Property Planning for Wildlife

 

We all love the plants, animals and other aspects of the natural world that we are surrounded with and want to learn how to protect them – the best that we can. You can aim as high as you like – or as humble as you like. Just do what you can. At the basic level, it could mean increasing your own awareness of wildlife and its needs. At a moderate level, it could mean installing a bird bath and providing fresh water to those in need and removing a few weeds. At the upper level, it could mean planting out your property and designing it in a way that maximises wildlife habitat.

The environment has been changed drastically with European arrival and increasing population levels. Much of the remnant vegetation has been cleared for agriculture, housing and infrastructure. In addition to habitat loss, there are many species that were introduced that subsequently became pests, causing enormous environmental and economic loss. Such species include rabbits, cats and foxes. At an invertebrate level, the European Honeybee, while providing economic benefit for pollination of crops, is a threat to native pollinators and ecosystems. The extreme changes to the environment have resulted in severe species loss, with 1 bird and 11 mammals having become extinct in the Northern Territory. In addition to the loss of fauna species, we are also experiencing a loss of plant species and erosion problems.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. With advances in research, we have come to understand the unique qualities of our native flora and fauna and the ecosystems of which they are a part. Wildlife is an asset that we should strive to retain. Landscape planning is important for flora and fauna considerations. In addition, biodiversity is important at many levels economically – environmental restoration, ecotourism, bush food cultivation, carbon credits, plant propagation and provision to the public, parks/reserves, environmental education to schools… and the list goes on!

Rural communities play an important role in protecting and rehabilitating the environment through groups such as Landcare, Land for Wildlife and other community based programs. Many parcels of land are locked up in pastoral leases, residential freehold and crown land. Remnant vegetation is often only visible on roadside verges and uninhabitable hillsides. As a result, National Parks are often preserving the extremes – ranges, gorges, valleys. The flat and degraded landscapes are often overlooked and require private landholders to get involved, especially if the land includes precious remnant habitat.

3 R’s – The priority for conserving flora is to Retain remnant vegetation, Restore the quality of degraded habitats, and Revegetate cleared areas.

There are a few general considerations when it comes to property planning for wildlife, including integration of land uses, time, space and species thresholds, and quality the habitat available.

Integration of land uses

Ensure you are meeting all your needs with respect to land use. Do you need space for working outdoors? Relaxation spaces? Active spaces for sport? Cover your needs and work with the rest.

Time

Time is required for habitats to develop, for pioneer species to be replaced by those of older stages, and for trees to develop hollows. Plan and be patient.

Quantity and Space Thresholds: Connect and Consolidate

The bigger the better! Larger and more compact areas support a greater diversity of habitats on different land systems, more species due to quantity and diversity of resources (see the species to area relationship), larger populations, and a greater chance of linkages between habitats. A space threshold is the minimum area required for a certain species to establish. If you are targeting selected species, ensure that you have the space required to support it before dedicating planting and planning activities towards it. For example, the Hooded Robin requires a territory of around 5 hectares, so many rural blocks may not be sufficient in their own right. Remember, getting your neighbours involved helps to widen the habitat corridor and larger patches are achievable with coordinated efforts. Complex large patches are integral during drought, as many bird species congregate in resource-rich sites in poor conditions, known as drought refuges.

For vegetation, compact areas are important as there is a greater core area away from edge disturbance (weeds, predators, surrounding land use). In the undergrowth, there are usually more weeds around edges, so smaller forbs and native grasses are likely to thrive in the core area of a larger patch. For larger trees, there is often more Mistletoe found in trees around edges that can put stress on large trees. Many species of fauna avoid edges due to the risk of predation and prefer core areas that provide safety. Yellow-throated Miners may dominate in linear patches of habitat and out-compete other smaller White-plumed Honeyeaters, Babblers etc, that prefer to take safety in core areas. Having some larger core areas will enable the wildlife to reach a balance.

On the other hand, edges offer a greater variety of resources for some fauna species that are able to utilise the adjacent habitats equally and can result in greater species diversity. For example, Kangaroos benefit from edges as they can take protection in woodlands and graze in open paddocks and dusk and dawn. The aforementioned Mistletoe, common around edges, is also necessary. It is native and has a symbiotic relationship with native Mistletoe Birds and the Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, so don’t be hasty to remove it.

To help alleviate the effect of edges on remnant habitat, start by increasing the core area by undertaking revegetation activities around narrow areas. You may also wish to separate two differing and incompatible land uses with an intermediate complementary land use – a buffer. For example, if a portion of your property is being used for livestock and an adjacent patch of remnant vegetation has a significant edge, consider planting alongside the edge with an intermediate habitat to lessen the edge effect.

There is an increased risk of impact from random events in small and isolated patches, and limitations on dispersal of wildlife may be an issue. Therefore, if you have several small patches of habitat and no opportunity to expand them in size, you may wish to consider connecting the patches with wildlife corridors or stepping stones. Connected habitats protect area-limited and dispersal-limited species by providing an avenue for secure movement.

