Friday, 30 November 2007

Feeling blue about the Blue Gums

Southern Blue Gums Eucalyptus globulus are magnificent trees, fast-growing and tall. The bark at the base of the trunk is rough but on the higher trunk and branches it is smooth and peels in strips, revealing a range of beautiful colours. The juvenile leaves are blue, hence the name. The 'southern' in this context refers to Tasmania and Otways and South Gippsland on the south coast of Victoria.

This tree, of all the eucalypts, is the one selected by the plantation forest industry and in the last few years thousands of acres of cleared pastureland in southern Australia has been planted to Blue Gums, with many more to come.

It's having a huge effect on the social environment. Farmers sell to the plantation companies because they are offering good money so communities are diminishing. Where will they find a tennis team, enough kids to keep the school open, volunteers for the fire brigade?

It's having a huge effect on the economic environment. A plantation is a monoculture, and fewer hectares are available to local dairy cows, flocks of sheep and herds of beef cattle.

And it's having a huge effect on the natural environment. This is where I am ambivalent. Research is being done on the biodiversity within the plantations – they're not environmental deserts – but a lot of grassland and woodland species may be reduced in numbers. On the other hand, swamps within the plantations are no longer being grazed by cows or sheep so they will return to a more 'natural' appearance. And, (don't tell the plantation companies this), I feel comfortable about wandering in a bit of bush or swamp on a plantation property whereas I wouldn't dream of doing so ordinarily without getting the owner's permission.

In October 2005 I took a photo of the Darlot Creek at Homerton. The years of drought meant that the water level was low.

Darlot Creek Ovtober 2005

In January this year I took another photo from the same spot. A Blue Gum plantation now occupied what had been the productive pasture of a dairy farm.

Darlot Creek January 2007

And several weeks ago I took another photo because the river was 'running a banker', meaning that the water level was as high as it could be without flooding out onto the pasture. And note that the Blue Gums have grown extremely fast in the previous ten months.

Darlot Creek November 2007

I'll continue to take photos from this spot in the years ahead. I'm not looking forward to the devastation that is inevitable when the company harvests the Blue Gums for their timber in the next ten to twenty years.

Monday, 26 November 2007

One for The Road

It was a beautiful day today, and I had lots to do inside and there were lots of tempting things outside. But what was I doing? Sitting inside reading a book a friend gave me to read.

Every now and again I find a book that I literally can't put down, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy is one of them. I was mesmerised by it.

McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year with this book and I can see why.
The setting is a post-apocalypse world, and a father and his son are on a journey. The story is harrowing, shocking, terrible but also beautiful and moving. The prose is sparse and poetic. His descriptions of landscape are also haunting.

Get hold of a copy.

Save the platypus

A textile artist in the Otway Ranges posts about her beautiful fabric art and occasionally her environment. The two links lead to a campaign to protect the home of the platypus.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Pieces of colour

The group of friends meet at my house each week to quilt and chat, discuss new projects, show progress in current projects, share ideas. We've all known each other a long time, and we hate to miss a week of getting together. My current project is a wallhanging and its working title is Azolla on the Pond. The three layers are now tacked together and I'm hand-quilting it, so it's not far off binding to finish and hang.

Unfinished quilt

I was starting to think the colours were a bit dramatic but then yesterday I saw this little lake of still water at Gateway Sanctuary, Leopold. Azolla is a tiny free-floating aquatic fern that multiplies very quickly in its favoured still water. Its leaves can be green through to red in colour. This patch was a lovely red-purple and completely covered the lake.


Thursday, 22 November 2007

A surprise in more ways than one

The Annya State Forest north of Heywood is a favourite patch of bush, and I visit it every time we go down to our farm nearby. It's a sandy heathy woodland, rich in flora, and even though I've explored parts of it many times it still has the capacity to surprise me.

Last weekend I found three species of plants in 'my' patch that I've never seen there before – maybe I've just never been there when they're flowering.

Most colourful and impressive was the Lax Marsh-flower Villarsia umbricola, growing in a very damp and swampy area, the yellow flowers held well above the leaves. This plant only grows in the south-west of Victoria and across the border in the south-east of South Australia.

Lax Marsh-flower

The second new plant was Pale Grass-lily Caesia parviflora var. parviflora. It too was flowering, tiny pale flowers, and would be easy to miss if not in flower because its leaves are grass-like.

Pale Grass-lily

The third was an orchid. I was wandering along a track in the bush on my way back to the car, tired because I'd been out all morning taking photos on a hot day. I spotted a late flowering orchid, the common but pretty Pink Fingers Caladenia carnea, and grabbed a quick photo without troubling to do it properly. The photo below is one of Pink Fingers taken on another day.

