but I write this first blog post here looking into the tops of a paperbark forest, I hear lorikeets in blossom-feeding frenzy, a goanna waddled through the carport the other day… and I have but to turn my head to see the river and that Mountain.

Silver linings indeed…

I am tired, exhausted really, but I can see they will be a comfort once I get past the shock, which has not quite hit as I have been so very busy. 

Again, thanks to everyone for your support and good wishes. 

Stump host

This Silky Oak, long ago self-sown in the wrong place, had to be taken down. But its twintrunked stump is still giving life.

One rainforest tree seed has found its way in between those trunks and is somehow thriving.

But someone seems to have cleaned their paintbrush on its bark.  No, it’s my old friends, the slime moulds, this time a smoother variety of the family, one I had not yet met.

On the other side, a different slime mould resembles, not paint, but sawdust, scattered down the bark and coating the fungi which like this stump too.

I never cease to wonder at the many forms this can take. And to think I once did not know of the existence of slime moulds…

But have a look at this breathtaking video from Australian photographer Stephen Axford:

Smart spit?

Any odd spots of inappropriate colour on a plant always catch my eye.

These two white blobs on the old casuarina outside my gate drew my attention.

There were only the two, but I knew what these were because my sister had a larger version in one of her garden trees not long ago and we had both searched for the identity. (A Slime Mould had been my first guess.)

It has many names, including Snakespit, Frogspit and Cuckoospit. In fact, it’s not spit at all, but the secretions of the Spittlebug.

Spittlebugs are not actually bugs, but the nymphs of true bugs called froghoppers… because they hop.

They feed on the xylem of plants, the water-conducting tubes from roots to leaves. A spittlebug has to pump up a great deal of this fluid to survive… up to 300 times its weight in an hour!

The nymph is usually upside-down, and pumping so much fluid means it excretes a lot of waste from its anus. As it does, it also secretes a sticky substance from its abdominal glands, whips air into the mix and creates the froth. This covers the nymph, hiding it from predators. The froth also makes a nice humid ‘house’ and shields the bug from rain.

Clever, eh?

Walking sticks

Wildlife seems to find me. This impressive stick-insect right beside my front door was spotted by my son-in-law when he arrived.

I think this is a female Titan Stick-insect, Acrophylla titan.

She was easily 300mm long, compared here with her discoverer’s hand.

I was afraid to harm those fragile limbs in trying to dislodge her, but she was not interested in walking on to a twig either.

This stick-insect is from the Phasmatidae family. Six-legged vegetarians, they are often confused with the carnivorous Mantids — as in the Praying Mantis.

As you can see, she’d have superb camouflage on bark or branches, so why she chose to walk away from any trees or shrubs, across a wide timber verandah, and climb up a grey painted weatherboard wall I cannot imagine. She can’t fly — unless ‘she’ is a ‘he’, as the males can, but they are smaller.

Next morning she was gone, nowhere in sight. A mysterious visit by an example of amazing Nature!

Electric raptors

Drivers along the Lakes Way just south of Forster have been doing doubletakes as they pass this aerial edifice.

After watching my Willy Wagtails’ teeny effort, this massive pile of branches seemed hardly birdlike.

I only had time to zoom in on the remaining parent. I’d been thinking a White-breasted (or White-bellied) Sea Eagle, but this has to be an Osprey. They are raptors like Eagles, Kites, Harriers and Goshawks, but are a class of their own.

No doubt the absent parent was off patrolling the nearby waterways. Ospreys are highly specialised fish hunters, having spines on the soles of their feet to help hold a slippery fish, as well as needle-sharp talons.

I haven’t seen it but they are also spectacular fishers, plunging into water feet first to seize a fish, sometimes going right under.

One of my bird books (‘Australia — Land of Birds’,Trounson) reckons their eggs are considered amongst the most beautiful of all — ‘cream, boldly blotched and dotted with rich brown and chocolate’ —  and much prized by collectors in the past.

So it is not surprising that Ospreys choose to build beyond collector or little boy climbing height — with the extra security of a high-voltage hit to the daring.

Queer creatures

When you step out of your ute in a Macdonalds carpark (yes, I confess: a rare last resort!) you don’t expect to be eye-to-eye with a prehistoric creature like this.

It was most uncomfortably perched on top of a harshly pruned hedge, as spiky as itself.

I think it’s a water dragon but there was none of that substance about. It, like the dragons, is usually found at ground level.

Maybe it was waiting to be fed leftovers from Maccas?

By the way, at least I learnt that Maccas still doesn’t cater for vegetarians.

Coffee with fries, please.

gourds

Meanwhile at home, I have two far more smooth and docile creatures in residence.

The Gramma couple are snuggling up in a corner while I consider how best to use these gifts from a neighbour. I’ve done the Gramma Pie they requested. Very nice too, but it was more an exercise in disguising the Gramma than making the most of its flavour (?).

Anything could have provided the bulk.

Anyway, I’m not sure I can bear to break up this loving pair. Well, he seems a bit uppity, but she clearly adores him.

