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17
Dec
Posted on in News

Finding time to write blogs has been difficult when I also write reports, articles and books to feed my two professions of writer and consultant. But something has changed. I have agreed to become a bi-monthly blogger for Australian Geographic.

My first blog for them, under the theme Wild Journey, is reproduced below. I won’t repeat more of them, but I’ve put one here to signal their arrival. I will continue writing occasional website blogs on topics such as bird taxonomy that are too arcane for Australian Geographic, but these are unlikely to appear very often, given that they already weren’t appearing at all often. I may end up writing more articles for the print edition of Australian Geographic magazine as well. I wrote a number of feature articles for them over the years, but that lapsed when the bird book consumed most of my writing energy. I will put out tweets whenever future Australian Geographic blogs appear.

Young at Heart

DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING you hear about Australia. She is talked about as a timeless ancient land, but many of her surfaces are new. 

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05
Aug

Celebrating Soundscapes

Posted on in News
'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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  • rick sabbatini says #
    Great post! The little wattlebird call is one of my favourites, it's interesting to consider that it is a "go away, this is my tre
17
Jun

Win for Nature Writing

Posted on in News

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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  • Debbie Reynolds says #
    Really loving reading this book. As a biologist myself, the interconnections of birds with plants I'm finding fascinating. I do lo
  • Peter Nicholson says #
    Brilliant book, everyone should read it.
  • Ewa and Tim Meyer says #
    Congratulations Tim, thoroughly deserved. We look forward to the sequel.
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
  • Viv Armitage says #
    Wondering which are their countries and region of origin and what, if anything, keeps them in check there, if there might be some
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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