Monday, October 26, 2020

What you can do to help our wildlife (and endangered plants), without spending a cent


Want to help save wildlife after the fires? You can do it in your own backyard

Holly Kirk, RMIT University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; Casey Visintin, University of Melbourne; Freya Thomas, RMIT University; Georgia Garrard, RMIT University; Kirsten Parris, University of Melbourne; Kylie Soanes, University of Melbourne; Pia Lentini, University of Melbourne, and Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University

People living in cities far from the unprecedented bushfires this summer may feel they can do little more to help beyond donating to organisations that support affected wildlife. But this is not necessarily the case: ten of the 113 top-priority threatened animal species most affected by the fires have populations in and around Australian cities and towns. Conserving these populations is now even more critical for the survival of these species.

Here we provide various practical tips on things people can do in their own backyards and neighbourhoods to help some of the species hit hard by the fires.

Read more: The 39 endangered species in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and other Australian cities

Wildlife may arrive in your neighbourhood in search of resources lost to fire or drought in their ranges. Cities can become ecological traps, as they draw animals towards sub-optimal habitats or even death from threats such as cats and cars. But by providing the right resources, removing threats and connecting your backyard to surrounding habitat, you can turn your property into a refuge, not a trap.

Images from Flickr by: Jarod Lyon (Macquarie perch), Doug Beckers (Giant burrowing frog), eyeweed (Giant barred frog), Catching The Eye (Southern water skink), Alan Couch (Broad-headed snake), Brian McCauley (Regent honeyeater), Ron Knight (Koala), Duncan PJ (Grey-headed flying fox), Tony Morris (Platypus) and Pierre Pouliquin (Tiger quoll). Author provided

The fires killed an estimated 1 billion animals and Australia’s threatened species list is likely to expand dramatically. As is often the case, the impacts on invertebrates have been largely ignored so far.

Read more: Conservation scientists are grieving after the bushfires -- but we must not give up

Thinking outside the animal box

Despite the focus on animals, it is plants, making up 1,336 of the 1,790 species listed as threatened, that have been hit hardest. Early estimates are that the fires had severe impacts on 272 threatened plant species. Of these, 100 are thought to have had more than half of their remaining range burnt.

The impacts on individual plant species is profoundly saddening, but the impacts on whole ecosystems can be even more catastrophic. Repeated fires in quick succession in fire-sensitive ecosystems, such as alpine-ash forests, can lead to loss of the keystone tree species. These trees are unable to mature and set seed in less than 20 years.

Losing the dominant trees leads to radical changes that drive many other species to extinction in an extinction cascade. Other badly impacted ecosystems include relics of ancient rainforests, which might not survive the deadly combination of drought and fire.

Read more: A season in hell: bushfires push at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction

It is difficult to know how best to “rescue” threatened plants, particularly when we know little about them. Seed banks and propagation of plants in home gardens can be a last resort for some species.

You can help by growing plants that are indigenous to your local area. Look for an indigenous nursery near you that can provide advice on their care. Advocate for mainstream nurseries, your council and schools to make indigenous plants available to buy and be grown in public areas.

Example of alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) forest in Victoria. Holly Kirk

Providing for urban wildlife

Planting native species in your backyard is also the best way to provide food for visiting wildlife. Many species feed on flower nectar, or on the insects the vegetation attracts. Putting out dishes of fruit or bird feeders can be useful for some species, but the best way to provide extra food for all is by gardening.

Plants also provide shelter and nest sites, so think twice about removing vegetation, leaf litter and dead wood. Fire risk can be managed by selecting species that are fire-suppressing.

Urban gardens also provide water for many thirsty creatures. If you put out a container of water, place rocks and branches inside so small critters can escape if they fall in.

Read more: You can leave water out for wildlife without attracting mosquitoes, if you take a few precautions

Backyard ponds can provide useful habitat for some frog species, particularly if you live near a stream or wetland. Please don’t add goldfish!

The best frog ponds have plants at the edges and emerging from the water, providing calling sites for males and shelter for all. Insecticides and herbicides harm frogs as well as insects and plants, so it’s best not to use these in your garden.

