Cheeky Cockatoos

One of the first things that I noticed about Australia was the large number of Cockatoos that were at every stop along our journey.  These white Parrots provided constant entertainment for us and it was always fun to watch them play and interact with each other and for them to occasionally interact with us.

I didn’t know much about Cockatoos but Andrea has one at home.  His name is Mr. Ollie and she told me many stories about his “troublesome” nature.  A huge animal lover (and activist), Andrea told me many stories about the numbers of abandoned Cockatoos and Parrots.  It seems that many people think that they will make a great pet and then find that they are more work than they bargained for.  Andrea told me that research has shown that a Cockatoo is about as smart as a human 2-year-old.  For those of you with children – especially those with children in that age bracket – you know how much work they can be.  Unfortunately, many people just leave these beautiful birds in their cages and eventually the animals go mad.

On our first day we saw a gang of Corellas mobbing a pair of sandals left on the front porch by a European traveler.  Andrea shooed them away and then went up to the door and told the man that he had better secure his footwear or else he would find his sandals in many pieces.  She described the Cockatoo as “a two-year old with a pair of bolt cutters on the front of its face.”  She described how her bird had eaten clothes, seatbelts, sofa cushions, the TV remote, the keys off of her computer, key rings – pretty much anything that has a shiny look or makes a sound when moved.  They like colorful and noisy objects and have an insatiable curiosity.

A few weeks later I was sitting on the porch typing a blog post and a Corella poked his head over the roof  – he had heard the sound of my fingers clicking on the keyboard.  He turned his head sideways and gave a good look; he was entranced by the sound and wanted a better look.  He flew down to my table and walked around from behind the screen to have a look at the whole computer.  He came closer and closer eyeing my wireless mouse, the electric cord and the USB wireless dongle.  As he approached I was afraid he would snatch something and fly off.  I looked around for something to give to him but I only had the bottle cap from my beer.  I held it out using the tips of my fingers.  He waddled over and gingerly took it into his beak and then walked to the end of the table.  He turned his hand upside down – as they do to grasp objects – and then held it and gave it a good look over.  He put it back in his mouth and rolled it around sampling it with his beak and then his tongue.

Some other Corellas spotted him playing with this new “toy” (they have remarkable eyesight)) and flew down to investigate.  Soon a melee occurred and 3 or 4 of the little white Parrots were fighting over this bottle cap, it bounced around and they waddled after it in what looked like an avian football match.

I had gotten the idea to give them a toy after Andrea had a very interesting encounter with them on our second day in Exmouth.

All around the grounds of our lodging areas were seagulls, larks and the white Corellas.  These are Western Corellas and are smaller (about 2/3rds as big) than the Cockatoos around Sydney.  They have an interesting social structure and as you watch them you can begin to identify the social pecking order and how they interact with each other.  The birds can clearly understand the concept of quid pro quo and you can see one preening the feathers of another.  The bird getting the “massage” clearly enjoys it and after 5 minutes or so they switch off.  This shows a high level of intelligence for an animal to be patient enough to give attention to another animal with the ability to rationalize that it will receive reciprocation and have a memory long enough to remember that the work will equal later reward.  And the same is true of the bird to get the massage first; it must give a massage back to keep the other bird happy so that at a later time it will get its massage again.  I think many humans have a hard time grasping this concept.

And as the Corellas come and land on our picnic table Andrea wanted to play with them.  She missed Mr. Ollie and she devised a plan to bring them in close enough to play.  “Anything that makes a ‘crinkling’ noise will get their attention,” she said as she found a piece of cellophane.  She rolled it up and began twisting it to make a plastic crackling sound.  The Corellas all perked up and turned their heads sideways to get a look with one eye.  One bird landed right on the table, and walked up to take the cellophane.  He gave it a tug, flew to the ground and then proceeded to examine and then nibble on it.  He didn’t eat it, just played with it and it was put in the trash once he had lost interest (it didn’t take long).

After the camera came out another Corella flew up and landed on the table.  He logically thought that if the last Corella got the cellophane then surely he would get the camera!  He looked quite excited as the camera had all kinds of little parts and shiny pieces.  As Andrea tried to shoot his photo he was already trying to pull the lens off so that he would have a prize to fly off with.

She looked around and saw a stick nearby and went to retrieve it.  When she brought it back she played with it to make it look much more interesting than a “normal” stick.  The Corellas were fascinated; surely this must be a magical stick if the human woman is playing with it.  One Corella was determined to have it and he flew over to take it.  But Andrea wasn’t ready to give it up, yet.  She let the big bird play tug of war for a bit and then she lifted the stick up so that he was hanging by his beak; he flapped his arms and looked just like a little kid playing with his mom or his dad.  The Corella looked very happy and played back and forth some time before Andrea finally let him have the stick.  Then he played with it a bit and realized that it was indeed just a boring stick and came back to eat the camera.

