Thursday, 26 December 2013

Infrequent flyers

 Butterflies used to be so prolific that excitable children would run after them with huge nets in an urge to fulfill their megalomanic urge for bright fluttery things.  Avaricious collectors would pin the fragile little thoraxes of butterflies onto display boards to show off their hunting prowess. In Victorian times, the pursuit of butterflies bordered on being a community obsession. 

 Of course these days, now that butterfly visits have become a rarity, we know much better than to harm them directly.  The gardening commentators still fail to make the simple connection between caterpillars and butterflies though.  If it looks remotely like a caterpillar, then they reckon it should be poisoned, squashed or otherwise eradicated from the neatly manicured, grub free, back yards that they champion.

A Graphium Sarpedon or Blue Triangle Butterfly found in parts of Australia and South Asia, known for their habit of feeding by the edge of puddles. Did you know that a butterfly's sense of taste is 200 times stronger than a human's!
 The fact that one day...those caterpillars would, magically transform themselves into beautiful and highly effective pollinators...seems to interest them not one jot. And  the likelihood that waging chemical warfare on caterpillars will then have a domino effect on beneficial insects and birds would never enter their horticultural heads.

The Australian crow (Euploea Core) Butterfly. One of the most common migrating butterfly species

 Butterflies have been on this planet for 40 or 50 million years and there are a between 15,000 and 20,000 species worldwide, but, thanks to habitat destruction and the use of pesticides, their numbers are in steep decline. In North America, the journey of the Monarch butterfly is heralded as a natural wonder of mass migration. Millions of these brilliantly coloured creatures flutter over 3,000 kilometers from the US to Mexico to hibernate. But now their numbers are decreasing from around 100 million to less than half that (and falling) due to logging, development and the loss of native Milkweed plants that they rely on for sustenance.

One of the drivers causing butterfly decline is gardeners and the fact that they almost invariable eschew endemic native plants for foreign cultivars. American naturalist Benjamin Vogt made these observations –

We need to be gardening for insects as much if not more than ourselves. We talk about vegetable gardening as this holistic, green, wonderful thing to do for the planet -- but why don't we ever talk about ornamental gardening for insects and larvae?  We garden for butterflies (too often with butterfly bush), but we don't garden with the plants they evolved with to eat. We need to stop gardening solely for ourselves and see the incredible, beautiful, soul-magnifying existence that happens when we open up our gardens to the rest of the local environment by using native plants. We believe in giving to the needy and poor of our own species, and to other causes near our hearts, why not the birds, insect pollinators, amphibians right out back in the gardens we supposedly cherish so much?"

Wasp Moth (Eressa Angustipenna). Found in NSW, Queensland and the Philippines.

It’s all pretty simple really… to create a well balanced, backyard eco-system, we  need to restore the endemic trees, shrubs, ground-covers and grasses that existed there originally.  Don’t use herbicides or pesticides remove exotic weeds by hand and gradually the natural order and hopefully the butterflies will return.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Manly Fringe 2013

Here's an end of year montage of some of the natural beauty to be found inland from Sydney's Northern Beaches...and a glimpse at a few of the community initiatives designed to help retain it.

Manly Dam Bushland..always in need of more protection
Mermaid Pool, Manly Vale, a focal point for conservation efforts.
A volunteer team removing invasive weeds as part of the "Return of the Mermaids" restoration project.
Community members "rescuing" graffiti spray cans discarded in Manly Creek.
Orara Reserve, Allambie. Gradually being restored from weed invasion by  Bushlink, Beach School and Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee

Avenue of Endemic Native Plants to Commemorate the Wartime Service
of the Merchant Navy (Manly Vale). King St, Avenue of Honour 

Beautiful Gumbooya Reserve, Allambie...

...cared for by a volunteer team as part of "Friends of the Bush"
Local residents putting up nesting boxes for native wildlife (This one is for a Brushtail Possum)
Restored rock outcrop with remnant native species, Manly Vale
Juvenile orphaned Flying Fox being looked after by a volunteer from Sydney Wildlife
A Great Egret visits a Manly Vale pond looking for food 
Native Commelina Cyanea is also called "Scurvy Weed" as it was eaten by early European settlers to avoid scurvy (it contains Vitamin C) 
A spectacular Blue Triangle butterfly (Graphium Sarpedon) visits a Manly Vale garden
Spot the camouflaged Katydid
Gorgeous Apacris Longiflora (Fuschia Heath) at Manly's "North Head"
Ringtail possums. (Two very special Manly Vale locals).
A juvenile yet ancient member of the Manly Vale community.

Magnificent Coral Fern at Freshwater
Angophora Costata (smooth-barked apple)..a truly wonderful tree
Stunning Clematis Aristata (old man's beard) at Manly Golf Course...a star amongst native plants

I hope you've had a great year..please treasure and protect your own local native animals and plants...wherever you may be.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Swanning Around Manly

 There’s nothing quite as exquisitely, elegantly, beautiful as a swan is there? And Black Swans seem to take the word “gracefulness” to a whole new dusky level. 

