Land management and the Encroaching City Boundaries

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Becoming a park ranger, the dream job for so many Fenner graduates. Getting paid to spend the day in the field, relaxing amongst nature. But how does the idealised vision differ from fact, especially when within the urban interface? This is what I aimed to discover when I spent the day working with rangers Simon and Pat at Canberra Nature Park.

Canberra Nature Park is split into several offices across the ACT, firstly by urban and regional centres, then into district areas. The Mitchell office, where I worked, deals with all CNP land within the north of Canberra. The large majority of the rangers’ role is to monitor ongoing projects, and can also be ceremoniously unglamorous. Yearly, each ranger will deal with upwards of 500 road kill, management of feral animals through shooting and fumigation, including the annual culling of kangaroos, and spraying of invasive plant species.

The first job I was involved with was to check out Duntroon Dairy, a heritage listed building circa 1836, thought to be the oldest surviving building in Canberra (Fig 1). Nestled at the foothill of Mount Pleasant, along the Molonglo River, it was entrusted to CNP due to its historical value. From there we did a visual inspection of Mount Pleasant, which has significant issues with invasive species. This is a persistent problem due to the fact that portions of the land are owned by the Department of Defence, who have different management objectives to CNP, and thus makes interdepartmental affairs more difficult to deal with.

Figure 1: Top: Duntroon Dairy, Bottom: Map of Heritage site (Conservation Management Plan)

Mount Ainslie and Mount Majura, on the other hand, are well managed for invasive weed species and have limited associated problems in contrast to Mount Pleasant. This is partially due to the collective work done by volunteer community groups. Previously, cleared paddocks on Mount Majura were infested with Paterson’s curse, Hedge Mustard and Flatweed, as well as other invasive species (Fig. 2). However, ‘Friends of Mount Majura’ have worked to control them, and consequently native species have repopulated the area, restoring natural resilience to the system (Fig. 3).

Figure 2: Top: Paddock on Mount Majura prior to weed control, October 2007, consisting mainly of Paterson’s Curse

The same paddock on Mount Majura in 2012, after weed control (Friends of Mount Majura)

Figure 3: Paddock on Mount Majura – by removing competitive Paterson’s Curse native ground cover species, like Common Everlastings, Chrysocephalum apiculatum, regrew (Friend of Mount Majura).

Despite ongoing work to restore landscapes within CNP, there is evidence that urbanisation is having a severe impact. On a small-scale I observed this through the intrusion of residential yards onto reserve land, which included the planting of non-native species and encouragement of invasive species, like Chilean needle grass, to grow (Fig. 4).

Figure 4: Residential backyard intruding onto reserve land, encouraging Chilean needle grass to spread

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Development intrusion was also viewed on Bruce Ridge, where the tourist park had contracted to place a physical barrier, preventing runoff from flooding their site. This involved removal of the understorey and significant disturbance to the site to allow heavy machinery in. CNP rangers are responsible for monitoring work, the extent to which the landscape has been altered and to evaluate how it is recovering over time. Currently, the site is highly disturbed in comparison to the surrounding landscape, with little to no ground cover, and it remains unknown whether the tourist park is contractually obliged to cover the cost of restoration (fig 5).

Figure 5: undisturbed sites on Bruce Ridge, O’Connor

Sites where drainage lines and a physical barrier have been erected to prevent runoff and erosion

Sites where vegetation had been removed to create barrier

On a large-scale, the threat of urban expansion is apparent within the grasslands and offset sites around Canberra. As new developments grow around the bush capital, rangers have to manage new areas of land designated as offset sites. A site adjacent to Mount Ainslie reserve has been given to CNP to counterbalance a nearby development, but offers several obstacles in the process to restoration. While invasive species are either controlled or sprayed for on Mount Ainslie, the offset site is chockfull of Serrated tussock, Chilean needle grass, Paterson’s curse and has an estimated population of 40,000 kangaroos, all of which will somehow have to be controlled and managed within a defined budget.

An effective management plan for weed control could include burning during early spring before the plants go to seed, however this can be challenging as it may still be too green. Furthermore, kangaroo culling within the ACT is a controversial issue, causing social and political tension, with many groups in open opposition, while rangers agreeing that it is the best, and sometimes only, management option.

Figure: 6 Visual representation of the drivers, pressures and effects of pressures viewed in CNP

The natural temperate grasslands of Australia once covered an estimated 250,000 hectares. However, it makes for prime agricultural land, and therefore it has become fragmented since European settlement, invaded by species like Serrated tussock, African Lovegrass, St. Johns Wart and Phalaris. Today only 1% of these lands remains in the ACT. Crace Grassland is home to rare and endemic species, like the Grassland Earless Dragon, the Stripped Legless Lizard and the Button Wrinklewort (fig. 7). Concern for these threatened species is driven by the fact that they occur within different patches of the grassland, but all face the risk disappearing from this site with the encroachment of St Johns Wort. The Button Wrinklewort, in particular, only occurs in a very small patch of loamy clay soils (fig. 8). The Grassland Earless Dragon and Stripped Legless Lizard have slightly different ecosystem requirements, and thus controlling St Johns Wort without harming their population is challenging for the rangers. Furthermore, Phalaris, a introduced grass, is prolific within this grassland, however kangaroos prefer to graze on native forbs. This causes increased grazing pressure on native species already under intense competition from weeds, and thus over time will deplete the biodiversity of the grasslands. One management solution is to lease the land out to cattle farmers, which controls the Phalaris, and by carrying out rotational grazing limits the total grazing pressure on the paddocks. Moreover, cattle decrease the fire risk by reducing fuel load.

Figure 7: Stripped Legless Lizard

Grassland Earless Dragon (Environment, ACT)

Figure 8: Grace Grassland, Mitchell, showing the area in which Button Wrinklewort grows. The loamy, clay soils only cover approximately 50 meters (Google maps)

Encroachment of the city edge and urban sprawl poses a large threat to the natural capital of Canberra. While the day-to-day work of an urban ranger may encompass cleaning up road kill, dealing with public complaints and giving ‘move on’ notices to swooping magpies, as human interaction with the environment inevitably increases, their work in protecting biodiversity will become increasingly vital.

