Monday, November 8, 2010

Victorian Twitchathon 2010.

On the 6th and 7th of November 2010, myself and my team 'The Bob Hawks' embarked on a mission: to see as many bird species in Victoria as is humanly possible in 24-hours. This is what is known as a Twitchathon and is run every year by Birds Australia to raise money for bird conservation. 'Twitch' is a verb meaning to travel a distance specifically to spot a particular bird species. This year's donations are going towards the critically endangered Orange-bellied Parrot, a bird that spends its winters at the Western Treatment Plant at Werribee where myself and my team all work. This is a species which is close to our hearts and we were determined not to let them down. We started the race at 4:00pm at the Western Treatment Plant (WTP) with high spirits. If only we could have foreseen the trials and hardships awaiting us.

Western Treatment Plant, 54 species.
It is testament to the incredible diversity and good management of habitats at WTP that our two best birds for the entire race were spotted within our first half hour there. One of these was the improbably named Ruddy Turnstone, a rather handsome shorebird which inhabits the exposed tidal flats along the coast at Pt. Wilson with a lot of other frustratingly similar looking shorebirds. We saw a pair of these guys hanging around with a huge flock of Red-necked Stints (they literally have red necks; they're not bogan birds) and a couple of Curlew Sandpipers. We followed the coast along and picked up some more shorebirds and it was during our drive through the coastal saltmarsh that we set our eyes upon a striking olive parrot with deep blue wings - the Blue-winged Parrot. None of us had ever seen this species before and it is very rarely seen at this site, so this was a fantastic start to the race. The Blue-winged Parrot is from the same genus as the Orange-bellied Parrot, Neophema. This clearly represented a fortuitous omen for our team.

Another important species to note is the Sacred Kingfisher. You see, earlier this year when I was very much a novice twitcher I was out on a bus trip with a bunch of birdos accompanied by a Birds Australia representative. We were driving along Farm Road at WTP when I saw a small, blue bird with a long, straight beak. "Check it out!" I said. "A Sacred Kingfisher! What are the odds?". The Birds Australia guy was dismissive, assured me that I couldn't possibly have seen a Sacred Kingfisher at this site and told me that only a moron who couldn't tell an Emu from an Emu-wren would make this mistake. (I made that last bit up, but needless to say it was quite a blow to the ego). Anyway, it turns out that there are Sacred Kingfishers hanging around the plant and that they had been seen the week before by two of the team as well. Vindication is so gratifying.

We picked up a few more good species such as Common Greenshank, Australasian Gannet, and Blue-Billed Duck - a lone individual which appeared to the naked eye as a dot on the horizon, singled out by Richard 'Eagle Eye' Akers. We left Werribee half an hour later than scheduled and sped (within reasonable risk-assessment approved parameters, of course) to the You Yangs.

The You Yangs, 72 species.
The You Yangs are a big pile of granite boulders found to the west of Melbourne. The rain shadow created by the Otway Ranges to the southwest results in a very dry kind of grassland/woodland which is uncommon in Victoria and results in a unique suite of birds. We got some great arid-adapted parrots from here such as Purple-crowned Lorikeet, Musk Lorikeet and Eastern Rosella. We also ticked* Australia's largest eagle, The Wedge-tailed, on the drive in.

(* This is twitcher parlance for ticked off on our list.)

The presence of a pair of resident Tawny Frogmouths at the entrance of the You Yangs are pretty much as reliable a tick as there can be. However, we were always mindful of the fact that just because you saw a particular bird at a particular location, there's no guarantee that you'll see it at that spot again. (Well, we said that, but there were some species we secretly thought were dead certs.) Naturally enough on the day of the Twitchathon the Tawnies decided to go on holidays or something and were not there greeting us at the entrance. But for every bird you expect to see but don't, there are always surprising birds which show up without warning. In this case it was the Crested Shrike-tit, a beautiful bird with bright yellow plumage contrasted with stark black and white stripes and, you guessed it, a prominent crest.


