Saturday, November 10, 2007

Offering Flowers in Courtship

There was a flash of red dancing in the branches. Amidst the lush green under-growth, a Red-backed Fairy Wren was displaying his magnificent scarlet cloak. The birdbook tells me that his deep red feathers will fade after a few months of sun and rain and this has led to the suppostition that there are, in fact, two red-backed species - one wearing scarlet, the other a deep crimson. But these differences could be due, the birdbook says, to the condition of their plumage (Frith, 1976:416).

A couple of days earlier I'd found a small delicately-woven nest lying on the trail. The image of the Wren's nest from the birdbook looks remarkably similar. Wrens create an oval-shaped home from little strips of grass and that seems to be just the same as the empty nest that lay on the path.

According to Emu, the publication of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union, during the Wren's courtship, these brightly-frocked males carry pink or red flower petals, displaying them towards their chosen partner.

In an observational study of of this petal-carrying behaviour among both wild and avairy-reared birds, it was found that male birds display flower petals towards the fertile female. The researchers concluded that the petal-carrying behaviour is mainly an inter-sexual event to attract the female, although in 10 percent of cases, the male birds enacted the same behaviour towards other males, leading to the suggestion that it could also be an intra-sexual aggressive display (Karubian and Alvarado, 2003).

Along the trail I meet another riverwalker who's also taking photographs. As I stroke his graceful greyhound, we chat about the Brahminy Kite that just swooped low over the water and the abundant birdlife that dwells in this special and sacred place.

Frith HJ, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Surry Hills, NSW, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd.
Karubian J and A Alvarado, 2003, 'Testing the function of petal-carrying in the Red-backed Fairy-wren (Malurus melanocephalus),' Emu, 103, 1, 87-92.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Sacred Kingfisher

It seems death stalks the trail this week. Lying on the side of the path was a bunch of turquoise feathers. I picked up the small Sacred Kingfisher and held it in the palm of my hand admiring the exquisite bright blue green mantle then placed it in the earth. I'd been watching a pair of these birds for weeks. Often they'd sit on the electricity wires, the same spot every day, watching for prey. Now only one remained.

However the bird book tells me these creatures are usually solitary, only pairing up to breed. They build their nest in tree hollows or by burrowing into termite mounds or river and other earthen banks and can have three to six eggs.

Sacred Kingfishers are widespread across coastal Australia. Some migrate from New Zealand; others travel from northern Australia to Victoria and Tasmania. The result of one of these journeys to Brunswick, a Melbourne suburb, created great excitement and spawned an annual festival dedicated to The Return of the Sacred Kingfisher.

In the mid 1970s a group of dedicated environmentalists took over a rubbish tip on the edge of the Merri Creek in Brunswick. and CERES was born. There they created an oasis of community gardens, permaculture, alternative technology projects, environmental educational programs, an organic farm, native plant nursery and a haven of inspirational green activities. The creek was restored, replanted and restoried. And one day, back in 1992, a Sacred Kingfisher visited. They'd not been seen in the area for 20 years.

From then on the return of this tiny sacred bird has been celebrated at the end of November. Hundreds of school children, story tellers, dancers and songsters recreate the story of the Sacred Kingfisher's return to the Merri Creek. CERES says that the ceremony in homage of this tiny bird has 'become a symbolic community ritual, connecting people to place through the creative expression of our environmental, artistic and cultural significance.'

Maya Ward who has walked the Merri Creek (and the Yarra River) from sea to source has written 'The Story of the Sacred Kingfisher' (2006). She ends her watery journey along the Merri Creek with this poignant story of the Sacred Kingfisher and its very timely return to the CERES haven.

'Once upon a time, in a southerly land between mountains and bay, was the land of the Kulin, where the Wurundjeri lived. Their ancestors, Bunjil the Wedge Tailed Eagle and Branbeal the rainbow had created this land, and the people sang the songs to sustain the land, to thank the ancestors for creating this bountiful world. And when the people died, the Sacred Kingfisher in her clothes of sky and cloud flew away at the end of summer with the people’s spirit into the sky, while their body and soul returned to the earth. And in spring the Sacred Kingfisher returned, to nest and rest, to feed and breed on the banks of the Merri Merri, while the Wurundjeri harvested eels and blackfish, cumbungi and water ribbons.