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Birding in Capertee

A flash of black and yellow streaks across the lens of the binoculars I’m peering through. I swing them around and manage to focus on a bird for a brief moment before it darts off again through the trees. It flies back and forth, but never stays still long enough for me to get a good look at it. It pauses briefly and I get another quick peek at it, before the wind blows through the tall yellow box tree in front of me and the little regent honeyeater launches out across the valley and disappears from view.

*                      *                   *

I’ve come up to the Capertee Valley for a couple of nights to help a PhD student, Ross Crates, with his work looking at the conservation of the Regent Honeyeater (Anthochaera Phrygia), a critically endangered bird. Krish, Shiyao and myself drove up from Canberra to the Capertee Valley, which is about 4.5 hours north of Canberra, on the western fall of the Blue Mountains.

We met Ross in Lithgow, and then followed him out towards Capertee. We stayed at Ross’ place, which was a sweet little set up in the back of a farm shed on a friendly landowner’s property.

 

The new morning we woke uo early, packed our food for the day and drove off into the Capertee National Park. NSW Parks and Wildlife bought the valley about 6 years ago for conservation purposes, as it is one of the last valleys that has viable habitat for the Regents, and is one of three key breeding sites. It’s mostly been cleared in the last 60-100 years for grazing but would have been yellow box/ironbark/red gum grassy woodland.

Now there are a few paddock trees that dot the valley, and along with the casuarinas that line the river, provide the habitat for the last of the honeyeaters. Like much of eastern Australia, it is dusty and dry at the moment – the Capertee river is a rocky water course with only a few stagnant pools in the shade below tall stands of casuarinas.

 

It was really windy for most of the day, roaring up through the valley. We followed Ross around as he pointed out the different species of trees that support the birds, and showed us some of the nesting trees.

We saw quite a few pairs of birds as well as some on their own. The regents are breeding at the moment, because the yellow box has started flowering, as well as some of the other food sources – mistletoe in the casuarinas and some of the mugga ironbark. Ross reckons there’s about 350 wild honeyeaters left, only a fraction of the population that would have existed before European colonisation. Habitat loss is the driver behind their rapid decline – they fill a niche in the box gum grassy woodland that provides for them to breed and feed safely. As this habitat declines, the pressure amongst populations of birds increases, as well as competition (from other species such as friarbirds and noisy minors) for limited resources.

 

Most of the arvo that day was spent watering trees (yellow box and mugga ironbark’s) that had been planted the season prior. We spent a good hour or more trying to start the little Davey water pump, but to no avail. Instead we watered the trees by hand, siphoning the water out of the tank when the level got to low for gravity to work in our favour.

Ross is hoping that the honeyeaters can hang in for another 30-40 years whilst the trees mature to an age where they begin flowering and producing nectar. Its a slow process. The changing climate and predictions in weather forecasting will no doubt make strategies like this harder to execute in the future.

 

The highlight of the trip was the time we spent birdwatching – it was a pretty amazing opportunity to observe such a rare species in the wild. It was a funny feeling to watch the regents, knowing that there was a fairly good chance they might be found out here in another 30 or 40 years.

 

The journey back to Canberra was quite pleasant, with a quick stop at the bakery in Lithgow for an esteemed pepper steak pie. Most of that drive was at night and luckily the wombats and kangaroos were having a quite one, so there wasn’t too much swerving or swearing.

 

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Behind locked gates – a combination code is required to enter the park. Bogan proofing…

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Krish having a crack on the parabolic dish microphone. Using this we were able to record some calls of the regent honeyeater.

Here’s a short video of some of the footage from the trip – no regent honeyeaters were harmed… (or filmed for that matter, they’re bloody quick!)

 

– Aston

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Day in the Life: Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, ACT

Located just a 40-minute drive from Canberra’s city center, the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve (TNR) operates as an ecotourism facility striving for sustainable land management and environmental operations, focusing on conserving natural and cultural values. TNR operates through three primary divisions; the Ranger Team, Wildlife Team and Visitor Team. Throughout my volunteer experience, I was fortunate enough to accompany both the Rangers and Wildlife Officers, gaining insight into what a day in their working lives entails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. Tidbinbilla Map Outlining all sites visited including: Depot, Sanctuary, Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby, Woodland and Eucalypt forest zones (taken from ACT Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve).

 

The Ranger Team

Focusing on environmental and conservation management issues (Naughton-Treves et al, 2005), the Ranger experience commenced with a Ranger Guided Activity (RGAs) an educational tool for primary school participants (ACT Government, 2017). Tidbinbilla, derived from the Ngunnawal word ‘Jedbinbilla’, holds indigenous and heritage significance. A presentation of specific indigenous content was led by Ranger Travis, through his demonstration of indigenous artifacts documenting Tidbinbilla’s indigenous history, promoting indigenous culture and heritage conservation (ACT Government, 2017). Sharing traditional knowledge about local fauna and flora like the Bracken Fern sap, used to neutralizes insect bites, the children’s concentration began to lag and havoc was unleashed upon the various boomerang and spear artifacts.

Figure 2. Indigenous artifact RGA led by Ranger Travis to First Grade Condor Primary Students.

 

The RGA Platypus pursuits activity led by Ranger Tom, involved the primary school participants walking around the Tidbinbilla’s wetlands in search of platypus. Although the platypus sightings were scarce on this bitterly cold morning, mistaken for debris induced pond ripples, the important take home message for the children was the significance of TNR promoting biodiversity conservation.