Remnant vegetation is represented as dark green; Edges are represented as yellow borders; Revegetated areas are represented as light green; Buffers are represented as pale orange; Movement by wildlife is represented as black arrows

 

How much you can achieve will depend on how large your property is. If you have the time, space and resources – aim high! If you have a small area and are unable to increase patch size, you can adopt alternative management strategies such as restoring cover and connectivity to improve habitat for various species. Start with realistic goals, you can always expand if time and space allows it.

Quality

The quality of the habitat, the degree of degradation, and how well it functions are all important aspects to consider. So once the major aspects have been thought through, you can make your way down to the nitty gritty. What are you aiming for? For many, a generally healthy ecosystem is the goal. A healthy habitat is one in which most of the layers of vegetation are present and dominated by native plant species typical of the region. It is also a system that is free from disturbance, including introduced weeds and feral animals. High ecosystem function includes adequate pollination of flowering plants by native invertebrates and birds, natural wood decay for recycling of nutrients and provision of nesting hollows, as well as the presence of breeding populations of living organisms native to the area.

Vegetation Layers and Habitat Diversity

Adding layers of complexity in the garden increases the diversity of life that uses it as habitat. At a large scale, complexity can be in the form of different habitat types such as woodlands (many bird species), grasslands (Zebra Finch), creek lines (Kingfisher, Frogs, Fish), caves (Bats), gullies (Frogs), and hillsides (Euros, Wallabies).

Most species are highly dependent on water availability and quality so ensure you include water courses in your plan where possible. Protect existing watercourses and avoid modifying them to allow them to remain natural. If degraded, consider revegetating with native plants to prevent erosion, enhance wildlife habitat and encourage healthy water. In areas that don’t have natural water courses, you may consider installing a bird bath that can provide a water source. A bird bath that is raised above the ground and abutting shrubbery on one side will protect small birds from predators. Ponds are also suitable water sources for reptiles and frogs. Water baths can be topped up manually, or via a drip irrigation system as part of the whole garden. Install water tanks and a method of catching excess rain water to make the most of the water available.

Within a habitat type, complexity includes the provision of large canopy trees (Parrots, birds of prey) with tree hollows (Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Bats) and loose hanging bark (Shrike Tit), complemented by a protective understorey (Rufous Whistler, Robins), ground cover, herbs, grasses and soil-crusting cryptograms. For example, a minimum of 30% tree cover is needed to maintain woodland birds. Smaller bird species are not as abundant in areas with little understorey, rather such open and scattered habitats favour the more aggressive Yellow-throated Miners. Healthy habitats include flowering trees and shrubs to support native pollinators (Honeyeaters, Invertebrates) and Mistletoe (Mistletoe Bird, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater), and provides logs (Treecreepers, Reptiles), termite mounds (Perentie), rocky areas (Reptiles, Frogs), sandy areas (Snakes, Goannas), and mulch or groundcover (Reptiles, Invertebrates).

In terms of structure, the complexity of a habitat should provide breeding and sheltering sites, foraging sites, basking and hibernation sites, perching sites, runaways and refuges, camouflage, nurseries, and leaf-litter traps.

Native Plants

In Alice Springs, there are more than 600 native plant species, distributed over 27 individual vegetation types (as classified by Albrecht and Pitts in 2004). The vegetation present at a particular site is a result of regional and landscape factors such as rainfall, temperature, altitude, and topography; local factors such as soil type, geology, slope, aspect, and prevailing weather; individual factors such as environmental tolerance; and historical factors such as fire, disease, human impact, evolution, and species introductions. Local native species are best suited for revegetation activities as the wildlife has coevolved with the plant life – they often rely on each other for survival.

In arid Australia, it’s important to conserve water. You can do this by planting wisely. Local native plant species require less water than introduced species and lawns once established. Native plants are also hardy, giving you ‘bang for your buck’.

Be sure you keep updated about when the plant sales are on and what to buy – get in early to avoid missing out on the appropriate plants of your choice. Consider propagating your own plants to save money if revegetating large areas. This requires good timing and patience, as many native plants take many years to establish. If planting young individuals, choose your timing to avoid hot days and stress to plants, avoid planting before going on holidays or have a house-sitter that can look after them.

Plant wisely – use local native species where possible, account for growth of tree roots and canopy size (some species may interfere with each other or disrupt infrastructure), avoid lawns (they are water thirsty and don’t really add to the biodiversity – consider Lippia or Creeping Boobialla as an alternative), consider irrigation planning before planting (applies water where it is specifically needed, reduces water loss through evaporation, and encourages deep root growth). It’s a good idea to include wattles (Acacia sp.) in your planting plan for their nitrogen fixing abilities.

