13 May 2020 | Lemon Tree Passage Marina, Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia
Alison Stocker | Photo: Eastern rosella (to 30 cm or 12 inches) seen on Global Big Day
Did you know that Saturday 9th May was Global Big Day?
In the current Covid-19 climate you might be forgiven for assuming that this refers to something like the world's worst day so far of deaths from coronavirus.
But instead it is about something much more uplifting and enjoyable. For the last five years, it has been a day when birders all around the world go out to count birds. By submitting their checklists online to: https://ebird.org/globalbigday
this provides a snapshot of the global bird populations. Typical of citizen science, each year there is much variation in terms of effort and results but the overall project is useful in showing some trends. We did this with Vandy and Eric in New Zealand in 2018 but for some reason we missed it while we were in Port Stephens last year.
Of course, this year was bound to be different as many people could not travel or gather as they might in normal years. The effort was still impressive 6,469 species recorded on 118,256 checklists submitted by 49,461 people. As usual, the USA had the most checklists submitted, but the greatest number of 1,431 species, was seen in Colombia. Compared to 2018, the global number of species was reduced from 6,899 (including a reduction in Colombia from 1,546 species) but the number of participants and checklists had increased by more than 40%. Whether this is an actual sign of reduced global bird diversity, or of the limitations due to Covid-19 on this year's activities, will probably not be evident until next year. Still, it was encouraging to know that so many people were participating.
A willy wagtail (to 20 cm or 8 inches) a rather curious and friendly type of fantail included in our Big Day's 36 species - gotta love the rather stern-looking white eyebrow
Tregoning was in the channel called Lemon Tree Passage so after eating breakfast before dawn, Randall and I set-off along the shoreline, first to the north and then to the south of the small community of Lemon Tree Passage which hugs the east end of the Tilligerry Peninsula. We then roamed inland through an old quarry and uphill through a eucalypt forest to the water tanks and weather-radar tower on top of the highest hill in the area. From there, we dropped down on the hill's west side to the Mallabula Sports Complex. Instead of being crowded with athletes as it usually would be on a Saturday morning, it had been left to the birds. The fields were still being mowed but perhaps not quite as frequently as usual so there were many seed-eating birds having a feast such as the eastern rosella (introductory photo). We walked more than 10 km (6 miles) over a period of about six hours. That is a slow average speed but with many periods of standing as we watched or identified species, it was quite tiring and we were both ready to sit-down once we returned to Tregoning.
Sunrise at the beginning of our first checklist seen over Lemon Tree Passage
Luckily for me, Randall is willing to record our sightings as we walk and then submit them online when we have finished. He is very good at spotting birds while I concentrate on species identification so we make a good team. We completed six checklists, dividing our total route by dominant habitats. Despite being fairly low tide, I was a little surprised that we did not see more waders and shoreline birds. Much of our shoreline trail meandered under large flowering eucalypts which were alive with noisy miners and three species of lorikeets; rainbow (very common), scaly breasted, and musk.
A musk lorikeet (to 22 cm or 9 inches) hanging upside-down to feed on eucalypt flowers
During the morning we identified 36 species which was satisfactory but not outstanding and no species that were new to us. We saw and heard very few birds during the long walk through the woods and our return walk along the main road from the sports complex. We were able to include a few gems, however, such as superb fairy wrens, red-browed firetails, a brahminy kite, and an osprey. Perhaps the most exciting species was seen fairly early and was only noticed because we were looking at a kookaburra sitting on a branch not far above the shoreline trail.
A laughing kookaburra (to 46 cm or 18 inches) on the right end of a branch...with a surprise friend at the far left end
Perched on the same branch, but right next to the tree's trunk, we spotted a tawny frogmouth! It was well camouflaged and I am sure that we would have never have noticed it had we not been admiring the kookaburra.
The tawny frogmouth (32 - 46 cm or 13 to 18 inches) sleeping-off the night's hunting activity
Randall was particularly excited that we were named in the e-bird database for two Australian "records". One was the first sighting of the day of pied oystercatchers (3) and the other was for the largest number of magpie larks (50), which we counted at the sports complex. I thought that we might get a mention for most little corellas (150) but someone had recorded 800...wow! Vandy made a couple of New Zealand "records" for the first sighting of, and most (3), brown teal.
The only slight disappointment of the expedition was that I had really hoped to see a koala while we tramped through the forest. The Tilligerry Peninsula is well-known for its koala populations, with many signs informing people about their possible presence in the area. Several people seeing us peering into a tree with our binoculars assumed that we had found a koala, and one helpful chap showed us the size and type of tree that they find easiest to climb. During our bird surveys, I thought there would be a good chance that we would see a koala since we were walking slowly and looking up on the tree canopy with binoculars. Although I have been similarly unsuccessful during various runs through the local woods, it is not possible to look up at the canopy very thoroughly while running along rough trails.
