Celebrating the 4th of July in Oz

This post is by Phoebe Honscheid, a junior at Cornell University.

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Back home, we normally celebrate the Fourth of July with parades, a picnic with heaps of traditional American food, some games, maybe some sparklers, and always a huge fireworks display to wrap up the evening. In Australia, the IRES crew did things a little differently this year. After a week of searching for and collecting observations for our red-backed fairy-wrens in the field, it was time for our off-day at Springbrook National Park. We started the day with a two and a half hour car ride while listening to any song that even briefly mentioned America, which is why I had Miley Cyrus singing “Party in the USA” stuck in my head the whole rest of the day.

Instead of the usual games like frisbee or cornhole, we decided to spice it up with a “friendly” game of Assassins. For those who don’t know how to play Assassins, each player is assigned somebody else to eliminate by clipping a clothespin onto their clothes when they’re distracted. The targets are passed on until only one person is left surviving. Our group doesn’t mess around when it comes to organized competition so as soon as the doors to Gertie (our minivan) and the Ute (Australian for truck) opened, we were sure to maintain at least a one-meter radius around ourselves. Throughout the day alliances were formed, bribes of chocolate were exchanged for information, and people were ambushed by others waiting in trees in the dark.

This off-day was special because we got to share it with Dhoka, a native Papuan who has been working on white-shouldered fairy-wrens. Dhoka spent his first experience outside of Papua New Guinea with us and stayed for one week. He helped us in the field with finding and catching birds as well as telling us a little about his life back at home. We, in turn, introduced him to the Australian rainforest, Shrek, and Assassins. I think he particularly enjoyed Assassins considering he was the one that ambushed somebody by waiting in a tree in the dark.

I have yet to adequately prepare myself for walking into a rainforest. Every single time I become caught in my own disbelief at the intricate network of all the different plant species, vines that look like cinnamon twists, and the unique yet unmistakable feeling of entering a hidden world far removed from our own. I become mindful of every footfall and try not to disturb the forest too much. On this day, I picked up a leaf and when I let it slip through my fingers, it returned to the exact same spot as if the entire forest was carefully arranged. The pale morning sun spilled through patches in the feathery leaves so that light was suspended in shimmering beams right in front of me. I couldn’t resist the urge to reach out and touch it. Also, the rainforests are really green. Like really, really green. Imagine taking a picture of a normal forest and then setting the saturation to the max and then dipping the whole picture into bright green paint.

Because setting off fireworks in Australia would surely culminate in a life in prison, we ended the day with a different display of light. Instead of lightning bugs, the signature light-producing insects of Australia are called glow worms, which like to live together in small caves. Their bioluminescent sticky threads are used to lure prey and are only found in the larval stage of this small fly. I walked into the Springbrook glow worm cave and was immediately in awe. The cave interior was speckled with constellations of bright blue jewels and looked just like a blanket of stars. I started subconsciously identifying Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, and Cancer. It was incredible to see another one of the ways how biology can be insanely beautiful.

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