Birding in the backyard counts

I lift the cup to my lips, breathing in the earl grey bouquet as it mixes with the scents of my garden in spring. My laptop sits open with unread emails to attend to but I relish the moment. It is quiet, peaceful. I know that it won't be quiet for long.

Moment by moment, my ears attune to the sounds of the world around me. A large dragonfly drones by, a magpie carols in the distance, and closer at hand an eastern spinebill calls its peeping song. A flock of tiny brown thornbills makes its way along the native bushes that line our fence. More and more, the world comes to life around me, and I muse that I wouldn't have seen it this way had I not brought my cuppa out with me and sat down for a moment.

The companionable twitterings and cheeky bickering of brown thornbills along our fenceline is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

The companionable twitterings and cheeky bickering of brown thornbills along our fenceline is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

As a kid, the backyard was my habitat and my domain. These days, even with two dogs I hardly spend any time out there. Because of this, I miss out on so much. 

Sitting, quietly contemplating the world about me, I begin to pick up and recognise behaviours in the birdlife. The spinebills make a predictable circuit around the flowers they feed on. Day by day, they give away the location of their nest, perched high and deep in the neighbour’s cypress. My mum informs me that around five each afternoon, a female gang gang flies through. Sometimes we hear her and her mate feeding in the neighbourhood, but they always leave to roost for the night. A chance glance across the side fence one morning reveals an Australian hobby sitting silently atop our neighbour’s aerial, buffeted by the spring gusts.

Spring visits from eastern spinebills have brought joy to my family for years, but their presence at our place has recently become permanent. Last year we had chicks raised in the garden. Will they succeed this year? 

Spring visits from eastern spinebills have brought joy to my family for years, but their presence at our place has recently become permanent. Last year we had chicks raised in the garden. Will they succeed this year? 

Our birch trees have seen a succession of parrots. The crimson and eastern rosellas of my childhood rarely call their bell-like toll these days, replaced instead by the cheeky rainbow lorikeets.

Our birch trees have seen a succession of parrots. The crimson and eastern rosellas of my childhood rarely call their bell-like toll these days, replaced instead by the cheeky rainbow lorikeets.

Spotted doves. The fact that they are an introduced species does nothing to diminish the pleasure spent watching them.

Spotted doves. The fact that they are an introduced species does nothing to diminish the pleasure spent watching them.

The more I notice, the more interested I become, and the more I feel an affinity for these individuals as they go about their day around me. We spend so much time indoors that we are cut off from the myriad other lives buzzing about us, a fact which removes them from our minds and puts them low on the list of priorities to protect. The more time I spend outside, the more connected I feel to this little patch of earth, the busy, functioning ecosystem of my yard and the life it supports.

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Two years ago, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count forced me to sit outside for 20 minutes at a time to record birds in the garden. I thought I'd be bored in my urban habitat, but was surprised to find the peace it brought me, and the number of species I found. These days it is a feature of my life. As much as I can, I take a tea outside, or my breakfast, and sit, watch and listen. Tuning my senses to the birds and beasts brings me out of the inner monologue that usually dominates my life. We so rarely sit quietly that we forget how restorative it is, how vital for our functioning. It's only when we're forced to do so that we remember how good it is.

Try it sometime. Head out the back door with a cup of tea, coffee or your lunch, and just wait. Even if the only thing you see is an ant crawling across your table, I dare you to say you’re bored.

The Aussie Backyard Bird Count takes place from Monday 23rd October to Sunday 29th October. Register here to participate.


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Cathy Cavallo

Cathy is a PhD student and science communicator with a passion for natural history, environmental engagement and photography. When she isn't running the Wild Melbourne social media, you'll find her working with little penguins on Phillip Island or underwater somewhere.

You can find her on Twitter at @CavalloDelMare


All images courtesy of Cathy Cavallo.

It's time to spring into action!

Spring is upon us! Days are getting longer, the sun is shining, and we’re all slightly coming out of your winter’s torpor with a boost of energy. And so are the animals and plants around you. Blossoming trees surround you and awake your senses with their vibrant colours and smells; birds are getting out and about, busy accumulating nesting material and fighting for suitable habitat like tree hollows ahead of the breeding season; possums can be seen at night moving from tree to tree with little backriders, and macropods’ joeys might be seen waving hello from the comfort of their pouches. As you get outdoors more, you will most likely start noticing these critters, and some of you will witness their struggles to get by in environments such as busy cities.

A swamp wallaby joey taking a peek at the outside world from its mum's pouch. Image: Elodia Camprasse

A swamp wallaby joey taking a peek at the outside world from its mum's pouch. Image: Elodia Camprasse

As good as it feels leaving cold and rainy days behind, spring puts an increased pressure on wildlife emergency response services as they try their best to address emergencies linked with this sudden buzzing of life. The good news is there are things you can do to help during this challenging time, in the areas you frequent every day. With spring comes an increased responsibility to help native wildlife get by, as Rowan Mott elegantly reminded us with his article “On death road”. If we are to keep the animals that surround us thriving, this is a crucial time to get involved.  As an emergency response operator for Victoria’s largest wildlife rescue organisation, there are pieces of advice I provide every day in spring to animal lovers that can’t stand but watch as animals end up in dangerous and sometimes unexpected situations.

If you are a wildlife lover, you might have been excited about getting birds nesting in your yard, or in the parks you frequently enjoy. Little chicks can be blown out of nests in cases of bad weather, and left vulnerable at the bottom of trees. Unless they are injured, the best thing to do if accessible is to grab a container and poke a few holes at the bottom for drainage, put some leaves and twigs in it and secure the makeshift nest on the side of the nearest tree before putting the little ones back in there. That way, they will be off the ground and safe from predators but they will still be within sight and hearing distance of their parents, which will keep on caring for them as soon as they feel that it is safe to do so. This is the best chance of survival for these birds who still need their parents to feed them and teach them the necessary skills to survive in the wild, which cannot be replicated in care very well. Don’t worry about touching the nestlings, as the idea that the parents will abandon them if you do is actually a myth - birds have a terrible sense of smell and won’t be able to tell!

A magpie chick on the ground. Image: Wildlife Victoria

A magpie chick on the ground. Image: Wildlife Victoria

A bit later in the season, you might come across “fluffy”, cheeky birds on the ground. They sometimes show inquisitive behaviours and approach humans as if “asking for help”, or keep on flapping their wings as if “distressed”. This behaviour is the equivalent of your morning work-out: they are building strength in their wing and chest muscle so they can get traction and take off. These are called fledglings and they need to be on the ground for periods of time, the lengths of which depend on the species and the availability of food. This is all part of their normal learning process as they learn to fly from the ground up. You may have noticed this behaviour in magpies, for example, as well as in miners and rainbow lorikeets, which are birds commonly found in urban and suburban areas.

The best thing to do, if the bird you come across is uninjured, is to let it be. Whether you notice or not, the parents are usually around keeping an eye on their little ones, teaching them how to navigate busy roads and avoid predators. Once again, their chance of survival is increased by being kept with their parents in their natural environments, as opposed to taking them to vets or carers. So now you know: no bird-knapping!   

You might have feared for duck families travelling from their nesting sites to the nearest body of water on busy roads and wished you could grab them all and relocate them to safety. As scary as it sounds, wildlife rescuers tend not to intervene unless they are injured, because they usually make the matter worse. Ducks can become stressed easily, and mother ducks can indeed run into traffic and get killed or altogether decide to abandon their fluffy ducklings because of the stress associated with an anticipated capture. Besides, the ducklings need to make the journey with their parents in order to learn which direction to go in and how to behave on the way.

A tawny frogmouth youngster cuddling with its parent. Image: Nalini Scarfe

A tawny frogmouth youngster cuddling with its parent. Image: Nalini Scarfe

Birds are not the only ones that get in trouble during spring. Although joeys can be found in marsupials’ pouches at any time of the year, spring coincides with a peak of births and so it becomes even more crucial to check pouches of animals found dead on the side of the road. If you feel comfortable doing so, it is always a good idea to check that no fur baby is left behind, or to call a wildlife rescue group to do so. If dead animals have spray paint on their bodies, it means that the job has already been done.

Little possums are frequently found on the ground and, if the mum is nowhere to be found, should be picked up and kept warm so they don’t suffer from hypothermia. It is always a good idea in these cases to take the little ones to the nearest vet clinic or local shelter free of charge so they can be fed and kept alive. This way, they have a chance to be rehabilitated. At this stage, they are harmless and can easily be put in a box or wrapped up in a blanket.

A ringtail possum joey. Image: Elodie Camprasse

A ringtail possum joey. Image: Elodie Camprasse

Lizards and echidnas are other animals that start becoming more active in spring and for which we start receiving more calls. They are usually basking in the sun or looking for food and if uninjured, should be left alone. It is encouraged to keep the disturbance associated with children and pets to a minimum so the animal feels safe enough that it can move around and find its way back to where it came from. Most calls we get about these animals are from people surprised to see them in suburban areas, but unless they are injured, we cannot legally move them, as we risk getting them lost. This is especially true for species such as echidnas, which could then be prevented from finding their way back to their burrow to take care of their babies.

The other reason why we get calls about these animals is pet attacks. At this time of year, responsible pet ownership is even more crucial than usual, as many harmless critters are out and about and are still learning who to trust and who to avoid. I would encourage you to keep pets inside, especially at night, or put a bell on their collar to avoid the deadly encounters we hear about too often.

The damage pets can do to native wildlife. Image: Wildlife Victoria

The damage pets can do to native wildlife. Image: Wildlife Victoria

So as you can see, it’s time for you to spring into action and help wildlife! You can educate yourself and the people that surround you. If still in doubt, feel free to call a wildlife rescue group. Let’s work together to keep wildlife happy during this demanding time of the year. 

For more information on assisting native wildlife, please visit Wildlife Victoria's website or call them on (03) 8400 7300 to report a wildlife emergency.


A tourist's perspective of the Great Forest National Park

This is a guest article by Molly Manwill.

I was road tripping through Melbourne last month when I heard the “Great Forest National Park” (GFNP) mentioned on a local discussion station. Intrigued, but busily meandering through Melbourne traffic, I looked up the GFNP later that evening with the idea of visiting. I was surprised to see that it is simply a proposed park. Many national parks around the world were set up long ago, recognising the conservation and economic importance of natural areas. So as a conservationist and tourist in Victoria, it’s extremely interesting to see history in the making, the ongoing discussion from both sides, and also to develop my own view, purely from a tourist’s perspective, on this park.

The GFNP proposal stands to add 353,000 hectares of new protected forest to the 170,000 hectares already existing in the area. There are big arguments for the instatement of the new park, including conservation of the mountain ash ecosystem and especially conservation of flagship species such as the Leadbeater’s possum. Conservation also goes hand in hand with the tourism potential of the park, with visitors coming in and spending money to see species like the extremely cute possums.

Leadbeater's possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri). Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2264884

Leadbeater's possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri). Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2264884

Much of Melbourne’s drinking water catchment forms in the proposed park’s coverage and the proposals would protect this vital water supply, which is already under pressure. Health and spiritual benefits associated with nature are another important bonus to the increased park protection. Carbon storage is another reason to protect these areas, with programs even available to pay for this ecosystem service. Carbon storage has benefits beyond Victoria and even Australia – the violence of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in August this year, has been attributed to climate change and there are pressing needs for global climate stabilisation and carbon sequestration.

However, with the designation of the proposed park, jobs associated with the logging of these areas would be lost. Coming from a farming background myself, I understand how daunting and scary this would be for families who rely on logging in these areas. A large company that commercially logs and sells hardwoods in the area is not only contesting the park, but also requires an increase in the amount of logging permitted to maintain expansion and to prevent the loss of around 280 local jobs.

There are arguments for and against the park that understandably impassion local residents who share a stake in the decision. Being a tourist and therefore having no stake in it, I can’t really comment on the topic further – but I can comment on an important perspective, considering that one of the biggest arguments for the park is the potential income from tourism.

Data from the Blue Mountains National Park Authority released for the year 2016-2017 suggested that the biggest majority of international visits to the Blue Mountains were from British tourists, aged 15-29. The most popular activities were visiting coffee shops and restaurants, visiting parks, bushwalking and rainforest walks. I fit into this demographic, and dutifully I journeyed to the Blue Mountains when I visited Sydney in 2015.

Image: Molly Manwill

Image: Molly Manwill

If I hadn't travelled through Melbourne with an Australian friend, I may not have visited the city with four seasons, but I would certainly have wanted to visit the national park with the tallest flowering plants in the world – the mountain ash – and with cute Australian wildlife like the Leadbeater’s possum. The popular demographic currently visiting the Blue Mountains is the Instagram generation in the era of “collect memories, not things”. That is, tourists visiting to trek and post their trendy mid-hike coffee on Instagram. Creating a vibrant, trending eco-park would be a huge draw to tourists wanting to get that “back to nature” selfie.

This may also be a wonderful time to add an element of rewilding to a newly formed park. It would be a fantastic opportunity to reintroduce species that will naturally “engineer” these landscapes for better ecosystem health. Researchers and scientific staff could then be employed to monitor these projects, adding data and findings to this highly regarded aspect of ecology. Lessons from Yellowstone show that natural reintroductions often have far-reaching positive impacts. Conservation has historically been about conserving species from extinction and this is as important as ever; however, rewilding brings fantastic opportunities to conserve many species at once, sustainably and long term.

The GFNP is an exciting opportunity for Australian wildlife populations and human populations. I think the proposal for this park presents wonderful opportunities: for new, modern tourist villages to evolve in the park, with lost logging jobs turning into roles as park rangers and hotel owners, creating a range of sustainable, innovative jobs and not only bringing tourists to the park, but to Melbourne.

Sydney has a network of easily reachable parks close to the city, and Melbourne has the scope to emulate this, but in a modern and innovative way. The proposals already in place, such as ziplines, skywalks and new campsites – to name only a few – suggest that this park will be the exciting, cool park for younger generations, but with the infrastructure set up for “grey nomads” as well. The GFNP could be an escape for tourists and city-weary Victorians alike wanting to see Australia’s wildlife the way it should be.


Molly Manwill is a conservationist with a passion for rewilding and sustainable development, and how these can work together. She loves making conservation issues accessible and involving community as much as possible.


Banner image courtesy of Molly Manwill.

Rippon Lea Estate: A Bird's-Ear View

This is a guest article by Gio Fitzpatrick.

Step out of the thunderous traffic and into a grove of giant evergreen oaks.

Here, the dappled light filters down onto beds of artist’s acanthus alongside other shiny, exotic beauties. Through the foliage, a brick mansion stands regal. One’s eyes tell of a 19th century estate in southern Europe - an impression only reinforced when the path ahead is crossed by a zooming blur of black feathers and orange beak. It’s July, so where are the sweet notes of the nightingale? The airwaves here speak not of summer’s African warbler and flycatcher migrants, but of birds escaping the chilly hills to ride out winter on the coastal plain. This paradoxical garden says 'pip… pip pip pipipipipipipi', 'yak-ah-yak!', 'tzz tzzzz tzzz' and 'birip beep beep.' And what sent that European blackbird hurtling so frantically over the path before? A big female collared sparrowhawk – one of Australia’s fiercest bird-hunters.

An electrifying sight anywhere, but particularly in the city; this collared sparrowhawk is one of a pair which have found the gardens of Rippon Lea Estate to be a rewarding hunting ground. 

An electrifying sight anywhere, but particularly in the city; this collared sparrowhawk is one of a pair which have found the gardens of Rippon Lea Estate to be a rewarding hunting ground. 

Upon entering Rippon Lea Estate on the 15th of July 2017, I instantly heard the call of an eastern spinebill, then a second and a third. In five years of surveying wildlife at the nearby Elster Creek and Elwood Canal I have personally seen 140 bird species… but never an eastern spinebill.

So I walked and counted for an hour, and the astounding picture became clearer. 15 brown thornbills, 13 silvereyes, two spotted pardalotes and two grey fantails. This list represents some of south-east Australia’s most common and characteristic “bush birds”, but at the same time, they are all species that have been dramatically dropping out of the urban landscape in recent years. To meet with them in such a healthy state at Rippon Lea filled me with joy and presented a learning opportunity.

Eastern spinebills fly down from the ranges to the coastal plain in the cooler months. Their long bill and tongue is well suited to the local native fuchsia Correa reflexa which starts flowering as the birds arrive in March and finishes just as the birds leave in September. In Rippon Lea, they must turn their attention to exotic flowers.

Rippon Lea Estate is in the care of the National Trust, who are 'working towards conserving and protecting our heritage for future generations to enjoy.' So despite my great surprise at the natural riches of this historic garden, the fact that it is also inadvertently conserving our pre-historic heritage indeed seems quite fitting. The puzzle, though, is that of our various inland parks, why should the one to host the most intact community of indigenous birds also be the one most totally devoid of indigenous plants? These birds have evolved to suit the native forests and heaths of south-eastern Australia. So why do they shun most of our parks which are fairly well adorned with indigenous plants?

Eastern spinebills fly down from the ranges to the coastal plain in the cooler months. Their long bill and tongue are well suited to the local native fuchsia Correa reflexa, which starts flowering as the birds arrive in March and finishes just as the birds leave in September. In Rippon Lea, they must turn their attention to exotic flowers.

Eastern spinebills fly down from the ranges to the coastal plain in the cooler months. Their long bill and tongue are well suited to the local native fuchsia Correa reflexa, which starts flowering as the birds arrive in March and finishes just as the birds leave in September. In Rippon Lea, they must turn their attention to exotic flowers.

The stretch of Elster Creek which runs between Foam and Wave Streets in Elwood, for example, has been the focus of revegetation efforts for decades. In it grows a complex indigenous plant community, providing a wholesome structure from the ground up. It looks like a great success of habitat creation, but once again, as on entering the Rippon Lea gardens, the ears quickly tell us what the eyes have missed. You will not hear the calls of the brown thornbill, silvereye, eastern spinebill or grey fantail here - I have not in five years. This is a soundscape almost totally dominated by just one species - the noisy miner - and the same is now true for all other large green spaces in the region, except for the coastal scrubs and Rippon Lea Estate.

Not to be confused with the introduced common myna, the noisy miner is a native honeyeater. In fact, it is about as Australian as they come. Ecologist Tim Low remarked in his book, Where Song Began, that 'A reading of recent research shows that Australian birds are more likely than most to eat sweet foods, live in complex societies, lead long lives, attack other birds and be intelligent and loud.' The noisy miner fits these criteria to a higher degree than perhaps any other bird (although its relative, the bell miner, is a close contender).

Perhaps they would be more accurately described as noisy farmers, for their favourite food is harvested and protected with the utmost diligence so as to ensure a prolific and regenerating crop. If the birds are farmers, then their crop is lerp (tiny white caps, made mostly of sugars, which often appear on eucalyptus leaves) and their livestock are psyllids (sap-sucking insects which create the lerp from waste products and live under it for shelter). Both the psyllids and their lerp creations are relished as food by a great multitude of birds, but the miner-farmers are quite unique in that they will carefully peel away the lerp without taking the insect underneath. The psyllid is therefore left to live another day and build another lerp.

It is of no use, however, to cultivate a reliable resource if other competitor species are going to reap the rewards, so noisy miners combine their gentle harvest with cooperation among their fellows and a hyper level of aggression towards other species which is unparalleled in the bird world. Birds of all sizes are mobbed relentlessly and smaller birds such as pardalotes are often killed.

As for their noisy namesake, these birds vocalise almost continually from dawn to dusk. They are communicating between members of the colony but also projecting a wall of sound around their territory – a warning which most birds, from fairy-wrens to falcons, tend to heed. At times, the lerp farms can be so prolific in the absence of insectivorous birds that the host trees die en masse and the whole ecosystem crumbles. That is an immense ecological influence for just one bird species and it is this unique ability that has earned it the seldom-used label of a 'reverse keystone species', which is to say that the arrival of this bird in an ecosystem is akin to removing the keystone from an arch. One study found that as noisy miner population density increased from 0 per hectare to 0.6 per hectare, the number of species of small bush birds halved.

At the beginning of European settlement in Melbourne, noisy miner colonies were probably quite uncommon and patchily distributed in a few pockets of suitable habitat along the lower Yarra River, where they could hold the fort against intruders. These pockets would have been characterised by scattered, open eucalypt canopies and short grass - grazed by kangaroos - with minimal cluttered vegetation in between. While the mobs of grazing roos have been replaced by the lawn mower, urban parks and golf courses mimic this habitat type closely enough in the eyes of noisy miners to invite the colonisation of vast new lands.

A silvereye snacking on some Cotoneaster glaucophyllus berries.

A silvereye snacking on some Cotoneaster glaucophyllus berries.

One of their earliest nearby outposts was Braeside Park in the 1970s. From there they hopped, park to park, decimating bird communities as they went. They were first reported in St Kilda in the late 1980s, when Geoff Price noticed a few in eucalypts behind the St Kilda Library.  Over the following years they were to invade every suitable patch in the region, increasing in number until they plateaued around the mid-2000s.

It was at this time of expansion that the abundant white-plumed honeyeaters vanished from the St Kilda Botanical Gardens, never to be seen again (they’ve now been relegated to odd places like public car parks where there are just enough eucalypts for their needs but not enough for a miner colony). At the same time the little falcons, which would nest each year atop a Canary Island pine, raised their last offspring. Yellow-rumped thornbills could no longer be found at their usual haunts in the Elsternwick Golf Course and Albert Park (soon becoming locally extinct in both municipalities of Bayside and Port Phillip) and the spring arrival of the sacred kingfishers became a rare sight.

I was lucky enough to see a sacred kingfisher briefly in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens in October 2012. The next morning, I slung an iPod speaker in a tree and broadcasted the kingfisher’s call. Scarcely ten seconds had elapsed of waiting for the real kingfisher’s reply when the speaker was engulfed by an angry hoard of noisy miners. It seems likely that the spread of the noisy miner has had a greater impact on indigenous bird communities than have all introduced birds combined. You could say that the noisy miner is pardalote enemy number one! But it is important to remember that their unnatural proliferation in Melbourne is a symptom of our own unnatural activities over the last 182 years.

The Rippon Lea Estate offers none of the three habitat features that noisy iners require:

1.       Abundant eucalypts

2.       Large expanses of short grass (less than 5cm in length)

3.       An open or absent mid-story layer

As a result, it retains healthy populations of some of the small bird species which have become less common in other parks in the last 15 years. When these small birds do occur in other nearby parks, they generally lie low in the dark, miner-free zones with ample cover, such as the north-east corner of the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. At Rippon Lea, they are noticeably more brazen, often working the outer foliage or even the leafless deciduous trees.

I had previously considered the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne to be the best place to see eastern spinebills in the area, but proportionately they seem to have a greater presence at Rippon Lea. The same is true for nankeen night herons, which often roost in the open during the day around the estate’s lake. Grey fantails have never been recorded in the City of Port Phillip in August but just over the Hotham Street municipal border they have apparently stayed through this winter. It is now eleven years since the last collared sparrowhawks nested in the City of Port Phillip at Alma Park, but recent observations suggest that they may be preparing to nest in Rippon Lea’s tallest Monterey cypress.

An immature nankeen night heron roosting in an unusually open situation. 

An immature nankeen night heron roosting in an unusually open situation. 

The trees around Rippon Lea’s lake also happen to support what is undoubtedly one of Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay’s largest little pied cormorant roosts. Observations made just over the last month already point to a special importance of the Rippon Lea Estate for local wintering birds. A more detailed picture of its benefit to broader biodiversity will emerge during the spring and autumn seasons of bird migration. I suspect that this garden will prove to be a welcome migration stepping stone in an otherwise fairly hostile landscape, with likely visits by the rose robin, pink robin, rufous fantail, golden whistler and sacred kingfisher (judging by the habitat present). It is also a living laboratory. Through its pronounced contrast with other parks, the Rippon Lea Estate is offering ecological insights which will inform better care and understanding of nature in the city.


Gio Fitzpatrick is a dedicated 20-year-old urban ecologist and conservationist, who was endorsed for his environmental volunteer work by Sir David Attenborough at age sixteen.


All images courtesy of Gio Fitzpatrick.