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"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Monday, December 31, 2012

63) Eastern Grey Kangaroo

Macropus giganteus

We’re driving to Canberra.  One of my oldest friends, and me.  I don’t drive so I’m keeping her company, letting her talk so she doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel.  It’s a thirty-eight degree day and from Melbourne to Canberra is a nearly seven-hundred kilometre drive.  It’s two days before Christmas; we’re going to our families.

There are Kangaroos everywhere: lying dead and brutalised on the sides of the highway, their bodies sometimes as soft and tranquil as a toy animal but more often their flesh and blood and bones torn and shattered and smeared on the rough bitumen.  Sometimes Australian Ravens (Corvus coronoides) flap listlessly from the corpses but more often the dead animals are alone.  There are so many; too many even for scavengers to make use of.  As my friend and I joke about the numerous kayaks and jet-skis and trailbikes we see being towed up and down the highway we barely mention the marsupial slaughter that constantly confronts us.  They say travel is as much about the journey as the destination but we just want the journey over with.

The Hume Highway is flat and direct, and only Holbrook with its famous submarine is now left unbypassed.  Cars promenade along its main street in both directions; just outside town witches hats mark the starting point of new road works.  Other towns pass as merely names on exit signs, optimistic arrows off the highway: Wodonga; Tarcutta; Thurmoola. When we arrive in Canberra at last we pull over so my friend can take a phone call.  I stare out the passenger-side window, trying not to listen.  In the trees is a shape and it might be a kangaroo or it might be just a pile of sacks and sticks.  If it’s flesh it is so long dead that its form has disappeared into the waving golden grass.  Cars rush past us, their wheels juddering on the small white humps that stud the road, warning of the approach of one of Canberra’s notorious roundabouts.  The shapeless thing in the grass is left abandoned and unnoticed.

On Boxing Day I go with my parents to their holiday house, on the Brogo River near Bega.  With us are two of their oldest friends, visiting from the UK.  They’ve never seen Brogo before; I think at first that they have but I soon learn that I’m wrong.  I spend time with them, and with my parents, but I haven’t been here for months so I spend time alone, too, re-exploring old paths.  Walking up the road from the house to the gate on the morning of the first day I stumble upon a small but healthy group of Kangaroos gathered around an old dam.  On the second night, after everyone’s gone to bed, I hear Boobook Owls (Ninox novaeseelandiae) hooting mo-poke in the full moon and I go searching for them.  I find two; as I approach the first one I disturb an unseen Kangaroo whose thudding footfalls in the scrub panic the owl into flight.  The second owl is not so cautious, and I stare at it for minutes on end.  Its eyes shine dazzlingly bright in the beam of my torch.  As I stare it defecates on the branch below it, a long white spatter, and as a response to my intrusion I can’t fault it.  The next morning I leave the breakfast table when I hear a Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) calling in the gully; I expect it to hear me stumbling towards it and to run shrieking down the hill, but instead it allows me to watch it scratching in the dirt beneath a fig tree.  I almost stop breathing when I see its long, plumed tail trailing behind it.  Usually Lyrebird songs are resonantly loud and accompanied by a dance, the shimmering of that long tail, but this morning, practicing outside the winter breeding season, the bird sings softly to itself as it forages, like somebody whistling while they work.

Our friends from the UK have only a few weeks in Australia so I try to find as many animals as I can for them, but it seems as though every creature I spot is gone by the time I can point it out.  King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis), Spotted Pardalotes (Pardalotus punctatus), Satin Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), all fly away.  The two Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) that have circled the valley in front of the house for years never appear.  After two days, though, our luck changes: it begins in Bermagui, with two enormous Stingrays (Myliobatoidei) that are patrolling the waterfront where a fisherman is throwing freshly caught fish into the water.  Tourists point and laugh as the man’s small dog tiptoes along the wharf and barks excitedly at the pack of Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) and Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) that scrabble for each scrap of flesh.  That evening, driving back to the house well after dark, we stop for an Eastern Grey Kangaroo that is standing in the middle of the left lane of the road, directly in front of us; it lollops unhurriedly into the bush.  Moments later I spy another standing like a ghost just outside the beam of the headlights – “Kangaroo on the left” I say, hoping to alert our friends, but when my father reacts by immediately pressing the car’s brakes I remember all the dead kangaroos on the side of the Hume; I remember that Eastern Grey Kangaroos are the main cause of traffic accidents back in Canberra.  I watch the edges of the road all the way back to the house.

