Measuring growth

After a somewhat serendipitous inquiry earlier in the year, we had an interesting day a couple of months ago with a crew of enthusiastic ecologists working with high tech laser scanners. The Arbormetrics team measured the volume of growth in some of the first areas to be revegetated on Wild Wings & Swampy Things, in the early 1990s. Although these areas were originally planted as ‘timber plots’, at quite wide spacings, they have gradually filled in with rainforest species. Visiting wildlife, especially birds, are responsible for increasing the diversity of any plantings and it is particularly obvious when the initial plantings are so widely spaced.

Checking out the edge of a plot and planning the work.

The crew divided up into 3 teams so they could cover the 1994 plantings as well as the 1995 plot which is to the left of our driveway. After the initial inspection it was all carried out very efficiently but still took more than 4 hours.

Setting up the scanner near where the vehicle was parked in our orchard which gave reasonable access to two sites.

The equipment is heavy and awkward to transport on foot and these guys were loaded up with water packs ready for several hours work. We were impressed with the thoroughness of the measuring; the scanner was set up every 10m along a bearing for at least 100m before starting again 10m distant from the last bearing.

Allen and I spent most of our time walking with James and Anthony as they were working through dense undergrowth consisting of three different Calamus species. (Wait-A-While). We were both impressed with the techniques these guys had developed to get out of tangles while carrying heavy and very precious equipment. The work takes considerable concentration in order to keep out of the way of the laser beam and maintain accuracy. It means either walking ahead of the beam as the scanner turns or squatting down below the beam when the vegetation is too thick to move through easily. It was a novel experience squatting under a tripod with 3 other people for 46 seconds, I was being very careful not to bump the tripod legs but I was informed that it wasn’t necessary for me to whisper!
This beautiful 4-spined Spiny Orb weaver needed to be relocated after she decided to investigate the scanner more closely.
Jerry and Marcus with the scanner in a horizontal position to get a reading on the height of the surrounding trees. There were two scans taken at every point in dense forest to give an accurate picture of the volume.

After lunch and a short break they packed up their camp equipment and we drove in convoy to a Rainforest Rescue property north of the Daintree River. This beautiful forest contains some spectacular old trees. As the wind had increased after lunch it was decided to set out marker cones and return to the forest in the early evening when it was forecast to be calm.

James, Rob, Marcus and Jerry with Allen at Lot 18

Setting out the cones is, in itself quite a task but makes it possible to carry out the readings at night when the air is usually still. The cones are all labelled so everyone is able to check they are at the correct place.

Putting the cones into the correct order ready for distribution.
All sorted and ready to go.
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Marcus taking a reading then making sure everyone is in line before putting a cones down. This process repeated every 10m.

Then it was on to check out the next site, have a meal and come back to work at night. Allen and I were happy to head home after a very interesting day.

Finishing up at Lot 18 Cape Kimberley Road

Mucking about in the Swamp

Paddling around in our little dinghy on the wetlands, pulling weeds from the water, may appear messy and unappealing to some but it really isn’t a dreaded chore for me. I just love those moments of quiet amongst the water lilies watching the dragonflies and apologizing to the Magpie geese for disturbing them. My safety is assured with Allen’s dedication to thorough and accurate crocodile observations which gives me the freedom for some ‘water play’ while he keeps watch, just in case.

Carefully pulling up the grass to ensure the root is with it – nothing so disappointing as a broken stem!

This year we both found our winter wetland maintenance work was surprisingly uplifting. Although we have had further outbreaks of the dreaded Hymenachne amplexicaulis, our big efforts at clearing extensive invasions last year have not had to be repeated. This year we’ve just had a few patches which have been manually removed. Unfortunately we couldn’t get it all before some plants had flowered and produced more seed as our timing for any wetland work depends on our confidence regarding the whereabouts of our regular crocodile visitor. After two months with neither sighting nor any sign of where she has been sunning herself we were fairly sure she had retreated to the creek, however we maintained our safety routine…… just in case.

Taking the time to pull out a single plant can save a lot of angst in a few months
There is nothing elegant about paddling a dinghy of muddy weeds but the waterlilies are lovely.

What continues to delight us both is watching our revegetation efforts mature and I especially enjoy the shady edges along the ponds as well as observing the variety of species that are becoming well established. Birds and fruit bats have assisted us in increasing the biodiversity of our planting, which confirms our philosophy of planting a framework of trees and leaving the rest to wind and wildlife.