The Wildlife Team

Focusing on captive wildlife management, the Wildlife Officers run the Endangered Species Breeding Program, targeting conservation of the Pseudophryne pengilleyi (Northern Corroboree Frog), the Petrogale penicillata (Southern Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby) and the Bettongia gaimardi (Eastern Bettong) (ACT Government, 2017).

Tagging along with Wildlife Officer Hannah, I spent the morning cleaning and preparing tanks for the 1047 individuals undergoing metamorphosis from the 2017 insurance population bank. The Northern Corroboree Frog (NCF) is a Critically Endangered Native species with current wild population estimates of less than 100 individuals within the ACT (ACT Government, 2017).  The TNR NCF breeding program is the largest active captive breeding program, aiming to bolster wild population levels through the annual release of approximately half of their adult insurance population. The breeding program consists of first and second-generative captive bred frogs, established in 2003 through the capture of 400 wild individuals (ACT Government, 2017).  The significance of this starter population is that the current insurance population reflects wild species genetic diversity, preventing genetic bottlenecking and ensuring sufficient genetic diversity within future captive populations, enabling re-introduction to be a viable conservation strategy.

The identified biodiversity threats for the NCF is the Chytris fungus pathogen, driving population vulnerability by reducing viable alpine sphagnum bog environments (Corroborree Frog.Org, 2016). The program’s success is attributed to the captive populations protection from predators, biodiversity threats and regulating food supply. The adult populations are fed a non-variable diet of crickets bi-weekly, ensuring that the NCF individuals receive adequate nutritional intake enabling populations persistence. The program has been successful in prolonging the NCF estimated life span of 9 years within wild population, evident by the current breeding partners age of 14 years (ACT Government, 2017).

Monitoring the population survival upon release is essential in indicating whether the breeding program has been successful in bolstering wild population levels. The Wildlife Team are currently in the process of auditing population numbers, however, auditing the population for survival is difficult as it involves Conservation Research members recording the number of male breeding calls produced over the summer breeding season, often resulting in an inaccurate record of wild population levels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Two adult Pseudophryne pengilleyi (Northern Corroboree Frog) members from the 2016 TNR breeding program insurance population.

 

After spending the morning surrounded by over 1000 amphibians, it was about time to delve into all things marsupial, embarking on the Southern Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby and Eastern Bettong Breeding Program adventures.

The Petrogale penicillata is recognised as an endangered species within NSW, protected under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (CoA, 2017).  TNR has approximately 70% of the Australian captive breeding population and their management program operates in partnership with several local agencies, targeting the release of their insurance population into VIC as part of the national recovery breeding program (ACT Government, 2017). The identified biodiversity threats for these acrobatic individuals is habitat loss, introduced exotic flora, changed fire regimes, urban development, introduced feral predators, increased food competition and past hunting activities.

The Bettongia gaimardi has received prioritised resource allocation by the Australian government to support population recovery due to its important species ecosystem services of native fungi spore distribution (CoA, 2017).  The focus of the TNR breeding program is to retain genetic diversity through an insurance population, through partnerships with the ANU and CSIRO for reintroduction of populations within large feral-free enclosures at locations including Mulligan’s Flat Woodland Sanctuary. The identified biodiversity threats for the Eastern Bettong include land clearing, agriculture developments, overgrazing, predation from introduced species and competition against introduced species (ACT Government, 2017).

The TNR is able to promote population persistence within both species by conserving prime vegetation corridors, providing exotic flora and fauna management and understanding controlled burning techniques which reduce the intensity of bush fires and subsequent habitat loss (ACT Government, 2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. Some of the Petrogale penicillata eucalypt forest enclosure population during feeding rounds.

 

Assisting the Wildlife team with the maintenance of selective eucalypt and casuarina forest enclosures, for these vulnerable marsupial populations and running through the daily routine checklist of food preparation, feeding, enclosure cleaning, water level checks and nesting installations, I finally understand just why these park and service roles are highly competitive to secure (ACT Government, 2017).

After totaling a day of lifting 16 hay bales, walking around for 3hrs in sub-zero temperatures and scrubbing over 30 fungi-covered wood fragments, I can certainly say that this job is not for the weak or faint-hearted. Although challenging, these roles are extremely rewarding and directly result in cultural and biodiversity conservation.  This opportunity has been extremely gratifying and I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the conservation operations and educational endeavors pursued by the TNR team surrounding the anthropogenic-environmental interface (Bickford et al, 2012).

I would like to thank the TNR team, in particular Officers Kristy, Tom, Travis and Hannah, for allowing me to tag along for this experience, an opportunity which I hope to participate again in the near future.

Written by: u5808910

Word count: 989

References

ACT Government, 2017. Aboriginal Connections to Tidbinbilla. https://www.tidbinbilla.act.gov.au/learn/tidbinbilla/aboriginal-connections-to-tidbinbilla. Viewed on the 06 September 2017.

ACT Government, 2017. Endangered Species Breeding Programs. https://www.tidbinbilla.act.gov.au/learn/tidbinbilla/endangered-species-breeding-programs. Viewed on the 06 September 2017.

ACT Government, 2017. Parks and Conservation. http://www.environment.act.gov.au/ACT-parks-conservation. Viewed on the 06 September 2017.

ACT Government, 2017. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. 2017 https://www.tidbinbilla.act.gov.au/learn/tidbinbilla. Viewed on the 06 September 2017.

Bickford, D., Posa, M.R.C., Qie, L., Campos-Arceiz, A. and Kudavidanage, E.P., 2012. Science communication for biodiversity conservation. Biological Conservation, 151(1), pp.74-76.

Commonwealth of Australia, 2017. Biodiversity: Threatened species and ecological communities publications; Brush-tailed rock-wallaby- Petrogale penicillata. http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/brush-tailed-rock-wallaby-petrogale-penicillata. Viewed on the 06 September 2017.

Commonwealth of Australia, 2017. Species Profile and Threats Database; Bettongia gaimardi. http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=211. Viewed on the 06 September 2017.

