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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

20) Dragonfly


The first Cricket (Gryllidae) of spring is singing outside my house tonight, but even earlier than that the Dragonflies had emerged just a few days ago.  I’ve written recently on this blog about the arrival of spring, but still: it amazes me how suddenly and instantly the insects emerge as soon as warm weather arrives.  As of this week there are small black Beetles (Coleoptera), too, which I saw in their hundreds on the surprisingly few hot days last summer and which locally seem to favour the warm concrete pedestrian underpass beneath Hoddle Street.

As is usually the case with insects, I don’t know to which particular species any of these animals belong.  The Dragonflies ought to be easier to identify than the others, because they’re larger and because Dragonflies are so brightly and diversely coloured – but so far there have only been a very few of them, and I haven’t been able to get a good look at them.  Dragonflies are difficult to get a good look at, in general: they’re usually on the move, and when they do stop it’s not often for long and like most animals, particularly winged animals, they tend to take to flight if you get too close to them.  Unfortunately for those of us eager to closely examine animals, the body-language of a keen observer trying to creep closer to a resting animal is the same as the body-language of a hunter preparing to pounce.  An animal sees us coming and, not unreasonably, assumes the worst, and flees.  It pays to be cautious.

It may be possible to identify the species of a Dragonfly without getting a close look at it, though: I’m not sure whether it was in high school or university, but I remember clearly one of my biology teachers some time during the course of my education explaining that different Dragonfly species fly at different heights.  Dragonflies are hunters, and hunt on the wing, so by flying at different heights from the ground different species of Dragonfly can live in the same habitat and avoid directly competing with each-other.  As my teacher, whoever he was, explained: “When you’re driving a car, the Dragonfly that goes splat on your windscreen is a different species from the Dragonfly that goes splat on your grille.”

The reason why Dragonflies might be dying against the grille or windscreen of your car points to another fact about the animal, which I learned in the same class on the same day: they’re territorial, and they claim their territories along streams and rivers.  Streams and rivers are long, meandering, treeless expanses – not unlike roads.  A Dragonfly, so the lesson went, interprets a road as being a river, and so stakes a territorial claim above the road and spends its day flying back and forth, patrolling its territory.

On the face of it these are rather strange facts to remember, all these years later.  That’s how it is with my education: I can recount at will any number of peculiar facts about, say, the physiology of birds (Aves), but ask me to recall something even as basic as the correct order in which to place the various levels of biological classification and I’ll be stumped.  There are just particular facts which caught my imagination, and they lodged in my memory without effort.

So much else, though, was lost only days after I remembered it.  Not for lack of trying on my part: I took notes, I read and re-read chapters in my textbooks, I shut my eyes and recited facts until I was confident that I had them to hand.  This worked well enough to get me through tests in school and exams at university.  But a few days later all that knowledge was gone.

The Federal Government in Australia has been putting a lot of money recently into education, and accordingly there’s been a lot of discussion and debate about how best to educated children in particular.  I guess people never stop debating these things.  I’m no expert, and like most people my only real experience with education has been my own, but even having been out of the education system for eight years I’m struck by the thought that an education system built fundamentally around tests and exams is one which is not really very useful at all for the people in that system.  Exams are excellent at testing a person’s ability to commit facts to short-term memory, but exactly what value does that provide?  Very little, is my gut feeling.  Which makes me wonder what the point of them is.

I think all humans desire, innately, to learn new things.  Children, of course, generally don’t realise it – but childhood is nonetheless a period of constant learning.  For the last couple of years I’ve been volunteering every week with children in Melbourne’s western suburbs, and while it can be almost impossible to get one of the children to sit down and do his or her homework, that same child will devote hours to mastering new skateboard tricks, or learning about a favourite movie or sports stars, or whatever it is that takes his or her fancy in any given week.  A couple of years ago all the children in the centre I volunteer at were fascinated by iPhones; now they can all pick up a smartphone and use it without even thinking.

