Discover our waterway warriors

In Melbourne’s bustling inner CBD, sometimes it’s hard to comprehend the diversity of the nature around us - we can often feel disconnected. There are many hidden opportunities for us to engage with our rich flora, fauna and green spaces at a local scale and reconnect with the natural world.

Green spaces, wetlands and the biodiversity within them contribute to the livability of Melbourne as well as play a vital role in maintaining people’s health and wellbeing – healthy environments, healthy people. Melbourne is home to many wetland environments, from extensive natural waterways such as the Tarago River in Werribee and the Yarra River, to the constructed wetlands of Trin Warren Tam-boore in Royal Park.

Australia’s first nationwide waterway monitoring event, the National Waterbug Blitz, is the perfect opportunity to engage with Victoria’s unique freshwater ecology and learn about the health of our waterways.

Trin Warren Tam-boore Wetland in Royal Park.  Image:    City of Melbourne

Trin Warren Tam-boore Wetland in Royal Park. Image: City of Melbourne

Wetlands are biodiversity hotspots which provide community spaces and habitat for wildlife, filter stormwater, reduce riverbank erosion, and support many other functions essential to urban and rural life.

Every puddle and river you step past or in contains miniature worlds with intricate networks of food webs and species with multi-stage lifecycles. Pick up any stone or submerged piece of wood from your nearest waterway, turn it over and you will reveal a variety of scattering creatures under a thin film of water – these are freshwater macroinvertebrates, more commonly known as waterbugs.

Waterbugs are a diverse group of critters that lack a backbone (they’re invertebrates!). They are large enough for humans to see with the naked eye, and include leeches, worms, jellyfish, dragonfly larva, water boatmen and even freshwater sponges, each with their own unique way of life. Waterbugs perform various functions within waterway ecosystems, including sediment mixing, nutrient cycling, energy flow through food webs and the breakdown of organic matter, which releases nutrients into the water - some species contributing more than others. These actions all contribute to and determine the condition of the waterway system.

Macroinvertebrates can live in all kinds of freshwater environments, but which species are present in a particular wetland is highly dependent on the water quality, each individual species differing in its pollutant sensitivity. This means that waterbugs can be used all around the world as direct bioindicators for environmental health and pollutant impact within our waterways.

Water Boatman Nymph.  Image: Larah McElro /    Flickr    [CC BY-NC 2.0 (].

Water Boatman Nymph. Image: Larah McElro / Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0 (].

In healthy ecosystems, there will be as many as if not more pollutant-sensitive macroinvertebrates than those more tolerant of bad conditions. The release of pollutants creates an unstable environment that disrupts the species balance in an ecosystem, allowing tolerant species to thrive whilst essential, sensitive species suffer and decline in number.

As well as being easy to sample using simple tools, anybody can observe this diverse array of creatures. Waterbugs are abundant within all aquatic ecosystems; every river, lake and wetland is home to a plethora of different types. They have relatively short lifespans and thus show the effects of environmental conditions over a short period of time – weeks to months. Any change in the waterbug community will be indicative of recent changes to environmental quality, giving a robust picture of the ecosystem’s current state.

That’s not to say there aren’t difficulties when monitoring waterbugs. Although there is a menagerie of diverse species, there are many species that are yet to be properly described. It can also be difficult for the average environmentalist to identify waterbugs to a species level without formal training.

A gradient of the pollution sensitivity or tolerance levels of various waterbugs.  Image:    National Waterbug Blitz

A gradient of the pollution sensitivity or tolerance levels of various waterbugs. Image: National Waterbug Blitz

Considering each waterbug warrior has a job to perform, with declining numbers we may begin to lose their functions within ecosystems. Digging deeper, each of these species arguably has an intrinsic value, no matter how small they might be.

With more research being done every day into our wonderful waterbugs, we can hopefully begin to better understand their relevance in the larger, complex ecosystems that they inhabit. The good news is that anyone can get involved in the City of Melbourne’s free Melbourne Waterbug Blitz events this October. Make sure you come along to one or more of the following events if you’d like to contribute to our understanding of Melbourne’s incredible waterbugs. It’s a great way to connect to nature in the middle of the city.

Science Seminar – Wednesday 10th October, 5:30pm-8:00pm at the Hellenic Museum (280 William St)

This will cover the importance of waterbugs, freshwater ecosystems and waterway health in urban areas. Speeches from waterbug experts, freshwater ecologists and urban ecologists.

Waterbug Collection – Saturday 20th October, 10:00am-11:30am at various locations

Join expert survey leaders in Melbourne’s beautiful parks and help collect samples of the living waterbugs in our waterways. Choose from Carlton Gardens, Domain Parklands, Fitzroy Gardens or Royal Park.

Dragonfly Festival – Saturday 20th October, 12:30pm-4:00pm at the State Netball and Hockey Centre, Royal Park

Get to know the local waterbugs a little better – take a closer look at the samples gathered from the morning sessions and uncover the secrets about Melbourne’s waterways. There will be food, refreshments, activities and family fun.

You can also download The Waterbug App and conduct a survey yourself.

