Tasmanian tiger … snake

I saw only stuffed museum specimens of the extinct Tasmanian tiger on my trip around Tasmania last December, but was fortunate to see the very unextinct Tasmanian tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) – in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park on the west coast.

Tiger snake in Franklin-Gordon rainforest

Tiger snake in the Franklin-Gordon rainforest

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The plainsong of seals

I’m presently reading Robert MacFarlane’s wonderful The Wild Places, about the search for wildness and its meaning. He describes something I’d love to hear. He’s sailing to an island off Wales in England:

As we drew close to the shore, the air filled with a high keening noise, which grew in volume the nearer we came to land. I thought that it must be an acoustic effect of the wind – quick air singing in the boat’s tight wires – and I looked around at my companions, unsure if I were the only one hearing it. As it became louder, I realised that it was not a single note, but a braid of dozens of notes, each of a slightly different pitch. And then I understood. Seals! Seals were making the sound, the hundreds of seals that were hauled out on every rock and kelp-hung skerry in the bay, and on its curved shoreline. They were giving off noise without seeming to, as bees do, and water.  … [after being rowed ashore] I moved off alone inland, down the island’s thin south-western arm, passing through the plainsong of the seals, prospecting for a place to sleep.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I once helped out on an expedition to Dangerous Reef in South Australia. There’s a large seal colony scattered on the surrounding islands, and we were to tag the pups so they could be followed throughout life. (Dangerous Reef is where the film “Blue Water, White Death”, about great white sharks, was filmed. I hate those sorts of animal scare films – totally unnecessary and very bad for the image and survival of sharks. [Gets down off soapbox now.] We didn’t see a single shark of any description, let alone the great white, despite seals being tasty snacks for them – but I diverge.)

My job was to wield a pitchfork to keep the mammas at bay while the pups were caught, measured, weighed and tagged. This seemed ridiculous – how could I stop a large, weighty rampaging female with a few pointy bits of metal? Luckily I never had to find out, because  I discovered that if I held a hessian bag on the end of the fork, the mammas couldn’t see their pups, and tended to lose interest. Then the pups could be handled and released with the minimum of fuss to everyone concerned. But I never heard any seal sounds beyond squawks and squeaks.

So I asked Dr Roger Kirkwood, author of Fur Seals and  Seal Lions (due out from CSIRO in 2013) and researcher at the Phillip Island Nature Reserve, Phillip Island near Melbourne, whether he’d heard the plainsong of seals. He said:

“I’m reminded of when a sound man came out to Seal Rocks and recorded the seal calls to play back at the Melbourne Zoo seal exhibit. Feedback was – it didn’t play for long because people kept wondering why they were playing sheep calls. Each seal species seems to have a different vocal repertoire. Australian fur seals bleet, snort, growl and ‘call in gruff voices’ (at night it can seem like one is calling your name)”.

No wonder that in Scotland there are legends of selkies – seals that turn into people and vice versa – if seal voices sound human in the spooky night.

I’ve been on a Robert MacFarlane reading binge lately – I really like his evocative, thoughtful and intelligent style. In Mountains of the Mind (from the back blurb, “how the mystery of the world’s highest places has come to grip the Western imagination”), he writes of being on the shore of a lake in the Canadian Rockies:

Across the valley where the mountains which formed the headwall of the valley shelved into the lake, scores of middle-sized waterfalls should have been pummelling down into the water. That day, though, most of them were frozen into stiff shining curtains of ice. Although some of the bigger waterfalls remained unfrozen, the lake water near the shore was undisturbed.

But there was something even more strange about the waterfalls … All the waterfalls which were unfrozen were falling up the cliff-face. It felt briefly as if I had been turned on my head, or the whole cliff-face flipped upside down. But no; it was the wind. The storm-wind which was blowing against the rock face was so strong that it was bullying the waterfalls back up the cliff. Where the water spilled over a lip of granite, it was plummeting upwards into the sky. These weren’t waterfalls, they were waterrises.

I looked along the mountains on the far side of the lake, and I could see dozens of silver waterfalls doing the same. They looked like a row of chimneys, bellowing silver smoke into the air.

What a great image of waterfalls defying gravity, with a bit of help from the wind!

I too have seen waterrises, and it’s a hair-raising experience if you’re not prepared. I was walking on the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland; photo by Bogman, Wikimedia Commons

It’s a wild and windy place, and steep as can be. As I walked carefully near the edge to get a great view of the splendid cliffs all the way to the waves smashing on the rocks a long way below, I felt sprinkles of water falling on me. It was a fine day with nary a cloud in the sky, so I was a bit puzzled. Looking round, I saw that a substantial amount water was falling up from the cliff edge. Talk about a brush with the faeries! I love being surprised by nature.

