Headed from the hills to a town near you

They’re back. If you’re like me and live in one of Victoria’s bigger cities, chances are you might have noticed the influx of Pied Currawongs as the seasons have drifted through autumn and into winter. Maybe you haven’t seen them, but I’m sure you would have heard them even if you didn’t recognise the sound. A wailing ‘Kaaarrr-ooooooooo’ has been piercing the cold of suburban streets as these black and white wraiths slip through the trees on deep, lolling wing-beats, flashes of white in the outer-wing catching the eye with every flap.

Currawongs are intelligent birds – you need only watch them for a few moments to figure this out. Their burnt-yellow eyes are ever-vigilant as they slink from perch to perch. They are usually looking for foraging opportunities, and our cities and towns offer plenty to keep them well-fed. The sturdy bill that juts so prominently from their face enables them to eat a wide variety of foods. Infamous for their prowess of snatching recently hatched birds from the nest, currawongs often bear the scorn of sensitive bird watchers.

   
  
   
  
    
  
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  The piercing yellow eyes are arguably a Pied Currawong’s most striking feature.  Image: Rowan Mott

The piercing yellow eyes are arguably a Pied Currawong’s most striking feature. Image: Rowan Mott

But a quick glance at a freshly deposited Pied Currawong poo or regurgitated pellet will immediately tell you that they also include plant foods in the diet. The poos that have been left on my balcony rail recently are deep purple and contain numerous seeds, indicating these particular individuals have been feasting on a glut of berries from nearby shrubs. Currawongs also eat many insects, small reptiles and carrion. And if you have ever left a snack unattended in the backyard, you may have been unfortunate enough to discover that these plucky birds aren’t averse to helping themselves to an easy meal.

 These two pellets regurgitated by Pied Currawongs on my balcony show that the diet of this species comprises far more than simply nestling birds. The one on the left is full of seeds and the one on the right contained something I couldn’t recognise.  Image: Rowan Mott

These two pellets regurgitated by Pied Currawongs on my balcony show that the diet of this species comprises far more than simply nestling birds. The one on the left is full of seeds and the one on the right contained something I couldn’t recognise. Image: Rowan Mott

So why are there so many Pied Currawongs around our built-up areas at the moment? Despite their varied diet, their primary food sources are all prone to seasonal fluctuations. As spring is the peak period of breeding for many small birds, when the seasons turn and the young birds all fledge, it becomes difficult for Pied Currawongs to find a nest-bound meal. Similarly, insects and reptiles becomes less active as the weather cools down, restricting access to these food sources for Pied Currawongs. Nowhere is the temperature change felt more acutely than in the high country and so, many Pied Currawongs that spent the summer at high elevation come flocking out to lower ground.

Pied Currawongs form large flocks during autumn and winter, unlike during the summer. No longer needing to defend a nesting territory, the territorial aggression breaks down, allowing many birds to socialise. These gregarious flocks make noisy, garrulous calls as they roam across the landscape rendering their presence almost unmissable. Numbers within these flocks may be buoyed by many young birds that left the nest just a few months before. These individuals look almost identical to the adults, but close inspection will reveal a tiny spot of yellow skin at the gape (corner) of the bill, and an overall greyer appearance. The parents care for their young for several months after fledging, but the young must quickly learn the intricacies of foraging if they are to survive through the long, lean winter.

 Pied Currawongs are a familiar sight in many built-up areas of Victoria, particularly during winter when many individuals from higher altitudes descend to places with a more moderate climate.  Image: Rowan Mott

Pied Currawongs are a familiar sight in many built-up areas of Victoria, particularly during winter when many individuals from higher altitudes descend to places with a more moderate climate. Image: Rowan Mott

 Young Pied Currawongs can be distinguished from adult birds by the presence of a small, fleshy, yellow gape of the bill.  Image: Rowan Mott

Young Pied Currawongs can be distinguished from adult birds by the presence of a small, fleshy, yellow gape of the bill. Image: Rowan Mott

Pied Currawongs aren’t the only currawongs to call Victorian cities and towns home. Keep an eye and ear open for Grey Currawongs. They are very similar in appearance to the Pied Currawong, but are cloaked in ashy-grey rather than black plumage. They also lack the white band on the upper side of the base of the tail (rump) that is present on a Pied Currawong.

