Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Bird in the Bush

If you've been reading my blog for long, you know that I've become a bit of a birder during my time in Australia.  With all of the brightly colored parrots nearby, it's hard not to become one.  My favorite bird so far, though, is not fashionably hued or particularly large in size.  In fact, if you saw him on the side of the road, you would just think he was a crow. 

This unassuming little guy is the Satin Bowerbird and his appeal lies in his courtship rituals.  Every spring, he toils away, collecting the perfect twigs to build a bower.  Then, he collects trinkets with which to decorate the walkway to his bower.  There are several species of bowerbirds and some collect shiny objects, some collect bones, and the Satin Bowerbirds collect blue objects. 
Credit: Science/AAAS; (inset) J. J. Harrison/Creative Commons

Scientists have recently discovered that bowerbirds arrange the objects so that the larger ones are further away from the bower.  Thus, when the female is standing inside the bower, the trinkets all appear to be the same size.  This illusion is known as "forced perspective," and the better arranged the objects, the better the chance the male has in attracting a mate.

We've seen quite a few of these bowers and while camping at the beach, we even saw a bowerbird in the midst of a courtship dance.

In case you're wondering, the bower is not a nest.  After the courtship, the female bowerbird goes off to her already built nest and raises her chicks on her own.  Perhaps not the perfect romance, but you have to give the male credit for his blue diligence.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Adventures in Fruit

Summer has arrived in our part of the world.  The days are getting hotter and hotter (and hotter), kids are out of school for the summer holiday, and shark patrols are in full force at beaches around the country.

One less obvious sign of summer is the exotic fruit at our local grocery store.  Drew and I have been eying the strange looking plants for awhile and last week, we decided to take some home.

First up was dragon fruit or pitaya as it is also known.  Although native to the Americas, this fruit is also cultivated in Asian countries as well as Australia.  The skin of the fruit is a vibrant pink and so beautiful that we couldn't resist buying it.  
Consensus on the taste?  The taste was very, very mild...think of the taste of honeydew melon and then water it down...a lot. It has a crunchy texture somewhat reminiscent of watermelon but with seeds like a kiwi fruit.  It would be a nice addition to a fruit salad in the future.  Plus, it makes me think of cookies & cream ice cream.  :-)

Up next was a durian which is known as the "king of fruits" in Southeast Asia, mostly for its size and distinct odor.  The outside of the fruit is quite spiky and hard enough that we needed a knife to open it.
The inside of the durian looked and felt a bit like bread dough.  The smell, though, was overpowering.  It smelled like fruit that is overripe and on it's way to rotten.  It's not a bad smell, just a very intense smell. Within a few minutes of opening it, our entire apartment smelled of durian.  In some countries, it is even illegal to ride public transportation while carrying a durian.
Sign forbidding durians on Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit
photo from
The last strange fruit that we tried were lychees.  Lychees are related to laurel trees and were first cultivated in China. The fruit has a hard outer shell and it looks rather like a bleached grape when you slice open the husk.  The inside of the fruit contains a seed.
This one was my favorite.  Drew likened the taste to "a smoky grape" and I agreed.  It was the perfect afternoon snack food.  Plus, it's high in Vitamin C so I was able to ward off scurvy at the same time.

Speaking of scurvy, our interest in exotic fruit stems from a game that we played awhile back called Puzzle Pirates.  One of the tasks in the game was to acquire tropical fruits such as durians, rambutans (related to lychees), and carambolas (star fruit).

Back in the States, we also tried horned melon, which will forever be known as "green snot fruit" in our house; quince, this one taught us to always look up preparation tips before consuming as quince is too hard and sour to eat raw; and cacao, a fruit whose seeds are the main component of chocolate.
Photos of fruits from Wikipedia

What strange fruits or foods have you tried on your travels?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Flying the Friendlier Skies

When I was a kid, flying was a luxurious adventure.  Free food, nice stewardpeople, an emphasis on customer service, no need to lug heavy bags around. 

Somewhere between childhood and now, flying in the U.S. has lost its charm.  In a world where global travel is increasingly common, it's depressing how uncomfortable we can be made to feel on flights in the States.  Don't get me wrong, I completely understand and appreciate the need for added security.  But somewhere in the rush and fracas and cutbacks, we've forgotten that flying is a pretty awesome thing. 
View from our exit row window as we were flying over Lord Howe Island.  The dark spots in the ocean are the corral reefs.

