field guide

A New Standard: The Australian Bird Guide

In early May, birders across Australia will be checking and rechecking their letterboxes for their pre-ordered copies of the highly anticipated The Australian Bird Guide (ABG). I was to be amongst their number, but managed to snag a sneaky copy from CSIRO Publishing to review. Fantastic.

The daughter and granddaughter of birders, my childhood was full of bird lists, binoculars and field guides, and littered with magazines by the Gould League and the UK’s Young Ornithology Club. Family holidays were Enya, Deep Forest or TV themes in the tape deck, fights in the back seat and poring over field guides found in car seat pockets. Across the moors of Scotland and along the apparent monotony of the Stuart Highway, I found distraction from irritating brothers in first Britain’s Collins Gem Guide to Birds, and later the Slater and Simpson and Day Australian field guides. Though I never grew up to be a diehard “twitcher”, I have always kept field guides at hand and delighted in sighting new species and observing the behaviour of those familiar to me.

So it was with great excitement and reverence that I picked up Australia’s “most comprehensive single-volume review” of continental and visiting avifauna. Being a bit of an ocean girl, I quickly flipped the pages to find the birds of sea and shore. I had been told that this book would be a vital resource for tern identification, one of the most difficult groups to distinguish. I definitely struggle with these birds, and I was pleased with the precise, sparing notes and meticulous illustrations. It is my opinion that some guides have been overzealous in their annotations, adding so many that it becomes difficult to understand which are the important ones. In ABG, great care has been taken to include notes on only truly diagnostic features, and thus the plate notes for this book are one of its key advantages over previous guides.

Impressive illustrations and sparing annotations make it easier to learn diagnostic features before heading into the field.

Impressive illustrations and sparing annotations make it easier to learn diagnostic features before heading into the field.

Of course, the illustrations for this guide are exquisite. Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin, described by the guide's authors as “unmatched in their ability to depict Australian birds accurately”, were responsible for the painstaking production of the 4,700 plus images featured. The three have noticeably unique styles, but all images are perfectly executed to cover the full range of variability in our birds. The artwork is intended to be a key part of this new guide, the aim of which is “to help the novice birder identify an unfamiliar bird to species level, and the more committed birder to reach an identification of age, sex and subspecies where possible”. To understand and accurately depict the important (and often minute) diagnostic features, the artists worked with a database of more than 300,000 images, and specimen collections from across Australia. 

The introductory section is truly luxurious. If you’re like me, you probably don’t spend much time in the non-field guide sections of a field guide. I’m glad I did this time. ABG has an extended introductory section that doesn’t just explain how to use the guide, but also includes detailed and friendly notes on how to begin birding in Australia, judging sizes in the field, and extensive moult information for those who want to age birds or distinguish cryptic or uncommon species. I particularly enjoyed an essay on the fascinating and surprising evolution and taxonomy of the Australian avifauna, by Dr Leo Joseph of the Australian National Wildlife Collection (CSIRO). Here I learned that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to other birds of prey - incredible!

Lovely illustrated behaviour notes give the birder more to look for than just plumage.

Lovely illustrated behaviour notes give the birder more to look for than just plumage.

I value the important inclusion of guidelines for “ethical birding”; to ensure we don’t negatively impact the animals we love to watch, particularly in sensitive seasons or locations. Throughout the guide, the team’s enthusiasm and love for birds and birding is evident. I appreciate the obvious passion and drive the creators have for inspiring new birders and conservationists, and the care with which they have produced sections to this end. Indeed, this guide has the capacity to excite and satisfy serious birders while introducing concepts and identification techniques to new birders, without being boring for the first or condescending to the latter. As a non-expert but keen birder myself, I find the text engaging, encouraging and most importantly, inclusive.

This is a book for field identification. Great care has been taken to use font emphasis to highlight key and flight features for quick reference. That said, the book has a heft, and is more likely to be left in the car than carried around. We can but hope that an app version isn’t too far behind. One aspect that bemused me, and will no doubt confuse new birdwatchers greatly in the field, is the inclusion of obligate freshwater and grassland birds in the seabird and coastal biome. The decision to step away from a strictly phylogenetic sequence has merit, since avian taxonomy and birding knowledge is rapidly evolving, but perhaps the three biomes chosen to describe bird habitat could have been further broken down, as they are in Pizzey and Knight. The only other noticeable issues for me are the strange choice of marker for “likelihood of encounter score” and the fact that some, but not all higher taxonomic groups are given introductions. Consequently, a new birder might come to think that all our migratory shorebirds come under the Gallinago Snipe section!

