Reading about the Reef

Having mentioned this book in connection with Tribal Science, I’m posting my review of it here in spite of the fact that it has already appeared in slightly different forms in the Townsville Bulletin and in Waves, the newsletter of the Reef HQ Volunteers Association.

Woodford's 'The Great Barrier Reef' cover picJames Woodford, already an award-winning environmental journalist with several books to his credit, decided in 2008 to tackle a really big subject, the two and a half thousand kilometre long Reef. Wanting to learn about it from those who know most about it and see parts of it that are usually out of reach, he signed on as a volunteer on scientific expeditions from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) between the beginning of 2009 and the middle of 2010.

It was a big commitment of time and effort (earning the scuba tickets he needed was a major exercise in itself) but it took him from Townsville past Lockhart River to Raine Island in the north, to the Swain Reefs in the south, to Heron and One Tree Island research stations, and even to Lord Howe Island, that last outpost of reef life far south of the Reef itself.

Slightly sceptical about the impact on the Reef of global warming when he began, he was convinced – and deeply concerned – by the time he finished. One expedition member after another pointed out the dangers to him, and in August 2009 he heard their research summarised at a conference in Brisbane: “Speaker after speaker made one point clearly … we were already in dangerous territory with regard to CO2 levels … the question right now is not whether the reef will suffer, but rather how bad the injury will be.” But this is a relatively small element in Woodford’s book. He dives some spectacularly beautiful coral reefs, has close encounters with cyclones, sharks and turtles, and meets a great range of colourful people.

The Great Barrier Reef is very readable, details of reef science emerging naturally from Woodford’s conversations with scientists (endlessly passionate about their work) and the experiments and underwater life he observed. This is a book for all of us who live near the Reef yet know little about it, and for visitors who would like to take away more than a memory of dazzling beauty.

The Great Barrier Reef
James Woodford
Macmillan, Sept 2010, $32.99

Woodford blogs on the Australian environment at

The centipede’s dilemma

A centipede was happy quite,
Until a frog in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in the ditch
Considering how to run.

If you take your own fun seriously, you might like to follow this implications of this bit of whimsy (by a Mrs. Edmund Craster, 1871) into a branch of psychology not even dreamt of when it was written, cognitive behaviour theory. Start here.


During the last week I have finally found time to catch up – a little – on sorting photos I took earlier in the year. I have been uploading some to my Flickr page (it will open in a new window if you click on the link, so that you can flip back and forth; otherwise, just follow individual links below) but I’ll put the prettiest one here:

Cairns Birdwing butterfly feeding on ixora
Female Cairns Birdwing butterfly feeding on ixora

The least attractive photo – but an interesting critter – is of a giant crane-fly, a spindly ceature with a wingspan of over 50 mm but a body weight of nearly nothing. While we’re on Diptera (the family which includes crane-flies), here is a tiny midge which I mistook for a mosquito. It’s antennae are amazing!

I have uploaded quite a few spiders, too: a large dark one that I thought was a Wolf Spider but I’m told is a Huntsman, a St Andrew’s Cross Spider with bundled prey, a pretty little White Flower Spider with a leg span of about 7 mm (that’s not too scary, is it?), and a Lynx, another tiny ambush hunter. The St Andrew’s Cross, as it happens, is the only orb-weaver (i.e. one that makes a wheel-shaped web) amongst them.

There are plenty more images to come – it’s just a matter of finding time to sort and identify them. When I started photographing insects in my garden I had no idea how many there were!

What’s in my garden – mid July

It’s a month since my last survey but not a lot has changed. The weather has mostly been so beautiful that staying indoors is a sin, but that equates to dry and relatively cool weather (max. 24- 26C, min 10-12C) which doesn’t encourage insect activity.

The butterfly species which has risen to prominence recently is the Common Crow. I got some nice pictures of them on snakeweed at Cape Pallarenda and Magnetic Island but they have become common in my garden too. They love one particular plant so much that two of them would share one flower:

Two Common Crows sharing a yellow flower
Two Common Crows sharing a meal

I don’t know what the plant is. It has a thistle-like flower and green-purple serrated leaves. Can anyone tell me?

