Saturday, July 13, 2019

Raptors – Going, going …

Tasmanian Sea Eagle (Haliateets leucogaster)
Image courtesy of  John Redeker, Tas

I went to a remote beach this week where you could usually count on seeing the odd Sea Eagle, yet there wasn’t a single one to be seen. When I came home and started to read about them, I was shocked to find that 52% of the world’s Raptors are in decline and around 18% of them are facing extinction, even in Australia and Tasmania. (Hint: The shorter version at is easier to read).  Half of Australia’s 35 native Raptor species are either endangered or listed because they are already extremely rare. In Tasmania, which has 13 species, there are now only around 100 breeding pairs of the mighty Wedge Tailed Eagle, 110 pairs of Grey Goshawks and 200 pairs of White Bellied Sea Eagles.

So what are Raptors and why is this happening? 

Raptors are birds of prey, meaning that they hunt small game and eat meat or carrion. They include eagles, vultures, hawks, falcons and owls. Unfortunately, the most species - rich regions such as South and South East Asia and around the tropics in South America and sub-Saharan Africa, are not only experiencing the most rapid decline, but are the least studied.  There are thus few baselines for determining trends and Raptors are anyway difficult to study as their numbers are generally small, their range is large and some are migratory as well. Still, it is the more static forest dwellers which continue to be most at risk.

Clearing forests – for timber, for agriculture and for settlement, remains a major cause of Raptor decline.  Forest Raptors need tall old trees for nesting. Sea eagle habitat is often lost to coastal development. Just being around humans makes some Raptors skittish. Tasmanian Wedge Tails have been known to abandon nests, eggs and even nestlings if they suspect human interference. Trophy hunting, poaching and the use of Raptor parts in traditional medicine or other cultural practices also contribute to Raptor decline. Farmers often shoot hawks and eagles to protect their flocks, but this idea has its detractors. Simon Cherriman an ornithologist at Murdoch University, who tracks Raptors for a living, maintains that birds of prey often remove other pests such as mice and rabbits and only ‘clean up,’ larger animals which have been injured or killed already.

 Poisoning, accidental, secondary or otherwise is another all too common threat. When the veterinary drug diclofenac was introduced for use on cattle on the Indian sub -Continent in the 1990s, it lost 99% of  four species of Old World Vultures in less than a decade. Fortunately, once the drug was banned, the vultures began to recover, but three years ago the same drug was approved for veterinary use in Spain, Italy and Portugal. There are now urgent calls to ban it in Europe as well. Some poisons used to control pests also end up killing the Raptors either directly, or because they feed upon the dead carcasses. Oiling, entanglement, pollution and road accidents are additional concerns. Because Raptors are scavengers, they are often killed themselves while consuming road kill. Lead poisoning from ingested shot is yet another not infrequent cause of death.

Approximately 500 Bald Eagles are killed in the USA each year through contact with power lines, turbines and communications towers
-Image courtesy of Jean Beaufort under CC licence 

A more recent cause is the proliferation of electricity pylons, cell towers and windfarms. Although many birds are electrocuted or injured through contact with these - according to one US study,  214,000 -368,00 birds are killed by windfarms, 6.8 million by communications towers, and 3.7 billion by cats, but Raptors still tend to be overrepresented. This is because Raptors prefer high windy places where they can observe their prey, take advantage of wind currents and thermals and stay safe from predators. In the Catalan region near the French- Spanish border, electrocution was the main cause of death of the endangered Bonelli’s Eagle and also threatened the Spanish Imperial Eagle. Fortunately new protocols have recently been adopted by the UN to prevent or minimise such events. For example, in the case of pylons, better siting of towers, away from critical flightpaths and equipped with defensive mechanisms has resulted in 70% lower mortality, despite only  6% of the towers having been modified. With respect to windfarms, new turbine designs, deterrence and early warning systems using radar signals used by aircraft, are all showing promise. Still, compared to deaths from other causes such as domestic cats, deaths from windfarms are miniscule and may in the long run reduce deaths due to climate change and pollution.

Climate change presents a new threat to Raptors. According to a 2014 report by the Audubon Society hundreds of birds in the USA, are ‘at serious risk from climate change, with the Bald Eagle potentially losing up to 75% of its range.' At this stage there is little data on the likely effects in other regions, but  preliminary studies with respect to the Tawny Eagle in the Kalahari Desert indicate that grassland and savannah dwellers will be especially vulnerable.  While some species may be able to move further north (or south) as food and or water sources diminish, this has implications for our protected areas which have thus far proven to be one of the more successful strategies in terms of Raptor preservation.


Why it matters

Apart from their intrinsic value, the loss of these awesome creatures has implications for the survival of humans too.

In the first instance, Raptors may be the very large canaries in the coal mine that is our earth. Being at the top of their food chain, they accumulate environmental toxins much more quickly than other species, as was observed in the 1950s by Rachel Carson when she first noticed the decline of Bald Eagles as a consequence of cumulative poisoning by DDT, long before such effects were noticeable in humans. 

Secondly, their absence may impact directly on humans in other ways. Since they are uniquely adapted to neutralising pathogens in the diseased and dead creatures they scavenge, they remove these from our environment too. Lesser scavengers, such as dogs and rats are unable to do this and not only contract more diseases themselves, but are more likely to pass them on to humans. Once the Old World Vultures were gone in India and Nepal, the population of feral dogs exploded, leading indirectly to disease outbreaks in humans, especially rabies. Could it be that our own recent seagull explosion where it was found that they were now carrying antibiotic resistant superbugs, is in fact a reflection of this process when top predators are lost? 

