After revealing my unnerving night escapade in the previous post, I think it’s time to share far more genteel pursuits. In the last couple of years, I’ve spent increasingly more time exploring local creeks, historical cemeteries, and roadside rest areas than national park hiking trails.
Many of these outings resulted in bliss from unexpected wildlife encounters. Others sent me on philosophical ponderings or hours of historical research. Regular readers may not be surprised to learn that despite the less taxing nature of these walks, I still managed to end up in a pickle on multiple occasions.
Instead of one story, today I’m going to share highlights from multiple meanderings in an area very close to my home – the Scenic Rim region of Queensland – unceded land of the UgarapuI people. I’m even going to try something extremely radical – subheadings! While I’m lexicurious and logofascinated, I’d never describe myself as a wordsmith. I do get a buzz out of sharing the wonders of the natural world though.
The Muppets of Lake Maroon
Down by the waters of Lake Maroon, in a busy recreational area, I spotted an adorable pair of muppets.
Tawny Frogmouths are often mistaken for owls, but are more closely related to nightjars. Weaker feet and the absence of curved talons are two obvious differences.
These endearing creatures often visit my backyard, however I’m far more likely to hear than see them. They spend their days resembling tree branches and at night drop down to catch small prey on the ground, or large flying insects attracted to lights. Their scruffy feathers and bland colours really do make them difficult to detect, and on this occasion, other lake visitors were oblivious to their presence.
Besides excellent camouflage abilities, Tawny Frogmouths have other forms of defence. Mating pairs will mob nest intruders by pecking them, and if this doesn’t work, may spray predators with their pungent faeces. In her fascinating book, Tawny Frogmouth (2nd edition), Professor Gisela Kaplan explains that this may confuse reptilian predators who rely heavily on smell.
Tawnies have a variety of calls including a low pitched repetitive “oom-oom-oom’ at night, a tom cat screaming sound when distressed, and a mournful whimpering, which may be produced by orphaned chicks or those about to leave the nest. Monogamous and highly affectionate, they’ve been known to produce heartbreaking whimpers for long periods after their mate has been killed. Gisella’s observations of a particular female who lost her mate and rejected others for two years, led her to suggest that the female may have been experiencing the emotion of grieving.
Gisella also reports that Tawnies have very good temperature control. Not only do their feathers insulate well, but in hot weather they can triple their breathing rate while their beaks remain closed. They also produce a special kind of mucus in their mouths which helps to cool the air they breathe. To cope with heat and energy loss in winter, tawnies will also go through short bouts of torpor – a kind of hibernation.
While their nest building abilities are poor, it has been suggested this is because in the past, they’ve relied on large bark-flaking branches of eucalypt trees that are no longer as abundant.
In my last post, I discussed being enamoured by powerful owls. I love Tawnies just as much, but in a different way. How can one not be fond of these hilarious muppets with their wide mouths and messy sticking-up facial feathers? Loving non-traditionally beautiful creatures such as tawny frogmouths is a reminder to love the quirky features about ourselves. I have a big mouth and fine fly-away hair that often looks like I never comb it. I still remember complaining to my daughter one day that I looked far too dishevelled to go shopping. She replied that all I needed to do was brush my hair and I’d be fine to go. I’d just finished brushing it.
There is much to learn from the cycles of the natural world. A plethora of caterpillars, butterflies, and moths at Mee-bor-rum (the north peak of Mt French), reminded me that we all go through stages in our lives.
Larval and pupal stages can be precarious times. Somehow these soft, vulnerable beasties manage to survive disease, predators, and weather events to transform into magical creatures of flight.
Life is about change. If we’re open to making mistakes, learning and growing, we can also make transformations, and not just to ourselves. When we open our hearts and minds to the suffering of others, it can motivate us to make transformations to the society in which we live.
My favourite sightings at Mee-bor-rum were Blue Tiger (Tirumala hamata) butterflies on grass tree flower stalks. Sharing the sweetness were tiny native bees.
Although found in other habitats, Blue Tigers are mostly a tropical species that breed in monsoonal and littoral rainforest.
In spring and summer, adults may disperse as far south as Victoria. Enormous numbers may sometimes migrate through the Greater Brisbane Area. When cooler weather arrives, Blue Tigers will head back north.
Many butterflies live extremely short lives. Blue Tigers may live for only one or two months in summer, but due to a special survival strategy, may live for up to nine months. “Aestivation” or “overwintering” enables this species to become dormant through the winter months until more favourable breeding conditions in spring.
During “overwintering” they can be seen congregating in huge numbers, clustering on stems and vines in sheltered gullies in central and north Queensland.
