Community Conservationists

The heathland sanctuaries of Bayside

It’s a typical winter’s morning in Melbourne: raining, windy and ten degrees. But despite the weather, a group of dedicated volunteers has donned their beanies, gathered at a small heathland reserve in Sandringham and is busy digging holes in the damp, sandy soil. I’m joining these volunteers for the monthly working bee of the Friends of Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary. Today, I’m told, is all about planting and weeding.

The group’s convenor is Michael Norris, who was first drawn to the group because of his passion for birds. He has been the convenor since the mid-1990s. He’s kindly offered to show me around the Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary. Michael has a wealth of knowledge about the history of the reserve, but he is not afraid to interrupt the conversation to pause and peer through his binoculars into the trees.

‘I think it’s an Eastern Spinebill,’ he says excitedly. We stop often – there’s plenty of bird life to see in the reserve. As we wander around, Michael also points out interesting plants, including a huge colony of Nodding Greenhood orchids (Pterostylis nutans) and a magnificent Creeping Mistletoe (Muellerina eucalyptoides).

Spring native wildflowers at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary.  Images: Lyndsey Vivian

Spring native wildflowers at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary. Images: Lyndsey Vivian

The vegetation of the reserve is like a patchwork. Some areas are dense with tall thickets and other areas open out to low-growing shrubs. The shrubs intermingle with a rich diversity of herbs, lilies, rushes and grasses.

‘These are patches of burns of different ages,’ Michael explains as we traverse the vegetation patchwork. Controlled ecological burning is an important management tool to maintain species diversity. Without fire, species such as Coast Tea-tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) and Coast Wattle (Acacia longifolia subsp. sophorae), indigenous to the nearby foreshore vegetation, become dominant and ‘ecologically out-of-balance’, outcompeting everything else. One area, burned just a few months ago, has already been reclaimed by masses of Chocolate Lilies (Arthropodium strictum), ready to burst into a sea of purple flowers.

The reserve is one of several that protect the last remaining pockets of heathland and woodland vegetation in the area. They are remnants of the once-famous ‘Sandringham Flora’, which captured the attention of Melbourne’s early naturalists. Native orchids were a particular favourite:

‘Not the least charm about the Sandringham flora lies in the profusion of orchids contained in it, and probably no other locality in the State presents such a variety and abundance of species.’*

A recently burned patch at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary colonised by Chocolate Lilies and Sandhill Sword Sedge.  Image: Lyndsey Vivian

A recently burned patch at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary colonised by Chocolate Lilies and Sandhill Sword Sedge. Image: Lyndsey Vivian

Members of the Victorian Field Naturalists Club went to great lengths to visit the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In August 1890, C. French described how he and his son travelled by train to Oakleigh and then ‘tramped about fifteen mile’ to Cheltenham and Sandringham to explore the ‘heath-grounds’.**

Along the way the pair described an astounding diversity of plants, birds and insects. The experience of their journey is hard to imagine: today the same walk would pass along busy arterial roads, monotonous suburbia and stark industrial areas. But back in 1890, the same route was covered with wildflowers. There was ‘Epacris impressa, with its charming variety of colours, varying from the purest white to crimson…’; at Cheltenham you could see ‘the lovely little Euphrasia brownii, Hovea heterophylla, the trailing Kennedya [Kennedia prostrata], with its bright red blooms…’; and near Sandringham you could find ‘quantities of the Sweet-scented Acacia (Acacia suaveolens)… in full bloom…’ C. French concluded that ‘the number of orchids seen in flower was 12 – not so bad for the month of August.’

As the area became increasingly developed, concerns were raised about the loss of the Sandringham flora. Today, the handful of remaining reserves exist because of the local people who have lobbied tirelessly for their preservation. At Bay Road, for example, the City of Sandringham had planned to develop the land, but received 96 letters of objection due to the site’s botanical significance. The reserve was set aside in 1976.