Free from Disturbance

Weeds and feral animals can have a serious impact on native flora and fauna populations. Invasive species often out-compete native species for resources, thereby reducing their chance of survival. The removal of Buffel Grass (not a declared weed) will often result in the reestablishment of a host of native forbs and grasses that act as a food source for native wildlife. Purchase plants, soil and mulch from local retailers to minimise the introduction of weeds. Protect seedlings from rabbits and other herbivores with guards and protect seedlings from water loss with mulch. Remove feral species such as Cats and Spotted Turtle-doves with an active and ethical trapping program. The establishment of feral and pest bird populations can be prevented by enclosing chicken feeders to eliminate access to seed.

Wood Decay

Natural and termite-induced wood decay is important for recycling of nutrients and provision of nesting hollows. Avoid pruning dying branches if safe to do so to ensure adequate perching sites and to allow decay, in turn providing habitat and nesting hollows for diversity of bat, insect and avian species. Leaving fallen branches to decay naturally will not only provide habitat for native reptiles and invertebrates, but allow Termites to feed and recycle nutrients back into the system.

A Healthy System

Successful pollination of flowering plants by native invertebrates and nectarivorous birds will enable plants to come into fruit and seed and therefore self-generate in the system. Some seed can then be collected for propagation, and the rest allowed to fall and natural regeneration to occur.

The presence of breeding populations of living organisms native to the area is indicative of a healthy working ecosystem.

Help the Needy

It’s important to protect threatened fauna species and their habitats where possible. To do this, you need to know where individuals occur and what habitat they require. Resources for this include Fauna Atlas records on NR Maps and the Atlas of Living Australia, as well as the NT Government Threatened Animals and Threatened Plants pages.

The NT Register of Significant Trees has a list of some of the territory’s most significant trees, but access to AAPA can also highlight other culturally significant trees or sites that are worthy of protecting.

Summary: Make a Plan

Begin by mapping or drawing your house and block. Google Earth, Google Maps and NR Maps can help you to get an idea of the shape and layout of your property.

Identify any significant sites that need protection.

Where are the water courses and wetlands?

Identify the remnant habitat patches. Which ones can be expanded?

What is the distance between healthy patches? Where can stepping stones and corridors be placed to increase connectivity? Where can buffers be placed to reduce effects of surrounding land use?

Improve the quality of degraded vegetation. Enlarge, widen or create linkages?

Revegetate areas of concern with local native species, including endangered species where possible

What is the percentage cover as it stands? How much do you want to add and where? Plan ahead to avoid overcrowding and competition for resources.

Are the needs of the desired wildlife species being met? How can this be improved?

Consider smart fencing – allow for movement by wildlife.

Encourage Others

Display your Land for Wildlife or Garden for Wildlife sign – this shows others in the area of your commitment to wildlife habitat preservation and restoration and helps to encourage others to follow your lead. This in turn creates a vegetation corridor or network of properties for wildlife to move between.

Tim and Jannah Leane are Land for Wildlife members in the rural area of Ross (Image T&J Leane).

 

 

 

Building Bat Boxes

By John Tyne (Parks and Wildlife Commission NT)

John Tyne (Parks and Wildlife Commission NT) and Erin Westerhuis (Charles Darwin University) gave an excellent presentation and workshop on bat boxes at the Land for Wildlife birthday event recently. Here, John gives some hints and tips on how to create bat boxes of your own.

Thanks for your interest in the bat boxes that I was showing on Saturday!

Parks and Wildlife Commission NT’s John Tyne and Erin Westerhuis presented a bat box building workshop to the Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife members at the recent birthday event. (Image B. Low)

The bat boxes I built were all made from one plank of untreated softwood timber. To make one of the smaller boxes, you’ll need approximately 1.5 m of timber that is 190 mm wide and 45 mm thick. I was able to find a piece like this at the Home Hardware shop in town. I used 70mm long exterior timber screws to piece it all together.

The back piece 350 mm long x 190 mm wide x 45 mm thick
The front piece 200 mm long x 190 mm wide x 45 mm thick
Two side pieces 200 mm long x 190 mm wide x 45 mm thick
The roof piece 380 mm long x 190 mm wide x 45 mm thick
The base/floor 100 mm long x 170 mm wide x 45 mm thick

(this is the only piece that isn’t 190 mm wide!)

Two spacers for back: 50 mm long x 190 mm wide x 45 mm thick

(these are to put on the back of the box so when you hang it is off the tree/post a little ways)

On the inside I used a staple gun to put up some old shade cloth. Instead of shade cloth you could score lines into the back so that the bats are able to climb it more easily. On the extension out the bottom that the bats will have to land on to climb up, I scored the timber using a hand saw. You could also put shade cloth on this instead. The gap at the base should be around 20 mm wide to allow the bats to climb in. On the boxes I made, I put an exterior grade metal hinge and two magnetic clasps on the lid so that I could open it. You could simplify things by just fixing the lid down with screws and not using a hinge. Depending on where you hang it, you could just screw it straight to an object (shed/post), or you could strap it to a tree. Try and hang the box at least 3 meters high, in a sheltered area but with a clear flight path to the box entry.

Bat Box Design (Image R. Ferrari).

