Surprise visits

I knew there were Tawny Frogmouths in the bush beside me, but hardly expected one to come calling on me.

Yet one night, as I descended the stairs and the sensor light in my carport came on, there it was. On my van’s awning canister.

My favourite bird then gave me the benefit of its profile of bristly ‘whiskers’.

The other visitors came on a wet day, levering themselves along, looking about but only between grazing. Not too wary.

I miss my macropods of the Mountain, so seeing these two Eastern Grey Kangaroos was a treat.

One came very close to my deck and as we locked eyes I thanked him for visiting my patch, reminding me of the real world where animals are represented by more than dogs!

Glory days

Having finally got out in the bush to catch up on Spring (nose duly covered by a mask), I have been treated to a glorious shower of yellow flowering shrubs, from lemon to orange-tinged.

This pale beauty is aptly named the Golden Glory Pea, or Gompholobium latifolia.

It grows on the prettiest arching shrub, very different from the stiffer majority.

And now that the wattles are done, the job of carrying the gold throughout this coastal bushland is being borne by a variety of pea-flowering shrubs, too many for me to suss out, like Dilwynias.

In lesser numbers, the Hop Bushes or Dodoneas are flaunting their bunches of soft green flowers.

But the winner for dominance is a shrub or small tree called Satinwood (Nematolepis squamea), whose starry white flowers formally stud its branches throughout the bush, at all different heights.

Elegant native ducks

Lovely weather for ducks, as they say!  Enough to keep me indoors even if my radiation burnt face didn’t.

A Maned Wood Duck couple patrol the grounds here, but they are wary, hard to catch with my camera, even if I was to be quick enough to nip out in between cloudbursts. Sudden dumps of wind-driven rain interspersed with sparkling sunshine seem to be the current pattern.

The photo is of the female, but they are both handsome. The ducks reminded me of the piece about them in ‘Mountain Tails’, so here’s the sketch of the couple and a short extract:

‘…through the reeds I spotted a pair of Wood Ducks. I crept towards them, and got closer than usual, but they sensed me coming and waddled off into the mist. Keeping their heads averted as if I didn’t exist, they were muttering to each other at the disturbance. I’ve noticed that they rarely do look at me.

‘This shy and very elegant native duck is my most consistently resident waterbird.

‘The male has little patterning on his pearl-grey body, and a chestnut-brown head, with a black strip, a feathery mane, at the back of his head. His folded wings create bold dark stripes down his back. While he gets the smart tuxedo treatment, she has a more delicate feminine patterning. She’s a softly spotted greyish-brown, with white stripes across her brown head; since her mane is also brown, it’s only noticeable in profile, as an odd shape. Hence they are sometimes called Maned Wood Ducks. Until they are grown up, the young ones of both sexes look like their mum.

‘Occasionally the couple fly over to the small dam below my house yard, but they hardly get to land on the surface, trailing arrows of ripples behind them, before the bossy magpies hassle them to leave. After a lot of protesting squawks on their part and insistent cries from the maggies, the pair take wing, back over the treetops to where they belong. No outsiders allowed in the magpies’ local pool. They will allow the ducks to fossick amongst the tussocks around the dam wall for a time, but not to go in.’

Spring hits

Confined as I am to my place, unable to see what is flowering in the bush, it is a great treat to have Spring come to me.

Some of these plants are having their first Spring as residents, so I am glad to see them not only survive their potted lives, but burst into bloom!

This is a native, Philoteca myoporoides, flowering above the Bacopa ground cover.

Planted at the same time last year, this Ruby Belle variant on the native climber, Pandorea pandorana, quickly climbed right up the lattice to the top floor and has proved really too vigorous for comfortable control, but it is pretty foliage anyway, so I won’t be pulling it out. These are the first flowers I have had on it.

In the back garden strip, inherited pots of orchids were put to shelter under a tree fern. Their current starry flowers are a surprise gift!

Not a flower, but green at least, and a symbol of why I am not out bushwalking. My personal mask has been my daily companion/jailor during my month’s radiation treatment, and I now have it at home.

I am told some people grow strawberries in theirs! But I will keep it as a sculptural memento of the time: of fighting down panic as it is placed over your face and clamped down firmly to the table beneath you.

I know it is so the radiation is targeting precisely the right spots on my nose/face each time, and I appreciate that.

But as your nostrils are plugged with wet cotton wool, you must breathe through your mouth. And stay calm…

The team at Port Macquarie Cancer Unit are great and do their very best to help, but it is a fact that radiation burns the good cells as well as the cancerous ones, so my burnt face must now undergo about 10 days of escalating side effects before it can begin to heal.

I only hope it has done the intended job, as that cannot be determined.

But the lesson I learnt there was that, as my Dad used to say, ‘There are always others worse off then you, Sha!’.