 Europeans believed that all swans were white, until “gobsmacked” Dutch explorers came across the black variety in Western Australia in 1836 (a “black swan event” has since been used to describe an historical incident that was unprecedented and unexpected).

 The Black Swan is a highly nomadic bird with an erratic migration pattern, dependent on food availability and climatic conditions. It is native to Australasia but has been reintroduced to New Zealand , where it had been hunted to extinction.

 Dee Why Lagoon, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches was once home to a large colony of swans which fed on the prolific sea grass. The “useless swamps” surrounding the lagoon were systematically drained to enable urban development and the living birds largely disappeared -their image, ironically, being retained in symbolic form to represent the suburb (one wag believed that the swan logo should have been replaced by the crane!)

 In recent times, small numbers of black swans have tentatively returned to the area but dog attacks, the ingestion of fish hooks and human interference has lead to a perilous existence.

You’re most likely to observe Black Swans on larger bodies of water because they lose all of their flight feathers after breeding and are unable to fly for a month. They settle on lakes and lagoons, therefore, for relative safety. They are almost exclusively herbivorous, feeding on aquatic, marshland and pasture plants and algae.

 Black Swans breed mainly in the southeast and southwest of the continent, they are monogamous and share incubation and cygnet rearing duties between the sexes.

Black Swan at Manly Dam

Black swan (Cygnus Atratus)
Size: 120cm to 142cm
Weight 6kg
Wingspan: 2 metres
Breeding Season: June to September
Clutch size: Up to 9 eggs taking 35 days to hatch
Lifespan: Up to 40 years.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Lost Rocks of Sydney (Part 2)

The Dilema:

In “part one” of this report, we discovered that most of the lovely rocky outcrops, dotted around Sydney like gigantic unclaimed parcels, were in a “spot of bother”.

These hulking great edifices have been gradually entangled by deviously aggressive weeds. Most of them now lie ensnared, their original biodiversity choked and suffocating... or already expired.

One of the monumental “lost rocks”, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, epitomised this miserable scenario.  It was besieged by the “Who’s Who” of invasive species. And these are the main culprits:- Fishbone Fern, English Ivy, Japanese Honey Suckle, Asparagus Fern, Lantana, Ochna, Crucifix Orchid,  Buffalo Grass, Mother of Millions.

The Solution:  The small team of volunteers from Rock Face Renaissance gradually worked to remove the weeds, rescue the surviving endemic  plants and rejuvenate this cascading colossus of historic stone. Never in the field of weed removal, were so many green bins filled, by so few.

The Result?

Resurrection, resuscitation and renewal!  A beautiful stone feature has been revealed after years of neglect and what’s left of the indigenous flora and fauna has room to breathe once more. 

Check out these before and after shots:-

This was then..

And these are now...!
It's amazing what was hidden beneath all those weeds
The native flora shines through!
Concealed "treasures" revealed!
On top of the rock, some Lomandras have survived underneath a carpet of weeds!
And a tiny Acacia Terminalis (Sunshine Wattle) germinates.

If only more of Sydney’s "lost rocks" can be saved before it’s too late. If you have any examples of rocky outcrops in need of salvation or require help with some rock

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Lost Rocks of Sydney...


 Some of the enduring features of Sydney are the wonderful sandstone outcrops which are dotted around the city and suburbs. In fact, this metropolis is built on top of a giant swathe of sandstone around 50 metres thick. The eroded matter was brought here around 200 million years ago, in the form of sandy deposits, by an ancient river. Many of Sydney’s iconic old colonial buildings are made from this attractive yellow-brown material.

 Immense bulky formations of sculptural sandstone sit heavily at the end of cul-de-sacs, hover broodingly over backyard gardens or majestically frame our beaches. They were mostly too hard to shift when the bulldozers came through, so they were often skirted around and left in a lumpen "too hard basket". Today they are somber and silent reminders of a lost landscape, a forgotten time, an ancient past. 

 These rocky edifices also harbour some of our last remnant suburban biodiversity; ferns, trees and bushes that tenaciously cling to the surviving islands of undeveloped land. The outcrops don’t have a lot of naturally occurring plant-life on them but the species that do (or should) exist, are critical to the fauna of these nutrient poor and thermally stressed environments

  Almost from day one, post European settlement, these native plant refuges have been under siege from invaders. Tenacious weeds were unthinkingly brought here from overseas such as English Ivy, Morning Glory, Asparagus fern, Mother of Millions, Lantana, Honeysuckle and Agapanthus. These, and other opportunistic plants such as Fishbone fern are now blanketing the rock faces and crowding out the indigenous specimens.  Chances are, most of Sydney’s signature rocky outcrops are all but invisible, literally buried beneath a festoon of introduced species.