After that interaction the Corellas seemed to be very comfortable around us.  One day after breakfast I was enjoying my coffee and one came to land on the table and then he just passed out from a long day of playing.  He seemed completely secure and comfortable around me and didn’t mind at all that I was sipping my coffee and moving around a bit; he just nodded off and soon was dreaming.  I could see his little eyelids flutter as he dreamed about eating an Olympus camera.

Because of the high content of iron ore in the soil in Central and Western Australia the earth has a deep red color.  The beautiful white Corellas are constantly playing and foraging on the earth and end up with a bit of a pink color.  On some rainy days we might see one that looked almost red in color especially if they got into the mud.

They were quite the cleaners and would pick every little crumb out of the picnic area.  It is no wonder that we never saw any mice – they all probably starved to death.  The Corellas could spot the tiniest crumb and could pull it out from between the wooden planks on the table and between the bricks on the ground.  Occasionally someone would leave their food unattended and would come back to find it swamped with Corellas, Larks and Seagulls.

Andrea had described to me how her Cockatoo Mr. Ollie does a Tai Chi stretch.  He will stick out one wing and leg and stretch them and then alternate to the other side.  When I finally saw a Corella do the “Tai Chi” move I understood exactly what she meant.  They really do look like they are going Tai Chi when they stretch.  Most animals (dogs and cats for instance) will stretch their entire body at once – the Corellas stretch one side and then take a minute to stretch the other side and then straighten their feathers.

They are really quite remarkable animals and I found them very entertaining to watch.  I can only wonder if I would have ever noticed all of the details were it not for Andrea’s mentioning them to me?  I do look at animals a bit differently after I’ve met her :-)

Andrea sent me this link – it is an incredible Cockatoo story, I hope that you’ll enjoy it as much as I did:

Julius’ Cockatoo story


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Pilbara

From Wikpedia:

The Pilbara (pronounced as “Pillbra”) is a large, dry, thinly populated region in the north of Western Australia known for its vast mineral deposits, in particular iron ore. It is one of nine regions of the Regional Development Commissions Act 1993, and is also a bioregion under the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA).

You cannot begin to understand how vast the Australian Outback is until you drive across it (or some part of it) and see the unending landscape pass by hour after hour.  And so our trip ran along, hour by hour, day by day.  I’m not saying that it was boring, quite to the contrary, we had a smashing time.  I was surrounded by 8 enthusiastic travelers with diverse backgrounds and experiences, an experienced driver and guide, beautiful landscapes, nature and wildlife and interesting stops along the way.  After our unique and rewarding experience with the dolphins at <Monkey Mia> we had several additional stops on our way heading north along the western Australian coast.

Our first stop north of Monkey Mia was the beautiful river that snaked its way in a double horseshoe around a unique geological formation that made a natural archway called Nature’s Window.  We exited our bus and (as at every other stop so far) we were immediately bombarded by thousands of flies.  Not since Iraq had I seen so many flies and I tried my best to ignore them as we walked along the path from the parking lot to the edge of the canyon.  We were parked up high on the mesa above the river bed and as we approached I could see the river as it snaked its way towards us and then away, towards us and then away again.  The green water of the river contrasted against the green scrub-brush and the deep blue sky and I was again reminded of the beauty of this land.

We walked along the foot path and then reached the end of the trail where we saw the archway that we had read about in our brochures on the bus.  I was happily surprised at the structure of the archway as it was not only one of the most unique rock formations that I had ever seen but that it also provided some beautiful and spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

We posed for individual and group photos in front of Nature’s Window (above)  and enjoyed the view for as much time we had before we had to return to our bus to continue our trek north.  Our next stop took us to Shark Bay and an amazing view of a beautiful cove that serves as a shark nursery in the springtime.  While we were out of season to observe sharks the signs said that mother and baby sharks and sand-rays can be observed swimming in the shallow waters from this “high-up” observation area.  The white sands of the coast contrasted beautifully with the shallow green waters and the dark blue water of the deep ocean.

Our next stop took us to (what was described as) a VERY unique geological formation called The Stramatolites.  Sorta like coral reef but much older, the Stramatolites have been around for millions of years.  The plaque at the entrance to the park says that these living rocks are found only here and one other location in the world and this makes these rocks a very rare and unique formation.  Hmmm…  well, I looked at them and they looked like a big pile of rocks to me.  In fact, they didn’t even look like coral reef at all but instead just a pile of rocks just below the ocean’s surface.  We all took a few photos of them, shrugged and then admired the beautiful ocean view.  Fortunately, the park designers built a long 100 meter boardwalk out into the ocean so that visitors could see the Stramatolites.  This boardwalk provided a beautiful walk and access to view the sea beyond the shore that was quite unlike anything that I’d ever seen.  We took the opportunity to make some group photos and to take some photos with friends.  As I look at my photos of the Stramatolites I find that the photos of my fellow travelers are much more interesting.

