At the waters edge (Part 2)

Down by the lighthouse, where the turning of the tide exposes rocks and weed, birds gather to look for food, to loaf about and to squabble over finds and food. Pacific Gulls, huge, muscular looking birds stand guard over fish frames and other delights. These gulls have the largest beak of any gull, and it looks a fearsome weapon, even through the protection of binoculars. One bird seems to have surprising difficulty with a toad fish, probably discarded by a fisherman. Even the huge beak seems not to be able to cut through the tough outer skin, and eventually the bird takes flight bearing its fishy find with it. Seaweed coats the rocks with tiny balls that look and feel like slimy, rubber marbles, each footstep is risky, and jumping out of the question.

I pick my way to the sea’s edge and look south towards distant Antarctica. I turn around and look north, towards even more distant Cape York in Queensland, and I am struck by the size of this continent island and the scale of the floods. The water rushes out of Port Phillip Bay bearing a brown tinge, brought by the rain, and the colour stretches out to sea. It’s still visible to the horizon, here on the last stretch of water before the Southern Ocean circles the globe. Just how much rain have we had?

Down at the water’s edge, where careful feet become even more cautious, are flocks of Red Necked Stint. Tiny birds, mouse-like really. At least one has an orange flag on its leg, showing that it has been banded on the coast of Victoria. There is a possibility (albeit a remote one) that I banded it! I still find it remarkable that these tiny birds - each one weights about 25g - can fly from their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere to the south coast of Australia every year. When you hold them in your hands you can feel their hearts beating, frantic, tiny, like a failed attempt to tickle your palm. But they still fly the thousands of kilometres each year, driven by genetics, the turn of the Earth and the food they glean from the water’s edge.

The rain had swollen the Barwon and it rushed with unusual haste towards the sea. The upper reaches seem to have covered mud banks and rich feeding grounds that would have normally held flocks of waders. In search of food they head for the river mouth. This is not really a peaceful place. A new bridge is being built, with the clatter bang of machines and building. Joggers pound along the beach, reach the bridge, turn and come back, fisherman cast hopeful baits into the swollen river. And in the midst of this is a flock of about 100 Bar Tailed Godwits. They probe the sea edge or most uncharacteristically wander about on the beach. Normally these birds are very nervous, and getting within binocular range is a challenge. Here they were far more accommodating. They moved over the beach, looking for all the world like a flock of domestic birds, slightly agitated but tolerant of human contact. At the water’s edge were more Red Necked Stint and a small flock of Knot. They flashed about, slightly spooked by the passing people, but calm enough. A good game with stint is to try to find one that stands still - so far I have failed to find one.

Overhead terns call - and the harsher bark of a Caspian Tern makes me look up. These are a large and impressive bird, with an equally large and impressive red beak. I once heard them described as “large with a very large carrot stuck on their face” - in reality the phrase used to describe the size of the carrot was a little more Anglo Saxon than I have quoted, but you get the picture. The Crested Terns were as obliging as ever as they gathered with this year’s young, their mottled feathers in contrast to the smart grey and black of the adult. Then I noticed a much smaller tern, with a black beak and legs. Wow! A Common Tern, which despite its name is not really common here at all. This is the first time in a long time when the habitual scan through a flock of terns or gulls reveals anything out of the ordinary. The Caspians land on the beach and look huge. Another set of surprises from a place I thought I knew.

The sun was just brightening the morning sky and the full moon was still bright enough to cast soft shadows. There is something special about early mornings, a sense of opening. I was off to the beach, and I hoped it would be empty and was. Willie Wagtails argue on the roof of a beach house and Blue Wrens call. The sunrise is wonderful, but my cameras are on the kitchen table. Oops. The light slices through gaps in the clouds and plays hide and seek across the landscape. A successful Gannet, with a silver fish in its beak, flies past an unsuccessful fisherman. For a moment a pod of Dolphins break the surface of the bay, but they dash off and I don’t see them again. The beach traffic begins to build, with dog walkers and joggers. I head home.

The beach was beginning to fill with families, mums, dads and kids. The young learn from the old, and wisdom is passed on. A group of Pied Oystercatchers, possibly even a family, probe in the wave wash. One of the adults has coloured leg bands and a metal ring. He is a regular on the beach. One of the birds with him is a juvenile, with a dull beak rather than the adult’s flame red. Nice to see an example where the teenagers are not more outlandish than the adults. Beach worms are pulled, ever so gently, from the sand. Pull too hard and they snap, not hard enough and they don’t come out at all. I wonder how many times the juvenile snaps the worm before the task is mastered?

That night I am awoken by the calls of Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos. I have never heard them at night before and I imagine what must have caused them to move from their roost at night. A fox? Humans? The rain? The next day they flap overhead as we have morning tea. They seem to fly in formation, and call as they go. Down on the beach more dragonflies flash past.

