Wollongong to Melbourne

This is a guest article by Anna Senior.

Since early morning I’ve been driving across the Gippsland plain in my van. I’m on my way to Tanja on the south coast of New South Wales, from Melbourne where I’ve recently moved. The Princes Highway cuts a straight path through this region, across undulating farmland. It is all cows and grass, with only scattered paddock trees and the odd remnant stand of roadside red gum. In a moment, the yellow light of the farmland gives way to filtered greens. I’ve been on the road for close to five hours and have just entered the south-east corner bioregion. On the map it’s a large green mass, spanning south-east New South Wales and north-east Victoria. This is a vast forest, uniquely intact, connecting the coastal heaths to alpine meadows hundreds of kilometres away.

Just out of Tanja the road begins to wind, through tall Spotted Gum forest and Burrawang Cycads. After a while I register that my cheeks have started to ache. I notice I’ve been smiling away, alone in my van, since entering the forest and my mouth cracks into an even wider grin. I’m struck by how much I am affected, simply because I am surrounded by trees. It’s a bittersweet feeling, like finding something precious I didn’t know I’d lost. I’m suddenly aware that the life I’ve been making in Melbourne has been deficient of one very important thing: a connection to nature.

Spotted Gum (Corymbia maculata) on the road through Bermagui, New South Wales. Image: Anna Senior

Spotted Gum (Corymbia maculata) on the road through Bermagui, New South Wales. Image: Anna Senior

More Spotted Gum on the road through Bermagui. Image: Anna Senior

More Spotted Gum on the road through Bermagui. Image: Anna Senior

The same Spotted Gums grow around my childhood home. At the northern extent of the bioregion, our property edges onto Morton National Park. Growing up on the edge of this forest, I spent my days scratching up my legs in the Blady Grass and scrambling up Black Wattles (Spotted Gums are dead straight and useless for climbing), one arm usually clutching a beloved and tolerant pet chicken. Wildlife encounters were ubiquitous, even in my bedroom. This was a giant octagonal building, constructed by my dad from repurposed ironbark sleepers. The sleepers, having shrunk slightly since instalment, had small gaps between them, and so my walls were a semi-permeable membrane to the outside world. Most nights wombats would thud around underneath the floor, their shufflings familiar and comforting. Antechinus would frequent my room at all hours, and were particularly amusing when observed in the day, tugging tenaciously at the corner of a rug, completely unfazed by the curious child watching a metre away. These same antechinus would get themselves into obvious digestive strife by sampling the odd custard tart left out in the kitchen.

As I grew, I began to build an understanding of my surroundings which seemed to differentiate me from my friends in town. Snakes and spiders and leaches were not scary. The bush was an extension of what it meant to be home. It was where I felt most at ease, but was also endlessly fascinating and amusing. A favourite game was to pick blue objects from the house; magnets, straws, string and leave them outside on the table. The following morning when I found my offerings decorating the shaded arbour of a Satin Bowerbird, a glow of satisfaction would stay with me all day.

The delight and comfort I felt in my surrounds as a kid grew to intrigue and a keenness to study. I left home for a science degree at Wollongong University. Wollongong’s suburbs are sandwiched between omnipresent sandstone cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. Life was about flinging yourself into that ocean, on a board or floating in a sea pool, staring up at that escarpment. In the southern suburbs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos would leave the forested slopes in the morning, fanning their way out in huge raucous drifts, and returning like clockwork on twilight to roost, tearing up verandas and decks in their path.

Spotted Gum at Anna's childhood home. Image: Anna Senior

Spotted Gum at Anna's childhood home. Image: Anna Senior

To the north, the spit of land between the escarpment and the ocean is precipitously narrow. Up there, the landscape felt wild and prehistoric. The haunting calls of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos and Green Catbirds drifted across the slowly gentrifying suburbs and rolling rainforest hills. Many sessions at the Headlands Hotel peaked as we watched processions of Humpback Whales breaching against a backdrop of pinks and oranges as the sun set. What became the important places of my twenties have names like Burning Palms, Fairy Meadow, Sublime Point. Evocative and reverent of nature.