Drawing closer to Nature

Artist Peter London in his book, Drawing Closer to Nature, writes about his experience walking along a beach and noticing the forms and patterns there – how Nature composes. Methinks this quote (p. 22) applies to more than art:

I loved the way Nature seemed to be teaching. Here’s the lesson. Take your time. You have your lifetime to learn it. You didn’t get it today? Come back tomorrow. You missed last week’s assignment? It’s still on the board. No, there will be no final exams (you simply die and then it’s the next person’s turn) No, there is no front row at this school. It has no front. You don’t speak English? That’s OK, neither do we. You are a slow learner? What’s a slow learner? You are talented and gifted? Oh, your mother says you’re talented and gifted – that’s nice. When do you graduate? You really don’t want to know. How much is this going to cost you? Everything. What will you get out of it? Everything.


Snow and squirrels

Alan in Atlanta, Georgia, reports.

Here in Atlanta a few days ago we had 6 inches of snow dumped on the city, so everything has ground to a halt. I suspect the fact that there’s an increase in the water vapour in the atmosphere due to global warming is contributing somewhat to these ‘one time’ extreme weather events that seem to be happening more and more.

Well, it snowed late on Sunday evening and lucky for Atlanta the storm came through quickly and the temperatures were low enough to deposit powdery snow which also got blown off the power lines with the small amount of breeze. The worse situation which the people at Georgia Power were preparing for was a slightly longer period of snow combined with slightly higher temperatures allowing for ice to form, and by sticking to the power lines (and tree branches) to accumulate and eventually to bring down said power lines and branches. And then we would have had a big mess without power.

As it is, the city has had power all week, but because of low (below freezing) temperatures the accumulated snow on roads has refrozen into ice as cars attempt to negotiate the streets causing problems on hills etc. In northern cities accustomed to large amounts of the white stuff during the occasional winter storm, they have many, many snow plows that get the streets quickly cleared of snow. Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs lack these vehicles and have not even been able to get sand or salt on the roads to expedite the removal or snow and ice. We are left with just waiting for warmer temperatures, which may finally be happening today or tomorrow. It’s been sunny since the beginning of the week but the nature of the snow is that it just reflects the sunlight – we really need temperatures a good bit above freezing to do some good and actually rain to quickly get rid of the ice.

Having said all of the above, I must also hasten to add that Jane and I have been perfectly comfortable and really not the least bit affected by these events since we are warm, dry and have food. Jane’s been telecommuting to work (as have most of the other CDC [Centers for Disease Control] employees and a good bit of the city) so she’s not had to worry about those icy patches on the roads. I’m even able to electronically pay the bills these days so basically it could be a lot worse. I’ve posted a couple of Queensland flood links onto Facebook (such as http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DkYUpkPTcqPY&h=80ef4) so that my local friends at least know that they really have nothing to complain about weather wise. Having a work week at home with power and heat is really no inconvenience compared to having your house swept away in a flood of water and escaping through the roof of a neighbour’s house! I’m not sure if I got the exact details correct there, but I gather there are plenty of horror stories coming out of that mess.

That video on YouTube is really quite remarkable and I now see that Brisbane’s getting hit quite hard. I’m not going to complain at all about our snow since it’s just no big deal compare with what these people are having to contend with. Anyhow, I’m sorry to hear about your garden [Joy – My veggies have rotted away in the wet, alas]. I’m wondering if some of this water is getting down to Adelaide via the Murray Darling Basin. I presume that it’s all heading to the ocean. Google Maps is basically frustrating in that it only provides roads and not river basin information.

Speaking of people in water with rips, another video from Toowoomba shows a couple of guys out in flowing water up to their waists. This is not good, I’m saying to myself, since even if they don’t get pulled along by the water they could be hit by something.
Looks like you’re not going to have some relief from the wet weather any time soon with two cyclones to the north.

We’ve put out bird seed on our deck again (after many months of not doing so because of the squirrel risk) as they really have to do more work when it’s all white on the ground, and have therefore been attracting a number of different varieties of birds that are happy for an easy meal after presumably getting a little frustrated pecking around in the snow covered landscape. Anyhow I was pleased to see a couple of woodpeckers (red-bellied woodpeckers, Melanerpes carolinus – see http://www.fernbank.edu/Birding/birdID/red_bellied.htm) there this morning although those birds always make me a little nervous considering that we live in a wooden house! I guess if I were publishing the same type of blog that you are doing I’d be taking pictures of the birds and having quite a running commentary going [Joy: You can do that here if you want to – you have better photographic equipment that I do!].

Red-bellied woodpecker

I probably need to get out one of Jane’s bird books and make some identification of the types of birds being attracted to the seeds in the bird feeder although it’s probably not going to continue being a source of food for them if the squirrels (the grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis) persist in sitting in the feeder and gobbling up everything. We’ll remove the seed to discourage those animals as we don’t want any more squirrels deciding that they want to get into our house as has happened a couple of times in the past.

Having them attracted to the deck by seed could give some of them a bright idea that the house interior is a great place to get to. They’ll start chewing on the logs and then we’ll once again find ourselves hiring someone to trap and relocate them.

Grey squirrel - Alan's favourite animal (not)

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Here’s your friendly correspondent Alan (centre) with wife Jane (right) and Alan’s daughter, Maria. They all stayed with us for a few days at Larnook in 2002. I met Alan in 1971 at Adelaide University through the science fiction association. He’s been living in the States for almost 40 years.

Alan (centre), Jane (right) and Maria (left)