The Zoologist/4th series, vol 3 (1899)/Issue 699/A Ramble near Sydney, Stead

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A Ramble near Sydney  (1899) 
David G. Stead


By David G. Stead.

Perhaps few cities are so admirably situated as Sydney, placed as it is upon the shores of that much-talked-of, much admired, but never adequately described harbour, Port Jackson.

To the ordinary resident in Sydney nothing is more welcome than the advent of a holiday, for then full advantage is taken of the wondrous plenitude of resorts lying in the many arms and indentations of the harbour; these, from their number alone, making the ever arising question, "Where shall we go?" quite a knotty problem, which at times is not easily decided.

The naturalist—especially the marine zoologist—who, of course, looks at things in quite a different light, is still at times considerably puzzled, on account of the multiplicity of places of interest to be reached comfortably by coach, rail, or boat within the scope of one day's wanderings.

What is undoubtedly the most popular resort of Port Jackson is Manly, "the Brighton of the South," which on one side faces the harbour, and on the other the Pacific Ocean. The harbour side forms a veritable "happy hunting ground" for the zoologist, as around the rocks and amongst the dense seaweed with which they are clothed a great variety of animal forms—chiefly Crustacea and many-hued fishes—is to be found.

My reason for giving this short preamble, is, that I wish to introduce to our readers a realm that is overflowing with interest to the zoologist, and one that has been the scene of many of my wanderings, including the one now described. But as very few will be familiar with the locality, and as most naturally wish to know a little about any place under consideration, I feel some justification in thus introducing it.

I may add, that, as the following observations have been quoted almost verbatim from my note-book, they are necessarily of a somewhat general nature, though chiefly—as in this case they should be—zoological.

April 23rd, 1899.—To-day I wended my way to Manly, and from thence journeyed by coach to Rocklily, some miles along the coast. It was a most enjoyable and perfect day. As we drove along through the balmy bracing atmosphere, with the occasional buzz of insects coming to our ears, ever and anon could be heard the extremely melodious cry of the Collared Crow-Shrike (Cracticus torquatus), one of the so-called "Butcher Birds," rising above the more feeble twitterings and chirpings of the smaller birds. En route also I was much impressed and interested by the gradual change in the physical aspect of the land as we began to come out upon the "Narrabeen Shales" (which here crop out from under the "Hawkesbury Sandstone"). Amongst the objects of interest which were passed I must not omit to mention several beautiful cabbage-tree palms, which reared their stately crowns high in air.

After a pleasant drive in the genial sunshine we arrived at Rocklily, where I alighted, and whence I began to walk on my return journey to Manly viâ the coast. Whilst making my way from there to the coast (a distance of about half a mile) I was greatly amused by the actions of a small insectivorous bird, which, by feigning to be wounded, did its best to attract me away from where I knew its nest must be situated; however, as I had experienced that before, I took no notice of it. On Rocklily beach I found indisputable evidence that the sand-dunes were resting upon shales, as at intervals portions of these shales cropped out, and here and there were little streamlets of salt water oozing out of the sand (all at the one level), the sole visible occupants of which were a few small Amphipoda. On the drier parts of this and the succeeding beaches the tiny burrows of minute grey Isopoda, as well as the animals themselves, were much in evidence. Here also were to be seen the burrows of the beautiful swift-footed Crab (Ocypoda cordimana), which penetrate obliquely into the sand for some distance.

After traversing these beaches, and while rounding a headland, I disturbed several Ravens, Corvus australis (the "Wahgun" of the Bourke district aborigines), which were walking about at the water's edge; also a Cormorant (Phalacrocorax novæ-hollandiæ), which was perched sentinel-like upon the adjacent rocks. (Incidentally, I might mention that there is a price set upon the heads of Cormorants, on account of their depredations amongst the piscine tribes, and the supposed injury caused thereby to our fisheries; but personally, I am of opinion that it is rather misplaced, as they also dispose of a large quantity of floating offal, thereby rendering us a great service.) At this point my attention was attracted by a large mass of rock which had fallen from the top of the cliff, and which displayed in a very interesting manner the junction of the Narrabeen Shales and Hawkesbury Sandstone. It consisted mainly of sandstone, but on the under surface there was a layer of shale about three inches in thickness. This layer possessed all the appearance of mud, of which the surface had been formed into small undulations by the action of water, then sun-dried, thereby cracking in all directions. It was evidently thus upon the day that the sand was swept over it, filling up the cracks, and thus preserving their contours admirably.

