To everything, tern, tern, tern

Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.

Over January, we saw a large flock of little terns (Sterna albifrons) at Flat Rock, Ballina. I was amazed at how small they are compared to the common tern.

Little terns with silver gull (the larger bird)

This tern is an endangered species and there are recovery plans in place. The terns breed in scrapes in the sand on beaches, and so the eggs get run over by 4WDs. They are also eaten by foxes.

It was heartening to see them.

Egg masses and rams’ horns

Woody Head, Flat Rock and just about any other sandy beach, especially if it has a rock platform, are places of treasure for the sharp-eyed. The more types of environment, the more you will see. And the more often you go there and look, the more you will see. Finds are like the pieces of giant 3D jigsaw puzzles, giving you clues about the lives of plants and animals that live there, and their interrelationships. All you have to do is put it together.

For instance, you may see what looks like a bit of congealed sand washed up on the beach. It’s actually the egg mass of a mollusc. Apologies that it’s slightly out of focus, but you get the idea.

Moon snail sand collar

Each species of moon snail (species of Polinices) has a very recognisable egg mass, sometimes washed up. Polinices sordidus produces egg ‘sausages’ and Polinices didymus sand collars.

Egg sausage of Polinices sordidus

There’s a good photo of a floating egg sausage here.

Polinices didymus, producer of the sand collar egg mass

Moon snails are also called ‘sand-plough snails’, because that’s exactly what they do in pursuit of their prey, other snails. They drill a hole in the prey shell and scrape away at the flesh with their ‘radula’.

If you find what looks like orange spaghetti on the beach, it’s the egg mass of the sea hare (Aplysia dactylomela).

Aplysia dactylomela egg mass

And here’s the culprit.

The sea hare Aplysia dactylomela, munching its way through algae in a nearby rock pool

Another washed-up shell is the ram’s horn – actually the ballast chamber of a deep-sea squid-like creature, Spirula spirula. Open-ocean goose barnacles often attach themselves to the floating shell.

Ram's horn with goose barnacles

I’ll post more photos from time to time as I find interesting things.

Giants still live here

This forest is the sort of place that makes me stop in my tracks. I wait, and extend my senses. It’s shady, cool and wet. Tree ferns and mosses abound, and lichens positively drip from the trunks of the ancient trees stretching to the sky.

Tree ferns share space with beeches

As I walk through the lush forest, I keep expecting to see giant plant-eating dinosaurs – maybe even a muttaburrasaurus – lumbering in the gloom. It’s so moist that groundcovers spread all over the earth under the trees.

Moss seems to grow everywhere - on upright trunks, branches and fallen limbs

Gorgeous groundcovers spread over the earth

There are no dinosaurs in this forest any more, but there are still giants here. As I stand looking up – and up – at the Antarctic beeches, I seem to be looking at several trees close together, but in fact they are all trunks of the same tree. I stand inside a ring of trunks, surrounded by one living tree. Some individual trees are thought to be as much as 2,000 years old. I get a sense of what an Ent might be.

Many trunks from one tree

The Antarctic beech (Nothofagus moorei) for which this region is famous has been around for a very long time. The tree and its close relatives were on the old supercontinent Gondwana, which included what is now Antarctica, South America, Africa, India, New Zealand, Madagascar and Australia. The trees were carried along as the supercontinent split up at least 65 million years ago, and so one or more species of Nothofagus are found in most of these countries today.

Earlier in the day, I had stood looking out over the sweeping slope of the old volcano to Wollumbin, ‘Cloud Catcher’, a sacred site of the indigenous Bundjalung people. A wedge-tailed eagle and butterflies swirled on the rising air.

Wollumbin, the centre of the old super-volcano

The 'Scenic Rim' of the old volcano, a World Heritage site, is covered in lush subtropical rainforest

Back in the forest, bird calls echo eerily through the trees. I can hear the odd chortles and whirrs of an Albert’s lyrebird (Menura alberti), found only in this region. Like its better known relative, the superb lyrebird, it can mimic an amazing range of bird calls. I’ve heard a superb lyrebird in Sydney’s Royal National Park, mimicking camera clicks and a chainsaw, too.

Reluctantly I retreat from the mosquitoes and leeches who have detected a feast-in-waiting. I leave with the wish that these trees will still be around in another 2,000 years.

Cyclones that have visited me

Besides a couple of largish ‘east coast lows’ (we can’t officially call them cyclones because these storms don’t originate in the tropics) while living near Bangalow, my main claim to fame is cyclone Tracy, a category 5 which decided to substitute for Santa in Darwin on Christmas eve, 1974.