The Waterbug Blitz is a great opportunity to get involved and put waterways under the magnifying glass by collecting valuable data and assessing the wellbeing of our freshwater ecosystems. This will help both the environment and our management of it, but it’s also a great way to engage with nature and have some fun with your local community.

So grab a net, a magnifying glass and a small container and let’s get surveying!

For more information about the National Waterbug Blitz and associated events head to

Johanna Tachas is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne studying ecology and evolutionary biology. She has a passion for science communication and is currently completing an internship at Remember The Wild.

Banner image of a Blue Skimmer (Orthetrum caledonicum) courtesy of Richard Higgins from Wollongong, Australia (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Balconies for butterflies: a guide for the urban gardener

There are few creatures quite as charming as our native butterflies. Unfortunately, urbanisation has pushed many of these once-common insects from our cities and some local butterflies are now threatened with extinction. Increasingly, though, city dwellers are looking to welcome wildlife back into their urban gardens, no matter how small the available space may be. This is incredibly easy thanks to a widely available range of attractive indigenous plants suitable for any balcony. Most importantly, they’re both inexpensive and easy to grow.

Although easy enough, creating a balcony for butterflies does require some forethought. Both adult butterflies and caterpillars need to be catered for with appropriate food plants. The plants themselves must also be carefully chosen to guarantee that they will survive and thrive under the particular conditions of your balcony.

The Common Brown.  Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Brown. Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Start your butterfly balcony off by planting Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) and Common Tussock Grass (Poa labillardieri). Both these species tolerate harsh sun and dry conditions, although by no means does that mean you should go easy on the water when it comes time to give them a drink. These two species are food plants for the Common Brown (Heteronympha merope), a showy butterfly now rarely seen in Melbourne probably due to a decline of these two native grasses within the city.

To add a little height and colour, include a Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata) which flowers profusely for long periods with beautiful yellow blooms. This little shrub is an incredibly hardy, drought-resistant species and can be pruned to whatever size you desire. It is a food plant for the Meadow Argus (Junonia villida) and its larvae.

Kangaroo Grass, Common Tussock Grass and Hop Goodenia like some sun but they all tolerate a range of conditions from shade to direct sun.

The Golden Everlasting (Xerochrysum bracteatum) is another must-have for any Melburnian butterfly balcony due to its drought tolerance. These showy flowers attract the Australian Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi) which feeds on both the leaves, as a caterpillar, and the flowers, as an adult butterfly. This golden daisy is also one of very few indigenous species to bloom throughout the hot summer months. It does require a sunny position though, so place it where it will get plenty of direct light.

The Meadow Argus.  Image: JJ Harrison ( [GFDL 1.2 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0  (], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Meadow Argus. Image: JJ Harrison ( [GFDL 1.2 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0  (], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre (Trapezites symmomus) is perhaps Melbourne’s most audible butterfly species. Its rapid wingbeats sound more like a small bird than a butterfly, and it can be attracted by Mat Rushes (Lomandra longifolia). These provide year-round green, even when your native grasses have turned brown in the summer heat. They tolerate a range of light levels from full sun to shade.

Another fabulous plant to include on your butterfly balcony is the Finger Lime (Citrus australasica). Although native, it is not indigenous to the Melbourne region but is from the lowland subtropical rainforest and rainforest of the coastal border region of Queensland and New South Wales. Not only does it provide delicious zesty fruits for you, but it attracts the Dingy Swallowtail (Papilio anactus), Melbourne’s largest butterfly. Its caterpillars begin life camouflaged as little bird droppings but grow to a gargantuan size over the course of a month or two. This will allow you to observe their life cycle from the comfort of your own home.

The Splendid Ochre.  Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre. Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Many Melburnian balconies suffer from a distinct lack of direct sunlight. Fortunately, there is a perfect plant for such places, the Scrub Nettle (Urtica incisa). This delicate little native is the favoured food plant of the Australian Admiral (Vanessa itea) which constructs a little tent to shelter in during the day by folding the leaves of its host plant. The Scrub Nettle is a lover of damp and shady places so find a nice sheltered spot for it and don’t skimp on the water.

Finally, for your adult butterflies you need a source of nectar. Although many introduced flowers will suffice, there is one native genus of plant that numerous butterfly species love during the hot summer months: tea tree (Leptospermum). The nectar-filled white blooms of these plants provide a rich meal for your butterflies to fuel their busy period of mating and egg-laying. One common indigenous species with particular drought tolerance is the Prickly Tea Tree (Leptospermum continentale) which can handle partial shade to full sun.

Now that you know some of our common Melburnian butterflies and their favourite food plants, go forth and build a butterfly oasis on your balcony. Not only will you create a wonderful little garden full of butterflies to enjoy, but you will also provide a habitat which helps our six-legged friends traverse the often perilous and resource-poor concrete jungle. All it takes is one person, a few plants, and the better half of an afternoon to set up a habitat garden which will serve hundreds of butterflies for years to come.

Mackenzie Kwak is a zoologist with a broad interest in Australia's diverse flora and fauna. His research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites, particularly ticks, fleas and lice.

Banner image of an Australian Painted Lady courtesy of fir0002 | Canon 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 + Canon MT 24-EX [GFDL 1.2 (], 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.