Here in Oz flying is still magical. 

I've been on five domestic flights since arriving in Australia and they have all been stress-free and relaxing. There is no extra cost for checking luggage on many airlines.  The security lines are short.  Everyone goes through the metal detector, but you don't have to show photo i.d. or bother with taking your shoes off.  In fact, all you need to board a plane is your boarding pass.  I was a bit flabbergasted the first time I flew to Sydney and didn't have to show my driver's license or passport. When I voiced my surprise to the colleague with whom I was flying, he shrugged nonchalantly and said, "It's Australia. We haven't had any terrorist attacks here."

Not only is getting on your plane a much easier and faster process, it's also much friendlier once you are in the air.  Every flight that I've been on has offered complimentary beverages and snacks.  A light breakfast and juice/tea/coffee for flights that take place in the morning, and free alcoholic beverages and meals/snacks for afternoon and evening flights.  (Yes, even on the 40 minute flight between Canberra and Sydney!)
Snack box with Christmas Ginger Bread cookies (plus other tasty food).

The flight attendants themselves are courteous and genuinely want to ensure that your flight is enjoyable. Clearly, customer service is still a priority for airlines here.  I also love how the pilots always check in over the loudspeaker, just to say hello and give you an update on the highlights of what you'll be flying over.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the very glam uniforms that the Qantas stewardesses wear.  The uniforms were designed by Balarinji Studio and are inspired by traditional Aboriginal art.  (Studio owner, Ros Moriarty, has a wonderful book about the Aboriginal experience called Listening to Country that I read before moving to Australia.)  Aren't these dresses beautiful?
We also really enjoyed our Virgin Atlantic flight from Los Angeles to Australia this past June. The flight had extra leg room in economy, a tv on every seat, tons of free movies and tv shows, and a charging station so my ereader never ran out of batteries.  Drew was particularly impressed with the futuristic lighting on our plane which shifted between various soothing colors at night.

If you, too, are missing the good ol' days of air travel, you'll just have to come visit us in Australia!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tasman Sea Creatures: Photos from our Lord Howe Trip

During our trip to Lord Howe Island, we had fun frolicking in the tidal pools and snorkeling over the coral reefs.  Check out some of the amazing animals that we were able to photograph.

Tidal Pool Critters

  1. Anemone Hermit Crab - These crabs attach anemones to their shells for camouflage & protection.
  2. Giant clam - tickle their lips and they squirt water at you.  :)
  3. Orange sea star
  4. Sea urchin - This one had been critically wounded, mostly likely by a starfish, before we found it.  However, it's spines were still moving, making it a ticklish handful.
  5. Blue sea star.  We also saw a Seven-armed Starfish but our picture of it didn't turn out so well.
  6. Nudibranch! (pronounced like 'new-da-brink') These are some of my favorite sea creatures and the different varieties can be very colorful. This particular variety is known as a Sea Hare.
 Fishy Photos Taken With Our Underwater Camera
  1. White Mouth Moray Eel
  2. A Bird Wrasse - so named for it's orange beak-like snout.
  3. butterfly fish - This species is actually quite large tho you can't tell it from this picture.
  4. damselfish that lives on the Blue Staghorn coral
  5. Book Fish - These guys were very territorial and could often be seen chasing other fish away.  They were also pretty fearless and would swim right up to us.
  6. Parrotfish Wrasse or Moon Wrasse (hard to tell)
The Shark That Went Swimming With Andrew
Photo from Wikipedia Commons
Drew has always expressed a somewhat irrational fear of sharks (he makes us take our wedding rings off when we swim in the ocean since sharks are attracted to silver sparkles).  So when we saw a shark swimming near the corral reef at Ned's Beach, I was quite surprised to hear him say that he was still going to get in the water.  I certainly wasn't going to go swimming with sharks!  Feeling confident that the shark was more interested in the fish being fed nearby, Drew swam off towards the reef.  During his swim, he did come face to face with the shark which, to be fair, was only about 4 feet long. Drew stared it down and then followed it for a bit when it swam away, thoroughly enjoying his shark experience.  We later learned that it was a blacktip reef shark.  Blacktip reef sharks are not known to be aggressive and the only reports of shark bites to humans have occurred in murky water.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Christmas on the Corral Reef

Christmas in summer.  Such a weird feeling.  My head still can't get around the flip in seasons.  Instead of feeling homesick and missing the snowy mountains of Boulder, we decided to treat ourselves to a tropical island getaway this Christmas. We packed up our swimsuits and flip flops (thongs as they are called here in Australia, but I will never be able to call them that), and headed to Lord Howe Island.
We took this photo on the last day of our trip - the only sunny day!
Lord Howe Island is a gorgeous little dollop of land, located 370 miles out into the Tasman Sea.  The island is a World Heritage Site, renowned for its coral reefs and mostly untouched forest where several endangered species of bird, plant and insect live.  The conservation board only allows 400 guests on the island at a time.  (We booked our trip quite late and as a result, we had to stay in three different lodges over the course of our visit.)

