SUMMER DAZE OR CIRCLE OF FIRE?

The problem with Australian summers is you don’t know which you’re going to have:  a nice day on the river, dinner with friends, or an invasion of flames.  intrepid-triple-canoeing-photo-by-caroline

We’ve had a hot summer, with the compensation of time on the river in my new canoe.   Learning to use it involved lots of shouting, and we lost the “drop-in” (read “drop-out”) middle seat in the big waterfall.  canoe-launch-christmas-day-2016

Even Mum took to the river in her fabulous sixties beach jacket.

Meanwhile the grass on the hills has dried to a crispy straw consistency, perfect for flames.  Craig watered some of the more accessible of this year’s tree plantings, and we checked up on others (mostly good news).

panorama-with-alan-and-lisa

With Alan and Lisa checking up on the little triangle plantations on Adnamira

Andrew Leonard and Frank have been helpful at keeping the grass well grazed around the house.  There’s  so little nutrition in what’s left, the sheep have had to be shifted to silage and “sheep nuts” to keep them alive.   Or be sold off.

We were glad to have the short grass last night.  Out to dinner with the neighbours, they got a phone message from Richard Scanes at Adnamira:  “Fire at the Esdale house”.  We left abruptly.   fire-closeupComing over the ridge our first sight of Esdale was glowing flames running up the hill from the orchard behind the house.  Craig says I was swearing as I crashed through the potholes on the road, but I don’t remember. We were glad that both households had the fire tanks ready to go on the back of the utes.  Other neighbours turned up very quickly, then the fire trucks appeared, flashing lights and big hoses, just in time for the mop-up .  Our Mullion brigade trucks took an extra fifteen minutes because the Yass Valley Council has left the Glenrock connecting road in such terrible shape. They’ll be hearing about it.

If we had to have a fire, it was a good night for it.  Completely windless, so the flames were only knee high and moving fairly slowly.   I could immediately see it had burned through part of the orchard, leaving a nice campfire of one of the old plum tree stumps, and into the neighbouring paddock, where a log was alight. After changing into jeans and boots,  I ran up the hill to the small plot of trees Matt and I planted in August.   While I waited for Craig ( who was having a struggle with the fire pump and then had to go and use the hose on the cypress near the house), I whacked at the flames with the mattock and cleared trenches in front of trees I hoped to save.  It did have some effect, but the results of a stream of water from Frank’s fire hose were much better.

The fire had clearly started from the dodgy leaning power pole behind the house, which has been reported multiple times to Essential Energy and the previous power companies.   They’ll be hearing more  about it from us.

The repair guys when they arrived looked for fried birds on the ground, but in fact a wire had come adrift, probably dropping a molten piece into the grass.   It makes me wonder, with all the local fires started by poles, whether it would be better to take the investment in replacing poles and put it into helping us all go off-grid.

Anyway, in the aftermath, there was little real damage. 1.8 hectares (4 acres) of burned ground.  The metal chicken tractor protected the chickens from the flames, the fences are metal or metal and concrete, the new garden beds and the big cypress trees along the fence were saved, the radio dog fence was fairly easily repaired.  Three of my new fruit trees are probably gone, and at least half of my little revegetation plot, but some of the ones that survived will have done so because of the covers and heavy mulch (hard to put out, but good insulation).

Steve Faulder, our local fire captain, came down to double check for smoke this morning (over the terrible Glenrock Road again).  He laughed when I said I’d prefer to see him under better circumstances.  “I’m getting a bit of complex” he said “With all these people who say they don’t want to see me round their places, this time of year.”

What have we learned?

  • It’s always good to have your fire pump ready in hot weather.   And working.
  • Get a new rake-hoe (much better than a mattock for clearing ground in front of a fire).
  • It’s always good to have plenty of beer on hand for the post-fire midnight recovery.
  • Wine and climbing through barbed-wire fences don’t mix.
  • When we build our shed, put in a gravity-fed standpipe for filling up water tanks.
  • Emergencies can happen on a still night.
  • Neighbours are the best.

A big thank you to Andrew and Leonie, Frank, Richard, and the crews from Mullion 1, 2, 7B, Cavan 1, and Jeir-Marchmont.

LIZARD CROSSING

It’s the time of year to see reptiles out and about on the roads again. bearded-dragon-on-road Bearded dragons (pogona barbata) do threatening push-ups as they try to frighten off approaching cars.  Or they lie as flat as possible like this one is doing, before scuttling quickly away.

Blue-tongues (Tiliqua scincoides) try to be awesome by opening their mouths and showing off their beautiful blue-tongues.

eastern-blue-tongue-photo-by-john-sullivan-inaturalist

Eastern blue-tongue photo by John Sullivan iNaturalist.org

Unfortunately, our Jack Russell terriers aren’t deterred by the blue tongue, and have killed three of them in recent years.  That’s a tragedy when they’re such harmless creatures.  I suppose the slugs might feel differently but I’m not asking them.

