What gull is this?

Last week I was in Mason Bay, Stewart Island, New Zealand. The wind was really strong off the ocean and conditions were perfect for vagrants. I was optimistic for some weird penguin or albatross, but what I found was a seagull.  At first I thought it was a pacific gull (Larus pacificus) which would have been really cool because according to The Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand there's only one record of pacific gull in New Zealand. However, I'm a little confounded because the gull I photographed in Mason Bay does not fit neatly into the Hand Guide's description of a pacific gull. For one, the pacific gull is supposed to have red markings on both the upper and lower mandibles, including extensive red on the lower mandible, and the bird I found only has a small spot of red on the lower mandible. Furthermore, the pacific gull is supposed to have a black subterminal band across its tail, followed by a white terminal band. The gull I photographed doesn't seem to have a terminal white band, or its white band is very narrow, much narrower than the band depicted in the Hand Guide. Finally, the leading edge of the wings of the bird I photographed are white, while the Hand Guide depicts them as black in the pacific gull. So, this bird looks superficially like a pacific gull, but doesn't fit exactly into the field guide's description. I know gulls are tricky to identify, but I'm travelling without access to any additional resources. One thing is for sure, this isn't any of New Zealand's regular gulls. Does anyone know what kind of gull this is? Please let me know.

Update: So it's just a black-backed gull, a very common gull in New Zealand. It's tricky, though, because it seems to have retained a few juvenile characteristics, such as the black tail band, into an otherwise adult plumage. Discussion of the bird by New Zealand birding experts can be found here.

This gull wasn't the only good find at Mason Bay, we also found this other bird, which we don't need any help identifying.

Measuring angles in Avizo

I've spent a good portion of my PhD working with 3D images in the program Avizo, which is essentially the same as the program Amira. This involved a steep learning curve and a lot of problem solving in the beginning. I've decided to write about the problems I've encountered and how I dealt with them in the hope that this may help the next person learning to use Avizo or Amira do so a bit faster, and with less frustration along the way. These problems will look trivial to the regular or advanced Amira/Avizo user, but they were quite frustrating at the time! These posts assume the reader's familiar with sections 2.1-2.5 of the Amira user's guide, which cover how to load, view and segment an image. My introductory post on this topic is here and the rest of my posts are here.

Recently, a lizard-brain-expert who's been helping me identify the brain regions visible in my lizard brain MRI images came to me with a strange problem: she was having a hard time identifying the different brain regions because the brain was not oriented correctly! I was embarrassed not to have noticed previously, but I had to agree: the brain was rotated in the sagittal plane. I quickly e-mailed some MRI experts to ask for help rotating the image into the correct orientation, and I received an odd, but obvious response: what angle do you want your brain rotation to?

Well, I had no idea. It's easy to rotate something in Avizo, but not so easy to figure out at what angle you've rotated it. It's also not something I was able to figure out by looking in the Avizo (or Amira) manuals nor by Googling. Eventually, I figured out a solution. It's not elegant, but it works. Here's what I did.

1. View your image

First, I loaded up my image in using Orthoslice, viewing the plane in which I wanted to rotate the image (in this case, the sagittal plane).

2. View your axes

Second, I wanted to display the axes of my original image. This is easy enough. Just go to the "View" menu and selected "Global Axes".

3. Rotate your image to the correct angle

I use the slower, but more idiot-proof "rotate" button.

4. Measure the angle.

This is the annoying part. There's no way to just say "how much did I just rotate my image?" as far as I can tell. However, you can use the measurement tool to measure a 2D angle, and you can trace over the x-axis of your Global Axis and then at the apex draw a horizontal line, as I've illustrated below. That is the angle you've rotated your image.


Even though there's no way that I can see to measure how much you've rotated an image directly, you can do the reverse, that is rotate your image at a desired angle. The rotate module allows you to type in the angle of rotation you want, and it will rotate the image that amount. It's real purpose is to make cool videos, but it does this too.

Now, if only I could figure out how to export my rotated image as a NIFTI file, I would be all set! If you know how to do that, please please please tell me!

Death of a trailer

All photos in this post, with the exception of the first one, are by Angus Kennedy.

The recent #fieldworkfail Twitter fad reminded me of something I heard back in January. I was attending a careers workshop at an academic conference and they had a panel of people who conduct job interviews giving advice to us future job seekers. One panellist shared one of her favourite interview questions, which I don't remember verbatim but went something along the lines of "Describe an incident where something went wrong during your fieldwork and how you dealt with it." This is a very fun question because many things go wrong in the field, and the solutions can come from anywhere.  Often times, when something goes wrong in the field, there's no one there to tell you how to fix your problem, and you learn just how resourceful you can be when push comes to shove.

I thought I'd share the biggest catastrophe that happened to me during fieldwork and how we dealt with it, to pre-empt any future interviewers and because Angus got some excellent pictures of the disaster in progress. For the first two years of my fieldwork, we had a little blue trailer that we towed behind our Landcruiser. It was kindly loaned to us by a professor in the Plant Sciences department at ANU. This is the story of how I managed to destroy it. Or, if I'm feeling charitable to myself, how it managed to destroy itself despite my best intentions. 

