parks

Rippon Lea Estate: A Bird's-Ear View

This is a guest article by Gio Fitzpatrick.

Step out of the thunderous traffic and into a grove of giant evergreen oaks.

Here, the dappled light filters down onto beds of artist’s acanthus alongside other shiny, exotic beauties. Through the foliage, a brick mansion stands regal. One’s eyes tell of a 19th century estate in southern Europe - an impression only reinforced when the path ahead is crossed by a zooming blur of black feathers and orange beak. It’s July, so where are the sweet notes of the nightingale? The airwaves here speak not of summer’s African warbler and flycatcher migrants, but of birds escaping the chilly hills to ride out winter on the coastal plain. This paradoxical garden says 'pip… pip pip pipipipipipipi', 'yak-ah-yak!', 'tzz tzzzz tzzz' and 'birip beep beep.' And what sent that European blackbird hurtling so frantically over the path before? A big female collared sparrowhawk – one of Australia’s fiercest bird-hunters.

An electrifying sight anywhere, but particularly in the city; this collared sparrowhawk is one of a pair which have found the gardens of Rippon Lea Estate to be a rewarding hunting ground. 

An electrifying sight anywhere, but particularly in the city; this collared sparrowhawk is one of a pair which have found the gardens of Rippon Lea Estate to be a rewarding hunting ground. 

Upon entering Rippon Lea Estate on the 15th of July 2017, I instantly heard the call of an eastern spinebill, then a second and a third. In five years of surveying wildlife at the nearby Elster Creek and Elwood Canal I have personally seen 140 bird species… but never an eastern spinebill.

So I walked and counted for an hour, and the astounding picture became clearer. 15 brown thornbills, 13 silvereyes, two spotted pardalotes and two grey fantails. This list represents some of south-east Australia’s most common and characteristic “bush birds”, but at the same time, they are all species that have been dramatically dropping out of the urban landscape in recent years. To meet with them in such a healthy state at Rippon Lea filled me with joy and presented a learning opportunity.

Eastern spinebills fly down from the ranges to the coastal plain in the cooler months. Their long bill and tongue is well suited to the local native fuchsia Correa reflexa which starts flowering as the birds arrive in March and finishes just as the birds leave in September. In Rippon Lea, they must turn their attention to exotic flowers.

Rippon Lea Estate is in the care of the National Trust, who are 'working towards conserving and protecting our heritage for future generations to enjoy.' So despite my great surprise at the natural riches of this historic garden, the fact that it is also inadvertently conserving our pre-historic heritage indeed seems quite fitting. The puzzle, though, is that of our various inland parks, why should the one to host the most intact community of indigenous birds also be the one most totally devoid of indigenous plants? These birds have evolved to suit the native forests and heaths of south-eastern Australia. So why do they shun most of our parks which are fairly well adorned with indigenous plants?

Eastern spinebills fly down from the ranges to the coastal plain in the cooler months. Their long bill and tongue are well suited to the local native fuchsia  Correa reflexa,  which starts flowering as the birds arrive in March and finishes just as the birds leave in September. In Rippon Lea, they must turn their attention to exotic flowers.

Eastern spinebills fly down from the ranges to the coastal plain in the cooler months. Their long bill and tongue are well suited to the local native fuchsia Correa reflexa, which starts flowering as the birds arrive in March and finishes just as the birds leave in September. In Rippon Lea, they must turn their attention to exotic flowers.

The stretch of Elster Creek which runs between Foam and Wave Streets in Elwood, for example, has been the focus of revegetation efforts for decades. In it grows a complex indigenous plant community, providing a wholesome structure from the ground up. It looks like a great success of habitat creation, but once again, as on entering the Rippon Lea gardens, the ears quickly tell us what the eyes have missed. You will not hear the calls of the brown thornbill, silvereye, eastern spinebill or grey fantail here - I have not in five years. This is a soundscape almost totally dominated by just one species - the noisy miner - and the same is now true for all other large green spaces in the region, except for the coastal scrubs and Rippon Lea Estate.

