“Vegemite” entered the American popular vocabulary in the early 1980’s, thanks to the song “Down Under” by the rock band Men at Work. One of the goals of my trip to Australia was to have lunches built around Vegemite sandwiches. As this is a biological product, and my lunches were experiments in new foods, I don’t feel I am stretching this blog’s mission too much by sharing here the song that resulted from those experiments.
Yes, I brought some back from Australia. And yes, haven’t opened them in over a decade. The song explains why.
The didjeridu is a notoriously difficult instrument to mike properly. I did my best. Here’s the chorus:
Vegemite, Vegemite, Vegemite, it’s a legendary substance and a pure delight. If you have no sense of taste or smell I’m sure you’ll agree that a Vegemite sandwich is ecstasy.
(I know I have a few Australian readers. Please don’t feel insulted. A common Australian attitude toward Vegemite was summed up by a woman who exclaimed with delight, upon seeing the diverse breakfast spread at one of the motels where I stayed: “Oh, you have Vegemite and everything!”).
A highlight of my trip to Australia more than a decade ago was a peaceful morning spent at the edge of a stream bordering Mount Field National Park in Tasmania. I had expressed my desire to see platypuses to my hosts at the National Park Hotel, and they got permission for me to go onto property owned by friends, where they often sit and relax, and where there are resident platypuses.
National Park Hotel
It was the most peaceful place of my experience, and if I had a way to go instantly back to Australia, it is the precise place where I would choose to land. Occasional strips of deciduous eucalypt bark fell from the trees on the opposite bank, and once a brilliantly colored fairy wren, so chickadee-like in its behavior, passed by. I didn’t have to wait long for the first platypus to appear, and I got to observe those odd creatures as they swam, dove and foraged in the pool below.
If I returned, I would have a better camera. The platypus’s duckbill-like snout is on the left end.
I was writing music in those days, and the following is an impression of my feelings that morning.
This week’s sound recording is one of my compositions for tenor recorder. “Moonlight on the Hoodoos” began as an improvisation some years ago. I went down into Bryce Canyon (Utah) at dusk, and sat just outside a cluster of hoodoos, columnar rock formations for which that national park is famous.
Bryce Canyon scene
Ravens flew over, on their way to their night roost. They deliberately called, a clear play behavior as the reflecting surfaces of the pillars echoed and distorted their vocalizations. The moon was full that week.
Bryce Canyon moonrise
I got out the tenor recorder and began to improvise, like the ravens enjoying the echo effect. Some of what came out stuck with me and I later wrote it down, eventually developing the following recording.
Bryce Canyon is on the short list of places I’d like to get back to sometime.
When I traveled to Australia at the end of 2000, I was just getting into the recording of sounds of nature. One morning in camp in the central desert, I got the opportunity to record the song of a pied butcherbird.
This bird is well named, both for its piebald color pattern and its shrike-like predatory habits.
The song is not what one would expect from such a predator:
Everything was painstakingly hunt-and-pecked into the sequencer except for the soprano recorder. My playing was reedy sounding and not as beautiful as the original that inspired it, but I was pleased with the composition.
I promised a new winter series for this season, and today is the first installment of Sound Ideas. These posts will include sound recordings of various sorts. Some will be more informational, while others, like today’s, are intended more in fun. They often will tie to previous winter series or other earlier posts.
“John and the Evinrude” is a song, and it seems to be my Greatest Hit among adults. It tells a true story from my days as a graduate student in western Alaska. One way we paid back our host, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, was to conduct goose banding roundups. These take advantage of the brief period of time when waterfowl lose all their flight feathers at once. They then can be herded into a trap and banded.
A banding session. I am holding a cackling goose in the foreground, as Dave Eisenhauer (whose thesis work was on emperor geese) looks on. In the background is Dr. Cal Lensink, then refuge manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Inevitably the end of that season comes, as the geese discover they can fly again. This story begins after one such futile trip upriver. We had a bit of a challenge getting back to camp.
The other characters in the story. John Eisenhauer pulls the boat, Dave Frasier is next, and Dave Eisenhauer pushes from behind. For simplicity’s sake I combined the two Daves in the song. This Grumman was how we got out to the bigger boat when we had to anchor it far offshore, as here when we returned at low tide.
