Thursday, 6 December 2007

#40 Summer in the Hunter Valley

Summer in the Hunter Valley is dominated by dry heat, strong northwesterly winds and wild electrical storms. The threat of bushfire is always present and water is scarce. Native animals appear to cope with harsh climatic conditions more efficiently than we mere humans, who are pampered by modern conveniences.

A green tinge to the clouds usually indicates hail is imminent - a view from my front yard

My long term memory often doesn’t serve me well without written observations, but I don’t recall damaging hail storms and destructive winds from my childhood in the Hunter. These extremes are common summer occurrences now.

Last summer we didn’t sustain any storm damage, but over the previous two summers our home sustained considerable damage due to hail and wind.

A hailstone from our backyard in February 2005

Fiery orange sunsets are a feature of the summer sky in the Hunter Valley, courtesy of dust from open-cut coal mines and bushfire smoke. The strong northwesterly winds whip up grit and other pollutants from exposed mine sites, and along with soil stripped from tilled farm paddocks, a brown haze commonly hangs on the horizon throughout summer.

Nature Watch

Recording local weather and nature observations can be an interesting exercise. I have not been consistent with my nature watch recordings other than noting rain and temperature. During last summer my yard received 83mm rain over 23 rainy days, with January by far the driest and hottest month.

Those people interested in making a longterm study of nature observations of their property or area would do well to read the Nature Watch Diary of an enthusiastic Hunter Valley resident, where you are sure to gather inspiration.

Summer backyard invertebrates

Spiders will be stringing out their webs all around the yard. I find that some need culling, particularly venomous Redback Spiders, (Latrodectus hasselti), that set up home amongst the kids’ play areas and on the outdoor furniture. But I tolerate, and even enjoy, most other spiders, unless there is an over abundance of a species.

If you wish to remove a spider from your home without harming it, I suggest placing a transparent cup over the spider and sliding a stiff piece of paper or thin cardboard under the trapped intruder. This will then allow you to safely relocate it outside.

Don’t be fooled if the spider acts dead when released, as this is usually just a ploy. If you wish to move a spider in a web from an inconvenient location like the clothes line or verandah, the soft bristle end of a broom is a good tool for relocating it to a fence or some shrubbery.

This can be a daunting exercise at first, but once it is an accomplished skill, you’ll be able to confidently relocate all sorts of crawlies that venture indoors.

A St Andrews Cross Spider, (Argiope keyserlingi), took up residence in my backyard a few weeks ago

Every summer I find different spiders in my backyard. They make fascinating observation subjects. Most people think I’m a bit weird when I attempt to explain the attributes of spiders, but spiders need not be feared and should not be exterminated en masse. Like every other component of an ecosystem, spiders are vital to the complex interconnected web of life.

Christmas beetles are also beginning to emerge, buzzing around outdoor lights and creating havoc around the barbecue on warm nights.

These 2.5 to 3cm beetles, often with beautiful and colourful patterning on their elytra (wing coverings) are from genus Anoplognathus in the Scarab family. The eggs develop into large crescent-shaped grubs in the soil, feeding on decaying organic matter or roots. They pupate in the soil and adult beetles emerge during early to mid summer.

This Christmas Beetle's life was cut short as it was tackled by a Garden Wolf Spider, (Lycosa godeffroyi), on a warm night on my back porch recently.

The beetles can be known to cause considerable damage to the foliage of eucalypt trees, but as there are few eucalypts in my immediate surrounds, I have not seen this defoliation.

Crickets are also making their presence known with their chirpy night-time summer songs. To me, cricket songs are an iconic summer night sound, one which I enjoy. My first sighting this summer of a Striped Raspy Cricket, (Paragryllacris combusta), was short-lived as it was snapped up by my resident Eastern Water Dragon, (Physignathus lesueurii).

Dragon eats cricket

Grasshoppers and cicadas will also be singing up a storm in a frantic effort to attract a mate. Only some grasshoppers sing, and their song is normally not as loud as their cricket cousins. But the shrill call of cicadas can be almost deafening when in large numbers.

Cicadas spend most of their life underground. The adult female will lay eggs on a tree branch. When the eggs hatch, the larvae will drop to the ground and burrow underground, feeding on tree-root juices. When the cicada larva is full grown, it will crawl from the ground and shed its skin (exoskeleton). And then it's time to call up a mate.