Getting the differences between black-shouldered and letter-winged kites down now that the latter has just been spotted in Victoria.

Getting the differences between black-shouldered and letter-winged kites down now that the latter has just been spotted in Victoria.

The Australian Bird Guide is a call to arms in a way that no other guide I’ve read is. The writing team, made up of Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers and Rohan Clarke, actively encourages readers to record their sightings and take part in conservation programs in order to protect birds and the habitats they depend on. I think this is a beautiful way to acknowledge that we have a duty to protect that which we admire. If we won’t, who will? It is poignant that this guide is the first to include an illustration of a juvenile night parrot, a species whose rediscovery is spurring greater conservation of some of our most at-risk landscapes.

This is a brilliant guide with sublime illustrations, and a magnificent publication in its own right, away from the field. I hope it finds its way into plenty of car seat pockets, for the next generation of bird and nature lovers to find and fall in love with.

You can purchase your copy of ABG from CSIRO Publishing.

Cathy Cavallo

Cathy is a PhD student and science communicator with a passion for natural history, environmental engagement and photography. When she isn't running the Wild Melbourne social media, you'll find her working with little penguins on Phillip Island or underwater somewhere.

You can find her on Twitter at @CavalloDelMare

An Arachnophile's Bible

"Spiders!" I yelled, "Oh my god, spiders!"

Such an utterance may well epitomise the human relationship with the order Araneae - their hairy bodies and scuttling character a visceral trigger of fear and loathing for many. However, in this case the above words were shouted not in contempt or aversion but instead, excitement and glee. They were the words I spoke when this book was first presented to me.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Natural history field guides exist for a plethora of taxa in Australia. There are, of course, numerous bird guides from various authors, each with their own status in the birdwatching community. There are guides on reptiles and frogs and guides on mammals, and there are guides on invertebrates too. Waterbug books help people to identify aquatic macroinvertebrates, while other guides such as Insects of South Eastern Australia aim to give people an idea of the ecology and behaviour of our smaller earthlings. Butterfly guides often take the cake when it comes to illustration and photography and there are numerous publications for an enthusiast to choose from. Yet, though my bookshelf can aid you in sorting swallow-tails from skippers and distinguishing dunlin from dowitcher, I have long battled to find an equivalent resource for the "eight-legged freaks" I so love.

As Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson, authors of A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia, attest: "In 2007 if there had already been a modern field guide with colour photographs...this project would not have been started." It was around this time that my own interest in spiders- or "arachnophilia", as the authors put it - was beginning to emerge. This time in my life stood in stark contrast with the years of my childhood when I felt very differently towards them. I have vivid memories of waking to find a spider crawling on the ceiling above my bed on a number of occasions. In my young mind's eye, they were enormous and sinister-looking beasts and I was quick to call on my father to dispatch them.              

Yet, years later, something changed. My knee-jerk aversion to spiders was replaced with a sense or curiosity, which was soon followed by a strong admiration and enthusiasm for these creatures. What caused this change?

The guide dubs this guy a shaggy, red-headed house hopper. Works for me. He's pictured here with another jumping spider for a meal.  Image: Chris McCormack

The guide dubs this guy a shaggy, red-headed house hopper. Works for me. He's pictured here with another jumping spider for a meal. Image: Chris McCormack

I see you!  Image: Chris McCormack

I see you! Image: Chris McCormack

A camera. Or, more to the point, the new way in which it allowed me to view spiders. Suddenly I was able to take a photo of a web-weaving member of my household and look upon their minute features in detail. For the first time I could really see them; their eyes, their fangs, their palps, and more. Far from causing visceral fear or disgust, my new-found ability to capture their likeness stirred in me a sense of intrigue and affection. I pondered their existence and their stories. Why did certain species look and behave as they did, and what had brought this particular individual to this place at this time? Like many people who spend time observing animals, I began to notice the quirks of different genera. I was delighted by the curiosity of jumping spiders and found the shy, reclusive nature of black house spiders endearing. These scuttling, crawling, jumping, spinning creatures were neither sinister nor beastly: they were fascinating, beautiful, and even - as the authors put it - "cheeky and disarming".

