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Thursday, June 30, 2011

7) Jumping Spider & Jellyfish

Salticidae & Medusozoa

So far on this blog I’ve mostly stuck to cute animals.  Things with feathers; things with fur: apart from that one post about aphids I’ve taken the safe option.  I suspect birds, especially, are going to feature heavily on this blog: for one thing they’re the most noticeable of all the groups of animals; also, I know more about them than I do about any other group of animals.  Don’t be surprised to see a lot of birds around here in the future.

I think a lot of people, when they think of animals, might not even think very far beyond birds or mammals.  They might stretch their imagination to fish, or reptiles – maybe even amphibians: who doesn’t like frogs?  I don’t imagine, though, that many people spend a lot of time contemplating the lives of ants, or slugs, or scorpions.  They’re too alien, too unknowable; too frightening, frankly, in their otherness.

Yet, they’re animals all the same.  However remote from us an ant, or a slug, or a scorpion might seem, the distance between them and humans is negligible compared to the distance between any of us and, say, an oak tree, or a pine mushroom, or an Escherichia coli bacterium.  So, surely, it must be possible for us humans to identify some kind of kinship with all the ants, and slugs, and scorpions, and scores and scores of other invertebrates out there?

If you go right down to the basics, you’ll find a profound connection between us humans and not just our fellow animals but every living thing on earth, regardless of its size or form: at root, every living thing on this planet is made up of the same very small handful of chemicals: guanine, cytosine, adenine, and thymine.  These are the four chemicals that, matched up in various configurations, form the core of deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA, that is.  Somehow, the size and form and everything else about every living thing on earth – every ant, every slug, every scorpion, every oak tree and pine mushroom and Escherichia coli bacterium and everything else – are encoded by DNA, which is essentially just long strings of paired units of the same four base chemicals.  If that doesn’t give a person a sense of profound and very real connection to every living organism on earth, I don’t know what will.

It’s all a bit abstract, though, isn’t it?  It’s all very well knowing that I’ve got DNA and so has that mushroom I’m having in my dinner tonight, but DNA doesn’t exactly announce itself and unless I sit down to actually think about it the mushroom becomes just another thing to buy at the supermarket so that I won’t go hungry.  Animals barely fare any better: there’s a certain level of kinship with possums, and Willie Wagtails, and even bats, because we can recognise something of ourselves in them: shared habits and curiosities, a shared structure.  However strange a bird might seem, it’s still got two nostrils and two eyes and four limbs – radically different in form from our own, granted, but they’re there.  We can recognise something of ourselves in them.  What if the animal doesn’t have four limbs, though?  What if it has eight?

I suspect that for many people the combination of the words “jumping” and “spider” is one of the more terrifying in the animal kingdom.  Like snakes, spiders represent for us two of the most visceral of fears: fear of being bitten, and fear of being poisoned; added to that fear of being jumped upon, fear of being set upon unexpectedly, and you’ve got what I imagine must be for a lot of us something peculiarly terrifying.

There’s another peculiarly human emotion, though, which is a bit difficult to quantify but which might be described as “the thrill of knowledge”.  For all that we may be tempted to wax rhapsodic about the romanticism of the universe’s depthless mysteries, we are by nature curious animals and we’re all driven to investigate, to discover, and to understand.  When I was a child I came to be delighted at noticing a jumping spider crawling about on the bricks or through the flowers of my parents’ back garden.  Unlike vertebrates, invertebrates are so numerous and many of them so similar that to somebody not trained in their identification it’s easiest to just lump them all in together: “creepy-crawlies”; “bugs”.  So to a young would-be naturalist such as myself the extraordinary uniformity of jumping spiders’ appearance was a boon: here was a group of creatures creeping around in the undergrowth that I could instantly identify and classify; here was a way in to that most secret of animal worlds.  The distinctive huge, block-shaped head and enormous front eyes that all jumping spiders, regardless of species, have in common are like a uniform that puts them all on the same team.

Those eyes are astonishing.  Apart from their behaviour, I think the thing that most unnerves us about spiders is their very otherness: eight legs and eight eyes is a body structure that’s impossible for us humans to imagine ourselves into.  Jumping spiders, though, have two forward-facing eyes which are enormously more prominent than their other eyes, and it gives them something that we can begin to recognise as a face.  Except – those eyes are so utterly unlike our own, at least in appearance: they’re too large, grotesquely so; and they’re disconcertingly empty, just two huge, black orbs which offer us no way in, which are completely expressionless and disturbingly unyielding.  When we look into the eyes of a mammal, or a bird, or even a lizard, we’re seeing something that we can readily recognise as akin to ourselves, however remotely.  We can see a creature that’s examining us with roughly the same emotions and instincts as those we find in ourselves.  For all that we might appreciate the basic necessities of a jumping spider’s life – food, shelter, procreation – when we get down close and look into its eyes, the animal itself becomes utterly unknowable.

If a jumping spider is unknowable, what, then, to make of a jellyfish?  Eyes are the least of it – a jellyfish doesn’t have anything that we can recognise as our own.  No brain; no central nervous system; no digestive system; no respiratory system; no circulatory system.  And yet for all that they lack, they’re animals as much as we are.  Somewhere, somehow, there’s a connection to be found.

