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05
Aug

Celebrating Soundscapes

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'Cacophany' is a word we all know, but how about biophony (the totality of sounds produced by animals), geophony (the sounds produced by water, wind and other non-living forces), anthrophony (all sounds produced by humans) and its subset technophony (machine sounds)?

These terms come up in an interesting academic article calling for more research into the geographical variation in sounds, which, needless to say, often come from birds. In ‘The silence of biogeography’ biologist Mark Lomolino and two colleagues note that bioacoustics (study of animal vocalisation and sound perception) has expanded into the geography of sound, by looking at how soundscapes – the collection of sounds that characterise a particular landscape – vary from place to place and over time.

Soundscapes matter greatly in my book Where Song Began. In the very first paragraph I mention 19th century claims that Australian birds could not sing, and rather than dismissing this as chauvinism I suggest they have some validity:

“Australia does sound harsher than your average field or forest overseas. Like a person vomiting was how Gould described the call of the little wattlebird, a large honeyeater. The great bowerbird’s hissing is described in one 2001 guide as a cross between tearing paper and violent vomiting.”

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17
Jun

Win for Nature Writing

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It would be an understatement to say I was surprised when my book, Where Song Began, was awarded the prize for best General Non Fiction at the 2015 Australian Book Industry Awards on 25 May. I had decided after I was shortlisted that a book about birds had no chance of winning. I had to be talked into going to the awards dinner in Sydney.  

The win shows that the audience for serious ecological analysis is very large. Sales figures play a big part in the award and apparently my bird book has over the past year been one of Australia’s strongest selling non-fiction books. I had known it was selling well but not that well.

Surprise may have helped it win: the book industry surprised that a nature book could appeal to more than a niche market. The website of the Australian Book Industry Awards drew attention to the win being a first for a nature book.

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05
May

The Ant Wars

Posted on in News
[This article appeared in the Weekend Australian colour magazine on 2 May, under the title Rise of the Super Colonies (print edition) and Red imported fire ants, electric ants, yellow crazy ants: will they take over Australia (online). This is closer to the version I submitted than to the version published after sub-editing.]
 

We are bombarded with so much news these days that many Sydney residents would have missed the reports last November about fierce fire ants on the city’s doorstep that threatened to ruin the Australian way of life and ‘cost the economy billions’.

Those who noticed could take heart from the NSW government’s robust response. The single nest found at a Port Botany freight terminal drew a swarm of emergency response experts, aided by three ‘elite’ odour detection dogs with enough snout-power to zero in on a single ant. Poisons were laid and hundreds of home gardens searched up to two kilometres away in an operation leaving little to chance.

The dogs were on loan from Queensland, where, since 2001, close to $300 million has been spent trying to oust red imported fire ants (to give them their full name) from around Brisbane, so far without success. Funding decisions to be made soon could decide whether Australia ends up like the southern US, where, to quote Texan professor of entomology Bradleigh Vinson, people in infested areas “do not have picnics on the lawn, go barefoot, sit or lay on the ground, or stand in one place without constantly looking at the ground near their feet to be sure the ants are not swarming up their legs.”

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  • Tim says #
    There has been research on some of these ants in their countries of origin. It has not resulted in biological control agents of an
25
Apr

Tribute to the South West

Posted on in News

After flying back from Perth last month, I decided that south-western Australia has more cause to be called an island than Tasmania, if an island is defined as a place where species survive in isolation. Tasmania last had a connection to the mainland about 14,000 years ago, while the South West has been cut from other forested regions by desert for far longer. 

The South West stands out from the rest of Australia far more than Tasmania does. It doesn’t share any of its eucalypts with the rest of the country while Tasmania has a large overlap with Victoria. The South West has a few plant families to call its own, Tasmania none. As for special animals, the South West comes far ahead with its honey possum, salamanderfish, Western swamp turtle, red-capped parrot and turtle frog, to name a few. That all of these species are given their own genus is evidence for long isolation. Tasmanian devils and thylacines are very distinctive, but 10, 000 years ago the mainland had them as well.