Fassifern Valley Rail Trail – Ghosts and Gratitude
I’ve only hiked one rail trail and doubt I’ll be going on any others. Don’t get me wrong. I think turning disused rail lines into walking and cycling trails for the general public is a fantastic idea. The lack of shade doesn’t appeal to someone who is heat and sun sensitive like me though.
So why did I attempt a rail trail in the first place if it was so unappealing? I usually like to try something at least once before making a judgement about whether it suits me. At 6 km, the Fassifern Valley Rail Trail loop is probably the shortest rail trail in Queensland. Perfect!
I’d also read that it passed by an historical cemetery. If you’ve read a couple of my early blog posts you’ll know I’m a fan of old graveyards. Some may regard this as a morbid interest, but there can be great value in visiting old graves.
Graveyards can remind us of those who’ve battled before us. They are reminders of wars, famine, disease, natural disasters, atrocities, crimes, and accidents. The current world pandemic is not the first in history. And indeed, during the challenge of Covid-19, many have also been battling ongoing injustice, conflicts, famines and natural disasters. Our very existence is a reminder of those who came before us. We represent their survival. We can take strength and comfort from knowing that many of our ancestors also struggled. We can also feel gratitude.
In the tiny Baptist Cemetery, shaded by towering eucalypts along the Fassifern Valley Rail Trail, lies the grave of Emma Neibling. She was only 22 when she died of typhoid fever during a local epidemic, leaving behind a husband, a 6 year old daughter and a baby boy.
It seems Emma was loved by her family and the community as these Trove newspaper articles indicate.
After reading that she was a young mother, I feared for her young children’s future. After hours of research, I was heartened to discover that six year old Beatrice lived to be a 97 year old great-great grandmother, while baby Bernard lived to be an 82 year old great-grandfather. The illness which killed so many, and still kills people today in areas of the world with poor sanitation and contaminated water, spared Emma’s young children. Some Aboriginal communities in Australia are still fighting for access to a clean, reliable water source, a basic human right that many of us take for granted.
I wondered why I was so drawn to Emma’s grave. Was it because I was also a mother of a baby boy at the same age she died? Further digging led me to discover she is likely to be a distant relative. It seems we may be linked via the German branch of the family tree who migrated to the area around the same time.
You may question why I chose to share a grave about a person who isn’t famous. It struck me how many women don’t have their names in history books. While researching my own family tree, I could find little information about the women besides their names, and even then, there was often no mention of their birth surname, only their married name. Many of these women are lost in history even though they worked so hard as mothers, provided invaluable support to their partners, and contributed to their communities.
Sanctuary Among the Thorns
As well as Emma’s grave, a surprising number of wildlife sightings had me repeat the section between the graveyard and Pocock Road on numerous occasions, even during devastating drought conditions.
The presence of introduced highly invasive African box thorn attracted many small bird species, including double-barred finches, red-backed fairy-wrens, and superb fairy wrens.
The spiny stems, flowers, and berries provide food and protection.
Fresh manure from grazing cattle attracts flies and beetles, adding to the food source for bird species.
I must admit I fell a little bit in love with this red-backed fairywren (in transitional colours) that followed me along the trail.
I often passed kangaroos and wallabies down by the cemetery. Unlike me, they sensibly sheltered from the heat.
And a nankeen kestrel kept watch from a distance on all of my visits.
Originally, the Fassifern Rail Trail was meant to be part of the planned 76km Boonah to Ipswich Rail Trail, but this project was suspended in 2012. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend the full 6.2 km Fassifern Valley Trail loop as 3.2 km is on unshaded public road. The 3 km section of rail trail that starts at the Boonah Lookout and passes through farmland by the tiny graveyard, and ends at Pocock Road appealed to me because of the unexpected birdlife.
Dragons, Damsels, and other Beasties
The park by the Boonah Information Centre where you can may choose to begin the Fassifern Rail Trail was such a haven for pond wildlife that one day I ended up with heatstroke. It’s easy for me to lose track of time when engrossed in the behaviour of dragonflies and damselflies.
Dragons and damsels are extremely territorial – a boon for photographers. They’ll return again and again to the same reed, twig or rock, in between fiercely defending their patch.
Many species inhabit the pond and were engaged in producing future offspring.
In the middle of the day, I regularly saw dragonflies exhibiting the obelisk stance. Apparently this position aids in cooling the insect. What a shame I didn’t heed their warnings.
The drone of cicadas is a quintessential sound of the Australian bush. I often see the exuviae (exoskeleton remains) of these creatures in my backyard or on walks, but rarely spot a newly emerged adult. I was thrilled to discover hundreds of this large species resting on casuarinas on the banks of the pond.
Cicadas spend most of their lives underground as nymphs. Some of the larger species in Australia may spend around 7 years underground before emerging, while in North America, Periodical Cicadas may spend 13 or 17 years beneath the earth.
