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"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

16) Australian Plague Locust

Chortoicetes terminifera

At ten o’clock on Tuesday morning last week I wheeled my bike down the hallway of my house, opened the door to the late winter sun, unlatched the gate, and set off to get some breakfast.  This is something I do fairly often, at least a couple of times a week, but last week was the first time in a little while that I haven’t had to don a jacket and gird myself against the cold.  When I got home the sunlight was warming the bitumen of the road and stretching towards the front of my house, and as I shut the gate behind me I noticed a long and elegant Grasshopper (Suborder Caelifera) perched vertically on the gatepost.  Inside the house an early-season Fly (Order Diptera) was buzzing frantically against the walls, trying to find its way back outside to where the sun was curling around the nascent leaf buds on the exotic trees and bushes planted in my back garden.

Melbourne’s weather is never stable, and the following day was windy and rain-flecked and bleakly cold – as had been the entire week previously.  Now, a week later, we’re enjoying a blissful run of clear blue skies – but chances are the cold will return before the city finally shakes itself loose from winter entirely.  So it will go, back and forth, back and forth, but as the Melbourne spring gradually unwinds the weather will eventually tilt conclusively towards warmth, and the wildlife of the city will start to come back to life.

As ever, the first conclusive evidence of the gradual turning of the seasons has been the appearance of insects.  They started emerging in numbers a few weeks ago, when the first burst of warm weather indicated that a winter which has on occasion been the coldest in years was creeping towards its end.  With the coming seasonal abundance of insects all those many animals – birds in particular – which predate them will rouse themselves from their months-long silence and passivity: already the Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen) are starting to dart and squawk at each-other and engage in bursts of combative singing to mark out their territory for the coming breeding season.

I like winter.  It’s actually my favourite season.  But there’s an undeniable joy, an irrepressible lightness of the spirit that comes with the first few signs of spring.  Spring is a time of ease and comfort, at least for those of us fortunate enough to live in areas of relatively mild climate, and when the night air first starts to smell of clematis nobody can fail to grin in delight – not even a cold weather lover like me.

The truth is that for all the famed changeability of its weather, Melbourne’s four seasons are as distinct as those of any of the European cities to which it is often compared – and just like Europeans, people in Melbourne are quick to take advantage of the first sign of winter’s end.  As soon as warm sun hits the grass Melbournians flock with beer in hand to the numerous public parks scattered throughout the city to while away the days in blissful, drunken indolence while the going’s good, before the weather turns again.

So far, though, it’s just a prelude of things to come.  Summer’s coming, it’s not too far away now, and though Melbourne doesn’t really have any beaches worth the name that doesn’t stop people here from embracing summer just as wholeheartedly as they do anywhere else in Australia.  I never used to like summer before I moved to Melbourne; it’s still a season that I dread, knowing that each summer here is guaranteed to have a handful of days on which the temperature blazes above forty degrees centigrade; yet since living in Melbourne I’ve found myself starting to enjoy summer for the first time in my life.  The changeability of Melbourne’s weather is a large part of that: it’s easier to suffer through a heatwave if you know that in a couple of days the temperature will halve.  But I also love the spirit of the city in summer.  Melbourne is a city that knows how to relax, and it never relaxes more than in summer.

Which can make it easy to forget that summer is a season of tension in Australia.  It’s bushfire season: the time of year when the country’s forests and grasslands turn dry and yellow and the winds are hot and blasting; when electrical storms crackle across the land and lightning ignites the great sloughs of leaves and bark cast off by the eucalypts; when some people, out of illness or mischief or outright maliciousness, head into the bush and deliberately set light to all that natural fuel, starting fires that can engulf vast areas and destroy countless lives.

And it’s not just fires: last summer Queensland suffered through devastating tropical cyclones and some of the worst floods in living memory; huge areas of Victoria, too, were flooded; and as if that wasn’t enough, Victoria also suffered a major Locust plague during the summer of 2011 to 2012.

This last was the least reported: understandably so, perhaps, because there was so much else going on, and because unlike cyclones and floods Locust plagues don’t directly threaten human life.  For a nation which relies on a large extent to its wheat-growing industry, though, a Locust plague is a disaster.  Even so, it seems as though the Locust plague last summer barely registered in Melbourne: there were a few reports in the news, and occasional public safety announcements on TV about what to do if you found yourself driving through a Locust swarm, but that was about it, at least as far as I saw.