Not to be confused with the introduced common myna, the noisy miner is a native honeyeater. In fact, it is about as Australian as they come. Ecologist Tim Low remarked in his book, Where Song Began, that 'A reading of recent research shows that Australian birds are more likely than most to eat sweet foods, live in complex societies, lead long lives, attack other birds and be intelligent and loud.' The noisy miner fits these criteria to a higher degree than perhaps any other bird (although its relative, the bell miner, is a close contender).

Perhaps they would be more accurately described as noisy farmers, for their favourite food is harvested and protected with the utmost diligence so as to ensure a prolific and regenerating crop. If the birds are farmers, then their crop is lerp (tiny white caps, made mostly of sugars, which often appear on eucalyptus leaves) and their livestock are psyllids (sap-sucking insects which create the lerp from waste products and live under it for shelter). Both the psyllids and their lerp creations are relished as food by a great multitude of birds, but the miner-farmers are quite unique in that they will carefully peel away the lerp without taking the insect underneath. The psyllid is therefore left to live another day and build another lerp.

It is of no use, however, to cultivate a reliable resource if other competitor species are going to reap the rewards, so noisy miners combine their gentle harvest with cooperation among their fellows and a hyper level of aggression towards other species which is unparalleled in the bird world. Birds of all sizes are mobbed relentlessly and smaller birds such as pardalotes are often killed.

As for their noisy namesake, these birds vocalise almost continually from dawn to dusk. They are communicating between members of the colony but also projecting a wall of sound around their territory – a warning which most birds, from fairy-wrens to falcons, tend to heed. At times, the lerp farms can be so prolific in the absence of insectivorous birds that the host trees die en masse and the whole ecosystem crumbles. That is an immense ecological influence for just one bird species and it is this unique ability that has earned it the seldom-used label of a 'reverse keystone species', which is to say that the arrival of this bird in an ecosystem is akin to removing the keystone from an arch. One study found that as noisy miner population density increased from 0 per hectare to 0.6 per hectare, the number of species of small bush birds halved.

At the beginning of European settlement in Melbourne, noisy miner colonies were probably quite uncommon and patchily distributed in a few pockets of suitable habitat along the lower Yarra River, where they could hold the fort against intruders. These pockets would have been characterised by scattered, open eucalypt canopies and short grass - grazed by kangaroos - with minimal cluttered vegetation in between. While the mobs of grazing roos have been replaced by the lawn mower, urban parks and golf courses mimic this habitat type closely enough in the eyes of noisy miners to invite the colonisation of vast new lands.

A silvereye snacking on some  Cotoneaster glaucophyllus  berries.

A silvereye snacking on some Cotoneaster glaucophyllus berries.

One of their earliest nearby outposts was Braeside Park in the 1970s. From there they hopped, park to park, decimating bird communities as they went. They were first reported in St Kilda in the late 1980s, when Geoff Price noticed a few in eucalypts behind the St Kilda Library.  Over the following years they were to invade every suitable patch in the region, increasing in number until they plateaued around the mid-2000s.

It was at this time of expansion that the abundant white-plumed honeyeaters vanished from the St Kilda Botanical Gardens, never to be seen again (they’ve now been relegated to odd places like public car parks where there are just enough eucalypts for their needs but not enough for a miner colony). At the same time the little falcons, which would nest each year atop a Canary Island pine, raised their last offspring. Yellow-rumped thornbills could no longer be found at their usual haunts in the Elsternwick Golf Course and Albert Park (soon becoming locally extinct in both municipalities of Bayside and Port Phillip) and the spring arrival of the sacred kingfishers became a rare sight.

I was lucky enough to see a sacred kingfisher briefly in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens in October 2012. The next morning, I slung an iPod speaker in a tree and broadcasted the kingfisher’s call. Scarcely ten seconds had elapsed of waiting for the real kingfisher’s reply when the speaker was engulfed by an angry hoard of noisy miners. It seems likely that the spread of the noisy miner has had a greater impact on indigenous bird communities than have all introduced birds combined. You could say that the noisy miner is pardalote enemy number one! But it is important to remember that their unnatural proliferation in Melbourne is a symptom of our own unnatural activities over the last 182 years.