Royal visitor

Down here in my skybowl I have had isolated visits from birds I don’t usually see – just dropping in for a peek at how we poor groundhuggers live.

But I have never had a Wedge-tailed Eagle come calling at the house.

Last week this one flew into my yard and landed in a very large and spreading stringybark tree, just up the hill. The photo was taken from my verandah steps.

It was only there for about five minutes. I don’t know why it came so low and why it landed; the magpies usually hunt them out of our air space quite promptly.

When it took off, I was in awe of its skill in managing those huge and deeply flapping wings between the branches before it could get up and away.

I count this as a royal visit because to me the Wedgies are the kings here, as I wrote in this chapter of Mountain Tails.

Sky lords

A pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles lord it over these mountains, often accompanied by a third, presumably their young one. They circle overhead on the air currents, barely moving a wing. At times so high as to be mere floating specks, at others low enough for me to see their pale hooked beaks and the colours on their plumage; at heights in between, dark silhouettes of the distinctive wedge-shaped tail and the up-curved swoop of wings.

They seem to be the natural kings of the upper sky, effortlessly surfing the invisible currents, crossing from ridge to ridge, watching the clearings in the valleys far below for a rabbit or other small mammal. Their main mode of flight is thus elegantly languid, appearing to be almost lazy, yet it is absolutely economical, perfectly poised, ready to bundle themselves into an aerodynamic lightning bolt to hurtle earthwards after the prey detected by their extraordinary eyesight.

That eyesight is equivalent to mine — if I was using binoculars with 20 times magnification power!

Elaborate aerobatics are also used as foreplay, to impress the female partner. She plays hard to get, feigns nonchalance, now and then surfing the air currents on her back to briefly hold ‘hands’, link claws, with her slightly smaller suitor. When she gives in, her mate helps repair whichever of their several nests they have decided to use that year. She often has two young hatch, but usually only one survives to adulthood — by killing its sibling. So we shouldn’t complain about pushy brothers or sisters; at least they didn’t push us right out of a (probably very high) nest.

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Wombats and Windgrove

On my brief 2010 foray into southern Tasmania I was looking for wild edges, and I found a place called Roaring Beach that tugged hard at my mountain heart.

It was much later that I discovered a wonderful website, perfectly named ‘Windgrove: Life on the Edge’ emanating from that same beautiful wild place — home of Peter Adams, sculptor, thinker, writer, nature lover — great photographer! All the photos in this post are by Peter.

I only did so via my webmaster/mates, Fred Baker and Allan Moult; Allan does Peter’s Windgrove site. There’s a permanent link to it on my ‘Supporters’ list.

Many of you have loved the photographs of the pouch-peeping wallaby and kangaroo joeys I’ve been lucky enough to get close to. 

As an introduction to the many delights you’ll find at Windgrove as Peter shares his sea-swept 100 acres, there can be little more special than this sighting of a wombat joey nestled in its mother’s pouch.

The pouch is cleverly backwards-opening so her joey isn’t half-smothered in dirt when she digs. Maybe that’s where Volvo got the idea for their baby seats?

I especially relate to Peter’s understanding of how to get to know a natural place and its treasures; I too have learnt to shut my mouth and open my eyes, be slow or still — and carry a camera.  There is so much to allow yourself to be shown.

As I said in the first chapter of my first book, The Woman on the Mountain, explaining why I live ‘way out there’:

‘My world is unfashionable, timeless and teeming and intensely fascinating. It commands my interest, my passion, and my pen.’

It seems that Peter’s art is similarly engaged with and inspired by his world. Similarly too, while he has planted thousands of trees on once-barren Windgrove, ‘in the process he, himself, has been transformed by the land.’


‘Still-a-life’ — Sculpture by Peter Adams

Willy Weavers

My friend Christa doesn’t live in the bush, but on her rural suburban riverside block she observes an astonishing amount of fascinating natural phenomena.

The key is that she is keen to watch — and to wonder. Plus she takes great photos.

As her wildlife is often quite different to mine, she sees things I am not likely to. This one is so special I’ve asked her permission to share it with you.

She was drawing ‘immense pleasure’ from watching a pair of Willie Wagtails building a nest under the verandah roof outside her bedroom.  In fact, they would wake her up with their chirping and flurrying.  

To her surprise, she realised that they were using cobwebs as the main building material.

‘They arrive with threads wrapped around their heads, then wipe the head on the nest, all the while wriggling inside, checking for the right fit.’

‘They also use bits of grass and seem to put them on the inside. I think the nest grows about 1cm per day. By the weekend, it might be ready for eggs.’

But after the weekend Christa emailed the sad news. The Willie Wagtails had abandoned the nest on Saturday, after all that complex weaving.  

‘During the day, once or twice, they still defended the yard against crows and magpies. There was also a curious thing happening with two Willies. A larger one came and bullied the nest builder out of the nest, then briefly hopped inside it and left. Perhaps that bully is the reason for the now deserted nest. It still is a beautiful construction and I’m happy I could watch the process.’

To me, it looks almost like felting. And it is a great pity the Wagtails broke up before they could occupy it and start a family — but I warn all owner builders that this is a possible outcome!