After eight years in Wollongong, I moved to Melbourne to start a PhD. Within a few weeks, I happily discovered the Merri Creek and Yarra trails and have treasured them ever since. I knew I would need them. I was well aware that spending time in green spaces has a positive effect on mental and physical health. I was pretty sure both would be challenged by the slog of relentless study. Still, I threw myself into enjoying what Melbourne has to offer. I found it’s not just reliably good coffee and bars. For me, Melbourne is all about diversity, choice, inclusivity, community. All things to embrace. However, that morning driving through the forest it struck me that feeling connected to nature is intrinsic to my essential wellbeing. And it’s something I can’t ignore or substitute. This may sound like a fairly obvious observation to make given my background, but in the past being in nature was not something I had to think about, much less prioritise.

With this newfound awareness of self, I’ve discovered another great thing about Melbourne. The city is accessible to an incredible diversity of ecosystems. A short drive can have you revelling among the tree ferns and sentinel Mountain Ashes in the Dandenongs or hiking the snow-covered Mount Baw Baw. A longer trip can have you searching for the fabled white wombats of Wilsons Prom, or staring down at an Owlet Nightjar secreted inside the hollow of a Little Desert mallee. I will make sure I enjoy such experiences along with the good coffee, until the Southeast Corner calls me home.


Anna Senior is a PhD student at Monash University studying the ecology of some of Australia’s rarest lizards. Through her research, she hopes to increase awareness and contribute to the conservation of Australia’s lesser known wildlife.


Banner image courtesy of Anna Senior.

Magic amidst a multitude of stems

Victoria's box-ironbark forests are magic. Whatever time of year you visit, their beauty is evident. The rugged, gnarled trunks of the ironbarks stand black as if they’ve clung to their night-time colour scheme despite the breaking of day. Up close, the black bark is crisscrossed by deep fissures, forming a net whose depths are the colour of rich amber and give the sense that the trees are bursting with warmth. The box trees are more demure. From the pale grey, elephant skin-like bark of the Grey Box to the shaggy mess of bark cloaking a Red Stringybark, each adds its own immutable stamp on the box-ironbark forest identity. Above, the foliage hangs grey-green as if a thick mist has descended on the forest. The calls of woodland birds ring out, and, at certain times of the year, the forest floor and understory is awash with floral splendour. There is no choice but to be spellbound.

The different bark characteristics of the dominant eucalypts (left to right: Red Ironbark, Grey Box, and Red Stringybark) give the box-ironbark forests an unmistakeable character. Image: Rowan Mott

The different bark characteristics of the dominant eucalypts (left to right: Red Ironbark, Grey Box, and Red Stringybark) give the box-ironbark forests an unmistakeable character. Image: Rowan Mott

When gold was found in central Victoria in the middle of the 1800s, miners soon flocked to box-ironbark country. They, like me, quickly saw how special these forests are. However, the value they saw was in the versatility of the timber. It made for ideal stays to bolster mine shafts deep underground; it was perfectly suited for use as railway sleepers in the burgeoning rail network freighting gold across the state. And, as hinted by the warm colour in the fissures of the bark, it burned with a long and lovely heat in campfires and cooking stoves. The rapidly growing population also increased demand for food and many of the grassy box-ironbark woodlands on fertile soils were soon replaced by agricultural enterprises to supply this demand. In the years that followed the discovery of gold, mining boomed and the magnificent box-ironbark forests were felled. 

Miners quickly descended on (and under) Victoria’s box-ironbark country during the middle of the 1800s following the discovery of gold. Evidence of their activity can still be readily seen today. Image: Rowan Mott

Miners quickly descended on (and under) Victoria’s box-ironbark country during the middle of the 1800s following the discovery of gold. Evidence of their activity can still be readily seen today. Image: Rowan Mott

I started this article by spruiking the magic of today's box-ironbark forests, and they are indeed magical. The box-ironbark forests we are fortunate to have today rekindled themselves from ruin like a magical phoenix rising from the ashes - a small, irrevocably damaged phoenix. When the gold rush began to ebb, disused mine sites began to regain their tree cover. However, box-ironbark forests never returned to their full extent. In fact, only 17% of their former area is forest today. Unlike the gold mining boom, agriculture and settlements have relinquished little of their hold over box-ironbark country with the passing of time. 

In parallel with the huge reduction in forest, a quick walk through one of Victoria’s box-ironbark forests today reveals other, more subtle legacies left by the gold rush. Most of the trees now standing have regrown from the base of the cut stump of their predecessor, and this regrowth has resulted in a forest made up of trees with multiple, thin stems. Gone are the immense forest giants of previous centuries, and their loss has seen the depletion of many habitat features relied upon by the wildlife that calls these forests home.