Corroborree Frog.Org, 2016. Biology: Corroboree Frog Recovery Program. http://www.corroboreefrog.org.au/biology/fast-facts/. Viewed on the 06 September 2017.

Naughton-Treves, L., Holland, M.B. and Brandon, K., 2005. The role of protected areas in conserving biodiversity and sustaining local livelihoods. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 30(1), pp.219-252.

 

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Last ones in the wild: Regent honeyeaters.

The regent honey-eater.

 


            Introduction and issues:

    Some organisms are so rare, and at such low a number, that in a day’s time, and within the radius of a few kilometres, one can find a significant proportion of their existing population. One of these is the regent honeyeater (Anthochera phrygia, Shaw, 1794), which only has 350- 400 remaining individuals in the wild (Crates et al, 2017). This is a critically endangered bird, whose populations have declined by over 80% in the last three decades (BirdLife International, 2016). To observe this species in the wild, Aston, Shiyao, and I went to the Capertee Valley National Park, which is one of the last remnant habitats where they can be found breeding (Geering & French, 1998), and we met Ross Crates, who has been studying these birds since three years. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, these birds are usually difficult to monitor, but at Capertee, they have been nesting at the same spots since 3 years.

A google map of Capertee national park, with our site marked in white

 

 

A 3D google map image, of our site. It contains around 5% of the world’s regent honeyeater population!

                   A. phrygia is a nectivorous and insectivorous bird, endemic to NSW and S. QLD, that specialises on trees like the yellow box, iron bark, and mistletoe (Oliver, 2000). It has lost most of its habitat, because these trees exist on fertile land that was cleared for agriculture, or for timber, while remnant habitat exists in small isolated patches, which are heavily fragmented (Garnett et al, 2011). Today, most of their habitat is restricted to paddock trees. Our site, in the Capertee valley had a lot of these tree, hence becoming a stronghold for these birds. Ross said that the honeyeaters have faced an extinction vortex because of their small numbers. Before being at such low numbers, these birds would have flocked and travelled in groups, which would protect them from predation, but now, their vulnerability to predation is much higher. These birds also learn their calls from conspecifics, but because of their low numbers, Ross has been observing many of them make wrong calls, probably because they do not have enough conspecific individuals around them to learn the correct call (Liu et al, 2014), which is preventing them from finding each other, although, some have argued that this could be mimicry (Roderick, 2014; Veerman, 2016). They have also faced a sex ratio bias towards males, causing a skew in their mating system, with not enough females being around (Ewen et al, 2011). Their low numbers have also caused competitors, such as friarbirds, and noise miners, to outcompete them (Ford et al, 1993). I also hypothesize that they would be facing inbreeding depression, and future studies could look at this.

Flowers of the mistletoe: a favourite of the honeyeaters.

            Conservation practices:

 Ross’ research is trying to come up with solutions to conserve this species. One of the things he has done at Capertee, is the planting of over 300 trees of ironbark and yellow box. He says that even then, we would have to wait for a few decades, for the trees to be old enough to produce flowers and be suitable habitat. Till then, conservation efforts would have to prevent any further clearing of this habitat, and maintain the bird in low densities. Nectar is very important for the occurrence of this species, and he has found most of their habitat to be around nectar producing trees (Crates et al, 2017). Captive breeding programs and reintroduction have been undertaken for this bird, but even that has had its own problems (Liu et al, 2014), the main one being lack of suitable habitat where these birds can be released. So, even if we do increase their numbers, they wouldn’t breed, because there wouldn’t be enough nesting sites available. Ross is also using GIS to search for other suitable habitats where this bird may exist (Crates et al, 2017), or can be introduced into, which has been done previously (Oliver & Lollback, 2010). Till now, he has found a few hundred potential sites. He also studies site fidelity in this bird, and is testing whether they come back to the same site to breed, or migrate to different patches of land elsewhere. This would aid us to understand the movement of this species better, across a fragmented habitat, and measure the effects of habitat size and connectivity, on these birds. Fragmentation also creates edge effects, increases stochasticity, predation, and genetic problems, and it would be interesting to test whether such is the case for the honeyeater (Ford et al, 2001). We helped him monitor these birds, by looking for colour bands he had put on their legs, to see whether there were any new individuals in the area, or tagged individuals from previous years. We also searched for new individuals in locations he hadn’t surveyed before, and found 2 two new pairs that were about to start building their nests. This would allow him to create a spatial map of individuals, their nesting sites, and their feeding grounds. Ross is also trying to reduce predation on these birds and their eggs, by reducing their travel time between nest and water. He has placed water tubs near their nests, where they can go to for a drink. He also monitors their behaviour, and is testing whether nesting and breeding coincide with flowering of trees, and whether territoriality depends on the amount of flowers on a tree. He predicts that males would become more territorial, and spend more time chasing competitors away, when flowers come into bloom (Oliver, 1998). This could lead to lesser food being fed to chicks, which is a result of not enough nectar producing trees being around.

Old growth yellow box paddock trees in a fragmented agricultural landscape: a habitat for honeyeaters.

          Ross says that most areas from where museum specimens for this bird were collected, are farms or urban areas now, and habitat is the biggest limiting factor for its recovery. He says that many honeyeater sites are still being converted to farms, and being offsetted inappropriately, to either unsuitable habitat, or areas which are too far away for migration, and offset restoration is being done by planting non-habitat trees. We noticed another limitation: water. Drought has been shown to reduce nesting success of these birds (Geering & French, 1998). During our visit, Capertee was completely dry, and had received much lower rain that previous years. Many saplings that Ross had planted had withered. Most of the individuals that we saw, were nested around mistletoes that parasitised casuarina, along stream banks. These sites are crucial for conservation of this species, because they have water even during drought years, and hence need to be prioritised for conservation, in order to save these birds. We helped Ross water the saplings, so that in 40 years’ time, they would grow into suitable paddock trees, and [hopefully] become nesting and feeding host spots for these birds. This also made me realise how water can be a limiting resource for an entire community of organisms. I wonder what impact climate change would have on such habitats, with increase in temperature and aridity, and greater unpredictability in rainfall.

