Empty nests

Now that the autumn leaves are falling, empty birds’ nests are being revealed in the skeleton branches of trees and hedges in Meander Valley. I’ve noticed several nests in the garden and I nearly cycled into the ditch as I rode past a collection in a naked hedge.

I rolled by, looking for an ideal image to photograph, but…  as I have progressed into clip-in cycle shoes but haven’t yet mastered confident unclipping, I was attached by my feet to an unstable bike. I decided to ditch my fancies and to focus on the road.

Here are two of the garden nests.

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And here is a lino print and an ink drawing, inspired by my delight in the twiggyness of my discoveries. Artistic licence allowed mine to be even twiggier… and filled them both with china blue eggs.

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These empty nests signify the end of the season. The birds have flown. And it is time for me to move on too. Tomorrow I will fly from Tasmania back to England.

Don’t miss out on the minuscule

I sometimes find that I can’t see the wood for the trees.

I’m a details person (some would say ‘picky’).  I can’t focus on the story if there are spelling mistakes on the page, or there’s a factual error in the telling of it. I’m not so excited by the big picture as by its components.

I worked happily for several years as an electron microscopist, observing the very finest details within single cells, fascinated by an otherwise hidden world. And the art that I saw in those images captured me as much as the science.

What better present then, than a macro lens for my phone camera? I received a Magniband for my birthday (https://www.magniband.com ) and I’ve been exploring the micro world around me.

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The lens is simple to use. It is encased in a rubber band which stretches over the phone. You focus just by placing the lens about 2cm from the object. That does mean that I had to get up close to these insects, but… bees are not generally aggressive, the inch ant was the other side of the window pane, and the scorpion was dead – that’s why he looks a bit shrivelled!

There is a very shallow depth of field so 3D objects tend not to be completely in focus, as you can see in these close-up images of a green mantis, a peacock feather and a rose.

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Having had a bit of a scare with a torn retina recently, I am treasuring my eyesight. I remember a friend’s excitement, many years ago, when he started to wear contact lenses. “Trees have leaves! Buildings are made of bricks!”

Well, I can tell you “Flies are hairy and moths are furry! Inch ants have serrated pincers! Rose hips may be glossy, but have you ever noticed the hairy blobs on their stems and leaves?”

There is a hairy and blobby micro world out there – don’t miss it!

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Fly like an eagle, laugh like a Kookaburra, splash like a sparrow

I am fascinated by the birds over here. I don’t think of myself as a bird watcher but as a child I absorbed the contents of my ‘Observer’s book of birds’ (and carefully ticked off in pencil the ones I had seen). In my Cornish garden in England I see the usual British garden birds, sometimes being excited by a less frequent Jay or a Redwing.

Here in Tasmania, only the sparrows and blackbirds look familiar. The wrens are capped in iridescent blue and referred to as ‘Superb Fairy Wrens’; the magpies don’t wear the formal attire of the British magpie but are patched in black and white and they sing beautifully; the robins can be scarlet or pink; swans are black with red bills.

And there are wild parrots! Galahs, Rosellas and Cockatoos. Yesterday I paused on a bike ride to watch some yellow-tailed black cockatoos, high in a pine tree, where they strip the pine cones for seeds.

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The Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle is an endangered species. But we recently saw a group of three in a tree at the roadside, close to home.

I thought it might be unusual to see three together, but I read that ‘Wedge-tailed Eagles may hunt singly, in pairs or in larger groups. Working together, a group of eagles can attack and kill animals as large as adult kangaroos.’  (What?!!)

Being happily unaware of that stuff about large kangaroos, we stopped the car and I climbed out to get a closer look. My daughter handed me her phone (down to 7% battery power) and I managed to record the sighting before the phone died and these magnificent birds flew away.

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We’ve also been bird-watching at home. Each day I fill the bird baths and the garden birds hold splash parties in them. It is interesting to see that bath time is species-specific. A flock of fairy wrens will give way to a flock of fantails, silver-eyes or sparrows. The honey-eaters come singly or in pairs.

I stalk them with my phone or camera, and the kookaburra laughs heartily from his treetop perch at my attempts to capture anything more than a blur of feathers. My sister had more success with her zoom lens.

