Wildlife reboot: birds 2.0

Another January, and another trip to Ganguddy, on the western site of Wollemi National Park.  Same marvellous geology, same refreshing dam water, same hot weather.

But some things were different this year.  After the stupendously dry winter, the eucalypt forest was parched, the undergrowth sparse and the leptospermum flowers of last year’s visit few and far between.  We found a patch of sphagnum moss perched in a bowl of sandstone boulders so dry it crunched underfoot.

A “green” satin bowerbird panting in the heat

We spotted plenty of lizards, and the diggers were out in force – lyrebirds wandering through the camp as they tried to scratching their way down to moisture and a wombat turning up to twerk on a picnic bench.  But up in “kingfisher alley”, just before the Cudgegong River disappears into the reed beds, there were fewer blue and green flashes by the water.

Around the camp site, the bowerbirds and treecreepers panted in the heat.  Apart from the ubiquitous reed warblers, there seemed fewer birds altogether.  No sign of the friarbird teenagers of last year, and even the baby swamp hens seemed thin on the ground.

You have to wonder what it takes to change ecosystems irrevocably.  How many dry winters before the old inhabitants decide living and breeding here is just too tricky?  And who would move in to fill their place?

Back at Berowra after the trip, there are changes in the garden too… surprising ones.

We knew we’d be losing the sparrowhawks soon enough, but the family has dispersed in an unexpected orderThe adults disappeared off the scene weeks ago, and by the time we made it home with our ridiculously overloaded vehicle and small and ancient fleet of boats, the siblings had parted too.  There’s just one young’un now.  He seems lonely.

There’s a constant plaintive calling from the trees out back, that seems to intensify when he has prey on hand.  I’m not quite sure if he’s warning his imaginary sibling off or calling him to come and share a meal.

And that’s not the only shift in the soundscape around here.  The sparrowhawks have cut a swathe through the bird population on the premises.  Baby brushturkey numbers have fallen from previous plague proportions, noisy miners are few and far between and the “house” birds of yesteryear – red and little wattlebirds – are now just occasional visitors.

But as the numbers of resident raptors has dropped, a new set of critters have settled in.  Lewin’s honeyeaters which we’ve only seen once or twice in the backyard over the last seven years, have made our backyard their new home.  And we also appear to have acquired some brown thornbills, a raptor snack food if ever there was one.  And the local eastern spinebills, another tasty morsel for a sparrowhawk, are spending more time around here too.

The only explanation I have for the change of personnel is that the hawks have bumped the notoriously territorial wattlebirds, leaving the field open for new arrivals.

I’m pretty happy to have a new set of birds in the garden.  My dream scenario, I have to admit, would be to order up some songbirds that are a bit easier on the eye.  My birdwatching brother puts Lewin’s in a honeyeater “bin taxon” of pretty similar and drab looking birds it’s hardly worth distinguishing between.  Cruel, perhaps, but fairly accurate.

So, why not some new holland honeyeaters, for instance – gorgeous looking locals.  Or (still, my beating heart!) what about some pardelotes?  Just one or two?

On the other hand, it’s possible that all the vibrantly coloured small birds in the neighbourhood have been made into multicoloured meals over the past three months by our family of raptors.  After all, there’s got to be some evolutionary reason for all those SBBs*.

*note: this is a throwaway remark absolutely unsupported by any science.

 

Previous posts about Ganguddy

A bit about Ganguddy’s history and geology – and a little Tim Low on the side

Snakes versus whining teenagers – last year at Ganguddy

 

More on our sparrowhawk summer

Death and sibling rivalry

The new generation of sparrowhawks emerges from the nest…

Baby brush turkeys versus nestling sparrowhawks… the battle of the backyard baby birds

The collared sparrowhawks return to our backyard… or are they brown goshawks?

A first glimpse of the sparrowhawks… and a beautiful white goshawk visits the washing line

 

Further reading

Stephen Garnett, Donald Franklin, Glenn Ehmke, Jeremy VanDerWal, Lauren Hodgson, Chris Pavey, April Reside, Justin Welbergen, Stuart Butchart, Genevieve Perkins and Stephen Williams (2013) Climate change adaptation strategies for Australian birds: Final Report, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility

Office of Environment and Heritage, Premier’s Department (2011) New South Wales Climate Impact Profile Technical Report: Potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity

Things to do with termite nests

lizard in kingfisher nest better crop

Lace monitor in an arboreal termite nest

Happy New Year!