I visited the South West to appear at the South Coast Festival of Birds in Albany, and to speak to Birdlife Australia in Perth. I used the opportunity to see some wildlife and talk with experts. I was fortunate to spend time in the field with two eminent biologists, Stephen Hopper from the University of Western Australia at Albany, and retired professor John Pate. Steve and John have both written important papers that propose new ways of thinking about plants.

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06
Feb

Dust is Amazing Stuff

Posted on in News
[This is the beginning of an article published under another title in the Australian Magazine of the Weekend Australian on 7 February. The article discusses dust mites in detail.]

Big things are made up of many small things. That was especially obvious in September 2009 when extreme winds roared across outback Australia, agitating soil laid bare by drought to produce the giant dust storm known as Red Dawn that engulfed eastern Australia, reddening skies from southern NSW to north Queensland, fanning bushfires, damaging crops, delaying planes, halting construction work, triggering smoke alarms, driving up hospital admissions, smearing windows and walls and seeping inside homes to coat floors and ­furniture in fine powder.

This herculean event, which elicited comparisons with nuclear winter, Armageddon and the planet Mars, swept on to New Zealand, where it sent asthmatics to hos­pital and dusted alpine snow. In NSW alone the event cost an estimated $330 million in lost topsoil, crop damage, car smashes, worker absenteeism, cleaning and the closure of Sydney Airport.

The particles behind the strife were so small that 100,000 weighed a mere gram, but they rose up in such numbers that Australia managed to lose more than a million tonnes of soil, broadcast into the Tasman Sea and sprinkled over New Zealand. The drama surprised the nation, but Red Dawn was by no means the first onslaught of dust to hit the east coast and it won’t be the last. In the inland, they’re more common: the most recent in Bedourie, western Queensland, when day turned to night last December and dust enveloped the town for more than 90 minutes. Australia is one of the great dust-producing lands, the main source in the southern hemisphere. If Australia faces a drier future, it will be a dustier one as well.

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31
Dec

Bird Research of the Century

Posted on in News
A paper that came out in Science a fortnight before Christmas counts as the most important work on birds this century, by offering something that has eluded science for well over a century – a reliable tree of life for the world’s bird orders.

Biology was shaken some years ago by evidence implying that parrots and perching birds are closely related.

Links between the bird orders have proved extremely difficult to determine, and except for intelligence and a facility for learning songs, there is nothing about perching birds, which include honeyeaters, crows and sparrows, to suggest they are related to parrots. Their beaks and feet are very different.

The evidence that emerged was genetic, but some genetic studies did not find this relationship, so in my book Where Song Began I equivocated, describing the relationship as probable but not proven.

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06
Nov

Lyrebirds Save Human Lives

Posted on in News

Lyrebirds are the ultimate high achievers: the world’s best songsters, the world’s oldest songbird line (along with scrub-birds), beloved cultural icons that grace our coins, and spectacular ecosystem engineers. They may be something else as well – birds that save human lives.

The ‘ecosystem engineer’ tag refers to the changes they make when they scratch the ground to unearth insects. One lyrebird in a year can shift 200 tonnes of soil and litter per hectare, causing soil erosion and uprooting ground-hugging plants, including, in Tasmania, an endangered orchid.

A new paper by Daniel T. Nugent and two colleagues takes the engineering concept further by concluding that lyrebirds reduce bushfire risk by burying leaf litter and uprooting the grasses and bracken that carry fire.

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05
Oct

Alive only on Film

Posted on in News
[This is a book review that appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Wildlife Australia magazine.]
 
With animals continuing to go extinct any book that eyes extinction in a fresh way deserve our attention. Lost Animals is significant because it features all the world’s extinct mammals and birds that are survived by photos. As Erroll Fuller says in his introduction, about the difference between paintings and photos:

"It seems that a photograph of something lost or gone has a power all its own, even though it may be tantalisingly inadequate".