Craig found a legless lizard crossing the verandah last week.  It’s a delma inornata, and matches one of the tails (which are much longer than their body) that we found when weeding in the Box-Gum woodland area last year.   The faint pinkish tinge on the tail made us hope it might be a much rarer pink-tailed worm lizard (aprasia parapulchella) but it wasn’t nearly pink enough.

Delmas are often unfortunately mistaken for snakes and killed as a threat.  The clues are really in their small size.  This one had also lost its tail, which is more of a lizard than a snake thing.  If you’re willing to go close you can see the ear-holes just behind the head, and underneath the body has a slightly hourglass shape that shows where its ancestors once had legs but they have been evolved away.

A much more showy reptile neighbour is the Eastern Water Dragon (Itellagama lesueurii) that appears regularly at the bridge on the Mullion Creek we call “Lizard Crossing”.   This one appears to be a young male with some breeding colours showing (green rather than the winter grey).

Dragons can move fast, and I rarely get close enough to photograph them.  As a child I was always convinced that they were tiger snakes (which we don’t have locally) when I saw the striped tails disappearing into the water. swimming-awayYesterday, Matthew Kent and I saw a smaller water dragon without the green colouring while we were testing the creek for Waterwatch.  (By the water was the best place to be on such a hot day. )

Possibly it was a female water dragon, or maybe a juvenile.   When it decided we were a threat it leapt into the water surprisingly awkwardly, belly-flopping with all four feet splayed out “Like a corgi” commented Matt.

Matt also spotted a large yabby (cherax destructor) claw near where we were testing and thought the main yabby might have been eaten by a duck, but apparently water dragons also eat them.

For humans, though, it’s nice to see our harmless lizard neighbours out and about and I hope we don’t lose too many more to passing cars.

A WALK IN THE GARDEN

This is the time of year for walking in gardens, when they’re often at their most beautiful.    They’re also the most work if you want to choose a particular look, rather than just take what comes.

waterfallOut on the hills, “what comes” is pretty good right now. Continue reading

LEARNING TO COUNT SEEDLINGS

My goal this year was to:

  • Check and do some replanting if necessary on last year’s plots on Adnamira and Carkella.  My guess was 50 to 80 because I knew some of them had had a hard time with the dry weather.
  • plant 30 trees/shrubs in tiny triangles on Adnamira
  • 30 trees/shrubs in a small connection plot in the Tank Paddock behind the homestead
  • 60 trees/shrubs in a rocky knoll connection plot in the dam paddock on Esdale
  • 500 trees/shrubs in a windbreak on Esdale (funded by Local Land Services)
  • TOTAL – 670 approxsection-1-looking-toward-cockatoo-area

What actually happened:

  • 150  trees/shrubs replaced on Adnamira, Carkella and Esdale – an unsatisfactorily high number of losses, due to the dryness and frost at planting,  and a long dry autumn followed by boggy wetness and clay soil in unexpected places.  It was however great that we were able to fill in some gaps in old plantations that had no shrubs while we waited and waited for the new fences to be constructed.   There are still some gaps at Carkella that we’ll fill next year.
  • 30 trees/shrubs  in the tiny triangle project and
  • 30 in the Dam paddock.
  • no Rocky knoll planting.  That will need at least 100, and will wait for next year.
  • 645 trees/shrubs in the Esdale windbreak, which still needs 100 more in next year’s planting, which will make a total of 745 for the whole area.
  • TOTAL FOR THE YEAR:  855 trees and shrubs

Continue reading

PIXIE DUST, KITES AND PINK HATS

There’s nothing better than a beautiful day out on the hillside, unless it’s a beautiful day out with lots of lovely people planting trees.

kristen-among-the-rocksjake-helpingplanting-with-a-puppy

This year we had the wonderful team from Justin Borevitz’s lab at ANU, along with another hundred yellow box  (eucalyptus melliodora) that they raised from seed, genotyped and either pampered or subjected to all sorts of tests (drought strtrees-in-truckess, various sprays etc).  In the last two years we have planted 30 to 50 of these which despite some setbacks in the way of frost, not to mention last autumn’s endless dryness, have been doing well.   The main challenge is transporting the big pots (this year big sections of pipe) up to where they’ll be planted. The rest of our plants come from Murrumbateman Landcare, Greening Australia or Damian DiMarco’s nursery on Wallaroo Road, making as wide and balanced a range of species as we can manage. Continue reading

AFTER THE FROST

The Big Wilt has finally come.  Every year when the frosts arrive, the summer plants die back and make way for the ones that can take the cold.

