interview

Wonder Beneath the Westgate

Amidst the industrial hustle and bustle of cargo ships as they’re loaded and unloaded in port, with the roar of the Westgate Bridge above you, it’s easy to assume the absence of nature in Port Melbourne. But in the shadow of the towering bridge lies a reserve that is in stark contrast to the chaos of the traffic overhead.

A bushland park nestled amongst inner city suburbs, Westgate Park behaves as a natural refuge for wildlife and humans alike. As you venture into the park, the vegetation muffles the noises of the nearby port, and replaces them with the sounds of rustling leaves. Consisting of only locally indigenous species, the vegetation around the park provides food and shelter for a wide range of fauna including mammals, reptiles, birds and even frogs.

Pale vanilla lily ( Anthropodium milleflorum ).  Image: Lyn Allison

Pale vanilla lily (Anthropodium milleflorum). Image: Lyn Allison

Lyn Allison, a committee member of Friends of Westgate Park, explains that it is no easy feat maintaining the park’s magnificent biodiversity: ‘Our volunteers weed, mulch, propagate, plant and prune vegetation. We hand-water plants when [they are] first put in the ground and some others in extremely dry periods... All garden beds are regularly mulched until there is sufficient natural leaf litter to cover [the] soil.’

Considering the time and effort these dedicated volunteers invest in the park, it’s no wonder that several rare and vulnerable botanical species exist here. Lyn explains that the Friends of Westgate Park have made a considerable effort to maintain the more sensitive, rare and threatened species in the park: ‘Some aquatic and semi-aquatic species are currently thriving and regenerating: salt lawrencia (Lawrencia spicata) and leafy twig-rush (Cladium procerum) are classified as rare, [and] woolly waterlily (Philydrum lanuginosum) is vulnerable in Victoria. Waterwart (Elatine gratioloides) appeared in the park this year and is locally rare.’

Sticky hop bush ( Dodonaea viscosa ).  Image: Lyn Allison

Sticky hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa). Image: Lyn Allison

Leafy twig-rush ( Cladium procerum ).  Image: Lyn Allison

Leafy twig-rush (Cladium procerum). Image: Lyn Allison

Unsurprisingly, the diverse range of floral species in Westgate Park supports a large number of fauna species: ‘More than 150 bird species have been observed in the Park over the last decade, an average of 50 observed [during] monthly surveys and around 80 species of invertebrates recorded as well as snakes, frogs, blue-tongued lizards, skinks, water rats, possums, and the long-necked turtle breeds each year in the park.’

In late winter and early spring, fungi can be found emerging through the park's leaf litter. ‘Fungi are crucial for breaking down plant and other material into useful nutrients,’ Lyn explains, ‘and most Australian native plants have a symbiotic relationship with fungus. To date, more than 60 species of fungi have been observed and identified in the park.’

Westgate Park is the perfect place for a quiet stroll or to discover some of our rarest indigenous plants.  Image: Lyn Allison

Westgate Park is the perfect place for a quiet stroll or to discover some of our rarest indigenous plants. Image: Lyn Allison

Westgate Park is a diamond in the rough, a haven amongst shipping containers and cranes. The beauty and diversity within the park in its industrial context is astonishing and gives visitors a glimpse into a time when the mouth of the Yarra was a more peaceful place.

Find out more about the wonderful landcare work that Friends of Westgate Park do by visiting their website.


Emma Walsh

Emma Walsh is a science graduate who enjoys sharing her love of nature with others. In the past, she has worked as a wildlife presenter, and enjoys teaching children about our native wildlife and its conservation. Her other interests include gardening and bushwalking.


Banner image courtesy of Lyn Allison of Friends of Westgate Park

 

From a Home to a Home

Kate Gorringe-Smith’s love for shorebirds began as a metaphor. For the Melbourne-based printmaker, her parents’ experience as English migrants in Australia suggested that whilst the meaning of home is not simple for any of us, it is especially complex for the migrant. Where is one’s true home? Is it where you were born, or where you move to? Following the passing of her father, Kate noticed her mother’s desire to return to England, but understood that it was not necessarily the place itself that was home to her mother – ‘it was my father who was her true home.’