But these tiny reserved fragments in a sea of suburbia present challenges. Jo Hurse has worked in the reserves since 1999 and knows firsthand the difficulty of the work involved. Jo has offered to show me around two other local reserves in Beaumaris: Long Hollow Heathland Sanctuary and Balcombe Park Reserve.

‘Eighty percent of what we do is managing weeds,’ she says, which includes the Coast Tea-tree and Coast Wattle. Jo and her team also carry out the burns, which take months of planning and preparation. Before a burn, the area must be cleared of Coast Tea-tree and Coast Wattle – all by hand.

The contrast between a more recently burned area on the right and an area infested with Coast Tea-tree and Coast Wattle on the left, Balcombe Park Reserve.  Image: Lyndsey Vivian

The contrast between a more recently burned area on the right and an area infested with Coast Tea-tree and Coast Wattle on the left, Balcombe Park Reserve. Image: Lyndsey Vivian

Jo shows me one recently burned patch in Balcombe Park Reserve where ‘... it took seven weeks with three staff working five days a week to remove the Coast Tea-tree.’ But the hard work has paid off: the patch is species-rich and clear of weeds.

On my tour with Jo we are also accompanied by Pauline Reynolds, convenor of another local heathland Friends group at George Street Reserve. Pauline is passionate and hugely knowledgeable about the reserves and their ecology and has many stories to tell from her decades of experience. My favourite story of Pauline’s perfectly illustrates the enthusiasm and passion of the Friends group members. At Long Hollow, Pauline shows me a small mistletoe plant growing on a wattle. ‘It was hand-planted on to the tree,’ Pauline explains. The sticky fruit was in fact originally collected from the very same Creeping Mistletoe plant that Michael had shown me at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary.

Like Melbourne’s early naturalists, the heathland reserves have clearly captured the attention of many locals, who devote huge amounts of volunteer time. Back at Bay Road, I meet Sue Forster, a regular volunteer here and at the local Bayside Community Nursery.

‘I originally became involved to learn about the locally indigenous plants,’ Sue says. She now advises customers at the nursery on which indigenous plants to buy and helps to guide visitors during the spring open days.

A boardwalk through the trees at Long Hollow Reserve.  Image: Lyndsey Vivian

A boardwalk through the trees at Long Hollow Reserve. Image: Lyndsey Vivian

Other volunteers come from further afield, such as Tian Gao, one of a trio of Monash University students from China helping out at the working bee. Tian has travelled from Box Hill and when I meet him he is busy planting Trigger Plants and Chocolate Lilies in the ground.

‘I wanted the opportunity to learn more about the local plants and animals,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to find experiences like this in China.’ Surprisingly, the students aren’t studying ecology or environmental science; they’re studying sociology, business and psychology. I ask what his favourite plant is: ‘Nodding Greenhood,’ he says with a grin.

Every year in spring the seven main reserves have open days which include guided tours to see the incredible displays of wildflowers. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend a visit. Take a camera, but more importantly take your time. Wander through the heathlands and enjoy what is left of the magnificent Sandringham flora.

Spring Open Days for 2018:

• Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary: Sundays from September 2nd to October 28th, 2pm to 4pm.

• Gramatan Avenue Heathland Sanctuary: Sundays throughout September, 2pm to 4pm.

• Balcombe Park Reserve: September 30th, 10am to 12pm.

• Long Hollow Heathland Sanctuary: September 30th, 1pm to 3pm.

Lyndsey Vivian is an ecologist, writer and bushwalker currently based in Melbourne.

*C.S. Sutton (1911). Notes on the Sandringham Flora. The Victorian Naturalist 28, 5-20.

**C. French (1890). A Ramble Through the Heath-Ground from Oakleigh to Sandringham. The Victorian Naturalist 7, 71-75.

Banner image of a Chocolate Lily courtesy of Mikeybear [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons.