 Grey Currawongs can also be found in Victorian towns and cities. Although very similar to Pied Currawongs, they can be distinguished by their greyer plumage and lack of white on the rump.  Image: Rowan Mott

Grey Currawongs can also be found in Victorian towns and cities. Although very similar to Pied Currawongs, they can be distinguished by their greyer plumage and lack of white on the rump. Image: Rowan Mott

Although currawongs are much maligned for predating young birds, the magnitude of effect of this behaviour is likely a symptom of habitat change in our suburbs. Our urban environments are characterised by reduced vegetation cover, leaving nests of smaller birds exposed and easily discoverable to the sharp eyes of a currawong. But rather than denigrating currawongs as barbarians of the bird world, we should learn to appreciate what currawongs represent. Their successful integration into urban areas should be celebrated as a link to the natural world on our doorstep, while simultaneously reminding us that we need to be doing more to provide suitable habitat in our towns and cities for the smaller birds they prey on.


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Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth.


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

An unseen distance

One of Tim Winton’s most recent works, The Boy Behind the Curtain is an absolute gem that delves deep into the author’s past and reflects on his inner musings of life and the world around him. The collection of 22 stories, 16 of which have been previously published, is intimately woven together and draws upon the past to delightfully expose Winton’s innermost mind and the heartbeat of his childhood.

  Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Winton’s past is filled with simple yet dynamic day-to-day events. Winton describes his experience of being the son of a policeman, what it was like growing up in the church, and an ever-growing passion for and relationship with the environment. The poignancy of the novel is not just in the description of his stories, but his ability to express how these events shaped the man he is today. The plethora of his unique life experiences takes us directly into the shoes of a schoolboy on a farm, a university undergraduate enrolled in the only creative writing school in Australia, a surfer, and an environmental activist. No matter the outcome of each story, Winton’s reflections focus on how his underlying views and beliefs shape his response to the situation. More often than not, Winton’s inextricable connection to the marine environment provides the lens through which he views the world - that is, a world that is so precious, so unique and yet delicate; that is worth all that we have to protect it from human exploitation. Given our strong marine connections at Wild Melbourne, it’s also where I spend most of my time exploring.

For any reader of Winton’s novels, his strong connection with and passion for the marine ecosystem is well known. Nothing is lost in this novel, either, when Winton ingeniously recreates feelings of life in between the land and the shore; the shoreline, the waves and what lies beneath. This is where Winton thrives.

The chapter titled ‘The Wait and Flow’ is just one example where the author delves into his love for surfing. To Winton’s surprise, he was asked one day why he surfed when most of the time it’s just bobbing in the cold ocean waiting for waves. Even as a surfer myself, I concede that’s a valid point! Winton responds, ‘And I didn’t know how to answer. Almost everyday of my life is shaped according to the weather, most acutely to swell, tide and wind direction. After surfing for over fifty years, you would expect I’d be able to give a better account of myself.’

Of course on later reflection, surfing for Winton is so much more than that and I certainly agree. The wave turns up ‘from the unseen distance’. If you manage to meet it, ‘you live for a short while in the eternal tense. The feeling is divine.’

Winton also explores the seemingly simple yet methodical sway of the tides. At first glance, there appears to be nothing particularly special about the incoming and subsequent outgoing tides that occur four times a day. Merely an empty beach with little signs of life present one day, then a beach full of life the next.

And yet it holds me captive, has me returning morning and evening, high tide and low, because it’s never the same place. It holds its secrets close.

He then challenges the idea of not ‘objectifying’ whatever is washed up on the beach. Instead of seeing the piece of bleached coral or the ragged seaweed holdfasts as objects just washed up on the shore, they are subjects each with a story to tell: ‘For the moment, the bleached head of coral that lies face-down in the rockpool is shelter to the deadly blue-ringed octopus, but before this it was home to half a million lives… a minuscule part of what it takes to keep the deeps alive and therefore all life on earth’. Furthermore, ‘To tread here and never pay tribute, to glance and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished.’ A subtle yet powerfully different way to view the world around us.

 In  The Boy Behind the Curtain , Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches.  Image:  James Donaldson  on  Unsplash

In The Boy Behind the Curtain, Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches. Image: James Donaldson on Unsplash

Finally, Winton explores and challenges the peculiar demonisation of sharks in Australia in the chapter ‘Demon Shark’. In general, Winton describes how it’s true that Australians tend to have a very positive and sympathetic attitude to the treatment of animals, ‘whether it’s a dog being beaten or a bear tortured for its bile, cruelty and thoughtless slaughter offend us.’ When it comes to sharks, however, it’s a different matter: ‘Other cultures have their wolves and bears… our demon is silent and it swims.’ Winton candidly explores the way that governments have managed the perception of sharks and openly criticises parts of the media for fear-mongering in order to sway public opinion; as Winton argues, ‘fear sells’.

