When eagles get frisky

Featured

Nature Diary has a new home! After ten years, and increasing frustration with the Advocate, I am now being published in the Local, edited by Donna Kelly. Donna and Kyle have been wonderfully welcoming, and this article about eagles looks just great in this week’s printed edition… 

This winter we have been blessed with rain, but also some magical blue sky days, bathed in soft golden sunshine. Last week, on just such a day, I was wandering about in my local patch of the Wombat Forest when I spied a large dark bird circling low over the tree canopy. A wedge-tailed eagle! I stopped, and soon enough, another appeared.

I usually see these birds soaring over the paddocks surrounding Lalgambook (Mount Franklin), not flying tight and low over reasonably dense forest. One of the birds was smaller and much darker – most probably the male, the other, the female, was large with a golden ruff of feathers about the neck.

Wedge-tailed_Eagle_Ed_Dunens

A small, dark eagle, possibly a male, by Ed Dunens NO6. CC BY 2.0.

Wedge-tailed eagles, like many birds of prey are sexually dimorphic, that is the males and females differ in appearance. The males are on average 3.2 kg in weight, the females are a whole kilogram heavier at 4.2 kg. This way, the pair can feed on slightly different sized prey and avoid competing directly with one another as they occupy the same hunting territory their whole adult lives.

As I watched the pair kept circling in a ritualistic kind of way, until the male flew high, straight up into the blue sky, went into a steep short dive, then pulled out and rose a little way up with wings partly open, only to repeat the process. The female, obviously impressed, joined her mate and they circled together in perfect unison, with matching slow wing beats and circles as precise as a pair of competitive ice skaters.

The male’s dive is called a pot hook display, and both sexes display in this way. The eagles also grapple with one another’s talons in a gravity defying tumble, and even do cartwheels! These aerial displays reinforce the pair bond, but also send signals to other sharp-eyed eagles far away – “this is our territory”.

better imageAccording to my trusty huge bird book, the 11-volume series known as the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB), this kind of courtship carries on for a month or two followed by nest building, or nest repair.

A pair of eagles usually has 2-3 nests in one territory. These huge piles of sticks serve as territorial markers, and are renovated each year, depending on which nest is used that season. The parent eagles are very very sensitive to disturbance at the early stage of nest building or egg laying so if you know of a nest site do stay well away, particularly around the base of the tree. A perfect situation is being one top of one ridge line and being able to view the nest through binoculars from another.

May there be abundant rabbits and hares for our local eagles and their young in the 2019 breeding season.

 

 

Advertisements

The globe-trotting fungus lover

Featured

This article is printed in Cosmos #83

Alison Pouliot has spent two decades following the fungi.

Each year she moves between Australia and her adopted home near Bern, in Switzerland, studying, photographing and marvelling at the fungal hyphae – or mycelium – cycle that governs nutrient and energy flows through ecosystems. And it’s not just mushies.

Originally a freshwater scientist, Pouliot has long been fascinated by the inter-tidal and productive riparian and semi-riparian ecosystems and their soils, “because that’s where the dynamism and the energy is, the reproduction, and that’s where your greatest diversity is.“The spore bodies, the mushrooms, are fascinating, and that’s what gets us hooked,” she says, “but it’s that architecture – the literal and allegorical framework that fungi provide – that is really interesting.”

“And to me, fungi are also in that interface.”

These days she spends the southern hemisphere Autumn in eastern Australia, largely around her beloved Wombat Forest in central Victoria, then moves to Europe, where thick leaf litter layer and the prevalence of both summer and winter fungi make for a long season.

Fungi and their mycelium demonstrate interdependence and flow, Pouliot believes, and that all life is symbiotic. And she cannot understand why this “third f” has been largely ignored in Australia, where conservation planning focuses largely on flora and fauna.

But things may be changing. Interest in fungi is growing exponentially Down Under, for a number of reasons: greater interest in fungal ecology from Landcare groups, the rise of the forager movement in permaculture, the foodie culture’s demand for wild-picked mushrooms, the prevalence of citizen science and smartphone apps, and burgeoning interest in fungal photography and art.

When Pouliot ran her first fungi workshop was in Creswick, central Victoria, 15 years ago, it’s fair to say Australia was ambivalent, or even hostile towards, fungi. In fact, most English-speaking countries share a deep-seated unease about them as being poisonous, dank, dirty, and agents of disease, she says.

A distaste or disregard for fungi was labelled mycophobia, or fear of fungi, by R. Gordon Wasson and Valentina Wasson in their ground-breaking work Mushrooms, Russia and History, in 1957.

Conversely, countries in non-English speaking Europe are more mycophilic, with a long grounding in mycological science, and centuries of folk tradition.

The interplay between the two views, and the growing regard for fungi in Australia, prompted Pouliot to undertake a PhD at the Fenner School of Environment and Society ANU, Canberra, where she is still a Fellow. The study A thousand days in the forest: An ethnography of the culture of fungi, provided the groundwork for Pouliot’s recently published book.

190621_fungus_full

Mycena capillaripes in all its fungal glory. With harvestman (Opiliones) ALISON POULIOT

No dry academic tome, The Allure of Fungi is a thoughtful meditation on nature, and fungal – human relations.

It is not a manual on fungi conservation, or a dot point list of how to fix the earth’s radically degraded environment. The prologue describes the book as “a return to the dirt, to the senses, and to fungus-human interactions, as a way we can confront these challenges in the hope that we might remember we are part of the one ecology”.