This idea resonated strongly with Kate, encouraging her to ‘reflect on a whole lot of stories about when you leave home and what you leave behind… and the strands that tie you to the place that you came from – your possessions, but also the people you love.’ She realised that in many ways, the experiences of migratory shorebirds could be compared to those of her parents and other migrants: where was their home and how were they able to cope with a new one?

It was then that Kate decided to launch her collaborative art project The Flyway Print Exchange, involving ‘twenty artists, from nine of the twenty-three Flyway countries [who] created prints inspired by the idea of the Flyway.’ This project was a means for people to reflect on ‘how such tiny creatures can travel so far, so often, and endure so much’.

Starmap - Kate Gorringe-Smith  This piece of Kate's is just one of many artworks featured on  The   Flyway Print Exchange  .

Starmap - Kate Gorringe-Smith

This piece of Kate's is just one of many artworks featured on The Flyway Print Exchange.

So what is the Flyway? Kate explains that ‘it links countries from New Zealand to Alaska and Siberia with the journeys of these birds that… spend seven months of the year in Australia and New Zealand… and then they travel up the Flyway and they breed in Alaska.’ Migratory shorebirds inspired Kate and the other artists to create works based on the idea of a journey, and of finding a place of belonging in more than one location. Also known as the East-Asian Australasian Flyway, the route is travelled by Australia’s migratory shorebirds twice a year, making the art created by the Print Exchange a reflection of both the human and non-human experiences of changing homes.

More recently, however, Kate has collaborated with fifteen artists to collectively portray ‘human refugee experiences and migrant experiences through the…universalising lens of shorebird migration.’ The exhibition entitled From A Home to a Home: A Story of Migration displays these works in the wonderful space of Brunswick Street Gallery, mixing the diverse talents of various artists so that the public can immerse themselves in the different meanings of home. The artists, many of whom are migrants and refugees, come from a range of countries. Kate explains how their work will hopefully draw in ‘people who haven’t really thought about the migrant experience’, allowing them to ‘begin thinking about how hard that experience can be.’ For her, ‘the birds serve to remind us that none of us can survive alone’.

Flight - Khue Nguyen  Khue's video collaboration with Dr Rebecca Young and Haily Tran portrays what he describes as 'a moment of crisis, when mental strength and physical exhaustion contend in a battle of life or death.'

Flight - Khue Nguyen

Khue's video collaboration with Dr Rebecca Young and Haily Tran portrays what he describes as 'a moment of crisis, when mental strength and physical exhaustion contend in a battle of life or death.'

Humans indeed need to help both each other and the non-human in order to foster tight-knit, safe and happy homes that seem so rare in our busy, modern age riddled with the fear of the other – whether that be humans who are different to us in race or upbringing, or creatures completely outside of our species. ‘So many bad things come out of fear’, Kate believes, and it is through portrayals of hopefulness, beauty and imagination that she thinks art can be more engaging.

The exhibition itself, however, is not didactic in nature, but is rather a way to provide stories so that visitors can come to their own understandings of the migrant experience. As a fifth-generation Anglo-Australian, I am personally interested in how such art will challenge my own perception of belonging, and the influence that my seemingly non-existent English-Irish heritage has perhaps had on my understanding of home.

Flight of the Phoenix - Minh Phan  This piece is based on the design of a traditional Vietnamese long-dress brought over from Vietnam by the artist's mother.

Flight of the Phoenix - Minh Phan

This piece is based on the design of a traditional Vietnamese long-dress brought over from Vietnam by the artist's mother.

