urban

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  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Brown. Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Meadow Argus. Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre. Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], from Wikimedia Commons.

Our Home in the Wilderness

The wind outside comes and goes in fits of undirected rage. It hurtles past my window and drowns out the calls of the fledgling raven in the tree outside. Squat and downy, it grips swaying branches with fresh, uncertain claws. Yesterday it was marvellously sunny outside, and now… well, it isn’t. Such variable weather is an oft-cited trademark of Melbourne and surrounds, and is something Melbournians enjoy brandishing as a testament to the fact that we live in a land of extremes. Yet, for the young raven outside, Melbourne’s weather is perhaps one of the least extreme of the forces that influence its daily life. 

Indeed, all cities – not just Melbourne  – are places of stark contrasts. Worlds of conflict and polarity, where squat and downy lives must eke out an existence. As Associate Professor Kirsten Parris writes in her new book Ecology of Urban Environments, cities are ‘where the best and worst of human existence can be found, and where habitats constructed for people can complement or obliterate the habitats of other species.’ To study these contrasts and complements is to study urban ecology: a relatively young discipline and one that Parris defines as ‘the ecology of all organisms – including humans – in urban environments’.

Few fields of study could be more relevant to the life of the young raven outside my window, and fewer still could hold such timely pertinence for the contemporary hominid that sits at his computer writing about it from within warm walls. For, the world around us is changing and if we are to preserve ourselves, as well as our squat and downy friends, we must have knowledge. Parris captures the essence of our transformation of the planet – no more obvious than in urban environments – with a preface in the form of a poem by Mark Knopfler:

A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a sack on his back
And he put down his load where he thought it was best
Made a home in the wilderness

And so goes the story across the planet. A story that began some twelve thousand years ago in the Middle East and one that has been repeated and reenacted at an ever-increasing rate across the globe. ‘Globally,’ writes Parris, ‘there were 740 urban areas with a human population >500,000 in 2008, including 22 with a population >10 million’.

In some regard, I’ve come to treat my copy of this text in the same manner my parents regarded our family medical book. We once saw that book as an essential tool for diagnosing illness and subsequently, treated it in accordance with the expert advice contained therein. Yet, in many ways what Parris has written is far more relevant to my life than such a medical text. That old, dusty book had information on any number of illnesses likely and unlikely to occur to the average human. Meanwhile, the issues and processes Parris describes are almost all relevant to any one of us, and at any given time. It is accessible too and while perfect for students, researchers, and policy-makers, I can’t help but feel it belongs on the shelf of the “average” family. What is written here can be seen, and heard, out my window: the construction of urban infrastructure including many surfaces impervious to rainfall, the removal of native vegetation and the planting of exotics, the hum of road traffic, the streets lights, the runoff, the waste, the dogs and the cats and the net-entangled fruit bats. This is a book about you and me and the community in which we are apart.

That community is shaped by our own actions – something we are often naive to. I can recall receiving noise complaints from neighbours whilst living in an apartment building – perhaps I was reading too loud – but the complaints of the natural world are often less obvious without the adequate training. Parris goes some way to highlighting our subtler but no less significant impacts, and provides some serious food for thought: ‘Human preferences … influence patterns of activity in different parts of a city, such as which places are visited, when, by how many people, and what they do there.’ For example: ‘Nature enthusiasts may be most likely to walk through parks of remnant patches of native vegetation in spring and summer, potentially trampling plants or disturbing breeding birds.’

The ever-hungry, black shape huddled in the tree outside is testament to the unequal impacts of urbanisation on our native biodiversity. Ravens cope well in urban environments– hell, they cope well under most circumstances – but many species do not, and as Parris notes, ‘The particular characteristics of urban habitats can result in the formation of novel ecological communities, some of which have no obvious analogues in natural environments.’

This inequality of the urban realm extends to our species also, and Parris dedicates an entire chapter to this subject. As Knopfler puts it:

Then came the mines, then came the ore
Then there was the hard times, then there was a war…
I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work but there’s no work here to be found

Parris highlights several relatable issues, such as access to urban parks and open spaces, the unequal distribution of noise and air pollution, and the dependence those of us living towards the edges of urban sprawl have on cars for transportation.

And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold

And there’s the rub. Just like the poem’s narrator, we have but one home and ‘We’re gonna have to reap from some seed that’s been sowed’. Knopfler’s poem is an ominous tale of socio-economic downfall in big cities, and Parris does well to include it in her text. The impacts we are having on the natural world spin a no less foreboding yarn, and this book is an essential start to crafting a happier ending.  

