Local insects and animals – Satin bowerbird

It is the time of year when nature gets busy. There are babies everywhere; chickens, ducklings, firetail finches, blue fairy wrens, goanna, black snakes…the list goes on. Most residents of the humpy are finding a mate (or sticking with the one from last year) and settling down to raise a family. Not the Satin bowerbird though; he fancies himself a player. Satin bowerbirds are regarded as pests in our area, they are one of the main reasons all our garden areas are locked up like Fort Knox (along with possums, they are the most garden destructive species I know). They eat any fruit and vegetable plants they can get to and love red fruits (tomato, strawberry, capsicum and yes, even chilli). I find them annoying and fascinating at the same time.  

The mature male is a shiny blue/black colour, they are really very beautiful. The female and any males under about five years of age are a greenish yellow, mottled colour with the most extraordinary violet eyes I have ever seen.   The breeding behaviour of the Satin bowerbird is what makes them so very interesting. The male Satin bowerbird builds a bower; basically a well decorated clump of grass. He finds as many blue, silver or otherwise shiny objects as he can to decorate with, endlessly fussing with the placement of ornaments. Bowerbirds will steal pieces from other male’s bowers. When I was a child there was a certain blue plastic hammer (about 30cm long) which used to migrate from bower to bower every year. It was something of a game to find the bower with the hammer. I still marvel at the determination of those males; carrying a toy larger than themselves over distances of up to a kilometer. I wonder if that blue hammer is still being passed around. All of this effort is designed to attract as many females as possible. These birds have even been known to paint their bower with crushed berries and mud (mulberries beware).   The female comes down to see his bower (several times in fact) and if she aproves of the bower she will stay to watch his mating dance (he flutters around and makes whirring noises then dashes back and forward, some even roll over. Then… if he is lucky…she will mate with him. After which she leaves to start her career as a single mother and the male continues to try to attract more females. This has evolved as a very efficient way to spread genes as females do not choose the same male to mate with every year.   At some point between the house viewing and the stage show the female will go off and build herself a messy stick nest (the bird version of a humpy) so as to have somewhere to lay eggs after mating. These nests are not easy to find and I do not see baby bowerbird very often until they get to the leaving home (or fledging) stage. Judging by the number of surviving young I believe that female Satin bowerbirds are very good mothers who rarely lose their young.   The natural diet of the bowerbird is native fruits such as figs, wild raspberries, lilly pilly and other berries. Of course that means they eat what we grow in our gardens (being fruit based as well). Their role in the environment is to spread seed so that new plants can grow. To that end their digestive system is somewhat messy; they eat a lot of fruit but digest only parts of it, they then poop the seed and some partially digested waste out in a sort of spray pattern, usually from a fairly high branch. This means that plants such as wild raspberry can have its seed distributed to new locations. This charming habit also makes raising a baby bowerbird (or any other frugivore) a messy, smelly job. They do tend to be friendly, intelligent and endearing as well though.   The females often  forage for dog biscuits and other protein rich foods while feeding young. I have seen some taking meat scraps from the chook pen now and then also.  While they are undoubtedly a source of destruction and annoyance in the garden, the Satin bowerbird is a valuable part of the ecology and is important to our biodiversity. If you find a bowerbird eating your dog biscuits in the spring, spare a thought for the single mother lifestyle she leads and let her have a few.

Darby the goose update

It has been a while since I did an update on Darby. So I thought I would fill you in on the nature of our life as a goose family.

This photo says it all really.

Adopting animals into our family can be hard work, it can be heart breaking (especially with short-lived species) and it can be the greatest joy… ever. It allows us to get to know a species (or an individual from a species) very well and to be able to communicate with them to a limited degree. Darby is no different.

While growing up, Darby exhibited male characteristics we had seen in the outside geese; chasing the dogs protectively (our poor dogs had a steep learning curve there too), herding family members and honking into the air at odd moments. We began to call Darby ‘him’ based on this. Recently however, my daughter patted him on the back and he immediately squatted and spread his wings; indicating that he is definitely a female. Only a female would squat to mate. It will be hard to change the pronoun, but we are up to the challenge. It also indicates that she may be a little too imprinted on humans.

Darby has traveled around a bit in the car, going to the vet, going to school with me, going into town to get the mail. Geese are social animals and get very distressed when left alone, so we have to take her with us if we are all out. Also the chances of disaster happening when a goose is left unattended with the dogs and all the indoor birds are quite high. Geese are curious and smart birds; they can open gates and find switches and cords that a toddler couldn’t.

Darby lives in the humpy for the most part, walking along with my daughter when she feeds the outside animals, supervising vegetable cutting and cooking in the kitchen, sitting in the sun in the front yard or in front of the fire at night. She sleeps beside my daughter’s bed (or mine when she is away) with her beak resting on the blankets so she can feel the breathing (sleeping) human. Geese love their families and are very protective of the family unit.

