Warming to Wattlebirds

Wattlebirds are mentioned early on in Where Song Began by Tim Low. Noted ornithologist John Gould described the sound made by little wattlebirds as similar to the sound made by a person vomiting. It is true that their call is harsh, but living in an area populated by red wattlebirds has softened my view of them.

 

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Red wattlebird in flight

As a honeyeater, red wattlebirds are a fiercely territorial bird. They call out to mark their territory and play an important role as pollinators. To watch a wattlebird or two tug away at nectar-filled blossoms is quite a sight to behold, as they are quite large birds although the Tasmanian yellow wattlebird is the largest honeyeater.

Little wattlebird

Little wattlebird, Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

In the earlier days of colonisation, wattlebirds were hunted for the dinner table.

Red wattlebirds sold in Sydney’s poultry shops in large numbers. They were pronounced the best eating bird in the bush. Sugar produces a sweet meat that pleased colonial bellies. (p. 28)

Whilst these birds are no longer hunted for food, they provide a regular background of calls and clucks with a steady presence throughout the year. They are shy yet bold, not willing to come too close yet not entirely uncomfortable with human presence. They will take on magpies and currawongs, birds larger and known for their territorial aggression, in order to preserve their area. They are active birds, shifting quickly from trees to bushes in search of nectar.

Red wattle bird

Red wattlebird

They have a narrow beak, as befits a honeyeater, and reddish eyes which match their red wattles. These are small flaps of skin that hang beneath their neck. The red wattlebirds have a yellow underbelly.

Not all of their calls are harsh; some are softer and more gentle on the ears. Hearing their distinctive call is one of the wonderful reminders for me that I am home.

[Photo: red wattlebird]

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Ten Tunnel Train Trip

Recently I caught the train from the upper Blue Mountains to Lithgow. In recent years the only time I have taken this journey was when I was on the Indian Pacific. We had crossed the mountains on dusk, which was beautiful, but by the time we began the descent from Mount Victoria to Lithgow, it was dark.

So off I set on a gorgeous winter’s day. It was warm and mild for a change. The train was on time and before long I was settled in a carriage, watching the scenery as the track ran alongside the highway before detouring through patches of the country that you can only see from a train. The views opened up on the approach to Blackheath, with the Megalong Valley spread out on a clear day. Mount Victoria was a major station, and the end of the line for a while until the Lithgow Zig Zag railway was completed.

View over Kanimbla Valley

View over Kanimbla Valley

From Mt Victoria, the train passes through the sidings at Bell and Zig Zag, and a guard needs to be notified if a stop is required at either of these locations. Near the Zig Zag station, there are blackened stumps and trees; a legacy of the 2013 fires.

The descent from Mount Victoria to Lithgow initially comprised of a series of switchbacks to manage the steep grade, and it included three viaducts which can still be glimpsed today. The Zig Zag was replaced in 1910, and the track travels through ten tunnels cut through sandstone. These tunnels vary from 70 metres to 825 metres in length. In addition to making the journey safer, the ten tunnel deviation saved up to thirty minutes on journey times. The gradient was reduced, enabling increased loads on trains. The tunnels are considered to be an engineering achievement and included the deepest cutting on the NSW rail system.

Zig Zag Viaduct

Zig Zag Viaduct

At the entrance of each tunnel, the driver gave a soft toot on the horn. On the return trip, I noticed that each tunnel is numbered in descending order from the Sydney end with a firm directive of ‘WHISTLE’ emblazoned at each entrance. There is something about tunnels; the compression of air, the sudden darkness. I only spotted the occasional blur of white light in a couple of them.

As the train sweeps along from Mount Victoria, there are views over the Hartley Valley. There was some low cloud at one point but it cleared quickly to reveal views of the valley. Bright bursts of wattle livened up the passing scenery, which was a mixture of trees, heath and ferns for most of the trip. Travelling between the ten tunnels there were large sandstone outcrops.

Lithgow Station

Lithgow Station

I had a quick wander around Lithgow before catching the return train back, enjoying the views as the train moved smoothly along the tracks. There is the whisper of metal on steel, interlaced with station announcements.

It was great to be able to enjoy the trip and to be a passenger for a change. It was good to travel to a familiar place but on a different mode of transport.

When was the last time you travelled to a familiar location a different way?

