September 27, 2010

It's far from black and white

I vowed I wouldn't write another Magpie post, but I've had to, following a series of developments.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking about Australian Magpies, as you do, and was disconcerted to hear them discussed in terms of annoyance on a par with that caused by wasps back home. The Australians I was with didn't seem to like them much at all, despite the highly regarded Professor Gisela Kaplan of the University of New England in New South Wales describing them as one of Australia's 'culturally important icons'. Now, I don't like wasps, and have never seen the point of them, frankly, in the weird and wonderful natural scheme of things. But a Magpie's song is a thing of beauty, making them 'one of the foremost songbirds in the world', according to Prof Kaplan.

(At this juncture, I have to say that I have heard few ordinary-person-in-the-street Australians raving about their wildlife half as much as I do.)

During this discussion I was told about a 12-year-old boy from a town west of Brisbane who had died after running into the road while trying to escape a Magpie attack. This is an extreme and tragic example of a fairly common occurrence at this time of year, ie the breeding season, when male Magpies swoop on cyclists and pedestrians they see as a potential threat to chicks in the nest – within 100 metres of it, in fact. My friend was hit on the helmet a couple of times on only our second cycle ride in Brisbane; one of his colleagues went to hospital with a suspected dislocated shoulder after falling off his bike while under attack a couple of weeks ago; and yesterday I met a lady with bandaged wrist on the ferry who had come a cropper in simple circumstances last week at South Bank.

These attacks are taken very seriously in Australia. You can consult maps of Magpie-attack hotspots. And there's plenty of advice: carry an umbrella to brandish; wear a sturdy hat; attach long cable ties to your helmet poking out in all directions that will wave about as you move; and the best one – wear a face mask on the back of your head. Magpies value the element of surprise: they are less likely to swoop if they think you're watching them... and they usually attack from behind. If you do become a victim, and the attacker can be identified, the Environmental Protection Agency or Brisbane City Council will assist with its relocation (Magpies are a protected species under Australian law).

So, in the eyes of many Australians, male Magpies cross over to the dark side from July to November.

Meanwhile... back in Waterline Crescent Park, Mrs Magpie is building again. Well, she's built, actually, and she's sitting again. Literally the day after the babes had flown she started to build a second nest not far from the first – and much better-positioned for us in our bedroom hide. One chick returned to the tree, squeaking pitifully, as Mum brought in twigs for the new nest rather than tasty morsels for her baby. The new nest is decorated with rather fine green and red binder twine (as Postman Pat called it). In this picture, you can just see her head peeping out over the top.
Why has she done this again, and so soon? I am on the case.

If anyone thinks I'm obsessing about Magpies, I'd like to introduce a couple of other garden visitors. I think the one below a Fence (or Snake-eyed) Skink. I know he looks a bit like a snake but in fact he's a common garden lizard. He's here most days now, but I think he was probably sleeping for lengthy periods during the winter months. Skinks are the largest family of lizard: there are nearly 1,300 species worldwide and 389 varieties are found in Australia.
And below, in a rather fine basket of a nest, a Noisy Friarbird tends to her young in not a large ornamental tree over the fence from our patio. You can just see a chick's gaping mouth below mama's long pointy beak. She's been sitting for weeks – with ne'er a peep out of her – but she doesn't like being scrutinized through the binoculars and she will not tolerate any other bird in her tree. She is not one of the most attractive birds in the Australian aviary, but you've got to admire the nest construction.
Finally, just in case anyone back home thinks I might be swanning about on the beach now that spring is here...

September 25, 2010

Cloudscapes 1: Rows and flows of angel hair

And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way*

* Thanks to Joni Mitchell

September 23, 2010

Batty banking

I have had nine months to familiarise myself with Australian personal banking. It took a while to get used to the different terminology, but I thought I'd cracked it: my so-called Savings account is really my current account, which I use for everyday spending; I have an Online Saver account where I save money for holidays or big special items or rainy days; and I have a credit card, which means someone else pays.

My everyday account (Savings) was called an Access Advantage account. Simple enough to remember: I can access money easily to pay for groceries, for example. In some correspondence, however, I noticed that it was called an Access Cheque account. The first time we went into our branch in the City we asked for a cheque book (it wasn't offered automatically) because we didn't have any cards at that early stage and we thought we might need it. It wasn't a proper cheque book: it had our bank account number stamped rather than printed on the cheques and our personal banker handwrote our names on just three of them. It was obviously very temporary, but we have never received a proper one since. Still, no matter.

