In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily (sic) direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion. Think of how many of our finest motions disappear, untracked — how many eye blinks and toe twitches and secret glances vanish into nothing. And yet when you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.
and with a camera you can make the most amazing images. If you’ve ever used either do yourself a favour and have a look at the images of a pencil factory made by Christopher Payne (no doubt using digital jujitsu). The words are by John McPhee … they’re optional.
… or for Americans Ass Feet. If you were a torpedo, a ship or a foot propelled diver having the means of propulsion at the rear end has its advantages.
The Great Crested Grebe rejoices in the scientific name Podiceps cristatus … Latin for Crested Arse-foot. Along with the other grebes they are in the Family Podicepididae and the Order Podicepidiformes all celebrating the location of their feet … I did say rejoice.
Penguins are wing propelled divers and one group, the stiff tails, are united in the genus Pygoscelis. If the grebes speak Latin among themselves then the stiff tails speak Greek. You guessed it – Arse-feet. The penguins so blessed are the Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo.
Gentoo, that’s an odd name for a penguin. I’ll come back to it.
Meanwhile, having your feet back there is not without disadvantage for the grebes. They are hopeless on land. The Great Crested Grebe nests at the water’s edge often on a floating mat of reeds tethered to standing reeds. They have freedom in the water and in the air but have surrendered their access to land. Ducks and swans have taken a different evolutionary journey. So have the penguins.
Penguins have surrendered their power of flight. In air that is. Their wings are adapted to flight in water a medium that is 784 times more dense than air (at sea level … such precision!). You can’t do both (which is what my mother said when I told her I wanted to be a musician when I grew up). They (penguins not musicians) need to come ashore to nest. Having their feet where they are enables upright bipedalism and, since they are webbed, they act in the same way as the elevators on the tail plane of fixed wing aircraft. Their feet have ended up in a similar location to the grebes but for quite different reasons and there seems little downside to the arrangement.
Back to the Gentoo, Pygoscelis papua. The scientific name is more easily explained than the common name. A French naturalist, Pierre Sonnerat (1748 – 1814), claimed to have discovered it in new Guinea. Neither he nor the penguin having ever been to New Guinea this seems unlikely.
In Voyage à la Nouvelle-Guinée (1776) Sonnerat details an expedition to the Spice Islands and New Guinea made in 1771. Some of which is pure fiction. The book though, contains good illustrations of three different penguins and the Laughing Kookaburra all signed with his name. The penguins are readily identifiable as the Emperor, King and Gentoo. None of these birds occur in New Guinea.
It seems that he was given the skins of these birds by Sir Joseph Banks at the Cape of Good Hope to pass on to fellow naturalist Dr Philibert Commerson in Mauritius. He duly delivered them to Commerson’s illustrator, Paul Philippe Sanguin de Jossigny who made drawings of them. Poor de Jossigny died unexpectedly. Sonnerat took the opportunity to take the drawings, sign them and pass them off as his own.
When I arrived in Australia the Laughing Kookaburra was rather evocatively called Dacelo gigas but older Scientific names take precedence. So now we have Pygoscelis papua and Dacelo novaeguineae both named after places where they have never been found.
Gentoo is a word that has fallen out of common use it was formerly synonymous with Hindu. Australian Bird Names – A Complete Guide, by Fraser and Gray (CSIRO) suggests that the link between Hindus and the penguin “will remain one of the great mysteries of the universe“. Perhaps the head pattern reminded someone of a turban.
My interest in birds goes way back to primary school in England. The reason for it is totally unfathomable, no one else in the family was so inclined although there were a couple of books about birds in our small collection. At the time I lived in Leyton, London within walking distance of Whipps Cross where there is some residual oak forest and the Hollow Ponds.
I doubt that parents these days would be comfortable with an eight year old wandering off by themselves to go bird watching but it seemed normal enough back then.
There were a couple of birds that I regarded as megastars – the Jay and the Great Crested Grebe. The Jay has a wide distribution across Europe and Asia but doesn’t make it to Australia which is where I now live. The Great Crested Grebe though does.
I went for a walk around Lake Wendouree in Ballarat the other day and there were several pairs swimming about.
We have three species of Grebe in Oz. The Australasian Grebe is the smallest and occurs on shallow freshwater sometimes on surprisingly small ponds. The Hoary-headed Grebe is slightly larger and dives slightly deeper. It occurs on fresh water bodies and is also happy in sheltered salt water. The Great Crested is the largest of the three, dives deeper and is found on lakes rather than ponds.
