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.
Black lines loom above us
Blooms are appearing on the wattles by the side of the road and on the tree in the middle of the yard. The activity of the birds increases, week by week, as they intuit the coming of spring. Birds that I don’t know in this dry sandstone country, so different to the rolling hills and green valleys, rainforest, rivers and creeks of Gloucester. I have to start again with our massive, cumbersome Cayley’s What bird is that? ($20 at a second-hand shop many years ago – a purchase that seemed Quixotic at the time – pointless folly – but which has given us hours of entertainment and illumination, even when it has to be cross-checked with the two volumes of A field guide to Australian birds by Peter Slater).
A black and grey flycatcher in the wattle darts out and then, as if it realises it has forgotten something, darts back to the tree. There’s a black and white treecreeper on the gums behind the house, then on the poles near the pizza oven, making its hopping way up and around. When I went down to the chook house I walked past the canopy of a eucalypt full of silent silvereyes, giving themselves away only through the sudden flutter of their wings as they flew from branch to branch. From another tree nearby came a deep and melodious ‘whoo’, rising from ‘wh’ to ‘oo’: a white-headed pigeon, its large white belly puffed out. Closer to the house a different ‘whoo’ – a repetitive, shortened ‘whup whup’, very low, very rhythmic – a bird I’ve heard before and searched for in vain. It’s not the loud and proud wonga pigeon that we used to hear at Gloucester, its unstoppable call filling the valley, but almost the antithesis with its sombre, nearly sub-hearing vibratory noise.
Next to the house there is a little cloud of tiny birds in the eucalypt making their weightless way from leaf to leaf, searching, needle sharp and fast, for insects. Looking up towards the sun it’s hard to make them out, but maybe there are dots, and golden yellow bellies. Maybe they are weebills, or spotted or striated pardalotes. When I consult Cayley I think I can rule out the spotted pardalote, which is described as having ‘a monotonous call-note, like “slee-p ba-bee”’, as they cheeped constantly and vivaciously, but my imprecise ear hasn’t retained the difference between a ‘wit-e-chu’ (striated pardalote) or ‘weebill’ (weebill). Striated pardalotes would be so exotic! Even though they occur all over Australia, I’m yet to see one. I remember my upswelling of jealousy when a visitor to the farm told us of the pardalotes who return every year to his property in Victoria, to nest in a tiny gap in the wall of his house.
I haven’t had one full year here at Tapitallee yet, so I have no way of knowing how the bush has changed over the past 10, 20, 50 years. I can only observe the now. Yet, I’m sure it is changing.
Today’s news story from the Copernicus Climate Change Service says that it looks like July was the warmest July on record, following on from June having being the warmest June on record. Average temperatures in Europe were more than 2 degrees C above ‘normal’ (whatever that is now) and the global-average temperature was about 0.1 degrees C higher than the previous warmest in 2016. A graph on their website showing the daily average temperature for Europe in June has a dark line of dashes snaking above a tangle of other lines – the dark dashes represent 2019, the others represent every fifth year since 1979. The previous warmest year was 1999, but that never reaches the consistent heights of 2019. I can’t help but see the heavy black lines of the warmer years dominating the gentler pink and blue lines of other years, leading them to rise ever higher, a horrible metaphor for our world.
We can see now that climate change isn’t just affecting us this year, or last year, but for many years past. After many years denying the warnings of scientists, and more years believing it was way in the future, we are feeling, not the first faint stirrings, but the full and mature effects of a radical change to the climate.