If not in anatomy, perhaps in behaviour: jellyfish can be surprisingly social animals.  Haven’t grown up inland I’ve only seen jellyfish on a handful of occasions, but each time I’ve seen them they’ve been in numbers.  People all over the world will be familiar with the Portuguese Man o’ War (Physalia physalis), in Australia more commonly known as the Bluebottle.  They’re a common sight washed up along the tide line, and as a child one of the first things I learned about going to the beach was not to go near one if I saw it.  More recently, I’ve stood on the deck of a cross-Baltic ferry and looked down into the water to see jellyfish by the thousands swarming just below the surface; the one and only time I visited the bay-side Melbourne suburb of Williamstown I walked out onto the pier and saw a much smaller but no less obvious cluster of jellyfish (a little online research leads me to conclude they were probably Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita)).  I’ve seen scores of dead jellyfish the size of dinner-plates washed up on a remote beach in south-western Tasmania.  There’s some strong biological imperative going on here which, if we strip the endless complexities we humans tend to upon our behaviour, I think we’ll recognise in ourselves: I live by myself, I work from home, and I’m going to be going out tonight not just because there’s a good gig happening in town but because I need to socialise, to put myself in a group.  Surely there’s not so much difference between a crowd of people at a bar and a swarm of jellyfish beneath a pier.

But I’m clutching at straws here.  Ultimately, I think the question I intended to address when I started this post may be the wrong question altogether.  I think, perhaps, that instead of asking myself how we humans can relate to invertebrates, I should have been asking: why does it matter?  Why is it necessary to find some kind of equivalency in another animal in order to value it?  There’s a strange tendency in contemporary society to equate “difference” with “inferiority”.  We’re terrified of suggesting that one person, or one group of people, may have a different set of skills from other people – as if by doing so we would be making some kind of value judgement.  Surely we can recognise that a jellyfish or a jumping spider – or an ant, or a slug, or a scorpion for that matter – doesn’t need to be just like us to be worth cherishing.  Surely we can realise that an animal doesn’t need to be relatable on some human level – or even on the molecular level – in order to be worth cherishing.  The fact that it exists at all is extraordinary enough.

Jumping spider image sourced from  /  Moon Jellyfish image sourced from

Saturday, June 25, 2011

6) Red-capped Robin

Petroica goodenovii

I’ve only seen a Red-capped Robin once, many years ago.  I was barely more than a child at the time, and consequently my life was so different from what it is now that it almost seems, when I think back on it, to have been the life of somebody else altogether.

It was at my parents’ holiday house, a property which they still own, just inland from the far south coast of New South Wales.  They’d bought the house from friends some years earlier, having somewhat recklessly promised to do so should the opportunity ever arise.  When you’re a child your parents always seem wealthy, even if you’re never quite sure exactly how wealthy they may be; it’s only now, looking back, and crucially with some years experience of living away from home, that I can appreciate that even my parents weathered the mundane struggles of daily middle-class life: balancing a budget, paying bills, keeping their children fed and clothed and happily oblivious to any hardships, however minor.  On top of it all they took a mortgage on a second house – because it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The property on which their holiday house is built – was built, in fact, by the very friends from whom my parents bought it – is a steep, densely forested hillside ending, at the bottom of a sharply zigzagging dirt road which is  equally challenging on foot or in a car, in the Brogo River.  Surrounding the property on all sides are farms, but my parents’ land is unworkable and the forest on it is a refuge for many species of bird.  As a child, brought up on David Attenborough documentaries as so many of us were, I took up bird-watching – and I pursued it in earnest once my parents bought the holiday house.

The vegetation on the property is largely wet sclerophyll forest, with a few small patches of dense acacia woodland and a single long gully of sub-temperate rainforest.  Accordingly, the birds that live on the property are those species that favour dense, damp forests.  In some instances the contrast between the species on my parents’ property and on the adjacent cleared farmland is striking: for instance, within the forest the Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) is plentiful; leave the forest and it disappears altogether, to be replaced by the equally beautiful Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius), which for its part never ventures into the trees.  By the time I saw the Red-capped Robin I’d been carefully cataloguing the bird species on the property for several years; I’m not sure what number I was up to on the day when the robin appeared, but last time I had a chance to check the list stood at around one-hundred species.

Australasian robins (Petroicidae) are not closely related to the European robin (Erithacus rubecula).  However, they bare superficial similarities to their European counterpart and so were named accordingly by homesick and baffled European taxonomists.  Australian forests are full of birds which were named for the European birds they best resemble: the Crested Shriketit, (Falcunculus frontatus), the Grey Shrikethrush (Colluricincla harmonica), etcetera.  There are numerous species of Australasian robins in a variety of colours, including a whole genus, Petroica, known generally (though not always accurately) as “red robins”.  By the time I saw the Red-capped Robin I’d already identified several Petroica species on my parents’ property, the most common being the Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang).

I’d never expected to see a Red-capped Robin there, though.  Unlike others in its genus it’s a bird of arid regions, and it’s not commonly found near the coast.  The Australian environment can never be so easily ordered, though, and some years after my parents bought the property the area was afflicted by a terrible drought.  The Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax), always prevalent on the property, started flying so low over the house in their search for food that it was possible to see their eyes, and the individual feathers of their wings.  The grass on the farmland around the property turned yellow, and then brown.  And birds from the inland started migrating towards the coast, seeking water and sustenance.

One of them was the Red-capped Robin.  It appeared out of nowhere one day in the small, half-wild garden that forms a buffer zone between the house and the forest, and it stayed all day, perching on the upright branch that acts as a bird-feeder and scanning the grass below for worms and insects.  The next day it was gone, and I never saw it again.  Even to this day the memory flares in my mind, so bright were the robin’s feathers, so unexpected was the sighting.

It wasn’t me who saw it first, though.  My grandparents – my mother’s parents – were visiting us from England, the last time, I think, that they ever made the arduous trip half way across the world from their home outside Woking, in Surrey.  My grandfather, sharp-eyed even late into life, saw the robin, and brought it to the attention of everybody else.  As soon as I saw it I knew what it was, so many times had I pored over the exquisite colours of the robins in my bird field identification book.