Sunkisses payback

I am taking a break from my usual nature rambles as I am undergoing a month’s radiation for a dangerous skin cancer lurking somewhere in my nose. Meanwhile I have to keep it out of the sun and can’t wear sunscreen on this tender part. It now looks very badly sunburnt anyway! Or blowtorched…

So instead I am sharing ‘Sunkisses’, a very relevant extract from Ch.16 of my first book, ‘The Woman on the Mountain’, and which was published as a stand-alone piece in a 2006 anthology, Stories for a long summer by Catchfire Press. I’m sure it will bring back memories for many!

The drawing was meant for that chapter, ‘Let the sun shine…’ but the publishers decided not to use illustrations in the end.

Sunkisses

Summer once meant glorious, golden sunshine, for outdoor playing and swimming, from sunup to sundown if we could wangle it. Painful sunburn and peeling skin was inevitable, every year, for everyone except those with foreign, that is, not English, Irish or Scottish, skin. We soothed the burns by dabbing with vinegar or cut tomatoes, picked at the dry skin as it peeled, and drew satisfaction from extra long strips removed. Noses and shoulders were always the worst and most frequently burnt. As new freckles appeared we joked about ‘sunkisses’. I could count mine then.

By my fifteenth year it was all about sunbaking in bikinis, a race to ‘get a tan’ quickest, grilling our bodies like skinny sausages, assisted by a coconut oil baste. This ritual was interrupted only by an occasional stroll to the water, mainly to see and be seen by the unattainable golden boys with their goods on show in Speedos. As our costumes shrank to four brief triangles, soft and virginal bands of flesh burnt so badly the pink turned livid, yellowish, and school uniforms and seats could hardly be borne on Mondays. But we persevered, for white skin had the connotation of slugs, not porcelain. Not that I’d ever have the choice again, having by now acquired a permanent shawl of sunkisses.

Fifteen years later, summer meant the annual angst in front of unfriendly mirrors and lying saleswomen over whether we could still get away with wearing a two-piece costume. It was spent supervising sandcastles and shell collections, soggy towels and gritty kids, with hardly a minute to ourselves for sunbaking. As we still did, with suntan lotion overall, zinc cream or sunscreen only applied to acknowledged vulnerable bits. We did wear hats.

These days summer brings danger. Sunbaking, suntanning, sunkisses – such antiquated words, such tragic innocence. Forget sunscreen; with the hole we’ve made in the ozone layer, we need sunblock. Slip, slop, slap. Kids are growing up with sunblock as their second skin, they swim in neck-to-knee lycra and aren’t allowed to play outside at school without a hat. They are taught to be as afraid of our once-beneficent sun as of strangers. It’s like science fiction come horribly true. I dread the announcement that constant exposure to sunscreen has been found to be carcinogenic, but I won’t be surprised.

My swimsuit mostly functions as a relic of my past, to be found scrunched in the back of a drawer along with lace handkerchiefs, suspender belts, French knickers and tired G-strings. Summer glare and heat are too savage for me to want to be outdoors at all. Instead of exposing winter flesh, I cover up more, never leaving my verandah without throwing on my sunfaded Akubra hat and the longsleeved cotton shirt, usually a man’s work shirt, second-hand, that will be hanging there.

Too many threatening spots and lumps have already been removed, after hiding amongst the thousands of freckles of my inappropriate Celtic skin. I go to my skin cancer clinic every six months for a checkup. The doctor, genetically brown-skinned and unfreckle-able, shakes his head at the mottled map of my youth each time I take off my shirt. 

Blossom bounty

A recent walk in Kattang Nature Reserve to check on the arrival of ‘Spring’ brought some surprises.

Like this common vine, Smilax australis, which I had never seen in flower.With true Aussie cynicism, it is often called ‘Lawyer vine’, due to its prickles… ‘once they get their hooks into you’…etc.

I am told that the photo also includes the smaller-leaved vine with black berries that is Smilax glyciphylla, the non-prickly relative.

This climber caught my eye but it seemed out of place and not quite right to be the Sturt’s Desert Pea that immediately came to mind. That’s because it’s not: it is Dusky Coral Pea, Kennedia rubicunda, say the wonderfully generous and informed people of the NSW Native Plant Identification FB group. They are very tolerant of the uninformed like me; I am learning a lot.

So a second surprise!

A much more familiar plant was this blooming Twining Guinea Flower, Hibbertia scandens, known as Snake vine at my Mountain, because when the clumps were ground trailing rather than climbing they often hid black snakes. I love the simple sunniness of these flowers. Large native buttercups!

The pink boronia flowers have been coming out for a while, but now bearing more blooms than buds.

Equally pretty, and about as scattered, were the sprawling patches of starry Wedding Bush, Ricinocarpos pinifolia.

No surprise, but exceedingly welcome, were the dominant many bushes/small trees of wattle. I have assumed this is Sydney Wattle, Acacia longifolia, but hope someone will tell me if not. Locals always know better than I do…

Palm rule

This Queensland rainforest surprised me by really being a palm forest. Their numbers impressed, as did their grass skirts of roots, mossed green.