And so, while I enjoyed the park, I didn’t really think that the Stramatolites were any big deal.  Maybe one has to be a geologist to appreciate them.

Somewhere near Shark Bay I suggested that we pick up a carton of beer for a party at our next overnight stop.  A few of us pitched in (most of us in the back of the bus) and soon we had a cold case of beer.  On a side note, they don’t call a case of beer a “case” of beer in Australia: it is called a “carton.”  A few times I’d said, “I’d like a carton of beer,” and I was met with confused looks.  A case of beer in Australia can also be called a “two-four” but no one seems to know what a case is.  The rules of our Western Exposure Tour explicitly stated that alcohol consumption was not allowed on the bus – so we made sure to keep it on the ‘down low’ so that Mick wouldn’t have plausible deniability.  Having a cold beer while watching the beautiful Australian Outback pass by is certainly a wonderful way to spend some hard-earned vacation time.  Of course, we made sure that our ‘precious cargo’ was belted in for road safety:

Our last stop before Exmouth was the one of the most beautiful that I’d seen so far.  Unfortunately, it was raining.  Our beautiful weather had been dashed by a storm but we decided to take a walk on the beach anyways.  I was most impressed with Coral Bay: the water was so clear and the color was pale baby blue caused by the white sand beneath the shallow water.  I knew that I’d be coming back and I hoped that warmer weather would prevail.  A local jewelry vendor runs a store in Coral Bay and it is the ONLY place where one can find a good deal.  I picked up a beautiful shell necklace for my Mom for Mother’s Day.  Everything else in Coral bay is 100% to 400% higher than in the rest of the world; imagine paying $15 for a hamburger or $8 for a beer.  Mick explained that one man owned most of the town and charged exorbitant rents and prices.  If it wasn’t for the beautiful scenery no one would come.

I have a gazillion pics of Coral Bay but Mom has been after me to post more pics of her son, so here is one for her:

We waded up to our knees in the rain to get past some rocks that separate the beaches and despite the rain we had a smashing time.  I shot this pic of my travel comrades as we trooped back to our tour bus:

Along the way north we chatted and talked and I got to know Michelle and Ronnie from Hong Kong a bit more.  Michelle is an avid photographer and is the only other traveler who was packing an SLR camera.  We compared pics and exchanged pointers and as the sun set we shot some pics to capture the stunning sunsets.  I must have taken a hundred photos of the sunsets this evening and picking out only one or two was very difficult.  As we drove along in our bus with Mick’s soundtrack playing on the stereo I just thought about how beautiful this place was and how lucky I was to have the chance to travel here.


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The Call of the Dolphin

I guess that Monkey Maya is quite a big deal on the Perth to Exmouth circuit as I’d begun to see postcards for it at every gas station and rest stop that we’d pulled over for.  The story is that some fishermen at Monkey Mia gave a few fish to some dolphins a decade or two ago and the dolphins came back the next day.  The fishermen fed them again and the dolphins have returned nearly every day since.  It is (so the tourist brochure says) possible for tourists to have a unique interaction with these swimming mammals – unlike anything found anywhere else in the world.  Unknown to me, there seems to be quite a dolphin craze – especially with the ladies – and most everyone on our bus was nearly ecstatic to have this unique and rare encounter with the dolphins.

We arrived into the evening and found a massive tourist resort that seemed to have lodging to fit every niche: a piece of grass if you want to pitch a tent, dorm rooms for backpackers, twin rooms with shared bath, deluxe suites with bathroom and some high-looking hotel rooms.  The Monkey Mia Resort had a coffee shop, gift shop, supermarket, travel shop as well as administration and lodging offices.  Everywhere I looked I read that Monkey Mia is the exclusive resort with access to the dolphin encounter.  We cooked a fine meal, some steaks if I remember correctly.  I’d been helping Mick behind the grill and it sorta felt like being at home having a Sunday football barbecue.

We were up bright and early the next morning.  We rushed through breakfast and washed and put away the dishes; we didn’t want to miss the triumphant entrance of these rare and exotic creatures.

When we arrived at the beach I saw that a huge crowd had lined up at the water’s edge.  I immediately began rehearsing my photography strategy as it would be difficult to get a shot with people two and three deep at the shoreline.

We stood there and waited.

And waited.

And then we waited some more.

15 minutes passed, and then 20.

Twenty five minutes turned into thirty.

Some people started asking, “Will they come?”

Another would reassure them, “Of course they will come.  They always come.”

