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Odds & Sods
Road Kill Across Australia
Friday, 19th October, 2012  - David Farmer

Spring began slowly in the Barossa, warm and cold, but today, 28th September, the reptiles were out. On my morning walk I found the first casualty by the road, a smallish dead snake. Last spring also began badly for reptiles.

In the Barossa we have a handsome lizard that loves sitting in the middle of the road soaking up the sun. They are quite fearless and rise up on their front legs, like a toy Tyrannosaurus, threatening cars and passersby. I was walking by the Turkey Flat winery and a beauty ran from the vineyard and stopped in the middle of the road glaring at me. I was able to stop the approaching car then chase it off the road but I did not like its chances. Sure enough next day in about that spot was its flattened body.

I've been driving a lot over the last six years. The one depressing feature of these long trips is counting the road kill. The carcasses of kangaroos are common and in areas where they are many they can line the road edges for kilometres. It's the big haulage trucks working the night shifts that do the damage. I dread hitting one, and touch wood have managed to avoid that to date. They are very dangerous in the early morning light.

On the trip to Darwin, from say the scrub lands starting at Katherine going north, carcasses of kangaroos are common. They are no match for fast moving road trains. At least the dead have some use as they are feasted on by large eagles, I think Wedge Tails, which are so heavy with food they have difficulty lifting off and risk becoming more road kill. Fortunately motorists are alert to this and drive very carefully as they are a large bird, often in groups of three or four and are not hard to see.

I had a special moment travelling over the Murray Plain from Sedan, South Australia, to the ferry crossing at Swan Reach just after a heavy rain squall, during the middle of the drought. The road was thick with groups of small kangaroos sipping from the puddles that had accumulated in dips in the bitumen. They were so thirsty they barely moved and I dropped back to 20 kilometres per hour and watched them for over 15 kilometres.

Birds are the worry as they love standing on the road, the crows picking at dead animals while magpies chatter and hop off as a car approaches. They seldom worry about flying and you can see from this characteristic that being isolated, say on an island with no predators why birds are happy to become flightless. The galahs and some other cockatoos and parrots are the worse as they gather in large groups by the roadside feeding on seeds. I think this is because rain running off the roads makes for a good crop and plenty of food along the verges.

Galahs have the habit of lifting off as a large flock, swooping from no-where, plunging down in front of the car and rising again. The trouble is the tail-enders are not looking and are frequently hit. The pink and white feathered body is easy to spot though much rarer are groups of three or four that have been cleaned up by a truck. Dead crows are rare but dead magpies of all types, but especially the smaller sub-species, are common and I see one on average every 40 or so kilometres.

Smaller birds, like finches, appear when driving through bushy land and for no reason fly right in front of the car, very low to the ground and going fast, but far to often not fast enough. Alas I have hit a few.

Another time I was driving from Truro in north east Barossa Valley to Eudunda; there had been a bit of rain around and it was just after the grain harvest and by the road edge parrots were feasting on the spills from trucks hauling grain. They would not move off the road and then it occurred to me they were intoxicated from eating fermenting grain. Sure enough I soon noticed the first splashes of coloured feathers.

I have enjoyed the long trips from the Barossa across to Margaret River, WA. I never knew there was a Nullarbor Plain wombat and get a bit upset seeing the poor buggers by the side of the road, inflated with gas and upside down, half skinned by being rolled under a fast moving car or truck. There are not many thank goodness. I turn south at Norseman and head to Esperance and that is a horror stretch where the bird kill rate is very high and even with the best intentions have hit a few of those attractive green and yellow parrots which for some reason are called Twenty Eights. From no-where they just fly into the windscreen while tiny birds just smash into the grill. The trip I did in 2011 was particularly bad and for a 100 kilometre I noted a dead bird every few kilometres.

One time I left Margaret River for a drive over to Frankland River and back, it was October I recall, the month the reptiles were on the move as I saw many, many large snakes and big lizards squashed. There is a lot of bush in this region which makes the trip enjoyable though this kill rate is a major tragedy and it really depressed me.

The Flinders Ranges are even better than the tourist brochures say and the only place I have had to stop, not once but twice to assist echidnas across the road. I'm not sure if it does any good, perhaps they do not want assistance and just turn around when you drive off.

Then what are we to do about those fat lizards, the stumpy tails that look like big slugs which crawl and stop to take a breather and then move another metre and pause again. From a distance they look like a small branch or a piece of bark on the road and then you are on them. On my Barossa walks I would see a dozen flattened blue tongues a year. They are such an attractive lizard but really have no hope in surviving a trip across a road.

A year ago I was coming back from McLaren Vale and drove through the forests behind Williamstown (southern Barossa). It was just before evening and I noted an odd shape in the middle of the road which as I got closer looked like a small wombat. To my astonishment it was a koala wandering down the middle of the road and in the fading light this was not a good idea. I drew level, wound down the window, and did my best to make frightening noises. 'Blinky bill' though was not to be hurried and made only leisurely moves to the side of the road-and none too soon as the workers leaving Williamstown were soon rushing along the road.

As for insects, I suppose they are par for the course for any driver. I have encountered a few 'plagues' of grasshoppers but the most interesting was east of Wilcannia just after the drought had broken when I drove through a storm of dragon flies that continued for over 100 kilometres. There was a lot of water lying around but where they were going I have no idea.

You do see a few dead foxes and many rabbits, so some of the vermin also have a sudden end though I've yet to encounter a dead pig, donkey or goat. We have about one million kilometres of road in Australia with about one third paved. The casualty rate is higher on the paved roads because of speed. I fiddled around for a few minutes making calculations of the animals killed in a year but as the figure mounted it all got too depressing. Whether the number is significant as a percentage of the total animal population I do not know and have no idea what can be done about the 'road kill'.

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