She sees sea shells by the sea shore

The reef at Woody Head has a lot of live molluscs. You may not see them all at once, but the more times you go out to look, the more you’ll see. The water at the southern part is good for snorkelling and live molluscs, too – not to mention wobbegongs, nudibranchs and sea hares (the last two are molluscs). I’ll talk about some of the molluscs I have found there. They are typical of molluscs on the subtropical eastern seaboard of Australia.

On the reef at Woody Head

Barnacles

Barnacles are filter feeders – when the tide comes in and they are covered, they open up and poke out their cirri, resembling long, jointed fingers, with which they grasp anything edible floating by and drag it into their mouths. When the tide is out and they are uncovered, they shut their valves tight to minimise water loss and shield their soft bodies against the sun.

Most barnacles are hermaphroditic, but they do not shed sperm and eggs like many other sea dwellers. They cannot move once the larval form has settled. The barnacle has a very long penis that it extends into a neighbour to fertilise it. The eggs are brooded within the shell until they develop into a larval form called a nauplius, which are then shed into the water. These moult into other stages, and when they turn into a cyprid larva, they attach themselves to rocks in the vicinity of other barnacles of the same species. The valves and fixed plates are then secreted.

Probably the rose-coloured barnacle, Tesseropora rosea

Whelks, mussels and some starfish feed on barnacles. The whelks drill into the barnacles and eat the flesh. It’s horror movie stuff, as the barnacle cannot move and takes days to be eaten alive. I’ve read that, on the east coast of the USA, the sea slug Onchidoris bilamellata has been seen to eat barnacles (http://slugsite.us/bow/nudiwkps/nudiwk34.html; http://northislandexplorer.com/molluscs/barnacleeatingnudibranch.htm), although I can’t imagine how it gets through the barnacle’s defenses. I don’t think nudis drill.

Limpets

Limpets live in similar circumstances to barnacles. They move about when the tide covers them, scraping away at the algae growing on the rock surface, and go back to the same spot to rest. That spot gets deeper over time until noticeable depressions form over generations of limpets. They lay their eggs on the rock surface, too. Oystercatchers eat limpets, prising them from the rock with their strong beaks. Carnivorous snails eat them in the usual way – by drilling into the shell and scraping the flesh.

Variegated limpet, Cellana tramoserica, and limpet eggs

Chitons

On rock platforms, you can see chitons on the surface of fixed rocks and on the undersides of loose ones – make sure you put the rocks back exactly where they came from – and, like limpets, move around (generally at night) scraping off algae, small worms, crustaceans and bryozoans to eat. Their soft bodies are shielded by eight plates or ‘valves’, surrounded by a muscular ‘girdle’. Sometimes you find the valves on their own after the animal has died and broken up. Crabs, fish, anemones, starfish and octopuses (or octopi, if you prefer) have been reported to eat them.

Snake-skin Chiton, Chiton pelliserpentis

Snake-skin Chiton, Chiton pelliserpentis

In the centre of the photo on the left, the mulberry whelk  (Morula marginalba), a carnivorous snail, may be trying to drill through the valves of the chiton.

Chiton valves, left behind after the animal has died

A chiton is either male or female: ‘Males always release their sperm into the sea. The sperm is carried on the ocean currents to the eggs. Depending on the species, females either release their eggs singly or in strings into the water or keep them inside the special groove that separates the girdle and muscular foot. Eggs fertilized in the water usually develop into free-swimming, unsegmented larvae covered with tiny, hair-like structures called cilia. Eggs that develop inside the groove remain with the adult female until they become well-developed young chitons (from http://animals.jrank.org/pages/1886/Chitons-Polyplacophora-BEHAVIOR-REPRODUCTION.html).

The Australian Museum says that Australia has about 150 species of chitons, about 90% of which are endemic (found only here).

A follow-up post will tell about the gastropods, another form of mollusc – the typical spiral shell form that most people think of when they think of molluscs.

Will o’ the wasp

Wet weather in summer means all sorts of wasps are flying about, looking for caves, overhangs and sheltered spots in which to build their paper or mud nests (see the December 2010 post, ‘A mother’s love‘). Some are even coming to the birdbath on the back deck to sip water.