Aside from the Crows, I have been seeing …

  • Butterflies: still lots of Chocolate Soldiers (Junonia hedonia), reasonable numbers of  Dingy Bush Browns (Mycalesis perseus), a few resident Melanitis leda, occasional Eurema, Cairns Birdwing, Common Egg-fly and others.
  • Moths: very few except Tiger Moths (Nyctemera), the little pale grass moths and occasional nocturnal visitors such as this one.
  • Flies, sap-suckers (Hemiptera) and grasshoppers: most species but in small numbers.
  • Mantises: surprisingly, I have seen a couple of juveniles of different species; no adults, though.
  • Spiders: lots of small spiky spiders, Austracantha and Gasteracantha, Jumping Spiders and some St Andrew’s Cross and Silver Orb-weavers. One mid-sized Huntsman was perfectly comfortable indoors but was gently evicted at the request of a visitor.
  • Dragonflies: none at all in my garden (but still quite a few near permanent water).
  • Wasps and bees: a couple of small nests of Paper Wasps (Polistes stigma townsvillensis), with occasional mud-daubers (Delta arcuata and D. sceliphron) and the insect I can’t help thinking of as the Blue-bum Bee. It isn’t a Bumble Bee but is formally known as the Common Blue-banded Bee (Amegilla sp.). I’m sure you can see the multiple sources of my name for it, even before you see its picture.
Blue-banded Bee(seen from behind) on pentas
Blue-banded Bee (Amegilla) on pentas

Responses to the Carbon Tax

It’s a long time since a political issue raised tempers as much as the Labor government’s new Carbon Tax and opinions about it one day after the announcement span a very broad range.

The Australia Institute summed up the policy pretty much the way I would: “The good news is that the modest carbon price announced yesterday will neither impoverish Australians nor bankrupt our economy. The bad news is that the modest carbon price announced yesterday won’t save the planet either.” (Read the rest of it here.)

The Greens, predictably but forgivably, characterised it as a major victory in a campaign which they have been waging for as long as they have existed: “The Australian Greens, the Labor government and the Independent MPs today announced an historic agreement on a climate action package that will put a $23 per tonne price on carbon pollution, as was first proposed by the Greens, support householders and invest billions of dollars in clean, renewable energy. … While a climate action package designed by the Greens would have been more ambitious straight away, what we have achieved is a firm foundation for the future.” (More here.)

Get-up were happy but determined not to let it slip away: “As late as a few weeks ago a credible outcome was still uncertain. Thankfully, this plan has come along way! While it isn’t perfect, there’s a lot in this package that we can all be proud of … Right wing politicians and polluter lobbyists are in a frenzy. They’re desperate to scare the public in order to break the fledgling agreement in Canberra for a clean energy future. Millions of Australians will make up their mind in these first 48 hours. Our challenge is to counter the distortions from conservative media and the big polluters before they hijack the debate.” (I got that because I’m on their mailing list. Their site is here.)

On the Big Business side, “The owner of the Hazelwood power station, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, has described the Government’s carbon tax plan as very disturbing.” (ABC News) – no surprise whatever – and “Most industry groups have responded negatively to yesterday’s carbon price revelations, saying the scheme is unfair and will cost jobs.” (ABC News again, and no surprise again.)

But some are more positive:

“While most of the major business lobby groups have come out in opposition to the Government’s carbon tax, other large firms say the long-term positives outweigh the short-term costs.

“Construction giant Grocon is one of the members of Businesses for a Clean Economy, a group of around 200 companies which are in favour of a carbon price. Grocon’s David Waldren says the carbon pricing scheme gives the construction industry greater certainty to invest in more environmentally friendly buildings. “Grocon’s very pleased to see certainty in the areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency,” he told ABC radio’s The World Today program. He says fears expressed by some industry associations over increased building costs represent a very short-sighted view.” (ABC News yet again.)

I don’t believe I need to tell anyone what Mr Abbott is saying, and Tony Windsor’s backhanded compliment last week suggests I’m not alone in my belief: “[Windsor] acknowledged the effectiveness of Mr Abbott’s anti-carbon price campaign. ‘Tony Abbott’s been very effective. If you’ve got only one line to say it’s not hard to remember,’ he said.” (ABC whatsit again.)

It will take weeks for the dust to settle and I’m not going to give it much space here until then, although I will certainly be watching with great interest.