Where to begin with a novel edit?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot lately. Over a year ago I finished the first draft of a novel. It was an exciting moment, and I can still recall how I typed the final sentence with a sense of bewilderment. I’d done it. I’d written a novel. But even in that moment I knew it was just the beginning.

Like many guides recommend, I let the work sit for a bit. A couple of months later I read it through on a warm spring day. There were some typos and clunky bits and repetition but overall I was rather chuffed with my efforts. It could be improved without a doubt, but I felt that it held together well.

I’m not sure what happened next. Other projects and life got in the way. And the thought of making a start (where and how??) with wrangling over 95,000 words was overwhelming, let alone any consideration of what I would do with it once it was edited. How many first novels live in drawers or backed up in a cloud?

But one of my writing friends kept asking me about The Novel. Where was it up to? How was the rework going? Finally the message got through. It’s time to rework the novel.

Have you ever googled novel editing? There is a vast amount of information and resources, tips and techniques out there to guide the novel novelist. But I soon realised that, similar to the writing process itself, there is no single way to complete the novel edit. Established authors vouch that there are variations to most of the novels that they have edited. Some authors have editorial teams behind them but when starting out it is just you and the page. The temptation is strong to spend considerable time researching various approaches but after a brief foray this began to feel like procrastination.

I have to keep it relatively simple. I have referred back to a post by Australian author Allison Tait that I kept in readiness for such a moment. And I also found a frank clip on editing by Jenna Moreci that aligned with my goal of a simple yet thorough approach.

The reality is that there are no shortcuts. I will need to keep moving through the stages of editing until the novel is in the best shape it can be. And rather than being overwhelmed, it is best to keep it in manageable steps.

How do you approach big creative tasks?

[Photo: mist in the Hartley Valley]

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The Evans Expedition

As you travel along the Great Western Highway from Bathurst towards Orange, there is a signpost for Evans Plains. Depending on the time of year and recent rainfall, the outlook is often a vista of rolling green hills. That a man called Evans had travelled through this way is clear, but as many parts of Australia are named for people with loose associations with the area, it was only when I came across a statue commemorating George Evans at Bathurst that I realised that he was one of the early colonial explorers.

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Evans Memorial at Bathurst, commemorating his discovery of the Bathurst Plains

Recently there was an unveiling of an interpretative sign on the Hampton Road near Rydal in the hills beyond Lithgow. The sign has been created to compliment a memorial to George Evans and his exploratory party who crossed the Blue Mountains and the Great Dividing Range near Mount Cheetham, south of Rydal. The expedition was at the request of Governor Macquarie in 1813, and followed the track through the mountains left by the Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson crossing. This journey paved the way for the opening up of the western districts with Evans and his party travelling past the future town of Bathurst and out towards the village of Molong. The journey took 55 days and covered nearly 500 km. The party eventually turned back as supplies were running out.

Evans kept a journal, and he became increasingly effusive about the countryside which he was travelling through, identifying the potential of the grassed lands to satisfy sheep and cattle. With the colony in need of expansion, this was welcome news.

I cannot speak too much of the country. The increase of stock for some 100 years cannot overrun it, the grass is so good and intermixed with a variety of herbs.

The memorial near Hampton is close to the location of Evan’s camp on the night that the mountains were crossed on 30 November 1813. The sign is located beside an obelisk now located on Antonio Reserve, Hampton Road. The obelisk was erected in 1963 by the Lithgow Historical Society, and it commemorates Evans and his party. The interpretative sign was the work of the Lithgow branch of the National Trust, Lithgow City Council and Bill Hoolihan, a Hampton resident, along with three years of fundraising efforts.

The unveiling of the sign was attended by a large number of people from the local area and further afield, keen to keep the story of Evan’s journey alive. This included a welcome to country by a member of the Wiradjuri nation, and a short introduction by Lithgow Mayor, Stephen Lesslie, who said that without understanding our past, we struggle to find our future.

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Interpretative sign near Hampton

The common perception is that the Blue Mountains were crossed by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, and whilst they did blaze a trail – largely by following the well-worn paths across the mountains travelled by Aboriginals – it is Evans and his small team of travellers and convicts who really deserve this recognition.

