Chris Watson


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

ReviewChris Watson

By Joseph Forshaw and William Cooper

Buxton: Nokomis Editions 2016



“…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.



Pre-order from Andrew Isles.

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.