Mason wasp

Mason wasp, Abispa ephippium

According to the CSIRO (http://www.csiro.au/resources/MudWasps.html), they are harmless to humans and solitary – though will sting if provoked – and Australia’s largest wasp (up to 40 mm). The single female builds a nest of mud (in my case, up near the bathroom ceiling). The nest contains up to eight cells. The female wasp catches, stings and paralyses it a caterpillar. She then carries it back to the nest, lays an egg on it and seals the cell. The wasp grub hatches, consumes the live food provided and pupates in the cell. After it turns into an the adult, it chews its way out of the cell. Adults feed on nectar and drink water. Other species may take  spiders and insects for their nest.

The female is supposed to guard the nest actively, but mine disappeared and has not been seen for a week or so. Perhaps she’s been eaten.

You can find a detailed scientific paper about these wasps at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/psyche/2009/851694.html

Where angels fear to tread

The male St Andrew’s cross spider (Argiope keyserlingii, slightly out of focus in the background behind the female) is taking his life in his pedipalps.

St Andrews cross spiders

A male St Andrew's cross spider (background) sizes up the female.

This one did all the classic things – stayed behind well back behind the female, plucked on his own thread-within-her-web to get her attention, and dared to draw near while she was occupied feeding. I didn’t see the actual mating. If he was lucky, he would have escaped intact, though this morning there is no sign of him.

According to Australian Geographic magazine 77, Jan-Mar 2005 (on the front cover of which there is a magnificent painting of a female and male), the ‘cross’ pattern on the female’s web reflects ultraviolet light strongly and attracts the flying things (flies, moths, butterflies, bugs, bees, cicadas, insects in general) that are the spider’s prey. To our eyes, it would also seem to attract predators (including spray- or broom-wielding humans) by being so obvious. Another possibility is deterring non-predators by saying what lives there.

There are a lot of the greenish egg sacs of these spiders about at the moment (January). The eggs sacs are apparently attacked by parasitic wasps and flies, and the adults by mantids and birds.

Don’t worry, spiders

I keep house

casually

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) (transl. Robert Hass)

Egg case St Andrews cross spider

Egg case (typically greenish) of a St Andrew's cross spider

Dogs of the sun

All this talk about weather reminds me of a meteorological phenomenon I’ve been privileged to see twice so far – the sun dog. More precisely, two sun dogs at a time, for they come in pairs, as the dogs running beside the chariot of Apollo, the sun god, as he drives across the sky.

Sundogs at the South Pole, photo by Ben-Zin, Wikimedia Commons

You can see them under certain atmospheric conditions: for an explanation, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundog

Andrew and I saw our first pair while kayaking on a dam in Sydney – we first saw the reflection in the water, thought ‘What the ..?’, then looked up in the sky and there they were – most impressive.

The second time was when driving home, near Tuncester just outside Lismore. It raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck to see such things.

Snow and squirrels

Alan in Atlanta, Georgia, reports.

Here in Atlanta a few days ago we had 6 inches of snow dumped on the city, so everything has ground to a halt. I suspect the fact that there’s an increase in the water vapour in the atmosphere due to global warming is contributing somewhat to these ‘one time’ extreme weather events that seem to be happening more and more.

Well, it snowed late on Sunday evening and lucky for Atlanta the storm came through quickly and the temperatures were low enough to deposit powdery snow which also got blown off the power lines with the small amount of breeze. The worse situation which the people at Georgia Power were preparing for was a slightly longer period of snow combined with slightly higher temperatures allowing for ice to form, and by sticking to the power lines (and tree branches) to accumulate and eventually to bring down said power lines and branches. And then we would have had a big mess without power.

As it is, the city has had power all week, but because of low (below freezing) temperatures the accumulated snow on roads has refrozen into ice as cars attempt to negotiate the streets causing problems on hills etc. In northern cities accustomed to large amounts of the white stuff during the occasional winter storm, they have many, many snow plows that get the streets quickly cleared of snow. Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs lack these vehicles and have not even been able to get sand or salt on the roads to expedite the removal or snow and ice. We are left with just waiting for warmer temperatures, which may finally be happening today or tomorrow. It’s been sunny since the beginning of the week but the nature of the snow is that it just reflects the sunlight – we really need temperatures a good bit above freezing to do some good and actually rain to quickly get rid of the ice.

