Category: Blogs

Q&A with ACSA’s Patron…Dr Geoff Garrett AO

One of our Member’s recently mentioned that they’d like to know a little bit more about ACSA’s Patron Dr Geoff Garrett AO, and the work he is doing behind the scenes for ACSA. What follows here is an amusing, honest and engaging account of the years since citizen science first crossed Geoff’s radar (which was not as early as you might have expected for a Chief Scientist!) But perhaps that is just testament to the times that were. Not anymore! Read on to find out a little more about our Patron.

Geoff and his avid birdwatcher wife, Janet

ACSA: How did you get interested in Citizen Science? And why?

Geoff Garrett: To my considerable embarrassment, during my time as CSIRO’s Chief Executive and, thereafter, as Queensland’s Chief Scientist, citizen science hadn’t really crossed my radar.

I was probably not alone in this as, for example, up to that point I can’t recall any discussion on the topic with the other States’ Chief Scientists, who regularly got together under the leadership of Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel.

But then, late in 2016, towards the end of our time in Queensland, I got an interesting (and some might say pushy!) letter from a devoted citizen science evangelist, Libby Hepburn.

She wanted to meet. I didn’t at that stage know her from the proverbial bar of soap so (as one does, or did) I politely ducked her kind invitation saying I was finishing off, then going to be overseas for the first half of 2017 but “please feel free to contact me again when I’m back in Canberra”…. thinking (of course) that it would go away. It didn’t.

Early in July 2017 Libby got in touch again, too passionate on the topic for me to put off meeting with her. And at our first meeting the scales started falling from my eyes, around the scope, potential and importance of better involving – meaningfully – the broader community, young and old, in science, and scientific research.

My emerging enthusiasm was further ignited a couple of weeks later when Libby suggested I get in touch with Canberra-based Andrew Robinson of Questagame.

I had mentioned to Andrew our visiting UK brother-in-law, Ron Johns (for a decade Britain’s top ‘twitcher’), so birding was a prime topic. We had an awesome meeting and compelling roadshow through Questagame‘s objectives and activities.

Also around that time I had just joined the Board of the brilliant National Youth Science Forum, so enthusing young kids around science was also pretty much top of mind.

I was hooked.

And the rest just unfolded. ACSA was emerging as the organising vehicle here in Australia and I had some intriguing conversations with Erin Roger as Chairperson, especially around science leadership, politics, engaging key decision-makers and funding – stuff I’ve spent, happily(?), quite a lot of my career getting to grips with. I offered to help.

ACSA: So how, as Patron, have you been involved?

GG: First off, I was – and am – honoured, and indeed flattered, to have been invited by Erin and the Committee to take up this role.

Now – relationships are key…..

I still had some useful connections into, for example, the Office of the Commonwealth Chief Scientist, and we persuaded Alan to do a keynote address – which was great! – at ACSA’s February 2018 conference; into Department decision-makers around extending core funding; to my ‘old’ colleagues back in Queensland and the then Acting Chief Scientist, Dr Christine Williams and my former boss, the excellent Minister Leeanne Enoch. These ladies both got as excited as I was and devoted time and resources to getting Citizen Science well and truly launched in Queensland through a formal Strategy piece and $500+k initial grant funding for Citizen Science projects. And so on.

And all a great pleasure to be able to assist.

ACSA: So why do you think Citizen Science is important?

Geoff sharing a science story with one of his granddaughters, Evie

GG: For any ACSA Newsletter reader looking for a motivational briefing on this question – for pals, colleagues, family or bosses – if you haven’t yet come across it, this link might be helpful…

From my side, in particular, there are a couple of key drivers here…

Firstly, on capacity…. involving enthusiastic lay people in research studies can drastically expand for researchers the volume and spread of valuable data collection. My previously-noted brother-in-law and engaging the birdwatching community at large is a great example.

Secondly, debunking elitism and mystique…. which sometimes, unfortunately, scientists like to hide behind: “this is all very hard, and complicated, and you need to be very clever (like me) with decades of training behind you (also like me), to be able to contribute.”