Whilst traversing the huge beach which here intervened, it was very pleasing to observe the evolutions of a number of Porpoises (Phocœna) which were here disporting themselves. The sun was shining full upon them (from behind me), so that I was enabled to see them distinctly as they often sprang completely out of the water. I was here also interested by the performance of a "Little Black-and-White Cormorant" (Phalacrocorax melanoleucus), which at one time would be flying lightly over the water, at another making a terrific vertical plunge for some fish which happened to be near the surface. A little farther along this beach I came across a flock of Sea-Gulls (Larus novæ-hollandiæ) . At my approach they all, with the exception of one, flew away, which remaining bird, I perceived, was wounded. After a little manipulation I managed to "round it off" away from the water, and succeeded in making it cross the road (which here skirts the beach) into the bush, whereupon I secured it. It turned out to be a most beautiful specimen. Before finishing this beach (which was the largest travelled over during the day), I turned my attention to numbers of the Physalia, or "Portuguese Man-o'-war," which were being washed up. Nothing can excel in point of beauty the exquisite iridescent tints of these little creatures as they sail or float in on the tide by means of the pneumatophore or "float" with which they are provided, and nothing could appear more peaceful or less likely to do harm; but woe betide the unlucky and unsuspecting wader or bather who becomes entangled in their tentacles, for, by means of the stinging capsules with which they are studded, they are capable of inflicting the most acute pain and inflammation. These tentacles, which may be drawn close up to the pneumatophore, are capable of being let out to a length of thirty feet or more.

After collecting a few of these Physaliæ, I once more resumed my journey, and at last finished this seemingly almost interminable beach, and rested myself for awhile at the foot of the landward slope of the headland ("Long Reef"), which here juts out into the sea. I say "rested"; rather should I say I would have, but for the attacks of a relentless little band of mosquitoes which gave me their undivided attention, and seemed bent upon making as close an acquaintance with me as possible.

I now crossed this neck of land to the next beach (also a great length), and in the distance on the waters of the bay espied what I at first took to be the heads of a great number of the fronds of the large brown seaweed protruding above water (although it struck me as being rather strange that, supposing it to be seaweed, there was no broken water around, it being in the middle of the bay); but, upon drawing closer, I found, to my delight, that it was a large flock—consisting of from eighty to ninety[1]—of Black Swans (Cygnus atratus), which were resting and pluming their feathers upon the then placid waters of the bay. After watching their movements for some time I marched onward, and, upon reaching the southern extremity of the beach, looked back, and found that they had all betaken themselves to the neighbouring "Deewhy" lagoon, which is separated from the ocean—as are most of the lagoons along the coast—by the sand-dunes only. Here it was that I could not help contrasting the headland (Deewhy Head), near which I was standing, with the one (Long Reef) on the other side of the bay. The former is composed solely of the "Hawkesbury Sandstone," and, as a consequence, is high, rugged, and precipitous; while, on the other hand, the latter consists entirely of "Narrabeen Shales," is comparatively low, has a gentle slope inland, and has a rapidly disintegrating sea-face composed in great part of fairly soft clays. The hardest part of my walk now began, as I had left the easy slopes of the shales behind. Here amongst the rocks, as would be expected, animal life in the way of birds, reptiles, and insects became more abundant, and I began to keep a sharp look-out, especially for the smaller Reptilia; nor was I disappointed, for, after turning over a few loose flat stones on the southern slope, I found one under which was concealed an almost typical collection of the "small fry" usually found in these localities. This assortment consisted of—1, a large flat side-walking Spider;2, several specimens of the large black Wood-bug (which, after the manner of its kind, emits at times a most disagreeable odour);3, some small prettily marked Cockroaches;4, two species of Ant;5, a collection of Termites, or "White Ants";6, a small Centipede;—all these in the way of Arthropoda. Then of Reptilia there were three species, comprising two specimens of a small "Rock-Gecko" (Gehyra variegata), one of a fine mottled Lizard (Egernia whitei), which grows to a length of twelve or thirteen inches (including tail), and, lastly, the exquisitely beautiful and agile little Lizard (Lygosoma tæniolatum). The last mentioned is very beautifully marked, having on its dorsal aspect brown yellow, and white longitudinal stripes running the whole length of the body; these,—with the exception of one brown stripe on each side which forms a line of demarcation between the dorsal and ventral surfaces,—upon reaching the tail gradually fade into a light yellowish colour. But it is when the sun is shining on it that this little creature is seen at its best, for then the whole of the many-striped body shines again; and the tail possesses a semi-transparent roseate hue. The little "Rock-Gecko" (Gehyra variegata) also deserves a word in passing. When one is picked up it begins to squirm its subcylindrical truncate tail about in a most ridiculous manner, doubling it up in a somewhat similar fashion to the Scorpion, and seemingly doing all it can to give the impression that the tail is a stinging organ. In man—at any rate, in most cases—it has the desired effect,[2] and has thereby earned for itself the title of "Rock-Scorpion," this title being also held by a neighbouring species (Gymnodactylus platurus), in which the tail is even more like that of the Scorpion. This latter species, especially in some parts of the country, is held in great abhorrence on account of its supposed stinging powers, but nothing could be more fallacious, as it is perfectly harmless, and its appearance is its only defence. Both species have also the power of voluntarily throwing off the squirming tail, thus distracting attention while the animal is making its escape. These Geckos are at times covered apparently with bright red or pink tubercles. I say "apparently," because on examination with an ordinary hand-lens these "tubercles" are resolved into minute ticks, which by contrast with the brown body are extremely noticeable.

