Bio·R Newsletter | June 2017

In this issue:


Director’s Letter

Dear friends of Bio·R,

I have been studying the natural history of the Adelaide region for over 40 years, and have been passionate about it for many more years than that. In undertaking the first and second Bird Atlases for the Adelaide Region in the 1970s and 1980s, I came to appreciate how rapidly many of our woodland bird species were declining, and that it was a lack of habitat because of too much clearance that was the main driver behind the losses. It was this realisation – and the urgency with which we needed to restore habitat if we are to stop species going extinct – that was the impetus for myself, Dave Taylor and Jack May (Bio·R’s two other directors) to found this organisation.

Indeed, research and data collection underpins everything Bio·R does, informing how we plan revegetation and manage habitat so we can achieve the best outcomes for our wildlife. In this issue of the newsletter we present a range of projects being undertaken by local researchers – all of whom are actively involved with Bio·R. We highlight how integrating cutting-edge ecology into our onground work maximises the chances of achieving our conservation goals. We hope you will appreciate the variety, scope, and dedication involved in this research, and learn something about our local natural history along the way.

We are also planning for our upcoming Frahns Farm Planting Festival, held on a 570ha property at Monarto that Bio·R helps manage (page 9). This is an annual event that will continue for many years to come and – just like the plants we’ll place in the ground – ‘grow’ from strength to strength. We encourage our readers, members and donors get involved, as the day is as much about community as it is about conservation.

Indeed, reconnecting people with nature is one of Bio·R’s cornerstones; the only hope of conserving our environment is by getting our community to care about its plight. In the end, the most effective conservation will come from community action, as well as the efforts of individuals like Tristan with his 1900 Footprints project (more on page 11) who is – quite literally – taking steps to save our wildlife from extinction.

That’s why the Bio·R team thank each and every person who offsets their ecological footprint, donates to our projects, reads our newsletter, volunteers for us and talks to their friends and family about why the natural world matters to them, because it matters so much to all of us.

David C Paton AM
Director, Bio·R



Where are all our birds going?

I am often asked why Bio·R has a focus on woodland birds in the Mt Lofty region and re-establishing habitat for them. The simple reason is that this group of birds continues to decline and disappear. This is easily illustrated by looking at the latest distribution maps (2012–14) for some of our woodland birds compared to their distributions in 1984–85 across the greater Adelaide region (see below). The range over which you can observe seed-eaters like the diminutive Diamond Firetail and Zebra Finch, and plucky insect-eaters like the Restless Flycatcher and Jacky Winter has more than halved, and these iconic woodland birds are now much harder to find. There are many other bird species in our region that show similar decline.

Changes in Distribution - BioR Australia

The sad fact is that these on-going declines were foreseen; we’ve known for decades these trends are inevitable and are a result of the inadequate amounts of woodland habitat remaining in this region. Only around 10% of the native vegetation remains and modelling shows that – when that’s all the habitat that is left – around half of the 110 woodland bird species in this region will disappear, irrespective of how well we manage the remaining 10%. When native vegetation is cleared the birds disappear from that immediate area, but the clearance also affects populations of birds in the remaining patches too. For example, the populations that subsist in the ever decreasing area of woodland become smaller and smaller, increasing risks of inbreeding, vulnerability to natural disasters and skewed sex ratios (reducing reproductive capacity), as well as inhibiting movements of birds (and their genes) between the patches. There is consequently a lag between past clearance and the slow but sure disappearance of the birds from the remaining woodland vegetation; this ongoing decline, despite no further clearance, is known as an “extinction debt”.

Although South Australia stopped broad-acre clearance of native vegetation in the early 1980s, so much habitat had already been removed by then that a substantial extinction debt had accumulated and the birds are – over three decades later – now paying that debt. All four of our woodland species mapped here were widespread in our region 30 years ago, and their declines can all be attributed to a loss of native vegetation, either because of the large area over which they need to search for resources, or because their food plants have disappeared. As the effects of extinction debt ratchet up, what will these maps look like in another 30 years?