An overview of this exploratory journey and Evan’s life was provided by Paul Brunton OAM, Emeritus Curator of the State Library. From Evans’ upbringing in Warwick as the son of an estate manager to his various roles in the colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania, Evans lived an eventful life. Brunton provided an overview, noting that despite his considerable achievements, there is relatively little remaining in the way of personal papers to provide insight into the man himself. Evans seemed to be conscious of his lack of a classical education, and this also had an impact on his career opportunities. When his journals were sent to London to share the expedition’s discoveries, feedback on Evans’ educational shortcomings – such as ‘Riverlett’ which is still honoured today – overshadowed his achievements.

Despite his successful expedition out across the western plains, and the payment of a reward and land grant in Tasmania, Evans’ career was somewhat inconsistent. He continued on as Assistant Surveyor-General for a spell, and was sent to Hobart to help with rectifying issues with questionable land surveying practices there. Macquarie called him back and forth to help with further expeditions through New South Wales, and he accompanied John Oxley on various explorations.

Evans lived a long life, marrying again after the death of his first wife and having at least a dozen children. What personal records there are show him to be a brave, thoughtful man who treated the men including convicts who accompanied him with compassion. He displayed empathy towards the indigenous people and the changes that would follow for them with colonisation. He expressed admiration for the country he was helping to explore and chart. His occupations are listed as art teacher, bookseller, explorer, farmer, landscape artist, public servant, shop owner, stationer, surveyor and surveyor-general. Quite a resume!

It is apt that Evans’ role in charting the plains beyond the Blue Mountains is being recorded and expanded upon for more people to appreciate.

[Photo: Paul Brunton at the sign dedication to George W Evans]

Excuse Me While I Procrastinate

It’s funny how sometimes the right thing comes along at the right time. I was looking at a video on cloud-watching, which sounds like an ideal way to procrastinate instead of doing something useful, but as I was making some notes the next video in line started to play. It was a TED talk about procrastination.

Tim Urban provides a humorous overview of how procrastination works. He tells a familiar story of having a major thesis due, and how logically the work involved would be staggered in a reasonable and achievable manner up until the due date. This was fine in theory until distractions and instantly gratifying behaviour got in the way.

Urban reveals how procrastination has the potential to impact all of our lives. There is an ongoing internal battle for many people between the rational decision-maker, the instant gratification monkey with lots of easy and fun ideas, and the panic monster. The panic monster comes into play when there is a deadline and the likelihood of a consequence for not completing an agreed task, such as public humiliation.

And here is the thing. Deadlines contain procrastination. They don’t necessarily block it, but they limit the extent of procrastination, which in some forms of creativity or tasks, can be endless if there is no timeframe around it.

I know that deadlines motivate me. So, after having a laugh at the talk, I gave it a bit of thought. Somehow I always deliver on deadlines that matter, so I thought that I would set some writing deadlines of my own. I had a think about the projects that I’ve been working on, bits and pieces that just seem to mosey along when I don’t have a specific timeframe to work on. And I set myself some deadlines.

Not the vague, just in my head kind of deadline. Deadlines written on the whiteboard in my study, ready to remind me when I’m having a dawdling kind of day when my mind would prefer to veer between clearing out emails or sorting something – anything – into some sort of order. Isn’t it time that cupboard in the kitchen that drives me nuts is sorted? No. Instead I look at the wall, look at what I had planned to work through for the week or month, and get on with it.

Do you suffer from procrastinationitis? And if so, how do you trick yourself to get things done?

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[Photo: yarn bomb message spotted at Lane Cove]

Glen Davis Shale Oil Works

Recently I had the opportunity to take an old train from Lithgow to Capertee. Capertee is a small village on the road from Lithgow to Mudgee, past Wallerawang and Portland. It is home to the widest canyon in the world: the Grand Canyon is a little deeper.