Having said all of the above, I must also hasten to add that Jane and I have been perfectly comfortable and really not the least bit affected by these events since we are warm, dry and have food. Jane’s been telecommuting to work (as have most of the other CDC [Centers for Disease Control] employees and a good bit of the city) so she’s not had to worry about those icy patches on the roads. I’m even able to electronically pay the bills these days so basically it could be a lot worse. I’ve posted a couple of Queensland flood links onto Facebook (such as http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DkYUpkPTcqPY&h=80ef4) so that my local friends at least know that they really have nothing to complain about weather wise. Having a work week at home with power and heat is really no inconvenience compared to having your house swept away in a flood of water and escaping through the roof of a neighbour’s house! I’m not sure if I got the exact details correct there, but I gather there are plenty of horror stories coming out of that mess.

That video on YouTube is really quite remarkable and I now see that Brisbane’s getting hit quite hard. I’m not going to complain at all about our snow since it’s just no big deal compare with what these people are having to contend with. Anyhow, I’m sorry to hear about your garden [Joy – My veggies have rotted away in the wet, alas]. I’m wondering if some of this water is getting down to Adelaide via the Murray Darling Basin. I presume that it’s all heading to the ocean. Google Maps is basically frustrating in that it only provides roads and not river basin information.

Speaking of people in water with rips, another video from Toowoomba shows a couple of guys out in flowing water up to their waists. This is not good, I’m saying to myself, since even if they don’t get pulled along by the water they could be hit by something.
Looks like you’re not going to have some relief from the wet weather any time soon with two cyclones to the north.

We’ve put out bird seed on our deck again (after many months of not doing so because of the squirrel risk) as they really have to do more work when it’s all white on the ground, and have therefore been attracting a number of different varieties of birds that are happy for an easy meal after presumably getting a little frustrated pecking around in the snow covered landscape. Anyhow I was pleased to see a couple of woodpeckers (red-bellied woodpeckers, Melanerpes carolinus – see http://www.fernbank.edu/Birding/birdID/red_bellied.htm) there this morning although those birds always make me a little nervous considering that we live in a wooden house! I guess if I were publishing the same type of blog that you are doing I’d be taking pictures of the birds and having quite a running commentary going [Joy: You can do that here if you want to – you have better photographic equipment that I do!].

Red-bellied woodpecker

I probably need to get out one of Jane’s bird books and make some identification of the types of birds being attracted to the seeds in the bird feeder although it’s probably not going to continue being a source of food for them if the squirrels (the grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis) persist in sitting in the feeder and gobbling up everything. We’ll remove the seed to discourage those animals as we don’t want any more squirrels deciding that they want to get into our house as has happened a couple of times in the past.

Having them attracted to the deck by seed could give some of them a bright idea that the house interior is a great place to get to. They’ll start chewing on the logs and then we’ll once again find ourselves hiring someone to trap and relocate them.

Grey squirrel - Alan's favourite animal (not)

Author’s profile
Here’s your friendly correspondent Alan (centre) with wife Jane (right) and Alan’s daughter, Maria. They all stayed with us for a few days at Larnook in 2002. I met Alan in 1971 at Adelaide University through the science fiction association. He’s been living in the States for almost 40 years.

Alan (centre), Jane (right) and Maria (left)

Where the wild things are

[This was written when we were living at Binna Burra, near Bangalow, in 2000.]

I live in a small cottage between a Big Scrub rainforest remnant and a creek. A paddock separates the cottage from the remnant. This is an ideal place, a ready-made hide almost, from which to observe the animals and birds that live in those habitats, or must pass through from one to the other in search of food, water and mates.

A lace monitor (Varanus varius) occasionally wanders past the house on its way from the creek to the remnant. It’s an impressive beast, about 1.5 metres long. It saunters along heavily, in a seemingly relaxed fashion, but can put on an enormous burst of speed if it feels threatened. It spied me looking at it one day, and took off like a rocket. Lace monitors feed on insects, reptiles, small mammals, carrion and nestling birds. I’ve seen it 4 metres up a gum tree, possibly looking for those nestling birds.

Lace Monitor, photo by Quartl, Wikipedia Commons

At least two brush turkeys (Alectura lathami) come through a couple of times a day. Once I saw three together. They usually come through separately, on their way to or from the remnant, and stop for a peck and a poke on the lawn or in the garden. The poke sometimes turns into a hole, but I’m more than happy to sacrifice the odd plant for their service in eating bugs. They seem to like digging up the tubers of sweet potato. I’ve read that they also eat seeds and fallen fruit, and sometimes young, tender plant shoots. If they come through together, it’s usually in a rush as the male (with the bigger yellow fold of skin under the throat) chases the female intently. They then zoom through the grounds, zigging and zagging like the roadrunner in Bugs Bunny, and dive into the trees near the creek. But mostly it’s a sedate meander by one or other of the birds.