While some have hypothesised that the fear many of us have of spiders is an evolutionary adaptation - a form of biophobia - Whyte and Anderson make plain their theory that such aversions are learned. Whatever the case, it is clear these fears and prejudices can be unlearned, as I (and many others who have battled with far more crippling spider-based anxieties) can attest. My adolescent indulgence in photography completely changed the way I view spiders, and so I’ve no doubt that a guide such as this, replete with stunning photographs of professional quality, can do the same for many others. Here, you have an opportunity to look confidently upon a world you might rarely dare to glance at in other circumstances. Be bold, and with this book as your guide, challenge your perspective of spiders, not only for their sake but because "To be able to identify and understand these creatures will surely make the time you spend in natural places more vibrant and meaningful."

Helpis sp.   Image: Chris McCormack

Helpis sp. Image: Chris McCormack

Lynx spiders prowling the undergrowth.  Image: Chris McCormack

Lynx spiders prowling the undergrowth. Image: Chris McCormack

For those already willing to give spiders a chance and who are looking for a practical means to identify them, this too is your book. While no physically lift-able book could hope to photographically catalogue the some 4,000 known Australian spider species, this guide is nonetheless impressively comprehensive. Its some 1,300 colour photographs will provide you with an indispensable resource for identification.

With that said, you might wonder when such a book would be of use. Well, aside from being handy for knowing the names of your many house guests, the guide will provide you with the ability - and motivation - to seek out and explore species new to you, and possibly even new to science! As the authors note, we've barely scratched the taxonomic surface of Australian spider genera: there could be as many as 20,000 species in all. If you're unsure of how you might stumble upon an opportunity to put this book to good use, consider as the authors have that there may be as many as 500 spiders in any square metre of grassy field. If 500 spiders per square metre of field isn't reason enough to use a spider field guide I don't know what is...

A huntsman waits for nightfall.  Image: Chris McCormack

A huntsman waits for nightfall. Image: Chris McCormack

For existing arachnophiles, this book is a must-have and will become a go-to resource for your passionate pursuit of the palpy. For those not yet in love with spiders - even those deathly afraid of them - I implore you to give it a chance. As renowned nature writer Tim Low states in the book's foreword:

"Submitting to the pages that follow could change your life."

A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia is due out in June. Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to pre-order your copy.          

Chris McCormack
Chris graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology and has spent the past two years working for the Victorian government delivering citizen science projects. He is the Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 

You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC

Banner image courtesy of Chris McCormack.

Envisioning a Birding Sensation: An Interview with Peter Menkhorst

Throughout Australia, birds are often considered the most accessible wildlife. We see them every day – it’s difficult to look outside without a glimpse of one entering our line of sight. And yet, many of us can’t tell a little raven from a pied currawong; a crimson rosella from a king parrot; a galah from a little corella. These animals share their lives with us through their fascinating behaviours, and they also share their habitats. As much as it may seem like they live amongst us, ‘scavenging’ for food or ‘attacking’ our gardens (and sometimes our heads), it more often than not appears to be us living amongst them. We disturb them during their nesting seasons, we deprive them of certain habitats because of our own needs, and we hit them with our cars when they’re just trying to go about their daily business. Birds are (for now) here to stay, but many Australians take their diversity and unique behaviours for granted because they are such a common sight.

Image: Andrew Isles Natural History Books

Image: Andrew Isles Natural History Books

Ecologist Peter Menkhorst is the lead author of The Australian Bird Guide (ABG), and he sees Melbourne as an incredible place to birdwatch, doubting that ‘there is another city anywhere in which you can see six species of cockatoo, plus four species of lorikeet and five species of parrot.’ Melburnians are also lucky to have ‘many fantastic wetlands that support species that were rarities 20 to 30 years ago, including blue-billed duck, buff-banded rail and spotless crake,’ he says. So it is no wonder that, along with co-authors Danny Rogers and Rohan Clarke, plus artists Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin, Peter was keen to produce a new field guide to Australian birds that covered all the bases – so that expert and amateur birders alike could learn more about our unique species.

Soon to be released by CSIRO Publishing in May this year, ABG is certain to be a huge step forward for Australian birding. However, there were plenty of challenges to overcome before publication went ahead: whether to include birds found in all of Australia’s political dependencies, which species were actually known or likely to occur within certain regions and, perhaps one of the most important questions, ‘what taxonomy would we follow?’ All these and more were queries that involved huge amounts of research and staying up-to-date with the latest findings as new studies were released.

