Edith Coleman, Naturalist (1874-1951)

Edith Coleman – from NLA HERE

As written about in The Nepean of September 2021, Edith Coleman was a resident of Longford Cottage at 1 Brooke Crescent, Blairgowrie.


By Edith Coleman

Even illness has its compensations, one of them being that one may sit idly in the sunshine to watch the birds without feeling culpable. And that is what I am doing while convalescing at Blairgowrie, three miles on the ocean side of Sorrento. This cottage was built 85 years ago, and here, all down the years, birds have come, sure of water—a precious thing in non-reticulated parts.

Here among tea-tree-covered dunes the strength and variety of the bird population is surprising. Birds that only rarely visit our Blackburn garden (Blue Wrens, White shafted Fantail, etc.) are here in force, while the White-plumed Honeyeater which dominates the home garden we have not seen here.

Watching birds flock to the baths and food tray, one cannot fail to note how some of them differ, in size, colour and song, from their species at Blackburn. Victoria’s first naturalist, George Bass, thought the birds of Wilson’s Promontory and Western Port had a sweeter note than those of Port Jackson. While I would not say that the Sorrento songs are sweeter, they certainly differ so much that we say, “Oh, listen to that Blackbird, or that Grey Thrush.” Both of these birds are larger and more beautiful than those at Blackburn. Indeed, we often think they are superb specimens, in finer feather, the Blackbird with glossier-black plumage and a deeper orange bill, which glows vividly against the black tea tree. The Grey thrush, surprisingly large, with a deep nut-brown mantle and light breast is, one would say, in the pink of condition.

While some birds bathe singly or in pairs, thornbills and many others take the plunge together, and, small as they are, what a splash they make! It is pretty to see two Scarlet Robins in the bath with only their bills and white caps showing above the brim, then the splash as they become active.

Two Goldfinches bathing together are a pretty sight, but a whole “charm” taking the plunge at once is something to watch for—and to listen to, for they sing as they dip.

One moment the bath may be full of a mob of splashing thornbills. Next moment two White-backed Magpies, or a Butcher-bird, have possession and the small birds are discreetly absent. They are not far away, however, for a closely cropped tea-tree nearby offers a ready refuge into which they slip until the coast is clear. In this, 100 small birds are lost at once. A rosemary, and a coastal rice-flower trimmed in the same way, are used as escapes.

The cottage stands on a high, flat-topped dune, over which a Hawk has been seen. Hosts of Blue Wrens are with us, many with blue tails, but so far none with blue body plumage. Recently part of the ground at the back was fenced in with wire-netting. This seems to have given a sense of security to the wrens. The enclosure made by wire fence, box-room and garage is probably too restricted for a hawk to “brake down” before making its swoop.

One thing is most impressive about these small winter visitors — their arrival, not in twos or threes, but in flocks. Yellow-tailed Tits come in a cloud, like butterflies. Instantly both baths will be full of splashing tits with hosts waiting in the branches of a black tea- tree overhead, or along the picket fence.

List of birds that frequent the baths and food tray: Magpie, Grey Thrush, Butcher-bird, Blackbird, Silver-eye, White-shafted Fantail, Yellow Robin, Scarlet Robin, Blue Wren, White-eared Crescent, Spiny-cheeked, Singing and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, Eastern Spinebill, Thornbill (two species), Scrub Wren, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Red-browed Finch, Golden Whistler, Red and Little Wattle-birds, Yellow-tailed Tit.

The Leaden Flycatcher does not visit the baths, nor does the Mountain Thrush, but it builds here. The British Song Thrush has apparently not spread in this direction.

*These notes were the last to be received from Mrs. Coleman just two weeks before her death—Editor.

The Victorian Naturalist, The Journal and Magazine of the FIELD NATURALISTS CLUB OF VICTORIA Vol 68 No.3 July 5 1951 No. 809 pp 47-48

The following is from Australian Dictionary of Biography HERE

Edith Coleman (1874-1951), naturalist, was born on 29 July 1874 at Woking, Surrey, England, daughter of Henry Harms, carpenter, and his wife Charlotte, née Edmunds. Edith was educated at Holy Trinity and St Mary’s National School, Guildford, Surrey, and, after her family arrived in Melbourne in 1887, at Camberwell State School. From 1889 to 1898 she taught at six state schools in Gippsland, Maryborough and suburban Melbourne. On 7 April 1898 at Christ Church, South Yarra, she married with Anglican rites James George Coleman, a salesman and pioneer motorist.

Joining the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria in 1922, Edith Coleman immediately delivered a paper, ‘Some Autumn Orchids’, which exemplified the knowledge, love of nature and pleasing style that were to characterize the contributions she sent from her Blackburn home to the Victorian Naturalist for twenty-nine years. Her prolific output of natural history notes and papers was also published in the press, popular nature magazines, and in one or two scientific journals.

Through a series of papers (1927 to 1933) in the Victorian Naturalist, Coleman recorded her discovery of the pollination of three Cryptostylis orchid species by the Ichneumon wasp, Lissopimpla semipunctata, via the insect’s pseudo-copulation with the orchid flower that resembles the female Ichneumon. Her descriptions ‘created enormous world interest’, and confirmed and extended overseas research on orchid pollination by insects. A member of the Australian Orchid Society, she published in its journal, as well as in the London periodicals, Orchid Review and Journal of Botany.

Other botanical subjects in which Coleman was interested ranged from the description of new species to the pollination of yucca in Australia by hive bees, and from medicinal and culinary herbs to the movements of plants and the spread of mistletoe. Her article, ‘The Romance of Kipling’s Dittany’ (1940), was a delight of botanical folk-lore and herbal history. She studied animal life with equal ease and precision. While sometimes anthropocentric in expression, her observations were never without a naturalist’s quest for the truth, whether touching ‘the graceful courtship parades’ of huntsman spiders, or the habits of the mountain grasshopper, pipe fish, lizards, phasmids, bats, case moths or her engaging echidnas. In addition, she compiled ornithological observations on the clustering of woodswallows, the pre-roosting flocking of common mynahs, the feeding habits of the tawny frogmouth, the use of herbs by birds and the nocturnal singing of budgerigars during rain after drought. Her daughter Dorothy regularly assisted her with drawings and observations.

The first woman to receive the Australian Natural History medallion (1949), Coleman generously helped beginners in natural history. Although English by birth, in her Come Back in Wattle Time (1935) she wrote—as an Australian—of the many soldiers in World War I who had received a tiny spray of wattle that ‘whispered something deeper than ”Come Back”‘. During World War II she raised money for the Australian Red Cross Society through sales of Angelica seeds from her garden. She died on 3 June 1951 at Sorrento, Victoria, and was buried in the local cemetery; her husband and two daughters survived her.