Casuarina along streams, with mistletoes on them: suitable riparian habitat.

Aston watering yellow box saplings

           The Park has also carried out culling of 400 noisy miners, which they think will increase the numbers of regent honeyeaters. Noisy miners are very territorial, and compete with honeyeaters for nectar, and often exclude them from suitable habitat (Clark & Grey, 2010). They also prevent lerp eating species, such as pardalotes and honeyeaters, from accessing iron bark and yellow box trees, which can cause a boom in lerp populations, leading to dieback of trees which are habitat and food for regent honeyeaters. Since the culling, Ross has observed regents in areas where they wouldn’t usually go to or nest in, due to competition from miners, and also an increase in honeyeater numbers. The honeyeaters also need the presence of birds, like the mistletoe bird, to facilitate their niche. The mistletoe bird propagates mistletoe seeds, from host to host, allowing mistletoes to parasitize their hosts, providing important food source for the honeyeater. We also helped Ross plant some new Mugger Iron bark saplings, which in the future, would restore their habitat. One problem with planting these trees is that they need low nutrient soil, but because the valley has been used for farming previously, it is rich in phosphorous, which causes exotic plants to outcompete natives (Lambers et al, 2013).

An area from where miners have been culled. New ironbark saplings were planted here. 

 

           

Aston digs a pit, where new sapling will be planted. These will become habitat trees for honeyeaters, after a few decades.

                We spent our last few hours sitting and looking at these rare birds, observing what they do, and appreciating this opportunity we got, to observe them before they may go extinct in the wild. I pondered on the joys of bird watching, something I hadn’t done since a long time. Our 3 day internship had come to an end. I not only learnt about the life history of, and conservation efforts for this species, but also got the privilege of being one of the few people in the world to observe this critically endangered bird in the wild. The regent honeyeater has a very small chance of surviving in the future, and it was surprising to see how much effort is put into saving a single species [without any guarantee], a species whose habitat we destroyed in an eye blink. There seems to be no effective short-term solution for this species’ conservation, because of its habitat being so limited, hence we need to conserve it long enough for our long-term habitat recovery plans to become effective. We also need a long-term monitoring program, that tests whether our efforts are meeting conservation objectives. I still remain optimistic for its survival, and hope that the little time we spent trying to restore its habitat and monitor it, is useful in its conservation.

A painting of honeyeaters, on the national park entrance. A flagship species that may soon be extinct.

 

 

 

 

 

Krish Sanghvi,

u5871443


References:

BirdLife International. 2016. Anthochaera phrygia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22704415A93967301. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22704415A93967301.en. Downloaded on 07 September 2017.

Clarke, M.F. and Grey, M.J., 2010. Managing an overabundant native bird: the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala). Temperate Woodland Conservation and Management, pp.115-126.

Crates, R., Terauds, A., Rayner, L., Stojanovic, D., Heinsohn, R., Ingwersen, D. and Webb, M., 2017. An occupancy approach to monitoring regent honeyeaters. The Journal of Wildlife Management81(4), pp.669-677.

Ewen, J.G., Clarke, R.H., Moysey, E., Boulton, R.L., Crozier, R.H. and Clarke, M.F., 2001. Primary sex ratio bias in an endangered cooperatively breeding bird, the black-eared miner, and its implications for conservation. Biological Conservation101(2), pp.137-145.

Ford, H.A., Barrett, G.W., Saunders, D.A. and Recher, H.F., 2001. Why have birds in the woodlands of southern Australia declined?. Biological Conservation97(1), pp.71-88.

Ford, H., Davis, W.E., Debus, S., Ley, A., Recher, H. and Williams, B., 1993. Foraging and aggressive behaviour of the Regent Honeyeater Xanthomyza phrygia in northern New South Wales. Emu-Austral Ornithology93(4), pp.277-281.

Garnett, S., Szabo, J. and Dutson, G., 2011. The action plan for Australian birds 2010. CSIRO PUBLISHING.

Geering, D. and French, K., 1998. Breeding Biology of the Regent Honeyeater Xanthomyza phrygia in the Capertee Valley, New South Wales. Emu-Austral Ornithology98(2), pp.104-116.

Lambers, H., Ahmedi, I., Berkowitz, O., Dunne, C., Finnegan, P.M., Hardy, G.E.S.J., Jost, R., Laliberté, E., Pearse, S.J. and Teste, F.P., 2013. Phosphorus nutrition of phosphorus-sensitive Australian native plants: threats to plant communities in a global biodiversity hotspot. Conservation Physiology1(1), p.cot010.

Liu, S.C., Gillespie, J., Atchison, N. and Andrew, P., 2014. The recovery programme for the Regent honeyeater Anthochaera phrygia: an example of conservation collaboration in Australia. International zoo yearbook48(1), pp.83-91.

Oliver, D.L., 2000. Foraging behaviour and resource selection of the Regent Honeyeater Xanthomyza phrygia in northern New South Wales. Emu-Austral Ornithology100(1), pp.12-30.

Oliver, D.L. and Lollback, G.W., 2010. Breeding habitat selection by the endangered Regent Honeyeater Anthochaera phrygia (Meliphagidae) at the local and landscape scale. Pacific Conservation Biology16(1), pp.27-35.

Roderick, M., 2014. Observations of a Regent Honeyeater performing mimicry of a Little Wattlebird. The Whistler 8, p.58.

Veerman, P.A., 2016. Batesian acoustic mimicry by the Regent Honeyeater Xanthomyza phrygia. Australian Field Ornithology15(6).



 

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Potoroo Surveying at Tibinbilla Nature Reserve

What can be better than working in nature with adorable animals? This August I had an opportunity to spend 3 days helping out in a student project on the long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus) population at Tibinbilla Nature Reserve (TNR). I had a great experience learning new things and meeting some really nice people.