Our beloved, but ultimately doomed little blue trailer. Photo taken during this other catastrophe.

The Landcruiser is a great fieldwork vehicle for many reasons, but trunk space is not one of them. While in the field I always had up to three volunteers with me, and four people in the Landcruiser leaves little room for storage (and the more people, the more stuff there is that needs to be stored). Our beloved little blue trailer was very useful in transporting all the stuff that comes along with moving a bunch of people through remote areas. Everyone has their own massive backpack filled with personal stuff, their own tent or swag for sleeping, plus we needed to move massive amounts of food and water, a kitchenette with which to prepare meals and eat them, and a propane tank to run the camping stove. Really, the amount of stuff we needed to haul around with us to keep ourselves alive far exceeded the amount of stuff we needed to haul around to do the fieldwork. And that's why we needed that little blue trailer.

At each field site our field camp came tumbling out of the little blue trailer.

The trailer successfully survived my first field season without any major problems. Sure, it needed some repairs when we got back, mostly to the electrical wiring and peripherals, but it survived intact and without any hint of major structural problems. However, my second field season was another story. Before we left, we took the trailer to get a check-up and it turned out the axle bearings needed to be replaced, and so they were. However, a month into our fieldwork the owner of the station we were working at noticed that the grease caps had come off the trailer. The grease caps protect the ends of the axles, preventing stuff from getting onto the bearings inside. Where we do fieldwork the roads are all dirt, and there is a lot of dust. I took the trailer into Alice Springs right away, but it was too late. Dust had gotten into the axles and the bearings had to be replaced AGAIN. They also put new grease caps on. I was assured that grease caps rarely have to be replaced, and that the trailer would now be fine.

In the Outback everything gets covered in red dust. In addition to axle bearings this includes the inside of vehicles (left) and my face (right).

However, not two days later, and after only travelling on paved roads, I notice that the grease caps had once again come off. I thought they must have been put on incorrectly in Alice Springs. We were in Yulara, which luckily has a mechanic's shop despite being not much more than a tourist resort. I got them to put new grease caps on the trailer, asked them put them on "extra tight" and I also asked to buy all the shop's extra grease caps. They looked at me weird when I said I wanted to buy all of their caps, and assured me that grease caps don't just come off and that the trailer would be fine. I bought all their grease caps anyway.

That night driving south I noticed that the grease caps were already starting to come loose. I tried my best to bang them back into place, but by the time we got to Coober Pedy the next day they were gone. At the mechanic's shop in Coober Pedy they cleaned and lubricated the bearings and affixed two more of my grease caps to the axels.

By this time I knew the caps wouldn't stay on. I just wanted to get to Port Augusta, where we could leave the trailer in storage and continue our fieldwork without it. Unfortunately, less than 80km south of Glendambo and only 200km for Port Augusta, the trailer came apart. The trailer's right wheel came completely off the axel and flew off into the bush. My volunteers Angus and Mitch later recovered it, apparently 50m off the road! The axel dug into the Stuart Highway, taking a decent-sized gouge out of the road and shooting up an impressive display of sparks while I tried to slow down and pull over as quickly and safely as possible. When I went back to inspect the trailer the remaining wheel had smoke coming out of the axel, and no grease cap in sight.

The next hour or so was quite demoralising. I had to use the satellite phone to call up my supervisor and the department's fieldwork coordinator to report what had happened. We were essentially stranded. It's illegal to abandon vehicles and equipment by the side of the road in Australia, and punishments are severe (abandoning vehicles in the Outback, usually after covering them in gasoline and lighting them on fire, is something of a shameful tradition in Australia). A call to our insurance provider, the NRMA, confirmed what I suspected: only the Landcruiser was insured, not the trailer, so they weren't coming to get us. The cops came by to check out the situation but weren't about to volunteer to transport our disabled trailer anywhere.

Without any other options, I left Angus and Mitch to watch over the trailer and I drove back to Glendambo. My run of bad luck continued, the only guy in Glendambo with a flatbed truck was out of town for the week. However, I noticed a flatbed parked at the Glendambo roadhouse with a wrecked car as cargo. I went into the petrol station and found the driver: an old, grizzled, significantly bearded guy who looked like he'd been driving outback roads since coming back from serving in the second world war, eating a standard roadhouse meal and watching TV. I tried to ask him if he'd help, but he took one look at me and told me to wait until he was done his dinner. An awkward silence ensued. Finally, after he finished, he explained how much of a hassle it would be to offload his current cargo, drive all that way, and how much behind schedule it would put him. I thought he was going to refuse, but it turned out he was just trying to soften me up for how much he wanted to get paid: $200 cash. Given the circumstances, he could have charged a lot more, and I was happy to hand it over*. The truck driver off-loaded his wrecked car and followed me back down the Stuart Highway to the wrecked trailer. He loaded up the trailer, which looked sad and small lopsided on the huge flatbed, and drove off. By this time it was about 11pm, and we set up camp on the side of the Stuart Highway.

The next morning Angus, the best chef of the three of us, cooked breakfast, which we ate sitting on the highway, getting up for the occasional car or truck zooming past. The Stuart Highway is so straight and flat that there's plenty of warning whenever anyone's approaching, even at 110km/h. 

