At dusk – that soft time of day when the fading light brings out the fantastical – a wombat wandered into the yard. I saw it under the wattle tree – yellow flowers reduced to grey, billowing scent and heady hum of bees vanished with the setting sun – tugging at a tuft of grass, scratching the hard earth with its no-nonsense paws. I crept off the balcony and slowly made my way across the yard. The wombat gave no sign of seeing me, yet somehow the distance between us never varied. I would creep, it would waddle nonchalantly, even stopping to attack another clump of grass, but I didn’t seem to get any closer. It went around the end of the shed, past the chairs that it had clearly knocked over on a previous expedition. I thought to cut it off at the pass, but it veered off, again turning its large square rump to me.
It made me realise I know very little about wombats. Could it hear me, or see me, or detect me in some other way? Or was it simply unafraid? All I knew of wombats I had learnt in Tasmania, at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary (‘Here, knock on that’, the assistant invited us, and we each took a turn of knocking on the thick square bony bum of the obliging wombat, each of us astounded in turn by its solidity. ‘If it’s in danger it ducks into its burrow head first and blocks the entrance with this rump’, she explained. ‘It can crush a dog’s head against the side of burrow,’ she added cheerfully.)
So I turn to the Australian Museum and NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment websites for information on wombats. Ok, so I can’t go further without mentioning that I was intrigued to read the museum’s section on Conversation status – unfortunately not a section on how to converse with wombats, but nevertheless pleasing as it reveals that the Common Wombat (our wombat) is not listed as being under threat, even though its distribution has been greatly diminished in the past 200 years.
From the websites: The wombat is a marsupial with an average length of a metre and an average weight of 26 kg. They are very strong and can run at up to 40km/hr over short distances. Females tend to be slightly larger than males. They are usually seen after sunset, when they leave their burrows to graze. (Yes!) Their main food is fibrous native grasses. They are generally solitary animals, although they can share their burrows. They are very territorial about their feeding grounds, and will defend them aggressively. I like this bit about communication from the Australian Museum:
A warning call is usually a low guttural growl, but when a wombat is alarmed or angered, rasping hiss can also be heard. The animal repeats this high, loud call as it expels air. Sometimes the call can be a more aggressive ‘chikker chikker’ sound and/or a more guttural sound similar to that of an angry brushtail possum. Communication is also apparent between younger animals and their mothers. Young make repeated, softer ‘huh huh’ calls when they lose sight of their mother, and she usually responds in the same manner.
Wombats usually have one joey at a time. It gestates for about 30 days then makes its way to the mother’s pouch, where it grows for up to 10 months. It leaves the pouch after that but remains with its mother for a further 8–10 months before becoming independent. The pouch faces backwards so the joey is protected when the mother is digging (or diving down her burrow). Mating takes place after an exhausting series of chases over a wide area and includes much rump biting.
It’s neither of those websites, but the Wildlife Rescue South Coast website that answers my questions about the wombat’s perception of my stalking presence:
While their eyesight is poor, wombats have a keen sense of smell, excellent hearing and very large brains.
So yes, it knew I was there, it maintained the distance between us, and it was in no danger of me taking a better photograph.