Finding a home for the Brush-tailed Phascogale

The small grey marsupial pushed her pointed snout under a loose piece of bark, halfway up an ancient gum tree. She could smell food – a large huntsman spider, which she hastily caught and crunched between her sharp teeth. She was a Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan, the dark stripe down her face barely visible in the night. Her sharp claws were poised to lift another strip of bark, her pink ears listening for danger, when air movement on this still night alerted her at the last moment. She stamped her front feet on the tree trunk. The long black hairs on the brush-like portion of her tail stood up. The owl’s talons reached for her conspicuous tail as she ran. It caught only a few hairs as she ducked behind the trunk. She fled for the safety of a nearby hollow.

The hollow entrance was about three to four centimetres wide, just big enough for the phascogale to enter, while securely keeping out predators, such as owls and cats. In the spacious interior was a woven nest of bark, feathers and fur. She would move from this hollow soon to another in her forty-hectare territory. She would use up to thirty hollows if she could find them, but there were insufficient trees in her territory old enough to have hollows. Competition with possums, birds and bees for these precious spaces was intense. This one may be occupied when she next returned.

The Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan. Note the dark stripe that runs down their face, ending at the nose.  Image: David Whelan

The Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan. Note the dark stripe that runs down their face, ending at the nose. Image: David Whelan

The female was about seven months old and had recently left her mother’s nest and found her own territory not far away. Her body and tail were each about 18 centimetres long. She was nocturnal, emerging from her hollow at dusk to hunt, usually in trees, but occasionally on the ground. Mostly she ate spiders, centipedes, cockroaches and other insects, but sometimes she drank nectar or caught a napping bird or small mammal. She was capable of killing a chicken, which Brush-tailed Phascogales will occasionally do, if they can find a small hole to enter a chicken coop.

In May or June, it will be breeding season - a very intense few weeks, especially for the males, who use a lot of energy in competition and mating, then die from stress-induced illnesses. After the breeding season, there will be no males. One month later the female will give birth to her litter. She has eight teats, and her babies will attach to them, so she carries them everywhere. When they are about seven weeks old, she will leave them in a carefully woven nest, under a layer of fur and feathers. Initially she will only hunt for a short time, returning for long visits to suckle and warm her babies. As they become older, she will visit less. At around three months old, she will start to bring solid food for them. The young will leave the nest in early summer to find their own territory. Rearing young takes a lot of effort, and the female may be one of the small number who survive to breed a second time.

Brush-tailed Phascogales are a threatened species in Victoria, which means there is a threat of them becoming extinct. Much of the dry eucalypt forest they prefer has been cleared for agriculture, or changed through grazing, mining, forestry and firewood collection. Patches of suitable habitat may be separated from each other, limiting the area in which young phascogales can disperse, and their ability to move to a new area and to find mates. They are also preyed on by foxes and cats as well as their natural predators.

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is listed as a threatened species in Victoria.  Image: David Whelan

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is listed as a threatened species in Victoria. Image: David Whelan

Another threat is the loss of hollows for shelter and nesting. In 2016, the Friends of Brisbane Ranges (FoBR) received a grant from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) which allowed them to install fifty nest-boxes in the Brisbane Ranges National Park. They are designed to suit phascogales, with small entrance holes and spacious interiors. Students from Wyndham Central College in Werribee, who visit the park for environmental studies, were involved in making and installing the boxes. FoBR also conducted a successful crowdfunding campaign, which has allowed the project to continue, and supported the creation of a network of groups involved in similar projects elsewhere.

In 2017, FoBR was thrilled to be chosen by Remember The Wild as one of the groups whose story would be told through the Community Conservationists initiative, highlighting the plight of these little-known marsupials and the work of the inspirational students involved in the project.

Hopefully, the nest-boxes will provide additional homes for Brush-tailed Phascogales, and may also free up some of the limited number of natural hollows for other species. So far, there are about seventy nest-boxes on tree trunks in the Brisbane Ranges National Park being explored by furry visitors, or perhaps already occupied, and the nest-box project continues.

Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.