Television watching (in the form of streamed movies) is a favorite activity, and we have discovered that geese can laugh (at least it sounds like laughing). She is a fairly vocal family member and is always up for a chat or chiming in with an opinion.

Darby seems to be very happy to continue living in the humpy with us, and we have become used to her being there. In fact we enjoy her company.

Goodbye Prim

This post has been a long time coming. I had to heal a little from the loss first; Prim was a very close family member.

Prim joined us in January 2017. She was a baby then and she grew up in the humpy, she never decided to leave and join the wild lorrikeets, as I think she formed such a close bond with our family.

Her relatively short life (only three years instead of the average 20 years) ended when she contracted a respiratory infection. I believe that the stress of being evacuated due to fires and being exposed to unknown pathogens in many new atmospheres knocked her immune system down and led to her death. I will miss her very much, but the time she spent with us is a time I want to remember.

Prim in her oxygen tent the night she died.

It is hard to express the pain we all felt at losing Prim, it has taken me six months to even write about it. I still shed tears at her memory. I will miss you Prim, I hope your next life is as loving as this one has been.

Making dry shampoo

Me… at work… on pajama day… with greasy hair.

It’s Winter here in Australia, this is the coldest part of our Winter too (it gets down to about 2 degrees Celsius in the evenings. Added to this (for those who don’t know already) we shower outside with a single 10 litre bucket each per shower. We shower in the evenings before bed, so we don’t drag dirt into the sheets, but that is the coldest time of day to shower. All of this adds up to an extreme reluctance to wash hair (on my part anyway).

I usually only wash my hair once a week, but even that is onerous at this time of year, so I have been looking into making my own dry shampoo. A dry shampoo may let me put off hair washing for a little longer in Winter and still allow me to look mildly presentable.

There are a lot of simple DIY recipes for dry shampoo out there to try, so I chose the simplest one to start with. Simple is actually an understatement; I put a couple of tablespoons of cornflour in a jar with a teaspoon of cinnamon and some peppermint essential oil and shook it up until it was blended. Then I tried it out on my unwashed-for-a-week hair.

This is my hair after a week without washing. It feels awful to the touch.
My first attempt at dry shampoo, in an old spice bottle.
My hair after a dry shampoo.

The dry shampoo certainly makes hair feel less greasy and stiff. It smells faintly of cinnamon and peppermint (a weird combination, now I think about it) and looks fairly smooth. I think dry shampoo is definitely worth a try if you don’t want to wash your hair very frequently.

#coronavirus- making kombucha

I don’t like soft drinks; something about the carbonated bubbles makes me avoid them. I do like to try new things (I’m adventurous with food); I happened to try kombucha one afternoon and to my surprise I loved the flavour. So I went looking for how to make it (because, while I may be adventurous, I am also cheap).

So I watched a few YouTube videos and read some blog posts about making Kombucha and how good for you it is. Then I found a local (ish) company that sells Kombucha kits, so of course I bought one.

How does kombucha work? The short answer is; the magic of fermentation. The sugars in the tea are converted to alcohol by the yeast community in the scoby (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast), then the bacteria in the scoby feed on the alcohol to produce a kind of vinegar. The tea also provides a little caffeine, tannins and other flavours to the brew. It is possible to make a kind of kombucha from oak leaves (but I haven’t tried that one yet). The scoby makes a new layer each time you make a batch of kombucha, and needs to be divided every now and then. It can be used to make fruit leathers, or a vegan leather substitute. It can also be given away to friends or used to start a new kombucha batch, or even used to make soap or other skin care products (I look forward to making scoby soap). After all that reading, I was excited to start making my own.

When the kit arrived in the mail, it contained a glass 8 litre jar with a plastic tap, a piece of closely woven fabric (and a rubber band), a bag of tea bags, some sugar and a sealed bag of slime (a scoby). Instructions were included and easy to follow.

I have made about 4 batches using this kit so far and it is an easy process that doesn’t require a lot of fiddling about. So I thought I would go through it here.

Before beginning the process of bottling kombucha, boil the kettle and make a strong pot of tea. I have only used black tea so far, but apparently you can also use green tea and white tea (any tea without flavourings is OK). This pot of tea needs to steep for a few minutes until it is very strong. I use 9 tea bags per batch and I make it in the coffee plunger so I can squeeze the tea bags and get the last of the dregs from them.

When the tea is steeped enough, I pour it into a bowl and mix in 3/4 of a cup of raw sugar. Apparently you can use any kind of sugar (and even honey) as long as the yeast has enough sugar to convert to alcohol (and then to vinegar). The sugar needs to be dissolved completely, so I give the tea a mix with a spoon and set it aside to cool a bit while I bottle the previous batch.