It probably won’t surprise you to read that cicadas are the loudest insect species in the world. Only the males sing and each species has its own distinctive call. In Australia, there are around 200 species with most singing during the heat of the day. Some weaker fliers, like the bladder cicada, sing at dusk. The communal ear-piercing singing is thought to aid in confusing or repelling predators.
As well as insects, reptilian creatures eyed my activities with suspicion.
As did a young brushtailed possum from a fork high in a casuarina tree.
Minto Crag – A Spot of Trouble
As many of you already know, I’m frequently directionally-challenged. This led to a brief heart-racing encounter while in search of an access road to Minto Crag, or Whinpullin (in the language of the Aboriginal Custodians) – one of the few volcanic ring dykes in Australia.
After taking what I thought was the correct gravel road, I found myself on private property. I finally realised my error, turned around, and was on my way out when the owner pulled up to question me. Given the size and ferocity of some of the “Keep out” signs I’ve seen in the Boonah region, I was fully expecting a big burly, angry-faced white Australian farmer with a gun slung over his shoulder.
I was slightly relieved when a middle-aged woman asked, “Can I help you?” through her open car window, although I could tell by her tone she was far from impressed. Once she’d established that I didn’t have nefarious intentions, she relaxed her gruff attitude a little. In my heart-thudding nervousness, I did what I often do. I started babbling on about unrelated things. I’d seen some wild gourds growing on the roadside on my way in and asked if I could have a couple.
Do you ever hear yourself saying inappropriate things but just can’t stop yourself? I tend to do it more when I’m frightened or nervous. Here I was, a trespasser on someone’s property, and yet I’d cheekily asked if I could have something. I thought I saw a look of pity on the poor woman’s face, or maybe it was fear that I was mentally unstable? She kindly allowed me to have them though and watched me go on my way.
What am I going to do with them? I haven’t decided yet. They just excite me! And why shouldn’t they? Gourds have been used for thousands of years by many cultures for all sorts of things, including food, bottles, art and musical instruments.
This unexpected acquisition led me to research gourds further, which then led me to Toowoomba where there is an amazing gourd shop and cafe. Of course, I couldn’t resist buying gourds for family members (whether they liked them or not), and one for myself which had been converted into a birdhouse.
I even ordered gourd seeds online to grow in my own yard. Yes, I confess. I have gourd greed!
But did I ever make it to Minto Crag? Yes, and no. I couldn’t get close enough to walk or climb on the dyke itself, but was able to take photos from a distance, although they don’t really show its distinctive ring shape.
When I did find the right road, I spied an old home, shed and car. Derelict buildings fascinate me. I can easily imagine the excitement of their first owners when they moved into their freshly painted residence. This dilapidated structure was probably a bustling household once, full of children squealing and laughing.
Sometimes I imagine there are ghosts watching me from windows. I often feel that old buildings contain traces of their occupants in the form of a particular mood. Some places feel peaceful. Some melancholy. Others have a noticeable chill.
This rusting beast was once someone’s pride and joy.
And a leaning skeleton once housed machinery and hay bales.
So while my trip to Minto Crag did not result in many wildlife sightings, it did whet my gourd desires, and provided hours of entertainment for my fertile imagination.
Oh, the Things You Will See!
These views are only snippets from my many wanderings in the Scenic Rim area. National parks are wonderful places to explore, but there is also so much to discover in local creeks and reserves. Places like cemeteries, rail lines, ponds, and urban gardens can provide vital habitat for endangered species, as Melbourne researchers, Kylie Soanes and Pia Lentini found out:
“Precious endangered species aren’t all tucked away in national parks and conservation reserves. These little battlers are more often found hiding in plain sight, amid the urban hustle and bustle. Our research found them living along railway lines and roadsides, sewerage treatment plants and cemeteries, schools, airports, and even a hospital garden. While these aren’t the typical places you’d expect to find threatened species, they’re fantastic opportunities for conservation.” The Conversation, 2nd April, 2019.
Many of us don’t have the time, the money, the physical mobility, or good health to travel far and do challenging hikes in national parks, so it’s encouraging to remember that wildlife treasures can be found much closer to home. In the time of coronavirus restrictions, and when we are also looking for ways to reduce our negative environmental impact, it’s good to remind ourselves that long distance trips are not compulsory to receive a nature fix. It can sometimes be a challenge to slow down and look through fresh eyes at familiar surroundings, but the benefits are worth the effort.
I walked slowly, and listened
to the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.
From “Sometimes” by Mary Oliver.
Kaplan, Gisela (2018), Tawny Frogmouth (2nd ed), CSIRO publishing.