From Anne in Adelaide, Australia: across the Straits to Kangaroo Island.

21 October.

Ferry to Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of South Australia, is perhaps one of the safest places to be during a pandemic. The population of under 5000 is spread across the 4,200 square kms of countryside and villages and only a small ferry connects the mainland. They had a case of COVID-19 in April that infected two other people but that’s that. Now with all the careful behaviour there have been no cases for a long time.

We have barely listened to the National news. What has come through is the welcome news from Victoria state where the daily numbers of infections has declined to well below 10. What is less welcome is the reports of the political cover up there of who decided to appoint the ill fated security detail for the quarantined travellers. The Royal Commission has closed their public hearings and is yet to report.

We have come here for seven days to stay in a cottage on the idyllic Island Beach.

Roy at dawn

I have been getting up at dawn to take our Cairn Terrier for a beach walk to allow the rest of the household to sleep in. It is only a pleasure.

Dawn on Island Beach

At the moment I share the four kilometre beach with no other human. However, I do enjoy the space with many pairs of pied oystercatchers. Pied oystercatchers are well dressed birds: a coat of black and white, a long crimson beak and scarlet legs. These birds are breeding at the moment and are fiercely protective of this stretch of beach. I watched two of them defending their territory with aggressive body arching and loud whistles of protest. The interlopers flew off. Further along a pair already have a couple of long-legged youngsters who rush into the seagrass as people approach.

Pied Oystercatchers

As birdwatchers we are enjoying the extensive unspoilt bush land on the island. As a bonus this week we have the annual Backyard Bird count going on, organised by Birdlife Australia.You record the bird species and the numbers you see in time slots of 20 minutes. The app registers your location. So far, with four days to go, 2 million birds have been sighted and 63,000 checklists have been uploaded.

No longer is Kangaroo Island home to the dwarf emu: wiped out by humans and declared extinct by 1837 not long after the first permanent colonist (whalers) settled on the isand. Evolution continues. Bird species are evolving into subspecies here and one day there will be endemics on Kangaroo Island again.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: that sleeping Black Swan

August 10. Black swans are commonly found in SE Australia and West Australia. They are not threatened – I would even say they are fairly common. You don’t want to say any bird is ‘common’ – apart from our marauding silver gulls and pesky starlings. Birdlife-Australia notes that, ‘Over just 25 years of monitoring migratory shorebirds in Australia some species such as the Curlew Sandpiper have decreased by 50-80%’. The UK (2012 report) was reported as losing more than 44 million breeding birds in less than half a century. (RSPB). And the story is worse in the USA: ‘Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unravelling.’ (NY Times. September 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/opinion/crisis-birds-north-america.html

This is not good news. The report went on to say, ‘Birds are indicator species, serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble.’

Black Swans are big powerful birds and can be quite aggressive to humans and to one another. They can fly long distances to find suitable territory – but they might have to compete for it. Their plumage is not entirely black. The flight feathers have a broad band of white which is obvious as they take flight. Apparently, the white is a warning signal, so the flock will rise and depart when one or two birds are aware of danger. Swans are efficient swimmers – I have seen them off our coast and in one memorable Youtube video they were recorded enjoying surfing off a Queensland beach.

I did note that the Black Swan I saw recently in our Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens was resting and when I looked at him with my binoculars, I saw that he was closing his eyes.

I was first told about ‘Black Swan events’ by my brother, Mike Smithyman, sometime after 2007. I was amused because black swans originate in Australia and the first Westerner to see them caused, in part, the origin of the idea of a ‘Black Swan Event’.

In 1697, Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh was on a rescue mission along Australia’s west coast to look for survivors of a shipwreck two years earlier. He sailed up a river estuary river and was amazed to come across a flock of black swans. He named the river the Swan River which now flows through the centre of modern-day Perth.

The point is that until then swans were all assumed to be white. A black swan was inconceivable.

Apparently, we can go back to the second century Roman poet, Juvenal. He thought a ‘black swan’ would be “a rare bird in the lands”.

