Chris Watson

Your Deserts Need You

Birding, Tourism, ResearchChris Watson

Desert birding - this is the year

Lately I’ve been back in the desert. Sometime soon, you should head to the desert too. Whether you’ve never been before, or you’re a veteran Outback traveller, this year, as a birder, you ought to get out there.

My recent trip was the first of what will hopefully be a series of trips to collect data for a research degree I’m undertaking. This first one involved myself and my colleague in most desert escapades, Mark Carter, leaving Coolangatta and heading west with no itinerary other than reaching Alice Springs in ten days or so. The only mission was to fill in a few blanks on the desert map that neither of us had visited and to try and see what few lifers might be lurking there for us. Chief among these were a few species of grasswren.

There was a dual purpose for finding the grasswrens: neither of us had seen most of them and my research involves obtaining good quality audio recordings of Dusky Grasswrens across central Australia so any recording encounters with congeneric species would be useful practice.

The most obvious thing we noticed as we barrelled west of the divide and into the arid zone of the NSW/QLD border districts, was how much lying water was on the country. From the very first afternoon we drove through large thunderstorms. At Cunnamulla, roads to the north and west were all closed forcing us to head south and miss some of the best Grey Grasswren country out toward Innamincka. But we still made it to a flowing section of Cooper Creek where Mark was able to give his kayak its blooding on a proper desert river.

This is where Burke & Wills went wrong: they should have brought a kayak.

Heading south brought us into the range of the intriguing NSW race obscurior of Thick-billed Grasswren so all was not lost yet. This is not intended to be a comprehensive trip report so to cut a long and all-too-familiar story short: we dipped. Consecutive days over 40 degrees, a dearth of recent observations and inexperience recognising the bird’s habitat certainly contributed to our dip. These factors and the ever-present threat of being rained-in kept us moving southward after a fairly full day of gibber bashing.

The afternoon weather was regularly foreboding...

From Port Augusta the punishing temperatures eased but the rains continued. We had success with the Western Grasswren near Whyalla and found the birds in good voice and reasonably approachable for photographs and recordings despite quite a gusty day. The Thick-billed Grasswrens showed themselves ever-so-briefly further up the track near Coober Pedy and then we kept pushing north to Alice Springs and Dusky Grasswren country with a few days up my sleeve to make some more recordings.

The one constant of this trip was our (or at least my) inane commentary on the amount of water we were seeing. Most of the numerous bridges across the Stuart Highway between Coober Pedy and Alice Springs had water flowing under them and those that didn’t, recently had. The Palmer River was flowing strongly, the Finke crossing at Henbury was swollen as it had been for some weeks, and every clay pan and gravel pit was brimful. Every gibber plain from Tibooburra to Idracowra looks more like a golf green than the bleak Martian vista they usually resemble. Mobs of Emu were encountered the whole way through and, as evidenced by a juvenile bird even showing up on the beach at Shoalhaven Heads, Inland Dotterels have clearly bred very well across their range. These captivating little shorebirds were everywhere.

Emus on the 16th fairway near Tibooburra.

In all my years knocking about The Outback I’ve never seen it like this. Even the wet years of 2010-2011 didn’t manage to spread the pulse of life as far across the landscape as the last 6 months of wet weather in Central Australia have done.

Many of the roads across The Outback have only recently started to re-open after lengthy closures and many will need a fair amount of repair work done. The country will need to dry a bit and birds will continue to breed up but, by May, birding should be hotting up just as the weather is cooling down.

Ormiston Gorge at the moment: ringing with the chatter of breeding Budgerigars in every tree with the songs of Dusky Grasswrens cascading over the cliffs and hillsides.

Mark and I are heading off on another desert expedition in May. This time we're covering the Great Victoria Desert and parts west in search of a few birds that will be new to many birders’ lists: recent western splits like Naretha Bluebonnet and Copperback Quail-thrush are both high on the target list and we’ll be on constant look-out for other specialties in this region like Scarlet-chested Parrot, Sandhill Grasswren, flocks of wild Budgerigar, and Princess Parrot. Boom years like this don't come around too often and if nobody is out there to witness the spectacle of it all a great opportunity will have been missed. We aim to get out there during the peak of activity as birds are coming off multiple consecutive breeding cycles and the weather is at its most agreeable. We'll be seeking the above-mentioned bird species, but we'll also be looking to document and photograph all manner of fascinating and uncommonly encountered desert wildlife and flora before the inevitable drying, the burning, and the long wait for the next period of such frenzied productivity.