This novel has it all, with a particular focus on the way life takes you in all directions, eventually shaping the person you are today. Readers will reach the end of the novel with a sense of how this particular man experiences life — metaphorically, philosophically. How he carries things; feels and makes sense of the world around him. This selection of short essays beautifully captures life in Australia and provokes a sense of inner searching that can only be done in the quietness of one’s room or reflecting in nature itself. It is a must-read for any Winton admirer or lover of the Australian environment.

The Boy Behind the Curtain is the third title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

You can also read our reviews of Winton's Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir and Island Home: A Landscape Memoir


Stephen McGain studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope of further contributing his knowledge and skills to the local community.


Banner image courtesy of Josh Withers on Unsplash.

Connection and respite for an inner-city dweller

My ten-year-old Jack Russell, Bonnie, has no idea what’s going on. She takes shelter in the car as my husband and I finish putting up our tent in the now pouring rain.

The downpour caught us unawares. It seemingly came out of nowhere and drenched us in warm, flat raindrops for fifteen minutes solid, and then was gone as quickly as it came. Sun shining once more, the ground began croaking with Lesueur's Tree Frogs (Litoria lesueuri).

Then, completely saturated, we realise the fly is on inside out.

I begin to laugh hysterically.

Bonnie curls into a ball on the driver’s seat and looks away. I’m pretty sure she’s wondering why on Earth we would load up our car with stuff, drive three hours, stop on a patch of grass at a country campground and put on this show. And then sleep in it. For two nights.

She’s a city dog, and we are city people.

 Lesueur's Tree Frog ( Litoria lesueuri ).  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

Lesueur's Tree Frog (Litoria lesueuri). Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

We live in Melbourne’s central business district, amongst the constant hum and buzz of sirens howling, evacuation alarms whoop-whoop-whoop-ing, and trams rattling down streets, dinging their bells at risk-taking pedestrians. Motorbikes weave and hammer down roads, people swarm, and the construction of high-rises is ceaseless.

This heaving urban jungle, this synapse, this cell, this landscape, is our home, and despite being so connected, there remained a disconnect, until I started looking…

There’s a tree in Flagstaff Gardens, to which all the Rainbow Lorikeets flock. It amuses me no end to approach this tree, stand under it, and listen and stare at the absolute chaos going on within its branches. What is it about this tree, and not the others like it, surrounding it, that attracts these birds to this one in particular?

The Gardens are also home to a community of brushtail possums who can be found in the hollows of the elm trees, or sometimes, in the public recycling bins, staring out, wide-eyed. And springtime brings swooping Magpie-larks to the Gardens, relegating us, and all the other dog-walkers to the safety of the north-west corner for at least the next two months.

 A Common Brushtail Possum peeks out of a recycling bin in Flagstaff Gardens.  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

A Common Brushtail Possum peeks out of a recycling bin in Flagstaff Gardens. Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

The months of spring also bring on the budding of the plane trees. Planted on many city streets in Australia and around the world for their pollution-resistance and deciduous form, these trees are a nightmare for allergy sufferers. The jury is out, however, on whether it’s their pollen, their trichomes, or other allergens, which cause the eye-watering, sneezing and runny noses.

Either way, springtime in the city is the time for me to stock up on antihistamines so I can keep exploring and discovering, and recently, I’ve found that a there’s a family of sparrows in my neighbourhood who have been progressively stealing pieces of our brush-mat fence in order to build their nest.

I’ve watched them on-and-off for several weeks now, and our fence is getting thinner and thinner. I don’t know where they’re building this nest; I just know that it must be robust, and I do hope, comfortable.

There’s a buzz that comes with visiting the city, but when you live amidst this buzz, and work in it as well, it becomes a source of exhaustion that I need to escape from regularly.

I seldom see a horizon, and I crave the sounds familiar to my upbringing: wind in trees, waves crashing on shorelines, cicadas chirping, owls hooting, and twigs snapping underfoot.

And whilst I like my escapes to be weekend-long, to places I can access via our freeway network of human wildlife corridors, sometimes respite must be closer to home.

 A Blue Devil ( Eryngium ovinum ), one of many native plants found in Melbourne's Royal Park.  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

A Blue Devil (Eryngium ovinum), one of many native plants found in Melbourne's Royal Park. Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

Fortunately, here in Melbourne, I am surrounded by beautiful urban parks which provide me with a taste of this escape I crave. Royal Park, just north of the city, is one of my favourites. The big grassland circle is a snippet of the previous landscape, now fragmented by development.