Even though it rained almost the whole time we were there, that didn't stop us from snorkeling every day.  The coral reefs were beautiful and we must have seen over 100 species of fish.

My favorite was the Blue Staghorn corral.

And the butterflyfish. :)

We also swam with the sea turtles at Old Settlement Beach.

video embedded above, click on post to see

Okay, so even though Lord Howe Island is located in the East Australian Current, it wasn't quite like swimming with the sea turtles in "Finding Nemo."  It was more like this:

One of the more popular beaches on the island is Ned's Beach. At Ned's Beach, people are allowed to feed bread to the fish. As a result of the constant feeding, all sorts of fish swim right up to the shoreline, even massive ones such as Kingfish and Spangled Emperorfish .  Here are some pictures of the feeding frenzy.

We gave the blue one, the Green-blocked Wrasse, the name "Pudge" because he was so chubby and obviously well-fed.  (See video clip below for an explanation of the nickname.)  
video embedded above, click on post to see
We didn't rent a car or bikes while we were there because, at 7 miles long, the island is easily walkable.  During the course of the week, we traversed pretty much every path on the island.
Drew stands on the fence crossing in his Santa hat.  These clever staircases were on cow pasture fences all over the island, allowing hikers easy access to the trails while keeping cows in their fields.  Mandy stands in the middle of the stilt roots of a Walking Palm tree.
The Santa hat garnered us several "G'days!" from young and old alike.  I am 99% sure that it was the hat that encouraged a family in a large van to offer us a ride back into the village on Christmas Day.  Since we were tired from a full day of hiking and snorkeling, the ride was much appreciated.  The family was very friendly and we spent the ride sharing stories about Christmas traditions from home.  Lamb is the meat of choice in Australia for Christmas Day lunch, in case you were wondering.

Speaking of hospitality, the island is one-of-a-kind in that regard. When we arrived at our lodge, the owner gave us a rundown of the facilities and then as he turned to walk away, I called out to him and asked if he had a key for us.  He grinned, standing there in his bare feet, and said, "No keys.  The island is a friendly place and everyone leaves their doors open."  He then offered to lock up anything valuable for us in the main house if we needed, but his bemused look showed that no one ever took him up on that offer.  We encountered similar attitudes at other places, including the Ned's Beach Gear Hire* Shed.  The shed which was open and unmanned all day had glass bottom spyboards, beach umbrellas, snorkeling gear, and wetsuits for rent and an "honesty box" to drop your money into when you paid.

We were also lucky enough to be able to stay at Pinetrees Lodge one night.  Pinetrees is a family run lodge that made me feel like I was living in the 60s, vacationing at a swank resort in the Hamptons.  As I mentioned, we were only there one night, but every staff member that we encountered knew our names.  Meals were included in our stay, and we were treated to a 3 course dinner the night we were there.  (Had we been there on a Friday night, the dinner would have been 4 courses and it would have started with canapes and cocktails at the boatshed on the beach.)
Frangipani flowers 
These grew all over the island and each lodge we stayed in had a few blooms beautifully arranged with red & pink hibiscus flowers.

Despite a mostly cloudy, rainy, and windy week, we managed to find a few rays of sunshine and thoroughly enjoyed our island Christmas.  Best of all, our underwater camera held up through the entire trip even though it was a couple of years old. We enjoyed snorkeling so much that we've started talking about taking scuba diving lessons.  Perhaps that will be our next Christmas-In-Summer holiday**!

Stay tuned for a second post with more photos of the marine life that we encountered.

*You don't "rent" anything in Australia.  Instead, you "hire" gear or services and you "lease" apartments.

**As if our accents didn't already give us away, we were easily identified as Americans whenever we said vacation or vacationing.  In Australia (and much of Europe), you go on holiday.