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

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.