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]

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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

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Female Australian king parrot

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

Woodford Academy, Oldest Building in the Blue Mountains

From its origins as a roadside inn, the Woodford Academy on the Great Western Highway has seen a variety of uses over the years. It started out as a weatherboard and stone inn called the ‘Sign of the Woodman’ in 1834, providing accommodation for 10 people and stables for passing travellers.

During the early decades of the 19th century, the Great Western Road to Bathurst was a journey of up to four days. Twenty Mile Hollow (now known as Woodford) was a popular stop at the end of the second day of travel, between Springwood and Blackheath on the road west.  The pub was rebuilt and expanded further during the gold rush years of the 1850s onwards, when it was known as the King’s Arms. In 1868, it was bought by Alfred Fairfax as a gentleman’s residence, and he renamed it Woodford House.

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Old taproom with shelves marked out and a centrepiece of grapes, peaches and corn above the door

The alternations, extensions and repurposing of the property helped to ensure its survival. Various uses included as a guest house, licensed hotel, boarding house, private hospital and a boarding school, when it became known as the Woodford Academy. From the late 1930s onwards it was a private home until Gertie McManamey, daughter of scholar and principal of the Woodford Academy, bequeathed the property to the National Trust in 1979.

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Old schoolroom at Woodford Academy

Aboriginal heritage in the area is acknowledged; the nearby reserve has an engraved groove in a sandstone platform, considered likely to be a signpost or signal to assist travelling Aborigines.

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View from bedroom in loft looking towards Great Western Highway

From foot traffic to horse and carts, wagons to motor vehicles, the passing parade of people heading west has been viewed from this site. The loft area above the residence is accessed through tight wooden stairs. The rooms offer views of the highway, gardens and courtyard. The property has a central courtyard area, reminiscent of Rouse Hill House, with access to washrooms, kitchen, laundry and stable areas.

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Kitchen, including stone sink

Throughout the property there are series of photos celebrating previous eras, highlighting the many lives the property has had. Memorabilia in the rooms provide insights into what life was like in earlier times, before the arrival of electricity, sewerage and running water.

On the day of my visit the academy was doubling as an exhibition space, continuing to provide a place for people to come and gather and experience something unique.

[Photo: front of Woodford Academy from Great Western Highway, Woodford]

 

Wild Windy Weather

There seems to have been a resurgence of windy weather atop the Blue Mountains lately.

After one particularly windy spell, I was in a cafe when I heard one of the staff explain the wind phenomenon in the mountains. Well, her theory of it at least. The location of villages along the ridge of the mountain top – roughly along the original road and trails crossing the mountains – meant that the impact of gusty winds are stronger and more localised.

The past week has been peppered with days of high winds, which are trying enough, but then there are the wind gusts which literally knock you sideways. Walking around the main and side streets of Katoomba, there are funnels of wind that spin about, making it a challenge to walk down a steep incline due to the force of the gusts.

This weekend there has been a couple of days of reprieve – gorgeous spring weather full of sunshine, the scent of blossoms and the promise of warmer times ahead. I am trying not to dwell on the forecasted return of the winds later this week.

One of my memories of primary school involved the notorious winds of August and September in Sydney. There had been a huge wind storm and we were all gathered into the assembly hall to keep us safe from flying objects. This was exciting enough, then part of the roof blew off. For days afterwards there were stray bits of roofing, fences and other miscellany scattered around the suburb. I don’t recall anyone being injured, thankfully, but it was a big deal at the time.

High winds were pummeling the mountains on the day I moved in to my new home. I was moving incrementally, and had a fold-up bed, chairs and card table in my car, along with blankets and a kettle and enough bits to keep me going for a few days. My uncle had given me a box of firewood so I had the wood heater going which was lucky as the electricity went out overnight with trees falling across lines during the wind storm, and it was the warmth of the stove that kept my spirits up the next morning when I was without power in a strange place with wind buffeting the windows and doors, wondering just what I’d got myself in for this time.

As with other instances of wild weather, it makes me appreciate the relative calmness of the every day when it returns.

[Photo: plush toy spotted in the main street of Katoomba – not a wind related incident!]

A Little Bush Wander

Recently I had a short wander through a small section of the extensive Blue Mountains National Park. This park is part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, which covers nearly a million acres from the outskirts of western Sydney to the central tablelands, right through the upper edges of the Blue Mountains. The main park entrances are at Glenbrook, Wentworth Falls and Blackheath. My group wander started at the base of the mountains at Glenbrook.