For the photographer none of the grebes are particularly cooperative. They like a comfortable distance between you and them. When I found myself close to a pair of Great Crested Grebes in some reeds I sat on the bank and waited hoping that they would emerge and give me a shot. Eventually one did …
In concentrating on the first pair I had failed to notice a second pair coming from my right. They were quite close by the time I saw them, their necks stretched out in aggressive pose. Here’s a close up of one of them …
This was a territorial issue. Pair number one retreated into the reeds. Pair number two went in after them, there was a few moments of splashing, unfortunately hidden from my view. Pair number two re-emerged and stood guard for a couple of minutes. The edge of the reeds was clearly the territory boundary.
It was only then, it seemed, that they realised I was there.
The scientific name of the Great Crested Grebe is Podiceps cristatus, wherein lies a story …
There wasn’t a lot of time in Harrietville for birdwatching but as I moved between my accommodation and rehearsal rooms I often encountered a bunch of Scrubwrens at one particular spot. They clearly resented my intrusion and would gather and scold me. I had to get a photograph.
They are denizens of dense vegetation. In eastern Victoria it would be hard to go birding without encountering them. In the drier west of Victoria they are harder to find, streamside vegetation offers the best chance.
They are members of the genus Sericornis named by Gould in 1838. It is from the Greek and means silk bird apparently because of their silky plumage. I have banded many of these birds. Whilst handling them it never seemed to me that they were silkier than other little birds from similar habitats.
Harrietville lies at the foot of the grandly named Australian Alps in north-east Victoria. It got its start as a gold rush town and there are still a working mine or two. Gold was discovered in 1852, it was enough of a town to deserve a post office by 1865. It has a population of around 400 plus a good contingent of tourists at any season. It is a very beautiful spot.
After the alluvial gold was worked out attention turned to some reefs accessed by deep shafts. Then it was the turn of the Tronoh Dredge. This monster was 167 metres long and weighed 4,813 tonnes. It slowly chewed its way forwards to a depth of 41 metres floating in a lake of its own creation. The dredge dumped its tailings behind it. Operating from 1942 to 1954 it recovered 54,000 oz. of gold from the Ovens River flats. It has left a swimming hole for the citizenry to enjoy – it’s reputed to be somewhat chilly.
In 1883 the local Shire was awarded £1000 pounds to double the width of the existing four foot track enabling coaches to access the township. The old coach road pressed on through Harrietville and up the hill. It would have been a rugged ride. Nowadays the Great Alpine Road goes up to the Mount Hotham ski resort and on over the top to Omeo and then descends to the coast.
I was in Harrietville to take part in the 42nd Harrietville Music Camp. It’s run by the Whitehorse Orchestra and goes for an extremely busy week. Musicians enrol in a tutorial group appropriate to their instrument and have the opportunity to play in various ensembles and sing with the choir. There are performances of one sort or another every day leading up to public concerts at the end of the week.
If you visit the Whitehorse Orchestra home page you could get the impression that it is only for the classical musician but this is far from true. One of the ensembles is The Big Band run brilliantly by Geoff Earle who also takes the Saxophone tutorials. The Big Band takes the community by storm at one of Harrietville’s two pubs on the Friday night. It’s a blast.
The classical musicians get their turn at the Bright Community Hall on the Saturday where more formal standards are upheld.
It is a fabulous institution that has won not one international award, not two international awards, not three international awards … but it does deserve one.
Scientific names are modern constructions of Latin or Greek or even Chinese. In fact there are almost no rules governing their construction. Even where they are in Latin or Greek in they would rarely convey much more than a vague description to a native speaker of the classic languages. Eucritta melanolimnes, for instance, translates roughly as “creature from the black lagoon”. The names would convey even less where someone’s surname has been given a faux Latin ending. Which centurion would ever guess that Baeturia laureli and B. hardyi are species of cicada?
Platalea is an exception, it means Spoonbill and was used by Cicero in his De Natura Deorum (45BC).
There are six species of spoonbill in the world. Australia has two.
The Royal and the Yellow-billed Spoonbill. In breeding plumage the Royal does look the more aristocratic of the two.
They both spend a fair amount of time standing on one leg with their bill under the opposite wing. This is when it comes in handy to know that their legs are a good match for their bills. The scientific name of one of them is half way there, flavipes means yellow foot.
They have in the past been called Yellow-legged and Black-legged Spoonbills which had the benefit of being usefully descriptive and avoiding tautology. If I’ve told you once not to repeat yourself I’ve told you a dozen times.
Diamond Firetails are occasional visitors to the neighbourhood. They feed on the ground usually on the margins of open woodland. A small flock will turn up, stick around for a while then move on. In winter flocks may coalesce and transform a familiar place. Next time you visit you may not find any.
I found this group on the outskirts of Maryborough where irrigated farmland abuts some Box/Ironbark Woodland. There were some youngsters among the adults.