We packed everything into the Landcruiser, an extremely tight squeeze. If I remember right, we ended up with the propane tank on the floor where the front passenger's feet should go, which did not seem very safe to me. There was absolutely no room in the back, so all three of us had to sit in the front, with Mitch sitting in the middle, crotch-to-gearshift**. We got to Glendambo and were able to throw out enough non-essential stuff to clear space for one person to squeeze into one of the middle seats, though whichever unlucky person sat there was jabbed in the back by lizard-catching rods for the entire ride.

The truck driver said he was going to dispose of our trailer at the Glendambo dump. When we got to our next field site, a sheep station near Lake Everard, and we explained what had happened, the station manager's eyes immediately lit up. All that had happened was one wheel came off? The missing wheel was inside the trailer? The axle was only bent, not broken***? He called up one of his mates to recover the thing from the dump, apparently it was recoverable enough to be useful pottering around the station. I never did hear whether they were able to find it at the dump, or whether it ever became useful again.

This disaster left me with two questions. The first is why did the grease caps keep coming off? While I don't really understand why they kept coming off when I was told repeatedly they very rarely come off, there was evidently some structural abnormality with the trailer that made it easy for the caps to come off. When we took the trailer in for a check-up prior to my second field season, the mechanic pointed out steel plates attached to the wheels. He said he'd never seen anything like them before. He also said they were not properly secured to the wheels and therefore liable to come off unexpectedly, and possibly on the highway, making them quite dangerous. He recommended, and we agreed, to remove them. I now think that these plates were holding the grease caps in place.

Two pictures of the same trailer wheel. The left photo, taken during my first field season, shows the steel plate bolted over the grease cap. The right photo, taken during my second field season, shows that the steel plate has been removed and the grease cap is exposed.

My second question is why did the wheel come off on the highway? It doesn't seem evident to me that the wheel coming off is directly related to the grease cap problem. The wheel came off less than a week after the bearings were replaced in Alice Springs and within that week three separate mechanics had looked at the trailer and deemed it roadworthy. Less than 12 hours before the wheel came off the mechanic in Coober Pedy had cleaned and lubricated the bearings. I genuinely have no idea why the wheel came off. If you have any idea, please let me know.

Campfire with the trailer during happier times.

*Normally expenses during fieldwork get reimbursed, but there was never going to be any sort of receipt or official documentation of this expense. The $200 was my personal penance for the trailer destruction.

**There is actually a seat there, I assume meant for children. 

***Though I didn't look, the axle was likely bent when it dug into the Stuart Highway going 110km/h.

Ode to a Courtyard

It's amazing how much seemingly minor things, things that never occurred to me before I moved to Australia, matter so much in determining my quality of life. There is a trend right now for "open plan" offices in academic environments. The idea seems to be that by preventing people from being in small offices, and instead having a desk in a large room with many, many other people, you foster communication and collaboration. I have worked in both small offices and large, open plan offices and in my opinion this is complete baloney. Offices are for doing work, which often requires concentration and a lack of disturbance. In my experience, open-plan offices just breed frustration and resentment for one's co-workers and ultimately creative ways to isolate one's self in a crowded environment, such as wearing headphones, erecting blinders around your desk, and even not coming in at all and instead working from home. In the end that has the opposite of the intended effect: people, especially introverts, deliberately isolate themselves from the academic community at the university. Even a coffee shop is easier to work in than an open-plan office. At least at a coffee shop the din is constant and consistent and the people are strangers - very unlikely to break your concentration by coming up to talk to you. I am being a little too harsh here, I've worked in open-plan offices that work well, but these have false walls (basically, cubicle walls) that give you a little privacy and the desk space allotted to each individual was large enough that we weren't touching elbows all the time. 

So what does, in my opinion, foster collaboration and camaraderie? Common areas. Nice, welcoming places that you can go to eat lunch, look over a paper with your colleagues, or have a meeting over coffee. These allotted areas are often looked down upon for being wastes of space, social areas where you can go to waste time, but again I think this is baloney. These are the areas were you meet the people you work with: over lunch, during a discussion group, or if you happen to be reading the paper at the same time as someone else. A common area to have lunch is important: if everyone leaves the building for lunch, people will arrange to go with their friends, and new people who haven't met anyone yet will often feel awkward and left out, simply because no-one yet has their phone number and it's always hard to remember to include everyone. And nothing breeds resentment for your coworkers like eating fish for lunch at your desk in a shared office. This I know from experience. Meeting people and building relationships in a neutral space is, in my experience, extremely important for fostering professional relationships and developing collaborations. When academic buildings have been designed in the past, it seems the architects have agreed. The building I work in at the Australian National University (ANU), the Banks Building, has a large indoor meeting/tea room and an even larger outdoor courtyard. The courtyard in particular has been a major contributor to both my job satisfaction and community-development within the Evolution, Ecology & Genetics department at ANU.

The courtyard in the Banks Building at ANU as seen from Google Earth (left) and the second floor balcony (right).


