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.

 

6176732848_IMG_0702

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]

Advertisements

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]

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]

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.

7518817968_IMG_0655

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.

7518817968_IMG_0635

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]

Three Moments

There are times when it is easy to get caught up in the challenges and dramas swirling around in our lives. During these periods, I feel like I spend a lot of time in my head, thinking through problems or planning ahead to avoid obstacles. This sometimes means I forget to pay attention to what is around me, until a moment of something ordinary yet beautiful shakes me back into the present.

Sanctuary

A small grove of trees

This is one of the sections of a walk I take occasionally in my village. It is located on a long road, and I tend to walk it of a weekend when there is time to dawdle about and really enjoy the sights and sounds. It might look like a grove of trees, but for me it is a reminder to enjoy moments of serenity and to take in what is around me.

Over the summer there have been flocks of Gang-gang cockatoos swooping through the upper Blue Mountains. A couple of years ago I wasn’t even aware of their existence, but then I saw a great photo at an exhibition at Everglades. The bird in the photo was a shade of lilac blue with a bright red head and it reminded me of a woman in a dressing gown somehow! It has been a delight to see these cockatoos in the area, and my first sighting of them was a flock in some tall gum trees. It took me a moment to work out what they were, and since then I have listened out for their cries and watched them move around the neighbourhood. I spotted these up the road whilst walking my dog (male on the left, female on the right). They weren’t bothered by the pesky human with a small camera finding delight in their everyday actions, and it made me smile for a long time.

Plant

Tea tree blossom after the rain

It is hard to resist a pretty bloom, regardless of how distracted you might be, but paying more attention contributes to my growing appreciation of the natural world. During a walk I spotted this tea-tree in flower, close to a banksia tree. It was just after a morning shower and the blooms were almost luminous.

Have you been surprised by small moments lately?

[Photo: tea tree blossom]

A Community Collected

One of the current exhibits at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre is Blue Mountains Portraits. It features a range of artworks representing people from the local community, from well-known local personalities to the quiet achievers.

Many of the works are by local artists, which further adds to the authenticity of the collection.

One of the joys of the exhibition is getting to know the backstory behind the portraits, learning more about some of the people who live in the mountains and who bring their skills and personalities to the region. The story behind the portrait selection is also provided, often revealing a deeper connection between the artist and their subject. There is a selection of the portraits recently featured in the Blue Mountains Gazette here.

There are people who contribute to the vibrant art and music scene in the mountains, collaborators who get behind festivals and events that appeal to locals and tourists alike. There are people who work tirelessly in community organisations, making a huge difference to many people in a myriad of ways. These include firefighters and environmentalists, teachers and advocates. There is a father and son business partnership, along with some of the colourful characters who bring something unique to life in the mountain villages.

The range of artistic representation is also impressive across the forty-plus artworks. There are photographic and traditional painted portraits as well as people represented in mosaics, drawing and collages. From familiar faces to the unknown, the range of styles encourages a celebration of the local community.

The exhibition is on until 18 March 2018.

[Photo: glimpse of sculpture on the viewing platform of the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre]

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.

26747648_Unknown

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.

IMG_6801

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]

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.

IMG_6877

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.

img_6871.jpg

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.

IMG_6895

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]

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.

7516799536_IMG_0922

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.

7516799536_IMG_0923

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.

7516799536_IMG_0933

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]

King Parrots, A Poem by Alan Gould

The king parrots have returned to the Blue Mountains, working their way through trees bearing fruit. Recently I arrived home to find half a dozen of them picking off the small fruit on a plum tree. They are bold in colour and temperament, and are charming despite the destruction. This poem expresses what it is like to have a visitation.

They’ve arrived.

That’s all I am allowed to know.

Four, no six, they have materialised

 

trembling on the Mexican Hawthorn

as though the tree had just devised them,

six startling orchids,

 

or six jocund rascals, outrageous

in their green or crimson balaclavas

and crimson pantaloons,

 

tucking away their conifer wings,

eating with greedy disdain

like babies or commit strip bandidos.

 

My lawn is rubbished with half-eaten crimson berries.

Vandals. Solferino angels:

how can my eye stray while they remian

 

in creaturely candelabra

on a sky of nursery blue.

It’s like a siege.

 

One cocks its head, as though to say,

‘Don’t worry. We are too brilliant to be real,’

then goes on eating from my tree.

 

They’re gone. The branch skitters into stillness.

And I could spend a year behind this glass

longing for their return.

ALAN GOULD

7516830176_IMG_0859

Female Australian king parrot

[Header photo: male king parrot about to take off with some fruit]