Tagged: biodiversity

The fig tree

On the east side of my apartment block is a large fig tree. In its halcyon days, its canopy covered the length of the balcony, providing shade from the morning sun. At the base of the trunk, an extensive buttress root system had pushed up and cracked the concrete driveway. This made the tree unpopular with the body corporate, but the tree is a protected species in Brisbane under the Natural Assets Local Law of 2003.

For a long time, that law protected the fig, and much else besides. Every spring, the fruit of the tree provided food for mobs of Grey-headed and Black Flying-foxes which chattered and bickered among themselves all night as they gorged themselves. Brush-tailed Possums ran riot. During the day, Australian Figbirds and Koels were regular visitors. The Koels would shriek their heads off at 4am almost every morning through October and November.

There were butterflies, too. When I started taking a serious interest in them, most of my early observations were from my balcony. I identified members of almost all the Australian families: swallowtails (Blue Triangles), whites and yellows (Lemon Migrants), nymphs (Evening Browns, White-banded Planes) skippers and blues (most thrillingly, a Bright Cornelian, which has vivid spots of orange, instead of blue, on the upperwings).

Bright Cornelian at home, 24 December 2018

Then in the month of May 2016, right after my marriage broke down, the tree was lopped. Not a branch, nor a leaf remained: just the trunk, which was left to protrude a few metres above ground like an exposed nerve that had been brutally hacked off. It looked how I felt. Sunlight flooded into my apartment. The sudden burst of natural light might have been welcome in other circumstances, but at the time I wanted only the cover of night.

There was no question about why the tree had been lopped. It had a habit of dropping large branches on my neighbours’ roof, particularly during Brisbane’s regular thunderstorms, not to mention huge quantities of leaf litter, which the local Brush Turkeys would determinedly rake through. It would only take one stray spark for that house, a decaying weatherboard which was nearly entirely submerged in the 2011 flood, to go up in a big woof of smoke.

Things were quiet for a long time around here after that. I was pole-axed by grief and feelings of shame, failure and loss. Mostly, I isolated myself, but I also felt abandoned. I missed the thump of possums on the roof and the constant squabble of flying-foxes, which had one less mature tree to feed on and disperse their seeds. Birds and butterflies stayed away. The whole block felt radioactive. So did I.

Thankfully, the body corporate didn’t kill the tree, much less uproot it. That would have meant cutting through a forest of green tape, and cost far more besides. They were doing the minimum that needed to be done for the sake of civic virtue and safety. But it stood outside my flat like a crippled metaphor for my life circa 2016. Still standing, but with no foliage for either decoration or camouflage, much less invite company.

After a while, regrowth began to appear. It was pathetic at first: a few thin branches growing out of the top of the stump, sprouting rebellious leaves. Eventually, they spread around the tree, not enough to attract much that I could see, but enough to provide shelter for the things I couldn’t. I accepted that if ever the fig tree was to return to its earlier glory, it would be in decades to come; long after I’d left the building, possibly in a box.

Then, on Christmas Eve of 2018 – another Christmas by myself – a pair of Bright Cornelians appeared. They were joined by an Orange Palm-dart. I grabbed the camera and snapped a couple of quick shots. I didn’t know it at the time, but within a fortnight everything, in Helen Garner’s words, would begin to heave and change. I’d awoken from my own coma, blinking in the fresh sunlight, and an old friend was about to walk into my life in a new way.

This summer, the fig began to bear fruit again. I can no longer see the trunk for the foliage, and the flying-foxes are swinging. A Koel found enough cover to hide (and scream) in. A couple of weeks ago, I was drawn out to the balcony by a gaggle of squawking, pointing Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Noisy Miners and a Grey Butcherbird, and saw a young Carpet Python snaking its way up the tree. Judging by the occasional racket since, it’s still there.

Today I stood on the balcony having a long conversation on the phone with my brother. While we were talking, I watched. A migration of Blue Tiger butterflies was in full swing, and another species, a Varied Eggfly, was dancing in the understory. I suddenly became curious about the identity of the fig. I’d never paid attention to botanical matters, despite my mother having been an obsessive gardener.