[Photo: Mt Victoria Station]

History Herstory Our Story: Parramatta Female Factory – 200 Years

The foundation stone for the Parramatta Female Factory was laid on 9 July 1818 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The bicentennial of this event was marked by a community gathering in which stories of women, children and men who were linked to the history of this place were acknowledged.

The day’s events included a dedication ceremony, historical re-enactments, speeches and the unveiling of a commemorative wall. There was also a Welcome to Country, acknowledging the Barramattagal ancestral ground.

The Parramatta Female Factory was commissioned by Governor Macquarie in response to the growing challenge of creating an environment where convict women could be housed, gainfully employed, be selected as possible servants or wives, and punished if required.

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

The role of women in the colonial society was contentious on various fronts, and not least of all because the female population was significantly lower than that of men. An anonymous letter had been sent to Earl Bathurst accusing Macquarie of condoning prostitution by not providing accommodation for unmarried women. Macquarie had requested approval to build accommodation previously but had been denied. Reverend Samuel Marsden had plans already drawn up; these plans were passed on to Colonial Architect Francis Greenway by Macquarie. The plans were to build a factory and barracks to lodge 300 women on four acres enclosed by a nine-foot stone wall.

The factory model was used for a further twelve factories around the state and the country as the colony expanded. It was to be built alongside the Parramatta River, in part to provide access to the river for spinning flax and bleaching linen. Government House was on the other side. The Factory “stood on the edge of its large barren grounds as if straining across the river to the settlement.” (Macquarie’s World, Marjorie Barnard).

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Factories were designed with multiple purposes in mind including British bridewells, workhouse and prison. Various work was carried out by women on the site, including producing linen, wool picking and spinning, stone breaking and working within the factory itself. It is estimated that about 5,000 women passed through the Parramatta factory. Women were employed as servants by private settlers and returned for various reasons, such as reassignment, the birth of children or court-ordered punishments.

The site had a history of overcrowding, mismanagement and poor conditions, and there were various riots at the site as a result. A class system was put in place to separate women eligible for assignment, women approaching the end of their imprisonment, and women who had committed crimes in the colony or had broken the strict factory rules.

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

In Women Transported: Life in Australia’s Convict Female Factories, a handbook to an exhibition compiled by various researchers and contributors, it is noted that it was estimated that at least 25,000 convict women were transported to Australia. Of these, between nine and ten thousand are estimated to have passed through one of the colonial convict female factories. There were two in Parramatta (the original one had been located above the gaol) and two in Moreton Bay; others were located at Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Hobart Town, Cascades, Launceston, Ross and George Town. Many of the factories were developed as adjuncts to gaols.

The description below of a typical journey to the Parramatta Female Factory is from A History of Australia (Volume 1) by Manning Clark.

These women were taken by boat from Sydney Cove to Parramatta. This journey lasted from morning to evening in fair weather, but with an adverse wind darkness came down before the end of the journey, when great irregularities took place and the women frequently arrived at Parramatta in a state of intoxication and plundered of their property, to begin their servitude the next day in destitution and on a hangover. By an odd irony this was generally their first experience of life in a colony which had been created for their reformation as well as their punishment.

The Factory, located in Fleet Street in North Parramatta, formed part of a complex of government buildings in the Parramatta area which played an important part in the development of the colony of New South Wales. Some of the original factory buildings remain; others were demolished when the site was later repurposed as an asylum. The high walls that are a familiar sight in locations including Gladesville Hospital (a custom built asylum) are present here too. The factory is now part of the Cumberland Hospital complex, under Western Sydney Health, and NSW Institute of Psychiatry. The Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, which incorporates the Female Factory and Roman Catholic Orphan School (later Parramatta Lunatic Asylum and Parramatta Girls Home) has been in continuous use as an institutional site since 1818.

Hospital administration building, built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

Hospital administration building built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

A walk around the grounds shows a mix of heritage sandstone buildings and other buildings from different decades. On one perimeter there are the high walls of the defunct Parramatta Gaol. A short bridge over the Parramatta River provides access to the modern Cumberland Hospital.

There were a variety of stall and historic displays set up in the airing yard, a grassed space protected on three sides by sandstone buildings. Beyond a fence, the ground slopes down to the river and there was much bird activity and a colony of grey-headed flying foxes. They were mainly suspended from branches, tightly bound and resting, but the group of noisy people below may have been disturbing them as there were regular squawks and squabbles as positions were jockeyed for and the odd bat took to the sky before circling back to nudge someone else out of position.