Maybe my squat and downy friend outside will one day fly away, but there seem fewer and fewer places left for it to go where it won’t be touched by an urban world.   

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you care to understand the processes at play around you and your home. 

Head to the Wiley website to purchase your copy. 


Chris McCormack
Chris recently graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology. He is the current Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 

You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC

Suburban wilderness: the Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve

Heading south out of Melbourne, the search for wild spaces is quicker and easier than you might think. Two turns off the Peninsula Link freeway (built to help shuttle increasing numbers of residents and visitors to Mornington or Rosebud) and the suburban sprawl breaks on the edge of a unique remnant of natural bushland.

The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve is 214 hectares of dappled stringybark woodland, flower-spotted heaths, and wetlands that reappear every spring, announced by calling frogs. From the long central break, paths curve and twist among soft hills and sand dunes left behind by the changing levels of ancient seas. At the peak of the greatest dune, surrounded by squat Epacris and heath wattle, the view stretches clear to the Dandenong Ranges in one direction and Arthur’s Seat in the other. Descending through the taller stands of Eucalyptus and Banksia interrupts a dizzying whirl of wrens, thrushes and cuckoos. Patient strolling is rewarded by the sight of shuffling echidnas, while the bounding black wallabies make an unusual hazard for bike riders.

Langwarrin Flora & Fauna Reserve. Image: Parks Victoria

Langwarrin Flora & Fauna Reserve. Image: Parks Victoria

The quality and variety of wildlife in this small space is staggering. At least 50 orchid species have been found within the reserve, including some rare and threatened examples like the purple diuris. The critically endangered New Holland mouse, and the southern emu-wren have both been spotted. The southern brown bandicoot has habitat here that is repeated almost nowhere else.

These assemblages would be wonderful enough on their own, but take on a particular significance in this location. The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve was only made a protected space in 1985; from almost 100 years earlier, the land had been in military hands, belonging to the Victorian Government in the late 19th Century and the Commonwealth following Federation. During this tenure, land was cleared for parade grounds and encampments, for training, and for the grazing of local livestock. In one tense period during World War I, German prisoners of war were interned on the site. A little later, as blithely related by a sign near the reserve’s carpark, a hospital was constructed to treat returning soldiers suffering venereal disease.

Prior to the establishment of the military reserve, it is likely that the area was cleared for agriculture along with the majority of the Mornington Peninsula. Pasture and cropland were crucial in the expansion of Melbourne, both for trade export and to support the booming population that arrived with the gold rush. However, poor soils and inconvenient landscapes meant that some of the bushland was left uncleared – in the Langwarrin district this left behind reservoirs of seed and habitat that have been lost elsewhere, along with evidence of the First Australian Boonerwrung people’s cyclic passage as they tracked seasonal food sources. Nowadays, the reserve is used by residents for exercise, recreation, horse riding, and nature study.

Langwarrin Flora and Fauna reserve houses a diverse range of fauna. Image: Parks Victoria. 

Langwarrin Flora and Fauna reserve houses a diverse range of fauna. Image: Parks Victoria. 

It is a rarity to find a space like the reserve, as well as its larger neighbour the Pines Flora and Fauna Reserve, in an area that has consistently seen a dramatically increasing residential community. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, the outer suburbs of Melbourne have experienced some of the fastest population growth in Australia. New housing estates and the rezoning of agricultural land saw building booms in the Frankston area of up to 30% expansion between 2001 and 2011. There is a more complete development of land, an increase in population density, and pressure on roads and other infrastructure.

It is to be expected that all this impacts negatively on those remaining islands of native bushland. Management plans for the reserves of the area are constantly looking to the dangers of feral animals, of foxes and rabbits, and of the occasional presence of free-roaming housepets. There is also a cost that comes with allowing human access to each space, with risks such as erosion exacerbated by cyclists and horse-riders to the point of path closures during wet weather. A further danger is the spreading of invasive plants from nearby gardens: Pittosporum undulatum has a well-deserved reputation for choking out woodland understories, while coastal tea-trees alter fire regimes in uncertain ways. Pathogens like the cinnamon fungus, Phytophthora cinnamomi, are spread on the soles of walkers’ shoes and cause indiscriminate damage to vegetation.

Image: Parks Victoria

Image: Parks Victoria

Inevitably, though, people will keep coming into these spaces – and they have a right to. Using green spaces for walking, relaxing, or exercising has been shown to improve mental health and a sense of connection with the landscape. The reality is that without that tangible value, it is difficult to explain the necessity of preserving these beautiful, complex and fragile ecosystems.

