Sunday 27 June 2010

The Nearby Wild: Part 2

[a pademelon's runway - a subtle but visible sign of wildlife moving through our bush]

Our old backyard had runways made by a couple of generations of dogs. Each morning I would use a ball-flinger to throw a ball 30 or 40 metres up the backyard for them to fetch. Angus, who had retriever blood, was rather worse at it than his successor, the hopelessly hybrid but eager-to-please Nuala.

This long practice produced an elongated bald patch in what passed for our back lawn: a dog line made by pounding paws. It extended up the slope towards the bush that took over beyond our back boundary. Had I known to look, I would also have found runways into the bush itself, caused not by dogs, but by marsupials.

Now that we live in that backyard, I see not only these other runways but the native animals that use them. The strange thing for me, as for so many Australians, is that I know precious little about the wildlife that shares our place. Dogs, on the other hand, are our familiars. They respond to our words; treat us as part of their pack; allow us to pat, pamper and potentially command them. We may even have seen them breed, and watched a litter of blind pups mewling and snuggling at a bitch’s teats, or later tearing up almost anything they find.

If you’d asked me about the life of a pademelon (Thylogale billardierii - aka the rufous wallaby) my answer wouldn’t have detained you long. At least until I started hearing and seeing them in our yard on a regular basis, and got curious.

[as the sign indicates, we share this place - even the roads - with wildlife]

Let’s start with hearing, because these night-active fur-balls are stealth on legs. While possums screech and scream, pademelons are largely silent. I’ve heard them occasionally “pish” at each other, presumably during a dispute. And the males are said to “cluck” when pursuing a female, though I’ve never heard this. Otherwise they are the politest of guests, and you’d hardly know they were there but for their percussive sounds. As with many grazing mammals, they thump their hind legs as a warning sound. And of course make the same sound when hopping.

I hear that sound – I call it the bush’s crepuscular heart-beat – as they make their way to bed in the wee hours. Having spent the night grazing on our’s or the neighbour’s grass, they are heading towards thicker bush: their preferred shelter during the day.

Once at rest they are very difficult to find, as their thick dark fur is flecked with a range of tones that blend perfectly with our bush: from burnt-stump black through to rusty grey. If captured at rest for a still-life study, an impressionist might see a tilted furry pear. The haunches are disproportionately large, the shoulders slim and hunched and the petite romanesque heads topped with flicking, flame-tinged ears. 

After mating, and a gestation period of about one month, the female carries young in her pouch for as long as 7 months. Another embryo (or blastocyst) is held in reserve, ready to take over when the pouch young leaves. This system allows pademelons to respond quickly to good seasons by breeding continuously.

In motion pademelons are agile and quick-footed, and bounce away rapidly when approached by humans or dogs. Although they seldom stray further than 100m from tree cover, in many areas that brings them into contact with cars.

One frosty morning I find a mature pademelon dead by our road-side. It has been hit during the night. Dazzled by the car’s lights, its agility and grace has only been enough to bring it into contact with the unforgiving motion of a car. 

[the cold, dead body of a pademelon hit by a car on the road]

Sunday 20 June 2010

The Nearby Wild: Part 1

[a Bennetts Wallaby relaxes in a national park, the kind of place you'd expect to see one]

I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when our teacher decided our class needed to broaden its horizons. He arranged for each of us to correspond with an American pen friend. As a learning exercise it largely failed. My only lasting memory was amazed disbelief that my American counterpart thought kangaroos actually hopped down Australian streets.

The wheel turns. 7 years ago I published a book, Habitat Garden*, about attracting wildlife to your garden. We tried to practice what I was preaching by growing endemic plants in our spacious backyard. In short the theory is that if you provide plants that help shelter, feed and house wildlife, then it will use it. Build it and they will come!

Since then we’ve moved house, but only into a newer house in the backyard of the old house. Essentially that wildlife-attracting backyard has become our frontyard. And it has grown up to the point where the theory of planting for animal habitat has become an astonishing reality.