But then one day strangers came to the land of the Kulin, who did not know lore or right behavior. The strangers stole the land from the Wurundjeri, and banished them to beyond the mountains. But the Wurundjeri walked back over the mountains, and so when the strangers had been in the land for many generations, and were starting to open their eyes and unblock their ears, to see and hear of the wrongs they had caused, the Wurundjeri were there with the stories of how this land came to be.

And so, after many many years unspoken, together the Wurundjeri and the strangers retold the story of Bunjil and Branbeal, and of how Waa the crow created a whirlwind to take them into the sky, so that they could view their creation. The people who were no longer strangers sang the song calling Branbeal to bring colour to the world. But she only comes after rain, so when the drenched singers had dried themselves, Branbeal the rainbow arced over the Village Green.

I know why she is called the Sacred Kingfisher.' (Ward, 2006).

Ward M, 2006, The Story of the Sacred Kingfisher,

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Eel

The metre long dark brown Eel was lying immobile in the middle of the trail. At times I've seen fishers at the creek but until now have not encountered their discards. Perhaps they just forgot to take the Eel with them or perhaps they didn't think to put it back its watery home. I read that Eels can live up to 48 hours out of the water because of their very oily skin; they can also travel short distances across land - slithering from place to place in search of a new pond or pool if theirs is drying up. I didn't know how long this one had been out of the water so, hoping it would revive, I picked it up and placed it back in the creek.

The day before I'd seen another Eel swimming in a nearby lake, so finding one more Eel told me something about the creatures who live here but are often out of sight.

Eels live for 50 to 60 years and have an amazing life story to tell. They live as both saltwater and freshwater creatures. And throughout their lives they journey vast distances, up to 6000 kilometres, from their ocean home in the middle of the Pacific (for Australian species) to the particular river, creek and pool where their relatives had once lived. They find their way back, it's believed, due to their remarkable ability to recognise the specific chemistry of the water from their parents' original freshwater pool site (Planet Patrol, 2007).

When they start their journey from the ocean they're known as Elvers. These tiny leaf-like creatures drift on the currents for two to three years but, it's said, only about one percent of them actually make it back to their freshwater refuge. According to British research there has been a huge decline in the numbers of young Eels reaching estuaries and rivers, estimated at over 90 percent in the past two decades (BBC Science & Nature, 2004).

As the Eels move from waterplace to waterplace they also shapeshift from the tiny Elver transforming into a translucent juvenile 'glass Eel' and eventually to the lustrous dark brown Eel I met on the trail. After another 20 or so years living in local creeks, lakes and ponds the Eels hear the call of the ocean. They need to return to their spawming grounds to breed. And then they die.

Journeying across such vast distances is dangerous. Dams act as barriers stopping the Eels moving up and downstream but sometimes stairways are created to help Eels and other migrating fish to reach their destination. Toxic pollution, agricultural, chemical and sewerage runoff also damages the Eel and other river species. Overfishing is another problem. In Brisbane and other areas in SE Queensland, urban development can also affect the Eel population. By filling in channels, swamps and pools, building weirs, disturbing riverbank ecologies and water quality the Eels can lose their pathways to the ocean.

Along Australia's east coast there are two types Eel, the longfinned Eel (Anguilla reinhardtii) which enjoys tropical environments and the shortfinned Eel (Anguilla australis) which lives in temperate waters. The ABC Science informative website says that: 'Longfinned Eels prefer flowing rivers and creeks more than the calm ponds and lakes the Shortfinned tends to inhabit'.

Longfinned and long lived, these Eels need safeguarding. A lot of attention is now going into breeding Eels in fishfarms at the 'glass Eel' stage. If you are interested have a look at work being conducted at the Bribie Island Aquaculture Research Centre in Queensland (e.g. Langdon and Collins, 2000).

Langdon SA and AL Collins, 2000, 'Quantification of the maximal swimming performance of Australasian glass eels, Anguilla australis and Anguilla reinhardtii, using a hydraulic flume swimming chamber,' New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 34: 629-636