Category Archives: Life in Oz

Swooping Magpies

Magpie 1Aaargh! Magpie season is upon us again. It’s that time of year when cyclists don helmets topped with cable-tie antennae, or weird and wonderful wigs; walkers venture out with umbrellas and sticks, sporting caps with eyes sewn on them. I have yet to see anyone in our neighbourhood wearing a hat made from an ice-cream container or cardboard box, as many websites advise, although I live in hope. Why the bizarre accessories, you might ask? Well, they are all recommended as potential magpie deterrents.

The Australian magpie is a distinctive black-and-white songbird. Its pitch can cover a range of four octaves, and it can also mimic a variety of sounds, including human speech. But from August to November, it’s nesting season and this beautiful, intelligent bird becomes fiercely territorial and protective. Magpies (generally the males) will swoop anyone or anything considered a threat, clacking their beaks as they descend. Apparently, bikes and strollers are favoured targets. Take a look at this video by Jay Cronan, a photographer at The Canberra Times, recorded on his bike route to work. In it he claims to be “one of those people” who get attacked by the magpies. And indeed, research shows that the birds swoop the same person, while leaving others well alone.

Unfortunately, I too am “the same person”. When Ickle was small, I had to abandon my usual route to the shops after an alarming swooping episode. The bird in question came at us about five times, and I almost upset the stroller in my haste to escape. I started going a different way, only for another magpie to start swooping us a couple of weeks later. Out came the car for a two-minute drive down the road.

We’ve been lucky so far this year. Ickle, Mivvy and I have only been swooped once (or actually several times, but on the one occasion). We are aware of a number of other nesting birds dotted around our neighbourhood, however. Perhaps it’s time to chat with others in the area and put together a magpie map highlighting the spots to avoid.

The Last Hoorah

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It’s 26 January and Australia Day, marking the arrival of the First Fleet at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) in 1788. The ships had set sail from England 252 days previously carrying 1,000 convicts along with officers, crew, marines, and their families. A penal colony was set up and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the momentous occasion is a national holiday, a get-together with rellies and mates to celebrate in style. The Australian flag is everywhere you look: flying proudly outside homes and on cars, painted on faces, arms and legs, and emblazoned on towels and beach balls.DSC_8534

The young and young-at-heart kit themselves out in rashies, boardies, sunnies and thongs, and head en masse to the beach or park. Slabs are purchased from the local bottle-o and loaded into utes, the stubbies later deposited in Eskies full of ice to keep the amber nectar cool in the scorching heat. The hungry hoardes dive into plates laden with schoolies. Barbies are lit and steak and snags thrown on to cook, which are then wrapped in a slice of bread with a squirt of tomato sauce. Accompanied by a few slices of beetroot and some avo, perhaps. And a stubby in a stubby holder, of course.

And afterwards, time to indulge in Australia’s favourite dessert: the pav, topped with whipped cream and a rainbow of fresh fruit and berries. While the kids run around with ice blocks in the warmth of the sun. It is, after all, the last hoorah before schools, and many businesses, go back after the long summer break down under.DSC_8558

Glossary (just in case)
Amber nectar: beer (essential drinking)
Avo: avocado (obviously)
Barbies: barbecues (one of many words ending in -ies in Australian English)
Boardies: boardshorts (shorts made from quick-drying fabric – just perfect for the beach)
Bottle-o: bottle shop (in Australian English, abbreviated words often end in -o, when they don’t end in -ies, that is)
Eskies: an insulated cool box (Esky is a classic brand name)
Ice Blocks: ice lollies, if you’re a Brit
Mates: friends (did you really come unstuck on this one?)
Pav: pavlova (dessert made from meringue, topped with whipped cream and fruit – the question is: did it originate in Australia, or NZ?)
Rashies: rash vests (T-shirts made from quick-drying fabric, protecting the wearer from rashes and sunburn)
Rellies: relatives
Schoolies: school prawns (great on their own or on the barbie)
Slab: case of beer (24 stubbies)
Snags: sausages
Stubbies: squat bottles of beer (as opposed to traditional bottles, which are known as ‘long-necks’)
Stubby Holder: insulated sleeve for keeping beer cool
Sunnies: sunglasses
Thongs: flip-flops, rather than skimpy underwear
Tomato sauce: not ketchup
Ute: typically, a two-door passenger vehicle with a cargo tray in the rear

Dear Santa

Ickle and I sat down a couple of weeks ago to pen a letter to Santa. When I was little, we wrote to Father Christmas* every year. We’d place our special messages by the fireplace and they’d miraculously disappear overnight, no doubt spirited away by the elves, or the big man himself.

We don’t have a fireplace or a chimney in our current house, so we sent Ickle’s letter directly to the North Pole via Australia Post’s Santa Mail, as do tens of thousands of children across the country. The friendly people at Australia Post make it very easy, even providing a selection of festive letterheads to print out. Ickle made the paper look even prettier, and then I quizzed her about her wish list. She immediately announced that she was after a pink pencil. Nothing else.

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We popped the precious page in an envelope and dropped it into our nearest letterbox at the first opportunity. Then, we waited for our personalised response from Santa. And waited…and waited a bit more. Unfortunately, the big man and his elves have been very busy – snowed under, in fact – so we haven’t heard back.P1020703

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Santa knows where we live, however, because he came past in his fire truck** this afternoon with lollies (sweets) for all the children in our street. But will he have a pink pencil in his sack when he flies through the night sky later this evening? Ickle and I certainly hope so.P1020802

* While Father Christmas still rules the roost in the UK, Santa is his preferred counterpart in Oz.
** Santa travels all over Australia in a fire truck during the festive season, and can often be sighted in more than one location at any one time.

