Upside Down

July 2020. Exploring Herdsman Lake in Perth, a stunning yet peaceful space in the city, and home to an abundance of birds. There is a boardwalk with a grove of Melaleuca or “paperbark” trees (Melaleuca quinquenervia,) which creates a magical, Sleepy Hollow feeling…(There are about 240 different species of paperbark tree in WA alone, and I cannot tell you which one(s) we saw.) Melaleuca is a widely medicinal tree: “The leaves and bark of several species were used to treat ailments from coughs and colds to cuts and sores. These were applied directly or crushed and soaked in water to create a drink or liniment. Alternatively, they were burnt and the smoke inhaled.” You may have encountered tea tree oil? That’s Melaleuca.

As we walked along, we were accompanied by friendly wagtails, and could hear the small snap of the beaks of swallows which were zipping about all around us. The purple swamphens (Porphyrio porphyrio) we saw are apparently “very common,” but seem outrageously exotic to me. I think “swamp hen” as a name doesn’t do them justice! And of course, the black swans (Cygnus atratus) are equally magical, as, no doubt, the white swans of the Northern Hemisphere seem to visitors from Oz.

I mentioned in my last post that we had a surprise on the beach one morning a couple of weeks ago. Storm winds had washed thousands of bluebottles (locally known as “stingers,”) – Physalia utriculus – onto the beach. Of course, I didn’t have my camera. A pity, as they were still glowing and alive, iridescent with their beautiful – but cautionary – bright blue whips. On a later day, I was able to take a photo of one that hadn’t yet deflated. Bluebottles, or “man o’war,” are fascinating: “not a single animal, but a colony of four kinds of highly modified individuals (zooids,)” according to Australian Museum online, “The zooids are dependent on one another for survival. The float (pneumatophore) is a single individual and supports the rest of the colony. The tentacles (dactylozooids) are polyps concerned with the detection and capture of food and convey their prey to the digestive polyps (gastrozooids). Reproduction is carried out by the gonozoids, another type of polyp. They aren’t jellyfish, but for the sake of, “don’t go in the water, it’ll sting the **** out of you,” they are similar enough! DSC00576

Back to our walk at Herdsman Lake: the purpose of the walk was to head to a particular tree, where my father-in-law has regularly seen Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides,) also known as nightjars, or nightjays. They make a lovely hoo-hoo sound at night, and they are nocturnal creatures, but they aren’t owls. I was absolutely thrilled to see not one, but three of these charming creatures, nestled together in their “usual” tree, and my gawping drew a couple of other interested walkers, and we all had a nice look (“sticky-beak” in Australian slang, for nosing around anything, not just birds!) at these snoozing birds, who appeared completely unruffled by our presence. The tawny frogmouths have a wonderful upright stance, having evolved to camouflage extremely well with tree branches, and were very soothing and charming to watch. They definitely had a Buddha vibe going on.

June 2020: We’ve emigrated to Australia! These are a few of the fascinating birds I’ve seen so far in Perth, Western Australia, where we’re spending about 1.5 months with family. Having emigrated once before, from the US to London, I know how strange it can be to land in a completely new world. It’s comforting and exciting to learn some of the local flora and fauna, since I’m always interested in the natural history around me, even (or especially,) in a city.

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Perth is a deeply unnatural place: a strange, urban landscape, thrown up out of a desert, built on mining money, and kept green by desalinated seawater. Fortunately, we’re just two streets away from King’s Park, a 400.6 hectare (that’s a little under 1,000 acres) park, with a good patch of what Australians call “the bush,” as well as landscaped botanic gardens. On our second night here, we saw a bandicoot, a little brown marsupial. (Much too quick to take a photo.)

The type of birds in the above photos are pink and grey Galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla,) a type of cockatoo. There is a pair who are busy nibbling out a nest hole in that eucalyptus tree, which is just outside the back of the house. They are charming birds, especially when they’re in pairs, chirping softly to each other. They whisk off in great, noisy flocks to feed. The second photo is a different pair of pink and grey Galahs in King’s Park, cozying up to each other. They mate for life, and are very sweet to observe in their little duos.

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The above photo is an Australian magpie, which makes incredibly eerie and varied sounds. The beak is serious! Though my husband joked about all the poisonous and deadly things in Australia before our first visit, when we got here, I asked, “Hey, what are those road signs with an eagle on them?” and he said, “Oh, those are actually the swooping magpies. Every year they take out the eyes of one or two kids on the way to school.” WHAT?! There is actually a website to help people track sites where nesting magpies have taken to particularly aggressive behaviour (apparently not all of them do). Cyclists have been badly hurt and even killed trying to avoid these birds.

Having survived the magpies so far (but then, it isn’t nesting season yet,) the next photo is a lovely wattlebird drinking nectar in King’s Park. Part of the genus honeyeater, I believe this one was a red wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata) – on the left.

The photo above right was perhaps the nicest surprise: as we were talking and walking, a rather demanding call came from up in a tree, and we looked up to see two of these beautiful birds, which I think were Forest Red Tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banksii), but may have been Glossy Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus lathami), which are not as rare, but still fabulous. They were nibbling nuts from a gum nut tree. Like the pink & grey Galahs, these birds look at you with quite a lot of interest. Seeing as cockatoos are smarter than human toddlers, it’s no surprise!

More observations to come, on flora, and a fascinating morning on the beach…