I have been here before, but the place still surprises me. Thankfully.

At the waters edge (part 1)

I was back at Point Lonsdale, west of Melbourne, on the Bellarine Peninsula, my normal summer haunt. I have probably spent more nights in this house than anywhere that I don’t actually call home. I was beginning to wonder what I would see that was new, or at least different. There had been rain, not as much as further north where floods had washed away homes, destroyed towns and lives in a way that has not been seen before, but there was enough to alter plans. A low pressure sitting to the south of Victoria pulled warm, moist tropical air from monsoonal far north Australia, and it rained and rained and rained. Warm rain, steady rain, unfamiliar rain. In such weather you just get on with it because you are on holiday.

(I was aware at the time and remain painfully aware that the rain I am talking about was robbing people of all they had - and I had the same unreal feeling as during the recent bush fires - “How can this be?” “How can this be happening here?” To complain of spoiled beach days or altered plans would be to show a degree of insensitivity way, way below crassness. So, with that in mind, I will continue).

When it stopped raining the light was soft and full in the clear air, and in the evenings it took on a golden glow. Cloud and sun produced rainbows and ships sailed in search of the pot of gold.

Everything seemed to have responded to the rain that had fallen over the last months. Paddocks that have been dust bowls and dams that have always been dry shone with life. When it stopped raining there were more dragonflies than I ever remember seeing before. In the rain there were none. Standing on the beach looking out to sea, small dots would turn into dragonflies as they shot across the water, some flew in tandem, most shot past without being identified. In the garden crisp Painted Ladies flash from flower to flower, and tiny blue butterflies flick up from hiding places in the grass. Painted Ladies seem to have followed me everywhere this summer - and my plan to start being able to name these insects has progressed, but now stalled.

On the boat ramps fishermen still fish, waterproofed by optimism. They fillet salmon, whiting and wrasse. Birds gather for the scraps flicked from the boats. A juvenile Little Pied Cormorant sits low in the water; with dense bones and heavy feathers this is a bird where flying has been swapped for swimming. In the shallow waters near the jetties and ramps it dives under the water in search of food. It tucks its wings in close and tight and kicks with its feet. Pelicans gather as well. Close up they seem comical and ungainly as they fight for a speck of fish. These birds are here day after day, predictable. As is the huge Sting-Ray that glides around the harbour, also looking for fish.

A strange insect crawls across the fly wire of the door. I had not seen anything like this before. Stick insect? Grasshopper? Neither? It turns out to be a Twig-Mimicking Katydid , a strange creature which feeds on the pollen and nectar of flowers, but rather delightfully does not damage the flowers in the process. So it is a vegetarian and a pacifist! When it is not walking up fly wire or eating pollen it spends its time pretending to be a stick - it lies length ways along a real stick, tucks its long legs by its side and its longer antennae out in front and relies on camouflage. The remarkable spiky extension of its body ends up looking like a broken twig, or a leaf stalk. You have to assume this works really rather well, because it must be expensive to build. You have to wonder at the fine calculations the selective powers of evolution have applied to this animal. The energy and material used to build that spike could produce a lot of eggs.

Later when I went to dump some vegetable scraps in the compost bin I found an abandoned bee’s nest slicked on to the rim of the bin. The bees were long gone, thankfully, but the combs were still in place. That evening I walked into the bathroom and was greeted by a scorpion! Not a large one, but they don’t need to be large to grab your attention. After some deft work with a sheet of paper and a glass I had it in captivity. In did not seem to be all that well, which may not have been a bad thing. After the kids oohed and aahed about it I let it go in the garden. I think it was a Black Rock Scorpion, but the fact that it was a scorpion was good enough for me. It had you think twice about padding barefoot to the bathroom at night. Maybe this place was still capable of a few surprises.

In the pouring rain I go bird watching and find a Pelican seeming to take a drink. It was stood there with its beak wide open and pointing at the sky - every minute or so it would shake its head from side to side, pause and then point its open gaping beak skyward again. It could have been trying to wash something out of its mouth, but if that was the case, why not use sea water?
White Fronted Chats display called from bush tops and a passing white butterfly came to the end of its life. Striated Heath Wrens - with a cocked tail and a loud voice - also called from the bushes. In between the rain Welcome Swallows flash past and drink from the standing pools of water, they land on car mirrors, windscreen wipers and wire fences. At times the air is full of swallows, and then they disappear for no reason I can discern. Silver Gulls wash in the puddles. Crested Terns, with buoyant, airy wing beats hunt for bait fish and argue amongst themselves. Royal Spoonbills preen in the sunshine between showers. As I leave it starts raining again. It carries on raining.

to be continued .......

First Day of Summer - Tales of the Riverbank

There was no snow this time, but there were butterflies and buttercups. There were far less people, but those who were there seemed intent on making enough noise to make up for the lack of crowds. Why do some people feel the need to have a good shout the moment that they emerge from their car? Does the sudden rush of space scare them? Have they had the radio turned up so loud that they can only communicate by bellowing? Who knows.

