Connection and respite for an inner-city dweller

My ten-year-old Jack Russell, Bonnie, has no idea what’s going on. She takes shelter in the car as my husband and I finish putting up our tent in the now pouring rain.

The downpour caught us unawares. It seemingly came out of nowhere and drenched us in warm, flat raindrops for fifteen minutes solid, and then was gone as quickly as it came. Sun shining once more, the ground began croaking with Lesueur's Tree Frogs (Litoria lesueuri).

Then, completely saturated, we realise the fly is on inside out.

I begin to laugh hysterically.

Bonnie curls into a ball on the driver’s seat and looks away. I’m pretty sure she’s wondering why on Earth we would load up our car with stuff, drive three hours, stop on a patch of grass at a country campground and put on this show. And then sleep in it. For two nights.

She’s a city dog, and we are city people.

 Lesueur's Tree Frog ( Litoria lesueuri ).  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

Lesueur's Tree Frog (Litoria lesueuri). Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

We live in Melbourne’s central business district, amongst the constant hum and buzz of sirens howling, evacuation alarms whoop-whoop-whoop-ing, and trams rattling down streets, dinging their bells at risk-taking pedestrians. Motorbikes weave and hammer down roads, people swarm, and the construction of high-rises is ceaseless.

This heaving urban jungle, this synapse, this cell, this landscape, is our home, and despite being so connected, there remained a disconnect, until I started looking…

There’s a tree in Flagstaff Gardens, to which all the Rainbow Lorikeets flock. It amuses me no end to approach this tree, stand under it, and listen and stare at the absolute chaos going on within its branches. What is it about this tree, and not the others like it, surrounding it, that attracts these birds to this one in particular?

The Gardens are also home to a community of brushtail possums who can be found in the hollows of the elm trees, or sometimes, in the public recycling bins, staring out, wide-eyed. And springtime brings swooping Magpie-larks to the Gardens, relegating us, and all the other dog-walkers to the safety of the north-west corner for at least the next two months.

 A Common Brushtail Possum peeks out of a recycling bin in Flagstaff Gardens.  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

A Common Brushtail Possum peeks out of a recycling bin in Flagstaff Gardens. Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

The months of spring also bring on the budding of the plane trees. Planted on many city streets in Australia and around the world for their pollution-resistance and deciduous form, these trees are a nightmare for allergy sufferers. The jury is out, however, on whether it’s their pollen, their trichomes, or other allergens, which cause the eye-watering, sneezing and runny noses.

Either way, springtime in the city is the time for me to stock up on antihistamines so I can keep exploring and discovering, and recently, I’ve found that a there’s a family of sparrows in my neighbourhood who have been progressively stealing pieces of our brush-mat fence in order to build their nest.

I’ve watched them on-and-off for several weeks now, and our fence is getting thinner and thinner. I don’t know where they’re building this nest; I just know that it must be robust, and I do hope, comfortable.

There’s a buzz that comes with visiting the city, but when you live amidst this buzz, and work in it as well, it becomes a source of exhaustion that I need to escape from regularly.

I seldom see a horizon, and I crave the sounds familiar to my upbringing: wind in trees, waves crashing on shorelines, cicadas chirping, owls hooting, and twigs snapping underfoot.

And whilst I like my escapes to be weekend-long, to places I can access via our freeway network of human wildlife corridors, sometimes respite must be closer to home.

 A Blue Devil ( Eryngium ovinum ), one of many native plants found in Melbourne's Royal Park.  Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

A Blue Devil (Eryngium ovinum), one of many native plants found in Melbourne's Royal Park. Image: Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel

Fortunately, here in Melbourne, I am surrounded by beautiful urban parks which provide me with a taste of this escape I crave. Royal Park, just north of the city, is one of my favourites. The big grassland circle is a snippet of the previous landscape, now fragmented by development.

Here, Bonnie and I walk a lap of the circle, then lie in the grass and wonder what it was like, right here in this spot, 500 years ago…


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Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel is an environmental scientist who escapes the rush of city life by donning her mask and fins to explore local underwater worlds, or her hiking boots to explore Victoria’s national parks.

She’s an avid home cook and shares all her recipes on her Instagram account, @thenostalgicvegan.


Banner image courtesy of Donna Lo Bartolo Shiel. 

The world under Rye Pier

I felt the sun beating down on me and the heavy weight of my diving gear on my shoulders as I stared at the never-ending stretch of pier before me. It was my first time diving; the destination - Rye Pier.

I was told by my dive instructor not to expect too much; it was unlikely we were going to see anything apart from crabs, a few fish and a ray if we were lucky. However, it was a good place to begin learning the art of scuba diving, so with low expectations I stepped off the pier and into the water.