Piles of rocks in the garden form important shelters for lizards and small mammals.

Reducing threats

It’s important to consider threats too. Cats kill native wildlife in huge numbers. Keep your pet inside or in a purpose-built “catio”.

Read more: For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day

Read more: A hidden toll: Australia’s cats kill almost 650 million reptiles a year

When driving, think about killing your speed rather than wildlife – especially while populations are moving out of fire-affected areas in search of food. Slowing down can greatly reduce animal strikes.

With the loss of huge areas of forest, species like grey-headed flying foxes will need to supplement their diet with fruit from our backyards. Unfortunately, they risk being entangled in tree netting. If you have fruit trees, consider sharing with wildlife by removing nets, or using fine mesh bags to cover only select bunches or branches.

Read more: Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying-foxes in urban Australia

Living with the new visitors

People have different levels of knowledge about our native wildlife, and some will be more affected by new wildlife visitors than others. Some of these critters are small and quiet. Others are more conspicuous and may even be considered a nuisance.

Try to discuss what you are seeing and experiencing with your neighbours. When you can, provide information that might ease their concerns, but also be sympathetic if noisy or smelly residents move in. It is important to tolerate and co-exist with wildlife, by acknowledging they might not conform to neighbourly conventions.

Given the unprecedented extent and intensity of these fires, it is difficult for scientists to predict how wildlife will respond and what might show up where. This is especially the case for species, like the regent honeyeater, that migrate in response to changing resources. New data will be invaluable in helping us understand and plan for future events like these.

If you do see an animal that seems unusual, you can report it through citizen-science schemes such as iNaturalist. If an animal is injured or in distress it’s best to contact a wildlife rescue organisation such as Wildlife Victoria or WIRES (NSW).

Read more: How you can help – not harm – wild animals recovering from bushfires

Our wildlife is under pressure now, but we can help many populations by ensuring safer cities for the species that share them with us.


How to help birds after the fires

Other threatened species in cities

Wildlife-friendly fencing

Find your local native nursery

Learn about platypus-safe yabby nets

Record your bird sightings

Record your frog sightings

Record other urban wildlife

Holly Kirk, Postdoctoral Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Casey Visintin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Freya Thomas, Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Kirsten Parris, Professor of Urban Ecology, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne; Kylie Soanes, Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne; Pia Lentini, Research Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne, and Sarah Bekessy, Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning, Leader, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Worrying about Wombats

This young Bare -Nosed or Common Wombat (Ursinus vulgaris) is about four years old. They take a long time to reach maturity and are no longer so common in Tasmania


 World Wombat Day is or was on Thursday 22nd October, depending on which time zone you are in.  Wombats are another unique Australian animal at risk of disappearing not unlike its nearest relative, the Koala. Wombats are the endearing furry, ‘round boys’ of the Australian bush, weighing in at 20 -30 Kgs and are about a metre in length. Being marsupials they keep their joeys in a pouch and come out at dusk to graze on grasses, shrubs and roots. Their pouches face backwards so that their young don’t get covered in dirt when the adult wombat digs – something they do exceptionally well. They sleep 16 hours a day and can live up to 26 years. If I had to pick my spiritual animal, a wombat would be it. Read more about wombats here

There are three species of wombat in Australia. The Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) is on the endangered species list because there are only 160 left in the world. It exists only in one small pocket of Queensland. While somewhat more numerous, the Southern Hairy -Nosed Wombat Lasiorhinus latifronsis lives in a few highly fragmented arid regions in Southern New Wales, Victoria and South Australia. It is now regarded as endangered in New South Wales and near threatened in South Australia which claims it as its state emblem. In other states, even if wombats have managed to survive the fires because of their underground burrows, they will still be in dire straits because they have to compete for what little vegetation remains.


