Bio·R Newsletter | June 2018

Director’s Letter

Spinebills, whistlers, and fantails have embraced the suburbs of Adelaide this autumn much more than previous years – a clear sign of limited resources in the adjacent natural areas.  Even white-naped and yellow-faced honeyeaters, and dusky woodswallows have commuted across the suburbs in search of foraging habitats. 

Eastern Spinebill

Some find suitable areas with resources, some don’t. A stroll through the natural areas in the Mt Lofty Ranges that corral and flank Adelaide’s east confirms that the bush and the birds are doing it tough, a reflection of an extended dry period that commenced last winter. The trained eye seeks common birds, the tuned ear a reassurance of a species lingering presence. But alas there is too often a chilling silence.

This is a wake-up call that habitats – including new habitats that complement what natural ones that remain – are needed to help the birds through these tough times, as these out-of-season dry spells will only become more frequent as climate change sets in. Building new habitats that extend the resources and fill seasonal gaps is part and parcel of Bio-R’s mission. 

With the announcement of the loss of 60 biodiversity officers responsible for threatened species management from the federal environment department in recent weeks, NGOs like Bio-R are now increasingly important for preventing species loss. But Bio-R is still small and run by volunteers and cannot currently make–up for the ever diminishing government investment in the environment. 

We need your help to fix this. We need to spread the word that our disappearing birds can be saved, but only if everyone chips in. Ultimately, we need more people willing to offset the environmental impact of their ecological footprints to fund our on-ground works. Bio-R has achieved amazing things on a shoestring budget over the last few years, imagine what we can achieve together with everyone’s help. 

David C Paton AM
Director, Bio·R


Discovering the fauna of Frahns Farm

Our weekend of animal surveys in late November last year was an exciting success! After putting considerable effort into restoring habitat at Frahns Farm, Monarto we have been very interested in what animals have been brought back to the area. To satiate this curiosity and provide some baseline data for future research, we sent a team of volunteers to help find mammals and reptiles using pitfall traps!

Pitfall trapping wildlife

We ran a number of pitfall line traps in the area that we had refurbished at our 2017 Frahns Farm Planting Festival. The refurbishment of the traps involved digging up and removing the brittle plastic buckets, using a pole drill to excavate deeper holes, then installing and infilling around more robust polypipe tubes. Each pitfall line consists of ten traps. When we run each pitfall line, we connect the 10 traps with a foot-high fibreglass fence strung between them. When the traps are open, critters moving through the area bump into the fence, sidle along it and then drop down to the bottom of the pipes. The traps are checked every morning and evening, and the animals are identified and released.

Refurbishing pitfall trap

Pitfall trapping allows us to survey the hard-to-see animals that call Frahns Farm home, especially the reptiles, invertebrates and nocturnal mammals that are normally tricky to find. This information will help us plan future restoration in the area, allowing us to tailor our conservation effects for maximum impact! We ended up catching many wonderful native creatures such as a Western Pygmy Possum (with pouch young!), a Lowlands Earless Skink, a Spotted Marsh Frog, an Olive Legless Lizards and a few beautifully spotted Ctenotus skinks.

We’ll be running these surveys annually, so keep an eye on our social media feeds for your opportunity to come out next summer and see some of these delightful animals yourselves!

Feather weights, a moulting wing… and bird banding ‘bling’? – Grace Hodder

I’m sure it comes as no secret to you all that we at Bio-R love our local woodland birds, and we’re doing everything within our power to help save those that are threatened, vulnerable and declining. However, there is still a lot that we don’t know about our feathered friends because studying cryptic and scarce species in their natural habitats can be very tricky! That’s why we are always endeavouring to find out more by studying their movements, breeding patterns and habitat requirements – because how do we know what to plant, how to arrange them and how big to make the new habitats we build without knowing exactly what our species-in-need actually need? But to work out these vital pieces of the puzzle, we need to be able to monitor and identify individual birds. For example – how can we really tell how big the home range of a breeding pair of endangered Hooded Robins is if we don’t know whether we’re monitoring the same breeding pair? This is where “bird-banding” comes in.

Banded birds

Bird-banding involves regular trips to our study sites to set up “mist-nets” – very fine netting that traps the birds in soft mesh pockets – throughout our local woodlands. Once we’ve captured the birds, we carefully clasp a small aluminum band onto their left legs – each band has a unique number etched onto it. If we need to conduct regular surveys on a particular species, we can also add coloured bands to their legs, which make them easy to spot and identify using binoculars. We also take other useful measurements of the bird, such as looking at their primary feathers for signs of moulting, measuring their bill length, and weighing them. These measurements give us information about their age, condition and sex that can be otherwise tricky to determine. Once we have our measurements, we give them something to eat and drink before releasing them where we caught them, and our birds return happily to their usual lives with the addition of some new, and very useful, jewellery. 

