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]

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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]

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]

John Clarke on Nature and Walking

I think one of the useful things about an interest in nature and in walking and looking is a loss of the self. To completely lose yourself is a great pleasure especially if what you do for a living is put yourself up in some way which is psychically tiring. One of the principal joys of birdwatching is that you are being responsive to the world, you’re just another creature. You are the tool of the world. You are not mastering it, or moulding it to your image or any such piffle, you are reminded of what a pipsqueak you are.

John Clarke 1948-2017

There is a link here which shares some of John’s amazing photos. Also check out this link to his website.

When was the last time you lost yourself in the natural world?

[Photo: superb blue wren spotted in Canberra]

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 Little Ray of Sunshine

Sunflowers make me happy. I don’t know why, they just do. I’d managed to forget this until I was momentarily stunned by a mass planting of sunflowers outside a block of units on a recent drive through Lithgow. They were so bright in the dull afternoon that I parked the car and trotted over for a look. I was close enough to take a photo when a man emerged from the depths of the flowers – he was the gardener.

I complimented him on the beautiful flowers and he said he was very pleased with them. We chatted for a while and he told me that it was the first time he’d planted sunflowers, and that he’d grown them from seed.

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Sunflowers both open and preparing to unfurl

The weather in Lithgow can vary from cold snaps to warm spells, or as the gardener said ‘take more turns than a week’ and that this created some anxious moments when shifts in the weather may have had an adverse impact on the plants. But on the day that I passed by they were looking spectacular, a mixture of fully bloomed sunflowers and others that were a little slower to reveal their splendour.

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One of the dwarf sunflowers poking through the skirts of the stalks of the sunflower garden

Neighbours had shown interest in the plants and there had been various requests for the seeds once the blooms were spent. As I left, the gardener was talking to another person drawn like a bee towards the bright flowers about how he was keeping an eye out for the white cockatoos who would no doubt be interested in the seeds as well.

When was the last time you were delighted by something unexpected?

[Photo: sunflowers in bloom]

Jottings on Jacarandas

Although the magnificent lilac-blue blooms are beginning to fade, I thought I’d take some time this week to celebrate the magnificent jacaranda trees that bring such delight each spring.

They thrive in the warmer climate of Sydney and surrounding areas, and I have noticed on recent train trips that they don’t appear much beyond Faulconbridge and Springwood. Perhaps that is why they seem to be more spectacular to me in recent years as they are not a constant backdrop in the upper mountains.

Avenue of jacarandas in Victoria Park, Dubbo

Avenue of jacarandas in Victoria Park, Dubbo

Many people admire their blooms, and it has been a newsworthy issue of late with tourists getting into a bit of bother by blocking streets or propping at odd angles in order to get the best selfie with jacaranda blossoms as a backdrop.

I heard a story which might be an urban myth about Sydney hospitals sending mothers and their new-born babes home with a jacaranda seedling, with the trees growing alongside the children. Whether it is true or not, it is sweet image and casts a different light on the lilac trees scattered throughout Sydney suburbs and further afield.

Little wattlebird in jacaranda tree at Kiama

Little wattlebird in jacaranda tree at Kiama

I came across a wonderful article by Helen Curran of Sydney Living Museums titled The Dream Tree: Jacaranda, Sydney Icon. It provides an overview of Sydney’s love affair with the jacaranda tree and its transformative effect upon the landscape from October to November. It is hard to imagine now, but as an imported tree from Brazil, initial plantings were limited mainly to botanical gardens. The rarity only enhanced its appeal with an assertion in the Sydney Morning Herald that it was ‘well worth a journey of 50 miles’ to see the tree in the Botanic Garden.

There were issues with propagation and it wasn’t until 1868 that this was overcome. The trees became more widespread and were a popular choice for public planting programs from the early to mid-twentieth century. One of the loveliest references in Curran’s article was a tree at Potts Point known by children as ‘the dream tree’, which seems to capture the magic of the jacaranda.

A lovely painting of jacaranda trees spotted at op shop recently

A lovely painting of jacaranda trees spotted at op shop recently

But it isn’t just Sydney, of course, that holds jacaranda trees in high esteem. Jacarandas can be found up and down the coast, and Grafton has so heartily embraced the jacaranda tree that there is an annual festival for all things purple, including a street parade and key locations which offer particularly photographic specimens. Listening to a podcast recently, I heard how the jacarandas in Queensland have deeper hues of lilac than those further along the eastern coastline, the colours shifting slightly as the trees blossom in succession through Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

Curran provides a perfect summary of Sydney’s enchantment with jacarandas:

The jacaranda may not always have been Sydney’s, but for a few magical weeks it is a dream tree for the city – ardently, abundantly ours.