Good luck putting this together, and let me know if you have some success with bats moving in. Any questions feel free to ask!

~ John Tyne

Build bat boxes to install on your property and provide them with a safe space by following John Tyne’s helpful instructions. You can also download some fact sheets that were provided by the crew on the day, including Boxes for Bats and also the Bat Roost Box Kit.

Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife Central Australia: Celebrating 15 years of Wildlife Habitat Preservation, Enhancement and Restoration

Land for Wildlife is celebrating 15 years of the program in central Australia, and Garden for Wildlife is celebrating 10 years of the program! We hope that the two complementary programs have been beneficial to our members and we look forward to continuing to support local landholders to preserve, enhance and restore wildlife habitat on private properties in the years to come.

Thanks to our host Low Ecological Services and current funding partners (Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife, Alice Springs Town Council, Territory NRM), as well as those that have funded and supported us in the past (so many!). We couldn’t have done it without you!

Many thanks to all Land for Wildlife coordinators past and present for building the program up to be what it is and providing expert assistance to landholders throughout central Australia. Thanks also go to the local organisations and groups that have supported us over the years to get the word out and assist us with the program at large.

Land for Wildlife celebrated the occasion with an event at the end of September, held at Olive Pink Botanic Garden (a long standing LFW member themselves who were gracious to provide assistance with the event venue). The event was very successful with roughly 35 LFW and GFW members in attendance for a range of great workshops and presentations. Presentations included a summary of the program, a property planning for wildlife presentation, an NT register of significant trees update, a seed collection workshop by Charles Darwin University, a bat box building workshop by Parks and Wildlife Commission NT, and a documentary Wild Brumby Run. The event included catering for morning tea, as well as lunch, provided by the Land for Wildlife team.

Thanks to Territory Natural Resource Management for supporting the event through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme. In addition, Olive Pink Botanic Garden provided in kind support towards the fabulous venue. Local groups provided door prizes as in kind support, including books from Land for Wildlife, two vouchers from Red Kangaroo Books and two vouchers from Alice Springs Desert Park. The lucky recipients were drawn at random from those present—we hope that the vouchers and books are well received (they are certainly well deserved!).

There has been some excellent feedback from the event, with many of the attendees showing great appreciation for the informative workshops and a chance to mingle with other members. As part of the 15th birthday event, we provided some background and a summary on the Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife program in central Australia (presented below).

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Land for Wildlife is a not-for-profit program that runs in various capacities throughout Australia. Land for Wildlife is aimed at assisting landholders in peri-urban and rural areas to preserve, enhance and recreate wildlife habitat.  A parallel program, Garden for Wildlife, was developed in the biodiverse hotspot Alice Springs to assist members residing on urban blocks. The programs rely on voluntary and non-legally binding efforts from local landholders.

Land for Wildlife as a brand was established in 1981 by the Victorian government and Bird Observer’s Club of Australia. Land for Wildlife in Alice Springs and its partner program Garden for Wildlife have been running successfully for fifteen years, and ten years, respectively. They have been hugely successful programs and are widely regarded in the Alice Springs region. The program was initially run through the Alice Springs Town Council on a three year federal government grant. The Alice Springs Town Council ran it for a year, with Low Ecological Services taking up the remainder of the contract and hosting the program ever since and seeking grant moneys from a variety of agencies. The program is currently funded locally through Parks and Wildlife NT and the Alice Springs Town Council remains a sponsor. The program also has funding for individual projects through support from Territory Natural Resource Management and funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare programme. Additional previous funding bodies include Territory Eco-Link, Territory Natural Resource Management, Caring for Country, Landcare, Natural Heritage Trust, Envirofund, PowerWater and Low Ecological Services with in kind support and endurance.

Many of the member properties are situated within the MacDonnell Ranges Bioregion, containing the highest number of vulnerable and rare species listed with conservation status nationally and at the NT level. As a result, preserving even small patches of vegetation is a worthwhile venture in terms of providing habitat for native fauna species (and protecting the local native flora species themselves).

The member base extends to Yulara in the south-west, Andado Station and Ross River in the south-east, Narwietooma Station to the north-west and Tennant Creek Airport to the north. Cumulative property area covered by the 103 Land for Wildlife and 156 Garden for Wildlife members is 291,531 hectares, and rising.

Collaboration with private landholders is a successful method of conserving habitats and nature corridors, to address the challenge of species decline though habitat loss. This is achieved through regular engagement activities (workshops, participation in public events and monthly newsletters), providing networking opportunities, as well as providing on-going support and management advice specific to each block.

When signing up a new Land for Wildlife member, an assessment is conducted on the property, which includes identifying the flora and checking for tracks or scats of fauna, as well as identifying special value habitats and any management issues the property may have. An assessment report is then prepared for the property owner, which includes detailed information about the assessment, property management concerns and suggested methods for going forward. Ongoing assistance in the form of support, advice, information resources and links to other professionals and specialist organisations in the region is provided. Garden for Wildlife is more informal and membership does not include an assessment or report, but rather a resource package and informal site visit to assist with development planning, any queries and plant identification.

