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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Notes from the Road (10) - The Fauna of Australia

My fellow Penn State Extension Educator, David Jackson, posted an interesting story about deer-car collisions yesterday on his blog, noting that Pennsylvania has become the third most dangerous state for deer crossing the road, behind West Virginia and Montana. That got me to remembering one of the strongest, most lingering impressions I had of Australia - dead kangaroos on the road.

If you think you've seen a lot of dead animals on the road, and you've never been to Australia, think again. Even though the speed limits are strictly enforced, uncountable numbers of animals, and kangaroos in particular, find their end on the bumper of a four-wheel drive cruiser or "road train". Road trains are large tractor-trailer rigs that have two, three, and sometimes four trailers. I passed a couple of three-trailer rigs on my drive-about. When you have to pass a moving mountain, about seventy yards long, while it's hurtling ninety kilometers an hour down a two-lane highway...well, that's a memorable experience. You floor your vehicle and pray for the next ten seconds or so that another road train won't suddenly appear on the horizon heading in your direction.

I started counting dead kangaroos and stopped at one hundred, and I wasn't even out of New South Wales. I began to assume that the carcasses are just left for the scavengers, since I never saw a road crew, and I saw many in the final stages of decay. I didn't take any pictures; it just seemed the wrong thing to do. I did see about three live hoppers on the road, but they were well ahead of me and too far to get a picture of. Australians all seem to have a kangaroo collision story to tell, and they warn you adamantly to stop driving a half-hour before sunset, which I did my best to adhere to.

One study done in New South Wales determined that kangaroo road-kill was not biased toward either kangaroo sex or age-class, so that road kill incidents have no apparent effect on kangaroo populations. Another interesting phenomenon, besides the presence of all the dead animals on the road, is that demolished vehicles are sometimes left on the side of the road as a warning to slow down.

One of my trip hosts mentioned that they had a kangaroo harvest in a recent year that tallied over 9,000 animals, and yet it was less than ten percent of the harvest target for his property. Perhaps the surest evidence of the booming population of kangaroos in Australia is that they are one of the few species that are legal to hunt with a permit; it is strictly against the law to kill most Australian animals, even snakes. Regardless, Australians seem to like kangaroo meat, and one town I visited was even building a new kangaroo processing plant as its latest economic venture. I had kangaroo one night...tastes like chicken.

I did see a few live animals. The most ubiquitous was the emu...I saw them almost everywhere from Sydney to Darwin.

Look closely at the bottom of the tree line...there's a small mob of emus.

The birds of Australia are simply amazing. Their size, and color, and variety seem to be endless. I didn't see any ostrich, but saw cockatoos of every color.

This is a galah cockatoo, Eolophus roseicapillus. They were the most common bird I saw on my trip.
I also heard the famous Kookabura nearly every morning, although I didn't remember seeing one. In reviewing my pictures, I think I did get a long-distance shot of one...

Possibly a species of Dacelo, the kookaburra.
And millions of small birds that provide the listener with a symphony of the music of nature everywhere you go in Australia. I'm not a great wildlife photographer, but I was able to zoom in a little closer on this tiny flock and their mud nests in the trees.



But much of the fauna of Australia tends toward the more aggressive. There is a great ongoing story of how wild dogs terrorize the outback, and how the stockmen fight back against them as they ravage their herds. In fact, one of the longest structures in the world is the Dingo fence built across the continent back in the 1880's.
The Dingo Fence or Dog Fence is a pest-exclusion fence that was built in Australia during the 1880s and finished in 1885, to keep dingoes out of the relatively fertile south-east part of the continent (where they had largely been exterminated) and protect the sheep flocks of southern Queensland. It is one of the longest structures in the world and is the world's longest fence. It stretches 5,614 kilometres (3,488 mi) from Jimbour on the Darling Downs near Dalby through thousands of kilometres of arid land ending west of Eyre peninsula on cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain above the Great Australian Bight near Nundroo. It has been partly successful, though dingoes can still be found in parts of the southern states. Although the fence has helped reduce losses of sheep to predators, this has been countered by holes in fences found in the 1990s through which dingo offspring have passed and by increased pasture competition from rabbits and kangaroos.
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dingo_Fence

I crossed through the fence in Western Queensland, but did not notice a rise in the number of wild dogs roaming around. In fact, the only wild dog I saw was one that had fed the crows and the flies...

Life in the outback can be harsh...
Speaking of crows and flies, I was reminded of this next stop in Queensland. I had stopped to admire the vista of a sprawling cattle station, but the 20 minute stop was little more than an attempt to keep my sanity while shooting video on the walk.



Insects is a good subject for the end of this post. There is one you simply have to see to believe, although it's not the insect, but its home. Termites are perhaps God's way of ensuring that inland Australia will remain relatively free of humans. As you travel inland you begin to notice small mounds in the landscape...and they get bigger the further inland you go. Travel far enough, and they are taller than a human being.

Now if the termites stayed in their mounds, they might not be so intimidating. But invariably, I noticed a few of the little buggers in my motel room each morning, even though all the buildings are made of cinder block. One morning I had a thirsty little termite enjoying the moisture on my toothbrush. Lovely.

Of course, the Australians with their great sense of humor have devised a way to enjoy their termite co-habitants. The dress them up! I began to notice "earth people" springing up along the roadside at the border of Queensland and the Northern Territory. And I continued to see them all the way to Darwin on the northern coast.

First, you notice just a few mounds in the distance...

...then they get larger, and closer to the road...
...Soon, they're so large that they grow clothing as they mature...

...and once you've been on the road long enough, they actually start to look attractive.
These earth people can get to be quite elaborate. Just wish they had heads...
What do you know?! Penn State fans, even among the earth people of the Australian outback.
A memorial to my passing there....
Well, back to the people, the trees, and the wood of Australia in future posts...

1 comment:

David C Clark said...

Chuck, you have managed to see more of the Australian bush than most Australians. The sheer size of the country, the distances involved and, unhappily, a lack of amenities limits travel for most.

Glad you like the challenge of overtaking a road train. Years ago I was driving in the Northern Territory and understand the frisson of fear that grabs you when you finally decide to overtake one of these monsters. Wrecked cars along the side of the road don't help.

Come back another time and find someone to take you to Western Australia. That State is almost as big as half of the USA and largely devoid of human life but amazing flora and fauna.