When good birds go bad.

September in Melbourne brings many things, but the two most noticeable are the AFL finals and Australian Magpie attacks. The AFL finals involve an oval shaped playing surface, a pointy ball and large numbers of people apparently running in all directions. The magpie attacks involve any shaped playing surface that takes their fancy, a pointy beak and large numbers of people apparently running in all directions. I kid you not – it’s a season of disappointment for many football fans and a season of fear for those who have badly behaved magpies at the bottom of the garden, or any number of other locations where magpies lie in ambush.

The Australian Magpie is not actually a magpie at all in the sense of European or American Magpies. The European Magpie (Pica pica) is a black and white crow, a corvid. While the Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) is generally “crow like” in appearance, it is in fact in separate family, the Artamidae. This family contains woodswallows and butcherbirds and is restricted to the broad Australian region. It’s called a Magpie because of its Black and White Colour – not because of any relationship to the other magpies. In this way it provides a good example of why the relationships suggested by common names can be misleading.

The Australian Magpie (just Magpie from now on!) is a familiar bird over much of Australia, and is probably one of the most widely recognized Australian birds. It is used for many sporting clubs logos and most famously is associated with the Collingwood Football Club, which is generally referred to as “The Pies”. (In reality they are referred to in many other ways as well, mostly derogatory and mostly justified!). Magpies can be seen readily in urban areas, and in many cases they take up a territory that may include a number of gardens. This leads people to have their “own” magpies, which are regularly seen in the same garden. Who owns what is debatable here!

Having magpies in your garden can be a really wonderful experience; they are birds full of character and personality. If you can get past the mad staring eyes and the awful reputation that is. Without question they are wonderfully musical birds, with their specific name alluding to their rolling, mellow flute like call. In Latin Tibicen means piper or flute player. As a migrant I find this “organ like caroling” of this bird one of the most identifiably Australian sounds I have heard. If I was to leave tomorrow it would be the strongest sensory link to this country, all myths of outback heroes shrink into insignificance compared to the song of this bird. For me at least, this bird is Australia.
Yet in the breeding season about 10% of these birds undergo some form of psychotic personality transformation. The splendid black and white birds in the garden bed become some form of organic missile intent on the destruction of its foe. And if you happen to be that foe you can be in for some serous harassment. Magpies remember who you are, and they seem neither to forget nor forgive. Once you become a target its best to admit defeat rapidly and go somewhere else, and what makes it worse is that birds have been known to hold the same territory for 18 years! The birds attack their chosen target by swooping at the head and often make contact with beak or claw. It needs to remembered that we are not dealing with a small bird here – 5 cm +beak, weight up to and exceeding 300g. When the breeding season starts it pays to be vigilant.

Yet it’s easy for me to say that you need “to go somewhere else”, but what if your job takes you along the same streets at more or less the same time every day? What if that street contains a pied time bomb waiting for your arrival? I suppose you would need to deploy defensive measures of some kind. The postmen and women of Australia Post are in the front line of the conflict with the mad and bad magpies that wait in the depths of our suburban wilderness. As the magpies attack the head, the most common form of defense is to expand the head! The “hair extensions” used in the picture are supposed to make the magpies miss the top of your actual head and hit the extension instead. It seems like an unequal battle to me, plastic zip ties on one side and 300g of aggressive bird on the other – looks like it’s one nil to the magpies.

As you can see from some of the images here, magpies are not just black and white but have shades of grey as well. This seems fitting for a bird that can sound angelic one minute and morph into the devil incarnate the next. I think I’m glad I don’t have to deliver the post in September!

Here be Dragons

On the edges of old maps – especially those used in works of fiction – can be found the phrase “here be dragons”. While this could be taken to mean that there are real dragons to the east, west or whatever, the real meaning is “beyond here is mystery”. If you sail into the realm of dragons you really are in uncharted waters.
Dragonflies represent uncharted territory for me, swimming in uncharted waters as it were. Yet this week I have been surrounded by them, flying up from sunny patches on the lawn, perching on warm rocks and hunting the edges of the bushes. Even as a kid I watched them, often whilst fishing, catching insects in their basketed legs. Sometimes I caught them is large fishing nets, but only sometimes, for they could normally out fly the waving of a clumsy landing net. I don’t suppose you survive as an aerial predator for millions of years if you can’t fly a bit.

Any move to a new country requires some adjustment, and Dragonflies in Australia are a far more daunting prospect than in the UK. First there is the sheer number of species – 50 or more species in the UK, over 300 in Australia. But there are also things that need to be “un-learned” – the split between Damselflies and Dragonflies in the UK was simple enough, being based on the way the adults held their wings. So at least you had a start. In Australia this does not hold true – the difference between the two groups being based on wing morphology, which is not always easy to spot when the insects are actually using their wings for their proper purpose – ie flying!