I don’t know about yours, but one of my resolutions for 2018 is to pay a lot more more attention to bugs.  Or rather, insects in general, and how they interact with all the other critters around them.

So the year was off to a good insect-oriented start when I took this photo  just down the hill from the spectacular lookout at West Head in Kuring-gai Chase National Park.

What’s this little monitor doing as she peeps out of this termites’ nest, a few metres up a gum tree?

What’s her story? And what’s she up to with those termites?

Lion island from west head

View north from West Head

 

At first, I thought she might have been after kingfisher eggs or nestlings.

A couple of years ago my bird watching brother told me to keep an eye out for termites nests in trees, pointing out that kingfishers often made the hollows in these “termitaria” to nest in.  Since then, I’ve seen plenty of arboreal burrows on my paddles around the Hawkesbury, and occasionally a sacred kingfisher lurking suspiciously nearby.

Many species of kingfishers, including (to my great surprise – I’m not sure why), kookaburras, often nest in termite mounds.  I had assumed that birds would choose abandoned arboreal termitaria, but in most cases where animals reuse mounds, it seems, the original builders are still in situ when the new residents move in.

Matching kookaburras

Synchronised kookaburras

Unlike other birds, such as the hooded parrots of Arnhem Land, kingfishers don’t wait to build until the mud of the mound is softened by rain.  They do construction the hard way, through sometimes lethal collision flights into outer wall of the nest.  Both members of the pair participate in this headbanging activity until a 25 cm tunnel is dug.  As you can see in the picture of the burrow above, the tunnel slopes downward a little, to help with keeping the it clear of the young’s faeces.  If only dealing with human children’s ordure was a simple as a gently sloping bedroom and hallway, eh?  Once the initial tunnel is dug, the kingfisher sometimes leaves the excavation for the termites to tidy up inside, sealing the interior walls of the nest.

Kingfisher lit profile sharp bigger crop better

New Zealand Sacred Kingfisher

But kingfishers aren’t alone in using termite mounds as a handy place to breed.  I’m not quite sure what was using this big nest near Port Stephens.  I suspect it’s not kingfishers.  Like many Australian birds, they are cooperative breeders, with their youngsters from previous broods helping raise the new babies, but they don’t seem to nest colonially.  As these burrowholes or just access points for some insect-eating predator to have a crunchy snack?

But back to our termite loving monitor lizard.  As a bird-savvy informant pointed out, had my lizard been munching baby kingfisher eggs, the parents would have had something to say about it.  In fact, what I saw wasn’t a nest-raid but most likely the aftermath of a hatching.

Monitor lizard face closeup

Another lace monitor in Kuring-gai National Park

Because, as it turns out, lace monitors  also lay their eggs in termite mounds, using the warmth generated by the insects to incubate their young.  Once the eggs are laid, the lizards lets the termites seal them in, safe from predators in their incubation chamber in the treetops. Or perhaps slightly safer.

No-one seems to research lace monitors – too damn common it seems.  But, researchers studying the related Rosenberg Monitors found that females defended the nests for a few weeks after the eggs were deposited.  Some hard core conflict was observed:

“The most aggressive fighting observed was between a defending female and a marauder, with females fighting males more than twice their body mass. Both attacker and defender sustained injuries, including dislocated or broken limbs; broken ribs; spinal injuries; and severe bites to head, throat, and abdomen” (Rismiller, McKelvey, Green, 2010).

Baby rosenberg monitors dig their own way out of their natal termite heap, but everyone’s a bit vague about how the baby lace monitors escape their birthplace/prison.  Despite the female’s willingness to break a spine or limbs to ensure the safety of their young at the point eggs are laid, herpetologists don’t give goanna mothers a lot of credit for subsequent interest in their offspring.  Some researchers think that the mothers come back to dig their babies out of captivity when the right time comes.  Others seem to think they just happen to be digging randomly in likely-looking termite mounds when they accidentally happen upon their young (Kirshner, 2007).  This sounds all rather implausible to me .