The leaves were now just close enough to the balcony for me to reach between the louvres and pull one from its stem, which immediately extruded a thick white sap. The leaf was glossy and smooth and very dark green, rounded at the base, tapering to a fine tip. It is a weeping fig, Ficus benjamina. I had, I decided, taken it for granted, and much else besides. The creatures I loved were coming back, but there was more going on outside my window than I ever realised.

First published on my Patreon page, 29 February 2020; reprinted in the Guardian, 22 March 2020

Flight Lines

Nearly 20 years ago, in pursuit of a different sort of life, I spent six months commuting between Brisbane and Robbins Island, a remote chunk of privately owned land just off the far north-west coast of Tasmania. My job at the time was identifying and counting birds as part of an environmental impact assessment for a proposed windfarm.

The uninhabited island is a tough place to get around, accessible only by four-wheel-drive across the mudflats, at low tide. But its wild west coast is a haven for many thousands of migratory shorebirds, around 25 species of which perform marathon, nearly non-stop flights from the Siberian tundra, where they breed, all the way to Australia and back, every year.

Going through my notes from December 2002, a few numbers jump out: over 600 Curlew Sandpipers; 100 Great Knots; 180 Grey Plovers; more than 3,000 Red-necked Stints. One month later, these birds were joined by over 240 Bar-tailed Godwits. The numbers were impressive, but fairly typical at the time.

Five Grey Plovers over the Oregon coast, USA. Photo: Roy L Lowe

Now the windfarm proposal is back on, and Andrew Darby – a Hobart-based journalist and the author of a new book, Flight Lines – has been helping survey birds on the island again. In 2015–2016, the Curlew Sandpiper, great knot and the local subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit were all listed as critically endangered. Last year’s counts turned up just one Grey Plover.

But wind turbines are not the cause of the birds’ decline. The overwhelming threat is habitat destruction, particularly the mudflats of the Yellow Sea in China – a critical layover where the exhausted birds replenish themselves – and around the Australian coastline, including Toondah harbour in south-east Queensland.

It all sounds familiarly grim. And yet Flight Lines, which was written either side of a life-threatening diagnosis of lung cancer in 2018, is far from it. In dark times, Darby looked for inspiration in the resilience of shorebirds, in particular the stories of two satellite-tagged female Grey Plovers named CYA and CYB.

Until recently, Darby was no more interested in birds than the average person and shorebirds existed on the periphery of his consciousness – until he learned about their ultra-marathon travel schedule. “They are the birds ‘out there’, on the edge of the tideline, not really very noticeable creatures, and yet they have such extraordinary lives,” he says.

He describes the Grey Plover as the “everybird” of our Siberian migrants: the greyest and drabbest of a group of birds which, in Australia, tend to be grey and drab, moulting into their brighter summer plumage on their breeding grounds. That interested Darby: “In life, there are many surprises to be found among the overlooked,” he writes.

Like Harry Saddler’s surprise hit from 2018, The Eastern Curlew (which follows the journey of another long-distance migrant), Flight Lines takes what appears to be a niche topic and turns it into an immense, heroic and surprisingly uplifting narrative of endurance and survival, with an obvious parallel to his own experience.

But whereas Saddler’s account is intimate and personal, Darby’s book, which was nearly curtailed by his illness, directly engages with, and celebrates, citizen science. The book opens with a tense account of a cannon-netting session at the head of Gulf St Vincent, South Australia, that captured CYA and CYB.

Cannon netting, where birds massed on the shoreline are trapped via a net literally launched from a cannon, is a contentious method of study in some quarters. The hard truth is that birds, occasionally, are killed. But it has also greatly advanced our knowledge of shorebird movements and their conservation requirements.

Satellite tracking enabled close observation of the challenges CYA and CYB faced; CYB, for example, had to contend with a super-typhoon as she flew back to the Yellow Sea after breeding. Not surprisingly, Darby says, “I became very fond of them” and it was in science, as well as the pluck of the plovers, that he drew hope for himself.

