Nature

Wild Melbourne on 3CR

Last Thursday, Wild Melbourne were lucky enough to be interviewed on 3CR radio this week on their program Lost In Science. 

Chris McCormack (Managing Director), Rachel Fetherston (Arts & Philosophy Editor) and Leo Guida (Community Works Manager) were interviewed by the Lost In Science team about our philosophies, and some of the recent projects we've been working on. 

Click on the player below to hear the interview! 

The Wild Melbourne Journey: A Case Study in Science Communication

The Wild Melbourne team are pleased to announce that we've been fortunate enough to be invited by Australian Science Communicators' Victorian Branch to present our story.

Australian Science Communicators is a group dedicated to fostering the successful communication of science to the public, in all formats. This aligns incredibly well with Wild Melbourne's mission of increasing the Victorian public's understanding and appreciation of nature. 

Come along to LOOP Bar on Thursday 21st July to hear us talk a little about the Wild Melbourne story, what we've learnt, and to see a range of our unreleased video footage from around Victoria (similar to the Science Short shown below!).

For those interested, there will also be an opportunity to network with us, as well as with many other Australian Science Communicators after the event. 

The event is free, so please head to the EventBrite page and register to attend. We hope to see you there!  

Urban growth: the plan for a forest metropolis

Artificial: it’s a word that comes loaded with meaning. When we call things artificial – colours, flavours, flowers – we’re often saying, just quietly, that it’s not as good as the real thing. To be artificial is a substitute, a compromise. It’s a lot of weight to bear for a term that originally described something simply as human-made, rather than naturally occurring.

In the category of artificial landscapes, a modern city is about as brazen a creation as is possible to find. The office buildings amassing to form mirror-sided canyons; the precisely parallel layouts of street, gutter, footpath and riverside; often softened only by plantings of identical trees, with a single species marching along streets in cookie-cutter repetition. It will surprise very few people that in Melbourne’s CBD, the distinctive London Plane trees account for 75% of the existing timber (interestingly, our plane trees are themselves most likely a human-made species – a hybrid of Eurasian and American parents).

Image: Visit Victoria

Image: Visit Victoria

In 2012, the Melbourne City Council began developing a plan that would change the face of the city, with a raft of environmental, cultural and economic benefits. The Urban Forest Strategy sets six targets for the city; primarily aimed at tree canopy density, diversity and health, it also focuses on water, soil, and changes to urban planning that involve the community and ensure ongoing function.

As a social need, the inclusion of green spaces in urban planning has been long established. The Urban Forest Strategy draws attention to a statement made by Melbourne’s emerging Town Council in 1839: ‘It is of vital importance to the health of the inhabitants that there should be parks within a distance of the town.’ In Europe during the same century, a similar shift was seeing the development of gardens for public use instead of the more cloistered spaces owned and policed by the very rich. Social observers were seeing that the Industrial Revolution, leading people away from rural environments to the dense labour markets of cities, had also brought about many mental and physical health issues. Neuroscience research in recent years has supported this, finding that spending time in a natural environment reduces activity in parts of the brain associated with mental illness.

The benefits of urban trees. Source: City of Melbourne Urban Forest Strategy

The benefits of urban trees. Source: City of Melbourne Urban Forest Strategy

In modern Melbourne, incorporating trees into the central streetscape as well as our parks has brought with it additional advantages. Urban trees provide natural shade, detectably lowering temperatures on footpaths; they sequester carbon, offsetting urban emissions; they have been found to reduce nitrogen dioxide, a component of urban pollution linked to respiratory disease. This all translates into economic gains – tree-lined streets see a higher amount of pedestrians, generating more passersby for local shops.

When it comes to revegetation programs, one of the most admirable components is restoration. The Australian landscape has been drastically changed since the arrival of Europeans, with the greatest shifts occurring in the oldest colonies and capital cities – recent research has been at pains to discover what the land looked like before settlement began. Nevertheless, this research has helped create rehabilitation programs in the Benalla region, throughout Gippsland and the Yarra Ranges, and other places around Australia, often giving wonderful results. In these locations, returning the countryside to its pre-industrialised condition has seen the return of threatened birds and mammals, with remnant pockets beginning to thrive.

For cities, the reality is unfortunately different. Infrastructure and landscape changes make it almost impossible to return the land to its pre-colonised condition, while dense populations with diverse requirements mean we can’t leave things untouched like we can in our National Parks. In order to maintain quality of life for all residents, intervention and reshaping is a necessary process. But for Melbourne’s urban forest, this doesn’t have to be a problem.

Urban trees provide habitat for apex predators like the powerful owl. Image: CSIRO

Urban trees provide habitat for apex predators like the powerful owl. Image: CSIRO

Before Europeans arrived, the landscape at the mouths of the Yarra and Maribyrnong was a gentle, open grassland with denser woods only around the rivers – even then, the rising salt from the bay meant that few tree species could thrive close to the coast. Restoring this landscape around the infrastructure of Melbourne would allow a return of endemic ecosystems, but it would not be sufficient to achieve the necessary goals of cooling and shading Melbourne’s streets. The current vegetation, although limited by a lack of diversity and native flora, is quite likely to be the most densely forested this landscape has ever been.

In addressing diversity, the Urban Forest Strategy has set an ambitious target with the 5-10-20 plan. At the strategy’s completion, Melbourne’s vegetation will feature single species to only a maximum of 5%, a single genus to 10%, and a single family to 20%. It’s wonderful to imagine – at least 20 different tree species will be present in our streetscapes, competing for our attention with changing shape and colour. The plan also makes sense from a biological angle; the climate is varying in greater degrees of temperature and water availability, while pathogens like myrtle rust and cinnamon fungus are appearing in outbreaks throughout Australia. Myrtle rust has been detected around Melbourne in plant nurseries, and has so far been found to affect 350 native species from the Myrtaceae family – in the event of a future outbreak, the risk of losing only 20% of our cover is a much less severe possibility than losing the majority.