On two occasions over the summer, however, I was reminded abruptly of the Locust plague outside Melbourne, and in quite unusual if rather direct circumstances: last summer, in inner-city Melbourne, I saw two Locusts.

The first was in my back garden, clinging in that remarkable gravity-defying insect way to the side of a flower pot.  I’d never seen a Locust before, and it looked exactly like a Grasshopper, but from the size of it I knew straight away that it was something different, something that I’d never come across previously.  I think we humans have an instinct for that, something residual from when we had to rely on senses and gut feelings to a much greater degree than we do now: we know when something’s not quite right, when something’s new even if it takes a superficially familiar form.  I can’t remember what I was doing when I saw that Locust, but I know that I wasn’t paying any particular attention to the flower pot, or looking for insects.  I may well have just been glancing out of the window.  But the Locust caught my eye, stationary though it was, and the instant I saw it I knew in my gut what it must be.

A couple of weeks later I saw another Locust, in the bluestone alley next to Carlton’s iconic La Mama Theatre, of all places.  By that time I knew exactly and without any doubt at all what it was that I was seeing, because after noticing the Locust in my garden I’d immediately gone online and searched for images of Australian Locusts to confirm that the creature was what I thought it was.  The internet’s remarkable that way: all that information available with only a few key-strokes.

And yet the internet is not the great universal force it’s often claimed to be.  Great areas of the planet are still unconnected, they’re the great silences in the global babble, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening in them.  Just take the Victorian Locust plague: internet availability in rural Australia is notoriously bad, and while I don’t think it would be right to say that that’s the sole explanation for the lack of media coverage of the Locust plague, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that it was probably a part of it.  We’re so accustomed now to reading online about the minutiae of daily life from every corner of the planet, that it almost seems as if anything that doesn’t happen online doesn’t happen at all.  There are countless stories, and lives, and phenomena, happening every minute without ever catching our attention.

Animals, though, can be messengers from other places.  They can be ways into those other, unseen worlds.  Animals are forever taking wrong turns, or getting blown off course, or being displaced due to habitat loss.  Just recently an Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) was found on a beach in New Zealand – as if a small piece of the Antarctic had suddenly presented itself to an entire nation.  The two Locusts I saw last summer in Melbourne reminded me, if only briefly, that there was another world out there, beyond my experience, and that it was facing very real problems regardless of how little attention I or anybody else may have been given it.  No doubt this is an obvious insight – but it’s one that we could do with being reminded of from time to time, I think.

Image sourced from

Sunday, August 14, 2011

15) Tawny Frogmouth

Podargus strigoides

Since moving to Melbourne in 2004 I’ve seen three Tawny Frogmouths.  This might not sound so impressive if you don’t know what a Tawny Frogmouth is; but if you understand even just the basic facts about the animal, you may appreciate exactly why I’ve greeted each sighting with great surprise and excitement.

Frogmouths are closely related to Nightjars (Caprimulgidae), and less closely related to Owls (Order Strigiformes).  Humans are prone to trying to make sense of things by relating them to other things with which they are already familiar, which presumably is why Frogmouths are so named: by bird standards they have quite a broad beak, which with a certain stretch of the imagination could be taken to resemble the mouth of a Frog (Order Anura).  Every bird’s beak is very precisely adapted to that species’ or group’s particular diet, and in the case of Frogmouths that diet is insects.  Long bristles arrayed around the edge of the beak are a further adaptation to catching insects, one which is common to many insect-catching birds.  There are three species of Frogmouth in Australia, all belonging to the genus Podargus, and their beaks are even broader than those of Frogmouths from other parts of the world – so perhaps it’s not surprising that in addition to insects they’ve been known to occasionally catch and eat small vertebrates.

From reading which birds they’re related to you may already have guessed that Frogmouths are nocturnal, and if you don’t know anything else about Frogmouths you might reasonably suppose that that is why they’re so rarely seen – yet in fact the opposite is true: if you’re ever likely to see a Frogmouth it’s going to be after dark.  The reason for this is that Frogmouths are among the most extraordinarily well-camouflaged of all birds.  During the day, or when threatened, they’ll straighten their necks and shut their eyes tight, and in such a posture they look so exactly like the stump of a tree branch that even if you know a Frogmouth is there and were looking at it only moments ago it can be almost impossible to identify it once it’s decided to go “cryptic” up in a tree.