Melaleuca Swamp in between two of our front ponds. August 2021
The same area as above from a different viewpoint. September 2004 – planting has just started.
2004 – at the start of our first wetland creation and the beginning of a
wonderful relationship.

Still at home enjoying life

Reading and listening to many personal accounts of life during 2020 constantly reminded us of how lucky we are to live in our relatively isolated tropical paradise. While we continue to abide by any recommended Coronovirus safety procedures we have been able to enjoy many wonderful experiences with close friends in our local area. A morning with our friend Murray on one his Daintree Boatman tours is always a delight, especially when the tides are suitable for him to navigate Barratt Creek. He always gives us plenty of time to admire these magnificent Water Gums – Tristaniopsis exiliflora which grow next to the outflow from our wetlands. I don’t know their age but I have loved these trees since I first saw them in 1985.

A favourite view of these magnificent Tristaniopsis with reflections in the still waters of Barratt Creek.

We have been fortunate in that we had already planned for a year at home in 2020, long before the current global pandemic took hold. Last year we caught up with several building maintenance issues in addition to giving our house garden and orchard some much needed tender loving care. Allowing ourselves time to simply enjoy being here, in addition to the satisfaction we have in our achievement has given us both a renewed love for Wild Wings & Swampy Things. It is a wonderful feeling to admire trees that we have grown from seed which are now providing food and shelter for our local wildlife.

One of the major regular tasks is grass mowing which, although considerably reduced in recent years, remains an energy consuming activity. Earlier this year I had my first experience of walking through a ‘food forest’ harvesting fruit from a variety of trees as we went. Although I knew of the concept I hadn’t experienced the sheer delight and I was inspired to rethink our house garden as well as the orchard. After collecting seed from fruit gifted to me during the abundant tropical summer harvesting period I have grown a collection of several exotic tropical fruit trees to add to the diversity in our orchard as well as creating a more productive garden near the house.

Our energetic young friend Nina with a February harvest from a nearby food forest – Marang, Chempadak, Engkala, Rollinia and Abiu along with a bunch of greens for our salad that evening. I helped carry the fruit but she was the one climbing the trees – up one Chempedak to 20m!
Sweet melt-in-the-mouth morsels of Marang fruit, a member of the Moraceae family.

Just looking at that photo of the Marang takes me back to our hot and humid summer days spent sharing a wonderful variety of fruits and making new friends.
From exotic fruit to native rainforest – such is the diversity of our lives. We continue our voluntary work with Rainforest Rescue identifying properties which may be suitable for purchase and subsequent protection. We make a thorough assessment of the property’s vegetation on site which gives us the opportunity to explore some interesting forest. It also exercises our memories or in my case, tests my identification skills as I’m not as methodical as Allen! This is followed by a check through a criteria list that Allen has developed, taking in to account the property’s connectivity to National Park, World Heritage or other protected land, it’s likelihood of being settled, the extent of weed incursions etc.

Ground level view through old rainforest

Allen is also spending time collecting seed for the Rainforest Rescue nursery, as production is increasing to meet the demand for trees. We are pleased that there are now a number of large regeneration projects happening in the area – wonderfully positive news!

Gomphandra australiana bravely germinates on the forest floor – so fragile amongst the forest debris.
Marine, RR’s nursery manager, exploring Lot 18 Kimberley Road with us. The terrain can sometimes be a bit challenging but there is virtually no lawyer-vine on this site which makes movement through the trees much easier.
Agyrodendron peralatum – a delicate winged seed called a samara, which helicopters its way to the forest floor.

There is so much to observe in the rainforest, so much beauty on the forest floor, the trunks of the trees and the everchanging shapes and hues of the foliage as light filters through.

Fan Palm understory at Lot 18 – magnificent old rainforest.

We have always known that a walk in the forest is good for our souls – I believe the term is now ‘forest bathing’? Whatever it might be called we hope that residents and visitors to the area will still be able to experience a quiet walk through tropical rainforest in the years ahead.

Cassowary visit

On Saturday my afternoon watering routine suddenly lost it’s meditative qualities when a juvenile cassowary appeared. She (we have decided on ‘she’ due to her size) was probably attracted to our house garden by a fruiting Jaboticaba tree which is now stripped of all fruit within her reach! A bird with a seemingly laid-back attitude she is not disturbed by us going about our daily chores so long as we avoid sudden or loud movements.

A curious youngster she came onto the verandah several times, looking through windows.