Showing kids how to bird band

If our banded birds are captured again in another banding session, maybe even at a different study site, we can look up our previous records of the birds we’ve banded to work out exactly when and where we initially banded that bird. This tells us something about their age, and how far they’ve moved, what area of habitat they require, as well as how they’ve fared in the time between captures. For example, we’ve re-captured tiny birds such as the 7-gram Striated Thornbill after a whopping 18 years! Isn’t it amazing that such small creatures can live for so long? With regular banding sessions at different sites, all of our data adds up to give us more and more insights into the needs of our precious birds.

And this is where you guys come in! We love to share our bird-banding experiences with all of you contentious environmentalists. In particular, we believe that it’s important to get kids involved, because our young environmental warriors are the future of our planet, after all. We also believe that if a love for nature is fostered young, that same love, respect and care for our native bush will never be lost. Not to mention, we think it’s pretty special to watch our fledging ornithologists gently clasping a Red-capped Robin, or giving a bright-eyed New Holland Honeyeater some honey-water, and experiencing these fascinating creatures up close! 

Bird banding

We run a “Fledgelings” bird-banding weekend annually, where we encourage families with children to come and get involved in our bird research. Our recent Fledgelings event at Monarto Woodlands was great fun and we met loads of eager young birdos, not to mention their patient and generous parents who had taken time out of their weekends to lend us a helping hand. We are very grateful to all of you who participated. We had a great time, and we hope your kids came away with a new appreciation for our local wildlife that so desperately needs our help.

The Monarto nest box project – Shannon Robertson

All across southern Australia, big old trees have suffered tremendous decline as they have been removed for construction timbers, firewood or land clearance for farming.  These trees often contained dozens of hollows, and those few that remain occurred scattered between other trees – some from revegetation and some from regrowth – that are too young or small to contain hollows. It takes a century or more for the trunks and branches of trees to grow sufficient girth, and for the slow work of termites, fungus and microbes to produce hollows that wildlife can use!

Wildlife using nest

In the meantime, installing nest boxes are a good way to support birds, mammals and invertebrates that roost, shelter or nest in hollows. My honours study at The University of Adelaide is part of the Monarto Nest Box Project, which will provide 360 nest boxes for birds and mammals in the Monarto region over the coming months. The materials for these nest boxes have been funded with a conservation grant from the generous team at Australian Ethical Investment, and workers with the fantastic community service RepaySA are right now working hard to build these homes-with-holes.

Building nest

While providing these precious homes for wildlife, the project will also investigate how the different design of the nest boxes and their spatial distribution in the landscape influences what creatures occupy them, and when. Boxes will be placed in a clumped and a spaced arrangement, and the occupancy of boxes arranged each way will be measured and compared. The idea is that birds and possums may prefer the clumped arrangement that mimics natural hollow bearing trees, and this preference will show up as a greater occupancy rate for boxes arranged that way. Greater occupancy means improved efficiency of nest box placement which translates into a better conservation return for investment of funds. The more we understand about how wildlife uses these boxes and what their requirements are, the better we can provide for them to foster a biodiverse ecosystem, and it means more baby birds, possums and bats for your buck – truly a win-win scenario!

Walk for the wild side: 1900 Footprints – Tristan O’Brien

When I started walking away from Adelaide over six months ago, I thought that I would be entering a life of aches and adventure. I did not expect that such a trip would change the way I thought about conservation.

Tasmanias great wilderness

In an effort to raise awareness and funds for Bio-R and biodiversity conservation in Australia, I spent the last three months of 2017 walking between Adelaide and Hobart. This journey took me over 1900 km, at the time that distance represented one kilometre for every Federally-listed Threatened species in Australia. Taking the time to walk this distance, rather than travelling on a bicycle or other means, would allow me to notice the environmental and seasonal change at a human pace and scale. It would also allow me to be stopped by curious people along the way, which turned out to be an intrinsically important part of the journey.

Of course, it was an incredible adventure. Personally, I received far more from undertaking such a journey than I imagined I would, but it was really the conversations with people along the way that made it all worthwhile. Most, if not all of the hundreds of people who stopped to talk to me had no idea why a bedraggled young man was pushing a bespoke pram by the side of a major highway, but they were certainly interested in the story. 

And I would say that the majority of people I talked to were unaware of the specifics of the current biodiversity crisis that we are living through. But it turned out that both of these points were crucial really, because suddenly I had a captive audience who wanted to find out about an issue that they could see someone else was passionate about. 