A cicada on a shrub in my backyard

Depending on the species, the underground nymph stage of the cicada can last from nine months up to 17 years. In contrast, their above-ground adult life lasts only a few weeks.

More than just bugs

Of course, there is much more to summer in the backyard than mating invertebrates.

Most birds will have nested, and parent birds will be teaching chicks to fend for themselves. Some of the common Hunter Valley backyard birds to be seen caring for their youngsters are Australian Magpies, Superb Blue Wrens, Crested Pigeons, Galahs, Zebra and Double-bar Finches, and of course, some pesky feral birds.

Magpies are amongst my favourite backyard birds, with their joyous early-morning carolling, friendly disposition and entertaining character.

A Magpie youngster checks out the photographer

Some adult magpies swoop 'intruders' to their home range when their chicks have hatched. This can be a frightening experience for children and adults alike. Our local Council places warning signs at swooping sites during the breeding season, but there is little that humans can do about the magpie's defensive behaviour other than avoid the area, or wear a hat or helmet when walking or bike-riding.

Frogs are another backyard animal that make themselves heard during summer as males call for a mate. The Hunter Valley has recently been fortunate to receive excellent rainfall, which has prompted a night-time frog chorus at my place. You might be lucky enough to see one taking advantage of the flurry of insects on the back verandah at night.

How can anyone not love a face like this.....

Summer is the season for insect and spider breeding, so there will be many animals and birds feasting on the abundance of invertebrate life in all corners of our yard. Without these insects, our wildlife would be in real strife.


Esperance Blog said...

A grand display of summer life in the Hunter Gaye. Not sure if I should like to be a defenceless invertebrate though, as those lizards and the other predators must project a good deal of black humour into their lives. All very enlightening and interesting to read. Well done!

Anonymous said...

A wonderfully descriptive account of the summer activities in your backyard and in the Hunter generally.Great photos again – how I would love a frog like that in my yard! Hope never to encounter such a hailstone though.

May the weather be kinder this season and that your property, flora and fauna, be kept free of damage from hail, wind or storms.
Great work!


Denis Wilson said...

Hi Gaye

Lovely posting, as usual. I think my favourite is the Water Dragon with the Cricket. Its a tough world, isn't it? Still, we forget that Crickets eat smaller things, perhaps ones we see less, or care even less about.

Nice exposition of "summer". By the way, what is "summer"? We have had mist, some light rain. More mist. Everything is growing crazily, and the lawn mowers cannot get onto the long grass, 'cause it it is still wet. But hardly a day over 17*C. I have had a have a heater on, all week - partly to dry the moist air in the house.

Its a strange world. Wollongong, just down the hill from here, got a huge dump of rain last week. We got mist ("missed out" one could say.)


Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi folks,

Summer here has also not been "normal" as yet, not that I'm complaining. The drought has finally broken in the Hunter Valley.

I remember clearly the first day of summer last year when it was 39degrees and I watched with interest, through binoculars, the rural fire brigade fighting fires on the hill behind our home.

In contrast, this summer has began with temperatures in the twenties and many showers and storms. When the sun comes out and the day heats up (we are supposed to get 32 and 33 over the weekend), the heat is opressively humid. I am not used to the humidity and prefer the dry heat of our "usual" weather.

But the rain and the cooler temperatures have been extremely pleasant.

I also forgot to mention a few typically summer Hunter Valley happenings in my blog; namely, the movement of snakes. Over the last two days I have been saddened to see a Brown and a Red-belly Black both squashed on the road. I am aware that this is unavoidable at times, but both these reptiles were right on the very edge of the road and therefore looked like deliberate killings.

Wasps are also beginning to construct their mud nurseries, and with the moisture in the ground here, there is a frenzy of activity.

The summer rain has also promoted the sudden appearence of backyard fungi, which I am enjoying tremendously.

.....if only my lawn would stay green without the need for constant mowing.

Thanks for your interest everyone.


Fliss and Mike Adventures said...

Oh... how homesick this is making me... I am an Aussie living in Florida, USA since 2002... though am due to come home in Jan '08 for a visit... though not long enough... just reading your site has made me want to move back to OZ... though, I will be here for years to come... I will for sure visit you again... I am originally from Newcastle... of course you know where that is... my cousin actually lives in Singleton... small world huh...

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Fliss,

your comment has made my day - for if I have brightened the day of an Aussie living abroad, this is all good.

I wish you fun, laughter and joy on your trip home.