from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Dusty and Dry and a Yellow-tailed Black cockatoo

January 8, 2021

Struggling eucalyptus tree-seedling

It’s been hot and dry and rain-less for weeks. Not ultra-hot – which is defined as a series of days over 40C but oscillating around 30 degrees C. The soil is hard and even if you dig a foot down, there is no moisture. We are watering daily: sprinklers and drippers in a series of timings around the house. When I go out, I fill six 2litre old milk bottles with water and take them in my car to water the smaller trees along our driveway.

Note the liklihood of rain: On Tuesday, 5% chance of less than 1 mm … so it goes.

We fill our bird baths twice a day for the bees that gather around the edges and for the birds that congregate early and late. No koalas have yet come down to drink in the daytime this summer.

La Niña is indeed bringing cooler weather and rain, but not to us in South Australia. It is raining almost everywhere else. The map of Australia is no longer filled with emergency red coloured areas of desperation. Drought remains only in isolated unlucky spots.

The presence of La Niña increases the chance of widespread flooding. Of the 18 La Niña events since 1900 (including multi-year events ) 12 have resulted in floodsfor some parts of Australia, with the east coast experiencing twice as many severe floods during La Niña years than El Niño years. Typically, some areas of northern Australia will experience flooding during La Niña because of the increase in tropical cyclone numbers. The relationship between La Niña strength and rainfall is closely linked.’

http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/updates/articles/a020.shtml

Sadly, this rainfall is not reaching us, but at least we have not had the fiercest of summers, nor a winter without rain. However, we are all very conscious of water availability and usage. Metered water is not cheap in Adelaide.

Yellow-tailed black cockatoo (male has the pink around the eye)

All evening, a single yellow-tailed black cockatoo has been flying around our house and the valley calling and wailing. It sounds desperate. These cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus funereus) are monogamous and mate for life. For sure this cockatoo had lost its mate. We often see flocks of them in summer. They are most elegant flyers with a taste for the nuts inside the cones of radiata pines. In the past, fishermen used to shoot these magnificent birds to get the grubs from their gizzards – grubs that the birds had extracted from eucalypts. Our bird cried mournfully. I hope the mate has not met some misadventure.

A Painting of the Outback

Yesterday, I went to the cinema to see a film called ‘The Dry’ based on the eponymous book by Jane Harper. It is a murder mystery set during drought times in a small town in the desolate wheatlands of NW Victoria –  the Mallee Wimmera. For anyone who has no concept of how drought affects Australian farming communities, watch this film and you will get an idea of this country of extreme weather.

There is no problem with going to the cinema at the moment. We all checked in at the cinema entrance with our phones against the QR code reader, we sanitised our hands and we were allocated seats according to some social distancing formula.  No one was wearing a mask.

This all might change. This long weekend, greater Brisbane is in total lockdown. 2 million people. It’s all because one worker, a cleaner in a medi-hotel, contracted the new UK strain of the virus from a quarantined UK traveller. During the time before the cleaner become ill and was tested, she wandered around and they say up to 800 people might have been in contact. So, everyone is holding thumbs.

How can we seal our borders to this virulent mutated virus (501 and 117)? We are told sad stories of Australian families desperate to return home. Yet already we are in catchup with the virus escaping in NSW from an international traveller and the same happened in South Australia 2 months ago.

Today PM, Scott Morrison announced measures that they hope will reduce the odds of this happening. Masks on international and domestic flights are now mandatory (that does not seem to be much help for an 8-12 hr flight). Flight numbers will be reduced; testing pre- and post-flight are required. Pre-boarding rapid tests will be required for UK travellers to Australia. Surely this will make it harder for the virus to find its way in.
Once more, I am not hopeful!

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: O if we but knew what we do …

Anne Chappel, author of two novels about Africa: Zanzibar Uhuru & Shadow of the Hyena

December 31.

Update. Our Australian state borders are closing once more. The fight continues as countries try to stop this virus killing more people. There are numbers I have read in the media, from the UK, from the USA, from South Africa that tell a story of more infections than ever before, of more deaths per day. Numbers.

And every one of those infected people facing possible death holds a personal story. My daughter in Seattle said her friend’s father, aged 80+, is dying of Covid-19 but won’t go to ICU because he refuses to leave his wife. How many children in South Africa cannot find a hospital place for their infected father or mother because there are no beds available? No oxygen, no remdesivir, no comfort in their final hours.

