An Unforgettable Australian Adventure

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We’ve all seen the horrendous news coming out of Australia about their dreadful wildfires. My thoughts went back to the month I spent in Australia in the early 1980s. For two weeks I volunteered on an Earthwatch expedition in South Australia, helping collect data for a group of American graduate students from Cornell who were studying the native flora and fauna. My team members were wonderful, diverse American women who shared an interest in wildlife and travel. One of my teammates was Sy Montgomery, who since has become an acclaimed nature writer of numerous books. At the time, we were both journalists and nature geeks, and we haven’t changed much since then. Our team was camped at Brookfield Conservation Park, which is affiliated with Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Our leader, Dr. Pamela Parker was a conservation biologist with the zoo then, but has been assistant director there for some time and is still very active in Australian wildlife research.

For two weeks after that I toured South Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory. It was an incredible experience and one that will always be a fond memory.

I wrote this piece for Earthwatch’s magazine back then, but they did not use it.

So it seems timely to post this now.

Original Earthwatch project description
Note from Cornell University, which was running the project, updating us Earthwatch volunteers about drought impacts

*Photos included here are from scans of my color slides and B&W negatives.

 

We slice through the darkness with powerful spotlights. My beam illuminates something in the distance – the yellow glint of eyes. Instantly, I sweep back to the spot. We fix our binoculars on the eyes and discover they belong to a kangaroo. Panning the beam slightly, I see there are two kangaroos, frozen briefly in the light. We spend a minute just watching the creatures grazing and moving awkwardly about. Then, we slowly drive on, searching for more animals.

Our project, “Drought Refugia,” has brought us to Brookfield Conservation Park in South Australia.

Brookfield Conservation Park

We’ve come here to study the flora and fauna, with an emphasis on the Southern hairy-nosed wombat. The park was set up as a wombat preserve, but it’s also a refuge for kangaroos and other animals. Last year’s drought had a huge impact on the ecosystems here, and plant and animals alike suffered. Spotlighting is kind of a bonus activity for us volunteers. The researchers do it to catch animal behavior that they can’t see during the day.

Tuesday

As our principal investigator, Dr. Pamela Parker, gives us a tour of the park, we pause to watch a small group of gray kangaroos, survivors of the drought.

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Pam Parker with a “sleepy lizard”, AKA shingleback lizard or Tiliqua rugosa

We also feast our eyes on some beautiful birds –swift-flying mallee ring-necked parrots, raucous gray and pink galahs, and a tiny, vivid blue Splendid Fairy Wren.

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Galah

Further down the park’s dirt track, we get out of the car for a close look at a wombat warren.

Here, we get our first look at results of the drought – remains of a wombat that had starved to death.

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Wombat remains
Pam drives on, rattling off names of trees and shrubs we pass on the way – malleeacaciatriodiaspinifex
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Spinifex grows in circles

“How do you spell that? How big does it grow? Does it flower? Is it good food for the animals?” Our questions are endless.

Demonstration of how quickly spinifex burns
Some of the research area
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Kangaroo bones
Thursday

Today, I and another volunteer are inspecting color-coded wombat warrens.

Wombat warren, a series of burrows and tunnels

We stride across the sparsely vegetated, rock-strewn landscape, going from one warren to the next. We look for signs of activity, either by wombats or other animals, like rabbits or foxes.

We search for the most important unmistakable sign of wombats – fresh fecal pellets. Finding fresh pellets is not difficult, but identifying them can be confusing.

Wombat or kangaroo?

Just when you think you’ve got them pegged as wombat, Pam tells you that female grey kangaroo pellets can resemble wombat.

So, one of the things we learn to do is break open the pellets and examine the plant fibers inside. This takes some getting used to, handling fecal pellets, but after a while our curiosity overtakes our reluctance. Wombat fecal pellets contain short, fine fibers, while kangaroo pellets have fibers of varying lengths and textures. Even Pam sometimes has trouble telling the difference, so I don’t expect to become an expert in two weeks. But my partner and I give it our best try.

Another part of our warren study is to record the number of burrows. A warren can contain anywhere from two to more than 25 burrows in its elaborate tunneling system. After our first few inspections, we learn to walk gingerly over the warrens.

Me testing the ground around the warren, so as not to fall through

More than once we’ve felt our footing suddenly give way. In many instances, we come across bones and carcasses where starving wombats finally collapsed. It’s clear that the foxes found plenty to scavenge.

Earthwatch teammates, Sy, left, and Rhoda studying a dead wombat
Saturday

The research atmosphere in the park is very relaxed. I’m a bit surprised at the research staff’s willingness to trust us with pieces of their important projects. They send us out to collect specific data: avian use of water at troughs; wombat activity; fecal pellet transects, and rabbit behavior. We plunge into our work enthusiastically, trying out our new gear – binoculars, compasses and field guides.