Long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus)

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Fig.1 Potoroo at TNR

Long-nosed potoroo is a small marsupial distributed along south eastern coast of Australia, from Queensland to eastern Victoria and Tasmania. It inhabits in coastal heath and dry and wet sclerophyll forests with dense understorey and occasional open areas. Its diet includes underground fruiting, fungi, roots, and insects. It is very important to the native ecosystem as it helps to distribute fungi spores that are essential to form mycorrhizae on the roots of various plants. The species is currently listed as Near Threatened under IUCN red list, but vulnerable nationally and in various states. The major threats to this species include habitat loss, predator by European Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and Feral Cats (Felis catus), residential and industrial development and increasing fire frequency.

 

Background of our long-nosed potoroo project

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Fig.2 A map of Eucapytus Forest, Sanctuary and Woodland in TNR

Due to the significant role long-nosed potoroo plays in native forests, there are lots of efforts putting into the conservation of this species. Institutions such as Taronga and Healesville Sanctuary have been breeding and reintroducing the potoroos back to their natural habitats. TNR started participating in the conversation of long-nosed potoroos 7 years ago by introducing them into enclosures to breed them and help them adapt to the wild. Currently, most potoroos in TNR are kept in the Eucalyptus Forest (as shown on the map), but you may also find them in other places around TNR. The rangers there supplement their diet but they also ensure that the potoroos are finding their own food. After 7 years of breeding, TNR lacks the data of the current potoroo population. For future planning and management, it is necessary to know more about their genetic information, gender distribution, health, etc. Therefore, Our fellow student Holly took on the project with Sam as her supervisor, and I was lucky enough to participate in this interesting project.

 

Field work

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Fig.3 the map of all our trap points at Eucalyptus Forest

This map shows how we set our traps in the Eucalyptus Forest. We set 40 traps in 20 trap points on both sides of the walking track and near the feeder. On our field days, we arrive TNR at 9:00 am and set our traps, we finish setting our traps at around 10:00 am, then we collect the traps at 2:00 pm and usually finish at around 4:30-5:00 pm. The primary aim of the study was to determine the abundance and genetic diversity of the potoroo population, which involved identifying gender, DNA sampling (taking a little bit of tissue from the tip of their ear) and microchipping them. As the people from TNR also wanted to know more about their health condition, we also recorded their weight, foot length, testicular length and observation of pouch young. By analyzing the foot length in relation to body weight we can get information about the condition of the animal as weight alone does not provide this. We also tried to record their body condition by feeling their muscles and fat near their hip, but there was not many past studies about this technique so the result accuracy was uncertain.

Reflections

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I came up with a few questions about the future planning of this potoroo population. First of all, what will we do with this potoroo population? With human supplementing the diet of potoroos and being kept away from predators, it is expected that the population will grow beyond the capacity of the enclosure in the future. Are we considering relocating them and reintroducing them back to the natural environment? When will be the most suitable timing for reintroduction? The problem of this potoroo population in TNR is that they are obviously very active during the day, which I assume is because of their feeding program during the day. Given that human activities have influenced the population so much, how can we make sure the population is ready to be reintroduced back to their natural environment?

Jennifer, our contact in TNR gave me the answers to my questions. Yes, they intend to reintroduce or translocate the potoroo in the future. Right now they are in phase 1 of their study, and they want to make sure that the population is growing and has adapted to the environment in Eucalyptus Forest. After learning more about the genetic diversity and assess their suitability for reintroduction, they can consider what to do next. If the population has sufficient genetic diversity, they can work towards phase 2 of their study: restoring more natural behaviors. This may be done by retraining current animals or putting next generation in a different scenario. For example, using the feeders at night to see if this changes behavior. If the population does not have sufficient genetic diversity, then TNR may need to introduce a new population of potoroo and revise their methods over last 7 years.

It was a great experience learning new things about how to collect data from wild animals in the field, about the management plan of a threatened animal, and to work with people with a passion for the environment. I would like to thank everyone worked with me in this project, Sam, Holly, Jennifer, all other rangers, and volunteers. I hope this project can be a huge success.

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See also:

IUCN red list – Long-nosed potoroo: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41511/0

Sam’s website: http://sambanks.weebly.com/

Species Profile and Threat Database of long-nosed potoroo: http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=66645

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve website: https://www.tidbinbilla.act.gov.au/

Useful articles about long-nosed potoroo:

Bennett, A. F., 1993. Microhabitat use by the long-nosed potoroo, Potorous tridactylus, and other small mammals in remnant forest vegetation, south-western Victoria. Wildlife Research20(3), 267-285.

Claridge, A. W., Tanton, M. T., Seebeck, J. H., Cork, S. J., & Cunningham, R. B., 1992. Establishment of ectomycorrhizae on the roots of two species of Eucalyptus from fungal spores contained in the faeces of the long‐nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus). Austral Ecology17(2), 207-217.

Norton, M. A., French, K., & Claridge, A. W., 2011. Habitat associations of the long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus) at multiple spatial scales. Australian journal of zoology58(5), 303-316.

 

 

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Land Management Care in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, Act

DOODOODOO! Perhaps the most hated sound in the universe, the ringing of an alarm, rudely jolted me from my sleep at 0600 to provide a rather unpleasant start to the day. Nevertheless, I still had a sense of excitement for the day ahead. The ranger career has always piqued my interest; although this was primarily attributed to my lack of knowledge as to what the job description of a reserve ranger actually entailed. So, for all those  interested in a career affiliated with nature reserves who are in the same boat I was, maybe through this blog, I can shed some light as to what being a ranger, apart from waking up at hideous hours of the day, actually means.

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, A Brief Introduction.

