A Fiery Season

This is a guest piece by Bruna Costa.

Autumn in Melbourne, the season to rug up, stroll across damp grasslands and wade through brilliantly tinted leaves and breathe in the cool, crisp air. It’s a time to sit by a wood fire and watch flames curl around glowing logs. And it’s the season when we ogle our neighbours’ persimmons ripening on their fiery tree, or their pomegranates, bursting with juicy, red seeds. 

It’s also the time when we wait for that phone call or text message.

‘The chestnuts are ready.’

The date is set for when we head for the hills equipped with gum boots, leather garden gloves, and loads of buckets and bags. Chestnut day encompasses all the magic that is autumn in the hills of eastern Victoria.

For one group of harvesters, the destination is Gembrook where morning fog, like a veil, obscures the rising sun and becomes trapped in the valleys, its whiteness a contrast to the display of autumnal colours on deciduous trees.

Pickers bring plates, fill the kitchen table with delicious home cooked foods, cheeses and wines, not to mention the sumptuous desserts waiting to be devoured. But before anyone tucks in, they must first pick chestnuts.

Young children, teenagers, parents and grandparents parade down the steep hill to where the chestnut trees line the paddock.

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Trees bearing the best flavoured chestnuts are where to begin.

There are as many burrs on the ground as those clinging to tree branches, but it’s the fallen ones that bear ripened nuts ready for the picking. Burrs split open revealing three chestnuts snuggling within the spikes; in some instances, the nuts spill out onto the ground. Children are encouraged to collect the ripe nuts scattered loosely amongst the leaf litter.

The procedure for collecting chestnuts is to split the outer shell open by running your boot over the prickly burrs. Alternatively, a good pair of garden gloves will help to pull the casing apart to reveal its contents. The best of the three nuts are chosen, and sometimes, all three nuts are worth collecting.   

The umbrella-like shape of the trees, with limbs hanging low, touching the ground, encompasses family, friends and newcomers that gather beneath their limbs. The closeness inspires light-hearted conversation. Voices rise up through the branches and drift uphill aschestnuts are rhythmically tossed into receptacles. Everyone is encouraged to pocket the largest chestnut for a weigh-in at the end of the harvest.    

After a morning of foraging, the workers arch and stretch their stiffened backs before trudging back up the steep hillside towards the homestead. The help of a small tractor to transport the laden bags and buckets up to the shed is welcoming.

Everyone shares a hearty lunch, and then they gather for the weigh-in. A small set of brass scales is placed on the table on the decking, its weighing plates each barely big enough to carry one large chestnut. Excitement fills the air as everyone jostles for a position around the table. Children are first to test their prized chestnut, while the adults wait their turn. The bearers of the largest fruits receive a packet of lollies and their names are written on a trophy. All good fun.

Then it’s time to test the fruits of the day’s labour. An old frying pan with holes poked through its base is filled with chestnuts, their brown skins already split with a sharp knife. The frypan is placed on the open fire and the chestnuts are left to cook until the skins are blackened and the insides are soft and aromatic. They are wrapped in an old towel and allowed to sweat for a while. Everyone digs in, peeling back the two layers of skin to reveal warm, softened flesh.

In late afternoon, the panorama that is Gembrook is a view worthy of the drive. The sun’s rays penetrate amassing clouds and the colours in the sky compliment the fiery red maple leaves. It marks the end of a rewarding day.

The pickings are distributed and everyone leaves with quantities of chestnuts for themselves and to be shared with friends back home where they make a suitable exchange for the neighbours’ ripening persimmons and splitting pomegranates.


Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group. She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.

Be The Scientist You Always Wanted To Be

As a child, did you ever dream of becoming a famous scientist, but ‘life’ just seemed to get in the way? Or maybe you discovered your love of science later in life and thought it was too late to restart your career? Or even still, maybe you finished a degree but never found a job in the industry, but still yearn to pursue your love of discovering and exploring the intricacies of the natural world? 

When talking to people about their current jobs, I often hear the list of barriers, which at the time seemed too great for them to overcome. In actual fact, though, many wished that they had persevered. I simply respond with, “Well, it’s not too late.” They usually give a surprised look and provide me with a mixture of responses equating to: “It’s too late in life to pursue my interest in science, but even if I did drop everything, how on earth would I be able to get into it now? I mean, I can’t afford to go back to university full-time and the current concepts aren’t exactly fresh in my mind anymore.”