Things started to unravel a few weeks ago when I received a new Access Visa Debit card. Great, I thought at first. Chip and pin, a great step forward: no more dodgy swiping, and I'll be able to buy things over the phone or on the internet without running up my credit card. In the accompanying letter from my bank, the card was trumpeted as 'a more convenient and secure card... at no extra cost to you' (their bold font). Gee, thanks.

To access my money, and the added security, I have to press 'Credit' when I make an EFTPOS (Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale, a secure and real-time payment method that's been used for years in Australia) or ATM transaction, even though the bank's letter was at pains to point out that my new card is not a credit card. 'Don't worry, you're using your own money', it reassures me. 'Remember to press "Credit"', it repeats. OK.

The first time I used my new card, in my local supermarket, I inserted it into the EFTPOS machine instead of swiping. 'Cheque or savings,' the sales assistant asked, as always.
'Er, credit,' I faltered. Silence.'This is a new card, and I've been told to press "Credit",' I added.
'There isn't a "Credit",' she pointed out, helpfully.
'No,' I deliberated. 'Maybe I'll just press "Savings", like I always have.' It worked, and we were able to eat that night.

On the back of the letter from the bank there were some FAQs:
What if a store's card machine won't let me press 'Credit'?
That's OK, you can still press 'Savings'; but you won't get all the extra benefits of pressing credit.
How do I get cash out in store?
You should press 'Savings'.

Is anyone else bewildered by this? There certainly seem to be a lot of confused people on the checkouts.

Having done a little research, and spoken to a man at the bank, I shall attempt to clarify one or two points.
Woolworths and its associated stores are not prepared to pay the fees involved in conducting transactions using the Visa Debit system, so will only use EFTPOS. This is why I don't have the 'Credit' option in my local supermarket, but I do if I shop in Coles in Morningside, who I must conclude are prepared to pay the charges. And then presumably pass them on to their customers at some point.
• In fact, there are no 'extra benefits of pressing "Credit"'.
• The benefits of the debit card are that I can make transactions online and abroad.
• I can't get cash out at the supermarket checkout if I press 'Credit' because technically with Visa Debit the purchase transaction is only authorised at the time, and then has to clear.
• A 'chequing' account, as the bank man called it, is anything other than a savings account (or maybe we should call it a saver, to avoid further confusion), but it doesn't mean people have cheque books, although I could have one if I wanted one. The 'Cheque' button doesn't work for me in Woolworths because I am set up to use 'Savings', but technically the two buttons do the same thing, that is, take money out of my 'Savings' account... but, of course, that's not where my savings are because they're in my online saver account.

Ah yes, we're back where we started.

Yours, Baffled of Bulimba

September 20, 2010

A whale of a time

Moreton Island lies about 40 kilometres from the port of Brisbane, in Moreton Bay. It is the third-largest sand island in the world (after Fraser and North Stradbroke islands, which are also off the Queensland coast): it's 38km from north to south and 8km across at its widest point. (I'm told the sand originated in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.) In the northeast corner is the only rocky bit, on which perches Cape Moreton lighthouse, Queensland's oldest.
It was just off this point last week that I saw the first whales I've ever seen, apart from on a David Attenborough programme. They were Southern Ocean Humpbacks, the fifth-largest animals on earth. Humpbacks measure between 14 and 18 metres in length and weigh up to 50 tonnes: a newborn can be 4 or 5 metres long and weigh 2 tonnes. They migrate at least 6,000km during the southern hemisphere winter.

In the summer Humpbacks gorge themselves silly on krill and small fish in the cool antarctic waters, building up fat stores that they live off while they migrate and breed. An average-sized Humpback will eat between 2,000 and 2,500kg of food a day. They are baleen whales, which means that instead of teeth they have a comb-like structure that enables them to sieve out large amounts of small fish from huge mouthfuls of seawater. From June onwards, Humpbacks travel to warmer semi-tropical waters off northern Queensland where they mate and where pregnant females give birth. They rarely feed while they're up north.

In August they start heading south again, mother and calf pods often sheltering in bays such as Hervey Bay and near the Moreton Bay islands. The calves grow rapidly: they drink at least 250 litres of milk a day, and it's very fatty milk so they gain 45kg a day during their first weeks of life. They are weened at about 11 months, by which time they measure up to 9 metres in length.

