Black Rock

by Donald Macdonald, in The Argus 23 April 1904

It is not because of the black ironstone stains along the shore that Black Rock got its name. The builders of the quaint yellow sandstone house, which so few people see hidden away amongst the ti-tree, named it after an old Irish home. It is unlike any other house in Australia. It needs only a steel helmet, showing one the top of the high battlements, to suggest a fendal strong-hold. Old in actual years for this country, much older still in design, it was built by one of the earliest pioneers, whose family - still the owners of it - have been long resident in England. The ti-tree and rugged box gums have grown up around it, shutting it away from view, and it is with a sense of surprise and pleasure that one blunders upon it in walking through the scrub. There were cheery hunting breakfasts there in the old days, when Governor Sir Henry Barkly was a guest, and a fine company of old-country sportsmen chased the kangaroo over the open heath ridges behind. Rolf Boldrewood or Mr. Panton could, no doubt, tell an interesting story or two of this old house - of the men who lived in and visited it - of that well-known gold-buyer, for example, who rode his sturdy cob all the way to Bendigo to buy and bring back the gold, dodging Black Douglas and his gang by always leaving the diggings at night, and with his fine sense of locality never travelling twice by the same track. In between his gold-buying trips he used to shoot snipe and quail around the shallow swamps at the back of Black Rock, some of which have been drained and made into market gardens. There are all sorts of stories about the old house - that it was built by convict labour, and was for a time a prison. It is easy coming upon it so lonely and remote, yet within sound of the voices of the thousands who picnic on the beach, to make it a centre for all the romance of these pioneering days, but this talk as to its having been a prison is pure imagination, inspired by its fortress appearance and the slots in the walls, which look as though it had been pierced for musketry. The masons who built it were paid 17/- a day for their work, and the master-builder was the father of one of the most famous of Victorian cricketers, who sits under an elm-tree now watching his sons play the game. Behind the house in a green meadow, are the remains of what was once a fine orchard - the first in a district over which orchards are now strewn far and wide. It is interesting to note that nothing has survived but the pear trees - tall pear trees, as clean and sound, and free from the blights and disease which decimated the rest of the orchard as upon the day they were planted.

And if the old house is interesting, so, too, is the paddock round about it - so densely overgrown with the coast scrub. It is a fine harbour for nature, so quiet, so seldom visited even by a trespasser like myself, that one may go a hundred yards in from the roadway, and imagine himself a hundred miles from anywhere. I strayed in there first to gather mushrooms, and found them in picturesque variety, wholesome brown-gilled ones, generally under the stone pines, and almost hidden by the litter of dead grass and pine needles which they lift on their broad caps as they spring up. These stone pines are not native to the scrub, of course, but are spreading steadily all over the ridges and in time would, if given their way, make it a complete pine barren, for, whether it is the resin in them or not, pine needles when they litter the ground kill everything else. Where the foliage of the tea-tree has knitted at the top into a tangle, and the tortuous, wiry stems underneath gives it a mazy look, the sunlight hardly enters at all. The fallen leaves have made a soft mould on which one walks noiselessly. Where it is a little open, and free from dead leaves, there is a thick green moss. In the moist spring and autumn, when the rains are heavy enough to penetrate the living thatch overhead, there is a close hot-house atmosphere, and a wonderful profusion of fungus. In the same grove of tea-tree you may pluck them in three kinds, distinct spots of rich colour in the shadow. One is a deep orange, inclining slightly to cinnamon red; another an equally bright lemon; the third a soft French grey, what all men, and some very old-fashioned women, call mauve. They are very beautiful as specimens; very doubtful as esculents. Where a tea-tree has fallen and rotted away, catching and gathering together wind-blown litter and dead leaves of the scrub, large cream-coloured mushrooms spring in rows, lifting the leaf mould and twigs. This one may be edible - it does not spring from the skin cup just under the soil, which marks the Q Anita, one of the poisonous kinds. The most interesting of them all is the phosphorescent fungus, which grows here very freely. It is attached to the stumps of the tea-tree close to the ground, and so characteristic in shape that it can be mistaken for nothing else. It has practically no stem, the gills extending close down to the roots. The form is something like two fans placed side by side, with edges curving slightly outward; the texture soft and delicate; the colour a greenish white, like the inside of a ripe apple. In the dark it glows with a faint bluish white light. I brought some of them home last autumn, and this incandescent quality lasted some days, growing fainter as they decayed. It is just a bit creepy when you come upon it at night in the stillness of the scrub, or see it growing slowly out of its unnoticed source as the stars come - not there one minute, but unmistakably there the next.