The primary reason the courtyard is such a large part of what makes me happy at ANU is not just because it is pretty (though it is). It's because this is the place to go for lunch and get a little vitamin D. I've met countless people from the department I wouldn't have otherwise met because they were looking for somewhere to eat their lunch and came to eat it outside with us in the courtyard. It's also the place were we have barbecues once in a while. Barbecues are also excellent ways to celebrate milestones like thesis submissions, retirements, and Fridays. Having an eating area that's welcoming and large enough for everyone does wonders to foster these positive feelings towards our academic community at the ANU. This sense of community helps us all get along and also to do better science through collaboration and team work. THIS is how you get to know people and their science. Not with building a tunnel between two buildings, not with open-plan offices or labs. I've been to many working environments that have tiny, gross, entirely unwelcoming common areas that are completely unsuitable for meeting people. These places are also often filled with people who complain about feeling isolated and alone at work (in my experience, at least). 

Our courtyard in the Banks Building at ANU is a great place for meeting people and fostering community and collaboration. Here we are celebrating... something... (possibly a thesis submission*) on the left and in the middle, and meeting in the morning sunshine on the right. Photos kindly provided by Cat Young (who's soon getting married to the guy in the picture on the right, which I cannot, even though I would love to, credit to meeting in the courtyard).


The courtyard is a particularly wonderful common space because the trees and pond within encourage the presence of wildlife. Several of the wild animals mentioned in this post about wildlife on campus have been seen in the courtyard. Particularly, the large Banksia tree in the courtyard has been home to both ringtail and brushtail possums, and its flowers and seeds attract a wide variety of animals including flying foxes, honeyeaters, and at least five species of parrot (including my favourite, gang-gangs). For about a year a pair of ringtail possums decided a notch in the Banksia tree was an ideal bed, and we'd check every day to see if Yoda and Yodette were around. Word quickly spread amongst us if they were. Later, a possum nesting box was affixed to the tree and ever since we've had a rotation of brushtail possums using it, including one memorable female with her baby. The more confident possums will even come out of the nesting box at lunch time to try and steal a midday snack.

Brushtail possums have been occupying the courtyard since a possum nesting box was installed. Photos by Cat Young.


In addition to the wild animals that wander through, our courtyard is home to some departmental "pets". They are mostly unwanted pets that we've accumulated over the years. These are species that live in the local Canberra area, and are therefore perfectly happy to live in the courtyard year-round. Though we greatly enjoy having them around, they seem to be even more appreciated by visiting scholars, especially those from overseas, for whom they provide a way to see some local wildlife while having meetings about science. This is advantageous because scientists are busy people and often only visit for one or two days, not long enough to squeeze in some wildlife viewing on top of all the meetings. In our courtyard we have quite a few native animals wandering around which often crawl over their feet while in the midst of technical discussion. The slight loss of productivity and focus is mitigated by the increase in joy. 

The most charismatic "pets" living in the courtyard are the Gippsland water dragons. There were eight dragons in the courtyard last time I counted, seven of them male. Each male has their own territory, but they all want the same territory: the one which contains the picnic tables at which we eat lunch. Whichever dragon holds this territory gets a free lunch almost every day. The free lunch also attracts the courtyard's only female dragon, allowing the territory's male exclusive access to her. For years this territory was held by Stumpy, the oldest male dragon, who bore the scars he got keeping his prize territory. However, last year Stumpy got too old and fell from grace: there was huge upheaval amongst the courtyard dragons (this is starting to sound like Game of Thrones) and a new, young upstart beat Stumpy in battle and took the female and free lunches for himself.

Stumpy the old dragon king on the left and his young usurper on the right. Photos again kindly provided by Cat Young.


The dragons aren't the only ones we share our lunches with. If a brushtail possum is around it often gets some (see photo above right), and the courtyard's resident bluetongue skink also partakes. Possums and dragons are quick and agile enough to steal food when we aren't looking - the dragons have even been known to climb unsuspecting legs to grab a meal - but the bluetongue is neither quick nor agile and has to wait for handouts. Of course we are quite fond of all the animals and generally handouts are provided all around.

We often share our lunches with the courtyard "pets", including the dragons (left and centre) and the bluetongue skink (right). Left and centre photos provided by Rose O'Dea, right by Cat Young.


In the courtyard's centre is a large pond which provides habitat for its more aquatic residents. Two species of turtle reside in the courtyard pond: eastern long-neck turtles and Murray River short-neck turtles. The turtles are a great weather-prediction system: if they're out of the water and wandering around, it's likely to rain that day. They're also rather joyful: they constantly look like they're smiling at you. The turtles, like the lizards, are used to being fed by people, and as a result are rather friendly. If you approach the pond they'll often come to greet you to see if you have any yummy liver treats for them (they're fed raw cow liver). 

Smiling Murray River short-neck (left) and eastern long-neck (right) turtles inhabit the courtyard pond. Right photo once again kindly provided by Cat Young.


One courtyard resident has attained mythical status in our department: Gerry-lee, the courtyard eel. Many believed he did not exist. There were very few sightings of him after he was introduced to the courtyard in 2012, and most thought he was either someone's joke or had died. Those who claimed to have seen Gerry-lee could not provide proof. I myself had seen him only a handful of times, and had never been successful in photographing him. So most remained disbelievers up until earlier this year when our department's resident freshwater fish expert managed to take three pictures of Gerry-lee, proving his existence once and for all.