Do you have the delight of jacaranda trees in springtime?

[Photo: jacaranda and flame tree blossoms entwined – a popular pairing and visual treat]

Jacaranda, A Poem by Vivian Smith

The images that spring to mind are not

the images I need to catch the feeling:

soft-focus photograph or ballet girl in veils

or even sea light moving on the ceiling –

 

plangent, wispy, soft in the wrong way.

I need the point where strong and frail combine:

the drift and fall of mauve in powder blue,

the cool leaf’s fishbone shadow line.

 

Washed out, fastidious, the blue

jacaranda flowers in the street

with all the creative happiness of art,

showing age and lightness still meet.

 

It brings the same joy again this year.

When he was four my son running to greet

his mother called, “Hey look at the blue tree:

the jack on the veranda’s in the street.”

 

by Vivian Smith

[Photo: jacaranda blossoms]

Head In The Clouds

I know that I am in a pocket of relaxation when I find myself watching clouds. The calming sensation of simply watching tufts of vapour gather and take on massed formations before splintering into separate threads – it symbolises a shift into deeper thoughts or just pondering.

There are other times when the natural world offers moments of welcome distraction – spend some time watching the swell and surge of the ocean, or lose your thoughts in lush green foliage under a canopy of trees. There is something elemental about being absorbed, even temporarily, in nature that seems to recalibrate my mind and soul.

This isn’t to say that the usual pattern of thoughts and mental to-dos vanish, but at these times there seems to be more scope to think a bit differently and to puzzle things out.

A quick google search shows that I am not the only cloud appreciator. There is an exquisite time-lapse clip here with calming music to mesmerise the mind on a day when access to the sky is limited, or if there is a cloudless sky.

There is even a Cloud Appreciation Society with thousands of members in over 100 countries. Membership benefits include receiving a cloud a day. Their manifesto rallies against ‘blue-sky thinking’ and advocates that “clouds are for dreams and their contemplation benefits the soul”. I heartily agree with their declaration to all who will listen:

Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!

During a TED talk by the Society’s founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney (called Cloudy with a Chance of Joy), we are reminded that clouds provide an opportunity to tune in and slow down whilst watching clouds. They offer a chance to find the exotic in the everyday, in an activity that is aimless yet important in providing a legitimate form of doing nothing in an otherwise overly busy life. Cloud watching is good for ideas, creativity and for your soul.

I’m off to do some cloud-gazing. How about you?

[Photo: clouds above Hartley Valley, towards Mt York]

Cicada Days

As a harbinger of warmer days to come, it’s hard to go past the cicada. It might be due to the combination of a dry winter and a warm start to spring but in recent weeks there have been discarded cicada shells all over the place. Fence posts, brick walls, tree trunks – all are seemingly dotted with husks, cast aside as cicadas move on to their final phase of life. During the day the air often thrums with their calls. Usually camouflaged by leaves, they are hard to spot unless being chased around the neighbourhood by hungry birds.

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After the countdown, they go over the top, grey shapes in the grey dawn, clambering out of themselves (Cicadas by David Campbell)

Cicadas were captured as temporary trophies when I was a kid, with a league ladder of varieties according to scarcity. The common Greengrocer wasn’t given much weighting; Yellow Mondays were a bit harder to find, Black Prince cicadas were highly sought, along with the noisy Double Drummer. The cicadas would be brought to school in ice cream containers with holes punched into the lids, to be admired and swapped before the cicadas were released.

There are Miller or Floury Baker cicadas, covered in fine, silvery hairs. I haven’t seen a Cherrynose cicada, but they are meant to be more common on the coast. There are Red-eyes along with smaller varieties such as Fairy, Maiden and Midget.

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A shell on the left, a cicada getting ready to emerge on the right

It is mainly the male cicada who sings by flexing their tymbals which are drum-like organs found in their abdomens. They drink and eat using their beak or rostrum, and begin life as an egg embedded in a tree limb. When the egg hatches, the ant-like form falls to the ground and digs until it finds roots to feed on. Cicadas can remain underground for anywhere up to 17 years, according to the species. It is an active life spent feeding and tunnelling.

As nymphs, they return above ground and climb the nearest tree to shed their exoskeleton. Their wings inflate and their bodies harden. They search for a mate with males singing to attract females, and the cycle begins again. As an adult they have a short life, usually only a few weeks.

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Greengrocer

There are over 3,300 varieties around the world, and a couple of unusual Australian cicadas are the Blue Moon and Bagpipe Cicada.

There is a lovely poem about cicadas by David Campbell here.

Do you have cicadas in your backyard?

Main source of information on cicadas: Cicada Mania web page. It is brilliant – hover over a link and the mouse arrow turns into a cicada!

[Photo: Greengrocer cicada]