The Allure of Fungi details a series of serendipitous encounters in the forest, in Australia and Europe, with a broad range of people that Pouliot dubs “fungal folk”. Importantly, in a further commitment to the ‘sensorial’, Pouliot wrote the book by hand, in pen or pencil, in the forests where fungi grow.

The tales are told with a great sense of narrative and touches of dry humour. The use of story to examine fungal-human relations is deliberate. “Few people want pure information,” Pouliot says. “They want context, they want to hear of the relationship to their own lives.”

A consummate writer and environmental philosopher, much in the vein of Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring), Pouliot is also very much a professional photographer.

Alison’s journey to fungal photography started almost as an aside to her work as an environmental scientist, where she used photography to record change in freshwater ecosystems for various government agencies.

But about ten years ago, the scientific recording of nature morphed into the pursuit of something more visceral.

“For years I used to think that photography had most in common with painting; with rules of thirds, diagonals and so forth. It was only a decade or so that I realised that it’s not painting at all – its poetry!” she explains.

“Poetry is such a distillation. That honing, that crafting into just a few words. In an image or a photo essay, to actually hone it back – it is hard. But this process brings across something really powerful. And once I realised that, for me, photography is a lot more like poetry, everything made a lot more sense.”

190621_fungus_image_2

An inky cap (Coprunis genus).
ALISON POULIOT

Each chapter is accompanied by a gallery of photographs, without captions. As a science publisher CSIRO publishing traditionally puts captions with photographs, as the books are often identification guides. CSIRO was very agreeable to Pouliot’s vision and the book has benefitted enormously from following her lead.

Alison wanted people to see the photos and appreciate them in what she calls the affective dimension. “To respond, how you feel in that split second before your brain cognitively goes ‘ah that’s the Wombat Forest’ or ‘that is species x’”, Pouliot says.

“As a scientist I am trying to make sense of the world, and as a photographer I am trying to retain some of its mystery”.

Photographing the fungal kingdom comes with challenges. There are photographic challenges; while the subject does remain still, the light is often low, filtered in forest environments, and capturing colours difficult. More practical problems include “environmental challenges such as leeches that like to crawl into your mouth when you have your face on the ground.”

With modern cameras, one can use a flip monitor, but Alison prefers to be on the ground at the subject level. “Looking through the viewfinder is very important, framing the subject in context. Seeing it from their level.”

190621_fungus_image_4

Alison, by CSIRO.

Chuffed with Choughs

Featured

Wheezing, whistling and whining – our two young White-winged Choughs have added to the usual cacophony of their family group this month. Their calls are similar to a young magpie, insistent and oft-repeated, but at a higher pitch.

White-winged Choughs are incredibly social, and because they spend most of their lives on the ground, very noticeable if you happen to have them on your bush block. They appear all black when foraging along the forest floor, flashing their white wing panels when they fly up to a nearby tree if disturbed.

Chough rhymes with “tough”, so it is pronounced the same way as “chuffed”! I am sure plenty of birdwatchers have used choughs in some bad bird puns…

1024px-White-winged_Choughs_(patrick kavanagh)

Choughs doing what they do best – being noisy and weird! Photo by Patrick Kavanagh from Wikimedia Commons

Choughs also flash their white wings in an oft-used display known as the “wing-wave tail-wag” – used as a greeting to one another, and any interaction between adults and young. This display shows off all their best features – they spread their wings, fan their tails, fluff their back feathers, and often call loudly with a widely open beak. Best of all, the choughs bulge their bright red eyes in a literally eye-popping display that reveals the pink colour around their red irises.

Choughs and Australian Magpies seem to have some sort of ancient war going on – usually when there is a ridiculous amount of commotion coming from a little way off in the forest it is because a magpie is dive-bombing some unfortunate choughs.

But sometimes the tables are turned, and the choughs use their “wing-wave tail wag” display to full effect. They surround a magpie on the ground, and all display simultaneously, making themselves look very large and fierce. For some reason, this display is known as the “plum pudding” display.

I thought I knew a fair bit about White-winged Choughs, but when I turned to my trusty 11 volume tome known as the Handbook of Australian Antarctic and New Zealand Birds (HANZAB) I was blown away by how little I knew about the birds I have been literally sharing my garden with for 17 years.

more choughs PK

Always in groups… Pic again by the awesome Mr Kavanagh

I knew that sometimes the choughs were here on my two hectare bush block every day for months, and other times only seen in the bush down the road. I also knew that I had one mud nest, built a few years ago in a manna gum by the southerly dam which is nearly always dry.

It turns out that White-winged Chough family groups have two types of territories, a breeding one that is between 10 and 50 hectares in size, and a non-breeding home range that can be up to 1000 hectares.  When they are breeding, the family stay and forage within a few hundred metres of the nest. And seeing as our block is just two hectares– it looks like we are blessed with being not only in a breeding territory, but also a nest territory.

So, after the two noisy little ones are a bit older, the family will range more widely and even forage alongside the other chough families in the district. After doing a bunch of wing-wave tail wag displays, of course!

Choughs eat mainly invertebrates: spiders, caterpillars, centipedes, beetles which they probe and glean from the soil, leaf litter, bark, and low shrubby vegetation. They also eat fruits and tubers, such as orchid tubers. A family group is a minimum size of four, and up to 10 – and it takes a lot of insects and plant food to keep these large birds going.

In the early 1970’s a bird researcher, Merle Baldwin, studied the way choughs search for food on the forest floor,  and it is completely mathematical in its precision!

“One feeding circle,  described as 180m in diameter, involved 30 birds in four breeding groups. Birds moved in irregular lines of 6-8 birds in small anti-clockwise circles within a larger clockwise circle; small circles overlap leaving no ground uncovered. Four large feeding circles were completed each day”.

