Nothing better than parks and penguins, but watch for foxes
On my first day back in the office from Australia, I was encouraged by my employer to “walk like a penguin.”
Meant to remind me to be careful on ice, the advice took me right back Down Under, where I recently visited an urban national park whose highlights include – what else? – penguins, even in the Australian summertime.
Sydney Harbour National Park is a 970-acre park made up of various chunks of land along the shores of the harbor, as well as four islands and part of the waterway that is now designated an aquatic reserve. One of its major attractions is the Manly Scenic Walkway, also known as the Spit Bridge to Manly Walk.
Our class of 14 University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students, plus me and our local guide, Ignacio “Nacho” Perez, took the serpentine 9.5-kilometer walk on an unusually cool Saturday when the temperature barely passed 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The weather was a lucky break for us, as the walk is relatively strenuous, with lots of inclines and declines, including a few steep ones. We made our way through bush, along beaches, up and down cliffs, and through crowded, grassy and tree-filled picnic grounds.
We started at the bridge end of the walk and ended more than three hours later in the suburb of Manly, whose popular beach and shop-filled promenade were a suitable afternoon reward for our sore-footed students.
The park is home to an endangered colony of little penguins, also called little blue penguins or, primarily in Australia, fairy penguins. Their slate-blue plumage distinguishes them as much as their size – an average of about 33 centimeters, or 13 inches.
The smallest species of penguins, these creatures range over most of the southern half of the Australian coast. The largest colony is at Phillip Island in the state of Victoria, with around 32,000 breeding pairs.
The Manly colony, with barely more than 50 pairs, was severely hit by what appeared to be a single fox this past summer, with 27 confirmed penguin kills. A massive effort to trap, bait and shoot the fox was thought to have ended in late June with a fox kill, but a necropsy proved the alleged culprit was not the actual killer.
The attacks did tail off, but a fundraising effort to purchase motion-sensing cameras and more penguin nesting boxes was underway by September.
We didn’t get to see penguins, but we did see plenty of signs – painted by humans on the sidewalks – as we neared Manly beach, warning us to be aware of and avoid disturbing the endangered pelagics.
Our scenery ranged from prolific thickets of smooth, reddish gum trees – which contrasted sharply with and even hid the blue-green waters of the harbor – to suburban neighborhood streets, which intersperse with the shoreline or larger areas of bush. There were several fantastic overlooks that seemed to be far from the city, but often were just around a portion of the trail where a busy urban greenspace suddenly opened up.
This walk is a favorite of both Sydney residents and our department at the university, which has returned to Manly annually for a number of years. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service is easy to find on the Internet and has a full site dedicated to the harbor park with more information than one could peruse quickly.
The website – and, of course, the park – are well worth a visit.
Killing resources is bad news anywhere
The penguin-mauling Australian fox is an apt metaphor for many of our wily but senseless politicians. Two Wisconsin-related resource issues remind us of that. So here – with a mild apology for interrupting the parks reverie – is a brief aside.
The fox was described by a park ranger as a “thrill killer” which did so for the excitement of it rather than survival.
Because a fox is an animal, it’s not correct to characterize its behavior as idiotic, wasteful or anything other than natural. Still, it caused endless frustration and anger among people who care but remain somewhat rational about its impacts.
The fox symbolizes two current regional issues related to recreation and public access to or ownership of resources, although it’s not always easy to see that.
Wisconsin Senate Bill 432 is a companion to Assembly Bill 554, unfortunately scheduled for hearing Jan. 28, that would allow easier privatization of local water systems by outside, for-profit enterprises – and make it very difficult for communities to do anything about it, according to state Sen. Chris Larson.
In light of what has happened to Flint, Mich., and its public water system under a state-appointed administration that superseded local control, this is a scary thought indeed. It’s also useful to remind ourselves of recent state attempts to sell public shoreline to private interests.
Selling off our public drinking water is only a short step from selling off our recreational waters. Both are foolish and dangerous ideas, and as the situation in Flint makes clear, no skewering of the public is beyond the realm of possibility.
Our own senator, Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, sits on the senate Workforce Development Committee, which will consider the senate version of the bill. She needs to hear from us.
A second worrisome issue, despite the good news regarding protection of Wisconsin wolves at 2015’s end – when the federal budget bill left out a delisting of wolves for protection – is recent reintroduction of similar legislation to remove Wyoming and Great Lakes wolves from the protected list.
The brazen part is that our political leaders Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, and John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, seek to disallow any judicial review of the proposed legislation. That’s simply unconstitutional and un-American, but an increasingly common approach by our powers that be.
Johnson and Barrasso are poorly suited for the U.S. Senate – no mean feat, given that body’s recent inability to act in an adult and moral fashion that’s in the public interest.
As I noted in December, no resource is ever permanently safe in this country. It’s time to protect ourselves from the foxes who would thrill-kill our resources.
But enough of that. It’s time for one last pleasant memory of Australia.
Botanical gardens always great endings – and beginnings
A final site worth noting from our southern trip is the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, one of our destinations on Jan. 16, our last full day in the country.
Set in the heart of downtown, on the opposite side of the harbor from most of Sydney Harbour National Park, the 74-acre institution is one of the world’s foremost botanical collections and the oldest scientific institution in the country. The park celebrates its bicentennial this year.
Best of all, it’s free and delightful. It was a site I’d intended to visit well before our formal tour, because I knew I’d want to wander on my own.
Unfortunately, I got sidetracked by too many other Aussie offerings and got little more than our one-hour guided walk.
If a visitor were to spend only one or two days in Sydney, this would probably be among the must-sees, especially as it borders the spit of land on which the city’s iconic opera house sits and includes fascinating exhibits that relate a great deal about early Australian life and its current environment.
Whether it’s plants that helped Aboriginals thrive in an ostensibly unlivable environment or some of the botanical imports (like the prickly pear) that wreaked havoc on Australia’s natural world, the garden’s offerings are fascinating.
And, of course, beautiful.
Ferns, palms, orchids, lotuses. An herb garden. A hand-hewn, curving seawall on the harbor. A restaurant. Fountains and benches and plenty of public art. Endangered cycads that have been growing on Earth since before dinosaurs arrived. A “pine” tree whose ancestors appeared almost as long ago and was known only through the fossil record, but was discovered living in the Blue Mountains in 1994.
There’s no way a single column or a single visit can do justice to this site.
But if you never get a chance to go, there are always closer botanical gardens – Olbrich in Madison, Boerner in Hales Corners, Rotary in Janesville, Paine Art Center in Oshkosh, Green Bay.
The Robert W. Monk Gardens in Wausau are relatively new but have year-round activities, including luminary evening snowshoe walks.
Australia was great, but it’s great to be back home, too. I missed a lot of interesting, important and beautiful things, so next week will be an all-area column.