Monthly Archives: December 2019

A land of fire and water: Australia reflections part 3

Fire and water; those opposing elements have been our constant companions during this trip to Australia.  All the major international news media have been reporting on how serious the bush fire situation is in the south east of the continent.  In East Gippsland, Victoria, tens of thousands of residents and holiday makers have been advised to leave the area.  Four thousand of those who haven’t left were forced to spend last night on the beach, as fires got closer to the town of Mallacoota.  These are just the latest examples of climate change refugees in their own country, something I highlighted in a post about our visit to the USA earlier this year.  Of course, Australia is a continent that is used to bush fires, they are nothing new.  But what is new is the scale of these fires and the extended drought and high temperatures that are making the landscape more flammable than ever.

There’s currently a lot of media discussion in Australia about how landscapes were managed historically by Aboriginal peoples, whose selective and regular burning of the bush reduced fuel loads.  Karin and I have just returned from Port Macquarie where we enjoyed Christmas with an Australian branch of our family.  Several of them have spent a considerable amount of time working with remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.  We were told a story about an Aboriginal elder who asked one of our relatives to drive him out to an area of bush that had not been burned for over a decade.  It was that elder’s role to burn this land at regular intervals, a family tradition that went back generations.  Having driven for several hours along dirt roads, the elder asked to stop; he hopped out of the vehicle, went up to a patch of dry grass, and casually set fire to it with a small lighter he was carrying.  After pausing a few seconds to make sure that the flame had caught he hopped back into the car and said “Let’s get out of here”.  An hour back down the road the companions stopped and looked back.  The whole landscape was aflame, with a column of black smoke rising, I was told, in a mushroom cloud “like a nuclear explosion”.

This sounds extreme, but these areas are isolated and a long way from any human settlements or infrastructure.  Such activities have been part of toolbox of ways in which Aboriginal peoples have managed these landscapes for thousands of years.  By burning areas on a regular cycle the negative effects of large, out-of-control fires are reduced, and opportunities for seedling establishment and fresh foliage for animals to browse are created.  There’s more information about these practices here and here.

In the more heavily populated parts of Australia, and in the adjacent national parks, fires have long been suppressed, such that when they do occur they are much more violent conflagrations, over a greater area, than would normally be the case.

On one of our trips near Port Macquarie we came across an area of woodland that had burned recently, separated by a small road from an adjacent block that had not burned.  In the following set of images I’ve alternated the two blocks so you can see what the woodland looked like before and after burning.  But remember that this was not an especially intense fire; the trees are still living, and there is foliage in their crowns.  Once there’s been some rain and a chance for the vegetation to regrow, the previously burned block will look identical to the currently unburned area.  Indeed in one shot you can already see some green shoots emerging from the ground:

2019-12-27 15.08.13

2019-12-27 15.07.11

2019-12-27 15.08.08

2019-12-27 15.07.20

2019-12-27 15.08.52

2019-12-27 15.09.25

2019-12-27 15.08.16

2019-12-27 15.09.57

So fire in itself is not a problem for these natural communities.  What is a problem, for nature and for the communities of people who live in and around these woodlands, is the intensity, the scale and the frequency of the fires that are currently occurring.  This morning Karin and I watched silently to a news report of yet another volunteer fire fighter who had lost his life overnight.  In this case he had been part of a crew whose 10 tonne fire truck had been lifted up and overturned by cyclone-strength winds created by the blaze itself – there’s a BBC news account of the tragedy here.  “Unprecedented” is a word we’re hearing a lot on ABC News.

Evidence for the number and size of the fires was everywhere in and around Port Macquarie, as we observed when we took a drive up to the peak of North Brother Mountain in Doorgan National Park.  From a height of about 470 m (1500 ft) we could see some amazing panoramic views of the region that also showed black fire scars on the landscape – this is looking south:

2019-12-27 13.13.49

2019-12-27 13.13.56

2019-12-27 13.14.05

Looking north there’s little evidence of the fires – some have occurred there but much smaller in scale.  But there is a lot of that second element, water.  We were able to explore some shallow coastal lagoons fringed with grey mangroves (Avicennia marina):

2019-12-27 12.07.50

2019-12-27 12.11.47

2019-12-27 12.14.51

Mangrove habitats are fascinating places that are ecologically important as nurseries for marine fish and invertebrates.  They also provide physical protection to coastlines, acting as a buffer to storm surges that would erode the land.  In recognition of this, a recent project around Port Macquarie has involved restoration of these mangrove areas and was instigated by commercial oyster farmers and a local fishing  society.  I’m particularly intrigued by the upward-pointing aerial roots of mangroves; termed pneumatophores, they function to provide oxygen to the trees, but also increase the physical complexity of the floor of the lagoon, providing habitats for small animals:

