Saturday, January 17, 2015

Swan plant - unwanted on the Swan

The Swan plant (Gomphocarpus fruticosus) is named for it's distinctive fruiting follicle which resembles a swan in outline. In  Apocynaceae, toxic latex sap full of cardiac glycosides. It is a declared noxious weed in Western Australia.But a beloved darling of entomological enthusiasts because it is a host plant of the very attractive wanderer or monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus and Danaus chrysippus ). 

We encountered this weed in Perth's Hills recently, and I've noticed it along the Swan River at Maylands, although that population was quickly eliminated by teh local council (yes, I was surprised - but a local community group must have given them the heads-up).

Anyway - a quick study on this not unattractive plant, which is taking Perth's hills surburbs by storm (looking at you, Serpentine-Byford).


Friday, April 26, 2013

Returning rudis

One important eucalypt species that fringes riverine systems in southwestern Australia is the river gum or  flooded gum, Eucalyptus rudis. It is a relatively fast growing and long-lived tree which thrives and survives in waterlogged sites with heavy, acidic soils and tolerates salinity. Which is a bonus since these are the conditions along river banks such as those along the Swan River. At maturity it can reach 30 m in height and serves as important habitat for invertebrates, mammals and a vast array of birds. From southern boobook owls to striated pardalotes to rufus night herons,  many a bird will roost in the branches or seek a nest in tree hollows. 

Eucalyptus rudis fringing the banks of Canning River.
A shady woodland of flooded gum over a modified grassland. Pleasant for picnics.

Growing on unstable and eroded river banks does pose some risks, so when some severe storms affected the Perth region last June, many established trees were simply knocked down like matchsticks. Including this one at Burswood.

I grabbed a branch of nuts and sowed them in native seed raising mix, to them highly germinable within a few weeks and myself saddled with loads of seedlings (in clean soil [commercial brand meeting Australian standards] and pots, I'll add).

So - what to do... eight months on - it's been a slow, stealthy mission to plant out saplings along the river. Some saplings have been pulled up (ones marked with flagging tape), but the others, planted with stealth, remain in place and hopefully will grown on into magnificent trees. However, infrequent and ad hoc plantings will in no way arrest the severe, state-wide decline in Eucalyptus rudis, which is part of an overall woodland and forest tree decline in the face of threatening processes such as Phytophthora, insect defoliation and drought.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Put a frog on it ...

So may people today would rid themselves of their daily angst and frustrations if they just walked away from their computers or cars and dug in a frog pond.

Yes, to paraphrase Portlandia, put a frog on it.

I dug a pond in a few months ago. A tiny pond crafted from an old shell-shaped kiddies' sandpit, lined with the cuttings off an old inflatable kayak, and filled with mud, rocks and a selection of plants gleaned from the dredging of the local drainage canal down at a nearby park. So, there's the flatsedge, Cyperus eragrostis, some weedy Bacopa monnieri (all, may I add, for sale at local aquarium stores), and I bought the edible culinary herb, Persicaria odorata and some Ornduffia parnassifolia to add colour and spice.  Because it's nice to have a little watery green feature in a backyard of otherwise grey sands of Bassendean.
Of course, this was an empty pond, bereft of frogs and waiting for Them To Come. Quite a few frogs do wander the streets of Bayswater. Motorbike frogs (Litorea moorei) and banjo frogs (Limnodynastes dorsalis) in particular stretch their legs on many an occasion and have found themselves in our yards. So usually it was a matter of waiting for a wandering frog to take up residence. In the interim, I did pop in a couple of white mountain cloud minnows (Tanichthys albonubes, an exotic species available on the day) in order to keep the mosquitoes down.

And that was that ..................       until the call came out in late November for homes for needy homeless tadpoles. A local was cleaning his pool for summer and found a batch of tadpoles needing rehoming in the local area (within a 5km radius). The local environment centre took these on and from there we picked up our new tadpoles. They took to the pond with gusto - or more just plain relief after a few miserable weeks in a deep, hot plastic tub. The addition of tasty lemna  made it perfect.

A tiny new froglet emerges.
A new froglet eyes off lunch
And within a  few weeks, new froglets emerged and took up residence in the ponds - yes, we bought a pre-fab fiberglass pond to accommodate the growing frog family and because the original clamshell sand pit appeared to have a slow leak.  And this time we popped in six western pygmy perches.

And then there was the need for a second pond as the number of emerging frogs swelled. And so now we are humble slaves to our new, free-range pets, planting more sedges and shrubs, topping up the ponds, putting in a small solar light to attract night insects. They feed themselves, although I still scatter in fish granules for the tadpoles and fish, and I do trust that they are making a dent in the local slater, mosquito and grasshopper population. As a reward, I get prime frog viewing and some pest control.

A tree frog friendly new home, complete with bungalow
Looking green and handsome

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Thank goodness somebody eats them


After a hiatus, I'm back. I guess the trick is to write short, achievable posts.