Mt. Rothwell, 79 species.We raced from the You Yangs to Mt. Rothwell sanctuary, 400 hectares of remnant grassland surrounded by a predator-proof fence. The sanctuary is mainly aimed at preserving native marsupials but the absence of predators makes it very appealing to birds too. It was getting close to dusk at this point and we were running out of good daylight hours. This time tends to be a bit of lull for bird activity so we were racing after anything that moved. Chris thought we had a good chance of picking up Diamond Firetails, a native finch. We didn't, but right at the entrance we were surprised to see a flock of Zebra Finch - funny how these things balance out sometimes.

We scurried around the sanctuary in the fading light desperately trying to pick up some more species, but didn't get many apart from Striated Pardalote (another surprise) and Brown Treecreeper. We kept clinging on to the hope that we'd get some more ticks but only succeeded in flushing out a few startled bettongs who at this time of night were just starting to get active. This was our last site on the west of Melbourne and we decided to make our way to Badger Weir in the east for nocturnal species after making one crucial detour.

St. Kilda, 80 species.
On or way across town, we stopped in at St. Kilda to pick up Little Penguin from the colony that has established itself in the breakwater at the pier. This was a big detour for one bird, but given that none of us had any experience in sighting nocturnal birds, the Little Penguin represented a reliable and instantly recognisable tick without too much hassle. We walked down the pier, saw a number of these iconic birds and then made our way back to the car to continue the trip to Badger Weir. On the way out we thought we heard some intriguing and exotic nocturnal bird-calls  but these just turned out to be the drunken revellers of St. Kilda (or 'Spangled Drongos' as Chris suggested). They may well have been mating calls of some kind, but they weren't exactly what we were after.

Badger Weir, 94 species.
We took the long drive to Healesville and got to Badger Weir at around midnight. After the balmy climate of St. Kilda, the wet-temperate forest was feeling a little chilly, so we rugged up in all of our warmest gear, grabbed some torches and a spotlight and made our way into the woods in the hope of catching some owls or nightjars. It was a gorgeous night, perfect for our task. It was dry, quiet and absolutely still; surely we couldn't fail but spot or hear any nocturnal birds in our midst? But alas, maybe we were too late, maybe we were in the wrong part of the forest, maybe we smelled after having run around after birds all day. Whatever the reason, we didn't see or hear a single nocturnal bird during our night walk. (We did hear a call which may well have been a Sooty Owl, but it was not well-heard by the whole team and none of us are experienced enough with these species to confirm the call). We did see a wombat, a couple of possums and some moths the size of sparrows - one of the latter we later saw splattered on the grill of the Outlander which haunts me to this day. After calling it a night we set up some tents so that we could sleep for three hours before the birds started getting active at dawn.

We got up at dawn feeling fresh, excited and fully functional without the slightest need for a strong coffee and set out to find the early birds. Badger Weir is great for temperate rainforest birds and we were met with Superb Lyrebird, Golden Whistlers and a flock of King Parrot. There were also many small scrub-birds perching high in the trees which are hard to distinguish and can easily cause rifts between team members who can see them clearly and identify them and those who can't. Obviously such petty disputes were far too insignificant to disrupt the camaraderie of our group and we remain the best of friends. (Just don't mention 'White-throated Treecreeper' in polite company).

It was probably at around this site that the team developed an irrational hatred of the Grey Fantail. The Grey Fantail is a delightful little bird closely related to the ubiquitous Willy Wagtail and common to different forests habitats all over Australia. We ticked off our first Grey Fantail at Badger Weir and were very happy to do so. But after having seen what seemed like hundreds of them at our various sites and mistaking their movements in the trees for something exciting that we hadn't seen yet, we started downright despising them for leading us on. At one point we even considered naming our team 'The Grey Fantail Eradication Society' and demanding that the money we raised be used to wipe the little buggers off the face of the earth. Not that there's any animosity now, mind you (Donations to the Grey Fantail Eradication Society can be made directly to

Coranderrk Bushlands, 103 species.
We drove just a little way down the road to check out the Coranderrk, an area of managed bushland adjacent to Healesville Sanctuary which isn't open to the public (what can I say, I have connections). Amusingly enough, although we were about to enter an area which is known to be inhabited by a huge number of great bird species, we were starting to get paranoid that we would miss common birds like the Rainbow Lorikeet. As we drove to the gate at the side of the sanctuary we passed a couple of houses and lo and behold we spotted a group of the lorikeets in one of the front yards! It was a strange irony that the most common birds were the species that got the loudest response because we were so afraid we'd miss them and have shameful gaps in our final list. As we were waiting for the gate to be opened by a staff member of the sanctuary we spotted a female Satin Bowerbird foraging a couple of metres down the fence-line. We didn't cheer at all. Well, it's not exactly as exciting as a Rainbow Lorikeet is it*?