We all drive back to Canberra the next day; the day after that my old friend and I drive back home.  Back to Melbourne.  My brother is with us now, too.  We notice that the road is new; we see, for the first time, that a week earlier we’d been driving on the old tarmac, and that to double the size of the Hume Highway the government has simply laid down two bright new lanes alongside the old ones.  Now the old road that went in two directions only goes in one; now it’s only the old road that goes to Canberra.

The Kangaroos die as readily on the new road as on the old: their corpses punctuate the long drive once more.  Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), too.  We wonder if perhaps there are so many dead animals on the road because there are also, out there in the bush, so many ones that are newly alive.  I recall the scores of Grey Fantails (Rhipidura albiscapa) and other small insectivorous birds I’d seen at Brogo; I recall the recent rain and think, we are in a time of plenty.

We are driving back to Melbourne for the New Year, but we are leaving something behind, too.  It can’t be avoided.  A home is the place that formed you as much as it’s the place you live; leaving Canberra once again, turning away from the dead animals, I’m struck dumb by how unspeakably beautiful the Southern Tablelands are this summer: pale golden grass; distant indigo hills.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

62) Common Carp

Cyprinus carpio

A few weeks ago I found myself, somehow, in a conversation about the Thames.  Somebody disparaged the river, and remembering a particular anecdote from a university lecture over a decade ago I took it upon myself to defend the river’s health: the restoration of the Thames, I explained, had been a major success story, and a visitor to London is now likely to see Swans (Cygnus) and other birdlife inhabiting the waterway.  The river may not be pristine, but life has a way of asserting itself.

Nonetheless, “it still looks as dirty as the Yarra”, as my conversational opposite remarked.  The Yarra River, Melbourne’s river, is notoriously brown and muddy; some of that is just its natural condition, but it’s fair to say that nobody in Melbourne would ever consider swimming in it.  At places where the river’s flow brings the water butting up against hard obstacles – bridges, embankments – the collection of detritus is enough to put anyone off.  Yet birdlife of all sorts can be found along the length of the river, and for birdlife to thrive there need to be not just plants but fish and other animals upon which those birds can feed.  The river’s not perfect; but it’s a long way from dead.

Lake Burley Griffin, in Canberra, is another oft-disregarded body of water which sustains more life than many people credit it with.  Before I moved to Melbourne I’d delight in frequent sightings of Darters (Anhingidae) hunting in the lake’s depths, diving for long periods before emerging, but barely – their bodies below the surface like submarines, and just their thin and spring-loaded necks and heads held serpentine above the water (hence their other name, “Snake-bird”).  Grebes, too, could be seen bobbing on the surface of the lake, tiny like rubber ducks in an enormous bath; in winter they all looked alike, but come spring and summer the males began to moult into their breeding plumage and Hoary-headed Grebes (Poliocephalus poliocephalus) with their striped heads could easily be distinguished from Australasian Grebes (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae) with their yellow facial spot.

Darters and Grebes are both predators, swimming with great agility beneath the surface of the water after fish and smaller animals.  So, too, are cormorants, which are also numerous on Lake Burley Griffin – Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo); Little Black Cormorants (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris); Little Pied Cormorants (Microcarbo melanoleucos).  The very presence of these birds suggests some degree of health and life and vigour beneath the lake’s muddy surface, but speak to the average Canberran and they’ll swear blind that there’s nothing in that lake except Carp.  Bloody Carp.

They must be the most hated fish in Australia.  They’ve driven out the natives; they stir up mud; worst of all, they’re no good for eating (though try telling that to the Chinese-Australians who line Lake Burley Griffin with their fishing rods and baskets all year long).  Once many years ago when walking along a quiet edge of Lake Burley Griffin, around the fence of the Yarralumla Nursery towards Weston Park at whose tip the lake is at its narrowest, I came across a hand-written sign pinned to a tree.  A boast: the sign’s author proclaimed himself the Carp killer, the Carp executioner, the bane of all Carp; he offered a bounty on Carp; he cursed them beyond all bounds of reason.  He could, frankly, have been anybody in Canberra – or in Australia.

