Sunday, 21 April 2013

Old birds, new chicks and gum trees

As we dodge Avian flu and regular flu and returning blackbirds (which is worst?) we welcome some avian additions to the household, or outliers, and garden.
First is little Nadia. Sick of booting mercurial Freddy off the nest (broody for 9 months!) we popped some fertilised eggs under her. One evening I stole her own egg (not happy), replaced it with two which had a spark of life (a shiver of joy), added another 2 (OK...), another, last egg, for she is a very small Wyandotte (not impressed) and that was her allotment; thank you to our friend Eddie. She concentrated hard and 19 and a half days later, while rat-proofing her enclosure, I found one had started to hatch. Making a very poor midwife, I hastily popped it – eye-glaring and wing-thrusting (the hatchling, not me) - into the nest, picked up Freddy and tossed her in after it. Phew.
Nadia’s father, it turned out, was `inexperienced’ and the other 4 eggs were infertile; apparently now he has favourites. (There’s no good TV is there?)

But from day 2 Nadia – another bantam - would hop up onto Mum like a gymnast and she even found a high bar a few days later. As a child of the `70’s I promptly named her for the perfectly scoring Romanian Comăneci of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. For 6 weeks Freddy taught her all the important life skills: this is how to scratch for food, this is how to scratch for food, this is how...but now they are growing a little more sisterly, a tad more independent...until nightfall. Over 7 weeks and Nadia still snuggled under her eiderdown quilt at night, inquisitive head poking out from Mum’s breast. Then at dawn she leaps up onto the top of the feeder; this is not a problem. (We anxiously watch her tail which looks reassuringly feminine.) And now at 8 weeks: it’s almost avuncular as Freddy can barely drape a wing over the growing one on these cold nights, down to 4°C.

Lucy (top) is our other avian newcomer. Where Nadia is russet and charcoal, fluffy and whirling, Lucy is silvery, metal-hard and...also whirling. More bird (to me) than seahorse or sea dragon - like other creations of the wonderful artist Daniel Jenkins - she has delicate ribbons in place of mane, wings, and tail; fantastical. Turning with the winds, she is patinated repoussé copper somehow perfectly reflecting, almost replicating, rippling grey leaves of our nicest nearby gums, with russet also for the bark.

We’re lucky, here. My English cousin Joe laughed when he visited last year and heard that our patch of bush with its orchids and lizards, wild flowers and little birds, was saved from destruction by its poor soil. Monbulk and other areas in the Dandenong Ranges have mountain soil (and farms), Sherbrooke has superb soaring Mountain Ash (and shade; Eucalyptus regnans (named in 1871) was arguably overestimated by Baron von Mueller (and one or two others) by 100 feet but still reaches an impressive 100m), but we have dumpy Messmate Gums which don’t shade the house in winter. Better yet, we also have Silver-leaf Stringybark (E. cinerea subsp cephalocarpa) which add a further trick to that magical trick of all gums - those round silver-white juvenile leaves so beloved of florists – with brilliant blue-tinged platinum sickle-shaped leaves in spring turning slowly to grey as the season’s progress like some annual witches progress from shimmering damsel to hoary crone. Right now – mid-autumn – there are still some leaves with a dusting of snowy white, most notable on a sunny day.

(It’s part fellow feeling for the heat they endure, but I like these down-pointing leaves, avoiding excess sun, which allow sunshine through to the shrub layer and the understorey with its small violets and fringed lilies, chocolate lilies and milkmaids, and all the creatures they support. You probably need to be born here or transplanted early to get this almost-irrational strong affection for the gum, love its beauty and grandeur, and shed a tear when you are abroad for too long and get a whiff of the scent of its leaf. It’s easy to admire the stately outback ghost gums, the majestic white-trunked manna gums in the nearby forest, the handsome spotted gums near the south east coast (E. maculata, a really great plant), the gleam of copper, olive, cream and metal-grey of snow gums in the high country if you ski amongst them when the trunks shine wetly, and even the scarlet-flowering gums with their extraordinary flower-power in the hottest days of summer; but the native born also, generally, embraces the awkward scarecrows too, the straggly and crooked growth, the fascinating epicormic growth along branches of most species after fire, the ribbons that fall from the trunk of some, the dull leaves of hard olive-green (surely there is a better word for this colour?), its ability to be home to mistletoe, birds, insects, possums and the insect larvae that give the scribbly gum its name. Complete individuality.) 
Whenever we put the kettle the on to boil we gaze out to the north into the garden, out into the sunshine where we have 3 of these big craggy bent-over fellows, sometimes ashen, but mainly gleaming silvery-white, and they distract the eye from the old grey corrugated sheds that we inherited with the property. These trees have been home to possums and owls, but most of all tawny frogmouths which sit all day in pairs, stone-still, with their heads up, eyes closed and mimic stringybark branches perfectly.
Lucy fits like a glove.
Lucy came as a gift from J as I scored my half century, and was a clever idea where I’d proposed a heavier sculpture. Instead she is light and just the right proportion for our country garden. Daniel made a sculpture – only superficially similar - that my parents have loved in their garden (above, with wattles and daffodils) for over 20 years. As they called theirs `Leunix’ (a pet name combining a phoenix and revered cartoonist  of all things innocent and curly, Michael Leunig), so did we until she was ours and then...she was shortened, of course. Lucy is arguably more aquatic and is delightfully curly but I just want her to be a bird.

And just to emphasise the importance of creatures avian, here is a picture of me at 16 with one of my `girls’ circa 1980, with my mother and my oldest niece; I think it’s my favourite picture of Mum. Chicks and chooks, if you will. 

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