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

Rare sighting

Strolling through Wingham Brush Reserve on the slightly elevated walkway, looking from side to side, I spotted a reptile in the leaf litter.

This was the first time I have ever seen a critter other than bats, brush turkeys and an occasional small bird there. It’s the massive strangler fig trees and the dim dry rainforest world around them that most attract me.

So was this a bluetongue lizard? There was something odd about the shape, the scales… and the head.

Moving to see the head more closely, I decided it wasn’t. But what was it? It was remaining absolutely still, despite our voices and footsteps… and a fly hanging around its face.

I was very excited to look it up and see it is a Land Mullet (Egernia major), one of our largest skinks, reaching up to 60cm. I had only ever seen one once before, at my Mountain.

It is called a Land Mullet because of its large shiny fish-like scales and because when it moves, it does look like a mullet swimming.

Preferring rainforest or nearby, it apparently often lives in burrows, so I was lucky to see it out sunning itself, unblinking, unswimming.

Pays to stay observant on a walk!

Water wanderers

After my last odd waterbird visitor, the Royal Spoonbill, I thought I had spotted another strange long-legged, long-beaked bird down there in the wetlands.

But when it settled its ruffled feathers and assumed a more familiar stance, it revealed itself to be not really odd at all.

Perhaps oddly out of place, as there are no cattle here, and I think it is the quite common Cattle Egret.

I have usually seen it in groups around cows in paddocks, some often perched on the backs of cows.

Native to Africa and Asia, they were introduced to Australia in 1948 – as was I! – and have spread successfully into new territories, including America.

Equally common, and perhaps equally out of place, was this Long-necked Tortoise, seen wandering in my dry back yard, heading uphill from the wetlands.

As it still had damp mossy patches on its back, it can’t have been lost or misguided for long.

I stood very still as It looked about carefully, fixing my feet at least with those gimlet eyes.

Then it turned itself about and, very purposefully and surprisingly swiftly, headed downhill towards the water. 

There is a low old paling fence to be negotiated but, as I later saw, it found the worn parts and dug away until it was on the watery side where it belonged.

But why had it left and what led it to think there’d be water up here?

These wetlands are a boon in attracting wild creatures; after all, water is life.

Solo Spooner

A glimpse of white down there in the wetlands, seen from my deck as I was hanging out washing; triple blink. What on earth could that be? Camera grab, race down to the yard, tiptoe to my fence.

The strange creature’s spoon-shaped bill said ’Spoonbill’ of course, although I have never had one visit me, here or elsewhere.

But it seemed to have a neck that could swivel 360 degrees. Cleaning its feathered back? Or scratching?

Apart from acrobatic ablutions, that long beak is used for sweeping shallow waters for food.

The black bill and legs and the red eyes tell me it is a Royal Spoonbill, confirmed by the impressive crest of head plumes I glimpsed earlier.

With the crest lowered, it looks more like a bearded elder, with hair hanging over its collar. And did it just yawn?

The weird and wonderful denizens of and visitors to even my little patch keep me in touch enough with the wild to survive in a town. Almost…

Golden acrobats

The greyheaded flying fox colony in Wingham Brush is enormous: about 200,000 at peak times.

As the sun hits their trees in the morning, the chatter and activity sounds like every bit of a peak time.

I am fascinated by these creatures, watching their deft acrobatics as they stretch a wing or hang by one ‘foot’. Their soft fur looks like golden peach fuzz in the sunshine, and their pointed ‘foxy’ faces dare anyone to call them ugly or scary.

To fit so many into this colony, they are of necessity crowded, but the chatter and movement doesn’t sound irritable; it sounds like morning gossip.

‘So, how did you go last night?’

Where the sun is less strong as yet, they are tightly bundled in their leather cloaks, strung like Christmas baubles.

These two were interacting without fuss, but what was the larger one doing to its smaller mate?

Sleepy Brush morning

In the reclaimed Brush at Wingham, Brush Turkeys abound. In daytimes, they are usually seen scratching amongst the leaf litter.

Today I entered the Brush on the still-dark side. It was too early for their routine, and I caught them napping. This was the first time I had seen them roosting on branches.

Neither of these looked happy at being disturbed.

You can see from the overall shot how dark it was in their part of the Brush — and why the photos are not great! 

But a little further on the daylight had penetrated to the ground and other Turkey families were at it already.

Amongst the gloom I was struck by this Strangler Fig in a very real pose of strangling. Can I watch that with my Jacaranda?

As a farewell treat, the early sunlight perfectly highlighted this small spiderweb in my path.

Evening exodus

Every evening, after sundown, before dark, in what I guess we can claim as twilight, a seemingly endless stream of bats fly over my place, heading out for the night’s feeding.

From my deck I watch the streams of flying dots, fascinated as the odd one turns back or the strands split up, until the sky is too dark to distinguish them.

They are clearly heading for different feeding places, but how do they decide who goes where, and why do some individuals get their signals mixed up? 

The ‘bats’ are actually Grey-headed Flying-foxes, and have about 20 different calls. They navigate by sight and find food by smell. So maybe the meandering individual’s senses are just a bit off that evening.

More numerous than my head can guess at, but in the thousands seems right. They come from their home in the regenerated Wingham Brush.

Thousands of Grey-headed Flying-foxes literally hang out there by day, small swinging parcels wrapped up in leather shawls.

Even if you don’t look up into the Giant Stinging Trees, the Strangler Figs and many other rainforest trees, you can’t remain unaware that this is their place — the smell, for a start, and then the chattering and squeaking, the restless movements above, even when they are supposed to be sleeping.

I find them fascinating, and delight in having such a thriving colony in my area. These ‘Flying Foxes’ — quaint name! — seem very social. Some hang by one hand and air their wings, others visit next door camps.