The ultimate wombat movie. I don’t know where this was filmed but it looks very much like the alpine vegetation around Cradle Mountain


If that wasn’t enough both the Southern Hairy -Nosed wombat and the third  type,  the Common or Bare – Nosed wombat (Ursinus vulgaris) which was prevalent throughout South Eastern Australia and  Tasmania, are now  also struggling due to a different threat  -sarcoptic mange -a debilitating parasitic infestation, which usually leads to slow death due to secondary infection unless treated early.


In 1996  the population of Bare Nosed wombats was estimated to be in the order of 4000 and thus of Least Concern,  according to the ICUN, but more recent studies put the figure at less than 80 -90% of former numbers . In Tasmania’s Narawntapu National Park alone, the population has declined  by 94% since 2010 because of Sarcoptic mange and they are certainly not common any more. I didn’t see a single wombat in my trip through a good part of the state last week, when you could usually count on seeing at least two or three, even if one of them might be as roadkill.  


 Once again, land clearing is a major culprit. Even before the huge death toll from the fires,  forest clearance and development were forcing wombats to leave their territories and face more competition for food and for mates, as well as exposing them to predators and traffic. Unlawful killing of wombats also occurs because they compete with grazing animals and dig inconvenient burrows which damage things like crops and fences.

Climate Change poses its own threat,  not just in the immediate sense through catastrophic droughts, floods and  more frequent and intense fires, but because ranges will change and most likely contract, leaving wombats and other species insufficient time to adapt, especially those such as the Northern and Southern Hairy nosed wombats whose range is already extremely limited. 

Given the global uniqueness of our wildlife, far more should be done to protect it. Though it is illegal to kill or take our native wildlife including wombats - farmers can get permits, existing laws aren't enforced adequately and there isn't a lot of monitoring going on except in some of our wildlife sanctuaries. Some wildlife organisations such as Bush Heritage and the Australian Conservation Foundation are working hard to help wombats and the rest of our wildlife, but the government should be doing much more to protect our unique animals rather than just paying lip service to conservation or relying on those who exploit the land to do the right thing. Substitution of other random land for critical habitat taken for mining or development for example, has not proven to be very effective. Funding cuts are making it hard to protect species even within national parks. Piecemeal efforts to save one little corner or one species or another won't ensure their survival either, if the overarching issues such as Climate Change continue to be ignored. Not that we should stop trying.

I want to put in a bit of a plug here for the University of Tasmania, whose researchers are working to defeat sarcoptic mange the disease which is decimating our wombat populations. Not that it's always about donating either. The next post will be about other ways to help our troubled wildlife. 

Warning: Just because wombats look incredibly cute doesn't mean that they make good pets. Not only are they a lot of hard work initially - the one at the top - about 10 cms long, blind and hairless when she arrived, had to be fed with an eye dropper every three hours and almost died when I left her alone for an hour. [ I also carried her under my smock all day, every day for her first twelve months] - but they can also become aggressive and destructive when mature. I have seen this happen, especially with male wombats. Ours on the other hand, having bonded so closely, went into terminal decline when we sent her to a wild life park, rather than releasing her in the wild, as she kept coming back to the house. Watch the video below to see what I mean. Allow wombats to be wild animals not something to satisfy a human need.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Waterfalls you probably shouldn't visit -2 Mc Gowan's Falls


The very top of Mc Gowan's Falls - apologies for the dull pics. The sun hadn't come up yet!


As the crow flies and according to Google maps, Mc Gowan’s Falls are only about 23Km away from Preolenna, but both neglect to mention that this is via an unmade Forestry Road, all of which vary greatly in quality. Most are unsigned and usually single lane with nowhere to pass or turn around. They can also be very treacherous. At this time of year after so much rain, you are likely to encounter wash -outs, enormous potholes, weakened bridges and possibly fallen timber across the road. Since these are private roads, you travel at your own risk and can’t complain or sue if you break an axle or write yourself or your car off. I think it's very difficult for people coming from more densely populated regions to imagine how wild and rugged Tasmania is beyond our towns and cities which cling like embroidery to its fringes. 