I conclude the Lessons from Travels series with a question that remains open to this day. Why does a portion of the glaucous gull population at the tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta show signs of hybridization with another species?
Glaucous gulls in a nesting colony
My study required me to shoot a limited number of gulls for various measurements both external and internal, and I found that the wingtips of some of them showed faint gray patterns reminiscent of other species. The eyes also occasionally showed darker color variations different from the pale glaucous gull ideal. This is what took me to Adak Island.
The nearest candidates for hybridization were glaucous-winged gulls, which are common in the Aleutians.
I documented the descriptive data (DNA comparisons were well in the future), but could not reach a clear conclusion. Two decades later I was contacted by Tim Bowman, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, who was doing impressive work with glaucous gulls in the same region. He had found that the gull population had ballooned, thanks to improved gull winter survival off the Alaska fishing industry. He also looked at the hybridization question I had raised. By then, molecular studies were feasible but very expensive, and he had not found the funds to proceed. He did note, however, that there did not appear to be a graded change in those physical measures connecting the glaucous and glaucous-winged gull populations. Perhaps someday someone will clarify this, but all in all it has to be regarded as more a curiosity than an important question.
As I wind down the Lessons from Travels series, I find a few topics remain to be mentioned from my trip to Australia. First, here’s a warning to those planning to drive in countries where cars go in the left lane. It’s not enough to visualize driving in the left lane. Remember that you will be sitting on the right side of the car. I pulled out of the car rental facility near the ferry depot in Tasmania, and immediately went up on the sidewalk at the left edge of the roadway. Fortunately no one else was around, and I quickly adjusted to my position in the lane, as well as the car’s.
The next point is that road kill looks strange. That’s because the fauna are strange. After all, the Australian mammals are mainly marsupials, and they will look different in flattened form from our North American car carrion.
We have nothing that looks like a pademelon.
Though both are marsupials, and produce similar footprints, their possums are different from our opossums.
Finally, there is the matter of celestial bodies. The sky is inverted from our North American perspective. The sun appears to move counterclockwise above the northern horizon. At night, the moon is upside down. Orion stands on his head. Finally, you get to see the southern constellations and stars. There are fewer bright stars, and the sky consequently is less filled by bright, distinctive constellations. But then, there’s the Southern Cross, which makes up for a lot.
My thesis research back in the early 1970’s focused on glaucous gulls as predators.
Glaucous gulls, like the other gull species, have a very broad diet.
My host, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, was especially interested in the gulls as predators of goose eggs and goslings.
Goose egg probably consumed by a glaucous gull.
I found that coastal gulls were mainly after seafood. They were opportunists that took advantage of exposed nests and broods, but birds were not their main target. In fact, geese often nested within the gull nesting colonies.
A gull stands at its nest while a brant makes clear that they aren’t buddies even if they share a nest pond.
Inland gulls were more focused on terrestrial prey, but they were widely scattered pairs and so their impact was limited. I spent many hours watching predator activity.
This observation tower built by Pete Mickelson, a previous researcher on the inland site, was one of several observation posts. A raven used the storage box, which was open on one side, as its overnight roost.
Even that far north, the number of species of both predators and prey was impressive, and as I watched the predators working the landscape I sensed the turns of the ecological dance they were performing in the summer. Here are some of the major players on the predator side, in addition to the glaucous gulls, in western Alaska.
Parasitic jaegers had a strong interest in shorebirds and waterfowl as prey.
The smaller long-tailed jaegers focused more on small rodents, but also fed on the smaller birds.
Red foxes could prey on adults of the smaller geese, but ducks, eggs, goslings and rodents were more important to them.
Arctic foxes reminded me of little puppy dogs. I remember them systematically removing and caching goose eggs in the tundra for later consumption.
The mew gull, a species much smaller than the glaucous gull, seldom showed interest in avian prey, focusing on invertebrates and small fish.
The lesson was to attend to the predators in any landscape, and it informs me to this day.