2019-12-27 12.16.24

2019-12-27 12.14.37

2019-12-27 12.13.28

But evidence of the drought in this part of the world is never far away.  On our seven-hour train trip back to Sydney we passed mile after mile of parched farmland, with dried-up waterholes and dust-filled streams.  The only thing stopping it from burning is the absence of vegetation:

2019-12-28 10.50.38

2019-12-28 10.34.32

As I complete this blog post, it’s 31st December and we’re back in Coogee Bay, ensconced in the apartment of my colleagues Angela and Stephen.  They have headed to Stephen’s native Canada to visit family.  It’s going to be cold!  We’re very happy to house sit and see in the New Year in warmer climes.  Best wishes for 2020 to all of my readers: let’s hope that it’s the start of an environmentally more enlightened decade.

13 Comments

Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Climate change, Ecosystem services

Scoring (real) birdies: Australia reflections part 2

2019-12-18 08.02.28

When it comes to golf I’m largely in agreement with Mark Twain who was reported to have described the game as “a good walk spoiled”.  As with so many of these well known and iconic quotes, Twain did not originate the phrase and almost certainly did not say it.  Reminds me of what Einstein didn’t say about bees.   Regardless of how you feel about golf*, and I appreciate that many people enjoy and play the game, golf courses represent an interesting set of environmental challenges and opportunities.  On the one hand maintaining areas of perfect turf requires a big input of water, fertilisers, biocides, even grass dye, and energy – there are some interesting thoughts on this in a recent blog post at goingzerowaste.com (though it’s riddled with adverts so be patient).  One of the links I picked up from that blog was to the Audubon Society in the USA which has an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf certification scheme.  Its aim is to help course management teams to reduce the impact of their activities and, importantly, to maximise and protect the biodiversity on their golf courses.

There are similar schemes elsewhere in the world, for example the Golf Environment Awards in the UK.  Of course building new golf courses that irreparably damage important wildlife sites is unforgivable. For existing courses these are moves in the right direction because typically less than half of a course is the playing area.  The rest comprises rough grass, woodland, lakes and streams and so forth: in other words, good habitat for a broad range of wildlife.

2019-12-18 08.00.34

All of this was on my mind last Wednesday when I was invited on an early morning birding trip to the urban Eastlake Golf Course by UNSW bird researcher Dr Corey Callaghan.  We were joined by other staff members and postgrads from the department. Six of us spent a very enjoyable couple of hours from 6:15 am walking a route that took us close to the large bodies of water that give the course its name, through woodland and bush dominated by species of Banksia and Casuarina. The latter, despite being true flowering plants, look for all the world like the familiar conifers of many a British golf course.

Over a period of two hours we saw 70 species of birds.  To put this in perspective, our Waterside Campus bird surveys back in Northampton also take around two hours and start early in the morning, through a similar mosaic of grassland, woodland patches, and a water body (the River Nene).  On these surveys we typically see between 20 and 30 species; the most we’ve ever recorded in one morning is 39, and that really was exceptional.  Remember also that Sydney is not in the tropics – at around 33 degrees south we’re technically subtropical here.  Given the latitudinal gradient in bird diversity, a two hour survey on a tropical golf course should yield even more records, all else being equal.

2019-12-18 07.04.54

Of those 70 bird species, I think about 20 were new to me, i.e. lifers in birding parlance, though I still need to write up the list of birds I’ve seen so far on this trip.  Perhaps I’ll do that this afternoon as temperature in Sydney peak and its frankly too hot to do much else. As I write it’s midday and official temperature for the Coogee area is already 29 degrees C, and that’s with a cooling sea breeze.  Western Sydney is likely to top 40 degree later today.

Although whole families of birds in this region are unfamiliar to us in the Northern Hemisphere, there were others that we saw on Wednesday which would not be out of place in Northamptonshire.  For example, we saw common greenshank, which overwinters here after an epic journey from northern climes, and Australian raven which is a different species to the ravens and crows from the UK, but very similar looking.  The wading birds such as greenshank and sharp-tailed sandpiper were benefiting from the drought conditions that has exposed parts of the lake bed. Though if this continues there’s a danger of most of the water being lost completely, impacting the  large eels and other fish we saw in the shallows, as well as the semi-aquatic Eastern water dragon.

