Category Archives: Animals and Pets

#59 Become a Citizen Scientist

Australia’s in the middle of the great 2017 Australian Bird of the Year vote.

Apparently, the Ibis is leading the polls, which is annoying many people who deride them as ‘Bin Chickens’ due to their scavenging habits. But it’s not their fault they’ve been squeezed out of the Sydney wetlands market.

As I tell everyone who complains about the cost of living in the big cities: ‘Move to the country. Life’s so much better here. Just take a look at the accommodation we provide for our ibis…’

So realising what an abundance of bird life we have here, I took the opportunity in late October to

#59 Become a Citizen Scientist 

when the Aussie Backyard Bird Count was held. This allows anyone the chance to play at being a great naturalist for a week: 

It’s as easy as downloading the free Aussie Bird Count app from the App store and noting all the birds you see in your location over a 20 minute period at any time of the day for one week. And thanks to GPS, it knows where you’re looking. Simple, I thought.

Oh dear. The arrogance of ignorance.

I quickly realised that having superb eyesight is the first requirement for all budding twitchers.

Strike One.

I was known as Mr Magoo at primary school, even when wearing my brand new, dorky spectacles.

…this is an easy mistake for the near-sighted 

As I spent the first seven years of my life seeing the world as one blurry blob, I missed out on essential early visual training that most people with normal vision take for granted. At least, that’s my excuse.

Using binoculars during the 20-minute spotting sessions helped but it didn’t fully solve the problem. Because there’s another difficulty: the subjects being studied.

Sloth spotting I could manage, but birds move really fast and flit around, darting here and there before you’ve had time to take a good look at them and then they fly away and they’re gone.

Strike Two.

There’s also the matter of bird identification.

The brightly coloured ones, like fairy wrens and rainbow lorikeets aren’t a problem,

…easy peasy (and in the next street)

but what about all the neutral-looking brownish-greyish nothing-to-see-here types? Who can spot in an instant whether their tails are up or down, what the shape of their beak is, what are the exact colourings on their undersurface or details of their neck markings to aid identification?

So, even if you’re lucky, and the bird stays still long enough to get a good look, you need to know the actual name of what you’re seeing. You need Knowledge.

Strike Three.

Sure, the app tries to help, but it only works for the cognoscenti. So I entered descriptive phrases like  ‘medium-sized bird, near water, looks a bit kookaburra-ish with a flat sort of head, and a greenish cap and a lovely cinnamon colour when it flew away,’ but Google was silent on the matter.

(A couple of weeks after the count had closed, I happened to show the photo to a friend who, unbeknown to me, is quite the bird identifier, and she immediately said ‘Oh, that’s a Nankeen Night Heron’. AND SHE WAS SPOT ON!

She wants me to call on her any time I have difficulty identifying birds. This is going to be invaluable next year.)

You can imagine what my earliest list looked like:

Embarrassing

The app presupposes way too much in-depth knowledge, too.

Like any talented pre-schooler, I know a duck when I see one, but that wasn’t good enough for this app. It wanted to know if it was a Wood Duck, a Grebe, a Shoveler, a Shelduck, a Mallard, a freckled duck… oh the list was endless. And when I chose one that looked a bit similar to the ‘duck’ I was seeing, it would flash up the message, ‘unlikely based on survey location,’ so I was back to square one.

By day 6, I knew I was in desperate need of professional help during spotting sessions, so I called on friends who live on the outskirts of town, in the hope that I’d see more interesting birds than house sparrows and spotted doves. I struck gold.

Not only were they brilliant at seeing them, but they knew their birds, had several bird books, and by the end, we had a list that helped bolster my reputation no end:

Elephant stamp for this lot. 

I’m now wondering if I should go on to join a citizen science group for frog listeners using an app that identifies the frog you’re hearing. At least poor vision wouldn’t be a handicap, just the leech-ridden, mosquito infested swamps I’d have to frequent.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to participate in the 2017 Australian Bird of the Year vote, polls are open until December 9th and you can vote here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#58 Indulge in All Things Whippets

Confession time.

About 12 years ago, when discussing succession planning with the vet after my beloved border collie developed cancer, he recommended a whippet.

‘A whippet?’ I said, scrunching my face. ‘But they’re so… so… weird looking. Why would anyone get a whippet?’

How wrong can a person be?

So today I want to use this space to

#58 Indulge in All Things Whippets

The vet explained that they were ideal dogs because they were adaptable to any lifestyle and had few, if any hereditary diseases. No congenital hip problems, no bowel torsion, no slipped discs, no laboured breathing or snorting. In fact, he concluded, ‘if everyone had a whippet, vets would be out of business.’

I’m listening,’ I said.

It only took a little research to see his point and a few months later, my new whippet puppy, Ziggy joined the household.

