Heat haze shimmers off the bitumen as another car speeds south towards the Snowy Mountains. The grass underfoot is crispy dry, the air is laced with thick smoke and the humidity is low. From the side of Jindabyne Road near Berridale, for as far as the eye can see, in the paddocks and on the ridges extending to the horizon, are dead trees.
However, it isn't fire that has killed these tens of thousands of gum trees (the smoke has blown in from a fire in Victoria). The culprit for this seemingly wanton destruction is a critter no bigger than your little fingernail – it's the eucalyptus (or gum tree) weevil.
Many motorists think that the trees died in the last drought or in a recent bushfire, not that they are being eaten alive before their very eyes...
“Look, here's one on this branch,” says Catherine Ross, whom I've arranged to meet in this apocalyptic landscape in an attempt to discover more about this leaf-eating beetle. Ross is an honours student in Science at the Australian National University and, on behalf of Greening Australia, is trying to get a handle of the behaviour of the weevil, which has decimated a vast swathe of the Monaro over the past decade.
“He's camouflaged as a gum nut, but if you look closely he's nibbling away at all the new growth,” Ross says as the little brown-red weevil continues his morning munch on a ribbon gum.
“Many motorists think that the trees died in the last drought or in a recent bushfire, not that they are being eaten alive before their very eyes, she says.
It was an email from reader Jenny Emerton that prompted my rendezvous with Ross in this depressingly defoliated forest. “Why are there so many trees dead on the road to the Snowies between Cooma and Jindabyne,” Emerton asked.
“The weevil population levels here are massive – everywhere that I look if there's a living leaf then there's a weevil on it,” Ross says, adding they have a clear preference for ribbon gums, but will sometimes attack other tree species.
After being defoliated by the weevil, the ribbon gums respond by sending out epicormic growth that you often see on their trunks after fires.
However, in a cruel twist of fate, it's this fresh new growth that they have a particular penchant for. “That's where the weevils prefer to feed and lay their eggs, so they basically continue to defoliate the trees until the tree runs out of energy and dies,” Ross says.
The weevil is actually a native species present in most parts of eastern Australia, but why it is so prevalent on the Monaro is a mystery. “I'm looking at a number of possibilities including long-term climate factors, changed fire regimes, agricultural practices and a missing predator,” Ross says as we wander past another forlorn stand of lifeless gums.
So will the destructive weevil chomp its way all to the way to Canberra? “It's already in the ACT but it's a mystery why they aren't in as massive numbers as on the Monaro or causing as much damage,” Ross says. Like Ross, I'm surprised that more research isn't being undertaken into the wascally weevil, especially when its trail of destruction is so extensive and so visible beside one of our major highways.
While there's much expected hoopla this month to celebrate Canberra's Centenary, an hour's drive up the highway at Goulburn they're actually 50 years ahead of us.
On March 14, 1863, a Royal Letters Patent issued by Queen Victoria established the Anglican Diocese of Goulburn, giving Goulburn city status and thereby making it Australia's first inland city.
To mark the city's 150th birthday, fast-fingered members of the Goulburn Group of the Knitters Guild of New South Wales have been busy creating a Big Scarf befitting of Rambo, their famous oversized concrete merino.
The multicoloured 30-metre-long and 1.5-metre-wide scarf is knitted from acrylic yarn and not the fine wool for which Goulburn is known for. “We were advised that dyes in the wool could run when it rains, permanently staining the concrete,” laments Susan McDonnell of the guild, who no doubt doesn't want a psychedelic coloured ram as the group's legacy of the city's sesquicentenary. The team has painstakingly toiled for 2300 hours knitting 71 kilometres of yarn, which will be draped (with the help of a crane) on the Big Merino this Friday at 11am. While I don't wish to state the bleating obvious, resplendent in such cosy attire, I hope for Rambo's sake it's a cool day.
Details of Goulburn's month-long birthday bash (I wonder if Rambo will still be donning his scarf for the street parade on March 16?) are listed at igoulburn.com
While recently observing a nesting Australasian grebe (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae) on a dam at Callum Brae Nature Reserve*, keen birder Julian Robinson noticed something a tad unusual.
“As I was photographing the waterbird close to its nest, quite suddenly the bumps shown in the photo appeared,” Robinson says. “They didn't appear like bubbles, seemed solid, all the same size and didn't burst or disintegrate like bubbles.”
So perplexed was Robinson that soon after returning from the dam he was moved to suggest to the Canberra Birds internet chatline that “the bumps appeared to be parts of one thing, like the Loch Ness Monster”.
The chatline was quickly abuzz (or should that be chirping?) with theories as to the origins of the baffling bumps, including tortoises, a partly-submerged platypus, a snake and even the heads of young grebes. Robinson was quick to dismiss the possibility that they were tortoises as “none have any little nostrils or eyes to look like tortoises, and the shapes are too symmetrical” and after zooming in on his photo, he couldn't see “any shape that might support snakes or platypus”.
The most likely explanations to surface so far are that the bumps were caused by carp (assuming of course there are carp in the dam) coming up for air. When oxygen levels get very low in lakes, carp can sometimes be observed gulping water on the surface where the oxygen level is higher.
What do you think caused the bumps? By the way, the pale object in the foreground of Robinson's photo is a leaf.
*Callum Brae is one of our lesser-known nature reserves. It is in Symonston, and best accessed on foot via an entrance gate on Narrabundah Lane, west of the Therapeutic Goods Administration Laboratories.
It's Trans-Tasman Parks Week and there's heaps to do in national parks surrounding the ACT. Here's my pick:
1. On a Bike
What: A carnival of family cycling activities are on offer at Bungonia National Park near Goulburn.
When: Today and tomorrow.
Expect: An obstacle course, slalom ride, downhill roll-over, mystery ride, and mountain bike ride activities.
Don't miss: On Sunday morning there'll be an award for the best decorated bikes and a family bike parade.
Where: Bungonia National Park is about 90 minutes away drive north of Canberra via the Hume Highway.
Bookings essential: $5 a child, a day, and vehicle entry fees to the park apply. Phone (02) 4887 7270.
2. Going underground
What: Fun Day at Yarrangobilly Caves (recently featured in this column's Cave of Wanders, January 12).
When: Tomorrow. 11am-3pm.
Expect: To indulge in Devonshire tea on a century-old verandah, and to go on an eco tour. There's even a Fairy Tales Tour for the kids in Jillebenan Cave.
Don't miss: Between 11am and 3pm you will be among the first to have the opportunity to take a sneak peek in the recently renovated century-old two-story Caves House, which will soon open for accommodation.
Where: Within the northern section of Kosciuszko National Park, 6.5 kilometres off the Snowy Mountain Highway and 77 kilometres from Tumut and 109 kilometres from Cooma. Entrance fees apply. Phone (02) 6454 9597.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.