New Season Winter Arrivals

We often hear the phrase “head south for the winter” in popular culture. Hollywood films abound with references to spending in winter in sunny California or Florida, but in a global context, Australia is relatively south. Here in Victoria, we’re pretty far south in an Australian context. So much so that most of our migratory birds head north for the winter! For example, dollarbirds and rainbow bee-eaters move up the east coast to Queensland or even further still to New Guinea. You may have become aware of the vast northerly migration of many of our shorebirds through the Wing Threads project. Wing Threads is inspired by species that depart Australia and fly the entire length of the Australasian-East Asian Flyway to reach their breeding grounds in places such as northern China and Siberia. These species spend life in perpetual summer. But while some species depart at the onset of the Victorian winter, there are a diversity of other movement strategies that see some species arriving in Victoria just as our weather begins to get cold.

Rainbow bee-eaters are one of our more typical migrants. They spend the summer months in southern Australia, before departing to the north as the days begin to shorten at the onset of winter.

Rainbow bee-eaters are one of our more typical migrants. They spend the summer months in southern Australia, before departing to the north as the days begin to shorten at the onset of winter.

Unlike the trans-equatorial, south-to-north migrations undertaken by many of its shorebird relatives, the double-banded plover arrives on Victorian shores in autumn after crossing the Tasman Sea from New Zealand. As well as changing the nation in which it resides, the double-banded plover also undergoes something of a habitat change as well. In New Zealand, it can be found among the shingle rocks lining the banks of rivers of the South Island. When it arrives in Australia, the double-banded plover’s favoured habitat is tidal mudflats and adjacent salt marsh. Here, it can be found in small groups and often forages in close proximity to our resident red-capped plover. Shorebirds, such as the double-banded plover and red-capped plover, often prove challenging to identify. However, if you can see two smudgey, brown bars extending from each of the bird’s ‘shoulders’ onto the top of the breast, you are looking at a double-banded plover. This is how they get their name, although the bars are much more striking when the birds are in breeding plumage (which you are very unlikely to see at this time of year). Another useful feature to assist with identification of double-banded plovers is the distinctly buffy appearance of their face.

Keep a look out on Victoria’s shores this winter. Amongst the resident red-capped plovers, you might be able to spot a slightly larger double-banded plover as it spends the winter here after breeding in New Zealand during the summer.

Keep a look out on Victoria’s shores this winter. Amongst the resident red-capped plovers, you might be able to spot a slightly larger double-banded plover as it spends the winter here after breeding in New Zealand during the summer.

Most migratory species move because conditions in their breeding range become unsuitable to sustain foraging activity. For birds that inhabit alpine areas during the summer months, it is not hard to see that the start of the snow season may limit opportunities for foraging, particularly for species that catch insects from the ground. The flame robin can be found across most of Victoria, but in winter the task of finding one near Melbourne becomes decidedly easier. This is because many individuals that spend the summer in the high country move to lower elevations, including open habitats close to Melbourne, where conditions are more favourable for foraging. Look for them sitting on farm fences, or in open grassy woodlands. The red-orange breast of a male flame robin is sure to provide some visual warmth to your day. Similar to the movements of flame robins, you may have noticed more pied currawongs in the Melbourne suburbs now that we are heading towards winter. These intelligent birds eat insects, fruit and small vertebrates. Despite this varied diet, the fact that some pied currawongs disperse from upland areas to lower elevations highlights how challenging it can be to find enough food in the high country when everything has become dormant for the winter, even for incredibly smart and resourceful birds.

Sitting in a dead branch of a Snow Gum atop Falls Creek during summer, this female flame robin may have migrated to lower elevation to spend the winter in more favourable conditions.

Sitting in a dead branch of a Snow Gum atop Falls Creek during summer, this female flame robin may have migrated to lower elevation to spend the winter in more favourable conditions.