Unbeknown to me, friends who travelled with me to pick him up were thinking along the same lines. That’s how  Ziggy’s brother Charlie, found a home too.

Our boys. That’s Ziggy on the left …I think

Almost twelve years later, the important thing we’ve come to learn about whippets is that they’re a law unto themselves.

Part Ferrari with a streamlined construction made for reckless, breathtaking speed,

Screenshot 2017-10-29 15.09.04

part cat, displaying a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude to any attempt at training,

and endlessly comfort-seeking:

‘Being so thin and scrawny, I must be allowed on every soft surface in the house’

You called?


‘Well, you left the cake on the kitchen bench and turned your back for a few seconds. What was I supposed to do? Ignore it?’


‘The sun has moved. Either move it back or shift my bean bag a few metres forward, would you?’Beanbag to here!


‘Just because I’m called a sighthound doesn’t mean I’m a watchdog. If you’d wanted someone to bark mindlessly at nothing, you should’ve got yourself a yappy little terrier.’ 

Whippet hiding


‘Look, I have no doggy smell and my coat never needs clipping or brushing. Finding tiny hairs all over the couch is a small price to pay for the pleasure of seeing me draped like a statuesque Egyptian god.’


So recently, Charlie’s owners and I decided to indulge our weakness for whippets by attending a couple of Whippet shows in Melbourne.

A Slender of whippets

What’s the collective term for them? A Slender of Whippets? 

We’re not sure what the criteria are for snaring a prize, but they do look impressive as they’re judged.

The winners were all leggy and elegant and terribly skinny as befits every supermodel – but not a black one among them.

Whippets on Sat 1

We took comfort in the knowledge that the prized statuette for Best in Show was, of course, a black whippet:

Best in show

aka a replica of Ziggy and Charlie…


In human years, our two are now in their seventies and slowing down a tad. Although they live several hundred kilometres apart, every time they meet up they’re instant mates and both would secretly agree that there’s no better playmate than another whippet.

Perfect whippets

That’s Ziggy on the left … definitely. 

The strange thing is though, I don’t think whippets look weird any more.

In fact, despite his rapidly greying facial hair, his ridiculous bilby ears – instant disqualifiaction at a dog show, I’m told – his intermittent limp, and the odd tremble in his back legs, I think Ziggy’s the handsomest dog in the world.

Yes, he’s my very own velveteen whippet.

#53 Encourage Native Birds into the Garden

Who doesn’t have fond memories of the Rosella logo on the ubiquitous bottle of tomato sauce that was a staple of growing up in Australia?

It was the only brand my mother ever entertained using. In her case, it was for the taste: in mine, for the gorgeous crimson Rosella on the front.

So since childhood, I’ve cherished my tiny, brightly-coloured enamel rosella pin which the company used as a promotion back in the day when children didn’t expect their favourite toys to be endlessly interactive or need batteries or gigabytes to function properly.

Rosella Pin close up

And what a marketing ploy. More than fifty years on
and I still balk at using any other brand
!

But imagine if these pretty birds could be enticed to come into your garden every day. There’s a challenge:

#53 Encourage Native Birds into the Garden

So there I was recently, sitting on my front verandah drinking a mug of hot chocolate, when who should flutter by for a quick drink but this little beauty. 

Sorry, starling, but I don’t mean you…

One brief glimpse was not enough though. I wanted him to visit regularly, and I figured that the best way to do this was with food.

Mind you, an article published in The Conversation last Spring suggests that the jury is still out on the virtues or otherwise of feeding and watering wild birds. Do they become dependent on our largesse, resented in the bird-working world as seed-bludgers, expecting handouts on a platter? And does the bird population implode due to a lack of resilience should you go away leaving them with no food and water for a time?

Notwithstanding this debate, I raced out to my favourite hardware store and purchased a small bird feeder, filled it with wild bird seed and placed it close to the backyard bird bath. There was a lot of fluttering around it, but no takers. Was it because the treats weren’t being served on a platter for easy access?

No worries. There’s a waterproof material that can be cut to shape, spray painted and rimmed with clear plastic tubing to keep the seeds from falling off. Good old corflute.

Enter bird feeder Mark II and a lot of interested birds, first watching and hovering…

…before landing and enjoying:

It’s a magnet for sparrows, starlings and spotted doves who empty the feeder in no time.

Based on this early success, I bought a second feeder for the front garden this time, which is where I’d spotted the young beauty in the first place.

A kind friend made a real wooden base for it before I perched it on an upturned pot and waited for the flurry of activity and the return of my lovely rosella….

…and waited

and waited…

It’s been filled with wild bird seeds for over two weeks now, but not one taker. In fact, no interested party has gone so far as to land and inspect it.

What’s going on?