“How do you know?”

“I asked the lady at the office; she said that they always come.”

“Ok,” followed by a sigh of relief.

I worried that if the dolphins didn’t show that there might be some social revolt amongst the guests.  And I grew bored as well.  Nicole was probably the most excited of all of us.  She kept repeating in her thick English accent, “They’ve gotta come, they just haf to!”  I then made up a rumor and told her (loud enough for all of the other tourists to hear) that the lady at the administration office said that the dolphins probably wouldn’t come today.  I then said that they were probably lost and couldn’t find their way to the Monkey Mia Beach.  Andrea chimed in, “They can’t get lost, they have those electric shock collars around their necks so that they can’t get more than 100 meters from this beach.  Look, you can see the ‘virtual fence’ running underwater.”  At least a dozen people looked towards the water – until we started laughing.

35 minutes…

“Andrea, give me 20 bucks if I walk out into the water to my waist, cup my hands at the water and screech and call like a dolphin and then after a second, I’ll put my ear to the water and yell (to the crowd), ‘the dolphins say that they’re taking the day off today.”  Andrea had a smile on her face; Nicole and the rest of the tourists scowled back at us.

Again Nicole protested, “No!  They’re cammin I tell ya!”

I looked up and down the beach at the hundreds of tourists as we passed 40 minutes.  I began to think that the real show wasn’t in the water but was on the land.

And finally, a few minutes later, a dorsal fin broke the surface to the applause of the entire crowd.

The crowd surged forward.  Those lucky few in the front row pushed in so far that they were up to their ankles in the water.  The dolphins seemed to like the attention and they swam back and forth in front of the gaggle of tourists.  I was very pleased that I was able to capture the elbows, shoulders and the tops of heads of all of the tourists around me.  I thought that they added just the perfect amount of foreground with the dolphins serving as my background.  Surely it would be silly to go out into nature to photograph dolphins without the chance of capturing some human body part in the frame!

As I shot so many dozens of photos of elbows and dolphins I began to think that my photos of dolphins blocked by people must be the best in the world.  Thoughts of being published in National Geographic danced through my head, maybe even a Pulitzer!  Indeed, I was one of the lucky few to see these rare and exotic creatures up close and from behind a wall of tourists.

Another pair of dolphins worked their way towards me; I spun the polarized filter on my Minolta 28-70mm f2.8 lens so that the reflection of the water would be invisible; a polarized filter lets you look down into the water just like magic.  I had my opening in the crowd, my camera was all set up and the dolphin was just about to cross into my field of view…

And then the most splendid thing happened.

The attractive and charismatic dolphin bouncer stood right in front of me.  How thrilling!  I was so excited that I had the opportunity to shoot this rare and exotic animal and in the same frame be able to catch some of his human entourage.  These dolphin bouncers must have the best job in the world.  Not only do they get to work daily next to dolphins, but hundreds of people pay big bucks to take their photos with the dolphins.  After a few shots I hit the replay button on my camera; I could hardly believe my luck – not only a dolphin but the dolphin bouncer captured in the same shot.  What a great photo!

Since posting, a fellow traveler has emailed to inform me that the dolphin bouncer above is actually a woman.  Hmm, not sure if I can see that…

As the dolphins moved their way down the crowd, the dolphin handler did not disappoint; he followed right along to make sure that everyone could have him in their dolphin photo.  I thought to myself what a generous and charismatic person to allow his photo to be taken so that everyone can enjoy having him and the dolphin in their cherished holiday photos along with his microphone, sunglasses and stylish hat!

After the man moved on I saw some more dolphins approaching and was worried that I might actually catch a photo of them alone.  My mind raced and I wondered, “Where is their entourage?”  But then I saw that another dolphin bouncer, a woman.  She was just a little shorter than the man.  She walked along with the other two dolphins so that everyone could get a photo of the dolphins and their human handler.  And these handlers were so talkative!  They talked and talked and talked and told so many interesting tid bits of information that I can’t remember a single one.  I’m glad that we didn’t have just the sound of the ocean lapping on the sand or the cheerful chirps of the dolphins.  No, we had so much more!  We had these charismatic and friendly dolphin handlers to talk and talk and fill in all of that silence and nature.

Eventually the dolphin security guards moved on to talk to some people and there was nothing left to shoot except the dolphins by themselves.  I know that these photos aren’t as good as the others – without the humans and all – but I decided to include them to show my skills in photographing in a wide range of conditions.

And finally a solo dolphin swam up.  I saw his eye dart around and I was sure that he was looking for one of his entourage.  I suspect that he was thinking that he wouldn’t want to be photographed alone and wished that one of his human friends could stand in front of him while the tourists fired their cameras.  I think he looked rather upset and if you look close enough, you might just see a tear in his eye.


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