We may think that the weather in Melbourne is cold at this time of the year. Yet, in relation to the chill felt in Tasmania, we have a relatively mild winter. This means that some species of birds migrate from Tasmania to Victoria at this time of year to take advantage of our environmental conditions and food resources. The Critically Endangered orange-bellied parrot and swift parrot undertake the crossing of Bass Strait during autumn, but these headline grabbers are not alone. Many blue-winged parrots (very closely related to orange-bellied parrots) also migrate to Victoria and further north for the winter. Similarly, tiny silvereyes and striated pardalotes also make the flight across from Tasmania to augment the number of individuals that are present in Victoria. Over the cooler months around Melbourne, silvereyes from Tasmania can be identified by their brown flanks, whereas those that are here year-round lack this strong colouration, having off-white or pale buff flanks. In the case of the striated pardalote, Tasmanian birds have a yellow spot at the crook of their wing (the carpal joint), whereas in Victorian birds this spot will be red.

Many of the dominant eucalypt trees that characterise the open forests of central and northern Victoria flower in winter. This means that these regions may be descended upon by many species of nectar feeding birds, particularly honeyeaters and lorikeets, during winter. These birds are referred to as blossom nomads because they move across the landscape with no fixed pattern; where they occur is influenced strongly by where the most nectar is available at any point in time. By flowering in winter when insect activity is typically inhibited by the cold conditions, winter-flowering eucalypts rely on the service nectarivorous birds provide in the form of pollen transport. Through visiting multiple flowers to drink nectar, nectarivorous birds are inadvertently dusted with pollen which they then transfer to subsequent flowers they visit, thus facilitating successful fertilization of the flowers. It is because of this benefit that the trees produce the nectar reward that proves so irresistible to the diverse suite of blossom nomads that are drawn from across the landscape.

Species that feed on nectar, such as the yellow-tufted honeyeater, may capitalise on winter-flowering eucalypts in northern and central Victoria during the cooler months of the year.

Species that feed on nectar, such as the yellow-tufted honeyeater, may capitalise on winter-flowering eucalypts in northern and central Victoria during the cooler months of the year.

Whereas most migratory birds leave Victoria as the weather starts to become chilly in the lead up to winter, don’t let this stop you from grabbing your binoculars and heading out for some quality birding time. If you don’t brave the conditions during this colder part of the year, you may never get the chance to see some species, such as the double-banded plover, which can be found in Victoria only at this time of year. You may also be rewarded with the sight of a eucalypt forest in full bloom and a cacophony of bird song to make it all worthwhile.


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth

Oasis in the Desert

Imagine, just for a second, that you were transported to far-Western Victoria as it was 300 years ago. The sweeping plains and occasional dunes continue on as far as the eye can see, with not a scrap of barbed wire in sight. There are enormous malleefowl mounds everywhere; on every sand dune the scurried traces of bilbies, quolls and bettongs abound. The many stemmed eucalypts explode from the sand in slow motion, hinting at a fire-scorched past.

These days, the Little Desert tells a different story: a story of rabbits, weeds and European farming. But what if that picture first painted could be recreated? What if the Little Desert, or at least sections of it, could hark back to a wilder time?

Medium-sized mammals like this rufous bettong (left) and brush-tailed bettong (right) once roamed the Little Desert.  Image: Emma Walsh

Medium-sized mammals like this rufous bettong (left) and brush-tailed bettong (right) once roamed the Little Desert. Image: Emma Walsh

Conservation Volunteers Australia, in partnership with FAUNA Research Alliance and the Little Desert Nature Lodge, are hoping to do just that using rewilding, an emerging approach to conservation. Essentially, rewilding means reintroducing species where they once were and generally allowing nature to take its course. Putting the wild back into nature, as it were. The practice has grown to prominence recently in the UK, with the proposed reintroduction of lynx in Scotland. In Australia, a rewilded Little Desert may give people the opportunity to experience a Victorian landscape as it once was.

For Ben Holmes, Rewilding Manager at Conservation Volunteers, the opportunity to help rewild the Little Desert is an exciting prospect, especially given the rapid decline of Australia’s biodiversity: “If we can prove that rewilding works and implement it at landscape scales, we might be able to conserve some of Australia’s threatened species, and that’s why I’m on board.”