The bird baby season has just finished for Perth, and many of the spring youngsters have fledged from our garden. But one parent-chick pair is still lurking around - and that the black-faced cuckoo shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae).

They're strange birds. They fold their wings each and every time they land in some sort of odd display (Land. Fold wings over this way. Fold over the other way. Fold over the other way again.). And they have this strange, strangled, subtle call of Zeeee-ewwww. And they're curious and beady-eyed, but overlooked by most people because they don't really stand out as a strikingly unusual Australian bird (i.e. not brightly plumaged nor excessively and obtrusively noisy).

But they've taken to the shady copse of Acacia saligna I planted in the backard (called 'Saligna Grove') with gusto because this Acacia species is normally festooned with stinky Crusader bugs (Mictis profana: Coreidae). Sucking phloem sap and spreading a rust fungus and whatever mycoplasmas or viral pathogens, the hemipteran was reaching plague proportions, to the detriment of our shrubs.

A pair of furiously procreating Crusader bugs.

The stinky native bugs were causing a lot of damage to new growth and eventually to the whole plant, and it appeared that nobody was keen to eat them. Not even the hungry bee eaters would dare stick these vile-tasting things down their throats.

But salvation appeared in the form of a noisy, gurgling, baby black-faced cuckoo shrike. Attracted by their flapping among the Acacia saligna, we noted to our relief and delight that, at last, somebody ate the apparently distasteful Crusader bugs. Plucked fresh from the boughs of the acacia, wiped on a wire or branch, they're then swallowed with relish. Tuck in, we say! Help yourselves!. Don't stop at one!
The pale-faced youngster wants everything the parent captures.

The junior cuckoo shrike catches and eats a Crusader bug

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Strange birdsong no more

A relatively recent visit to Te Papa, the national museum in Wellington was one good long afternoon of exploring some national treasures (taonga) from a variety of cultures and ages. And while wandering among the exhibits ranging from a giant pickled squid to some bloke's No. 8 fencing wire, innovative, shed-made motorbike , some fabulous artworks and wonderful South Pacific treasures, I found one upstairs gallery replete with Victorian and Edwardian era NZ silversmithery. There were cups and plates and fanciful trinkets, and this little number: 

And so I looked at the description, and said 'fuck' and 'for fuck's sake' very loudly, which drew the attention of some nearby young German backpackers. And yes, it's hard language but I was gobsmacked and which is worse?

I explained to the concerned German tourists why this trinket from a begone era was the NZ equivalent of a Thylacine lucky foot, and it could sit easily among a passenger pigeon pie, a dodo featherduster, a stuffed giant auk backscratcher, a Steller's seacow leather footrest and a quagga skin floor rug in a crowded gallery of oppulence, overexploitation and shame. A stunning forest bird with a curious natural history, the huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was a victim of a combination of the Victorian era obsession with stuffing zoological specimens into extinction, the introduction of mustelids like stoats, and the massive deforestation of the North Island of New Zealand.

And so - 100 years ago, intrepid explorers were busy hunting for any signs of huia, three years after being considered extinct. In 1911 and not far from this Te Papa exhibit, a Mr Hugh Girdlestone, a railway engineer and surveyor employed by the NZ Lands and Survey Department and a Fellow of the Royal Geological Society, was busy searching  the Tararua Ranges for any sign of huia [1]. He believed that his team had heard the song of the huia, for he wrote in a letter "that his men, who are familiar with native bird life, reported to him that they had heard the note of a strange bird, which from their description he believed to be a huia", and that an old settler had also reported seeing a bird. And they were searching in an area that, not 20 years beforehand, huia were not uncommon. There were soaringly high hopes for this expedition to find any remaining individuals and relocate them to Kapiti Island - a pioneering project in the translocations of endangered birds and a site of translocation efforts to this day. Alas - they were unsuccessful and the rest is history - as the last unconfirmed sightings were in the 1920's.

1: A letter received by the Otago Daily Times from H. Girdlestone, 1911, and a letter to Mr W. H. Field, (M.P), reported in the Wellington Post and to the Otago Daily Times, published 6th July 1911 under the title "Strange birdsong may be the key".

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Crouching gecko, hidden gecko

Marbled gecko, Christinus marmoratus

Long have I lamented the lack of geckos around our place. Occasionally one would pop out from under a tarpaulin or be discovered lurking in a linen basket. Sometimes I'd spot one dashing into a dark corner of the room. But we don't have the nocturnal abundances of geckos like some other houses in other suburbs have, and really did wonder if we were going to be blessed with bug-eyed lizards.