I spent a largely fruitless hour trying to photograph the smaller red dragonflies that are now common in my garden – maybe 10 or more at any one time, while I did not even try to catch the larger ones hawking at head height and above. One may as well try and photograph sun beams as these insects. However, the small reds did like to sit in the sun and warm up (they are dragons after all!) and I was able to get some success here. The next day was colder, and in the early morning I found a chilled dragon resting on the path outside the kitchen door. The dragonfly was not fully warmed up and neither was I, but the pictures are better than nothing. The image at the top of the page is from NW England – showing that at times these animals do cooperate. I thought that is was a Common Hawker, but confidence was misplaced here. It is actually a Migrant Hawker, which has become more common in NW England (and especailly in Lancashire where the image was takesn) over the last 10 years. Interestingly it is the first conformed sighting for this sepcies at Leighton Moss (the RSBP Reserve), which is very nice!

One of the things I most like about having dragonflies in my garden (apart from the fact that they eat mosquitoes!) is that they are recognizably ancient: successful in the past and successful now, fully modern version of the insects that hunted 300 million years ago. On that scale spending an hour watching and photographing them does not seem such a big deal!

Opportunity (and partly for Chris)

The flowers of spring are about survival – survival of the individual, survival of the genes or if you are very old fashioned survival of the group. But the long and the short of it is that they are about survival, and for flowers that means seeds. While many plants, including some that produce flowers, have other ways of surviving, it is flowers that are most conspicuous. I can’t remember the last time I heard anybody becoming excited about the runners of spring, or wandering lonely as a cloud and spying a host of golden rhizomes!

Seeds are a survival package primed to take advantage of any opportunity
that presents itself. Time and distance is often no barrier to the tiny packages of dormant life that are flung far and wide in the hope of opportunity. Some fall by the wayside, some find an opportunity and are then engulfed by those around them. And some fall on either metaphorical or actual stony ground. Man made gardens often abound with stony ground, the concrete drive ways, the flagstone pavements and the brick BBQ areas are as inhospitable as any place you could find. Strikingly hard, parched on one day and flooded the next, baking hot in summer, freezing in winter. Add to this the brooms of the tidy and the chemicals of the determined and you have a place where only the most resolute will survive. This is stony ground indeed.

And yet in the chinks in the armor of these baked and parched landscapes you can find growth. The abundance of spring has produced an army of new life, packaged for survival and awaiting an opportunity. Water and a few nutrients will do, the trapped dust of last summer, the fragments of fallen leaves and water from above or below will break the skin of the hard landscape and provide opportunity for life.

So sprouting from between bricks, in the gaps between the pavers and on the walls of old buildings we find plants (and animals if we actually looked) surviving – often not thriving, but surviving is enough. In the end it is the plants that will survive and the buildings that will fall. The slow force of cell division fractures our efforts at permanence, crumbling the desire to keep nature on the outside and us on the inside.

If we are to learn any lessons from nature this would be a good place to start. As people, if we are to survive we need to have the dust of last summer and water as well. We need support, space and encouragement. If these are provided by wherever we are, we will be able to grasp the opportunities that present themselves. If these are withheld, we may live but not grow, survive but not thrive. This has been on my mind of late. Where opportunity survives there is always hope.

Spring and Abundance.

A week or so ago I was asked “how spring was going in Victoria” and I declared that I did not think that is had really sprung yet. I have taken to calling this time of year “sprinter” – neither spring nor winter, and generally short lived. As last Saturday was the hottest September day on record for Melbourne (Global Warming anybody?) I think it’s now time to call it - spring has arrived.

According to popular myth the minds of young men are supposed to linger on one subject only when spring is in the air – and it’s an unavoidable observation that reproduction is now abounding. While Australian woodlands do not have the dramatic vernal flush of flowers – the hosts of daffodils only occur in manicured gardens and the memory of migrants – the signs of spring are there to be found. In the last few days butterflies have started to appear with regularity – Cabbage White and Yellow Admiral – and dragonflies are hawking over the flower beds. Dragonflies always cause me to wonder if the insects they hunt are subject to stress, as the combination of aquatic nymphs and adult must be some of the most fearsome predators (size for size) that haunt the dreams of prey. In the flowerbeds the product of last spring’s rush to breed are pushing their first leaves through the soil, producing a carpet of green and the bees are living up to their reputation as pollinators of the first order. It would be tempting to think, as many have done, that this show of abundance has no down side, has no implication other then the promise of rich harvests to come.