IMG_7656.jpgSilver eyes. Photo credit: Amanda

IMG_7649.jpgFantail. Photo credit: Amanda

This morning I was charmed by a honey-eater singing in the crab apple tree outside my bedroom window. As I crept slowly towards the window with my phone, he joined in the game of hide and seek, flitting in and out of the branches, then flying around the corner of the house to tweet at me through another window. This was a very smart and cheeky bird.

And the kookaburra laughed his socks off again from his new position on the telegraph pole.

honey eater_edited-1.jpgHoney eater playing peekaboo

It’s a wild world

This week we had visitors – my sister and my daughter – so we’ve been out and about and watching wildlife. We didn’t need to travel far to find creatures that we don’t see in Cornwall – before we set off we had to remove a couple of scorpions from the hall carpet.

Trip 1. Cute. Who doesn’t have a soft spot for a seahorse? Seahorse World at Beauty Point isn’t just an aquarium, it is a seahorse farm, breeding seahorses and shipping them live around the world. We saw several species, including this Tasmanian pot-bellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis), and tanks swarming with babies, adolescents and breeding adults. The only fish to have a neck, a seahorse has no scales and it hangs on to strands of weed, or to another passing seahorse, with its prehensile tail.

IMG_8507.jpgPotbellied seahorses at Beauty Point

Trip 2. Impressive. And a bit scary.

Cataract Gorge is an impressive nature reserve, just minutes from Launceston city centre. We travelled across the gorge on the longest chairlift in the world. The online guide explains that ‘the slow speed of the chairlift enables passengers to appreciate fully and photograph the spectacular views of this ancient rock gorge…’  I would add that the slow speed prolongs the agony of dangling 25 metres above the river, whilst keeping a white-knuckled grip on the safety bar, and that it isn’t possible to photograph your surroundings with your eyes tightly closed. Heights frighten me. I refused the return trip and walked back across the (not so high) wobbly bridge!

IMG_8655.jpgThe South Esk river, viewed from the wobbly bridge

We saw a few wallabies in the nature reserve, and a LOT of peacocks. The peacocks were haughty and handsome, and their peachicks were rather endearing.

IMG_8667.jpgPeachicks at Cataract Gorge

Day 3. Getting scarier.

On the last dry day before storms were forecast, we went to the beach. Baker’s Beach in Narawntapu National Park. We saw more cute wallabies. And as we walked along the woodland path towards the coast we were stopped in our tracks by….. a big black snake. Knowing that all Tasmanian snakes are venomous, we waited. It slithered aside. We gave it a wide berth and walked on. And I then stomped heavily for the remainder of the route to alert any further snakes to our presence.

Strangely, I’d found the chair lift scarier than the snake. But when we arrived home I looked online for Tasmanian snakes, to try to identify it (I think it was a tiger snake). A website flashed up on the screen, showing Australia’s ten most deadly creatures and the first image showed a seashell – very similar to the one that I had casually picked up on the beach that afternoon. Cone snails can kill humans with their harpoon-like sting, which contains one of the deadliest venoms known to scientists. Horror stories abound, like the one of a woman who held one to her ear to listen to the sounds of the sea.  I was pretty sure mine had been an empty shell, and my sister advises me that it could have been a ‘wavy volute’ rather than a cone shell, but I will think twice before picking up beachcombing finds in future! Just imagine, I might have survived the chair lift and the encounter with the snake, only to be harpooned to death by an innocent-looking shell on the beach.

GKXP6891.jpg‘Probably’ a wavy volute shell!

Back home with our chookie companions

I’ve been asked for a chicken update. Last year, Minnie (Araucana), Meg (Brown Leghorn) and Molly (Frizzle) joined our existing brood of Goldie, Blackie, Little Black and the Dorables.

Blackie and the Dorables have since moved on to heavenly pastures and Molly has moved next door. The remaining four have ALL moved out of the chicken shed in a huff.

Why so huffy?  Well….. a possum had moved in and was spending his days snoozing in their laying box. This led to Goldie camping out in a rosemary bush, Minnie under an apple tree and Meg high in the branches of a variegated Pittosporum.

