Bio·R Newsletter | June 2019

Director’s Letter

Sitting above my desk is a sketch of a large frog being swallowed by a bird. The frog in turn has its grip around the neck of the bird trying to choke it and the sketch is titled “Never Ever Give Up”. When things look overwhelming, this is a helpful reminder.

The prognosis for the environment across the globe looks bleak with around 75% of terrestrial ecosystems in a degraded state and a prediction that this will climb to 90% by 2050. Australia has played its part and continues to play its part in destroying nature with at least 80% and sometimes more than 90% of arable regions cleared of native vegetation. Despite knowing the ecological damage that comes with broadacre clearing of native vegetation, large areas of woodland continue to be removed in eastern Australia. Recently the World Wildlife Fund listed eastern Australia as one of 11 global deforestation fronts. If those 11 fronts continue unchecked they will have cleared 80% of the remaining forests by 2030. It has gone beyond the point where just stopping vegetation clearance will provide respite. Now, not only does that clearance have to stop but significant amounts of new habitat need to be re-established if charismatic species are not to be lost. None of us have the capacity to stop the current exploitation of natural resources but we need to start exerting pressure, illustrate that we care and lobby for change. And we must Never Ever Give Up, no matter how hopeless the situation may seem.

We are not alone in this and in March 2019 the United Nations declared the next 10 years the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and set a restoration target of 350 million hectares worldwide. One hopes this might influence countries to finally take action at the scales that are needed. But I am not holding my breath.

Sadly, government investment in Australia’s natural environment continues to decline and this has grave consequences for our biodiversity. The South Australian government is no exception. Although NGOs, including BioR, contribute by taking up some of the slack, they are no substitute. For the time being these entities need to grow substantially in the coming years. If not then the prognosis for biodiversity remains poor. We live, appropriately, in an Epoch of our own-making – the Anthropocene. This is currently shaping up to be a mass extinction event. It does not have to be. We must Never Ever Give Up.

David C Paton AM
Director, Bio·R


Reveg or remnant? It’s for the birds! – Bradley Bianco

I doubt the Dunstan State Government had fauna habitat restoration in their minds when they decided to have several hundred hectares of trees planted for a proposed satellite city in the Monarto area in the 1970’s. Well, that satellite city never materialised and decades have now passed and those trees have matured into an ‘artificial’ woodland of sorts. Most of the species chosen to be planted in those deep-ripped furrows were not local natives and many were not even native to South Australia! But as it turns out, this hodgepodge of plants – mainly eucalypts and native pines – are serving an important ecological function as habitat for many woodland bird species.

Typical revegetation versus remnant vegetation at Frahns Farm

In addition to the old open, grassy paddocks on Frahns Farm, the vegetation consists of a mix of these planted artificial woodlands and patches of remnant, open woodlands that we’re never fully cleared. The BioR team regularly surveys the birds at Frahns that inhabit these woodlands and over the years hard work has allowed us to accumulate an extensive database of occurrences of a suite of woodland species that, at least for a time, call the property home.

Some birds prefer revegetation including Jacky Winters White winged Choughs Red capped Robins and Hooded Robins

As a part of my third year studies for my bachelors degree, I took these accumulated records of occurrences and sought to statistically analyse how a handful of species are using the  woodlands across the property. Helpfully, each record of a species’ occurrence is accompanied by a GPS position and using digital mapping tools, known as GIS, I was able to place the occurrences of a suite of bird species onto a map of the property. From there, I used the GIS to divide Frahns Farm into different categories of woodland, those that were planted and those that are remnants, and to calculate the total area that each category made up of the property. Telling the GIS to count how many times a species was observed in the different types of woodland allowed me to determine what proportion of occurrences were recorded in that category. Punching all these numbers into a statistical model showed whether or not a species of bird was more likely to be observed in one type of woodland over another.

A map of Frahns Farm showing vegetation type and species records

It turns out that some birds may have a preference for the revegetated woodlands over the remnant patches on Frahns Farm! Several insect eating birds like the Jacky Winter, the White-winged Chough and the Hooded and Red-capped Robins are disproportionately recorded in areas of the property made up of mature, revegetated trees and the same is true for the nectar feeding New Holland Honeyeater. Interestingly, of the ten species I included in my study, the Southern Whiteface was the only species found to prefer remnant woodland areas of the property over others.