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is one of several protected areas that form the Australian Alps National Parks (Figure 1), the primary aim of these organisations being the conservation of the region’s ecosystem and flora and fauna. Tidbinbilla is a culturally and historically significant area, being home to a large amount of both Indigenous Australian and European settlement history. It also serves as a sanctuary for wildlife from the perturbations of urban related human impacts, supporting a wide range of animal species. More importantly, the reserve is a key player in the conservation of several critically endangered species such as Pseudophryne pengilleyi (Northern Corroboree Frog) and  Bettongia gaimardi (Eastern Bettong) (ACT Government 2017). Within these contexts, the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, works through two primary conduits: ranger teams and wildlife teams.

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Figure 1. Australian Alps National Parks Configuration (taken from Australian Alps National Parks n.d.).

Tidbinbilla Rangers: The Experience

I worked with two rangers during my time at Tidbinbilla: Alinta & Murray. In particular, I felt pretty lucky to have worked with Murray, who was the longest serving current ranger, with over seven years of experience of working with the reserve. Throughout the day, we completed four main tasks: campground maintenance, water path creation, trail maintenance and a public koala information talk. I’ll discuss these activities in the context of two major themes: land management & the human-environment interface.

Land Management

Protected areas and their management are an increasingly vital conservation tool in Australia and globally, particularly as threats such as habitat loss continue to grow in scale and effect (Naughton-Treves et al 2005). But the management of such areas is incredibly complex, so how might this manifest? In Tidbinbilla, this takes several forms such as weed management and land care, although we focused on the latter. Our first task was creating water paths, which involved shaping the gravel trail by making mounds of gravel + clay mixture to influence the way water moved through the landscape. Murray told me the purpose of this was to prevent erosion caused by rain, which could lead to the removal of gravel from underneath the fencing which protected a reserved area for the critically endangered rock wallabies and other macropods and mammals, allowing feral predators to infiltrate this area. Feral animals are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity in Australia, able to decimate native populations, often through competition, disease spread or predation (Commonwealth of Australia n.d.). In particular, feral predators like cats, have been a driving factor of mammal and small macropod population declines, in Australia and globally (Doherty et al 2017). In this way, it was quite shocking to realise the extent to which this pressure on biodiversity acted on, even impacting biodiversity in protected regions.

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Figure 2. Feral Cats are one of the biggest threats to Australian biodiversity (taken from Sydney Morning Herald).

We also did some work with trail management; hacking up and removing a tree branch which had fallen onto the trail path. While I didn’t get to use the chainsaw myself, I sure can testify that it looks like good fun. However, the most interesting aspect was Murray’s usage of these chopped up log sections. He sawed crevices into the log sections, explaining that through this he was providing micro-habitat for species to exploit. Although small in scope, Murray had been able to increase habitat complexity and niche space. It’s certainly something to consider how we could implement this sort of action and thinking into the management of recreational and protected urban nature spaces to better offset and mitigate habitat loss effects incurred by development.

Humans & The Environment

The campground maintenance simply involved checking over the facilities, and also collecting payments from the campers there. It was particularly interesting to meet a family of campers who had a family tradition of camping at Tidbinbilla during the winter. I also watched as Murray, Alinta and some wildlife team members, conducted a public information session about koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) at the Tidbinbilla koala compound, talking about their physiology, history and ecology.

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Figure 3. One of the koalas at Tidbinbilla (taken myself).

While I have been up to Tidbinbilla multiple times on hiking trips, these jobs reminded me that this reserve also aims to provide an area whereby people and families may interconnect with the Australia wilderness. The importance of this may often be overlooked in biodiversity conservation and management. The education of people about our native species and the threats these animals and vegetation face as a direct ramification of anthropogenic forces should be considered vital in developing a more sustainable and environmentally conscious society (Bickford et al 2012). Similarly, encouraging people to connect more personally with the human and environment interface through nature based recreation can aid in rearranging pre-ingrained societal notions that drive mindless economic development and environmental exploitation and resulting pressures on biodiversity (Miller 2005).

Final Words

I have to say, working with the rangers at Tidbinbilla was a gratifying and informative experience. It provided me with insight into a potential career avenue, and also taught me a lot about land care management and its inextricable link between biodiversity conservation. Would definitely recommend this experience!

Many thanks to Alinta and Murray for taking me with them for the day, and Kristy Gould for (ranger in charge) for allowing me to do work experience at Tidbinbilla.

Written by: U5797939

Word Count: 999

References 

ACT Government (2017), ‘Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve’, viewed the 20th of August, 2017 https://www.tidbinbilla.act.gov.au/learn/tidbinbilla

Australian Alps National Parks (n.d.), ‘Maps’, viewed the 20th of August 2017 https://theaustralianalps.wordpress.com/experience/aawt/maps/

Bickford, D., Posa, M.R.C., Qie, L., Campos-Arceiz, A. & Kudavidanage, E.P. (2012), ‘Science communication for biodiversity conservation’, Biological Conservation, vol. 151, no. 1, pp. 74-76.

Commonwealth of Australia (n.d.), ‘Feral Animals in Australia’, viewed the 20th of August 2017 http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive-species/feral-animals-australia

Doherty, T.S., Dickman, C.R., Johnson, C.N., Legge, S.M., Ritchie, E.G. & Woinarski, J.C.Z. (2017), ‘Impacts and manegement of feral cats Felis catus in Australia’, Mammal Review, vol.47, no.2, p.83 – 97

Miller, J.R. (2005), ‘Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience’, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, vol. 20, no. 8, pp. 430-434.

Naughton-Treves, L., Holland, M.B. & Brandon, K. (2005), ‘The role of protected areas in conserving biodiversity and sustaining local livelihoods’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 30, no.1, p.219 – 252

Power, Julie (2017), ‘War on Feral Cats: Australia Aims to Cull 2 Million’, viewed the 20th of August 2017 http://www.smh.com.au/national/war-on-feral-cats-australia-aims-to-cull-2-million-20170214-gucp4o.html

 

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Restoring remnant vegetation and reducing Biodiversity loss in farmland: The Agricultural Matrix in the Far South Coast of NSW

The Bega Valley on the Far South Coast of NSW is one of the most picturesque coastal regions in Australia, with far reaching coastlines mixed with rich and diverse National Parks, such as Biamanga, Ben Boyd and Bournda.