Furthermore, these foraging circles differ when the choughs are nesting.

“When a group begins building a nest, anti-clockwise movements inside a larger foraging circle become confined to within 90m of the territory boundary, leaving ~180 m around the nest untouched, which later provided a food source for the nestlings”.

What a fascinating bird! And I haven’t even reached the part which talks about kidnapping of young birds from other chough families, famously featured on a David Attenborough documentary several years ago…

Choughs – to be continued.

Book review:Journeys to the other side of the world, by Sir David Attenborough

Featured

A version of this book review appeared in Issue 81 of Cosmos Magazine

Famed for his distinctive narration with hushed tones and restrained awe, David Attenborough is also an accomplished writer, publishing over twenty books since his career began in the 1950s.  The books are companion volumes to each series and fine examples of quality science writing, mostly focused on animal behaviour and the evolution of life on earth.

Attenborough spent each year from 1954-1964 going to ‘the tropics’ and making natural history films for the BBC.  In 2017, the first three books from these travels were published in a single volume, Adventures of a Young Naturalist. Attenborough’s latest release Journeys to the Other Side of the World; further adventures of a young naturalist comprises the remaining three travelogues.

9781473666672

Adventures of a Young Naturalist contains swashbuckling tales of the capture of wild animals for the London Zoo collection, and filming of exotic creatures in the wild, with encounters with people as somewhat of a side note. Journeys to the other side of the world places the people Attenborough and his cameraman meet front and centre.

And herein lies some of the tension in reading this volume, as Attenborough must necessarily look through the anthropological lens of the times.  The modern reader may cringe as Attenborough shares his thoughtful reflections on ‘Stone Age man’, and his interpretation of various cultural practices of the pygmies of New Guinea, the land divers of Pentecost Island, followers of a cargo cult on Tanna Island, or the Aboriginals of northern Australia.

Like many of my generation, I grew up on David Attenborough’s books and films, and adore the man; however he may be a better science communicator than anthropologist!

The first volume, Quest in Paradise is notable as it details Attenborough’s first encounters with birds of paradise, one of his favourite groups of creatures, although it was quite possibly a bittersweet experience.  At a particularly large ‘sing-sing’ in New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea), with over 500 dancers, Attenborough estimates that “they must have killed at least ten thousand birds of paradise to adorn themselves for this ceremony”.

 Zoo Quest to Madagascar was my favourite of the three books, as it focuses more on the fauna of this remarkable island.  Attenborough’s account of the difficulties involved in trying to persuade a determined chameleon off a stick and into a small enclosure is most amusing.  The search for the ‘dog-headed man’, a large lemur known as the indri, is  a great tale and a testament to how little was known about Madagascan fauna in the West during this period.

The staggering extent of change since the 1960s really hit home for me in the final book Quest under Capricorn, which details Attenborough’s visit to northern Australia. Back then, there was only one paved road. In the entire Northern Territory!  The Sturt Highway, affectionately known as ‘the bitumen’.

The colourful descriptions of pub interactions in perfect transcriptions of the vernacular of the time (marauding buffaloes or ‘buffs’ featured heavily) made me fear for a Wake in Fright type situation for Attenborough and his cameraman. Wake in Fright was a horror novel based in the Australian outback and published in 1961. Thankfully, Attenborough’s self-deprecating humour would have served him well and their time passed without incident!

wake in fright pic

Once the small team depart from Darwin, the book centres upon the rock art and bark paintings and ceremonies of the people of Arnhem Land. Attenborough describes the process of getting to know painters Magani and Jarabili, and knowing something of the reticence some Aboriginal cultures have with sharing culture, I was gratified to read Attenborough repeatedly using the phrase “we did not press that inquiry further”.

Attenborough’s accounts of the challenges posed by filming in the early 1960s may be of interest. Just to capture decent footage of a large goanna took days of planning, as they wished to record both the visual footage and the sound simultaneously. Cameraman Charles had to encase the camera in a canvas padding known as a soft blimp to mask the whirring sound so that Bob could record the sounds of the goanna splashing in the lake; and Bob had to ensure that the various cables enabled later synchronisation of sound and picture. All before the animal took fright and ran off!

Miraculously, using this technique, the small team got their footage and the British public subsequently enjoyed watching an enormous lizard having a swim on the other side of the world.

Nowadays, of course, feature films may be created on a smartphone, and we have had such images like this on our screens for decades, due in the most part to Attenborough’s long and spirited career.

Journeys to the Other Side of the World is recommended for travel writing enthusiasts, and Attenborough fans that enjoy his wry humour and gentlemanly attitude to all those he encounters.

the brown hare: old big-bum, furze cat

Featured

In recent weeks there has been a young hare feeding on grasses just outside our kitchen window. A very young hare is known as a leveret, this fellow or young lady looks to be a subadult. His golden eyes are large and oval and positioned so that he can see danger from almost all directions, like an antelope. The ears are massive, moving independently, this way and that, picking up the faintest sounds.

young hare by Mary Hartney

A very young leveret, photographed by Mary Hartney.

We have always had hares here on our bush block – I have seen them foraging like our young hare, or running along the dirt road very early in the morning. Once we found a very young leveret, huddled in the rain, with a horrific eye injury filled with tiny maggots. We took it to the wildlife shelter. It looked like a bird of prey had attempted to carry it away by the head, but then dropped it. The little sweetie was mercifully euthanised.

There is only one kind of hare in Australia – the Brown Hare, Lepus europeaus. Their natural range is Europe and Russia, and even Siberia.  The Acclimitisation Society of Victoria made multiple attempts to establish populations of Brown Hares in Victoria, distributing hares to ‘landed gentry” in 1867. By 1900, hares were numerous in Victoria and New South Wales, and declared agricultural pests.

