Chris Watson

Review: The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia by David Andrew

ReviewChris Watson

“Many of Australia’s unique and beautiful mammals are not easy to find in the wild. Most of them are nocturnal and extremely wary of humans.” – Barbara Triggs, in the introduction to her superb Tracks, Scats And Other Traces: A Field Guide to Australian Mammals.

 

We could add to Barbara Triggs’ introduction, that many of our mammals are also rare and range across massive areas of remote and challenging country. Throw in our disastrous record on mammal extinction and you might be forgiven for not ever starting a mammal list and sticking to watching the birds.

But then again, would anyone really bother looking for Grey Honeyeaters if they weren’t so bloody hard to find? The thrill of the treasure hunt and the pursuit of rarities is a big part of the allure of birding so there’s no reason to think that the difficulty of finding mammals would have any less appeal. Mammal watching has always lagged somewhere behind birding, at least in popularity but certainly not the ardour of its devotees. But lately it seems to have been gaining ground and this book comes along at an interesting time.

Literally just weeks before the release of Finding the Mammals of Australia we saw the creation of the first dedicated Facebook group for serious Australian mammal watchers. This group rapidly grew to over 200 members and we’ve had hints that the first semi-official Australian mammal big year attempts are already underway. Then, following on the heels of Finding the Mammals of Australia, we’ve had news of another forthcoming release from CSIRO publishing, Australian Wildlife After Dark, also with plenty of relevance to mammal watchers, due in April.

Common Ringtail Possum Pseudocheirus peregrinus, often the first tick on many suburbanites' mammal list.

To give you the executive summary: Finding the Mammals of Australia is an astonishing achievement. It’s thoroughly worth owning if you have any interest in our mammal fauna and if you don’t already have it, eventually, you almost certainly should. David Andrew has done a colossal amount of work here and deserves endless kudos for delivering a long-overdue book.

Moreover, it’s astonishing and reassuring that publishers like CSIRO are continuing to support such releases. Hats off all round. The easy assumption to make is that the technologically adept can these days access all the relevant knowledge they need with a visit to one or more online fora and the magical letters R-F-I. Request For Information.

These three dread initials, I was sure, would snuff the interest in, and relevance of, guide books like this in a matter of a few years. They have already ensured that professional wildlife guiding will never be much more than a boutique industry, in this country at least. Go to any birdwatching forum or Facebook group and it’s quickly apparent that a good portion of posts are preceded by the scurrilous three letter initialism. I’m off to FNQ – where to see this mammal or that bird? It’s my first time in Perth – where do all the critters hide out?

Prefix your subject line with RFI and there is no end to the lengths that any number of friendly and generous souls will be prepared to go to, in order to make available the collected knowledge that they have spent years accumulating through long hours scouring the bush (not to mention the literature) and hundreds of thousands of kilometres behind the wheel. If I come across as at all bitter on this matter, it's only because I know precisely how hard many professional guides work for their site knowledge only to have it broadcast on such public channels, or to have their professionalism usurped entirely and rendered cruelly redundant by well-meaning local amateurs or enterprises like Birding Pal.

But I needn’t be so pessimistic. The same generosity of spirit and genuine love for our fauna has ensured that there is an enduring market for books like this and that seems set to remain the case. My revised appraisal of species-seekers in Australia is that despite having access to endless free information online, most still see the value in having an expert like David Andrew assemble the sum of that web-based colloquy, adding a comprehensive survey of the scientific literature, analysing it all through their own research and expertise and binding it all in a single volume. That, in a convenient nutshell I guess, is the appeal of reference books for most of us.

And of course international visitors without time for thorough research, not to mention Australian mammal listers with particularly recalcitrant bogey-beasts, are still just as likely to desire the services of a wildlife professional. So I should dismount my high horse (still a tickable plastic if you know where to look) and return to Andrews’ achievement.

Finding the Mammals of Australia is set out in a very similar format to CSIRO’s 2011 updated edition of Richard and Sarah Thomas’ Finding the Birds of Australia with Alan McBride and David Andrew as co-authors. This book looks pretty similar to that book, is similarly comprehensive in its geographic treatment and at 419 pages is just a few pages smaller than its birdy sister publication. Navigating it will feel familiar to users of Finding the Birds of Australia; after the introductory sections it goes through sites state by state then follows this with a complete annotated list of the mammals, a glossary and an index. The introductory passages deal in some detail with the notorious difficulties of observing mammals in the wild and the differences in observation techniques between bird-watching and mammal-watching.

Fat-tailed Dunnart Sminthopsis crassicaudata - a tiny marsupial carnivore. A lot harder to get to than a back yard ringtail possum but, happily, still pretty common if you look in the right places.

 The coverage of species is complete enough, although it follows the older mammal taxonomy set out by John Woinarski et al in the 2012 Action Plan for Australian Mammals, rather than the more up to date 2015 taxonomy by Jackson and Groves. The latter splits a few more species here and there (the feathertail gliders and greater gliders come to mind) and is being used by most mammal listers, but this won’t be any sort of impediment to accuracy for the most part.

So if it was the advent of good, cheap binoculars and the fledgling conservation movement that finally transformed the old pursuit of bird shooting into the worldwide phenomenon of modern birding, then perhaps digital photography, LED torches and social media may be doing the same for mammal listing.

If that’s the case, a book like this for the Australian mammal fauna might very well herald the opening of the floodgates.


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