Alerts-maps-alerts!

I spent most of yesterday clicking between the Tasmanian Fire Service website pages in a slightly OCD manner  – alerts-maps-alerts-maps-alerts.   Ok.   Maybe it was totally OCD, but it seemed like every time I switched pages, a new bushfire had started somewhere.

A big one got going across the river at Wattle Hill, not far from the ignition site for last year’s devastating bush fires, which flattened Dunalley and the surrounding landscape.  It was also within sight of my family’s farm.  I call and check on the progress of the fires – Mick is watching them from the farm, and they’re ready to run the sheep down into an empty nearby quarry if the fire looks like coming any closer.  The local wildlife will hopefully do something similar, but after seeing last year’s post-bushfire carnage, it’s unlikely many of them will.  I’m supposedly working, but having trouble focussing on anything more serious than email rearrangement and tea drinking.

I’m sealed inside an air-conditioned building in an office with no external windows, which normally drives me wild, but today, is actually a blessing of sorts.  Early in the day, I went out and did some weed checks, and felt foolish for leaving the office without a hat.  The sky outside the fourth floor tearoom window is a filthy orange, and the street plantings whip about in the hot, northerly winds.

There’s another fire in Cambridge now, on this side of the river.  I call my partner to make sure he can grab the cat, chooks, and car-free neighbours, if need be. Alerts-maps-alerts.  I catch the bus home.

Later, early in the evening, a fire starts near my house.  It starts in an area of once controversial development – Tolmans Hill.  Years ago, somehow, a group of people not short of cash somehow slipped past the skyline planning rules to build a suite of ostentatious houses at the top of this steep, heavily treed slope.  It’s also a bit of potential death trap during bushfire conditions.  There’s a fire there now, and it’s only a couple of kilometres as the crow flies from our own leafy street.   The fire has moved from “Watch and Act” to “Emergency”. The house is sweltering, the cat, whingy, and the fire service have mobilised at least a dozen vehicles to the scene.

Outside, the clouds are a dirty fairy floss pink, and the wind still very warm.  I water the garden and send texts to friends letting them know to watch the Tas Fire website.  The fire at Wattle Hill has been downgraded from “Emergency” to “Watch and Act”.  My partner goes for a drive to check on the fire progress, and comes back to report that both fires look quite spectacular, but this is probably just because it’s getting dark.

By eleven, the Tolmans Hill fire is being effectively maintained.  We decide it’s safe to go to bed, and stretch out under the sheet, phones to hand, just in case.

Eucalypts, bush fires, and the dark side of leafy suburb living

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Today’s forecast for Hobart is 36 degrees, no rain and high winds.

This morning, I walked around my house and packed up what I suppose must be my most treasured possessions.

I grabbed my passports and insurance documents.  Also, family relics – costume jewellery my grandmother gave me when I was little; my mother’s recipe book, filled with New Idea clippings and borrowed recipes for fruitcakes and playdough; some carved figurines of the alien-looking “navigators”, founders of Pohnpei; a ammonite fossil, chipped out of a Hull quarry by an ex-boyfriend; and the gigantic Webster’s New International Dictionary, which I wrapped in a bedspread haggled in Damascus. I loaded all of these things, and a few other talismans, into a large woven basket, said goodbye to my cat, my rooster, my chickens, and schlepped the lot to my office in town, via the bus.

Professor David Bowman, from our own University of Tasmania, likens living in Hobart to living “on the side of a volcano” (check out his opinion pieces on “The Conversation”).  The landscape is incredibly dry, and the area I live in, in the foothills of Mount Wellington, was the site of devastating fires in 1967.   That year, all but a handful of houses in my street were lost.

We recently door-knocked our nearest neighbours, as part of a community bushfire safety initiative, taking down details of the number of household inhabitants, human or otherwise, their contact details, and whether people might need assistance in evacuating their homes in the event of a nearby fire.

Two of the older ladies had been there during the last fires, and had watched neighbouring houses explode in flames.  One the older women urged us to tell everyone we spoke to to get out early, not to wait.  At the time, their house was newly built, and their block completely cleared.  Even the brick houses burnt as she and a crowd of neighbours huddled together inside, while others tried to save nearby homes.

Leaving this morning, I wondered – how long will it be until this happens again?  The fuel loads are huge, and the weather, increasingly wild.

Demon Budgie is sad

A day after the death of her companion, Demon Budgie is sad.  At least, she appears sad to me.

