Mike Clarke is my walking field guide for birds that I have difficulty in identifying. A self-proclaimed “bird nerd”, Mike quickly flicks back the name and often an interesting feature whenever I have a query, even if it’s a blurred photo of a distantly perched bird or a patchy recording of a call. Arriving at Mike’s Geraldton home I am appropriately welcomed by a singing honeyeater. His love of native plants is evident as they privately screen his front yard, with a hedge of Grevillea olivacea blocking busy street sounds and an Illyarrie (red-capped gum) providing a haven for birds and insects. A sign at the front door — “A Pirate in Retirement” — has me curious because with an extensive lifetime working knowledge of soils, trees and birds, I had pictured Mike as a well-grounded landlubber. But, for now, I am returned to his earth side. A wattlebird alights from a flowering banksia as we step inside to the loungeroom, a gallery of original, hand-coloured lithographs. A gift to himself after receiving inheritance, he was chuffed to find these rare works at an art auction. The frames feature the lesser and common noddies, birds he’s observed on the Abrolhos Islands. The lithographs were from the 19th century The Birds of Australia, a book written by John Gould, who along with his wife, the illustrator Elizabeth, travelled from England to Australia in the 1840s to survey and collect specimens, some 681 species with over half new to Western science at the time. Specialising in taxonomy, Gould and later on John Gilbert, preserved the birds and shipped them home to England. Mike’s father was a policeman, and a two-year posting to Geraldton corresponded with the timing of Mike’s birth. For some years after, back in Perth, his father would joke of how they had “two years of crayfish and beer, and brought Mike back as a souvenir”. Although held in disdain by a young Mike, this quote later became lines of a poem he wrote. In his formative early years, Mike was lured outdoors. A naturally inquisitive mind, he studied clouds, kept a rain gauge and often visited a Wheatbelt farm where he was given an egg collection and after which, would scramble up trees to observe birds nests and collect eggs. He’d observe the adult birds raising their chicks. “It is a true wonder of nature,” Mike muses and marks this time as pivotal in his interest in birds and the environment, although ethically, taking bird eggs is no longer acceptable, it was once a popular hobby and impetus of many a later wildlife professional. Mike was frustrated at the time, however, as bird identification books available were only British or American and he craved local information and that did come soon after. In his other spare time, reading the How and Why Wonder books were treasured for answering big science questions. However, it was during primary school when man landed on the moon, that young Mike was enraptured by new frontiers in science. Further inspiration followed from great naturalists like Harry Butler and also Western Australian’s Vincent and Dominic Serventy, great naturalists who travelled the county in the 1960s in their LandRover producing the country’s first nature show for television, Nature Walkabout. One school holidays, an astute young teenaged Mike was visiting the State museum when he noticed there were errors in the bird egg collection. He approached the front desk to politely point out the labels did not correctly match many of the eggs on display. He was invited into the storage rooms where hundreds of eggs lay in cotton wool lined boxes, most donated and unlabelled. “Right there and then I was given a holiday job of identifying and labelling the eggs,” he recalled. With the help of The Birds of WA book, the first of its sort and written by his hero Serventy, he learnt to sort according to size, shape and gloss, and the finer nuances of speckles and blotches. Mike naturally gravitated towards studying a biological science degree at the then new-Murdoch University. Although he initially won a bank job, he quickly realised the outdoors appealed more over office work. He was in his element with field trips trapping marsupials in the south west Karri forest and conducting an environmental impact study for a proposed dam in Mount Newman. Amid university study, some other passions emerged. One was in the form of 1976 XR Falcon which his father helped him buy and Mike paid back later. “I always dreamed of being a drummer in a rock band,” he reminisced about his early foray into music. He’d listen to the Rolling Stones and rock music, but soon teamed up with some university mates to form a punk band, having bought a drum kit. As the Acid Tones they entered Radio 6PM’s Battle of the Bands but were told their band name was “too heavy” so changed it to Ace Tones. That didn’t help for that competition. “We came last,” laughs Mike. “But we had a lot of fun!” In Albany, he and a mate raised great applause at a folk club where quiet, tea sipping and poetry recital prevailed. Enter Mike on his old tea chest percussion “instrument” and