The range of artworks is impressive, from a fiery display based on a traditional Vietnamese long-dress embroidered with a phoenix, to bowling skittles with models of shorebirds placed atop. Stereoscopes, weaving, prints, and animations represent just a small portion of the variety of mediums to be experienced at this eclectic exhibition. In addition to these amazing pieces, Kate has also included a community aspect within the gallery. She explains how ‘we’ll have [laser-cut paper birds] hanging up [and] we’re going to ask people to write one word on a bird that defines home for them’ - a beautiful idea that will hopefully encourage visitors to engage even more so with this theme of belonging.

But in regards to the shorebird species themselves, is this exhibition revealing anything? Although Kate admits that the art is based strongly on migrant experiences, she reminds me as we discuss ecology ‘how everything is interconnected.’ By learning about migrant experiences or simply accepting the perspective of someone different to ourselves, can we also learn to understand those animals through which our experiences are mirrored? Kate hopes that ‘this exhibition might make people think about shorebirds’, but also believes that ‘there’s a difference between knowing something and believing it’.

In this sense, exhibition visitors may be encouraged to take more notice of the people, places and wildlife around them via an emotional response to the art, rather than simply being told what is right or wrong. ‘Once you know about a thing,’ she explains, ‘you feel this ownership for it. You start looking for it.’ Believing is perhaps what comes later, from a more poignant connection with a bird or person. With a background in science and experience working for Birdlife Australia, Kate is not without her fair share of scientific knowledge; however, she perceives that it may be ‘easier to respond to art if you’re not an artist… than it is to respond to science if you’re not a scientist.’ The art of nature can therefore be a bridge for those who may not engage as well as with the science of it.

Love in March - Pimpisa Tinpalit  Pimpisa's sculpture is inspired by the themes of free will, captivity and freedom.

Love in March - Pimpisa Tinpalit

Pimpisa's sculpture is inspired by the themes of free will, captivity and freedom.

Interrupted (study) - Pamela See (Xue Mei-Ling)  Representing a cumulus cloud, this work explores the impacts of humanity on bird migratory routes.

Interrupted (study) - Pamela See (Xue Mei-Ling)

Representing a cumulus cloud, this work explores the impacts of humanity on bird migratory routes.

 

 

The Birds Fly Past the Windows - Kate Gorringe-Smith.  Kate's work is also featured in the exhibition and is inspired by 'the tug of two homes' and the image of birds travelling over the past homes of immigrants.

The Birds Fly Past the Windows - Kate Gorringe-Smith.

Kate's work is also featured in the exhibition and is inspired by 'the tug of two homes' and the image of birds travelling over the past homes of immigrants.

As so often seems the case, our natural environment and human experience converge in these stories of migration. In this unique and inspiring exhibition, the work of Kate and her fellow artists will hopefully encourage more people to perceive this idea, if not to understand the migrant and shorebird experiences, but to think about the interconnectedness within the spaces we inhabit. In my mind, From a Home to a Home truly demonstrates this reality that ‘none of us can survive alone’.

 

From a Home to a Home: A Story of Migration is supported by Multicultural Arts Victoria and can be viewed at Brunswick Street Gallery, Fitzroy from Friday 25th November to Thursday 8th December.

For more information on Australian shorebird species, visit the website of Birdlife Australia. 


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 an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.


Banner image courtesy of Kate Gorringe-Smith.

 

Capturing the Wonder of Marsupials

From symbiotic relationships with plants to family lessons on hunting, Australia's marsupials are a diverse and unique group of animals with a complex set of behaviours to boot. However, despite being icons of Australia, many people cannot recognise more than a koala, kangaroo or a possum. Indeed, there's many things about marsupials that Australia's scientists are yet to uncover. 

Filmmakers Dan Hunter and Ed Saltau have been working around the clock over the past few months to put together a three-part series about these amazing creatures, and the important role they have in Australia's ecosystems: ‘For us, that was a really exciting prospect. We’re both really passionate about Australia’s marsupial fauna and we’re very aware of many of the challenges they face.’ Dan and Ed's brief was simple - to make a series about marsupials. This allowed them to take the series in the direction they wanted, explaining that they ‘used the opportunity to share some really novel and exciting science stories about marsupials.’