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Canopy of gum trees

There are a myriad of tracks and avenues for exploration from this entrance, and the wander started from the Euroka campground, a popular camping and picnic spot. It is a lovely space with kangaroos, kookaburras and cockatoos in abundance and obviously at ease with the flocks of people who come and go.

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Grey gum scarred by sugar gliders

Appreciating some of the flora in this part of the park was the purpose of the wander. Whilst I can identify common plants and trees, the specifics of large plant groups such as eucalyptus trees largely elude me. To be fair, there are over 700 species. During the wander there were many grey gums, including some marked by sugar gliders as they sought access to the sap. One of the ways to differentiate between eucalyptus trees is by the shape of the gumnuts.

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Flowering wattle

Wattles also have a huge number of varieties, and their bright blooms make them easily identifiable. Close inspection revealed various insects living off the blossoms.

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Close up of casuarina tree

Yellow and red bloodwoods were scattered along the walk, as were blueberry ash and casuarinas. The casuarina, also known as she-oak, is a large and graceful tree, known for the gentle rustling sound of breeze through its leaves. There were many smaller plants and masses of ferns including thick patches of maidenhair fern.

Eastern Rosellas

Eastern Rosellas near their nest

Above and around us were many birds, from the bossy strut of sulphur crested cockatoos at one of the picnic sites, to the blue flash of kookaburras flying past. A pair of eastern rosellas were spotted nesting in a gum tree, and a pair of Australian wood ducks were perched on a tree branch. A family of wood ducks were seen on the way out with seven fluffy ducklings – a fitting end to a lovely wander through the bush.

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A family of Australian wood ducks

When was the last time you were able to go for a bush wander?

[Photo: one of the kangaroos resting near the camping ground]

Corridor of Oaks, Faulconbridge

In a pocket of land alongside the Great Western Highway at Faulconbridge there is a slowly expanding collection of oaks, planted in honour of Australian Prime Ministers. It is modestly signposted but easy to find, and on the Sunday afternoon when I visited recently, it was relatively quiet despite the nearby traffic and train line.

Whilst I’ve visited the Corridor of Oaks before, it was still quite a surprise to see the extensive planting of oak trees in honour of Prime Ministers. There have been 29 Prime Ministers to date since 1901. Several have served multiple terms such as Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes (from 1915 to 1923 but under three separate parties) and Kevin Rudd.

Caretaker Prime Ministers are represented as well, even if their time in office was relatively fleeting, covering the period from the resignation or death of the previous office holder until the election of the next Prime Minister.

The most recent planting was by Julia Gillard on 27 July 2017, the 27th tree to be added to the Corridor. Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are yet to plant their trees: by tradition the trees are planted by the Prime Minister or a close family member.

The Corridor is on land donated by Joseph Jackson, a member of the NSW Parliament from 1922 until 1956. Jackson owned the former home of Sir Henry Parkes, known as the Father of Federation, at Faulconbridge at the time of the bequest. Jackson had a vision of the growing avenue as a living memorial to Parkes and his role in bringing the states together into a federation. When he began the memorial in 1934, there had only been nine Prime Ministers.

The Corridor of Oaks is a fitting tribute to our country’s leaders, and is a lovely place to visit.

[Photo: Corridor of Oaks, Faulconbridge]

 

Blue Mountain Sunsets (Words by Henry Lawson)

Now in the west the colours change,

The blue with crimson blending;

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Sunset viewed from Mount Victoria looking over the Hartley Valley

Behind the far Dividing Range,

The sun is fast descending.

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Sunset viewed from Mitchell’s Lookout, Mount Victoria

And mellowed day comes o’er the place,

And softens ragged edges;

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Sunset in the Hartley Valley

The rising moon’s great placid face

Looks gravely o’er the ledges.

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Sunset in Main Street, Lithgow

Excerpt from The Blue Mountains by Henry Lawson

[Photo: backyard sunset]

In Anticipation of Spring

There are signs of spring throughout the Blue Mountains, even in the upper mountains which is usually a bit late to the party. Bright swathes of wattle provide flashes of yellow to draw the eye, and there are bulbs erupting in masses of colour.

A particular favourite of mine are the flowering trees. Some of the ornamental fruit trees have started to flower in my neighbourhood, bristling with pink flowers that are heavenly to walk by. There is a large magnolia tree adorned with buds, some already starting to reveal the creamy flowers contained within.