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Bournda National Park (NSW National Parks 2016)

The area is as well well known for its agricultural produce, with Bega Cheese providing the largest employment for the region, with dairy farms all over the valley, combined with graziers and the odd horticulturalists. The spread of farming combined with the growing need for conservation in the valley has lead to increase in many programs and Government initiatives, from farm forestry, to nature corridors and restoring remnant vegetation.

The Bega Valley is a classic example of European settlement and agriculture techniques, with extensive land clearing and cultivation occurring from settlement through to the present day, which in turn has significantly affected the biodiversity in this region. The increase in protected areas and National Parks has seen greater concern for conservation over the latter parts of the 20th century, while this has improved species numbers and biodiversity, large patches of farmland created an agricultural matrix, and fragmentation for many species.

The Agricultural Matrix

The concept of the agricultural Matrix aims to improve biodiversity in patches of land with separated regions of remnant vegetation. In many parts of Australia agriculture and its economic benefits outweigh conservation goals, leading to fragmentation. To reduce the impacts of biodiversity loss the clearing of natural vegetation for agriculture and the focus on increasing productivity on already converted land is seemingly the most positive method (Vandermeer and Perfecto 2006).

 

This however, is not enough, the importance of reconnecting the remaining vegetation patches through wildlife corridors and the restoration of paddocks and cropland to pre-agricultural floral conditions, to create new patches, in areas where existing patches are either too degraded or too small to suffice for the longevity of biodiversity.

Farm Forest and remnant vegetation restoration

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The effects of erosion due to clearing in the Bega Valley

In a group of properties near the small country town of Candelo, the initiative sparked movement towards both farm forestry and Landcare, which is where I got involved with Landcare. The landscape of these properties, very similar to that across the Bega Valley, was large cleared, grazing and cropping land, with two rivers running through and with a hill dominated landscape. Exotic grasses including fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) and Love-grass (Eragrostis curvula) along with feral introduced pest species such as rabbits, hares and foxes were the dominant ecological community.

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Landscape on the farm prior to re-vegetation.

 

The farmers on these properties while all holding a progressive mindset towards biodiversity conservation also recognised the importance of maintain agricultural viability, and for each acre of land restored to remnant vegetation, an area was offset for farm forestry, through using both pine and native species.

Over 20,000 trees were planted across the 700 acres over a two-year period, with several large areas (several hectares) being solely dedicated remnant vegetation restoration. With aid of qualified farm foresters and Landcare volunteers as well as the farmers themselves, the areas were seeded with direct seeding and spread seeding.

The established goals were:

  • Re-establish native Eucalyptus species in areas completely reduced due to clearing
  • Focus on species with the most viable prospects to survive in the climate and morphology, with an emphasis towards local endemic species
  • Establish wildlife corridors between the two river systems
  • Provide agricultural benefits through windbreaks and shelter for livestock and future rural use such as firewood
  • Create habitat through both living vegetation and debris

The trees that were selected for the initial stages were:

Forest Red Gum                 E. tereicornis

Southern Mahogany       E. botryoides

Yellow Stringy Bark          E. muellerana

Mountain Grey Gum       E. cypelloccarpa

Shining Gum                         E. nitens

Manna Gum                          E. viminalis

Blackwood                             A. melanoxylon

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Forest Red Gum Woodland (Bristow and Vejle 2012)

 

Monitoring and Success restoration

Over the 15 years since the first plantations were completed, the results have changed the landscape of the area completely. What was one bare hills with spread out mature trees on steep slopes and in river beds, there is now tree lines and well vegetated areas on all areas of the property, being both aesthetically and environmentally appealing.

The success of the species were mixed, with Forest red gum failing to grow on ridges, but successfully growing on slopes and the Yellow StringyBark providing seedlings in the understory to great effect. In some areas boron deficiency affected the upper crowns of the trees, but with use of fertiliser was fixed.

In areas where remnant vegetation restoration was prioritised there has been the most significant change, with hare and rabbit numbers, along with foxes, declining due to habitat change and culling, and the return of native birds and mammals. One farmer who has lived in the area for 60 years commented on the return of the White Winged Choughs (Corcorax melanorhamphos) which had been absent until the corridors and native vegetation had been restored. This also coincided with the return of the common wombat, which through the introduced corridors started moving more freely throughout the property, which also led on to unwanted agricultural impacts (dam collapses from wombat holes), but overall represented the increase in biodiversity through the property due to the introduction of the corridors and restoration of the remnant vegetation patches.

 

References

Barnes, Thomas. “Landscape Ecology And Ecosystems Management”. An Ecosystems Approach to Natural Resources Management (2001): n. pag. Print.

“Bega Cheese | Bega. Real Town. Real Cheese.”. Begacheese.com.au. N.p., 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Bristow, Carole and Julie Vejle. “Restoring Grassy Understorey Under Forest Red Gum – Wolston Creek Bushland Reserve, Riverhills, Queensland”. Ecological Management & Restoration (2012): n. pag. Print.

Farm Weekly,. “Bega Goes Bush To Milk Suppliers”. 2014. Web. 7 Nov. 2016.

“Great Eastern Ranges – Greening Australia”. Greeningaustralia.org.au. N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

Power, Lawrence. “Lumera Eco Lodge And Chalets Tasmanian Wildlife Nature Reserve”. Lumerachalets.com.au. N.p., 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.

“White-Winged Chough [Bushpea 5/21]”. Bushpea.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

Vandermeer, J, and Perfecto, I. “The Agricultural Matrix And A Future Paradigm For Conservation”. Conservation Biology 21.1 (2007): 274-277. Web.

 

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