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PacificEdge | November 22, 2017

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Seals, possums and pests… wild in the city

Russ Grayson

SYDNEY HAS ITS PIGEONS and Coogee its seagulls. The Royal Botanic Gardens is plagued with those long-billed, food-stealing ibis and flights of flying fox (fruit bats) that have devastated trees there. But in Launceston they really go for the megafauna when it comes to urban wildlife.

A seal suns itself on the rocks in The Gorge, Launceston

A seal suns itself on the rocks in The Gorge, Launceston

A walk along the path that joins Princes Bridge to First Basin revealed urban wildlife that, had it been seen basking in the sun on the rocks at Bondi, would have brought people out in their thousands. It was a large brown seal and it had somehow hauled its blubbery mass out of the South Esk where it flows through The Gorge, and draped its fatty folds across the dolerite bounders some metres above the river. Why the beast had not been content with a lower perch that would surely have required less effort to reach only it knows (maybe).


To walk all the way to First Basin is to walk into the territory of a flock of large, noisy, hungry ground dwelling birds with spectacular tails. These peacock, which inhabit the immediate surrounds of the cafe so that they can spring onto tables there to steal diner’s food, might be colourful but when it comes to your food — watch out, they’re worse that the seagulls at Manly.

Perhaps it’s true that Tasmania is a repository for the unusual, and could it be that Launceston is its epicentre when it comes to urban animals. There, as well as the occasional seal sunning itself on riverside rocks, the city council keeps monkeys. No, I’m not being facetious and suggesting that they can be seen disporting themselves during council meetings. They are kept in an enclosure that was built several years ago to replace the cages they once occupied, and it is there that tourists come to view them. What other city council keeps monkeys?

These are Japanese snow monkeys and it was interesting to watch Japanese tourists photographing them… all the way to Tasmania to see their own native animals.

Birds are also something of a trouble at Sea Acres cafe in the rainforest nature reserve at Port Macquarie, up on the NSW mid-north coast. Rather than forage in the murky and damp undergrowth of the forest floor where they are supposed to find whatever it is that they eat, they are happier patrolling the table to snaffle leftovers.

One of First Basin's voracious, forever-hungry peacocks

One of First Basin’s voracious, forever-hungry peacocks

They have also become sugar junkies, lifting the paper-wrapped single serves of sugar from the dispenser, opening them and scoffing the sweet contents.

Launceston City Council is probably the only local government in Australia to keep monkeys

Launceston City Council is probably the only local government in Australia to keep monkeys

And what of sunny Manly, there at the far end of Sydney’s Northern Beaches? What urban wildlife does it offer the visitor?

Seagulls… Silver Gulls, to be botanically accurate… voracious, food-thieving flying animals, to be behaviourally accurate. Hold a hot chip too long in your hand and off it goes in some swooping gull’s beak. These shiny white birds with their orange feet and beaks have become too numerous, thanks to the bounty of leftovers they forage and from tourists who persist in hand feeding them, the cause of their overpopulation.

It is known that wildlife population numbers plummet when the food resource is rapidly withdrawn. Now, some locals would very much like to run this experiment on Manly’s seagulls.

But seagulls are not all that’s on offer in Manly. Were you to walk around to Shelly Beach and take the trail — quietly — through the coastal forest on the headland, there’s a good chance you will encounter a dragon or two. These darker reaches are the habitat or the Water Dragon, a pleasing, grey coloured and somewhat shy lizard.

Scrub turkey helpsm itself to sugar at Sea acres cafe, Port Macquarie

Scrub turkey helps itself to sugar at Sea Acres cafe, Port Macquarie

Wildlife has adapted well to the niches and habitats of the city. I remember standing at Circular Quay and watching a large hawk swoop down to pluck a pigeon from a high ledge on the Museum of Modern Art, surely an act of nature’s art to surpass anything to be found inside the building. The hawks have found high nesting sites on the city’s highrise buildings and have become successful hunters of the urban jungle.

Back in Tasmania, there’s wildlife to be found on Hobart’s Queens Domain, a large area of partially managed bushland on the ridge in North Hobart, near the botanical gardens. There’s certainly the bushy Tasmanian possum there as I found when I nearly tripped over one beside the road, presumed victim of a hit and run.

Manly water dragon

Manly water dragon

Cities are too-often stereotyped as lifeless, concrete jungles, but that’s an erroneous belief. They are full of life that has learned to coexist with people and to live off their leftovers and their willingness to share food with them. Though this might trouble the environmental purist, I suspect there are plenty of historical and evolutionary precedents for it, so perhaps they need not feel so troubled. Maybe it’s through the simple act of putting out seed for passing birds that urban people find contact with wild nature.

A Hobart possum

A Hobart possum


  1. admin

    Well, as if water dragons on the headland and greedy, grabbing sea gulls on the beach weren’t enough (in defence of the gulls: they are just following their nature; it is people that feed them and create the overpopulation and the gull’s boldness), October brought the sight of two humpback whales cavorting and leaping from the water not far offshore of Manly beach.

    I had not seen humpbacks here before, though I was familiar with them and with the sight of pods of dolphin while living in Byron Bay, where both are a frequent sight. But the whales’ presence shouldn’t be a surprise as they pass Manly on their annual migration to and from the Antarctic. The sight of them leaping from the sea — there was large and a small animal — and splashing down in a mountain of spray caused a few tourists and runners on the esplanade to stop and look.

    There is another form of urban wildlife in Manly, this one nocturnal and which I can hear screeching as I write. They’re feeding on the mulberry tree in the garden, on its dark, purplish fruit now coming into season. If you walk around Manly at night, you can hear them passing by as the slow, powerful, whoop-whoop-whoop of wings. Sometimes, if you look up, there’s the sight of one of the dark creatures moving across the night shy.

    They are, of course, fruit bats — large flying mammals with the head of a fox, a furry body and the leathery wings of a bat. And there’s plenty of them in Sydney… always has been, as they are native to this area.

    While well meaning people guard the nesting Little Penguins down by Manly ferry wharf, urban wildlife continues to live wild and to adapt to the opportunities and ecological niches that people have unintentionally created for them in this city. It’s not bad, sharing the city with other lifeforms. It gives you a sense of optimism that there’s space for us all in the big city.

  2. admin

    October 27…
    On way to Food Summit conference
    Smooth sea, languid, low swell
    Warm sun still low over water; clear sky
    Ferry from Manly.

    Harbour crossing to Chippendale Food for the Future Fair
    Pointed fins break a sea blue surface
    Glistening, round black backs rise and fall
    A pod of dolphin passes.
    Urban wildlife.

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