IMG_7701.jpg(Linocut: when the possum moved in, the chooks moved out – featuring Goldie and Meg, the intruder and our splendid sunflowers)

I am able to entice Minnie and Meg back to feed in the mornings, but Little Black (who is, confusingly, bigger than Minnie who is also black) will not be tamed and sets up a hue and cry when approached. Yesterday, I found her secret nest among the Agapanthus roots beneath the Wisteria. It contained 19 porcelain white eggs. They all floated when tested and had to be discarded.

IMG_8377.jpg(Little Black’s nest)

Despite having no control over where they sleep or where they lay their eggs it is lovely to see them wander free-range in the gardens.

IMG_3490.jpg(Meg taking a stroll among the flowers)

IMG_3503.jpg(Minnie at the bird bath)

IMG_3497.jpg(Minnie, Goldie and Meg, keeping the lawn free of grubs)

IMG_3593.jpg(Little Black, keeping her distance)

We also have a flock of native hens that has chosen to live here and to play hide and seek with me. If I get too near, they scoot away like roadrunners to hide in the woodland around the dam. Despite their own timidity they still bully Little Black, who seems to come the lowest in the pecking order, and they will come close to the house to drink from the plant pots on the veranda (leaving green slime graffiti messages excreted artistically over the tiles).

Facing the roaring forties at the edge of the world

Looking outwards from the Edge of the World on the west coast of Tasmania, all you will see is sea. All there is at this latitude (41o South) is sea…  …sea and more sea, across the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic Ocean, until you hit the east coast of Argentina, nearly 7,000 miles away.

The global wind currents that blow up over that sea are known as the Roaring Forties.  Uninterrupted by landmasses, they whip up the sea and when they reach Tasmania they batter the coastline with wild winds and ocean swells, dumping rainwater along the coastal plains and the mountains of the Tarkine forest.

We were lucky when we visited. The wind we faced was warm and dry, with enough strength to snatch our breath and our voices and blow the sand flies but not quite enough to steal my hat.

We stopped at Gardiner Point and the West Point reserve. At Gardiner Point, the driftwood was on a gigantic scale. Huge tree trunks have floated down the Arthur River to the sea and been thrown back by the waves onto the beach. It was like the elephant graveyard scene from the Lion King.

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Apparently, the lack of pollution and the cleansing effects of the Roaring Forties make the air in north west Tasmania the cleanest in the world. The air was clear and the fine silver sand was uncontaminated by plastics and picnic debris.

IMG_8175.jpg(Pigface growing through the pristine sand)

If the wind hadn’t already taken my breath away then the colours, the light, the reflections and the natural beauty of this magnificent coastline would have done so.

IMG_8150.jpgIMG_8155.jpgIMG_8178.jpg(Me, in my summer beach gear!)

West coast wilderness trip – heading to the edge of the world.

From the port of Strahan at the mouth of Macquarie Harbour we drove north until we reached the Pieman River – reportedly named after a convict who happened to be a pastry cook. He escaped from the Macquarie penal settlement and was recaptured near the mouth of this river. I love these simple descriptive place names in Tasmania that give a brief glimpse into times past.

At the river, you have to summon a ferry – the Fatman barge – to carry you across to Corinna. In the gold rush days of the late 19th century, Corinna was a mining town boasting two hotels.  Today it is a tiny settlement that offers accommodation for visitors wanting to explore the pristine Tarkine rainforest.

IMG_8034.jpgAboard the Fatman, approaching Corinna.

We wanted to explore, so we walked through rainforest along the banks of the Pieman and its tributary the Whyte River. We sat for a while, hoping to see a platypus and…… didn’t see one. It is still an ambition of mine, to see a platypus in the wild.

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I am slowly learning to recognise the native plants. I don’t know what type of moss this is but I’ve identified the native laurel, myrtle and leatherwood. Tasmanian leatherwood honey is the best honey I’ve tasted, so I was interested to see its source – we had driven past clusters of beehives just off the roadside in the mountains.

After our short break in Corinna we headed north up the coast, driving mile after mile….