Learning is deeply ingrained within humans – and yet it can’t be easily forced upon us.  Every couple of weeks I take the kids through the garden behind the centre where we meet and I point out each herb and fruit tree to them, and explain to them what each plant is; I’d like to think that they remember, but in truth the lessons are probably more interesting to me than they are to the children and the fact that each time I point out the different plants to them they’ve forgotten that, for instance, they don’t like the taste of mint, or of oregano, suggests that they’ve got their own interests.  That’s fine, that’s as it should be I think.

These children are very young, so they’re just starting out in their education.  I remember when I was a similar age, and how daunted I sometimes felt at the years of education spreading out before me.  A lot of people are going to try to teach them a lot of things over the next few years, and I hope that by the time they finish school they’ve got an idea of what really interests them.  But the world is too vast, and too complex, to ever have a really good idea of what aspect of it exactly you want to devote yourself to, and I hope that years from now when the children are cramming for exams – I don’t really expect the system to change any time soon – they find their minds being occasionally, delightfully illuminated by strange and unexpected little facts about dragonflies, or about birds, or about whatever it is that takes their fancy, and that years after that they’ll still be able to remember those odd little shards of knowledge, and smile at the fact that one tiny part of the world is known, and explicable.

Image sourced from

Saturday, September 24, 2011

19) Atlantic Salmon

Salmo salar

I had the idea for this blog while in a cinema.  I write a lot and a lot of my ideas for my writing occur to me while I’m not actively trying to think about writing: I can’t count the number of times that a bolt from the blue has come to me while I’ve been watching a band perform; and when I’m in the cinema, if the film is in any way less than gripping, my mind starts to wonder.

The film that I was seeing when I had the idea for this blog was a feature-length documentary entitled OceansOceans is a French film, but for its English-language release the narration had been translated, re-written and added to; perhaps not surprisingly, the result of this tinkering was an English script which was pedestrian at best and flat-out awful at worst.  Perhaps if it had originated in any other language the problems would not have been so marked: though I don’t speak French I’ve watched a lot of French films, and adored and cherished many of them, but I think there are phrases which probably sound quite beautiful in French, to a French speaker, which when rendered in English become preposterously overwrought.

Still, the film’s visuals were never less than astonishing, which is perhaps why when my mind wandered, it didn’t wander far.  Amid the footage of fish, and whales, and seals, I began thinking about animals.  I’m reaching the age where I’m starting to become acutely aware of all the careers I’ll never have.  I’m unlikely to ever get paid to go around the world looking at exotic animals.  That being the case, I decided that I could at least write, for my own contentment, about the animals I do manage to see.

Given the particular genesis of this blog, then, in a cinema watching a film about marine life, I feel a little lax for having taken so long to get around to writing about a species of fish.  To be honest I’ve wanted to do so for some time – but fish are difficult to notice.  Unless you actively seek them out, there are precious few opportunities for most of us to encounter a fish.

Which makes those occasions when we do notice them all the more memorable.  I have two particularly vivid memories of fish from when I was living in Canberra: on one occasion, I saw a Darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae) dive beneath the water and re-emerge moments later with a Redfin Perch (Perca fluviatilis) speared on its beak; prior to that I hadn’t even been aware of the existence of such a fish beneath the surface of Lake Burley-Griffin, the enormous artificial lake that dominates Canberra. On another occasion, when I was crossing Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in Canberra one spring, I looked down over the handrail and saw there just below the surface of the lake hundreds of European Carp (Cyprinus carpio), the scourge of Australia’s inland waterways.  They were spawning, I suppose.

I haven’t seen any fish since moving to Melbourne seven years ago, but I know they exist in the city’s rivers and creeks because for almost a year now the Yarra City Council has been building a fishway near my house at Yarra Bend, where the Merri Creek flows into the Yarra River, which would allow migratory native fish to swim upstream past the existing weir.

Fish migrations are as extraordinary as any in the animal kingdom; more so, perhaps, because of the physical effort required to swim upstream against a strong current.  I tried paddling up a river once, in a national park in far northern Finland, and I regret to say that I gave up rather easily.