Although she has obviously been able to find enough food while with her Dad she now has to forage alone. Ripe fruit is not plentiful at the moment, apart from more Jaboticaba in our orchard, so she is wandering through the forest picking up small numbers of a variety of native fruit. In spite of our concern for her well being we will not provide supplementary food. The thought of this ‘big chook’ running after me for food, like our laying hens do, is sufficient to quell any desire of mine to make sure she doesn’t go hungry.

A quick preen ………….
……….. and then moving on for further exploration

This morning I made up a grain mix for our laying hens and called out as I approached their pen ‘special breakfast for you!’ I went into the outside section of their pen to put down the container and straightened up to see this cassowary looking at me through the wire. I explained politely that this was not for her and she soon moved on and disappeared into the forest again.

I am relishing the opportunity to observe a sub-adult cassowary investigating our world and hope that she will continue occasional visits.

Winter Colours

Flocks of Wompoo fruit-doves have brought colour into our lives this winter as they, along with Top-knot Pigeons, continue to feast on many fruits available in our garden and restored landscape. Quandongs and Palm fruits are popular but there are many other smaller fruits readily consumed. I have spent many happy hours ‘playing’ in the garden and smiling at the Wompoos calling, feeding and flying from tree to tree.
Many years ago we attempted to establish a ‘palm forest’ in one of our swampy areas but our efforts were hampered by vigorous pig activity in addition to invading exotic grasses. Now we find that several native palms have naturally established themselves in a variety of suitable areas and they are providing valuable food for many bird species. One of the joys of revegetating an area is the continuing restoration work carried out by our native wildlife, in particular the birds. The diversity and number of species increases with time.

Top-knot Pigeon in Quandong – (Elaeocarpus grandis)
Wompoo Fruit-dove feeding in Rhus taitensis
Emerald Dove enjoying some winter sun

Late one afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, I saw an adult cassowary with two juveniles in our orchard. I was not carrying a camera (again) so I raced back to the house to alert Allen but the birds were not to be found again! They could easily wander into the forest adjacent to the creek and they would be invisible to us but it was lovely to know we had been visited.

I did find this a week or so later – a relatively small poo so likely to be one of the juveniles

Bold splashes of colour have appeared where the spectacular climbing Pandanus is now well established. The arresting orange splashes against the green background are bracts, the flower spikes in the centre gradually change from a pale green to a deep blood red.

Giant Climbing Pandan – Freycinetia marginata
Close-up of colourful bracts with 3 spikes of flowers and a fly!

Tropical gardens are often dominated by bold colour statements and there are some spectacular examples. Much smaller and unobtrusive this Blue Flax Lily is a Dianella, a small plant with strap-like leaves and delicate flowers. I am unsure of it’s species which doesn’t take away the beauty of the water droplets hanging like jewels on a damp day.

This weekend’s wet and windy weather has delivered 48 mm of rain to a grateful garden. In addition I was pleased to have our emergency water tank refilled after I accidentally emptied it. Allen had helpfully put a hose on the tap so I could water a new garden bed and after my error it hasn’t rained for weeks!

Flashes of colour on the wing

We’ve had a few drizzly Daintree days recently – probably our least favourite weather when there is just enough rain to make outside work unappealing. It’s not cold but on those drizzly days everything feels damp and I long for a few hours of sunshine.

In the last few months, while Allen has been gradually recovering from an unfortunately rapid descent through one of our Mangosteen trees, he has been using his lighter Olympus camera as he quietly wanders around our tracks. While we have both always admired and photographed butterflies this year Allen has managed to take photos of a few species we had not previously identified. He has the required patience and has also been inspired by the recent acquisition of a new book. ‘A Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia’ written by Gary Sankowsky is a companion volume to his ‘All About Butterflies of Australia’ both published by Reed New Holland. The descriptions of both butterflies and their host plants in addition to photographs of both make identification so much easier and we’ve been having a lot of fun sharing the pleasure of learning.

The butterflies in the following photos are all members of the family Pieridae, known in a general sense as Whites and Yellows.

Union Jack – Delias mysis

We have several different species of Mistletoe and many of them are suitable host plants for this colourful butterfly. Gary describes it as usually being found in rainforest and spreading out to Melaleuca wetlands near the coast which makes this property perfectly suited. It is not surprising that it is our most commonly sighted species of Delias but as similar bright colours occur in many of the Jezabels it is always worth a careful look to confirm identification.

Common Jezabel – Delias nigrina on Mammey Sapote flowers
Common Jezabel – upper wings
Yellow-banded Jezabel – Delias ennia nigidius female

Here is an example of ‘yellow’ – like sunshine on the wing!