With a focus on uncovering some of the secrets of Australia's more cryptic and less-known marsupials, Dan and Ed tried to cover as much as possible: ‘We cover the evolutionary history of marsupials, how some marsupials survive and thrive in the desert, specialised movement and reproductive strategies... In the final episode called “Marsupials on the Brink”, we explore some broader ecological concepts, such as trophic cascades and how we might be able to use marsupials to assist with achieving biodiversity conservation goals, by rewilding for instance.’

An important focus for the series was to dispel the myth that marsupials are simply a primitive, subordinate version of placental mammals: ‘We were keen to demonstrate that marsupials are a... highly specialised version exquisitely suited to the challenges they face for life on our vast and varied continent.’ This meant focusing on adaptation such as torpor, which helps marsupials get through tough weather, and diapause as a method for maximising reproduction. It's these special adaptations that make marsupials so unique, and ultimately provide an endless amount of stories to tell through film.

Despite obtaining around 80% of the series' footage from the ABC archives, there was still plenty of filming to be done: ‘As you might expect, all the easy animals to film, like kangaroos and koalas, have been filmed to no end.’ Consequently, Dan and Ed's desire to delve into the lives of some lesser known marsupials took them all over Australia over a six-month period. They explain how their ‘epic quest to share some of the natural history of savannah gliders, northern hairy-nosed wombats and Gilbert’s potoroos for instance, took us from central Queensland, to the top end of the NT and way down in the deep south-west of WA.’ 

As the pair racked up the frequent flyer miles, they were also able to tick off a number of “world firsts” for marsupial film-making. Much of this was thanks to the special conversion of a camera to film in infra-red, so they could observe nocturnal behaviour: ‘We captured the first footage of northern hairy-nosed wombats filmed naturally in the wild. We spent five full nights at a burrow waiting for these guys to emerge. We also filmed Gilbert’s potoroo which has never been done before and captured a previously unknown behaviour of the savannah glider.’ But Dan says we'll have to watch the series to find out exactly what happens.  

Of the sequences they can talk about, a couple in particular stick out for Dan: ‘We have an epic sequence of a hunting stripe-faced dunnart which goes on to teach her babies about the ways of the world. We even found footage of the blind marsupial mole and we have incorporated some very cool research which suggests they may have originally evolved in rainforest habitat.’ 

Dan and Ed were also keen to explore some of the more recent marsupial-related science in their series, such as the complex relationship between fig trees and brush-tailed rock-wallabies: ‘It’s always challenging to communicate often complex processes with limited time and footage and then trying to make this flow visually.’ But, they're both big on using film to communicate science more generally, suggesting it ‘may be the ultimate tool to link science information and a general public in an interesting and accessible way.’

However, there were times when film couldn't quite get across certain concepts, so the pair came up with a different approach: ‘We’ve teamed up with our good friend and animator extraordinaire, Lindsay Horner, to help share some of the more complex concepts in fresh and interesting ways. We're pretty happy with how this has worked out.’

Both Dan’s and Ed’s science backgrounds were incredibly helpful in this process. Indeed, they've noticed a trend in scientists branching out and using their other skills to communicate their work, such as film, photography and art. As someone who traverses both science and film, Dan thinks that ‘science communication will do well to capitalise on the many different talents of scientists out there keen to share science in less conventional ways.’   

Ultimately, they hope that the passion conveyed by some of the people that assisted them with filming rubs off on viewers: ‘We were blown away by the passion of the people working on these lesser-known species. In the case of the Gilbert’s Potoroo, Dr Tony Friend [of] WA Parks and Wildlife is tirelessly dedicating himself to ensuring the tiny remaining population has a fighting chance. It's quite inspiring really.’

The Wonder of Marsupials will be screening on France 5 and ABC later this year. 