So much habitat’s been removed that a substantial extinction debt has accumulated… the birds are now paying that debt. What will these maps look like in another 30 years?

We can continue to document these declines until the birds have all gone but if South Australia wants to prevent these losses of local species from our doorstep, then significant amounts of new habitat need to be re-established. Building habitats is not just about planting trees but building complex, large-scale habitats that provide the resources the birds need. The new habitats also need to be resilient, self-sustaining, and have the ability to cope with climate change. Consequently, the new habitats we put in should be novel systems designed to get the best biodiversity return from the investment. At the moment governments invest little in this, and so the chances of slowing losses (let alone halting them) is limited. But it’s not too late nor impossible to halt the declines. We know what is needed, and independent, perpetually funded organisations like Bio·R that use the best science to effectively restore and manage habitat restoration will be the ones that make a difference. I am a least hopeful that we can build sufficient new habitats in time (while also looking after the remnants) to make a positive difference. But it is the community, and community-powered organisations, that will lead the charge and not governments. And that is very much the reason why Bio·R exists.


Blue Gum Buffet – Hayley Merigot

Existing among us is a great South Australian that might have escaped your notice. This SA local willingly provides shelter for animals and generously makes sweet treats to supply all who want it. The upstanding citizen in question the South Australian Blue Gum (Eucalyptus leucoxylon). You will find this eucalypt wild throughout much of the Mt Lofty Ranges (MLR), and expertly blending into our suburban landscape as an ornamental street tree. SA Blue Gum is recognised by its attractive pink or yellow flowers and drooping leaves. The blue gum’s flowers produce copious amounts of nectar which feed our native honeyeaters.

In Australia there are over 900 species of eucalypt, but in the MLR it is the SA Blue Gum that is arguably one of the most important, earning its status by providing bountiful nectar for honeyeaters. Typically, a species of eucalypt will produce flowers once a year at the same time of year for a set period of time (two months on average). SA Blue Gum, on the other hand, flowers a bit differently. Choose your location correctly and you could find an SA Blue Gum flowering in the MLR at almost any time of the year. Visit Belair NP in the winter, Scott CP in the spring or Cromer CP in the summer and you’ll be sure to see blue gums in flower. And wander around the city in the autumn and you’ll see the magenta flush of those ornamental blue gums.

Blue Gum Buffet - BioR Australia

As their name implies, a honeyeater’s diet consists of a lot of sugar, particularly in the form of nectar. For some honeyeaters, nectar makes up 90% of their food consumption. Being relentless sugar fiends, you can imagine honeyeaters are constantly in search of a saccharine hit. However, nectar supplies in the MLR are inconsistent and birds have to move from place to place following seasonal flushes of flowering to satisfy their daily sugar requirements. As eucalypts are large, dominant plants they are a key nectar source in this region.

For honeyeaters in the MLR the search for nectar can be tough. The extensive clearance of the native vegetation has left only small, unconnected patches of vegetation remaining. A patchy landscape poses a challenge to birds in search of nectar as food supplies are isolated, forcing them to make risky, long distance movements across the landscape. Many nectar feeding birds are in decline in the MLR and this trend will continue unless their habitat is restored. Three species of nectar feeders have already gone extinct in this region — the Swift Parrot, Regent Honeyeater and Little Lorikeet — and the onus is on us to make sure that no others become extinct.

Restoration of the landscape is a key part of improving habitat for our woodland birds. One of our biggest challenges is that the amount of land needed to improve the survival of our birds is three times the size of our current level of native and restored vegetation. That much land is hard to come by quickly. So what can we do in the short term?

