Species of the Month: August

This August we are initiating our species-of-the-month campaign aimed at generating greater understanding of chosen species of Victorian flora and fauna. To honour the launch of this initiative we will be focusing this month's spotlight on two of our state emblems - the Helmeted Honeyeater (Epacris impressa) and the Common Heath (Lichenostomus melanops cassidix). 


Helmeted Honeyeater (Lichenostomus melanops cassidix) & Friends for Life

Credit: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Helmeted-Honeyeater/1408866722662521

Credit: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Helmeted-Honeyeater/1408866722662521

With a bold outfit of gold, black and olive plumage, and a curious crown of feathers above its bill, the Helmeted Honeyeater (Lichenostomus melanops cassidix) certainly packs visual appeal. It is, in fact, our official state bird emblem although not for its delicate beauty but rather more its endemic status (i.e. occurring only within the state of Victoria). Unfortunately, however, our avifaunal emblem is in troubled waters, with wild populations being precariously low and at a high risk of extinction. In the past, habitat loss and fragmentation due to land clearing for agriculture has played a large role in the specie’s decline. Fire and introduced predators further reduced populations to the point where an estimated 15 breeding pairs persisted in the wild in 1989. Today the Helmeted Honeyeater continues to struggle with eucalyptus die back, wildfire and completion with the larger, more aggressive Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys) being noted as key threats to the species.  Nonetheless there is hope, as I recently discovered whilst speaking with James Frazer, coordinator of the Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater (FoHH) group, during this year’s ‘Convoy for Conservation’.

James heads a group of passionate volunteers who are working towards re-establishing the Helmeted Honeyeater, or Heho as it is affectionately known, within the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve, approximately 50 kilometres east of Melbourne. The 9,600 hectare reserve is one of only two locations where the Helmeted Honeyeater can be found in the wild, the other being the Bunyip State Forest, and is where FoHH undertake their conservation efforts. A large portion of their work involves revegetating areas of the reserve with locally indigenous plant species propagated from their on-site nursery. In this way habitat suitable for the Helmeted Honeyeater is being created which will subsequently support a greater population of the birds once established in the future. Although, as James explains, the task it is not as simple as it may sound. Fallow, Sambar and Hog Deer also inhabit the reserve and pose a challenge to the group’s revegetation works. If planted in the standard practice, with a tree-guard and stakes, the plants will frequently be browsed upon or uprooted by the unruly deer. As a result James has had to find ways to outwit the troublesome deer and has successfully done so by importing special tree-guards from Britain—designed to protect plants from deer browsing—as well as fencing off revegetation patches.

As part of the Convoy for Conservation James had arranged for us to plant Mountain Swamp Gums (Eucalyptus camphora) around a small patch of swamp. As we were informed, this species provides highly favourable habitat for the Helmeted Honeyeater as the nectar of flowering Mountain Swamp Gum is a key element of the Helmeted Honeyeater’s diet. During the recent drought many of the Mountain Swamp Gum failed to flower due to increased water stress. Consequently the Helmeted Honeyeaters also fared poorly with few birds choosing to raise young in those years. It is therefore worrying to think of the effects that climate change could have on the species, particularly when its small range is taken into account. For James the solution lies in the creation of an ambitious 525,000 hectare wilderness area; the Great Forest National Park. If the proposal were to go ahead the specie’s, and many others, would stand a better chance of surviving the effects of changing climate as the Helmeted Honeyeater would be able to move freely along riparian stream vegetation to wetter areas more suitable for their needs.

Despite the hazy future of the Helmeted Honeyeater, when compared to the situation 25 years ago, the species is doing markedly better today. A concentrated captive breeding program by Healesville Sanctuary and Taronga Zoo has bolstered the wild Helmeted Honeyeater population, with many of the released captive birds going on to breed in the wild. During the 2013-14 breeding season a total of 36 young were fledged at the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve. With hope this trend shall continue to a point where active management of the species is no longer required and the Helmeted Honeyeater is a common sight amongst the Mountain Swamp Gum of Yellingbo and beyond. 

The Helmeted Honeyeater needs friends for life. Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater are always in need of help to propagate and plant indigenous vegetation, conduct bird surveys, supplementary feed released birds and run education programs for schools and the wider community. If you would like to play a role in aiding in the conservation of this critically endangered species please contact the Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater group: phone 5964 8341 or e-mail heho1@optusnet.com.au .