For those familiar with the classic Australian bird guides – Morcombe, Simpson and Day, Pizzey and Knight – you will not be surprised to see the same format continued in ABG. Peter explains that they ‘all agreed from the beginning that we wanted to follow the ideal field guide layout of having all the information for a species – illustration, text and distribution map – together on a two-page spread.’ Nevertheless, such a format is in fact incredibly restrictive when it comes to how much information can be provided on each species.

Image: CSIRO Publishing / Andrew Isles Natural History Books

Image: CSIRO Publishing / Andrew Isles Natural History Books

Image: CSIRO Publishing / Andrew Isles Natural History Books

Image: CSIRO Publishing / Andrew Isles Natural History Books

For Peter and the team, it was critical to get the layout of the guide right from the beginning, as such formatting can't be easily changed further down the line. This meant that it wasn’t until two years after the initial planning stages that the guide finally began. Peter explains that ‘there were something like 60 additional species added through the course of this project’, which meant that some changes definitely had to be made. Every author had their own challenges as well, Peter in particular finding the wagtails the most difficult to write on; he ‘had a lot to learn’, he tells me, ‘with much of that learning…done overseas, in Hong Kong, Britain and Europe.’

Research was perhaps made easier by the fact that Peter and his co-authors had been collecting material for ‘most of [their] lives’. Peter tells me that everyone ‘contributed digital photos from a wide range of sources, including our own images taken especially for the project.’ They now ‘have a digital image database of over 500,000 images of Australian birds’ – an incredible collection that will no doubt remain useful for birders and ornithologists far into the future.

...there was a need for a new guide that catered better for the new breed of international birder.

As you can probably tell, this guide has been a long time coming, and the results certainly do not disappoint. The level of detail included in each species account and the magnificent illustrations produced by the artists lend this publication a superior edge that previous guides do not possess. Peter explains how ‘birding has changed enormously in the 21st Century. In particular, the improvements in optics and their affordability, combined with the arrival of autofocus lenses and digital photography, means that people are scrutinising birds in much greater detail. The birding challenge now is to do more than ID the species, people want to know subspecies, sex, age, moult stage, and they are tackling the more difficult groups such as seabirds, shorebirds and vagrant passerines.’ Whilst he and his co-authors hold the existing guides in great esteem, Peter acknowledges that they ‘were not really meeting this new standard [and that] there was a need for a new guide that catered better for the new breed of international birder.’

A whistling kite.  Image: Emma Walsh

A whistling kite. Image: Emma Walsh

ABG also emphasises what Peter describes as ‘the value of understanding patterns of feather moult and feather wear and the effect they can have on the appearance of some species.’ The team put a huge amount of effort into the introductory material in which this is discussed, so he encourages birders to read it rather than skip straight to the species accounts. The distribution maps are also works of art in themselves. Created by Glenn Ehmke using a huge database put together by BirdLife Australia, they are designed to reflect both population density and distribution, including subspecies distribution; they are not basic by any means. 

Many birders are too focused on colour patterns but these can vary across a species range and even within an individual bird over time. Look at the bigger picture first before concentrating on the detail.

So why should every birder buy ABG? Apart from it being the most comprehensive and up-to-date field guide to Australian birds in existence, Peter hopes that people will also take pleasure in the book ‘for its own sake’. It is a stunning publication and deserves the attention of book as well as bird lovers.

Finally, I asked Peter what advice he had for budding birders (such as myself). He suggests ‘to pay attention to the bird’s physical structure – size, shape, proportions, bill – as well as the colour pattern. Many birders are too focused on colour patterns but these can vary across a species range and even within an individual bird over time. Look at the bigger picture first before concentrating on the detail.’ The fastest way to learn is to tag along with knowledgeable people, so joining BirdLife Australia and participating in their outings is always a good idea.

And, as Peter did with Cayley’s What Birds is That? when he was a boy, sit in bed and browse through the field guide ‘to gain an understanding of the breadth of the bird fauna in your area so you have a good idea of what the possibilities are before you head out.’ Maybe this way more of us will be able to tell the galahs from the corellas next time we walk our wild streets. 

You can purchase your copy of The Australian Bird Guide from Andrew Isles Natural History Books or CSIRO Publishing.

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Cathy Cavallo. 