Embracing the chance to truly design our landscape and shape Melbourne for the future has the potential to create a beautiful and strong home for ourselves. Long-term planning and informed decisions can protect us from changing conditions, whilst leaving behind limitations of conventional ideas opens amazing possibilities in architecture and vegetation.

A city is always artificial. But it can also be a place of artistry.


Paul Jones

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.

Listen up and you will never look back

This is a guest article by Monash University PhD student Rowan Mott.

There are few sounds so intrinsically linked with Australia as the chortle of a magpie first thing in the morning. The call is so distinctive that most Australians would have been able to tell you which species was making the call before they had reached school age. Yet, despite this early foray into call recognition, few people add more than a handful of other species to the list of birds that they can recognise by call. This is a shame because a good ear can turn an average day of birdwatching into a great day of birding. Birding is the term most serious birdwatchers use to describe their hobby. I think this is a fitting modification because it celebrates how much other aspects besides the visual experience can add to your enjoyment.

I first saw the full potential of call recognition when volunteering with ‘gun’ birder, Dean Ingwersen. Dean is the Regent Honeyeater Recovery Coordinator at BirdLife Australia. His role requires him to spend a lot of time in woodlands across the south-east of the country. This means he is often listening to birds calling. Not surprisingly, Dean’s ears were finely tuned to the call of regent honeyeaters. More impressively, he was also able to tell when other seldom-seen species such as varied sittellas and black-chinned honeyeaters were nearby, simply by distinguishing their calls from the cacophony of noisy friarbirds and red wattlebirds. My birding changed from that day onwards.

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  Weebills very conveniently have a call that sounds as if the bird is saying ‘weebill’. Photo: Rowan Mott

Weebills very conveniently have a call that sounds as if the bird is saying ‘weebill’.
Photo: Rowan Mott

I made a concerted effort to learn the characteristic calls of as many of the local species as possible. As it turned out, this was soon to be of great benefit to me when I began collecting bird survey data for my university honours project and then for subsequent research projects in a professional capacity. Being involved in scientific bird surveys has further highlighted the value of a good ear. It is only when tasked with counting every single bird in each survey site and having a tangible record of this on paper that you realise just how many birds you don’t see. Over 70% of the birds I record in a woodland bird survey I have not seen at all. Many of those that I do see I have heard first and know where I should be looking to see them.

I use a few techniques to aid my call recognition. The call of some birds resembles their name. For instance, the common two syllable phrase in the call of a weebill sounds as if it is saying ‘weebill’. Likewise, the slurred call of an olive-backed oriole sounds distinctly like ‘oriole’. However, not all bird sounds are so convenient. There are other mnemonics that I use, though. A call saying ‘sweet pretty creature’ is the familiar sound of a willie wagtail, whilst a stubble quail call resembles the phrase ‘poppy wheat’. But not all calls I remember by word association: The call of a painted honeyeater I remember as sounding like a rusty seesaw and a spotted night-jar I liken to an air-powered toy helicopter (don’t believe me? Well, listen here).

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  One of the most pleasant calls in the Victorian bush belongs to the white-throated gerygone. The sweet cascade of notes is reminiscent of a falling leaf wending its way to the ground. Photo: Rowan Mott

One of the most pleasant calls in the Victorian bush belongs to the white-throated gerygone. The sweet cascade of notes is reminiscent of a falling leaf wending its way to the ground.
Photo: Rowan Mott

The best way to learn bird calls is by going out birding with someone who already knows their stuff; ask them their secrets for remembering the calls of different species. After a description from a fellow birder, the call of white-throated gerygone is cemented in my mind as sounding like a falling leaf, whereas a white-naped honeyeater sounds vaguely like the sound of an ice-cream being slurped (I say vaguely because I don’t necessarily agree with that description). Regardless, I am thankful that the experienced birder shared their mnemonics with me - now I know that a white-naped honeyeater sounds not quite like the slurping of an ice-cream.

Listening out for calls will also mean your ears are tuned in to other noises as well. The sound of crunching bark may signal the presence of a crested shrike-tit. Similar crunching noises can betray the presence of a large parrot, such as a gang-gang cockatoo, sitting otherwise inconspicuously while crushing woody seed pods.

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  The call of the gang-gang Cockatoo sounds like a creaking door, but often it is the sound of seed pods being crushed that alert you to their presence. Photo: Rowan Mott

The call of the gang-gang Cockatoo sounds like a creaking door, but often it is the sound of seed pods being crushed that alert you to their presence. Photo: Rowan Mott

At the beginning, the many varied calls will seem overwhelming, but that is normal. I still find myself baffled even by common birds giving strange call variations or simply because of a mental block. There is no substitute for spending time outdoors listening to the real thing but there are a number of resources that can help. Apps for your phone such as Museum Victoria’s free Field Guide to Victorian Fauna and electronic versions of the Morecombe, and Pizzey and Knight field guides each come with a catalogue of call recordings. Similarly, websites such as the bird finder section of the Birds in Backyards website and the xeno-canto database have useful sound recordings. It takes patience and requires continued practice to maintain, but once your birding experience has been enhanced by your knowledge of bird calls, you’ll never look back – you’ll listen back instead!


Cover image by Rowan Mott.