The Rippon Lea Estate offers none of the three habitat features that noisy iners require:

1.       Abundant eucalypts

2.       Large expanses of short grass (less than 5cm in length)

3.       An open or absent mid-story layer

As a result, it retains healthy populations of some of the small bird species which have become less common in other parks in the last 15 years. When these small birds do occur in other nearby parks, they generally lie low in the dark, miner-free zones with ample cover, such as the north-east corner of the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. At Rippon Lea, they are noticeably more brazen, often working the outer foliage or even the leafless deciduous trees.

I had previously considered the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne to be the best place to see eastern spinebills in the area, but proportionately they seem to have a greater presence at Rippon Lea. The same is true for nankeen night herons, which often roost in the open during the day around the estate’s lake. Grey fantails have never been recorded in the City of Port Phillip in August but just over the Hotham Street municipal border they have apparently stayed through this winter. It is now eleven years since the last collared sparrowhawks nested in the City of Port Phillip at Alma Park, but recent observations suggest that they may be preparing to nest in Rippon Lea’s tallest Monterey cypress.

An immature nankeen night heron roosting in an unusually open situation. 

An immature nankeen night heron roosting in an unusually open situation. 

The trees around Rippon Lea’s lake also happen to support what is undoubtedly one of Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay’s largest little pied cormorant roosts. Observations made just over the last month already point to a special importance of the Rippon Lea Estate for local wintering birds. A more detailed picture of its benefit to broader biodiversity will emerge during the spring and autumn seasons of bird migration. I suspect that this garden will prove to be a welcome migration stepping stone in an otherwise fairly hostile landscape, with likely visits by the rose robin, pink robin, rufous fantail, golden whistler and sacred kingfisher (judging by the habitat present). It is also a living laboratory. Through its pronounced contrast with other parks, the Rippon Lea Estate is offering ecological insights which will inform better care and understanding of nature in the city.


Gio Fitzpatrick is a dedicated 20-year-old urban ecologist and conservationist, who was endorsed for his environmental volunteer work by Sir David Attenborough at age sixteen.


All images courtesy of Gio Fitzpatrick. 

Hiking Lerderderg State Park (With a Dog)

This is a guest post by Fam Charko.

If you want to get out of the city for a day or a week, Lerderderg State Park has it all. It’s only 1 – 1.5 hours to the west of Melbourne and provides outdoor experiences for all types of visitors. It has free car camping spots right on the river, 4WD and motorbike tracks, challenging hikes up and down steep razorback ridges, mountaintop vistas, wheelchair-accessible day picnic areas and hard-to-get-to hiking trails that leave you breathless with effort. This park has been a spiritual refuge for me for years, and I want to share with you a challenging two-day pack-hiking route that includes some beautiful riverside camping.

The reason I personally like this park is that despite its proximity to the city, it is very easy to get away from the motorbikes and really feel like you are miles away from civilisation. It feels much more remote than you would expect from a State Park. Every year there is at least one news article about an unprepared day hiker with no map who gets lost and is forced to spend an uncomfortably cold night in the park, before being airlifted out by helicopter the next day. How embarrassing. Don’t be that person. Bring a paper map, a compass (and learn how to use it), spare rations and water in addition to your GPS and phone maps. Mobile coverage is okay in most of the park, but certainly not available everywhere. 

The Lerderderg River snakes right through the park and when it runs, its waters run cold and tan-coloured, forming many great swimming holes along its length. The park’s more remote areas very much resemble a national park, with the gorge sporting gigantic pile-ups of logs and organic debris from countless flash-floods, lined with stunning wildflowers like native heath, orchids and bush peas. There are birds, wombats and swamp wallabies galore. Some threatened species can be found here too, like brush-tailed phascogales, common gliders and common bent-winged bats. Unfortunately, there are also goats. Lots of goats.