There’s some lesson in that, particularly as science is being pilloried and politicised as never before. But there’s no politicising a cancer diagnosis. Immunotherapy, still a relatively new field, has Darby in better shape – though he says it would be wrong to say he’s cured. “Oncologists are learning about it as we go. It’s a new journey for all of us.”

The link to shorebirds, he says, is in the simple grunt work of gathering data. “It’s all about doing science for science’s sake – they didn’t start off looking for immunotherapy as an answer to cancer when they were investigating how it worked with the immune system; they were just looking at the immune system,” he says.

Similarly, he says, tracking shorebird migration didn’t begin with a particular goal in mind. The pioneer of shorebird study in Australia, the late Clive Minton, told Darby “we do it to answer a question, and that leads on to the next question”.

But the questions Minton asked helped provide the data pointing to the alarming decline of shorebirds worldwide. That’s led in turn to some more hopeful outcomes. Last year, the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea–Bohai Gulf of China was placed on the UNESCO world heritage register, specifically aimed at protecting migratory shorebirds such as the tiny, charismatic and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper doesn’t occur in Australia, but it’s considered a flagship species, so inherently appealing that by saving it we might save much more besides. Listening to Darby describing his own encounter with one, it’s clear why: “It was like this cute little wind-up bird, I was sure he was going to fall over and [I was going] to see the key in his tummy.”

After a summer in which so much of our own wildlife has been obliterated by fire, he has retained his optimism. “The capacity of these birds to persist is what I found astonishing, and to someone who lives a precarious life with cancer, like me, it’s a lesson. You know, I will come and go – these birds will roll on.”

First published in the Guardian, 22 February 2020

Calls to prosecute landowner for eagle killings

Conservation groups have called for a Victorian landowner to face charges under the Wildlife Act, after he admitted to his part in killing 420 Wedge-tailed Eagles over an 18-month period in the Bairnsdale magistrates court last week.

John Auer pleaded guilty to charges brought by the state Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions of misusing agricultural chemicals. He was fined $25,000 and received a 12-month good behaviour bond. He was also given a 12-month community corrections order.

Auer and former farmhand Murray Silvester, a New Zealand national, used the insecticide Lannate and other chemicals to poison the eagles at Tubbut in the Snowy Mountains between October 2016 and April 2018.

Silvester was sentenced to two weeks jail, fined $2,500 and deported last year. The penalty was criticised for its leniency at the time, despite the fact that it was the first custodial sentence ever handed down for destroying protected wildlife in Victoria.

Emails and text messages presented in evidence showed that Silvester was acting under the instruction of Auer. The Age reported that magistrate Simon Barnett described his offending as “calculated, unacceptable and disgraceful behaviour”.

Dr Jenny Lau, from Birdlife Australia’s preventing extinctions program, called for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to charge Auer under the Wildlife Act before the statute of limitations came into effect.

“Birdlife Australia is concerned that one of the perpetrators of these deliberate, barbaric killings has only been prosecuted for the misuse of chemicals and no charges have yet been laid under Victorian Wildlife Act for the deaths of the eagles,” Lau said.

“The scale of the killings is so great, and the long-term impact on the population of wedge-tailed eagles across East Gippsland and beyond is unknown.

“With time running out before prosecutions can be made under the Victorian Wildlife Act, BirdLife Australia demands that further legal action be taken for these serious wildlife crimes.”

Wedge-tailed Eagle skulls recovered from the Snowy Mountains property. Photo: Department of Land, Environment, Water and Planning, Victoria

Tim Beshara, federal policy director of the Wilderness Society, said charging Auer for the misuse of agricultural chemicals for the purpose of killing wildlife was akin to “prosecuting a bank robber for failing to stop at a traffic light”.

“The Victorian government needs to explain why their environment department hasn’t brought charges under their wildlife laws. The credibility of Victoria’s wildlife-protection regime is at stake.”

“This is just another example of the state governments failing to protect our natural wonders and why we need the federal government to step in and do the job properly.”

Last month, the RSPCA called for national animal welfare laws after a spate of cruelty cases, including another poisoning incident near Violet Town, Victoria which led to the deaths of more than 200 birds, among them 25 more Wedge-tailed Eagles.