That was in 2003.  I spent the majority of that year living with my grandparents in England, but in August and September I went backpacking through Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, realising an ambition I’d until then only been tentatively aware of.  I like the cold, and cold climates, so Scandinavia has always held a particular allure to me, even when the only thing I knew about the region was that it was cold.

I wended my way through the three countries, meandering across Denmark before rushing towards Sweden’s east coast and working my way up the Gulf of Bothnia.  I crossed from Sweden to Finland by land, walking across a bridge over the Torne River before catching a bus north into the Arctic, where I made the aforementioned rather feeble attempt at kayaking on the Lemmenjoki River (or, actually, just the Lemmen River, as “joki” is the Finnish word for river).

Before arriving in Finland, though, I spent a few days in Umeå, a town of about 75,000 people located two thirds of the way up Sweden’s east coast.  While in Umeå, which I had chosen as a stopping place for no other reason than that it was a convenient day’s travel from Stockholm, I hired a bicycle and spent a day riding the length of a nature and history trail along the banks of the Ume River.

Near the end of the trail, ten kilometres out of Umeå, I was lucky enough to witness what must be one of the greatest of all sights in the animal world: a salmon leap.  By Stornoffors power station, one of the largest hydroelectric stations in Europe, there were a series of cascades in the river, which signs along the trail pointed out as a salmon leap.  I went there, not even sure if I was arriving at the right time of year for the salmon migration, and after waiting patiently I was rewarded with the sight of an Atlantic Salmon, and then another and another, trying to leap up the waterfalls.

The basic, extraordinary facts of the Atlantic Salmon’s life-cycle are by now so well known that they probably don’t need to be repeated.  Suffice to say they spend the first years of their life in freshwater rivers, before migrating to the Atlantic Ocean, where the majority of their growth takes place, then ultimately, when they’re mature and ready to breed, they return to the river in which they were born, swimming thousands of kilometres in order to do so.  Unlike some other species of salmon, the Atlantic Salmon does not always die after spawning, and some individuals return to the ocean to repeat cycle all over again.

When you spend more than a few days travelling in a foreign country you inevitably pick up a few words, some more unusual than others.  The way to the salmon leap at Stornoffors was, of course, sign-posted, and I was delighted to discover that the word for “salmon-leap” in Swedish is the wonderfully descriptive “lax-hoppet”.  “Lax” is Swedish for salmon, and “hoppet” – well, I’m sure you can guess. 

In fact, it’s easy to guess the meanings of a surprisingly large number of Swedish words – or Danish words, for that matter, or German words (to get to Denmark I travelled by train from London through Brussels and then Hamburg).  They’re all related to each-other and there’s a great deal of commonality between them.  In Danish, the Swedish lax becomes laks; in German it’s Lachs.  Somewhat surprisingly, “salmon” is a native English word which is wholly derived from Latin: in Spanish the fish is called salmón; in Italian, salmone; in French, it’s saumon.  This may not seem so unusual, because English has borrowed and adapted so many words from Latin and from French in particular that we tend to forget that our language is not a Romance language.  It was only when I was travelling through Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, that I fully realised just how much of Northern European language English is.  Spend any time in any of those countries (and presumably Norway, too, though the one time I’ve been there I was too young to be interested in such things), and you’ll find yourself constantly bumping up against almost-familiar words: whether it’s a sign in a park reminding dog owners to keep their hund on a lead, or a street-sign directing pious tourists to the nearest kirk, the origins of English are everywhere apparent in Northern Europe.

I don’t know if it’s particularly important to remember how English began, though.  Mainly I just find it interesting.  But English, more than most languages, is given to growing and changing and absorbing what it needs from whatever it encounters.  When I was travelling in Europe it wasn’t just suggestions of English that were everywhere – the language itself was, too, being spoken by Germans, and Danes, and Swedes, not to mention Italians and Belgians and everybody else who without English wouldn’t have shared a common tongue.  English is the world’s lingua franca – fitting, perhaps, for a language that has always been the language of the people.  And in the course of its growth, by its very nature, English doesn’t just look to new sources of inspiration but returns to its origins, too.  After seeing those salmon leaping up the waterfalls at Stornoffors, and having been riding a bicycle all day, I suddenly felt very hungry.  I continued on my way, and found a shop, and – callously, perhaps – bought myself some gravad lax.  That’s Swedish for cured salmon – which in English we call gravlax.