So what are the differences between a hare and a rabbit? The hare is tall and rangy, with very long ears and long muscular hind legs that give the hare a curious lolloping gait. Rabbits have a more compact form, with shorter ears and shorter legs. The average adult weight of a hare is 3.3 – 3.7 kgs, and a rabbit 1.2 – 2kgs. The hare is a big muscular marathon runner, and rabbit a fluffy sprinter.

Rabbits are colonial and live in burrows, often with multiple entrances – to escape predators, the rabbit must sprint to its burrow. The hare, on the other hand, has no burrow. It uses a scrape or shallow depression on the ground known as a form to rest in when not feeding or engaging in social activity. And if a predator flushes a hare from its form, its speed and endurance is the thing that will save it from its main predator, the red fox.

Young rabbits, known as kits, are born furless with their eyes closed.  Young hares or leverets are born furred with eyes wide open and ready to run or hide.

Rabbits feed on grasses and herbs, whereas a hare’s diet is much broader, including leaves, bark, fruit, fungi. Hares can live in a wider variety of habitats than rabbits, and cause ecologists no end of frustration for their habit of eating endangered orchids in grasslands and woodlands.

Brown hare wikimedia image

Look at the large and powerful hind legs! From Wikimedia

There are a several spears of Hyacinth orchid coming up on the block ready for flowering in January. The top has already been nipped off one – our local hares perhaps? Browsing by hares and rabbits leaves a distinctive 45 degree angle on the stems. This is due to the shape of their teeth, which is a pair of ever-growing gnawing teeth, with peg teeth behind these.

To extract the most nutrients possible form their diet, lagomorphs (hares, rabbits and pikas) produce special soft faeces at night known as cecotropes. These droppings are eaten directly from the anus and quite unlike the hard pellets produced during the day.

Hares can breed at eight months of age – so our young hare could almost be ready to start a family. When a female is almost, but not quite, ready to breed, a male hare will follow her very closely for days. Very little is known about the breeding season of hares in Australia – but in Europe, many long term studies have revealed the secret lives of hares. They breed at a slower rate than rabbits, with litters of just 1 – 4 leverets.

The hare features heavily in mythic stories in their native range – including ancient Egypt. In the Middle English poem The names of the hare the old names are a delight to read: old big-bum, hare-ling, frisky one, fast traveler, way-beater, nibbler, furze cat, stag of the stubble, cat of the wood, friendless one, fellow in the dew, lurker, skulker and finally the stag with the leathery horns.

‘YES’ to the Wombat-Macedon VEAC proposal

Featured

The following article is the longer version of the article in the Hepburn Advocate on October 10. The  headline given was “Understanding is the key to the future of natural areas” which I thought was nice :)!

Recently a number of white and red stencil signs have appeared in people’s backyards in Daylesford and surrounds which say “Tell VEAC No Wombat National Park”. Much to my surprise, I had a lovely conversation last week with a young woman who turned out to be one of the helpers in the stencilling of these signs! This conversation inspired me to share my thoughts on the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC)  proposal as I figured this woman, who had some legitimate concerns, may be voicing the concerns of others. Let’s call her Nina.

Nina asked me what I thought of the National Park proposal, as the author of Daylesford Nature Diary and Hepburn Advocate nature columnist. I replied that I was all for it and felt that the proposal was excellent, for Greater Gilders and all other Wombat Forest animals,  and also a wonderful  opportunity  for nature-based tourism in the region. Nina said that she had read the draft report and it wasn’t clear to her how the decision had been made or what the implications were. The report was full of jargon, and Nina kindly said “Of course, someone with your experience would be able to understand it better”.

VEAC-Central-West-cover

I think this is a real shame. After our conversation,  I had a look at the report and agree with Nina, as it is written in very dry scientific / environmental policy language. The tables are also peppered with many footnotes that say “conditionally allowed” with clauses such as “as specified by the land manager”.

Unfortunately,  the environment sector often fails to communicate in plain English the how and why of the matter. Having worked in this area for decades, and having read past VEAC reports, it is clear to me how VEAC made its decisions, and what they propose. But I can completely understand how someone could read it and be mystified.  We had a little chat about percentage targets for national parks, and bioregions, and types of forests, but it is hard to communicate these things in a quick chit chat!

 

I remember as a young person learning about the “Tragedy of the Commons”.  It describes a concept in economic theory. The “Commons” are any natural resource that is shared by everyone – it could be fish in streams, oil or minerals under the ground wood in a forest or edible fungi.  The “Tragedy” is that in shared areas people tend to use the resources in a way that is based on their self-interest. The originator of the concept was an American, William Forster Lloyd (1794-1852.)

 

Any State Forest as it is presently legislated is the Commons. Mining companies can establish gold mines, and VicForests can carry out commercial timber harvesting. Prospectors can mine gold, locals and small business owners can collect firewood, hunters can hunt. And as our population rises ever higher, more and more people will use these resources.

Legislation to restrict and control actions makes certain people so very angry, but these laws are put in place to prevent the Tragedy of the Commons, so that the environment and its resources remain  rather than degrade from overuse.

Picture14-21nrrzy

This graphic illustrates US biologists Garrett Hardin’s paper from 1968. From here. 

Out of the eight proposed areas in the Wombat Macedon Block – only one of these areas, the Wombat-Lerderderg National Park excludes prospecting, domestic firewood collection, recreational hunting and timber harvesting. Granted, at 52,853 ha it is a large area!