Goanna whole against lichen

Lace monitor in Wollemi National Park

I’m still not 100% clear about what I saw up a tree at West Head.  Was the lizard I spotted was one of the little ones, lolling around in its birthplace after its mysterious liberation.  Or a female spending some time hanging out in the nest, having helped her young to freedom?  I’m just not sure.

One way or another, one of our common-as-muck goannas was doing its thing in its ordinary, fascinating way.  With the help of a multitude of insect Mary Poppinses.

lizard in kingfisher nest distant

The termetarium from a distance

Further references

Kirshner, D. (2007) Multiclutching in captive Lace Monitors, Varanus varius. Mertensiella (16): 403-421

Rismiller, P.D., McKelvey, M.W., Green, B. (2010) “Breeding phenology and behavior of Rosenberg’s Goanna (Varanus rosenbergi) on Kangaroo Island, South Australia” Journal of Herpetology 44(3):399-408. 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

The river that knew

Mist and sky above Mooney Mooney Creek better

Looking upriver from the junction with Floods Creek

If I want a quiet morning on the Hawkesbury, my best bet is a paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek.  It’s a jet ski free zone, and that’s a very fine thing. In maybe ten jaunts on various reaches of Mooney Mooney, I’ve seen a handful of kayaks, a few fishermen and one very slow moving yacht.  Unlike Cowan Creek or Patonga, there’s no sandy beaches for frisking about on, and the oysterfarms can be navigational hazard at low tide. But if you prefer hanging out with eagles and herons to spending time with humans in charge of powerboats, Mooney Mooney Creek’s the go.

Azure kingfisher profile crop

An uncharacteristically still azure kingfisher

There are really three Mooney Mooneys, for my purposes anyway.  There’s the upper reaches, a pleasant morning’s paddle if you throw in tranquil tributary Flood Creek, lined with casuarinas and decorated with the blue and green streaks of kingfishers hunting (more on the scenes and ecosystems there in a future post).  The put-in for that trip is where the switchbacking Pacific Highway crosses the river, though if you paddle upstream you pass under the highest bridge in Australia, a symphony in soaring concrete.

Or you can go downstream, towards Lemon Tree Bay and maybe on a low-ish tide, see, on every bend and mudflat herons feasting, and if you’re lucky, spot a wedge-tailed eagle soaring overhead.

Herons in parallel back in focus

White faced herons hunting at low tide

Up there in the headwaters, you’ll often see other kayakers – there are sometimes guided tours to the area – and occasionally people camping, rather naughtily, by the side of the river.  The Great North Walk, that links Sydney and Newcastle, via most of the lovely places along the way including Berowra (of course), flanks the upper reaches of the river and once or twice I’ve heard voices of hikers walking along the track or crossing the suspension bridge that spans the top of Piles Creek.

Snake island backlit 3

Snake Island and Brisbane Water National Park

But I’d prefer to be paddling than driving and I’m a little bit lazy, so I usually put in my boat in closer to home, at Deerubbin, where the freeway crosses the Hawkesbury.  From there I paddle under the freeway and past Spectacle Island, stopping off to check out the Mooney Mooney spoonbill colony, and then upstream.  Once you get past Snake Island and Sailor’s Chest Point, there’s not much sign of human activity, apart from oyster poles.

But there’s plenty going on, even without too many of us humans around.  Last week’s outing was particularly rich in feathery encounters.  A masked lapwing family enjoying a day out by the water by the Mooney Mooney public wharf.

Comedy silver gulls ducking for crabs in the shallows near Spectacle Island.

Silver gull with crab square amend

A sacred kingfisher  in the morning sun near her burrow in an abandoned arborial termite nest.  She got so bored with me clicking away she had a nap.

A striated heron, one of the river side regulars, pretending to be a particularly striking bit of sandstone.

And further up the creek, the predictable but still wonderful sight of a pair of young sea eagles perched amongst the mangroves in the shallow waters of Fox Bay.

The young ones seem to be easier to get close to.  A bit curious and a bit clueless, perhaps, about strange legless creatures that float downstream with the tide.