(*For non-bird nerds: this is sarcasm.)

We saw a number of good species in the Coranderrk such as Sacred Kingfisher and King Parrot (and bloody Grey Fantails) but as we were onto our second day of twitching, we had already seen these species and weren't getting as many new ticks as the day before. The Twitchathon is a game of exponentially diminishing returns and we had hit the critical mass after which new ticks become very hard to get. We decided to get to our next location quickly and grab some new ticks from a new and totally different habitat type. We jumped in the car and headed for Bunyip State Forest. Bunyip is made up of mostly swamp heathland; a habitat we hadn't covered yet. Plenty of new ticks seemed inevitable.


Bunyip State Park, 105 species.We got to Bunyip State Park at lunchtime with the specific aim of ticking Southern Emu Wren, a cute little scrub-bird with long wispy tail feathers. As we walked around the heathland it slowly dawned on us: there was not a single active bird in the entire state forest (except for, predictably, Grey Fantail). It was the middle of the day and this is basically dead-time to birds and as a result, bird watchers. We trudged along the track with morale at an all-time low. We saw a gate leading back onto the road and we thought about just leaving and cutting our losses. Some idiot suggested to continue on the track, complete the circuit and then leave. We saw a couple of Whistlers that we had ticked earlier (and more bloody Grey Fantails) but not much else. Around one corner a large greyish bird squawked and flew into view - a Grey Currawong! We had seen Pied Currawong earlier but not the grey variety so we breathed a sigh of relief at getting at least one tick for the site. This was followed by a long stint* of ticklessness punctuated by the first sighting of a White-eared Honeyeater right before the exit. This was nice, but our spirits had been well and truly broken by this point and we have vowed to learn from this experience for next year.

(*Not the good kind of Stint which we had sighted earlier at Werribee.)

Some random dam, 107 species.We had planned fairly loosely for our trip and after Bunyip we were pretty much playing it by ear. We reasoned that we'd done 'Victorian forest environments' pretty thoroughly and we needed a totally different habitat type, so we made the decision to head to the coast and try and pick up some seabirds. We were still mindful of all the common urban birds that we had missed and were listing them off so we could try and get them as we drove through civilised areas. One of these was Dusky Moorhen, a common inhabitant of pretty much every ornamental body of water in Melbourne. As we were driving we spied a dark figure in a dam on the way out of Bunyip. "Stop the car!" Richie slammed on the brakes and we backed up to get a better view. It was a Dusky! But there was more; Chris caught sight of a diminutive water-bird in the foreground - Australasian Grebe! Werribee had been uncharacteristically bereft of grebes, so this was a new one too. We came to the bitter realisation that this nondescript dam in the middle of regional Victoria was as abundant with new birds as was Bunyip State Park. We also subsequently found out that this dam was part of Mill Valley Ranch Christian Camp. Truly these sightings were a gift from God.

Edithvale-Seaford Wetlands, 112 species.
As it was on our way to the coast, we planned to make a quick stop at the Edithvale-Seaford Wetlands on the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay. It was getting close to crunch-time and we were getting very nervous about one last urban bird: Rock Dove AKA Feral Pigeon AKA 'rats of the sky'. What could be more shameful than handing in a final tally without this most common of common birds? This is my justification for the carload of twitchers driving through Frankston on Sunday with binoculars aimed out the window pointing at the tops of the skankiest, most poo-covered buildings we could see, shouting 'IS THAT ONE? IS THAT ONE?'. Shockingly enough, we saw one fairly soon after we entered suburbia. The cheer we summoned for the lowly pigeon was louder than what we managed for the Blue-winged Parrot and Ruddy Turnstone combined. This is the sort of behaviour one is driven to when competing in a Twitchathon.