Humpbacks are thought to use landmarks to help them navigate, which is why they travel relatively close to the coast. They are inquisitive creatures, often coming to within a few metres of a boat to investigate. Both these facts are great from the point of view of whale-watchers... and whale-hunters. As you sit comfortably on a whale-watching cruise boat, it's easy to forget how recently Tangalooma on Moreton Island was Queensland's only whaling station, for 10 years from 1952. (There was another one at Byron Bay in northern New South Wales.)
During those 10 years Humpback numbers off eastern Australia were decimated - from at least 30,000, possibly more, to a few hundred. People have hunted whales for hundreds of years but the invention of the explosive harpoon in the mid-1800s turned it into a much bigger business. In the 20th century, the global Humpback population was reduced by 90 per cent before the International Whaling Commission stepped in and banned the commercial whaling of Humpbacks in 1966. All whaling is forbidden within 320km (200 miles) of the coast of Australia and its citizens are prohibited from taking part in whaling anywhere in the world. Today Tangalooma is a resort with beautiful, unbloodied beaches.
Moreton Island is 98 per cent National Park. From my trusty Gregory's guidebook to Brisbane, I gather there are many beautiful natural wonders such as freshwater lakes and lagoons; sandhills and a sandblow (a sandy area denuded of vegetation by the wind) with shifting dunes; woodland and heath; multicoloured sand cliffs and strange sand formations; vast stretches of beautiful beach; wildflowers and a variety of birds.

There are no sealed roads on Moreton so I fear I will miss out on most of these delights. I am not one for organised tours from resorts; and neither am I likely to own a 4WD. Although I acknowledge the need for the latter in this part of the world, where I come from in the crowded southeast of England, where almost all places are accessible by paved road, those using large gas-guzzlers on the school run are the subject of derision, if not loathing. And I find it a tad irritating having to watch out for what we know as 'Chelsea tractors' on a beautiful, otherwise deserted beach. North Stradbroke Island next time, on my bike maybe.

Meanwhile, back on Moreton, as I watched the Humpbacks, I found myself wanting to know as much as possible about their behaviour. They get their name from the way they arch their back as they dive beneath the surface, having come up to breathe. An adult can empty and refill its lungs very rapidly. As it surfaces from a dive, it exhales from two blowholes on top of its head. The air cools rapidly, forming a cloud up to 4 metres high, known as a 'blow'. If you're close enough, you can hear a very distinctive snorting sound: when this is very loud it's called a trumpet. Adults need to take a breath roughly every 10-15 minutes, although they can stay down for up to 45 minutes; calves need to come up for air every 3-5 minutes. When you're looking out for Humpbacks, the blow is very often the first evidence you see. Another clue are 'footprints' left behind when whales dive. These are circular areas of smooth water formed when a vortex is created by a whale's tail as it moves just below the surface of the water.

We saw other wildlife on Moreton. Upon arrival at Tangalooma there was a seabird reception committee on the beach, the cormorants busy drying their wings.
As we walked towards the resort to get breakfast we came across some birds we hadn't seen before – Bush Stone-curlews. They had an implacable air about them. They stood impassive in the gardens even when people passed quite close by, and yet seemed nervous when in a group on the beach, away from the safety of ground cover I suppose. Their legs are long and spindly although their knees are thickened, and they exhibit a bizarre sitting position, with their knees folded the wrong way.
In a funny kind of way they reminded me of meerkats, and I love the way they stand with one leg bent as if they're gossiping over the fence. These ground-feeding and ground-nesting, normally woodland birds are unfortunately endangered in many parts of mainland Australia. But I believe it may have been their blood-curdling night-time cries that kept us awake in Port Douglas.
And we saw an old friend...
And then some more.

But the Humpbacks stole the show. They are the only whales with long pectoral fins, or flippers: sometimes they use them to slap the water. We didn't see this but we did spot tail slapping, which may be part of a courting ritual, or a warning, or related to feeding. The underside of the tail, or fluke, is white with black markings, the pattern of which is unique to each whale and is thus used to identify individuals. Other distinguishing features of the Humpback's body are throat grooves, nobbly bits on their heads and flippers, and a very small dorsal fin, which you see as they arch.
Their only predators are Killer Whales, which in fact belong to the oceanic dolphin family and prey on whale calves in particular... and, of course, the Japanese, who claim to kill Humpbacks for 'scientific' purposes and are unabashed by global condemnation of their actions.

I wasn't prepared to lose a second of any Humpback action while fiddling with a camera, so I don't have any pictorial evidence. My friend, however, armed with a better zoom and keener eyesight, did catch these wonderful creatures on camera.

Humped back + footprints
A hump and a fluke

September 15, 2010

Nothing beats Byron

Some places never leave you - long after your departure.

I have always found that certain locations appealed to a deep-seated part of me associated with wellbeing. It's difficult to explain. These places instill tranquility, encourage reflection and induce deep satisfaction or pleasure; they often exhibit stunning, long-lasting beauty; and they occupy a permanent position in my remembrance.

As a child, I found such places tucked away along the coasts of Dorset and Cornwall, 'the English Riviera', and in the highlands and islands of the Wester Ross in northwest Scotland. Later in life they have included Monterey in California; Grand Canyon; Venice; the Mani peninsula in Greece; Formentor in Mallorca; and Three Castles in County Cork. Australia has several contenders for the list of soul places: places of worship, but not as we know them.

In some cases it's obvious why. Venice is outstandingly beautiful, even though it's man-made, and it is a city of gently lapping water rather than roads so it's peaceful. Around every corner is a thing of beauty. Grand Canyon is one of the most extraordinary geological features you will ever see. I was literally speechless at the scale of this gash in the earth's surface. Many places are very beautiful, but some have that extra something, a je ne sais quoi, an X factor... They're awesome (in its original sense).

I first visited Byron Bay during my second trip to Australia. I flew from Sydney to Brisbane, hired a car and drove south. I turned off the main highway and drove along Ewingsdale Road with rising excitement. At Jonson Street, I turned left automatically, headed for the beach, and drove to the end of the car park overlooking Belongil Beach. What I saw took my breath away: the sweeping bay with the humps and tumps of the ancient Mt Warning caldera fading in bright afternoon sunlight that played off the surface of the sea like a million sparklers. And black-dot surfers catching the waves. This picture, taken when I introduced my friend to Byron last Easter, doesn't do it justice.
Every visit to Byron, I've done exactly the same thing upon arrival. It's a ritual. It's a deep-breath-and-'Hello,-Byron,-I'm-back' moment. It's always been sunny with cotton-wool-ball clouds and I've always found somewhere to park - even on Blues & Roots Easter weekend (but I can't guarantee either).

The bay was given its name by Captain Cook, in honour of his friend John Byron who had sailed around the world a few years earlier. The town grew as European settlers cut down cedars, then grew sugarcane, then farmed dairy and beef cattle. Later it was a whaling station.

These days Byron Bay is a hugely popular tourist centre. But its inhabitants have fought long and hard to prevent it being spoiled by the usual blights of development - principally high-rise blocks and nasty fast-food outlets. It has expanded, and one young waitress complained to me last time that the shops now include high street chains such as Sportsgirl and exclusive boutiques selling clothes with Sydney price tags. She was not impressed. There are certainly many more shops than when I first visited, but the majority of them are still small and individualistic. I shop in Byron with the expectation of finding something different.

All kinds of people go to Byron: surfers, backpackers, hippies, 'alternative lifestylers', romantic weekenders, festival-goers, market-goers, whale-watchers, yoga devotees, hang-gliders and wealthy celebrity 'locals' as well as ordinary ones. There are many types of accommodation - you can even stay in the Cape Byron Lighthouse keeper's cottage - and all kinds of places to eat - from Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide-recommended restaurants to bustly breakfast cafes to excellent fish and chip takeaways.

Because of what Byron does for me, I don't mind all the people. I can sit in a traffic crawl on Lawson quite happily, and I didn't even get cross when we received a penalty notice - for parking facing outwards in a car park (what's with these crazy rules, Australia?) - although my friend was not happy. I have a smile on my face from the moment I arrive in the place.

Byron's beaches are beautiful.
My favourite has to be Wategos (at the top of this page, and below), which lies at the foot of Cape Byron, on top of which sits the landmark lighthouse. As you walk up to this, the most easterly point of the Australian continent, you can sometimes see turtles or rays in the water below and, at the right time of year, whales passing by.
When we did this at Easter, we were given an impromptu tour up the lighthouse. As we stood at the top our guide remarked on our misfortune not to have been there earlier, when a pod of about 20 dolphins playing in Wategos bay had suddenly surfed the waves travelling inshore. No sooner had he said it than they did the same thing again. We were high above them but they were unmistakably dolphins, leaping over the waves, having fun. A Byron magic moment. This is the spot, but it's surfers you can see, not dolphins.
Some people don't like Byron. It's too crowded, they cry: Bangalow is quieter and more charming. Nimbin is more alternative; Brunswick Heads is just as beautiful but without the hoo-ha; the lush forest and farmland of the hinterland are more interesting; and Mullumbimby, or Murwillumbah, or somewhere else with lots of 'm's and 'u's in its name, is much less expensive.