Gerry-lee the courtyard eel, who we are all now sure exists. Photos kindly provided by the only person I'm aware of to have successfully photographed Gerry-lee, Dr. Dan Starrs.


The ANU is not the only university to see the benefit in providing welcoming common areas, particularly courtyards. When I visited the University of Papua New Guinea last year I discovered their biology building also has a large courtyard. Being in a tropical country, their courtyard contained a spectacular mini-rainforest, complete with fawn-breasted bowerbirds and a bower! I've seen satin bowerbirds in the courtyard at ANU on a few occasions, but having a resident male with a bower would be spectacular. I also recently visited the University of British Columbia and discovered their biology department has a courtyard, and than they are committed to keeping it through upcoming renovations. Although the University of British Columbia is located on a sadly bowerbird-free continent, I did find out that their courtyard is visited regularly by the spectacular Anna's hummingbird. 

Courtyards are found in the biology buildings at the University of Papua New Guinea (left) and the University of British Columbia (right).


I strongly feel that attractive, open common areas, such as courtyards, are essential to fostering and maintaining a collaborative, productive, efficient and happy academic atmosphere. And all these things are essential contributors to my overwhelmingly positive experience working at the Australian National University.


On-campus wildlife

As a wildlife lover, I'm lucky that the places I work are full of wildlife. Throughout my PhD I've been primarily based at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia. Canberra is known as Australia's "bush capital" because of the extensive natural areas that penetrate the urban environment here. As Canberra was a planned city, it was planned from the beginning to have large tracts of natural forest throughout the city, and so has largely avoided becoming the urban wasteland that has enveloped a lot of cities. I've also spent an extensive amount of time at Macquarie University (MQ) in Sydney. Sydney is older, larger, more densely populated and more ramshackle than Canberra, but still has managed to maintain an impressive amount of green space for a city of its size. Both MQ and ANU have benefitted from these efforts to maintain urban green spaces as they are both directly connected to extensive natural areas. 

The ANU butts up against the Australian National Botanic Gardens and Black Mountain Nature Park, a large area of dry sclerophyll forest. MQ is adjacent to Lane Cove National Park, a long, narrow national park running through northern Sydney that protects the banks of Lane Cove River and consists mostly of wet eucalypt forest.

In addition, both universities are making concerted efforts to be eco-friendly and both have characteristics that help attract wildlife: streams running through them, including wetland habitat,patches of forest, and artificial habitat-enhancers, such as nesting boxes for possums. Both ANU and MQ take great pride in promoting the native wildlife that can be found on campus. MQ has posted on its website a list of wildlife known to live on or visit the campus. ANU, to my knowledge, does not have such a list on its website, but did post this article about the wildlife that can be found there. I e-mailed the author of that article and she courteously sent me a list of the animals known to live on or visit ANU. The lists aren't compiled in the same way. The ANU list is based off of systematic surveys of the ANU campus and surrounding area done by a campus group called ANUgreen. ANUgreen uses consistent and repeatable survey techniques - different kinds for each vertebrate group - and conducts surveys regularly. The MQ list, on the other hand, seems to be more haphazardly put together, the result of asking enthusiastic wildlife observers on campus what they've seen. However, MQ is apparently in the process of designing more rigorous survey methods similar to those in place at ANU.

 Since ANU and MQ are quite close to each other, by Australian geographical standards anyway, the lists have a lot of the same species. And since I've spent a lot of time on both campuses and like to watch wildlife, I wanted to see how my own observations at ANU and MQ stack up against the "official" lists.


These echidna (L) and eastern grey kangaroo (R) pictures are from the ANU Instagram page, which posts many great pictures of wildlife on campus.

ANU's mammal list is short but it's got some cool stuff in it. The macropods, the eastern grey kangaroo and swamp wallaby, are both common just over the road on Black Mountain. Neither lives on the ANU campus, but both make regular visits. I've never come across swamp wallabies on campus, but I've seen quite a few across the road at the botanic gardens. I've seen a few eastern grey kangaroos on campus, though, including one standing patiently at a campus bus station. Echidnas also don't live on campus but are common on Black Mountain and make regular campus visits. In fact, I can't think of a place on mainland Australia where wild echidnas are more common than Black Mountain. If visitors at ANU mention that they want to see an echidna, Black Mountain is where we send them. Sometimes it takes a few morning hikes, but it seems everyone comes across one eventually.

Adorable ringtail (L) and brushtail (R) possums live on ANU campus. ANU encourages them by provided artificial nesting boxes (R).

As opposed to macropods and monotremes, common ringtail possums and common brushtail possums are resident on campus. In fact, they are so common here that when a research group needs some subjects for their possum-diet-preference studies, they don't need to go off campus to get the number of animals necessary for their experiments. After the experiment is over, the possums are released back into their on-campus territories. Artificial possum boxes around campus provide convenient daytime resting spots, and whenever it's dark by the time I head home (which is, depressingly, almost all nights) I see at least one brushtail possum along the way. Ringtail possums are not as easy to see as brushtails, but are still common. We had a pair of ringtails take up residence in a banksia tree beside the biology building and while they were living there we saw them almost every day. Unfortunately for us they seem to have moved on.

