Out & About

Although most of my articles have been about Gang Gang and environs, we do occasionally venture further afield from our fascinating valley:
An unplanned marine encounter –  on the peculiarities of keeping dugongs in an aquarium.
The Far Conyza – on visiting Australian weeds in their native Argentina.
Sooty oystercatchers  –  My friend Colin Campbell and I have a liking for oystercatchers and we have shared our thoughts here. I’ve always considered oystercatchers to look a bit embarrassed about their large bills. Colin’s thoughts are on a higher plane.

Sooty oystercatchers – December 2012
“Tho’ it’s impossible to spot a sooty oystercatcher (Haematopus fuliginosus) around Gundaroo, as they are only found along a thin ribbon of Australia’s shoreline, the fact is Sooty Oystercatchers have observed Gundaroovians on the south coast during the Xmas holiday migration to camp-grounds, caravan parks and beach-houses.

If you spot a fat black bird with googly blood-orange eyes and orange beak on a rock somewhere down the coast you are looking at a species that is locally listed as endangered in NSW and is starting to look shaky in other states as well, though nationally they are considered common.

Sooty oystercatchers are part of the worldwide oystercatcher family containing twelve species but H. fuliginosus, (fuliginosus means sooty in Latin) is only found in Australia, and is the biggest of them all.

I am a big fan of sooty oystercatchers. In fact I paint seascapes which feature them. The big orange beak framed against the blue green ocean is spectacular. I once came back from Greece, home of the icon, and painted a club of young oystercatchers I spotted on a rock off Broulee Island and put little gold haloes above their heads. They are the little saints of the beach.

They remain in pairs though their lives, patrolling half kilometre territories that are a few metres wide, and browse for molluscs crabs and worms. They gaze out at the weather. They go peep. If they are lucky, and big low weather systems off the coast don’t disrupt their pathetic little nests of sand, rock, shells and seaweed, they will produce a couple of chicks a year. The chicks are a peppery colour and blend against the greys and blacks of volcanic shore-rocks.

Peri-urban development along coastlines with its crowds of beachcombers, is chewing into sooty territory. Dogs and cats from the aforementioned development are chewing them up as well. These indomitable birds are holding their own on offshore islands and around Tassie. Very possibly, the lack of offshore islands along the New South Wales coast counts against them here.

Male sooties prefer eating hard-shelled shorefodder – such as urchins, mussels and turban shells, while the female sooty oystercatchers (bless them!) like softer food – bluebottles and crabs. The one thing they never catch, let alone eat, is an oyster.
Their cousin, the pied oystercatcher – with a similar blood orange beak – prefers browsing on the intertidal sand rather than rocks, and unless you go rock-hopping around promontories such as the end of Long Beach at Batemans Bay, Guerrilla Bay or when you walk round Broulee Island, you are more likely to spot the pied oystercatcher poking its beak in the wet sand of the intertidal zone.

What the sooty and the pied do teach us is that birds can be limited to very specific areas from which they seldom stray (sooties keep to the rocks, pieds to the sand) and that’s why every permutation of habitat with its particular set of species needs to be cared for along coastlines, as waves of new housing crash over our unspoilt shores.”

An unplanned marine encounter –  May 2013
Mostly we choose to spend our weekends at home.   After all, time spent at Gang Gang is like being on holiday, the sort of place people drive for hours to get to.  It is quiet, the birds sing, the views are soothing and little natural curiosities are there to observe when you decide to pause and look.  Occasionally we are lured away by friends who are more outward-looking, and the opera on Sydney Harbour was one such occasion.  Enjoyable as it was, there was little at the opera that related to natural history in any way, except perhaps Carmen explaining to Don Jose that love was like a wild bird.

It was the few hours that we had to kill on Sunday morning that unexpectedly pulled me back into the natural world.  As the aquarium was a few blocks away, and downhill from where we were, it was an easy choice.  Like many people, I have mixed feelings about zoos, but mostly I am just too plain greedy to see animals close up that I would not have a hope of seeing in the wild, so I go to them.  And in the fifty odd years that I have been going to zoos, things have got much better for the inhabitants within.  In the case of aquaria, the technology gets progressively better, and with each infrequent visit there is something amazing that I have not seen before (my last visit to the Canberra aquarium being one exception – though maybe it has got better).

The aquarium in Sydney was not a promising start – first we had to endure the queues of clamouring children and tourists (not travellers like us) deciding which of the myriad of attraction packages they might buy.  Darling Harbour has become a mini-Gold Coast apparently, with an entire suite of ‘worlds’ to see (and will you have fries with that?).  We fought our way past the photographers and first up – the platypus.  OK, platypus are not  sea life, as such, but there they were, hanging abut under water, chasing yabbies and being incredibly charming.  You could not complain – who amongst us have donned a snorkel and mask and observed platypus feeding on yabbies in their natural habitat?

Moving on to the more marine-oriented displays, we followed a maze of alternating small and large tanks, elbowing aside prams and crowds, squatting down to get a close view without ruining it for everyone else.  What we saw was jaw dropping.  The place buzzed with excitement, as people discovered what a giant cuttlefish looked like, and that the stone that looked like all the other stones in the tank actually had eyes and a grotesque mouth.  Until then, I did not know an upside-down jellyfish existed, but there was one bringing tears to my eyes with its ethereal beauty.  This animal looked like the fancy venetian glass ornament that my grandmother would set on the dining table, excepted that it pulsated.  A pink base supporting creamy stems bearing pale green leaf-like processes.  All very pretty and pastel.  These jellies can afford to sit around on the bottom, as they are fed by the algae that live in the ‘leaves’ and provide their food.  I did not think the jellies could be surpassed but they were at least equalled as we visited display after display – the moray eels peering out of pipes like dementors, the leafy-sea and weedy-dragons delicately hovering around the kelp.  My concentration could not be broken by the increasingly hyper-stimulated yells of small children that were only partially quelled when all the parents, as if on cue, produced boxes of apple juice and little biscuits.