These results indicate that the Monarto plantings have characteristics that may make them more favourable habitats compared with remnant patches in the same area. There are certainly structural differences between the two woodland types. The choice of plants and the density at which the revegetated areas were planted means that there is minimal understorey vegetation and many low branches for birds to perch on compared with remnant areas which have few low branches and a shrubbier, more cluttered understorey. For ground foragers like the Hooded and Red-capped Robin, this may equate to better areas for finding food. The large blossomed Western Australian Eucalypts may also be providing nectar feeders with a more abundant food source. 

To be clear, the birds of Frahns Farm use all types of woodlands on the property and the remnant areas are incredibly valuable. It is likely that the revegetated areas add a level of habitat complexity, providing increased variety in the landscape that favour some species. But what this research tells us is that the species of plants that we use in revegetation are just part of the story. To restore functional habitats for wildlife we need to consider other factors such as density and spatial arrangement and imagine what these areas will look like in the future when they mature.

Planting for posterity – Kimberley McCallum 

Planting different species together may seem natural but some trees like Blue Gums set more seed when planted together increasing reproductive potentialRevegetation has come a long way from the simple, linear tree plantings that were common in the past and it is now standard for revegetation projects to use local plant species, to try and maximise the number of different plant species used and to establish a mid and overstorey. However, once plant species have been selected and propagated, the arrangement of those seedlings within plantings is rarely considered. As a result, the layout of plants within revegetated sites is often quite different from that of native vegetation and this can influence the value and development of these restored areas.

To better understand the role of planting layouts, I assessed seed production in six eucalypt species planted in the 1970s in the Monarto region. I found that the spacing between trees was a more important predictor of seed production than the number of trees (of the same species) within 100 m. For example, in Blue Gums (Eucalyptus leucoxylon), closely spaced trees (< 20 m) could produce up to 50 seeds per gumnut, whereas trees spaced 50-100m apart didn’t produce more than 10 seeds per gumnut. 

Therefore, basing revegetation designs on measures such as the number of plants per hectare, without consideration of the spacing between plants, may limit reproduction and potentially recruitment into revegetated populations. On-ground testing is now underway to determine how planting arrangements can be manipulated during revegetation works and the Bio-R plantings at Frahns Farm are an excellent opportunity to test out these ideas. 

This research formed part of my PhD project and was generously supported with a grant from BioR’s research fund. The work has just been published in the Restoration Ecology journal too! For more information see:

McCallum K, Breed M, Paton D, Lowe A (2019) Clumped planting arrangements improve seed production in a revegetated eucalypt woodland. Restoration Ecology 27, 638-646. 

How to build a roo-proof “plant sanctuary”

We’re excited to let you know our Frahns Farm roo-proof fence is finally complete, just in time for our Planting Festival where it’s will help supercharge our revegetation efforts. By keeping out hungry kangaroos, not only will the seedlings we plant inside stay intact, but the removal of grazing pressure will boost the natural regeneration of the eucalypt and sheoak seedlings that currently struggle to establish before they get munched!

A fence corner with apron high enough to keep roos at bay

Lots of planning and consultation went into this project, as our Bio-R team were learning these skills for the very first time! We had to negotiate its position against the existing fences in the landscape (including lining up the gates) and think about spacing between the fences to allow weed slashing (for fire safety) and maintenance vehicles to turn around. We also couldn’t have our fence too close to roads because this would create a hazard when roos jumped along the outside. If you’ve been out to Frahns Farm, you may have seen that the huge Murray Bridge to Onkaparinga Pipeline goes straight through the property. We had to negotiate with SA Water and make sure there was room for water trucks to be able to access the pipeline. All this meant lots of re-jigging our plans, but we got there in the end thanks to everyone who provided advice and support in this process, including professionals from AMLR and SAMDB NRMs, at least four different fencing contractors, and three different materials consultants. 

From this research, we came up with a robust design that would keep out kangaroos effectively. We used a prefabricated wire with an integrated “apron”, which runs out along the ground, perpendicular to the fence, for 30cm, to prevent animals digging underneath. The 150cm high fence has vertical wires 15cm apart to prevent kangaroos pushing through, and two horizontal wires were strung above this to bring it to 165cm, just high enough to discourage an enthusiastic kangaroo from bouncing over the top!

We avoided clearing vegetation as much as possible for this fence (we are trying to put back habitat, not remove it!). This meant that we walked the fence-line several times over with the team and our fencing contractor, so that we could pick an economical boundary that would still avoid trees and shrubs and encompass the large area we wanted to protect. We also had to contend with rocky outcrops, hilly areas, and washed out creeklines, so it proved tricky at times! We had to strike a balance between avoiding these obstacles and adding too many corners to the fence. The more corners in the fence, the harder it is to “strain” (to pull tight), and the more posts and “strainers” are required, adding to expense. This means more labour and higher material costs. However, after a few draft maps, we came up with a happy medium, ended up with about 30 strainer posts in our 5 kilometres of fence thanks to a few insistent trees! We think this was an overall win for the environment, and it kept our fencing contractor Andrew and his team with plenty to do!