Unveiling the Octopus's Garden: The Surprising Diversity of Australian Cephalopods

Some of the most charismatic and curious creatures of the oceans, cephalopods represent a significant portion of the species that make up our marine ecosystems. In fact, the waters of Australia are home to some of the highest diversity of cephalopods in the world. Although including a wide array of distinctive animals such as octopuses, squid, nautiloids and cuttlefish, it is sometimes easy to forget the importance of this unusual group. Cephalopods are classified within the same phylum as the likes of snails, chitons and clams, although cephalopods are generally considered to be much more neurologically advanced than their relatives.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Taxonomist Dr Amanda Reid’s new text does much to reveal the varied roles that these organisms play. Functioning almost as a large, especially detailed field guide, Cephalopods of Australia and Sub-Antarctic Territories features 226 species of cephalopod and describes their habitat, biology, and distribution, amongst other aspects. With colour photographs, black and white drawings, and distribution maps, Reid’s work aptly explores why this class of animal is so important ecologically. Existing as both top-level predators and prey for species of fish, cetaceans and seabirds, there is much to be said for the influence that cephalopods have on their surrounding ecosystem.

In the comprehensive introduction to her book, Reid describes the publication as ‘timely’ and a means ‘to provide a solid launching pad for future studies and fisheries management.’ Cephalopods haven’t always been top marine predators – due to overfishing of finfish by humans, they now function as ‘a keystone group in understanding complex ecosystems’ based on their new position as significant marine predators. She hopes that this text will not just inform readers of what we already know about Australian cephalopods, but will ‘also indicate what we don’t know in order to identify potential future research projects.’

This is evident in the varying amounts of detail provided for each order of cephalopods, and the species within these orders. Some species profiles include reference to several research papers, whilst others contain more basic information with fewer references. There is still so much that we don’t know, and Reid is not afraid to demonstrate this.

An artist's impression of the luminiscent firefly squid  (Lycoteuthis lorigera ).  Image: Wikimedia Commons

An artist's impression of the luminiscent firefly squid (Lycoteuthis lorigera). Image: Wikimedia Commons

The nature of the guide is that it truly establishes the immense variety of species within the Cephalopoda class. It would have been no easy feat for Reid to encompass so much information into the one volume. Some standout species include Pfeffer’s flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi), a vibrant organism with purple-pink patterning along their arms and distinctive, fleshy, flap-like papillae; the greater argonaut (Argonauta argo), a little-studied octopus species whose females look more like a nautilus when they create a paper-like egg case that wraps around their body in the same way that a nautilus shell does; and the crowned firefly squid (Lycoteuthis lorigera), a species possessing spectacularly luminescent photophores (light-producing organs) on several areas of their body.

And of course, some of the most well-known cephalopods found in Australia, the blue-ringed octopuses, of which there are actually more than one species: the blue-lined octopus (Hapalochlaena fasciata), the greater blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena cf. lunulata) and the lesser blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa). All three are incredibly venomous and have been involved in human fatalities, yet interestingly, the venom is not produced by the octopus themselves, but rather symbiotic bacteria found within them. A species known for its presence in our very own Port Phillip Bay, the Maori octopus (Octopus maorum) is also a fascinating species described that has been studied somewhat extensively.

A lesser blue-ringed octopus ( Hapalochlaena maculosa ) in the waters of Sydney.  Image: Sylke Rohrlach / Wikimedia Commons.

A lesser blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa) in the waters of Sydney. Image: Sylke Rohrlach / Wikimedia Commons.

Although focused on information practically useful to researchers and fisheries experts, Reid’s text is still very relevant to those amateur naturalists out there, as well as to fishers and divers who want to know more about the marine world that they experience on a regular basis. It is important that we take responsibility for the often overlooked marine species that may be detrimentally affected into the future. It is concerning that there are so many species that we still know so little about – how can we know how they might be affected by human actions if we don’t even have all the information on their basic biology? But it is also refreshing to see the interest being taken in species of cephalopods in the hopes that more can be discovered, as is evident in the publication of such a comprehensive exploration of those organisms found here in Australian waters.  

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you have a passion for marine ecosystems or are involved in the active management of Australian fisheries and wish to learn more about some of our country’s most significant marine creatures.

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image of a Pfeffer's flamboyant cuttlefish courtesy of Jenny Huang / Wikimedia Commons.