Channel-billed Cuckoos are visiting Alice Springs during these warmer months. Photo Bob Gosford.
G'day LFWers, GFWers, and friends everywhere.
Happy new year!
It's definitely warming up and the changes in weather and a few storms are bringing out the best of summer. For example, now's the time to keep your eyes (and ears) out for summer migrants, such as the channel-billed cuckoo. With its unusual raspy call, these birds are bucking the tourist trend by spending the hot months in Alice.
Like the wildlife, LFW Coordinator Chris Watson has just finalised his commitments with the team and left this great central location to forage further south. Thank you Chris for you sharing your enthusiasm and knowledge about wildlife, in particular birds, to the wider community. Your 'above and beyond effort' no doubt indicated your genuine commitment to the role - leaving great expectation for the incumbent....therefore, I would like to introduce myself (Jen Kreusser) as a new member of the Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife team. Please be gentle, as there are massive boots to fill (Chris Watson was surely size 13?).
Previously, I have worked extensively to raise community awareness about environmental conservation issues at a local level, facilitating this through interpretation programs in Tasmania, the central Kimberley, NSW and southern NT. I have facilitated various school programs and engaged with visitors to enhance their experience of all things central Australian. I feel privileged to work within a unique team of environmental experts and look forward to the dynamic and challenging role as LFW coordinator. So, I welcome all of our LfW and GfW members and other interested persons to get in touch, say g'day and let me know what is happening on your property.
Another new member to the team, Tim Dowling, has come to the Land for Wildlife program after 16 years successfully running his own landscaping business in Melbourne. With a background in farming and conservation he comes to Central Australia with a broad knowledge and new training (and credentials) under his belt.
As 2015 is the international year of soils, we are very excited to share with you two articles in this months newsletter that suggest ways for you to improve your soil to increase biodiversity! Tim Dowling goes into detail about soils in his second feature article and following on we discuss the importance of creating ground habitats. Find your gardening gloves while this cool weather lingers (perhaps for this week at least) and get inspired at your place!
Are you relocating? Remember to let us know and we can organise an assessment of your new property (that's if you are staying in Alice Springs). We can also organise to meet with the new landholders to see if they are interested in continuing to actively manage their new and your old property as Land for Wildlife or Garden for Wildlife members.
I'm looking forward to meeting the LfW and GfW community!
Jen, Tim, Jesse and Bill
LfW and GfW team
How to look after your Land for Wildlife or Garden for Wildlife property. Tim Dowling provides some fertile advice (photos in all articles are LFW sourced unless otherwise credited).
Looking at ways to look after the land in your custodianship
This year the 68th UN General Assembly has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Is it coincidental that I write this article on soils? Yes, however it is probably serendipitous.
Soil, together with water, provides the foundation for life on land. So it follows that to take care of the soil is to take care of the life that soil provides. This installment is the second of a series of ideas on the practicalities of caring for a Land for Wildlife or Garden for Wildlife property. The first one, on water was published in last month’s newsletter.
Soil takes a long time to generate. It is often regarded as non-renewable. In the arid zone of central Australia it takes much longer for soil to form than in less arid environments. There are fewer periods when soil moisture conditions are right for organisms to break-down organic matter, thus soil formation is much slower here around Alice Springs. A rainfall of around 280 mm and a pan evaporation rate of around 3 meters limits moisture in the soil and slows this process.
Soils are highly complex and variable. They comprise of inorganic matter of the eroded parent rock, minerals, decaying organic matter, living organisms, water and air. They have a salt content and a pH level. Soil pH can either lock away nutrients or make them available to plants, depending on level. Soils filter water, store water, anchor plants, and provide habitat for life on Earth. There are many different types of soil from classic sandy-loam, rich in available nutrients, water and air, to the hard clay pan where the imbalance of these results in poor plant growth.
Arid soils are typically high in salts and pH. It is quite complex. However we are mainly concerned with what can be done to improve the soil that already exists on Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife properties large and small. Here are some ideas to protect and build-up the soil on your property.
The short answer to this is to have your soil covered with vegetation. This protects soil from the impact of raindrops, the gathering of water and the flow of water. Vegetation slows down the passage of water across the soil surface. As it slows down horizontally there is more movement vertically - infiltration. Similarly with wind, vegetation anchored into the soil will slow down and break up the flow of air. Ridges and higher ground will have more exposure to the wind than the valleys.
