Roo Confusion

The trouble with identifying kangaroos around here is mostly that whenever I see one, I’m so surprised that I forget to figure out what species it is. You’d think it would be obvious, like one is big and red (right, the big red kind, Macropus rufus) and one is little and gray (Macropus robustus), but some of the big red ones are just small because they’re young, and some of the wallaroos, also known as Euros, are actually sort of reddish and can get to a decent size.

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(This is a big red)

As far as I can tell, in photos where I don’t get a lot of scale and can’t necessarily recall the roo’s relative size to my own (reds get 6 feet tall and up to 200 lbs, while common wallaroos only get 5 feet tall and 150 lbs maximum), I can separate the two by bulk (reds seem to have larger, more muscular arms relative to their bodies, but also generally heftier bodies compared to their heads) and comparative ear size (though that’s just conjecture, since ear size might have more to do with age or individual variation*).

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(This is a Euro. I think.)

Kangaroos tend to live in larger “mobs,” somewhere around ten usually but in poor conditions can gang up into the hundreds. Wallaroos are mostly solitary, according to the internets. This information is not really supported by my own observations, but let’s be real- I mostly see these guys while either I’m running or they’re running, so I can’t say that any of my surveying has been at all scientific.

Mostly I’d say the main difference between a kangaroo and a wallaroo is that turning a corner and finding myself too close to a wallaroo is adorable, and doing the same with a kangaroo is just a little bit terrifying. Imagine a rabbit the size of your dad, and then give it muscley arms (the rabbit, not your dad).

…Have fun with that one. Here’s a reminder that macropods can also be really cute:

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Sleep with dreams of fuzzy baby ‘roos and try to get that image of your rabbit-dad out of your head. Oh, too late. Sorry.

*Did you know that human ears and noses keep growing forever? Like through your whole life (I’m assuming if you’re reading this you’re human, but to any intelligent dolphins or aliens reading this: um hi please email me) your ears will get bigger and bigger. If you could live forever maybe you could learn to fly Dumbo-style. Or at least swim like a manta ray. It’s all cartilage, right?

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Geography and Geology

I have always loved being able to find myself on a map. It’s not narcissism (or at least not wholly…) but a deep-seated desire for a sense of place. Those of us who travel and those of us who don’t: we all want to know where we are. For some people it’s as simple as knowing the turns and twists of the streets in their neighborhoods. For me, for a long time, I navigated my world based on the ocean and the Bay, I-280 and I-101, the San Andreas fault and the billowing fronts of fog that poured across the San Francisco peninsula. Everything ran north to south, and I could never be lost because to the east or to the west a landmark stretched across the horizon. The sun rose over across the San Mateo Bridge and set behind the hills over by Half Moon Bay, and that was how I found my orientation anywhere I needed to go.

As I’ve grown older, my sphere of travel and my referential compass has grown as well. The sun rises now over Boston, but still sets in the Pacific Ocean. New Hampshire is north, but so is San Juan Island- I have traveled North America from San Diego and the Navajo reservation to Wyoming and Alaska, watching the landscape change from water-carved sandstone canyons to glacial moraines and basalt bays. In the west the mountains are newer, higher, craggier, and in the east they are older and rounder, smoothed and solid under hemlock and maple trees. This is how I find myself in the world…

But here I am in the southern hemisphere. Maps of the world and my own compass have failed me here- they’re all north-centric, biased by colonialism and self-obsession and convenience to the point that Greenland rivals Africa for size while Australia and New Zealand shrink to nothingness below the equator. Google Maps helps some, but nothing on the North West Cape is labeled north of Exmouth. I recommend that you take a second to check it out, if you’ve got the bandwidth- I’m so used to living in the Bay Area, where Google has mapped every last brick in the sidewalk, while the Learmonth airport that I flew into and the entrance to the National Park aren’t even labeled as entities on this continent. But the satellite imagery for this area is stunning.

Where am I? Well, here’s the map that Tim created for our survey effort here on the cape:

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The red and blue and green lines are our transects- we follow them from one side of the cape to the other, hoping to cross paths with groups of dolphins. Each “zig” or segment is between 1-4 kilometers from vertex to vertex, and the red and blue lines are respectively about 93 km from end to end. The scale is hard to grasp- in three long days on-water, scanning and moving along the transect lines from sunup till sundown, with an average number of reasonable-length dolphin encounters, we can complete a blue or red line. That’s about 30 kilometers or maybe 16 nautical miles per day, exhaustively searched for any signs of dolphin activity. So is this where I am? This map doesn’t show the places that I recognize from shore, or the best snorkel spots or the tide pools or the mangroves or the Navy Pier or the VLF towers to the north.