It was strange to find that the footpath we had walked along to the summit of Mount Donna Buang in the winter was in fact a road, and that the car parks that had been flowing with liquid mud were now silent and empty. In the equally deserted BBQ shelter I found out that Mount Donna Buang is higher than anywhere in the UK outside of Scotland. I recently read a few lines to the effect that being the highest point in Britain is a bit like being the longest hole on a mini golf course. This is of course not a flattering assessment, but it was probably written by somebody who had spent six months in England and had never left London. I can’t help but wonder why some people spend so much time sniping about the UK and then so much money travelling there. But I need to stop before my national hackles rise too far, or I mention the cricket.

Lizards rattled through the dry leaves, ran from shadows and rushed back into the sun when the coast was clear. On the stones that edged the car park larger lizards basked in the sun and moved with surprising speed towards wayward flies and passing butterflies. And there were plenty of both about. The bush-fly is clearly Australia’s most visible wildlife icon, but it’s also the least appreciated, although not by hungry lizards.

The hill top was speckled with butterflies, and from underfoot ants swarmed and grasshoppers hopped. In other parts of the state the grasshoppers swarmed and became locusts, but not here, not today. Many of the butterflies seemed to be Large Whites - Cabbage Whites if you want - and they are not native, but once you could filter out their presence, other more interesting ones could be found. Australian Painted Ladies - which sounds like a group that would work in adult entertainment - glided and flicked from flower to flower. They seemed crisper, newer, than the ones in the garden at home, and I suppose they were. I assume that the towering summit of MDB is cooler that my garden, so the butterflies would have emerged later, and be younger than mine. Larger butterflies also moved among the flowers, Macleay's swallow tails, with beautiful pale green patches under the wings and an annoying habit of always beating their wings flying or not. Perched on flowers, moving between flowers, fighting with rivals, were all done under frenetic wing beats. They only glided when high above the ground, circling the lower branches of trees. They were hard to frame, and harder to photograph.

At least in Victoria it has stopped raining. Queensland is underwater, but Victoria is drying out. Everywhere you look it is greener than I have seen. In places the grass is waist high, the gullies are damp and streams that were dried isolated pools in the last few years are now running and clear.

The slope down from the summit was bright with buttercups - and more butterflies. The flowers were probably a weed, but they still shone in the sunlight. I sat in the long grass and waited, but little happened. Bees buzzed, grasshoppers and crickets called their leggy song, bird calls drifted from the woodland. Something dawned on me. Under a clear blue Australian sky - so large, so huge - it felt like I was in the afternoon of the first day of summer. As a kid there was a clear marker that summer had begun. Summer always started on the 16th June. This was a family birthday, but that was not the reason - we weren’t that sort of family. The 16th June was the first day of summer because you could start fishing again - and specifically you would be fishing for tench. On popular waters people would sit in rows, chasing this green, compact, muscular fish. Within weeks, sometimes days, it was clear that the summer was beginning to fade, and you would move on to other species. The rows of red topped floats would thin with the crowds, and you knew that more peaceful times were ahead - and I think that the fish knew too.

Down the hill from the summit you can walk into a forest gully, rich with tree ferns and moss. Once you were on the forest floor you could hear, but not see, water. If you peered round trees, or stood on the rails of a viewing platform, you could just glimpse the stream. It was a secret little place, full of small noises and delight.

It was a real contrast to the river - the Yarra - that flows through Warburton. Here the water was open to view and not hidden at all. Bread fat ducks gather at the water’s edge and children splash and swim. In the forest the water was hidden and the life was on display, here it was the other way around. You had to stand still and let the life come to you as the water flowed past. Most of the life had four wings rather than two; I waited for the flash of a kingfisher, but I waited in vain. But a streak of blue did pass by, a large dragon fly - possibly a Whitewater Rockmaster - landed on a rock near the middle of the water. It ignored me as it ignored all the other noise and haste around it. It cleaned its large eyes and seemed to wait. Then it was off, only to be replaced by another, and then another. The rock was some form of dragonfly way station, a stop on a journey up river.

These dragons are hard to name - with many, many dozens of possibilities - I don’t think I ever realised how few different species there actually were in the UK until I came to Australia with its diversity and size. Two large “dragonflies” land on the same waterside plant at the same time - they eye each other off and both move aside. One holds its wings in an X shape - not along its back like many damsel flies, or straight out like their larger dragon cousins. The X wing turns out to be a Flat Wing, a large damsel fly. Rare insects of this type are found in this area, but this is probably not one of them. Rare things don’t turn up every day.

But on this day a rare thing did show its face - the first day of summer, spent on the tops of hills and the banks of rivers. Who could ask for more?