While of course no one likes to brag, it is mentioned quite often that Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city. The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked our city first among 140 locations each year since 2011, and other polls put us in similarly high positions. Our parks and gardens do a lot to contribute to our own mental wellbeing, and shape our lifestyles for the better. These islands of natural bushland are equally beneficial, with the added bonus of keeping Australia’s native plants and animals on the ground and in our perception.

These parks are kept for all of us, not just the conservationists who catalogue their secrets. Make the time. Look around you. Seek out a new wilderness to explore.


PAUL JONES

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development

Are artificial lights driving microbats.... batty?

This is a guest article by ecologist Grant Linley.

Their looks are the stuff of nightmares, they are continually urbanising and colonising new environments, and they have had disastrous impacts on the environment so far. These thoughts might go through the brain of Microchiropteran bats when thinking about humans. Whilst some may reel at their looks, their uniqueness makes them quintessentially Australian. These small, flying mammals are all around us at night and they live unheard and unseen among us. Insectivorous bats are a diverse and adaptable group of mammals that has been able to persist among environments that have undergone large scale changes due to urbanisation, making them a true Aussie battler.

Insectivorous bats are known to eat up to half their body weight in insects each night, with some eating up to 600 mosquitoes a night. Not only do they play an important role in keeping invertebrate species in balance, but in doing this they also promote plant growth and pollination. This makes them a key species in keeping urban ecology in balance. To help understand what affects insectivorous bats within urban environments, I conducted a study that considered the impacts of artificial lighting in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. Using an Anabat Express (a gadget that helps us listen in on bat vocalisations), ultrasonic calls were recorded and used to identify species in artificially lit and unlit areas.

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    The Gould’s wattle bat ( Chalinolobus gouldii ) smiles for the camera. The study found that they were the most common species to occur along Bayside’s foreshore.  Image:   Lindy Lumsden

The Gould’s wattle bat (Chalinolobus gouldii) smiles for the camera. The study found that they were the most common species to occur along Bayside’s foreshore. Image: Lindy Lumsden

 

HOW DOES ARTIFICIAL LIGHTING AFFECT BATS?

Within the coastal vegetation in the Bayside area, I found unlit sites to have higher numbers of calls and species richness when compared to lit sites. Almost all of the identified species were adversely impacted by artificial lighting, specifically Austronomous australis, Chalinolobus morio, Miniopterus schreibersii oceanensis, Mormopterus spp, Myotis macropus, Nyctophilus geoffroyi, Saccolaimus flaviventris, Vespadelus darlingtoni and Vespadelus regulus. Lit sites attracted bats at lower temperatures than unlit sites and bat activity remained active throughout the night at unlit sites. However, at lit sites bat activity quickly diminished in the hours after sunset.

The effects of artificial lighting on insectivorous bats are complex and likely to be caused by a variety of reasons. All species that are susceptible to artificial lighting, except V. regulus, have larger bodies that are less manoeuvrable. It is thought that a lack of manoeuvrability may force these species away from lit areas, as they are not able to capture prey that is attracted to the lights. It is possible that artificial lighting causes changes in activity of bats at different temperatures because it interferes with insect navigation systems, making insects active at lower temperatures and in turn attracting bats during these times. The difference in bat activity throughout the night is thought to be caused by a rapid decrease in insect density around light sources as time passes after sunset, which forces bats to go in search of their prey in unlit areas.

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR THEM?

Artificial lighting on the foreshore in the municipality of Bayside has impacted bats and appears to fragment parts of the landscape. The negative impacts on insectivorous bat activity will likely increase as more street and safety lights are installed in urban areas. In the future, safety lighting systems should be installed in car parks and walkways that are activated by a sensory switch and only remain on for a short period of time. Councils should also consider minimising the use of mercury vapour lighting, which attract larger insect loads than low-pressure sodium lamps. Additionally, members of the local community can build and install bat boxes, which provide bats somewhere to roost. Unfortunately, suitable habitat for these species is constantly diminishing within suburbia. These findings will be published shortly.

Banner image by Scott Sanders (via Wikimedia Commons).


Grant Linley

Grant is an ecologist interested in Australia's flora and fauna. He has experience researching, trapping, tracking, identifying and handling different Australian species. Whilst experienced in terrestrial Australian ecology, he has also conducted research in Borneo and South Africa. Grant's interests centre on preserving and reintroducing extant and extinct Australian species as well as using natural predators to control mesopredators.