Pink Fingers

When I looked at the (blurry) photo on the screen later in the day I realised that the 'Pink Fingers' was in fact a Black-tongue Caladenia Caladenia congesta, a plant I'd never seen before and in fact not often seen growing in the wild. So, I got in the car and drove the 15 km back to have another look. (Yes, I'm worried about climate change, but sometimes I have to break my own rules about petrol consumption and greenhouse gas.) I found the original plant and another one nearby that I'd missed seeing first time. This time I made sure I got a good photo of the beautiful orchid.

Black-tongue Caladenia

Now I'm back home in Geelong but I'd love to be back in the Annya forest to see if there are any more surprises.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

It's all on the nose

Koala researchers in the Brisbane Ranges have discovered that they can identify individual koalas by the pattern of dots on the nose. This last weekend we went down to our farm at Heywood, and discovered a noisy male koala in a tree near the house. Next day he had gone from the tree but then we found another one nearby. By comparing photos I think I can say with confidence that it's the same individual because his nose pattern is identical.



Koalas can be very noisy. Several times I have been wandering in the bush, alone, watching for birds or flowers, jumpy about the possibility of stepping on a snake, wary of leeches climbing my boots, and nearly jumped out of said boots when a, previously unseen, koala has bellowed immediately above my head. They are very very loud. My immediate thought always is that somehow the neighbour's bull has crept up behind me. The Australian bush has nothing in the way of ferocious non-vegetarian mammals to be scared of so this reaction must be built into me/us genetically from the hunter-gatherer days of our ancestors in Africa.

Missed again

This is what I get for going away for the weekend. The Field Nats had an excursion on Sunday that I missed of course. And what did they see at Jerringot? A BAILLON'S CRAKE! RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE BIRD HIDE! (I feel a bit like Danny Katz – he shouts all the time in his column in The Age).

Read my previous entry if you want to make sense of this blog .

Monday, 12 November 2007

Jerringot - an urban swamp

When you live in a city it's great to be able to visit a birdy spot within a few minutes from home, and you never know what you're going to find.

Jerringot, on Belmont Common, is an urban wetland that gets a mention occasionally on the Eremaea webpage because a birder has seen something interesting there. It is next to a busy road and small industries in the middle of a suburb of Geelong. The whole of the Common along the Barwon River has been highly modified since European settlement - market gardens, farms and air strips in the past, playing fields, golf courses, playgrounds and walking trails at present and continual threats from road construction, rowing tracks and changes in drainage.

Jerringot itself is highly modified and unnatural but is in an area that would always have been swampy. It has areas of reedy swamps, low woodland and open water. A birdhide has been constructed and there is a walking track. For the last 35 years the Field Naturalists Club has planted, weeded, cleared rubbish, put up interpretive signs, installed seats, communicated with council, constructed the birdhide and nesting boxes, compiled bird and plant lists. A few people can make a difference. Valda Dedman's photo below was taken at the first tree-planting in 1973. Valda is still a passionate guardian of Jerringot.

Jerringot 1973

When the water dried up completely earlier this year the council was able to get in with an excavator to dig out some of the silt and clear some of the reed beds and at the water levels are high again because we have had a 'rain event' recently. The levels will drop over the summer and we get excited about the possibility of seeing crakes and rails feeding on the exposed mud near the reeds.

Jerringot, Belmont

Jerringot, Belmont

The bird list for this small reserve is impressive – over 130 species. It includes Freckled Ducks, seen there last month, Red-kneed Dotterels, Magpie Geese, Cattle Egrets that come in to roost, Royal Spoonbills and Little Bittern. Land birds such as Olive-backed Oriole, Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoo, White-winged Triller, Grey Shrike-thrush and Grey Goshawk have been seen there. Jerringot is a site of State significance because of the number of Latham's Snipe that feed in the reed beds each summer (more than 200 in some years). Crakes and rails find the exposed mud near the reed beds attractive. We have seen Buff-banded Rails, Spotted Crakes and Spotless Crakes and Baillon's Crake (The latter is a bird I have yet to see – my excuse is that it's tiny and my eyes aren't what they used to be!)

If you're passing through Geelong take the time to visit Jerringot, Barwon Heads Rd, Belmont. I'm glad it's in my patch. I'm told that a Growling Grass Frog Litoria reniformis was calling there this week so I'm heading down there to check it out.


Yesterday the sky was clear on a warm day, then these clouds came up quickly and filled half the sky, and then they were gone. It looked stunning. I know nothing about clouds but I suppose there is a catagory for this type.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Feather-heads and Pussy-tails

It is always a surprise to see the feathery heads standing above the vegetation on the volcanic plains. And I'm not talking about birds.

The flowering stems of Feather-heads Ptilotus macrocephalus are about 60 cm tall and the flowers look a bit like bottlebrush flowers from a distance, but up close they have a beautiful woolly appearance. The long leaves are wide and strappy. The genus name Ptilotus means 'feathered wings', and the specific name macrocephalus means 'large head'. The fabulous Jean Galbraith in her book Wildflowers of South-East Australia said:
All eastern species [of Ptilotus] have large (1-6") terminal flower clusters like fluffy cylindrical brushes. Narrow shining flower segments are just visible through a mist of long hairs growing beneath them. Texture of segments usually everlasting-like.