A side note on hiking with dogs in Lerderderg State Park

A big plus for me is that in this park there are areas where you can bring your dog for company. Hiking with my Aussie Shepherd is one of my favourite things in the world. The first time I took Loki hiking was in this park. You should have seen his face when it dawned on him that the place was full of sticks - priceless.

Your pooch is allowed on the lead in the sections of the park that are not marked conservation or reference zone. They are not allowed in the Mackenzie’s Flat day visitor area, but you can pass through to get to the trails. 

If you are hiking the razorbacks, it is advisable to have your dog wear an outdoor harness so you can help him climb any steep sections. Another heads-up is on snakes: I once had the great fortune of seeing a beautiful eastern brown sunning itself on a log right next to the trail. I also had the great fortune that my dog didn’t notice it before I did. Always stick to the trail, and consider restricting hiking with dogs to the colder months of the year, when our slithery friends are hibernating. 

Loki the Australian Shepherd ready for adventure.

Loki the Australian Shepherd ready for adventure.

This route starts down the south side of the park, at Mackenzie’s Flat picnic ground, where you can park your car overnight. 

My canine sidekick and I were there in May and the river was dry as a bone. This happens a lot, so always make sure you carry enough water with you. I bring a few litres plus a very good water filter and iodine pills, so I’m able to take water from rock pools. Loki carries his own water in his backpack, together with his food, bed, snacks, poo bags and of course my hip flask of rum. 

The first few kilometres to Graham’s Dam follow the river in a north-westerly direction, passing many riverside campsites and wombat holes. In summer and early autumn the river is dry, making it easy to cross, but in other seasons be prepared for multiple river crossings and getting wet feet. As this part of the walk is flat and close to the car park, I spot bits of rubbish left behind by campers and day hikers. This is often the unfortunate reality of easily accessible areas, but don’t let that deter you if you want to bush camp without hiking a long way: the campsites themselves are all quite stunning. They are flat and grassy, with amazing views of the gorge and some even have their own private swimming holes.

Our hike starts out great with Loki sticking his nose in an old wombat hole occupied by a wasp nest and promptly getting stung on the forehead. As I mutter curses under my breath and pull out the stinger, he looks up at me with a stupid grin on his face and his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Dogs… it’s a good thing they’re cute. 

At Graham’s Dam we cross the river and hike half a kilometre to the start of one of the park’s more challenging trails. The aptly named Spur Track quickly rises a steep 400 metres and follows a razorback ridge. The map says it will take me 1.5 hours to hike all of the 2.5km. I don’t believe I will take that long, but I’m wrong. Within a few minutes I’m sweating and panting as I haul myself and my big pack up the shale slope, using my hands more than once for the steep sections. Loki has no problem getting up there. He engages his 4PD (four-paw drive) and climbs up like a mountain goat, hopping from one rock to the next. 

When I finally make it up the steep section and the slope becomes more gentle, I can hear a faint bleating. I climb onto a big boulder next to the track and am treated to a breathtaking view of the river. The gorge walls on the other side rise a near-vertical 200 metres from the water.  I can see some struggling little saplings trying to get a foothold, imagining larger trees eventually getting too heavy and falling into the river below. Those pile-ups of logs in the gorge all of a sudden make a lot more sense. 

I am using my binoculars to look at some small, inaccessible caves when I see them: a herd of goats happily chewing away on tough shrubs. They balance effortlessly on the steep rock face, never disturbing the treacherously loose shards of shale as they navigate the ravine on tiny hooves. As always when I see feral animals, the trained ecologist in me wrestles with the compassionate animal lover. I watch cute piebald kids chase each other up and down the rocks, fearing for their safety every second. Of course they never fall. Eons of natural selection have perfected their mountaineering skills in this inhospitable landscape. Inhospitable to their predators, that is. For them it is a comfortable home and they are thriving at the expense of Victoria’s native species. With a sigh, I move on and give silent thanks that I’m not the one who has to do the very necessary annual cull.