Raptors are often the keynote species in their ecosystem and their removal can trigger catastrophic knock – on effects in other parts of the system. Wedge Tailed Eagles for example, keep other species in check, so that they do not become pests or deplete the available food supply. Young Raptors, not yet skilled enough for the hunt, tend to eat insects, thereby keeping those populations down. Along with birds in general Raptors also perform a number of other ecological services such as distribution of nutrients and seeds. The Wedge Tailed Eagle itself does not breed in poor seasons. 

Next time we'll consider  some ways in which we can help to ensure that Raptors will be around for future generations. Meanwhile, I apologise in advance that there are so few pictures. My bird photography has always been cringeworthy!

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

A Day at the Olive Grove - Community Oil Pressing Day at Freshfield

It’s olive harvesting season in Tasmania. Yes, olives! I always thought they were only a Mediterranean crop, yet as with cool climate wines, cool climate olives are considered the crème de la crème, though as with cool climate wine, the yields are much smaller. Although Australians are the largest consumers of olive oil outside the Mediterranean, Tasmania accounts for around 1% of the nation’s 45,000 tonnes (2013 figures) which has increased by 790% in just two decades. Around 20% of Australia’s crop is exported to countries such as China, The USA, New Zealand and even Spain and Italy, with several brands winning medals at international events.  Tasmanian olive oils won 20 awards - three gold, eight silver and 9 bronze, at the National Competition in 2017, attesting to the quality of the local product.  

Freshfield Olive Grove  -between showers

On Sunday I went to Freshfield Grove at Campania (near Richmond) for their Community Olive Pressing Day. Freshfield is run by Fiona and Glenn Maskowski who, though fairly new to the olive business – only since 2014, are already making a name for themselves. They tied for reserve champion in the 2017 national competition. They have around 1000 olive trees, mostly Picual and Manzanillo, which are ideally suited to colder conditions.

Grey skies did not necessarily dampen anyone's enthusiasm

The day didn’t look too promising. It was around 11° C and the blustery wind brought intermittent showers. We could have done with a bit of Mediterranean weather, but Tasmania’s olive harvest happens in winter -from April to August, so it was not unexpected and there was still much fun to be had. It was for instance, a fine excuse to start with some mulled wine, possibly followed by hot chips and or seafood and for sitting on hay bales around the fire or under an awning if necessary. The wind also made for rapid change. When the clouds parted, more and more people began to arrive bearing buckets and baskets of home grown olives or setting off, often with the whole family in tow - grandmas, children, babies in prams, even the occasional dog on a leash, to relieve groaning olive trees of their burden. 

Parting of the clouds

I picked just under a third of a kilo, wishing my tall friend had been with me because the best ones seemed to be at the top, but there was much satisfaction in harvesting anything at all. I then took my bounty for weighing and pressing.  It turns out that you need at least a kilo of olives to produce a tiny 250ml bottle, so I just added mine to the communal pool.  

At the weigh in

After a tour of the pressing shed with Fiona, I moved on to some oil tasting, comparing oil from early, middle and late pressings. Initially I thought they all tasted a bit green and grassy, even medicinal, but it turns out that the bitterness is actually sought after and a sign of both purity and richness in anti –oxidants and phenols – the health giving components. If you have only tasted run -of -the -mill super market varieties, tasting real virgin olive oil is an eye opener. Terroir, climate, tree variety and processing all play a role and give each a unique character, which is why chefs prefer it. These really brought out the flavour of the sourdough bread and reminded me of the oil I had had at Fico, but it also tells me that with respect to olive oil my palate could do with a bit more education. Correct pairing of oil with food, requires similar expertise to pairing wine. Read more about that here.

Olives ready to go into the press - don't worry, the machine removes all stalks and leaves and washes the olives before they go into the hopper.

Glenn making sure the wheels keep turning
Not all so – called  virgin olive oils are created equal. Find out how to tell one from another here.   Genuine virgin olive oils are said to have many health benefits including reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease and may even be helpful  in the prevention of diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. For more on evidence -based health benefits of real olive oil, click here.

The best thing about the day for me was the communal aspect -friends and neighbours coming together for a common purpose. Neighbours from the Christmas Tree farm up the road, manned the gate and I ran into an old friend from my own long distant back – to - the – land days. With olive oil production having been around for around for about 5,000 years, it also felt as if we were taking part in an age -old ritual. 
For other places in Tasmania where you could do some olive harvesting, oil tasting or buying, click here. You taste buds will thank you!

Friday, June 28, 2019

Miss Burlesque 1919

Just a quickie tonight for my friends at Miss Kitty’s.   Do you love costumes, glamour and a bit of frivolity or are you sad that Dark Mofo is over and are looking for something fun to do? Then go along to The Moonah Arts Centre tomorrow night.  In fact, better still, wear your own sequins, victory rolls and red lipstick and join in the fun. There’s champagne on tap too. 

I bet you didn’t know burlesque dancing was a competitive event. I didn’t either until I went along to Burlesque Idol a few months ago. I was worried that it might be a bit sleazy but it was clever, witty and hugely creative. Far from being exploitative, many participants say that it’s also truly empowering. A bit later I’ll write something about the history of burlesque and its recent revival, but that’s all I have time for now.

Doors open at 7 pm. Show starts 7.30 and tickets are $20