Many of the trees in today’s box-ironbark forests have re-grown from the base of a cut stump. This typically results in a multi-stemmed growth form. Image: Rowan Mott

Many of the trees in today’s box-ironbark forests have re-grown from the base of a cut stump. This typically results in a multi-stemmed growth form. Image: Rowan Mott

Tree hollows used by large birds and arboreal mammals are now scarce, and nectar – a key food source for many birds in these forests – formerly produced in copious quantities by the forest giants is now supplied in inferior volumes by their multi-stemmed counterparts. Furthermore, the larger trees would have produced more and larger fallen timber than today’s smaller trees, and thus species that use fallen timber for den sites (e.g. the Yellow-footed Antechinus) and foraging (e.g. the Hooded Robin) likely suffer as a result.

Species that depend on large tree hollows, such as the Barking Owl, are threatened by the lack of large trees in present day box-ironbark forests. The thin, multi-stemmed growth form of most of the trees simply cannot provide enough of this vital habitat feature. Image: Rowan Mott

Species that depend on large tree hollows, such as the Barking Owl, are threatened by the lack of large trees in present day box-ironbark forests. The thin, multi-stemmed growth form of most of the trees simply cannot provide enough of this vital habitat feature. Image: Rowan Mott

Species that forage on the ground among fallen timber, such as the Hooded Robin, are declining in Victoria. The loss of large, old trees, which contribute disproportionally to the amount of fallen timber, is likely a contributing factor in their decline. Image: Rowan Mott

Species that forage on the ground among fallen timber, such as the Hooded Robin, are declining in Victoria. The loss of large, old trees, which contribute disproportionally to the amount of fallen timber, is likely a contributing factor in their decline. Image: Rowan Mott

As time passes, it is possible to see the slow succession as the forest crawls towards its former glory. Tree stems growing from the base of a dead and decaying stump are often weak, and it is not uncommon to see one or more stems of a multi-stemmed tree lying on the forest floor, having split from the stump. Similarly, the dead stump lacks bark, which usually provides the tree with a protective shield from fire. Fire in a box-ironbark forest, even a low intensity fuel reduction burn, will often result in many multi-stemmed trees collapsing because they are burnt out from the base once fire enters the exposed stump.

And so, as the number of stems slowly decreases, the growth rate of those that remain increases because they no longer experience as much competition for resources, such as light, nutrients and water. The transition of our box-ironbark forests to their original state is glacially slow, but I am hopeful that one day these forests will once again be dominated by trees of a behemoth size.

It is not uncommon to see one or more stems lying on the ground after their weak attachment to the stump from which they were regenerating gives way. Image: Rowan Mott

It is not uncommon to see one or more stems lying on the ground after their weak attachment to the stump from which they were regenerating gives way. Image: Rowan Mott

Fire can more easily burn a dead and decaying stump than a live, bark-covered tree. Trees that have resprouted from the base of a cut stump are often more susceptible to fire than free-standing trees because they are readily burnt out at the base. Image: Rowan Mott

Fire can more easily burn a dead and decaying stump than a live, bark-covered tree. Trees that have resprouted from the base of a cut stump are often more susceptible to fire than free-standing trees because they are readily burnt out at the base. Image: Rowan Mott

If you were to take a large diamond and hit it with an even larger hammer until the diamond shattered into many tiny fragments, would you then throw the diamond fragments away? Of course you wouldn’t; they’re still diamonds after all! Victoria’s box-ironbark forests have been shattered by the hammer of the gold rush and agriculture, but they remain incredibly valuable. Their worth cannot be understated for declining species such as the Squirrel Glider, Woodland Blind Snake and Regent Honeyeater, for which box-ironbark forests represent their core habitat. Far from diminishing the magic of box-ironbark forests, their history of degradation in the last two centuries and the resilience they have shown is even more reason to celebrate them. 


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Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

A wild year: Wild Melbourne's year in review

It's difficult to summarise all that the Wild Melbourne team and their supporters have achieved this year, but I'll definitely try my best. Whether it was creating our own schools program, celebrating National Eucalypt Day, or getting involved in Amellia Formby's Wing Threads project, it's safe to say that from our publications, productions and social media teams, through to the community operations, PR, and admin staff, we've been kept very busy.