Actually the yelling increased to a sugar-fuelled crescendo shortly after, when we were trapped in the glass tubes with the sharks overhead.  By then it was even too much for the parents, and the crowd fled ahead of us, and gave us some breathing space for the piece de resistance – the dugongs.  Now here is something I could feel maternal towards – big, fat, cute, smiling, calm, huggable herbivores.  These slow creatures do not seem to miss having endless miles of open water to roam, as long as they had plenty of seagrass to graze on.  Except that seagrass is difficult to obtain in Sydney, so they get cos lettuce instead.  Apparently they should be eating bok choy or spinach, which is closer in nutritional value to seagrass.  But even dugongs can be junk food addicts and they will not touch spinach – they even spit it out if it is smuggled into the countless racks of cos lettuce leaves that are put out day and night.  Each dugong eats 60 kg per day according to the woman preparing the lettuce racks.  That’s 22 tonnes per year.  Total commercial lettuce production in Australia varies from year to year, but around 150,000 tonnes would be typical. So, roughly speaking, if we fed our entire annual lettuce production to dugongs, we could feed around 6,850.  With a current wild population of dugongs sitting at 85,000 and some Australian states listing them as vulnerable, we can only hope that the natural seagrass meadows are able to continue feeding them, because I don’t think we are going to be able to rely on our lettuce farmers to satisfy them, or a handful of sea life aquaria to house them.

As I went back for one last look at these slow chugging lettuce munchers, I contemplated the 60 kg per day and the reality of zoos took on a sharp focus.  Nice places to introduce people to wildlife, enthusiastic promoters of conservation as they are, but the idea of a lettuce-led dugong recovery is never going to float.

The Far ConyzaApril  2014

Having spent the last month in Argentina, the ecological goings-on in the Yass Valley have been far from my mind. Well mostly.  Amid the distractions of empanadas, bombachas, gauchos, piranhas and toucans, I got glimpses of home in the form of plants ….. or more precisely,  weeds.

Yes, Argentina is the native home of many of Australia’s introduced weeds.  Although it is not all one way – they also received donations from here.  Exquisite hardwood rainforests had been cleared for extensive plantations of eucalypts.  As the eucalypts grow so fast in Argentina, they produce stems with the qualities of softwood.

As the plane landed in Buenos Aires, the first thing that I saw was a great wall of pampas grass fringing the tarmac.  Two species of Argentinian pampas grass (Cortaderia spp.) are declared noxious weeds in Australia, having been bought in for garden plantings.  I can see why; they look very  beautiful clumped along streams trickling through the rugged granite landscapes.  An understandable introduction to Australia, but a source of regret for the people whose landscapes are swamped by this giant grass with the razor sharp blades.

Cruising through the steamy waterways of the Río Paraná delta past a remarkable collection of river shacks, a local botanist pointed out that, many years ago, the native willow trees had been largely cleared from the house sites, while Australian river oaks (Casuarina cunninghamiana) had been planted to prevent bank erosion.  At the same time, in Australia we were clearing casuarinas and planting willows!  So apparently we are not the only country with a biological inferiority complex.

A few days later, some friends drove us out of Buenos Aires to see one of the last remaining patches of native flooded pampas grassland.  As in southern Australia, most of the native grassland has been replaced by exotic plants, in the case of the Pampa, tropical grasses from Brazil or soybean crops have been planted.  The fact that there was originally 75 million hectares of fertile moist grassland but we had to drive five hours to see a small area in reasonable condition was an impressive case of over-development.

Nonetheless, the landscape was dazzling and the waterbirds and numerous birds of prey did not seem to be too fussed whether that grassland was native-dominated or not.  There were great flocks of ibis, pink spoonbills, burrowing owls on the termite mounds and a species of woodpecker that didn’t need trees and seemed to be satisfied with only a few measly fence posts to tap on.  When we finally reached the precious remnant of undeveloped grassland, who was there to greet us but two nemeses of mine at Gang Gang – Conyza bonariensis and that stubborn grass of wet places Paspalum dilatatum.  Both natives of Argentina and both behaving perfectly nicely in their small remnant of endangered grassland.  It was a confusing moment for a botanist.

A week later, we were walking over the dry  uplands of the Sierra Grandes, which are in the rain shadow of the Andes.  We were on the lookout for the giant Andean condor.  As we strode though the wind rippled grasslands, what did we see?  You guessed it – everyones’ nemesis.  Entire hillsides of serrated tussock, sleek and healthy, and looking very attractive in its lofty homeland.  We were not disappointed on the condor front either.

As always it is was  lovely to return to Gang Gang, and you will be most relieved to know that before striding out on to the landscape in my boots, I went over them thoroughly with fine forceps and picked out of the crevices anything that looked like a seed.  Despite having scrubbed the boots thoroughly before leaving Argentina, I amassed a small collection of seeds, including those of a particularly pernicious sticky grass seed picked up at dawn on the last morning.  It’s hard to spot howler monkeys in the dark canopy and avoid the weeds at the same time.  I hastily nuked the foreign seed assortment in the microwave.  Be warned next time you return from overseas.  A few minutes checking might save us multi-millions controlling a new weed.

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