We get to choose what we want to do, and the work gives us some private time alone with our thoughts.

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In my blind

One of the first things we learn is that “negative data is still data.” So, it’s important for us to note the absence of wildlife during our observations, as well as any activity. We have opportunities to see not only wombats, but red and grey kangaroos, lizards, echidnas, and many species of birds, including emus.

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Emu
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Getting lunch with the staff
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Acacias at sunset
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The one living wild wombat we saw
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Wally, a “pet” wombat we got to meet in Blanchetown
Saturday Night

Tonight I am spotlighting again. We go bundled against the mild winter night, standing in the open back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, armed with spotlights in search of animals. Each of us is eager to see the wildlife that is so evasive during the day, and a little crisp night air isn’t enough to keep us glued to the campfire or in our tents. On our trip we glimpse a wombat before it disappears down a burrow. Then we spot a fox, hungrily tearing at some food, and later, a tawny frogmouth, a bird of prey.

Monday

What a lucky sight! Two emus have come to drink at the trough I’m watching.

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Until now, none of the volunteers had seen any signs on them except for their flat, circular “pies.” I suspect the emus are a male and female, after checking the head coloring in the field guide. As they are drinking, the emus are making low, booming sounds. When they finish drinking, they walk off as quietly as they came.

Thursday

The vegetation research is expanding and we have a chance to record density, growth and variety of species. EPSON scanner image

Only after getting down on my hands and knees do I discover the beauty of the microscopic flowers: candy cane-striped spears the size of toothpicks, and tiny yellow, purple and white flowers.  EPSON scanner image

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They all seem so fragile, I’m afraid to step anywhere. Pam says some of the plants take years to regenerate. In times of little or no rainfall, their root systems stay alive, enabling the plants to spring to life at the next rainfall. Pam has been very excited at the return of ephemeral plants and flowers, and her excitement infects us all. EPSON scanner image

More and more, we realize the devastation of the drought.

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                                                                          Ever-present thistle
Sunday

Brookfield Conservation Park has been a marvelous learning experience.

We’ve seen and done things no ordinary tourist ever could. The clear skies, sunsets and star-filled nights, the moaning ravens, bounding kangaroos, wombats and the warmth and patience of Dr. Parker, the research staff, and the park ranger are hard to leave behind.

I, for one, vow to return.

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A Recent Foggy Morning

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Fog is a frequent visitor to Seattle and I usually enjoy it. Sometimes I take my camera and dash out before the fog begins to lift. On a recent December morning, I awoke to find pea-soup fog obscuring the view.

I decided to go down by the water, across from the downtown skyline. Only, this  morning, there was no skyline! Imagine how it would appear, looking across Puget Sound to where the city is – or used to be!

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The scene reminded me of a fond memory of taking a Zodiac in Scotland across a bay to the Isle of May. We started out in thick fog. We could not even see the island. But as we neared the island, the fog lifted and there it was. 

Back to tstumphe foggy day in Seattle. It was a quiet, damp and chilly morning. Along with the fog, frost had covered some surfaces overnight. Shades of gray stitched together land and sea, with puffs of fog occasionally floating over the water.

 

A few distant lights broke through along the docks.

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The only signs of life included a few cormorants, geese, and pigeons.

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Humans included several determined anglers lined up on the dock, intent on hooking squid, and a few people boarding the Water Taxi for the commute over the water to the disappeared city.

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I took a close look at one squid pulled out by an angler and placed on a bench. It was exquisite, still wriggling and struggling to live.

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Its skin was surprisingly colorful and pearly, sprinkled with tiny colorful spots like confetti.

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I could not imagine killing and eating these intelligent fascinating creatures, especially out of that heavily used port. But the fishermen were happily loading their buckets.

 

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Water taxi

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Sailing into the unknown…

Where Birds and Planes Fly

Birding at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Hoquiam, Washington, I walked from the parking area to the trailhead, past these old structures at the little Bowerman Airport.

The absence of people and planes, and the starkness of the hangars against the surrounding landscape and big sky drew me to photograph them.

The blue and white buildings; the blue and white sky; white building and white flowers.

Last time I was out here, the restaurant was still operating and was bustling with hungry customers. The retro décor and classic diner menu were lots of fun. Back then when my birding group stopped there for lunch I thought, what a strange place for a restaurant. But now I see it was likely a sort of landmark that drew birders, pilots, as well as locals for good food and company. Now, it was closed, enhancing or perhaps causing the atmosphere of abandonment.