So imagine my surprise when, about a week ago, I managed to reveal the mother lode of Gekkonidae. While fumbling with my keys, trying to open the gate, slightly unsteadily after some Friday evening drinks, the security light illuminated the sinusoidal form of a little marbled gecko firmly adhered by the toes to a hibiscus leaf.
A closer inspection with my ridiculously bright bicycle light revealed some 8 marbled geckos draped among branches and leaves in the driveway hibiscus shrubs. I have always disliked but tolerated the cultivars of Hibiscus arnottianus since they do provide nectar and gleaning opportunities for the honeyeaters, but this was a reason to appreciate them some more. A long, hard summer drought had withered the leaves and killed the upper branches, and waves of aphids had infested the crippled plants. They're not looking good, and I had considered some radical action  - but the aphid honeydew and some plant exudates are coating the leaves with sugary goodness, which the little geckos are lapping up, night after night. This is a reprieve for the plants, and now we can enjoy gecko goodness viewing every evening with a quick walk around the driveway with a torch.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Paddling on the Canning

I endorse this strentch of the Swan River as a scenic and relaxing paddle. Go as fast or slow as you wish - there is no worry from the usual blights on the river: powered idiots in their pretentious stink boats trailing hoards of screaming brats in sea biscuits and terrorising squadrons of jet skiis. It is popular with recreational floaters, multisport trainers and that new creature that has recently appeared on our waters - the kayak fisherman (who more often seems to be using foot pedals or a small outboard).

Yes - the route from Shelley Bridge to the Kent St Weir is the start of a nice paddle under the shade of sheoaks (Casuarina obesa), swamp paperbarks (Melaleuca rhaphiophylla) thickets, tall stands of flooded gums (Eucalyptus rudis) and  upwards further for about 7 kms to Nicholson Rd. It is all part of the Canning River Regional Park, and information on the paddle can be found here and here. 
It starts off at at a wide delta in the estuary dominated by sheoaks and paperbark thickets over thick stands of reeds and sedges (Isolepis and Juncus). Here you pass mobs of Australian pelicans, darters, pied and little black cormorants, Pacific black ducks, silver gulls and grey teal. Many birds do nest here, and I recently (4 weeks ago) spied the nest of a strange, squawking, so-ugly-they're-beautiful-and-disturbing-at-the-same-time darter chicks.

From there on, the river narrows to form several distant channels - so you can easily follow a channel to a dead end. No drama - all part of the fun. And the casuarinas here are full of mistletoe birds, mistloes, and I've spotted rufous whistlers, grey fantails, the ever-present angry willy wagtails, demented purple swamp hens, buff banded rails, white-faced herons, Australiasian coots, dusky moorhens, great egrets, osprey, collared sparrowhawks, whistling kites, brown honeyeaters, singing honeyeaters, wattlebirds, magpies, blue wrens, pee wees and kingfishers. Just to name a few.

And there is a really nice patch of Hakea prostrata in all its non-prostrate, fully erect, 3 m shrub form. This would have been more extensive vegetation structural association, but now you only get a few decent stands of tall shrubs of this species in the Perth area.

Mr Darter, in full breeding plumage - photo- Mr Dillon
And so you can paddle on until you pass the Castledare Minature Railway station - a boon for anorak-wearing, little-train buffs -  and swing around the corner to the weir at Kent street. This weir was installed to prevent salt water from reaching into the upper reaches of the Canning river and affecting farmland on the Canning plains. You will have to portage over this and head on up a few more kilometeres until the river becomes log-jammed, or you wish to turn around for the return leg.You may notice little freshwater fish species (like the pygmy perch) in the waters above the weir.

And you may pass these yellow things - they are oxygenators, which are an attempt to oxygenate the stagnant, eutrophic waters of the Canning River. Desperate measures - but certainly controlling the fertiliser inputs into the system would help - wouldn't they, eh? (i.e. tighter regulation of fertiliser use seems to be stalled).

Time of year to paddle: Anytime. It might rain one day in Perth, and this may even one day cause some water to spill over the weir. But don't get your hopes up.

Skill level: easy peasy grade 1 flatwater. Exposed, open stretches will become choppy and windswept if there are strong winds or stiff sea breezes. 

Attractions: Pleasant easy kayak in a little bushland setting. Lose yourself in the middle of the city - you can forgot for a while all the crappy MacMansion developments and just immerse yourself in the riparian environment and imagine what the wider area was like ages ago.

Location: 9 kilometres south-east of Central Perth,  in the Canning Regional Park. The park extends for approximately 6 kilometres along the Canning River between the Shelley and Nicholson Road Bridges.

Entry points: Loads. We start at Shelley Bridge, but you can start at Kent St Weir or other points along river.
Note: Pluses: sheltered waters, no powerboats, loads of birds and plants, loads of picnic spots.
           Minuses: low water flows means the water quality can be poor (hence the oxygenation pumps), with algal blooms and even Azolla and invasive Hydroctoyle infestations. A recent fire (Feb 2011) has damaged vegetation upstream of Kent St Weir.

The Kent Street Weir usually has to be portaged, and that pinic area can become very busy on weekends.

More information - More information on the park and its critters can be found here.