Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Obtaining Wildlife Knowledge

A few months ago, my friend Noah asked me where I get my wildlife knowledge from, thinking that perhaps I am currently undertaking a degree in a relevant subject area. This is not the case. Apart from my good grades in high school biology, I've never obtained any formal qualifications in animal study (though this is something that may change next year), and almost everything I know is self-taught. Sometimes I feel like my friends hold an un-earned level of respect for my skills, viewing my outdoor abilities as proof of me having an intuitive understanding of the natural world, when the truth is much more banal. The simple fact is, I spend a LOT of time utilising a wide range of fantastic resources which have helped build my knowledge of this subject area over a few years. Here, I wish to share with you some of these repositories of knowledge, so that any 'Wild BNE' reader out there can benefit from them also. Of course, many people reading this are much, much more knowledgeable about wildlife than I am, so feel free to add your tips for gaining information in the comments below!


Books
Society may increasingly seek information from the digital realm, but for me, books will always be essential as far as wildlife research is concerned. Good old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar bookshops are still great places to buy good old-fashioned books, and I'm always impressed by the range at Dymocks in the Queen Street Mall. For more technical tomes on topics like Stick Insect identification or reef ecology, publishers like the CSIRO and the Queensland Museum are great. Second-hand bookshops and the Lifeline Bookfest are wonderful places to pick up quality publications at bargain prices, especially decades-old Reader's Digest treasures that are now out of print!

Some of my favourite field guides
One of the most useful kinds of wildlife books are 'field guides'. They usually contain all the species of a certain kind of animal (birds, reptiles, etc), displayed neatly with photographs, illustrations and facts that can be used for identification. Compact enough to fit into a backpack, you can use them in the wild as you spot each new creature. I tend to take the Queensland Museum's Wildlife of Greater Brisbane with me on casual walks, as it collects all the important South-east Queensland species in the one volume - it's the book I'd recommend any local naturalist to start with!

Wildlife identification can be a challenge. Take this bird below:

Illustration by Frank Knight, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (Graham Pizzey)

The bill curves slightly upwards, which rules out the Dowitcher at the bottom of the illustration. It also has a pinkish base, like the non-breeding Black-tailed Godwit drawing. But other features suggest a non-breeding Bar-tailed Godwit - the eyebrow that extends past the eye, the little black marks on the underside near the tail, the overall 'streakiness', etc. The illustrations can never be perfect; if you compared yourself to an illustration of another human being, you'd notice the variation. The bird in the photo has a dark throat which none of the birds in the illustration have either! The accompanying text is always important to read too - is the species found here? Is it common? Is it found in the habitat you are in? My final opinion is that this bird is a non-breeding Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) with muddy throat feathers.

You can try with this next bird and leave your answer in the comments section if you like! 

Illustration by Frank Knight, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (Graham Pizzey)

To familiarise yourself with even more birds, check out 'Wild Bird Wednesday', a collection of bird blogs from all over the world.

Online
Of course, you'd be foolish not to recognise the internet as being
Can you ID this Butterfly?
an amazing source for all kinds of information. For example, invertebrates exist in such immeasurable quantities that books just can't offer a complete species account, but websites can target certain niches that may be of interest. One particularly invaluable website is Peter Chew's Brisbane Insects page, which offers a thorough catalogue of insects and spiders that call our city home. See if you can identify the butterfly photo on the right by checking out this wonderful page. 

Another great website for those interested in birds is Eremaea e-bird, where you can access bird lists made by observers all over the world, but more usefully, in your neck of the woods too! Rarities are reported on the Eremaea Birdlines page - some of my best days begin by reading about a sighting here, then jumping in the car to find it myself!


QLD Museum 'Smart-phone' Field Guide
Field guides are also changing thanks to online developments. Some of the books featured above are quite heavy volumes that can weigh down a backpack and add discomfort to long walks, but this inconvenience has been solved by some clever smart-phone applications which function as field guides. One down-side to them so far is their cost - they've obviously required a lot of money to develop and have a niche market to recoup expenses from, so the price is high as a result. Apps like the Queensland Museum's 'Field Guide to Queensland Fauna' work around this by being government funded, so be sure to take advantage of such a fantastic free resource. The feature that really sets these apps apart from their paper contemporaries is the fact that they can include sound recordings in each animal profile, and so much of wildlife identification boils down to call recognition!

