Photography

Small Systems Are Go: How Tiny Communities Provide Invaluable Services

This is a guest post by Michael Smith.

Relationships are a part of our everyday existence. They are an inescapable reality whether they be between humans or with a pet, or with non-living entities such as food or exercise. Although human beings are intelligent and creative in many facets of their living and problem-solving, we are simply not capable of performing all the tasks essential for survival. Like all animals that exist on this fragile globe, we rely on services that other organisms provide for our survival. More often than not, these services are the result of an ecosystem rich in diversity. To help illuminate this point, let us explore how plants, which humans rely on for edible sustenance, depend on communities for their existence.

Plants have the fantastic and extraordinary capacity to harness energy from sunlight. When a plant splits photons, the energy released is used by flora to breakdown CO2, water and oxygen into carbohydrates. Evolution has enabled plants to perform this task because it is a way of storing energy. Plants can then choose to use the energy contained within the carbohydrate compound at a later date.

Energy alone is not enough to grow and prosper though. Plants also need minerals to build proteins for cellular structures. In order for plants to obtain mineral nutrients, many types of flora rely on insects and other small biota for underground love. Worms and burrowing insects break down organic matter into nutrients available for plant consumption. Furthermore, by travelling up and down the soil profile they create gaps for nutrients, water and oxygen to flow towards the plant’s root zone. As a result, plant growth and therefore human survival is reliant on insects providing aboveground and underground services.

An Australian common skink hiding amongst leaf litter  - Skinks are a wonderful predator in forest ecosystems. By feeding on larger invertebrates, including moths, crickets, flies and grasshoppers, they ensure that a population explosion of an insect species does not occur.  Image: Michael Smith

An Australian common skink hiding amongst leaf litter - Skinks are a wonderful predator in forest ecosystems. By feeding on larger invertebrates, including moths, crickets, flies and grasshoppers, they ensure that a population explosion of an insect species does not occur. Image: Michael Smith

Plants are not simply limited to underground interactions with insects. Fungi and bacteria also help plants flourish. Fungal hyphae (a network of underground filaments), for example, reach far and wide searching for nutrients to concentrate and store. Excess nutrients are exchanged with carbohydrates from some plants, a sort of festive fungi barter system. In addition, fungi interacting with plants can trigger the release of chemicals, which prevent insects from attacking the plant and, in some cases, can signal to predatory insects that a feast of arthropods awaits them on a plant’s leaf plateau.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria, on the other hand, change nitrogen gas into compounds useable by plants. In the first phase, non-symbiotic bacteria fix nitrogen gathered from the atmosphere with other elements to form nitrogenous compounds (inorganic compounds usable by plants). In the second phase, symbiotic bacteria living within root nodules of a leguminous plant exchange the fixed nitrogen for sugars. This interconnected exchange makes the production of the humble lentil a possibility. Therefore, it seems that for humans to eat fantastic plants full of protein and carbohydrates, we are reliant on skills we cannot replicate, and communities full of tiny life forms!

Exploring the relationships involved in a living, micro community of interconnection can be exciting and rewarding. Not only is it fascinating to find out about previously unknown relationships, but it also gives humans an opportunity to help communities perform more efficiently. A classic example is feeding your soil organic matter. Compost does much more than simply feeding subterranean life. It also binds itself to clay particles, loosening and aerating soil in the process. As a result, rain and insects can transport nutrients to a plant’s root zone with a lot less resistance.

Now, we all know about honey bees and pollination, but consider the fact that solitary bees, hoverflies and blowflies in particular scenarios are considered better pollinators. In wildflower patches throughout Victoria, the most common insect you will find, by a considerable factor, is the hoverfly. This fantastic insect masquerades as a bee by displaying fabulous yellow and black stripes. It does this to convince predatory insects that it’s a bee, reducing the chance of an attack. Hoverflies are the greatest pollinators of Melbourne wildflower patches, transporting pollen to and from a profusion of indigenous wildflower species. As well as pollination, hoverflies have an insatiable appetite for aphids and therefore are deemed a beneficial insect to have in farms and backyards.

A native Australian ‘short tongued’ bee resting on a chocolate lily.   Image: Michael Smith

A native Australian ‘short tongued’ bee resting on a chocolate lily. Image: Michael Smith

The second most common group of pollinators in Melbourne’s wildflower patches includes bees and wasps. Bees are capable of seeing UV light and are subsequently attracted to colours closer to the UV spectrum, including blues and purples. Native Wahlenbergia and Comesperma plants evolved alongside the native bees of Melbourne, before the introduction of the European honeybee. These plants are not only brilliant shades of blue and purple but have smaller flower heads requiring native Australian bees, with shorter tongues, to pollinate them in order to not pierce their tube.