Image sourced from

Sunday, September 11, 2011

18) White-plumed Honeyeater

Lichenostomus penicillatus

Last Friday afternoon I was catching a bus back home to Clifton Hill from nearby Carlton.  Sitting across the aisle from me was an elderly man reading what I assume was the latest issue of Wingspan, the magazine of Birds Australia.  What caught my attention was the photo on the page the man was reading of two birds in particular, both honeyeaters: the Regent Honeyeater (Xanthomyza Phrygia), and the White-plumed Honeyeater.

In terms of population levels the two birds couldn’t be more distinct from one another: the rather spectacular Regent Honeyeater is one of Australia’s rarest, and most famously rare, birds, while the small and unassuming White-plumed Honeyeater is a bird which has thrived in the urban environment.  Given the great richness of Australian birdlife the successful adaptation to city living is a rarity: only a handful of native birds have achieved it, and not surprisingly four of them are honeyeaters: the Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata), the Brush Wattlebird (Anthochaera chrysoptera), the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala, a particularly invasive and aggressive species), and the White-plumed Honeyeater.  Honeyeaters, as their name implies, feed largely on nectar from flowers, and happily for the birds those same flowers are valued by humans for their aesthetic appeal.  The street I used to live in, in North Carlton, was lined with eucalypts, planted by the local council, which flowered all year round, and in winter in particular the trees were full of White-plumed Honeyeaters and another nectar-feeding bird, the Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus).

Honeyeaters are perhaps the archetypal bird: ask most people to sketch a bird and I think the chances are good that the animal they’ll depict will look a lot like a honeyeater.  They’re slender birds, with gently downcurved beaks that are long but not too long; elegant tails that are long, but not too long.  Australia in particular is rich with honeyeaters: there are dozens of species on the continent, living in every habitat that can support flowering trees (which, given the adaptation of Australian trees to even the harshest environment, is most of them).

On a more personal note, honeyeaters were the birds that were responsible for drawing me into the world of bird-watching, when I was a cild.  The first bird I can ever remember feeling a drive to identify was an Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris).  I can still remember the sensation of seeing this rather beautiful bird darting in and out of the Banksias in the garden of my parents’ holiday house near the far south coast of New South Wales, and instantly wanting to know what it was.  As it happened I didn’t find out for quite some time: this was before the internet, well before Google, and the only bird identification book available to me was an outdated, two-volume edition of Slater’s classic field guide to the birds of Australia, a generally excellent book except for a bizarrely inaccurate depiction of that one bird I so wanted to identify, the Eastern Spinebill.  As children do, I took my inability to identify the bird as a sign that I just may, somehow, have found a new species, and I dreamed of the glory and fame that must surely follow my extraordinary discovery.  When I finally managed to identify the bird, my disappointment at having been beaten to it was more than made up for by the similar thrill of discovery, the delight of having seen something, and searched for it, and found it and identified it.  The thrill of matching my observations to a small part of the sum of human knowledge.

After that I identified many more honeyeaters on my parents’ property: Lewin’s Honeyeaters (Meliphaga lewinii), White-eared Honeyeaters (Lichenostomus leucotis), White-naped Honeyeater (Melithreptus lunatus) New Holland Honeyeaters (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae).  On one memorable occasion, after coming back from a walk through the forest on a wet day, I stood on the front veranda of the house delighting in the sight of a Crescent Honeyeater (Phylidonyris pyrrhopterus) in that same Banksia, while my father patiently pulled leeches of my legs.