2019-12-18 07.04.59

Birds, plants, fish and lizards were not the only wildlife we saw at Eastlake however – some very delicate fungi were benefiting from the regular watering of the fairway:

2019-12-18 07.35.55

It’s not all been birding and swimming in the (not very) warm sea, however.  This week Angela, Stephen and I were joined by our CSIRO collaborator Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy for an intense week of writing.  This manuscript boot camp has gone better than we expected and we have a very good first draft of a paper that should be in a position to submit to a journal by the time my visit here ends on 2nd February.

 

*I make an exception for crazy golf at seaside resorts which I play with my old university mates with beer, gusto, and not a little rivalry.

4 Comments

Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Urban biodiversity

Ash on the beach, fire in the bush: Australia reflections part 1

2019-12-13 12.17.43

Although we’ve only been in Australia for less that two weeks, it feels as if we’ve been here forever; once we got over the jetlag and the weird sleeping patterns, Karin and I have easily settled into the life of a Southern Hemisphere summer.  It’s hard to believe that back home in the UK it’s cold, wet and (politically) miserable….

We’re based at Coogee Beach in the eastern suburbs of sprawling Sydney, just a short walk from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) where I’ve spent most of my time, and an even shorter walk from sand and surf.  It sounds idyllic but one of the recurring features of the past week has been the amount of ash and charred leaves washing up on the beaches from the bush fires that surround Sydney at the moment:

2019-12-06 17.53.21

2019-12-06 18.18.34

The region is in the midst of an extended drought and this has worsened the fire season.  The Australian Government seems intent on denying that it’s anything to do with climate change, though recently one of the state ministers has broken ranks.  That’s going to be little consolation this year but may mark the start of some changes in policies.  Let’s see.

During our time here Karin and I have facilitated a workshop on “Writing for a non-academic audience” which was attended by 17 UNSW postgraduate researchers.  I’ve presented a lecture on “Macroecology and macroevolution of plant-pollinator interactions: pattern and process at large geographical and temporal scales”…..

2019-12-05 10.37.41

….and spent a lot of time chatting with staff and postgrads at UNSW.  In addition, Angela Moles, Stephen Bonser and I have made initial progress with a short paper that I’m hoping will be ready to submit before we head back to the UK in early February.

Time to actually get out and see some of the habitats and biodiversity of this part of Australia has been limited.  But we’ve done a couple of hikes north and south of Coogee Beach, along cliff-top trails and boardwalks through remnant coastal heathland habitat, enjoying the novelty of watching rainbow lorikeets visiting the inflorescences of native Banksia trees:

2019-12-04 12.56.12

Yesterday we went further afield with a bird watching trip down to the Royal National Park (RNP) with Kew/NRI scientist Phil Stevenson (who is in the country for a couple of weeks on a flying visiting to speak at a conference and meet with colleagues); and Graham Pyke from Macquarie University, whose work on foraging behaviour of pollinators I’ve known for many years, but whom I’d never met.  Leading our trip was Steve Anyon-Smith, a professional bird guide who literally wrote the book on birding in the RNP.  Steve was great, highly knowledgeable, and a mine of information about the Australian environment.  As well as seeing about 67 bird species we encountered a host of other wildlife, and I collected data on wind and animal pollination for another set of species.  Here’s some images from that day:

2019-12-13 10.41.43

An orchid – Dipodium punctatum.

2019-12-13 11.24.25

The bower of a male satin bower bird.

2019-12-13 09.17.10

2019-12-13 11.32.03

Not a great shot – it’s an Eastern dwarf tree frog.

2019-12-13 13.14.41 This is better – a very confiding Eastern water dragon along a well-used coastal trail.

Along that trail we also saw two forms of Banksia serrata – an upright one and a prostrate form – growing quite close together:

2019-12-13 13.17.162019-12-13 12.23.18

I’ve seen a lot of birds visiting the inflorescences of this species but it’s suggested that mammals might be the main pollinators – the flowers have a very thick, yeasty smell.  Perhaps it’s both?

2019-12-13 11.02.52

An Australian fringe-lily.

2019-12-13 12.10.16

This is Epacris longiflora – thanks to Ryan O’Donnell for the identification.

2019-12-13 14.58.35

And of course we saw a lot of the iconic laughing kookaburras.