Like me my grandparents were eager bird-watchers, my grandfather especially.  Their house in England had a huge back garden, carefully tended by my grandmother and, later in her life, by a hired gardener, and at the back of the garden was a birch wood from which emerged birds of all kinds.  English birds: Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus), Song Thrushes (Turdus philomelos) – and, or course, European Robins.  I spent seven months over the northern spring and summer of 2003 living with my grandparents, and every morning before breakfast and every evening before dinner we’d gather at the windowsill to see which birds would appear to us.

I was amazed particularly by the woodpeckers (Picidae), and I loved shutting my eyes and listening to the songs of the Blackbirds (Turdus merula), but I spent a good part of those seven months scoffing at the immense pride the English take in their “red-breasted” robin.  I’d grown up with the bold, burning colours of Australian birds and I wasn’t about to be impressed by this dull rust-coloured creature.  Australian birds are loud, bright, raucous and impossible to miss; English birds are almost genteel in their delicacy and politeness.  I liked them because so many of them were new to me, but as a whole they didn’t really compare.

At the end of the seven months, though, at the end of summer and the start of autumn, I noticed a strange thing: the robin, that bird which at the start of spring had been so easily lost amidst the foliage of the hedges and trees, now suddenly blazed bright from the furthest corner of my grandparents’ garden.  I was astonished: I’d gaze into the garden and the startling vividness of the robin’s colour would announce the bird to me as if it was a beacon.  After seven months under the English sun, my eyes and my brain had adjusted to the light.  I’d been living with my grandparents for half the year, and now I was seeing their garden – their world – as they saw it.

Neither I nor my grandparents had expected me to stay with them for so long.  It was an imposition on my part.  Still, I don’t doubt that we all got a great deal out of it.  My grandparents had been married for more than fifty years and I consider it a privilege to have been able to see how such a longstanding relationship functioned from day to day.  I think few people – certainly few people in the English-speaking world – get the opportunity to spend so much time with their grandparents, and to be honest if I’d known beforehand that I was to be doing so I probably would have baulked, but now I count those seven months as some of the best-spent months of my life.   In particular, I’ll always cherish the opportunity I had to spend so much time with my grandfather.  I loved all of my grandparents, but it was my maternal grandfather – Grandpa – to whom I was closest.  He was the man who never stopped laughing good-naturedly at life; he was the man who taught me how to play chess; he was the man who never outgrew his wonder at and fascination with the world.  He was the man who, from the other side of the planet, somehow instilled in me without ever saying a word about it the understanding that a man is defined by the extent of his compassion, kindness, and engagement with the world.

There’s a photo of my grandfather and me from the same holiday when he saw the Red-capped Robin.  During the time at my parents’ holiday house he and I had completed a jigsaw: another shared passion, or perhaps one that he passed down to me.  We’re standing outside the house, carefully and proudly holding up the completed jigsaw for the camera: we’re smiling, and squinting in the bright Australian sun, and the same sun shines glossily off the European castle and the tranquil moat depicted in the jigsaw.  I’m young in the photo, I barely recognise myself, but my grandfather looks the same as he always looked to me.  We fix an image in our minds of our loved ones very early, and no matter the evidence before our eyes that image never changes – until it does, abruptly: the last time I saw my grandfather, when we all knew he was dying, he suddenly looked so old.  I’d only seen him look that old once before, at the start of that seven months that I lived with him and my grandmother: I’d got off the aeroplane at Heathrow, and caught the train to Woking, and I was waiting for him to come and pick me up in his car.  It was cold, and when he arrived he was wearing a puffy grey jacket which made him looked drawn and pale.  I hadn’t seen him for several years and I was shocked at his appearance.  But then he smiled when he saw me, and on the drive back to his and my grandmother’s house he began commenting in his usual way on the various daily absurdities going on around town, and all of a sudden he was the same man I’d always known.

My grandfather’s name was Robert, but I never heard anybody call him that.  Sometimes he was called Bobby – but most often, people called him Robin.

Image sourced from

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

5) Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo

Calyptorhynchus funereus

Every so often a flock of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos drifts noisily over Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, and it’s as if a host of benign phantoms has been roused from some ancient remnant forest to remind the city of the bushland it had once been.

Australia has an abundance of parrots, with about fifty native species, and of the parrots the largest and most uniquely Australian species are the Cockatoos (Cacatuidae).  As with any group of animals they’ve suffered mixed fortunes: the Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla) and, more recently, the Little Corella (Cacatua sanguinea) have taken advantage of inland clearing and the spread of grain farming to increase their distribution into regions and habitats where once, within living memory, they were never seen; the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) is so common in some cities as to be considered a pest due to its cheerfully destructive habits.  On the other hand, inland clearing has led to the decline in numbers of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri) and the bird is now regarded as vulnerable in Victoria.  When I was a child and my family used to drive across Victoria to get from Canberra to Adelaide every other Christmas, the “Major Mitchell” was more legend than bird: my father spoke of having seen one once, but no matter how many hours I stared out the car window nor how many years I hoped for a glimpse I never saw one, and with its pale pink feathers and extraordinary red and yellow crest it’s among the most vivid of all my imagined animals.

The Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo is neither threatened nor uncommon, but it generally stays out of urban areas so it’s not often seen.  In Canberra a feature of getting out of the city and into the surrounding bush is that the likelihood of seeing a flock of black cockatoos drastically increases.  I was astonished the first time I ever saw them in Melbourne: I heard the distinctive long, wailing calls of a flock approaching and I went rushing out of my house to see the birds flying overhead in their characteristic slow, heavy manner.  I watched them until they disappeared over the houses opposite, though I could hear them long after that.

