Bellerive Beach

The ingredients: a glorious blue sky day, windless, moderate temperature.  Bellerive Beach lured. Adults and children in the water, smiling dogs taking their owners for a walk, dogs bounding into the water following sticks and balls, seagulls whirling, gulls gathering on the water to grab a swarm of tiny fish, gentle waves skidding up the sand, kids screaming with delight in the playground, the fish and chip shop full of patrons, families playing on the sand, individuals stretched out on their towels to lap up the warmth of autumn sun.  What a package of Sunday delights!

When I arrived at the headland separating Howrah and Bellerive beaches, the tide was low and rock ledges covered in mussels were clearly visible in the bay.  By the time I was departing, these were almost lost under the incoming tide.

I love the crunch under foot of the brittle bird-discarded mussel shells.

On the way home, a cluster of galahs feasted on seed laden grasses. They hardly moved as I walked by.  It was a day when ‘the world is your oyster’.

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The day when the earth moved

On Monday morning when I flung open the curtains, two blackbirds were having breakfast in my garden and generously spraying the pathways with mulch, as was their typical practice.

I determined my day’s main task in the garden would be to rake the mulch from the lawn and redistribute it onto gardens but away from garden bed edges, in the hope the blackbirds would have nothing further to do. It was time to mow my lawn and preparation would be key.

During the clean-up, I was vaguely aware that the blackbirds weren’t following me as they do on most days when they work about a metre from me, feeling safe.  So, once the lawn was clear I was relieved not to need to start again. Later in the day I walked around the house and was surprised there were no new scatters of mulch onto pathways or onto the lawn. Puzzling. By mid-afternoon I realised I hadn’t seen a bird since the first two around 7am. There were none in the garden, on pathways, in the bushes or trees, swinging on the power lines nor were birds flying.  Strangely, the air was silent.  No birdsong or twitter.

In the back of my mind I recalled once reading that birds, and other animals, have an instinct for knowing when an earthquake is imminent.  Googling the internet confirmed this was a possibility.  Other reasons were given for a loss of birds but none fitted the sudden total absence.  By now, ten hours had passed and not a bird in sight. I set out to walk around my nearby streets to look for birds in the gardens of others – just in case there was something special about my place.  Not a bird. Only the sound of wind through trees for company.

After considering what I would do if I was shaken awake overnight, I slipped easily off to sleep. At first light there were no birds waking and none walking or digging.  But at 8.10am the blackbirds were back in great numbers and soon followed by pairs of spotted turtle doves, the occasional small wattlebird and a lone honeyeater.

Records of seismic activity showed mild tremors near Canberra and in Western Australia during those 24 hours but none in Tasmania. Regardless, I have no doubt the birds knew the earth would move. They gave the sign and flew away rather than staying to feel the mildest of earth shake.

Or am I crazy?

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Grey Butcher Bird

I caught two, almost simultaneous, flashes of movement outside my window. The marauding ginger cat had frozen on the pathway below. Above, a bird bobbed on the power line and sang a song of perceived treachery and threat.

I often hear the beautiful voice of this bird but see it very occasionally, so it was time to consult my bird books to be sure of the identification; to be sure to distinguish between a shrike and a butcher bird. Quickly I confirmed the bird on the wire was a Grey Butcher Bird (Cracticus torquatus), a native bird found on the mainland but most commonly resident across Tasmania.

I picked up various bird books and browsed. To my astonishment I discovered the Grey Butcher Bird had an array of common names: Silver-backed Butcher bird, Derwent Jackass, Tasmanian Jackass, Whistling Jack, Collared Crow-shrike, and Grey Shrike. Derwent Jackass indeed! This name stood out. The Derwent River flows nearby the bottom of the hill where I live and I wondered if that was the connection.

I was eager to know more. While trawling through the National Library of Australia’s Trove resources, I read 19th and 20th century newspaper articles and learnt so much more about the history of naming our bird.

The kookaburra, sometimes nicknamed the Laughing Jackass, and the butcher bird occasionally keep company in the bush, despite each being differently sized. Both have reliable voices to broadcast loudly that threats are around.  Newspaper articles suggest that the Butcher Bird picked up the ‘Jackass’ epithet by association with the kookaburra. According to the 1969 edition of Chisholm’s Bird Wonders of Australia, the kookaburra is also known as the Laughing Jack and the Butcher Bird as the Derwent Jack, both presumably abbreviating Jackass. ‘Nature notes by Peregrine’ in a 1948 newspaper article noted ‘the name Derwent Jackass was often condensed to the more affectionate Derwent Jack or just Jack for, in spite of his villainous ways, the butcher bird has a pleasing personality and a pleasant song …’

Then I found references to Dervin and Derviners and Derwenters – all variously connected with our Butcher Bird. What did all this mean?