Social media platforms like Facebook are also surprisingly worthwhile to become involved in. You may already be a fan of 'Wild BNE', but there are other great pages that will pop nature photos and local wildlife stories into your newsfeed. These can be found by scrolling through the 'Liked by this Page' box on the Facebook version of 'Wild BNE' - get searching and get liking!

Museums
Queensland Museum
Native bird display
It would be unkind of me to just refer to the books and online technology released by Museums - the places themselves are of extremely high value also! Glass cabinets full of taxidermied animals and pinned insects may seem antiquated now, but I find them useful for side-by-side comparisons of the size and forms of particular species. There are also more detailed displays that attempt to illustrate the ecology of local habitats, and touring exhibits can feature the most up-to-date information and research on specialist subjects. The Queensland Museum also offers an identification service if you've exhausted all other avenues of inquiry - see here for more information.


Clubs
Queensland Naturalists' Club
My biggest leap in obtaining wildlife knowledge happened when I joined a local bird club at the age of fifteen. Under the guidance and tutelage of the 'IBIS Bird Observers' in Sandgate, I came to recognise and become familiar with all the common birds (and a few rarities!) of South-east Queensland. I will always be grateful to Pat, Joan, Carole, Wid and the 'gang' for treating me so kindly and opening my eyes to the joy of bird-watching during those formative years.

Joining a wildlife club can be great because it turns what can all-too-often be a solitary hobby into a social and interactive one. In such a situation, knowledge can be directly transmitted from person to person, and people often have a 'specialty subject' which they can advise others on. In a bird-watching club for example, you might find certain people are authorities on wading birds, while others will step-up and offer leadership on thornbills, nesting behaviour, birds of prey and more.

There are many official nature clubs and organisations in South-east Queensland, each with a lot to offer their respective members. Many of these can be found on Facebook or with a quick Google search, using the subject area you are interested in and the location you wish to find a group for. The Queensland Naturalists' Club is one example of the fantastic groups you can find - they offer field trips and highly informative guest speakers on a variety of wildlife subjects, for which invites are extended to both long-term members and people with a more casual interest.

Experience
No matter how helpful all of the above is, there is no substitute for getting out there and experiencing the real thing for yourself! With that in mind however, there's a certain way of going about things in the bush that will maximise your chances of seeing wildlife. 

Here are some handy hints to be aware of:

  • The time of day you visit a location will be a deciding factor on what you see. My general rule is to get to any given location no later (and preferably much earlier) than 9am, otherwise it is too late for good-quality wildlife-spotting. Too often, I hear stories of people visiting amazing animal 'hotspot' locations around midday or later, who then complain about a lack of interesting sightings. From my perspective, this would be like visiting a nightclub at 3pm and wondering why the dancefloor is empty, or complaining that a cinema had no movies on show at 7am. 
  • Pay attention to the same natural rhythms the animals are following. Shorebirds live for the tides, so find a comfy spot and let the incoming sea push them closer and closer to you. When you see a storm rush through the area on a hot summer's night, go spot-lighting in the forest afterwards to see unusual frogs and reptiles.
  • Bush-walking and wildlife-watching are not the same things, and people partaking in the former activity tend to just witness animals fleeing away in alarm. To increase your chances of great wildlife encounters, slow down, ask yourself 'what's the hurry?' and let it all soak in. If you find a log, bench or rock where you can sit for a few quiet moments, you may be surprised at what flies near, ambles along or peeks its head out close by!
  • If you find anything you're curious about, take a record shot (even if it's just with your smart-phone) and look it up online later if you don't have any field guides. I'm always amazed at the efficacy of some detailed Google searches - my internet browsing history is full of random things like 'large fish Hilliards Creek' and 'wolf spider species Brisbane'. Once you have a name for something, you'll enjoy recognising and seeing it again on your travels afterwards.
  • Whatever you see, wherever you see it, remember that you are just a visitor to an animal's home, so its well-being, comfort and priorities come first - always!