Sunset over Willochra Plain - hard to beat.

This 10 day expedition leaves Alice Springs on the 24th of May (all the details can be found over on Mark’s website here) and it'd be great to have you along. We only have a few seats left so don’t muck around – get in touch! We look forward to seeing you out there.

CBW

Birds of New Guinea: Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics

ReviewChris Watson

By Bruce M. Beehler and Thane K. Pratt

This hefty book is the companion to the second edition field guide for the same region which I reviewed here earlier. It’s a massive work of data collection and scholarship and grew out of the effort to update the field guide. The amount of new research that had been undertaken since the publication of the first edition was such that all the new information couldn’t possibly be shoe-horned into the single volume. As a result, Birds of New Guinea: Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics (DTS) comes in at 668 hardbound pages versus the 528 pages in the paperback field guide which is also printed at a slightly smaller format.

At around $140 it's at the lower end of the price range for large reference volumes on similar subject matter. If that price makes you flinch you should consider carefully the scale (both literally and figuratively) of the book that money is purchasing. Birds of New Guinea DTS will probably have slightly reduced appeal to the general bird watcher than the field guide, given that it lacks the colour plates. But to the serious scholar of Australo-Papuan birds, or even the diligent student of northern Australian species this book is a gold mine. Birds of New Guinea DTS is effectively a checklist; as the authors acknowledge, a heavily modified, re-ordered and updated reworking of Ernst Mayr’s original 1941 List of New Guinea Birds.

Any birders who have read Tim Low’s magnificent Where Song Began, will be well aware of one of the sweeping themes of that book: though the landmasses of Australia and New Guinea appear separate the reality is that they are both part of the same continent and even a casual glance at their faunal assemblages bears this out. Both islands possess echidnas, birds-of-paradise, bowerbirds, dasyurids, wallabies and tree kangaroos. Birds of New Guinea DTS is a reference that fleshes out this reality to a granular degree. A mind-boggling amount of field time has produced the data in this book, backed up by similar levels of industriousness in the laboratory and during the editing process. The taxonomy follows the same sequence set out in the field guide with just a few minor tweaks where new information has come to light.

Birds of New Guinea DTS (bottom) with its dust jacket off.

The real advances in knowledge that have allowed for this expanded edition are greatly improved understanding of the distribution and systematics of New Guinea’s birds. Importantly, this permits a treatment of almost the entire avifauna of the island down to subspecies level—something most Australian field guides do incompletely or not at all.

There is a wonderful introduction which provides a lot of information about the geography and history of the island and includes a detailed discussion of the systematics presented in the book and the references which have informed their approach.

Birds of New Guinea DTS is certainly an important milestone of ornithology in this region and will be an invaluable reference for birders and ornithologists working in New Guinea and across northern Australia.

CBW

 

Buy it from Andrew Isles

Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer

Review, OpinionChris Watson

by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella

The adage about “standing on the shoulders of giants”, attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, is particularly relevant in the case of a book like Cat Wars. It’s an extended work of science journalism, richly referenced and supported by decades of field and laboratory experiments, hundreds of research papers, each of which has been vetted and verified by thousands of experts in their field. You could place it in the genre of popular science but really… works like this are the pinnacle of peer-review.

Unlike many peer-reviewed publications however, you’ll enjoy reading Cat Wars.

The disaster for biodiversity caused by free-ranging domestic cats has been well-known in ecological circles for decades but it is only relatively recently that the magnitude of the problem has started to gain wider awareness. Cat Wars, examining the problem from a rigorously evidence-based position, deserves to find wide readership. This can be an emotionally-charged topic with irrational fringe elements on both sides but the authors chart a steady course through a potential minefield of misinformation. No blithe hagiography of either camp, Cat Wars gives consideration to the claims and motivations of cat-lovers who would have all cats protected at any cost. But with fast-paced and entertaining writing, the authors bring validated research to bear on every point; piling up the evidence, leaving the reader with a clear understanding of the facts.

