As an avid mountain biker, I will honestly admit that I used to ride through what I now know are ‘unofficial’ and illegally formed tracks through various parts of Canberra Nature Park, primarily in and around my own local area within Mount Majura. And if you had’ve called me on it, I would have most likely assumed that you had nothing better to do or perhaps needed to ‘get a life’. What harm could my trusty Cannondale possibly do to a dry, dusty old trail through some relatively boring scrub?
I was happy in my comfy little place of complete ignorance.
On this one particular crisp September day, I had briefly dismounted to take a rest, laying my bike down on the surrounding vegetation while I stomped around on foot. I noticed something unusual and yellow shining vibrantly. Upon closer inspection, I had found a Leopard Doubletail Orchid (Diuris pardina) and thought to myself ‘wow, this might be one of those wild bush orchids’. After taking several photos with my iPhone camera, I almost stepped on an unquestionably perfect Wax Lip Orchid (Glossodia major) as I trudged back to my bike - my curiosity was stirred.
So I came back again the next day and found a few more Wax Lips and Leopards, but had no idea about what was about to take place. A transformation of the old, ignorant mountain biker me into the new, reformed, orchid-consumed me. I found myself standing right in the middle of a huge patch of the critically endangered Canberra Spider Orchid (Caladenia actensis). The beauty of the first plant I spotted was astonishing and it was quite a surreal moment. The more I looked around, the more tiny, stunning spider orchids I noticed all staring up at me, almost as if to say, ‘you almost rode over us, but we still love you!’.
That was the last day I rode my bike on an unofficial trail.
I counted up to 25 spider orchids in that colony and my ignorant perceptions of Canberra’s relatively boring outdoors were shattered. I suddenly felt so proud to live so close to something so beautiful that I never knew existed for all these years, something that I could come and visit any time even if it was to just stare in amazement again and again. The spider orchids had me so captivated that within a week I had purchased a fancy new camera and would return to the spot regularly to monitor their development. I contacted the Friends of Mount Majura park care group for advice as they knew the local area best. I’m glad I did as FoMM Convenor Waltraud Pix seemed to be similarly excited about the species and was extremely generous with her time and the sharing of her deep knowledge of the area.
I’d heard about an upcoming ‘ACT Centenary Bio Blitz’ biological survey and decided I would attend as a way to try to learn more about my newly found interest. I joined a rare plant group led by Dr Michael Mulvaney of the ACT Government’s Conservation, Research and Planning division. Members of the group ranged from formally qualified botanists to ex-park rangers, as a software engineer I was well and truly out of my comfort zone. I learnt about the methods used for performing rare plant surveys, capturing GPS coordinates and noting the approximate abundance and species identification using unique keys. We located dense clusters of Large-Spotted Sun Orchids (Thelymitra juncifolia), Golden Pomaderris (Pomaderris intermedia) and a whole raft of other rare plant species.
This was great fun!
After the Bio Blitz, armed with some handy rare plant field guides supplied by Michael Mulvaney, I continued searching for rare plants, photographing my sightings and recording the GPS locations. I would email my sightings through to Dr Mulvaney for assistance with identification and so they had record of any significant sightings. Before long, I was spending more time inside excel spreadsheets and image editors than I was looking for actual plants. I had so many photos and GPS coordinates that I needed a better way of managing it all and getting the information through to the ACT Government.
In my spare time, I began to calve out a database schema to store the information so that it could be hosted securely online and easily accessed. Over the Christmas holidays, this tinkering evolved into the Canberra Nature Map. But I knew that an online database was very limited in what it could achieve without the right custodians and community to nurture and manage it. So it was crucial to get the right people on board to ensure the project was in good hands and had a healthy core. Michael Mulvaney and I discussed some ideas and approached a number of trusted individuals across the ACT to come together and act as moderators and local experts. People who are passionate about a particular place often become experts with the plants that can be found in that place. The model works by providing these local experts with elevated access privileges for their local area, which in turn helps others learn about the biodiversity in these areas. Species identifications are discussed and ideas are exchanged openly in an educational way. This validation process increases the accuracy of the digital records, which are then fed through to government.
In this sense, the project has been a very innovative way of showing how a private initiative can essentially partner with and work in unison with government. Government traditionally has a reputation of being slow to innovate, but I think the ACT Government have shown a lot of leadership by being open to the whole concept and taking an active role in shaping and guiding the project.
Earlier in 2013, before starting Canberra Nature Map, I remember reading David Nicholls' excellent resource "Ferns of the Canberra Region", particularly Fern Seeking - the amateur ecologist which really raised my interests and curiosity levels. David discusses the role of the amateur and I highly recommend you read the article if you are interested in discovering unusual and unique plants in and around our region. To quote David:
There is endless opportunity for the amateur to find new occurrences of fern species.
The process of walking the valleys and ridges, of noting the occurrences of plants, can provide valuable data for ecological surveys.
...it can build a strong bond between those who appreciate nature and those whose job it is to protect it.
Again, to echo David's inspirational words from "the role of the amateur", don't underestimate the exciting discoveries you can make by simply taking notes and exploring your local Nature Park in your own time. You are likely to find something that nobody else has yet stumbled across - and it's even more important to let government know you've found it.