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Sunday, April 22, 2012

42) Smooth Toadfish

Tetractenos glaber

I spent Easter this year on the far south coast of New South Wales, in a small fishing town called Bermagui.  The Sapphire Coast, as the marketing people insist we call it, is a serenely beautiful part of Australia, all the more so for the area being relatively undiscovered by tourists compared to the more popular Central and North Coasts of New South Wales. 

Bermagui is half an hour’s drive east of my parents’ holiday house, about which I’ve written frequently on this blog.  The last time I was in the town was two years ago, also at Easter; the Christmas before that my family and several old friends and extended family members rented a house overlooking the beach and spent a week in Bermagui, listening to the waves, breathing the salt-heavy air, and watching through the house’s telescope pods of Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) swimming back and forth through the waves.

The town – the whole region – is nestled in the kind of unspectacular but quietly beautiful scenery that is Australia’s particular specialty: the road approaching Bermagui cuts through eucalypt forest whose thin canopy allows sunlight to sprinkle down to the ancient cycads studding the sparse understorey; across the small harbour, still home to a significant fishing fleet, stands the monolithic Mount Gulaga, formerly known as Mount Dromedary; tea-tree covered dunes hide pristine beaches washed by the great Pacific Ocean.

It’s a town I’ve always associated with holidays.  Whether Easter, Christmas, or just the odd weekend away, Bermagui is a town I’ve always visited when I didn’t have anything else to do.  A sense of relaxation comes over me the instant I arrive in Bermagui or the surrounding area.  It’s not just because of the beauty and quietness of the area, but also because of years of associating the area with simply not doing anything.

Yet even on holiday it’s difficult to be entirely at peace.  As we all know, the one thing we can’t get away from is ourselves, and no matter how little we do or how far we travel the innumerable small – or large – travails of life will accompany us.  They can seem a little less significant, it can become easier to delay worrying about them ’til another day – yet they persist.  Even on holiday, it’s difficult to be entirely at ease.

Which should not be taken to suggest that I’d rather not be on holiday than be on holiday.  I slip into holiday mode with startling ease: I eat what I like, I do as little as possible, and if I can let somebody else clean up then I’ll do exactly that.  (My reasoning being that, as somebody who lives by himself, I do more than enough cleaning up already – though looking at the clutter filling my house, perhaps that’s not strictly true.)  As much as I may miss the regularity of my daily life and all its routines and tiny rituals, going on holiday is something I do with great satisfaction.

A holiday on the coast has a particular quality.  There’s a particularly beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson whose opening lines are “Exultation is the going/Of an inland soul to sea”, and as somebody who grew up in an inland city it’s I can’t deny that the coast holds a particular appeal.  Unlike most Australians I could scarcely be less interested in swimming in the sea, or lying on a beach in summer, but the idea of being on the edge of the land is endlessly fascinating: between them the sea and the sky allow us perhaps the most tangible glimpse we can fathom into the enormity of the universe, and gazing at one or the other – or at both, at that point where they meet and the border between the two becomes muddled with distant hints of waves on the horizon – elicits in the soul a peculiar mix of levity and gravity, which is difficult to describe and more difficult still to resist.

More prosaically, going to the seaside allows me to glimpse animals of a kind that I wouldn’t normally get to see.  For example, for longer than I can remember I’ve been captivated by Waders (Order Charadriiformes), those birds who each year undergo extraordinary migrations half way across the world and settle over summer along the coastline of southern Australia.  Even a distant glimpse of a silhouetted Curlew (Numenius) can cause me to break into a broad grin.  Fish, also, are something I search for enthusiastically when I get the opportunity, and I can remember those few occasions in my life when I’ve seen fish with unusual clarity.

On Easter Saturday Bermagui was blessed with exceptionally fine weather.  Though there was a persistent wind – I heard one local say to a visitor that “Bermagui’s windy for three-hundred-and-sixty days of the year” – the sky was clear and the sun was warm but not uncomfortably hot.  A holiday mood pervaded the town.  On Saturday afternoon I found myself in the middle of Bermagui, and lacking a lift back to the rented house I was staying in with my family and several friends I decided to walk back – I didn’t have to be anywhere in a hurry, and it was a perfect day for a stroll.

Shortly after setting off I paused upon a small bridge, beneath which runs a narrow stream which connects Bermagui harbour to an estuary and a small mangrove swamp.  Further on from that point there’s a much more significant bridge, over a river leading to a much greater estuary; but the bridge I stopped at was a modest affair, elevated only a metre or two above the water.  I leant on the rail and gazed down, less in hope than in idle curiosity, and I soon saw swimming in the water several small and strikingly patterned fish.

They were cream in colour, and covered in dark brown spots, and they were wedge-shaped, large-headed with bodies that tapered quickly to the tail.  As I watched two or three of them swam down the stream and almost into the shadow of the bridge, at which point they turned and faced upstream, swimming strongly to remain stationary in the water – I presume to catch whatever morsels of food may have been swept down the stream towards the sea.  I have no expertise in the identification of fish but they seemed to my amateur eye to have something of the appearance of Pufferfish (Tetraodontidae), and it’s only now that I’m back home and can go onto the internet that I’ve been able to identify them with some degree of confidence as Smooth Toadfish.

I watched them for several minutes before continuing on my way, and as I watched them the most extraordinary feeling of serenity and lightness came over me: for those few moments that I was watching the fish my various small persistent troubles of my life were finally forgotten about.  I was distracted, certainly, by thoughts of the fish’s species, and their behaviour, and whether I’d seen their like before – but beyond that, deeper than that, there was a profound and simple peace that came from simply observing those wild animals.

