Grampians - The animals.

Many of the animals in the Grampians are a bit less subtle than the plants. They spring to your attention. Often literally. Or they sleep predictable sleeps at predictable locations, or they eat predictable meals at predictable marsupial restaurants.
But apart from looking where you think they are going to be, one of the better ways to find the larger animals in the Grampians is to be going somewhere else. Just drive along and things will hop, slither, wander and generally meander out of the bush, across the road and off into the bush again. It’s wildlife and traffic hazards all over again.
In about a 40 minute drive three Shingleback’s (or Stump-Tailed Lizards) ambled across the road. Even “amble” really seems a bit energetic for this lizard, taking at least a minute to move across the road. Of course it takes longer when you have a man with a camera and two small children peering at you. So during that 40 minutes we happened to be in the right place at the right time three times – maybe a total of a five minute time window. It makes you realize how much you don’t see! For the other 35 minutes of the journey who knows what was crossing the road and where. These chance encounters on the road must only be a fraction of the possible, and the faster the animal the less chance you have of bumping into the moment you need to be able to see it. This could be why I have never seen Cheetahs in Australia. On the other hand……..

When you look at even a reasonably sized lizard you know you are looking at something really different. No mammalian empathy here. What do they see and how do they feel about the world? Does it speed up in summer and slow down in winter. How does time pass for them? Is summer a rush of experience and winter a long nothing. I take a while to get going in winter, tea and toast being essential, but that’s really not the same. Is the first frost of autumn a kind of premonition of death for them and spring a rebirth? Or is it all just nothing, but a nothing that runs at different speeds. Lizard days in winter must stretch on and on. Summer days dash towards the darkening night.

The colour variation between these lizards is marked, both within the east coast animals and between those on the east and west. They mate for life, give birth to twins and poke their tongues out and hiss at you in a show of defiance that can be quite startling. Especially so through the lens of a camera, when the animal looms large and scale is lost. Ray Harryhausen would have liked them I think, monsters to order as it were. The gape and the tongue poking act must do so good, although after the shock has passed, the poor old lizard is left there looking faintly ridiculous with its blue tongue stuck out and its jaws wide open. “If you come any closer, I’ll hiss at you again!”

For all their alien charm, lizards have one really annoying habit – they look like sticks! Or it might be better to say that in most lights, sticks have a wonderful ability to look like lizards. You pass a lizard basking on the side of the road, brake, pull over, do a u turn and go back. You find your lizard and disappointed put it in the back of the car and take it home to help you light the fire! It kindled the interest, now it can kindle the fire. The stick lizard must be one of the most common sightings on the road home!

Smaller lizards - skinks - rush from sunny spot to shelter as shadows fall. The sneak out, cautious and wary and do not settle long. They are living particles of sunwarmth, willing sun-bathers in a warming land.

A turtle of some sort shuffled across the road in front of us, looking more like an animated meat pie than an animal. Still coated in the mud from a winter retreat it was off to who knows where, straining neck leading the way, legs poorly suited to tarmac. I wished it luck and moved it to the side of the road, no harm in helping now and then. Being flattened by passing cars is hardly a selection pressure it needs to face. Frogs call to it from a watery home, but remain elusive.

The most conspicuous of all the animals are the mammals, especially the kangaroos. They gather in mobs to eat, rest, fight and generally bounce about a bit. A single Short Beaked Echidna waddled (and that really is the best, possibly only word, for its gait) across the road in front of us. But it was on a blind corner, so no pictures. This ant eating monotreme is always a highlight, but in this case a rather uncooperative, badly timed one. Shoulders like a lizard, egg laying like a bird (although not with hard shells) and warm blooded as well, it’s an interesting mix. And people have the nerve to say there are no intermediate forms. Are they blind? There are none as blind as those who will not see.

Kangaroos are a big draw card in Halls Gap. Although familiar they remain fascinating. Just like the Echidna they really are different. But these are no throw back to a past age (and neither is the Echidna for that matter), but wonderfully adapted modern animals. The view of marsupials as lowly and inferior to placental mammals is a kind of intellectual colonialism brought from North West Europe. Everything from there was viewed as superior and everything here of lower, dismissible quality. This found its most distasteful expression in the treatment of the native people. They were looked down, mocked and hunted and the same went for the animals they shared this land with.

Kangaroos are built to cope with a variable, low nutrient environment. Unlike their placental betters (!) they are not as energy demanding and can vary their breeding cycles to the lottery of drought, fire and flood. When a kangaroo moves it uses less energy than any other animal of a similar size. Much of the energy is stored and reused in those long legs. Breathing occurs through momentum rather than muscular action, these animals are nature’s great energy savers.
But they are also fun to watch. The adolescent’s fight and spar, playing at being adult, getting ready for the serious business of life. Finding a position in the mob, positioning themselves for the best chance of sex. Here the parallels with human behaviour are clear, it’s Saturday night down at the pub every day of the week, and just like adolescent humans, the fur can fly when tempers flare.

The rain that has fallen this year has triggered reproduction, and most of the females have pouch young. Many were probably already pregnant again, although it may be some time before they female gives birth. In Grey Kangaroos the embryos can enter diapause, a pause in development that will cease when the older offspring permanently leave the pouch. This is not the behaviour of a primitive beast that has only survived because “proper” mammals were not on the scene. We need to consign such thinking to the dustbin of history.

The smaller young, the pouch dwellers, are skittish and frisky. Dividing their time between the wonders of the outside world and the safety of the pouch. They dive, head first into security at the first sign of danger and somehow their heads emerge to survey the scene. When resting in the pouch legs and tails can protrude, giving the females an unbalanced look. Some young even feed on the grass from the warmth of the pouch, breakfast in bed.

At times we even found them under the house - eating soil, scratching at the dry earth. Whatever they were doing it delighted my daughter, but it would have nice to know what they were up to.

Grey Kangaroos became famous as Skippy – The Bush Kangaroo. This remarkably intelligent beast was able to communicate with the rangers at will: “What do you mean Skip, there are poachers in the park? Where are they” “tch, tch, tch tcccch” “Really, by the old mine, I’ll get the helicopter fired up!” But when you look into the eyes of this animal you know there is very little going on in there! Enough to get by and no more.

But I can’t go by the birds, and while my forgetfulness had robbed me of my binoculars, the larger and especially vocal birds are a constant companion. Parrots are a real thrill – I will have become bored of life when it is “only a parrot” or it’s “only a Kookaburra” for that matter. They are never just “only”.
My brother once said he liked herons because if you saw one, you felt like you had actually seen something. The same goes for me and Kookaburras. How can the world’s largest Kingfisher become boring? (“When it wakes you up in the morning” I was once told by a friend “My kids throw rocks at them so they can go back to sleep” – Bushman’s Clock indeed.) The call, their jizz, their personality, make then deeply watchable even when they sit doing very little.
A 45cm (17 inch!) Kingfisher that eats lizards and snakes and lives in one of the driest continents on earth! How can that ever be “only a Kookaburra”?

I visited the Grampians in the spring. For once it was wet. Good weather for duck as my father would have said. And there was evidence to suggest that this time he was right.

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