So each time I watch the flying dots pass over, I give thanks that at least one species still has enough habitat here. I hope enough destination feeding forests will remain too, of eucalypt blossoms and nectar, of native fruits like lilli-pillis.

If not, we force them into ‘our’ patches and complain.

Revisit?

Coming home after what had clearly been a wet week here, I was pleased to see my wildlife mates, including the plentiful kookaburras.

This one on the deck railing looked around at my intrusion as if he’d become used to having it to himself.

But what was he so keenly watching down below in the yard?

A turtle! I tiptoed down to see. It appeared to be scrabbling in a circle on the slight slope; was it injured?

Up closer, I decided it had use of all four legs. Noting the dried green weed on its shell, I wondered if it was the same Eastern Long-necked Turtle that had visited me very early on in my residency here. This turtle (Chelodina longicollis) is one of the snake-necked types, for obvious reasons, and a species of side-necked turtle, as it bends its head sideways into its shell rather than pulling it directly back.

However, from the look it gave me, this one was not about to say ‘Hello, nice to see you again’ or any such. Bearing in mind that their other common name is ‘Stinker’, from the offensive-smelling fluid it emits from its musk glands if it feels threatened, I backed off.

I stayed well away, watching from a distance, with my camera zoom at the ready.

When the turtle deemed I had been gone long enough and it was safe to move, it did, unerringly turning downhill towards the wetlands’ swamps and ponds.

At a fair pace it skirted the old timber fence. There being plenty of broken bits, I knew it would find a way out. After all, it must have come in from the wetlands.

But why?

And was it revisiting? I hoped so, since an annual turtle treat would be most welcome!

Return of the Frogmouth kids?

Poking about under the small clump of trees on my block, I was pointing up into the skinniest Casuarina to show a visiting weed controller where the Frogmouth nest was.

‘Well, there’s two up there now’, he said.

At first all I could see were two odd shapes against the light.

When I moved around the tree to the better, non-backlit side, there they were– unmistakably two Frogmouths playing at dead branches.

Of course I went for the camera, as its zoom enables me to see so much better. Aren’t they beautiful close up?

Are these are the grown siblings come back to their birthplace, albeit in a different fork of that tree, or one of them and a parent, or the two original parents?

Whatever they are, I am thrilled to have them back!

Duck Trails

The swamp/pond in the reserve below my block generally looks like a smooth bowling green. But now and then I see dark tracks through the algae topping carpet.

Going closer to investigate, I see two handsome Black Ducks entering the water, joining another bird that from a distance I assume will be a Purple Swamp Hen.

The ducks begin effortlessly gliding across the pond, trailblazing as they go. The trails close back over quite quickly. I could see four Black Ducks on the pond in all.

Black Ducks (Anas superciliosa) are common all over Australia. For once, males and females are similarly striking: the black eye stripes, peach cheeks and stunning individually outlined feathers, with a flashy emerald green ‘speculum’ hiding amongst them.

The other lone waterbird has me baffled. The colours aren’t right on the head and that distinctive yellow/lime beak has me beat. Could it be a Coot in a particular phase? Can anyone help?

Jack’s back

My favourite lizard at the Mountain was the cheeky Jacky (Amphibolurus muricatus). I missed him.

But after six months in my new home, I think one of his cousins has come to live here.

He was stretched out across my makeshift plastic-covered hothouse for carrots, catching the last of the afternoon sun.

I ran for the camera but he was quick to dash away. I laughed aloud with delight to see that familiar high-legged splayed gait, long needle tail held out stiff and straight behind — just like a mini-dinosaur.

It looked like a Jack was back in my life.

This one bore different colours from my Mountain mate, but they do vary a lot with gender and temperature. He ran under the house on to a pile of timber, where I couldn’t get a good photo. But enough to marvel anew at those delicate toes and the intricate studded patterns of his stripes. If he’s not a Jacky lizard, he’ll still be Jack to me… and very welcome too!

Kooka colony

Being bordered by a forest on two sides means I have great close-ish views of many birds.

I hear and see kookaburras quite often, usually in ones or sometimes twos.

This pair were on lookout duty in a large camphor laurel tree.( I have planted a small self-sown strangler fig at its base, hoping that one day native Nature will win.)

Then I noticed a third handsome kooka on a lopped arm of a different tree nearby. It seemed to have something in its beak, but which looked more plant than animal, a stem perhaps, mistaken from on high for a worm.

I don’t know if a trio constitutes a colony (I just like alliteration), but I’d say it’s at least a family.

I wrote about them in my first two books, and drew one, a fellow Mountain resident, in Mountain Tails.

Here’s an extract about kooka families from that chapter, ‘Kookaburra kingdom’

I’ve learnt that Laughing Kookaburras live for several decades and are stay-at-home family birds, partnering for life and keeping their offspring around them in large family groups, where all the older ones help their parents raise the nestlings.

Human families used to do that in the pre-Pill days when four kids was the norm; six and up if you were Catholic, obeyed the Pope and relied on the unreliable rhythm method; two was unusual, a bit sad, given that there must be a physical reason why you’d stopped there; and the rare only child and its parents were much pitied. Bogging in to help feed the littlies, wipe their noses, find the other sock, tie their shoelaces or keep them away from under Mum’s feet was the accepted cross of being older, just part of family life.

As kookaburras haven’t heard about the Pill, things haven’t changed for them. My head knows that those morning and evening kooka choruses that echo around the ridges here are to help the different family groups re-establish their territorial boundaries, like auditory suburban paling fences. Yet my heart says they also do it for sheer joy, since their performance is so wholehearted, beaks pointing skywards, throats vibrating, as they sing the daylight in and out.

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