I’m not just talking about possums here: there are few prizes for being able to attract those furry rogues to your garden. My astonishment is rather in finding evidence of at least three different macropod species in the garden. That’s right: kangaroos hopping down our street! Well, not strictly kangaroos, but their smaller macropod siblings. Potoroos, pademelons and Bennetts wallabies are all in evidence in both our garden and our nearby bushland.

I did a double-take when I saw a Bennetts wallaby hop across the road in broad daylight a week or two ago. Yes, it is a bushy area, but it is still suburbia, and such things are only supposed to happen in the imaginations of foreigners!

Then a couple of nights ago, I took our ageing dog for her evening wee-walk. I can normally keep her on the vocal chain – using voice commands rather than a lead. But as we walked into the dark she heard and saw something and twanged away like an arrow, despite my yells.

I suspected she’d seen the neighbours’ cat and was simply continuing her long and fruitless conflict with Cheech. But a moment later a dark shadow bounced out of the gloom and almost ran into me. A pademelon! As shocked as me, it careered sideways, colliding with the mesh fence that stood between it and its favoured paddock. Bouncing off that it darted into the bush of our frontyard,  the “habitat garden”, with Nuala the dog in hot pursuit.

Thankfully the plant cover was thick enough for the pademelon to evade our dog. Or perhaps a canny “paddy” can always outrun an ageing quadruped. At any rate the dog came back to its astonished owner, and the pademelon leapt off to the safety of the nearby bush.

As I put the dog inside for the night, I pondered on the privilege of learning the difference between theory and reality. We truly do share this place with other beings, some wilder than others.

* ABC Gardening Australia Books, 2003. I believe it is now out of print, but the desperate could try eBay!

Friday 18 June 2010

Alert Not Alarmed

[Your blogger enjoying snow near Du Cane Gap, Tasmania. Photo: Lynne Grant]

Tasmania is the only place in the world that has bushwalkers weather alerts. I’ve no doubt people in many other places, including mainland Australia, receive adverse walking weather. Trampers in New Zealand, hikers in North America, and ramblers and hill walkers in the UK face conditions every bit as hazardous as ours. But by accident of history, vocabulary and popularity, Tasmania’s bushwalkers join sheep graziers in receiving specific weather alerts when cold, wet and snowy weather is forecast.

What is it like to find yourself out there when one of these alerts is current? The June long weekend this year provided a good test. Our group planned to head for Windy Ridge, at the southern end of Tasmania’s Overland Track.

Two days before we leave, snow showers are forecast down to 500m. When the words “bushwalkers weather alert” are added, some members of the group become nervous about us walking to well above 1000m. We go anyway – jollying them along with optimistic bravado.

Arriving at Lake St Clair we note, with eyebrow-raising interest, that the outside air temperature is only 1 degree C. The showers are coming and going, but the snow isn’t settling at the lake’s 700m altitude. We head for the ferry that will smoothly deliver us to the head of the cloud-shrouded lake in little more than 20 minutes.

80 years ago the trip for Jack Thwaites and party was more hair-raising. A. D. Fergusson (“Fergy”) used to run an open boat up and down the lake at break-neck speed – when he could get the engine firing. His deliberately erratic driving would have put him in the hoon category today, so the Thwaites party were all thoroughly wet by the time they reached Narcissus Bay. And they only achieved that after they’d rowed more than a mile up the lake when the engine died.

We arrive safely, achieving a similar level of wetness only after a few kilometers of showery walking. As we gain altitude the showers are turning sleety, and by the time we reach Windy Ridge there is plenty of snow on the ground.

The next morning we half expect to wake to a blanket of snow. But the showers have eased, and it proves to be a flimsy blanket, with less than a foot’s depth of snow around the forest-enfolded walkers’ hut. Through the trees we catch glimpses of snow caps on the Du Cane Range. It is cold and the clouds promise more snow, but Du Cane Gap and the waterfalls are calling. We put on fire-dried boots and wet weather gear, and soak them all again within the hour.