Even in the peace and quiet, there’s a feeling that all the inhabitants of Mooney Mooney Creek know about us.  They know we’re there – mostly out of sight, maybe, but not entirely out of mind.  The freeway passes just behind the ridge much of the way up the valley. You see it as you pass Snake Island, the trucks and cars  appear briefly, lifted above the rocky escarpment.  Sometimes, further up the creek,  the wind shifts and you can hear the sound of the traffic.

I recently found out that the freeway’s original route went right through my tranquil paddling territory – along Pile Creek, to cross the river south of where the Pacific Highway runs.  Right through kingfisher country.

But someone in the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the late 60s or 70s stood up to the road builders and just said “No”.  No, you can’t build a bloody great big road right through the (then recently established) Brisbane Water National Park.  We’re not having it.  In the words of the surprisingly fascinating “OzRoads” website

This new route had a more expensive bridge and steeper grades than the preferred route but there was nothing the DMR could do about it.

And it’s not often you hear freeway builders say that.  I’d love to  know the full story of who in Parks fought the good fight with the Roads folk.  Everytime I paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek now, I’ll be thinking about them and saying a little thank you.

Sea eagle facing away profile crop

Other paddles from Deerubbin Reserve

Up the Hawkesbury to Bar Island

For the ambitious, further in the same direction to Marramarra Creek

Into the heart of Muogamarra National Park up the winding Kimmerikong Creek

Downriver under the gorgeous if structurally challenged Hawkesbury River Bridge

 

Further references

Boon, Paul (2017) The Hawkesbury River: a social and natural history CSIRO Publishing

 

 

Stingray Bay: lost and found

After years of denial, I have finally accepted that I’m a map hoarder.

Though my other half has long been known by the moniker “Map Man”, it’s me that whiles my evenings away at the Lands and Property Information’s map shop, and I’m the one who takes our topographic maps on most of their little outings on the water, snug inside their “Hercules” double zip-lock plastic bags.  There have been some unfortunate errors – we have a few maps of dull little patches of agricultural wasteland with a bit of barely navigable waterway in one corner.  But despite the ridiculously small slices of this wide brown land that can fit on any given 1:25000 map, they really are quite useful things.

Although possibly less useful – without a compass – in a white out.

Egg going into the mist

Setting out from Appletree Bay

Fog and mist are picturesque, right?  “In…mist, the picturesque artist can celebrate obscurity, lack of clarity, indistinctness, that which is veiled… the picturesque tourist is prepared to spend days in fog” (Murray, 2004, 874).  Or possibly, not so much prepared to spend days there as trapped there for indefinitely unable to find their way out, as you can see from the baroque twists and turns captured on my phone’s GPS on my last jaunt to Stingray Bay. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to fish it out of its dry bag and consult it for directions!

I often laugh at the giant directional signs you see on the waters edge of the Hawkebury – they really look like they belong by a freeway, not a pristine riverside – but if it hadn’t been for a bloody great sign looming up through the fog, I might still have been floating aimlessly around Cowan Creek days later.

I was quite keen, back in April, leaving the boat ramp at Appletree Bay on a high and rising tide, to check out Stingray Bay. It’s a decent step – about sixteen ks, slightly more if you decide to do baffled pirouettes mid-stream – but not an epic yomp.  A trip up Smith’s Creek is a good one to do when the tide rising steadily rather than on the turn, since you can go with the flow on at least half the journey, and ride the current on last leg home.

I’d had a pit stop there at Stingray Bay before, on my way further up Smith’s Creek.  The Hawkesbury in these parts is a steep-sided sandstone gorge, flooded these last six thousand years with bottle green water, so this is a rare spot where you can get out of a canoe to stretch your legs.  You will most likely standing in knee deep water but that’s not so bad, unless you happen to step on the eponymous sting rays.  We worry more about sharks, but apparently after blue bottles, stingrays – most likely round these parts the common stingaree – cause the most injuries to beachgoers in Sydney.