The Oxford Reference, ‘The Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms’ notes a Derwenter is ‘an ex-convict [from the convict settlement on the Derwent River in Tas.]’ Another source was clear that a Derwenter was one of the first convicts brought into the Derwent River so presumably this referred to the convicts arriving in 1803 and onward through at least the next couple of decades.  An 1897 newspaper article reported ‘old convicts were named Derwenters after this river’. That report also remarked that ‘… chain gangs in their parti-coloured clothing, brown and yellow (magpies they were called) busy road making…’. This is strange remark because the magpies have purely black and white feathers. Nevertheless it connects birds and Derwenters. In another newspaper article reporting on a court case, it was clear calling someone a Derwenter was derogatory and implied they were a murderer.

The Launceston Examiner newspaper printed an article in 1876 titled “DERWENT JACKASSES.—”I may tell you a bit of natural history which came under the notice of an old hutkeeper here. He was awoke one morning by hearing a tremendous noise of chirping and, on going out, he discovered on a hill adjacent to his hut two Derwent Jackasses (a species of jackass, only very small) trying to teach their young ones to fly. As they are splendid talkers and whistlers, he caught three young ones, and put them in a cage out-side the hut door. In order to find out what they lived on, he starved them, and soon their cries for food attracted the notice of the old birds, who, immediately after finding out where they were, flew away, and brought them back young snakes, from 3ft. to 4ft. long, and in the space of three days brought them in this way fifty snakes, which the young birds ate with great avidity.”

A 1906 newspaper article remarked ‘The butcher bird, or Derwent Jackass, is a notorious criminal of the avian community and the terror of maiden ladies of suburbia who own pet canaries. From the time when he first flutters out of a lofty cradle amid the top-most branches of some tall stringy bark, until the fierce brown eyes are glazed in death, the butcher bird is ‘red in beak and claw’ and his way marked with destruction. The butcher bird is an epicure in his own way, always liking to dine off fresh meat. His unfortunate victims are brought home one by one…’ Tasmania’s Grey Butcher Bird, an aggressive feeder, preys upon small animals, including birds, lizards and insects. As such, the bird could be classed a murderer, so that the term Derwenter sits comfortably.

The Derwent River was also known as the Dervine. A Mount Gambier newspaper of 1877 offered a story: Billy was a great stickler for the honour of Vandemonia, and when a traveller visited the hut, one of Bill’s first questions to him would be: “Been at t’other side?” or “Have you been on the Dervine?” The first interrogatory implied, “Have you ever been a convict in Tasmania?” and the other asked if the party had ever been on the Derwent in a similar capacity.

Tasmania’s Grey Butcher Bird was also called a Dervin or a Derviner.  Some believe the latter term is a derivation of Derwenters and may simply be the result of confusing accents being spoken by the array of guards and convicts and free settlers in the early 19th century.  An 1885 newspaper reports on a publican owner who ‘knew the bins of the old Derviners always drew them to the place where they are best treated.’

Two hundred or so years ago, locals would have recognised the bird on the wire outside my window as a Dervin, Derviner, Derwenter or Derwent Jackass These days I am happy to refer to it as a Tassie grey butcher bird.


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More on the 26th January

Thanks to a blog reader, Anne, I have been reminded that January 26th officially marks the 1788 landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove and the raising of the Union Jack flag by Arthur Phillip following days of exploration of Port Jackson in what was later named New South Wales. That landing occurred in January but there is some variation in the literature about whether it was the 26th or another day around then.  Probably as a matter of convenience the date for our national day was settled on the 26th.  Only since 1994 has this date consistently been scheduled as a public holiday across Australia.

When writing the previous blog post I know I was influenced by discussions I have heard recently amongst aboriginal persons. It seems that for at least some of our nation’s indigenous population, this First Fleet ‘arrival’ was just one more incursion and the contacts made by Captain Cook tend to stand in their memory more indelibly as the start of encroachment on country; of course Cook’s contacts along the east coast of Australia happened on various dates.

Setting a date for our national day where the dates of contacts with colonisers are used as the basis for the event, will continue to arouse protests and discussions each year. I look forward to a day when everyone who lives in Australia is happy to celebrate a national day that celebrates what we are now, and does not reference atrocities of the past.