Any land that becomes available for revegetation should be planted out to provide the maximum ecological benefit for our wildlife. For honeyeaters this means giving them a good supply of nectar — or as I propose, providing them with a year round supply of nectar. This is where SA Blue Gum has us covered. With a little extra effort during seed collection we can use our blue gums (a species commonly used in restoration) to provide that nectar year round. Collect seed from the blue gums that flower in winter in Belair NP, spring in Scott CP, summer in Cromer CP and autumn in the north east MLR and we can plant trees that complement one another with their nectar production to provide an uninterrupted buffet for our honeyeaters. Supplement those blue gums with a few other local eucalypts and the honeyeaters won’t want to leave!

Of course, being a scientist I must verify how robust this methodology is. Therefore, with the help of Bio·R we have begun an experiment to test if seeds collected from a population that flowers at a known time but planted in a completely different area will flower true to their source population once mature, rather than just flower in response to local environmental conditions. The evidence certainly suggests that they will. We have busily been tending to these seedlings and they will soon be ready to be planted at Frahn’s Farm, Monarto. Bio·R will monitor these seedlings until they flower (in 6–10 years) and we are eager to see the development of the landscape and how our honeyeaters enjoy indulging on their blue gum buffet.


Will Diamonds Be Forever? – Hayley Merigot

Diamond Firetails are every bit as spectacular as their name suggests. The pastel greys and browns of their head and wing feathers are offset by a bold black chest band and glamorous white “diamonds” scattered down each flank. With their dashing black eye-masks they appear to be dressed up in a tuxedo, ready for a masquerade ball. The finishing touches to their costumes are their brilliant crimson rumps, with coral beak and eyering to match. As is fitting for such a wellpresented bird, Diamond Firetails attract attention, and are admired by naturegoers and land-owners across their range in the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges. They are small finches, weighing just 19 grams on average, but for every inch they lack in size they make up for in pluck and poise. I am a frequent witness to their characteristic combination of courage and cunning as they boldly chase off Magpie-larks and even White-winged Choughs from the automatic feeding stations at my study sites – far bigger birds that usually lord over other species. Once they’ve seen to the unsavoury guests they demurely set about the business of feasting on the grass seeds spilling out of the feeders without a feather out of place.

I’ve had the pleasure of observing these finches closely in the wild at my study sites in the eastern Adelaide Hills (part of the Mount Lofty Ranges) over the past three years of my PhD study. This is a privilege I cherish because sadly, Diamond Firetails won’t survive in this system for much longer unless extensive habitat restoration is undertaken in the near future. And the Diamond Firetail isn’t the only woodland bird that’s struggling; the populations of a whole suite of native species are declining in the Mount Lofty Ranges, and many of our native birds in the region will soon be lost without remedial action.

My PhD is just a small part of the bigger picture of woodland species conservation, one piece in the puzzle of habitat restoration for the Mount Lofty Ranges. I’m investigating why Diamond Firetails are declining in this region, and which specific processes are affecting their ongoing survival. We already know that habitat loss (caused by vegetation clearance for agricultural and urban development) is the biggest factor, but my study looks at the finer details. My hypothesis is that the invasion of nonnative grasses into our remaining patches of bushland has changed the pattern of grass-seed production throughout the year, affecting the food supply for Diamond Firetails which are seed-eaters. Most native grasses are perennial and Grace Hodder “They are small finches, weighing just 19 grams on average, but for every inch they lack in size they make up for in pluck and A speccy Diamond Firetail, the bright jewels of the bush (photo: Helga Kie- 7 have very different growth cycles to weedy grasses which, being mainly from the northern hemisphere, have evolved an annual growth cycle. Native perennial grasses produce seed for relatively long periods and even during winter, whilst weedy grasses mass-seed during spring and die-off during winter. In weed-dominated areas, this means there is a period during the colder months when grass seeds are scarce for Diamond Firetails and in particularly high demand because of the hungry new-born fledglings from the Spring/Summer breeding season. My research indicates that survival of these juveniles is low, and very few reach adulthood themselves to breed and boost population numbers. The feeding stations I described above are part of an experiment that documents survival rates of Diamond Firetails at sites where ample seed has been provided during winter, and comparing those rates to survival at sites without supplemented seed. My initial results show that supplemental feeding improves juvenile survival, and therefore implicates the winter food shortage as a key factor in the ongoing decline of these beautiful birds.