It’s possible that we’re seeing more black cockatoos in Melbourne now because so much of their habitat was destroyed in the awful Black Saturday bushfires of 2009.  As with Galahs and Corellas moving into cities, the delight we naturally take in the appearance of unexpected animal life in our midst can too easily obscure from us the terrible environmental destruction that has facilitated, or necessitated, the movement of those animals into urban environments.  Whether it’s the inland clearing that’s favoured the grain-eating, open-country living Galahs and Corellas, or the incineration of thousands of square kilometres of bush, those of us who live in a big city are insulated from the cause: we only see the effect, the arrival of new species into our midst – and it’s all too easy to imagine those new arrivals as symptomatic of the greening of our urban areas, the adding of another, richer layer of life on top of the less glamorous if more familiar urban species.

When I first saw black cockatoos in Melbourne I was living in North Carlton.  I live in Clifton Hill now, and my house is near Merri Creek, a long waterway which drains Melbourne’s northern suburbs and which also acts as a wildlife corridor.  The creek has a long history of human use: before Europeans arrived the indigenous Wurundjeri people lived along its banks.  About a ten minute walk from my house there’s the site of what was apparently one of the earliest Aboriginal schools in the state, established in 1846.  Though there’s no evidence of the building remaining, the stand of thin eucalypts nestled on a patch of soil above the creek there, just before the bike path curves round underneath the Eastern Freeway, gives some small impression of what the area might once have looked like.

Melbourne’s a young city, not even two hundred years old – yet it doesn’t take long for a city to acquire a history, and more than anything else I think it’s that history that gives a place its richness.  The house I live in now is an old weatherboard house, and though it’s been renovated and repainted and is now filled with my belongings the fact remains that it was built about a hundred years ago, and generations of people have been in it before me, have run to its front gate when they’ve been caught in an unexpected downpour, have listened to the hooting of Southern Boobook Owls (Ninox novaeseelandiae) floating up from the trees by the creek on still spring nights, have shared meals or felt lonely or been bedridden or regretted not leaving the house for a night out.  People have lived here before me – and they will after me, too, of course they will.  I’m just renting this house but it’s not mine in a much more real sense than that.

All this history is still here to be seen, and to be felt.  The truth is that no matter how much gentrification occurs in a suburb, no matter how far the demographics shift, no matter how much change comes over a place, it’s never entirely a matter of displacement.  For the first year I lived in Melbourne, I was in the heart of Fitzroy.  Fitzroy was once the poorest suburb in Australia, and it’s now one of the most fashionable.  I was barely there long enough to justify calling myself a local, and I wouldn’t want to live there again, but I love the place all the same; and more than anything, what I love about it is that through all the waves of new arrivals to have made Fitzroy their own over the decades – the workers, the artists and musicians, the yuppies – none has entirely displaced the other: they’re still all there, in greater or lesser numbers, all quietly suspicious of each-other but all also just getting on with life.  I find it fascinating – and wonderful, too.

I was riding back from getting breakfast at a nearby bakery this morning and, on a whim, I decided to take a slight detour via the path along the creek.  As I approached Rushall Station in North Fitzroy I heard the distinctive call of a Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo.  I was uncertain at first: no matter how many times I see them in the inner city I never expect to see them, and more than once I’ve heard the call being imitated by the Indian Mynah (Acridotheres tristis), a bird given to occasional mimicry which was introduced to Australia and is now considered a serious threat to native birds due to its aggression in competing for tree hollows in which to nest; but then a second call joined in, and a third, until it became clear that a flock of black cockatoos was nearby.  I stopped my bike, and looked, and eventually saw a few of them flying low through the trees, and thus satisfied I continued on my way.  Just as I was about to turn up a side-branch of the path to climb away from the creek and head towards my house, I heard the same call again – this time coming from an acacia right on the fork of the path.  I stopped dead, and saw right there by the path a huge black cockatoo feeding in the tree.  Then another, and another: eventually I realised there were half a dozen or so cockatoos, not two metres away from me.  I stopped and stared for a few moments, I couldn’t believe my luck – but then, worrying that my presence might send them to flight, I continued on my way.  At the top of the path, beneath the railway bridge, I came across a young Aboriginal couple.  The woman was singing in a beautiful voice, and she had a wide smile which revealed that she had no front teeth.  Still excited by the cockatoos, and unable not to share my enthusiasm for such a rare sighting, I told the couple about the birds.  “That means rain”, the man said.  “Forty days and forty nights.”

The Merri Creek Aboriginal School was run by a Baptist minister.  According to the plaque which is the only indication now of where it once stood, it was eventually shut down when the local Aboriginal community became concerned that the children at the school were being drawn too far away from their own culture.  I know this because I walked down there this afternoon to double-check on some facts before writing this post.  I had to check the rain radar online before I left: early this afternoon, some time after I’d finished my very late breakfast, the temperature plummeted, the wind picked up, and the sky cracked open with rain and hail and sleet.  It was the first rain to fall around here for a little while, and the heaviest since the start of winter.  After that downpour one small storm after another rolled across the city.  When I arrived at the site of the old school the sky was dark and rain was starting to spit down on me as the front of another storm approached.  As I hurried back home, I heard that wailing cry once more, and as always I stopped in my tracks and looked up.  There they were again, so large and flying so slowly that it seemed a miracle that they stayed airborne, making their way east, back from wherever they’d spent the day, back to wherever they're making their home now.

Image sourced from

Friday, June 17, 2011

4) White-striped Mastiff Bat

Tadarida australis

If you live in Australia anywhere south of the tropics, you’re more familiar with the White-striped Mastiff Bat than you realise.  Chances are you’ve heard its call every summer night when you’ve gone outside or when you’ve opened the windows to let in a cool breeze.  And it’s just as likely that you had no idea that you were hearing it at all.

Most likely, you thought the sound you heard was insects clicking.  You might also have mistaken it for the sound of electricity tapping in powerlines: more than once I’ve stood late at night at Victoria Park station in Collingwood and heard the whickering of the lines overhead signalling a train approaching from the next station and the sound is not dissimilar, if a little louder than the bat’s call.

It’s a difficult sound to describe, the call of the White-striped Mastiff Bat.  It’s a clicking, mostly, a kind of a tapping click – but there’s a little bit of squeak in there as well, just a touch of high-pitched pipping as an undertone.  It’s not a “call” as such, at least not as that term would be used to describe the sounds made by birds or by other mammals: it’s not an alarm or an announcement.  What it is, of course, is the sound of the bat’s echo-location, and if while listening to a White-striped Mastiff Bat you hear a sudden pattern of clicks in rapid succession that’s the sound of the bat homing in on an insect – and if there’s a big kind of fat click at the end of it all, that means the insect’s been caught.

The White-striped Mastiff Bat’s call is a small noise, though, so maybe it’s not as noticeable as I think it is.  Certainly I don’t think I’d ever really paid it much attention until one of my lecturers pointed it out to me on a field trip back when I was in university in the early 2000s.  There’s a lot of noise in the world, increasingly so, and I guess the night-time clicking of a small bat doesn’t immediately demand our attention.  There’s all the difference in the world between hearing and listening, and to notice the call of the White-striped Mastiff Bat I think you have to actually be interested in paying attention to it; you have to be prepared to listen to the world.  I’m not sure that so many people are, these days, and I think that’s a shame.

If there’s one device that’s done more than any other to close our ears to the sounds of the world around us, it’s the iPod.  Even at its most popular, the Walkman of my youth never reached anything approaching the near-universal use the iPod enjoys.  I do own an iPod so I shouldn’t rail against them too much, but mine almost never leaves my house and in general they’ve always struck me as profoundly antisocial devices.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on them, though, or on the people who use them.  Hearing is unique among our sense in that we can’t turn it off.  We can’t close our ears and we can’t choose not to hear.  So perhaps that’s why people so love their iPods, or whatever MP3 player they favour: if you can’t turn your ears off you can at least fill them with sounds of your own choosing.  Personally, I prefer to listen to the world – but then, maybe that’s not so dissimilar; I suppose by focussing so intently on the external I’m granting myself a few moments of respite from the ceaseless torrent of thought inside my head.  Just as surely as we’ve all wanted a little silence every now and then, so we’ve all wanted at one time or another to escape from our own heads; and just like hearing, thought is inescapable and unstoppable.  Look at me here, doing far too much of it and writing it all down.

So I guess now more than ever the White-striped Mastiff Bat, never the most conspicuous of animals, is becoming just another of the planet’s unseen creatures.  There’s a bird on the east coast of Australia called the Eastern Bristlebird (Dasyornis brachypterus), and it’s regarded as one of Australia’s rarest birds.  It’s found in very few places, which is always guaranteed to put any species at risk.  Yet, the one time I’ve seen it – again, on a university field trip, to Jervis Bay – it was neither rare nor shy.  My classmates, lecturers and I went to the carpark at the edge of the National Park at dawn and the ground was thick with bristlebirds; but because their natural habitat is coastal scrub so extraordinarily dense that nothing much larger than a bristlebird can penetrate it, the only reason we were seeing the birds at all was because in those few brief hours around dawn they were allowing themselves to be seen: scurrying out of the bush to forage on the bare gravel of the carpark and the walking tracks radiating from it, before retreating again as the day got hotter.  It was impossible to guess how many or how few of them might have been out in that scrub.

You might catch sight of a White-striped Mastiff Bat at dusk, as it emerges from its roost and flies high around the crowns of trees hunting insects.  It’s small, but large by microbat (Microchiroptera) standards, and you can differentiate it from small birds or large moths by the power and speed and yet astonishing agility of its flight.  Most likely, though, you won’t see it: it flies high, high enough to forage above other species of microbats and high enough, incidentally, to be out of human sight once night falls.  In its own way it’s invisible and you might never know it was there – but for its call.  By happy accident it’s one of the few microbats whose call can be heard by human ears, and on a warm night there’s nothing I find quite so strangely comforting as hearing it as it flies unseen above us, and knowing with certainty that there’s a whole other world up there, thriving and indifferent to our curiosity, completely external to us, and just out of sight.

 Image sourced from

Monday, June 13, 2011

3) Rose Aphid

Macrosiphum rosae

About a year ago, due to circumstances beyond my control, I had to find a new house to rent.  This is not something that anyone in Melbourne looks forward to at the moment: Melbourne’s currently going through its biggest growth spurt in decades, with tens of thousands of people moving here each year, so the housing market is extraordinarily competitive.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, people being people, most of the new arrivals want to live in the same small cluster of inner-city suburbs.  There are only so many houses in these suburbs; the inner-city can only sustain so many people.

I was lucky, though.  After months of searching I found a house only a couple of weeks before the lease on my old house expired, and now I’ve been living here for almost a year and it’s a lovely little house in a very beautiful part of the city and I’m pretty happy with it.  As with any house there are things that could be improved about it, but on the whole it’s everything I could ask for.

One feature of it in particular that I love is the garden.  It’s not a particularly magnificent garden – in fact as my neighbour pointed out, after fifteen years of being a rental property there are so many seeds buried in the soil between the bricks that the fight against weeds is nigh on unwinnable – but by inner-city Melbourne standards the garden’s large, and it’s sunny, and it’s just generally a nice place to be.