My first sighting of the White-plumed Honeyeater was somewhere quite different, however: in the carpark of Sydney International Airport.  I wasn’t flying out, I don’t think, but going to meet someone – probably my mother.  If that was the case then I would have been with my family.  Anyway, regardless of the circumstances I remember my great surprise at seeing a native bird in such an urban environment.  At that stage I hadn’t lived anywhere other than Canberra, and anyone who’s visited Canberra will know that although it’s a city the phrase “urban environment” does not really properly describe it.  It’s a mixture, really, of forest and city; remnant bushland and plantings of exotic trees separating and obscuring the houses, shops, museums and civic monuments.  Canberra has an abundance of birdlife, but that’s because their habitat was never completely removed.  Sydney, on the other hand: those White-plumed Honeyeaters at the airport, making do in the straggly eucalypt saplings in the carpark: they, or rather their ancestors, must have had to learn afresh how to live in their environment.

As I’ve noted, honeyeaters do well from the human preference for flowering plants – but I don’t know why of all the many species of honeyeater, the White-plumed Honeyeaters in particular have so readily adapted.  In undisturbed environments they favour more open forests than some other honeyeaters which are otherwise found within the same geographic range, so perhaps that makes them more amenable to relatively sparsely treed cities.  They’re not particularly common in Canberra, or perhaps it’s just that their presence is not so obvious amid the general avian hubbub of that city.  In Melbourne they’re abundant, so much so that even now as I type this close to midnight I can hear their piercing, whistling song resonating in my mind.  The honeyeaters as a group are quietly pretty rather than startlingly beautiful – and the White-plumed Honeyeater is near the drab end of that spectrum.  Still, like most of its kin it has a precise elegance, and if it catches your eye when you’re in the right frame of mind, and you happen to notice it silhouetted on a power-line, or hanging upside-down to probe at a flower, or darting through foliage to chase off a potential rival, you’ll probably find yourself admiring its muted yellow and green and grey plumage, its dark and watchful eyes, and the two neat stripes of black and white at its cheeks which some generous soul, obviously bewitched by this dainty little bird, deemed grand enough to dub “plumes”.

Image sourced from

Thursday, September 1, 2011

17) European Hare

Lepus europaeus

For the last week or so I’ve been reading Simon Carnell’s extraordinary book Hare, published by Reaktion Books in the UK as part of their Animal series.  I bought it late last year in Melbourne’s Collected Works bookshop: I was in the shop for a fundraiser, so I was browsing the shelves with particular attentiveness, and as soon as I saw the book I snatched it up in delight.  I’ve been besotted with Hares ever since I started seeing them around Yarralumla, in Canberra, where I grew up.

I think I was a student at the Australian National University, studying biology, when I first saw a European Hare (also known as a Brown Hare).  I don’t know why I hadn’t seen any before then: I’d lived in the same area my whole life.  It seemed that all of a sudden Yarralumla became inundated with Hares.  I can still remember my surprise the first time I saw one; it was a surprise born to a great degree out of the unexpectedness not just of seeing an animal I hadn’t seen before, but of seeing an animals whose existence – in fables, in stories, in books – I’d been aware of for as long as I could remember.  Without ever having seen a Hare before, the first time I saw one I knew exactly what it was.  I’d seen plenty of European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and this Hare wasn’t one of them, that was for certain.  It was huge, and dark, and when it saw me it ran.

After that I saw Hares regularly around Yarralumla.  There were particular places they seemed to favour: after about nine or ten o’clock at night you could be almost guaranteed of seeing a congregation of them in the long grass near the Chinese Embassy.  While walking the family Dog (Canis familiaris) at dusk on Stirling Ridge, on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin I’d often flush a Hare from its form, the shallow depression the animal scrapes in the ground and which passes for a shelter.  I quickly learned that allowing the dog to chase Hares was the best exercise I could giver her: as fast as she was, she had no hope of catching a Hare and she invariably returned to me panting and wide-eyed with exertion.