I know of no place within easy reach of Melbourne where there is so much bird-life in a little space as round about Black Rock. The number and variety of nests we found last spring were astonishing, and some of them made interesting photographs. We tried an experiment one day with a nest of young yellow-breasted robins - or, rather, repeated an experiment which an American nature photographer had made. The Kearton brothers, whose photographs of wild birds from life were known all over England, went to considerable trouble to effect their purpose. They built artificial tree trunks and hung ivy about them for a more natural effect - the artist and the camera being inside the trunk, with a peephole to take the picture. They even made an artificial cow, with a real skin and a sham frame, so that they might get close to their living subjects. An American naturalist adopted the plan of moving the nest to an accessible place for the study, finding that the popular notion as to birds deserting their young when the nest had been interfered with was all nonsense. In the case of the yellow robins, we moved the nest from a high bough to a low one, and, having got the picture, tied the nest down with string in its new position. The old birds went to it at once, and continued feeding their young as though nothing had happened. There was no hesitation - they came to the nest while we stood by and watched, and, as far as one could judge from their movements, seemed to be unaware that it had been moved. The brood were reared, and the string-bound nest is still on the bough. There is always a soft cooing of wild doves in the tea-tree, but they build well back from the roadway, and the nests, resting on a thick platform of dead boughs, are not easily seen. All the lesser birds are very plentiful - robins, fantails, fly-catchers, honey-eaters, blue-wrens, and superb warblers, who become very trustful when you sit quite still. I saw three varieties of cuckoo here in the spring. The last of them the bronze cuckoo - the plumage of which, on first sight, reminds one of the halycon kingfisher - left little more than a month ago on its migration northward.

All through the scrub are scattered some fine gnarled old box trees, twisting into the strangest shapes, full of holes and nooks, in which starlings build. Very few of the native birds, excepting the robin, the fan-tails, and the honey-eaters, are so plentiful here as the starlings and blackbirds - and those who have written on the starling as a pest have not exaggerated the menace to vineyards. They are especially fond of grapes. I have some vines of black muscat and golden chasselas, which, not being dressed with sulphur in early spring, were spoiled with oidium. It made no difference to the starlings. They were in the vines with the ripening of the first bunches, and hardly ever out of them in daylight until every berry had been taken, and nothing but the stalks left. The young of this year - always distinguishable as being without the dark lustrous plumage of the old birds - were the more daring. A pair of red lories built in one of the box-trees this summer, but I have not seen them lately. Possibly, like so many of the doves and larger birds, they have fallen victims to the boy and the Winchester rifle - a toy which is doing much mischief in a quiet way, especially on holidays. The lories, in their conspicuous blood-red plumage, would attract the destroyers at once. This stretch of shore from Brighton to Beaumaris is being more valued every year, both for marine residences and as a picnic ground. If it were 50 miles away, it would be even more valued, if less frequented. Is it not possible for the Moorabbin Shire, which has done something, not merely to save, but to restore the tea-tree, native to the coast, to preserve also the wild life that makes it attractive. The snapping of these mischievous toy rifles is much too frequent a note in the scrub, and the use of firearms within half a mile of the beach might be forbidden, as well as the taking of nests and eggs. Nature's own aviaries are so rare close to the city that, while there is yet time, something should be done to save them, and everything that adds to the interest of this pretty band of coast-land is not merely the gain of the holiday-makers of to-day, but the inheritance of the generations to come.