- Keep Your Soil - protection against wind and water erosion
Water capture: Soils have varying degrees of capturing and storing rainfall (and irrigation). Sandy soils capture water well but often drain too well and are left dry shortly after. Clay soils capture water slowly, retain water beautifully but lack the ability to drain and can be water-logged easily. Water retention has both pros and cons. Water needs to be held on to for plant growth but too much water has problems attached. Excess water can cause erosion especially in those big storms of intense localised rain. Excess water can sit around on poor draining soils. Excess irrigation causes salinity as there is very little leaching of salts back down beyond the root zone. Is there a solution to this story of excess? Yes, organic matter and organic activity.
Organic matter in the soil opens up closed pores for water filtration. It holds onto water molecules available for plants and the dissolved nutrients stored in that water. It allows organic activity such as mycorrhizal growth – which is mutualistic (combined) fugal/plant root activity. This is often beneficial for plants as it simply enhances the reach and productivity of roots. The fungus we see above-ground is just the fruiting body of this mycorrhizal activity below the soil surface. In an arid region activity is limited by soil moisture and there is very little of this and therefore the rate that organic matter breaks down is slow. Where do you get organic matter? Most likely you will grow it but you can truck it in. It comes in the form of organic fertiliser and organic mulch. Inorganic fertilisers just provide the nutrients alone. Inorganic mulches are available and I will deal with this later on.
Podaxis pistillaris or Puff balls are evidence of underground fungus hard at work. Photo taken at Flynn's Grave, 2008.
Small gardens in town have different parameters than rural properties. The problem of building up soil is easier because of the size and there is usually a source of water, a source of compost and an absence of large grazing animals. An urban garden can easily be layered with commercial compost or manure available from nursery or landscape suppliers.
- Mulch and manure in the urban setting
Improve the soil structure by increasing the organic content. This allows clay soils to have better water infiltration and sandy soils to have better water retention.
When deciding on what sort of mulch to use consider the following. If mulching a small area, there are a lot of options. Lucerne hay or pea hay (if it is available) is good for a light covering that breaks down relatively quickly. It is from a plant that is rich in nitrogen and will not draw on the soils resources of nitrogen to break-down. The wood, sticks and leaves from the arbourist's truck (sometimes sold as bush mulch) have a good reputation of being clean. Let this sit in a pile for a few weeks. It will heat up if it is fresh – then distribute it on the garden. There are composted commercial mulches such as what you would get through local nurseries from the ASTC recycling centre from green garden waste. These are rich and often have a variety of particle size. The high temperature mulching process usually kills weed seeds. Domestically prepared mulches may be contaminated with foreign bodies that are undesirable, such as weed seed. A combination of the particle size of mulch is important. This allows a mulch to break-down at different rates, releasing nutrients into the soil that plants require.
Inorganic mulch such as rocks, gravel and coarse sands can be used for the same purposes: to retain moisture, prevent soil blowing/washing away, they easily allow water to penetrate soil and also suppress weeds (for a short time). However, they do not contribute to soil nutrients except over millennia when they will break down and release nutrients.
Let leaf litter accumulate to reduce soil erosion and increase infiltration from rains.
If however you are increasing the organic matter on a larger property, it becomes a matter of management. The expense and logistics to mulch a farm in the Northern Territory is unrealistic. It needs to be generated in situ. For this plant growth is needed.
- Soil care on rural properties – grow your own mulch
- Optimise grazing whether it is livestock, feral or native animals. Rabbits take their toll on pasture and grasslands. Fencing can be employed here for rabbits and keeping stock controlled. Reduction in the number and type of available watering points (mentioned in last month's newsletter) can reduce the feral grazers. Let the leaf litter build up.
- Animals bring and distribute nutrients with their manure. Tall trees, even dead trees are often a good site for roosting birds. Shade trees offer shelter from the sun where animals congregate and defecate or regurgitate, depositing nutrients.
- Leaving wood to rot (it may take a little while, especially those Ironwoods we have in the Centre (Acacia estrophiolata), and branches left where they fall encourages the build-up of leaves and other wind-blown material. A messy/chaotic looking place is more likely to have many nooks and crannies for fauna to make their home.
- Weeds or pioneer plants can be a useful tool to keep soil from the blowing or washing away in the shorter term. This can be problematic in that weeds can persist and not allow other plants to get a foothold. This situation has to be managed closely.
- Deep ripping or cultivation with a machine may be necessary in circumstances where there is a need to rehabilitate large compacted areas such as roads or horse yards etc. Adjacent topsoil can be scraped in over the top of cultivation or disturbance to spread the local seed bank. This allows for the regeneration of local species. While you have that machine working, make ridges along the contours so that it may slow down the runoff erosion factor when it rains. Particularly on flat ground, avoid furrows that are along the line of the prevailing wind and place furrows across the prevailing winds to trap wind blown soil and seed. Here in Alice the winds are usually south-easterly but local topography can modify this.
The collection and distribution of seed collected from the local surrounds is a good way of introducing plants to an area that is under repair. Gather ripe seed heads from Mulla Mullas (Ptilotus spp.) and daisy flowers in the spring and summer for scattering on your block. Grasses can be reintroduced if there is a big reduction in the buffel problem. Some attractive landscaping grasses are the Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), Purple Plume Grass (Triraphis mollis) or the various spinifex (Triodia spp.) if you can find them with seed. Spinifex provides refuge for lizards, small birds and small mammals. If you are in the mood for seed collection then anything that is not Buffel (Cenchrus ciliaris), Couch (Cynodon dactylon) or Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum) should be fine. More on plants in coming newsletters.
Before collecting any seed from outside your block, remember to check whether it is legal to do so or your neighbor is happy for you to collect it. The small quantities of seed property holders will collect will usually have an insignificant impact but f
or example, it is illegal to collect from within a national park or to gather the seeds of some endangered species, such as MacDonnell Ranges Cycad (Macrozamia macdonnellii
). Collecting other seed may also require a permit. Check the details on the NT Parks and Wildlife website http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/permits
Kangaroo grass Themeda triandra is an attractive grass suitable for regenerating exposed areas and prefers clayey soils which get flooded periodically.
With all this activity we head towards a lush, productive and biologically active property that is prone to fire.
The balance of firing has been altered dramatically. This will have to be managed with your fire plan – mosaic burns, fire-breaks, water points and a readiness for action or preparedness to leave in case of a wildfire. Wildfire and how to control it, is a problem and I will be dealing with this in the next issue in a practical way.
Extensive Centralian butterfly and moth collection
We know that our LfW members are all committed and passionate. However, we would like to acknowledge the dedication of one member in particular. Uwe Path, former owner of Pathdorf B&B, has amassed a vast collection of inland moths and butterflies - most were collected on his former LfW property on Heath Road. The collection totals 420 individual specimens, some of which are undescribed by entomologists. Uwe has even constructed his own website, which shows photographs of many of the specimens with identification notes (http://www.butterfliesandmoths.com.au/page4.html). The moth collection has recently been shipped to the CSIRO National Research Collections in Canberra.
Insects, and invertebrates in general, may often be left out of conversations about biodiversity. This may be because they fly too fast for us to catch a glimpse, or perhaps we may not notice them due to their size, general nocturnal nature or their life spent mostly underground. Many are also difficult to identify or may remain as yet undescribed by scientists.
Generally, most butterflies may be distinguished from moths by their presence of clubbed antennae, clearly visible in this picture of a swallowtail butterfly (probably a chequered swallowtail, Papilio demoleus). Photo Ilse Pickerd.
Interestingly, whilst we are resting, most moths have excellent eye adaptations and are able to take advantage of limited (moon) light - pollinating as they move about, many feeding on delights such as nectar, which provides vital fuel supplies for flight and egg production. Although there are some species that must rely on food stores eaten as larvae (Zborowski & Storey, 2005). Zeng et al. (2001) suggest that their tiny scales are able to absorb ultrasound produced by their micro-bat predators, assisting their ability to remain undetected.
Snout-nosed moths along with various other moth species are preyed upon by micro-bats, nightjars, geckos and a wonderment of nocturnal hunters.
After summer rains in central Australia, keep an eye out for an increase in moth and butterfly activity on your block. If you are able to snap a photo of one of these winged dancers in your backyard, you can post it on our Facebook page or email it to us directly.