Lemon Migrant – Catopsilia pomona … female dry season form

Lemon migrants have a slight colour variation, during the wet season they appear in lemon/lime tones.

Lemon Migrant – wet season colour

Common Grass Yellows are indeed both common and widespread over much of Australia. They are delightfully active butterflies, with gorgeous yellow wings giving colour and movement to our landscape.

Common Grass Yellow – Eurema hecabe

‘Yellows’ can be hard to positively identify without a photo and digital photography gives us the opportunity for a close look. I must admit that I rather naively expected the host plant list to at least include some grasses but this does not appear to be so. There is quite an extensive list of host plants which helps explain their wide distribution. Gary Sankowsky has listed the Best Garden Host Plant as Breynia stipitata, a local rainforest species known as Fart Bush which readily self-sows in our garden. While I know its little red berries are consumed by birds, apparently not sensitive to their toxicity, I am glad to know that its leaves are providing food for the Common Grass Yellow larvae.

Metallic Starlings

At the start of June only a small flock of immature Metallic Starlings remain on the property and these birds may stay in these environs for the winter months. For a week or so in April we had a large flock of mostly immature birds, swooping through our garden in a frenzy of feeding. We imagined the young birds were readying themselves for their flight north to spend winter in Papua New Guinea. The towering Melaleuca leucadendra in our garden gully provided a perfect venue for them to congregate in the late afternoon light while they preened and grabbed any available grubs.

Still sporting immature plumage but the eye is the slightly creepy solid red of an adult bird.

These highly sociable migratory birds which visit the Qld coast during their breeding season from Aug-Sept to April-May weave nests in a huge colony which they revisit every year. In the days before our revegetation efforts blocked our view, a huge fig tree was visible on the hills at the back of the property. Late in the afternoon we could watch huge flocks of Metallic Starlings dipping and swirling before coming to rest on their nests. For a few years a Brahminy Kite made its nest in the centre of the tree but the presence of a predator was not enough to cause the colony to find another tree. When the Kite was on it’s nest the colony was calm but any movement to and from would cause the Metallic Starlings to take off en masse and swirl around the tree until they deemed it safe to land again.

Metallic Starlings in a nesting colony.

Our orchard trees, especially the Mangosteens, benefit enormously from the attention of these active birds as they eat many of the caterpillars and grasshoppers which can cause substantial damage to the trees’ foliage. The birds also enjoy some extra sweet benefits from our orchard.

Adult Metallic Starling feeding on Black Sapote – Diospyros digyana

The spectacular iridescence of the plumage is clearly visible in this photo. While a large flock can be rather noisy and they do ‘take over’ an area, temporarily displacing other smaller birds, we still look forward to their annual arrival.

The Garden Gate

As I lifted my hand to open the vegetable garden gate yesterday afternoon I noticed a very young snake lying along the top of the gate with it’s head tucked out of sight in a gap between two pieces of timber. I returned to the house, via the alternative gate, for my camera plus Allen (also with camera).

Dendrelaphis punctulata

I was fascinated by the flecks of blue, almost iridescent, on the snake’s scales, a highlight of colour on an otherwise pale brown upper-side. Green Tree-snakes are often described as having blue flecks, especially on the flanks but I have never seen a good example. The adults we often see here are quite black on their upper side so it would be interesting to know if this youngster will lose the ‘blue’ as it ages.

I became curious about why the snake had it’s head hidden as it seemed to ignore my gentle stroking. When it started wriggling I wondered aloud if perhaps it was stuck so I started encouraging it to back out by lifting up part of the body and it wasn’t long before we found out why it was ‘hiding’. It had a mouthful of frog!

Here I was thinking the snake was stuck and all the time it was just trying to get a feed.

We were interested that L. rubella made no sound even when it was first pulled out of the crevice. As many would be aware when a White-lipped Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata) is grabbed by a predator it screams like a human baby, and it is difficult to restrain from interfering.

Litoria rubella desperately fighting a losing battle for it’s life.

Litoria rubella has a wide geographic distribution covering the northern parts of Australia from desert to wet tropics. It is known by many common names; Desert Frog, Red Tree Frog, Little Red Frog and Naked Tree Frog but in this household we tend to refer it by it’s species name as that seems less confusing.

With each muscular contraction more frog was consumed by the snake. Immense strength for such an apparently delicate creature.

