Sunday 2 March 2014

The Urban Platypus

The world is astonishing every day. We, on the other hand, are seldom ready to be astonished.

Most weekday mornings I walk down a track beside the Hobart Rivulet on my way to work. I like to think I am observant. I feel the cooler air that drains off the mountain, down our narrow valley. I notice the variations in the water flow: sometimes a racing torrent, sometimes an ambling companion. I discern the changes in the weather, the seasons, the flowerings and fallings.

Yet this is my daily exercise, and I am on the way to work. So I do not dawdle. Most times I am listening to my iPod: sometimes music, sometimes a podcast. It is good brain fodder, but a distraction nonetheless. There’s a lot I must be missing.

[Hobart Rivulet flows from a cloud-shrouded kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 

One bright Saturday morning, I am taking my time. There's no hurry to get anywhere, I'm not counting this walk as exercise. Today I am really looking because … well, is it because I care to really look? Or is it because I have taken my camera, so I can take some photographs? On this occasion the two merge, and I am twice surprised – greatly surprised – by what I see as I walk.

First up is a tiger snake, the palest I have ever seen. It has an unusual light green hue, and a burnished blush amidships. There are clear cream coloured “stripes” hooping up to a back that never darkens beyond business-suit-grey. It’s the stripes that gave these snakes their name, although many – perhaps most – are not noticeably striped.

This one is a decent size, at least a metre and half long, and it’s moving quickly. I’ve been creeping along the rivulet bank looking for photo angles and must have startled it. That surprise is mutual, yet although the snake is only a couple of metres away, and heading in my direction, my desire to photograph it is stronger than any thought of retreat. The reptile makes the “photo or flight” debate academic. It finds a hollow in the stream-side rubble so quickly that my camera doesn’t even make it to eye level.

[A bright autumn morning by the Rivulet] 
I tell Lynne, who is up at track level, and she suggests, rather strongly, that I join her there NOW. She has been startled by a snake once before in this vicinity, while cycling down the multi-use track. She tells me that “her” snake was a decidedly darker individual than the one I have described. Given the ample bush and fresh water along the rivulet, it shouldn’t surprise us that snakes would favour such a place. As with so much of our wildlife, we see far less than is actually there.

As though to prove that point, surprise number two happens just minutes up the track. A man and a woman are standing stream-side, engrossed in watching something. As we join them one quietly says “platypus”, pointing to what could well be an animated stone in the water. The remarkable creature is maintaining its position by swimming against the flow. As we watch it dabbles and ducks beneath the water, intent on finding the invertebrates that are its staple diet.

[Which is rock, which is platypus? Click on the image to expand.] 
How startling it must have been for the first Europeans to come across this monotreme. Surprising enough that a mammal should have a duck-like bill, webbed feet, a beaver-like tail, a venomous spur; how much more surprising when they discovered that it also laid eggs and yet suckled its young? It broke so many “rules” of natural history, that a sample sent to England was at first dismissed as a hoax. Scientists pored over its ill-preserved body looking for the join marks.

[A full-grown platypus, around 50cm from bill-tip to tail]
We stare, photograph and ogle for fully twenty minutes more, hardly less engrossed than any early explorer, or than the first time we saw a platypus. Here, only a couple of kilometres from the centre of Hobart, is a phenomenon of the natural world, an evolutionary rarity, insouciantly going about its business. Astonishingly it’s probably here or hereabouts every time I walk by; every time any amazing creature walks, jogs, rides, flies, hops or slithers by.

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