Outwitting the echidna

A regular feature of our early days of driving through Tassie has been the fruitless pursuit of a decent photograph of an echidna. The normal sequence of events is as follows:

  1. We drive along rural roads, generally enjoying the view and scanning near and far for interesting wildlife
  2. Julie yells “Echidna, echidna!” while pointing at a small spiny object vaguely reminiscent of an overweight hedgehog that she has spotted on the roadside verge quietly minding its own business
  3. I screech to a halt in a cloud of dust, gravel and random obscenities
  4. Julie leaps out of the car, opens the rear passenger door to grab her camera and hurtles off in the direction of said echidna, wailing plaintively “Wait, wait, please don’t run away.”
  5. The echidna, which has heard the commotion, makes a run for it with Julie in hot pursuit.
  6. Doing a passable impersonation of Lewis Hamilton with his foot down, the echidna dives into the nearest echidna-sized hole leaving only the spines on its back visible.
  7. Julie utters words that she didn’t learn in Sunday School.
  8. The echidna replies with a waggle of its rear quarters and a waving of its spines, which translated into English means something like “Photograph that you miserable pommie bastards” (in our experience echidnas are not the most chilled out of critters.)

But today our luck has changed. We spot the echidna from some distance off and I’m able to pull off the road and on to a soft grass verge long before we reach him.  Julie grabs her camera and stealthily circles around the critter to approach him from the rear and downwind.  Meanwhile the echidna is distracted by a rotten branch, which he is alternately ripping apart with his powerful front limbs and probing with his long pointy snout in search of the southern hemisphere’s tastiest ants.

We stand watching him for maybe 15 minutes while Julie takes snap and snap. At last, after days of effort she takes her first decent echidna photograph.

Job done.

[17 November]

Wombat poo: the shocking truth

Every evening, if we get home from work in time, we watch The Chase on ITV 2.  The quizmaster asks contestants a question, then offers them the choice of three answers and not much time to choose between them.  Just  now, as I was upstairs getting changed, I heard a whoop of triumph from the kitchen.  “There was a question on wombats, and I nailed it” says Julie.

“Tell me more,” I respond.

“Well, the question was, ‘what’s unusual about wombat droppings?’ and I had a choice of (a) they’re a delicacy, (b) they’re pink, or (c) they’re cube-shaped.  And of course, I said they’re cube-shaped.”

Is it any wonder that wombats usually wear a pained expression and walk with a limp?  And isn’t good to know that a university education and a subscription to the BBC Wildlife Magazine pays such handsome dividends?

If we are lucky enough to see some wombat poo in Tassie I promise to get Julie to take a photo so I can post it on this blog.  Until then, here’s a cute photo of the King Of Cubes, courtesy of Creative Commons.  Look carefully at the image and you can just see his eyes are watering.  No surprise there, I reckon.

File:Wombat 3.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: By Julian Berry (http://www.flickr.com/photos/julianjb/463699422/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tasmania: challenging stereotypes about Australia

Terry Pratchett’s novel The Last Continent is not about Australia.  We know this for sure because in the foreword he says “this is not a book about Australia.”  On the other hand, would you take at face value the words of a man who did irony for a living for over 30 years?

Early in The Last Continent Sir Terry treats us to an excerpt from the diary of inept wizard Rincewind, who is lost in the vast, forbidding land of Terror Incognita.  Here is Rincewind’s account of six days in his wretched life:

Probably Tuesday: hot, flies.  Dinner: honey ants.  Attacked by honey ants.  Fell into waterhole.

Wednesday, with any luck: hot, flies.  Dinner: either bush raisins or kangaroo droppings.  Chased by hunters, don’t know why.  Fell into waterhole.

Thursday (could be):  hot, flies.  Dinner: blue-tongued lizard.  Savaged by blue-tongued lizard.  Chased by different hunters.  Fell off cliff, bounced into tree, pissed on by small grey incontinent teddy bear, landed in waterhole.

Friday: hot, flies.  Dinner, some kind of roots which tasted like sick.  This saved time.

Saturday: hotter than yesterday, extra flies.  V thirsty.

Sunday: hot.  Delirious with thirst and flies.  Nothing but nothing as far as the eye can see, with bushes in it.  Decided to die, collapsed, fell down sand dune into waterhole.

Plainly Terry Pratchett didn’t take his inspiration from Tasmania which has way too much rain to match this description, while the small grey teddy bears – incontinent or otherwise – are notable by their absence.  As for the flies, I’ll report back later.