The wide open road

Another key impression I gathered on my journey was that intrinsically, people do want to live in an environmentally-conscious society, but many have just not had the exposure to the “eco-minded” perspectives that may seem second nature to fortunate people like me.

Nature details

With this in mind, the final discovery was that everyone has their own story, all of which are relevant and from which we can learn. Only with this perspective can we have valuable and enriching conversations with those around us about how conservation fits into our lives, in our own way. For many of us who support Bio-R this can involve regular monthly donations, volunteering at planting festivals or simply keeping up to date with Bio-R’s ongoing projects. For others around us it might mean something completely different, but it is at least important to have these conversations, so please do.

1900 Footprints with Bio·R Director David Paton

After burning through two pairs of shoes, 70 tins of sardines, many kilos of couscous, one tyre tube, several podcast series, and countless indelible memories, I arrived back in Adelaide having fundraised $16,135.13. Three-thousand dollars went to another not-for-profit, Wollangarra Outdoor Education Centre, which helps young Victorians develop a connection with nature by taking them hiking in the Great Dividing Range. The rest ($13,125.13) is now in Bio-R’s charge and (all going to plan) will help to set up a nursery that will supply native plants for the ongoing restoration work at Frahn’s Farm near Monarto and other Adelaide-hills based projects in the future. It was my real pleasure to be able to contribute this amount towards supporting the great work of BioR on behalf of more than 200 individual donors. 

If you would like to read more about 1900 Footprints (including journal entries from along the way), please visit http://1900footprints.com/ 

1900 Footprints finish line

A pledge to save our Scarlets

A brilliant flash of red, a flurry of boldly contrasted black and white, or a glimpse of a small white crown atop a sooty black head. A pretty, lilting ‘wee-cheedalee-dalee’, a quiet ‘tick’, or scolding chatter. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll be familiar with these telltale signs of the charismatic Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang). Perhaps you’ve been privy to encounters with this endearing bird, as it flits from Golden Wattle to Yacca in the dewy interior of a stringybark forest? Or perhaps you have seen a him with his mate? She’s a little more muted in colour, but no less lovely, and both are often seen perching quietly on a vineyard fence, scouring the ground intently for unsuspecting insects, poised and ready to pounce.

Like many small woodland birds Scarlet Robins must look for food across all the daylight hours – particularly during the shorter, colder days of winter – and a pair will search a large area in a day to find the food they need for themselves and their chicks.

But where have they gone? The once widespread and common Scarlet Robin is no longer found in many of the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges’s nature reserves, although they were there 20–30 years ago. The birds are telling us that all is not right with our landscapes. Residents of the Adelaide Hills may remember these birds visiting their gardens and some may still see them. Sadly, their declines across the region mirror those of many other woodland birds, and this is why we’ve chosen these iconic native birds as Bio-R’s mascot on our logo (which we’ve nicknames ‘Boodang’).

Male and female Scarlet Robins

Dr David Paton, one of Bio·R’s directors and an ecologist at the University of Adelaide says these declines are expected given the extent of past native vegetation clearance in the region. With only about a tenth of the original native vegetation remaining, around 50 of the woodland bird species that we see today are likely to disappear, and survey results for a regional Bird Atlas confirms these worrying declines. Without enough habitat, there are not enough resources to sustain the individual, isolated populations of these birds across the landscape, and they are steadily winking out, one by one. Dr Paton says that it is not too late to reverse the declines and save species like the Scarlet Robin. What is urgently needed is re-establishing native habitats on some of the farmland that was cleared years ago.  But he says to do this at the scales needed requires broad community support. 

As more people move to cities and have less contact with nature, fewer people notice the loss of the small birds in our environments. Therefore, the question is “Does the community want to save the Scarlet Robin – the canary in the coalmine – in our region?”. We hope they do, and we hope you do too.

Whether you’re lucky enough to have seen a Scarlet Robin recently, or only remember them from long ago in your local patch, please tell your family, friends, local members and community if you’re concerned about losing our unique woodland birds; tweet it, post it and share it too! We need to make sure everyone knows the tragedy that is set to befall our native species.

The most immediate and effective action you can do by visiting the Bio-R website and pledging $1 per day to offset the impact your lifestyle has on all aspects of the environment, your “ecological footprint”. Encourage those you know to do so too. All profits go to our conservation projects, and your contribution will help us build habitat to ensure that creatures like our precious Scarlet Robin continue to grace our bushland with their charisma, beauty, and uniquely Australian song.


Contact Us

If you have questions, comments or want more information on current events and how you can get involved, email us at info@bior.org.au

Except where specified, all photos have been taken by Fiona Paton, Thomas Hunt, Shannon Robertson, James Trezise & Tristan O’Brien.

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