As we began our five-metre descent I was overwhelmed. Looking off the edge of the pier into the water, one couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of life that has found a home in these waters. Bright orange sponges and delicate red and brown seaweeds form an intricate collage that envelopes the pillars and guides the path to the sandy expanse at the bottom of the pier. Schools of porcupinefish dart across your path, seahorses curl their tails, clinging to the foliage lining the ocean floor, and crabs decorate the pillars. It really is another world.

 If you're lucky, you might even spot a nudibranch in the marine habitat beneath Rye Pier.  Image: Edison Sands

If you're lucky, you might even spot a nudibranch in the marine habitat beneath Rye Pier. Image: Edison Sands

My instructor explained that he had heard of a human-made sculpture park, Elsa's Reef, just past the end of the pier. Following the flag markers just off the end of the pier, we swam along the sandy flat. The small journey wasn't without some incredible finds. Nearly every flag had an octopus, camouflaged to match the sand, hidden at its base. Little skates darted along the sand and we even spotted a few Banjo Sharks. The reef itself was striking. An abandoned bike, a trolley and other objects that made up the reef were completely overtaken by nature. Beautiful seaweeds and crabs of all sizes coated the structures. Schools of fish swam around, even curious enough to swim between our hands and legs.

 Elsa's Reef is home to a diversity of marine life that utilises this human-made 'sculpture park'.  Image: Edison Sands

Elsa's Reef is home to a diversity of marine life that utilises this human-made 'sculpture park'. Image: Edison Sands

 Stingrays dart along the sand as scuba divers swim nearby.  Image: Edison Sands

Stingrays dart along the sand as scuba divers swim nearby. Image: Edison Sands

Perhaps a feeling words won't be able to capture was the moment I lay on my back on the sandy ocean floor. I looked up through the five metres of water above me, admiring how the sunlight filtered through and touched the ground. The only sound was my own breathing. It was this experience that told me I would be back in this underwater world again. It is one of the most peaceful places we can venture with so many wonders.

Swimming back along the pier I couldn't help noticing the undeniable human impact leaching into the beautiful habitat. Littered along the bottom of the pier were the abandoned lines and hooks of fishers. We even found an octopus who had taken up residence in a littered tin. It was as I was struggling to untangle a hook and line that had caught on my gear that I noticed the thrashing in the corner of my eye. A Banjo Shark was entangled, desperately swimming against the lines that constrained him. Drawing closer, I realised that the shark was stuck due to a hook in its mouth. A fisher had obviously caught it and thrown it back alive without removing the lines that would inevitably entangle the fish and stop it from hunting to survive.

 Hermit crabs are another form of marine life you might encounter near Rye Pier.  Image: Edison Sands

Hermit crabs are another form of marine life you might encounter near Rye Pier. Image: Edison Sands

For me, this dive was another reminder of the importance of protecting our natural world. Though life may seem scarce when looking off the pier into the water, we must remember that underneath is a whole world of life. Properly releasing fish and avoiding discarding waste into the ocean is something we can all do that makes a big difference to life down there.

Re-surfacing and walking back along the pier my gear felt light. I had just had my eyes opened to the marvels of the blue backyard at our doorstep. I leave you with the goal to try scuba diving for yourself and experience the wonders of the marine world beneath Rye Pier.


Monica Coleman studies Science and Arts at Monash University. She grew up spending time in nature, traveling, reading and fostering a guilty pleasure for reality TV. She hopes her future will be dedicated to the fight to protect our environment and lives by the motto it's not a good day if you haven't learnt something new.


Banner image courtesy of Edison Sands.

Listening to nature's subtle cues

I was visiting the St Kilda Botanical Gardens when a storm was approaching; the air felt electric. The sun disappeared behind dark, all-consuming clouds, and lightning could be seen cracking through the grey sky. My senses were heightened and from a nearby pond in the gardens I could hear the 'Creee... cree creee cree creee' of Southern Brown Tree Frogs calling. Then the rain started to fall, delicately splashing my face.

How do you experience, or sense a change in the weather?

These days, we are bombarded with weather updates, warnings and other information from our electronic devices, televisions, and even Siri and Google Home. In nature, animals and plants have evolved inbuilt systems to detect changes in the weather and react accordingly. For thousands of years, people have used some of these animals to predict changes in the weather.

By becoming more mindful and paying closer attention to nature, we can detect oncoming changes in the weather. There are several examples to draw on. Many insects hide away when a storm is brewing; black ants make themselves busy by covering up holes to their nests if rain is on the way; and there is even a saying, ‘when sheep gather in a huddle, tomorrow will have a puddle.’ One of the other well-known cues in nature is taken from frogs, as their evening choruses are generally a sign that rain is on the way.