Thanks to funding supplied by the Wettenhall Environment Trust, the Wild Melbourne productions team began work on the Community Conservationists video series this year. This initiative aims to bring some well-deserved attention to five community conservation groups around our state through five short videos. Back in April, we were delighted to announce the winners of the application process: Friends of Brisbane RangesConnecting Country, Friends of Bats and Bushcare, Hindmarsh Landcare, and Wildlife of the Central HighlandsStay tuned in 2018 for the release of the videos that will tell the amazing stories of these important conservation groups.

Image: Robert Geary

Image: Robert Geary

We are also very excited to be working with Amellia Formby on her incredible project, Wing Threads: Flight to the Tundra. Amellia is setting out to fly along the same migratory path that our shorebirds fly every year to promote urgent action for shorebird conservation. It’s a 12,500km journey from Australia to Siberia that will take her around three months to complete in a microlight aircraft. Wild Melbourne is helping Amellia tell her story, as well as the stories of the shorebirds and those working so hard to preserve them across Australia, and internationally. Make sure you stay up to date with the Wing Threads project but checking out any news, photos and videos on the Facebook page.

Our biggest achievement of 2017 was by far the launch of the national nature engagement charityRemember The Wild (RTW), in October. We have been privileged to receive an immense amount of support from those of you who already follow Wild Melbourne, as well as from new supporters who are just now learning who we are. We hope to continue to engage the Australian public with the nature around them through our wide range of services, which can be found on our website. Whether it's promoting other groups through online content and video productions, or unlocking the wonder of the natural world through professional development and place making, we offer an array of services that allow people and communities to benefit from increased engagement with nature. 

This year, we have also had the pleasure of publishing a diverse range of articles from local, interstate, and international writers on Wild Melbourne. See below for some of our article highlights of 2017. If you'd like to write for us in 2018, we are always looking for stories of local significance for Wild Melbourne, and stories of national significance for RTW. Email us at info@rememberthewild.org.au and pitch us your idea - we'd love to hear it! 

Lastly, we have also reached over 600 subscribers to our Wild Melbourne newsletter, and we couldn't have done it without you! If you're not yet subscribed, make sure you do so here.

On behalf of the entire team at Wild Melbourne, I'd like to thank you sincerely for your continued support for the work that we do. Whether you are a regular reader of our articles, you keep an eye on what we're up to through social media, or you simply open our monthly newsletters when you see them in your inbox, we are immensely grateful that so many of you have seen the value in what we do. 

We're incredibly excited to see what 2018 brings, and would love for you, our supporters, to continue to follow us, whether through Wild Melbourne or RTW (or both!), as we continue to engage the Australian public with nature. In 2018, we hope to release the Community Conservationists video series, complete work on our eucalypt documentary (funded by Eucalypt Australia), unveil an exciting ecopoetry project happening at Point Leo, publish more unique and engaging content on both the Wild Melbourne and RTW websites, and much, much more.

If you'd like to know more about upcoming projects or get involved with us in some way, please feel free to contact us at info@rememberthewild.org.au to have a chat. In the meantime, have a safe and happy New Year, and don't forget to get outdoors and get wild!


This article was originally published in the Wild Melbourne newsletter. If you'd like to be the first to hear about Wild Melbourne news and events, plus receive article recommendations and fantastic nature photography straight to your inbox, then please subscribe here.

Australian magpies: the playful protectors

Beautiful, vicious, cheeky, scary, intelligent, psychopathic. These are some of the words people have used to describe the Australian Magpie since it was voted the 2017 Australian Bird Of The Year. Like its close contender, the White Ibis (or ‘bin chicken’), the magpie can elicit mixed emotions among its human neighbours. There are stories of befriending magpies in our backyards, of being welcomed home to Australia by a magpie’s song, and, of course, being swooped. So I decided to catch up with someone who spends most of his time learning about magpies, to ask him what he loves about them.

If you’re ever at a public park around Melbourne, you might see a man standing alone, tossing handfuls of shredded mozzarella cheese, while whistling the theme song from The X-Files. This behaviour might sound eccentric, at best, but it serves a purpose. Farley Connelly is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. He is researching how the problem-solving abilities of urban magpies compare to rural magpies, and whether they are affected by noise pollution. The cheese is used to train wild magpies to come when Connelly whistles, so that he can test their performance on various tasks.

Image: Rowan Mott

Image: Rowan Mott

I asked Connelly for some of his favourite ‘fun facts’ about magpies. These were his responses.

Magpies are playful

We tend to associate ‘play’ behaviour with mammals, such as our pet cats and dogs. But birds and other animals can play as well. Connelly says he often sees magpies playing with items like sticks, leaves and trash.

‘I’ve watched tug-of-war multiple times between juveniles, and between juveniles and adults.’

Magpies sing – and grunt

The magpie’s song is one of Australia’s most quintessential sounds. Many of us have become so familiar with this song that we pay it no notice. But for those who don’t hear this melody every day, it can have a profound emotional impact. A friend from overseas once described her initial reaction as: Is this heaven?

‘I was recording it and sending it to everyone back home,’ she told us.

The magpie’s song inspired their scientific name: Cracticus tibicen, where ‘tibicen’ means ‘piper’ or ‘flautist’. Magpies sing to reinforce their claim on their territory, mostly at dawn and dusk.

Image: Michelle Hall

Image: Michelle Hall

But while we are all familiar with the magpie’s melodious carolling, we are perhaps less familiar with their other calls. Magpies use many different calls, including grunting noises, to communicate.

‘I don’t think most people ever hear these,’ says Connelly, ‘but they do it consistently when they are near each other.’

Magpies sunbathe

If you’ve ever come across a magpie lying on its front, wings spread out to either side, don’t panic – it might just be sunbathing.

Connelly says magpies sunbathe even when it’s not cold outside – much like an Aussie human on a summer’s day. Unlike humans, though, magpies will take turns bathing in a specific patch of dirt.

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Magpies recognise people

Magpies can remember and recognise human faces, and will treat people differently depending on whether they think they are a “threat”.

Unfortunately, humans are not quite as good at remembering and recognising magpie faces. To help him distinguish between different magpies, Connelly often needs to catch them and put a plastic identification band on their leg.

As you might imagine, the magpies are not too pleased about being caught and handled. Given that magpies can also hold grudges for a long time, this could cause major problems for Connelly’s future research.

To avoid this problem, Connelly – and other magpie researchers – must ensure that the magpie never sees who catches them. Connelly catches magpies in a trap that he controls from a distance, and keeps a hood over the magpie’s face while it is being handled. That way, the magpie doesn’t associate the person who caught them with the person who feeds them cheese and gets them to do problem-solving tasks.

By feeding the magpies, Connelly also wins their trust. As part of his research, Connelly monitors magpie nests, which might sound terrifying for anyone who has ever inadvertently crossed paths with a breeding magpie. But as the cheese-bringer, Connelly can climb right up to a magpie’s nest without being attacked.

For the rest of us, there is also a lesson here: be kind to the magpies in your neighbourhood, and they are more likely to be kind to you.

Magpies bow to their superiors

While magpies might be better known for their aggression, they also display extremely submissive behaviours.

‘Young birds and subordinates will bow down and shake their tail feathers when a dominant male or female is near,’ Connelly explains.

Magpies are caring parents

When people express their dislike of magpies, they usually refer to their swooping behaviour. Magpies are extremely protective of their nests and young, and will attack anyone that they think could be a threat.

While this can be terrifying – and occasionally causes serious injuries – it shows off another attribute of magpies: they are good parents.

Both parents care for their offspring. According to Connelly, males are much more aggressive when it comes to protection, although females help. Likewise, while females do more of the foraging and feeding, males also feed the young.

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

The protectiveness of these parents is not unwarranted. Only around 10% of chicks survive. Almost all swooping occurs when magpies have chicks in their nest, when the parents have real reason to fear predation. And while some magpies can be particularly aggressive towards humans, most never make contact when they swoop.

As with many species, not all magpies are raised by both a male and female parent either. In the last breeding season, Connelly saw two females nest together successfully.

‘Now that it has fledged, the nestling (Andy) is primarily cared for by one female,’ says Connelly, ‘but the other one is still around and feeding.’

You can find plenty of tips to avoid being swooped by magpies, and how to respond if you do. But still, if you’re ever feeling irritated about needing to adjust your route to school or work, remember – the magpies are just trying to keep their chicks safe.


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Anne Aulsebrook

Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, interested in conservation and the evolution of animal behaviour. One of her favourite books as a child was a field guide to Melbourne's spiders. She is currently researching how streetlights affect sleep in urban birds. 

You can find her on Twitter at @AnneAulsebrook.


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.