Caring for Nature takes work!

Bimblebox Nature Refuge occupies 8,000 hectares. Not huge by western Queensland measures, but by NSW coastal standards it’s almost inconceivably vast.

 My Mountain wildlife refuge and conservation property was only 64 hectares, and I know how much work was involved in trying to keep an eye out for new invading plants and then to try to keep them in check, year after year. Weeding, weeding, weeding…

My place was remote from agriculture… and people… so there were relatively few feral plants or animals. But even now, when I see paddocks full of fireweed and Crofton weed in vast amounts in national parks and state forests… I sigh, and groan inwardly.

What I did on my little patch may not have made much difference overall, but it meant that one forest ecosystem had the chance to regenerate as it should and not be choked by a feral understorey. And indeed to be as ‘natural’ and in balance as it could be.

As Archie Roach sang, ‘The Australian bush is losing its identity…’

For the 22 years since the gazettal of Bimblebox Nature Refuge, it’s been mainly Ian Hoch doing that neverending work on those 8000ha. Paola is often needed on their sister property, and since 2007, greatly occupied with the fight to save the place from the coal threat. Occasional volunteers have helped, but there have never been enough.

Many who visit have offered advice on how to run or improve Bimblebox, often with grand plans, especially since that coal threat reared its head higher in late 2019.

 The other day I read the following  words of Ian’s; they struck me as expressing so well the many and varied needs of caring for the Refuge there… and why at least one other person helping would make a big difference. So I asked his permission to share extracts from them.

As Ian says, we need these visiting people to see:  ‘the Bimblebox paradox  – it’s everything and it’s nothing’.

‘Change comes one step at a time.’ If people can ‘…see this situation from the resident’s perspective, or at least some of it, or at least to think more about the reasons for historical failure rather than the prospects of future success. I could then say to each as they departed – rather than all the fanfare, the best way you can help is look out for that one person. Now you know how it is here and what’s missing. It’s not at all the postcard depicted by the artists and for the media or government or EDO. 

‘The missing bit is out there somewhere in the suburbs and you might be in a position to fill the gap. One person who can handle this domestic situation, and has a similar interest and has nothing better to do – that’s all we need right now, so starting today we go systematically around the property and catch the coffee senna and parkinsonia and this latest ghastly interloper with thorns to puncture a bullock hide, before they shed their 20 years worth of seed, and of course the horrid harrisia can’t be far away and with the advantage of bird dispersal in this jungle we’ll have a veritable nightmare when it arrives. 

‘After that we might even get some fencing in, secure the hotspot boundaries to avoid more strife with the neighbours, and run electric wires along roads so we can graze to reduce fire, or control burn without having the stock flog the pasture in that critical recovery phase. We might manage to rabbit proof this nursery, and make a start of thinning the century of thickening and ultimately show results to make developers everywhere wish like hell they’d never cleared their land. That’s when we arrive at the irrefutable conclusion – conservation pays, i.e., we’re far better off working in conjunction with nature than fighting with it. It’s an obvious and oft recited axiom but almost meaningless. We don’t see it around us. 

Guess which side of the fence is cared for?

‘You have either production land or recreation land. One stripped, one struggling. Already the health and vitality from retaining diversity is becoming apparent driving around the boundary, but that’s due to the neighbours’ actions, or you might say overaction, rather than our deliberate or constrained inaction.

‘We haven’t done anything yet, and that’s a big part of the aversion and resistance. Whereas with a few years of interaction, or what we now call regeneration, where we check the spread of exotics and enhance floral diversity (with controlled grazing) and redress the pasture/woody imbalance (with herbicide, because we’ve learnt that fire can’t and bulldozers make it worse) would turn everything around. In that regard one able bodied person with nothing but work clothes and willingness is worth more than a thousand novel proposals, as clever and well intended as they are. We could start our on the boundary where the contrast is most telling.

‘We’ve been here 22 years now, longer than anyone since the first people were turfed out, or at least I have, and in that time have actually come up with a few worthwhile undertakings myself and it’s amazing how many think you’re short of  ideas and direction. Art camp’s a case in point.’

It was built from ‘recovered and repaired materials’, mainly by Ian and son Karly. As TBA said in their Chuffed campaign, it needs an upgrade, and the funds are there, thanks to supporters’ generosity; COVID stopped one capable and keen helper from coming over the border when the weather was cool enough to start the work last year, and now it’s that time again.