The same banksia that hosted our pair of ringtail possums also attracts grey-headed flying-foxes when it's flowering. There's a balcony at the height of the banksia's canopy from which you can get really good eye-level looks at the adorable flying-foxes as they feed on banksia nectar. White-striped mastiff bats are on the list likely because their echolocation call is audible to the naked human ear, making them much easier to identify than other species of insectivorous bat. There's almost certainly a wider diversity of bats at ANU than is currently represented by this list, we just need to get someone in to do a proper bat-detection survey.

Some animals on the list I find suspicious. There are no wombat populations close-by and one would have to wander quite far, and survive several perilous road crossings, to get here. I've also heard that the wombat records for ANU are the result of incidental reports, not evidence having been detected during an official survey by trained individuals. Seeing as their burrows and scats are rather distinctive, if there were wombats living in or around ANU I would think they'd be pretty readily detected. But I could be wrong. I also thought the platypus seemed suspicious, but I'm inclined to believe the Australian Platypus Conservancy and not only because I like the idea of my home university holding the title of the only university in the world that's home to platypus.

European rabbits (L) and domestic cats (R) are unfortunately common across Australia, including on university campuses. The rabbit picture comes from MQ's Instagram page, while the cat picture (the only picture I have of a feral cat in Australia) was taken by Angus Kennedy in 2011 during fieldwork in South Australia.

ANU is unfortunately home to invasive mammals as well as the wonderful native ones. We have European rabbits here in plague proportions, as well as the much-maligned invasive predators, cats and foxes. I'm surprised cats are on the ANU's list but foxes are not because I see more foxes on campus than cats. I'm also surprised at the absence of black rats (Rattus rattus) on ANU's list. Though I've never personally seen one, I have seen evidence of them - in the form of their droppings - including in my office! 

MQ doesn't yet have a mammal list. The only wild mammals I've seen at MQ are grey-headed flying foxes, though I did see a road-killed common ringtail possum just across the street from MQ and I've heard reliable reports of black rats on their campus, too!


These bird lists are long! Bird lists are always long. ANU's list is 90 birds long while MQ's is 60. Bird lists for any area are almost always longer than mammal and herp lists for several reasons. Birds are often genuinely the most diverse vertebrate group, especially in human-disturbed environments to which birds, in general, are better at adapting than mammals or herps. Furthermore, birds are easier to detect than mammals and reptiles, and often a single survey technique is sufficient to detect the vast majority of bird species, if they are present. In contrast, several different survey techniques are necessary to get at the full range of mammals and herps. In ANU's case, their survey methods for mammals and reptiles are limited and unlikely to detect the full diversity of species present, while their bird and frog surveys are more thorough.

Despite the length of the lists, ANU's and MQ's bird diversities are definitely underestimated. On their website, MQ has two bird lists: one of birds seen regularly on campus, and a second list for old records or unusual vagrants that were probably lost individuals. Since MQ's list is based on the observations of local bird enthusiasts, the number of unusual bird records is likely to be very high because bird enthusiasts tend to go out of their way to find unusual birds. I'm deliberately ignoring MQ's rare bird list to make their list more comparable to ANU's bird list, which is based on annual systematic surveys at a set of standardised locations. Therefore, ANU's list is more likely to represent accurately the common birds of the ANU campus and underrepresent the vagrants and unusual cases. 

ANU's campus is home to some spectacular parrots, such as gang-gang cockatoos (L) and crimson rosellas (R).

Both lists show that the campuses are rich in certain groups of birds, mostly parrots, water birds and bush birds, and surprisingly lacking in other bird groups, namely birds of prey and grassland birds. Australia is known as the land of the parrots, and they are very conspicuous on both campuses. The common large cockatoos of eastern Australia, galahs, sulfur-crested cockatoos, and little corellas, are present in large numbers on both campuses (corellas somewhat less so than the other two). In addition, both campuses are lucky to have two of the most spectacular common birds I've ever seen: crimson rosellas and king parrots. Both species are more common at ANU (I've seen over 20 king parrots and 10 crimson rosellas at ANU today and it's barely past lunch time) but they're present on both campuses. In addition to these common species, some additional parrot species are around in smaller numbers: eastern rosellas, musk & rainbow lorikeets (at MQ only), red-rumped parrots (ANU only), gang-gang cockatoos (ANU only) and yellow-tailed black-cockatoos. By far my favourite parrot is the gang-gang cockatoo, it's a real charmer among birds. ANU campus has quite a few resident gang-gangs and I frequently hear their distinctive "creaky door" call while working at my desk. The tree outside my office window has allowed me to watch most of these parrots species, including gang-gangs, feed while I work (which, I must admit, has a negative impact on my productivity). We are very lucky to live and work in a country with such an amazing diversity, and amazing abundance, of charismatic parrots.

Wetlands at both universities provide habitat for numerous water-associated species like wood ducks (L). The wetlands area at MQ (R) is big but has a "lawn problem". Left photo provided by Cat Young.