Ptilotus macrocaphalus

Ptilotus macrocephalus

We found the Feather-heads growing on open grassland when we were doing a plant survey on private property at Bannockburn yesterday. Grassland is a word used to mean an area with very few trees or shrubs. There were indeed many grasses – Kangaroo Grass, poas, spear grass and wallaby grasses - but we also found many species of herbs growing amongst the grasses – lilies, daisies, peas, orchids, pimeleas, goodenias, wahlenbergias. The grassland was looking very colourful.

After surveying the grassland we moved into an area classified as grassy woodland, and we found the Pussy-tails Ptilotus spathulatus. These are much harder to see because the leaves hug the ground and although the flower heads are vertical they are quite short. As their name indicates the leaves are spoon-shaped.

Ptilotus spathulatus

Ptilotus spathulatus

Galbraith's illustrator was Camilla Jakobson, and this is her drawing of the Ptilotus spathulatus.

Apparently both species of Ptilotus have huge taproots. I'll have to bow to the authorities in my reference books on this, because I haven't actually dug one up. But I have bought one. Today there was a Waterwise Expo at the Geelong Botanic Gardens, and the Friends had a plant sale. I couldn't walk past the Pussy-tails for sale. Now I have to decide which spot in my garden most replicates a 'grassy woodland'.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Happy birthday to me

As far as birthdays go it wasn't up at the top of the excitement list. For one, I'm getting way too close to moving into my seventh decade; two, I had to work all day even though it was Cup Day; three, I had to rush home from work, cook a meal and then go out to chair a meeting.

But, two things happened that made my day great. When I got home this afternoon I found Phil and our neighbour weeding my back garden. (They didn't have to go to work on Cup Day.) I manage to keep the weeds at bay in the parts of the garden that are on show but the back is a bit of a disaster. It's looking quite respectable now. And, the second great thing that happened was that while they were weeding they found a Pobblebonk Frog Limnodynastes dumerili, burrowed into the soil under the mulch. We have never, ever, heard a Pobblebonk (I love saying that word) calling from in our yard, but we used to hear one calling from a pond that was briefly in the houseyard next door. Maybe it's the same frog. Normally our garden is very dry because we live on a north-facing slope – it's wet at the moment because we have had a lot of rain over the last few days - but this frog didn't look like he was passing through. Of course I had to take his photo, even though I didn't really have time and it was getting dark.
Pobblebonk Frog

Friday, 2 November 2007

Revisiting favourite places

I’ve learned a thing or two over the last few years. One is never to brake quickly when I see an interesting bird. The driver behind usually (never!) has the same appreciation of the natural world. I now slow down gradually, keeping my eye on the road instead of the bird.

This lesson held me in good stead this morning. I was driving to work thinking about the priorities in the day ahead when I noticed something that had me looking twice. All thoughts of work disappeared. The wattle with the beautiful mistletoe (that I wrote about in May) is no longer in existence. The bulldozers working on the Geelong freeway have now moved on the Stage 3, in my part of town, and even though I knew where the roadworks were going to be I wasn’t expecting so many trees in the paddock to be cut down.

My mind went back to the time (nearly 20 years ago) when I revisited my parents’ farm after it had been sold. The gully that mum and dad had fenced off and nurtured for years, the beautiful tree-filled, ferny gully with a little creek that was home to native fish, had been destroyed by the cattle allowed in by the new owner. Only the trees remained -- everything else had been ruined by cloven hooves and grazing, and the water was muddy instead of clear. I still feel sad when I think about it.

Fortunately the nearby Darlot Creek is still in reasonable condition. It has one stony bank, the result of a lava flow from Mt Eccles, so the land on that side has only ever been lightly grazed. But lots more could be done to restore the health of the creek. Getting rid of willows would be a good place to start.

Darlot Creek

The (weekly) times they are a changin'

For our Eco Book Group meeting this month we decided to each buy the four issues of The Weekly Times published in October and see what was written about the natural world. When we all turned up with coloured plastic flags pointing to many highlighted paragraphs we realised that The Weekly Times and its readers actually have a lot to say.

The lively discussion ranged over the subjects of weeds, feral animals, water resources, native grasses, conservation of remnant vegetation, climate change, Landcare, Trust for Nature, alpine grazing, Red Gum forests, fishing and drought. We didn’t always agree with what was written but on whole we thought much of it was positive and informative.

In the last year we’ve read Maathai (tree planting), Flannery (weather), Pearce (water) and Pyne (fire). Next time we’d like to move away from the reference section of the bookshelf and into the realms of fiction. Any suggestions?