guitar-playing partner with some fast jigs and reels, and with confidence boosted by some strong stouts, it finished with a raucous head bang on the chest that sent the crowd wild. And so the Sperata Bopf band was formed. An unusual name for a folk band, it was coined after name of the tea company stencilled on the wooden tea chest. Later Mike was a member of a number of local Geraldton bands including The Rootes Group, Tenindewa Tossers, Blue Bone Gropers and the Spangled Grunters. “I was actually paid to go to parties,” he recalls warmly, and even got to play alongside the likes of James Reyne as support for the local Redhill Winery concert in Chapman Valley in 2015. He also believed his right-sided brain for music healthily balanced out his default left side, of science and analysis. After graduating, Mike began a career spanning 34 years working for the Department of Agriculture. Much of the research and work was in landcare, which Mike jokes as an atonement for his egg collecting days. He sold his drum kit and started work in Wongan Hills and then Albany, where sea grass restoration was the focus. Then in the 1980s began the “Decade of Landcare”, a national approach to managing land degradation and a partnership between government and farmers. It heralded a new era of working with farmers, sharing solutions that suited their context, rather than the previous model of pubic servant “experts” telling them what to do. Wind and water erosion, plus salinity were major issues in agriculture so Mike and his colleagues spent years researching, running trials and demonstrations such as reduced tillage practices, that supported the building of carbon and improvement in soil structure. He was involved in assisting farmers with the revegetation of areas that were salt affected, rocky or unproductive and the protection of the Wheatbelt’s remnant vegetation, of which 93 per cent had been cleared. Is was a decade of much research and development by government agencies into options such as oil mallees, that were used to combat salinity and created windbreaks but also for their oil, where prototype distillery extractions were used for pharmaceuticals and degreasers. Mike’s extensive knowledge, developed over the years of local, native trees crossed over into his music hobby, as he became interested in a local company Brady Drums producing snare drums from native timber. “The resonant, music quality of the drums were world class”, Mike says, describing how they were made by a master craftsman from fallen Wheatbelt timber. With ever-evolving research and the rise and fall of different land practices, Mike’s work included the herbicide tolerance of trees, an “on farm” salinity advice service and managing a drying climate. His final project, a three year one, was initiated by the prospect of a carbon tax. “For years we had been wanting an economic driver for revegetation on farmland and this sounded hopeful, but little was known of how much carbon was stored by local native tree species,” he said. A successful grant application was written with others from the Forest Products Commission, to create algorithms for measuring tree carbon. It wasn’t all paperwork as trees needed to be cut and weighed, with resulting equations and graphs produced, that became a quick, easy calculator tool — a tree’s “chest high diameter” need only be measured and a corresponding chart would reveal its carbon content. No sooner was their work on tree carbon sequestration published, that the government changed and their published findings shelved. Changes to the Department of Agriculture followed and Mike’s section in the agency was downsized, resulting in redundancies, which he was fortunate to obtain, with the timing enabling him to “parachute into retirement”. Mike would like to thank the hundreds of farmers he worked with over the years for their support and the teamwork with his colleagues at the department. “It was a hell of a pleasure!,” he said. In recent years, when not having his hands in soil, he has been hauling on spinnaker sheets of sailing yachts. This began when he moved seaside to Geraldton and began crewing on a yacht in the 1990s. Adventures would take him voyaging across the top end of Australia and another one through the Indonesia archipelago. The highlight was visiting villages only accessible by sea with dense rainforest, active volcanoes and even Komodo dragons to encounter first. Village children excitedly paddled out to greet them in dug-out canoes and happily trade homemade, rusty fish-hooks for school books. Retirement has meant Mike can continue pursuing some of his passions. His three daughters and five grandchildren living around the State means he has also extended his birdwatching habitats. Local and online interest groups benefit now from Mike’s knowledge and active contributions on all things nature, from photography, to reptiles, birds and even a cloud appreciation society. I am sure with this wealth of nature knowledge we have here in our community, some may say we need a Mike Clarke Appreciation Society.