National Park status removes the land from the commons and places the value of the flora and fauna, the natural habitat,  front and centre. It also gives prominence to nature-based activities such as bushwalking, birdwatching and bike riding.

Resource use may still continue in some areas! The red stencilled signs fail to mention that the VEAC proposal includes the creation of a new Wombat Regional Park which covers 9149 hectares. These two areas would allow for many activities including domestic firewood collection, dog walking and horse riding. And four wheel driving and trail bike riding will continue in all proposed areas.

Next week, the Advocate will print a counterpoint article to Loris Duclos’ interview in last week’s paper; this article will address ecological thinning and other matters, and I encourage you all to read it.  Attend the VEAC meeting at Trentham Neighbourhood Centre on Wednesday 17 October at 7pm and show your support for the proposal, or ask questions face to face with the VEAC folk. See the VEAC website here for more info and a copy of the recommendations.

Nina and I ended our conversation with a laugh together, and a realisation that neither of us had had a chance to speak to anyone with an opposing viewpoint; we both learnt a lot.

IMG_5746

Nolan’s Creek picnic ground, part of the proposed Wombat-Lerderderg National park

 

A science journalist is born!

Featured

A dramatic title, yes – but it feels that way! Since January this year, I have written a total of 26 articles for Cosmos Magazine! That’s between 4-7 per month, and a total of 12, 422 words ( not including the June articles).  And whilst continuing my commitment of three – four days per week at strenuously exciting non-profit Landcare network Connecting Country. Phew! But  I am having the time of my LIFE, so I thought I would share how this happened, a few favourite stories,  and a bit of run down of the world of sci-comms!

2650018I have always written natural history articles with a strong scientific foundation – my fave thing is turning science into a story in plain English. I have written monthly articles in the Advocate since 2009, which feature on this blog, and various articles for Wombat Forestcare newsletter, the Connecting Country blog, Wildlife Australia Magazine and in 2017- a feature on Diamond Firetails In BirdLife Australia’s beautiful magazine. In 2013,I published a lovely little book which was based on my newspaper column – called “Daylesford Nature Diary: six seasons in the foothill forests“.

 

But I had not managed to penetrate the modern world! We still borrow New Scientist magazines from the library, and watch documentaries on CD. I had seen articles by ScienceDirect etc in my Facebook feed, but never really thought about how these were done. We had also borrowed hard copies of Cosmos magazine, but unlike New Scientist, there were a lot less ecology and environment stories, and some of the tone is a bit “technology can fix everything” and a very strong focus on space, technology, physics and debunking various myths in a slightly annoying and smug Richard Dawkins way. I am more of a Rupert Sheldrake kind of scientist – ha ha – or really, Jane Goodall; scientists who focus on pulling us away from a mechanised, selfish-gene, Francis Bacon kind of paradigm. A short article which demonised flying foxes and their diseases was particularly disappointing! This was a few years ago, I should say.

johnsullivan_flyingfox

A beautiful Grey-headed Flying Fox portrait, by John Sullivan

So it was a great surprise when a Facebook interchange with a partner of a friend’s friend who was my friend on Facebook ( ha ha) because of a shared interest in science turned into an invitation to write for the ONLINE arm of Cosmos! Andrew Masterson has written in many many publications for many years, and still writes for the Age and other clients while being a very busy man at Cosmos.  I still have a copy of Andrew’s article “Happiness is a warm bat”; the most lovely and positive flying fox article written for the Age in about 2001, during the very emotional time when the grey-headed flying foxes were going to be culled in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. I had considered asking Andrew about how to further my writing career from the Hepburn Advocate (lofty goals!) but I was too shy!

c79_CurrentIssue_shopify_grandeSo after a pleasant phone chat, and a few articles where Andrew held my hand directing me into the world of hack science journalism –  I was in! We agreed that biology was the best area for me, and I said my only restriction was I would not write about animal experimentation, such as mice used to learn about human diseases, or robots put into insects to make them move in mazes and other such horrors! All good.

 

 

This is my first article in January 2018 that I was very proud of:

https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/ants-kill-the-sick-to-save-the-rest

The process goes like this – Andrew emails me, and I have a designated  Gmail account I access on my phone just for Cosmos, so I know straight away if he has a story for me. Andrew throws me a quick pitch and a deadline, and attaches a media release and a scientific paper. I then reply – YES I can do it! Or, very very occasionally, no it’s not possible – usually due to my Connecting Country work.

Sometimes there is no media release, or no paper, and I get to email the lead scientist, or the uni comms people and request a paper – from Japan, from the USA – it’s great fun! I read the paper, look at the quotes in the media release, use Google Scholar to see if there are any relevant papers, and then my job is to create an interesting story in 300- 600 words depending on the story.

The timelines are between 24 hours and four days, but usually three days. So I read papers at lunchtime, do a quick session between 6-8 after work, send articles in before or ideally write on my days off!

And its funny, it is so much like art or sport – once I start,  the time flies by, and after a good session I am PUMPED!

