Wild Australia

Roger Funston

© Copyright 2024 by Roger Funston

Photo of sharp-tailed sandpipers by Steve Wilson courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of sharp-tailed sandpipers by Steve Wilson courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Today, I walk a 10 mile transect over coastal dunes and along brackish lagoons. We are keeping a list of the migratory birds we see, eastern curlew and bar-tailed godwit, critically endangered, red-necked stilt, vulnerable. These birds fly 8,000 miles from China and Siberia to winter in Coorong National Park. It is April 1984, autumn in Australia. Soon these birds will migrate to the Northern Hemisphere to summer.

Yesterday, I spent the day watching whimbrels, sharp-tailed sandpipers and red-necked avocets through binoculars, poking their bills in the mudflats. The day before we cored in these mudflats to see what invertebrates live there, trying to better understand behavior, important food sources and habitats needs.

The flight time from Los Angeles to Adelaide takes 19 hours with layovers. I lose a day upon arrival but will get it back when I return home. It’s another 80 miles by car to Coorong National Park, a natural area with high biodiversity. This is my first time traveling internationally. I have used all of my vacation days, sick leave and holidays from work to take this trip.

Coorong National Park is located on the southern coast of Australia on the South Sea, where the South Pacific and Indian Oceans meet. Mixing of the Southern Sea and the Murray River create estuaries of fresh and saline waters, world class wetlands that are endangered because of reduced freshwater flows and drought. Vulnerable southern belle frogs and heath goanna live in freshwater. Water birds, such as sharp-tailed sandpipers, pied oystercatchers and red-capped plovers, scurry across saline lagoons and mudflats. The Coorong has one of the largest pelican rookeries in Australia.

Our team is half Aussies and half Americans. The Principal Investigator is environmental scientist David Patton from the University of Adelaide. One of the Research Assistants is nicknamed Hulkie. Hulkie is a bear of a man but is really a teddy bear. The other assistant is an American who just started. He introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Randy”. The Aussies snicker. It is not a good thing to be randy.

The rest of us are short-timers in a long line of volunteer field biologists. The mix of participants is both surprising and wonderful. An executive with Esso, an engineer from Australian mining company BHP and a phone company account rep from Orange County California who has brought along two large trunks filled with numerous wardrobes. Perhaps we are all closet environmentalist shedding our day jobs to revel in our passions.

The Aussie accent is much stronger away from the cities. It takes a bit of effort in the beginning, but gets easier over time. Some of the Aussies take every opportunity to tease us about our American accents. One has to learn new behaviors, even for simple tasks like crossing the street. In the US, we always look left then right before crossing. A bad idea on a busier street in Australia. More than once, I entered the right side of the car. “Oh, are you driving?

We live communally in roadhouse lodging, sharing cooking, stories and laughter. Cards games played at night. The Aussie winner shouts out “You beauty”. Tea and bilkkies mid-afternoon. Evening barbies. Singing around the campfire, looking at the stars (bush telly).

Learned a lot of Aussie slang: dog’s breakfast (complete chaos), she’ll be apples (it will be alright), whoop whoop (middle of nowhere), bonzer (awesome) and whinger (complainer)

The days are long. Tired at night, but a good tired. I will probably never see these people but I still have fond memories of this time and place and the people I worked with forty years ago.

After finishing three weeks of volunteer work at Coorong National Park, I head to the Great Barrier Reef before returning to the US. My choice, Heron Island via helicopter. My flights from Adelaide to Sydney to Brisbane are running behind schedule. It is after 4:30 pm before I arrive at the Brisbane airport.

I meet two young men from the helicopter company who rush me to the gate. Copters only fly during the day and sunset this time of year is around 5:30 pm. The ride takes about 30 minutes. One of the men grabs my luggage and the other starts strapping a parachute onto my back saying, “Whatever you do, don’t pull the ripcord until you are out of the helicopter”. No one had said anything before about a parachute. It’s too late to back out now.

I climb into the co-pilot seat, put on the headphones, and off we go. We fly about 500 feet off the water. The view is spectacular. The chatter through the headphone has a strong Aussie accent. An uneventful flight. Luckily, no parachute jump.

Heron Island is a tropical coral cay, 2,600 feet long, 980 feet wide and 12 feet tall at its highest point. The reef and island are teeming with wildlife. Today, Heron Island is an upscale resort and well-known UNESCO World Heritage site. Back in 1984 it was less well known, having only recently been designated. It had modest bungalow rooms and was a hangout for nature enthusiasts and honeymooners.

Rich stands of grand devil’s claw cover the middle of the island. The tree’s leaves are sticky. The black noddie terns use the leaves to make their nests. Sometimes, the seeds adhere to black noddie’s feathers so they can no longer fly. They starve and fall to the ground, fertilizing the nutrient poor sandy soil.

The thousands vulnerable leatherback turtles, who live in the ocean, feel the call of land in deep memory and return to their place of birth to nest from October to May. This swarm of nesting turtles on the beach will soon return to their ocean home. Tens of thousands of nesting endangered wedge-tailed shearwaters will soon migrate north to the Arctic. Year-round residents include eastern reef egrets, sacred kingfishers, buff-banded rails and Capricorn silvereyes.
The shallow coral reefs await. I rent mask, snorkel and fins and spend many enjoyable hours in warm water gazing at white and black-nosed sharks, shovel nosed rays and pink whiptail rays. Swimming turtles are foraging for food. Colorful schools of tropical fish I can’t identify congregate, all of one mind, turning at the same sharp moment.

During mid-day low tide, I walk on exposed and semi-submerged coral to view damselfish, small snails, anemones, worms. Enjoy a few days of strolling on white sand beaches at sunrise and sunset. Without the coral reefs, there would be no beach.

A tiny, photosynthesizing organism, a zooxanthellae, makes its home in the coral’s body tissue, converting sunlight to energy, providing essential nutrients and giving coral its bright colors. Higher ocean temperatures, due to global warming, stress the zooxanthallae, causing them to die or leave their host, a process called coral bleaching. Fish leave, black noddies starve, grand devil’s claw trees die.

Heron Island is a lovingly protected marine sanctuary in delicate ecological balance and peril. I had the privilege of experiencing this marvel before today’s more dire climate change threats. I hope it’s not too loved by eco-tourists. I pray it avoids ecological collapse. I want to return some day. I hope my great-grandchildren can too.

Roger Funston came to writing late in life after a long career as an environmental scientist. He worked on projects on four continents. Roger writes about his life journey, his travels and things he has seen that you can’t make up. His works appears in several anthologies including Drifting Sands, woods Reader, Last Stanza Poetry and Oregnaug Mountain Poetry Journal. 

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