The largest bird of prey in Australia, Wedge-tailed Eagles have faced persecution in Australia since white colonisation for occasionally killing lambs, although rabbits and hares are principal prey items.

However, in arid Australia, groups of Wedge-tailed Eagles have been observed taking down prey as large as red kangaroos. Carrion, including livestock, is another major food source.

Until the 1970s, bounties were paid for the carcasses of hundreds of thousands of Wedge-tailed Eagles, before the species was officially protected in all states. It is listed as endangered in Tasmania.

A spokesperson from the DELWP said that it was “still investigating options in relation to future charges”.

It said Wedge-tailed Eagles were a protected species and “anyone found killing, harassing or disturbing them could be fined more than $8000 and an additional fee of more than $800 per head of wildlife”.

The maximum fine faced by Auer under the Wildlife Act if he was charged and convicted for killing 420 eagles would be $354,397, and/or six months jail.

First published in The Guardian, 22 November 2019

Vote 1: Regent Honeyeater

A few months ago, the bird-watching community in south-east Queensland went into a twitching frenzy. Two Regent Honeyeaters, a critically endangered species, had been discovered feeding on ironbark blossoms in the suburban heart of Springfield Lakes, on Brisbane’s south-western outskirts, near the satellite city of Ipswich.

Two Regent Honeyeaters at Springfield Lakes, Queensland, 1 July 2019. The female can be seen in the top right of the image.

The honeyeaters stayed for several weeks, spending the afternoons in a single, heavily flowering tree between a shopping village and childcare centre. When the blossom on that tree and the surrounding ironbarks began to dry up, they began feasting on lerps – tiny, sugary-tasting, sap-sucking insects which clung to the leaves of a small fig tree directly outside a coffee shop.

During that time, dozens of local birders, myself included, watched and photographed the two birds at close quarters. The honeyeaters seemed unperturbed, even as camera drives whirred from a few metres away. They slurped at the blossoms ravenously, and were observed preening each other while resting, indicating they were a closely bonded pair.

For many of the birders, it was the first time they had ever seen the species, and they happily shared their joy with curious passersby. But the joy was tinged with a quiet, collective sadness, too: the knowledge that for many of us, it could also be the last time we ever saw a Regent Honeyeater.

I’ve been watching birds for 40 years, and the first Australian bird book I ever owned described the species as “fairly common”. That was in 1980, and the book was already out of date, but it’s true that the birds were once abundant, swarming the box-ironbark forests and woodlands on either side of the Great Dividing Range in their thousands.

The title of the book was Every Australian Bird Illustrated. But instead of a photo, there was an ancient painting by John Gould (or quite possibly his wife Elizabeth). Most of the other birds in the book featured photographs. The paintings seemed to be of the rarer species. Maybe the honeyeater wasn’t so common any more, I wondered? I certainly couldn’t find any. But then, I was only eight years old.

By the early 1990s, alarm bells were being rung. “Regent Honeyeater: on the brink?” read a headline in the quarterly magazine of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union (now Birdlife Australia). The bird’s population had crashed, and they were getting harder and harder to find even in old haunts like the Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

I’d been birding for over 10 years by then and still hadn’t seen a single one. I’ve since encountered them on a handful of occasions. They are an eye-popping treat, with their chainmail breastplate and wings intricately embroidered in black and sulphur-yellow. (Thankfully, the unkind alternative name “Warty-faced Honeyeater” fell from favour. It really is Regent.)

The reason for the honeyeater’s decline is at once simple and also more complicated than it appears. Once widespread in the most densely populated part of the continent, from around Adelaide in South Australia to well north of Brisbane in Queensland, it is primarily a victim of land clearance and fragmentation.

As the box-ironbark woodlands on which it depended were felled for agriculture, livestock and urban development, the birds declined. Yet other larger honeyeaters, such as miners and friarbirds, seemed to be more resilient, and so did many smaller ones. So why has the Regent Honeyeater fared so poorly?