The Bushfire Legacy

Just over a year ago, our local community narrowly escaped the onslaught of a devastating bushfire that burnt over 2,850 hectares of bushland in the area. In my post shortly afterwards, I wrote my personal account of an event I have never experienced before, nor wish to again.P1000917

[One of the photos I took in October 2013 in the immediate aftermath of the bushfire]

So, what has changed 12 months on? The Big Prawn on the Pacific Highway has not been rebuilt, and, given its rather odd location, I wonder whether the site will ever be redeveloped. But the bushland is beautiful once again. The first new shoots emerged from the ashy ground just a couple of weeks after the fire, and a colourful array of green and gold has gradually spread through the trees and undergrowth. Yes, there are still reminders of flames in the charred tree trunks, but overall it has been a fascinating example of nature’s ability to regenerate in record time.P1020507-001P1020501-001

In fact, fire has very positive consequences for the Australian bush. Eucalypts release their seeds in the intense heat of the flames; wattle seeds that have lain dormant in the soil burst open; and the bed of ash left behind is full of vital nutrients to allow strong new growth. And these are just a few examples. Little wonder then that the Aboriginals used fire as a tool to revitalise the bush environment.P1020505-001

This Factsheet is a great source of information on the impact of fire on Australian bushland regeneration.

Cicada Shells

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Icklegen loves cicada shells. She delights in picking them off trees and trying to secure them to her clothing. Or worse still, a cheeky gleam comes into her eyes and she races after me clutching a couple of them in her hands and shrieking with excitement, because she knows her mummy can’t stand the sight of them.5-P10103163-P1010310

And it’s an ongoing activity this season. According to the locals, it is a BIG year for cicadas. I’m no expert, but these large, noisy insects have certainly have been very busy over the last couple of months. Even as I write, I can hear them singing in the trees down by the lake. And on some of our little walks out and about, the sound has been deafening. So it’s no great surprise for me to learn from the Australian Museum website that some cicada species can produce sounds over 120 decibels – close to the pain threshold of the human ear.

And then, there is “cicada rain”, essentially these lovely insects excreting a fine mist of sugary water from the plant sap they consume in vast quantities. An interesting experience as you walk under the trees where they are perched. It’s not just for protection from the sun that Aussies wear hats outdoors in the summer, after all.

The Bushfire

Bushfires have been blazing across NSW for days now, with firefighters working tirelessly to contain them. But it seems as soon as one blaze is brought under control, another flares up somewhere else. Wildlife and bushland have been decimated, homes and businesses destroyed and, in our local area, one life lost as a man fought to save his property from the flames. Who knows what the final toll will be?P1000809

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I have never experienced a bushfire first-hand before. I didn’t grow up with them. Like many though, I have seen pictures in the news and read articles in the paper; but I had not really thought twice about them afterwards. A big mistake, as this is bushfire country and it’s a very different story when one is burning on your doorstep. This is my account of our lakeside community’s narrow escape from disaster as a local bushfire raged through the bush and scrub engulfing everything in its path.

It all happened so quickly.

Thursday had been a fairly ordinary day; Icklegen and I had spent most of it close to home. As I was clearing up after tea, I commented to my partner that it looked like a sepia photograph outside: sky, water and trees all in varying shades of cream and brown, and slightly hazy around the edges. A while later, I noticed my mobile phone was flashing with new messages and casually picked it up to check them. And on the screen in huge letters appeared an EMERGENCY WARNING from the Rural Fire Service, advising me of a fire a couple of kilometres away and to “seek shelter as the fire arrives.”

Suddenly, our peaceful little world was turned upside-down. Heading outside, we found our neighbours gathered in a small group, watching vast clouds of smoke billowing in the near distance. Way too close for comfort. And with the smoke came a distinct bonfire smell, not too strong, but ominpresent. We were locked in by road: as the only access in and out to the highway was a fiery battlezone. There was discussion of potential evacuation, but the general consensus was to stay alert and wait for further updates.

Needless to say, it was a very unsettled night. The smoke grew thicker, and the smell grew stronger, over the hours that followed. When I woke in the very early hours of the morning, the sky was red with flames and the wind was gusting outside. It was terrifying and I don’t think I slept a wink until dawn; I was regularly checking the Internet for updates on the fire’s status in case we needed to take action, and popping in on Icklegen to see that she was sleeping safely.

The situation did appear to have calmed by morning, but in reality the fire was far from out. In fact, by the early afternoon it had escalated to such an extent that we were close to being evacuated, then the alert level was reduced again, and so it continued until news went out that the fire was finally under control and the access road to the highway open. We were no longer locked in, or locked out, by flames, but the world out there looks very different to how it did just last week.P1000813

{A touching gesture: a water container left out for local wildlife in the burnt-out bush}

The beautiful access road in from the highway is almost unrecognisable. The glorious array of green, gold and brown has been replaced by blackened stumps, brown crispy leaves and a thick layer of ash as far as the eye can see. The Big Prawn on the Pacific Highway is still lying atop his post, but the accompanying business venture is a tangled ruin. And this is just a small section of the 2879 hectares devastated by flames in our area.P1000814P1000817

Of course, the phoenix will once again arise from the ashes: the bush will regenerate, businesses and homes will be rebuilt and people who have lost everything will gradually piece together their lives. But the wound is still very fresh, the fires are still burning, and, in this country of extremes, who knows what may lie around the corner.

What is your experience of bushfires? Do you have any useful advice to share?