Both ANU and MQ have creeks running through them: Sullivan's Creek at ANU and Kikkiya & Mars Creeks at MQ. Unfortunately, all three creeks are subject to hard banking along a significant portion of their length. Hard banking prevents natural habitats from existing along the banks of the creeks and therefore creates a relative wasteland for waterbirds. Fortunately, both Mars Creek at MQ and Sullivan's Creek at ANU have areas without hard banking where wetlands have been established (either naturally or actively by the universities, I'm not sure). In these areas a great diversity and abundance of waterbirds can be found. The most common waterbird on both campuses is the australasian coot, as it is on just about every waterway I've visited in Australia. However, the most commonly seen waterbird on both campuses is probably the wood duck, less because wood ducks are particularly common (they are not) but more because they spend little time in and around the water and more time grazing on grassy lawns where they're more likely to be noticed around campus. Wood ducks are something of an icon on campus and every year I enjoy watching new ducklings appear in the spring and grow up as the seasons progress. Turns out the official ANU and MQ Instagram page-managers also enjoy this, as both pages post more wood duck pictures than any other animal. There's even a Facebook page devoted to the wood ducks of ANU! A wide variety of other duck species, as well as black swans (ANU only), australasian darters (ANU only), a variety of cormorants, dusky moorhens and purple swamphens are also seen around campus. White ibis, famous in Sydney for eating trash, are common at MQ but absent from ANU. Strangely, white-faced heron, a bird common at ANU, is not on their official list. 

Laughing kookaburras (L) are very tame at MQ and will steal your lunch if you're not careful. MQ also has a good patch of forest (R) but it's mostly off-limits to birdwatchers.

Bush birds, or birds that live in wooded areas, are also quite well represented. Both campuses have lots of large trees, including some small patches of forest, and are well-connected to larger forest patches, so it perhaps isn't that surprising that there are a lot of bush birds around. Probably the most noticeable bush bird on both campuses is the noisy miner, that obnoxious honeyeater that dominates urban green spaces and chases off just about all the other birds. Despite the miners, both campuses also have a decent variety of other honeyeaters such as red wattlebirds, yellow-faced honeyeaters, and eastern spinebills. Superb fairy-wrens are common on both campuses, and I've even seen them wander into the biology building at ANU. I've only seen laughing kookaburras at MQ, where they'll steal fries off your plate when you're not looking, but I've also seen them just across the road from ANU at the botanic gardens. Grey butcherbirds are common at MQ, and they too will steal your food off your plate, while pied currawongs are much more common at ANU. ANU in general has a more extensive bush bird list. I suspect this may have to do with the best area of forest left at MQ being a little off the beaten path and mostly protected from bird watchers by fencing, preventing the true diversity of bush birds at MQ from being recorded.

This pacific baza seen at MQ is so adorable I just had to post two pictures of it. It kept its eye on me!

Both lists are lacking in birds of prey, which is somewhat surprising. Wedge-tailed eagles are common in Canberra and white-bellied sea-eagles are common in Sydney. Surely they should be seen soaring above ANU and MQ respectively every once in a while? To be fair, MQ has several birds of prey on its rare birds list, but I'm still surprised they aren't more regularly seen. One bird of prey that is regularly seen at MQ is the pacific baza. MQ is where I saw my first ever pacific baza and it continues to turn up regularly in the same spot. I think it might live in MQ's fenced-off forest area, or in Lane Cove National Park. ANU's raptor list is only three species: peregrine falcon, Australian hobby and grey goshawk. There is a resident pair of peregrine falcons in downtown Canberra and I've seen them hunting on ANU campus before, so that doesn't surprise me. Australian hobbies are around, but they aren't common, so it's reasonable that they're on the list but surprising that they aren't accompanied by more common raptor species. Grey goshawk is a real oddity, though. They are in Canberra, but they're very rare here. I've never seen one anywhere in Canberra, nor have I ever met anyone who claims to have seen one in Canberra. That it would have been seen on ANU campus while more common Canberra raptors such as brown goshawk, collared sparrowhawk, black-shouldered kite, whistling kite, swamp harrier, and brown falcon have yet to be seen is a huge coincidence. It's even more surprising since grey goshawk is much more common in Sydney, and I've seen them in Lane Cove National Park, spitting distance from MQ (whose list they're not on). I have a sneaky suspicion whoever wrote the list meant brown goshawk. I have to admit, though, that I don't think I've ever seen a raptor on ANU campus, though I've seen collared sparrowhawk just over the road in the botanic gardens carpark.

Both lists are also lacking in nocturnal birds and grassland birds, but that is less surprising. Nocturnal birds are not usually detected using normal bird survey methods. Barn owls are common in Canberra, and I saw one once outside my window while I was working late at ANU, but that's the extent of my nocturnal bird observations on campus. The lack of grassland birds might be initially surprising, seeing as both campuses have large grassy areas, but these areas are heavily managed, including keeping the grass really short. This prevents the establishment of the sort of wild grassland habitat the birds need (I call this the "lawn problem"). MQ's rare bird list indicates that several grassland bird species, such as king quail and both species of songlark, used to be present but no longer are. It's interesting that universities seem to see the benefit trees and wetlands have but still like to keep their grass uselessly short, even in areas where it's really unnecessary.