… over rivers and creeks… (I imagined a gory history behind this name and was disappointed to read that Mr Job Savage was a local storeman in the 19th century)IMG_8066.jpg

… along unsealed roads over moorland…IMG_8081.jpg

… around wiggly bends…IMG_8085.jpg

…up hill… and down dale ….IMG_8087.jpg

… through the triffids…IMG_8105.jpg

… into devil country…IMG_8116.jpg

… until we reached the sea… the ‘edge of the world’, at Gardiner Point.IMG_8118.jpg

And this coastline is so fabulous I will save it for my next post!

West coast wilderness trip – Queenstown

We recently took a trip out into the west coast wilderness of Tasmania. It is a part of the state that I hadn’t visited before and I’d been told that it was a bit bleak and that I would be devoured by mosquitos.

Undeterred by biting insects, and enticed by the unknown, we headed off to Queenstown, a gold and copper mining centre in its heyday. Its heyday is long gone, but the hillsides above the town still bear the scars of its history. Very little grows on the purple and mustard-coloured slopes, which have been scraped bare of topsoil by deforestation and subsequent erosion, and which have faced the toxic emissions of the copper smelting processes.

We experienced the faded grandeur of the Empire Hotel, famed for…. its staircase. This was made of locally cut blackwood, which had been shipped all the way to England to be turned and carved before being returned to Queenstown and erected in the hotel foyer in 1904. That was the grandest part of the hotel and it is listed by the National Trust. Our own room doesn’t warrant a description, but it had a view of the art deco theatre and the mountain looming above the town (below).

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Close to the hotel we found the station. A railway line has been operating from Queenstown since 1897, to link the mining area with the port of Strahan. Built and maintained by very hardy workers in this remote and mountainous rainforest area, it was able to traverse very steep gradients by using the Abt rack and pinion system. The trains and line have been restored and now carry tourists into the wilderness. We took the ‘rack and gorge’ trip, calling at the tiny stations of Lynchford, Rinadeena and Dubbil Barril, where the engine was turned on a turntable (reminiscent of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories I read to my son years ago) to pull the carriages back home again.

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Back home in Cornwall, we have a Red River, where the water is turned rusty red by run-off from mine workings. The Queen River of Queenstown is also reported to be red, for similar reasons. But it is actually a vivid orange, like a pureed pumpkin soup.

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The temperature had fallen from ‘hot summer’ a day or two earlier to ‘chilly autumn’, and we were glad to wrap ourselves (like the old couple we are) in the fleecy blankets provided on board.  Wrapped in a blanket, I was also rapt by all I saw as we chugged along the line, witnessing an environment inaccessible by road. And trying to photograph it with a mobile phone through rain-spattered windows!

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Raindrops in Rinadeena, where we tried our hand at fossicking for gold.

And a currawong!

Happy Australia Day!

On Australia Day we celebrate all we love about Australia. But I was up at 06:15 to connect with something great about the UK. I logged on to the Royal Academy Life Drawing webinar #LifeDrawingLive with Jonathan Yeo. This was part of the From Life exhibition: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/from-life The exhibition is on until 11th March. What an opportunity, to join in from the other side of the world. It was well worth the early rise (for the experience – not for my results!).

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By 9am I was out celebrating what I love about Meander Valley – cycling the quiet country lanes with only the birds and dragonflies (and a pack of other cyclists!) competing for speed. After a cool start, the mist rose to reveal flower meadows, neat hay bales lined up in sun-baked pastures and skylarks spiralling in song.

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By 11am I had cycled 32 km (and drunk frothy coffee and eaten a huge pastry). And now I am out in the garden, wondering where is the best spot to photograph my Australia Day balloon.IMG_7814.jpg

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Wherever in the world you are, enjoy the remainder of Australia Day!

Just call me Pru

I’ve had a long, long break from this blog. Do I have any friends still reading?

Life and plans took over for a while and there wasn’t a spare minute to each day. But, having made some big decisions and scrambled my way through a daunting mountain of ‘stuff’ back in England, I’m now back in Tasmania. It has taken me two months to recover my equilibrium. Two months of chilling with a book, building my cycling muscles, open-air swimming, pottering in the garden, and playing with my paintbrushes.

I am not going wild, just taking the local advice to make progress with prudence!

prudence.jpgLaunceston coat of arms