Grey-headed flying fox

Grey-headed flying fox

Other colourful displays during the day included several people dressed in historical costume, including a man playing the role of Samuel Marsden (with a flogging whip, striding about and asking who the owners of children were), a schoolmistress and a matron. They provided a lively touch to what was, for the most part, a day of sharing family stories connected to a difficult time and place in our history.

Historic Actors at Commemoration

Historic Actors at Commemoration

As part of the bicentennial ceremony, following a number of interesting and personal speeches commemorating some of the many women and children who passed through the factory site, a plaque was unveiled. This contains the first names of some of the women who entered the factory gates as part of their journey through the colony.

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

There is an excellent site created by the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Association Incorporated (Parragirls) which provides an overview of the site over its many decades of institutional life. There are common – and devastating – echoes across generations of women with stories linked to the area.

Snatches of Songs

There are snatches of songs that come to mind at different times. Sometimes these are situational based prompts, providing a familiar kind of comfort. At other times, the mind seems to throw up surprising references that require a bit of further reflection.

If I stay up late, for whatever reason, and feel a bit sleep-deprived the next day, one of my favourite song snatches is from Late Last Night by Todd Snider:

Well could you try to keep it down, I was up kinda late last night?
Now I’m feeling’ like I usually feel after I feel alright
I don’t want hear another word about mornin’
I can’t take the light … 
Well could you try to keep it down I was up kinda late last night?

For those moments when a big decision is required but the whole thing feels a bit overwhelming? Try Little Decisions by Paul Kelly:

Little decisions are the kind I can make 
Big resolutions are so easy to break
I don’t want to hear about your big decisions

Sometimes for no particular reason at all, Anna Begins by Counting Crows reappears as an ear worm to hum:

… kindness falls like rain
It washes her away and Anna begins to change her mind

But it isn’t only lyrics that come to mind. Sometimes it is a tune, such as Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Or Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodwin. Just writing it out makes me start to whistle. And perhaps not tunefully. But that doesn’t matter!

I like to have musical references in my fiction sometimes too. In a flash fiction piece I managed to work in a reference to The Honeymoon is Over by The Cruel Sea which still makes me smile when I think of it.

What musical moments come to mind for you?

[Photo: servants bells at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta]

Scratchings At The Heart

Driving home tonight I listened to a podcast interview with a clinical psychologist. Dr Chris Blazina had completed a study on the relationship between men and their dogs. One of the findings was that for the majority of the middle-aged men who participated in the survey, the relationship they had with their dogs was one of the most safe and trustworthy relationships in their life.

This was in part a reflection of how, in general terms, men may have a smaller group of friendships and people that they are willing to confide in when compared to women of a similar age.

But it also highlights the importance of dogs in people’s lives. A couple of men had called in and left voicemail comments about their relationship with their dogs which provided further insight. John, a farmer, had sadly lost his working dog, Ned, after many years of faithful service. He spoke not only of the usefulness of dogs in a working sense – along with the frustration when they act of their own accord when they believe they know best – but of the sense of loneliness when that constant positive presence is no longer there.

Another caller was a carpenter who had a young border collie called Pip as a working companion. Pip made the workday better, helped with handling stressful situations, and was great at breaking down barriers with customers and other tradespeople on work sites. Tradies felt a bit freer to play with the dog, or speak to her in a high-pitched voice which they normally wouldn’t use.

The study confirmed the important role played by dogs in our lives and relationships in general. Losing a much loved companion animal can be as devastating as the loss of a friend, loved one or the end of a relationship. Animals also play an important role in enhancing our relationships with the people that matter in to us.

Our lives are richer on many levels for being shared with our companion animals.

Scratchings at the heart was one man’s description of his relationship with his dog.

[Photo: dog in bathtub at Gunning, NSW]

A Winter Bird Walk at Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens with Carol Probets

A visit to the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens is one of my favourite immersive experiences. I have been there several times over recent years and have enjoyed different aspects of the extensive gardens throughout the seasons. Sometimes I head over for a wander with a specific purpose in mind, such as looking at Australian flora or to enjoy the beautiful autumn colours. At other times I will just go and have a walk and see what I find.

Each season there is the opportunity to join in a bird walk with birding guide Carol Probets. The walk involves an early start (8 am at the garden gates) and provides a rare opportunity to explore parts of the gardens before the usual opening times (9 am on weekdays, 9.30 am on weekends). There are a wide variety of plants and paths throughout the garden to explore, and on a frosty winter morning, there was a lot of bird activity.