On the contrary, blue-banded bees perform a special behaviour called buzz pollination. By shaking their body violently with powerful wing muscles, pollen is dislodged from plants, such as species in the Dianella genus, which hang onto their pollen very tightly. In many parts of the world, honeybee populations have been decimated by neonoictoid pesticides (that are intended to kill harmful insects) and the Varroa mite. As a result, we may become even more reliant on native insects. In fact, it is plausible we will rely on them to pollinate a significant proportion of our commercially grown crops, as well as our wildflower patches and forest species.

Spider on Daisy  - It is not uncommon to see small spiders on top of daisy seed heads. They are waiting patiently for a pollinator, such as a small bee or butterfly to land on the daisy. Once they have landed, the spider will attack.  Image: Michael Smith

Spider on Daisy - It is not uncommon to see small spiders on top of daisy seed heads. They are waiting patiently for a pollinator, such as a small bee or butterfly to land on the daisy. Once they have landed, the spider will attack. Image: Michael Smith

So how can we help these communities of helpful and talented insects? One way is to plant native wildflower patches in your backyard and ideally link your patch to those of your neighbours. Animals love to travel along corridors and insects are more likely to see a food source if the patch is large. Convince your neighbour that native bees will then pollinate their tomatoes and hoverflies will attack the aphids on their brassicas!

You can also build insect motels. Air bee-and-b! These engineered homes are a place for insects to seek shelter, escape from predators, hibernate and allow their larvae to grow. Insects are quite particular about their homely requirements. It is therefore essential to use the right materials to attract the beneficial bees you are after. Blue-banded bees, for example, naturally make their homes in clay banks, and resin bees in branches; therefore, make holes in similar materials when constructing a hotel.

Imperial blue butterfly  - Ants form a mutualistic relationship with the caterpillar of this species. They protect the caterpillars from predators and in return feed on the surgery substance which exudes from the caterpillar.  Image: Michael Smith

Imperial blue butterfly - Ants form a mutualistic relationship with the caterpillar of this species. They protect the caterpillars from predators and in return feed on the surgery substance which exudes from the caterpillar. Image: Michael Smith

Currently exhibiting at Lentil as Anything in Thornbury, my partner Fiona Mitchell and I are spreading a story about relationships and communities. The story is mostly based around wildflowers in Northern Melbourne; for example, Boomers Reserve, in Panton Hill, which has a profusion of beautiful flowers.

We believe that visual media (photography, documentaries and paintings) are a great way to create an initial interaction with a community member, and to spark interest about this fascinating subject area. From there, a message of deeper understanding can be attached (in our case, with blurbs attached to art work), which will hopefully result in further questions about the fascinating world of ecosystems and insect communities.


Michael Smith is a trained ecologist that currently works in bush regeneration, habitat engineering and environmental education. He is passionate about community engagement and teaching the importance of biodiversity. 


Banner image courtesy of Michael Smith. 

The Photographic Sublime

It is easy to see why photography and nature fit so seamlessly into each other’s hands. In early documentations of animals, plants and landscapes, it was never enough for the author to simply describe a natural element – they more often than not felt the need to show it as well. Sketchbooks of explorers, scientists and naturalists demonstrate the habit of humankind to recreate what we see. Cave paintings too are of course testament to this. From sketches and paintings to the modern technologies of film and photography, humans have always retained a sense of the visual in their perception of the natural world; after all, if we can’t observe it, then can we truly understand it?

More than ever before, photographic technologies are now allowing us to delve deeper into both the sublime and the everyday of nature. Modern cameras allow us to observe organisms that previously escaped the naked eye. Comparatively, they can also portray landscapes on a much grander scale, encouraging humans to envisage the Earth from a less insular point of view.

Jointly run by Australian Geographic and the South Australian Museum, the ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year is Australia's premier natural history photography exhibition. As well as the publication of a book, selected photos are displayed in an exhibition held at the South Australian Museum and, for the first time this year, at the Australian Museum in Sydney. The book and exhibitions ensure that millions of people have access to these incredible images and that the organisations involved can continue to encourage the human connection with the environment through the art of photography. As the title of the award suggests, photos portray the natural world of Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica and New Guinea, making for an amazing collection of diverse portraits.

Titled Australasian Nature Photography and now in its thirteenth edition, the book itself is presented in a simple fashion, divided into the various prize categories (such as Botanical, Animal Portrait and Landscape). In this case, simplicity works, allowing the photographs to stand alone and speak for themselves with only short pieces of text to accompany them. It is fascinating to discover the stories behind the work, yet it is also satisfying to quietly peruse the images, immersing yourself in the non-human world that has been captured all too knowingly by the human.