I always enter such roads with great trepidation and carry an Epirb (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) in case of utmost emergency. I also drive very slowly. Don’t even consider going unless you have four -wheel drive, good maps – (but don’t trust them entirely – even Tasmaps have some of these the roads incorrectly named), and have plenty of fuel. Local knowledge is useful -if you can find anyone to ask, as these roads can deteriorate very quickly. It also helps to know if there are forests operations in progress. This is so you don’t meet up with large and fast -moving log trucks rushing our forests to distant ports. Sometimes I fear that the whole of Tasmania will soon be one big plantation with very few pockets of our ancient and unique vegetation and, as a consequence,  very few of our equally unique animals which depend on it.


Going down. There's a section here where you cross a rockface with the help of a rope


Google tells me to turn right onto the Relapse Link Road but it looks too overgrown at this end, so I do a five Km detour via the more travelled roads. About one Km before the Falls, there’s a sort of rocky ski jump followed by a long mudslide down into the valley. About halfway down on the right, there’s a small gap in the vegetation where the track to the Falls starts. At least this is marked - OK someone has nailed the lid of a can on a tree and apart from a section of rope across a rock face, the climb down to the Falls isn’t too intimidating. McGowan's Falls are  named after the  ranger who discovered them and listed them for protection from logging. They cascade in several tiers like icing on a wedding cake into a deep valley about 30 metres below and are indeed a magnificent sight, but unfortunately my joy is somewhat overshadowed by anxiety about whether I’ll be able to get my car back  up over the ski jump. The sheer weight of the van which had proved such an asset on the way down, was now going to be a real liability. The man at Preolenna the day before was pretty sure I’d get through, but thinking about it, his ute was probably much more powerful than my van, despite it' s size. 


Going down

I brightened up a bit on the way back to the car as I encountered a young couple on their way down. They’d parked before the ski jump and only had a small car, but it meant that there were other people around - it was a Sunday, and that meant that there might be some way to get help if necessary.  The road also continued on past the falls and should technically have brought me to the Link Road that I had avoided the night before. Perhaps it wouldn’t look as bad in daylight.

I found the junction and walked down the road a bit. Travelling slowly and walking ahead if I can’t see the track has saved me more than once. In this case the trees meeting overhead reached so low that not even a normal car would have gotten through much less my 2.9 m high van. It also ended in a swamp, where many vehicles had obviously gotten bogged and attempted to turn around before. 


Near the base


I trudged back up the hill and drove on until I came to a T-junction. By my estimation the fork to the right should have joined to the Pruana Road which I had driven the previous night. It looked promising. Then it turned to rock and ended in a dead end. The other fork also looked like a half decent road that would surely lead somewhere. After several kilometres of reasonable driving and the forest opening up, it too led to a kind of ski jump like the one I had come down, but where it ended down a steep hill, there was a deep quagmire in which my van would have disappeared up to the axles at least. Since there was nowhere to turn around I now had to reverse back up the slope, slipping and sliding and scaring my clutch and me out of ten years’ growth. Turning around inch by inch at the top wasn't a mean feat either. Then there was nothing for it but to return the way I had come.This is why you should always make sure you have plenty of fuel. I really wished I had had a couple of safety triangles with me or something else in the car to make a sign with to warn others.

Passing the waterfall track again where there was no sign of other visitation, I took a very big run up the slope and wonder of wonders, my van glided (glid?) right up and over the hump like a giant whale. This involved a bit more of an adrenaline rush than I had bargained for and I truly longed for the days when Forestry was much more public spirited, providing picnic tables, signs, even barbecues and the like, such as the fading wonders I'd seen at Step Falls or in the  North East.


 It's hard to do these falls justice in a photograph and all hail to Mr. Mc Gowan for having them listed, but I'm not sure they are worth the stress

 To calm my nerves, I stop at Penguin on the way back for some well -earned bakery supplies and then take the scenic route to Ulverstone. Penguin was having its own floral festival and I was sorry I couldn’t stay around for the Penguin Parade in the evening [Stanley and Burnie also have viewing platforms where you can  see Little Penguins returning at dusk], but I was looking forward to a hot date with a warm bath. How good are paved roads!


