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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.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Living on the Nullarbor

In the last posting I waffled enthusiastically about the wonderful Nullarbor Plain, and summarised the drive across in terms of the physical environments and vegetation encountered. Needless to say there is plenty of wildlife to see too, though much of it is small and tends to keep its collective head down out of the wind and out of view.This is not true of all animals though.

Dingo, Canis lupus dingo, east of Nundroo.
These Australian wolves can be seen anwhere, at any time of the day. See here for more information.

Crimson Chat Epthianura tricolor, Head of the Bight.
Note that Australian chats have no relationships with anything called a chat in other lands;
we now know in fact that they are true honeyeaters.
Birds however are probably more evident in the treed sections either side of the treeless plain.
Major Mitchell Cockatoo Lophochroa leadbeateri, near Nundroo.
This truly glorious cockatoo is thinly scattered across the arid inland.
Yellow-plumed Honeyeater Lichenostomus ornatus, Nundroo, gleaning scale insects from mallee eucalypt leaves.
Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides pair, Eucla.
The dragon lizard in the claws of the larger female on the right is a reminder that, as throughout dry Australia,
lizards are a dominant life form here.
Indeed, the animal you're most likely to see with some regularity in warm weather is the aberrant skink that I grew up calling affectionately Sleepy Lizard, but which is more generally known as Shingleback Tiliqua rugosa. They are regularly encountered crossing the road and some certainly don't get to the other side, but it does seem to me that drivers may be showing more lizard-awareness than in times past. The number of casualties seems low relative to the number of live ones seen, given that they are pretty ambling by nature, and have the unfortunate habit of stopping to threaten the car that's just passed, instead of getting off the road.
Tiliqua rugosa
Tiliqua rugosa
Tiliqua rugosaTil
One of the many endearing things about Shinglebacks is that they seem to pair for life, an unusual behaviour among reptiles - indeed among animals in general.
Much more to be said about these animals, one of my very favourites, in a post to come!
However, there is one animal, a mammal, which is probably the one that most people making the crossing between May and October make a special effort to see. These days though, thanks to the Yalata Aboriginal Community which runs the excellent interpretive centre, and the South Australian Parks Service, the effort to see this spectacular animal is minimal. In fact, I suspect this is one of the world's truly great land-based whale-watching experiences.
From this platform on top of the spectacular Bunda Cliffs can be seen at close quarters....
Tail of Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis, immediately below the cliffs.
In May these mighty animals begin to appear in the Bight - and other southern Australian waters - having migrated north from the far Southern Ocean where they spend summer. Initially only adults are present, but by August females are starting to give birth in the sheltered on-shore waters.
Southern Right Whale with calf.
This youngster was becoming adventurous, swimming away from mum, but not for long.
At birth the calf already weighs a tonne, but on a diet of very rich milk gains 50kg a day.
A female only has one baby every three years.
They are baleen whales - that is, they sieve plankton and small animals through baleen plates,a filter of long bristles along the upper jaw.

The baleen can be seen clearly in this adult - as can the callosities, raised roughened patches of skin - which are used to identify individual animals.
The adults weigh up to 50 tonnes and are up 17 metres long. Like all the great whales they suffered terribly from over-hunting, well into the 20th century; being slow and having a body which floats after death, they were regarded as the 'right' whale to hunt by inshore whalers. Once they were in vast numbers - the Tasmanian governor once complained that their 'snoring' in the Derwent River kept him awake at night, and it was dangerous to navigate the river in winter. Numbers crashed from an estimated 65,000 - 100,000 originally to perhaps 300 in the 1920s. At least 150,000 were killed during the 19th century. A single animal reported off Western Australia in 1955 was apparently the first in Australian waters for the century. Despite theoretical world-wide protection recovery was very slow - explained in part by a later confession by Russia that they had continued illegally killing the species in the Antarctic during the Soviet 1960s. 

There may be now 15,000 Southern Right Whales in the world, a steadily increasing number; some 2,000 of those visit southern Australian waters.

A group of four Southern Right Whales from the viewing platform - truly a thrilling sight. There were at least 10 present during our visit in late September.

There are many reasons to cross the Nullarbor, as I tried to explain last time; this one alone however surely is enough.

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