The most notable feature of the garden is the rose bushes.  There are about half a dozen of them, most planted in a row but one by itself around the corner from the others.  Since moving out of my parents’ house I’ve never lived in a house with rose bushes in the garden.  I haven’t planted any myself, either – mainly because, despite my best intentions, I’m just not much of a gardener.  I love the idea of gardening, but it’s just so daunting: planting everything at the right time of year, making sure everything’s growing in the right type of soil with the right mixture of fertiliser and plant food, pruning everything carefully to make sure it grows properly.  When I’m in the kitchen I can follow a recipe with painstaking care, when I’m assembling a piece of flat-pack furniture I can follow the instructions to the letter, but for some reason when it comes to gardening I just feel defeated before I’ve even begun.  My approach to gardening is hit-and-hope: dig a hole, buy a plant, stick it in the ground, water it, wait for the miracle of life to take its course.

So when I moved into my new house I was relieved to see that the rose bushes were already well established, each one of them taller than me and each covered in buds.  There was nothing for me to do but wait for the flowers.  The bushes weren’t just covered in buds, though: when I looked closer I saw that there was barely a bud or shoot on any of the bushes that wasn’t caked with aphids.

I can’t remember how old I was when I decided to stop killing insects.  It was probably when I was about thirteen – I did a lot of thinking back then about how I wanted to live my life.  I was a bit precocious that way.  Up until then I’d been as happy as anyone else to swat a fly or squash a mosquito, but once I started thinking seriously about it it just seemed to me – it still does seem to me – that the smallness and otherness of insects couldn’t justify the extraordinarily casual extinction of life which marks our relationship with them.

On the other hand, when I looked at the rose bushes in my new house last year there were just so many aphids on them, and pretty much the only thing I knew about growing roses was that an aphid infestation meant certain doom.  So I was torn: apart from anything else, I feel like there’s an obligation when you’re renting a house – living on somebody else’s property – to take care of it.  Of course there actually is a legal obligation to do so, marked out carefully in lease agreements and conditions, but even without that it just seems like common courtesy to me to make sure the house is as nice when you leave it as it was when you moved in.  So for the life of me I couldn’t decide whether to leave the aphids alone or try to stave off certain death for the rose bushes whose care and well-being I had inherited.

In the end I decided to wait and see.  I checked up on the rose bushes regularly.  I kept a close eye on the aphids, as if I might catch them plotting something – but really, the only thing aphids ever do is sit in one place and suck on sap.  We always imagine insects as being scuttling, buzzing, wriggling things, but there can’t be many more sedentary animals on the planet than aphids.  They’re completely parasitic on the plants that sustain them, of course, but after watching them for a while there was something so placid about their existence that I found it hard to sustain any negative emotions about them.  I was surprised by how social the aphids were, too: when I looked closely I saw adults, babies, and eggs all crowded in together.  I’m not exaggerating when I say I was a little touched by that.

Then, of course, there were the ants (Formicidae).  The relationship between ants and aphids is one of the more famous inter-species relationships in the animal kingdom, and as a human I found it quite humbling to watch the ants go about the business of farming the aphids; and it is farming: the ants check up on the aphids regularly, protecting them from predators, and feed on the honeydew which the aphids produce.  I really can’t think of a better word to describe this than “farming”.  I imagine a lot of people reading this blog are going to be tempted to accuse me of anthropomorphism, but I think that’s looking at it the wrong way around: I don’t think animals are like us.  I think it’s the opposite: I think we’re more animal than we realise.

My twelve-month lease is going to expire soon.  I’ll sign another one.  The rent will probably go up because there are more people arriving in Melbourne every day so it’s an owner’s market, and thought it’ll be difficult I’ll find a way to pay it, because ultimately there’s just no choice.  I could find a housemate, I guess – but I like having my own space.  We like having our own space in Australia.  Whenever I’m lucky enough to visit an ancient city like Rome or Naples I’m struck by just how comfortable the people there seem to be in an urban environment: there’s an almost ineffable sense I get that those people just know how to live in a city.  It’s innate in them.  They’ve been doing it for millennia.  In Australia, by contrast, our cities are young – only a shade over two hundred years for the oldest – and if you looked at the ancestry of most of Australians you’d find that they were from small towns or villages or rural communities only a few generations ago.  We’re one of the most urbanised countries on the planet but it doesn’t come naturally to us, not yet.  We’re learning, though: generation by generation we’re getting used to being crowded against each-other.  We worry about resources but we’re also drawn to the major population centres.  People keep coming to Melbourne.  There’s not enough room for everyone but people are obviously finding the room, finding a little space to call their own, because the population of the city just keeps growing.  I guess we’ll find out how long the city can sustain us.

At the end of winter last year, my first winter in this house, a surprising thing happened.  All of a sudden every single aphid on each of the rose bushes grew wings, and almost overnight they all flew away.  They stayed away all through spring and summer, and now it’s winter again and I’m watching to see if they’ll return.  While they were away the rose bushes had bloom after bloom after bloom.  I left the aphids alone and the rose bushes were just fine.  I don’t claim that there’s a lesson in that – except perhaps that the rose bushes were so well established that they could withstand even a heavy aphid infestation.  Somehow, however long ago, equilibrium had been reached.  Maybe some instinct in the aphids told them to find a new home before they sucked the rose bushes dry.  Maybe after a while that’s just how it goes with roses and aphids – but I wouldn’t know.  I’m not a gardener.  I just like to sit, and watch, and see what happens and hope for the best.

Image sourced from

Saturday, June 11, 2011

2) Common Brushtail Possum & Common Ringtail Possum

Trichosurus vulpecular & Pseudocheirus peregrinus

I had to go out a few nights ago, and when I came home on the bus it was late, well after dark.  It was cold, too, and I was tired and hungry so I just kept my head down and I didn’t have any thoughts other than getting home, getting inside and making myself some dinner, so I didn’t notice anything in particular between the bus-stop and my front door.