All images by Daniel Hunter and Ed Saltau. 


Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary

The Boy Who Looked: The Rediscovery of an Intertidal Spider

This is a guest article by Fam Charko. 

It is well known that in Australia many species of animal are still undescribed by science. A report published by the federal government in 2009 tells us that at that time, the number of described, published and accepted spider species was 6,615, while the estimated number of total Australian spiders was 31,338. It is therefore not surprising that new species are spotted regularly. What is surprising, however, is when a long-lost species is re-discovered in one of Melbourne’s most urbanised areas, by a 16-year-old.

Gio Fitzpatrick, now 19 and Youth Wildlife Ambassador of the Port Phillip EcoCentre, has been fascinated with local wildlife from the moment he could walk. Many St Kilda residents remember him walking around the St Kilda Botanic Gardens as a small boy, overturning stones and looking under leaves for bugs. Gio started environmental volunteering when he was 11 years old and has since deepened his generalist knowledge of local wildlife. He won the 2011 Young People’s Award of the City of Port Phillip’s Civic Awards for his work designing and building nest boxes for hollow-nesting animals in the urban environment.

Gio is adamant about educating people about the wildlife in their own urban environment. He is an active member of the Friends of Elster Creek and one of the most knowledgeable people on general species diversity of the lower Elster Creek catchment area. He spends a lot of time hosting local walks and activities that expose people to the hidden wildlife in their own backyard.

“It occurred to me a few years ago that this area still housed many species that had gone extinct in neighbouring areas,“ Gio says. “I started finding species that didn’t exist in urban areas around here anymore, like eastern rosellas and southern water skinks. This area seemed to be a time capsule of sorts. So I thought it was worth studying and conserving.”

Flashback to September 2013 and I was excited - though hardly surprised - when Gio announced that he’d found a marine spider at Elwood Beach that hadn’t been spotted in over 100 years.

“I was at the Elwood Beach foreshore, where I turned around a few rocks and saw a tiny spider with two enormous protruding jaws, scuttling away,” Gio said.

“Thinking that the intertidal zone - which is submerged in saltwater for several hours a day - was a strange place for a spider, I took some photos and sent them off to Museum Victoria to be identified.”

Ken Walker, Senior Curator of the museum’s entomology collection, responded quite excitedly that it was Desis kenyonae, spotted long ago for the first and only time when discovered in San Remo in 1902. Other species of the genus Desis were recorded 70 years ago in Sydney Harbour and over the last 50 years some have been observed living on the Great Barrier Reef, surviving total immersion of up to five consecutive days.

Intertidal spider Desis kenyonae. Images: Gio Fitzpatrick

 

Flashforward to 2016 and I’m interviewing Gio for Out Of The Blue, a radio program about marine news and developments on community radio station 3CR. We talk about the intertidal spider because Gio has just shot the world’s first ever film footage of this species.

“Intertidal spiders are ‘true spiders’ of the class Arachnida, and so they have to breathe air,” Gio explains. “They weave a little waterproof sack over a small hole in a rock in the intertidal zone, so that when the tide comes up and their rock submerges, they can breathe air.

Intertidal spiders Desis kenyonae. In most spider species, the female is larger, but in this species the female is smaller than the male. Video: Gio Fitzpatrick

In a community that is being rapidly urbanised, linking people with natural areas in their local environment is becoming more and more important. At the moment Gio is working on a comprehensive field guide of fauna of the lower Elster Creek catchment area.

“Not many people seem to know or appreciate quite what a special environment we have here,” he says, “and the closer I look, the more amazing things turn up that you really wouldn’t expect in a place like this.”

“I really love sharing that [local] story with people, because it really made me care about the place and I think that if other people could see that it is actually a living system, that they will treat it that way. And not just this place; it would also allow people a gateway into the broader world of nature.”

Gio Fitzpatrick can be contacted at gio@ecocentre.com. 


Banner image courtesy of Emma Walsh.