Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The birds are singing in my garden

The birds are singing in my garden. What a lovely way to wake up, in the freshly washed and scrubbed village of Robertson (after a week of rain).

The main "culprits" are the Golden Whistlers (Pachycephala pectoralis) and the skulking Eastern Whipbirds (Psophodes olivaceus). I love the sounds they make, and the fact that they feel happy to make them just outside my window.
The view is a recent afternoon vista, with misty clouds arising from near Belmore Falls, after a series of Spring showers.

Today I would ask you to be just a little adventurous, and come on a journey with me, that will provide a feast for your eyes, and ears, and let you know just a little of what I hear each morning, as I wake.

There is a wonderful website for the Lamington National Park, in south-east Queensland. That is a rainforest area, and it has many of the same birds and plants as are found in Robertson and on the Illawarra Escarpment. Not only does this site have 1700 images, it also has "sound files". The main menu page gives you the choice to view plants, birds, frogs, fungi and mammals. Wonderful for someone who is interested in rainforests.

Bird and Frog calls may be heard by clicking on the "ear" symbol on any particular page (only for Birds and Frogs). Your computer will then download the .wav file, which you then click on, opening it with your computer's "sound" program. Then just click the play button (>). This downloading process may be a little slow, and involved, but it is worth it.
If you wish to hear the bird calls which I woke up to, this morning, click on the following links, for the Golden Whistler and then the Eastern Whipbirds.

Incidentally, I say Whipbirds, plural, as their call is a duet. The male makes the long drawn-out shrill whistle, then the "crack" sound, and the female answers with the "chew, chew" call. If you listen carefully, you will hear that it is more distant from the recorder. In Robertson, the female Whipbirds give their answering call in triplicate "chew, chew, chew".

If you are inclined to browse, here is the main menu link. I shall try and make this a permanent link from my Blog, as soon as I remember how to do that!
Congratulations to the Management of the Lamington National Park, and the University of Queensland School of Natural and Rural Systems Management for a wonderful website.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Caper White Butterflies

White Butterflies have been "capering" around Robertson recently.
Have you noticed recently that Robertson has been invaded by whitish-yellow Butterflies? I first saw them come in a few weeks ago, when we were having a spell of warm weather, with warm north-westerly winds. (Anni - do you remember having had warm weather?)

I was down at my favourite meditation spot - the little lookout off Lees Road ( off Jamberoo Mountain Road), about 4 Km from the Pie Shop corner. This wonderful lookout overlooks the escarpment, and the valley of the Macquarie Rivulet. You face north-east, and look over Albion Park, to Wollongong. Immediately below you is a beautiful serpentine patch of lush green rainforest, and further out, the forest reverts to the more usual grey-green of the dominant Eucalypt forest.

Anyway, as the warm winds were swirling around me, I noticed hundreds of these white butterflies, with yellowish coloured underwings. They are clearly different from the introduced pest the Cabbage White Butterfly. They are called the Caper White Butterfly (Belenois java).
As the "Fact sheet" from the Australian museum will tell you, they come from warmer places, where they feed on native Caper trees, members of the Capparis family. As that site tells you: "it regularly migrates to areas where there are no food plants for its caterpillars. It is not understood why this behaviour has evolved."

Another of life's little mysteries, or perhaps, (as with the Waratahs of yesterday's bulletin) another instance where the supposed "Intelligent Designer" went to sleep on the job?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Waratahs in the bush

What is this funny looking, red cauliflower thing? It is a Waratah flower-head which has been chewed on by Crimson Rosellas. Click on the photo for a closer look. This is one of the small tragedies of life in the bush, which to my mind, demonstrates that life does not always go according to any great "Plan of Nature".

The New South Wales Waratah (Telopea speciosissima) despite appearances, actually has small red tubular flowers. They are grouped into a rounded head, which is what is commonly thought of as "a Waratah flower". Each tubular flower, as it matures, opens, allowing pollinating agents access to a rich bead of nectar at the base of the tube. Typically, a Honeyeater, such as an Eastern Spinebill, with its long thin beak, will go to the flower, to get the nectar, and in so doing will receive a dusting of pollen on its forehead. Then if it goes to another flower, it might transfer that pollen, to complete the cycle of pollination. Then the flower can develop seeds, to keep the species going.