Attention in both programs is given to encouraging landholders to plant local native plant species, as these species are self-reliant and there is a subsequent reduction in water use in our water-limited semi-arid zone. Retaining and protecting remnant vegetation is recommended to members. To allow regeneration of habitat, members are advised to fence areas from livestock and restrict the access of livestock to ephemeral rivers and drainage systems. Encouraging distribution of run-off and controlling erosion is oft-needed advice. Members are encouraged to control weed and feral species, such as removal of Buffel Grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) to allow room for native grasses, and trapping feral cats (Felis catus) to limit the predation pressure on native mammals and reptiles. Protecting various elements of wildlife habitat, such as fallen wood, leaf litter and dead branches and trees with hollows are also encouraged.

While the programs have been successful for many long-term members, Alice Springs has a notoriously transient population. While this has benefits in people taking ‘the message’ with them to other regions, it also makes maintaining contact with member properties and their current owners an ongoing challenge. This challenge has been overcome through a combination of efforts, such as the use of MailChimp as an online newsletter mailing tool – bouncing emails promote impetus to contact members to clarify their current status, regular interaction with members to stay up to date with their conservation efforts and the encouragement of communication through the monthly newsletter. The small community of Alice Springs has the benefit that networking with members through chance meetings around town is a useful tool.

As well as the transient membership, the coordinator position has been run by many energetic and qualified specialists over the period of the program in central Australia.  While this can be a challenge for members with respect to different levels of engagement, each coordinator comes with a different focus, drive and experience – which can be a benefit in that the information and energy is kept fresh. A potential benefit for incoming coordinators and for LFW members is the amazing expertise and experience available amongst the LfW landholders and their willingness to share that expertise.

Land for Wildlife has been incredibly successful and is a much-loved program in the region. One of the major avenues of communicating with and engaging members and the wider community is through the monthly newsletter and social media posts. Newsletters contain relevant and current information on hot topics, which members can use to manage their properties. The newsletter also provides opportunities for members to share their experience and wildlife snapshots with other members. The website blog and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, give multi-media savvy members avenues of staying engaged with Land for Wildlife on a more regular basis between newsletters – whether it be through the posting of a photo from a member, sharing upcoming events, or posting an article relevant to the day. It also gives Land for Wildlife members the ability to interact as much or as little as they wish, without intensive moderation from the coordinator. Social media followers are steadily increasing with regular interaction. Social media also enables Land for Wildlife to engage with people that are outside of the membership network – the Alice Springs community, Australia and internationally.

Land for Wildlife collaborates with many government agencies, which provides a conduit to gain and pass on information – such as PowerWater for water conservation, Department of Land and Resource Management for weed management and erosion control information, and Parks and Wildlife for flora and fauna information. The experience of the LfW coordinators and the networks provided by the role means that the coordinator is able to handle a wide variety of issues.

Engagement with the youth of Alice Springs occurs through a range of community events, with the DesertSmart EcoFair providing one very useful lead. Land for Wildlife ran a ‘Biodiversity’ workshop to four school groups at this year’s EcoFair, with positive feedback coming from all involved. Exposure is gained from our involvement in other community events such as the Olive Pink Botanic Garden Plant Sales, EcoFair markets, Pets on Parade, Alice Springs Show and Mini Bilby Festival.

Collaboration with the Tjuwanpa Women Rangers and the Ntaria Junior Rangers on a regular basis has resulted in the development of a good working relationship with the indigenous communities in the West MacDonnell Ranges, as well as cross-cultural information transferral regarding important NRM issues of the region.

The land assessments give the property owners knowledge regarding the flora present on their block. Many members find plant identification a challenge and are hesitant to do extensive weed control at the risk of removing natives. With a little guidance regarding plant identification, members are much more willing to get active in the garden removing the pesky species, resulting in a healthy garden full of local natives. Land for Wildlife encourages nurseries to provide local native plants and encourages the nursery association to assist in spreading the word, but maintaining those connections is always a challenge due to the transient nature of Alice Springs.

Several properties are now Buffel grass free and only require minimal maintenance to keep the Buffel at bay, and some property owners have even made their way out onto the verge to clear the buffel. Consequently, many native forbs and flowering annuals have returned, providing fruit, seed and foraging vegetation cover for native birds and other fauna.

Erosion control and education has been a priority, which has been extremely helpful for members and other residents in the rural area of Ilparpa.

A long-term success on central Australian Land for Wildlife properties has been the ongoing trapping support given to members for feral animals such as cats, rabbits and spotted turtle doves. Members can borrow traps and get the information resources necessary to assist them in their trapping journey.

In the last couple of years, Land for Wildlife has been running a domestic cat monitoring project in Alice Springs. This is supported by Territory Natural Resource Management, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme. The project focuses on engaging domestic cat owners regarding responsible pet management by tracking the movements of pet cats with a GPS tracker. The project has been picked up by the local media on several occasions and has gained a huge amount of interest in the community.