 Southern Brown Tree Frogs are often heard prior to rainfall in and around Melbourne.  Image: Rowan Mott

Southern Brown Tree Frogs are often heard prior to rainfall in and around Melbourne. Image: Rowan Mott

When it comes to frogs, the events of reproduction must be synchronised with suitable conditions, so breeding can be successful. We can take advantage of this time and listen carefully to the unique calls of male frogs “wooing” the females to their pond. Many frog species breed seasonally, and are thought to use temperature, day length, moisture and atmospheric pressure (“weight of the air”) to time their breeding activity. The final trigger for most frogs is rainfall, as many species require free-standing water for fertilisation.

There are several local species in Melbourne that you may hear prior to a rainfall event. Here are a few examples to spark your interest.

The Southern Brown Tree Frog (Litoria ewingii) is a species that has adapted to urbanised habitats, and can be found from the city to the suburbs and beyond. The adults inhabit a variety of wet and flooded areas, and fortunately for us they are common in gardens and suburban areas. Southern Brown Tree Frogs can also be found calling long distances from water. The good news for us is they call all year round, and often in response to rain. So, next time you're out and you hear a series of rapid, whirring, pulsing notes, repeated 5 to 15 times – ‘creeeeeee creee creee cree cree cree’ (the first note is usually the longest) – it might be wise to grab a raincoat!

Another helpful frog is the Eastern Banjo Frog or Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes dumerilii). This species can call all year round, but has a peak in its calling period during spring and early summer. Keep your ear out for a short explosive note producing a resonant ‘bonk’. The call is usually repeated every few seconds. This fascinating species can migrate up to one kilometre to its breeding sites. It is also a burrowing species, commonly popping up in suburban gardens and sandpits where you may glimpse it foraging on the surface after rain. 

 The Eastern Banjo Frog is also known as the Pobblebonk and can call all year round.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

The Eastern Banjo Frog is also known as the Pobblebonk and can call all year round. Image: Cathy Cavallo

 The Eastern Banjo Frog can migrate up to one kilometre to their breeding sites.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

The Eastern Banjo Frog can migrate up to one kilometre to their breeding sites. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Lastly, we come to frogs that alert us to the autumn rain Melbourne often experiences. One of the more common species you may come across is the Victorian Smooth Froglet (Geocrinia victoriana). I’ve recorded Victorian Smooth Froglets at Yarra Bend Park in Kew, and in the outer-eastern suburbs. The male frogs can be heard from low-lying areas within gullies, at the edge of wetlands and waterways (such as among moist leaf litter) that will flood after rain. They are a secretive species, and need an inquisitive ear to seek out their lovely and very distinctive call. Their song consists of a long, harsh first note, followed by a long series of short, rapidly repeated musical notes – ‘wa-a-a-a-a-ark pip-pip-pip-pip-pip-pip...’.

Not all frogs are “pond breeders”. The Victorian Smooth Froglet is an exception to the rule and is referred to as a terrestrial breeder for their curious and intriguing reproductive habit. Within a low-lying moist area, the male calls from a shallow burrow and the female will lay her eggs in the burrow on land, not in the water. Much of the development is done within the egg capsule. Once the rain floods their burrow, the tadpoles can emerge and complete their metamorphosis in free-standing water. Males will often call prior to or at the onset of a heavy rain event throughout March to May. The other not-so-common terrestrial breeders that call in autumn are the elusive Southern Toadlet (Pseudophyryne semimarmorata) and Bibron’s Toadlet (Pseudophryne bibronii); they have very similar double-note calls with an inflection on the second note – ‘ri-rick’.

So, next time you want to ask Siri what the weather will be like, perhaps take a walk outside in your local park and see if the frogs are calling. They may be telling you in their own lovely, melodic way to take an umbrella to work today.

You can investigate other pond-breeding frogs in Melbourne that may alert you to the onset of rain throughout the year. Take a look at frogs.org.au and the Melbourne Water Frog Census. You can also download the Melbourne Water Frog Census app or check out the recently launched Australia-wide Frog ID app. Both apps encourage citizens to record frog calls, so scientists can have a greater understanding of frogs around Australia and track their populations over time.


Christina Renowden has had an affinity for nature since she was a child. Over the years this love of nature has morphed into one role or another, including studying conservation ecology, researching urban frogs, and working as a consultant zoologist. She is now a mother of two and the founder of Leap into Nature. Since 2014, Leap into Nature has been creating and presenting a range of nature-based and environmental education programs for young people. Christina is excited to begin a Master of Environment in July 2018 at the University of Melbourne and is currently the Vice President on the committee of management for Environment Education Victoria. 


