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: a Black Swan in the Botanic Gardens

August 5. Today, we walked in the Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens in the hills to the east of Adelaide. It was one of our coldest days with the daytime temperature hovering around 3°. But the sun was out and that was enough to make it pleasure.

an early flower

The Mount Lofty Botanic Garden, established in 1857, is a 97 ha area covering native forest as well as sections of European trees and flowers such as rhododendrons, azaleas and daffodils. We were a few weeks early for the spring flowering. It is interesting how the English immigrants wanted to replicate their beautiful home gardens in this new continent. In the nearby suburb of Stirling, if you bought built a new house you were required to plant deciduous European trees such as maple, ash and oak in order to create an autumn show. Adelaide gardens are filled with roses and huge camelia bushes.

the blackbuttt forest

The English also brought their birds because they thought the local birds did not sing well enough or that birds they were familiar with would solve an agriculture problem. Blackbirds, song thrushes, skylarks and goldfinches were introduced. Most of the species died out or are now only found in limited areas. They were not able to adapt to the hardness of the Australian climate. Blackbirds have survived in urban Adelaide gardens: one sings in our valley.

The most catastrophic decision was the introduction of the common starling to Australia in the mid-1800s. The idea was that it would feed on local insect pests. Instead, starlings have attacked fruit crops and have caused significant problems for livestock and poultry farmers. In western South Australia people are employed to shoot starlings to try and stop them migrating to Western Australia. If you spot a starling in West Australia you are required to report it and authorities will destroy the bird as soon as possible.

Since we are birdwatchers, we spent some time in the botanic gardens looking for birds. It is noticeable that most of the bird species were found in the native forest on the fringes of the rhododendron-filled valleys. I noticed that the huge blackbutt eucalypts had old burn marks on their trunks. In 1983, the devastating Ash Wednesday fire destroyed more than half of the botanic garden. Eucalypts grow back, English shrubs do not.

social distancing – Australian style

We had the garden almost to ourselves, although there were many warnings about the necessity of social distancing. It was not an issue. We got lost and could not find another soul to ask for directions.

On one of the smaller lakes a single black swan was half asleep amongst the lily pads. And I thought: Yes, that is appropriate. After all, we are living through a ‘Black Swan’ event: a rare event, with a severe and widespread impact, unexpected, but obvious in hindsight. The Black Swan event reveals our frailty.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Roy’s routine and a Magpie chorus

Roy in Kensington Gardens Reserve

June 15. Routines help us. We don’t have to agonise over the pros and cons of each action, each day. Its set. Our cairn terrier, Roy, understands the routine right from 6.45am when he knows it’s time for my husband to get up and feed the flock of wild red-browed finches – and make me tea. It’s barely light at 7am as we approach the winter solstice – only 6 days away.

After breakfast, Roy knows its time for THE FIRST WALK. This is often a short walk to our gate – half a km away. Since Roy is now 11 and a half (around 77 in dog years) this walk is taken slowly to check on the smells on the way. We have both feral cats and foxes that roam our property and he has a fierce antipathy to these animals. Roy’s’ eyesight is going – due to cataracts, but for dogs, it’s the nose that counts. A dog is a nose with a couple of eyes. And Roy has a superb sense of smell. He knows the cats are in our valley without sight of them.

flowering time for the eucalypts

After the walk, there is a period of rest for Roy while we can attend to other matters. Some time around 3.30pm he raises his head and will let us know its time for THE SECOND WALK. This is usually the best and longest walk. Since I realise he is older and a creature of routine and habit, I most often take him to Kensington Gardens Reserve where dogs can go off-leash: there are three ovals, lots of other dogs and even a river to swim in. Even in the park there is a regular path that I follow – slowly. The route is about 40 minutes at Roy’s pace. Along the way he lifts his leg countless times to let others know of his passage. When we are on the second oval, I usually meet a family of Australia Magpies.

the greeting chorus

These friendly black-and white birds come to share Roy’s treats. The Australian Magpie has a very interesting social life and a beautiful song. Their Latin name Cracticus tibicen (flautist) is a reminder of their singing ability. They are extremely territorial and will recognise human faces – I know they know me, as before I even call these birds, they arrive. Their wonderful range of singing is actually a bonding mechanism in the family. Their offspring stay with the group and help raise the next year’s siblings. The magpie is the iconic resident of Australia’s ovals but their numbers are declining and people wonder if this is due to pesticides, feral cats, habit destruction – or just too many people.

Roy and I head back to the car at an even slower rate – if that is possible. He knows where the car is and a certain stubbornness is his method of prolonging the enjoyment of the outdoors. Roy has a Scottish winter coat so does not feel the cold.

And then we go home to another of Roy’s day’s highlights: the prospect of dinner before the 6pm news. Unlike us, Roy does not have to deal with the sadness of most of the news. That is our routine during these times.

from Steph in London, UK: will all be well?

April 16. I was in the garden this morning and a heron flew over followed by 4 ducks, who landed on a neighbour’s roof. If this wasn’t North London, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid but I wonder what our wild life make of the new world. The owl still hoots at night and the woodpecker seems to have taken up residence close by.  The rather handsome fox still walks across the garden at about 6 am every morning- either going home or going out … I have yet to find out. The lack of airplane noise gives us a clarity of sound I can’t remember having unless we were in the Lake District or Scotland or Wales. And I can see the stars…

My confidence that all will be well is waning fast. Lockdown or not, life for the foreseeable future looks more than restrictive and I can’t see being able to be spontaneous with travel, socialising and everything we took for granted a mere few months ago. Instead of thinking weeks then months I’m beginning to think in blocks of 6-12 months … And what little confidence I have in our political masters has once again hit the ground. No PPE, not enough testing kits in the right places, not enough access to the testing kits at all, a complete disregard for the care sector and boys trying to play at being men..I wonder if a more experienced government would be doing  it better or whether it’s so far out of left field everybody would be  floundering… but why are Germany, New Zealand etc etc coping…… surely not as simple as only a woman leader?

Having always been ‘doers’ this new enforced passivity does not sit well on our shoulders- or those of most of the people we know of our vintage. From being proactive, useful members of our communities and beyond, we have all been consigned to the at risk group and as such to the keep quiet and wait for the next instruction. We’ve even been taken off the street litter rota –  I hate being categorised. Perhaps that’s why Captain Tom Moore has hit such a nerve with everyone.

I might suggest I cycle (on the machine) to Manchester to see the grandchildren up there, for no particular reason than ‘why not’ and probably if I could admit it, to prove we are not totally useless. I’m still thinking …