They’re not aggressive animals.  Richard Wylie, a marine biologist from Monash University, described them as “wonderfully inquisitive and gentle marine animals“.  Stingrays give birth to live young and in Yolgnu communities in the far north, stingrays – specifically the mangrove whipray or Gawangalkmirri – were seen as devoted parents, the sort we humans should aspire to be.  And while I feel might fret about an encounter with a ray, indigenous communities have long seen them not as a threat but as an important and delicious food source.

But if you do happen to frighten stingrays – for instance, stomping on them while they’re hiding in the sand – you can get a sting from the toxin-bearing barb on their tail.  Apparently it hurts like hell. Immersing your feet in hot water denatures the toxin and takes the pain away, apparently, although a lot of people need pieces of barb removed from their wound and sometimes stitches and antibiotics too.

Seagrass and sand

Seagrass and sand in Stingray Bay

I’ve never stepped on a ray, though I have seen them, just once, in the shallows of Calabash Bay in Berowra Creek.  But just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there.  If you walk around in shallow estuarine waters, it’s best to have footwear and shuffle rather than stride.  Fortunately, my bum is usually so numb by the time I stumble out of my kayak that shuffling around stirring up the sand with my protective booties is not so much safety measure as a physical necessity.

I paddled straight over the sting-ray shallows, though, back in April, past yachts barely stirring in the morning mist and moody cormorants staring out at the post-apocalyptic blankness.

Even at half tide, you can skim safely above the seagrass and on up the creek.  There’s a deep swimming hole, and above it, two tiny waterfalls tumbling into a bowl of rocks.  Despite my morbid fear of breaking my precious and ancient wooden boat, I even managed to clamber out onto the rocks for a comfort break and a look around.  It’s a really lovely spot – a great place to come for a picnic and a splash around in warmer weather.

And not a bad place to hang out if you’re a baby fish either.  There may not have been any stingrays, but there were certainly plenty of little fishlings when I visited again, in very different weather, last weekend.  So very many fishies, swirling away from the paddle like living iron filings toyed with by slightly sadistic magnet… yet so surprisingly difficult for a bumbling amateur to photograph.

Stingray Bay certainly looks different (if possibly less picturesque) when you can actually see it.

Buoy with plain blue background

And the journey there and back again’s not too hard on the eyes either.  Except when you’re paddling straight into the morning sun.

The cormorants, the escarpment and the sun-touched tree tops might have been perfectly visible and, thanks to months with virtually no rain, the clear green water might have offered a vertiginous view of sandstone slabs sliding into the depths, but not all the mysteries of Cowan Creek were revealed to me on my paddle back to Apple Tree Bay.

Was it that persistent dive-bombing tern that plunked so heavily into the water behind me, leaving only a ripple by the time I spun around to see?  Did some underwater creature make that line of bubbles I paddled through on the way past Waratah Bay?  Could it have been dolphins?  Or more worryingly, a bullshark?  Maybe it’s better not to know.

But not while you’re navigating!

Bobbin head sign

References

Emma Macevoy  (2004) “Picturesque” from Murray, Christopher ed  The Encyclopaedia of the Romantic Era 1760-1850, Vol 2, Taylor and Francis

The shortest days and how to use them

The chickens let us know when midwinter’s come.  The fortnight after the winter solstice, no matter how bloody cold it is, the girls start serious egg-laying.  So even as you’re trying desperately to stash four different kinds of hot lemon pickle and a hundredweight of lemon marmalade, as you open the fridge, a dozen eggs roll out.

Lemon preserves cool closeup skinny

I went AWOL from the blog for the last six months, as the observant amongst you might have noticed.  The days just got shorter and shorter.  My garden kept growing and the Hawkesbury streamed uninterrupted to the sea, but time to write about these things just seemed impossible to find.  But now the days are lengthening (and I’ve finished my night classes), all that is going to change!

Eagle flyby long crop

White bellied sea eagle doing a fly-by of Gunyah Beach

The shortest day may have passed but it’s still pretty nippy at 5.30 in the morning when I get out of my lovely warm bed and drive off through the nautical twilight to put my kayak in the water.  When it’s 3 degrees and you have wet feet, the exact moment when the sun touches your frozen toes comes to be of critical importance.