Continuing up the slope, the vistas only get better. I frequently stop to catch my breath and take advantage of large boulders sticking out over the valley to enjoy a raptor’s view of the gorge. One time, I spot a small peregrine falcon gliding on the updrafts below. My shirt and the back of my pack are drenched with sweat by then. I’m glad I brought enough water. 

The author and her dog.

The author and her dog.

About halfway up the spur, Loki alerts me to human traffic coming up the back of us. I’ve barely cleared off the narrow path when a trail runner passes me with a cheerful ‘hello!’ He continues speeding up the hill, shirt off and gleaming with sweat, a cloud of aftershave trailing behind him. I feel like I’ve just seen a ghost. Was that really a guy running up the hill that I just took an hour to climb? He wasn’t even out of breath! I resolve to become fitter this year as I soldier on to the end of the track. 

When we make it to the top, Loki and I celebrate with lunch and a dried pig’s ear. The Lerderderg Tunnel Access Track is an uneventful service road lined by young eucalypts obscuring any views of the gorge. But at least it goes downhill. A short way to the north, the track veers right and on the left there is a locked gate that allows access for hikers and management vehicles. We squeeze through and follow the service road down to the river. At the bottom, we marvel at the large structure that is the weir. This concrete giant diverts the river to the Merrimu Reservoir, which supplies Bacchus Marsh with water. We hike a ways up the river and make camp near the only waterhole that is not green with algae. The water filter is doing a good job here and soon we are enjoying our dinner.

Night falls and Loki and I bask in the warmth of a small fire. Every now and then sparks land on his thick fur, but he doesn’t care. He’s curled up next to me, alert, staring into the dark, always on guard duty. I watch the microbats fly their feeding patterns along the tree line, their tiny silhouettes projected on a background of a million stars. The gorge is silent and beautiful.

It’s a rough awakening to the screeching of sulphur-crested cockatoos the next morning. I moan and pull my sleeping bag over my head. I love being woken by a dawn chorus, but these guys are more like the avian version of the Sex Pistols; good fun, just not first thing in the morning. Grumpily reminding myself that nature is beautiful, I get up to make our breakfast. 

Our first challenge ensues as soon as we start our hike. I check my map for the Long Point Track trailhead, but it’s not detailed enough to show the exact location. We walk upriver for a while, but the path quickly disappears into a thicket of inaccessible underbrush. I switch on my phone and check my GPS map. Still no love. We walk the same stretch of river a few times, right in between the razorback and the steep cliffs on the south side. When I pull out the map once again and follow the altitude contours with my finger, I realise I need to go up somewhere. I scan the area around the weir for the faintest sign of a trail and my heart sinks as I realise I’ve been looking at it the whole time: it is a 30-metre vertical climb up the razorback. 

“Okay mate,” I say to Loki, “We wanted adventure. We got it.” He looks up at me happily. I briefly consider tying him to me by his lead in case he slips, but quickly decide that would be super stupid. He weighs 26kg and I’m already carrying a 16kg pack on my back that makes climbing a vertical wall challenging enough. If he falls while attached to me, we both go. After examining our options, there’s nothing else for us to do but climb. 

The Lerderderg River when it is full.

The Lerderderg River when it is full.

Loki goes first. Turns out he’s actually quite capable of climbing. It does help that he is a young, healthy working breed with plenty of energy. If your dog is large and less spirited, I do not recommend taking this route. On the steepest sections I have to help Loki by lifting him by the handle on the back of his harness. I won’t lie: lifting a dog with one hand while holding on to a vertical rock face with the other is tricky. By the time we reach the top, we are both panting and the adrenaline is making my hands shaky. But hey, what is an adventure without ever getting out of your comfort zone? Another boring day in the office, that’s what.

The view from the razorback, however, makes up for it in spades. The windy 360° views are absolutely breathtaking. It’s a really narrow trail with ravines on either side, so I can recommend keeping your dog on a short leash as you make your way over the loose shale. The trail keeps rising steadily until we reach marker 510 and Blackwood Ranges Track. This well-maintained management track is part of the 280km-long Victorian Great Dividing Trail, also known as the Goldfields Track. To give you an idea about the effort it takes to hike Long Point Track, it has taken us about 1.5 hours to hike a little over 2km. 

