Lake George has long been a stronghold for tiger snakes. An old timer in Bungendore once warned me ''there are more tiger snakes per square metre around Lake George than anywhere else in the country''.
Early to mid-last century during floods, some farmers would kill dozens of tigers as the potentially deadly snakes attempted to slither to safety from rising floodwaters - their carcasses hung over fences as trophies for passers-by to see.
For years the walls of the Bushranger Hotel in Collector were strewn with tiger skins, some up to 1.5 metres long. ANU climate historian Brad Opdyke vividly recalls the day he joined his father who was drilling for core samples on the lake bed in 1977. "[A] local farmer rode along on a horse ... cracking a bullwhip, killing snakes." He said the lake bed was ''littered with them".
However, earlier this month when your akubra-clad columnist took a stroll across the lake, not a single snake, tiger or otherwise, was spotted. So what's happened to them all?
Richard (Ric) Longmore of Hawker thinks the population of tiger snakes at Lake George (and nearby Rowes Lagoon and Lake Bathurst) is "severely endangered". And if anyone should know, it is Ric. The 73-year-old has spent much of his life collecting and studying tigers of the area. In fact, some of his herpetological colleagues even renamed the species of tiger snake at Lake George Notechis longmorei in his honour. Oh, and he's even been bitten by one (more about that later).
"It's habitat loss, lack of food and over-collecting that's driving them to the brink of local extinction," explains Ric. ''Tigers survive on frogs and if there's little or no water in the lake, like there has been for long periods over recent decades, then there's no food for the tigers."
Ric's fascination with snakes began when he was barely out of nappies. "Other kids would get comics for Christmas and I'd get books on dinosaurs, and that interest quickly evolved into modern-day reptiles, such as snakes."
But Ric's obsession with snakes wasn't restricted to just reading about them. From the age of 12, he would regularly ride his bicycle from his home in Ainslie, 45 kilometres out to Lake George. In his backpack he'd stash some hessian bags and a rudimentary snake collecting stick.
Once at the lake, Ric spent hours observing tiger snakes, bringing the occasional one home in his backpack. His parents thought he was collecting lizards and left him to his own devices.
Ric's cover was almost blown when he was 16 years old; while trying to collect a tiger at the northern end of the lake, he was bitten on the tip of his middle finger. While many of us would panic if bitten, especially if alone, Ric, knew exactly what to do. "I treated the bite the way we were supposed to back then, with a tourniquet and incision to suck out the venom (the advice is now for a compression bandage only) and walked slowly back to the highway."
Here, Ric flagged down a passing driver who agreed to drive him straight to Goulburn hospital where doctors promptly administered anti-venom. He made a speedy recovery and after a few hours under observation was discharged. A nurse drove him back to Canberra, picking up his bike along the way. But she didn't take him all the way home.
No, fearing his parents "would have a heart attack" if they found out he'd been bitten, and possibly ban him from future field trips, Ric convinced the nurse to drop him off a couple of streets away so he could ride the last hundred metres or so home. Talk about a different era.
"I never told my parents about that bite for about twenty years," confesses Ric.
However, a nip on the finger wasn't going to stop Ric getting up close and personal with more tigers. Before long he scored a gig with a mate collecting tigers for Sylvie Smith who owned 'Leonie', a property at the Bungendore side of the lake.
Sylvie sent the specimens to Eric Worrell, a well-known Australian herpetologist who milked them. The venom, in crystalised form, was then sent to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne to produce anti-venom.
Although Sylvie did most of the collecting, Ric collected hundreds of snakes on Leonie. "In retrospect we helped to unnaturally skew the age of that population of snakes," he reflects.
Not surprisingly, Ric ended up working with snakes for most of his career as a government biologist. Even when he was in a desk job, Ric would often get a call to remove a snake from someone's yard.
Ric's colleagues could rarely find him in summer so his boss asked him to make a sign to hang on his door to let everyone know when he was on snake duty. It's a sign he still has stashed away in his shed. Oh, along with an extensive collection of rare reptile books, antique snake collecting sticks and of course a live snake or two.
Earlier this week Ric invited me on an expedition (thankfully by car and not bicycle) to visit some of his former collecting sites at Lake George and Rowes Lagoon. Although we didn't see any snakes (we were just looking, not planning to collect), Ric hopes this year's wet summer will lead to a return of frogs and in turn his beloved tiger snakes.
"I just hope there are enough tigers left to re-establish the population," says Ric. Only time will tell.
Three strikes and Ric's still not out
Tiger snakes in the ACT: Tigers are uncommon in the ACT, and restricted to low areas, especially along rivers such as in the Orroral and Gudgenby valleys and Tidbinbilla. According to Ric, "Tigers are docile unless aroused and will flatten out and hiss repeatedly, making low strikes at potential aggressors. They are variable in colour, ranging from light grey to olive or brown to dark blackish brown, with (or without) narrow yellow crossbands."
Driver beware: Although the number of tiger snakes at Lake George has dwindled, motorists are advised to be alert when stopping at rest areas along the Federal Highway. In 2014 a 4-year-old boy was rescued from the toilet block at the Wheatley VC Rest Area after an aggressive tiger snake cornered him in a cubicle.
Three times unlucky: Ric has been bitten three times by tigers, his last bite was back in 1969 and resulted in a photo of Ric lying in Canberra Hospital splashed over the front page of The Canberra Times. "It's like a racing car driver having an accident, it's not something you want to brag about," says Ric, who while in hospital received a visit from prime minister John Gorton's private physician. "He came to chat to me as he wanted to learn more about snake bites."
Herpetological honour: In 2013, Ric was awarded an OAM for his contribution to herpetology, which included a pivotal role at the annual 'Snakes Alive' summer exhibition/shows at the Australian National Botanic Gardens (unfortunately not on this year due to COVID-19), which he conceived in 1987.
ACT snake call-outs: Throughout the late 1970s and 80s, Ric was the go-to man when a snake was found in a Canberra yard. These days if you find a snake in your property and have concerns for your safety, there are licensed services to call. See https://www.environment.act.gov.au/parks-conservation/plants-and-animals/urban-wildlife/snakes for details.
WHERE ON THE SOUTH COAST?
Clue: Not far from the site of Hector's lone Norfolk pine
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Peter Woodrow of Yarralumla who was first to identify last week's photo as the Mossy Café at Mossy Point, near Broulee. Peter just beat Meredith Edwards and Jane Allen of Fadden to the prize. The café is a popular haunt for many holidaying Canberrans including Ariella Guarino of Wanniassa. "The owners started off the business by baking and selling muffins and progressed to many other delicious food ... I enjoy taking my family [when] we travel there," she reports.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to firstname.lastname@example.org The first email sent after 10am, Saturday January 16, 2021, wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.
During the course of this week several readers noticed live and then mostly dead ladybird beetles piled up around the base of the aviation beacon at the summit of Mt Ainslie. Dr Adam Slipinski, a research entomologist at CSIRO, reports the last few months have been "a favourable time for ladybirds to multiply". He says, "With heat building up, they often try to migrate and [then] die back."
Did You Know? It's common for ladybirds to migrate towards prominent landscape features including beacons and towers and disperse after a period of time. Have you seen any elsewhere around Canberra? Let me know.
On a recent walk with her two boys, Rose Higgins of Kambah was shocked to stumble across this partially-eaten carcass of an eastern lock-neck turtle atop a hill in Urambi Hills Nature Reserve. "It was too far from any water to have crawled there," says Rose, who wonders if it was "plucked from a nearby water source by a bird of prey, or did a fox drag it there?".
CONTACT TIM: Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick