Reportage

Remaking nature

Novel strategies in modified landscapes

IN LATE 2014, Greg Roberts, a semi-retired journalist, was birdwatching along River Road in his local patch of Yandina on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. It was an area he thought he was familiar with. He’d known the freshwater wetlands near the eastern edge of the road to be a haven for a number of threatened species for two years, and had been lobbying the local council for its protection.

One day in November he ventured beyond the road and into the adjoining private land to survey the full extent of the wetlands. He was amazed by what he found. ‘Flocks of migratory shorebirds flew about; a pair of stately black-necked storks strutted their stuff; scores of egrets, spoonbills, pelicans and other waterbirds graced the horizon in every direction,’ he wrote on his blog sunshinecoastbirds.[i]

Roberts was especially struck by the shorebirds. There were large numbers of Latham’s snipe, a Japanese migrant, as well as the similar but unrelated, and endangered, Australian painted snipe. There was also the once abundant curlew sandpiper: a bird that breeds in Siberia, now critically endangered due to habitat destruction along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, a migration passage stretching from Russia and Alaska to Tasmania and New Zealand.[ii]

There were aquatic mammals such as the rakali, or water rat, and terrestrial ones including the swamp rat. Along with the thousands of smaller birds, they provided abundant prey for a variety of raptors: common species like black and whistling kites, and scarcer ones including spotted harriers, grey goshawks and peregrine falcons.[iii] At night, the rare eastern grass owl patrolled the verges of the marsh.

Roberts was a naturalist of repute. In a Brisbane share house in 1974, he’d borne witness to the bizarre breeding biology of a curious, recently discovered frog, a female of which he and some friends kept in an aquarium. One evening, to their astonishment, the frog began vomiting live, fully developed baby frogs from its mouth: it had incubated them in its stomach. The southern gastric brooding frog is now extinct (as is its northern congener).[iv]

The southern gastric brooding frog had lived under rocks along the rainforest streams of the Conondale Range on the Sunshine Coast hinterland. In 1976, Roberts rediscovered the isolated southern race of the nocturnal and cryptic marbled frogmouth, a bird long feared extinct, in the same area.[v] At the height of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s development-mad rule of Queensland, Roberts became a player in the fight to protect the ranges from logging.

In 2015, Roberts stepped up his campaign to save the Yandina Creek Wetlands. Having worked for decades in the newsrooms of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Bulletin and The Australian, he knew how to connect with stakeholders, politicians and the media. But whereas the Conondale Ranges featured some of the best remaining subtropical rainforest in Queensland, the boggy river flats along the Maroochy River was no wilderness.

Moreover, it was privately owned. The land had been occupied by cane farmers before it was sold to developers in the mid 2000s, after the Nambour sugar mill shut down. A few years later, the farm’s ageing floodgates failed, inundating the area with tidal water from the river and Yandina Creek. The accidental result was a refuge for native and migratory birds and other animals whose habitat elsewhere on the Sunshine Coast had mostly been destroyed.

It was a classic example of a novel ecosystem: a heavily human-modified landscape that nonetheless retained significant natural environmental value. The failure of the floodgates meant that the land returned to something like what it might have looked like before sugar cane was planted, creating what Roberts said was one of the best wetlands in Queensland, with a variety of sedges, grasslands, deep pools, mudflats and mangroves.[vi]

Technically, novel habitats can be defined as almost anything altered by human hands, whether through ingenuity or wanton destruction. The Anthropocene has ushered in Earth’s sixth mass extinction, an event the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal called a ‘biological annihilation’ constituting a threat to human civilisation. Almost half of 177 mammal species surveyed had lost 80 per cent of their habitat between 1900 and 2015.[vii]

The fauna and flora most vulnerable to extinction through human land usage and occupation are the specialists: obviously, species that occupy limited ecological niches are the most vulnerable to habitat loss or disturbance. But others are doing their best to hang on, some by adapting as best (and as quickly) as they can to whatever landscape, whether modified or natural, enables them to find enough food, shelter and opportunities to breed.

Roberts’ initial proposal to the Sunshine Coast Council that the land be acquired and protected had already been rejected. He then approached Queensland’s Minister for Environment and Heritage Steven Miles and then federal environment minister Greg Hunt, arguing that threatened species were protected under state and federal laws, with migratory shorebirds being afforded additional support by Australia’s membership of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway Partnership.

Miles and Hunt were unenthusiastic. To them, Roberts was trying to convince them of the aesthetic and environmental values of a low-lying swamp. They declined to intervene, on the grounds that the wetland was human modified. In July 2015, the floodgates were repaired, preventing tidal inflows. Within days, the swamp had been drained, leaving hundreds of waterbirds, many of them nesting, literally high, dry and in many cases dying.[viii]

The story of the Yandina Creek Wetlands is an environmental parable. There are parallels elsewhere.

 

EVERY SUMMER, THE rice paddies of the southern central New South Wales Riverina thrum to a deep, almost sub-sonic boom that can carry for two kilometres. For Aboriginal people, the gulping noise was made by the ‘bunyip’ – an onomatopoeic name for the evil spirit or devil that produced it. The origin of the bunyip legend is debated, but the creature responsible for the sound is the Australasian bittern.

The bittern is a large, heavy-bodied and partly nocturnal heron. It is now globally listed as endangered, with a total population estimated at between 1,000 and 2,500 individuals in southern Australia and New Zealand.[ix] The skulking, cryptically patterned bird was probably not often encountered even by Aboriginal people in the formidable reed beds and swamps of the Murray-Darling, before the river system was irrigated and drained by Europeans.

The green rushes of the rice paddies offer the two things bitterns need most: permanent water and dense emergent vegetation to hide and nest in. Ecologist Matt Herring, co-ordinator of BirdLife Australia’s Bitterns in Rice Project, says that between a quarter and half of all the Australasian bitterns on Earth move into the paddies in summer to breed, dispersing during winter in movements that can stretch for many hundreds of kilometres.[x]

The density of bitterns in the relatively short green rushes of the rice fields makes them easier to locate and track than in the reed beds, with their heads and dagger-bills popping up like periscopes to survey their surroundings (the birds can stand up to a metre tall). They prefer crops sown in October, which support a range of prey – frogs, tadpoles, small fish and insects – as they approach the breeding season.

The Bitterns in Rice Project works on the principle that national parks and other protected areas, while vital, are inadequate to maintaining biodiversity.[xi] Led by the genial Herring, BirdLife Australia has partnered with a range of stakeholders including the Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia and various local irrigation bodies to study and manage the bitterns, as well as monitor other threatened species including the painted snipe and grass owl. The aim is to demonstrate that food production and wildlife conservation don’t have to be mutually exclusive, even as global demand for food on an overpopulated and overheated planet continues to grow. Farmers, often pilloried for poor management of their own lands, have bought in to the project. But there are still pressures that threaten the bird’s future, even where it has managed to coexist with humans in an artificial environment.

There are the usual menaces, such as foxes. But rice growers are under pressure too, with many in the Riverina switching to cotton. Cotton still needs plenty of water, but it’s not as thirsty as rice. With no aquatic ecosystem, there’s no food or shelter for bitterns or other waterbirds, and with market prices for high-security water per megalitre running at over $5,000 in the Murrumbidgee River region, cotton is a safer return on investment.[xii]

Driven by water savings in the middle of a drought that has devastated New South Wales, growers are also taking to shorter-season varieties of rice. The land will be ‘flushed’ for the first couple of months of the season before being flooded. The result is a shorter growing season that in turn reduces the time the bitterns have to breed. Without the earlier access to food provided by traditional sowing, they may be less able to support their own young.

The remaining mystery, still being unravelled, is where the bitterns go when they’re not in the paddies. Catching bitterns is not easy – as well as being wary and cryptic, they’re big, feisty birds that require a net gun to capture and nerve to handle. But without more detailed knowledge of how the birds use other areas of the natural and modified landscape, they might lose whatever sustains them in between breeding cycles.

The first satellite-tagged bird, Robbie, moved from a Coleambally paddy to the South Australian coast near Mount Gambier, east over the Victorian border (and even out to sea, in alarmingly bad weather) before returning to the Riverina and then back to the south-west Victorian coast within his first year. Another, Milo, headed east and over the Great Dividing Range to settle at Shoalhaven Heads on the NSW coast more than 500 kilometres away.[xiii]

The Riverina rice fields still comprise over 60,000 hectares of prime bittern breeding habitat when much of the remainder of the bird’s natural territory has been drained, converted or is simply dry. And there’s more demand for food than for fibre. With active management to keep predator numbers down and with increasing knowledge of the bittern’s movements, the bunyips will boom at least a little longer.

 

IT’S NOT ONLY agricultural lands that provide novel habitats for wildlife. Some threatened species that have suffered severe habitat losses have even made their way into the heart of our cities. Bush stone-curlews – endangered in NSW and Victoria – are thriving in the suburbs and even central business districts of Brisbane, Cairns and Darwin. There are fewer foxes in the tropics, but no shortage of dogs and cats, so exactly how they are thriving is a mystery.

Of course, such examples are unusual. But other species merit special consideration. Carnaby’s black-cockatoo, flocks of which are a conspicuous sight in Perth during summer, are using exotic pine plantations as an alternative food source due to the destruction of the banksia woodlands, itself an endangered ecological community, on the Swan Coastal Plain. The Western Australian government is now being urged to slow harvesting of the pines.[xiv]

The cockatoo already needs all the human help it can get. It breeds in the WA wheatbelt, in wandoo and salmon gum, before moving coastwards. Another big bird, it needs mature trees with large hollows in which to breed, but land clearance rates are such that the cockatoo is struggling to recruit adequate numbers to maintain a viable population. Artificial nest hollows are a key aspect of the species’ recovery plan, as is replanting pine woodlands.

In the eastern states, another bird dependent on large hollows for not only homes but prey is the powerful owl. Generally a denizen of heavily forested gullies and slopes, the owl is also found in the leafier suburbs of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. In all three cities, they can wander into the inner city in a night’s foraging, sometimes roosting in comparatively open spaces.

But again, the presence of large trees is a must, and to breed the birds need adequate cover. An apex predator, a powerful owl doesn’t need to worry about cats or foxes, and pairs hold big territories – up to 1,500 hectares of mature forest – for life.[xv] Logging and land clearance, which has also impacted on traditional prey items such as greater gliders, are the main threats to the species’ future.

Territories can be smaller in areas of productive habitat, though, and in the suburbs both brush-tailed and ring-tailed possums provide an abundant alternative source of food. Protecting these owls may be critical to the overall health of the species, and that means managing their urban environment, where one of their biggest causes of mortality is car strikes, estimated to account for 8 per cent of the Sydney population per year.[xvi]

The owl has one big thing going for it. It’s a genuinely iconic species which people love to see, and they’re respected enough that a proposed zip-line ride through Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane’s inner west was recently re-routed, ostensibly to ward off any risk of attacks. (Though rare, owls can be aggressive towards humans; the more likely risk of the disturbance created by the zip-line would be to the owl’s chances of successful breeding.)[xvii]

The key thread binding all of these stories is community engagement. Birds are important because they are conspicuous: most Australian mammals are nocturnal. Of course, so is the powerful owl, but it’s also perhaps the most powerful symbol: according to BirdLife Australia, its Powerful Owl Project has attracted more than 400 volunteers, with a mentor program attached, and it’s a social media star, reaching over a million people through various accounts.[xviii]

Thinking about how we might most productively share our own environment with other species isn’t just about saving them. It’s about human amenity, too. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that biodiversity loss is linked to poorer physical and mental health outcomes. If getting out of the city on weekends is increasingly a luxury option, we’re going to need to focus on not just protecting our national parks, but urban retreats too.[xix]

 

GREG ROBERTS DIDN’T give up on his fight to preserve the Yandina wetlands after their drainage in 2015. He found an ally in Peter Wellington, the speaker of the Queensland parliament in Annastacia Palaszczuk’s minority government. Steven Miles was persuaded to visit the site in person. Roberts also wrote a series of features for his former employer The Australian, not normally known for its environmental advocacy.[xx]

He compiled a mailing list, and community groups – from national bodies like BirdLife Australia to local ones including the Sunshine Coast Environment Council – joined the campaign. Other media organisations jumped on board. The landowners, who had leased the property back to cane farmers to repair the floodgates with the intention of establishing continued use, eventually signalled a willingness to negotiate with the government.

The game changer was the involvement of Unitywater, chaired by former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley, who became aware of the site via BirdLife Australia. Unitywater, responsible for water supply and sewage on the Sunshine Coast, found that by reopening the gates, nutrients from the Maroochy River would be released into the wetland, offsetting releases by the local sewage treatment plant, while providing rich pickings for birds.

The landowners sold the property to Unitywater for $4 million in August 2016. The Yandina Creek Wetlands were officially opened in November 2017. Unitywater said that it purchased the 191-hectare site as ‘a green alternative to upgrading sewage treatment plants in the area’, with Steven Miles saying the wetlands would act as a natural filter, removing over five tonnes of nitrogen from the Maroochy River per year.[xxi]

In May 2018, the floodgates at the northern end of the wetlands were reopened for the first time since December 2015. Birdlife Southern Queensland volunteers will be undertaking quarterly surveys at the site for the next three years. As the Maroochy River tide flows back in over summer, hopefully the birds – many of them returning from Siberia – will return with it, along with everything that sustains them.

 

References

[i] Roberts, G. 2018. ‘Yandina Creek Wetland – back from the brink’, sunshinecoastbirds, 12 May.

[ii] Queensland Government. 2013. ‘East Asian—Australasian Flyway’, wetlandinfo.ehp.qld.gov.au, 22 March.

[iii] Roberts, G. 2013. ‘Raptors of the Maroochy River canelands’, sunshinecoastbirds, 31 May.

[iv] Roberts, G. 2014. ‘In search of lost treasure: is Australia’s remarkable gastric-brooding frog extinct?’, sunshinecoastbirds, 17 January.

[v] Nichols, J. 2017. ‘Community works together to save vulnerable species on the Blackall Range’, abc.net.au, 31 August.

[vi] Roberts, G. 2018. ‘Yandina Creek Wetland – back from the brink’, sunshinecoastbirds, 12 May.

[vii] Carrington, D. 2017. ‘Earth’s sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn’, The Guardian, 11 July.

[viii] Roberts, G. 2018. ‘Yandina Creek Wetland – back from the brink’, sunshinecoastbirds, 12 May.

[ix] Herring, M, Veltheim, I and Silcocks, A. 2016. ‘Robbie’s gone a roamin’, Australian Birdlife, September, pp. 26—31.

[x] Herrin, M. nd. ‘Tracking bunyip birds’, bitternsinrice.com.au

[xi] Herrin, M. nd. ‘About the bitterns in rice project’, bitternsinrice.com.au

[xii] Australian Government/Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. 2018. ‘Water entitlement market prices, September 2018.’ agriculture.gov.au

[xiii] Herrin, M. nd. ‘Tracking bunyip birds’, bitternsinrice.com.au

[xiv] Wildie, T. 2017. ‘Carnaby’s cockatoos may vanish from Perth unless pine clearing stops, WWF says’, abc.net.au, 24 February.

[xv] Higgins, P.J. [ed]. 1999. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, Vol. 4, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, pp. 818—833.

[xvi] Birdlife Australia. nd. ‘Powerful owl project’, birdlife.org.au

[xvii] Gartry, L and Swanston, T. 2018. ‘Risk of “scary” owl attack forced location shift for Mt Coot-tha zipline project’, abc.net.au, 20 September.

[xviii] Birdlife Australia. nd. ‘Powerful owl project’, birdlife.org.au

[xix] Clark, N and Lovell, R. 2014. ‘Is conserving biodiversity the key to good mental health?’, The Conversation, 16 May.

[xx] Roberts, G. 2015. ‘Yandina Creek Wetlands draining leaves wildlife high and dry’, The Weekend Australian, 25 July.

[xxi] Unitywater. 2017. ‘Yandina Creek Wetland officially opened’, unitywater.com, 20 November.

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