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.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Art for the birds

and the dogs..

A public found-object art exhibition was held recently at Eric Singleton Bird Sanctuary, which is my usual birding spot. These events have been held before, but not at this specific location. I think the aim is to create with rubbish and refuse, thereby making recycled artworks that are also recyclable.

Anyhoo - it was a quick wander up the path, avoiding the supposedly leashed dogs and staring across the work reflected in the stormwater drainage ditch. As with previous years, the works were hit, miss or why.

These are coloured cones stuck in the mud adjacent to the drain. They're sort of reminscent of traffic cones, or large golf tees. I'll duck for cover if I hear a booming cry of those fateful words    "Fore!!"
And this is some fungal-like sculpture crafted from the dog shitbags which are so oft found in parks, distributed with the intention for their use to contain the dos, but not necessarily do the bag and contents find their way in a bin. I like this sculpture, oddly enough, because it is a woven netted form which reminds me of the gills/vellum of a morel stinkhorn. Coincidentally, the smell from a discarded, used dog bag also reminds me of a stinkhorn - but I'm certain that wasn't the desired intention of the artist.

 And these are little paper house things. Or something. I should have read the label. But, judging from the deeply set footprints, the people installing the exhibit may have had a fun time extracting themselves from the mud. At least they didn't require a helicopter to secure their rescue


A pelican - reel to reel. Clever one this one.

Fish - all strung out.

Plastic sheet strung between two trees... another why category. I think the title was something like "screen", so it wasn't a commentary on arboreal plastic sheeting ..
Diving cormorants - with final scene of bird with ringpull plastic

and finally - Birdcage - with reversed roles. Oh why don't we see more of this scene.

Soooooooo.... that's a sunny afternoon ramble down the park, away from the dogs, among the birds of the santuary. Needless to say, the ponds themselves have enough water to be enjoyed the birds.

Tree - frame - tree

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Who's eating me trees?

A chafer at my tree

Liparetrus sp -(Scarabaeidae: Melolonthinae). Spring beetles.

This scarab chafer beetle (cockchafer if you must) is pictured eating my treasured front verge saplings of illyarrie (Eucalyptus erythrocorys) and Eucalyptus todtiana. They emerged en masse from burrows in the sandy soil of the Swan Coastal Plain in late spring (October), literally swarming out of the ground after the grubs have lain for a year or two

Once up and out as adults, they showed a remarkable ability to defoliate my native eucalypt saplings. It is frighteningly impressive how much leaf biomass can disappear within days as 'undreds of the chafers swarm over that plants. And they do swarm. And persist in eating the trees despite constant shakes and hosing down the plants. These are my saplings that I planted on the front verge, and they have only really started to take off, so you can imagine my horror as they disappeared over days. I received some advice on how to manage them, which involved lights, hosings, shakings and tolerance.

Anyways - to cut the long story short - I requested the help of an entomologist friend who became rather excited at these critters. Yes, they were a chafer beetle (as I had gussed), in the genus Liparetrus and could not be identitifed to species level. They were native and possibly even an endemic to the Swan Coastal Plain or SW Western Australian region. Yes, spring beetles are considered pests and usually sprayed when they occur in gum plantations - but these were local critters in small numbers in suburban gardens.  I was lucky that some beetle work was being currently underway at the WA Museum, so my critters attracted some interest.

Looks like we will have to resort to DNA sequencing and some good, old fashioned taxonomic work to get a species name on this critter. Yes - that involves counting setae.  I'm really impressed that common old suburbia continues to turn up undescribed species. I just have to plant some more local eucalypts to reduce the damage on my street trees and to support these (possibly endemic?) species in an region subject to huge amounts of bushland clearing.