  One example, among a multitude, is the towering rocky cliff featured below. It was blanketed by a thick green curtain of weeds, but the promise of something special hiding unobtrusively beneath was still evident.
The guys from Rock Face Renaissance decided to move in for a exercise in rejuvenation. Check out what happened...

This was the subject rock face before the "renewal" 

The weeds were gradually peeled back to reveal some hidden natives

.. Eriostemen...
...and a glorious grass tree emerge "gasping" from beneath the Fishbone ferns
The giant curtain of ivy is also slowly drawn away and underneath is...
Indigenous but barely surviving, Coral fern 
...and an ancient Fork-fern

(Skeleton Fork-fern (Psilotum nudum) is one of the most primitive and simple plants around and its descendants can be traced back 410 million years. They are truly living relics. Amazingly you can still see them on the rock face adjoining the Opera House and on Cockatoo Island..most passers-by wouldn’t give them a first glance, let alone a second one).
An unusual looking Skink also enjoys the new found light 

Martyn Robinson from the Australian Museum advises that this is an “interesting one” and is  known as a gully skink, (Saproscincus Spectabilis/Galli)

Meanwhile, this juvenile southern leaf tailed gecko shows off its amazing camouflage
There are many other similar sandstone formations on the Northern Beaches (see examples below) and across Sydney that could also urgently do with some TLC.  Email me at  if you have some examples.

A rocky, but weedy, headland at Queenscliff
A rocky but  weedy "Welcome to Warringah"
A rocky, but weedy streetscape in Manly Vale

 Check out this blog next time to see how our subject rocky outcrop has been amazingly resuscitated and rejuvenated after decades of neglect. 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Edible reminders of an unpalatable truth.

 The reality of residing in Sydney’s “Northern Beaches” area, is that we are here "living the dream" at the expense of a society that has been almost totally expunged. 

  At the time of European settlement, this region was known as Guringai country, the land of the Garigal or Caregal people.  Manly itself was occupied by the Cannalgal and Kay-ye-my clans who had been here for around 20,000 years, well before even Sydney Harbour was formed. This beautiful "water feature" was created at the end of the last ice age, around, 6,500 years ago when, what was a deep river valley, was breached by the sea. 

 When the Europeans came in 1788, they brought disease, such as smallpox, to which the locals had no resistance. In less than a year, over half of the indigenous people living in the Sydney basin were dead.

There are approximately 5,000 registered Guringai sites (rock engravings, shell middens, grinding grooves etc) in the Sydney metro area, all plaintive reminders of a rich culture. But most of their history, knowledge, beliefs, customs and way of life have been sadly lost.  We have a very limited awareness of some of their medicines and food plants..most of which can be grown in your own garden if you live around here.  Spare a thought when you're tasting "bush tucker" for a proud people who lived in harmony with this land and who met such a sudden, harsh and undeserved fate.  


Burrawang/Macrozamia Communis
This Cycad is a truly ancient plant that has been around for up to 200 million years. The red seeds are rich in starch and were a staple for Aborigines.  Be very careful though because they need to be pounded and soaked in water for a week to remove toxins.
Cabbage Tree Palm/ Livistonia Australis
The tips of the plant (the cabbage) can be ground up and eaten.
Blue Flax Lilly/ Dianella Caerulea
The purple berries can be eaten raw or cooked (although too many may have a laxative effect).
Sandpaper Fig ( Ficus Coronata)
The small dark fruit is edible but the furry skin should be peeled first. The sap can be applied to wounds to assist in healing. (The leaves are so rough they can be used to smooth wood)
Warrigal Greens/ Tetragonia tetragoniodes
The leaves are best blanched or boiled as they can be bitter if eaten raw.
Scurvy weed/Commelina Cyanea
The leaves can be used as a vegetable, raw or cooked. Because of its high vitamin C content, it was used by early European settlers to avoid scurvy.
Mat Rush/Lomandra Longifolia

Aboriginal Australians ground the seeds to make damper and also chewed the watery base of the leaves to avoid dehydration.
Sydney Golden Wattle/Acacia Longifolia

The seed pods can be eaten green, raw or cooked..or dried, roasted and ground. Bush bread can also be made using the seeds.

Incidentally, I once asked an Aboriginal Australian if there were any indigenous vegetarians.  He looked at me with bemused incredulity.  Since then, however, I have come across many who are concerned about the plight and demise of wildlife in this country, are campaigning for conservation and are careful not to eat many species that would once have been considered delicacies.  Kangaroo, for example, formed an important part of the traditional diet but many "traditional owners" are aghast at the huge industrial scale killing of this animal currently occurring around Australia and are trying to stop it. Elders v Kangaroo Killing industry