As Ben explains the Little Desert project in depth, it’s difficult to stop the mind from wandering, marveling at the possibilities that come with rewilding and what it means for conservation: “It’s time to try something new, and the evidence from around the world is starting to show that rewilding might be a key piece of the conservation puzzle.” Indeed, if a conservation program as ambitious as this is successful, it could inspire many others across Australia.

The effects of rewilding aren’t just about conservation, though; they can also permeate throughout society. Ben and Conservation Volunteers also want to use the project to rewild people: “Giving volunteers and the community an opportunity to get involved in a meaningful conservation project and connect with nature and Australia’s unique wildlife is integral to our vision.” Studies from many corners of the world show the benefits of connecting humans with nature.

Conservation projects can often take a little while to get going and while this project is two years in the making so far, Ben and Conservation Volunteers are keen to get things moving quickly: “Our aim is to run our monitoring program this spring and summer to give us an understanding of what species are here and how the ecosystem is functioning.”

The Little Desert Nature Lodge's predator-proof fences will keep the rewilded species safe from invasive predators, as well as provide a controlled environment in which to conduct the management experiments.  Image: Billy Geary

The Little Desert Nature Lodge's predator-proof fences will keep the rewilded species safe from invasive predators, as well as provide a controlled environment in which to conduct the management experiments. Image: Billy Geary

After reaching this milestone – a crucial step in science – it’s time for the main event: “In about 12 months time, we will start reintroducing animals and monitoring their impact on the ecosystem.” The proposed species read like a mammal-watcher’s wishlist, with the western quoll, numbat, brush-tailed bettong and western barred bandicoot all expected to be returning home in the imminent future. All of these species are incredibly charismatic, but also in dire need of conservation support.

To reach this point, however, Conservation Volunteers and FAUNA Research Alliance are already years into the project, says Ben. Part of this is ensuring that this ambitious project is backed by the best science available: “FAUNA Research Alliance is helping us to develop a scientifically rigorous monitoring and research program to assess the impacts of rewilding. The baseline-monitoring program is being developed so that it can be undertaken by the community. For more complex monitoring and research, the academics from FAUNA will help us to find students to deliver the work.”

Very soon, species that haven't been in this landscape for 300 years will return.  Image: Billy Geary

Very soon, species that haven't been in this landscape for 300 years will return. Image: Billy Geary

Despite the continued and seemingly unstoppable rise of rewilding in scientific literature as a viable addition to a land manager’s toolkit, it does have its critics. Some suggest that rewilding has too many unknowns associated with it, or that some proposals are unrealistic in their goals. However, Ben reiterates that the team is taking an evidence-based approach: “FAUNA Research Alliance, with their wealth of scientific knowledge and management expertise has helped design the scientific program to evaluate rewilding as a conservation tool. This, in combination with Conservation Volunteers’ community engagement skill and infrastructure, means the experiment can happen with minimal risk. Together we can make this happen.”

It’s that theme of togetherness that is fundamental to the ethos of Conservation Volunteers and those associated with the Little Desert project. As Ben explains, the community and volunteers will be involved every step of the way: “We will be developing a range of volunteer opportunities for the local and wider community. No matter where you’re from, you can come and stay with us at the Little Desert Nature Lodge, get your hands dirty and help rewild the desert.”

Given the precarious state of many species in Australia, and indeed Victoria, giving them a chance at a new (but very old) home can only be a good thing. Besides, what Victorian wouldn’t want to see bilbies, western quolls and numbats darting through the Little Desert as they once did, many years ago?

Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary

Not as we know it: Along the Maribyrnong

This is a guest post by Mary Shuttleworth

Brimbank Park is only 15 kilometres out of Melbourne city, and yet, embarrassingly, I hadn’t bothered to make the trip up there until about two weeks ago. It’s full of a wonderful range of native plants and wildlife, and even though it’s quite close to the hugely developed Melbourne Airport, it feels like it’s hundreds of miles away. It’s a welcome escape from the residential areas I’ve become so accustomed to. Visiting parks like Brimbank always make me wistful. I’m struck by an awareness that once, everything would have looked like this - minus the picnic spots and water fountains, of course. The north-western suburbs of Melbourne have seen rapid increases in development in the last few years. From Yarraville to Footscray, and stretching out past Keilor, both residential and industrial developments have transformed the suburbs significantly in the last 50 years. It’s almost impossible to fathom the changes made to these areas over the last 300 years, before airports, roads, pavement or farmland.

Old Red Gums over the Maribyrnong. Image: Weekend Notes

Old Red Gums over the Maribyrnong. Image: Weekend Notes

Prior to European colonisation, Maribyrnong River and the surrounding areas were an expanse of trees, shrubs, and grassy plains. Up the northern area of the river, which now runs through Keilor and up alongside what we now know as Melbourne International Airport, the river was surrounded by fertile, rich scrubland. Narrow-leaf peppermint would have arched over the water, reaching up to 15 metres tall. Kidney-weed, hairy panic and wingless bluebush would have been common, most of the soil covered by these low-lying species, with only a few larger shrubs and medium-sized trees poking up between the competitive grasses. Away from the river, the trees died back, replaced by a sweeping grassland that occurred across Keilor and Tullamarine, stretching down as far as Essendon North. Grasses such as kangaroo grass, mat grass and kidney-weed would have swept across the area, providing vital habitats for native species, in particular invertebrates. Melbourne’s International Airport, now paved and developed into a hub of transport, was once an expanse of grassy plains, home to some of the 140 species of butterfly found in Victoria, such as the orchard swallowtail and grassland copper.

The Maribyrnong River today. Image: The Buckley

The Maribyrnong River today. Image: The Buckley

Closer to what we now call the suburb of Maribyrnong, the habitats surrounding the river shifted to riparian woodland. Here river red gum, manna gum and Gippsland red Gum towered up to 20 metres alongside the water, herbs and shrubs making up the understory as the river swept around bends.

Quickly, though, the salty waters of the Maribrynong River would have taken hold, and these great trees would have died back. Even today the river is flushed with salty water from coastal swells, though you wouldn’t realise it when you look at the lush grass along Flemington Racecourse. 300 years ago, these swells affected the habitats as well, sending salt through the soils surrounding the river. The only plants that prospered were ones that were adapted to the salty waters, predominantly low-lying species such as variable willow-herb, creeping brookweed, white sebaea, and Australian salt-grass. Almost no trees would have been found in these areas, the salty soils keeping them at bay. 

With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that the Maribyrnong River Trail is one of the most scenic in Melbourne. Scattered with parks and picnic areas, it meanders into Melbourne city much like the river itself, lazily looping around suburbs and landmarks. It is particularly popular on weekends, with dog-walkers, families, and fitness enthusiasts making their way along the pathway at their own pace. Though the surrounding areas of Maribyrnong, Footscray, Yarraville, Ascot Vale, Keilor, Flemington, and Kensington have seen much development in recent years, the winding nature of the river has helped shape these suburbs into what we see today. 

Go and get lost

On the map, Licola is the last dot on the south-western edge of the Alpine National Park. Somehow our imaginations conflated this into an alpine hub on the edge of the mountains, when in fact, it is a green, beautiful, but very tiny village centred around a general store. Just out of Licola are a series of campgrounds along the Wellington River, 14 in total, each with plenty of spots to pitch a tent. My partner Lachy and I set up ours at no. 5, Manna Gum Camp, which was far enough off the road and had easy access to the river. All night we only heard one car go past, and even that was a surprise. 

The sun was already behind the rocky hills when we made camp, but it stayed light for a couple of hours more, until we brought our stew into the car to eat and to escape the moths flitting around our head torches. When we stepped out again, the sky was bright with the Milky Way.