It’s said that the North American Inuit have a vast number of words for snow. While that is debated, the various Finnish dialects do have more than 50 words for snow (or “icy precipitation”). And it shouldn’t surprise us that people of the far-north have a nuanced vocabulary for snow.

I, on the other hand, am a snow novice. A teenager before I saw snow in the flesh, as we climb through the ever-thickening snowy forest, I am a teenager again. I can’t find the vocabulary for the wonder of this frozen scene.

[old man's beard (lichen) encrusted in snow]

But I begin to get a sense of snow as a symbol for the here and now. Transient yet firm, soft but transforming, full both of light and delight. It disguises danger; reveals shape; muffles sound; sighs softly; kills gently. It can tickle, thrash, melt, smack and scratch. And every flake of it is unique.

What if we’d heeded the bushwalkers weather alert? What if the thermal gravity of the wood heater had held us down in the warm hut? In answer I simply smile.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Freycinet Fragments

[Spider crabs litter Cooks Beach, in Freycinet National Park, Tasmania]

Cooks Beach: A Mass Stranding?

The central section of the long and peaceful strand has become a war zone. For more than 100 metres crab bodies, carapaces, legs and cryptic crabby bits litter the sand. Thousands of spider crabs (Leptomithrax gaimardii) have been stranded on the shore, or so it appears. These crabs are common all around Tasmania’s inshore coast, especially in silty shallows such as those of Great Oyster Bay. They appear to be social animals, aggregating together at moulting and mating times. As with spiders and many other invertebrates, they only grow larger by shedding their entire outer “skin”. At such times, their new outers still soft, they are more vulnerable to both predators and rough weather. Aggregation may be some defence.

For a couple of days prior to our visit, the weather has been far from tranquil. Record rains and strong winds have hit the east coast. It seems likely that this event has coincided with the moulting season, and the waves have brought clumps of crab bits ashore. That not every shell is empty indicates that some live spider crabs had been washed ashore along with the outgrown suits, or more properly exuvia. The “fish-shop” aroma testifies to the same.

Hazards Beach: Happy Feet

A silver gull pads up and down the intertidal zone. Compared to its urban kin it is scarcely recognisable; immaculate of plumage, stark of colour, deft of movement, solitary. It stops at intervals, “puddling” with its lollipop-red legs. Fleet feet pump the sand each time a wave retreats. The gull follows, gobbles the refugee fragments of food: sand worms, tiny crustaceans, hoppers, the beach’s equivalent of krill. It keeps this up for almost an hour while I am there, probably for many hours after I leave. A vast hors d’ouvre or else an extraordinarily long lunch.

[sunset over Great Oyster Bay, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania]

Sleepy Bay: Morsels

Steep, secret steps plunge to a pirate’s hide-away, all nook and cove. Over the ages smooth, sweetly-coloured granite has yielded up its grains to the ever-moving suck and rasp of the waves. In our time we have been falling feet - shod and bare - and reclining diners, with gently rocking bottoms that add to the wear that cedes sand morsels the consistency of bread-crumbs. Let those who read future rocks discern the trail of crumbs that will lead to new rock, and a form of eternity.

Cooks Beach: The Dark Emu

At Cooks Beach the winter night comes early and falls fast. It is dark by 5:30, and we finish dinner by the light of fuel stoves and head torches. One of our group points to the Milky Way and tells us a fragment of an Aboriginal story. Two brothers, an emu and a possum feature. What we had always taken to be a string of nebulae beneath and below the Southern Cross are revealed as parts of the defeated, dark emu spirit. The stricken bird droops in death. Two bright stars are spears in his neck, thrown by the brothers to end his interference. Such luminous myths beggar the Greek cosmos of joined dots.