Amongst animal behaviourists, anthropomorphism is a deadly sin.  Many an ethologist’s career has been blighted by the attribution of ‘human’ emotions to non-human animals.  I don’t think it’s a huge leap of faith to say that animals can experience distress at the loss of their companion.  However, I can see that the attribution of grief, a more complex emotion, is more problematic.  We cannot know the mind of an animal in the way we believe we can another human’s.  Other people at least have the ability to explain their emotional state to us using words (though whether even this allows us to see into the mind of another might also be considered doubtful.)  This option is not usually available to animals, with the possible exception of primates who have learnt to sign, or birds with some spoken repertoire (see Irene Pepperberg’s iconic work with Alex, an African Grey Parrot – http://alexfoundation.org)
I do not pretend to be a reader of avian minds, however Demon Budgie’s posture radiates “unhappy bird” vibes.  When I return from work, I find her hunched in a corner, feathers fluffed up despite the warmth, peering at me through slitty eyes. Her unhappiness becomes mine.  I am sad for her, but also worried.  Birds can be delicate little beasts, and I’m sure that sometimes, they can die of loneliness.
As a modern human, in the face of emotional and spiritual crisis, I turn to the internet.  More specifically, I turn to YouTube.  If Demon Budgie is to be denied a real, flesh and feathers companion, perhaps I can find her a virtual friend on the interwebz.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but there are many, many talking budgies on YouTube.  I quite liked Disco the budgie, but Demon Budgie was unimpressed.  I don’t think she’s ever been much of a talker, so maybe she just views birds like Disco and Ollie as loudmouthed show-offs.
I turned to budgerigar songs.  Here, we hit pay dirt.  Random clips of budgie flocks singing in their natural habitats, with other birds providing occasional harmonies.  The sounds put me in mind of a series of “Camping by a ……” CDs a filmmaker friend used to collect, which he used to calm the nerves of his substance-enhanced housemates.  Demon Budgie and I felt better immediately.
I found a website, and downloaded the soundscape of “Budgerigar Country”, from the excellent Listening Earth website http://www.listeningearth.com.au, home to natural soundscapes from all over the planet, narrowly avoiding downloading a heap more for my own entertainment.  $15 and two minutes later, the sounds of an ephemeral waterhole at the back of Bourke flood the room.  And Demon Budgie begins to sing.

R.I.P. Graham the budgerigar. We hardly knew you.

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Last week, we agreed to look after our neighbours’ budgies.  They often look after our chickens, and it was a good opportunity to repay their ongoing kindness in some small way.  And besides, budgies are fun.  And easy to look after.  Usually.

When Reuben dropped the birds over, he introduced them as Graham and Wendy.  Wendy, a bright yellow budgie with glowing red eyes, I immediately secretly christened Demon Budgie.  Graham was a predominantly green, much larger bird, with a slightly huffy look about him.

As we sat with Reuben talking about the relevant house-sitting details, I watched the birds out of the corner of my eye.  Despite her diminutive size, Demon Budgie definitely had one over Graham – she kept shoving him out of the way of the food, and generally bossing him about.  Reuben mentioned that Graham had had a difficult past – he was a effectively a rescue bird saved from a child with a long history of short-term avian pets – and that he hadn’t been looking all that great.

The next morning when I uncovered the cage, Graham seemed reluctant to get up.  He kept his head half under his wing, and didn’t seem that pleased to see me.   I empathised with his anti-social morning persona, and left him alone.

When I came home from work, I found him dead on the floor of the cage.  His little feet were clamped around the bars on the floor, and his eyes were closed.  I was horrified.  Demon Budgie didn’t look so stoked either.

I uncurled Graham’s toes from the bars.  As I removed his body from the cage, Demon Budgie decided to make a break for it.  Screeching like a feather-duster possessed, she shot out of the cage, and proceeded to zip around the kitchen like a tiny yellow harpy.  I placed Graham on the dining table, and gave chase, orange scarf in hand as a de facto parakeet net.

Suddenly, Demon Budgie fell into the kitchen sink – I suspect she may have flown into one of the frying pans hanging above it. I scrabbled to grab her from amongst the breakfast dishes, and the evil little beast clamped down on my thumb, and refused to let go.  She eventually released her grip on my bruised digit once I had her back in the cage, flying to the farthest corner and fixing me with a look of suspicious hostility as I locked the door.

I carefully wrapped Graham in a plant specimen bag, and then inside a used tortilla ziplock package for temporary placement in the newly opened budgie morgue, a.k.a. our freezer, and felt like the worst pet sitter in the world.

N.B. – the budgie pictured above is not Graham.  He didn’t survive long enough for me to get a photo of him.  Instead, it is a similar looking budgie whose portrait I have stolen from the interwebz, from the very interesting http://budgerigars.wordpress.com

2014 begins with a penguin – auspicious!

2014 began with a penguin. 

ImageAfter the inevitable post-celebratory ditherings of the post-NYE morning, a few of the assembled rabble, myself included, managed to make our way out of the Bicheno shack, and down to the local supermarket, via the beach.

 The rocks of the Bicheno coast are a fabulous conglomeration of rounded, lichen-spattered granite, piled along the coastline, backed by weedy coastal scrub.  One of the first things you notice upon descending to the coastal edge is the malodorous stench of that most hilarious of birds, the little, or less politically correctly, fairy penguin, Eudyptula minor.  These fat little buffoons of the bird world breed along the coast here, both on the mainland and offshore islands, and their presence is marked by well-worn little runways in the coastal scrub.  It is breeding season, and most of the baby birds spend their days huddled in their nests, waiting for their parents to return from the sea with some tasty, regurgitated fish for their dinner.

Today however, one had apparently found its way out of the family burrow, and had taken a toddle down the rocks towards the sea.  George spotted it hunched under a low granite outcrop, peering suspiciously at us from its hiding place.  I’m not sure if it was a well-developed baby, or an adult recovering from it’s own New Year’s party, and couldn’t resist the urge to take a dodgy picture of it on my grotty clever-phone.