Despite funds and advice, ‘nobody bends over and picks up the pieces.’ Ian is about to start the camp work, although he has so much to do already. He now urgently needs that helper. Weeds don’t wait while he is busy elsewhere! Then he could keep up the daily work of caring for Bimblebox and make the camp fully functional again for September, when the rains have come and the heath is a mass of colour. Then artists or visitors who want to come and camp and be energised and inspired by Nature at Bimblebox can do so again.

So I am pleading with you all to think hard whether you know someone who might be able to fill that volunteer role very soon and help Ian with this camp and other work. Caring for Nature takes work!

If you do, or may be able to volunteer yourself, please email Paola on bimblebox@gmail.com or call her on (07) 4985 3474

Waterbird welcome

I have yet to get my head around the different range of birds I will be treated to here. 

By the sea, I expect seagulls of course, but fussing about in formation on the wet sand at Diamond Head were flocks of these small birds that I know should be Little Terns on this part of the coast. But they look more like Fairy Terns, given the lack of black in front of the eye.

Any ideas?

And then, on the waterlogged riverside where I now live, from a distance… and without my glasses… I saw what seemed to be a flock of white sheep grazing.

With glasses, I saw they they were White Ibis, poking about with their long curved bills in the grass where caravans would normally be parked.

Early next morning, in fine drizzle, they were back, but this time in the company of several Royal Spoonbills, who flew off as soon as I and my camera came too close. So apologies for the fuzzy pic from too far away, but it gave me a thrill to see other waterbirds here.

From the river’s edge, I could see a flock of Pelicans far out on an oyster platform, preening and stretching their wings.

Not that I need my bird reference books for Pelicans, but I did for Terns, and thankfully they were on high shelves, so not ruined by the flood. 

Only yesterday I sought my Australian native flower I.D. books for extra info on the Bimblebox Frogs Friday Bluebell… and realised they had been on the next shelf down, so had become sodden pulp.

I daresay I will have more such jolts… oh dear, my fungi books were there too…!

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. 

Welcome resident reptile

I love my little skinks but I was delighted to realise that this very big and handsome skink, an Eastern Bluetongue (Tiliqua scincoides), has taken up residence in my yard.

Over several weeks I have seen it in three different places, but was still surprised to spot it by my back steps. These can grow up to 60cm long, but often only the head will be seen, protruding from a drainpipe or other shelter.

You would usually only see its blue tongue when it is in defensive mode, puffing up its body and holding its mouth open to scare the perceived intruder. This one seems used to me and does not scurry away as it did at first.

I am in awe of the intricate arrangement of its head scales… and a little in love with its cute little feet…!

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:

Lichen decor

On my morning walk, this unusual decorative wall drew me across the road for a closer look. It looked intentional, with the defined cut-off line at the top.

But in fact it was not made by man, but by Nature. It proved to a most painterly smattering of lichens, opportunistically taking over a stretch of black shadecloth.

Up close, the lichen was both pretty and delicately varied, the shadecloth host giving it the effect of paint on canvas.

Further along the road, different lichen had ‘painted’ just four of a whole fence of timber palings. What did they have that the others didn’t?

Of course we are most used to seeing lichen on trees, as here on the south side of a palm tree in that same street.

Lichen is not a parasite, so it does not harm the trees.

Lichens are formed from a symbiotic relationship between two organisms — fungus and algae. The fungus grows on the tree and can collect moisture, which the algae needs. The algae, in return, can create food from the energy of the sun, which feeds the fungus.

How clever is that?!

Deck extras

The late afternoon sun lit up these exquisite decorations on my deck railing wire.

The artist missed a few of the joining spots but otherwise turned my wire netting into a diamond-paned leadlight.

I am so admiring of the symmetry and discipline… and grateful for the beauty.

The actual deck railing supports my passionfruit vine but also proved useful as a brief vantage point for this solo King Parrot. 

It didn’t stay long, but flew to the aerial clotheslines you see here, gathered together the front two lines and perched on them both at once! 

Then it flew down to my vegie garden for the less wobbly perch of a tomato stake.

Such a beautiful and bright parrot. This rear view shows the deep blue feathers that are often unnoticed.