Citizen science projects open up how science actually works, and exposing scientists to the broader community as real people, nice people, helpful people doing important work for the benefit of all of us, is very beneficial.

Thirdly, promoting collaboration… which we are still struggling with here in Australia, sadly.

I’m fond of quoting that “all business is people business” and that “communication excellence is the baton of leadership” (and that’s maybe twice as much listening as talking – the two ears/one mouth story!) Key skills essential for the broader ‘professional’ scientific corps, to hone and improve. Learning through doing.

ACSA: And finally, what would be your vision for citizen science in Australia in say 3 to 5 years time?


  1.  Track record. A burgeoning engagement of citizens in science projects – and results – of importance to communities, meaningfully influencing policy at local, State and Federal level.
  2. No Heads of Science Agencies or Chief Scientists (mea culpa again!) – nor indeed any Ministers of Science – that don’t have citizen science on their priority action list. With funding.
  3. The secret of success. Word-of-mouth spreading like wildfire with both professional scientists and community groups.


Thank you Geoff!

Member Spotlight: Monique Van Sluys

Name: Monique Van Sluys

Role: Wildlife Conservation Officer

Organisation: Taronga Conservation Society Australia

How long have you been a member of ACSA?: Since November 2017

Why did you join ACSA?: I have been involved with ACSA since the early discussions to create a citizen science network back in 2013-14. To join ACSA as a founding member was an easy and natural decision. I believe that the wide community should be involved with science for a better understanding of what it takes to create knowledge.

What do you love about citizen science?: I do appreciate the opportunities citizen science creates for the wider community to engage with different aspects of science, to foster public participation and curiosity regarding the scientific process. It is inspiring for individuals to make a difference and contribute to the broader science community through sharing knowledge and collaborating data.

What is the most awesome citizen science project you have been involved in and why?: I haven’t been extensively involved with citizen science projects. The first project I had been involved with was to identify galaxies for a NASA project – very cool! They all looked a blur to me at the start!

Member Spotlight: Scott Bell

A bit about me: I’m Scott Bell, a fifth generation Tasmanian, married, and retired from General Practice at the end of 2006. I was fortunate to be able to purchase 640 acres of varied bushland, close to the coast in North Eastern Tasmania, in 2007. I’ve protected it with a covenant, apart from 2%, which is set aside for a building envelope.

Scott with the lighthouse at Tasman Island, where he does voluntary work with the “Friends of Tasman Island”

Role: Retiree, home builder, citizen scientist, volunteer, community member

How long have you been an ACSA member?: I just joined last month

Why did you join ACSA?: To share ideas with other citizen scientists, to help me achieve my citizen science project goals

How have you used citizen science on your property?: Initially, I invited some local Wildlife Carers to use the site for the release of rehabilitated animals. An early approach to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Project resulted in the construction of a 50 acre biosecure enclosure, for breeding disease free devils. And a number of other groups are regularly involved in activities on the site – Field Naturalists, other Conservation Landowners, a local school group, and occasionally a Threatened Species group. And of course, family and friends participate.

What is the most awesome citizen science project you have been involved in and why? In 2018, I was involved in a state wide citizen science project, undertaking a census of wedge tailed eagles. I’d previously been monitoring fauna, in a slap dash fashion, periodically trapping, or trail camera photographing. I’ve since tried to be more diligent, recording dates and sites where trappings occur. There is still a way to go, in terms of developing more rigorous systems. Perhaps by sharing ideas with other citizen scientists, I’ll be able to achieve this goal. And also finishing the house building project will free up some extra time……


If you would like to share your citizen science story, or would to nominate a fellow ACSA member to be featured in our monthly member spotlight, please let us know!