This year we waited a long time for the changeover.  In some ways it was a vindication of my messy, lazy style of vegetable gardening, the one where I keep sticking in new things, but don’t pull out the old ones until after they’ve gone to seed and died. Continue reading

WEEDS – OOPS, NOT A WEED

There’s a look that weeds tend to have:  often spiky like a thistle,;definitely fast growing;  pretty flowers perhaps; obviously not delicious to sheep (so still in existence in a paddock);and setting lots of seed for example. Continue reading

MIGHTY MURRUMBIDGEE

Even in the dark I can tell when the river has started to flood.  I love to hear the normal soft rushing sound at night, a little like distant traffic.  This is more.  It’s a freeway roar that means big standing waves crashing against the rocks.  Big water on the move is magnificent.

Whole islands disappear, leaving just a set of scrambling waves, rushing to get past. Continue reading

OUT STANDING IN A FIELD

A few old trees make all the difference when you’re doing a bird survey.  The bare, newly planted paddocks on Carkella and Adnamira were limited to a few species, mainly parrots (galahs,red-rumps, rosellas) and a small family of magpies.

Red-rumped parrot photo by Leo from iNaturalist.org

Red-rumped parrot photo by Leo from iNaturalist.org

Continue reading

WOMBAT NEWS

IMG_4337Our lovely neighbour Cathy Campbell has a new project.  It’s called “Managing Mange in the Mullion” (that’s the title of the Facebook group also) and involves counting wombats, working out how many of them are affected by sarcoptic mange and treating them using “burrow flaps” that deliver a dose of medicine automatically at the entry to their underground lairs. Continue reading

STRIP TREES

It’s that time of year again, when we happily send some young trees out naked into the winter.Yin and maximum number of covers ever

The ones that seem large enough have their wildlife and frost resistant covers removed, so that we can recycle them for this year’s plantings.   That’s hundreds of covers to be jerked up, flattened and carried back to the truck, then transported to our overcrowded garage for storage. Continue reading

WEEDS PART 1- THE BURNING QUESTION

Farming, like nature, is messy.  It’s nice to see the smooth green grass of spring covering the hills and disguising the rocks.  The modern golf course look.   Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily what you need either for wildlife or for grazing stock. Continue reading

PELICAN TRACES

Pelican on river vertical 2

Before I got glasses for short-sight at the age of eleven, I used to wonder why people made such a fuss about birds. Most of them were invisible as far as I was concerned.  The only ones I never had trouble seeing were the big ones:  the egrets, the Wedge-Tailed Eagles, the black swans (which I’ve rarely seen since we’ve been back here) and, of course, pelicans (pelecanus conspicillatus).

Continue reading

SEEDING FOR BEGINNERS

2011 planting

Extreme tree planting

Seed collecting is a new art for me.  It requires timing, observation and knowledge of what you’re looking for.  Mostly I’m nervous that I’ll just take the seeds off a plant and waste them by not planting them in time. Continue reading

ROMAN CANDLE AT MIDNIGHT

Whole tree burning with flames at baseAs I wandered outside on my way to bed a few nights ago, I noticed a speck of red light on a hilltop.

A star?  I’ve been tricked before by how bright they can be in the bush.  A red star?  Venus?  Wrong direction. Definitely not a car tail-light, on the top of a rocky ridge.

As I dithered, the single speck became two, one above the other.  Definitely a fire, probably caused by the lightning storm that played around us all evening, making the tv signal jump and flicker.  Still uncertain, I consulted the only other person awake at that time, my brother Andrew.  He at least has had some experience with fire fighting.coals at foot of burning tree

“Definitely a fire.  Definitely too wet to do any damage.”  The rain was still pouring down.  “Go to bed and look at it in the morning.”

Okay, useless consultation over.  That ridge is at the back of my Box  Gum woodland planting area, full of long summer grass and baby trees.  No way was I going to leave it until morning.  Although the ground was wet now, a few hours of wind would dry it off to a flammable state.  We had a similar lightning struck tree three years ago that smoldered for two days, then took off, burning about forty hectares before it was put out, needing several trucks and firefighters. Continue reading

BLIND SNAKE

In the darkness, I heard the dog barking and scuffling with something in the gravel driveway.  I assumed it was a beetle.  Obviously something small.  But when I went over to look I could see it was a snake.

Calypso was dodging in and out enthusiastically.  So much for the snake-avoidance training.   I shouted at her, though, and she backed off.

“Is it a baby brown?”  I wondered.  It was too light-coloured for a red-bellied black snake.

But our biological dinner guests started shouting “Typhlops! Typhlops!”

Whatever that meant. Continue reading

THANK YOU FOR THE WATER…

Heliconia Serra BonitaBrazil’s coastal rainforest could hardly be more distant from a sheep farm in New South Wales.  Yet I found visiting it both inspirational and helpful for my own plans.

The rainforest plant life is nothing like our dry eucalypts and grasses.  While there are a few ancient relatives of Australian plants, most of the vegetation looks as if it’s been ordered from a hothouse catalogue – heliconias, bromeliads, philodendrons, orchids and more. Continue reading