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Thursday 26 January

Normally we would volunteer today in the Food Garden at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens but, because Australia has a gazetted public holiday, this month we could give it a miss or choose another day of the week. For some, the 26th is labelled ‘Australia Day’ to recognise Captain James  (Uncle Jimmy to the indigenous population) Cook’s voyage of discovery nearly 250 years ago when he informed the British government he had found a continent that was ‘terra nullius’. For 3% of Australia’s population, those indigenous peoples whose ancestors have lived across Australia for 60,000 years, and possibly more than half the rest of our nation’s peoples, January 26th was familiarly titled ‘Invasion Day’ and now is represented as ‘Survival Day’.  That we need a celebratory day, which reminds all our people of a positive and happy experience, becomes a much discussed issue each January. Yesterday, my friends and I raised our glasses with a toast to our indigenous peoples, who are part of the longest living civilisation on earth. I look forward to a day when the invitation offered by the Uluru Statement from the Heart is accepted . It asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling.

So, this week’s volunteering efforts occurred on Wednesday; a stunningly beautiful summer day with the heat of the sun beaming strongly onto our sun hats and burning into our backs.

Only three weeks ago I pruned the kiwi fruit vines – but there they were, growing again, with their long straggly arms waving up into and out into any space they could find. Eager to grow.

 I set to, and nipped these new protrusions back, leaving two nodules on each stem from which spring growth should flow.  At home I had similarly clipped my kiwi fruit and now, after a fortnight, the searching arms are wrapping themselves higher and higher around my balcony. A tall ladder and secateurs will be called into action soon!  Meanwhile, at the Food Garden, my fellow volunteers neatened up garden beds, by weeding and raking.

I remembered that more shallots were harvested last week and would have been drying off inside the garden shed. It was time to top them and remove flaking skins. Another box was readied for charity.

Then dozens of ‘stem lettuce’ seedlings were brought from the nursery.  These were planted in a bed that contained the scattered plants of self-seeded purslane, coriander and mustard.

Simple pleasures. Happy casual chats with visitors. Simple gardening.  Who needs more than that!

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Shallots and Garlic

The diversity of tasks offered to a gardener, makes gardening perpetually rich and enjoyable. Planting, pruning and harvesting are the three main categories of tasks but, for each, a plethora of mini tasks make up the whole.

Last Thursday in the Food Garden of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, three of us became a new version of the Ladies of Shal(l)ott.  One week before, a garden bed had been stripped of its long growing shallots (they take at least 6 months to mature and multiply from one planted bulb). In the intervening seven days they had been spread across open racks in order for their long straggling stems to dry. We loaded them into a basket and brought them to a table for the next stage of work to make them accessible for the charity to which they would be donated.

Our job was to frisk off dry outer layers, cut off most of the stem, and leave at least some of the dried roots.

Visitors watching us at work questioned whether these were onions. Technically, a shallot is a botanical variety of the onion but its characteristics are different from the common brown and the red onions that we all know so well. In particular, onions grow individually whereas shallots grow in clusters somewhat more akin to the way garlic grows. Whereas an onion will show rings when sliced, a shallot will look like a homogeneous clove.

During the morning, another harvest of shallots brought more to the gardening shed to be spread and dried for the coming week.  At the end of the harvest a sizeable number of bulbs will be kept for planting in a few months’ time.  The remainder will all be donated to the charity Second Bite to be distributed to disadvantaged people.

Having completed that task, we collected Lokalen garlic which had been drying for a period, and treated these in a similar fashion. Selected large bulbs with many cloves were set aside for planting later this year.

Ultimately these were ready for despatch.

We repeated the task with Duganski garlic. This time, the entire small crop was retained for planting.

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Pickling walnuts stages 2 and 3

Nine days ago I pierced and soaked green walnuts in a brine solution, stirred them occasionally, and watched a slight fermentation process underway each day. On the fourth day I changed the brine solution because it looked foul. I am not sure if this was appropriate. Perhaps it will change the final texture and flavour in way that is not attractive.  To be determined.

Stage two is simple. Line a tray with baking paper, pour away the brine solution, and roll the walnuts onto the paper. At this stage they are particularly unattractive, by my reckoning.

For the next 24 hours leave the walnuts in strong light and roll them around occasionally with the desire they form an all over, even, deep blackness.  After a day they carry a pleasant sheen; the lustre of burnished black clay or glossy charcoal.

Stage three is also simple.  Collect together your desired pickling ingredients.  For three jars I used a mix of malt vinegar and apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, allspice, salt and ground ginger. For one jar I used apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, allspice, black peppercorns, freshly ground nutmeg, and ground ginger.  I had two walnuts left over that wouldn’t fit in those four jars; my pickling mixture for these was a lazy apple cider vinegar and brown sugar.  Once you have decided on your ingredients pour them all into a pot, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.

In advance prepare/sterilise jars and their lids so they are clean. Dry them. Plop and push as many walnuts as you can into your jars to the brim – green walnuts are large and bulky so small jars won’t work well.

Pour the boiling pickling liquid into each jar to the top.