Although we had woken up on our usual city clocks, we fell asleep early with the darkness. It's a beautiful feeling to wake up without an alarm because the light has subtly changed, and hear the insects waking all around you. Apparently I had slept through the sniffing and pacing of some creature outside our tent in the night. 

We drove up into the mountains along the gravel road that hugs spurs and then unfurls through the Howitt Plains. Two hours or so later we parked up in the Howitt Car Park under snow gums. In the Intentions Book we noted down our planned route and cast our eyes over the previous authors from all over Australia and New Zealand, who’d triumphantly printed RETURNED.

The walk out from the car park to Macalister Springs is a simple one – signposted, well-trodden and relatively easy going. At this time of year, each footstep sends ripples of grasshoppers scattering through the grass. At Mac Springs, an angular wooden composting toilet sits on the edge of the ridge, with a wide window overlooking the mountain range – the best view from a drop dunny in Australia, surely. Just down the slope is the Macalister Hut, another surprising and stunning piece of architecture, and no doubt a comfortable place to spend a night or two. Within, a logbook holds notes from the hut’s many guests. One of the more recent entries, from the Murderers & Sadists group, recounted how the group of hikers witnessed their friend’s slow death from MSG. The next was a list of Catholic school group members, punctuated by hearts. 

After fiddling with an old piece of pipe that previous hikers had used to channel the slow-running creek high enough to fill a bottle, we restocked on water and continued on to the summit of Mt Howitt. The views of layers of bluish mountains like a watercolour painting are so prevalent along this route, you almost become used to them. We descended from Mt Howitt along a tricky narrow path. I hadn’t done an overnight hike in 10 years at least, and my out-of-practice legs shook all the way down – fortunately tough boots saved my ankles from twisting too badly. 

The campsite at Mt Magdala. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The campsite at Mt Magdala. Photo: Alex Mullarky

We rounded Big Hill and reached the campsite at Mt Magdala. This place is unlike anything I’ve seen before – it glows. The grass is soft underfoot, there are rosellas in the snow gums, and the whole site, despite being alone atop a ridge, feels sheltered. Even when a thick grey bank of cloud crossed the sky and the storm broke, our tent barely rattled. It was so silent, and when the storm passed over, the rocky outcrop of Big Hill was lit up rosy pink. 

There was one flaw to this apparent paradise. Soon after we arrived, we dropped our packs and followed the steep trail down to the creek, our steps strangely springy without our packs weighing us down. When we reached Hellfire Creek we found it was appropriately named – dry as hell itself, not even a trickle. 

We went back up to the campsite and took stock of our options. Most of our food was dehydrated, but we had protein bars, nuts and fruit that we could survive on for the night. We had three litres of water and another 10km to walk before we reached any, with a forecast of 30 degree heat the following day. We could hike back to Macalister Springs and get there just after dark, or continue on and change our route to the King Billy Hut so that we could fill up on water there, but that would be no shorter.  

We decided the easiest thing to do would be to ration our water, eat protein bars for dinner and hike the next 10km first thing in the morning. The creamy pasta pictured on the packet of freeze-dry food had never looked so appetising as we munched on tasteless nut and berry bars. When the storm passed overhead, we set out all our bowls, pans and cups and got into the tent feeling hopeful. Sadly it wasn’t much of a storm, and we each had only about two sips of what must have been the freshest water we’d ever drunk.  

Hells Gap on the way to the summit of Mt Magdala. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Hells Gap on the way to the summit of Mt Magdala. Photo: Alex Mullarky

In the morning we woke with the dawn, broke camp quickly and headed up the steep slope to the King Billy ridge. Fuelling ourselves on nuts and sweets, we reached the 4WD track that would lead us down the mountain about an hour and a half later. Although the downhill slope wasn’t as hard on my unfit lungs, after 6km my feet were humming from the concussion of the rocky 4WD track, and we stopped more than once to rest our feet. 