The thing about Tassie is that it’s not much like the rest of Australia.  The typical Briton’s image of Australia is in tune with Rincewind’s observations, all sand, heat, enormous distances and bugger-all in the landscape except things that will do you harm.  But Tassie isn’t like that: it’s smaller, cooler and rainier that the mainland, and about 30% of it is given over to national parks or some other form of protection.  It has a temperate rainforest for God’s sake and sounds like a place where I could feel at home, though it does have its fair share of things that will do you harm including the infamous dunny spider.

I’ve always thought that Australia would be hard work, and Sir Terry has done nothing to dissuade me of that view.  Tasmania however sounds like my sort of place.  We’re due there in 44 days: I can hardly wait.

Postscript:  The late, great Terry Pratchett was one of the funniest and most gifted writers in the English language.  His books came from so far out of left field that it seemed like he was playing a different game from the rest of us, a game in which it is a self-evident truth that orang-utans make the best librarians, a game in which Death rides a horse called Binky and has a soft spot for cats.  He is sorely missed by those of us who believe that we all take ourselves too seriously.  If you’re not familiar with the man and his unique take on reality read about him here.


Snake in the grass

Julie gave me a bollocking the other day.  Nothing unusual in that, of course, except the subject matter.  “When were you going to tell me that Flinders Island is groaning at the seams with snakes?  AND the snakes have ticks, what have you got to say about that?”

“It’s news to me,” I replied, but I don’t think she believed me.  You see, I have form.

Julie loves critters and birds as much as me, but she draws the line at things that crawl, slither and scuttle.  So is it any surprise that a few years ago, when we were wandering through the Costa Rican countryside, I failed to mention that a red-kneed tarantula the size of a saucer was about to walk across her boot?  I mean, what’s a man to do, she might have panicked if I’d mentioned it.  So I didn’t, but she glanced down, spotted the enormous arachnid and panicked anyway.

A few days later we were staying at an isolated lodge in the south of Costa Rica.  Julie was still outside when I unlocked our cabin and spotted a scorpion looking up at me.  We eyed each other cautiously.  Then with a shrug of his handsomely armoured shoulders he waved his stinging tail nonchalantly in my general direction before squeezing himself between two floorboards and disappearing out of sight.  I had to think quickly, Julie was approaching, should I tell her that for the next three days we’d be sharing a bedroom with a scorpion?  Quickly concluding that life’s too short for that sort of conversation I decided to say nothing, and just take sensible precautions.

It wasn’t until we’d left for San Jose that I asked if she hadn’t thought it a little odd that I’d suggested we leave our shoes on the top shelf of a bookcase overnight.  She looked at me quizzically, then asked if there was anything I thought she should know.  I took a deep breath and ’fessed up.  I have to say that the next few minutes did not go well for me, nor have I been allowed to forget my indiscretion in the years since the great scorpion cover-up.

It is little surprise, therefore, that Julie was not convinced that I, a notorious admirer of snakes and other reptiles, had not known of Flinders Island’s little secret.  But I didn’t, honest.

Simon Watharow’s 2012 blog on A Trip to Flinders Island reveals all.  He says,

Wildlife on this island is surprisingly large and very diverse with some notable Tasmanian endemic species, Tasmanian Wombat, Cape Barren Geese (and Green Parrots).  Two extremely important factors make this island a haven: no foxes and no rabbits [though] unfortunately there are feral cats, rodents and pigs.  Flinders Island has 150 species of birds, 16 native mammals including Flinders Island’s unique sub‐species of Wombat (Vombatus ursinus ursinus) once found throughout the Bass Strait Islands but now restricted to Flinders Island, 12 species of reptiles and 6 frogs recorded

Watharow, an enthusiastic ‘herp’ (herpetologist, student of reptiles) describes five types of skink, two other lizards, and three species of snake: Lowland Copperhead, White Lipped Snake and Tasmanian Tiger Snake.  I hope we see a few of these on our trip, especially one of the snakes.

The snake is a grossly misunderstood critter, persecuted worldwide as a result of ignorance and fear.  But it too has a role to play, and just like the more appealing and amiable Wombat deserves its place in the sun.  DH Lawrence wrote an insightful poem about the relationship between man and snake; please read it and reflect.

The Sooty Oystercatcher – a vile and scurrilous rumour

I am probably unique amongst birders in nominating the oystercatcher as my favourite bird.  In my view they are feisty and handsome things that are guaranteed to brighten up any day spent wetland or coastal birding.   

Yesterday I was extolling their virtues to my esteemed colleague Mike, himself a lapsed birder.  I explained that I was particularly excited by the prospect of encountering a different species – the Sooty Oystercatcher – on our trip to Tassie.  He responded by wondering if this was simply a regular oystercatcher with Matthew Corbett’s hand up its bum.

Shame on you, Mike.  RSPCA Australia will hear about this!

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