Research from the Australian National University in Canberra has suggested that a kind of death spiral took hold: the bird had relied on safety in numbers to defend territories and nests from other, more aggressive birds. As their homes fell to the axe and bulldozer and the Regent Honeyeater’s numbers thinned, the less they were able to breed.

Thankfully, the species breeds well in captivity. But how many wild Regent Honeyeaters are left? Estimates seem to depend on who you talk to. The official number is around 400. I’ve heard experienced observers with close knowledge of the species quietly suggest it could be a quarter of that, and more optimistic forecasts that there might be twice as many.

But even 1,000 Regent Honeyeaters thinly scattered in their fragments of remaining habitat between north-east Victoria, the Hunter Valley and western slopes of NSW and south-east Queensland would be a perilous few. The drought gripping NSW makes the remaining birds even more vulnerable: no rain means no blossom.

For a species struggling to catch a break, we’re not helping. The last birds found breeding in NSW were smack bang in the Hunter Economic Zone, a site flagged for the development of a new coal-fired power station. And the state government has passed legislation to raise the Warragamba Dam wall, which will drown another important parcel of habitat.

You might say that the Regent Honeyeater, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a damn unlucky bird: unlucky, mainly, to have lived so closely among and alongside us. And that’s why I’m voting for it in the Guardian/Birdlife Australia’s bird of the year 2019 poll. It’s a symbol of what we can watch disappear from under our noses, no matter how regent it is.

First published in The Guardian, 4 November 2019

Rats of spring

In Ronald Strahan’s revised edition of The Mammals of Australia, C. H. S. Watts describes the Plains Rat as among “the loveliest of Australian rodents”. While its loveliness might be in the eye of the beholder, it’s certainly among the most tenacious, being adapted to some of the driest, most inhospitable country: the stony gibber deserts and cracking clay soils of the Lake Eyre Basin.

There, it can survive without drinking, obtaining water from food starches, aided by its highly concentrated urine and absence of sweat glands. During the day, colonies shelter from predators and the intense heat in complex burrow systems that can be more than 40 kilometres long, yet separated from each other by only a matter of metres, interconnected by runways on the surface.

Plains Rat. Minden Pictures/Alamy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not that water is a problem for the plains rat right now. Surveys at Andado Station, a cattle property in the south-east of the Northern Territory abutting the western edge of the Simpson Desert, are showing a spike in numbers following unseasonal winter and spring rains. And it’s places such as Andado, and animals like the plains rat, that are helping prompt a rethink of how we might save what is left of our desert fauna.

It’s well known that Australia has one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world, with 30 species – more than 10 percent – lost since European settlement. Many more are at imminent risk of extinction. What might seem unusual is that most of those extinctions have occurred in our remote areas, far from the major urban centres of the eastern seaboard.

Cats and foxes take much of the blame, but the causes of the ecological catastrophe are multifaceted. Changed fire regimes are a big problem, so too overgrazing, not only by cattle but feral herbivores including rabbits, goats and camels. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play: in a country of climatic extremes, our native fauna often rely on small pockets of the landscape in which to take refuge during drought.

Once, the Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) was thought to be far more widespread, from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range straddling Queensland and New South Wales, and from the Nullarbor east all the way to the mouth of the Murray. It’s thought to have declined by up to 90 per cent since European settlement, and it’s nationally listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Andado – where the gibber plains of the Lake Eyre Basin, the sand dunes and spinifex of the Simpson Desert and the runout of the Finke River all intersect – is a plains rat refuge, a place where it has always survived through the bleakest times. It booms and busts according to prevailing conditions; at least some of the historic records from further afield were probably never an indication of stable populations.

Overlooking Andado swamp at dusk, Andado Station, March 2015

Many of our arid-zone animals and birds have existed this way forever. The Flock Bronzewing, a pigeon that still occasionally darkens desert skies in aggregations of hundreds of thousands, is one. The Long-haired Rat is another, and the Letter-winged Kite – the world’s only nocturnal hawk – follows its periodic irruptions: as the rats spread, only to die off as conditions return to normal, so too do the kites.