Part of the Port of Grays Harbor, this airfield has one runway. The facility has fuel, a pilot’s lounge, rental hangars, and is touted as “jet-capable.”

The hangars have seen better days and I wondered whether there were any planes inside. What could be the purpose of the oddly shaped roofs?

I don’t know how often planes use the airport, but nearby, birds and birders flock to the wetland habitat at the wildlife refuge. Particularly in spring, the salt marsh and mudflats host thousands of migrating shorebirds. Raptors also are drawn to the abundance of prey.

This landscape is a magnet for wings of different sizes and shapes.

 

A Pigeon by Any Other Name

We call them pigeons. Birders have called them rock doves. Apparently now, the powers that be in the bird world have declared them to be rock pigeons.

One of the most familiar birds worldwide, these chunky, multicolored birds have adapted so well that we can find them in cities and farm fields, in parks and on rocky cliffs. They are members of the Columbidae family, along with all other pigeons and doves.

Their natural diet includes seeds and fruits, but they’re excellent scavengers, loitering in places where people gather and tend to drop morsels that can be snatched. They are equally creative in using various spaces for their nests.
Pigeon skills in navigation and homing proved valuable during World Wars I and II, when they were used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps to carry messages.

Numbers Declining

Though pigeons seem ubiquitous, the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) estimates that the population has declined by almost 50 percent since 1966. The survey is a long-term, large-scale cooperative effort of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The program began in 1966, led by Chandler Robbins, a researcher at Patuxent and good friend of Rachel Carson, who penned the landmark book Silent Spring. Her book alerted the world to the effects of pesticides on bird populations, but was considered quite controversial when it was published. Robbins died in 2017, just short of his 99th birthday. He was a renowned ornithologist and often birded with Carson. You can read more about them at http://www.rachelcarson.org/mChanRobbins.aspx

The BBS continues to be an important tool in avian research and the formation of conservation programs.

The global population of pigeons is estimated at 120 million and though declining in North America, they are not currently a species of concern.

Watching pigeon behavior can be a fun past time. Recently while waiting at a bus stop in downtown Seattle, I watched a group of them ambling about. It’s fun to make your own narrative of what’s going on.

Forming a strategy
Gone to the dark side
Walking the line
Going their separate ways

Stillaguamish River Festival and Pow Wow

I attended the annual Stillaguamish Festival of the River and Pow Wow recently. The Stillaguamish is one of our numerous rivers in western Washington, also the name of one of our native tribes.

 

 

 

 

 

It was exciting to see the regalia and dance competitions. Dance groups included veterans, senior men, senior women and children, representing tribes of the Salish nations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also featured were young Apache men from Arizona, demonstrating their skills at hoop dancing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The festival included various educational booths about the river, conservation, and wildlife. Exhibitors featured insect collections, birds of prey, and one large yellow boa! The snake seemed as relaxed as the children it was sprawled across.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beatles!

A Caterpillar Feast

In March, I journeyed back to the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. The big draw was an annual migration of Swainson’s hawks and the emergence of big colorful caterpillars, but as it happened, a third phenomenon blossomed simultaneously.

Big colorful caterpillars emerge every spring in Anza-Borrego.

They are the larvae of the white-lined sphinx moth and appear in various color combinations, from yellow with black stripes, to black with yellow stripes, to green with black stripes.

The caterpillars, sometimes called hornworms, feed on many types of flowers and plants, while the moths seek nectar.

The striking moths, also known as hummingbird moths, can be quite beautiful.

What I witnessed was the part of the life cycle when the larvae hatch and proceed to munch out on the desert flowers and plants.

It just so happened that this year the little guys were even luckier to hatch during a “superbloom,” a time when bountiful winter rains have produced carpets of wildflowers across the desert.

After eating nonstop and growing to 3-4 inches in length, the time comes for the next phase of their lives. The caterpillars burrow into the sand and pupate into a form that remains underground for 8-15 days. Then, the big transformation occurs and the moths emerge!

The moths spend their nights feeding and pollinating wildflowers, and then lay eggs on the undersides of flowers. The entire life cycle begins anew when the eggs hatch into very small caterpillars that begin to eat 24 hours a day on the flowers.

At the same time, Swainson’s hawks are making their way north from South America. They spend time in the desert around Borrego and have been known to feast on the caterpillars. Birders gather daily for the hawk watch. It was a gamble where or when they might be spotted. During my visit, I was disappointed to see that the hawks were in kettles a great distance away. Meer specks. I had expected to see them near the ground picking off the fat worms.

Unfortunately, I could not stick around long enough for the emergence of the moths, but I bet that’s something to see!

The superbloom, however, was a great treat.