This one had chosen to double up, to lead the fashion with a midriff top as well as peplum and skirt bottom.

The younger trees kept their roots well grounded; very wise on these soggy slopes.

There were a few other trees in the midst of the palms, like this large eucalypt with upper level hollow accommodation.

But as the walk was called the Booyong Track, it was not surprising to see several of these very large buttressed trees. At first I had mistaken them for the Strangler Figs with which I was familiar from my walks in Wingham Brush.

But I soon realised there were no other trees being harmed in the growth of these… and they were comfortable giving support and a leg up to such vigorous vines as this one.

And then I saw my Strangler Fig, lacing up around its host tree as tightly as any Victorian lady’s corset. Nature can’t be called cruel, but this does look rather murderous…

Green world

Some rainforests are so totally green that you’d swear there’s been a Photoshop filter applied. This one near Mount Tamborine was no different. Green moss, green light under the covering tree canopy.

Whether tree roots and buttresses or accompanying boulders, all were mossed green.

Some roots went underground and reappeared as shy knees and thighs, modestly mossed.

In some places tree roots embraced boulders as closely as if netted.

Vines as thick as my arms were doing a lot of embracing too, hitching a lift up to the light. This one was unusual in that several birds’ nest ferns, perhaps mistaking them for trees, had settled on them.

Other vines, as thick as many of the trees, astonished me with their girth and height… and likely age.

As the track was muddy, my eyes were carefully cast down, so the canopy was not much observed. Just as well, or I might have missed these fungi, bravely breaking the green dominance with their fluted and flared cinnamon rays.

Beyond bark

The day was wild and windy, the foliage being whipped about, so would not stand still for photos, but their sturdy trunks did.

And, focusing my eyes like that, the variety of patterns and textures was stunning.

Old, grey and knobbly; a bit like how I feel these days…

Or the same tree when young, looking like popcorn overly dusted with salt… or mistakenly, with icing sugar.

The higher, drier parts of this forest are full of fallen and dead ti-tree types, as well as leaning live ones, their shaggy grey bark almost an invitation to fire.

Others just as fibrous twist in less vertical paths to the sky, bearing memorial scars of lost limbs.

The more patchily shaggy paperbarks are often in damper areas, so do not invoke bushfire images as much.

The smoother barked trees sport subtle shades of lichen, pink and grey and cream and soft green…

Their more daring cousins add dramatic black highlights.

Other trees play it straight and go for flecks, but allow the adornment of twining wines for interest.

When texture fails to catch the eye, shape does. Why, when not apparently wind-formed?

Tangled limbs, whole meandering branches, clinging to cliffside meagre soil.

What’s not to wonder at with trees, wherever and however they grow?

Luminous lake

Queens Lake is large, and to walk around its shores is an ever-changing feast for the eyes. On this day the return walk was late, and the setting sun threw an especially vivid display of fiery gold across the water.

A little further on, and a hazard reduction burn far off across the lake punctuated the oyster leases with its plume of dark smoke.

Then the smoke became a cloud of its own, joining the mackerel sky in the water.

So many swift and ephemeral visual treats; fit for a Queen indeed!

Freshwater fans

I love the patterns moving water makes, on the surface below and on itself, and in its reflections.

At this beach, usually my eye is taken by those made the receding tide. But today this little stream of fresh water is coming from the land above, and it is one of many, although not all so vividly coloured. Croissants topped with apricot jam, anyone?

Kattang Nature Reserve rises above this beach, and today joins it with water.

As it makes its way to the salt sea, its ripples remind me of the cooling ‘skin’ when you test your homemade toffee or jam for setting.

I can hear water trickling further along from my amber stream, and see that there is is a steady veil of droplets from the bank onto the rocks.

This becomes a most beautiful series of convoluted fans of pebbles and sand and rutile, like layers of drapery, some creamily sheer, some bejewelled.

In other places, where no pebbles can contribute to the richness, the sand simply swirls with fine black traceries, fanning out to be lost on the smooth wet beach.

I feel so lucky to have seen these further examples of the extraordinary complexity of design and colour in nature., especially as they may not be there when next I visit this beach.

A forest for birds

Before entering this forest of the Henry Kendall Reserve I am bemused by the sparkles of sunshine beside opposing calm, the mysteriously varying ways of water movements.

The forest itself is equally varied, with many large and imposing spreading trees.

Others rise tall and straight limbed.  By the busy chatter of birds, darting tantalisingly close and away, too swift to photograph, the forest is a rich residence for wildlife.

It’s the sort of forest walk where you more often than not find yourself craning upwards to see what’s going on up there. A lot, from the noise!

But lower and nearer details occasionally catch my eye, like this textured casuarina bark…

Or this mossy hidey-hole, a dark refuge into which I do not intrude. Thankfully, this whole forest has life of its own, from birds to whatever lives here!