In this case Crimson Rosellas, which also like Waratah nectar, have used their short, strong beaks to get the nectar by chewing through the base of the flower, and discarding the ruined floral tube. This by-passes the plant's pollination cycle, and destroys any chance of seed setting. In fact, over the next week this flower was almost completely stripped bare; as the new flowers ripened they were chewed off. No seeds from this Waratah next year! Such is life!

This is the same Waratah flower, just as it reached maturity. A perfect flower. Such flowers are common around Robertson, flowering during October and early November. They may be spotted from the roads around East Kangaloon, and at Carrington Falls, Belmore Falls and Fitzroy Falls Visitors' Centre. They grow as
understory plants beneath the tall Eucalypt forest. Of course, such flowers are protected, and must not be picked, but they may be enjoyed in the bush.

Waratahs grow very well in Robertson and many have been planted in private gardens, and around the historic Railway Station in Robertson. Although in nature, they are restricted to sandstone based soils, they actually do very well on the rich red basalt soils for which Robertson is famous.

On ripe Mulberries

I have been out picking a dish of ripe Mulberries (Morus spp.) in Judy's front garden. They look delicious. In fact the Mulberries on the tree are "left-overs" - the ones the Currawongs (Strepera graculina ) could not eat. Fortunately there are enough to go around. I guess that says something about Nature's bounty.

Judy's tree is only young, but I know they can grow to be very large. At this stage I can pick the fruit from most of the branches, which is good. We need to decide whether to prune the tree for future years, or just let it grow up, and provide more feed for the Currawongs. Not that Currawongs need any encouragement.

When I was growing up in Canberra (from 1959 onwards), Currawongs were regular winter visitors. They were described as "vertical migrants" - that is they came down from the mountains behind Canberra in winter, to feed on the abundant berries and other fruit which Canberra people grew (conveniently for the Currawongs). However, they did not breed in Canberra at that stage, as they like really tall treees as nest sites. Now that the trees in Canberra's gardens and parks are more developed, they breed in town, which is bad news for the resident small birds, such as the Blue Wrens, and Thornbills.

Currawongs mostly eat berries and fruit in Autumn and Winter. In Spring and early Summer, when they are feeding their young, they change their diet to a higher protein intake. They raise their young on insects, worms, and also eggs and nestlings of small birds. Hence, they are generally unpopular birds with Canberra'a bird watchers.

Should I suggested that Judy chop down her Mulberry tree? I don't think so!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Walking backward for Christmas

I am writing this from Canberra, being my other home, when I am not in Robertson. Canberra is where I grew up, and spent most of my adult life, prior to my move to Robertson. It is, the Capital City of Australia.

I was thinking about the great comic genius Spike Milligan and the Goon Show, and the song: "I'm walking backwards for Christmas". It sounds prosaic, if not slightly crude, but what reminded me was a pair of Soldier Beetles, (Chauliognathus lugubris) walking along the brick walls at my partner Judy's house. And, yes, if you have ever seen a "pair of beetles walking" together, well, yes, one of them was walking backwards. I do so hope that whichever Beetle was doing the backwards steps was singing this lyric:
I'm walking backwards for Christmas,
To prove that I love you.

I am not enough of an entymologist to know which of the beetles, the male or the female, gets to be the "driver" in this situation. However, that is an anthropomorhic concern, on my part. Clearly the beetles were not worried about anything much at all. Just being happy little beetles, one of them walking backwards, making a Christmas present for the other one - "to prove that I love you".

I promised that this blog would be about "Nature" - well it doesn't get much more natural than that!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

OK, but what is a Tree Peony?

In the simplest terms, Tree Peonies are shrubby plants which originated in China. Although very different in plant form from the herbaceous Peonies, Tree Peonies are also members of the great genus Paeonia. They are deciduous shrubs, which grow fast each spring, then flower dramatically in September, through till November, depending upon the variety concerned.

