Saturday morning started with an achingly cold dive at Shiprock Aquatic Reserve. Shiprock is a prime spot for the myriad of tropical fish and invertebrates that are deposited on the Sydney coast by the East Australian Current. Most of these tropical vagrants grow through the summer only to succumb to the cooling temperatures in winter.
My last dive at Shiprock was only month ago. The water was eighteen degrees and there were lots of tropicals in evidence. Saturday’s dive presented a stark contrast, with frigid thirteen degree water sweeping away almost all of the year’s crop of tropicals.
An hour in the water revealed just two hardy tropical survivors amongst the estuary’s residents. One was a 30 centimetre long Stars and Stripes Pufferfish.
They are normally active during the day, foraging across the reef and keeping a wary distance from any divers. I found this one was tucked into a crevice in the reef. It roused in response to my camera’s strobe (flash) and slowly shifted along its crevice before settling to the sand. Not exactly active enough to escape a determined predator, but perhaps the poisonous flesh would be enough protection if it survived the cold.
The common moray eel of the NSW coast is the Green Moray, a medium sized species that varies from brilliant green to shades of yellow and brown. The High Finned Moray is the largest tropical moray regularly encountered in Sydney. It has a deep body coloured in blotches of grey and brown. This metre long moray was out in the open and looking very shabby with white sores on its flanks. The mouth gaped wide and the eel stared frozenly as I approached. I backed up a couple of metres, it stayed frozen for a couple of minutes before twisting around and retreating into the reef. Not exactly the characteristic vigour displayed by these large and powerful predators.
Thirteen degree water guarantees just the one dive over a weekend. The following morning I headed out on a walk through the coastal heathland of Royal National Park. I disturbed several Swamp Wallabies feeding on the edge of the track, only noticing their presence when they crashed off into the vegetation. Finally I spotted two about fifty metres ahead, slowed and approached as quietly as I could. One bolted almost immediately while the other stayed put. I took a series of photos before finally getting within touching distance.
It looked like an older individual with ragged ears and white hairs on its muzzle. Whether or not it was fully healthy it gave every impression of enjoying basking in the winter sun and grooming its belly. Not a bad way to spend a winter’s morning.
The slow winter theme of the weekend came to an abrupt end when I arrived at the coastal cliffs. A Peregrine Falcon buzzed past straight over my head, wheeled around and returned at eye height. I quickly realised there was not one but two Peregrines. Both falcons were flying a pattern where they zoomed up and above the cliff edge, dived to pick up speed, flew for a distance along the cliff edge before dropping over the side to rise on the updraft, turn and repeat. They ran through the sequence three times in quick succession, on the closest pass only 5 metres away. I increased the shutter speed to 1/2000th in the hope of a sharp image. This is possible when they fly past parallel to your position but no autofocus can keep up when Peregrine Falcons, the fastest animals on earth, turn directly towards you.
Peregrine Falcons are relatively common along the Sydney coast, taking advantage of high vantage points on the coastal cliffs to ambush terrestrial birds over the heath as well as passing seabirds. This habitat preference helps explain why they are distributed around the coasts of the world.
I was once lucky enough to be sitting near the edge of a coastal waterfall when a Peregrine arrived to bath in the creek. After bathing it flew off to sit and preen on a famous cliff feature known as Eagle Rock.
The Peregrines flew further down the coast so I headed back towards the car. Ahead I could hear the creaking calls of a huge flock of Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo. These large cockatoos are at the opposite end of the speed spectrum to the Peregrine Falcons, with a languid flying style that floats and drifts above the landscape. They were moving between stands of coastal banksias, providing multiple opportunities for close in flight shots.
I am constantly amazed by the wildlife experiences on tap in Sydney. A week dominated by slow motion wildlife, animals enduring the worst conditions of mid winter, also managed to feature an encounter with the fastest species on the planet. Can’t complain!