In 2002 I drove to Newfoundland. To those who know their geography this seems a strange statement, as Newfoundland is an island. It’s possible, though, thanks to the ferries.
One of the ferries I rode. There was plenty of space in the hold for all the vehicles
One advantage of this ferry ride is that it provides the opportunity to be far enough at sea to spot the true seabirds. These include the tube-noses, including the storm-petrels and shearwaters.
Wilson’s storm-petrel, which glides just above the water seeking little tidbits.
A greater shearwater, hastily taking wing as the ferry passes too close for comfort.
I was puzzled by flocks of what appeared to be shorebirds, occasionally landing on the water and not showing any concern about being so far at sea. Then I realized that they were red phalaropes, shorebirds indeed but swimming ones that spend the nonbreeding season on the ocean.
Closer to shore, other dynamics come into play. For instance there are the tides. During the drive to Newfoundland I camped at Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, and got a chance to see how dramatically low the tides there drop.
It looks like an optical illusion, but the water that appears so far away and so far below does indeed rise high enough to inundate the algae on these rocks.
Some of the seabirds remain in the coastal proximity most of the time. Among these are great cormorants.
These are larger close relatives of our familiar double-crested cormorant.
Of course, all the seabirds must come to shore to nest, and as this was the end of the breeding season, that was where many were easiest to see. A gallery follows.
Northern gannets tend their large, downy youngsters in the fog at the St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve.
Black-legged kittiwakes nest on the narrowest of the cliff ledges.
Common murres also nest on the cliffs, which provide security from predators such as foxes.
An Atlantic puffin zips past like a blunt bullet.
The puffins nest in tunnels rather than on cliffs.
Never in the history of northern Illinois has there been anything to match this menagerie of seabirds. The only time our area was maritime was in the Paleozoic era, when birds were still many millions of years in the future. Such experiences lend perspective, however, demonstrating how life can diversify to accommodate the range of ecological space available in the wide world.
A November conference in 2003 gave me the opportunity to take some extra time off, rent a car, and tour central Nevada. Previous Lessons from Travels posts have highlighted the Lehman Cave and Extraterrestrial Aliens aspects of that trip. Today’s focus is on the ecology of the Great Basin. This is an area where the crust of the Earth stretched thin, as though pulled from its eastern and western edges. It occupies much of Nevada, and extends south. The stretching produced a series of north-south cracks, or faults. Alternate wide blocks dropped down to produce low basins, and the areas between them thrust upward to produce narrow mountain ranges. The spacing of these ranges and basins is rhythmic and regular.
The low areas are flat and dominated by sagebrush, but there are plenty of other plants and animals to lend diversity to this desert.
Higher mountains bounding the west edge of the Great Basin draw most of the moisture from the prevailing westerlies. The little remaining rain falls mostly on the ranges and evaporates, or soaks into the ground long before it can flow to the centers of the desert plains.
Here is a typical view of one of the many ranges that divide the basins. The dominant trees are singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah junipers.
This landscape is not monotonous. There are abundant unique features sprinkling it. Sand Mountain is one example.
This enormous isolated dune is composed of sand blown up from a source 40 miles away. It stopped traveling when it hit a bight in one of the ranges.
The thinning of the crust produced volcanic activity in places.
Core of an ancient volcano, dark with basalt.
There are occasional badlands areas as well, where weakly cemented stone has eroded into beautiful shapes.
Cathedral Gorge badlands
People have lived in this region for thousands of years, and left their mark in many areas.
Grimes Point petroglyphs
Wildlife is diverse, as well, in the region.
Mule deer in the mountains
I took a hike on the Pole Creek Trail, in Big Basin National Park.
The scene from my turn-around point
On the way back down I found where a bobcat had stepped in my tracks.
The feline had passed within the hour.
The mountain chickadee is one of the delightful upland birds.
The basins have their own array of wildlife.
Pronghorns occur in scattered small groups.
It was still warm enough for a snake and other reptiles to be active in southern Nevada.
Striped whipsnake at Kershaw State Park
From its geology to its distinctive ecology, the Great Basin provides no end of contrasts that, upon reflection, help to define our own home region.