Once it was built, we gathered a team of enthusiastic volunteers to help herd the remaining kangaroos out of the area. Now we have a shiny new 140 hectare roo-free “plant sanctuary”, ready to have some seedlings planted inside. We can’t wait for you to see it at our up-coming planting festival. Once again, thanks to the Klein Family Foundation for generously supporting this project and the conservation work that Bio·R does.

Fledglings fun with Birds SA – Kate Buckley

BioR and Birds SA combined to run a very successful “Fledglings” weekend on the 4th and 5th of May. Thirty-eight children, accompanied by their Parents or Grandparents, attended one of the four different sessions. They enjoyed being able to look at our beautiful native birds at very close quarters. 

Male Hooded Robins left and more boldly marked than females centre but female Varied Sitellas right are brighter than males

David Paton spent time explaining the importance of habitat, protection and restoration, to the children and their family members. He also explained what value there is in banding the birds to gain knowledge relating to habitat and bird feeding and breeding cycles.

Fledglings were shown how to hold a bird correctly, and excited adults photographed their fledglings holding such gems as, Spotted Pardalote, Red-capped Robin, Varied Sitella, Southern White-face and a Hooded Robin. However, only the “experienced professionals” processed the Rosellas and the Butcherbird.

Showing the participants how birds are held and processed before release plus a chance for some snaps

I would like to extend my appreciation to David and Penny Paton and all the BioR members for their assistance on Saturday and Sunday, and to Birds SA member, Jody Gates, for giving up his precious Saturday to support this important, educational event for the next generation.

A Flycatcher’s Future – Tom Hunt

The Restless Flycatcher (Myiagra inquieta) is a songbird sometimes mistaken for a Willie Wagtail, but their iridescent blue-black plumage and diverse inventory of calls give them away. On swooping wingbeats these flycatchers use their excellent eyesight to forage for invertebrates (flies included) in woodlands across southern and eastern Australia. Their movement and activity is frenetic and constant, earning them their name. These beautiful creatures are found nowhere else in the world and form an intrinsic part of the grand tapestry of biodiversity that makes Australia unique.

Restless Flycatcher
A Restless Flycatcher

Sadly, recent bird atlas surveys in the Adelaide region show that the range over which Restless Flycatchers are found has more than halved in the last 30 years; at this rate they could become locally extinct within decades. This decline is due to habitat destruction, as in the Mount Lofty Ranges more than 90% of woodlands have been cleared. Restless Flycatchers need to be able to range over hundreds of hectares of habitat to find enough food to survive, but few patches this size remain, and current revegetation efforts are, unfortunately, often not large enough. In this region, over half the woodland birds face extinction within the next 100 years, a shocking trend that has been echoed in a recent UN review on biodiversity that estimates over one million species are threatened with extinction worldwide. However, as the federal election outcome highlights, our society and governments do not seem to have the impetus to take action.

A considerable barrier to widespread action is how few people are aware of the crisis our wildlife is facing, but the most tragic element in all of this is that – even if they did know – many people wouldn’t care. Disengaged citizens increasingly wonder why it matters if one species goes extinct. Apart from the fine ecological balance in which each species plays an intrinsic function, and the direct services that healthy ecosystems provide for humans, this quote by the eminent ecologist Edward O. Wilson comes to mind: “Look closely at nature. Every species a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived. Who are we to destroy or even diminish biodiversity?” Who, indeed? This sentiment is perhaps the least pragmatic argument against extinction (it’s certainly the least tangible) but for me it’s the one that matters most. 

The good news is that there is still hope, as long as we don’t fall into despondency ourselves. In our region, the populations of most of our declining birds have not yet disappeared. We have a window of opportunity to restore enough habitat for our wildlife to stop these extinctions, but we can’t wait to turn the tide of governments and popular opinion: we need to act now.

Bio·R was founded to do just that, but we need everyone’s help to achieve our conservation vision. If you care about the plight of our native wildlife, please consider donating to BioR to help us re-establish the critical habitat that these and other species need. What an indictment it would be on our society if we let the Restless Flycatcher disappear forever. And all the more so because we know we can save them.

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

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