We made it to the wetlands, grabbed our trusty scope and quickly picked up Australasian Shoveler and Hoary-headed Grebe - waterbirds that we expected to see at Werribee but didn't. We also ticked off Little Wattlebirds hanging around the eucalypts in the car-park. We were absolutely exhilarated to get this many ticks this late in the game. We only had an hour and half to go so we jumped back in the car and sped off to the coast at Mordialloc where a number of rare vagrant seabirds had turned up lately.

Mordialloc, 114 species.
We showed up at Mordialloc, I dropped my binoculars on the ground and broke them, grabbed a spare pair and sprinted to the beach. (Well, we didn't so much sprint as 'stumbled like zombies who had been twitching for nearly 24 hours straight' but it's close enough). The seagulls at the beach may just look like seagulls to you, but amongst them there are often other birds hiding such as terns. We did see some Crested Terns, but we had already picked them up at Werribee the previous afternoon. We thought we had a pretty good chance of picking up Pacific Gulls - bigger than garden variety gulls, which are Silver Gulls, and with a massive beak with a red spot on it. Sure enough Richie pointed us off into the distance and we saw a bulky grey and white bird dwarfing the Silver Gulls around it. We kept walking along the beach to scan the mobs of gulls for different species but had no more luck. While looking however, we saw a dainty little olive green bird with a white eye-ring darting in amongst the saltbush growing along the beach. It was a Silvereye, which is apparently quite a common urban bird in some parts of Melbourne, but that had slipped our mind as a potential tick. Tick no. 114!

We realised that we had run out of flocks to scan and we only had about half an hour left. We had two options: wring one last desperate twitching attempt out of that half hour, or give up and get ice cream. Inexplicably, we chose the former. We drove down the coast a little further to Ricketts Point in Beaumaris to get a good vantage point for more seabirds. There were actually a good number of birds hanging around such as Rainbow Lorikeets, Pelicans, Little Black Cormorants, more Crested Terns and a Pacific Gull which one observer, clearly grasping at straws, suggested might be a White-bellied Sea-Eagle (I was very, very tired). But no new birds. We were still fervently searching the shore when it turned 4:00pm, the end of the race.

We had got 114 species in 24-hours which we were all very happy with. Additionally, we learnt many lessons that we are already eager to implement for next year's Twitchathon and we raised a tidy sum of money for the conservation of the Orange-bellied Parrot. Now, if only we can find a way to reduce the numbers of Grey Fantails...

(All photos courtesty of Richard Akers, 2010)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

This Rugged Coast: The Coral Sea

Due to the myopic vision of the clowns in control of Channel Seven's programming schedule, This Rugged Coast is no longer being aired. It ceased without warning several weeks ago and I was lucky enough to tape the final precious episode: 'The Coral Sea'. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't disappointed. This episode had everything I had come to expect from Ben Cropp and his team - and then some; shipwrecks, an underwater funk soundtrack, the hand-feeding of sharks and a camera-man who lingers a little too long on a bikini-clad Lynn when he's supposed to be filming manta rays. (Although, the continuity is a shambles; last week they had a ship's cat named Skipper and now they've got a different cat named 'Streaker' and a ship's dog named Scruffy??)

The music this week is slightly more sophisticated and subtle than previous episodes and occasionally even reaches Libaek-esque heights of excellence. For example, there's an incidental harmonica melody which is very much in the vein of Libaek's 1965 Nature Walkabout soundtrack. There is also a pervasive funk influence consisting of electric guitars with wah and overdrive, various vintage synths and dominating, sea-snakey bass-lines. The earlier tunes were adopting a faux-Latin American folk sound (You know the drill: “Strum some major chords on that acoustic guitar and get the flute guy to play some bullshit on this pan-pipe I bought on holiday, ”) which is very reminiscent of some of the tunes from The Peter Thomas Orchestra's soundtrack to Chariots Of The Gods?.

The aforementioned scene featuring Lynn diving with manta rays starts with this lite Latin feel – acoustic guitar, trumpet melody, a bit of primitive sounding percussion – and then segues into a great female vocal melody which leads into haunting choral harmonies not dissimilar to Martin Denny's Enchanted Sea. It's a gorgeous piece of music which works brilliantly in its context. It's also that rare section which is almost uninterrupted by the show's narration, although admittedly there is a brief, cringe-inducing moment when narrator Leonard Teale effuses “Maiden and monster frolic together in a scene of breath-taking beauty”. Will someone please track this stuff down and release a remastered version on CD?

