Volunteering for Conservation: Happy Givers are Happy Livers

Ever felt overwhelmed by the enormity of world issues? Maybe you’ve thought, “What difference can a single person make in the scheme of things?” As a volunteer myself, I've certainly asked this question before; however, it’s time to stop feeling disheartened because volunteers are making significant inroads across Australia.

Volunteers - conservation's heartbeat?

People volunteer for a number of reasons, whether it is networking, a hobby or simply wanting to give back to the community. One thing they all have in common though is that they tend to be happier.

This year, National Volunteer Week 2016 continues to celebrate the theme ‘Give Happy, Live Happy’ that explores the research that shows volunteers live happier and healthier lives. Established in 1989, the aim of the week is to celebrate the tireless efforts of volunteers all around Australia. Every year, numbers of volunteers are growing, with over 6.4 million Australians volunteering annually, contributing anywhere up to 700 million hours of unpaid work. This equates to a total value of $290 billion within the Australian economy, which is a much larger contribution to GDP than tourism, mining or agriculture according to a report published by Dr O’Dwyer from the University of Adelaide. Feeling significant and valued now? Indeed, your tireless hours are making a huge difference! To further demonstrate this, here are five volunteer-based organisations making waves in the environmental world.

Five amazing volunteer-led conservation programs

1) A Second Chance for the Helmeted Honeyeater

Few may know that the helmeted honeyeater is Victoria’s bird emblem, yet the species has been threatened with extinction since the 1960’s. A voluntary group called Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater was formed in 1989 when the population reached critically low levels of only 50 individuals. This was due to habitat destruction and exclusion by the invasive bell miner.  The creation of Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve by the government combined with the work of hundreds of volunteers has brought the species back from the brink of extinction. Currently, the population now stands at 192 individuals and is home to more fledglings than ever before.

For more information on the Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater, head to their website. 

2) Trees, Trees and More Trees!

If you have ever been in a plane and looked down below, there is a good chance you would see acres of bare farmland. TreeProject is a volunteer-based, non-profit organisation established 25 years ago, and works with local communities by planting indigenous species to restore degraded land. They also have a significant role in sowing seeds for a sustainable future. Since their establishment, over 2.5 million trees have been planted across Victoria with the number growing every year! This has lead to large areas of once degraded and deforested land being restored, which in turn has vastly improved the health of both urban and rural ecosystems.

To find out more about TreeProject, head to their website.

3) ‘Inspiring change by connecting people with nature.’

This is the vision of Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA). Their effectiveness as an organisation has been impressive. Last year, more than 7,000 CVA volunteers helped plant 210,000 trees, performed 2,860 environmental surveys, and cleaned up 156 tonnes of rubbish. Not a bad effort, right? Some of their projects include land rehabilitation, improving coastal wetland resilience, as well as conserving and protecting Australia’s diverse fauna and flora.

For more information, head to Conservation Volunteers Australia's website

4) Bandicoot Fever!

Bandicoots are the charming native marsupials that were originally found in grasslands throughout South Eastern Victoria and Tasmania. Introduced predators such as cats and foxes, however, have lead to one species, the eastern barred bandicoot, becoming extinct on mainland Australia. A state-based captive breeding program has since been initiated by the government alongside several voluntary environmental organisations. The future has turned around for this once nearly extinct marsupial, the latest news being the release of 20 eastern barred bandicoots back into a predator-free sanctuary. Volunteers have been the key to establishing predator-proof fences, as well as restoring native vegetation at breeding centres, including La Trobe Wildlife Sanctuary in Bundoora, Mt Rothwell near Geelong, and Hamilton Parklands. It’s hoped the population will surpass 2,500 individuals by 2020.


5) A Watch on the Water

Like any other environment, marine habitats are no different and need to be equally cared for. ReefWatch is a community-led volunteer program that coordinates a number of marine conservation programs, including 'Feral or in Peril' that looks at which species are native and which ones are invasive. Another program run by ReefWatch and their dedicated volunteers is the Great Victorian Fish Count, which provides vital data concerning the health of fish populations in Victoria.

When it comes to volunteering, there is an organisation for all. You are never too old or too young to start! So get out there and get amongst our wonderful planet.

If you're looking for a local organisation to volunteer with, check out this list for an array of opportunities to get out into nature. 

Cover image by Billy Geary.