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

Night walk

It was a still night in the Brisbane Ranges. The bright light of the full moon was dimmed by mist. Out of the white haze along the ground stood trees, those closest to us appearing black. Trunks behind them were grey, becoming paler with distance, until they faded into invisibility. While we waited for the rest of our group, we scanned the trees. A grey brushtail possum gazed down at us, its fluffy black tail hanging down beside the branch; large ears, pink nose and dark eyes alert. Careful! Don’t shine the spotlight in its eyes. We don’t want to blind it! It ducked behind the trunk, out of view.

 The Common Brushtail Possum is, unsurprisingly, a common sight when spotlighting in Victoria.  Image: David Whelan

The Common Brushtail Possum is, unsurprisingly, a common sight when spotlighting in Victoria. Image: David Whelan

Soon the group assembled and we began our walk along the bush track. More possums were seen, going about their nightly business in the tall pale-branched Manna Gums, trunks dark and rough, long ribbons of old bark hanging from their branches. We followed the slow ‘mo-poke’ call of a Southern Boobook Owl, hoping for a glimpse of it. In the distance another boobook answered. A member of the group repeated the owls’ calls, hoping to attract one to us, but as the birds’ calls became more distant, we gave up.

Sharp eyes noted a mat of prickly leaves on the ground, with small cranberry heath flowers, red tubes splitting at the end to five tiny hairy points. A cluster of Parsons Bands Orchids was found, each with two white petals reaching out and down. Then, eyeshine, up in the wattle tree. A small grey head with rounded ears and a black stripe between them. Sharp claws gripping the trunk as it faced downwards. A loose fold of white skin between front and back legs. A Sugar Glider! It stayed frozen as we gazed at it, the two wildlife photographers clicking away enthusiastically. Then it began to move its head from side to side, perhaps using sharp incisors to cut the tree’s bark, creating a wound that would ooze sugary sap, an evening meal. When the photographers were satisfied, we continued our walk.

 If you're lucky, the distinctive face of a Sugar Glider may greet you on a night walk.  Image: David Whelan

If you're lucky, the distinctive face of a Sugar Glider may greet you on a night walk. Image: David Whelan

 Sugar Gliders use their sharp incisors to cut through tree bark so that they can reach the sugary sap underneath.  Image: David Whelan

Sugar Gliders use their sharp incisors to cut through tree bark so that they can reach the sugary sap underneath. Image: David Whelan

We turned onto another track, hoping to see the prize we had come for, a Powerful Owl, known to be in the area. We noticed a rare patch of Snow Gums, trunks pale all the way to the ground, veins of the leaves almost parallel. Above, we heard the high-pitched echolocation calls of White-striped Freetail Bats hunting flying insects, and in the distance a repeated yap from a Sugar Glider. More eyes. Something large and brown in a tree. There it was! Australia’s largest owl. The Powerful Owl was huge, sitting on its branch, brown feathers with white markings, bright yellow eyes with large black pupils staring down at us and away. The photographers were joyfully busy. The rest of us watched the bird in wonder. It spread its long pale wings and silently flew to another tree. After a few minutes, the spotlighters found it again. The watching continued. A rustle in the trees across the track. The owl flew towards it. We left it, hunting for a meal, probably another possum.

 The Powerful Owl is Australia's largest owl.  Image: David Whelan

The Powerful Owl is Australia's largest owl. Image: David Whelan

Some of us were tiring, so we turned back along the track, searching for more eyes and listening to the sounds of busy nightlife. Towards the end of the walk we heard the growling squabbles of brushtail possums. There were four in the low leafy branches of a Manna Gum, arguing over territory or food or mates. One climbed down the curved trunk and walked among the grasses. It sat up on its hind legs looking around. We could see the dark stripe of a scent gland down its chest, marking it as a male. Back onto four legs, walking towards us! When he was close, he turned and walked away along the track and finally back into the grasses. We continued back to the cars. The mist was gone, but the moon was still dimmed by light cloud. We enjoyed the black silhouettes of tree branches and leaves against the grey sky, said goodnight, and drove home to bed, leaving the animals to continue their busy night.


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.

Photographer David Whelan is a foundation member of the Australasian Raptor Association (ARA), now Birdlife Australia’s Raptor Group. His photography has graced the pages of several reference books, the latest being CSIRO Publishing’s 2017 release Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds by Stephen Debus. Along with his good friend Bernie McRitchie, he provided the first confirmed successful breeding records for the Black Falcon in Southern Victoria. Photographer in Residence for Martin Scuffins and the team at Leigh Valley Hawk and Owl Sanctuary, David is working on several new publishing projects coming in 2018/19 and is preparing to launch a website showcasing his skills later this year.


Banner image courtesy of David Whelan.