Albert Einstein is often considered the face of modern Western science, yet more and more organisations are now encouraging the public, and not just academics, to get involved in research. Image: RMY Auctions

Albert Einstein is often considered the face of modern Western science, yet more and more organisations are now encouraging the public, and not just academics, to get involved in research. Image: RMY Auctions

This is when I get to tell them the good news. Citizen science is alive and kicking in just about every scientific field imaginable. It's also in need of people just like yourselves! That’s right - the chance to fulfill that childhood dream without even having to make a career change is far more achievable than ever before.

Citizen science is the movement in which members of the public partner with scientists to answer real-world problems. Around the globe, citizen science is growing exponentially and contributing important data to a host of different projects with real and significant outcomes. For example, citizen scientists have contributed to transcribing old ship logbooks to digitise the data, monitoring bird populations for eBird, playing computer games that may help scientists learn more about retinal neurons, collecting water samples to help estimate the health of river and estuary systems for a group called Estuary Watch Victoria, and even participate in the search for the next exoplanet (a planet which orbits a star outside the solar system and may have life) by measuring the brightness of a star using images taken by LCOGT’s telescopes.

More recently, an emerging branch of citizen science includes Australian projects that utilise smartphone and tablet technology to help identify populations of different animal and plant species. There are more than 1,100 active and searchable global citizen science projects listed on SciStarter, all of which are waiting for volunteers like you and me to sign up.

What will you discover as a citizen scientist? Image: Natural History Museum, UK

What will you discover as a citizen scientist? Image: Natural History Museum, UK

Closer to home, I interviewed Andrew Gray, a co-founder of BioQuisitive, a citizen science project with big plans right in the heart of Melbourne. In a nutshell, BioQuisitive is located in Brunswick and is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people from all walks of life to come and learn about biology and life sciences, and get involved in workshops, classes and projects.

Gray’s journey began just like most of ours. He had a passion and imagination for science but didn’t have a place to express it. It wasn’t until he was asked to start up an enterprise through the Global Challenges Science Program at Monash University that he began to explore the possibilities. While always being a fan of hackerspaces (essentially a shared resource in which a group of members all passionate about a similar field can collaborate), he realised there was no shared science space available. The only similar space in Australia was in Sydney, founded by none other than Meow-Ludo Meow Meow, the director of Biohacker Space BioFoundry. Gray met with Meow Meow and was shown what was possible by being introduced to his network and laboratories. At that moment, the possibility of creating a similar but unique space became a reality.

A little way down the track and after countless hours of hard work and persistence, BioQuisitive is now a thriving haven for citizen scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds. As Gray explains, “… we're breaking the mould here in a country where a paradigm exists in how people partake, who will partake, and where they will partake in science. Just yesterday I had a member of the public, with little to no scientific background, learning and conducting molecular biological experiments by transforming bacteria to do new things.”

BioQuisitive is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people to get involved in workshops, classes and projects. Image: Eddie Jim / The Age

BioQuisitive is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people to get involved in workshops, classes and projects. Image: Eddie Jim / The Age

While I expected the projects of a new, start-up citizen science movement to have the bare bones in regards to resources and the calibre of projects being undertaken, I was remarkably amazed to discover the opposite was true.

“Members are working on a variety of projects. Bio-printers, isolating and harnessing the power of plastic eating bacteria, using CRISPR to knock out various metabolic pathways in yeast, Microbial Fuel Cells, and renewable energy projects,” Gray explains. “Previously we have even worked on projects in collaboration with Cornell University and MIT media lab.”

Asked about what BioQuisitive hopes to become in the future, Gray says, “Our community is comprised of people from all walks of life. We have scientists in research and academia, artists, musicians, brewers, accountants, economists, lawyers and many more contributing to make this work as a team. It's unreal to me, and I'm still finishing my undergraduate degree, but I feel like this is how science should be practiced.”

While BioQuisitive may not be for everyone, it is one fantastic example of how getting involved in citizen science has never been so achievable. Right now, there are literally thousands of opportunities to be the scientist you always wanted to be.

For more information on BioQuisitive, don’t hesitate to get in touch via info@bioquisitive.org.au or http://www.bioquisitive.org.au/


Stephen McGain

Stephen studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope to further contribute his knowledge and skills to the local community.


Banner image courtesy of Ollie Toth.

Guerrilla Restoration

This is a guest post by Jordan Crook.