How Cooloola Coastcare hatched Cooloola TurtleCare with a seed grant from the Australian Citizen Science Association

By Lindy Orwin, Cooloola Coastcare

Worldwide, marine turtles are at risk. But on the Cooloola Coast in the Gympie region of Queensland, where several endangered, vulnerable and threatened species (including the green, loggerhead, hawksbill and flatback turtles) live, there are some extra challenges. This is an area of dynamic sand movement and many 4WD tourist vehicles use the beach daily, especially during school holidays, because the beach is a gazetted ‘road’. Young hatchlings whose nests survive the king tides and storm surge of the crazy Queensland storms, have to run the gauntlet to survive.

The Cooloola Coast turtle breeding beaches urgently need monitoring and the community needs education about marine turtle behaviour if the turtles trying to nest in this area are to be successful. These beaches and those to the south are vitally important because sand temperature determines the gender of the hatchlings. Only beaches south of Bundeberg are cool enough to result in male turtles, to balance the feminisation of turtles north of this location.

In 2017, one nest was laid right next to the Lifesaver’s Tower on the main swimming beach. It was sadly lost during the first night to the ravages of a large high tide. Luckily for Cooloola turtles, a very experienced turtle carer with extensive experience around the world in turtle rescues, relocating turtle nests and tagging turtles, Joan Burnett, moved into our area. Now her work has been fast tracked thanks to an ACSA Seed Grant!

(Left) Joan Burnett, Turtle Citizen Scientist and (Right) Treasurer and Turtle Volunteer, Nancy Haire, prepare materials for turtle education events.

Cooloola Coastcare has been able to rally a merry band of volunteers together and start an education program for the community. In the last few weeks, members of the public have reported stranded and sick turtles and our team has been able to help out in the rescues and collect data about several turtles. With the help of the ACSA Seed Grant, the TurtleCare Program is well underway and plans are being ‘hatched’ for more Cooloola volunteers to be trained at the Mon Repos Turtle Research Centre in the 2019-20 turtle season. We’re changing the survival rate of marine turtles one turtle at a time. In July and August, we’ve been involved in rescuing a turtle from a crab pot, assisting a turtle found floating on the surface and collecting data about deceased turtles.

Turtle education will also be a feature of the upcoming National Science Week STEAMzone Festival in Gympie with Joan’s newest educational resource…a realistic model of a hatching turtle nest complete with the moonrise over the sea.

Our newest educational resource…a realistic model of a hatching turtle nest complete with the moonrise over the sea

While there are many tourist photos of marine turtles in the Cooloola Coast area taken by campers, kayakers, fishermen and divers, there is little scientific data about the numbers of marine turtles trying to lay their eggs on Rainbow Beach.  Data collected about turtles stranded and rescued by the Citizen Scientists is adding to the knowledge base.

A partnership has been established with the Sunshine Coast TurtleCarers for shared training and collaboration. Cooloola TurtleCare will promote broad and meaningful participation in citizen science by our TurtleCare volunteers, local residents and tourist visitors.

Dr Lindy Orwin, Coordinator, Cooloola Coastcare and turtle volunteer, Murray, look for any remaining eggs in a nest site exposed during Cyclone Oma

Member Spotlight: Tess Hayes

Name: Tess Hayes

Role: Masters student; Vice Chair – ACSA Victoria; formally Citizen Science Officer, EPA Victoria Citizen Science Program

How long have you been an ACSA member?: Since December 2017

Why did you join ACSA?: I have always been extremely grateful for the community that exists among citizen science practitioners. There is a willingness to collaborate, to share ideas and come together with a solution focus to unpack common challenges that confront citizen science projects. I joined ACSA in late 2017 in order to attend the upcoming conference. After being involved for a while in an informal citizen science group in Victoria, it seemed a logical next step in widening my citizen science circle.

What do you love about citizen science?: The thing I love most about citizen science projects are the connections you can make and the strength and relevance able to be achieved through citizen science partnerships. I’m most interested in projects where knowledge partnerships are created. Working in the role of citizen science practitioner, you either broker, transfer or communicate knowledge between science/scientists and citizens. It’s changing the way we do science and I think that’s exciting and beneficial for the future of science.