I was very proud of this one on dolphins grieving for their babies – I only had an evening to read the paper, and a morning to write it – so I just had to trust I could do it! Giovanni, the lead author of the paper was waiting to read the finished result so i really wanted to do his beautiful paper justice.

https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/the-mourning-after-dolphins-grieve-for-their-dead

Talking of justice: I had the opportunity to right a wrong in my mind – an in-depth article about diseases in flying foxes! I was thrilled with this one! I managed to decipher an almost incomprehensible immunology paper, and get quotes from two very very smart immunologists, but most of all, I could use the correct language: they are ‘natural hosts’ to these viruses, rather than saying – these animals ‘harbour diseases’.

https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/switched-on-bats-hosting-viruses-is-a-cost-of-flying

This article about female birdsong was a dream come true, about birds, behaviour and changing our minds about our mistaken assumptions:

https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/missing-tweets-female-birdsong-unjustly-ignored-researchers-say

Most of the articles are in the biology realm, but just one article has been posted in another section: ‘mathematics’! This one was a brain twisting challenge of epic proportions – about periodical cicadas that emerge to mate every 13 or 17 years underground… I  was the lowest pass in maths in year 12. I actually failed, but Mr Bromiley felt sorry for me and passed me because he knew I wanted to be a scientist! Numbers are not my strong point to this day…

https://cosmosmagazine.com/mathematics/against-the-odds-cicada-teens-meet-and-mate

Most of the articles are pretty lightly edited – if Andrew had to do a lot of editing I don’t think I would have the job! Still, I found it strange sharing articles that I had found hard  that Andrew had improved upon – surely the editor should be acknowledged!?! Such a behind the scenes job!!

The other thing that is strange is being science NEWS, I have had to change my style from first person, warm, conversational reflection to hard-hitting science journalist! I read the articles and go ‘ooh – who wrote that? Oh it was me!!!’

But my self is still in the writing, in the quotes I choose or reject, the conclusions I draw from the scientific paper, and language I choose to use to describe aspects of nature we may find disgusting, scary or disagreeable.  I would really like to write more articles about ecology – but when Cosmos had a competition or survey years ago and readers could choose their fave science – ecology wasn’t there! So biology it is for me right now, and I am happy with that – I am learning a lot about so many different species, behaviour and biological phenomena.

On a final happy note, I always wondered if being a generalist was a disadvantage – the moth guy, the bat lady, the dolphin expert… these people travel around offering their scientific and sci-comm wares of expertise  and passion, and their role and place in it all is clear. Stumpy-tail lizard man – he has advanced our understanding of this species in a huge way, and rewrote the rule book on reptiles’ ability to form long term monogamous pair bonds.

profile pic for google

Tired and happy in February 2018!

But I like birds, bats, marsupials, reptiles, frogs, insects, plants – and the processes that hold these things together – landscape ecology, functional ecology, behavioural ecology and phenology. What role can a generalist play in today’s world? Well now I know – in science communication!

Thanks for reading this long post! 🙂

 

Fine fungi season underway

Featured

In May and June, if there is enough rain, our gardens and local bushland are peppered with forms quite strange and wonderful – the sexual apparatus or fruiting bodies of fungi. Fungi are designated their own Kingdom, and their DNA is actually closer to animals than to plants. Long overlooked by the scientific community, the value and role of fungi on the planet Earth is slowly becoming apparent. Fungi are becoming regarded as a living matrix – a magical connector system between soil, minerals, and living things such as plants and animals.

The parasol form is the most common form – as it just works! The umbrella shape protects the gills and spores from rainfall, the stem raises the gills away from the ground or log. The fungus pictured is a classic example of this form, and indeed its common name is Parasol Mushroom. Most of our fungi species do not have common names, so it’s best to get used to Latin if you want to take up fungi spotting as a hobby. The Latin name for this species is Macrolepiota clelandii.

IMG_4356

This fine specimen was photographed at Lyonville Springs in a group of three, growing from the soil, in a mix of native and introduced grasses, underneath some old candlebarks. Its identifying features are unseen in this photo, such as pale white gills and stem, and a ring of material around the stem known as an annulus.

If you are taking a photo for identification purposes, it is always a good idea to take a pic of the underside of the fungus – and many fungi fans carry a small mirror for this purpose. The use of a mirror means you can photograph the reflection of the underside of the mushroom, rather than pulling out the mushroom before its spores have shed. It seems a shame to destroy a fruiting body for identification!

I took the photo, as well as a few of its underside,  to a fungi talk in Trentham on Saturday May 19. This was part of Wombat Forestcare’s fantastic speaker series known as “You, Me and Biodiversity”. May’s presenter was Dr Sapphire McMullan-Fisher, a passionate fungal ecologist who is giving a series of talks around Victoria on a new smartphone app for FungiMap, and  a new citizen science project called “Lost fungi: help us find our uncommon Victorian fungi”. For this article, I will just be talking about the Fungi Map app.

FungiMap is a fungal mapping project that has been going for over twenty years, and involves members of the community reporting on 100 recognisable target species. The new app runs through a global citizen science database called iNaturalist, and the FungiMap Australia project is one of many thousands of projects running globally.

I will be downloading the app, and having a go,  as this project is in the testing phase, and Sapphire and the team welcome any feedback to make the use of the app as easy as possible. Unlike local biodiversity apps such as Bowerbird, or the Atlas of Living Australia app, the iNaturalist app uses an algorithm to help the person submitting a photo identify it automatically – sometimes to genus level! The link to get to the project is https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/fungimap-australia , but it helps if you download the iNaturalist app first and get your log in sorted.

In terms of identifying fungi, Sapphire says it’s best to start with recognisable species, and then go from there. Another point emphasised is that you really are best to start with LOCAL fungi guides, such as the foldout brochure that Wombat Forestcare produced. This is because 72% of our fungi are endemic to Australiasia, that is found nowhere else.  So an online search could come up with similar looking species in other countries which are actually totally unrelated.