The NT Register of Significant Trees was conceived in 1982 by the National Trust and Greening Australia and is now management by Land for Wildlife central Australia. It includes central Australia, Katherine and the Darwin region. Candice Appleby has been working hard to revitalise the register and convert it to an online format.

Land for Wildlife/Garden for Wildlife has won many awards over the years, including: Best Urban NRM Group (TNRM Awards 2015 and 2016), Toshiba Leading Information Award Community Group (NT Landcare Awards 2011), Community Award (Melaleuca Awards 2010), Urban Landcare Award (NT Landcare Awards 2009), and Merit Award (NT Landcare Awards 2007).

Our success has come from a combination of all efforts that have been put in, from workshops and attending events, newsletters, social media interaction to personalised engagement and advice. Overall, Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife have been hugely successful in central Australia for engaging the community regarding the importance of preserving and revegetating wildlife habitat on private as well as public lands and we look forward to another 15 strong years of the program.

The Structure and Insulation of Avian Nests

Birds’ nests have evolved into many shapes and sizes, but they all function to provide a secure substrate for eggs and hatchlings, camouflage and defence from predators, as well as protect the eggs, hatchlings and incubating parent from harsh climatic conditions. My doctoral studies focused on understanding the factors influencing the structure and insulation of avian nests and hence the manner in which a nest may influence the energetic cost of incubation.

Nest materials can range from natural plant items (sticks and grass) and organic material (mud), to animal materials (hair, fur, spider silk) and man-made items (wool, wire and cloth). This nest is made completely from horse hair and a few strands of grass.

FACTORS INFLUENCING NEST SIZE AND SHAPE

Parent mass

Comparing the size and shape of nests of 36 Australian passerine species against parent mass reveals that nest surface area increases in direct proportion to the size of the parent. Nest diameter and height increase with parent mass but as nests become larger in line with increases in parent mass, the nest cup also becomes shallower and the opening becomes wider than expected, which allows for the space that the chicks will occupy.

Nest mass increases with parent mass at a rate that matches that of a supporting structure, suggesting that structural considerations of nest construction are of primary importance to nest design. The requirement for structural support is also evident for nest thickness, which increases more than proportionally expected as parent size increases. Structurally adequate nests become thicker than expected for their size in larger birds.

The clutch

Of interest is how the size or number of eggs in a clutch relates to the size of a nest. The clutch surface area and the internal surface area of the nest increase simultaneously; and the clutch volume and volume of the nest cup are also associated. Since nest design for the majority of birds in the study is in part influenced by the male and egg shape is controlled by muscles in the pelvis of the female, it is likely that one does not control the other. However, nest and egg size/shape are influenced by body size and ancestry. Therefore, it is likely that the nest and clutch are in fact independent, yet matched secondarily due to the shared influence of body mass and genetic ancestry.

The delicate nest of a Singing Honeyeater is decorated with Emu feathers and held together with spider silk and hair.

FACTORS INFLUENCING NEST INSULATION

Nest structure

As we know, the nest surface area increases in proportion to bird size, however nests become much thicker than expected as bird size increases. The thick walls provide structural support for the parent and clutch, with the consequence that structurally adequate nests achieve greater insulation than expected, as they increase in size. Nests are often viewed as objects that are designed to prevent heat loss from the clutch and incubating parent; however the requirement for adequate structural support is the primary selective influence on nest construction, not the requirement for insulation.

Nest microclimate

By assessing the insulation of Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater (Acanthagenys rufogularis) and Yellow-throated Miner (Manorina flavigula) nests under varying wind conditions, I found that wind enters the nest material and dissipates heat, resulting in a decrease in thermal insulation with greater wind speeds. The consequence of increased wind currents around and through the nests would be a near-doubling in heat production required by the parent when incubating.

While ambient temperature does not influence the structure of nests in my study, it does influence the insulation of nests and the thermal efficiency of the material. However, temperature and precipitation (henceforth referred to as climate) act in combination, indicating that the response of Australian passerines to one variable depends upon the level of the other.

 In sites with low temperatures, nest insulation may be important to maintain an appropriate microclimate for offspring and therefore birds construct nests with good insulation, irrespective of the rainfall at the site. For nests constructed in warm climates but at the two extremes of rainfall, there is a pronounced decrease in insulation for nests built in areas with high rainfall, compared to areas with low rainfall.

The effect of climate extends to the thermal efficiency of the nest materials, indicating that not only the ambient temperature, but also the precipitation of the breeding site, influences material selection during the nest construction phase. Birds breeding in warm and wet climates construct their nests with materials that have a poor thermal efficiency compared to those in dry climates. The warm temperatures may cause a relaxation in the need for insulation, and poorly insulating materials (such as sticks and grasses, rather than fur and wool) are possibly less absorptive and able to dry out faster following a rain event, to restore the insulating function of the nest.