What is the most awesome citizen science project you have been involved in and why? The best citizen science project I have been involved in was during my role at EPA Victoria. I led a water quality-monitoring project; Caring for Waterhole Creek. The project fostered a partnership between the community, local catchment management authority and EPA. These partners where brought together by a common interest in ensuring the health and protection of Waterhole Creek waterway. The project involved water monitoring by both citizens and EPA for different parameters, combining both data sets enabled understanding of water quality to ensure ecosystem function was maintained and contributed to the atheistic of the area. The project was a real meeting in the middle, where both citizens and scientists learnt from each other, shared their different and common knowledge and experiences to make a fit-for-purpose project.

Tess conducting water quality testing for the Caring for Waterhole Creek project

If you would like to share your citizen science story, or would to nominate a fellow ACSA member to be featured in our monthly member spotlight, please let us know!

Engaging and Retaining those elusive volunteers…

By Jodi Salmond, Reef Check Australia

Volunteer engagement and retention have long been an issue for the not for profit sector.  Organisations reliant on unpaid workers have substantial investments in time, training, and financial input, as well as an ongoing mentoring/upskilling programs to ensure volunteers feel both valued and supported, in addition to having the right skills to conduct the tasks required of them.  Despite this, some volunteers still cancel last minute, or cease to show up at all- leaving organisers stretched, frustrated, and unable to meet funding milestones.

We all invest a lot in all our volunteers.  I believe that overall, we are great at supporting them; we train them, we guide them, we answer their questions, we thank them for, validate their efforts and make sure everyone feels comfortable in their sparkly new roles.  And yet the turnover rate is still high.  Personally (and professionally) I continue to be interested in how we can all find and recruit dedicated, accountable, reliable volunteers for the long game.

Following my successful application for an ACSA Seed Grant, I chose to look at several different life coaching programs and books to help me gain a better understanding as to how I might better manage my own thoughts, feelings and expectations around volunteerism, how to create accountability to ourselves and each other, how to ensure less burnout in an industry that is known for it, and how to create engaged, energised long term volunteers.

I signed up for several different courses, and admittedly, I didn’t complete them all.  Some required too much time, some just didn’t suit my learning style, and for some, the expectation of what needed to be achieved daily was not realistic for someone working (almost) full time.  I did however find a few programs that really stood out for me, giving me small pieces of gold that I have taken on board not only for myself, but that I have since passed along to my volunteers through different training programs over the past 9 months.  I have found these to be truly helpful for both myself and my volunteer engagement, and would recommend everyone give them a go! The biggest nuggets of gold I have learnt and want to share include:

  • According to recent research, a habit takes 66 days (not 21 as many people believe) to create.  This really pushes people to genuinely create habits.  The first 50 days were hard.  I personally found that I really enjoy the routine I have created for myself in getting ready for the day.
  • When required to do something that is not for yourself, it is easy to push it aside.  Volunteers have to feel ownership over a task to see it through.  Ensure this ownership is facilitated!
  • Do a personality profile on yourself, and learn to recognise the characteristics of your volunteers.  Understanding each other’s needs, learning, and communication styles etc INSTANTLY increases understanding for both parties, and creates an open space of compassion and empathy.
  • When the number of tasks is too high, or the size (perceived or real) of the task is too large, many peoples default is to feel overwhelmed and thus retreat.  It is vitally important to remember this one thing: ‘How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time’.  We need to change our default state to one of encompassing challenges rather than hiding from them.
  • The greatest thing we can do as leaders is to create more leaders; then let them fail forward.  Failure is key to success, so celebrate them!  Only through failing can you identify what doesn’t work.  If you are successful at everything you ever do, you are not pushing hard enough.
  • Self Care in paramount.  We all know this, yet it’s the first thing that disappears when time is at a premium.  Start your day focussed on YOU.  Take time to plan your day, meditate, journal and exercise.  THEN you can start the day feeling your absolute best because you spent time on you, your mindset and yourself.