The high standard of the winners makes it difficult to pick a favourite, so my selections below represent just a small sample of the fantastic collection included in the publication. I am also not a photographer – just a would-be naturalist with a love for metaphor and the aesthetic.

Well, Hello!  - David Westcott

Winner – Animal Habitat

Despite the obvious cuteness of the subject, this photo truly encapsulates the significance of habitat in the life of an individual. Captured off Russell Island in Queensland, Westcott admires these smallspotted combtooth blennies for their fun and curious behaviour; as I would agree, he believes that ‘it’s the little things in life that bring pleasure’. The coral folds of the blenny’s home suggest continuum and safety in an environment that would definitely not be without its challenges.

Well, Hello!  Image: David Westcott

Well, Hello! Image: David Westcott

Jupiter – Diana Yong

Landscape – Shortlisted

I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the judges to select a winner in this category. Every image evokes an almost unbelievable sense of place and leaves the viewer stunned with the capacity of a photo to pull one into another world. Resembling rough brush strokes on a painter’s canvas, this photograph was taken at Lake Martin in Victoria. Yong describes how the image reminded her ‘of indigenous art and the topographic relations to the imagery’. The name of the piece suggests an otherworldly nature, as well as the interconnectedness of places across time and space.

Jupiter .   Image: Diana Yong

Jupiter. Image: Diana Yong

Piercing Headache – Matthew McIntosh

Overall Winner 2016

I could hardly describe my favourites without reference to the official winner of the ANZANG competition. McIntosh’s captivating snap of a male orange-eyed tree frog and his bloodthirsty friends graces the cover of the book, and was selected by the judges for its storytelling ability: ‘the bulging orange eyes grab your attention and the mosquitoes add a layer of complexity.’ Indeed, this image draws you in to a non-human world that is too often forgotten and reflects the survival needs of even the most miniscule creatures. As McIntosh explains, the female mosquitoes featured in the photo require the blood of the frog to ensure their ‘future egg development’. This image is an outstanding evocation of the miniature, the marvellous, the connectedness and the intrigue that make life possible, all in one tidy (and amazing) package. Perhaps more simply, it is also a stark reminder that humans are not the only animal whose blood mosquitoes enjoy!

Piercing Headache.  Image: Matthew McIntosh

Piercing Headache. Image: Matthew McIntosh

Buller’s Albatross, Thalassarche bulleri – Georgina Steytler

Threatened Species – Runner-Up

Of course it wouldn’t be a wildlife photography competition without one or two decent bird shots! Whilst this is only one of many incredible images, there is something sublime about this photo that stops you from turning away. Like the eyes of the Mona Lisa following you about the room, the piercing gaze of this albatross suggests an intelligence and awareness that is both foreign and relatable to that of the human. Simultaneously, it bridges the gap between the human and non-human by bringing us into this split second of life above the ocean’s waves. Appropriately featured in the Threatened Species category, Steytler describes how ‘Buller’s albatross is a common by-catch from long-line fisheries in the Southern Ocean.’

Buller’s Albatross,  Thalassarche bulleri .  Image: Georgina Steytler

Buller’s Albatross, Thalassarche bulleri. Image: Georgina Steytler

As the last image suggests, the Nature Photographer of the Year is more than just a competition. It is a means for both photographers and those that view photography to better engage with the natural world, to help in the fight to protect threatened species, and to understand the plight of the non-human in a world that is being irrevocably changed by the impacts of the human. As amazing as they are, the featured photos above do little to capture the diversity and talent on display in this must-have book. Without competitions like this and the broader world of nature photography, it is not difficult to believe that our perception and understanding of nature would be very different indeed.

This book can be purchased from Andrew Isles Natural History Books, where the review was originally published.


Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.


Banner image courtesy of Georgina Steytler.

 

 

The vagaries of vagrant-chasers explained

It’s a compulsive obsession. There’s no turning back once you begin. A bird that is missed could be a blocker for life. When word comes through that a vagrant has been spotted, twitchers all over the country consider how much annual leave they have up there sleeve, check their bank balance and scramble to clean their bins.