In the evening, however, we did get to see an unexpected mammal. Looking across Lemon Tree Passage at low tide, I noticed what I took to be a tabby cat walking under the mangroves. Annoyed that a non-native predator was sauntering around on the uninhabited Bulls Island, I took a closer look and found that it was actually a red fox.
A red fox walking the shoreline by the mangroves of Bull's Island
Given my family-name of Fox, I do have rather soft-spot for red foxes but only in their native habitats which are spread across much of the northern hemisphere. It was fascinating to watch this specimen sniff its way along the muddy shoreline before turning inland. Like feral cats, these mammalian predators that are alien to Australia decimate populations of ground-nesting birds and small marsupials. We wondered how common they are in this area and if there is an active management program for them.
Why, you might be wondering, were we doing so much on the Tilligerry Peninsula?
After the excitement of trips to Nelson Bay and Salamander Bay around 22nd April, we spent almost two weeks anchored in North Arm Cove. Initially, the weather was mostly pleasant and relatively calm so we could get some exercise by rowing and going to shore to walk or run around the attractive residential community of North Arm Cove. Rather surprisingly, the layout of the community was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, who planned the streets of Canberra. This was because in 1918, Port Stephens was being considered as the main seaport for NSW, and the peninsula at North Arm Cove was a potential site for the nation's capital. Obviously, the full plans would have had much more complex infrastructure than was actually initiated, including a business district, factory area, and two railway stations. Only the roads of the city-style subdivision were carved-out before it became evident that the capital was going be relocated from Melbourne to the new city of Canberra in 1927. Most of the land from the 1918 subdivision is now zoned "non-urban" meaning that, other than on the residential blocks around the shoreline of the peninsula, construction of buildings is not permitted. The result is a large wooded area of privately owned but undeveloped lots with plenty of public dirt roads weaving between them, providing extensive forested walking and running tracks.
By the end of April two things changed:
Randall pulled a muscle in his back
It became windy
My own back had been sore a couple of weeks earlier but had now recovered so we were lucky not to both be semi-incapacitated at the same time. Being anchored in North Arm Cove with no need to move, was not a bad time for Randall to be resting. The wind kicked-up from the west for several days which eliminated the option of rowing to shore, in fact, we strapped the dinghy down on the deck so that we did not have to worry about it. We saw gusts up to 41 knots, while Pete on SV Havachat in a marina on the south side of Port Stephens saw 51 knots. Trapped aboard, I did some inside cleaning jobs while Randall rested his back but some walking is generally good for back pain so we needed to get to shore when things calmed down.
Thus, by Wednesday, (6th May), when the time came for a holding-tank pump-out, instead of going to the public dock in Nelson Bay, we went to the one in Lemon Tree Passage. Because of some shallow areas on the approach, we had to wait for high tide around 8 am. It was an interesting passage across the bay because there was fog with only 1/8 nm visibility. Fortunately, there were few other boats moving around and the chart was very accurate...until we got into Lemon Tree Passage itself. But by that time we could easily see the shoreline on either side as well as all the moored boats. In addition to the pump-out, we planned to spend a few nights in the neighboring Lemon Tree Passage Marina (a.k.a. Albatross Marina). We had stayed there for a few nights a year ago when we had to unload our old house-bank batteries (four large golf-cart 6v batteries) and get news ones from Sydney. Part of the marina looked a mess, as if a hurricane or tsunami had passed through but there was plenty of room for us on the newer-looking, long face-dock. Apparently the old docks are slowly being replaced with cast-offs from The Anchorage Marina at Corlette (where SV Havachat is located). It was these replacement pieces needing to be cut into the necessary shapes that were floating near us.
Tregoning (right) alongside the relatively "new" face-dock with the older dock construction to left and floating pieces of replacement dock in the center.
We originally planned to stay for just a couple of days but, inevitably, this has extended to a week (after five days, the weekly rate is cheaper). Having not been in a marina since leaving Hobart on the 12th March, it felt quite luxurious to be able to walk on and off the boat, to have long hot showers, and to use water and electricity without having to worry about how quickly they could be replaced. It was also good to get rid of two month's accumulation of recycling, which was clean but the big sack of it was getting in the way.
Other excitements included being able to use the marina's launderette and having good weather to hang much of the washing on boat to dry. Having only done a little hand-washing before I hurt my back, there was plenty to do. It is just over 4 km each way to cycle to Tanilba Bay so I made several trips there to buy groceries and to fill two of our three propane tanks (a rather heavy load in my back-packs on the return journey). We have both been able to enjoy walking (and me running) without having to row ashore first or wait for a calm day. And without needing the dinghy, Randall has been able to patch some leaks and scratches on it.