To determine the effect of water (from rain, dew or absorption from the nest substrate) on the heat loss from the nest, I measured Tawny-crowned Honeyeater (Gliciphila melanops) nests under varying water content levels (from dry to saturated). Water penetrating the nesting material increases conductance of G. melanops nests by up to two and a half times the rate seen in a dry nest – a consequence of the decreased thermal efficiency of materials in a wet nest. As a result, additional energy is required by the incubating parent to keep clutches warm when nests become wet. Individuals should be capable of obtaining additional floral resources to deal with an energy deficit in cold and wet conditions. However, if floral resources are poor and an individual is unable to meet such energy demands, it may abandon the nest altogether.

Not all nests seem to be sufficient – this nest has large holes but is strong and doesn’t absorb water – but they have functions other than insulation of the young.

SUMMARY

My studies highlight the importance of nest design and construction for the thermal properties of nests – small variations in nest design can have significant impacts on the insulation value of a nest, which will in turn influence the energetic cost of incubation. The effect of rain and wind on nest insulation, and the consequence of this for the energetics of the incubating parent, reinforces the view that appropriate nest site selection that provides additional shelter is crucial for avian reproductive success.

Slater’s Skink – a Lesser-known Central Australian Resident

Mugshots: Spotty, Kelly and Billy (Slater) (Image C. Treilibs).

By Claire Treilibs

Without fur, feathers, or large-adorable eyes, reptiles generally draw the short straw when it comes to popular appeal of our native critters. Some (mammal-centric) commentators might argue that reptiles lack charisma, but these scaly creatures have their own je ne sais quoi.

A lesser-known central Australian resident is the endangered Slater’s skink (Liopholis slateri). With an air of nonchalance, these sly skinks laze outside their burrow entrances, peering through narrowed eyes, basking. Then – wham! At lightning speed, they pounce upon their prey – any ants or termites that might be wandering by.

I got to know a population of Slater’s skink over four years of a PhD study. I could tell who was whom from the spots and scale patterns on their faces. Once I found a way of recognising individuals by photograph, I could track them over time. Take ‘Spotty’ for instance. If I recorded where Spotty was when I snapped the photo, then I could track Spotty’s whereabouts; which burrows she uses, and for how long. I found that these skinks were surprisingly mobile within the population compared with the more sedentary habits of many of their close relatives.

Slater’s skinks are extraordinary in that they are specialist floodplain users. In fact, they only occur in the floodplains of the east and west MacDonnell Ranges. The entire global population occurs within 150 km of Alice Springs in 11 (mostly isolated) populations. Buffel grass, fire, climate change, and in some populations, cattle, are causing dramatic changes to their floodplain habitats and risking the future of this endangered skink.

Last month, indigenous ranger groups and other land managers got together to share information, discuss current monitoring and management of the skink, and how to help look after it in future. You can read more about the two-day Slater’s skink forum on the ABC post and the TNRM post.

~ Claire Treilibs

Slater’s skink, Liopholis slateri, is a floodplain specialist (Image C. Treilibs).

Book Launch: Reptiles and Frogs of Alice Springs

Land for Wildlife launched the second edition of Reptiles and Frogs of Alice Springs by Nic Gambold and Deborah Metters at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre this month. The launch was attended by 20 keen Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife members, who were treated to a presentation by Rex Neindorf on the biology and habits of legless lizards (Family PYGOPODIDAE).

Legless lizards at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre

Rex explained how members can identify the differences between some of the common legless lizards and small venomous snakes. He showed an example of an Excitable Delma or Excitable Snake Lizard (Delma tincta), which can often be confused with a baby brown snake. The two reptiles have a similar colour, both lay eggs and both slither along the ground. However, there are some clear differences, which were explained in detail and shown to those attending the event.

When the Excitable Delma was released onto the ground, the reason for its name became obvious. The legless lizard launched its body around on the ground with a huge amount of excitement. This was a great way to distinguish the difference between this particular legless lizard and snake. Rule 1: Snakes don’t jump. They do slither along the ground and they can launch their head and front third of their body, but they are not jumpers. Excitable Delmas are able to jump several centimetres off the ground, using their whole body.

Legless lizards have ears and some have eyelids and snakes do not have either. This is an easy way to tell the difference between the two types of reptiles, if you can get close enough without putting yourself or others in danger. Snakes can’t blink, instead they have a thin transparent scale that covers the eye, which are known as spectacles and are replaced when the snake sheds its skin. Snakes don’t have visible ear openings, but rather their inner ear is connected directly to the jawbone, which senses vibrations. Many legless lizards have small ear openings behind the jaw. Legless lizards may have lost their legs as large extensions over evolutionary time, however they do possess small residual nodules to the rear where the hind legs would have been. Keep an eye on the tongue of the reptile when it licks the air. Snakes have a very distinctly forked tongue, which is quite long and slim, whereas legless lizards have a fatter tongue that lacks a defined fork.