About 35 kilometres from Capertee is the remnants of the Glen Davis Shale Oil Works. The road to Glen Davis passes through part of the Gardens of Stone National Park, and it is hard not to be distracted by the stunning vistas as you head down towards the base of the canyon, passing by patches of forest and farms.

At the base of the valley are the remnants of the village of Glen Davis. There are still people living in the village, and some of the accommodation built during the mine set-up and operation remains. The industrial ruins are striking. The group I was travelling with was given a tour which provided some insights into the relatively short-lived life of this endeavour.

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Retort remains in the valley

A number of factors led to the development of the mine. These included a 1934 report seeking work to reduce the number of unemployed miners in the region due to the Great Depression, and shale oil requirements for national defence. The project was funded by national and state governments, along with the National Oil Proprietary Ltd, a company created by G F Davis of Davis Gelatine. Construction began in 1938 and it was producing shale oil by January 1940. The company was later taken over by the government under the National Security Act. The mine was in operation from 1940 to 1952. The extracted petrol was sent to Newnes for storage and processing via a pipeline. The pipeline had to be guarded as some locals tried to tap in and extract fuel along the way.

The project was plagued by constant problems: water supply, flooding, housing, labour, electricity issues and a shortage of mined shale. Living conditions were particularly poor with inadequate housing and endemic diseases prior to the construction of barracks, staff cottages and permanent housing. The town swelled to 1,600 with a school, general stores, hall, post office, bank, butcher and chemist as well as a cinema.

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Mine ruins in Glen Davis

By the early 1950s, the mine was unsustainable as the cost of the extracted and processed fuel was significantly more expensive than the fuel imported from overseas. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald summed up the situation: “The simple truth is that it was costing too much money to produce an insignificant quantity of petrol, and there were no reasonable prospects upon which to base the hope that the economics of the project would improve.” At its peak operation, it was producing two-fifths of its capacity.

There were attempts to keep the mine open, influenced by the expected job losses and the roll on effect this would have on people indirectly providing services to the town and mine. This included a miners strike, with a group of 52 miners remaining underground for nearly a month, supported by family and friends. Eventually, the union confirmed that the strike was a lost cause, and they conceded defeat. A group of women had raised funds and lobbied to keep the mine open as well, without success. When the men returned above ground, there was a crowd of about 200 people waiting, including wives and children. “Many of the women, who for three weeks, had operated a soup kitchen at the pithead without showing any signs of breaking down, cried as they welcomed their menfolk.” There is a photo of some of the miners emerging in an article titled ”Stay-downers” Come Up.

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Looking up into the retort remains

Who was to blame for the unproductive mine? Management blamed the workers and the workers blamed poor management. There had been attempts to modernise some of the processes with improved machinery, but that would result in job losses. Some of the mining methodologies had been passed down generationally from miner to miner, and there was a fear that the proposed changes would have an adverse impact. For example, small twigs were placed in certain spots and were monitored in case of mine subsistence and movement. The introduction of machinery in some instances would obviate some of these methods.

What remains in Glen Davis are remnants of the infrastructure that could not be sold off or hauled away. The largest seam of high-grade oil shale in the world is still there too. There is the Glen Davis Boutique Hotel which offers group accommodation, along with Glen Davis Works which incorporates four of the remaining cottages. There is a ruins tour available each Saturday at 2 pm. It is close to the Wollemi National Park and there is a campsite in the town.

For a great two-minute video postcard, check out this link. There is also an interesting overview post here.

The village of Glen Davis isn’t quite a ghost town but it is a remarkable place to visit.

[Photo: view of the valley from Glen Davis]

Learnings from a 30 Day Writing Bootcamp

Making time to write has been on my mind lately. I recently completed a 30-day writing bootcamp where motivational writing goals arrived each morning in my inbox. I found this to be effective on a number of levels, not least of all because I am quite literal and will usually respond to written instructions!

Below are some learnings after completing 30 days of writing ‘bootcamp style’.