Herps (Reptiles and Amphibians)

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Eastern brown snakes live on ANU's campus. A young one passed by the biology building last year (L) and another individual was seen around the maths department (R). The right photo was provided by Kate Umbers.

MQ's reptile list is over twice as long as ANU's. I think this is a problem of search effort rather than a real difference, although Sydney does have a wider diversity of reptiles compared to Canberra. ANU's list is based on one two-hour search period in some "likely habitat" whereas MQ's list is from an experienced herpetologist's observations over four years. I suspect the ANU surveyor's "likely habitat" choices did not included habitat likely to hold snake-necked turtles or fence skinks (though the latter are rare in Canberra and unlikely on ANU's campus). A more sustained effort at ANU would certainly turn up additional species, and I know this because there are several reptile species resident on campus that are not included on the list! This includes the eastern brown snake, which I saw when a young one happened to accidentally stumble into the biology building last year. I also know of several other reliable sightings of brown snakes on campus, including a large individual that used to live in the old wallaby paddocks (back when we had wallabies) and another one that seems to live somewhere over by the maths cottages. 

These two little brown skinks were found on ANU's campus. Can you tell the difference between a garden skink (L) and a three-toed earless skink (R)?

Australia has a little brown skink problem. There are way more skink species in Australia than there are all other lizard species combined. The current count of skink species in Australia stands at about 450 (new species are constantly being discovered) whereas there are less than 300 species of lizard in Australia which aren't skinks. Not only are skinks the most diverse lizard group in Australia, they are also the most abundant and most conspicuous. So, like everywhere in Australia, but especially in urban environments, the reptile lists for both ANU and MQ are dominated by skinks. The vast majority of skink species - and therefore the vast majority of lizard species - in Australia are small and brown. Like the little brown bird problem amongst bird watchers, this divides wildlife enthusiasts into two groups: those that throw their hands up in frustration and say they all look alike, and those that look closer to try and find the minute differences in appearance that separate the different species of skink. I belong to the latter category. ANU is home to three species of skink (that we know of), two of which are little and brown: the garden and three-toed earless skinks. However, the common blue-tongued skink is a spectacular large-bodied beast of a skink with a bright blue tongue. I came across a baby blue-tongued skink in the vegetable garden of one of ANU's student residences a couple years back. It was the most adorable baby lizard, but tragically I didn't have my camera with me at the time. The blue-tongue skink is another ANU resident that is not on ANU's official list.

MQ has a few more skink species on its list than ANU. The most common species is still the garden skink. I was working in the basement of the biology building at MQ during baby-garden-skink-hatching season, and I kept finding tiny baby skinks on the floor of the basement hallway which I would gently scoop up and move outside. They were so small they could sit comfortably on my thumbnail! I'm guessing that garden skinks lay their eggs in cracks in the old building. When the babies hatch they manage to make it through the cracks into the building, fall to the floor and are trapped.They may also be able to get in if there's a poorly-sealed ground-level window, which basements often have. Eastern water skinks are also abundant at MQ, so abundant that they are collected from campus to use in behavioural experiments at MQ in a similar way to the possums at ANU, and then released once the experiments are complete.

Water dragons are common at both MQ and ANU. MQ has the eastern subspecies (L) while ANU has the Gippsland subspecies (R).

Wetlands are excellent places to spot herps as well as birds. MQ has at least three species of reptile living around its waterways: the aforementioned eastern water skinks, eastern water dragons, and snake-necked turtles. ANU also has water dragons, but they are the more southern Gippsland subspecies and look substantially different from the eastern water dragons in Sydney. ANU also has two species of turtle: snake-necked and Murray River turtles, even though they're not on ANU's list. Murray River turtles are a relatively new addition to the fauna of Canberra, the first record of one being from 1997. It's unknown whether the population is the result of migration or the release of unwanted pets, but they are now established in Lake Burley Griffin, which is where Sullivan's Creek terminates. Murray River turtles are also breeding in Canberra, including one individual found laying eggs on ANU's campus! Long-necked turtles have always been native to the area and are also found in Sullivan's Creek.

This five-legged spotted marsh frog (L) was found on ANU campus by a staff member and brought into the Biology Department to make sure it was okay. This Murray River turtle (R) was found in the act of laying her eggs on ANU campus. The right photo is from the ANU Instagram page.

I'm ashamed to say I've never seen a single frog in the wild on either ANU's or MQ's campus. Frogs in Australia are rather secretive, and the best way to find them is by sound, not by sight. ANUgreen does some excellent and thorough frog surveys in collaboration with ACT FrogWatch and has detected seven species of frog on campus, the most diversity of frogs for any location in the city of Canberra! The only frog I've ever seen from ANU campus was a five-legged spotted marsh frog that someone brought in for us frog-geeks to check out. After taking some pictures, we gave it back to the person who brought it in so they could release it back where they found it. MQ's frog list is significantly smaller than ANU's, and this may be because MQ does not, as far as I can tell, conduct systematic frog call surveys on campus. An excellent frogger I know says there's at least one additional species of frog at MQ, the leaf-green tree frog (Litoria phyllochroa). For my part, I've heard frogs on both campuses. I've just never seen one.