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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Spring Snakes; the glissade perfected

I was going to write about something else entirely today, but as ever nature has the last word - or rather, in this case, a completely silent message. OK, enough of the pseudo-mystical nonsense. Since our week on Lord Howe Island earlier in the year we had determined to get back on our bikes; winter made wusses of us, but we couldn't ignore today's beautiful sunny early spring weather, so we went for a ride on a nearby section of Canberra's superb bike track system, this one through paddocks (soon to be suburbs) and then along the Molonglo River to Lake Burley Griffin. Within a couple of minutes of starting (behind the RSPCA in North Weston, for those who know Canberra) a very sleek-looking Eastern Brown Snake slipped across the track just ahead of us, with the elegance unique to snakes. It was our first for the season, as clear a message of spring as the orchids we'd tiptoed among and delighted in earlier in the morning on Black Mountain.

It was perhaps a metre and a half long, so a fair-sized snake, and looking surprisingly prosperous given that winter has not really let go yet and it can't have had many feeding days yet. On the other hand the ubiquity of the Black-shouldered Kites and Kestrels suggest that the mouse numbers are still high, and we later passed an Australian Raven demolishing a young rat. (All mice and rats in Canberra are exotics, though there are a couple of native species in the ranges.)

Its ancestors having dispensed with legs long ago to facilitate slipping through crevices and dense vegetation and hunting in tight spaces, our fleeting friend has to find other ways to get around. When edging towards prey it can 'tiptoe' by flexing the belly scales forwards and pulling forward on them, but for serious travelling it flows along, constantly forming curves with its body and pushing forward from the back of each curve. It sounds as though it should be jerky but in fact it is smooth as running water, at least to our slow eyes.

Eastern Brown Snake, Yarralumla, Canberra
There will be more postings later on snakes, which are truly fascinating animals, including a bit of a character analysis of our local snakes, but it is worth noting that different tables purporting to compare toxicity of venom of snakes (a notoriously tricky business) lists our familiar suburban Eastern Brown as number two in the world, second only to the Inland Taipan, also 'one of ours'. We tend to keep our respective distances and show respect, and relatively few snakes and far fewer humans die unnecessarily round here. 

As to where it was going, apart from food the need to mate is strong at this time, and this is a strong incentive for snake movement. Fangs are fragile, and venom is precious, so snakes don't risk injury or waste on each other in the competition for mates. Instead male snakes test their relative strengths by 'wrestling'; when you see two snakes of roughly equal size tightly entwined and pushing against each other, be sure that you have two males deciding who has the local mating rights. Actual mating involves much less entanglement, and the female tends to be much smaller than her mate. We had a wonderful experience of this behaviour a couple of years ago on a busy road alongside Black Mountain, just a couple of kilometres from the centre of the national capital. Having photographed these two males, we were worried for their safety just a metre or so from the speeding traffic, so we ushered them off up the bank and into the bush; hopefully they'd already decided the necessary hierarchy.

male Eastern Brown Snake males, ritual combat.
Barry Drive, Canberra

Enough for today, and tomorrow I'll revert to today's original story - the one about the lovesick count and the plant named for two women.

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