The flower illustrated is a Japanese variety of Tree Peony, called "Shimane Hakugan". It is a stunning pure white flower, with a golden ring of stamens around the central wine-red sheath, which at this early stage of the flower's development, encloses the female organs of the flower, the carpels.

There is a vast history of cultivating these plants in China, going back at least until the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279). This tradition continues to the present day, especially in large public parks, dedicated Peony Gardens, in certain areas of the country, notably in Heze, and Luoyang.

Tree Peonies were introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks from Korea and China, some time in the 11th Century, apparently (some "authorities" state that it was as early as the 6th Century, but that does not fit with the earliest known dates of cultivation in China). Flowers with simpler forms, such as the one illustrated, have been favoured in Japan, in preference to the heavier flowered forms traditionally grown in China.

Tree Peonies were unknown in Western culture until the late 18th Century. The first Tree Peony in England was introduced there by Sir Joseph Banks. Banks had seen botanical reports of the fabled "Moutan" (the Tree Peony) in China, and commissioned trade agents in Canton to seek out these plants, and the first Tree Peony in England was planted in the Kew Gardens in 1787.

After the opening up of trade with China, and then Japan, there was a craze in Europe for "all things Oriental". This included Peonies. The herbaceous "Lactiflora Peonies" were the most popular, mostly for ease of growing, and propagation. However, the craze included Tree Peonies. Tree Peonies, in particular, became popular images on fabrics and upholtery. In ceramic ware, the leading British ceramicists popularised designs which were derivative copies of traditional Chinese and Japanese designs. This popularity faded some time after the 1920s. Throughout this period of time, the best known Tree Peonies in Europe were the heavy-flowered Chinese varieties.

Several European Peony growers hybridised those plants with yellow and red flowered species of Tree Peonies (from Tibet and remote rural areas of China), thus introducing new colour ranges of yellow, and bronze-red amongst large-flowered Tree Peonies. Professor Henry was the first to introduce his "Lutea hybrids" in 1907, followed by Victor Lemoine in 1910. Subsequently, his son Emile Lemoine introduced a number of famous hybrids through until 1949.

In America, in the early 20th Century, there were some private estates which held huge collections of Japanese Tree Peonies. These plants, mostly of the more elegant single and semi-double forms which were preferred by the Japanese, were destined to become part of the next phase in the story of Tree Peonies, as they were to play their part in the development of the modern Hybrid Tree Peony.

And what's this about Peonies?

I moved to Robertson 3 years ago, to grow Peonies, in the rich red basalt soils here, and with the abundant local rainfall.
Peonies (plants of the genus Paeonia) are best known from the old fashioned big "pom-pom" flowers which our Grandmothers once grew. Those plants are herbaceous Peonies. That is they die down, in autumn, and emerge after winter, grow quickly, and flower in October and November, then rest until next year.

Since September this year, Anni Heino, a good friend of mine, from Robertson has assisted me by publishing a
Peony Page as an adjunct to her own Blog. The best of the photos which Anni and I have take this season appear on that Peony Page, along with some commentary which I have written. I wish to record my deep appreciation to Anni for having launched me into that project.

Odd little things which grow around Robertson

The Flying Duck Orchid (Caleana major) is the oddest of the local Ground Orchids. It is a tiny little flower, little more than 4 cms from tip of its "wings" to its toes, on a stem about 40 cms tall. I thought I should start this blog off with one of my favourite plants.

The reference in the name is to those old fashioned plaster ducks which invaded our Grandmothers' lounge rooms, in the 1940s and 50s. But, the resemblance to the wings and head of a flying duck is quite remarkable. Of course, the resemblance is completely co-incidental (from the point of view of the Orchid).
In fact the "head" (technically, the "labellum" or "lip" of the flower), is sensitive to the presence of tiny insects, which are attracted to the flower. The head snaps down, trapping any unsuspecting small insect inside the body of the flower, where there is a tiny hole at the back, through which it can escape. But in so doing, it gets dobbed with the sticky pollen of the Orchid. Presumably the insect once it escapes, repeats this trick on another Orchid flower, thus completing the fertilisation process.