Along the railway lines in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, the remnants of the bushland that once stood there still grow amongst the weeds and rapidly expanding suburbia. These living museums of the local flora are very special places in our urbanised environment but lie neglected, forgotten and unknown to many people who walk past them every day.

For the past few years, a small group of community members has been weeding and managing a patch of remnant valley heathy woodland: a rare type of native bushland along the Belgrave railway line, almost in the centre of the township of Ferntree Gully.

Just some of the beautiful floral species to be found in the restored reserve. Image: Robert Pergl

Just some of the beautiful floral species to be found in the restored reserve. Image: Robert Pergl

The patch of bushland was rediscovered by Robert Pergl, who was riding his bike past the site every couple of days when heading to school at Swinburne University’s Wantirna Campus. He studied the trees and understory of local indigenous plants and observed the ever-creeping threat of weed invasion and inappropriate mowing. Based on his studies, he concluded that the site was worth looking after due to the many rare and threatened plant species found here.

After gathering a group of mates to help out, a guerrilla friends group arose to care for this piece of bush. Guided by the practices of the Bradley sisters, the grandparents of modern bushland management practices and methods, the area was now feeling the love.

A section of the reserve prior to wood weed removal. Image: Robert Pergl

A section of the reserve prior to wood weed removal. Image: Robert Pergl

The same section of the reserve following wood weed removal. Image: Robert Pergl

The same section of the reserve following wood weed removal. Image: Robert Pergl

Over the past three to four years, guerrilla bushland workers have brought the reserve back to life, reducing the threat from grass weeds by hand-weeding and excluding mowing from sensitive parts of the area. The worst weed is quaking grass (Briza maxima), but with “Briza Blitz” themed working bees, the impact of this species has been significantly reduced.

Through monitoring and surveying of the site, we have found over 50 indigenous plant species present, with more returning following continuing weeding works. Among these species are wildflowers, native orchid species, sundews (Drosera sp.) and the critically endangered matted bush pea (Pultenea pudunculata).

Watching the area come back to life with the dedicated work of volunteers has been amazing. What began as a small group of friends managing the area as guerrilla bushland workers has resulted in the obtaining of a lease over the site through the help of the Knox Environment Society after many years of lobbying.

An exquisite chocolate lily (Arthropodium strictum). Image: Robert Pergl

An exquisite chocolate lily (Arthropodium strictum). Image: Robert Pergl

Margaret Mead, the academic and activist, said‘ ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’ And that’s true. We took it upon ourselves to bring this area back to life and reverse the global trend of declining biodiversity. It may only be a small patch, but if we all take on responsibility in our backyards and local areas, we can slow and reverse the tide of extinction affecting the plants and animals that we're lucky enough to share this beautiful country with.

As the restoration of this location has always been about community involvement, we would like to open the opportunity up to the community to help name the site!  We would like it to be a wildflower reserve named after a significant local conservationist, plant, or animal. So put on your thinking caps and email your ideas to jcrooka@gmail.com with the subject “FTG Bushland Name”. We will announce the name on August 4th 2017.


Jordan Crook has a Diploma of Conservation and Land Management from Swinburne University. He is currently completing a Diploma of Arboriculture at Melbourne Polytechnic and can be found on Twitter at @JCrooka.


Banner image courtesy of Robert Pergl.

Like A Fly on the Wall

I am a birder currently working in a botany research group. There is a certain circularity to these two aspects of my life, as it was put to me during my undergraduate degree that I couldn’t claim to know anything about birds if I knew nothing about plants; the two are so intricately linked that it is impossible to study either in isolation. Now, having read The Secret Life of Flies, I can see that I have no chance of understanding birds or plants until I know more about flies. Flies provide so many ecosystem services that without them, the natural world would cease to function. As the book’s author, Erica McAlister, puts it, “…how can you answer any questions about the habitat if you ignore one of the largest components of it?”

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Image: CSIRO Publishing

This book made me see how naïve I had been to the importance of flies. I have often taken photos of flowers being visited by hoverflies and a host of other dipterans without ever really thinking that they could provide pollination services on a scale that is vital for maintaining plant reproduction. Yet, from the pages of McAlister’s book, you will discover that “flies are more important pollinators than bees.” Similarly, while reading the ‘Detritivores’ chapter, I was struck with the realisation that the photos of swarms of flies I recently took on the beaches of Wilson’s Prom were not that unusual at all. Flies that feed on decaying kelp and seaweed are a common occurrence, from temperate beaches to tropical ones.