Alternatively, give Uwe's website a try. If you can't find your specimen amongst the 420 collected by him, you may have found a new species yourself.
Palmer, C.M. (2010). National Recovery Plan for the Desert Sand-skipper Croitana aestiva. Department of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport, Northern Territory. Alice Springs.
Zaborowski, P. & Storey, R. (2005). A field guide to insects in Australia (2nd Ed.). New Holland Publishers:Sydney.
Zeng, J., Xiang, N., Jiang, L., Jones, G., Zheng, Y., Liu, B., & Zhang, S. (2001) Moth wing scales slightly increase the absorbance of bat echolocation calls, PLoS ONE, 6(11): DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027190
Caper white butterflies (Belenois java) captured just after leaving their chrysalises, often seen on a tree or shrub from the caper family (Wild Orange Capparis mitchellii or Wild passionfruit Capparis spinosa var. nummularia).
Did you know - the only listed endangered insect in central Australia is a butterfly. The desert sand-skipper (Croitana aestiva) is a rarely recorded tiny butterfly from grasslands within the MacDonnell Ranges. Listed as Endangered, this butterfly's caterpillars feed on the grass Neurachne tenuifolia, which has a distribution closely matching that of the butterfly (Palmer, 2010).
The endangered Desert sand-skipper Croitana aestiva (Photo C. Palmer, 2010).
Habitat and Structural Diversity = Bio-diversity
In any garden, trees provide obvious habitat for wildlife. Trees offer honeyeaters, raptors, cuckoo-shrikes, kingfishers, pigeons, woodswallows, butcherbirds, magpies and a variety of parrot species the perfect space to socialise, feed and raise their young. However, there are many wildlife species that depend on ground habitat to survive - habitat that is not provided by trees and shrubs alone. In your efforts to promote biodiversity on your patch, it's a great idea to provide a range of habitat elements at varying heights to provide habitat for or increase species diversity.
Creating sufficient habitat for ground dwelling critters can be easy and simple. It might be tempting to rake up all those fallen leaves, small twigs, seeds and debris - but wait - ground litter can house an abundance of invertebrates and hence provide a buffet for larger ground dwellers as well as a feast for the microbes that Tim suggests in the previous article to increase the nutrient levels of your soils. You can redistribute leaf litter to other areas of your property that may be exposed. Litter is an essential ingredient in the recycling of nutrients, being broken down by feeding microbes that are essential building blocks of healthy soil.
There are a multitude of ground dwelling specialists that you can attract to your garden if you are able to offer the appropriate 'bedrooms or dining rooms' for them to visit. Using rocks, logs and leaf litter provides natural habitat for invertebrates and their predators. For example reptiles, such as sand goannas, bearded dragons, western blue-tongues or a variety of geckos, can easily be enticed to visit by maintaining their food source, especially if there are places to shelter close by. Termites are a major food source for small predators up to echidna size and most require dried plant material as a food source. (Of the 12 to 20 species of termites present on most blocks of land around Alice only 1 or 3 species are wood eaters that you need to keep out of your house by local control methods). Other ground dwelling insectivorous species include frogs, skinks, small mammals (rodents and dunnarts) and ground birds such as little-button quail that will enjoying scratching about in the leaf litter and soil.
There are simple things you can do to attract ground dwelling critters, simply by creating ideal real estate.
- Incorporate extra features such as logs and rocks, remember to consider their original source, as you may need to quarantine them for any potential weed seeds or pathogens.
- You may like to consider incorporating a simple watering hole or pond at ground height - close to some branches where birds can 'scope' for safety before taking a drink.
- If leaf litter is piling up - redistribute to other more exposed areas
- If possible, leave fallen branches as they create 'levels' of ground habitat.
- Remember that fallen logs and rocks in the bush are probably lived in by something. We don't encourage collecting the above from the bush. Source material from your own block, a neighbour or landscaping supplier.
Fallen logs may provide camouflage for burrow entrances and contribute to fundamental nutrient cycles - mostly facilitated by termites!
Leaf litter provides habitat for many ground dwelling animals such as skinks, geckos and dragons - preying on invertebrates that hide within it!
Shady rocks create the perfect refuge for many reptile species to rest during the warmer hours of the day.