  • Mix up the writing times to keep it interesting.
  • Any reluctance I had around the relevance of writing 10,000 words in 30 days (which was the bootcamp goal) when I’m not currently working on a novel were unfounded. By day 3 I’d notched up over 3,000 words on short stories that had been stagnating for months.
  • It became a fun challenge to see where I could fit in pockets of writing time, regardless of how small.
  • It has been a while since I felt this motivated to write.
  • I enjoyed the challenge of writing to different word counts at various times of the day. I thought I knew when I ‘could’ write, and it was really good to challenge this perception and find out just how effective writing in smaller timeframes could be.
  • It was also surprising to realise just how much I could write in a short period of time. All of those times when I was telling myself that I only had ten minutes and that it wouldn’t be worth making a start was just a fib. I can get stuff done in mere minutes.
  • I found myself more likely to be thinking and planning what I was going to write at the next opportunity, knowing that if I have something in mind before I start the words really do fly.
  • The goal was to add 10,000 words to an existing manuscript. My word count for the month was 16,616 which exceeded my expectations.
  • By challenging my perceptions about what and when I could write, it has opened up feelings of dynamic possibility regarding how I can regularly write in a variety of timeframes and locations.

The challenge then becomes where to from here? I thought about maintaining momentum by scheduling the prompts in my calendar on a five-week cycle, with a few days scattered in for editing as I found that I was generating lots of words but needed time to trim some of it up to be useful or to continue on in a coherent manner with larger projects.

But what I’ve done instead is created a document with the 30 days worth of prompts, plus a handful of editing and planning days, and popped them in a jar. I want to retain the sense of spontaneity that I so enjoyed during the bootcamp. Because better than before I started the bootcamp, I know what my writing self is like.

How do you maintain momentum in your writing life?

[Photo: bowl of writing goals]

Cloth: From Seeds to Bloom – A Touring Exhibition

Something that consistently surprises me is how often I wander through an exhibition which on the surface seems to have little to interest me, yet manages to captivate me anyway. The current exhibition at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre featuring the work of renowned textile artist Julie Paterson is an example of this. It is a touring exhibition from the Australian Design Centre, running through to January 28.

For over 20 years, Paterson has been creating contemporary designs which are brought to life on fabrics produced locally by hand using natural fabrics. She is a painter, printmaker and textile designer, and the exhibition includes a number of set pieces, displaying various collections with accompanying text describing inspiration and process. On one wall there is a selection of swathes of fabrics showing the scope of the design range.

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Some of the collections on display

The insights provided throughout the exhibition on Paterson’s creative process stood out for me. This included background on the source of inspiration for some of the collections, some of her notebooks and even a replica studio where visitors have the opportunity to watch the artist at work.

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A replica of the Blue Mountains studio

Regardless of the output of the creative process, it is interesting to know how other creative-types approach their work, what provides inspiration, the challenges they face and how they overcome them. This exhibition offers a valuable insight on a number of these points from the outside looking in. The exhibition ties in with a book published in 2015 called ClothBound, which outlines the daily practice which underlies Paterson’s creative process and traces the journey through various fabric collections.

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Some of Paterson’s notebooks on display

A particular favourite of mine is the Imperfect Manifesto, an acknowledgement that every day provides the opportunity to be creative. It is also about an approach to living a genuine, creative and meaningful life, which is something to aspire to. You can read the manifesto here on Paterson’s website.

When was the last time you were surprised by something out of the ordinary?

[Photo: some of the natural inspirations for Paterson’s work]

Feeling Retro?

There is something about this time of year that encourages reflection. It is normal to want to spend a moment or two reviewing the year that was and thinking about plans and hopes for the year ahead. This pocket of reflection allows for consideration of personal and professional goals, and it is good to be able to think about what has been accomplished. It is easy to get caught up in the doing sometimes.

Lately I have been enjoying various posts from some of my favourite bloggers about their blog and book highlights of 2017. At times it can feel that there is so much content out there that it is hard to simply stop and revisit those snippets of writing that really had an impact throughout the year, and the recaps of popular posts are a handy reminder. Some of my favourite book bloggers have posted about a year in first lines (including Whispering Gums and Lisa Hill) which makes me think about the year in reading.

But what of my own year in writing?