It’s something I’ve felt before, and I don’t think I’m alone in having experienced such a feeling: most people, it seems, take great and effortless delight in the presence of animals – even when those animals are witnessed indirectly, as through a television screen.  There seems to be an urge within us to embrace the natural world, emotionally if not physically, as if we’re aware of having lost some connection; or perhaps it’s nothing more than the delight of an unexpected sighting (after all, an animal seen a dozen times, or two dozen times, or every week or every day, will capture our attention less and less until we barely even notice it any more).  Whatever the reason, there always seems to exist in the world the possibility that we’ll notice an animal, and the observation will stop us in the midst of whatever we’re doing – whether because we haven’t seen the animal before, or because the animal is behaving in an unusual or striking way, or simply because for whatever reason we’re in the right frame of mind to really consider a long-familiar animal as if for the first time – and at that point it’s as if the simple act of observing an animal can lift us out of our own body.  As if through some primal instinct to notice the living world around us, we rediscover that most essential of human traits: our sense of wonder.

Monday, April 2, 2012

41) Black-shouldered Kite

Elanus axillaris

A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, I saw above the tracks of a siding at West Footscray train station only ten minutes out of Melbourne’s CBD a Black-shouldered Kite.  It was the last thing I was expecting to see; for raptors are always a surprise – and to see this of all species in such a location was doubly startling.

Though rarely seen so close to the city, Black-shouldered Kites are by no means uncommon, and it’s likely that many Australians have seen them without realising what they were seeing: like Australian Kestrels (Falco cenchroides), which are only very slightly smaller,  they can often be seen hovering over grassland, wings fluttering in an exceptional display of controlled flight.  When they see a prey animal below them – typically a mouse – they turn out of the wind and dive to the ground, catching and killing the unfortunate creature if they’re quick enough.  Because, like Kestrels, they prefer to hunt over grassland, Black-shouldered Kites are, like Kestrels, commonly seen alongside Australia’s roads: many people will have seen a small but striking white raptor hovering with fierce concentration above the broad treeless verge of a roadside.  Though the bird remains in place the vision of it is gone in an instant, a flash of brilliant white glimpsed through a car window and quickly left behind, a fleeting and enigmatic apparition in the rear-view mirror.  Despite their commonness and their striking colouration Black-shouldered Kites are unfamiliar birds to most people, and unlike many of their relatives they have not found a place in the broader national consciousness.

Yet the bird’s image is surprisingly widespread.  Although during the breeding season the Black-shouldered Kite is a predominantly coastal bird, in Australia’s desert interior its place is taken by a very closely related species, the Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus), whose physical differences from its near relative amount to no more than an elongated black marking on the underside of each wing and the absence of a small smudge of black behind the eyes.  Otherwise the two species are identical: white bodies, black and grey wings, and dramatic red eyes.

The two species are both found in Australia – yet their analogues are found worldwide: the Black-shouldered Kite and the Letter-winged Kite both belong to a subfamily of Kites called the Elanids.  There are four species in the genus Elanus, and they all look nearly identical.  The White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) is found in the Americas; the Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus) is found across southern and south-eastern Asia to Africa, and even into Spain and Portugal.

The Elanids are, of course, not the only animals with such a universal distribution.  Indeed there are numerous species – not to mention genera and families – which are found worldwide: staying with raptors, the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) and the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) can both be found in every hospitable continent on earth, from east to west and north to – well, not quite south, but living everywhere except Antarctica is nothing to be sneezed at.  Broadening the picture, there are any number of animals which are found worldwide – in fact most of them are.  It’s only a select few which are restricted to one or two places; even fewer which have no related species or groups elsewhere.

I wonder if Australia’s lack of familiarity with its two Elanid kites is due, in part, to the group’s global ubiquity.  Even the least interested Australian could rattle off a list of animals that are found on this continent and nowhere else: Kangaroos (Macropodidae); Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus); Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus); Lyrebirds (Menuridae).  We’re proud of our animals: all Australian animals are protected by law, and Australians as a rule like boasting about the weird and wonderful creatures that can be found here.

Yet as I think about it I find something unsettling in this attitude.  By saying that our wildlife is different, what we’re really saying is that we are different.  I’ve heard many conversations – and I’ve engaged in more than a few myself – in which a resident of one country will talk about an animal – or some other feature of the natural environment – and somebody will respond with a comparable, or contrasting, example from their own country; and so it goes, back and forth, back and forth, in a constant good-natured game of one-upmanship.  Why should we be so determined to stake out the differences between places?  Why should we take such joy and pride in it?

Imagine a conversation in which one person describes something, and the person to whom they’re talking responds with the excited exclamation: “We have one of those as well!”  Of course such conversations take place but I don’t think they’re as common as the alternative.  We seem driven to find the differences that separate us more readily than the commonalities that may bring us together, as if by doing so we can mark out our own small piece of emotional territory.  It’s difficult to conceive of many people being excited by the thought of four small and unusually attractive birds of prey linking otherwise disparate nations by their presence.  From a scientific perspective there’s an interesting story to be told about the phenomenon of speciation, the process by which over an unimaginable period of time one species becomes several – but more than that, we should be able to see in such animals a possibility to reach for a connection with people and places we might otherwise never give a second thought to.  There is, undeniably, a thrill in looking upon an animal and knowing that very few people have had the chance to do so – I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have had seen wild Orange-bellied Parrots (Neophema chrysogaster), of which fewer than two-hundred remain – but surely even greater is the joy of seeing an animal and knowing that somebody on the other side of the world may have recently been watching the same or a very similar creature: knowing that the delight and surprise of seeing, perhaps, an Elanid kite hovering above long grass, is shared by somebody whom you have never met, and will never meet, and can barely imagine except through the certain knowledge that they, too, are an inhabitant of this planet, open to and exposed daily to the myriad wonders and astonishments such a privileged position allows.

Image sourced from