I have a nifty little app on my phone, SunCalc, that shows just where the sun will appear over the horizon on any day of the year.  So I check the tide, and the wind, and then, on a winter morning, figure out where I’ll catch the very first light.  Putting in at Brooklyn and heading for open water is not a bad choice.

I’ve had some lovely paddles from Parsley Bay in the last year.  Quiet jaunts into Porto Bay, a shallow backwater frequented mostly by raptors and oyster fishermen…

Juv sea eagle long

Juvenile white bellied sea eagle

And, on a day with hardly any wind, I braved it across to West Head, stopping off at four beaches – Gunyah on the way and Eleanor on the way back; and on the other side of Cowan Creek, Little Pittwater with its tumbling stream and littoral rainforest and Hungry Beach and its a pair of sunbaking sea eagles.

Terns in front of Lion Island cropped closer small

Terns fishing off Gunyah Beach

I was almost bold enough that time to cross the invisible line – “limit of flatwater sailing” – that passes between Juno Point and Flint and Steel Beach, but bottled it in the end, just peeking round the corner towards Pittwater and the open Pacific beyond.

Clouds over the sea long and skinny

And last weekend, coldest it’s been on a Sydney morning in a couple of decades, I set out for Refuge Bay, where the pleasure craft rocked quietly, their skippers sleeping.  But not the kids, slipping away in their dinghies to fish and play under the waterfall on the beach.

And on journey there, what magic scenes!  The open waters of Broken Bay skimmed, concealed, curtained, framed, illuminated, by the fog.

Fishing boat and lion island

Fishermen and Lion Island

If there’s something to be said for the shortest days, it’s the long nights.  You can almost have a sleep-in and still get up before dawn.

Juno head mist dark sky

Sunday afternoon service at the Church of the Double Bladed Paddle

7 degrees at daybreak and good company the evening before: no chance of making it out for dawn this weekend.  So it was the afternoon service for me in the Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle.  Down the end of our street, the Hawkesbury in the golden hour.

Beautiful cirrus sky and skyline

Golden bubble water crop horizontal

A seaplane was parked out front of the ritzy Berowra Waters Restaurant, a few devotees of fine dining lingering over white linen, but otherwise the river was quiet.  Weekenders emptied of their winter visitors, off home to find socks and check homework.  Some stirrings in the sandy creek bed – stingrays? – but no fishermen and hardly a fish.

Some sun worshippers were receiving the blessing of the last rays on the southern shores of Calabash Bay.

And then, a true glimpse of the sacred.  The sacred kingfisher, that is.  I’d suspected they might be found around here, even in the winter.  There was that green flash out of the corner of my eye as I scrambled over the rocks onto Bar Island, and the briefest of glimpses, framed by mangrove leaves, my camera hopelessly buried, one morning in Bujwa Bay.

But this glorious creature showed no inclination to move from his place in the sun, calmly accepting the adoration of passing paddlers.

Sacred kingfisher facing slightly away horizontal crop tighter square

Sacred kingfisher

But even a sacred kingfisher can be profane.  I’m reverently gazing, barely taking a breath, and the big guy takes the opportunity to have a lightning fast chunder.  There’s a  familiar doggo look on his face as he sits there on his sunlit stick recovering.

But you expect veneration anyway, right, mate?  And you’ll get it too.

Sacred kingfisher other side 2 wide tighter

Last winter in Calabash Bay…

Burn-off at Bujwa Bay

The only trouble with living in paradise (apart from the long commute) is combustibility.  Our gorgeous view – mile after mile of incendiary eucalypts.  So the still, dry days and nights of autumn were thick with smoke, not from the big bad one we’re dreading, but hazard reduction burns in the bush all round the town.

Last time I went down to Bujwa Bay, it was the kind of cool and breathless day that must make the Rural Fire Service very very happy.   Mist hovered over the water in a bright line of morning light.  Forty minutes of silent paddling past the sleeping celebrities of Berowra Waters and I was round Oaky Corner and into the sunshine.

In the quiet there was a cryptic crunching noise.   Eventually, I spotted the pair of glossy black-cockatoos hidden amongst at the shore-line casuarinas.  My sense of being some kind of bird whisperer evaporated when, after fifteen minutes fooling around trying to get a decent shot of the cockies, I looked up to meet the eye of a bloody great big white-bellied sea eagle sitting directly above me.  And then, just round the corner, his pal taking in the rays.  They’re not stupid these birds, parked in the sunniest spot on the bay.