I was in Darwin on a working holiday, having just finished my Honours year in zoology at Adelaide University. A couple of us were staying with Patrick and house-sitting (the irony!) for his parents. I’d met Michael, Charlie, Patrick and Carol at St Ann’s College, the co-ed student residence at which I was boarding. (I really enjoyed living there – a big old former grand house in North Adelaide. No one was supposed to have pets, but a young couple had a baby wombat, Puddleglum, they were caring for in cognito – sort of. The husband’s parents were wildlife carers. The principal initially hit the roof, then warmed to the little darling and allowed her to stay – until she started digging up the landscaped gardens, indicating it was time for her to be released back on Eyre Peninsula where she’d originally been recsued from her roadkilled mother’s pouch.)

Back to Darwin: we’d been given several days’ warning that the cyclone was in the vicinity and was a biggie, but Darwinites are pretty ho-hum about cyclones – just an accepted part of living there. The city itself is fairly protected by a couple of big islands to the north, but Tracy determinedly came down the sea corridor between those islands and straight onto the city.

Christmas eve 1974

Before the cyclone

I was at a Christmas eve party at the medical students’ home (Michael and Charlie) as the wind was getting up. We drove home about midnight as the radio was telling us to batten down the hatches. We could hardly drive the car for the gusts of wind.

Inside the house as the wind grew stronger, we tried to stop the water coming in the glass louvre windows (a whole bank in the lounge room) by putting towels down, but it was like someone was playing a fire hose from the outside. We soon gave up, and hurriedly retreated to the bathroom (three adults and one Alsatian) when we saw the wall of glass windows bowing inwards. We sure didn’t want to be there when they smashed!

The noise of the wind was incredible and the lightning and thunder had an eerie quality. We had a torch and radio until the batteries ran out. Electricity was cut off as a precaution. Every now and then we could hear ripping and crashing sounds. One of them was our own roof being torn off, but we were too cautious to go out of the bathroom – the ceiling stayed put, thank goodness, so we were quite dry.

After a few hours the ‘eye’ came through, but even then we didn’t venture out, as the wind was going to come back just as strong as before at some point and we didn’t want to get caught outside.

We let the dog go at some point as he was getting agitated and smelly – humans probably exude fear pheromones, too. I didn’t ever feel I was going to die, although there was certainly some fear of what was going to happen next and uncertainty about what to do if the place was blown down around us – fortunately that didn’t happen. It was very much a case of sitting still and waiting, being patient for 8 hours for sheer self-preservation.

Darwin damage after cyclone Tracy

After the cyclone – the view from our house

Eventually the sun came up, and there was a knock at the door! We did indeed have one door left, but the rest of the house was trashed. The next-door neighbour who knocked at our door merely had water damage to his house, but the neighbouring house on the other side of us had completely vanished, along with the rest of the houses in the street. Just debris and furniture remained strewn all over the place.

Michael sitting in the same place as in the top photo

After ascertaining that we were all right, the neighbour organised us to door-knock the neighbourhood (if there were doors, otherwise just call out) and tell people to evacuate to the local school which was brick and still standing (except it had lost its windows). Most people were shell-shocked and fearful, some asking if ‘it’ was going to come back.

Junk everywhere – most of Darwin was like this

I was lucky in that I found my backpack with clothes not too far away. The dog reappeared a day later. Other people lost everything, with houses uninsured. We moved to a nearby block of flats, which were brick and still standing – the inhabitants left wholesale for Katherine down south, and said we could help ourselves to the food in the refrigerators, so we got generators from somewhere and ate our way though eight sets of Christmas food over the next week. We helped our friends’ families with the cleaning up.

Michael and his dad begin the clean-up

We were shipped out on the last plane. My parents were understandably sick with worry, but I got a message out with one of the people driving to Katherine so their fears were allayed.

I had been  working in a temporary job for an agricultural department of the Northern Territory government, studying tree growth of some kind (can’t remember the details), but after the storm there were no more trees to study, so I was transferred to the Mt Gambier pine plantations for a few weeks until my contract ran out.

And I don’t remember ever collecting that reference for the house-sitting job!

Update: There are more photos for the 40th anniversary here.

The biggest aquarium in the world

Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia

I am particularly fond of aquariums and visit as many as I can. I went to the astounding Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta courtesy of Alan in May 2010. It opened in November 2005, billed as the ‘world’s largest aquarium’ of more than eight million gallons of water. The largest tank, the Ocean Voyager, is reportedly the world’s largest aquarium exhibit with 6.3 million gallons of water containing four whale sharks, two manta rays, numerous hammerheads and other species of sharks, turtles and many, many other saltwater creatures.

Ocean Voyager tank, Georgia Aquarium

Ocean Voyager tank, Georgia Aquarium

The Ocean Voyager tank is about twice as tall and four times as long as it looks in the photo on the left – gobsmacking.