Here, Bonnie and I walk a lap of the circle, then lie in the grass and wonder what it was like, right here in this spot, 500 years ago…


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Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel is an environmental scientist who escapes the rush of city life by donning her mask and fins to explore local underwater worlds, or her hiking boots to explore Victoria’s national parks.

She’s an avid home cook and shares all her recipes on her Instagram account, @thenostalgicvegan.


Banner image courtesy of Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel. 

The world under Rye Pier

I felt the sun beating down on me and the heavy weight of my diving gear on my shoulders as I stared at the never-ending stretch of pier before me. It was my first time diving; the destination - Rye Pier.

I was told by my dive instructor not to expect too much; it was unlikely we were going to see anything apart from crabs, a few fish and a ray if we were lucky. However, it was a good place to begin learning the art of scuba diving, so with low expectations I stepped off the pier and into the water.

As we began our five-metre descent I was overwhelmed. Looking off the edge of the pier into the water, one couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of life that has found a home in these waters. Bright orange sponges and delicate red and brown seaweeds form an intricate collage that envelopes the pillars and guides the path to the sandy expanse at the bottom of the pier. Schools of porcupinefish dart across your path, seahorses curl their tails, clinging to the foliage lining the ocean floor, and crabs decorate the pillars. It really is another world.

 If you're lucky, you might even spot a nudibranch in the marine habitat beneath Rye Pier.  Image: Edison Sands

If you're lucky, you might even spot a nudibranch in the marine habitat beneath Rye Pier. Image: Edison Sands

My instructor explained that he had heard of a human-made sculpture park, Elsa's Reef, just past the end of the pier. Following the flag markers just off the end of the pier, we swam along the sandy flat. The small journey wasn't without some incredible finds. Nearly every flag had an octopus, camouflaged to match the sand, hidden at its base. Little skates darted along the sand and we even spotted a few Banjo Sharks. The reef itself was striking. An abandoned bike, a trolley and other objects that made up the reef were completely overtaken by nature. Beautiful seaweeds and crabs of all sizes coated the structures. Schools of fish swam around, even curious enough to swim between our hands and legs.

 Elsa's Reef is home to a diversity of marine life that utilises this human-made 'sculpture park'.  Image: Edison Sands

Elsa's Reef is home to a diversity of marine life that utilises this human-made 'sculpture park'. Image: Edison Sands

 Stingrays dart along the sand as scuba divers swim nearby.  Image: Edison Sands

Stingrays dart along the sand as scuba divers swim nearby. Image: Edison Sands

Perhaps a feeling words won't be able to capture was the moment I lay on my back on the sandy ocean floor. I looked up through the five metres of water above me, admiring how the sunlight filtered through and touched the ground. The only sound was my own breathing. It was this experience that told me I would be back in this underwater world again. It is one of the most peaceful places we can venture with so many wonders.

Swimming back along the pier I couldn't help noticing the undeniable human impact leaching into the beautiful habitat. Littered along the bottom of the pier were the abandoned lines and hooks of fishers. We even found an octopus who had taken up residence in a littered tin. It was as I was struggling to untangle a hook and line that had caught on my gear that I noticed the thrashing in the corner of my eye. A Banjo Shark was entangled, desperately swimming against the lines that constrained him. Drawing closer, I realised that the shark was stuck due to a hook in its mouth. A fisher had obviously caught it and thrown it back alive without removing the lines that would inevitably entangle the fish and stop it from hunting to survive.

 Hermit crabs are another form of marine life you might encounter near Rye Pier.  Image: Edison Sands

Hermit crabs are another form of marine life you might encounter near Rye Pier. Image: Edison Sands

For me, this dive was another reminder of the importance of protecting our natural world. Though life may seem scarce when looking off the pier into the water, we must remember that underneath is a whole world of life. Properly releasing fish and avoiding discarding waste into the ocean is something we can all do that makes a big difference to life down there.

Re-surfacing and walking back along the pier my gear felt light. I had just had my eyes opened to the marvels of the blue backyard at our doorstep. I leave you with the goal to try scuba diving for yourself and experience the wonders of the marine world beneath Rye Pier.


Monica Coleman studies Science and Arts at Monash University. She grew up spending time in nature, traveling, reading and fostering a guilty pleasure for reality TV. She hopes her future will be dedicated to the fight to protect our environment and lives by the motto it's not a good day if you haven't learnt something new.


Banner image courtesy of Edison Sands.