Plastic pollution: a peril to our shores

Being both pliable and durable in nature, plastic has become one of the most used human-made products in the manufacturing industry. Yet when it comes to the existence of our marine life and the status of our shores, this synthetic substance is finding itself in the firing line. This year, Keep Australia Beautiful Week puts plastic in the spotlight. While marine litter is made up of an assortment of debris, it is plastic that is the major contributing factor, accounting for 80% of the items found along many stretches of Australian coastline.

Plastic debris can be categorised into two forms depending on its size: macroplastics and microplastics. Macroplastics include large, often single-use items, such as plastic bags, food packaging, plastic coffee cups, straws and drink bottles.

Despite efforts to reduce usage, plastics still make up 80% of the debris found along our shores.  Image:  Jo Lanta  on  Unsplash

Despite efforts to reduce usage, plastics still make up 80% of the debris found along our shores. Image: Jo Lanta on Unsplash

As a substance, plastic of any kind is hard to completely eradicate and becomes impractical after its initial use. However, in terms of their slender size, straws in particular can easily fall through conveyer belts that are used in the recycling of waste products. Even if appropriate measures are taken for disposal, most end up as landfill or swirling into mouths of water drains and finally being deposited onto our shores.

While most of us are accustomed to the addition of a straw, whether to sip on a smoothie or indulge in a glass of iced tea or coffee, now consumers and some bars, pubs and cafes are starting to cause a stir, ditching the plastic accompaniment altogether. It is clear that banning and reducing straw consumption, along with other types of macroplastics, is starting to become a priority.

On the other end of the scale, microplastics - that is, any type of plastic that is 5mm or less in diameter - is also under scrutiny. Primary microplastics are a major nuisance to marine life, and include items such as resin pellets, also called ‘nurdles’ or ‘mermaid tears’, and microbeads found in shampoo, gels and other cosmetics. Secondary microplastics are those resulting from macroplastics that have been broken down into tiny particles. These are so minuscule that they can barely be seen with the naked eye.

Regions such as Port Phillip Bay are at serious risk of becoming pools of plastic pollution through stormwater run-off, which enters into systems such as the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers and finally into the Bay. While samples from both categories of plastic are present, along with recreational fishing nets and gear, it is the smaller form that is an emerging threat to our marine ecosystems.

Port Phillip Bay and its inhabitants are at particular risk when it comes to plastic pollution.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Port Phillip Bay and its inhabitants are at particular risk when it comes to plastic pollution. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Port Phillip Bay lends itself to over 1,000 species of marine plants and animals. It is a cosmos of activity, providing an abundance of food and habitat to a multitude of unique species. However, plastic pollution is resulting in much cause for concern, with the Bay's population of bottlenose dolphins at particular risk. Plastics that encroach on their environs can disrupt the balance of the food chain and cause blockages to the intestinal system. In marine habitats, plastics can also soak up toxins already found in the surrounding environment, leading to further issues for the unfortunate organism that may ingest them. 

While reducing the need for plastic is a simple act that many of us can introduce to our daily routines, the impact of doing so on a large scale allows our shores to be free from this form of debris that is a pest to the marine life present. In turn, this will hopefully better protect those species that call our seas and shores home.

For more information on Keep Australia Beautiful Week, see here. 

Priya Mohandoss reports for the Royal Society of Victoria and writes a column called “Environment Matters” for the Kinglake Ranges community news magazine, Mountain Monthly. She has recently completed a Masters of Media and Communications and is an avid explorer of all aspects of nature. 

Banner image courtesy of Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash.

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.

The Big Outside is waiting

Treeless alpine ecosystems cover just 0.5 per cent of Australia. While we might lack huge mountains, what we do have is a network of ranges that run in a long arc from the outskirts of Canberra almost to Melbourne’s doorstep. They host a unique combination of plants, animals and landscapes. Despite our moderate latitude and very modest altitude, we do have significant areas that tend to be snow-covered in winter – in total, an area about the size of Switzerland.

Melbourne residents who enjoy the snow will probably know the resorts – places like Mount Buller and Falls Creek. These get you to the edge of some incredible “winter wilderness”. Even though the Victorian Alps are generally well protected through the Alpine National Park, there are road networks through much of the High Country. In winter the mountains are transformed into seasonal wilderness through the closure of many of these roads and tracks.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

There is nowhere else on the planet where you can stand in Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) forest. These are tall mountain trees that have a subtle twist as they grow into old age. Often called Woolly Butt because of their fibrous lower sections, their upper trunks are pale and “gum”-like, mirroring their close relatives the Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Alpine Ash forest, which will often host lyrebirds, and a range of possums and wombats, merge – often quite rapidly – into Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) as you climb up the mountain. Snow Gums are lyrical in the way they grow – with such diversity of form and so many colours in their bark, from silver and white to red and green. As you climb closer to the treeline they become smaller, trimmed by the cold and prevailing wind, until you emerge into the true alpine zone. In early summer these areas are ablaze with colour, but in winter the snow gives a sombre black and white aspect to the terrain.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

There are so many adventures to be had in the Victorian Alps. Probably one of the best ways to experience them is to do one of the long climbs from a river valley to one of the higher peaks. This will often involve a long climb of up to 900 metres of vertical, but will take you from Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) forests along the rivers into the Peppermint forests of the foothills, which include Narrow-leaved Peppermint (Eucalyptus radiata), and eventually the alpine. Tracing the Howqua River up Howitt Spur to the West Peak of Howitt, or Bungalow Spur up Feathertop, or the Staircase Spur to our highest mountain – Bogong - are all great examples of these classic walks. Once you’re out walking or skiing, what I notice is the silence and lack of people. Just a few hours from Melbourne you can have silence, clouds, the sound of gentle snowfall and a sense of the “big wild” that comes in winter when many of the four-wheel drive tracks are closed. In winter our higher mountains are transformed into temporary wilderness that makes you feel like you’re in Tasmania rather than a few hours’ drive from Melbourne.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Many Melburnians who ski or snowboard will have looked out at the surrounding mountains but not ventured out into them in winter. But a set of touring skis, snow shoes or a splitboard (a type of snowboard adapted for touring) will get you out into the solitude. I once heard a French ski instructor describe the ‘cool, slow’ mood of the Australian Alps which are so different to the ‘fast’ European Alps. Our mountains are like nowhere else. But finding a way to explore this backcountry terrain can be daunting for first timers.