I learnt a lot about myself during my search.  This has guided me on a path of continual self-development that I thoroughly believe has made me a better trainer, better leader and better overall human.  My volunteers seem active, engaged and eager to join in the wide array of activities we are a part of.  They understand there are boundaries to our relationship, and I no longer work all hours of every day, but purposely take time out to practice gratitude, to reset and re-energise.  I believe learning is the key to growth, and if we can all learn and grow together as an organisation, a team, a company, that we will all benefit and our volunteers will be around for a lot longer.

Quality training manuals thanks to ACSA grant

By Geeta Ortac, Bellingen Riverwatch

I still remember the excitement when I saw the email from ACSA announcing an opportunity for a small grant. The timing couldn’t be better! Bellingen Riverwatch was gaining momentum and we really needed support to print out some good quality copies of our volunteer training manual.

Bellingen Riverwatch is a water quality monitoring citizen science project supporting recovery actions for the critically endangered Bellingen River Snapping turtle (Myuchelys georgesi). These manuals were incredibly important as they served as an ongoing reference and training guide for our volunteers. The manuals aided data collection and ensured volunteer safety at sites. As the manuals were intended for frequent use (mostly in outdoor settings), it was recommended that they should be printed and bounded with good quality materials to withstand wear and stand. Long-term cost savings were a big consideration too. Better quality manuals meant lesser damage, hence lesser need for reprinting.

The training manuals have since been printed and distributed to our volunteers in May 2019. The funding supported production of 16 copies with six more to go. The final six copies will be placed in the water quality kits. I was informed by our Project Coordinator, Amy Denshire (from OzGreen), that the manuals received numerous positive feedback from the volunteers. I think the pictures say it all.


I want to thank ACSA for this wonderful funding opportunity. It definitely brought some great benefits to our Bellingen Riverwatch project. For more information about Bellingen Riverwatch, please visit this page.

Member Spotlight: John Busby

Name: John Busby

How long have you been an ACSA member?: Since November 2017

Why did you join ACSA?: I strongly believe that a scientifically informed and engaged community will enhance both the environment and society.

What do you love about citizen science?: The opportunities to engage with like-minded people, research scientists and government officials in projects that make a difference.

What is the most awesome citizen science project you have been involved in and why? My partner had developed an interest in orchids and enjoyed discovering these in our local nature parks, without any plans for taking her hobby further. In early 2014, we learned that a prescription burn was planned for our local nature park, in an area that is extremely rich in orchids, including some designated rare species. We wished to protect some of these from the burn, but the ACT Parks and Conservation Service (PCS) were unaware of these orchids, as no data was available to them at the time. With the help of the local ranger, we arranged to get these areas protected. We then realised we had an opportunity to do more and this has led in unexpected directions:

  • Following negotiations with ACT government ecologists, we agreed on a monitoring protocol and have conducted monthly recording of matching burned and unburned plots since September 2014.
  • Inspired by the ease-of-use and capability of NatureMapr, through Canberra Nature Map, my partner has now uploaded more than 1500 records of orchids and many other species.
  • I am organising data recorded by a group of orchid enthusiasts from December 2000, with over 550 records entered so far.
  • The records in Canberra Nature Map are increasingly used by ACT government officials for their planning and management, so it is much easier to make the case to protect sensitive areas from prescription burns.
  • Our little pilot project in our local patch inspired a much larger project involving some 50 citizen scientists in six nature parks over two years, focusing on the impact of prescription burning on orchid species.
  • My partner and I were invited to brief PCS fire-fighters on some of the biodiversity values in areas that were subject to prescription burning. Along with the ready availability of data from Canberra Nature Map, this has made it much easier to formally incorporate biodiversity protection into prescription burn planning.
John recording orchid data in his local nature park. Around 20 orchid species have been recorded nearby

It has been an interesting journey, building trust between government officials and citizen scientists. Canberra Nature Map has proved an invaluable resource as a data repository that everyone can contribute to and which can be used in a wide range of projects. Government scientists are using it more and more as the information becomes increasingly comprehensive.



If you would like to share your citizen science story, or would to nominate a fellow ACSA member to be featured in our monthly member spotlight, please let us know!