Around the North West and two Waterfalls you shouldn’t try to see

So long Table Cape

I don’t get to Table Cape very often, so before I left I thought I would do a bit of exploring. My first stop was at Fossil Bluff which proved to be a pleasant surprise, living up to its name and giving some insight into a prehistoric world of glaciers and volcanoes. Then I turned inland.


Fossil Bluff lives up to its name and takes you back about 22 million years. It also has picnic tables and a nice little walk to a lookout

As well as spring being tulip season, it is also a great time to see our waterfalls in action, even the seasonal ones. I’m pretty sure that after all the rain we’ve had, even the elusive Victoria Valley Falls would be flowing.  If you are in the Table Cape area, I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Delaney’s Falls, right near the road on the way to Gunn’s Plains or to Dip Falls to the south, which not only has a sealed road running right up to it, but viewing platforms and stairs going all the way down.


Having seen these I thought I would take a look at two others I had heard about but not seen. Normally I prefer wild waterfalls which, although more difficult to get to, make you feel as if you are close to nature, rather than being surrounded by people taking a quick selfie and jumping back in their cars. Before I left home, I downloaded the track notes and saved the maps, knowing full well that my phone wouldn’t work outside the major cities. (Note to self – I must do something about that). Despite this, both falls proved to be rather more challenging than expected.  I mention my adventures only as a warning to others, assuming we will have visitors to Tasmania again one of these days. It’s not like in Europe or even New Zealand, where every attraction is accessible and clearly signed.


1.     Preolenna/Coalmine or Garner’s Creek Falls (they are one and the same place)

After negotiating the winding backroad south to this little place – no shops, no Post office,  just a small clutch of houses and scattered farms, I drove up and down on Coalmine Road, which was where the waterfall was supposed to be, quite close to the main highway. After finding no sign I asked at one of the houses. A lovely young girl told me to go back up the road, go past the bridge and take the first left after Kinches Road. I was then to follow this forestry road around until I saw a gap in the trees. After a while I would come to a four -wheel drive track to where there’d be a bit of pink tape on the trees. 

I parked my car near said road and walked and walked. There was a very large gap in the trees, where some clear felling had taken place – perhaps she hadn’t been there for a while, and there were countless four – wheel drive tracks, but apart from one which led to a lake, none of them led anywhere. My nasty suspicious mind began to wonder if this was deliberate. Sometimes local people do like to have a bit of joke at the expense of tourists and even worse, I'd seen a lot of car parts and motorbikes out the front of the house where I had asked. That made me a bit anxious until I caught sight of my van again and saw that it still had all its wheels.  I apologise for my dark thoughts. Still disappointed that I hadn’t found the waterfall, I started heading out of town. As I paused at a turn –off, a small truck that had been ahead of me backed up and the driver asked if I was lost. He also gave me further directions to the waterfall and given that I would be unlikely to be back this way, I thought I would give it one more try. 

Back at Kinches Road

He said I should take the track directly opposite Kinches Road. He also said I should keep a lookout for the very important bit of pink tape. This unfortunately misled me into by -passing the sidetrack to the waterfall and doing another bit of a ramble in vain, but after starting over, renegotiating two enormous puddles and a place where the creek ran over the track, I eventually found the right track and the waterfall. The pink tape is at the end of this sidetrack and marks the place where you climb down to get to the waterfall. The waterfall itself was very worthwhile – about ten metres  high, set in a fern gully and running splendidly. It's also in what appears to be the only patch of native forest left here and the sound of birdsong filled the air. With just a couple of little tweaks –  small signs perhaps, or even just more pink tape at the start of the road and the start of the side track would be a big help. Along with a culvert or two, this would make this a very pleasant waterfall to visit. 


I can't remember whether this was the first or the second puddle


The other one - gumboots might seem like a good idea at this stage but bushwalking boots with grip are better for negotiating the somewhat slippery slope down to the falls


The reward for perseverance - herewith Preolenna Falls [I'll tell you about the other one in the next post]