There is currently a submission being reviewed by BirdLife Australia's Rarities Committee to verify that this is a genuine Red-billed Tropicbird. If accepted, this will become only the second record of this species in Australia. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

There is currently a submission being reviewed by BirdLife Australia's Rarities Committee to verify that this is a genuine Red-billed Tropicbird. If accepted, this will become only the second record of this species in Australia. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

If that sounded mostly like gobbledygook, let me explain a little better. I am talking about ‘twitching’, the pastime practiced by bird watchers at the extreme end of the hobby. People who do twitching are called twitchers and twitch can also be used as a verb for doing the activity. But what exactly is it that twitchers do and why are they cleaning their bins because of it? Twitchers are bird watchers who specifically aim to see birds that are unusual because of where they have been seen or, in some cases, ones that are so rare that when they do turn up (even where they are supposed to be) it is a noteworthy sighting. In most cases, a twitcher will be travelling to see a bird from another country that has been blown off course during migration and ended up here. Sometimes freak weather isn’t responsible and the bird in question may instinctually follow the wrong flightpath, perhaps due to a genetic mutation. These birds are referred to as vagrants. To a twitcher, the reason for the bird being here matters little; it is seeing the bird that is important. To aid observation they use binoculars, just like any other bird watcher might. This is where the term bins comes from. To fully clarify the opening paragraph, a blocker is a bird that is unlikely to show up again anytime soon and hence blocks the people who missed out on seeing it from catching up to those who were lucky enough to see it.

The rarities are sometimes adorned in mute tones of greys and browns, but chasing rarities, such as this Phylloscopus warbler, always gets you out to interesting places even if you don't see the bird. Photo: Rowan Mott

The rarities are sometimes adorned in mute tones of greys and browns, but chasing rarities, such as this Phylloscopus warbler, always gets you out to interesting places even if you don't see the bird. Photo: Rowan Mott

As you can see, there is a rich terminology associated with the pastime of twitching. There are positive words such as tick (seeing a new species and hence being able to tick it off) and mega (a bird so unlikely to be seen that it is deemed a mega-rarity). There are also terms that a twitcher never wants to be associated with, like dipping (travelling to see a bird, but not being able to find it when you get there) and stringer (someone who claims to have seen something that they have not). No twitcher wants to get a reputation for being a stringer. At the end of the day, the twitching world operates on an honesty system. A reputation for honesty cannot be easily regained once lost. In today’s era of smart phones and digital cameras, most claims of a rare bird can easily be verified with photographic evidence. There is even a rarities committee that you can send reports of sightings to to get them officially accepted as an Australian record.

Throughout this article, I have said that vagrants arrive ‘here’. This could mean anywhere in Australia, hence the need to check the status of annual leave and bank balance. While I am writing there is a Laughing Gull at Venus Bay, west of Adelaide and a Eurasian Wigeon (a type of duck) somewhere near Port Headland in Western Australia. So how does a twitcher in Melbourne find out about these sightings? The twitching community is pretty close knit and there are a number of websites (see here) and social media groups, such as the Australian Twitchers Facebook group, for sharing information. There is also a certain amount of kudos that comes with being the first to spot and identify a rarity, so most people are only too happy to share the information about what they have seen. “Hang on,” you might be thinking, “‘community’ and ‘sharing information’ imply there is more than one person crazy enough to do this.” And you are correct. Twitching is a serious pastime full of friendly rivalry. There is even a leader board keeping tabs on who has seen the most species (see here). In comparison to the crowds of hundreds that turn up at the sighting of a mega in the U.K. or North America, crowds of Australian twitches pale into insignificance numbering up to around 15 people at any one time. So who are these twitchers? Well, I am one (when I can afford to and have the time which inevitably means I don’t get to chase everything I would like!), but you can find all types of people at a twitch, ranging from the occasional school child to grandparents. People younger than thirty are typically a minority, but everyone is very welcoming.

The bigger bird on the left was the most exciting ‘mega’ to show up in Victoria in a while. It is a Long-billed Dowitcher - a species that had never been seen in Australia prior to this one being found at Lake Tutchewop near Swan Hill. Photo: Rowan Mott

The bigger bird on the left was the most exciting ‘mega’ to show up in Victoria in a while. It is a Long-billed Dowitcher - a species that had never been seen in Australia prior to this one being found at Lake Tutchewop near Swan Hill. Photo: Rowan Mott

Twitching invariably involves travel. It is always a thrill when a trip plays out as hoped and you are able to return home having seen the bird. However, extensive travel is not great for a minimising your carbon footprint. I think the best way to turn a twitch into a positive for the environment is to tell as many locals as possible why you are there. The more people who appreciate how much tourism can be generated by people wanting to get out into the environment and see exciting wildlife the better. Ecotourism can be an important economic generator, particularly in rural and remote communities, with ensuing conservation benefits. If you go chasing the next mega, make sure you tell everyone who will listen why you are there. Wherever the next vagrant happens to turn up, perhaps I will see you there (and fingers crossed we both see the target bird, too).


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. 

Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth