australia

Birds from the Backyard and Boyhood

I recorded a new species for my backyard bird list. It wasn’t an exceptional species; it was a crimson rosella. But what made this record exceptional was that it occurred during one of my 20-minute Aussie Backyard Bird Count survey periods. That crimson rosella record is now part of a data set comprising almost 1.5 million individual bird sightings made across the country during a single week. Together, these data represent a treasure trove of information from which much will be learnt about the health of Australia’s bird communities and the changes that are happening.

Of course, not every bird I recorded in my backyard was new. There were the spotted doves that frequently sit on my garden shed roof of a late afternoon, and a pair of common blackbirds that I’ve come to know personally. I watch them from my kitchen window while I do the washing-up (a welcome distraction to make that chore a little easier to complete). The female is much bolder than the male and will forage on the open lawn close to the house. The male skulks along the garden edges near the back of the garden, is ever vigilant to threats, and flies off at the slightest disturbance. I was glad that these individuals also made it into the grand data set, to be part of something special.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}    I had never seen a crimson rosella in my Brunswick backyard before the one I recorded as part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Image: Rowan Mott

 I had never seen a crimson rosella in my Brunswick backyard before the one I recorded as part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Image: Rowan Mott

I was away from home for the second half of Aussie Backyard Bird Count week. A work trip meant that I was in a small town in north-east Victoria, about a 45-minute drive from where I grew up, so I took the opportunity to do a few surveys where I was staying. The soundscape in my adopted backyard was ever so familiar and took me straight back to my youth. It was like listening to your favourite song - the one you’ve listened to on repeat until you just about ruined it for yourself. There was the rhythm section that filled my childhood summers: rufous whistler and yellow-faced honeyeater. There was the guitar solo provided by sacred kingfisher and fan-tailed cuckoo, and the vocals of grey shrike-thrush. But this track must have been a live version because there were some subtle differences too. Although only a short distance down the road, the bushland in the area I was staying was wetter than my hometown and, accordingly, the bird community was not quite the same either. White-naped honeyeaters and golden whistlers were much more common here than where I grew up, showing just how particular the needs of a species can be.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}   The call of a grey shrike-thrush is a familiar one from my childhood. Image: Rowan Mott

The call of a grey shrike-thrush is a familiar one from my childhood. Image: Rowan Mott

It was one of the species not found in the dry woodlands surrounding my hometown that tested my scientific credibility most during the survey. This species was the eastern whipbird. Just moments after I had completed a 20-minute survey, the call of an eastern whipbird rang out; these birds have one of the most distinctive and beautiful calls of all our species. Instantly, there was a part of me that said, ‘Add it to the tally. They’re such a cool bird and it was only just after the timer sounded.’ Despite the temptation, I held firm and left it off my data sheet. I am glad I did because it is this standardised survey time that enables the people using the data to compare the number of birds reported between different regions or even different survey years. The number of birds recorded this year is almost 50% higher than the number recorded during the 2015 Aussie Backyard Bird Count, but the number of surveys lodged has also increased by over 40%. Without knowing that each survey was of the same duration, it would be impossible to know whether changes were due to increases in bird populations or whether it was simply because people were searching longer and therefore finding more birds.

The timing of the surveys is also important for allowing comparisons between years. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is held in the second half of October each year. This helps to minimise differences that might occur due to migrant birds not being in the same place. If the bird counts were held in summer one year and winter the next, Melbourne birders might record black-faced monarchs and red knots in the former, but these species would likely be absent during the latter. It would be impossible to infer changes in population numbers if this was the case.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}   The eastern whipbird almost made it into one of my Aussie Backyard Bird Count surveys and it took considerable restraint from incorrectly including it. Image: Rowan Mott

The eastern whipbird almost made it into one of my Aussie Backyard Bird Count surveys and it took considerable restraint from incorrectly including it. Image: Rowan Mott

I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Whether I was observing individuals that I have become accustomed to seeing on a daily basis, or reacquainting myself with the bird species that I grew up with, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count gave me an excuse to get out and enjoy my surroundings. I always enjoy taking time to look and listen to the birds around me, but there is something deeply satisfying about knowing that what you see and hear will go some way to ensuring that those sights and sounds are conserved long into the future. I hope you enjoyed taking part as much as I did, and if you didn’t take part, I recommend you keep a lookout for when the Aussie Backyard Bird Count takes place again in the second half of October 2017


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

The Geography of a Person

A browning map, heavily creased and slightly torn along the fold. A black line, ruler-straight and angling sharply, dissects the topographic record of dunes and waterways, crossing from Western Australia to the Northern Territory almost at the journey’s heart. The hand which scored the line belonged to a white man traversing the Tanami Desert in search of a useable stock route, and the document is a record of his journey in the country where he eventually settled. To his daughter, artist and writer Kim Mahood, the map is a source of inspiration.

The desert feels a world away from Melbourne, where Mahood is visiting the Writers’ Festival to discuss her recent book, Position Doubtful. Its name is taken from her father’s map, where landmarks are labelled (PD) to indicate uncertainty in their placement. The phrase captured Mahood’s imagination as a wider articulation of ‘the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it… it seems to me that our position in relation to the remote parts of the country is more doubtful than it has ever been’.

In her book, Mahood highlights the separation between the worlds of the ‘urban, Eurocentric, aspirational, heavily populated south-east corner of the continent and the remote, predominantly Aboriginal, barely sustainable, thinly populated pocket of desert’ between which she has been travelling back and forth throughout her life. For Mahood, the art she creates, both painting and sculpture, is a means of exploring her place in the country and her role in it, set up in contrast to the work of her friend and fellow artist, the late Pamela Lofts. Both deal with their unease as white Australians by creating art, but their differing approaches are a source of both inspiration and tension between them.

The book is a further adjunct to Mahood’s exploration of the place of white Australians in the country; in her words, ‘How do we make sense of this place that we all share?’ In her talk at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, she described Australia as a palimpsest. Like a manuscript which has had its contents erased and altered, traces of the original still clinging to the paper, Australia is constantly being rewritten. The landscape is burned, flooded, renewed; waves of colonisation and settlement have re-created the population makeup of the country.

Interweaving art and mapmaking allows Mahood to acknowledge and come to understand the layers of meaning given to the landscape of the Tanami. Travelling with the traditional owners through the desert, she records place names and dreaming stories for the areas her family once incorporated into their cattle station. In one of her works, Mahood overlays the names the settlers gave to the area with the traditional names, combining new and old.  

This book is not only a record of the author’s annual visits to the Tanami to live, work and practise her art; it is a poetic love letter to the landscape that shaped her. Her annual pilgrimage with a dog and a ute is both highly anticipated and ultimately necessary. It is a country where she is intimately familiar with the plants, the trees, the soil, and the ephemeral waterways. The landscape informs her artwork, and knowing it deeply is important to her sense of selfhood; as she says, ‘I believe geography shapes who we are and how we think’.

   World aeronautical chart, ICAO 1:1,000,000 series, compiled and drawn by Division of National Mapping, Canberra ACT, 1960. Routes of 1962 Tanami stock route expedition drawn by Joe Mahood. 

 

World aeronautical chart, ICAO 1:1,000,000 series, compiled and drawn by Division of National Mapping, Canberra ACT, 1960. Routes of 1962 Tanami stock route expedition drawn by Joe Mahood. 

Having been born on the station then known as ‘Mongrel Downs’, Mahood has a unique place in the community among both white Australians and the traditional owners. At birth she is given a skin name, Napurrula: an identity she sometimes embraces and at other times feels distant from. In a memorable episode, she watches two elderly indigenous women, laughing, dodge a fire started by a third, and wonders how three elderly white women would have responded in the same situation. The people of the Tanami are part of the reason Mahood is drawn back, again and again. In its exploration of geography, her book examines not only how different people can interpret a place, but how our perception of a place is shaped by the people who inhabit or once inhabited it. As relationships grow and friends pass away, her Tanami is irreversibly changed.

Even reading this book on a mild day in the early Melbourne spring, it isn’t difficult to be transported, through Mahood’s encompassing prose, into the dry, cracked bed of an ephemeral lake in the north. But when the final page is read and the cover closed on the desert, the springtime city can be viewed through a new lens. There are layers of history, social and environmental, beneath my feet. As I walk through it I am shaping it, and being shaped by it. Mahood’s book invites us to look around; to embrace the impact that our environment has on our identity, and to never stop challenging and re-examining our place in it.

You can purchase your own copy of Position Doubtful from Scribe Publications.


Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.


You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra


Banner image: 'Balgo Horizon', Kim Mahood 2004.

Review: Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia

The Book: The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia, 2nd Ed.

The Author: Michael F. Braby

According to the author of this book, Australia’s butterfly richness is lacking when compared to the rest of the world. I’ll have to take his word for it – as a botanist flicking through page after beautifully-arranged page of this field guide, the diversity is astonishing. In this botanist’s point of view, butterflies have previously been more of a service provider than a group that deserves its own attention - certainly lovely to look at, but really just there to move pollen. This guide serves to reverse this kind of thinking.

The glory of this book is its introduction. It begins with an anatomy lesson on body, leg and wing structure - the technical vocabulary comes thick and fast, but large and well-labelled diagrams make it easy for a novice to integrate. And it's worth making an effort - as any biologist knows, our linguistic shorthand is essential for a smooth conversation.

The concise and useful lesson on the terminology of wing shape gives a novice both a place to start looking when identifying their butterfly, as well as enough clues to help make judgments. For each of the six families of butterfly present in Australia, a diagram of typical wing veins allows quick comparison and straightforward identification - which then, rather cleverly, makes it simple knowing which section of the book should be flicked open. The sections themselves - one for each family, and one extra for species found on islands near Australia - are made clear and distinct by the coloured page edges, always useful for rapid flicking.

Further shortcuts can be found in the Introduction's section on distribution and habitats. Crisp, vibrant photos of vegetation classes and a zoned map of Australia provide a foolproof method of identifying the local habitat, allowing a reader to quickly rule out any possible butterfly identifications that don't match the source environment.

When it comes to choosing among possible identifications, the layout is informative without being overwhelming. A good description of size and colour (don't forget that vocabulary from the Introduction) is accompanied by colour photographs of the upper and lower sides, along with photographs of any seasonal, regional or polymorphic variations. The distribution maps are small, but the use of colour to show regions makes it simple to read (narrow distributions are either shown with arrows or with a zoomed-in map). A calendar of activity above each map will often have separate lines for different regions or subspecies.

For a budding lepidopterist (which I seem to be becoming as I read further), the most useful features of each species' entry are the descriptions of flight behaviour, the identified food plants of larvae, and the lists of similar species that might confound identification.

On a practical note, the guide also includes a wonderful section on how to collect, store and mount specimens. As the author points out, it's relatively low impact to collect adult specimens - and often the chance of a confirmed identification can help increase knowledge of range or behaviour. The instructions on net size and materials, preserving containers and solvents for morphological or genetic studies, and the materials to best curate a collection for the long term, are all excellent tools to help a collector make the most of their finds and - more significantly - minimise regret.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you're curious about your surroundings, if you want to learn your neighbour's names, or if you simply appreciate the beauty of Australia's butterflies. As Michael Braby points out, new species are still being discovered and documented - you could find the next one.

Cover image via Vicki Nunn / Wikimedia Commons

Review: Australian Alps

Title - Australian Alps
Author – Deirdre Slattery

With ghostly snow gums and murky sphagnum bogs, the Australian Alps inspire awe and mystery in many who visit their snowy peaks. The Alps attract thousands of visitors every year, from skiers and snowboarders during the snow season to hikers and campers during the warmer months. However, few people truly understand Australia’s alpine region and its cultural and natural history. Deirdre Slattery, the author of Australian Alps, wishes to change that.

In Australian Alps, Slattery tells the story of Australia’s alpine region from a myriad of angles, explaining a diverse range of ecological and geological processes in a direct and comprehensible style. In her preface, Slattery explains that this book aims to ‘help readers to observe their surroundings in detail, to understand how the mountain landscapes of Australia work, and be able to use this knowledge to evaluate for themselves the effects of past use’.

The first few chapters of Australian Alps cover the physical characteristics of alpine regions. Weather, climate and soil composition are discussed, but the topic that intrigued me the most was geology. Australia’s Alps are relatively low and round compared to the alpine regions found elsewhere around the world, and this is mostly due to the fact that the Australian Alps are very old and largely untouched by glacial processes. Slattery highlights this, and goes on to relate Australia’s alpine region to the supercontinent of Gondwana and to explain the geological processes that cause each of our mountain ranges to be so distinct in appearance.

Also discussed in this book are the flora and fauna you are likely (or more fittingly, unlikely) to encounter on a trip up into the mountains. A varied collection of plant species are found in our alpine region, but where you will find them often depends on altitude. Taller, leafier trees are found on the foothills of a mountain, whereas at the summit all you are likely to find are herbs and a few stunted shrubs. In regards to fauna, this book highlights the animal species found in the alpine and subalpine zone, and how they cope with the harsh conditions found there. Although Australia’s alpine environments are home to few vertebrate species, the species that do inhabit the Alps have evolved an array of adaptations to help them endure the conditions they face in their chilly habitat. Adaptations such as the use of subnivean spaces and torpor are explained, as is the general appearance and habitat of key alpine species, allowing readers a view into the world of alpine animals.

The latter half of Australian Alps discusses the alpine region in a historical context. Slattery not only recounts the many ways in which the Australian Alps have been used in the past, but also explains how the alpine landscape has changed as a result of said practices. Furthermore, Slattery discusses the traditional use of the Alps by Aboriginal Australians, as well as the conservation efforts currently underway.   

If you are looking for a book that offers a thorough explanation as to why our alpine region is the way we find it today, look no further. Australian Alps is well written, and while it is thorough and specific where it needs to be, Slattery’s writing style allows the reader to open the book to any page and instantly understand any concept explained in this text. 

This book belongs on your bookshelf if…

·      You love Australia’s alpine region
·      You wish to learn more about the Alps’ ecology, geology and climate
·      You are interested in the history of how Australia’s Alps have been used over time.