A couple of months back I sat down with a notebook and thought about how I was travelling with my writing. I took into account what I had written, what I considered finished and what I still wanted to write. It didn’t take long to assess where I was, or to plan out what I would like to write in the short to medium term, but I found it to be a worthwhile exercise. It can be easy to get caught up in the doing and to lose a sense of direction.

This quick check-in helped to refocus my attention on the areas that I wanted to work on. It is not a one-off event, nor should it be yearly. It is something that I need to do on a regular basis, especially when I feel that I am creating but not completing, or maybe not even creating and I need to revisit what I have already done to help cheer me on for the next phase.

How often do you check in with your creative goals?

[Photo: some of the many signs at Portland, NSW]

A Blue Mountain Christmas

Recently I came across an article about what Christmas was like in the Blue Mountains over a hundred years ago. The lure of a mountains Christmas has tempted many families and travellers over the decades with the promise of a break from Sydney, which is usually heaving with heat in the middle of summer.

Whilst the majority of holiday makers arrive by coach and car these days, the railways provided the main mode of transport at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Boarding houses, guest houses and hotels provided accommodation options for travellers, and some people let out rooms in their houses as well.

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Christmas decorations in the trees with Carrington Hotel in the background (Katoomba)

The article by Robyne Ridge shares a family Christmas spent in a Lawson boarding house in 1885. After a huge traditional dinner on a wet Christmas Day, the family took the train to Bowenfels (Lithgow) on Boxing Day to experience the Zigzag railway. The mountains were such a popular Christmas destination that on Christmas Eve in 1918, there were twenty trains sent from Central Station to the mountains, all packed with holiday makers. The article includes some great photos from the Blue Mountains Local Studies collection including a very serious looking Father Christmas at Blackheath in 1924.

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An example of the random acts of knitting and love – including ladybirds and buttons

These days there are signs of Christmas throughout the villages of the mountains. A particular delight is the dressing up of Katoomba Street, Katoomba in festive apparel. The combined efforts of students from the local primary schools, the Katoomba Garden Brigade (who do a wonderful job year round to keep the gardens along this busy tourist strip in fine form), the Chamber of Commerce and Random Acts of Knitting and Love have transformed the street.

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One of the many stars along Katoomba Street

Stars adorn the trees, decorated by the children with Christmas messages. They also pop up from garden beds, carefully prepared with bright flowers. And the light and street poles have also had a makeover, covered in swathes of fabric and specially knitted creations. The idea is to encourage people to engage with their environment by seeing the everyday with a different lens. It’s quirky and fun.

Along the highway there are signs for community lunches on Christmas Day so people can gather to share a meal on what can otherwise be a lonely time. Hamper parties are held by local churches and groups to share donated goods with those less fortunate in a casual social environment. These gestures embody much of the spirit of goodwill which seems more evident at this time of year.

How is Christmas celebrated in your town?

To wish you a Christmas contented and glad, and the brightest New Year ever you’ve had – from this old postcard featuring Echo Point.

[Photo: Santa heading down a chimney at the Carrington Hotel, Katoomba]

Writing Prompt: A Christmas for the Senses

The spit and sizzle of ham frying with eggs sends an aromatic waft up the hallway. The bedrooms are all empty now as we’ve been up for hours, allocating out the stacks of roughly wrapped gifts, squinting at times at the scratchy writing on gift tags. Ben, the eldest, makes sure that whilst we can shake and squeeze the presents, there is no ripping of paper or unveiling of gifts. Not yet.

The old Christmas tree, tucked into the corner of the living room, is flashing bright colours through the glittering tinsel. Glass ornaments shimmer with alternating colours, and the odd candy cane at the back of the tree is still intact. Most have been picked off long ago.

From the kitchen comes the sound of carols, badly sung by Dad. Every year he insists on playing Bing Crosby, the old, worn-out cassette tape now replaced by a downloaded version. It doesn’t improve Dad’s singing and as he booms out ‘White Christmas’ we call out suggestions on how it would be better if he stopped. He just gets louder and cheesier. Mum is in the kitchen too, and her laughter eddies through to the lounge room. She’s on the phone to family, too far away to visit.