Which is not to say that they’re very much easier to see at night, however.  Compared to Owls, the Tawny Frogmouth has a very quiet call, which while you can hear it clearly if you should happen to be in close proximity to the bird is not likely to disturb you from afar.  You’re not going to hear a Tawny Frogmouth calling from the depths of a forest in the middle of the night and go searching for it.  The most likely way you’re going to see a Tawny Frogmouth is simply by stumbling across it.

So, the Tawny Frogmouth is an animal which is far from uncommon, which in fact is well-established even in the middle of a large city such as Melbourne, and yet which is so rarely seen that each time I’ve spotted one it’s been tantamount to an event.  What a rich metaphor that would all make – and one the like of which I’ve utilised more than once on this blog.  Indeed, I suppose that from the name on down the whole purpose of this blog is to draw attention to those creatures with which we unknowingly share our lives.

Yet in the several thousand words I’ve written for this blog so far, I wonder how much I truly have noticed any of the animals I’ve written about.  I think the very phrase “noticing animals” – by implication the opposite of not noticing animals – suggests some degree of investigation into the nature of the animal itself, some attempt to come to terms with it in its own right.  Not simply noticing the creature itself, but becoming aware of its being.

I believe that there is a real connection between humans and other animals, and that that connection is both intrinsic and profound.  I think I’ve made that clear on this blog (if never before quite so concisely).  I truly believe that a root cause of so many of the environmental threats we humans have inflicted on the planet is that we fail to see ourselves as part of that environment: that we see nature, and animals, as something apart from ourselves.  Humans tend to elevate themselves above other animals, both unconsciously and very knowingly (see, for instance, God’s direction in Genesis that humankind shall “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth”).  This is understandable, in fact I think this is probably natural: every animal is fundamentally and necessarily self-interested.  Humans, though, have the ability to rationalise our thoughts, and to order them, and to question them, and I think it really does take very little effort to recognise a commonality with other animals, and from there achieve empathy.

There’s a difference, though, between empathising with another animal, and co-opting that animal’s behaviour for your own needs.  I wonder if, in trying to reach the former through this blog, I’ve been guilty of the latter.  I wonder if I’ve overburdened the majority of the animals I’ve so far discussed here, by asking them to carry the weight of my ponderings about human society, and human concerns, and things which are really quite far removed from the daily lives of the animals themselves.  I fear that I may, in some way, have disrespected the animals thus far featured on this blog, by not allowing them to be an end in themselves, by forcing them to be a vehicle for supposedly loftier thoughts.

I shan’t stop, though.  Regardless of any doubts I may have I enjoy writing this blog, and I enjoy the opportunity it presents me to discuss – in whatever capacity – animals that I love.  And, let’s be honest, in this age perhaps more than in any other we’re all clamouring to make our opinions heard, we’ve all been led to believe that what we have to say is of fundamental importance.  I’m no less susceptible to that than anybody else, and this blog is my small podium in the vastness of the internet.

Still, just for now let me leave the Tawny Frogmouth in peace.  Let it disappear back into the night observed, appreciated, and wholly of itself – no more and no less than that.

Image sourced from

Monday, August 8, 2011

14) Red Fox

Vulpes vulpes

I don’t know how to approach this post.  I’ve been trying for ages to figure out what I’m going to do with it, how I’m going to write it, what I want to say, but it keeps darting away from me.  I think I have it cornered but it finds a way to elude me.

I don’t have a unifying theme for this post.  I can’t think of one.  When I think of Foxes I have a scattering of memories, none of them connected, none of them of any great significance.  The memories are as vivid as the animal itself, they come to me again and again.

I’m in England in 2003, living with my grandparents in Surrey.  I can recall the startling sight of the red of a Fox’s fur against the lush midsummer green of my grandparents’ garden.  The way a Fox would appear from nowhere and disappear again, the way I never saw the whole animal but only ever a leg, or a back, or the tip of a tail disappearing between the bushes: like a Whale (Order Cetacea) edging above the water before vanishing again; but instead of water there’s grass drying in the heatwave of that year, and a hedge against a fence which provides a covered laneway for the Fox to pad up and down, almost unseen, and high up above the ground the beech trees’ darkening summer leaves are rustling in the breeze.