Steve was really concerned that much of the forest and wildlife in the NPR may be destroyed over the summer.  None of it has yet burned and, with temperatures due to rise enormously by next week, much of this habitat could be lost to fire by summer’s end.  I sincerely hope not, it’s too precious and beautiful to lose.  Vegetation in relatively light burns can reestablish itself given time, as we encountered in one of the Coogee remnants that burned a few years ago:

2019-12-07 15.12.472019-12-07 15.12.51 (1)

But the bigger, hotter, more intense fires that are currently sweeping the state are something else entirely, and are alien to these forests.  Aboriginal Australians carefully managed their environment using regular, small burns, a practice that has been lost in most areas.

Fire in Australia is a theme that I keep coming back to.  A few weeks ago, during one of my second-year undergraduate grassland ecology lectures, I was  discussing fire as a threat and a management tool in grasslands.  I mentioned the situation in Australia with respect to Aboriginal use of fire and I asked my students what the purpose of their burning the grasslands was.  Someone suggested that it might relate to their agriculture.  My response then was “no” because Australian Aborigines were nomadic hunter-gatherers who never developed agriculture, which is what the received wisdom has been for decades.  The answer I’d give now is: “yes, quite probably”.  As so often is the case in science, the received wisdom was wrong.

My colleague at the University of New South Wales, Angela Moles, has loaned me a book called Dark Emu which draws on early European settler accounts, Aboriginal oral tradition, and recent archaeological discoveries to turn our understanding of the ecology of pre-European Australia on its head.  In particular, it seems as though the (then) very large Aboriginal population was much more settled and had developed a sophisticated form of agriculture that included the creation and exploitation of huge areas of native grasses for their grains.  This was all destroyed by colonial European agriculture within a short time period, before it was fully understood.  One of the arguments in Dark Emu is that these native grasses are much more suitable to the Australian climate than wheat and may allow more sustainable agriculture in the future.

If you want to know more, here’s a link to a recent review and interview with the author, Bruce Pascoe:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/24/dark-emus-infinite-potential-our-kids-have-grown-up-in-a-fog-about-the-history-of-the-land

Strange as it might sound for a professor to say, I was happy to be wrong on this (or indeed any) occasion: scientific understanding only progresses by people being wrong and incorrect ideas being superseded by new knowledge.  I made a point of sending my students an email telling them about what I’d discovered.  It may well form a question on the test they have to take next term…..

13 Comments

Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination

Bound for the Great Southern Land

cropped-tenerife-2008-080

Great Southern Land, in the sleeping sun
You walk alone with the ghost of time
They burned you black, black against the ground
And they make it work with rocks and sand

Great Southern Land by Icehouse

Today Karin and I are packing before heading to the airport for a flight tomorrow to Australia.  It will be Karin’s first trip to the Great Southern Land, and my second: I spent part of 1993 and 1994 there on a short postdoctoral research project.

We’ll be there for about two months. Karin will be writing (she’s working on a book and will be contributing further articles to Medium and other outlets).  I’ll be working with Angela Moles and Stephen Bonser at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on an Australian Research Council-funded project looking at whether species interactions affect the invasibility of plants native to Europe that are running wild in Australia. So it’s test of the “enemy release hypothesis” (leaving behind the herbivores and parasites) but with the addition of a “making new friends” hypothesis, i.e. gaining pollinators and other mutualists. That grant, plus a Visiting Fellowship to UNSW, is funding the trip.

In a post back in May I mentioned the Australian PhD researcher, Zoe Xirocostas, who is also working on this project.  Zoe surveyed plant populations in the UK, Spain, France, Austria and Estonia over the summer. She is now back and in the middle of surveying in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

As well as that project I want to spend time finalising my forthcoming book, collecting some data on Apocynaceae pollination ecology (of course!) and do some community-level surveys of wind/animal pollination to add to a global data set I am compiling.  Karin and I are also running a workshop at UNSW on “Writing for non-academic audiences” and I’m also giving a research seminar there and at Western Sydney University.  In addition we are visiting friends and family over Christmas and the New Year.  We’re packing a lot into a trip of two months!  And of course work at the University of Northampton never goes away – I have project students and PhD researchers to advise and there’ll be the usual weekly blizzard of emails to clear…

Having not been back to Australia since 1994 it will be interesting to see how it’s changed – a lot drier and smokier I imagine…  I’ll be updating the blog as the work progresses; over and out until we land in Sydney.

4 Comments

Filed under Apocynaceae, Australia, Biodiversity, University of Northampton