Mounting evidence shows that cats are a much bigger problem than we have acknowledged in the past and the authors of Cat Wars argue convincingly that we’re both logically and morally obliged to take steps to address this problem. This is the central thesis of Cat Wars and one which the authors support strongly. They so calmly, categorically and completely dismantle and debunk each counter-argument, that their conclusions are virtually unassailable.

Just as the dangers of DDT were little-known before Rachel Carson wrote her epochal Silent Spring, Cat Wars appears as the breaking of a wave that has been building for some time and is finally hitting with full force. Indeed comparisons to Carson’s book have already been drawn.

Cat Wars familiarises the reader with cats’ evolutionary history and goes on to describe their part in extinctions and the history of our interaction with the species. There are chapters on the rise to prominence of nature-based pursuits like bird watching and even a primer on population ecology in a chapter titled The Science of Decline. Most importantly, the authors have a stab at presenting the best solutions available to us at present. This part of the book also features a chapter systematically refuting the arguments for Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs which are commonly held up as a solution and, occasionally, even enshrined in law. As this chapter sets out comprehensively: TNR is no solution at all and may even make the problem worse.

It’s beyond the scope of this review to recap all of the major points but it’ll suffice to note that a spoiler alert is not necessary for me to discuss the major arguments presented in Cat Wars. The short version is: free-ranging cats, whether owned, un-owned or feral, are bad. They’re bad for native cat species due to the spread of disease and increased competition for resources. They’re obviously bad for the billions of native prey animals they take from our ecosystems. They’re also quite bad it seems, and this was the biggest eye-opener for me, for humans.

Cats in the United States are a vector for the Yersinia pestis bacterium, better-known to many of us as the black plague. Although cases of plague transmitted from cats to humans have been rare (just a few cases per decade) of greater concern is the viral disease rabies. This is slightly less rare with a few cases per year in the US, however there are 38,000 post-exposure prophylaxes administered each year (mostly the result of people coming into contact with a suspected rabid cat) costing US taxpayers a minimum of US$190 million annually.

But the stogie for worst cat-borne disease must go to the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. This single-celled bastard-of-a-thing infects 30—50 percent of humans on Earth and 22 percent (60 million) of the US population and we’re still unsure of precisely how the infection affects brain function in humans. (It is at least correlated, though not necessarily causally, with schizophrenia and suicide). And a significant host of T. gondii, you won’t be surprised to learn, is cats.

Personally, I’d always been more focused on cats’ destruction of wildlife. This chapter was a revelation. The role of cats in the spread of diseases is covered in detail in the chapter titled The Zombie Maker and should be required reading for anyone living with, or even coming into occasional contact with, cats.

As the above passages foreshadow, much of the research presented and many of the cases discussed in Cat Wars are quite US-centric. This is to be expected given that the authors are both from that country but they have done an admirable job of peppering the narrative with illustrative examples from other regions and even commentary from international researchers; John Woinarski and threatened species commissioner Greg Andrews pop up a couple of times and will be familiar names to antipodean readers familiar with the invasive species discourse in Australia. 

My only frustration with Cat Wars is the frequency with which the authors, building up a good head of steam on a particular argument, drop a note in parentheses along the lines of “(more on this in chapter XX)”, or “(see page XX)”. This is an understandable technique for preserving the readability of text and the flow of narrative but in some cases I think the arguments could be served better by brief digression to present references in situ. To this end, and this may just be a personal preference, I’d rather references were indicated in superscript. There is an exhaustive list of references presented alphabetically at the back of the book but it is difficult to attach these to particular points or arguments as they are not cited in the text.

Finally though, the conclusions drawn in Cat Wars and the solutions offered by the authors are as inescapable as they are daunting to consider. With such a large, deeply entrenched and well-funded pro-cat lobby it seems clear that the solution to how we reduce the number of free-ranging cats in the landscape will be one of marketing. (I’ll pause here for that shiver down your spine to subside.) It will come down to getting people to honestly evaluate what they cherish most dearly—with the hope that most people will opt for a rich, healthy and diverse natural world in preference to one pointlessly overrun with cats. It will require people to engage honestly with the facts presented by legitimate researchers and to reject their own biases. With pundits of all stripes proclaiming that we now live in the era of “post-fact politics” this might seem like a tall order. But in the end, it starts with everybody taking responsibility for their part in the solution.