Turning south on the Blackwood Ranges Track, it’s an easy hour downhill until we reach Link Track No. 1, which descends steeply back into the gorge to connect with Graham’s Dam. I love this part of the hike. It’s a bit challenging going downhill over the loose shards of shale, but there are many places to veer off the track for a rest and a spectacular view of the river. On one of those breaks I look down on the backs of not one, but four wedge-tailed eagles flying in the ravine below me. Two parents and their chicks are surging upward on a thermal, swooping straight past me and out of the ravine, as if they are being shot up into the sky by invisible slings. I whoop at them as they ascend and shade my eyes until I see nothing but small specks drawing circles against the cloudless sky. There sure is magic in this place, and it has feathers and mottled wings.

The last few kilometres back to Mackenzie’s Flat are blessedly horizontal and allow a cool-down for tired legs. I feel tired yet satisfied and am a little reluctant to leave this amazing place. In an hour I am back home, enjoying the memories of the wild and my sore calf muscles for a long time after. Loki sleeps for two days straight.

Tips

  • You and your dog both need a reasonable level of fitness.
  • If you bring your dog, make sure it’s wearing a sturdy outdoor harness so you can help it through steep sections.
  • Good hiking boots, water and navigation tools are essential.
  • Binoculars are a great addition for wildlife watching.
  • Check the weather predictions and the state of the river before you go; unexpected flash flooding in the park happens regularly. Use common sense when choosing your campsite.

Fam Charko is a marine biologist, environmental educator and science communicator. She helps people reconnect with nature using science, storytelling and immersive experiences in the local environment.


All images courtesy of Fam Charko.

Nursing a Green Thumb: The Restorative Powers of People and Plants

There’s nothing more Australian than having to shake your gumboots upside down in case a redback spider (Latrodectus hasseltii) has decided to call them home. You’re never 100% sure (really, who wants to stick a bare hand down to find out?) but after a good few slaps of the undersole and a couple of vigorous shakes, I was at least 95% confident and slipped my foot in. Fully kitted up – gloves, boots and all – I was ready and welcomed into the Friends of Warrandyte State Park (FOWSP) fold as we headed down to plant eucalypts along the banks of the Yarra.

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    Revegetation in action along the Yarra River.  Image: Leonardo Guida

Revegetation in action along the Yarra River. Image: Leonardo Guida

FOWSP is one of Victoria’s largest and most active Friends groups, with approximately 294 volunteer families operating out of a not-for-profit nursery since 1982. Located at Pound Bend, the nursery is beautifully nestled amongst gumtrees and wattles, and is gently enveloped by the flow of the Yarra. The nursery isn’t one in the conventional sense, at least not in the way I’ve thought of them since I was a kid. Whenever I visited a nursery with my green-thumbed father, it was English box hedges this and roses that. There was never a native lily (Bulbine bulbosa) in sight! Instead, at FOWSP you’ll discover a plethora of indigenous species in all their flowering glory (plenty of bulbine lilies, I might add!) owing to the nursery’s mission of cultivating and conserving indigenous plants of Warrandyte State Park and the Warrandyte-Kinglake Conservation Reserve.

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    Writing plant ID tags for seedlings.        Image: Leonardo Guida

Writing plant ID tags for seedlings. Image: Leonardo Guida

The success of the FOWSP is undoubtedly due to the passion and dedication of its volunteers, some of which have been lending a helping hand for the better part of 20 years! Quite literally, come hail or shine, volunteers make their ritual journey to the nursery every Thursday. This is truly impressive, especially when you consider that some volunteers are in excess of 80 years young! When I asked what drew them here week after week and for so many years, the answer was both astonishingly simple yet profound: ‘It makes us feel good.’ Whether one was writing plant tags, weeding, cleaning or pruning, there was always time for chit-chat, playful banter, a passing smile or a welcoming wave from across the field. There was no pressure to stay or leave and everyone’s enthusiasm was infectious. It was the social aspect, the sense of family that made people ‘feel good’.