I was lucky enough to be given a supply of those lovely Grolsch beer bottles by a friend (Thanks Lucille), they are perfect for making kombucha in. I wash and disinfect 8 of these bottles, including scrubbing the little rubber seals on the stopper. I pour some fruit juice into each bottle; I have tried orange juice, apple and black current juice and now mango juice. In the future I will try ginger and other herb teas (with sugar) and maybe some fresh juiced fruit from our trees (mulberry springs to mind). The possibilities here are endless, as long as there is some sugar in the flavouring it will make bubbles in the brew.

Now for the moment of truth; bottling the brew. The tap on the bottom of the jar is very useful here, I just fill each bottle almost to the top using the tap. I leave the scoby in the jar and fill bottles until the scoby is sitting about level to the tap (for me that is 8 bottles). These bottles are sealed and set aside in my kitchen cupboard for 2 days, then moved to the fridge or given away to friends. I do label the bottles (mostly because I give them away to friends).

Now to top up the brewer for the next batch. I add another 2 litres of cold water to the sweet tea in the bowl to cool the lot down to body temperature, then pour it into the top of the brewer. Sometimes I need to top up the jar with a bit more water.

The new brew then sits quietly on the kitchen counter next to the sourdough until next week. The brew time varies with the daily temperature and with individual taste preferences.

The finished product is a lovely sparkling, fruit flavoured drink that is apparently good for digestion and internal bacteria balance (with occasional globs of gelatinous pre-scoby). I pour my kombucha into the glass through a tea strainer to remove the inevitable little bits of slime (they are harmless, but gross).

Now I have made a few batches, I have some scoby extras to play with; I’m not sure what to try first, but if you are a local and want to have a go brewing kombucha, leave a comment here and I will eventually get a scoby to you.

The easiest sourdough pizza base

Yes, I made another sourdough starter… yes, I know I have the refrigerator dough already on the go… yes, I know we can’t possibly eat that much bread. Blame it on ferment madness.

I have to do something with the discarded starter that is the inevitable result of keeping a starter alive, and I have posted many options I use to avoid wasting the starter. This is a new and REALLY easy option I just discovered (by being lazy).

I wanted to make pizza and I didn’t want to wash up the inevitable dough encrusted bowl… so I didn’t make dough. My thought process went something like this;

“I want pizza, better make some dough.”

“I don’t want to wash all that up, maybe I’ll have fried eggs instead”

“No… I want pizza, can I use a slice of bread? No..yuck”

” I wonder if the starter will bake up into a base without extra flour?”

“Why not? Let’s try it.”

So I poured the starter into a baking paper lined tray and sprinkled some fresh picked herbs from the garden.

Then I put on the usual pizza toppings and a pile of grated cheese and popped it into the oven on about 200 C.

The resulting pizza is beautiful and cuts up really nicely for school lunches.

Why didn’t I reach this level of lazy before?

The baby swallows are fledging too, which means that all dishes and cups need to be covered at all times and the lid is on the washing machine when it is full of water too. All this is because the babies are prone to landing in odd places when they start to fly. Taking these photos was a bit of a mission, I can tell you. It doesn’t take long for them to get the hang of their wings (a day or two at the most) and we love watching the process, but until they learn, we have to live with zooming babies buzzing around our ears.

#coronavirus – I bought a grain mill

In my defense, I was caught up in an enthusiastic conversation. I was talking to a friend about how flour is hard to access at the moment, she makes bread on a daily basis, and suggested that she should buy a grain mill. That conversation got me thinking about grinding grain, about how it can be achieved on a small scale, which led to researching grain milling options online. Yes…I slipped and bought a grain mill (so did she).

I actually bought a stand mixer with a grain grinding attachment (and a pasta press attachment), as I couldn’t buy a new, expensive machine that only does one thing. My thinking is that I can make wholewheat flour to make my bread (and maybe cakes) to get the extra nutrition from the whole grain. I may also have a go at making sprouted grain flour for breads and such.

I took a rare trip to town to pick up the parcel at the Post Office. I was very excited to get the boxes home and open them.

I opened all the boxes and laid it all out to inspect.

My first trial was a big batch of bread dough for the fridge. It was an easy project; I just put all the ingredients into the bowl and beat it to dough with the dough hook, the dough turned out smooth and beautiful. I did need to sprinkle more flour into the bowl as it worked to get the dough off the walls of the bowl, but it did not need much attention and took about 2 minutes.

My new mixer will now live on the counter and hopefully contribute to my enthusiasm for cooking (which is generally fairly low).