Wandering around my garden I can spot bulbs that are thickening and preparing to put on a display of colour and scent. Daisy shrubs and roses are showing spurts of growth, and rhododendron shrubs and trees are suddenly heavy with buds.

One of my favourite springtime experiences is a cherry tree that I can see from my kitchen window. In early autumn I watched the leaves as they curled and fell, and now the bare branches are beginning to be tickled by buds, bright fluffs of green that over the next couple of months will morph into delicate white and pink flowers which have a beautiful scent. It is a glorious explosion to delight the senses, and it has come to epitomise some of the joys of spring for me each year.

I await these gradual changes with a keen sense of anticipation.

What seasonal changes are you looking forward to in your garden?

[Photo: buds on the cherry tree]

Blue Mountains Railways Celebrate 150 Years

From a vantage point beside the moving throng of commuters, thousands of them on any given day, the bust of John Whitton keeps a watchful eye on all who pass through Sydney’s Central Station.

Whitton was the Engineer-In-Chief from 1857 to 1890 and his extensive tenure coincided with the rapid development of railway lines across much of New South Wales. A mere 37 kilometres of tracks were in use at the time of his commencement in the role. By his retirement this had expanded into over 3,500 kilometres branching north from Sydney through Newcastle, Werris Creek and Tenterfield, south to Cooma, Albury and Hay, and west to Dubbo and Bourke. The key to opening up the gateway to the west was overcoming the challenging terrain of the Blue Mountains.

Initial challenges for the railway construction included building a railway bridge across the Nepean River and negotiating a way through Knapsack Gully in order for the western railway line to cross the mountains. Victoria Bridge, designed by Whitton, still survives today. The viaduct at Knapsack Gully was also designed by Whitton.

The character of many of the mountain villages have been defined by the arrival of the ‘iron horse’ and the railway opened up employment and housing opportunities. Prior to the establishment and extension of the railways with the arrival of Whitton, various other transportation ideas were proposed. Reverend Hulbert suggested the importation of elephants or camels as a solution; Sir William Denison spoke of horse-drawn railways. What a different world it may have been without Whitton’s vision.

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Tribute to John Whitton, Central Station, Sydney

Last weekend marked the 150th anniversary of the Blue Mountains railway line, which reached as far as Weatherboard (now Wentworth Falls). The first passenger train to Weatherboard ran on 22 July 1867. The line was then extended to Blackheath and Mount Victoria before the construction of the famous zig zag descent into Lithgow – another achievement of Whitton’s. The coming of the railway was to alter and redefine life in the area, and all these decades later, the railway remains an integral aspect of mountain life for locals and visitors alike.

Read through the letters most weeks in the Blue Mountains Gazette and you’ll find that train timetable changes continue to create a flurry of interest and weekend trains are so regularly packed with tourists that additional carriages have been commissioned. The noise of freight and coal trains is regularly compared to existing and anticipated aircraft noise. Like many mountain folk I can hear trains trundle by at all hours, but for me the short toot of commuter trains leaving the station and the low rumble of freight trains remind me of the perpetual motion of life, of people and goods moving about, travelling from one place to another.

Celebrations over the weekend included heritage train rides, and you can see some footage of the trips here.

Mid-Winter in the Blue Mountains

So far the consensus is that winter has been relatively mild in the Blue Mountains. There have been days starting out with fierce frosts, and there have been periods of bleak rain and uncharitable winds, but these have been interspersed with days of sunshine to take the sting out of the cold nights.

But we are only just past the halfway mark and there could be some cold snaps in store between now and the end of winter. In the upper mountains in particular, seasons tend to pay scant attention to the rigid start and finish dates, and snowfalls have been known to occur in late spring and beyond.

Early morning walks are characterised by frosts on lawns, roofs and car windshields. I keep an eye out for the subtle changes throughout the coldest months, endlessly fascinated at the gradual emergence of buds on bared branches offering the promise of an abundance of blooms when the warmer weather arrives.

There are spots of colour to cheer me on. Bright puffs of wattle blooms, winter bulbs in flower and carpets of spent camellia petals draw the eye. Creamy daphne flowers and early blooming rhododendrons mingle with late-blooming roses and ever reliable geraniums and lavender to provide points of interest. There are still sprays of salvia and delicate fuchsia blooms in the garden, as bright green spikes of freesias and jonquils feel their way into the world.

The cold is a necessary part of the seasonal life cycle and it always surprises and delights me that there is so much activity happening at a time when the natural world appears to be dormant.

What is winter like in your part of the world?

{Photo: red wattle bird spotted against backdrop of winter branches}