The mental and physical health benefits of gardening are well-known, ranging from improved cardiac function, warding off Alzheimer’s and improving self-esteem. Although levels of physical activity varied across the FOWSP volunteers, many thoroughly enjoyed the light mental stimulation of learning new horticultural techniques and the identification of indigenous plant species. One volunteer quite eloquently stated that ‘…unlike roses, indigenous plants teach you about the subtle beauty of plants and the landscape, they’re not as obvious as roses are.’ She went on to explain that it was because of this ‘awareness of subtlety’ that on one particular day walking through the State Park, she suddenly experienced ‘…sheer joy’.

A particular story that stuck out for me was that of a young woman in her late 30s who was very active all her life until she was suddenly struck down by a hip injury. Needing a hip replacement, she was not able to move for a considerable period of time and in the early stages of recovery, was house-bound – for her, essentially a prison sentence. But, just as any flower can break through stone, FOWSP extended a helping hand and soon she had broken free from her ‘prison’ and blossomed as the nursery became part of her mental and physical rehabilitation.

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    The subtle beauty of the indigenous flora of Melbourne.     Image: Leonardo Guida

The subtle beauty of the indigenous flora of Melbourne. Image: Leonardo Guida

It soon became apparent to me that, in the most beautiful sense of irony, the nursery was in fact nursing people and not just plants. The enthusiastic and energised atmosphere coupled with the therapeutic act of gardening was providing feelings of wellbeing that lingered well into the week, permeating each person’s daily life.

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   Marvelling that the swamp gum ( Eucalyptuis ovata ) sapling would one day grow into the towering giant in the background.   Image: Leonardo Guida

Marvelling that the swamp gum (Eucalyptuis ovata) sapling would one day grow into the towering giant in the background. Image: Leonardo Guida

FOWSP’s collective efforts, knowledge and experience have seen them develop many fruitful relationships, particularly with Parks Victoria. The combined use of resources, expertise and labour allows conservation efforts to extend well beyond the nursery’s gates and its immediate surrounds. In conjunction with Parks Victoria, FOWSP plays an important role in cultivating Victorian rare or threatened (VROT) plant species. Their success includes the re-discovery of locally extinct, indigenous plants like the leek lily (Bulbine semibarbata) and perhaps more poignantly, the revegetation of the Kinglake and St Andrews areas lost to the Black Saturday bushfires.

The morning was drawing to a close and we had just about planted the last of the saplings along the river’s banks. I stopped for just a moment. Drawing in a soft, deep breath of the cold, fresh air, I slowly and attentively worked the dark clay soil between my fingers and within my palms. Instinctively, I focused on how it felt – cold and moist, granulated yet smooth. I looked up slowly at the towering gums filtering the sun’s rays and then back at my hands where I cradled the sapling. I felt connected to the land in both time and space. An entire history was about to be written by people and animals who would enjoy the tree’s shade long after I would be gone.


Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.

The Bulldogs aren’t the only good thing in the West

When I think of Melbourne’s western suburbs, excellent wildlife-watching is not the first thing that springs to mind. This side of the city’s long, industrial history has taken a heavy toll on natural areas. Yet it would be incorrect to blithely write western Melbourne off as a wildlife wasteland. Parklands in this area are gradually receiving the recognition they deserve. Open spaces such as Cherry Lake and the Jawbone Marine Reserve are popular places to visit. However, many of these natural areas are not so natural after all, and careful scrutiny unveils a history of human use. 