IMG_4368

Inevitably, someone asked about how can we find out about the fungi that is safe to eat locally. Sapphire said we must be very cautious as so much is unknown about our fungi – and the best way to find out is to ask a trusted local expert. And lucky for us – we have one! In the spirit of locavore foraging, Patrick Jones is at the Daylesford Sunday Farmers Market every Sunday from 10am-noon in the month of May. Patrick presents a very informative talk and mushroom display each week, with mushrooms that he and his son Woody have collected locally. And you can bring in any species you are unsure about, and need identification.

Another incredible community expert is the wonderful Alison Pouliot – I could not post about fungi without mentioning Alison. Alison is a professional photographer and educator, and a damn fine writer too! See Alison’s work and notice of upcoming workshops at her website https://alisonpouliot.com/

Sociable Skinks on Granite outcrops

Featured

For the December Nature News, Tanya Loos from Connecting Country writes about the sociable skinks photographed by Nick Schulz on his property in Nuggetty.

Earlier this year, landholder Nick Schulz sent us a series of stunning photographs from a rocky granite outcrop on his property in Nuggetty. The pictures show a large group of plump, spiny and spotted skinks seemingly enjoying each other’s company near the safety of deep rock crevices. They are Cunningham’s skinks and they turn the idea of reptiles being cold loners on its head!
The skinks live in long term family groupings, with a large sized breeding pair and many immature siblings of various ages and sizes from previous years. This kind of social system is more commonly seen in birds and mammals. Researchers suggest that the family group represents safety in numbers, with more eyes to look out for predators such as birds of prey. Another advantage may be temperature-related as the skinks huddle together on cold days and nights.

IMG_0181

A skink family by Nick Schulz

The breeding pair remains faithful to one another from season to season and also over many years – similar to the Stumpy-tail lizard or Shingleback who also has long monogamous relationships. Both the Stumpy-tail lizard and the Cunningham’s skink give birth to live young instead of laying eggs .
Cunningham’s skinks are only found around rocky outcrops – each family group must have a rocky habitat with nice deep crevices to hide in.  If threatened by predators, the whole group scuttles into the cracks to hide. If the bird of prey or fox is persistent and tries to remove a skink from a crevice, they will inflate their bodies and make their spines stick out, thus becoming incredibly hard to dislodge from cracks.
Like other large skink species such as Stumpy-tails and Blue-tongue lizards, Cunningham’s skinks are omnivorous, with a large part of their diet made up of plant matter such as flowers, fruits, soft leaves and shoots. They also eat insects, spiders and small lizards.
We have had reports of this species in Sutton Grange, and Elphinstone and now Nuggetty – if you have granite outcrops on your property, you may be hosting a whole family!
Addendum: This article was written for readers of the Midland Express. I have photographed one Cunningham’s skink in Hepburn Regional Park, near Tipperary Springs. I would be very interested to hear about any Wombat Forest sightings. Email me at  t.loos@bigpond.com 🙂

IMG_0472

Near the safety of a large crack… by Nick Schulz

Bush peas and friends ablaze in the forest

Featured

This year the various pea species in the region are putting on a wonderful show. The Large leaf bush peas in my local forest are covered in huge, healthy looking yellow and orange flowers.  The peas are a very important plant group in our local forest – and surpass even the wattles in their variety of form and colour. There are orange and yellow peas – known colloquially as egg and bacon, and also peas with purple, yellow and red flowers.  They occur as small shrubs, large shrubs,  ground covers and as creepers – both large and small.

The flowers are pollinated by a variety of tiny native bees and flies, which then provide important food for insect eating birds. The seeds are eaten by birds, reptiles and insects. The leaves are browsed on by Black Wallabies and also hares and deer.

There are bush peas, bitter-peas, flat peas, parrot-peas – which are known b y their common names, and then in some cases the common name and the Latin names are the same –Bossiaeas, Hoveas, and Austral Indigo or Indigofera. I believe it is much easier to learn the Latin! This walk through the pea family in Daylesford and surrounds will therefore be a little Latin heavy.

Large leaf bush pea

Large leaf bush pea on my bush block

The bush-peas are Pultenaeas – the large leaf bush pea pictured above is Pultenaea daphnoides. Our other local Pultenaea has a very different form: the Matted Bush-pea (P. pedunculata) has a very tight mat-forming ground cover that can be seen in the drier forests such as around the Blowhole.  The Wombat Bush-pea (P. reflexifolia) is listed as Rare as it is only found in the Wombat State Forest region. This small shrub has pea flowers which are quite yellow, and small pointed leaves that point sharply away from the stem, hence the Latin name reflexifolia. Wombat Bush-peas are locally common around Trentham.

Bitter-peas are small to medium shrubs, also with the classic egg and bacon flower – the Narrow-leaf bitter-pea (Daviesia leptophylla) is very common in dry heathy forests such as the slopes above Tipperary Springs. As you head into wetter forests towards Trentham the Gorse Bitter-pea (D. ulicifolia) becomes very common. Gorse bitter-pea is a small shrub with a pointed, dark green leaf . Around Porcupine Ridge, and Glenlyon,  we have the Hop Bitter-pea (D. latifolia) with very large, wide leaves and absolutely magnificent sprays of golden and red flowers.

hop bitter pea

The Hop Bitter-pea – WOW!

Our most common ground cover pea around Daylesford and Trentham is Podolobium procumbens:  this has a flower with an almost fluorescent pink tinge. I discovered while researching this article that this is called a Trailing Shaggy-pea – a new common family name for me!

We have two common types of parrot-pea. The Grey parrot-pea (Dillwynia cinerascens)is  a lovely low growing shrub also with orange and yellow flowers. The Bushy parrot-pea (D. ramosissima) has tiny leaves and is a sparse, one metre high shrub and very common throughout drier forest types.