All the way down the mountain, sharing our last two litres of water, we were dreaming of an open, rushing river like that which we had camped beside on our first night, where we would fill our water bottles, cook a big meal, maybe even have a swim. We almost didn’t realise when we had reached it, tucked into a densely vegetated gully at the edge of the track. We kept ploughing ahead until we finally accepted that this wasn’t just a creek, but the Macalister River we had been waiting for. Fortunately there was plenty of water, though it wasn’t the idyll we had expected. We cooked our creamy pasta at last. I don’t think I had ever known the meaning of wolfing down a meal until that lunch. 

All along the gully we had been noticing fallen trees collapsed into the river or leaning against the gully’s edge like gravestones. I wondered aloud what it would be like to see a tree fall. As I stood in the river to fill my water bottle, I heard a creaking overhead, and then a CRACK. A branch splashed into the river beside me, scraping me as it dropped. 

We had been passed at this point by a few 4WDs and found that the track beside the river was narrow, with no place to camp. Since this was our first hike in however long, we had only set ourselves 10km a day to walk, but it was still only 2pm and we didn’t really feel like calling it a day yet. So we decided we would keep going, following the next day’s planned route, until we found a good place to camp. After the soft footing, gentle breeze and beautiful views of the ridgeline, we were becoming less and less impressed with the dense ferns and oppressive heat in the valley, so once we started walking up, we just kept going. Several hours and many breaks later, we reached the snow gum line, and soon afterwards our car. 

We were halfway through our collective six litres of water once again, so we drove to the Howitt Hut where an older map told us there would be water. Unfortunately the tank was stickered with a warning not to drink – it was only suitable for the horses penned there. We cooked our dinner anyway with some of our river water and made camp overlooking the Howitt Plains. 

Parked on the edge of Howitt Plains. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Parked on the edge of Howitt Plains. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The following day, still recovering from mild dehydration and, let’s be honest, pretty god damn tired, we drove back down to the Wellington River to restock on water and make breakfast. We passed through Licola and bought an adventure map to figure out what to do with our last day, since walking was effectively out of the question. There was an unsealed road from Licola to Jamieson on the other side of the High Country, about 92km in length, so we decided to follow it and camp near Lake Eildon. In our partially-dehydrated state the day before a 4WD driver had passed us sipping a cold can of lemonade, and we’d promised ourselves we’d each down a can of lemonade the second we had a chance. In Licola we finally got to drink more than we needed. What a luxury.  

The drive was beautiful, but when you aren’t on foot so much passes beneath your notice. We tracked through the mountains in a few hours, then drove around the mostly-dry Lake Eildon for a while before returning to Grannys Flat campground on the Jamieson River. 

The Licola-Jamieson road. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The Licola-Jamieson road. Photo: Alex Mullarky

This was a completely different kind of camping. Here, whole families had brought marquees, barbecues, chairs, tables, even rakes. When we went out gathering twigs to make a fire for some marshmallows, we were offered some proper firewood by another camper (shocked by our gatherer methods), but when we went to drop off our twigs, we found that someone else had already given us a stack of wood to burn. Lachy had to go and tell the first camper that we already had some, and he replied that if we wanted any bigger stuff, we should come to him. 

Dehydrated food didn’t seem quite as appealing without a day of hiking in front of it, but we watched trout drifting in the river and a wallaby grazing on the far bank until the sun went down. By lunchtime the following day we were back in Melbourne. 

There’s no moral to this story – I suppose I learned that I was physically capable of much more than I had anticipated. Even being out of shape, mentally, you find that you can just keep pushing on, and then your food tastes so much better, and you sleep so much more soundly because of it. It’s easier than you might expect to get out there and hike and camp and be self-reliant. As long as you have a good map and plenty of food and water, the trail is usually well-trodden and easy to follow. On the other hand, don’t underestimate how dry it can get in the High Country, even now as we are crossing into autumn. Above all, get out there, get away from the city from time to time and remember what quiet sounds like. Go and get lost. Figuratively, anyway.

Cover image by Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.