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  Looking at Newport Lakes Park today, it's hard to conceive of its industrial heritage.  Image: Rowan Mott

Looking at Newport Lakes Park today, it's hard to conceive of its industrial heritage. Image: Rowan Mott

In the suburb of Newport there was formerly a bluestone quarry. However, when this closed down in 1968 the large quarry pit left a mark on the landscape. The pit was subsequently used as a rubbish tip for seven years before an astonishing transformation began. Rather than letting this site languish as an eyesore, the site was restored as a wetland and bushland park. And this restoration has been a spectacular success as evidenced by the diverse and abundant wildlife that now call Newport Lakes Park home. The two large lakes at the heart of the reserve are a relic of the quarry pit and are now used by many waterfowl. Similarly, the dry sclerophyll vegetation on the slopes above the central lakes also supports many species. It isn’t only the number and diversity of animals that inhabit this pocket of vegetation that suggest how important this site has become; many species breed here. It is very common to see Eurasian coots paddling around the water margins with a small party of chicks following closely behind, while juvenile welcome swallows wheel around above the water as they master the skills of their aerial lifestyle.

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  Eurasian coots breed at Newport Lakes Park and the tiny young can be seen following their parents around while waiting for morsels of food to be fed to them.  Image: Rowan Mott

Eurasian coots breed at Newport Lakes Park and the tiny young can be seen following their parents around while waiting for morsels of food to be fed to them. Image: Rowan Mott

These are common species in many parts of Melbourne, but species that are difficult to see in the city can also be found at Newport Lakes Park. The Park was the first place where I ever laid eyes on a spotless crake. These shy reed bed inhabitants are difficult to see at the best of times and when they do offer a sighting it is usually fleeting. You can imagine my surprise to find one just a couple of metres from the edge of the track, out in the open for an extended period of time. Similarly, common blue-tongues can be found among the leaf litter or sunning themselves during the warmer months, spiny-cheeked honeyeaters feed among the shrub layer, and koalas sometimes laze in the branches of eucalypts.

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  Common blue-tongues blend in well with the leaf litter, but, if you’re lucky, you might spot one sunning itself in the open.  Image: Rowan Mott

Common blue-tongues blend in well with the leaf litter, but, if you’re lucky, you might spot one sunning itself in the open. Image: Rowan Mott

Another way to gauge the condition of a habitat is by the health of predator populations it supports. There are signs at each entrance to Newport Lakes warning visitors that snakes are present. This is not simply a case of the council covering their backs: tiger snakes can indeed be found in the park, surely surviving on a diet of frogs and other small vertebrates. In the air, brown goshawks terrorise honeyeaters that feast on nectar. High above the reserve, peregrine falcons can sometimes be seen tearing through the sky, hoping to catch a bird off-guard.

So why is the wildlife-watching so good here? The high quality habitat that has been established is the reason so many individuals of a diverse range of species live here, but another factor contributing to the viewing spectacle is how used to people the animals in this park are. Many people jog around the well-made pathways and children squeal gleefully as they enjoy the stepping stone causeway separating the two main lakes. Yet, grey teal, Pacific black ducks, and purple swamphens seem largely unperturbed by the commotion, and I’ve watched joggers pass mere metres from tiger snakes, oblivious to the presence of these supremely camouflaged predators (that are similarly nonplussed by the joggers).

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  A jogger ran straight past this richly coloured tiger  s nake and neither paid the other the slightest bit of interest. Top predators such as this are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem.  Image: Rowan Mott

A jogger ran straight past this richly coloured tiger snake and neither paid the other the slightest bit of interest. Top predators such as this are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem. Image: Rowan Mott

There are few examples of restoration done as well as this in close proximity to the city. Families will love the close encounters with the waterfowl on the lakes, and if the thought of snakes is a deterrent to you, why not get down for a look while the weather is still cold and the snakes are less active? To further allay any fears, I go to Newport Lakes Park quite regularly and snakes are by no means a common sighting, even when the weather is warmer – just make sure to pay attention to your surroundings and wear appropriate clothing if walking or hiking through snake habitat.

So if you’re anything like me, why not rejoice in sharing the environment with these reminders of how far this site has come since its industrial past?


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

 

 

 


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott: The yellow marking the gape (corner of the bill) of this welcome swallow indicates that it is a young bird. Welcome swallows breed at Newport Lakes Park and young birds like this can often be seen flying over the water.