In terms of wildlife, it’s surprising how much there is to notice in a big city.  For instance Melbourne, where I live, is full of falcons: just a few weeks ago I saw a Little Falcon, also known as an Australian Hobby (Falco longipennis), perched on the TV antenna on top of a pub a block from my house.  I see at least half a dozen Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) a year, just by looking up in the sky.

Birds are easy to notice, though.  For the most part they’re not particularly subtle: they don’t need to be, not when they can just take to the air to escape danger; furthermore, the vast majority of them are active during the day, which is convenient for us humans.  In Australia, though, mammals are much harder to spot.

It’s always disconcerting for me to go overseas and see mammals being active in broad daylight.  Until relatively recently I’d just accepted that mammals were nocturnal.  Seeing European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in England happily chewing on grass by the side of the road on a sunny summer afternoon in 2003 jolted me into thinking that perhaps the nocturnal nature of Australian mammals – including Australia’s abundant population of introduced rabbits – was an aberration, rather than the norm.

Growing up in Australia can be like that.  Our wildlife is unusual, but although much of it is endangered enough of it is sufficiently abundant to make it familiar, and so we take it for granted.  Most of our mammals are marsupials, for instance; our swans are Black Swans (Cygnus atratus); we’re the only continent on earth in which the dominant snake group is the venomous snakes (Elapidae).  Yet anyone who’s gone out in the bush in Australia has seen a snake; anyone who’s gone near any body of water has seen a Black Swan; and anyone who’s walked home from a bus stop at night has seen a marsupial.

The reason for that last point being that one of the most common mammals in Australia is the Common Brushtail Possum.  Sure, it’s only active at night, but it’s also adapted without any apparent difficulty to city life and it’s not exactly shy, though if it’s on the ground when it sees you it’ll usually run up the nearest tree.  Only to a safe distance, though: once it’s out of reach of whatever’s startled it it’ll be at leisure again.  When I lived in Canberra I used to watch the Brushtails that lived in the roof of my parents’ house sit in the fork of an ash tree behind the back fence and stare down at the family dog, which would go mad with excitement trying to reach them.  The possums, only about the size of a domestic cat (Felis catus), were barely a metre out of her reach but they knew they were safe.  When they got bored they turned tail and sauntered up the tree, off to find something to eat.

Australians have a complicated relationship with Brushtail Possums.  On the one hand, we’re fond enough of them to have bestowed upon them a typically Australian nickname – “Brushies” – but on the other hand, we go to great lengths to keep our plants and gardens safe from them.  Councils put metal bands around trees in parks to discourage possums from trying to climb them.  Suburban gardeners net their fruit trees and bemoan the damage a single possum can do in a night as it climbs down from above to graze on any bud and young leaf and ripe or unripe fruit it finds in its way.  Yet the very abundance of possums marks them out in such stark contrast to the horrendous history of extinction that has been the greater fate of Australian wildlife generally in the two hundred years since European settlement that it’s hard not to be a little proud of them.  Crucially, they’re not too abundant: just by virtue of their being nocturnal seeing a possum is uncommon enough to ensure that when you do happen to spy one shimmying across the powerlines outside your house, or rustling in a street tree, or galloping across a park late at night, it’s an event.

The Common Ringtail Possum isn’t seen quite so often as the Brushtail.  It’s noticeably smaller than its relative, and shyer with that: more likely to run away if it sees you, less likely to stop and stare (though it has great eyes for staring: two bulbous orbs, their pupils invariably a pin-prick even in the middle of the night).  But exactly how shy is it?  I’ve heard reports of Ringtails being tempted inside people’s houses by the offer of fruit; I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a Brushtail doing the same thing.

Perhaps, though, that’s due to opportunity rather than inclination.  As a species we humans are very heavily biased towards anything cute, and Ringtails are just cuter than Brushtails.  They’re smaller, for one thing, and that always helps; they’re a nicer colour too, usually an attractive russet-red by contrast with the grizzled grey that’s far and away the most common colour for Brushtails.  Finally, there’s the tail that gives the Ringtails their name: a long, slender thing which is truly prehensile, able to grasp a branch and strong enough to hold a Ringtail Possum suspended upside-down.  The fact that Ringtails are at least as much of a threat to urban gardens as Brushtails is neither here nor there: they’re prettier animals, so we cut them some slack.

Ringtails have one other supremely endearing quality not shared by Brushtails, though it’s one which I suspect most people don’t know about: they build nests.  While Brushtails are content to live in any tree hollow or tree hollow analogue (including roofspaces) they can find, Ringtails sleep in a domed nest which they make themselves out of sticks and place in the branches of a tree.  You’d think that these structures, called dreys, would be fairly obvious – and yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.  But then, I guess the Ringtail Possum wouldn’t be an Australian mammal if it wasn’t good at hiding.

Mind you, I haven’t had many chances to look for dreys.  The distribution of Ringtails is strictly coastal, and Canberra, where I grew up, is well inland.  In Canberra there are Brushtails, so while I’ve been seeing Brushtails all my life it’s only since moving to Melbourne seven years ago that I’ve had a chance to regularly see Ringtail Possums.  For that reason if no other, seeing a Ringtail still excites me.  I like seeing Brushtails, too, but I’m a lot more blasé about them.

