Friday, September 12, 2008

Blogging for nature

Rosslyn Beeby, The Canberra Times 10 Sep 08;

It's no surprise to learn evolutionary biologist Henry Gee, one of Britain's best known science authors and senior editor of the uber-respected international science journal Nature has a blog.

It's called The End of the Pier Show, and he calls it his "online scratching post". But what is surprising delightfully so is the revelation that the award-winning author of In Search of Deep Time and Jacob's Ladder: The History of the Human Genome has a bunch of rebellious chooks "that break into the house and go directly for the dog food". Photos of the chooks, Heidi the dog, Fred the cat and assorted guinea pigs are frequently used as a kind of visual punctuation on Gee's blog, illustrating his witty meanderings on such unrelated topics as the befuddled logic of creationists and mobile phone spam.

Gee's blog is ranked on as one of the most active, with new postings every other day and three posts last Friday, with Gee reflecting on the decline of science teaching, the folly of stating the bleeding obvious and why Aretha Franklin would make a better Republican vice-presidential candidate than Sarah Palin.

His blog is also popular, attracting a regular and wide circle of readers, but being a professional writer and editor is possibly an advantage when it comes to the discipline needed to keep a blog ticking over.

According to studies cited by Google, around 60 to 80 per cent of blogs are abandoned within a month of being created, and few are regularly updated. A report by Calson Analytics, an online independent analysis of digital technology trends, states that the average blog has the lifespan of a fruitfly. Another study, "The Blogging Iceberg" by the Perseus Development Corporation, differentiated between popular blogs (like Gee's) "which are often updated multiple times a day and which by definition have tens of thousands of daily readers" and those written for "nanoaudiences" of family, workmates and friends. The survey found blogs were updated "much less often than generally thought". Active blogs were updated, on average, every fortnight. Some 2.7million blogs were abandoned after two months, with fewer than 50,000 updated daily. Blog abandonment rates were not based on age, but those who gave up on blogging "tended to write posts that were only 58 per cent as long as those bloggers who continued to publish". The conclusion was that "those who enjoy writing stick with blogs longer".

But while those "dear cyber-diary" blogs written for nanoaudiences may be as ephemeral as fruitflies, there's a thriving cyber community linked by a love of the natural environment. Many of these blogs are linked to carnivals a blog event dedicated to a particular topic and, like a magazine or scientific journal, published weekly or monthly, with each "edition" cross-linked to other blog postings in the designated topic. Two of the most popular with cyber-naturalists are Circus of the Spineless ("a monthly celebration of insects, arachnids, molluscs, crustaceans, worms and most anything else that wiggles") and I and the Bird, "a bi-weekly showcase of the best bird writing on the web". The Nature Blog Network lists the best nature blogs on the web, based on a daily hit rate and the average number of page views. Top of the list is "Ugly Overload" a blog dedicated to "giving ugly animals their day in the sun", with scientifically knowledgeable postings about not-so-cute critters such as spiders, caterpillars, worms, Borneo bearded pigs and Pacific Spookfish. You can browse postings on a variety of categories, including vermin ("Chow Time for Roaches") and Oversized Uglies, which features snippets on elephant seals, hippos and genetically modified beef cattle.

The Nature Blog Network lists more than 400 environmental science blogs, and uses coloured arrows to indicate those climbing the charts (green) and those either plummeting in popularity (red) or heading for abandonment.

It's a brave new world of publishing where the passionate home-blogger frequently outscores those blogs attached to business, university or not-for-profit organisation websites.

Bottom of the heap on the network is BBC Wales Nature with a red arrow and no recent hits. Perhaps that's no wonder, with a five-line posting about glimpsing a flock of house martins and the news that otters have been voted Britain's favourite mammal. The Ocean Doctor blog has also taken a dive (written by the former vice-president of The Ocean Conservancy), ranked at 428 and on the way out of the charts with no hits. But Greg Laden, a biological anthropologist, whose most recent posting is about excavating a giant Buddha in Afghanistan, is the network's third most popular blog with a daily average of around 1800 readers. Here's a quick sample of some of the best nature blogs online.

The Nature of Robertson

Yes, that's the pretty little NSW town just up the road in the Southern Highlands where they filmed Babe. Denis Wilson is a keen naturalist, home gardener and photographer and his most recent postings include a photo essay on spring garden flowers, a visit to the town by Canadian water expert Maude Barlow, the landscape scars of the Bungonia limestone quarry, a tribute to National Wattle Day and a link to his other passion peonies.

Ben Cruachan

Not Scotland but a puddingstone mountain in East Gippsland, near Maffra. "My name is Duncan, and I'm an amateur naturalist and photographer. My present main interests are birds and native flora, but anything that walks, flies, wriggles or swims will attract my attention and the lens of my camera," writes the blogger (a member of the Sale Field Naturalists) who lovingly crafts this very popular site. Latest posts include spring wildflower perfumes, the two-tailed spider, sawfly larvae and a botanical photo essay of wildflowers encountered on a recent bushwalk.

A Snail's Eye View

Molluscs, stranded jellyfish and gastropod shells are among the postings that have earned this blog a spot just outside the top 50 on the Nature Blog Network. Snail is an anonymous blogger based in Melbourne, and is "writing a book (two, really, but only one involves a contract) and illustrating a series of taxonomic papers (for someone else)". Well worth a look for the site's bird photos, and last month's post about seeing the first grebes of the year.

Wrenai ssance Reflections

Now in its third year, this is the Michigan-based blog that organises the globally popular "I and the Bird" carnival. Stunning photo essays on American birds, links to other bird blogs around the world and a segment called Skywatch ("a communal sharing of photos of the sky') are some of the features. The website and blog "enable me to share my enthusiasm for backyard wildlife habitats as well as the joy that I've gotten from creating, improving, and living in one," writes the anonymous blogger behind this multi-tiered site.

Living the Scientific Life

Written by grrlscientist - a female evolutionary biologist this is the second - most popular blog on the Nature Blog Network list with more than 2000 readers. Her story will be a familiar one to many Australian scientists. Inspired by a love of birds combined with skills in molecular biology, she "pursued ornithology as my career". After finishing a degree in microbiology, a PhD in zoology, and a two-year postdoc, "reconstructing a molecular phylogeny of parrots of the South Pacific Islands ... I am still trying to find a job".


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