New Holland honeyeater

New Holland Honeyeater

Carol led the small group through the Proteaceae section, which was very popular with the honeyeaters. There were quite a few New Holland Honeyeaters flying about and perching atop tall, bare trees to survey the area. There were also quite a few Eastern Spinebills enjoying the nectar, as well as Little and Red Wattlebirds in the area.

Eastern spinebill

Eastern Spinebill

We headed through part of the rock garden and near the bog garden where there were some very busy White-browed Scrubwrens fossicking through the undergrowth. Several Crimson Rosellas were picking through the lawn throughout the Brunet Meadow, and a male and female Satin Bowerbird perched on a table and chair setting before joining the rosellas on the hunt for treats through the grass. A kookaburra looked on from a nearby branch before spotting something and flying off.

Eastern yellow robin

Eastern yellow robin

As we walked towards the conifer species section, we passed by the remnants of a bower with flashes of blue and yellow. The bower wasn’t being maintained as it was not breeding season, but it was protected by hedges. An eastern yellow robin appeared and seemed to pose on lower branches for a spell, then our attention was caught by a mixed flock of birds high up in some gum trees. Carol identified a Golden Whistler along with Lewin’s Honeyeater and a White-throated Treecreeper. There were also Brown and Striated Thornbills flitting about the branches.

White-browed scrubwren

White-browed scrubwren

We returned to the Visitors Centre for morning tea and a general discussion about birdwatching. This included the chance to review some of the bird and field guides along with a discussion of some of the apps that are available to help identify birds and enhance the experience. Guidance was provided on setting up binoculars along with tips on how to spot and identify birds in general. Carol spoke about bird behaviour along with the challenges of identifying birds as their feathers change throughout the year and can also vary in different geographical areas.

Kookaburra

Kookaburra

It was a perfect winter day for enjoying the gardens and the abundant birdlife in the area, and Carol is a generous and very knowledgeable guide. I am looking forward to my next visit to the gardens, and the next, and the next!

[Photo: red-browed finches spotted bouncing around the lawns]

Tai Chi at Eastwood on a Saturday Morning

Pigeons swirl about as music guides scores of people through gentle movements, conjuring ancient rhythms in smooth concerted actions. A mix of ages and nationalities united perhaps by the need to connect with something deeper, yet not alone. The rustle of jackets, bright glimpses of velvet satin.

It is hard not to be entranced by the motion, the coordination, the gentle sway of limbs. A sense of calm, reconnection; something personal performed in a public space. Ritualised movement in dappled winter sunshine with white cockatoos crying overhead.

Fans are used in some of the movements, the sharp flick of a wrist unfurling brightly coloured designs. Various leaders move amongst the large group to demonstrate actions or provide individual support to some of the participants.

The sense of tranquility is tangible, and people passing by on the way to somewhere else often pause to take in the scene, to stop for a brief moment to take in the atmosphere. Some people take photos, and others take short videos. It is enough to be here and to enjoy the moment, to marvel at the measured sense of calm rhythm and to witness something that has been a tradition for generations upon generations of people.

In a world in which the rate of change seems to be increasing exponentially, it is something else to simply enjoy a slower pace for a moment or two, even if it is vicariously.

[Photo: Tai Chi at Eastwood Mall]

Green

Green is my favourite colour. It is the colour of the leaves on the trees in my garden, the hue of the grass at different times of the year. It is the colour of new growth: fresh shoots signifying a change of season, the promise of the scents of spring.

It isn’t always new life. Sometimes it is the colour of fallen leaves, gum leaves with their seemingly infinite variety of shapes, some with bumps and modules along the veins of the leaves. They still carry their scent, a tang of evaporating bush oils.

Satin bowerbird

Satin bowerbird at Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens

There is the mottled green set in a pattern of scalloped feathers on the undercarriage of a satin bowerbird, either on females or the younger male birds up to the age of seven years, give or take, when their feathers take on the dark plume of blue-black satin.

Pine tree frond

Pine tree frond

Pine trees, tall and straight, are easily characterised by the green needles. Look closer on the trunk to see brown whorls and curling bark in contrast against the green foliage.

Old shop tile at Portland

Tile on old butcher shop at Portland

Polished green tiles in a country town reflect the passing cars and pedestrians. They have raised textures, a bulls head and a rams head. The building once housed a butcher shop, the tiles marked the trade.