All hope is not lost for Diamond Firetails, though. I’m putting my research into action by using it to inform landmanagers how to design revegetation that benefits Diamond Firetails and other seed-eating birds. Bio·R is helping me do this by funding a revegetation project at Frahn’s Farm, Monarto where I’m planting a suite of native perennial grasses that will together provide a year-round supply of grass seeds. I’ll monitor the response of Diamond Firetails to these plots and will be able to tweak the design in consecutive years to get it just right. If you want to get directly involved with conservation projects this is the perfect opportunity – the initial planting will take place at our up-coming Frahns Farm Planting Festival on June 18th, along with a bunch of other conservation projects (more info on page 9).

If we are going to ensure that Diamond Firetails persist in the Mount Lofty Ranges into the future, however, we need habitat restoration on a much larger scale. The best (and perhaps the only) way to do this is through private funding and non-profits like Bio·R, who are sponsored by you guys – concerned, environmentally conscious members of the public. Only with your support can we give Diamond Firetails the best chance at surviving in the region so future generations can enjoy seeing these plucky little gems brightening up the hills landscape with brilliant flashes of black, white and red.


Who cares where the plants are put? – Kimberly McCallum

It goes without saying that revegetation is fundamental in restoring healthy ecosystems to cleared land. However, revegetation plantings are often done haphazardly, with little thought given to the arrangement of the plants. Generally, consideration will be given to sourcing local species, maximising the number of plants in the plot and establishing both a mid- and overstorey. However, thinking beyond these basics to consider things like the physical structure of the revegetated woodland and how the planted species interact with one another is often overlooked. Because of this, revegetated woodlands aren’t living up to their full potential as useful habitat for native wildlife.

Research shows that the arrangement of plants influences the functioning of an ecosystem by affecting processes such as plant growth, pollination, and water and nutrient cycling, so it follows that the layout of plants within revegetated sites should be a priority in revegetation planning. At this stage though, we don’t know a lot about these interactions. That’s where my research comes in, investigating how we can recreate more natural plant arrangements to maximise biodiversity benefits.

For example, as part of my research I compared plant arrangements in remnant scrub to those in revegetated woodlands, and then looked at how these arrangements influenced pollination and seed production in Blue Gum (Eucalyptus leucoxylon) woodland. I found that in remnant woodlands it was common for plants to be aggregated, meaning there were patches where plants were clumped together alongside open patches. Interestingly, plants of the same species were often grouped close to each other. In the revegetated woodlands, however, species were generally more dispersed and mixed with other species. I also found that aggregated blue gums (i.e. those with other blue gums as their nearest neighbour) produced more seeds per fruit than dispersed trees. Therefore, creating more aggregated arrangements during revegetation plantings – such as those seen in natural plant communities – is likely to increase seed production in these planted sites. This information can then be used by Bio·R when designing planting schemes like those that will be implemented at Frahns Farm, creating habitat that is as productive and resilient as possible, and therefore of the most use to the animals that will move in and call it home.


Get ready for Frahns Farm Planting Festival!

Do you want to get hands-on and involved with Bio·R’s conservation projects? A fantastic opportunity for you to give something back to nature is just around the corner! BioR is looking for volunteers to help plant habitat for native wildlife as part of our Frahns Farm Planting Festival, Monarto on Sunday 18th June. This restoration project is a wonderful way to get outdoors and lend a helping hand to a very important cause, and have some fun whilst you’re at it!