In my grandparents’ dining-room, in an idle moment before breakfast one morning, I take an old book about Foxes off the bookshelf and flick through it.  I read in there that a Fox will lick its nose to make it wet, and by doing so be able to judge the direction from which the wind is blowing, and then hunt from downwind – and I think of the damp nose of a Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris), and I find that a small question of which I wasn’t even aware has been answered.

Watching the television one evening in that same year, and Bill Oddie is hosting a wildlife show on the BBC about animals living alongside human habitations.  One viewer writes in to report a family of Foxes, a mother and a cluster of young kits, living beneath her shed or beneath her house, and the cameramen set up in her house and film the animals lovingly to be broadcast to the nation: there’s a kind of pride there, this is an animal that represents a nation in some way, mistrusted though it often is.  A fox on the television, or in the undergrowth, is acceptable, delightful.

Two Brant Foxes, grey-and-brown colour mutations of the Red Fox, are picking through the streets of South London near the flat my cousin and her husband are renting as I get up at dawn to catch a train to Heathrow to fly out of England – I may have been going to Italy for a few days, or I may have been going back home at the end of nearly a year away, I can’t recall.  The Foxes were lean and loping the way urban Foxes so often are.

Later, back home in Australia again, I’m at Mulligan’s Flat, in Canberra, and a Red Fox skulks by the low barbed-wire fence erected to keep just such animals out of the nature reserve.  The grass is yellow, like straw, the way grass always is in Australia in summer, and the Fox is skinny and faded-looking, like all Foxes in Australia.  It’s as if they’ve been fading in the sun, generation by generation, ever since they were introduced in the 1840s.  They were introduced so people could hunt them; now they’re baited with poison.  I can see in my imagination a boat full of Royal Marines coming ashore in Australia in January 1788: male Australian King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis) hide their glorious red feathers shyly in the grey-green eucalypt leaves while the drabber females screech and chirp; the Marines are dressed in red and even as they look at this new land their minds can’t take it in, so filled are they with memories of home.  Fifty years later men dress in red blow their horns, and begin to hunt the Foxes they’ve imported from England especially for that moment, but they’re pursuing something that can never be caught, never replicated.  By the time I find myself living with my grandparents in England fox-hunting is on the verge of being banned in the UK.

I’m in Canberra, visiting home just a few months ago having moved to Melbourne in 2004, and either my mum or my dad is driving me back from the airport when a Fox suddenly dashes across the road in front of us.  It’s so unexpected that for a moment I think it must have been a Dog.

Once, years ago, I’m walking down a rocky gully at my parents’ holiday house when I come across a boulder, and beneath it a hollow.  The soil smells of ammonia, and I swear that something growls at me from the darkness beneath the rock, but it seems so unlikely that to this day I’m still uncertain of the memory.

I’m sitting on a tram here in Melbourne, a year and a half ago, and I’m on my way home from seeing Neko Case perform in the city.  The venue was large, too large, and she seemed weary, and her red hair sprang wild and unruly from her head.  On the tram I’m sitting next to a pretty girl, and she begins to hum the chorus of a song by Neko Case called “Star Witness”.  It’s the first song of Case’s I’d ever heard, it comes from an album called Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.  I steel myself and begin a conversation with the girl humming next to me; we talk for fifteen minutes or so; we find we both share a love of literature.  I’m making an effort that year to talk to more strangers, at least one a week, and as the tram heads north I’m pleased with myself.  When the tram reaches the stop near my house I get off, and wish the girl good night, and never see her again.

I search online for a photo of a Red Fox to use at the end of this post.  On Wikipedia I find a photo of a pair of foxes: I’ve never used a photo of more than one animal so far on any post on this blog, but the caption on the photo says it was taken in Surrey, not so far from where my grandparents lived.  It’s impossible not to use it.  They’re so red, the image is so vivid.

Image sourced from

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

13) Ladybird


This winter my garden’s been thick with Ladybirds. Whether this population boom is attributable to the very wet summer Melbourne experienced this year, whether it’s city-wide or only in my garden, I don’t know; but lately barely a week has passed without me seeing scores of Ladybirds: on the rose bushes; in the folds of the curtains; accidentally crushed underfoot.