Back to Sydney, NSW. It appears that the virus has spread into greater Sydney. There is now a ‘Cronulla’ cluster and various more cases where the connections to known cases is unclear. Yet still Premier Gladys Berejiklian has not mandated masks (Victoria has) and continues to stand by her decision to allow the New Year’s cricket test (Australia vs India) to go ahead at the Sydney Cricket ground. Up to 20,000 spectators will be allowed (50% capacity). This seems reckless. You only have to look back to Europe and the February 19 soccer match in Bergamo, Italy, between Altlanta and Valancia. This is now regarded as a ‘super-spreader’ event.

True, our numbers are low. 10 more cases today in NSW and 3 in Victoria (after 2 months of no community spread). But, by now, we all know that it only takes a few infected people to explode the virus into the community.

World News. The problem with world news is that its seldom happy, seldom uplifting. We wake up for the 6.30 or 7am news. For months it has not been a good start to the day. Too efficient, our ABC find every bad event around the world. Maybe that is the nature of this pandemic year; maybe, being anxious, we home in on bad news that confirms our night-time fears.

Behind all this news of the virus, the environmental news is likewise miserable. Are the harvesters and destroyers of our wild animals and wild places getting bolder under cover of the pandemic? It is likely.

Before I was a bird-watcher in South Africa, I was interested in native orchids and trees. Durban, semi-tropical with a rich soil, had many remnant native forest reserves as well as magnificent old street trees.

I have this distinct memory from some time in the 1960s, of being driven around Durban North by an estate agent when we were looking to buy our first home. We drove into a street of flowering erythrina trees (the coral tree).

My estate agent said, ‘Erythrina crista-galli’.

‘WHAT? Say that again?’ I said, for I had never heard the scientific name of a tree said out aloud. It was beautiful, like a three-word poem.

I didn’t buy a house, I learnt the name of a tree.

I was hooked, mesmerised. At some stage, we collected the brown bean-like seeds of this tree and my young daughter planted them outside her bedroom window. Very quickly one took and grew big enough to hold a bird table, big enough to develop its own generous cascades of red blooms.

My life-long interest in trees had begun. The street trees of Durban are a year-round spectacle, a demonstration of the fecundity of immigrants: avenues of Latin America’s jacarandas, of Madagascar’s flamboyant, Delonix regia, of India’s golden shower, Cassia fistula, of the dark and solid Natal mahogany, Trichilia emetica which housed the roosting flocks of feral Indian Myna birds.

When you are a birdwatcher you appreciate trees and the rest: the wild places. Hence, when we retired in South Australia, almost 20 years ago, we bought a larger property on the city edge with lots of bush and we set about removing feral olive trees and planting native trees and bushes.

The bird life we now have is nothing short of delightful. We are an oasis on the hillside.

Superb blue wren, New Holland honeyeater

We were helped by an organisation in South Australia called Trees for Life. They supply appropriate native seeds, the wherewithal to plant them and the advice of how to care for them. In such a manner you can easily raise 60, 120 seedlings in one season for your own property. A gift for the future.

https://treesforlife.org.au/

Ancient eucalypts near Adelaide, Australia, surviving drought and fire.

Maybe as you get older you become more determined – and fierce – in your views. I get most unhappy when I hear about the clearing of old-growth forests. Australia is guilty – big time – forests are still being cleared in Queensland and in other states. Our record is not good at all. The land cleared in Queensland is for agriculture – mostly for beef production. The (cruel) live export trade remains strong.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2020-10-08/deforestation-land-clearing-australia-state-by-state/12535438

This week the news contained a non-virus story but still upsetting. Ancient, remnant trees in NE Namibia, in the semi-desert lands near the Okavango, are being cut down and exported to China. An investigation shows criminal elements in conjunction with Namibian elite are destroying in wholesale fashion these valuable ancient, African rosewood, Zambezi teak, and Kiaat trees.

https://www.occrp.org/en/investigations/chinese-companies-and-namibian-elites-make-millions-illegally-logging-the-last-rosewoods#:~:text=Namibia%20is%20a%20signatory%20to,red%2Dwood%20furniture%20in%20Asia.

Humans come and go, each of us takes from the world, from the environment. Huge trees are survivors, bearing the marks of their efforts. To harvest 700-year-old trees from marginal communities is criminal.

I wish you all a Happy New Year. I am sorry, it is hardly likely to be so.

There is always poetry. Here is a poignant one to finish the year.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44390/binsey-poplars

Binsey Poplars by G.M.Hopkins

felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, 
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, 
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
               Not spared, not one
                That dandled a sandalled
         Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

  O if we but knew what we do
         When we delve or hew —
     Hack and rack the growing green!
          Since country is so tender
     To touch, her being só slender,
     That, like this sleek and seeing ball
     But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
                 To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
     Strokes of havoc unselve
           The sweet especial scene,
     Rural scene, a rural scene,
     Sweet especial rural scene.

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.