On the Wallaby

By Rob Pederick, ACSA member and grey nomad

Now the tent poles are rotting, the campfires are dead,
And the possums may gambol in trees overhead;
I am humping my bluey far out on the land,
And the prints of my bluchers sink deep in the sand:
I am out on the wallaby humping my drum,
And I came by the tracks where the sundowners come.

From ‘On the Wallaby’ by Henry Lawson.

G’day there, my name is Rob Pederick, but these days most people call me ‘Dusty’. I am a member of ACSA and an amateur entomologist. Most of my working life was spent on farms working with animals and I even had a go at zoo-keeping for a while. When I was a young bloke, many, many years ago, I spent a lot of time knocking around the bush and I have had a crack at most farm and bush jobs, although I am the world’s worst shearer. I am retired these days and like to refer to myself as a ‘Retired Gentleman’. For a few years now I’ve been travelling around the country with my old Hilux ute, towing my even older caravan and being a sort of ‘Grey Nomad’. I sometimes have my old yellow dog with me, but his arthritis is getting to him a bit these days, so I have to leave him at home. In these articles I will try to tell you some stories about those travels, some funny and some a bit sad.

When I am out and about, I like to find ‘free camps’ which are well away from civilisation. But doing this sometimes causes a few problems, like communications. All my gear is through one provider; I won’t mention any names here, but it has to do with a ‘little puddle’. And another thing is that I seem to spend a lot of my time, just living. Cutting firewood, cooking and all those other household chores that one has to deal with. I also spend a fair bit of time trying to identify all the species of fish in the local rivers (and find out which ones are edible), but I practise ‘responsible fishing’ because I don’t often catch many. Because I have been away so much lately, I haven’t become involved in many ACSA projects but, when I have some time (and communications) I like to do some digitising for DigiVol, and I am always on the lookout for interesting wildlife, which I try to photograph and send off as sightings to the Atlas of Living Australia. All that is more than enough to keep an old bloke pretty busy, but anyway, on with the yarns.

Now, on one occasion I was at a place called Cobbold Gorge, out in the middle of Queensland somewhere. A really nice spot on a big cattle station, with a great camp ground, a restaurant and bar, and even a swimming pool. It just so happened that this was the night of the ‘State of Origin’ thugby match and the restaurant had put on a ‘pie and chips’ night and everyone was crowded around the big TV in the dining room. At one point I decided to go outside for a breath of fresh air and to give the nicotine levels a bit of a boost; I’m not really that interested in thugby anyway.

I wandered out the front door and there, on the road, just outside the verandah was the biggest Brahman bull in Queensland. As I passed him I said ‘G’day mate’, very politely as you do when you are face to face with a big bull. I stood watching him while I had my smoke and I could almost see the thoughts going around in his tiny brain. ‘If he can go in there, so can I. I wonder if they have any chips left. I wonder what the score is, I hope Queensland wins’. By the time I went to go back inside, he had his front feet up on the verandah, so I said to him ‘I wouldn’t go in there if I were you mate, they mightn’t like it’.

But he ignored me and followed me inside. Well, he got as far as the bar, which was only a very narrow space and he couldn’t turn around in there. There was an awful lot of panic in the place, and a couple of the stockmen came and tried to get him out. But, have you ever tried to make a big bull walk backwards, even if he wanted to? It’s a bit like herding cats really. After a lot of pushing and shoving, and a fair bit of poking and prodding, they managed to get him outside and to take him away and lock him up so that he couldn’t return. I noticed on my way back to the van that he had broken out again and was calmly mowing, and fertilising, the lawns beside the swimming pool.