It is too wooden? The wrong colour? Too square? Not far enough off the ground? Does the fact that the seed is Homebrand® offend the birds’ sensibilities?

What must I do to entice you back, gorgeous Rosella?

I don’t want to sound needy, but I’ll do anything, buy anything, make any changes you desire.

But please come back.

 

#48 Mess About in Boats

It wasn’t until Form One (as Year Seven was called back then) that I was introduced to the magical world of boating.

This was courtesy of Kenneth Grahame’s engaging tale of the adventures of Ratty and Mole, Badger and Toad in The Wind in the Willows.

Who wouldn’t be seduced by Ratty’s pronouncement in the very first chapter?

quote-messing-about

Alas, I was growing up in a bitterly cold, inland city without a beach or river to its name, nurtured by loving parents who… well… you couldn’t call them outdoor types. (This may explain why, on my first-ever camping trip at age 22, I had no idea that you didn’t pitch your tent in a cosy hollow under a gum tree. Especially without checking for the possibility of torrential rain during the night.) So my love of boating was entirely imaginary for many years.

What better time to change all that now though, and live the dream. A chance to…

#48 Mess About in Boats

Ratty was spot on – it’s so worth doing.

Boats, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. And degrees of safety.

There was that disastrous early experiment with three friends, when we were sent down a raging Murray River in two canoes, on our own, by the Dodgy Brothers’ Hire-a-Risky-Boat Adventures. 

Thanks to life jackets and expert recreational kayakers who raced across to pluck us from the water as we parted ways with our canoes and careened towards South Australia, I lived to brave the river again one late afternoon as dusk was falling. But this time, it was in the back of a canoe with a World Champion/Murray River Marathon winner doing all the hard work in the front seat. Bliss!

Racing down the Murray and up Wodonga Creek taking curves at breakneck speed with an expert guide is truly exciting, even though he mistakenly thought he could further spook me with a diversion past a bat colony.

bats-ahoy

Amazing. Flying mammals! What’s not to like…?


If Scandi Noir is the mood you’re after though, then messing about in a boat at New Zealand’s Doubtful Sound is just the ticket. All dark and brooding and ominous. No wonder James Cook was doubtful it was navigable when he named it.

nz36-nov-11

You could well be at the end of the earth. Oh, hang on a minute…

Even the silhouette of a travelling companion takes on a sinister hue in this part of the world.

nz38-nov-11


Exploring in a boat means you can get up close and personal with all manner of wildlife.

Spot seals sunning themselves,

seals

Or water birds doing a picturesque pose694

…in splendid isolation


But you don’t have to travel miles away from home to find a relaxing boating experience.

The Sienna Daisy is a new cruise boat purpose built for the Murray River right here in Albury. No more worries of a river too low to support the mechanism of cumbersome paddle steamers, romantic though they may be.

sienna-daisy

Take a 60 or 90-minute scheduled river cruise or book a private function. Include the Captain’s Lunch of a BBQ and salads if you want and complement this with a glass of wine.  All your worries will disappear into the water as you float along, caressed by the gentle movement and sense of escape.

And If you’ve ever wondered why Noreuil Park has such an unpronounceable name, you can find that out, too.

I could have boated all day…

monument-from-river

and just a stone’s throw from home…


No doubt about it, messing about in boats is the bees knees.

I wonder if it’s too late to consider buying my own boat? Of course, I’d have to get a bigger car, too  – with a tow bar  – and a boat trailer. And learn how to reverse them all down a narrow driveway and a slippery ramp without jack-knifing. Is that do-able for a post-adult woman, I wonder?

Because I can’t help thinking that being the skipper of your own boat would make you feel like a Master of The Universe.

1-charlie-at-the-wheel

Wouldn’t you agree, Charlie…?

#28 Be a Judge at an International Horse Trials Event

Thank goodness for friends. Because without one particular, close friend I would never have been asked to volunteer for my latest outsidethesquare experience:

#28 Be a Judge at an International Horse Trials Event

The truth is, although I had a few riding lessons as a child, I know little about horses and even less about eventing, dressage, cross-country jumping (have I got that right?) and other horse-related topics.

Fortunately, when you volunteer to help out at International Horse Trials, (and doesn’t that sound important?) lack of knowledge doesn’t matter a whit. As long as you’re prepared to sit by the finish line for a few hours and pencil-in the times called out to you by a fellow adventurer with a stopwatch, you can still pretend to be a ‘judge’.

If only I needed a CV these days, this latest experience might just clinch me a job.

 

AWEC 2

And so it was that I found myself seated right here, pencil and paper at the ready, eager for horses and riders to brave the final jump of their cross-country round at the Albury Wodonga International Horse Trials over Easter this year.