To help people find a way to get into the mountains outside the resorts, the Victorian Backcountry Festival is taking place this September. It will start and finish at the Falls Creek Resort in north-east Victoria. While Falls Creek charges an entry fee, all the tours, clinics and workshops are free.

Everyone is welcome. If you’d like to learn the skills that will help you experience some winter wildness, then check the festival website and come along.

Cam Walker is the campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne and a keen walker, skier and climber who loves the Victorian High Country and wilds of Tasmania.

Banner image courtesy of Cam Walker.

Victoria's robins bring a hint of warmth in the dead of winter

A flash of red caught my eye. Perched on the top wire of the fence between the bush reserve and the lightly grazed paddock was a small bird, its scarlet breast contrasting with the white below and the black of its head and back. A white stripe down the side of its wings and an obvious white spot above its beak completed its showy costume. Further along the fence another bird perched. Its size and white markings were similar, but its back and head were grey, and its red chest less vibrant. The birds stared down. The duller bird dropped to the ground, caught a small flying insect in the grass, and returned to the fence to devour its prey.

The birds reminded me that it was winter. They were a pair of Scarlet Robins, the brighter plumage belonging to the male. They breed in forests during spring and summer and move to more open areas at lower altitude in autumn, remaining there for winter. When nesting, they prefer larger patches of forest with shrubs, fallen branches and leaf litter. In the cooler months they are more likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses. They catch insects and spiders from the ground in colder months, and from bark and leaves when living in forests.

In the cooler months, Scarlet Robins are likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses.  Image: Rowan Mott

In the cooler months, Scarlet Robins are likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses. Image: Rowan Mott

A female Scarlet Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Scarlet Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

The male and female bond for life and defend their territory during the breeding season. They usually choose the fork of a tree as a place for the female to build a cup-shaped nest of bark. She covers the outside in sticky cobwebs. Inside, on a lining of animal fur, feathers and sometimes soft plant fibres, she lays about three pale green, blue or grey eggs with brown splotches and one pointed end. The female sits on the eggs and the young chicks, while the male feeds her and the babies. As the babies grow, the female leaves the nest and assists with the hunting. Many chicks don’t survive to fledging. Threats include snakes and predatory birds such as currawongs. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, including robins’ nests, with the young cuckoo being the only survivor of the brood. The robins will lay two or three batches of eggs in one breeding season, then leave for their winter residence. I notice the Scarlet Robins’ arrival, usually in April, but I never notice their departure as the weather warms. One day I realise that I haven’t seen them for a few weeks, and I know they are gone until next autumn.

Occasionally another robin visits us in autumn. It is the Flame Robin. The male has a brilliant orange-red front, and dark grey back. His posture is more upright than the Scarlet Robin and he is slightly larger, but otherwise they look similar. The female is brown. She has white stripes on her wings, but no red on her chest. These robins are sometimes seen in small flocks in winter. In his springtime breeding habitat, the male sings and displays his feathers, puffing up his flame-coloured breast, or his white markings, to defend his territory from other Flame Robins, and from Scarlet Robins, which sometimes breed in the same area. He may also fly at intruders to scare them away. The populations of both species of robins are declining, possibly due to loss of  habitat and more predators, as birds such as currawongs thrive in landscapes created by people.

A female Flame Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

A male Flame Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A male Flame Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin at her nest.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin at her nest. Image: Bernie McRitchie

Another robin that is becoming scarcer is the Jacky Winter. With a grey back and white underneath, it is harder to identify than the other robins. It also sits on fences looking for food. As it dives to the ground or swoops through the air chasing flying insects, it spreads its tail, showing the black central feathers and white edge feathers that are its most obvious distinguishing feature.

Another colourful, but less seen visitor to our area, is the Eastern Yellow Robin. The male and female both have a grey head, olive-green lower back and are bright yellow underneath. They live near the coast and further inland and are found in many different habitats. Their habits are similar to the other robins.

A Jacky Winter.  Image: David Whelan

A Jacky Winter. Image: David Whelan

Eastern Yellow Robins can be found near the coast and further inland.  Image: David Whelan

Eastern Yellow Robins can be found near the coast and further inland. Image: David Whelan

Most of these birds are eye-catching with their bright colours. They are often seen perched on a fence or in a tree. They seem undisturbed by people, so it is possible to walk slowly and quietly closer to them, and watch them as they feed. Some are curious enough that they may even come closer to look at you. 

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.

Photographer Bernie McRitchie’s love of nature was born of visits to the Bannockburn bush as a teen. Trained as a horticulturalist and now working as an arborist for Wyndham City Council, many readers would be familiar with Bernie’s iconic photos which grace the pages of several nature groups on Facebook. Bernie’s most recent contribution to the photographic literature is via Dr Stephen Debus’s 2017 book Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds, published by CSIRO Publishing. Along with his good friend David Whelan, he provided the first confirmed, successful breeding record for the Black Falcon in Southern Victoria.

Banner image of a Scarlet Robin courtesy of Rowan Mott.