I often hear the noise of the turkey before the bird disappears. It’s a loud deep sound like the clearing of a big throat – a-hum. I usually respond with ‘hello, turkey’. It cocks an eye in my direction and continues its careful progress across the grass, one foot in front of the other, while looking intently around. To ‘clear its throat’, it lowers its head, pulls its head into its neck, and inflates its yellow skin-folds.

Brush turkey

One turkey got the shock of its life when a vagrant peacock appeared. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. The peacock marched regally across the paddock, straight past the brush turkey, whose eyes were bulging almost out of its head. It stared until the peacock disappeared from sight up the hill, then continued across the paddock as if nothing had happened.

Sometimes I think brush turkeys are too relaxed for their own good. Black Angus cows with their calves roam the paddock, and I saw a calf charge a turkey. The bird stood looking in a transfixed sort of way at the calf who was running at it full bore; then at the last minute the bird roused and flung itself into the remnant. I’ve only once seen a brush turkey running full tilt. It looked like a jet going down a runway, its neck stretched out, body still but legs whirling, before it took off and actually flew. That’s the only time I’ve seen one fly.

There’s a brush turkey nest near the river. It consists of a pile of leaves scraped together, about 2 metres long and 1 metre high. Apparently nests are used season after season, created and tended by the male who made it. The leaf litter rots and heats up – perfect for incubating the eggs that several females lay in them. The male adds or removes leaves according to the temperature needed, which is between 33 and 38 degrees Celsius. He sticks his head into a hole he digs to tell the temperature. Females may lay in many mounds, and mounds can contain up to 50 eggs. Males can make and tend more than one mound.

We also have a lot of laughing kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), who do a lot of cackling over their territories. A family of kookaburras usually occupies a territory of about 10 hectares, but it can be larger if there’s not enough food and water in the area.

Laughing kookaburra, photo by Louise Docker, Wikipedia Commons

Kookaburras like to sit on a perch and scan the ground for food. A clothes line will do as well as a branch. One bird spotted a lizard and swung down to the ground. It then waited, and took a little hop to one side while raising the wing on that side. It waited some then did the same thing. In a little while it hoped to the other side and raised the other wing. At last it dipped its head and came up with a skink. It flew back to the clothes line, bashed the skink about a bit with its beak on the metal rods, and tossed it down its throat. I’ve seen rainbow bee eaters (Merops ornatus) do the same thing with bees.

Rainbow bee-eater, photo by Peter Firminger, Wikipedia Commons

Kookas eat reptiles, insects, earthworms, crayfish and rodents, according to studies. They also take other birds. I’ve seen them eat caterpillars, the hairy kind. Picnickers will be well aware that they also relish chops, sausages and sandwiches if they can get them (and they can be very quick when you’re not looking!)

Last year a very young kooka parked itself in our driveway. Good job we didn’t need to drive the car for the next 2 days! It sat there, very still, while its parents came and went, bringing skinks and large worms. I was worried it would become lunch for the lace monitor, but if that was to be its fate, then so be it. Lace monitors have to eat, too. The kooka had a sibling up a tree, and the parents brought food to it as well. Well-meaning neighbours (humans) wanted to ‘save’ it, but I thought it best to leave it alone. The parents were looking after it, and it would probably get itself up a tree eventually. That’s exactly what happened a couple of days later.

A barn owl (Tyto alba) put in an appearance one day. I startled it off its perch in a pine tree in the back yard, in mid-afternoon. It flew across to a gum tree, and would have been lost to sight if a Pacific Baza (Aviceda subcristata) hadn’t flown from its nest in the remnant to swoop at the owl. The owl settled back in the pine tree and stayed there dozing until dark. At sunset one of our cheeky feral rats (Rattus rattus) came out foraging in plain sight. It climbed up the lilly pilly about 4 metres from the owl. I was sending ‘mental vibes’ to the owl about the rat, so it could have a nice dinner, but the owl slumbered on. However, neither the owl nor the rat was there next morning. I haven’t seen the rat since. Here’s hoping.

