I’m afraid that for technical reasons I don’t have any of my own pictures to post on here, but once I’ve worked through that issue I’ll do my best to do a small photographic essay covering the first ten days of my family adventure down under.
I have been extremely nerdy and bought a bird book, which I have been gleefully using to identify the birds of Australia. Just the multiple species of parrots I’ve seen is really quite amazing — sulphur-crested cockatoos, crimson rosellas, rainbow lorikeets, Australian king parrots, galahs — the names themselves are glorious, the birds are raucous and beautiful. Add to that wedge-tailed eagles and white-bellied sea eagles, Australian pelicans, and I am a happy person indeed.
It has been very strange not knowing any of the native vegetation. I can now identify eucalyptus, though not more than a couple of species: scribbly-barked, manna, and grey are the ones I’ve seen the most. I can point out a wattle and a banksia, though I have no idea of any of the species of either except the fragrant white-flowered wattle suavolens and the Banksia serrata, which has distinctive foliage. We stayed for a few days in the Blue Mountains with a friend of my mother’s who is a painter and deeply knowledgeable gardener and botanist, and we bored everyone else on a walk through the national park looking at different species of wattles and banksias. But we did see wild lyrebirds and that pleased everyone.
Though I have much to tell of Sydney and the Mornington peninsula southeast of Melbourne, not to mention the coastal and mountain drive between the two, the highlight of the first part of our trip has got to be the Penguin Parade of Phillip Island.
Phillip Island is down a few hours’ drive southeast of Melbourne, quite close to the southernmost tip of mainland Australia, in the pleasingly named state of Victoria. While inhabited and quite touristy, it is also a great nature reserve, and the most impressive part — at least of what we saw — was the place where the little penguins come ashore every night to roost. We weren’t allowed to take our own pictures, alas, but they’re quite delightful creatures.
The little penguins are about the size of small seagulls. They come ashore by the tens and the hundreds at dusk, to go each of them to his own burrow. (The males are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the burrows, to which they return day after day and year after year; the females choose each night.) The highlight is usually the penguins’ journey across the beach to reach the dunes where they roost, but as it was high tide when we were there we didn’t see much besides dark forms flopping across the rocks at the top end of the beach. This was actually quite neat to see, but the amazing thing was when we left the beach-viewing area and headed up to the boardwalks through the dunes.
As it’s autumn in Australia the waters are changing temperature, and to the penguins this suggests it’s breeding time. They actually breed in the spring, but in the fall they have a false breeding season, complete with mating displays, fights, and sex, and this we go to witness. Rather than a handful of penguins coming ashore, hundreds did, in little flocks and individually. Some of them waddle two kilometres inland, while others are within sight of the water.
We stayed watching for an hour, and would have stayed longer except that the rangers were shooing everyone out so they could turn off the lights along the boardwalks and let the penguins roost (or whatever) in peace (or at least away from human interference; they were extremely noisy themselves). It was truly wonderful to see.