Of course, no longer being isolated at anchor we have to be very careful about potential Covid-19 exposure. This a small marina but there are quite a few live-aboard boats so we are very careful about touching handles on the dock-gate and bathrooms. Most people seem to be pretty good about social-distancing so we do not feel too endangered by this temporary return to civilization. A great bonus as far as I am concerned is that there are a couple of take-away restaurants in the small community so I have enjoyed a few evenings without having to prepare dinner...woohoo!
In general, Australia has fared relatively well in the Covid-19 pandemic. Having closed its international borders relatively early (and especially early with China) there has not been a huge influx of cases. Other than hot-spots associated with the Ruby Princess cruise-ship debacle in Sydney, a party at a medical-facility in northern Tasmania, an elder-care facility in Sydney, and a meat-packing plant in Victoria, the overall situation has been controlled well and most people have been fairly compliant with social-distancing, etc., (with the exception for a while of young beach-users). The rate of downloading of the tracking app that the government had hoped would reach 40% is lagging at only about half that rate. Part of the problem is that some people, like us, do not change their smartphone often enough to have an operating system that can run the app. We suspect that we will by buying a new phone soon...
As with many other places in the world, the focus in Australia is now very much on how to relax some restrictions without precipitating an increase in Covid-19 cases. Each state's administration is developing its own guidelines and schedules but in consultation with neighboring and national governments. This means that it requires some online searching to learn when and what local regulations may be changed. Of course, for most people the key questions will be when schools fully reopen, additional businesses can open (many stores are open around here), and what size of groups can socialize together. Training in professional sports is already underway, with strict regulations, for matches to be played without spectators.
The following are three further websites by Tomas Pueyo (we cited some of his earlier) that focus on the priorities for reopening countries and economies, particularly based on the data collected from countries that have, and have not, been successful in keeping the infection-rate low:
For us, the critical questions are when we can cross the border into Queensland and if we can freely move along the coast once there. We think that the latter is already possible and we could even enter the state if we requested special permission and quarantined for two weeks. We are probably going to wait until the border officially opens...unless it starts getting much colder here. The situation in Indonesia is not looking good so we are very doubtful that we will go there any time this year or, quite frankly, before a widespread vaccine is available. We are especially thankful that we did not leave for Indonesia last year, as originally planned, because we would either be stuck in Malaysia or Thailand, or might have started westward and could have found ourselves caught in the Maldives. Friends of Vandy and Eric are trapped in the Maldives on their boat but fear that they are going to be thrown out soon with nowhere obvious to go. This is one of several cruising blogs from that stricken nation: https://wanderingwaterhorse.com/travel/stuck-in-the-maldives-the-life-and-times-of-covid-19/
So far, our friends Clare and Andy on SV Tintamarre are being allowed to stay in the Galapagos Islands. But they are also trying to decide what their best strategy would be (e.g. go to New Zealand, French Polynesia, Hawaii, Mexico, Panama, or mainland Ecuador) if they want, or need, to leave. https://www.svtintamarre.com/
So other than our long-term voyaging plans being completely up-in-the-air, we feel very fortunate with our situation and content with our location. We have enjoyed our week of luxury in the marina and it is time to head back out into the anchorages of Port Stephens. Just before leaving, Martina and Pete from SV Havachat came over from Newcastle and joined us for morning coffee (and tasty pastries that Martina brought) on Tregoning. Having studied the local regulations, we concluded that the four of us were not allowed to gather for a picnic in the local park until Friday, but we could have two friends join us in our home. Pete and Randall stopped at the coffee-shop by the marina before boarding Tregoning. When asked whether they were local, Randall related that we had enjoyed our week's stay there but were a little disappointed not to see a koala. In response, the coffee-server asked him if he meant that he was sorry not to see any koalas other than the one in the park not more than 50 m (160 feet) away?
Red arrow show Tregoning in the marina, blue arrow shows Pete, Martina, and Randall and the yellow circle is where the koala was sleeping
Sure enough, within sight of Tregoning, in an isolated tree in a busy park, there was a koala fast asleep. So much for spending a week pounding over miles of trails in the woods. Within a couple of hours of leaving Lemon Tree Passage, we would be directed to a koala right on our back door-step.
The sleeping koala within shouting distance of Tregoning (I do not know what the significance is of the mottled, pale fur on its bottom)
We would never have noticed this koala without being told about it. Having seen them in Victoria high in tall trees that were well away from the road, we had assumed that all the local koalas would be in the most remote parts of the woods, away from the residential areas. Apparently we were wrong and, in this koala-friendly peninsula, when people told us that they sometimes see them in their yards these were not once-in-a-lifetime events as we had imagined but were relatively common. It was wonderful to finally socialize with friends like Martina and Pete, and being able to see a koala with them, just before we left Lemon Tree Passage, was the icing on the cake!