It follows, then, that if a refuge is excessively degraded or disturbed, we go a long way to wiping out the animals that depend upon it, too. The difficulty is in identifying these areas. A refuge may be not much more than a dot on the map. It has taken a century, for example, to locate a stable, apparently sedentary population of the Night Parrot, long believed extinct. And refuges vary from species to species.

Dr Diana Fisher, a fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, is trying to map where these areas are. She points out that a species refuge “might not look much different to the rest of the landscape, but there’s something about it that protects them, not just from the dry conditions, but also predators and disease”.

Finding out where feral predators themselves eke out a living during bad times is helpful, too. “Cats are very good at surviving in the desert, but they have some limitations where they don’t do as well with very hot conditions,” Fisher says. “They have to find a refuge themselves, so finding where [they are] might enable us to use that information to control them.”

Non-government organisations such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have had some success creating their own wildlife refuges: heavily fenced areas, purged of feral animals, with surviving populations of native fauna such as the Woylie, a species of bettong, reintroduced from other areas, in miniature simulacrums of what the Australian landscape might once have looked like.

“There is now consensus at a policy and scientific level that a network of feral predator-free areas are required,” says Atticus Fleming, chief executive of the conservancy. He points to the Bilby. “The Bilby now lives in less than 5 percent of its original distribution and the population’s estimated at less than 10,000,” he says. “About 15 percent of the world population is on AWC land in feral predator-free areas.”

Again, feral predators are only one part of a more complex picture. While the Bilby needs all the help it can get to survive in Queensland’s Channel Country, it seems to be comfortably outlasting cats in the even more inhospitable Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Different stressors on different species rarely work in isolation. “We’ve already lost a lot of things – [many of] the bandicoots [including the bilby] and that sort of range of animals have gone, but defining what the disturbance would have to be to make those things disappear is the tricky one,” says Alistair Stewart, a fauna scientist with the Northern Territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Occasionally, it might be more straightforward. “There is potential for mining to be so selective that it could have a devastating effect – the footprint size of an open-cut mine could encompass one of these entire refuges,” Stewart says. Generally, though, that’s a bigger danger for our microfauna – hidden, less mobile invertebrates such as land snails – than it is for mammals and birds.

Refuges also might not function as well as before. They may be degraded by overstocking. In drought, the better-watered parts of the landscape support livestock as well as wildlife, putting pressure on smaller, less genetically diverse populations. And animals that disperse after rain are more easily wiped out by predators elsewhere. The result is that the booms aren’t as big and the busts are longer lasting.

The Letter-winged Kite is one species that has suffered, undergoing an almost imperceptible decline over the past 30 years. This graceful raptor breeds in colonies mostly in the Strzelecki and Diamantina River systems, dispersing across the continent during boom times. Now it is rarely seen outside its core range: cats have been observed in the bird’s nest trees, wiping out chicks and stifling population growth.

Not all of our fauna operates like this and not all refuges are climatic. Mountains and areas of rocky scree serve the same function. Fire doesn’t spread so quickly and it’s easier to make a quick escape from predators. In the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, the Black-footed Rock Wallaby is locally common, whereas a subspecies in the West Australian wheat belt is in dire trouble.

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based ecologist and guide, says animals such as the Long-tailed Dunnart – which truly is one of our loveliest marsupial mice, with a jauntily crested tail more than twice its body length, thought to be used as a balancing rod – might once have been far less strict in terms of its habitat requirements, but now survives in only the most rugged parts of the landscape.

Fisher backs this, saying there is evidence that there are few predators in rocky areas. “That’s a protective thing, perhaps, for things like rock wallabies and northern quolls. And also maybe it’s a better fire environment. But we’re not sure yet if it’s just the rugged habitat – there are fewer cats, and it’s easier for the animals to escape – or if there’s more vegetation, because the fire doesn’t get in there as much.”

The key point, Carter says, is that these safe havens are often not in the form we imagine and not where we might imagine them to be. “The one thing they’ve all got in common is that they’re extremely vulnerable. It wouldn’t take much to just completely wreck them for the animals that are so dependent on them.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 3 December 2016