His mission to rid the world – or at least the lake – of Carp was destined to be futile.  There are unknowable numbers of them in the depths of those waters.  They must bump against Scrivener Dam and feel their way curiously along the concrete wall that binds their habitat, preventing it from gushing in torrents into the Molonglo River.  One spring I was walking along the lake, again in that same beech-dappled stretch of the bike path that leads from residential Yarralumla where I lived to the grand Yarralumla of Government House, when I was distracted by shallow splashing and sloshing in a willow-ringed pond to my right.  Carp, spawning: somehow I’d lived my entire life in that same small part of Canberra by the lake and never seen such a thing before.  The great fish writhed just beneath the pond’s surface, or occasionally broke it to splash and gulp and twist their pale bellies to the sun.  They chased each-other; they lunged at each-other; it was an ancient and unmistakably carnal ritual.

It was hard not to see it, also, as a kind of declaration of ownership; an ostentatious display of fecundity and vigour in a body of water usually regarded as stagnant and unsalvageable.  Carp can reproduce in phenomenal numbers: according to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, a six kilogram female carp can produce 1.5 million eggs.  Of course the great majority of these will die or be consumed before they even get a start in life, but even so – the potential is staggering.  No wonder the Carp, when I saw them in that small inlet of the lake, seemed to make the water quiver with the solidity of their flesh.

Early on a Saturday morning recently, just the day after that conversation about the Thames, I was riding my bike back home along the Merri Creek here in Melbourne.  Riding slowly beneath the Eastern Freeway, fifty metres or so upstream from where the creek flows into the Yarra, I was distracted by the plopping of water.  I stopped my bike, and leaned against the chain-link fence; there again, a splash sent ripples across the murky surface of the creek.  And again, and again.  I had an inkling what was causing it, but I wanted to see – to make sure.  (As I waited I recalled how, years earlier, I’d heard fish leaping unseen from the surface of a distant and very different river, the Lemmenjoki in the far north of Finland, on a still autumn evening when the last insects of the season had hatched in a great swarm above the water.)

In front of me a couple of people had stopped too, their attention also having been caught by the sound.  “Is it a Platypus?” the woman asked excitedly, perhaps with more hope than expectation.  I didn’t want to disappoint her, and for a moment I even dared to hope that she might be right – unlikely as it might have seemed to see Platypus at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, beneath the Eastern Freeway (yet Platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, are known to live in the Yarra’s catchment, in creeks further out of the city; they may even live in Fairfield and Kew, only a few kilometres from where I and my fellow observers were stopped).

I quickly dismissed thoughts of a Platypus sighting from my mind; but I was quietly hopeful of something else: a Grebe, or a Cormorant, or some kind of swimming bird.  Some unusual Duck (Anatidae) – once, in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve outside Canberra, I thought I’d seen a Platypus, and been scarcely disappointed when the animal turned out to instead be the even rarer Musk Duck (Biziura lobata).

I was hoping for anything, really.  I was aware that November had slipped away from me, and with it another spring, and my annual chance to see the Sacred Kingfishers (Todiramphus sanctus) whose migratory return a few years ago to the Yarra River and its tributaries was hailed as a truly tangible sign of the waterways’ recovery and restored health.  Two years ago, in my first few months of living in this part of Melbourne, I’d seen several Kingfishers – but growing complacent with time I’d neglected to amble along the creek and the river the year after that, or this year.  Now they’ll have dispersed along the river, and begun nesting, and my chance to see them will probably have passed for twelve months.

Whatever was splashing in the water that day under the Eastern Freeway couldn’t have been a Kingfisher, of course, but it had to be something.  Some rare fish – just last week I noticed that the workmen constructing the long-projected fishway at Yarra Bend had finally packed up their construction site and departed – some aquatic mammal or diving bird.  Anything but Carp.

But Carp they were.  I’d known, really, that the creatures fussing the water couldn’t have been anything else.  When they eventually showed themselves they seemed to rise in their dozens, a great chain of them; and yet, to my astonishment and to the astonishment of the couple with whom I was gazing into the water, they were exceptionally beautiful.  There’s something stirring about seeing a creature utterly at home in its environment, and as those great fish turned their bellies to the sun just beneath the green surface of the water and rolled like a line of celebratory streamers downstream to the Yarra they were no less magnificent than any Platypus or Kingfisher.  They moved so languidly that even when one broke the surface it was with infinite grace and elegance.  They twirled and twined around each-other ecstatically; they barely seemed to exert any effort at all; and then, in an instant, they were gone again, sinking into the thick depths of the water.

I had to get home: I was returning from the market and I needed to get my groceries into the fridge.  My fellow observers turned away from the water.  None of us had seen what we had hoped to see; and yet I don’t think any of us, in that moment, wanted to see anything else but Carp.

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