Brush Farm at Eastwood, softened by greenery

Brush Farm at Eastwood, softened by greenery

Green is the ivy that curves with thickly cloying tendrils around the fenceposts before skirting along parts of the fence line. It sneaks into available space, softening the hard edges and drawing the eye. For that is what the colour green does.

What’s your favourite colour?

[Photo: green outlook at Lake Pillans, Lithgow]

On Ignoring the Shoulds

Recently I’ve felt heartened by reading a couple of blog posts about the pleasure and benefits of ignoring, even temporarily, the endless list of ‘shoulds’ in a day. These occur often without much conscious thought, or so it seems. We are conditioned to move from one task to the next, and there is usually something that requires attention or input. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: having a focus helps to create a sense of purpose, and there is something quite satisfying when a task is completed and can be moved off the real or mental to do list, even if it is only a temporary reprieve before it needs to be done again.

But there is something quite freeing in making the conscious decision to stop. Stop from moving from one task to the next. Accept that there is probably a better way to spend your time and yet still choose not to do it. Just sit and stare out at the garden, lose yourself for a while in a book or TV show, potter about and do small tasks that don’t necessarily appear on a list of things to be done but feel good to do anyway.

Like most people, I can usually think of plenty of things that could or should be done if a spare moment happens to materialise. But lately I’ve been choosing not to do it. Well, not right now anyway. There is a kind of satisfaction in recognising that whilst I could be doing whatever it is right now, I’m choosing not to. Instead, I’m going to sit in my favourite chair with a book that isn’t on my reading list and read a bit. Or stare out at the trees. Or watch clouds change shape. All of those shoulds can wait.

When was the last time you ignored the should-dos in your day?

This post was encouraged by I Really by Real Life of an MSW and A Day of Rest by Ann Coleman, whose blog posts arrived just when I needed them!

A Good Day Out

There is something that truly delights me about seeing birds when I’m out and about. This is easier at times than others, but I seem to spend a bit of time looking at the canopies of trees, patiently waiting to spot birds which are flying about and twittering above. I have learned to stand very still and to watch for branches being pulled about by birds on the hunt for nectar or insects.

There is a special kind of delight that I feel when I spot a bird that I’m not familiar with. As I am still relatively new at this bird spotting game, this happens fairly often. It can be frustrating to hear but not see a bird (and my ear for bird calls is very much a work in progress), or to see one flit by but not know what kind of bird it is. When I can, I will take a photo but again this can be an exercise in frustration as there are many blurred shots of wings, beaks and bird bums which really don’t help in identifying the complete bird.

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Wattle blooms to brighten a winter day

But then there are days when it comes together. I took a drive down to the Evans Lookout recently at Blackheath. I have been here before on sunset, and it was such an amazing moment when the sheer scale of the Grose valley was revealed that it took my breath away. Although it was an overcast day, I thought I’d take a look in daylight and revisit the view.

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Grose Valley views from Evans Lookout at Blackheath

The view was spectacular, with the shifting clouds creating vistas speckled with light and dark shadows. Throughout the valley, I could hear the ting of bellbirds way down below. Back at the car park, I was getting ready to get in my car when a small bird caught my eye. It was bouncing about, moving across the dirt path and bitumen with agile bounds. I followed it a little way and managed a photo or two before a car came in and it seemed to vanish. I started to drive out and saw a clutch of three birds, so I pulled over and grabbed my camera.

These birds were a delight to watch, dancing about with jaunty flicks of their tails. The lookout is a popular spot and they were not at all phased by me or my car. It was a treat to watch them bounce around, searching for insects.

Rockwarbler

A rockwarbler in-between hops at Evans Lookout

The next part of the challenge is to then identify the bird. One of my most used reference books is Birds of the Blue Mountains, but I had to flick through a field guide to identify the little birds as rockwarblers. These sweet birds are the only bird endemic to New South Wales, and they are usually found in areas where there is sandstone.

Just around the bend, I had to pull over again as a bird was on the road. Another bird that I wasn’t familiar with. I walked back and spotted it in a tree and took the photo below. It was a grey shrike-thrush, known for its beautiful calls.

Grey shrike-thrush

A grey shrike-thrush spotted near Evans Lookout

Spotting and identifying these birds bring a joy and satisfaction that is hard to convey. And it definitely makes it a good day out!

[Photo: rockwarbler hunting through leaves at the lookout]