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: Somewhere south-east of Sulawesi. April 5.

Somewhere south-east of Sulawesi: that is where I should, or could be, right now, if this pandemic had not changed our world. Two days earlier, we would have landed in Manado on the northern tip of the squashed-spider-looking island that is Sulawesi, Indonesia. The next day we would travel across to the eastern coast to visit the Tangkoko Reserve which is the home of the rare nocturnal tarsiers (Tarsius tarsier) – smallest primates in the world and fierce little predators too. And today, the 5th, we would embark on the Ombak Putih, (the white wave) a wooden pinisi or traditional Indonesian wooden boat. The Ombak Putih is one of two converted pinisis owned by Seatrek-Bali that ply the lesser known spots of Indonesia.

This would have been our third trip on the Ombak Putih. We so enjoyed our previous two 12-day ‘cruises’ with them that we decided we would book for this one: a 14-day trip along the eastern coast of Sulawesi, to end at the western point of Flores Island to see the famous Komoda dragons. And being bird-watchers, one of the big attractions was the possibility of seeing the endangered Maleo birds (Macrocephalon maleo). These are strange creatures indeed – looking like a cross between a wild turkey and a gallinule. Stranger still, they lay an egg five times the size of a domestic chicken and the egg is laid deep in specially chosen sand where volcanic or thermal warmth will incubate the eggs. From then on, the egg and the emerging chick is on its own in the world.

That is not all, each day the Ombak Putih planned to cruise to take us to remote islands and coral reefs, to visit tiny fishing villages: to swim with stingless jellyfish in Lake Mariona, to visit the remote Bokan Islands, to meet Bajau ‘sea gypsy’ communities and to visit the Wakatobi National Park. But this is not to be. Across the world travel plans are in disarray and those people who took a chance and went on cruise liners – often with close on 3,000 people on board – have ended up in a dangerous hiatus and at a greater risk of infection.

On reflection, I have been thinking of the way in which cruise and wildlife tourism has expanded with the demand to see wild places and rare, endangered animals. Now that we are confined to quarters, we are hearing that nature is enjoying the reduced disturbance. Think of all the cruise ships previously going to the Antarctic; the inside passage of Alaska; remote Pacific Islands; the Galapagos Islands etc. I fear it is but a brief hiatus before we take off again.

For us, the cruise was scuppered partly by the Indonesian Government announcing that they now required a visa for Australians and a current health certificate to enter their country. At the same time, our government changed their travel advice for Indonesia to ‘reconsider your need to travel’. We also had the consideration: if we did go, we could be stranded in some remote city. So, it was not to be.

And yet, I know how lucky we have been. As a child I lived in remote places while they were ‘unspoilt’; as an adult I have been to some of the most precious wild places in the world. This would have been our third trip on the wonderful Ombak Putih. Previously with them we swam over the relatively unspoilt coral meadows of the Raja Ampat triangle; hid in hides to see birds of paradise; followed the Alfred Wallace science trail from Ternate Island; landed on deserted volcanic islands swarming in sea birds and visited the distant spice islands of Run and Banda Neira.

So, instead today I watched YouTube videos of active maleo birds, scratching in grey volcanic beach sand, uttering their strange cries, chasing one another and I thought how they looked more like half-dinosaurs. I enjoyed myself. Long may the maleo live undisturbed in remote Sulawesi. I may never get to see them, but I am content.