On another occasion I had been camped at Cobbold for a few days recuperation when I discovered that I was almost out of my medications. I had decided to move on anyway, and as I had to pass through Georgetown on my way, I thought I would pick them up there. I got to Georgetown and drove around, looking in vain for a pharmacy. I pulled up outside the general store, hoping to find something there. Outside the store I met up with the local constabulary, and I asked them where the pharmacy was. ‘There isn’t one,’ said cop one. ‘Where is the nearest then?’ I asked. ‘Normanton that way, or Ravenshoe that way,’ replied cop two. ‘But you can get them to bring them back on the bus,’ said cop one. This was on a Tuesday morning, and then cop two said, “the next bus isn’t till Fridee….but.’ It seems that everything in that part of the world happens on ‘Fridee.’ If you go into a store on a Monday and ask for a loaf of bread, they will tell you that they have sold out and the next truck doesn’t come till ‘Fridee….but.’

So, while I was having a coffee and smoke to calm my nerves a bit, I came up with plan 97B….but. Now, I had been planning to backtrack a bit here and head for the gemfields out the back of Mt Surprise to do a bit of fossicking for some topaz. So plan 97B was to head out to O’Brien’s Camp, set up and then head for Ravenshoe first thing the next morning. The road out to O’Brien’s was a bit rough here and there and there were cattle everywhere. You can tell a track is ‘a bit rough’ when there are termite mounds growing in the middle of the road, some of which are so big the cattle use them for scratching posts. But I made it to the camp without breaking anything.

I pulled up outside the gate and strolled over to the office. There didn’t seem to be anybody around but there were a few dusty old utes, all with their bonnets up. Next thing, there was the loud sound of compressed air and then a head appeared out from under one of the trucks. The head belonged to a little ‘older’ lady; she was dressed in shorts and T-shirt and boots that were nearly as big as she was, and she was covered from head to toe in dust. She was all of four feet, thirteen and a half inches tall. She explained that she had been cleaning all the air filters on the trucks.

I paid for a couple of nights and set up camp beside a rather strange looking tree which had fruit all over it. I thought it was strange because the birds hadn’t touched any of the fruit. I discovered that it was called a ‘quinine tree’ and the fruit was edible, but it was so astringent and bitter that even the birds wouldn’t eat it. I was up early the next morning and headed off on my 400km round trip to Ravenshoe, just to pick up a few pills. I was back by lunchtime and stopped for a quiet Carlton spa-water at the local hostelry, and that was another experience in itself. And I didn’t find any topaz; most of the area is taken up by mining licences, but the thoughtful council have set aside an area for fossickers and prospectors, but that had been so well dug up over the years that you could have planted a crop of wheat in it.

Now if you happen to be out and about in this beautiful big country of ours, at a community event or maybe even an ACSA conference, and you happen to see an old bloke called Dusty, make sure you come and say g’day. We can share a few yarns, and perhaps we can chat about what more we grey nomads can do out there on the road, to help advance citizen science in Australia.



My Year in Bhutan

By Danielle Northey, ACSA member and volunteer

Danielle Northey with a Rheum nobile, a peculiar species of rhubarb which grows above 4000m

As I snuggled with my daughter in the warm autumn sun streaming through the window of our home nestled in the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan, I commented that the peach tree was beginning to lose its leaves. I said winter was on its way and that I was waiting for the Yellow-billed blue magpies to return to our garden. As if by cue, a Yellow-billed blue magpie streaked past our window. These majestic magpies are nothing like Australian magpies. They have elongated tails which make them glide through the air. Their tails are stripy and their bills are yellow, as you might expect, but I would not call them blue. The first magpie of the season reminded me that we had come a full cycle: our year on the Australian Volunteer Program in Bhutan was nearly over. It also reminded me that my connection with nature has fundamentally changed, thanks to citizen science.

You may have heard about Bhutan because its leaders measure progress by Gross National Happiness instead of GDP? Contrary to a common misnomer, the Bhutanese do not claim to be the happiest people in the world but they do consider and acknowledge that progress means more than economic development. Instead, environmental conservation, sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of culture and good governance are their chosen indicators of progress. If only our politicians would do the same!