I suspect many Australians aren’t even aware that there are Hares in this country.  They were introduced by humans, of course, as were so many other animals, but unlike their near relatives the Rabbits they haven’t caught the public imagination here, presumably because their environmental impact is so much less.  Hares are more solitary than Rabbits and there aren’t nearly as many of them in Australia as there are Rabbits.  Rabbits number in the tens or hundreds of millions in Australia and are perhaps the most hated animal in this country; Hares are so rarely mentioned that even finding basic demographic information about them online is surprisingly difficult.

As with any animal, for each Hare I saw in Canberra there were probably many that I didn’t see.  One summer, during the university holidays, I volunteered to help one of the Botany and Zoology Department’s PhD students net Speckled Warblers (Chthonicola sagittatus) in Campbell Park, a large patch of remnant bushland in Canberra’s inner north.  This necessitated a twenty-minute ride shortly after dawn from my parents’ house into the university, and at that time of the morning I was startled by the number of Hares I saw.  They ran from the verges of the bike path as I approached, as surprised to see me as I was to see them: on any given morning I might see a dozen of them in just one particular short stretch of the ride.  A few hours later, when I rode back, they’d all have gone to ground.

I was on the verge of starting the second year of my degree then, and I remember that I was excited about studying population ecology.  Ever since I’d been a child watching David Attenborough documentaries all I’d ever really been interested in was animals; by the time I came to enrol in university writing had emerged as another interest, but even so there was never really any thought in my mind that I’d study anything other than biology.  Right from the start I knew that I was fascinated by animals, and animal behaviour, and animal ecology, and I suffered through the human biology and microbiology and chemistry classes that I was forced to take as part of a general primer in the first year of my degree.

So the start of second year was something I was eager to get on with.  It was with second year that I’d start to be able to specialise my studies, to learn about the things that really interested me.  Yet even before second year began I was already becoming uncomfortably aware of a severe shortcoming in my intellectual abilities: I’d just barely scraped through first year statistics, I couldn’t get my head around numbers, I tried but they just left me baffled.  But science, of course, is all about numbers.  Over the course of the second year of my degree I came to realise that I just didn’t have the requisite skills or particular mental ability required of a scientist.  A passion for animals wasn’t enough, not nearly.  I changed my focus, and completed my degree, and graduated, but any ideas I’d once had of being a scientist, of studying animals for a living, had long since fled and gone.

I guess I’m fortunate to have other things besides animals that I’m just as passionate about.  It was while at university that I began writing in earnest, after a couple of years of not really having done any writing at all.  A few years after graduating from university I had my first book published, a collection of stories; a couple of years after that a short novel followed.  Both disappeared almost without a trace, other than the excitement of my ever-supportive family.  I’ve kept writing, though, and kept trying to get things published with that peculiar mixture of bright optimism and deep pessimism which accompanies any attempt to get something published (particularly in Australia, particularly in 2011).

I’m older now, though, I’ll be 32 in just over a week, and I’m no longer in Canberra but in Melbourne where it sometimes seems as if every second person is a writer, and I can feel myself trying to become involved in a world populated by people of sometimes dazzling talent, and if there’s another emotion which is inseparable from the act of writing it’s self doubt.  I can turn a nice phrase, and I can pick a good metaphor and manage not to mix it, but I’m starting to realise that that’s not enough.

This book by Simon Carnell really has taken me aback.  I’m about two fifths of the way through it and every page so far has been a ceaseless rush of astonishing facts about Hares: about the mythology of Hares; past misconceptions about Hares; the role of Hares in the religions of places from ancient British to pre-Columbian Mexico to China and Africa; the symbolism and theological interpretations of Hares in Christianity through the ages.  I can’t begin to imagine how a person would go about researching such a variety and density of information.  I tried writing a story last year set in 1960s Australia and found myself baffled by even the most rudimentary attempts to research it.  I’ve always felt that the majority of fiction writers provide too much information, demonstrate too much research – but surely too little is just as bad, perhaps even worse?  I know this is a shortcoming of mine but I just don’t know how to resolve it.

I guess the only answer is to keep going.  Maybe I’ll find that it’s running away from me faster than I can pursue it; but with luck, even if I never catch what I’m after, I’ll be better for the effort.

 Image sourced from