About Tanya Loos

I am a field naturalist and nature writer - with a special interest in birds, flora, insects, reptiles, and mammals. I live on a bush block in the Wombat Forest. I work at BirdLife Australia, as Network Liaison Coordinator. I am also a freelance science journalist for Cosmos: the science of everything.

When eagles get frisky

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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.

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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.

 

 

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The globe-trotting fungus lover

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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Alison, by CSIRO.

Chuffed with Choughs

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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…

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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

 

A science journalist is born!

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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.

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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! 🙂