Plover Diaries: The Tale of a Territory

The Plover Diaries

By Hannah Lethlean

The hooded plover (aka ‘hoodie’) is a local beach-nesting bird, battling to survive on the Mornington Peninsula. Their breeding season coincides with the busiest time of the year (September to April), leaving them struggling to find undisturbed nesting space on the beach during this influx of people. In order to raise a chick they must overcome enormous odds, contending with thousands of beach-goers, dogs, foxes, birds of prey, ravens, gulls, and the harsh and unpredictable weather of Victoria’s coastline.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Human-induced disturbance or not, hoodies naturally have low breeding success. After 28 days of incubation, hoodie chicks hatch and leave the nest. They have a further 35 days of foraging and growing on an open beach before they are able to fly. Once able to fly (A.K.A. a ‘fledgling’), their chance of survival soars to over 50% compared to around 3% as a flightless chick. Keeping chicks alive during that time is the ultimate challenge, and is a testing endeavour even in natural conditions.

Throwing beach-goers, dogs off lead, foxes and increased numbers of ravens into the mix is tipping the pressure too far, and Hoodies are struggling to fledge chicks. In order to sustain the population, experts say there needs to be at least 0.47 chicks fledged per nest. Last breeding season, the Mornington Peninsula produced 0.16 fledglings per active nest. This puts us way behind the benchmark, and could mean local extinction within 25 years.

But it’s not all doom and gloom!

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

BirdLife Australia, Parks Victoria and volunteer groups have been working towards fostering a greater coexistence between nesting hoodies and recreational beach-users. By implementing on-ground local action and publicising the threats imposed by humans, we aim to increase community responsibility for the hoodies’ plight, and therefore give them a better chance of survival. This is done by marketing strategies through articles, merchandise and stalls at local markets; applying for grants to provide protective fencing and directional signage; educational programs; research into coastal ecosystems and the threat of introduced weeds; and coordinating and training an army of citizen scientists to collect observed data from their beach monitoring.

The Tale of a Territory: Moana East, January 2016

The Moana East territory is a popular surf break near St Andrews Beach and has been the centre of some serious hoodie drama and heartbreak for quite some time. Originally occupied by female ‘KT’ and an unbanded male, one day ‘KT disappeared, last sighted on her territory with a nest in November 2013. We thought her dead, but to our surprise she located up the coast eight months later… with a new man! Meanwhile, ‘MU’ (banded as a chick at Fingal in February 2012) and her unbanded male partner conquered the Moana East territory in December of 2013. Since then, these new birds on the block have had numerous nesting attempts, but unfortunately no surviving chicks.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Tragedy overcame the pair last year with the loss of two chicks only days away from fledging. This was devastating for the parents, as well as the volunteers and rangers who had dedicated days of work to give these chicks a chance at flying. A necropsy conducted later on one of the chick’s bodies showed that the cause of death had been from a dog.

This season, the pair have persevered and successfully hatched four chicks. Volunteers and rangers do regular check-ups on the little fluff-balls in order to monitor their movements, as well as to educate any beach-goers about the detriment of disturbance. The first chick from their first nesting attempt was lost soon after hatching. However, their second clutch of three eggs was far more successful and all hatched. Unfortunately, just as our confidence was beginning to build, we lost two of the chicks at 17-days-old. All hope rested on the final chick, whom at 23 days was starting to look more like a gangly teenager! The awkward transition of fluff to feather was taking place, and everyone was counting down the days until first flight.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Unfortunately, January 12th marked the disappearance of the final chick from the Moana East territory. Being much older and wiser, it was hard not to have hoped that it would survive. Not knowing the cause of death is frustrating and shattering for the people who have invested so much time and effort, but conservation of threatened species is rarely dominated by heart-warming stories.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

So I know I said it’s ‘not all doom and gloom’ and followed it by exemplifying a hoodie territory where, this year, all four chicks have perished….. But the success we strive for is measured in increments. Only five years ago this territory was on the verge of being abandoned by scientists. The level of human disturbance was so great that clutches rarely hatched and dog regulations were blatantly ignored by the majority. Now, through various programs there is greater awareness and appreciation of the hoodies, which means that beach regulations regarding dog control and dune invasion are better adhered to. The community is gradually taking ownership of the hoodies’ plight and is joining us in the journey from eggs to chick to fledgling. The greater the community involvement, the closer we come to understanding the fate of the chicks. Before long, we will get those chicks to 35 days so that they can fly away - and we can sleep easy knowing that they made it through.

Optimism is a key ingredient for any successful human endeavour.
— Bob Brown

Note: All photos were taken in accordance with disturbance-minimising protocols using a telephoto lens by a trained individual. In no circumstances were the hooded plovers or chicks deliberately disturbed in order to obtain photographs.