Of course, it is not usual to find all the foregoing animals upon such a small area (about a foot square), and at least one of the reptiles crept under as I approached.

After proceeding a little farther, I came upon a specimen of Cunningham's Lizard (Egernia cunninghami), the most salient feature of which is its extremely rough tail. In disposition it is inclined to be sluggish, but when pursued it can manage to progress at a fair rate of speed.

Whilst crossing this headland I observed a "White-bellied Sea-Eagle" (Haliaëtus leucogaster) soaring around at a considerable altitude, and standing out in bold relief against the azure sky.

As the afternoon was wearing on, and I still had a considerable distance to traverse, I decided to halt nowhere else; so, as soon as I had passed this headland, I hastened over the beautiful sandy beach (about half a mile in extent) which stretches away from its base; though not so fast but that I had time to observe a number of the burrows of that interesting little brightcoloured "Soldier-Crab" (Mycteris longicarpus). These burrows are surrounded by numberless little round pellets of sand, which the busy little crustaceans bring up to the surface during the course of their excavations.

Departing from this beach, I began to walk across country through the scrub, as I was drawing near to Port Jackson, and wished to strike the road (along which I had passed in the coach during the early part of the day) as soon as possible. On the way through the bush I noticed a great many of the short burrows (averaging about six inches in depth) made by the Bandicoots (Perameles obesula and P. nasuta) while in search of their food, this consisting mainly of insect-larvæ, worms, and roots. On either side were also to be seen the miniature white sandy tracks "winding their tortuous ways along," made by those little "Macadams," the Ants.

Here the bushes were almost alive with Common Sparrows and Honey-Eaters (Meliornis novæ-hollandiæ), and the united chirruping of their thousands made quite a tumult. While speaking of this locality, I think I may presume sufficiently upon the forbearance of the reader to relate a little incident which occurred hereabout. I find, on referring to my note-book, that it was on Sept. 27th, 1896. I had come down to Manly, and walked from thence to "Curl Curl" Bay. When returning, and on the look-out for birds and reptiles, I came suddenly upon a small brown-coloured[3] Snake, which darted from me, and started twisting and turning, a short distance away, in a most curious and remarkable manner. Although I walked up and stood right over it, so rapid were its movements, and so nearly did its colour resemble the dead leaves with which it was surrounded, that had it not been for an occasional glimpse of the ventral aspect (which was of a dirty white hue) it would have been utterly impossible for me to distinguish it. Now, all the time the Snake was squirming about, doubtless trying to hide itself under the leaves (and this is to me the most interesting part), it uttered a peculiar little chirping sound, somewhat similar to the call of a young bird. As I did not wish to kill it, I got a small pronged stick, intending to catch it alive; but the moment I touched it with the stick it disappeared like a flash—whither, I know not—leaving me blankly staring at the ground. I was quite dumfounded, as, although watching the animal intently, I did not see it go. I scraped the leaves off the ground for some distance around, but did not discover any holes, and, though I hunted "high and low," could not find any trace of the Snake; I therefore came to the conclusion that it had escaped altogether, the protective coloration being greatly in its favour. I have only heard of one other instance in this city of a Snake making this chirping sound, but perhaps some of our readers may have had a somewhat similar experience; if so, I would be pleased to hear of it.

To resume my narrative. After leaving this locality I continued my journey along a cart-track through the scrub, nothing of special importance being noticed excepting an occasional specimen of a large and beautiful Spider (Nephila), which here and there stretches its beautiful yellow silken web right across the track. These webs are exceedingly strong, as well they might be, the prey of the Spider including such large insects as the Cicadas, Phasmids, &c.; also at times a small bird—the "Silver-Eye" (Zosterops)—has been found entangled in the meshes.

Leaving this track, and after trudging along rather wearily for about two miles, I reached Manly just as twilight was setting in, and the Bats were coming out in search of their evening meal. In due course I arrived home, thoroughly tired out, but more than ever impressed with a sense of the immensity of Nature, and imbued with a feeling of extreme gratification and thankfulness at being one of the comparative few to whom has been given the desire to know her secrets.

  1. This was a very large flock, the average consisting of from thirty to forty individuals.
  2. I am of opinion that the same effect would be produced upon many of the marsupials or birds that have come into contact with Scorpions.
  3. I purposely say "brown-coloured," so as not to mislead the reader into thinking that I mean what is commonly known here as the Brown Snake (Diemenia superciliosa).