Blogging with Australian Geographic

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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…

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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…

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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…

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The Ant Wars

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[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…

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Tribute to the South West

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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…

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Dust is Amazing Stuff

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This is the beginning of an article published under another title in the Australian Magazine of theWeekend 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,…

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Bird Research of the Century

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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. The new paper in Science, because it is based on 48 whole genomes of birds, all…

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Lyrebirds Save Human Lives

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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. They describe one site near Melbourne that because of lyrebird scratchings is virtually devoid of litter over an area of several hectares. Buried leaf litter decays quickly because…

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Alive only on Film

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[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…

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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…

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