In late 1988 I moved to a wet eucalypt forest at Black Sugarloaf, Birralee in central north Tasmania with my partner Ron Nagorcka. We had no access road, no house and the land we’d purchased had just been logged. For the first 18 months our life was mostly lived outdoors, though we did each have a room to retreat to should the weather become too rough. While Ron built our house, I established a vegetable garden, landscaping the slope by creating stone retaining walls.
Most of the large trees and understorey shrubbery in the immediate vicinity of our settlement had been either removed or damaged by the logging, but the speed of the regeneration was remarkable. The flora and fauna – and the unique ambiance – of the different vegetation communities (Melaleuca swamp, ferny gullies and eucalypt forest) within walking distance of home have remained for me a constant source of fascination.
Two things coincided with our move to Black Sugarloaf and both had a profound influence on the course of my life. The first was the commencement of the Australian Bird Count, a nationwide project conducted by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (now Birdlife Australia) where volunteer bird watchers were asked to count the birds in a particular area. The second was the beginning of a local field naturalist group, the Deloraine Field Naturalists, later to become the Central North Field Naturalists.
Birds have always captured my imagination and since I could first say the word I wanted to be an ornithologist. The Australian Bird Count was a chance for me to hone my skills and Black Sugarloaf was the perfect place to do it. My study site was home and, as per instructions, I established three search areas. Each search area was surveyed for twenty minutes every fortnight and I continued this for five years. It was a marvellous way to learn about the habits, calls, and habitat and foraging requirements of the different forest birds and it was fortuitous that it coincided with the inauguration of the local field naturalists group. The comings and goings of the birds, especially the nomadic honeyeaters, often correlated with the flowering times of the local plants and the botanical expertise of my field naturalist colleagues was invaluable in assisting me to identify the plants around home.
The “Birds on Farms” project, also conducted by Birdlife Australia, again called for volunteer bird watchers, this time to survey birds in the patches of vegetation that remained on productive farms. For two years I surveyed birds on three farms within the local municipality.
After the bird projects I started contributing to Fungimap, a project initiated in 1995 to address a lack of data about Australian fungal species. Similar to the Birds Atlas project, Fungimap is a scheme to map the distribution of more than 100 species of mushrooms, toadstools and other fungi using the information sent in by a network of volunteer recorders throughout the country. I had compiled species lists of the birds and plants at Black Sugarloaf, but had thus far overlooked the profusion of fungi that appeared periodically, particularly in autumn.
Nothing beats observation and learning in the field. In his wonderful book For love of Insects entomologist, Thomas Eisner, quotes the saying “5 minutes in the library can save you weeks in the laboratory” but says he prefers the naturalist’s version: “weeks in the field can save you minutes in the library”. My weeks, indeed years, in the field qualified me for further bird surveys and I was able to undertake several bird monitoring projects in the predominantly agricultural regions of northern Tasmania and King Island. Results from these projects reinforced in me the importance of remnant bush as bird habitat and I felt an urgency to convey this to the landowners, especially as I could see that the health of these areas was deteriorating. I continued to survey birds in remnant bush patches on farms until 2015.
Eisner’s naturalist’s adage could well be applied to field trips. Landowners are apparently bombarded with written information and they don’t have the time or inclination to attend talks or conferences. However, they will attend early morning field outings which leaves the remainder of the day free to attend to farm business. A series of “breakfast with the birds” outings proved invaluable in conveying ecological information in a relaxed and familiar environment and I continue to lead bird walks whenever the opportunities arise.
For several years I was treasurer and newsletter editor of the Central North Field Naturalist Inc., a member of the conservation committee of Birdlife Tasmania and Fungimap Inc., and a volunteer property assessor for the Land for Wildlife program. In those roles I wrote regularly for their respective newsletters.
It wasn’t until about 2010 that I started to notice the myxomycetes in the forest that surrounds our home. Slime moulds are similar to fungi in that they reproduce by spores, they are found in similar habitats and they are usually studied by mycologists. So even though they are not fungi, I had been introduced to slime moulds through the Fungimap project and was at first guided in my exploration by Paul George, secretary of Fungimap. Dr Tom May, president of Fungimap and senior mycologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, encouraged my interest and suggested I lodge collection at the National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL). Ten years later I have amassed over 2000 collections representing about 120 species and sent 600 or so collections to MEL. These include several species considered rare and at least four species that are new to science including Alwisia lloydiae, Tubifera vanderheuliae, T. glareata and T. tomentosa.
In 2018 I was awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion by the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria. The Australian Natural History Medallion is awarded each year to the person judged to have made the most meritorious contribution to the understanding of Australian Natural History.
In 2020 I received an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for ‘services to conservation and the environment’ (and slime moulds!)
In August 2018 I published the second edition of Where the slime mould creeps.
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