The blue poppy, Bhutan’s national flower, was upgraded to a new species in 2014

Bhutan is also known to be situated within a global biodiversity hotspot. Bhutan is a small Himalayan Kingdom measuring only 150km by 300km across, as the crow flies. However, with elevations ranging from 150m on the Indian border to more than 7000m near Tibet, and relatively untouched due to its mountainous topography, it is teaming with biodiversity. Yet taxonomic work is in its early stages. Only 10,000 species have been described in Bhutan to date, just a fraction of what is yet to be discovered and documented. An average of three new species to science are discovered each year, without too much effort. Citizen science has a huge role to play to help build Bhutan’s taxonomic records.

My volunteer role at the Royal Government of Bhutan’s National Biodiversity Centre was to enhance and promote the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal. The BBP is Bhutan’s equivalent to the Atlas of Living Australia, an online central repository of official information about Bhutan’s biodiversity. Scientists and citizen scientists alike can upload information about biodiversity in Bhutan which is then freely available for sharing, download and analysis. One of the great benefits of the portal is that citizens can upload their photographs of plants and animals and have them identified by other users and confirmed by an expert.

Being new to the world of citizen science, my former colleague, citizen science guru and mentor, Erin Roger, at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, shared three pieces of advice which helped me with my new role:

  • Sell the project, not “citizen science” as people don’t necessarily know what it is.
  • BioBlitzes increase participation in citizen science.
  • Apps, such as QuestGame, are extremely effective at generating biodiversity information.
International Biodiversity Day celebration in Bhutan

As part of my volunteer work, I organised a celebration of International Biodiversity Day in Thimphu. Part of this involved organising a BioBlitz for 200 students from nine high schools in Thimphu. During the BioBlitz, which occurred in an urban park, up to 18 species of plants were documented in a single two by two metre plot. Eight different species of birds were spotted during one 40-minute bird survey, including the rare Black-tailed crake. This species is so seldomly spotted that we did not have a digital image in the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal! Students were encouraged to upload their observations to the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal as part of the BioBlitz.

I also organised online BioBlitzes, encouraging users to upload observations from a particular biodiversity group with prizes for top contributors. For example, we partnered with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and ran an aquatic biodiversity BioBlitz. The BioBlitz generated an impressive 1124 observations compared with 131 observations during the same period in the previous year.

I also worked with QuestaGame coordinating a team from the Royal University of Bhutan to enter the University BioQuest, competing against universities all around the world to submit observations and correctly identify species. I thought this small country with a population of less than one million would be trailing all others for sure, but RUB came second, taking the QuestaGame developers and I by surprise. See the results here. It would seem that the Bhutanese love nature – and their smart phones. Discussions are underway to feed QuestaGame’s data to the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal.

Students participating in a BioBlitz

I have learnt to love citizen science as it is a way to connect people with nature, especially those living in cities who are disconnected from the rhythms of the natural environment. It is a wonderful tool to educate the public about our beautiful biodiversity and the need to protect it. But it is so much more than that. It is a way to generate biodiversity information en masse so that scientists can spend their time doing what they are really good at. For example, Matthew Hall who won the “Spotteron Competition” at #CitSciOz18 for the development of the Brush Turkey app said “Within three days of the launch date the number of reports on the app already outstripped the number of Brush-turkeys I had personally tagged in the whole first year of my PhD”. Queensland Museum arachnid expert Dr Robert Whyte, when referring to a QuestaGame competition said citizen scientists did the grunt work by identifying common spiders, giving experts more time to investigate unusual specimens popping up on the database.

Backtrack prior to our arrival in Bhutan and I would not have even known the species of birds which come through our Sydney backyard, let alone that they have seasonal distribution patterns. I am ashamed to say that I assumed most of the birds were Indian minors, an introduced species, but on closer inspection I am surprised by the diversity. My husband wants to remove a palm tree that has become too huge for our tiny backyard but a couple of months ago I observed a breeding pair of Australasian figbirds feeding on the tiny plump red fruit, so the tree has to stay. I used to call a bird a bird but now I realise each species is so unique and special in its own way. Citizen science has turned me into a bit of a twitcher. And I have returned from Bhutan more passionate than ever before about the multiple benefits of citizen science.