But as the dragons hawk and hunt and the bees trundle from flower to flower, legs heavy with pollen, the darker side of spring is also on show. The frantic rush to reproduce is everywhere. The vast numbers of flowers, tadpoles, chicks and eggs produced are testament to the unavoidable fact of nature: most of spring’s progeny will die without reproducing. Nature may seem softer at this time of year, but the blood red reality of tooth and claw is the driving force of abundance. The seeds, with their tiny embryo cargoes, will be eaten, the tadpoles will die as the pond dries and the birds and eggs will furnish the needs of cats, possums and birds of sharper beak and claw. If you are young and na├»ve, it really is dangerous out there.

Evolution has produced abundance to even the odds – the one in one hundred chance to make it though the storm of predation, disease and plain bad luck and to finally breed. Shows of wild flowers do not occur for our appreciation (although they are a genuinely delightful addition), but for the single purpose of survival. If you throw enough of your babies into the front line of conflict, some will survive. Even if it is only one in one hundred, some will get through. If you add variation into the mix as well, the best will get through (more often than not) and low and behold you have evolution.

Spring is in the air, but it’s just as well we are not tuned to the screams of the dying that will inevitably follow. Have a nice day!

Orchids in the suburbs - Part 2

It's not often that I dont like being correct about something - but in this case I wish I had been wrong. Less than 48 hours after finding the orchids they are gone. Mow down in the cause of neatness and order. The stalks are still there, but they are cut and scattered, the flowers slowly wilting.

Just about the only natural thing on the nature strips has been cut down. I don't understand how it can be better to have strip of sterile mown grass outside your house rather than a slightly shaggy looking patch that contains orchids. How can we be so locked into order, that wild flowers need to be removed?

Having said that, is it actually any different from pulling "weeds" in my own garden? Aren't they just a patch of wild disorder in a planned garden?

Orchids in the Suburbs.

It really does pay to keep your eyes open. Many streets in Melbourne and other parts of the world presumably, have apparently sterile strips of grass down each side. In Melbourne these are called Nature Strips – I take this be some mark of national optimism as they rarely hold more than daisies, dandelions and dog poo. The first two are normally over- looked, and the last is only of real interest to over inquisitive toddlers.
You can see a typical streetscape in the first picture. I was walking along this part of the street when something caught my eye - a patch, no more the 1/2 a metre square of stems sticking up from the grass. Each stem was capped with a complex green hood. This is not normally what I would expect to see.

If you could look a little closer, just in front of the tree, you would see a patch of Greenhood Orchids, for that is what the stems were – the exact species eludes me as the taxonomy of this group is, to say the least, complex. There are 100 species of Greenhood Orchids in Australia, and before I make a complete fool of myself and declare it to be a species that has only ever been found in the highlands of PNG, I will leave it as just “Greenhood”, although I am confident enough to say that they are all in the genus Pterotylis.
But does it make any real difference that I cannot put a name to this species? After all, classification is just a human invention and does not really exist in the natural world. Species continue to evolve, so the end point of any biological classification tree must be variable – but that is not how taxonomy functions. The boxes are fixed (barring new discoveries), but the material that is being classified changes over time. In fact the freely hybridizing orchids of this genus really do set a challenge for traditional taxonomy. The fact that there are 25 spikes of an orchid growing about 100m from my house, where I have never seen them before, seems more important than actually knowing what species they are. There is almost no doubt that they are common from a conservation point of view, so I won’t be contacting the WWF!!
So now I have orchids in the nature strip, but there is more it it than that. Each type of orchid has a very close association with a specific fungus that is found in the soil. So although I cant see them I know they are there. Thats two new things in my street!
As far as I know (and I was looking for something else there a few days ago) they were not there yesterday and I would be very surprised if they are still there next week - lawn mowers, kids on bikes and weekly rubbish bin collections will see to that! But they are there now, and the only reason I know this is that I happened to have my eyes open – or as you could say “Paying Ready Attention”!

Here we go!

In Gilbert White's "The Natural History of Selborne" he writes of hope that the book will cause people to pay ready attention to the "wonders of creation". While I may not agree with his use of the word creation - I would replace it with Evolution - the basic idea remains the same. We need to look more closely, we need to pay more attention and we need to value the things we find. There is wonder to be found in the plants and animals living in your own back yard - you do not need to visit the far flung and remote places of the world to see the drama that evolution has produced.
Of course, if somebody offers me the change to go to the
"far flung" places I am not going to say no!

I suppose that Australia counts as far flung for many people -
have have parrots in my garden trees and marsupials
eating my plants.
It's all a matter of degree.

Where possible I am going to illustrate this blog with my own pictures - so wish me luck as I dive in. Cheers. Stewart M