That is what I felt after paging through this book and staring at the 28 species that look out from the plates. The lowest resolution images, those of an imperial woodpecker in Mexico (taken from film footage), struck me as especially powerful, perhaps because they resemble scenes out of a dream, one of those happy dreams we wish we could return to. This footage only surfaced in 1997, 41 years after it was taken, and the quality is poor because the film is old but because the biologist who shot it was sitting on a mule. Also very potent are some of the photographs in colour, because the animals look too vivid to be defunct, and because the colour tells us the extinctions happened recently.

Fuller provides dates of extinction or last sightings, including 2004 for the Hawaiian po’ouli (a bird), 2002 for the Yangtze River dolphin, 1988 for the Hawaiian ‘o‘u (another bird), 1985 for the Alaotra grebe of Madagascar and Kauai ‘o’o of Hawaii, 1984 for the Guam flycatcher, 1983 for the Aldabra brush warbler, and so on and so on.

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27
Sep

The View from Java

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In September I visited Java for ten days to see rainforest birds and other wildlife. Java holds special interest for anyone wanting to understand the arcane topic of how Asia and Australia exchanged birds in the past. Its conservation problems are dramatic. The first time I went there I found a dead rhinoceros.

As recently as 10,000 years ago Java, Sumatra and Borneo were part of the Asian mainland because a cooler climate lowered the sea, exposing the Sunda Shelf. Australia is much closer to mainland Asia when seas are lower, at which times the climate is drier as well as cooler, and savannah rather than rainforest may have dominated the Sunda shelf. The eastern half of Java (and its satellite island Bali) are a drier today than Borneo, Sumatra and Malaya, and it is in Java and Bali that we have the best chance of locating the birds that characterised the more open habitats of the Sunda shelf in glacial times.

The golden-headed cisticola, a cute bird with a commanding voice, is an obvious candidate. It is a recent coloniser of Australia that is common in Java and Indochina but absent from Malaysia and Borneo (except as an apparent vagrant). On Sumatra it is believed to be a recent coloniser (MacKinnon & Phillipps 1993) exploiting grassy clearings created by people. While it is possible that this small bird reached Java directly from Thailand, it is more likely that during a glacial period there were mosaics of rainforest and savannah linking Thailand to Java, providing almost continuous habitat for this small grassland bird, which was then able to reach southern Indonesia and Australia. 

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05
Sep

Christmas Island Bird'n'Nature Week

Posted on in News

I am on Christmas Island where Cyclone Gillian, which struck in February, showed her anger, as cyclones do. A stretch of rainforest in which Abbott’s boobies were breeding lost its canopy, and nests were destroyed and chicks killed. Many chicks rescued from the forest floor by national park rangers were reared and released.

 

The cyclone probably helped one bird, the Christmas Island goshawk, judging by all the sightings over the past week. I am here as a guide on the Christmas Island Bird’n’Nature Week, now in its ninth year, and fellow guides Mark Holdsworth and Sue Robinson, who band goshawks as a bird week activity, had more success catching goshawks than usual.

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22
Aug

Don’t submit to cultural cringe

Posted on in Birds

The enthusiastic response to my latest book, Where Song Began, has been gratifying, but I have noted that a couple of reviewers, while praising the book, hesitated over a core conclusion – that the world’s songbirds had their origins in Australia. One reviewer described this as a ‘suggestion’ as if it were just a bold theory waiting to be proved or disproved by proper evidence. That is not really the situation.

An Australian origin for the songbirds (oscines) has become the consensus position in science because the evidence is so strong, coming as it does from three sources: genetics, fossils and anatomy.

A vast number of genetic studies, using many different genetic sequences, have shown that lyrebirds are the most divergent of all songbirds, and Australian treecreepers and bowerbirds are the next most divergent. The immense genetic differences between these birds (and Australian scrubbirds, which are seldom included in the genetic studies) and other songbirds outside Australia imply that these birds last shared a common ancestor a very long time ago. It is difficult to imagine where that ancestor might have lived if not in Australia. If we were to use the language that was acceptable 15 years ago we could describe Australia as a hotspot for ‘primitive’ songbirds, and that makes it the only plausible place of origin.

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