They remain as beautiful as they ever were.  Some animals lose their appeal with familiarity; Ladybirds, though, are never anything less than a joy to behold.  The ones in my garden are all a certain shade of orange, and I suppose they must be a particular species, but insects are so tiny and so numerous and so incremental in their variations from one-another that for those of us not an expert in their identification, it must remain sufficient to name them by only their broadest classifications.  So, my garden is thick with Ladybirds – that’s the best I can do.

Ladybirds must be one of the first animals, certainly one of the first insects, any of us ever learn to identify.   A simple Google image search will demonstrate just how much we’ve taken them heart: between the corporate logos, wallpaper, and cake decorations, images of the actual insects themselves are few and far between.  Of course, we humans are readily pleased by anything bright and colourful and boldly patterned, and it’s something of a chicken-and-egg question to wonder whether Ladybirds are so dear to us because they’re so recognisable, or whether they’re so recognisable because we love them so much.

There are plenty of insects which are just as dazzling but which haven’t caught our collective imagination in anywhere near the same way.  If you ever stop to look closely at a Fly (Order Diptera) you might find yourself surprised by how beautiful some of them are, with their iridescent blue and green carapaces.  In my various attempts at gardening there are few sights that have delighted me as much as the yellow-and-black-striped Hoverflies (Syrphidae) clinging to the air around a California poppy that briefly prospered in the front garden of my previous house.  Among insects, perhaps only Butterflies (Order Lepidoptera) come close to Ladybirds in our popular imagination.

Apart from their colours, I suspect one of the reasons we love Ladybirds is that they appear so harmless.  We like small, round, bumbling things, and while we’re easily discomforted by the sight of insects’ legs and heads, so angular and grotesque and alien to our own, those offending parts of the body are well-hidden in Ladybirds.  Instead of claws and mouthpieces the Ladybird presents to us a smooth, pleasantly curving back and a cheerful colour scheme.

It’s a little distressing, then, to learn that this beloved childhood idol is in fact a voracious predator, with a fondness especially for aphids.  Even those of us who eat meat without compunction are inclined to get a little squeamish at the thought of one animal falling upon a smaller one and eating it alive.  Frankly, it would be much more comfortable for us if the Ladybird was a gentle herbivore – but by and large it’s not, and we can’t wish it to be so.

If we’re disappointed to realise that the Ladybird isn’t quite the animal we’d want it to be, then perhaps that’s just the price we have to pay for our curiosity.  Humans like mystery, but we also like to have mysteries solved: it’s an impossible dilemma.  Often the things that catch our attention do so because they’re unknown to us, and we can fill in the gaps in our knowledge with our own supposition and wishful thinking; yet our curiosity about something that’s caught our attention drives us to find out all we can about it.  Even if that newfound knowledge doesn’t disappoint us, it’s inevitable that the initial excitement of the unknown will eventually fade away.  In this way science, the quest for answers, is in endless tension with what we might consider a more romantic view of the world, one that desires to keep life mysterious.

Yet that tension is, I think, largely illusory: because in practice science is not so much the quest for answers as it is a series of endlessly unravelling questions.  If the mysteries of the universe are not infinite, they are so innumerable and vast in scope that an end to them is impossible to imagine.  Science is often viewed as a cool, dispassionate pursuit, and certainly in the design of experiments and the interpretation of data that’s what it is – and yet underpinning it all is an intense and very human fascination with the mysteries of the universe.  Science is in fact utterly, unequivocally romantic, because its whole raison d’ĂȘtre is a deep engagement with the world at every level.  If you ever talk to a scientist about his or her chosen field of study, you’ll find yourself in the company of an individual who is intensely and infectiously passionate about one particular segment of the universe.  Human endeavour is now moving at such an extraordinary pace that it’s baffling to think that there was once a time, and not so long ago, when somebody could reasonably aspire to be an expert in all fields of knowledge.  Yet for all our knowledge, there’s no end in sight.  We still barely understand how our world works.  Nobody knows what’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.

A little basic online research has led me to conclude that these orange Ladybirds in my garden are probably Common Spotted Ladybirds (Harmonia conformis).  They’re found in Australia, and they’re the right colour and the right shape (because there is some variety of shape among Ladybirds).  I’m satisfied with that identification.  For all my research, though, I still don’t know why there are so many of them in my garden this winter, or even if they’re common elsewhere at the moment or not.  I’ve seen more Ladybirds in the last two months than I have in my entire life, and I don’t know why.  I’m looking forward to trying to find the answers.

Image sourced from