helmeted honeyeater

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.

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