Daisy finds a box of chocolates on the coffee table and we hook in, hands scrabbling for soft centres, Ben moaning as he bites on a hard toffee. My chocolate was orange-flavoured, my favourite. A good omen, I think, as I run an assessing eye over the tottering pile of gifts. There is one from Santa, supposedly, which is small but soft to the touch. Ben is arguing with Daisy over the last of the chocolates so I slip a finger under the wrapped corner. I ease it in slowly, frowning at the touch of fabric. It is soft. Then a cushion hits me in the head as Ben roars ‘No peeking!’ and we are all off, running and tumbling towards the kitchen to lodge our multiple complaints to management. Dad greets us at the doorway with a raised hand and we fumble to a halt.

‘Your Mum’s on the phone. Five minutes till breakfast. Go and get the yard ready – your cousins will be here shortly.’

Off we go, Ben leading the way as usual. Backyard cricket is the Christmas afternoon game and we get out stumps for one end, find the bat and then Daisy and I are sent off to find the balls. We look in the dog house, around the perimetre of the pool, and I find one nestled in the big pot of mint. I hold it close for a moment, smelling summer.

Then Mum’s calling us and we find our spots at the table outside. Plates of toast, fried ham and eggs are passed around. A big plate of cut fruit sits in the middle of the table, watermelon, pineapple, rockmelon and grapes glistening. We eat quickly, keen to open presents. All eyes are on Mum, and after what seems like an age, once we’ve eaten breakfast it’s finally time.

We race each other back to the lounge room, Bing Crosby still crooning in the background, as we start to rip open the presents, exclamations of delight mingling with moments of disappointment. A jumper with a reindeer on it?Really? What was Aunty Kay thinking of? Mum reminds me that it is cold in Canada at Christmas time but still.

I work my way through my stash, saving the mysterious parcel from Santa until last. Whatever it is, I’m sure that it’s going to be good.

[Photo: Santa spotted at Blackheath]

Feeding the Magpies

One of my Dad’s favourite expressions around mealtimes was that it was like ‘feeding the magpies’. I was reminded of this recently when I was distracted by a noisy young magpie, calling for food. It was loud and insistent, crying out until a parent returned with a morsel of food for consumption. The feeding mustn’t have been quick enough as the noise continued right up until the food was positioned in the young magpie’s beak, with the parent arching back in order to drop the food into the open mouth. As soon as it disappeared the noise started again.

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Feeding the magpie – open beak waiting for food

Off went the parent to source some more food. The young magpie poked around in the garden a bit and drank some rainwater out of a hollow in the path. The parent returned with more sustenance, and they moved around the garden a bit, hunting for the next treat. Another magpie flew in with a worm, and there was a bit of jostling about as the young magpie looked between the two food sources with great interest. Once both tidbits were consumed, the three birds walked the garden, looking for more food until a currawong landed in a nearby tree.

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Feeding time

One magpie immediately flew up into the tree, making warning noises and pushing at the currawong. The currawong held its ground, not meeting the warning with a similar response, but remaining steadfast on the branch. After a while the magpie rejoined the two magpies on the ground, and a wattle bird flew in and gave the currawong another serve, shoving it further down the branch before perching in the branch above. The size difference seemed not to matter, and I was reminded of Tim Low’s comments in Where Song Began about how aggressive Australian honeyeaters are.

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Currawong (left upper branch) and magpie working out their territory

Many insights into the behaviour of Australian magpies are provided by Dr Gisela Kaplan in her book Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird. The feeding of young magpies is taken care of by both parents as well as helpers when available. Earthworms are a popular choice for the baby chicks and fledglings as magpies don’t drink water until they are more mobile. The young are fed constantly for the first three months are so, then there is a further period of two to three months when they are shown how to fend for themselves, with some assistance if required. A process of weaning applies, with parents and helpers withholding food if need be to encourage the young to be self-sufficient.

It was interesting to be able to watch just a small part of the process of feeding the magpies.

And worth noting, too, that it was recently voted as Australian Bird of the Year 2017.

[Photo: magpies feeding]