Having bonded with the local bird-life, when I heard about the burn-off, I was worried.   What happens to it all when the bush goes up in smoke?

Bujwa bay wide view 2 best small

Egg the kayak entering Bujwa Bay after the burn-off

Drooping bark and grasstrees for crop square

Back-burnt grasstrees at Bujwa Bay

It’s not all bad news.

Harry Rechter describes  birds enjoying a feast during a controlled burn in Brisbane Waters National Park, not so far from here.
“Although fuel loads in the… heath and woodland were high, and flames soared above the tallest trees and shrubs, birds moved easily in front of and above the fire to appear minutes later on the blackened vegetation to feed on less fortunate insects and small lizards”.
I missed the raptors and the insectivores that no doubt turned up at Bujwa Bay at the first sign of smoke, looking for Cajun-style chow. But chances are these blackened grasstrees will be bursting into flower next time I paddle by.  I might see lyrebirds too, raking newly formed clearings.  Ground-feeders and grain-eaters – corellas for instance – return in force after fires have passed.  The little insectivores – thornbills, wrens and robins – that build nests close to the ground don’t miss the scorched canopy, and enjoy the bugs that flourish on the flush of new growth.  The carbonised shrubbery might even give me the chance of catching a blurry LBB or two on film.
Burnt crown and cliff

After the burn-off: partly scorched eucalypts

It’s a nice idea to think that the burn-offs that protect the town are a boon for the local plants and animals too.   And there’s a euphonious catchphrase that goes with that idea: “pyrodiversity begets biodiversity”. Fire incinerates the garden escapes and wakes the soilbank’s astounding store of dormant seeds. If we burn little and often, it’s been thought, we make a mosaic of habitats: patches of open space and newly germinating seeds; places burnt a few years back; and refuges long unburnt, full of craggy trees, hollow logs and dense undergrowth.

Pyrodiversity is popular amongst land management folks, and there’s some evidence that it works, at least in some places.  But not everyone buys the story that the frequent fires that protect people and property suit other critters too. Out in the mallee, near where I grew up, a fire and biodiversity project run by Deakin and LaTrobe universities has been laboriously checking the idea out.

For all the mallee’s underground lignotubers, ready to reshoot after fire, other parts of the ecosystem – large stretches of spinifex grass, for one, that shelter dragons and legless lizards – can take fifty or more years to return after a burn.  All of which makes me feel tremendously guilty about the swiftly abandoned spinifex-covered cubbies that my brother and sister and I used to make in the mallee scrub out the back of our house.  We will never know how many now-extinct species we displaced.

Away from regrets about the trail of ecological devastation I left in childhood and back to burn-off related angst. The research in these arid areas suggests it’s not pyrodiversity that’s important for a species-rich environment but having enough country that’s reached the right stage of maturity since the last fire.  As a person in mid-life, it pleases me to say that older vegetation often seems to sustain more species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including the rare ones. Even birds that like paddocks and open plains prefer unburnt land.  Some reptiles favour recently fired landscapes, but plant communities that haven’t been burnt for a decade or two harbor the richest variety of lizards and snakes.

I tried and failed to find the experts on biodiversity and fire on Hawkesbury sandstone.  But researchers studying both subtropical Queensland and foothill forests in Victoria said similar things.  A varied landscape is important, but

the richness of frugivore, insectivore and canopy forager assemblages is driven by the presence of structurally complex vegetation and old-growth canopy trees, which are more likely to be present in areas that have not experienced fire for a prolonged period of time (Burgess 2016)

Paston and colleagues put their conclusion bluntly: “prescribed fire is of little utility for the broadscale conservation of biodiversity” (2011, 3238).

And it seems, for birds at least, smaller patches of unburnt country won’t really do – it’s larger areas that haven’t seen fire for a while that are rich in species.  One bunch of researchers found that little islands of older habitat surrounded by new growth was grabbed by one or two aggressive predatory or colonial birds, rather than harbouring lots of different critters.  One recent paper, written about arid areas, sum it up:

Our results suggest a shift in current fire management thinking… is needed, away from a focus on creating small, unburnt patches towards preserving large, intact, unburnt areas (Berry 2015 493)

Burnt crown and dark silhouette from distance

What does all this mean for Bujwa Bay?