Frahns Farm is 550 hectares of retired farmland that has been set aside for conservation and is jointly managed by Bio·R. Our upcoming Planting Festival is part of a larger project that aims to restore the open grassy woodlands that once covered the property before it was cleared for livestock grazing. The new revegetation will also augment the surrounding Monarto Plantings which are over 30 years old and home to many declining bird species. By joining us at the planting day, you’ll also be helping with several research projects that tie in to BioR’s restoration efforts. We’ll be planting blue gum saplings so that their nectar production in years to come can be monitored to improve food resources for honeyeaters. Native perennial grass plots will be established to test whether certain combinations of species provide seed for Diamond Firetails year-round. Different planting arrangements will be trialled to test how they affect seed production in revegetated woodlands, and research into the resilience of revegetation to fire will contribute to our planting design. All of the researchers involved in these projects will be at the Festival, so you can meet them and ask them more about their studies. The day won’t only be about putting plants in the ground, though. Volunteers can also join in a long-term bird study that uses capture-and-release techniques to tag birds and look at their movements and habitat-use in the landscape. You’ll be able to get up close and personal with our wildlife and see our precious woodland birds in the hand!

And if all of those exciting activities aren’t enough to tempt you out to Frahns, you can get involved with installing “pitfall lines”, which catch all the little critters that are especially difficult to survey by observation alone, such as reptiles and small mammals. These traps will help us understand more about which species are using the area. We’ll also be installing nest boxes to encourage more birds and mammals back into the area; these man-made nest-boxes are vital for hollow-nesting wildlife whilst they wait for our newly planted trees to grow old enough to provide natural hollows. So what are you waiting for? See the flyer below for details. We can’t wait to see you there!


1900 Footprints takes off

How far would you walk for something you wanted? An extra block to a better bakery for lunch? What about thousands of kilometres to help save the lives of threatened species? Tristan O’Brien, Bio·R member and volunteer, will be walking 1900 kilometres (yep, kilometres!) from Adelaide to Melbourne – as well as a loop of Tasmania – in September 2017 to do just that.

In this country alone there are more than 1900 animals and plants listed as either threatened or endangered at a Federal level. Unfortunately, this list continues to grow and rarely are species removed from this list for reasons other than extinction. With this in mind, Tristan has set the ambitious target of covering over one kilometre for every plant and animal species listed. The aim is to encourage Australians think about these issues and to help reconnect them with the natural world to cultivate social, community and environmental benefits.

Although awareness of environmental issues is growing in Australia, many struggle to find ways in which we can directly participate in solutions. More than 90% of Australians live in cities, and many people have lost a degree of connection with the natural world, and therefore place relatively little value in saving natural areas from destruction. Living in cities also reduces our ability to be aware of our own ecological footprint, as we are removed from the source of the resources we consume and distant from the effects of the waste we produce.

Tristan will be walking to raise awareness and funds for Bio·R and a Victorian outdoor education organisation called Wollangarra. We at Bio·R are excited to have Tristan raising awareness for Bio·R’s activities and look forward to seeing him cross the finish line! If any members are able to support him on his journey along the coast from Adelaide to Melbourne, we encourage you to get in touch with him through the 1900 Footprints website.

For more information and to donate, check out his webpage www.1900footprints.com and join him on social media to follow his journey, at www.facebook.com/1900Footprints, or on Instagram and Twitter @1900Footprints.


A bird in the hand helps birds in the bush

A huge thanks to everyone who joined us at Frahns Farm, Monarto on our bird banding weekend for kids. Our banding studies in this region are run through the University of Adelaide and seek to better understand how birds use the landscape and how best to conserve them. We caught over 300 birds of 33 different species, an amazing result for our research here. But better still was the boundless enthusiasm of the kids (and adults!) for our beautiful native wildlife. Have you ever met a kid who doesn’t love nature and the outdoors? It’s amazing seeing a bird up close and in the hand, and the joy and delight on the faces of these young naturalists made all the effort worthwhile. Bio·R runs outreach activities like this because we think it’s essential to foster that enthusiasm and curiosity early on to create a passionate generation of nature-lovers in the future. It’s heartening to know that tomorrow’s environmental advocates are already mucking in! We’ll need them more than ever in the future.

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 Lydia Paton, Fiona Paton and Thomas Hunt.

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