The first time I ventured onto Macquarie University’s campus, all freaked out and jet-lagged from the fourteen hour flight into Sydney, this ibis was meandering through the central courtyard. I was totally blown away. With its bald head, freakishly long legs, and long, alarming beak, it seemed like a strange and potentially dangerous alien life form, unpredictable and unknowable. Then, another of these mysterious beasts swooped in from above, landed on a garbage can, and began rummaging through the remains of someone’s lunch. Within my first week in Australia, the ibises and other urban pests — such as cockatoos and long-fingered, huge-eyed Australian possums – became just another part of my new home. Over the course of my time in Australia, I would also, among countless other adventures, spend hours floating in absolute rapture over the Great Barrier Reef, stand motionless under the thick canopy of a Queensland rainforest in the pitch darkness listening to the songs of thousands of frogs, watch in fascination as ants rather than flies were the first to take advantage of a fresh cockatoo carcass, wonder at the sudden appearance of hundreds of identical beetle molts around my apartment overnight, startle a large lizard during a morning run such that it got up on its hind legs and ran away, and watch a group of wallabies grazing within a few meters of my camp outside of Alice Springs.
As a biology major, I chose to study in Australia primarily for the diverse and distinctive ecosystems. So I suppose I surprised myself by knowing next to nothing about what to expect from the Australian flora and fauna. I suppose I had some vague impression of the rainforests up north, of wallabies grazing on sparse clumps of grass, koalas living off eucalyptus, dangerous snakes, and giant crocodiles. My preconceptions seem so ridiculous, flat, and pale now. The unique ecosystems of Australia aren’t a few cute or scary pictures, and they aren’t an adventure/nature TV show. They aren’t a list of threatened and endangered species either, or a list of biomes, or bright colors on a map of biodiversity hot spots. Australia is a real place to me now, and the serious threats facing the amazing diversity of life it supports are real issues. It’s one thing to support “saving the Great Barrier Reef”. It’s something else entirely to spend an entire day communing with the coral.