If you want to really know what's going on at ground level, use the perspective of a ground dweller. Get down on the ground and have a look for yourself. Can you see any options for shade, digging burrows or prey (invertebrates)? Try to have a look around your place and see if you can incorporate some natural elements that offer prized habitat for ground dwelling creatures!
We would love to see creative elements of ground habitat from your place - feel free to send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
From the bookshelf...
Flooded Forest and Desert Creek: Ecology and History of the River Red Gum
by Matthew Colloff
The River Red Gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis, is one of the most cosmopolitan trees on the Australian continent. As such, it certainly warrants the detailed examination provided by this new book. As one of the most widespread of plant species it has provided inspiration for artists, photographers, and writers and every tree is like a living 'boarding-house' for countless varieties of wildlife.
Colloff provides a comprehensive survey of the place of River Red Gums in the Australian landscape in an ecological and a cultural sense, tracking their use by the first Australian people, and their many appearances in Australian art and literature.
Carnivores of Australia: Past, Present and Future
Edited by Alistair Glen and Christopher Dickman
This should be an interesting read and a crucial reference for anyone interested in the changing make-up of Australian ecosystems. With the survival of the Tasmanian Devil uncertain in the wake of the facial tumour disease, and cats and foxes becoming increasingly clear as a major cause of decline in mammal populations across the continent, the ecology of carnivores is sure to be a dynamic field of study for many decades to come.
This book operates as both a field guide providing natural history information about each species, but also has detailed introductory and explanatory chapters covering the latest knowledge relating to the interaction between introduced carnivores and our native ecosystems.
Echidna: Extraordinary Egg-laying Mammal
by Michael Augee, Brett Gooden, and Anne Musser
Yet another in the outstanding Australian Natural History Series produced by CSIRO Publishing, the echidna maintains the standard set across this range. These retiring creatures are sparsely found across the arid zone but certainly present across much of it. Around Alice Springs they can very occasionally be seen close to town in areas with termite mounds, but their primarily nocturnal nature can make them difficult to track down. Regardless this book will provide you with all the information you could possibly need to identify their signs and understand their habits.
Birdlog Australia & New Zealand
Smartphone App by Birds in the Hand (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and eBird).
A great addition to the smartphone arsenal of birdwatchers from the most casual bushwalker to the hardcore twitcher. Entering your observations through this app automatically submits the observer's records to the eBird global database. This enables the user to head to their free account and see all of their observations neatly organised by location or date and to see their tallies of daily, monthly, annual, or all-time records and so to build and keep track of their life list. All of this while making a valuable contribution to citizen science. If any of our members are currently using this tool let us know how useful it is or if you would be willing to share the information you gain.
What have you been reading?
We'd love to feature more reviews from members and friends in this section. Have you read some good wildlife books lately? Maybe you have a favourite smartphone app relating to your natural history interests?
Put it all down in an email, and we'd love to include your input in future newsletters.
All the environmental and wildlife news that's fit to re-print
Global soil awareness program - International Year of Soils
Link to the article on ABC Rural
New Rock-wallaby species identified in NT
Link to article on Sydney Morning Herald
Athel Pine weed under control but not in Northern Territory's south-east
Link to article on ABC Rural
Population of world's rarest marsupial more than triples in WA
Link to article on WA Today
Feds $90m feral feline funding fix
Link to article in Stock & Land
New world record for solar cell efficiency set at 46%
Link to article in Renew Economy
Capturing water from construction to completion: Forest Lodge ECO House by Code Green case study
Link to article in Architecture & Design
Population of potoroo once thought extinct passes 100
Link to article in The Guardian
WA Government trialling 1080 cat baiting
Link to the article in Perth Now
Endangered numbats prepare for release in the wild in WA
Link to the article on ABC WA
New frog species goes beyond amplexus
Link to article on National Geographic
Dingos as predator play key role in ecosystem
Link to 'Hot Topic' on Ecological Society of Australia
Thanks for reading folks.
We will keep you posted with all the exciting events and workshops coming up in 2015, such as the Olive Pink plant sale on 22nd March. Watch this space in the February newsletter for more details.
The new year brings a feeling of a fresh start - time for tending to those jobs that you have been putting off. Step outside, put on your fresh 2015 eyes, and plan to tackle that buffel grass! Just 10-15mins a day can make a big difference over the year.
Happy New Year!
Jesse, Chris, Tim, Jen & Bill.