So, black swans were deemed to be impossible in nature until 1697.

Fast forward to 2007 when a Lebanese-American called Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ … with a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility”. Taleb is a risk manager and statistician, and has many other skills beside these.

Taleb says his aim is to encourage society to become more aware of the possibility of Black Swan events so that we are robust enough to survive them.

(Out of interest I read that Taleb is worth over $60 billion from his business in option trading. Oh! he also speaks 10 languages.)

When I read up about Taleb he was even more fascinating: he had called for the cancellation of the Nobel Prize for Economics as he held that economic theories can cause devastation. Perhaps we need to revisit his ideas!

Taleb gives examples of Black Swan events: World War 1, the impact of the personal computer, the rise of the Internet, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 2001 terrorist event. The event has to be deemed unpredictable, an outlier; secondly, to have severe consequences and thirdly, to be an event that people will look at it with hindsight and say … it was predictable. He does say that Black Swan events depend on your viewpoint.

Obviously, some Black Swan events are catastrophic and some are beneficial. I wish there were more beneficial Black Swans.

The COVID-19 pandemic on this analysis, is not a Black Swan event. Currently, commentators love to repeat the word ‘unprecedented’ about the pandemic. However, it was predicted by many people, discussed in many books and some countries had pandemic plans in place. So Covid-19 fails on the first test.

The central idea of his (very readable) book ‘concerns our blindness with regard to randomness: particularly the large deviations’.

‘I … make a claim, against many of our habits of thought, that our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known and the repeated.’ (Taleb – The Black Swan)

We are asleep it seems, like the Black Swan in our Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens, but woe betide when it wakes and we are asleep.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: what makes a ‘good’ day?

South African Rusks

July 19. I have had a good day. Maybe, we each have to define in our terms what a good day entails.

Some simple things. We stayed at home all day – with no committments and no energy to rush out. It was chilly and misty at first so I made a wood fire to take the edge off the cold . Later, we took our slow-walking, one-eyed dog for a walk up the road. The birds were out by then: little red-browed finches, the Adelaide rosellas, the wattlebirds busy making nests. Sometimes, we count the number of species that we see on our walk. Usually, it is not much short of 10.

Then, after a little prompting plea from my husband, I did some cooking: I made rusks. These are South African biscuits that are first cooked in a block, like a cake, then cut up and returned to the oven to dry for eight hours. They are delicious: the tradition is to dunk one (or two) in your early morning coffee – at the risk of crumbs falling into your coffee. I have been experimenting with the recipe – adding all sorts of nuts and raisins. Today, the result was spectacular. (I recommend you try the following recipe from Drizzel and Dip. All day the house smelt marvellous.

My son, David, phoned from Cape Town to tell us about their two-week-old baby girl. She has now been named. It took a little while for them to make that decision. Her name is Chloe Anne … it is charming and most popular in that both grannies are “Annes”. Both grannies have an ‘E’ at the end of Anne as well. Good choice. Chloe is a very pretty little thing. I cannot remember babies being so cute. Or so tiny.

Mid-afternoon, after a little prompting, our grandson in Seattle phoned. It is Frost’s 19th birthday (and yes, he is named after the poet). I remember him well as a cute baby and that does not seem very long ago!!

Late afternoon, I took Roy for another walk: this time through our bush. I noticed that the spring native flowers are starting to appear. It has taken many years for the native understory to re-establish itself after we cut out the feral olive trees. On the way home I harvested some of our spinach, parsley and coriander.

Dinner this evening was another success. Two in one day! And here I must be honest – I’m NOT a good cook. Honest friends will confirm that! I made a mushroom risotto and included the spinach and parsley from the garden. I love mushrooms and having grown up in Zanzibar, I love rice. Even creamy Arborio rice.

Perhaps another one of the reasons why I feel happier today is that I have not listened to the news much, nor read any online papers like the Washington Post. It is frustrating to continually read depressing news when there’s nothing you can do about it.

It is enough to bake some biscuits, take a one-eyed dog for a walk and to hear from your family.