I am a big fan of multi-functioning, so I’m very glad to see my deck useful for the wildlife.

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?

Colour fooling

Trees are green, right? At least our native non-deciduous ones are. Except when they’re pink.

These plentiful local paperbark trees right now are so totally decked in new leaves that from a distance the whole tree appears pink.

While the flora are playing tricks with colours, so are the fauna. 

Hearing a very noisy and unfamiliar bird outside, and another answering it, I of course went out to try to see what was making the racket. Usually I fail, but this time the caller broke tree cover and flew to the power lines on the street.

It was joined by another.

The two birds remained apart… and now silent. But what were they? Brown-headed birds are many, but that blue tinge on the breast feathers should be a clue…

Search my bird books as I might, thinking maybe some sort of Wood Swallow, I could not pin it down. I had to seek help from real birdwatchers.

When the answer came back, I realised I would never in a million years have got it.

A juvenile Dollar Bird (Eurystomus orientalis)!

Bird books, be they illustrated with photos or drawings, are no substitute for the variability of birds in real life, especially throughout their development into adults.

That apparently distinctive blue tinge does not show or get a mention on the juveniles in my books.

I had never seen a Dollar Bird, young or old.  The very colourful adults are migratory, so that is perhaps why.  I read that they 

‘indulge in spectacular swooping, diving and rolling in the air’. So I am sorry they did not stay to entertain me, but they certainly did intrigue me!

Rainy day life

In between showers and heavy downpours I nipped out to check the mail box and found this bright creature held fast to the front of it by a small spider web. After taking a photo, I freed its legs and sent it on its way.

Next step of course was to find out what it was.

Turns out it is quite historic, being the first insect to be described from Australia, after Cook’s first visit.

It is Chrysopolus spectabilis, or far less appropriately called Botany Bay Weevil.

‘Diamond’ and ‘sapphire’ feature in other less used names, but ‘weevil’ persists. For me that is unfortunate, as it  carries baggage of unpleasant connotations of bulk flour ruined by weevils. But they never looked like this!

In fact, this insect feeds on wattles, on acacias, and I have several varieties planted nearby.

My front verandah is partly protected from the rain by the Ornamental Grape vine. It seems it offers protection to certain wildlife as well, for the amount of dark pellets dotting the railing and decking has grown very large.

Naturally any creatures are sheltering on the undersides of the large leaves, so shaded and not great for photos.

The culprit is the Hungry Green Caterpillar, common enough, with ‘horns’ and a faint yellow stripe, and after wading through hundreds of Caterpillar I.D. shots, I am no longer sure just what sort of moth or butterfly it will be. Any suggestions?

The older ones have turned brown and seem stiffened and bent… perhaps no longer eating or depositing small balls!

Also sheltering from the weather was this charming Green Tree Frog. They are also a widespread and common type, but this one is the first I have seen here, and very welcome!

I see this one has chosen a spot with a view out from beneath the leaf roof! Handsome and clever…

Bells of hope

One year since the total burning of the Crowdy Head National Park in last summer’s bushfires, I drove – inched?–over potholes and washouts and corrugations and roadside drain overflows. The coast here has had a month of daily rain.

I was worried my old AWD Subaru was not adequate, as I met bigger, higher, real 4WDS. You can never tell how deep a hole is until you are in it…

The taller forests were blackened trunks, many with new shoots, but not all. As you can see on the higher land, where the trees are still a fringe of skeletons. Too depressing for a photo…

So hope for 2021 only came to me on the heathland, where colour other than green was bravely proclaiming summer.

Christmas Bells!

Xmas dressing

Not much is flowering in the garden. Nor is my Christmas Bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum), but it looks like it is, and these bracts that follow the small cream flowers are its main claim to fame. Mine aren’t as red as some, but people still stop and ask may they cut some for Christmas.

Its starry pinkness stands out against the darker trees around it, and does look a little festive.

But while that tree is dressing up, another in my yard is undressing for the summer season. The Queensland invader, the Cadaghi tree (Corymbia torelliana), is shedding its bark in showy patches to reveal its pale green skin.

Handsome, but dangerously successful as a feral plant, I find it hard to mind it as a tree, except when its millions of seed pods rain down like ball bearings on my deck.

Yet the shameless way it is stripping off its old bark right now is a visual treat. Wish I could do the same with my old bark…!