Whale shark and hammerhead

Whale shark and hammerhead

Rebecca (an environmental educator on  Jekyll Island, a barrier island quite close to Cumberland Island, south Georgia, which I visited) says the staff use some sort of contraption consisting of a long pole with a net full of krill or something similar on the end. The keeper goes out onto the tank on a sort of raft, swishes the net around in the water to release the krill, and the whale shark swims past and scoops it up. She also says ‘it’s interesting to keep in mind that if these sharks weren’t being displayed at the aquarium, they would have been someone’s dinner. The Georgia Aquarium’s whale sharks come from Taiwan, where they are served up as seafood’.

Many smaller exhibits (quite large tanks in their own right) feature various fresh and seawater habitats, like:


– the Amazon’s piranhas (I saw a TV documentary recently where it seems that piranhas only attack and strip off flesh a la Hollywood movies when there is a combination of thrashing, blood in the water and an abnormally high concentration of them, due to lakes drying up in the dry season – they are a real threat to the villagers who live on the waters there if they are not careful)

Lake Malawi cichlids

Lake Malawi cichlids

– Lake Malawi cichlids, of interest because in this lake there are thought to be something like 500 species of the cichlid family, all but five of which are found nowhere else. A lake usually has fewer species and certainly of more families of fish.

Poison arrow frog

Poison arrow frog

poison arrow frogs (this one is Dendrobates azureus). What little gems these are, no bigger than the top joint of my thumb! The aquarium had many species of different colours and patterns.

Asian small-clawed otters

Asian small-clawed otters

Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea) (the one at the back was snoozing so hard she kept sliding off her bed and almost falling into the water below; she’s wake up with a start and squiggle back onto her comfy bed, doze off and start to slide again)

– giant Pacific octopus (sleeping under a rock, as it was daytime)

Beluga whale

Beluga whale

– a pair of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas)

Garden eels

Garden eels

– garden eels, which live in colonies in sandy bottoms, as shown here

Weedy sea dragon

Weedy sea dragon

weedy sea dragons, from southern Australian waters, and seahorses



– jellyfish

and touch-pools where you can caress:

Touch-pool with cownosed rays

Touch-pool with cownosed rays

– cownosed rays (they have surprisingly soft, smooth skin); and

Horseshoe crab

Horseshoe crab

horseshoe crabs (common on the US eastern seaboard).

Alan said this aquarium had been planning to have dolphins, and told me a disturbing story that is apparently true, about the documentary The Cove. I already knew that hundreds of dolphins are killed yearly in one place in Japan. Apparently these people supply some survivors (that they have caught but obviously not clubbed) to dolphin shows around the world for a couple of hundred thousand US dollars each. Not good in any way shape or form.

On a lighter note: I wish I had taken a photo of the sign at the front door, warning patrons not to take in a list of offensive objects, like guns, drugs, knives and gum!

Of cyclones and cassowaries

Cyclone Yasi just hit Mission Beach and other places in Far North Queensland. As well as the inevitable human suffering in emotional and financial terms, there is enormous suffering on the part of animals, the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. 250 km/hour winds rip down trees and the big waves trash the coral.

The southern cassowary (one of the three cassowary species living in New Guinea and northern Australia, and the only one in Australia) is on the way to extinction and one of its last strongholds was Mission Beach, which category 5 (the most severe) Yasi struck full-on a couple of days ago. It’s too early to find out what’s happened to those cassowaries. I visited Mission Beach twenty years ago and went looking for them, but even then they were rare.

Southern Cassowary

Southern cassowary, photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons

Cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius) live predominantly in rainforest, and feed mainly on the fallen fruits of rainforest trees. The seed passes through the digestive system, priming it to germinate when it hits the ground again. There’s a mutual dependency between the bird and some 150 plant species, which need the bird to distribute their seeds.

The female lays the eggs and the male incubates and rears them. Adults can reach 1.8 metres tall and weigh 60 kg, living 30-40 years. They are flightless, but can defend themselves with the large pointed toes on their strong legs. Myth has it that they disembowel attacking dogs in a similar way to kangaroos.

Their main threats are humans (cars and illegal hunting), dogs, clearing of rainforest and competition for food from feral pigs. No one knows exactly how many are left as it’s difficult to track them in the rainforest, but several studies are underway to find out. In June 2010, there were reported to be only 40 adults (only 17 breeding females), 28 sub-adults (non-breeders) and 31 chicks in the Mission Beach area. They face starvation whenever a cyclone rips up the rainforest. And because of the increasing frequency of cyclones, the rainforest does not get time to recover sufficiently before the next one.

Cassowary road sign

Speeding or not, cars are lethal to cassowaries who dash out from the forest with no warning. Photo by Rob Chandler, Wikimedia Commons

Some conservation organisations (Rainforest Rescue and the Australian Rainforest Foundation) ask for donations so they can buy blocks of rainforest in especially threatened areas to preserve them.