There was nothing moving in the incinerated trees on the ridgeline as I made my way up the creek at high tide, but then, it was early and damn chilly.  Even the herons had given up on fishing and were huddled in the trees, keeping their feet dry.

But the damp fringes of the mangroves were alive with silvereyes and yellow-faced honeyeaters, and I heard the plunk of a sacred kingfisher diving for breakfast.  Gullies are especially valuable habitats for birds at the best of times.  If they’re protected from fire by burning on the slopes nearby they can be an even better retreat when that big one comes.  The top of the creek was lush and green. I can only guess that the rangers and RFS know what they’re doing.

White faced heron in tree 2 square

Chilly looking white-faced heron

In the light of recent research, Taylor and his colleagues comment dryly “current fire management for avifaunal conservation may require substantial refinement” (Taylor, 2012, 525).

But let’s not fool ourselves.  Around here at least, fire management is not for the avifauna.  It’s for me, and people like me, who choose to live high on a hill, surrounded by the beautiful, burnable bush.

Additional references.  Because the whole thing is really is quite complicated and you might want to check I didn’t get it totally wrong.

Berry, L. Lindenmeyer, D, Driscoll, D. (2015) “Large unburnt areas, not small unburnt patches, are needed to conserve avian diversity in fire-prone landscapes” Journal ofApplied Ecology Vol 52 Issue 2

Burgess, Emma, and Maron, Martine (2016) “Does the response of bird assemblages to fire mosaic properties vary among spatial scales and foraging guilds?” Landscape Ecology March 2016, Volume 31, Issue 3,pp 687–699

Doty, A., Stawski, C, Nowack, J., Bondarenco, A. (2015) “Increased lyrebird presence in a post-fire landscape” Australian Journal of Zoology 63,9–11

Hope Ben (2012) “Short-term response of the long-nosed bandicoot, Perameles nasuta, and the southern brown bandicoot, Isoodon obesulus obesulus, to low-intensity prescribed fire in heathland vegetation” Wildlife Research 39(8) 731-744

Korczynskyj, Luke and Byron B. Lamont (2005) “Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) recovery after fire in two seasons and habitats” Australian Journal of Botany, 53 509-515

Kelly, Luke T. Andrew F. Bennett, Michael F. Clarke, and Michael A. McCarthy (2015) “Optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservationConservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 2, 473–485

Lindenmayer, David B., Wade Blanchard, Lachlan McBurney, David Blair, Sam C. Banks, Don A. Driscoll, Annabel L. Smith and A. M. Gill (2014) “Complex responses of birds to landscape-level fire extent, fire severity and environmental driversDiversity and Distributions 20, 467–477

Nimmo, D, Kelly, L., Spence-Bailey, L, Watson, S.J. Taylor, R.S., Clarke, M.F and Bennett, A.F. (2012) “Fire Mosaics and Reptile Conservation in a Fire-Prone Region” Conservation Biology 27 (12)

Pastro, Louise L., Christopher R. Dickman and Mike Letnic (2011) “Burning for biodiversity or burning biodiversity? Prescribed burn vs. wildfire impacts on plants, lizards and mammals”  Ecological Applications Vol. 21, No. 8, pp. 3

Robinson, Natasha, Leonard, Steven, Bennett, Andrew, Clarke, Michael (2016) “Are forest gullies refuges for birds when burnt? The value of topographical heterogeneity to avian diversity in a fire-prone landscape” Biological Conservation 200, pp.1-7

Sitters, Holly , Di Stefano, Julian, Christie, Fiona, Swan, Matthew, York, Alan (2016) “Bird functional diversity decreases with time since disturbance” Ecological Applications, 26(1), pp. 115–127

Smith, Annabel, C.Michael Bull, Don Driscoll (2013) “Successional specialization in a reptile community cautions against widespread planned burning and complete fire suppression”Journal of Applied Ecology 2013, 50, 1178–118