A large feral cat stalking prey in the Australian outback.

Cat-owners need to adopt responsible ownership practices: indoor and contained cats are healthy, safe and happy cats. This is better for cats, better for wildlife and better for people.

Governments and the media need to take responsibility for recognising the validity of scientifically-acquired knowledge and remove TNR from serious discussion. It should be legislated against (certainly not for) and should be lumped with other irrational fringe beliefs like climate science denialism and contrail mind-control conspiracies.

Cat Wars may well stand alongside Silent Spring in the pantheon of classic nature writing. Let’s hope it is as effective in warding off an impending cat-induced biodiversity crisis as Silent Spring was in alerting us to the perils of DDT.

CBW

Listen to an interview with author Peter Marra by Phillip Adams on RN Late Night Live

 

Buy it at Andrew Isles

 

Support The Grip

A Natural History of Australian Parrots: a tribute to William T. Cooper

ReviewChris Watson

By Joseph Forshaw and William Cooper

Buxton: Nokomis Editions 2016

$345.00

 

“…please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things.” – Tim Minchin, occasional address, UWA, September 2013.

 

That crucial symbiosis between science and art could scarcely be better exemplified than it is by the more than four decade partnership between Joseph Forshaw and William Cooper. The pair have commonly been referred to over the years as scientist and artist respectively, but, I think, those descriptors apply just as accurately the other way around.

Cooper was as much a researcher as a “portrait painter to the birds”, as he was dubbed by Sir David Attenborough. He spent a large portion of his time in the field, observing birds in the wild, capturing their essence in reams of notes and field sketches, before bringing them back to life in his studio. And Forshaw, as much as being a respected expert in his field internationally, has an undeniable talent for rendering that expertise accessible and enjoyable to the lay-reader.

I was lucky enough to pop along to Andrew Isles Natural History Books to view the only advance copy of this book in existence. The remainder of the very limited print-run are, at this moment, in a container, Australia-bound, in preparation for the launch in a few days.

The initial impression of the book is that it is a very serious collector’s edition. It has 344 pages printed in landscape format at quarto size on beautiful stock which displays the plates at their best. Andrew Isles’ website tells us it is, “fully cased in grey Ballantine cloth, with black blocking and marbled endpapers”. Whatever a “Ballantine” is (I was sure that it was a brand of Scotch), it does its work well. The advance copy that I viewed was a thing of great weight and beauty and I can only assume that the remainder of the edition will be its equal. My photographs here do little justice to the book’s majesty and the vibrancy of the colour reproductions but it will remain on show in-store at Andrew Isles Natural History Books until the launch for those who are interested in seeing it first-hand.

There are numerous plates which have never been published before, including a multitude of Cooper’s field sketches and pencil studies for most species. There are also a number of plates exhibiting Cooper’s additional talents as botanical illustrator and landscape painter. While the cockatoos toward the front of the book are colourful, big-on-the-page and arresting; there is a plate much later in the book depicting Golden-shouldered Parrots perched unobtrusively on a termite mound, almost like incidental ornaments to a sweeping panorama of Cape York tropical savanna.

This, for me, is the real genius of Cooper’s work. He gives us the birds carefully posed for scientific scrutiny and field mark diagnosis. He also depicts them for us in their habitat for scale and relevance. But often, he also presents them as we would most often encounter them. We rarely see cockatoos any other way but quite well. They’re large, noisy and, mostly, fairly obvious in the landscape. But those smaller quieter Psephotus parrots might more usually be noticed at the last second; perched silently on a branch or termite mound, before flushing at your unintended disturbance. Andrew Isles actually has the original painting of the Golden-shouldered Parrot scene that was reproduced as a double-page plate for this book and it hangs, fittingly enough, over the area where the book is on display.