That’s usually how it is, though, isn’t it?  When you get down to it there’s really nothing that makes a Ringtail Possum any more compelling a creature than a Brushtail. I’d imagine that somebody who, somehow, had only ever seen Ringtails would find Brushtails much more exciting, and they’d find reasons to explain that to themselves that are as convincing to them as my reasons are to me.   I wouldn’t go so far as to say that familiarity breeds contempt – but I think it certainly breeds a level of indifference, which is disheartening enough in its own right.  If we sat down to think for even just a few moments about any of the extraordinary things that we barely give a second glance to every day I’m not sure any of us could find it in us to be bored, or dispirited, or unenthused ever again.  The fact that each possum emerging from its hiding place to explore the trees in my neighbourhood every night is an entire, functioning, self-contained and in some way unique biological system is nothing short of breathtaking.  The question of whether it’s a Brushtail or a Ringtail, whether I’ve seen its like hundreds of times before or only a few dozen, shouldn’t really enter into it.  Yet it does.

Just last night, a Friday night, I went out again.  I’m not very good at staying out, though: I get tired early by city standards and I can’t stand being in drunken crowds because I don’t drink much myself; and besides, I had to get up early this morning so I didn’t want to be too late to bed.  As I was approaching my house I caught out of the corner of my eye a shape at the top of an electricity pole that didn’t seem quite right.  I looked closer and realised that it was a face: a pointed nose and two large ears silhouetted against the illuminated night sky of the city.  As it turned to continue on its way along the powerline I got a better look at the animal.  It was a Brushtail – and I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a Ringtail.

            Brushtail Possum image by Marilyn Chalkley  /  Ringtail Possum image sourced from

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

1) Willie Wagtail

Rhipidura leucophrys

A couple of weeks ago a Willie Wagtail moved into my back garden. With winter having just started I haven’t been spending much time in the garden lately, so I’ve only seen the Willie Wagtail once when, by way of an introduction, it skittered briefly along the bricks in the courtyard adjoining my sitting-room, but since it arrived I’ve heard it on numerous occasions: I’ll be at the back of the house fixing a meal or putting on some laundry and its bell-like song or, more often, its chattering, scolding alarm call will come piercing through the thin, uninsulated walls of the old weatherboard cottage I rent. 

The Willie Wagtail is one of the most popular and most familiar of Australian birds. It’s found in every inch of the country except a couple of spots in the north and in Tasmania: if you’re in Australia and you live near trees, you probably live near a Willie Wagtail. A couple of months ago I saw one skipping and flitting across the backs of the empty seats at AAMI Park, Melbourne’s new rectangular stadium, before a game of Rugby Union. The Willie Wagtail is one of that select group of Australian birds which can be called survivors – or, more than survivors, adapters: Willie Wagtails are apparently content to make themselves at home right alongside us humans. I don’t know where they place in the bird intelligence ranks but they give off an aura of canny smarts. That one in the stadium must have been onto a good thing, with all the insects that are attracted to the floodlights; the only time it looked unsure of itself was when the pre-match fireworks started, but even then its panic only lasted a few moments before it flew swiftly and strongly over the stands and out of danger. I suspect many Australians see in the Willie Wagtail traits that we often like to attribute to our own national character: a no-nonsense attitude, a healthy disrespect of authority, self-reliance and a willingness to just get on with life. 

As with so many Australian birds, the name is a misnomer. There are a handful of genuine wagtail species in Australia, although only one of them, the Richard’s Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae) is at all common, but as a group they’re more familiar to people who live in the northern hemisphere. The Willie Wagtail is in fact a fantail, and if you’re Australian and, like most Australians, you live along the eastern seaboard, you’ll probably have seen one of its close relatives, the Grey Fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). Making this distinction between wagtails and fantails may sound like splitting hairs and in fact in terms of behaviour the wagtails and the fantails aren’t so dissimilar. They’re both characterised by the incessant movement of their tails, behaviour which we don’t yet fully understand but which may serve to flush out the insects upon which they feed. It’s an up-and-down movement for the wagtails and side-to-side for the fantails, but the effect’s the same; not just on the insects, but on us, too: the constant movement gives the birds the appearance of a particular kind of fussy business which we find particularly endearing in wild animals; in part, I suspect, because their lives mean so little to us. It’s always amusing to see somebody or something making such a big deal over what seem to us such small stakes, and it’s hard not to imagine as some kind of cartoon the life of a small, slightly stroppy bird which never appears to be in any danger. 

Aside from that one brief moment of panic for the bird in the stadium, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Willie Wagtail which didn’t give the appearance of being in complete control of its life. One of their most endearing qualities – and again, one we’d all like to ascribe to ourselves – is their apparent fearlessness: I think everyone who’s encountered a Willie Wagtail has been chased by a Willie Wagtail. When I was growing up in Canberra they used to sometimes hover above my head in nesting season, claws outstretched and chattering ten-to-the-dozen, and the sight of such a tiny bird (they’re only around 20 centimetres long, and about half of that is tail) punching above its weight was impressive but also, frankly, absurd. When I was a kid it certainly made an amusing counterpoint to the genuinely terrifying swooping of the Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen) that happened at the same time of year. (Ask anyone who’s lived in a heavily-birded part of Australia about springtime, and it’s likely that at some stage they’ll use the phrase “swooping season”.) 

Recently the beloved Australian actor Bill Hunter died. It may be crass of me to suggest it, but it seems to me that the Willie Wagtail is something of an avian Bill Hunter: with those stern white eyebrows and that grumpy chattering the bird has a surface gruffness, but somehow that gruffness only endears it to us all the more. We all like Willie Wagtails and I think we want them to like us, too, which is perhaps why we’re so delighted when they choose to make their homes near ours. And just occasionally their chattering gives way to their lovely, lilting song, a very brief song, and it seems that if not even a Willie Wagtail can find anything to be upset about, it must be a peaceful day indeed.