I was specifically looking forward to this episode because I read in the TV guide that our fearless crew were going to be hand-feeding sharks. This activity was instigated by Wally, last week's expert whose expertise apparently involves needlessly handling the most lethal organisms on earth. It takes a special breed of man to seek out a shark and then, almost suicidally, attempt to feed them by hand. Wally Gibbons is that kind of man.” Teale informs us, “The kind of man with balls the size of Giant Sea-urchins,” Well, I obviously made that last bit up, but that's what he would have said if he wasn't too busy ad-libbing crappy attempts at comic relief every five minutes.

[Prime example of crappy attempts at comic relief #1: A brief scene shows Scruffy ("an old sea dog") wearing glasses and "brush[ing] up on his techniques" from the Ben Cropp authored 'Handbook For Skindivers' as Leonard chuckles – not only not funny, but also gratuitous product placement.]

Anyway, Wally starts hand-feeding sharks, an act that has, for some unknowable reason, “never before been attempted”. The sharks eventually work themselves into a frenzy. Everything gets a little heated and, as I've come to expect from this show, Wally's hand is slightly lacerated. The hand-feeding is cut short (no pun intended) and the crew resurfaces.

In a rare example of practical insight, the crew moves away from the sharks and into the safer world of shipwreck exploration. They find the wreck of the SS Yongala, a passenger ship which sunk off the coast of Queensland in 1911. While some great ambient background music is played, a number of different relics are found including intact glass lanterns, porthole frames and china plates. [Prime example of crappy attempts at comic relief #2: Cue shot of barnacle encrusted toilets on shipwreck. Cue Leonard: “Perhaps for the convenience of passing divers?” You see what he did there?] The best item is the ship's bell recovered by Wally and slowly revealed to the viewer as the crew clean off all the seaweed and corals. It's a really amazing moment of marine archaeology and I tip my hat to the Rugged Coast crew for their achievements in this area. Let's hope Channel Seven have a gap in their late-night schedule soon, so this fascinating show can once again enthral Australian audiences.

This Rugged Coast interesting facts:
  • Crew member Neville Coleman has a species of commensal shrimp named after him which lives exclusively on a particular species of poisonous sea-urchin.
  • Lynn Patterson is the sound engineer.
  • If you put your hands into a shark's mouth, you will almost certainly sustain some kind of injury.

Dedicated to the memory of Wally Gibbons 1930-2006.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This Rugged Coast: The Night Prowlers

