Former Vice-President of ARCS, H. Sydney (Syd) Curtis died at Killarney on 27 December 2015.
Syd served as ARCS Vice-President for 10 years before his health deteriorated and he felt he could no longer fulfill the role.
Born in 1928 to Herbert Curtis and Hilda Geissman Curtis, Syd grew up on Tamborine Mountain in South East Queensland. Syd gained his interest in and love of nature from his mother. Hilda Geissmann was a well known and highly respected naturalist and photographer. The noted biologist Francis Ratcliffe, author of the classic Flying Fox and Drifting Sand and a founder and first Honorary Secretary of the Australian Conservation Foundation, visited Hilda in 1928. Ratcliffe wrote “She knew the habits of every bird and beast that lived there, and where the rare ferns and orchids could be found”.
Syd trained as a forester and began his career in the Queensland Forestry Department. In 1963, he moved to the new national park section and formed a dedicated team to manage the park estate and to consider proposals for expansion. He was responsible for the new approach of selecting new national parks on the basis of representative samples of the Queensland landscape including the less scenic.
When the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service was formed in 1975, he was appointed Director of Management and Operations. In 1982, he became Assistant Director (Policy and Legislation) and continued in that role until retiring in 1988.
After retiring, Syd lectured in environmental law at University of Queensland’s Gatton campus.
Syd was passionate about lyrebirds and spent decades studying Albert’s Lyrebird populations in South East Queensland and recording their complex song. Lyrebirds are famous for their mimicry, not only of other birds but also of human-made sounds such as tyres on gravel and chain saws. Syd published his findings showing differences in vocalisations between populations. In a paper by Norman Robinson and Syd Curtis (The Emu 96(4) 1996), the authors conclude that the territorial song of lyrebirds is learned and the mimicry is culturally transmitted from adults and not learned anew from sounds the young hear. But new sounds can be added and others deleted.
Syd Curtis recording bird song in the rainforest. Photo: Kimbal Curtis
Syd had a 25-year association with a lyrebird named ‘George’ in Lamington National Park. Over the years, George got to know Syd and continued to sing and perform his courtship display while Syd watched and recorded. Syd once got his son, Kimbal, to photograph George while he was in full display but when George saw a red flash as the camera took the picture, he stopped his display, raised his tail, stared straight at the camera, lashed his tail and stalked off, clearly displeased.
Albert’s Lyrebird, “George”, in Lamington National Park Photo: Kimbal Curtis
Syd was also an accomplished pianist and entertained our Management Committee on an occasion when we were visiting one of our rainforest restoration sites at Springbrook.
Syd was devoted to the protection of national parks and staunchly defended the “cardinal principle” of national park management as enshrined in State legislation. His grandfather, Sydney Curtis, had been partly responsible for the declaration in 1908 of the first national park in Queensland, Witches Falls National Park at Mt Tamborine.
We knew Syd as a kind, thoughtful, nurturing and generous man who cared passionately for his family, friends and Nature. Such was his spirit of giving that he sacrificed studying his beloved lyrebirds for many years to help ARCS achieve the historic South-East Queensland Forests Agreement which lead to a huge increase in national parks in this bioregion. Syd, together with Ingrid Neilson, Gayle Johnson and David Hangar trekked over many distant forests collecting and pressing plant specimens to help document their biological value to conservation. He advised on legal matters, overall strategies, and the all important historical context for tangible examples of past mistakes and successes in the long history of national parks. And when the pressures of campaigning took their toll, Syd and Anne took care of us in many ways.
A private funeral was held on 8 January 2016 and attended by ARCS President Aila Keto and Director Keith Scott.
Syd is survived by his wife Anne, son Kimbal and daughter Patrice.
Syd was a dear friend and a devoted supporter of ARCS. He will always remain warmly in our memories.