At the tip of the cape, just around the blunt end on the west side, we see dolphins and manta rays and sea snakes and sharks, views of the lighthouse and the Cape Range hills, a shipwreck and the ever-visible radio towers that beam low-frequency signals to nuclear submarines across the southern hemisphere. We also see oil rigs: the North West Shelf Wikipedia page is entirely focused on its oil and gas resources, and the money flowing into Exmouth these days is all about mineral exploration. We see ancient coral fossils and unexplored water-filled caves along the shoreline, and we see the Indian Ocean, stretching to the Pacific and then, in practical terms, into eternity.

So where am I? I’m at my dream job, I’m thousands of miles from my closest friends, I’m on the opposite side of the world from my family, I’m on a couch, I’m in the Outback, I’m sitting above the red dirt and karst cave formations and millions-of-years-old marine fossils encased in limestone that was once the bodies of yet more thriving sealife. I’m in my head and I’m on the earth.

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The Angriest Golf Ball You Ever Did See

I went for a wander through some tide pools the other day. The flats were shallow and productive, full of algae and little fish, hermit crabs and snails:

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But besides the cowries and more typical-looking snails, I found this guy:

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He may look distinctive in this photo, but he’s only about an inch long and I nearly stepped on him- he’s all the same colors as the surrounding sand and algae. Camouflage is good most of the time, but I’d have felt really bad if his turned out to be too effective.

My feet were in the water, since there were no dry places to step- I really did have to keep an eye out. Especially when I looked into a slightly deeper pool to see a little brown cephalopod scuttling across the bottom, arms tucked underneath- I leaned in and shuffled very carefully closer, hoping for a cuttlefish or a baby reef octopus. The golf ball below blanched and then flashed blue, and I snapped this photo before backing off rather hastily:

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It’s enough to confirm the presence of a blue-ringed octopus, one of the most venomous marine animals in the world. That angry little golf ball that changed direction and charged at my toes contained enough potent and antidote-less venom to kill me in minutes. “Not aggressive,” it says on Wikipedia. Well, as far as I know I didn’t do anything to make it mad. Perhaps it didn’t sleep well, or perhaps it wasn’t expecting any observers of its afternoon hunting and was embarrassed at the state of its hair.

Anyways, it was really blue and quite agitated, so I decided to get out of its way. It turned and headed deeper into its little pool as I watched from a nearby rocky perch, so it may not have been aimed at me anyways… I really wasn’t terribly interested in finding out for sure.

Fun fact: every photo in this post has, as its subject, a member of the phylum Mollusca. Shelled, invertebrate, mantled- each cephalopod or gastropod (brain-foot or stomach-foot, respectively) here descends from a hypothetical limpet-like ancestor. Evolution is neat! And just because I love evolution so much, here is a bonus sea hare, about the length of my hand:

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Hooray! Go explore something!

-AgentRedSquirrel

Best Looking Birds

As we chatted with the tour operator at Yardie Creek, a group of elderly travelers disembarked around us. Wives helped husbands with canes out of the low seats, and their cheery organizer/guide asked for a vote on whether or not to walk up the trail a bit (it seemed like nobody was that enthused). One khaki-clad man, seemingly alone, paused as he passed us three Team Sousa members.

“Best-looking birds I’ve seen all trip,” he grumbled in our general direction before stomping up the few steps to the dock.

My first (innocent) thought: I wonder where they’ve been, and if they’re all on a bird-watching trip?

My second thought: …gross.

Crusty old Australians aside, Yardie Creek (Yardi means “creek” in one of the many Aboriginal languages of Australia, so really all of us immigrants and tourists are referring to the briny tidal waters as the “creek creek”) did in fact host some lovely birds. Ospreys seem to be a theme around here:

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It feels like everywhere we go, someone points out an osprey nest to us. Doesn’t make them less awesome, though- this one has reportedly been occupied nearly continuously for 80 years at least. It may not always have contained chicks, but the past few years have been productive for local ospreys, evidenced by the juveniles and new nests we’ve seen around the area. They’re very fun to watch from the boat, as they dive for fish and flap, low and slow above the waves, with their struggling prizes.

Corellas, with their cockatoo head plumes and raucous screeches, followed us from the trees of Exmouth to the cliffs of Yardie and the Cape Range. They’re not the only things sheltering in the little caves worn into the rock faces (more on their other occupants in a later post), but they certainly make an impression. They flash white feathers over ledges and splay their wingtips to impress their companions and warn away hovering birds of prey, and peer down at the boat below with heads cocked.

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A kestrel of some kind, with a tiny bit of snake in her mouth, landed just shy of these two youngsters who were tucked away in an overhang. They shuffled out to peer at us as we peered at them, wide-eyed and wobbly.

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Among the other lovely long-legged locals, this white-faced heron gave us a good show. Best-looking birds, indeed, random old guy. Best-looking birds, indeed.

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