At about a dollar a page, this latest and ultimate testament to the Forshaw/Cooper partnership is expensive but will still be within the reach of many aficionados of Cooper’s work. (While the text has been updated considerably since Forshaw’s last writing on the topic 15 years ago—we have seen the Night Parrot rediscovery and the dwindling fortunes of the Orange-bellied and Swift Parrot for a start—this edition has very specifically been produced as a tribute to its late illustrator. No disrespect for Mr Forshaw’s part in its production is intended, or should be inferred, if I have focused more directly on this volume’s obvious appeal to fans and collectors of Cooper’s artwork. My encounter with the book was all too brief and I didn’t get time to go over the text in any detail.)

My thanks to the publisher for the suggestion and to Andrew Isles and his staff for putting up with my intrusion. I look forward to the launch and hearing the reception that this highly anticipated book receives.

CBW

 

Pre-order from Andrew Isles.

Gotta Tick 'Em All

Birding, OpinionChris Watson

This piece first appeared in Australian Birdlife Magazine Vol. 5 No.3, September 2016.

Cast your mind back and you may remember an old Nintendo game from the 1990s where players would seek out fictional creatures and capture them to add them to their list—Pokémon.  

The latest version of the game, harnessing the cameras and GPS capability of smartphones, was released in early July and it didn’t take long for problems to arise. Within the first week of the game’s release, the Darwin Police had to remind players that they mustn’t enter their premises just because the game had designated the building a “Pokestop”.

Reports of car crashes and pedestrian accidents have been common, as have accusations of trespass as people chased Jigglypuffs and Charizards through suburban parks late at night—some Pokémon, it seems, are nocturnal. In the US, a series of muggings occurred when nefarious players lured others into isolated places. Bosnian players even had to be reminded to avoid wandering onto minefields, such was their Pokémon-induced stupor.

A lot of this should have a familiar ring to birdwatchers. We all know how single minded birders can be in pursuit of a lifer. There’re plenty of stories of birdwatchers, lurking behind binoculars, suspected of snooping. I’ve been grilled by the Australian Federal Police myself for straying too close to the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility toting high-end optics. There are also many regrettable instances of erratic driving, trespass and other ill-advised behaviour by birdwatchers in pursuit of their quarry.

But despite all the similarities, the biggest point of difference between birdwatching and Pokémon Go is the most obvious: birds are real. That’s not a small thing. Because birds are real, birdwatchers, from the rank beginner to the most experienced ornithologist, in their efforts to see as many species as possible, are learning about the world we live in and contributing to our understanding of its ecosystems.

Birdwatchers keep notebooks and submit their observations to online atlas projects where the information can be accessed by researchers and governments and used to inform studies of bird populations, movements and distribution, and make decisions about their conservation status and required levels of protection. Birdwatchers’ observations have informed recent decisions regarding the management of fire, mineral exploration and vegetation clearing.

Due in large part to the contributions of birdwatchers, our understanding of how birds occupy the landscape is more complete than for any other class of vertebrate on the planet.

But although my initial reflex was to dismiss Pokémon Go as mere skim milk to birding’s full cream, its phenomenal popularity clearly confirms one thing: our huge appetite for exploring, collecting and cataloguing. The similarity between the collecting mentality of birdwatching and the Pokémon tagline of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, shows the fascination with collecting to be a universal character of humanity.

So with the Twitchathon going national this year and the Aussie Backyard Bird Count in October, perhaps there’s an opportunity here. These are the extreme sports of birdwatching. It may take just the gentlest of nudges, as the interest in Pokémon Go begins to wane, for the listers of the virtual world to see their opportunity in an unaugmented world filled with multitudes of creatures which are even more spectacular and enchanting for their reality…

An iridescent flying creature which steals clothes pegs and trinkets from humans, but only if they’re blue? Satin Bowerbird—tick it off.

A ground-dwelling animal which constructs a mighty oven with delicate temperature control to hatch its young? Malleefowl—another one in the bag.

A huge flightless dinosaur-like beast with a single horn on its head and a vicious kick that could disembowel a would-be attacker?

Southern Cassowary—you beauty!

If they thought Pokémon Go was addictive, wait ‘til they try birding.