I cannot write with any authority on the calibre of the horses, even though they looked magnificent to me:

Beautiful horses

Nor can I comment on the skills of the riders, even though their courage in facing solid jumps almost as tall as I am took my breath away.

Jump 1


There were the nail-biting moments:

Won't she

Will she…? 

Will sheOf course she will!

And horses with riders who seemed to fly over the barriers:

Horse with wings


There were other fun moments, too, like riding an old jalopy around the course…

Jeep

…handing out tea, coffee and biscuits to the real judges and watching their faces light up with thanks.

And who could refuse the chance to get their hands on a real walkie-talkie and use words like ‘Roger’ and ‘Over’?

When you help out at events like these, you realise the massive amount of work that goes into making them run so seamlessly. What a brilliant organising committee the Albury Wodonga Equestrian Centre has.

I can’t wait for next year.

I wonder if they need people with proven pencilling skills to judge the dressage…?

#10 Keep Backyard Chickens

This blog entry was supposed to be called #10: Attend a Major Sporting Event, because I was lucky enough to be given centre court tickets to the Australian Tennis Open in January for my birthday.  Alas, life had other ideas.  An acute hand injury just after Christmas required emergency surgery and put me well and truly out of action for several weeks. The trip to the tennis, and my next blog, became a forgotten dream.

No matter, as there’s always another Fun and Frivolous event to fill the void:

#10 Keep Backyard Chickens

This activity has become somewhat de rigueur, I know, but in my defence, it began over three years ago as a rescue operation for two anonymous chickens that a neighbour was about to kill due to their poor egg-laying habits.

In my mind, I’d named them Scarlet and Nancy, after the Scarlet Pimpernel and Nancy Wake, because they were about to cheat certain death.  Unfortunately they suddenly turned up their toes – literally fell off the perch – before I could save them.

Come to think of it, this probably explains their previously poor egg-laying ability.

By this stage, though, I was enthused enough about owning chickens to construct a chicken coop with the help of Rentachook who provided the flat pack and plentiful instructions to get started:

Chicken coop in constuction

The chicken coop takes shape

This also led to building a fenced area so they could wander in the garden, – within limits – fertilise the lawns and keep the area pest-free. How easy was this going to be?

Soon after two new ISA brown chickens joined the family:

Chickens

Naturally they were named Scarlet and Nancy

A crash course in chicken husbandry taught me that chickens want food, on tap, 24/7 so I bought an inexpensive feeder and filled it with layer pellets which they could access easily.

Before I knew it, I was also feeding the entire sparrow, pigeon, dove, starling, magpie, peewee … you get the picture … population of the surrounding district, who’d evidently sent out the word: “Smorgasbord, guys, all you can eat over at Number 525.” The bill for chicken feed became anything but chicken feed.

Enter GrandPa’s feeders, the best invention to come out of New Zealand since pavlova. (Only kidding. Grandpa’s feeders really are a New Zealand innovation). Sure, the initial cost was quite high, and it took several weeks of s-l-o-w training before Scarlet and Nancy got the hang of it, (remember, chickens have tiny brains) but my chicken-feed bill has dropped so precipitously that I’ve paid for it several times over and I can go on holidays with a free conscience knowing there’ll be plenty of food for them.

Girls feeding 3

“You first…”  “No, you first…”

In fact it’s so good, I bought one for friends who also have chickens. Thoroughly recommended!

Finally, the girls began laying, and how exciting it was to gather their eggs and see them mature from the initial tiny pullet eggs to super sized ones:

Nancy pullet's eggs

For the first twelve months, I religiously locked them up every night to prevent foxes attacking them. Even though no fox has ever been seen so close to the centre of town, everyone will tell you they’re out there, just waiting… waiting…

Then one night I was away and forgot to protect them. Expecting a scene of carnage on my return it was a relief to discover they were doing fine. Since then, they’ve had free run of the garden.

The lack of foxes in the area is probably helped by the presence of my black whippet Ziggy who tolerates no intruders, a noisy dog called Leo over the back fence who tolerates  – well, nothing at all, really – and in particular, Next-Door’s cat who, when not on their roof coolly staring down at Scarlet and Nancy from on high in a rather intimidatory manner, is crawling the gutters outside my house, staking out her territory:

cat-guard 4

 “Just keeping an eye on my property…”

But now, the girls are over 3 years old and as any true chicken aficionado will tell you with a slight sniff, “ISA Browns are only bred to be egg-laying machines for 18 months, then they get culled or die of exhaustion.”

This means the girls rarely lay these days, but I’ve had great eggs for almost three years and the best avocado harvests ever, thanks to the soil underneath the trees being aerated, bugs and fungi being gobbled down and fertiliser being applied daily, direct from the source.

So I think they’ve earned the right to live out the remainder of their days in the front garden at 525.

Scarlett & Nancy for Blog

May they Nest in Peace