Author: Nathan Gregory


 Common "Pink" Heath (Epacris impressa)

Image Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epacris_impressa

Image Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epacris_impressa

 

Our floral emblem is a small, unassuming plant that you’ve likely seen if you’ve ever ventured out into one of Victoria’s forests, but probably don’t know much about. Its quiet lifestyle doesn’t compare to that of a carnivorous sundew or a giant mountain ash, but this common plant is well adapted to its environment and has earned my respect. And so it should! After all, it is our floral emblem.

Common Heath (Epacris impressa) is a prickly little shrub that belongs to the Ericaceae family, along with cranberries, blueberries, and various heaths and heathers. It is a slender, wiry shrub that grows to around 1.5 metres tall, and has rigid, sharp-ended leaves to help fend off grazing herbivores. Common Heath flowers from March through to November. During this period, it bursts into colour, boasting numerous white, pink or red tubular flowers. The pink variety of Common Heath was proclaimed Victoria’s floral emblem in 1958, and was the first emblem of its kind in Australia.

Common Heath’s generic name, Epacris, means ‘upon a hill’, referring to the relatively high altitude at which some species grow. Its specific name, impressa, is Latin for ‘impressed’ or ‘indented’, and refers to the five dimples at the base of this species’ flowers.

As for where you can find our floral emblem, you don’t have to look very hard. Found throughout Victoria, Common Heath grows in a huge variety of habitats including coastal and sandy heathland, scrubby woodlands and dry forests, and at altitudes of up to 1200 metres in montane and sub-alpine areas. Pink Common Heath is indigenous to most of Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs. It was once common in Warrandyte and surroundings, as far into the city as Mount Waverley and Murrumbeena, throughout the Dandenong Ranges, and also throughout many of the bayside suburbs as far north as Brighton. Although it is no longer prevalent in these locales, Pink Common Heath can be found in many parks and reserves in these areas.

 
Range of the Common Heath. Image Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epacris_impressa

Range of the Common Heath. Image Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epacris_impressa

 

From an ecological viewpoint, Pink Common Heath has a few mentionable characteristics. The flowers produce nectar at their bases, which attracts a variety of animals including birds and insects. Honeyeaters, such as the Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris) are able to dip their long beaks deep into the tubular flower in order to drink the nectar, and in turn help with pollination by picking up pollen from one plant and then depositing it onto the next flower it drinks from.

 
An Eastern Spinebill enjoying the nectar of the Common Heath. Image Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epacris_impressa

An Eastern Spinebill enjoying the nectar of the Common Heath. Image Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epacris_impressa

 

In addition to this close relationship with its pollinators, Pink Common Heath also has an even cosier relationship with certain fungi in the surrounding soil. The roots of Pink Common Heath are colonised through a mycorrhizal relationship - a symbiotic association between the plant and a fungus that has adapted to combat the challenges caused by the nutrient-poor and acidic soils that Pink Common Heath tend to grow in. The plant trades carbohydrates with the fungi in exchange for crucial nutrients that the fungus is able to yield from the soil. Different species of these symbiotic fungi are found in different areas.

Although Pink Common Heath is common in many areas, it is not immune to ecological threats. It is moderately susceptible to Cinnamon Fungus (Phytophthora cinnamomi). Once infected, the roots of the plant are unable to absorb water and nutrients. The roots blacken and die, the plant withers, and often the infection results in death. To help combat the spread of Cinnamon Fungus, clean your shoes, tyres and gear so that they are free from soil and gravel, so that you don’t take the fungus with you to the next place you visit.

 
 

Another threat to Pink Common Heath is the Large Earth Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). This invasive species is a nuisance to our floral emblem because it dines and dashes. Instead of sipping nectar via the throat of the plant, the Large Earth Bumblebee pierces the flower at its base and obtains it through this more direct route. This is detrimental to the plant because the bumblebee drinks the nectar without transferring pollen from one plant to another (which occurs when the nectar is obtained via the throat of the plant).

 In writing this article, I have a newfound respect for our floral emblem. It is not just a ‘pretty flower’, but plays an integral role in its ecosystem, and is well adapted to its environment. Pink Common Heath, as its name suggests, is ordinary and discrete at first glance, but this pearl of the forest is an icon with character, seamlessly woven into its environment, and hopefully will continue to be for years to come. 

Author: Emma Walsh