Screw the lids tightly.

I had two walnuts left so, as an experiment, I sliced then pickled them with the lazy pickling mix.

Don’t forget to label each with a list of ingredients and add the date of bottling.  I have stored the first four jars in a dark cupboard and placed the sliced walnuts in their solution, in the fridge.

 Most recipes suggest you can eat them one month after bottling. I have jars which are one year old and the contents are terrifically tasty – and safe!

Best wishes with pickling your own green walnuts.  Please tell me your stories.

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Orford Conservation Area and Bird Sanctuary

Heading southwards along Raspins Beach I found a series of notice boards that alerted me to the area beyond as the Orford Bird Sanctuary. Fenced along the away was a breeding sanctuary: of course, birds don’t read signs so humans were encouraged to walk only on the hard wet sand closest to the water and not stray into the dunes or grass tussocked sand banks.

Of course the rules indicated no dogs were allowed.

I walked, without a person in sight, until I reached the sandbagged edges of the Prosser River where I watched a boat motor along the channel towards the bridge at Orford. I could see the township spread along the far distant shore line.

My eyes followed the river inland.

The tiniest of other movements caught my vision; like a couple of leaves moving on a delicate breeze. Only by stopping and staring intently did I understand this was pair of the tiniest of birds. I believe the pair might have been Red Necked Stints which apparently breed in Siberia or North Alaska. The strength and endurance of migratory birds always astonishes me. The pair I watched flew and stood on top of a bag – probably impossible for you to see in the following photograph.

From the southern end looking north, I appreciated the generous white sand beach which continued until stopped by pretty sandstone cliffs.

Most of all, I adored the glorious cloudy skies – because the beach provided physical and mental space ‘to be present’ in that environment, and to find pleasure in every aspect. Those skies were full of greys, blues and colourful white tones.

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Raspins Beach

Last February I travelled along the east coast highway and marvelled at the number of Tasmanian beaches that surprised me, seemingly around every corner. Typically, there was never a soul in sight on these beaches. A luxury which Tasmania often offers!

Recently I ‘discovered’ Raspins Beach, within the orbit of the east coast town of Orford, a sandy arc located about an hour’s drive northwards from Hobart. On the day when I walked its length, only a couple of other people were enjoying its freedom.

I hadn’t strolled far when confronted with a series of information boards, weathered by the elements, that had been installed for the benefit of visitors.

At the northern end of the beach a wavy sandstone cliff, with multi-tones of brown, back dropped fallen rocks and edged first the sand and then the water. Maria Island, just off the coast, has well-known sensational ‘painted cliffs’ and I sensed a geological nature shared by the two places. I guessed the sandstone continues under the waves between each location.

A creek empties water, from the hills behind, across the sand and out to sea.

The rich tannins from native plants stain the water.

Mussels were growing naturally on the rocks.

A variety of seaweeds and sea lettuces were drying at the high tide mark.

Looking southwards to Orford the beach seemed to stretch interminably. I had no idea that, in the distance, the deep Prosser River cut across the sand and acted as a barrier to further walking towards the township.

The remnants of child-play remained, as yet undisturbed by high tide.

Another creek attempted to empty into the sea but it died and the water sunk away into the sand.

Provided away from the beach are walking tracks, parking lots, and opportunities for non-sandy picnics. It all depends what you want to do when you visit Raspins Beach.

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Homage to Piet Mondrian

For those who don’t know the name, you may recognise a signature look. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was an influential Dutch painter and art theorist especially with his work of the 1920s and 1930s. Excerpts of examples of his work follow.

The power of primary colours offset by the starkness of white and black is instantly memorable. His paintings work to harmonise contrasts.

But what has this artist’s work to do with Tasmania? Wherein lays the ‘tasmanian discovery’?

Travel about 80 kms north-east of Hobart to Orford, on Tasmania’s east coast, to see a home owner/builder embracing the conceptual nature of Mondrian’s work and to appreciate the inherent possibilities for drama and sense of vitality in a home residence. This is not the work of a copier of any one piece of Mondrian’s work; rather the combinations and structure of the colour on the home’s frontage have been designed to reflect the home owner’s appreciation of the general spirit of his work. This configuration and choice of colour are unique and stand clearly as the owners’ intellectual property.

From the vantage point of nearby Raspins Beach, the strong colours attract attention at distance even through tall trees.

The house is beside the north bound highway, and you will drive past it a short while after crossing the Prosser River at Orford when heading towards Triabunna. The brave front of this house is a reminder to us all that we should step away from the familiar and the tried and true, at least in some parts of our lives. In this case, a few cans of paint have been all that was needed to demonstrate an adventurous spirit, and to bring wonderful colour into our lives.

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