They may well be right. But I love Byron. When it's busy and bustly; in the autumn when the weather's more threatening (below), or it's raining; and even... even... when I once spotted a Saga-like tour bus. I love shopping there; eating there; having a coffee or a beer there; people-watching there; walking along a beach and staring out to sea there. It is, quite simply, MKP*.
The more time I spend in Australia, the more lovely beaches I will find. I already have Mission Beach and Cape Tribulation to add to those of southwest WA on my list of specials. But the first time I went to Byron, it inveigled its way into whatever it is that makes me me, and I can't imagine not being very happy to go there.

I've always had to wait years between visits, but not any more.

* my kinda place

September 11, 2010

And then there were two

It is the second week of September.

Springtime in Brisbane
I have been told - by people in Victoria as well as Queensland - that 1 September is the first day of spring in Australia. Never mind equinoxes or any other astronomical data that usually defines the seasons. So, here are a few spring greens from New Farm Park.
There are many more flowers already (shame about the architecture, sorry).
And the various birds of paradise just beyond our garden - so beloved of the Honeyeaters - carry on flowering.
2½ weeks is a long time in politics
On Tuesday Bob Katter came out (ha!) around about lunchtime and declared for the Coalition. Non-Aussie readers will recall that Mr Katter was one of the 'three amigos' Independents who could break the 74-73-seat deadlock between the Labor Party and the Coalition (Liberals and Nationals), and hopefully take one party to the magic number 76. Mr Katter could never really have sided with Labor, however much he enjoys attending the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship with Our Kev (the former Labor Party leader and PM, Kevin Rudd, who happens to be our MP). He would have been lynched back in his constituency of Kennedy - presumably along with any gays who have made their presence known since Mr Katter declared there weren't any in northern Queensland.

So, that left two Indies - Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. They held a press conference a couple of hours later, each speaking for himself and justifying his decision. The Australian people, including Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott - held their breath. Mr Windsor took about five minutes to declare his support for Labor; Mr Oakeshott talked for quite a bit longer, rather excruciatingly for press and people alike, before he, too, announced he would support Ms Gillard. She had succeeded in holding on to power by her beautifully French-manicured finger nails. For the next three years, in theory, she will be one by-election or one misdemeanour away from disaster.

When I was studying Sociology at uni many moons ago, paradigm was a word you liberally sprinkled through your course work to show you'd been paying attention during sociological theory lectures. Now, here, every Tom, Dick or Harry uses it to describe a potential new order of Australian politics whereby people who used not to have any time for each other have to reach a consensus in order to 'move Australia forward'. It's going to be interesting... really.

Magpie babes
They've been all-a-flutter in the nest. On Thursday there were three beaks gaping when Mrs M returned with a tasty lizard for breakfast. But by this morning only two remained. Suddenly one was teetering on a branch beyond the confines of the nest. I was dragged away reluctantly from Magpie Watch to the Powerhouse farmers' market, it being the second Saturday of the month. I knew it. By the time I got back, the moment I've been waiting for since I returned to Brisbane two weeks ago, had passed. The chicks seemed to have flown the bottle tree. There was no sign of life in the nest at all and I was perturbed.

In less than half an hour, however, I was alerted by manic cheeping indicative of a hungry Magpie chick when mum and food are in the offing. Both were atop the television aerial (mother and child reunion, below) where Mrs M often sits to look at the world or, in the old days before the breeding season, to sing. The youngster sat there forlornly all afternoon. And there appeared to be a chick still in the nest.
Festival days
Last Saturday saw the start of the Brisbane Festival, now an annual event that encourages the arts in the city as well as celebrating the Brisbane river. The Aussies were out in force to make a big occasion of it, taking up their places down by the riverside during the afternoon and creating a carnival atmosphere in anticipation of the early-evening F-111 dump-and-burn and Riverfire. This is the last year the strike planes are to be used because they're being retired from service so there was a lot of excitement. Having witnessed a stunning firework display on Australia Day, we knew Riverfire was unlikely to disappoint. We didn't know where to look, in fact, as the choreographed pyrotechnic spectacle was launched from bridge, barge and building at the same time as the F-111s ignited fuel using the plane's afterburner to produce a formidable fiery streak as they crossed the night sky.
I don't wish to end on a churlish note, but might not some people consider the flypast a huge waste of energy? (And was I the only person to have a 9/11 moment as the jets approached the high-rises of the CBD?) And what a pity the police couldn't 'open' the river a tad earlier after the event so that we could all get home easily. Off with her head!

Spring has certainly sprung. The nights are warmer: no more need of the penguin blanket on (my side of) the bed. People are leaving their dogs outside at night again so the silly creatures start a barking chorus at the merest leaf rustle in the dead of night. I can hear geckos - a much nicer noise. And the bugs are back, at least some of them: I have bashed my first locust with a wooden salad serving spoon designated for the job.