Barn owl, photo by Jurgen, Wikipedia Commons

A pair of bazas spend time in the spring flying back and forward across the paddock, gathering material for their nest in the remnant. They glide silently, on still wings, and just when you are admiring their beauty, they crash heavily into a tree and cling on for dear life. Apparently they tug at twigs using their body weight, until the twigs break off, so that the bird then falls and rights itself while flying off. The crash also disturbs insects that it can then grab and feed on. Bazas eat insects, frogs, small lizards, some birds, eggs and nestlings.

Pacific baza, photo by Aviceda, Wikipedia Commons

And there’s an echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), not a fairy, at the bottom of the garden. It seems to like the ant-infested fence posts. It disappears into the weeds on the other side of the fence when it wants to hide. Guess I won’t be cleaning those up for a while.

Short-beaked echidna, photo by KeresH, Wikipedia Commons

Water always wins …

So said David Tennant in ‘The Waters of Mars’, and it’s proving true with the Queensland floods.

For a change, Lismore has missed out – north and south of us are in a mess, though. Strange to think that Brisbane, just two and a half hours’ drive away, is flooding. The river in Lismore is very much up, some roads closed and some riverside parklands under water, but nothing more than we often have to contend with at this time of year. Grafton and some other towns south of us are inundated in low-lying parts. These towns were built in the old days on rivers, as that was the only mode of transport before they cut all the forests down.

We have been seeing some remarkable TV footage of walls of water rushing at breakneck speed along main streets, and piles of cars and houses just thrown about. Some people (some of them kids) think it’s fun to go out in such water, but the trouble is you don’t know what tree logs, roof tin, furniture and other debris are in that water, not to mention floating cows and snakes, etc. I think some people tend to underestimate the weight of water moving fast.

And there’s the danger of trying to cross a floodway, in car or on foot, when you don’t know how deep it is or if there are holes or whether it’s actually still intact underneath. As the water pushes on the side of the car, especially if it’s a proper 4WD – and then there’s the hubris of thinking you can get through in such a car, especially if you’re following a heavy truck that can withstand the weight of the flowing water – there’s a real danger of it flipping and then you’re up shit creek without a paddle – literally.

We once dissuaded our Binna Burra landlord from crossing a flooded causeway at the end of our drive. It was fairly narrow and he thought he could easily drive over, but it was deep and fast enough to cause him grief. Better safe than sorry! We promised to hoof it up the hill to his house to tell his wife he was there (there was no mobile reception in that area). Fortunately he listened to us.

The extreme weather has passed us by in Lismore by this time. It has been wetter than usual here (357 mL – about 14.5 inches on the old scale – in my gauge for December against an average of 121 mL – almost 5 inches; for one-third of the way through January already 233 mL – just over 9 inches – for an average of 155 mL)), but nothing like what is happening in Queensland. It’s ironic that after so much agricultural loss due to drought the farmers have now lost as much or more from floods. The media is warning that fruit and vegetable prices may double or quadruple. My own veggie garden, such as it was, has rotted away.

The news last night was talking about the low-lying suburbs of Brisbane getting flooded along the river. Meanwhile the sun has come out here and it’s going to be a sunny few days. Even when the rain stops in Queensland, the water will continue to flow down the catchments. Our ex-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has been on the street sand-bagging and checking people’s homes for their safety in the Brisbane suburb where he lives. This is a good look for him.

The water will certainly be giving a huge flush to the Diamantina and Murray river systems. After 10 years or more of drought and decades of massive arguments over water resource allocation (including how little to allot to the environment), the situation has swung around to the reverse. It’ll be interesting to see what happens both environmentally and politically. Whatever happens, water, or lack of it, will win.

The shack

My Dad built the shack in 1955, two years after I was born. He was 33, and Mum was 34. He wanted a cheap holiday house by the sea where he could go fishing. Mum wasn’t so keen – she disliked the heat in summer and the sand in your toes all year round. But the kids loved it – the kids being me and my numerous cousins whose grandfather had the shack next door.

Dad built the shack on a sand dune overlooking the sea, a prime position. His was the eighth one to go up along that stretch. Two of the others were modified tram cars. The foreshore was Crown land, so he couldn’t own the land – he rented it, with a lifetime tenancy, for the princely sum of one pound a year, plus council rates.

We spent as many school holidays and long weekends there as we could. I have fond memories of long walks down the gleaming white sands in summer, sweating and turning red in the 40 degree heat. In winter, ocean storms were exciting to walk in, and the piles of washed-up seaweed gave the beach a distinctive smell.