It hardly seems possible, but this week's episode of This Rugged Coast was even more exciting and eye-opening than the last. It was all there: the bright orange wetsuits, the hilariously dated narration and a crew who approach the creatures of the ocean like kids in a teddy-bear store. In this week's episode 'The Night Prowlers', Ben Cropp's crew unnecessarily handle a sea-snake, a giant sea-slug, a carpet shark, a parrotfish, a sea-turtle and provoke pufferfish to defensively inflate themselves on no less than four occasions. There's also some pretty amazing film of the denizens of the Great Barrier Reef at night and some excellent vintage soundtrack music.
The mission for the crew this week was to film the nocturnal activities of the inhabitants of the reef community – relatively unknown territory during the late seventies when this was filmed. The dark, mysterious nature of the documentary's subject matter brought out the best in the soundtrack composer for the series, although he/she is never credited at any point during the show. The instrumentation consists of old synthesiser drum machines, a raft of flute melodies, some funky overdriven guitar more often than not fed through a wah pedal, plenty of exotic percussion and of course, a bunch of high-pitched sci-fi noises. When was it that the world-wide soundtrack composing community reached the consensus that nothing conveys otherworldliness like a kid with ADHD going to town on a theremin? Anyway, the music is excellent and certainly one of the main reasons I was drawn into this show. It's not as sophisticated or developed as the work of Sven Libaek, Felix Ookean or Edward Williams, but it has a low-fi, provincial charm - much like the show itself.
When I first saw the show last week, I was taken aback by the total lack of respect the Rugged Coast crew had for local marine life. This week was even worse. I know it was the seventies, but come on, grabbing onto struggling sea-turtles and trying to get them to tow you? I think even Steve Irwin would cringe (may he rest in peace). And sure, we've all thought about hugging a parrotfish, but I just don't think it's appropriate for scientists to disrupt marine life in this way. Then again, at least the parrotfish get hugs, the sea-slugs get nothing but disdain: "It looks a little like a UFO hovering over a lunar landscape, […] perhaps it will glide off like a magic carpet. But it's not a magic carpet or a UFO and it hits the ground with a thud like the slug it is". Fair go, the slug's just been manhandled by some joker in a day-glo wetsuit and has an industrial-grade light shining into whatever kind of optical receptors sea-slugs have, I imagine he's a little disoriented.
In fact, I think I blame most of my criticisms of this show on the voiceover guy (who I subsequently found out is Leonard Teale, best known for his role as Senior Detective David Mackay in Homicide). The audio from Cropp on the show generally sounds reasonable and informed, whereas most of the cheesy and/or anachronistic lines from this show come straight from Leonard. The most amusing aspect of his delivery is probably the candid sexism directed towards Cropp's bikini clad crew of blonde scientific experts. For example, Lynne is swimming in the water hand-feeding batfish and the fish appear to be getting friendly with her. Teale wryly asks, "Now where did the expression 'cold fish' come from, eh?". Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more Leonard. It's just not the sort of thing I'm use to hearing in nature documentaries. And don't tell me it's just a product of it's time either because I don't recall Attenborough ever saying anything on Life On Earth like "we've seen a huge migration of song-birds into this area of late. I've definitely seen some Great Tits amongst our crew, let me tell you."
But back to irresponsible treatment of animals, the episode ends with a series of encounters by this week's expert, Wally. I thought Hal from last week had balls when he started grabbing sea-snakes by the tail, but this guy was something else. Wally assures us that if you know what you're doing, animals such as scorpionfish and butterfly cod (AKA some of the most venomous fish in the world) can be 'handled with impunity'. Wally goes on to show us he's serious by toying with a scorpionfish for a little while before getting bored and moving onto a unicornfish. The unicornfish is not venomous, but does possess a formidable spike protruding from its forehead. Wally attempts to restrain the unicornfish by grabbing it by the horn and in a totally unforeseeable turn of events, cuts his hand to buggery. Predictably, the blood causes sharks to turn up. Even more predictably, Teale's voiceover reaches a melodramatic crescendo. The crew evacuates as footage of the sharks is edited to make them appear closer than they actually are. Leonard laments: "In their studies of night prowlers, the crew never realised that they would be the victims." A truly unexpected conclusion. [Cut to pitch-bended synths and run credits].

Friday, April 16, 2010

This Rugged Coast: The Coral Labyrinth

My new favourite album, which I have mentioned previously on this blog (and to anyone who'll listen to me), is Inner Space by Sven Libaek. I found out a while ago that moves were afoot to release a DVD version of Inner Space - the Australian oceanic documentary series from the seventies for which Libaek's brilliant soundtrack was scored. But while we're waiting for that, there is currently a piece of vintage seventies marine documentary film-making brilliance being shown on free-to-air tv which is well worth seeing. Ben Cropp's This Rugged Coast can be seen on Channel Seven at 12:00am on Tuesday mornings (or 12:00am on Monday nights depending on how you want to look at it) and is an amazing glimpse into a world of high contrast oceanic cinematography, scantily-clad Aussie scientists (and that's just the blokes) and a beautiful undersea world framed by coral and inhabited by a myriad of sea creatures.

The crew is lead by Cropp perpetually standing alert at the helm in nothing but skimpy bathers and a beard, smoking a pipe and continually lifting his binoculars skyward and scanning the horizon for anything film-worthy. The watery, blue depths are his domain and he presides over them like a tanned Antipodean Neptune. He is joined by Hal the fearless sea-snake expert with a perplexing accent and thick-rimmed glasses, a crew that seems to consist mainly of beach-belles in bikinis (it wasn't clear at first what their capacity on-board was, but Lynn was credited with 'sound' so I can only assume the other girls are equally technically equipped), guys with beards who look like they know a thing or two about boats and of course the ship's cat, Skipper. In tonight's episode, our crew are venturing around a treacherous maze of coral reefs called 'The Coral Labyrinth' (the name is repeated at every opportunity by the voice-over guy who pronounces it 'Lab-ee-rinth' with a faintly rolled 'r'.)