D ramossissima

Bushy Parrot-pea

Bossiaea are a very interesting group –in Porcupine Ridge, Glenlyon and in the Daylesford area there is a beautiful ground cover known as Matted Bossiaea (Bossiaea buxifolia). Matted bossiaea is locally common here, in most parts of Victoria this plant is actually the very similar Creeping bossiaea (B. prostrata) which just to make things confusing is also found here albeit much less often! In the wet areas such as Trentham and Blackwood the ground cover Bossiaea actually has a climbing habit – the Wiry Bossiaea (B. cordigera). This species is listed as Rare.
Also rare, are the odd- looking shrubs known as Leafless Bossiaea– the pea flowers actually grow out of the flattened green stems! There is a beautiful specimen of Mountain Leafless Bossiaea (B. bracteosa) growing at Tipperary springs. The rarest pea locally is definitely the Wombat Leafless Bossiaea (B. vombata). This leafless pea shrub was rediscovered in 2010 in the vicinity of Spargo Creek by the rare plants team of Wombat Forestcare. This plant was known by the Herbarium to be present in only one location, and the rare plants team discovered several more populations – and were awarded Certificates of Recognition by the then Department of Sustainability and Environment.

It says a lot about our local peas that I haven’t covered all the egg and bacon peas found locally in the above list – nor even had a chance to describe our lovely purple coloured peas – Hovea, Hardenbergia, Indigofera! What beautiful diversity in these forests…

leafless bossiaea

Mountain leafless bossiaea

The farmers’ friend – a friend in need

Featured

The paddocks near my place in Porcupine Ridge are busy with visitors. Almost a hundred Straw-necked ibis may be seen there each day, first on one paddock then in the other; busy probing the soil with long bills and stalking through the grass tussocks.

Straw-necked ibis are large heron-like birds with naked heads and a long curved bill. Their neck and bodies are whitish, and their wings look black from afar, but are actually iridescent – with metallic green and gold colouring. As we are nearing breeding season for ibis, their necks are decorated with yellowish,  filamentous feathers – hence the name straw-necked ibis.

Also within the flock of straw-necked ibis are about eight Australian White Ibis, a close relative and similar in appearance, but nearly all white in colour, with black tail and black plumes. The white ibis is also referred to as a ‘bin chicken’ due to its habit of scavenging bins and rubbish dumps, especially in NSW. Wjote ibis may be seen tame and scavenging in parts of Melbourne and at Healesville Sanctuary, but the less bold and adaptable Straw-necked Ibis never engages in such behaviour.

ibis pic

A beautiful capture of the iridescent feathers, by James Niland. Creative Commons.

The ibis are here to feast on the frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and crustaceans such as land yabbies that are flourishing in our wet paddocks. One of the old name’s of the straw-necked ibis is the ‘famer’s friend’ due to their eating of grasshoppers and beetle larvae – a much nicer name than the bin chicken!

The ibis will stay on as long as there is plenty of food, roosting in nearby tall trees at night. This habit protects them from predators such as foxes, and also shields them from exposure to cold winds and frosts.

Straw-necked ibis are often seen flying high overhead, in a v-shaped or chevron formation, or in even larger flocks wheeling slowly on the warm air currents.  They are great fliers, and often fly hundreds or thousands of kilometres between temperate locations in the south and tropical areas, and between inland sites and the coasts, possibly as regular seasonal movements, and sometimes in response to local environmental conditions. The longest recorded movement of a Straw-necked Ibis was from Muchea in south-western WA to Beaudesert in south-eastern Queensland, a distance of well over 3500 kilometres.

Despite the fact that we see them in paddocks, ibis are regarded as water birds, as they need water in the form of large rivers and lakes to breed communally in large colonies.  In the past, colonies of 5,000, 20,000 and even 150,000 nests were common in wet years. These mass breeding events would ensure there were plenty of young ‘farmer’s friends’ to replace their parent’s generation.

In the past 30 years, there have been very significant declines of all of our waterbirds – spoonbills, egrets, herons, ibis and waterfowl such as ducks.  Scientists from around Australia are studying these groups to try to determine the cause or causes of the declining numbers.  In the case of the ibis, it seems that it is the very high mortality rate of young ibis that is the problem.

The Straw-necked ibis had a relatively good year in 2015-2016 with over 150,000 nests in the Murray Darling basin, and many young fledging. Yet, the flocks such as the one visiting my local paddocks seemed to be exclusively  adult birds.

ibis flock

Straw-necked ibis feeding in a paddock. By Cyron Ray Macey, Wikimedia Commons.

A team at CSIRO attached radio transmitters to twenty straw-necked ibis in spring 2016, ten adults and ten juveniles. Just three months later, only two adult individuals had survived.  The birds succumbed to a litany of tragedies– predation of juveniles, death of adults by disease (botulism), starvation, and poisoning from pesticide affected insects on paddocks.  Weather extremes such as very hot days followed by cold windy nights resulted in the deaths of two juveniles, and three birds went missing in these conditions. Surprisingly collision with cars is a cause of death for many waterbirds, and one of the juveniles was hit by a car. Some ibis are shot, as they get caught in the firing line of duck shooting season.

Twenty individuals is not a large sample size, but it is clear that it is a harsh world for both adult and young Straw-necked ibis.

How can we help the farmer’s friend? We can support environmental water flows in the lake and river systems of the Murray- Darling, support organic farming, and campaign to end duck shooting in Victoria. I think the story of the aging ibises in our Daylesford paddocks is a bit sad – and a reminder that we are intimately connected to other parts of Australia.

https://research.csiro.au/ewkrwaterbirds/satellite-tracking/juvenile-mortality/