Now to see how the new toy does as a grain grinder…

I set up the grinder unit and dug out the 2 cups of wheat that I needed for the recipe. Then I poured the grain into the hopper (the thing on the top of the grinder) and turned it on; then I waited… and waited. It took maybe 5 minutes to grind the 2 cups of flour, but the flour that came out was fine and felt really silky. I had the grinder on the fine grind setting so that was the expected outcome, but you never know.

I used the flour to make some salted caramel biscuits. They are yummy, but I will have to cut down on the baking soon or I won’t be able to fit into my work clothes.

Now to try pasta…whole wheat of course.

#coronavirus- refrigerator bread buns and pizza base

I have consistently made some sort of bread product every two days since I began making refrigerator bread. I make it because I hate to waste anything, so that dough sitting in the fridge seems to make me want to use it (so it doesn’t go to waste). In the last two days I have made bread rolls and three huge pizza bases, so I thought I would share the results here.

The bread rolls were a simple matter of rolling the lumps (roughly the same size) into a smooth ball and plonking them onto a tray to rise. I baked them for 20 minutes in a hot oven then put them out to cool.

Rising dough. So full of potential.
I used my silicon baking sheet to keep the bases from sticking to the tray.
They turned out very well.

The pizza bases made a lot of mess (well…I made a huge mess making them). I dusted a lump of dough (about 1 1/2 cups in size) with plain flour and rolled them out flat with a rolling pin. They were plonked onto a pizza tray and topped with pizza makings then baked for about 35 minutes in a hot oven.

Yes, there was flour everywhere.
The pizza was really yummy.

I am sold on this method of making bread products, it is so versatile. I wonder what else I can make?

House update- we have a Development Application

Very exciting news this morning; our DA was approved!! We have been working towards building our house for so long, this seems like a really huge event in the timeline of building and I feel very excited , happy and a little scared.

Due to the previous year or so of disasters (drought, several fires, a flood and a global pandemic) we have almost exhausted our house fund. We have hardly any ready money left in the building fund; but we will make this happen. I am determined not to log our block again…ever. The last time was a huge trauma, for me and for the animals that live here (it certainly has changed the ecology around the humpy). So we may have to resort to the bank (sigh).

When we decided that now is the time to start our building journey, I found a lovely consulting company called Curvatecture. Hayden (from Curvatecture) has been amazing and supportive during the conception and planning phase of the build; he put us in touch with the lovely Kirstie from Shelter Building Design who took our confused concepts for the house and turned them into a coherent plan that the council would understand. Kirstie virtually filled out the DA and the other numerous reports demanded by the council. We had visits from the soil test company, the waste water system design company, the council building inspector and the engineer had to sign off on the plans before we submitted. Finally… we sent in the application, paid off all the various consultants and now… we have approval to build our swallow’s nest house (round and made from mud).

To celebrate this milestone, the swallows that nest in our bedroom have decided to have a late clutch of babies.

Our next step is to complete an owner builder course and apply for a building certificate. After that we will be looking for some money (somewhere, somehow) to start the build. If anyone has any suggestions for funding this build, feel free to let me know.

Below are some previews of our little house. This is a future vision of what it will look like. Of course I would like to think there will be trees and shrubs (fire retardant species of course) and a nice paved area with outdoor furniture, but in reality it will be surrounded by half finished projects, animals in makeshift enclosures and the general detritus of our lives. It doesn’t matter, it will be home; a home filled with excitement for life, joy and interest in the fascinating small events that make up an ecosystem.

The swallow’s nest in our bedroom. Our house will be like this; round, mud, surrounded by poop and full of joyful life.

#coronavirus- refrigerator bread apple pie scrolls

After making up a big batch of refrigerator bread about three days ago, I made a loaf of bread yesterday (that little loaf disappeared really fast and it wasn’t all me), then today I decided to try apple pie scrolls.

See this post for the dough recipe.

Making the scrolls was really simple;

I floured the dough and rolled it out into a flat shape.

Then I spread some of my vegan butter over the pizza base shape.

I made a cinnamon mix of 1/3 cup brown sugar and a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. This mixture was sprinkled over the buttered dough.

I chopped up an apple into tiny chunks and sprinkled that over the dough too, along with the last of the cinnamon sugar mix.

Finally I rolled the dough up into a roll and cut it into eight roughly even slices and left them to rise in a warm spot for about 30 minutes.

I baked them for about 20 minutes in a hot oven (200 degrees C) until they were golden brown.

I made up some frosting and poured it over them after they were cooled.

They were delicious!!

I also made the rest of the dough into a little bread loaf; just to use up the last of the dough.

I am doing so much baking at the moment!! It must be the isolation. I have spent a week not thinking about teaching or going back to work. Instead I have been enjoying being home; resting, cleaning with no rush to finish, feeding my animals and just feeling the sun on my back. I miss my class, I wonder how the kids are doing and if their families are coping, but I am in no hurry to go back yet.