And that is what this entire book was like. It was packed with fact after interesting fact. In some ways though, the fast pace of the writing was to its detriment. As a novice fly-er, there was no chance that I was going to remember which family of flies with an unpronounceable name was the one that did this and which was the one that did that. However, once you come to terms with the fact that the nitty-gritty in the pages of this book is not what's important - rather, it's aimed at opening your eyes to the diversity of fly morphology and ecology - you will see that it's necessarily fast-paced to fit every topic in. In just 241 pages, McAlister provides an informative and accessible overview of this diverse group of invertebrates. The book is helpfully broken down into chapters that are largely focused on an individual feeding guild. This helps to limit the number of topics covered to a barely manageable subset. The enthusiasm with which McAlister writes hints at the fact that she could have produced reams more text in addition to what made it to the published pages.

Although I often see species of flies visiting flowers, I had never appreciated the scale of the pollination services that flies provide to plants until reading The Secret Life of Flies. Image: Rowan Mott

Although I often see species of flies visiting flowers, I had never appreciated the scale of the pollination services that flies provide to plants until reading The Secret Life of Flies. Image: Rowan Mott

Unbeknownst to me, flies are a common component of beach ecosystems around the world. Perhaps I should have guessed that from this spectacle I photographed in a beach cave at Wilsons Promontory National Park. Image: Rowan Mott

Unbeknownst to me, flies are a common component of beach ecosystems around the world. Perhaps I should have guessed that from this spectacle I photographed in a beach cave at Wilsons Promontory National Park. Image: Rowan Mott

The writing is made more engaging by McAlister revealing few truths about herself as well as the flies. The world’s chocolate production depends on pollination by flies, but disruption to this would be of little consequence to McAlister because she doesn’t like chocolate. Perhaps more bizarrely, McAlister reveals just how deep her love of flies really is while talking about the venation of the wings of fungus gnats. She states, “I find the looping created by the joining of the veins named M1 and M2 rather sensual and become quite syrupy when I look at them.” In addition to insights into her own personality, we are also shown glimpses of what it is to be a professional dipterist (a researcher studying flies). From lying fully clothed and covered with sand on an ocean beach while waving a net over piles of seaweed, to studying underlying genetic influences on alcoholism using vinegar flies (a globally important model organism for genetics research) in the laboratory, it is clear that dipterists’ careers can be as varied as the flies themselves. It would not surprise me if some people are inspired to become dipterists after having their interest piqued by this book, particularly when readers learn of McAlister’s past study locations in far-flung places, including the mountains of Peru, the beaches of the Caribbean, and London’s Kew Gardens.

Conversely, The Secret Life of Flies may turn some people off a career as a dipterist. At the very mention of flies, most of us immediately think of pesky gate-crashers at picnics and barbeques, or worse still the itch of a mosquito bite. McAlister acknowledges that flies earn “nothing more from us humans than feelings of disgust.” Although this book does much to dispel blatant negativity by highlighting the value of flies to our society and environments, it does not shy away from exposing the more disgusting aspects of their ecology. From typical blood-feeders that pierce a vein or slice skin to lap the pooling blood, to bot flies that develop in the nasal passages of camels, there are many occasions where a squeamish reader might want to skip forward a few pages. Yet, rather than frame these aspects negatively, McAlister celebrates the myriad ways that flies have evolved to exploit their environment, and the opportunities they present. This revelry will enable many readers to go beyond their normal comfort level and read on to keep learning.

Blood-sucking, as displayed by the blood-laden fly on this water skink’s head, is a familiar interaction many of us have had with flies. The many ecological roles of blood-feeding flies are explored in The Sanguivores chapter of The Secret Life of Flies. Image: Rowan Mott

Blood-sucking, as displayed by the blood-laden fly on this water skink’s head, is a familiar interaction many of us have had with flies. The many ecological roles of blood-feeding flies are explored in The Sanguivores chapter of The Secret Life of Flies. Image: Rowan Mott

I'm not sure if this book will fly off the shelves, but those who do pick up a copy will be rewarded with a fascinating journey through the world of a group far more important than most ever realise. The Secret Life of Flies will be an important gateway for people like myself, who know little of the importance of these insects, to discover more about this unique group. It seems that the more you scratch the surface, the more examples of weird, wonderful and environmentally important species you will find. The Secret Life of Flies fills an important gap for those wanting a light-hearted introduction to all things fly. 

You can purchase your copy of The Secret Life of Flies from CSIRO Publishing.


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.