The shack was built of corrugated iron on the outside and hardboard on the inside. Tons of blue metal and stones were laid on top of the ground to stop the dune shifting. There was no insulation, and the place fried in summer. It was originally one long room, with two double bunks at one end, curtained off from the lounge area. A separate bedroom, into which the bunks and a wardrobe were later moved, was added later.

The front, facing the sea, had two windows. The end opposite the bunks had a wood stove and ‘bathroom’ – a curtained-off area with a tap linked to the outside rainwater tank, and a large plastic bowl where we washed ourselves down with facewashers and soap. Hot water was boiled up on the stove. I remember the special atmosphere, if not much light, that came from the Tilley lamps we used before electricity was hooked up.

Dad built a pit toilet out the back (he was a plumber, so he knew about all these things). He added lime to it occasionally, and shifted the whole ‘dunny’ over a fresh hole when the old one filled up. I used to be terrified of going in there at night because, armed with a torch, I often saw big huntsmen spiders who lived there. There were enough to really put you off your business! (This early training had some use, as a couple of years ago I shared a shower in tropical far north Queensland with a large spider and didn’t think much of it. That was the same night a green tree frog jumped from the open window onto me and woke me up.)

Spiders weren’t the only wildlife. More benign were the ‘sleepy lizards’ and seagulls. In the summer, brown snakes slithered around, especially in the sand hills to the north where I played. Dad was a keen fisherman in his little boat, and would often come back with reports of dolphins. I used to go out with him occasionally, especially after spotting one of the regular dolphin visitors to the shore, but I couldn’t stay out for long. I was often seasick from the engine fumes and the rocking motion of the boat. That was the main reason I didn’t go fishing much, except when he went ‘snooking’ – the boat had then to be kept moving so the metal bait would flash and sparkle under the water in the way the snook liked. Then I loved being in the boat with the smell of clean salty air flying past, and the smell of fresh fish. Mum would cook up these fresh fish straight away and, with a little lemon juice, it was the best taste in the world.

We kids spent endless days playing on the beach, on the reef and in the sand dunes. The jetty was the place to swim – the water off the beach was quite shallow and not to be dived into – and to go squidding, though not at the same time. I once got a squid-jig stuck in my leg from a misplaced swing. Swimming was sometimes scary in summer because of swarms of jellyfish – small transparent cubes with four tentacles that stung painfully. You could look down from the jetty and see the whole water transformed literally into jelly.

The township of Balgowan on Yorke Peninsula, where all this happened, had about 40 cottages in those early days. When Dad sold the shack in 1985, there were 140, plus a caravan park and ‘corner store’. He was paying $200 a year rent and about the same in rates. There was a push by the government to remove all foreshore shacks, so the new owners were given a 14-year lease, after which time they had to demolish it or move it back if it was within 50 metres of the high-tide mark. That way the government could build a path to ensure public access to the foreshore.

1999 is when the 14 years are up. So it is quite possible that, even as I write this, all that is left of the shack are my wonderful memories of it.

The shack in 2010

A happy note and a not-so-happy one: This was written in 1999 for the ‘Keros Family Periodical’, a family history zine run by a relative of mine in South Australia – it won equal first prize in their ‘Memories’ competition! In July 2010 I went back to Balgowan to scatter my father’s ashes – and the shack is still there, albeit in less than pristine shape. The town now has many more streets and the houses look more well-to-do, rather than the classic 1950’s beach shacks, although a few of them survive still. The southern cliffs that were so red and bare now have large beach homes on top of them. I will always be grateful to Dad for the love of the sea and nature that he instilled in me there.

Birds at Woody Head

Being inside a National Park (Bundjalung, named after the Indigenous nation that calls this part of the country home), Woody Head has many birds in and out of the forest. We saw some of the ones that were outside the forest on our camping trip. It is a joy to watch them puttering about living their lives.

Noisy miners

Noisy miners (Manorina melanocephala) and blue-faced honeyeaters (Entomyzon cyanotis) like to live around people, perhaps because people provide good habitat and food. Noisies feed mostly on nectar, fruits and insects. They feed and raise their young in groups. They are quite aggressive towards other birds and occasionally humans (I’ve been swooped by one.) Having a lot of short dense shrubs provides protection for other small birds like wrens that the noisies try to drive away.