The sequence where Ben and Hal are trying to tag sea-snakes was particularly illuminating. I don't know much about sea-snakes, but the one thing that I do know is that they are extremely venemous. Presumably this film was made in the dawn of sea-snake research before this fact was widely known because our intrepid scientists handle the snakes like they are kittens. In a shock twist, Hal has a bit of a scuffle with one of the sea-snakes and thinks he has been bitten. The quickest way to diagnose this, we are informed, is to mix a venom indicator with a urine sample which will turn red if venom is present. The next scene bizarrely features Hal proudly brandishing a jam-jar full of his own urine to the amazed crew for several minutes. Entertainment is surely scarce on these missions. "No colour. Looks like I didn't get bitten" explains Hal. Ben quips: "Looks like you could do with some new kidneys though!" Laughs all round. Oh, you scamps.

I feel almost naive to admit that I was a little shocked by the lack of conservation values amongst the Rugged Coast crew. At one point in their journey through the labyrinth, the anchor is stuck under a section of reef. The anchor is simply hauled up until it smashes through the coral. We are shown the underwater perspective and it's not insignificant damage. There's a constant juxtaposition between a genuine love for the ocean environment and an overarching carelessness. We see one of the girls shoot a spear right through a large reef fish for their dinner - practical certainly, but still enough to cause a child of the nineties to wince a little - to which the voice-over guy just chuckles and glibly states "They make it all look so easy". Later on Ben and the girls go on a field-trip to a colony of gannets located on a tiny, isolated island where they proceed to tease the young chicks and generally disrupt the nesting adults. Maybe I should just chuckle along and look nostalgically back at a golden era when you could hassle marine life for kicks and no one would think less of you. (Cropp has been hailed in recent years for his conservation efforts, so perhaps it was just a product of its time.)

If any of this sounds interesting, you'll be happy to know that even if you miss this show on its late-night broadcast, you can actually contact Ben Cropp through his website and get VHS tapes and DVDs of his many documentaries - and he'll even sign them! Unfortunately, he isn't offering this particular series for sale, but you'll be happy to know that I'm going to start taping them every week from know on and I'm more than happy to furnish you with a copy (signed, obviously).

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Music From Life On Earth - Edward Williams (1979)

As loathe as I am to talk about ‘fate’ or any such nonsense, sometimes random chance can cause things to align nicely and it makes your day. I saw David Attenborough’s classic 1979 documentary series ‘Life On Earth’ for the first time late last year (snippets shown in undergrad zoology notwithstanding). Since really getting into the soundtrack to the 1999 documentary Walking With Dinosaurs I have been more conscious of the music underscoring these shows. The music on Life On Earth sounded great and I wondered if the soundtrack would be easily found. To my surprise I found that the soundtrack had been released, for the first time, about a month before I had first watched it.
So the story goes, the soundtrack was never released in '79 when the show came out, but the composer, Edward Williams, had about 100 LPs privately pressed for members of the orchestra who wanted one. Fast forward 40 years later and a bunch of record nerds in the UK have turned up a copy of one of these in a charity shop (who would have given it away?). Johnny Trunk of Trunk Records managed to get his hands on a copy and negotiated a re-release of the album. I’d never heard of him before this, but as far as I’m concerned he’s a bloody philanthropist of the highest calibre.
But what about the music? The album is probably best heard as one continuous suite – although I’m sure any of the tracks would be pleasantly surprising additions to mix CDs and playlists, the opening theme fanfare in particular makes a great opener. The album is orchestral, but with an experimental edge and a distinctively late-seventies sound. The early tracks illustrating the rise of multicellular life are beautifully ethereal and haunting with effectively creepy electronic percussive noises festooning orchestral harp and flute. The instruments comprise strings, vibes, oboes, flute and loads of miscellaneous percussion instruments, all of which are complemented by William’s excursions into early electronic instrumentation. It all creates a great atmosphere and conjures up images of dancing ciliates, unfurling ferns and ascending mammals all being lead onward by the great David Attenborough. This is exactly the sort of thing that should be dusted off and re-released but so often isn't.
For fans of nature documentary soundtracks see: Sven Libaek & Felix Ookean.