Unfazed by the paparazzi’s intense focus the snake concentrated on swallowing the frog. It was fascinating to observe the gradual swallowing process although it wasn’t so much fun for the frog! Although we do love our frogs we recognize they are also an important food source

This photo was taken a few minutes later and you can see the bulge half-way along the snake already. Snakes use quite a lot of energy consuming and digesting food so it was probably really pleased that we stopped trying to make it pose for a photo and left it alone. Hopefully it didn’t stay on the gate for too long as it would make a tasty snack for a Butcherbird or a Kookaburra!

As we both took photos, pushing each other around a bit of course, I have used some of his and some of mine!

Radjah Shelducks

My morning walk was thwarted by a pair of Radjah Shelducks perched on the bamboo rail adjacent to our driveway culvert! My approach was making them so dreadfully anxious I just felt it was kinder to turn around. I did stop and chat, explaining that I intended no harm but although they momentarily settled during the ‘conversation’ when I moved towards them again they became frantic. I felt so sorry for them, the dilemma of not wishing to give away the location of the hidden ducklings but very worried that I was getting too close.

About 10 days ago Allen observed one duck perched on this rail on a couple of successive days. We wondered if the partner might be sitting on eggs but in spite of some searching could find no further clues. Several days later Allen flushed an adult Radjah Shelduck with about a dozen very young ducklings while wandering through trees along Effie Creek (a small ephemeral creek which comes from our neighbour Ellen’s place). Yesterday he saw two ducks on the rail and when he walked closer they flew down to the water and he noticed a third duck at the water’s edge where he thinks she/he was hiding the ducklings.

So as yet there are no photos of the ducklings and we have a mystery regarding the third duck. We suspect the breeding pair may be those that were successful here last year and that possibly the third duck may be a female from last year’s ducklings. Ready answers are not always available in these situations so we will be content with knowing that we have provided habitat while we watch and wait.

Home and Happy

Since arriving home at the end of January I’ve found many reasons to postpone writing. Where to start after such a long gap between posts?
On October 11, 2019 we began ‘Travels in South-East Australia’ which included joyous reunions with friends, visiting a fabulous variety of wonderful landscapes in parts of Victoria and NSW, observing numerous special birds and sharing precious times with many family members.

As we departed Victoria towards the end of November the summer’s catastrophic fires were just starting to make a serious impact. Our route north along the NSW coast was disrupted by a road closure at Bateman’s Bay and planned visits to National Park areas were impossible. The days were often so smoky we didn’t venture far from camp. It was devastating to know that these horrendous fires were consuming so much of our natural landscape as well as threatening people and their homes. It was a minor inconvenience to our travel plans compared to what others have suffered and continue to suffer.

Our family Christmas in SE Qld, which for me was a grand highlight, was all the more relaxing when rain fell on Christmas Eve. Some water in the house tanks took pressure off the household restrictions and you could almost hear the crispy-dry bushland which surrounded us sighing with relief.

Atherton Tablelands – a spectacular view of a vast expanse of sky with storm clouds building up. We managed to dodge showers and storms quite successfully.

After spending our last ‘holiday’ week on the Atherton tablelands walking, bird watching and catching up with friends, we eventually made it home at the end of January. Never before have I experienced such a sense of relief at returning home. Allen didn’t quite share my emotion then, but since we are now all coping with travel restrictions as we come to grips with the Covid 19 pandemic we have both been feeling very grateful for our haven in the wet tropics.

Recently we have noticed there are many types of spider in great numbers around the house, in the garden and in the orchard. A Dome-web Orb-weaver in a garden near the house has been catching my attention each morning as palm flowers falling from above have decorated the web. The angle of the morning sun lights the web perfectly so it looks like fairy lights.

Dome-web Orb-weaver – Cyrtophora cylindroides
Female is underneath the dome and hard to see in this photo.

¬†Above the horizontal domed web there is a ‘retreat’ for the spider which does not appear to be particularly well formed in this example. Cyrtophora cylindroides belongs to the orb-web spiders, Araneidae although it does not build an orb-web. While tent-spiders are reasonably common from sub-tropical to tropical regions this accidentally decorated tent-like web is certainly eye catching.

Female Cyrtophora moluccensis with palm flowers
Painted St Andrew’s Cross Spider – Argiope picta

Argiope picta looked glorious with the morning sun lighting the web perfectly. When I walked past the following morning it had disappeared!

My reference for spider information is “A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia” by Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson. An excellent CSIRO publication that I would highly recommend.