Springbrook National Park; Photo by Mel Aldons


27 comments:

  1. A great outing and post. Thanks for sharing the info and the lovely photos.. Have a happy day!

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  2. you definitely have a keen interest in nature and wildlife.

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    1. Some might say it borders on obsession :)

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  3. I agree, you can learn a lot from books, the net and documentaries, but there's nothing like getting out there and discovering the real thing!

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    1. Definitely Karen! All these things are just tools to enhance my time in the outdoors, and it's spending time there in the first place that counts! Thanks for stopping by and commenting :)

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  4. Lots of great info in this post! Thanks for the tips.

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    1. Thank you, I'm glad you found it useful!

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  5. Another wealth of information post from you Christian and great recommendations and reference materials ... Your having joined a birding group in your early years is such a bonus grounding too...I remember you writing of that quite some time back

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    1. Thanks Carole! I have fantasies of starting up my own birding group someday, we'll see how that plays out :)

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  6. thank you for a very informative posts adn advice. For me, I love learning in all the ways you mentioned but the best way is to get out there and see wildlife for yourself and take photographs to clarifly your finding when you get home.

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    1. I'm very happy you found it useful, Margaret! I agree that clocking up 'field time' is the best way to become familiar with everything. Using all these resources AFTER my time outdoors is usually how I go about identifying things too!

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  7. Great post! I liked this one a lot!

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    1. Thanks Mandy, glad you enjoyed it! :)

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  8. You have given us the best advice Christian.As others point out, there is really nothing quite like experience and making the inevitable mistakes along the way. It's best that people don't run before they can walk too.

    A helpful post indeed.

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    1. Thanks Phil. Learning about trees and plants lately is giving me lots of 'beginner' experience all over again, and yes, I've made lots of inevitable mistakes!

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  9. Very nicely done, Christian. So much information on this post. Muddy feathers can trick a beginner like me!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Janice! And yes, those birds have ways of confusing everyone, beginner or seasoned-pro alike!

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  10. Great post! Get and there and keep looking is a good piece of advice as well - as is, "you don't normally see things that are rare!"

    Sorry about the much delayed reply - I've been in the UK for a month and I let the blog sit on the back burner - normal service will resume soon!

    Stewart M - Melbourne

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    1. Thanks Stewart! Yes, the saying "when you hear the hoofbeats, think horses and not zebras" comes to mind!

      Look forward to some new posts on your blog :)

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  11. You seem very knowledgeable on all aspects of biology. I agree with you on some of those field guides, as I own a few of them myself. The Queensland Museum App, although containing a lot of info, has not even close to half of the species of birds, mammals, reptiles etc, which is slightly disappointing. Those ducks, in my opinion, seem to be two female Chestnut Teals, due to the darker colouration, which separates them from Grey Teals.

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    1. Thanks Ben, I try! I agree on the limits of the QLD Museum app, but apparently they plan on updating it and growing it over time, so hopefully missing species will get filled in. Even their 'Wildlife of Greater Brisbane' book is pretty useless for birds, but wonderful for just about everything else at least!

      I came down on the 'Grey Teal' side of things for those birds because their throats seemed a cleaner white than what the female Chestnut Teals show. But the two are tricky to separate and they could very well be Chestnuts. I'm just glad someone made an ID attempt - thank you for indulging me! :)

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    2. I now agree with you on the teals, I definitely made a mistake there!!:) You can definitely see the "cleaner" white throat.

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  12. I have a huge library myself and I value it enormously, but there is no substitute for time spent in the field.

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    1. I agree, David! Seeing the real thing is always the most helpful way to learn about a subject!

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  13. I enjoyed this very much. I'm an avid birder and have a stack of bird guides and use online sources all the time.

    Thanks for visiting I'd Rather B Birdin' this weekend.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Anni! North America has some beautiful field guides that I've seen - you're very lucky! :)

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