Blue-faced miner

The blue-faces were certainly hanging around the camp kitchen looking for food scraps. They supposedly have similar diets and habits to noisies, but I’ve not seen noisies alighting on camp kitchen supplies.

Crested pigeon

Crested pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes) also hang around the campsite – they were displaying to each other a lot. They eat mostly seeds, supplemented with insects and leaves.

Are you my mummy?

Andrew took this shot of a baby bird in its nest – he didn’t recognise the adult that came to feed it.

One of a pair of lapwings

One of a pair of lapwings

Also hanging about the humans were pairs of masked lapwings (Vanellus miles). Masked lapwings feed on insects and their larvae, and on earthworms.

Masked lapwing with wing-spurs visible

Note the defensive spurs

You can clearly see the spurs on the ‘wrists’ of the adult in the right-hand photo. These birds lay eggs on a scrape on the ground, and swoop on anything that gets too close to it. The adult can also pretend to have a broken wing, and staggers about, leading the interested predator away from the nest.

Pied oystercatcher pair

Sooty oystercatcher pair(Haematopus longirostris).

On the beach, I saw pairs of sooty oystercatchers (Haematopus fuliginosus) and pied oystercatchers (Haematopus longirostris).

Sooties are endemic to Australia (i.e. they occur nowhere else). Both types of oystercatcher feed on bivalve molluscs, crabs and other crustaceans, marine worms, starfish, sea urchins, and small fish. Their long bills stab prey and lever, prise or hammer open food items. They drink seawater. Both sooties and pieds are listed as vulnerable to extinction in New South Wales.

Osprey

Raptors like the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and the white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) scour the water for fish. The local osprey flew past me with quite a large fish in its talons. Presumably it was headed for its nest to rip apart and feed the fish to its young one. Ospreys are listed as vulnerable in New South Wales.

Sea eagles eat turtles, sea snakes, birds, mammals and carrion as well as fish. Both species build large stick nests that they use over a period of years. Information on the sea eagle (and other Australian birds if you search for them) can be found at the Australian Museum’s site: http://birdsinbackyards.net/species/Haliaeetus-leucogaster

Sanderling

I’m not so good with identifying some of the migratory birds that fly thousands of kilometres from Siberia and such places and that spend the summer here. The photo  could be of a sanderling in non-blooming plumage.

Ruddy turnstone

The ruddy turnstone is another long-distance migrant that hangs about the shore feeding on pretty much anything it can find under stones (hence the name) and seaweed. When one flies, you can see a distinctive pattern on the wings.

Whimbrel

Another reef-wanderer is the whimbrel, casting around for crabs and small fish. At least I think it’s a whimbrel, although the beak looks a little short.

“We three kings of Orient are …”

Up north in Queensland the floods continue to drown towns and the occasional person, but the rain here has eased for the moment.

We just had the Doctor Who Christmas Special, “A Christmas Carol” on TV. I saw it in company with my buddy Cath and her husband. They live 30 minutes’ drive west of Woody Head, a National Park on the coast about one and a half hours’ drive from home. We were camping at ‘Woody’ for 7 days with about 20 of our Celtic/Australian music, singing and dancing friends and their kids. Andrew did not “do Who” as Cath has 2 cats and he is mucho allergic.

Kitchen area at Woody Head campground

The clearing in the forest where the "Three Wise Men" were entertained. The harp in the foreground was made by Geoff.

A peculiar thing happened when I arrived back in camp in the dark and the wind and the rain about 9 pm. I was followed in by a big white van, out of which emerged three young men with strong Russian accents. They were travelling around Australia and looking for a tent site – but Woody Head is all booked out, and because it’s Christmas everywhere else on the coast is, too.

Then I had a brainwave – because it was so rainy (170 mL in 3 days, over six and a half inches), some of our folks had not arrived yet, and there was tent space in our group camping site. So we invited them to stay as our guests. They pitched their tent, made their dinner on our fire and brought out some wine bottles to share. They said it was like a fairy tale – they were driving in the dark forest in the rain, then found themselves in a bright camp with people singing and dancing! We played our best Russian dance tune – and Alexei said it reminded him of Irish music – which of course couldn’t be helped, as that is what our people most often play.

The Russians headed off towards Sydney the next day. We later dubbed them “the Three Wise Men from the east”, as they came from eastern Russia (near Japan). Continue reading