Legless lizards have the ability to drop their tail as a life-saving protection mechanism from predators, known as caudal autotomy. Many land owners are tricked this way when they are frightened, thinking they have found a snake and take to the individual with a shovel, only to find the animal does not die (quite the opposite for a snake, but we do not recommend testing this theory as we are pro-life for all reptiles!). Many legless lizards have a very small body and a large tail and hence are not killed when sliced in half. The tail will then regenerate given enough time and cause no discomfort to the individual. The regenerating tail has a slight colour difference in comparison to the rest of the body and so a shearing point can be found on some legless lizards that have undergone regeneration. Snakes do not regenerate a tail and therefore similar patternation can be found down the length of the body.

Some other distinguishing characteristics are less easy to identify in a hurry. For example, if you can get the reptile to roll over (good luck), you can check the ventral pattern of the scales. In venomous snakes, the ventral scales are wide, extending along the width of the belly and continue in such a way down the length of the body. In legless lizards, the scales on the underbelly are much like those on the rest of the body. Snakes are able to use their belly and side scales to move in an S-shape along the ground, whereas legless lizards can only use their sides. This means that if a legless lizard moves onto a completely smooth surface, it will lose its ability to move (important to note if you see one on the road – take care and drive around it if possible). If you happen to keep an eye on it long enough to find it feeding, legless lizards are not able to unlock their jaws to swallow large prey so they will generally go for smaller food items than snakes will.

Differences between venomous and non-venomous snakes include the size of the body scales (large in venomous snakes and small in non-venomous snakes), patterning of the body (non-intricate in venomous snakes and intricate in non-venomous snakes), tail movement (non-prehensile tail in venomous snakes, prehensile in non-venomous snakes) and loreal scales (no loreal scales in venomous snakes, loreal scales in non-venomous snakes).

Rex also explained about the snake catching service provided by the Alice Springs Reptile Centre.  He noted that they have caught fewer snakes than usual this year since there has been a lot of rain so the snakes can’t be seen amongst the grass as easily, though the catch levels were still higher than we expected.

If you notice a venomous snake on your property, you can call the Alice Springs Reptile Centre call-out number on 0407 983 276. Keep an eye on the snake and they will attend to collect it as soon as possible. Snakes are then released at several sites around Alice Springs in the rural area, depending on the required habitat of the caught individual.

The Alice Springs Reptile Centre is selling snake bandages that have indicator boxes to determine the correct application of tension to prevent the venom spreading. If you are updating your first aid kit, you may wish to visit Rex and his team to discuss suitable bandage options.

Thanks go to Rex Neindorf for launching the Reptiles and Frogs of Alice Springs booklet and providing such an informative presentation!

Land for Wildlife host Bill Low opens the launch, which included a presentation by Rex Neindorf

The Reptiles and Frogs of Alice Springs booklet can be purchased from Land for Wildlife Central Australia for $15 at any of our upcoming stalls at local events. You can also grab copies from Arid Lands Environment Centre and Red Kangaroo Books.

World Wildlife Day Nature Journal Competition

The 3rd of March marks World Wildlife Day, which was proclaimed by the United Nations in 2013 as a day for the celebration of the world’s wild animals and plants. The theme for 2017 is “Listen to the Young Voices”, as there is a need to encourage young people, as the future decision makers of the world, to protect wildlife. Land for Wildlife encourages youth of central Australia to become aware and engaged about the major threats to wildlife, which includes habitat change at our local level, among other threats.

To celebrate, we’re asking the younger generation of Alice Springs to get outside and observe some wildlife in your local space and get to know it a little.

  1. Take your pick of wildlife subject. It could be anything from the tiniest of invertebrates (Caterpillars, Beetles, Butterflies), to reptiles (Lizards or Snakes – keeping your distance), birds (endless species!), and mammals (Roos, Euros and Wallabies).
  2. Download Paula Peeters’ resource ‘Make a Date With Nature: an Introduction to Nature Journaling’ from our website. Paula Peeters also has a website Paperbark Writer, on which you can find a host of fun activities where Australian nature meets science and art. This will give you some tips and hints about how to create a nature journal.
  3. Record your observations and make an A4 one-page journal. This can include your observations, images of what you see, drawings, anything that inspires you about the subject.
  4. Send your entries through to us at Land for Wildlife: You can email scanned copies to lfw@lowecol.com.au or send the original to PO Box 3130 Alice Springs NT 0870. This competition is open to Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife members, but also the wider community so feel free to share this with your networks. If you are not a member and are submitting an entry, please provide contact details so that we can chase you down if you win. We will be taking entries up until March 29th for winner announcement in the March Newsletter. Note that there is no actual age limit to entries – if you are young, or just young at heart, you are welcome to enter the competition!

The best nature journal will win a copy of our newly released, Reptiles and Frogs of Alice Springs by Nic Gambold and Deborah Metters.

Want to know more about World Wildlife Day? Check out the World Wildlife Day website for more information.

Snakes Taking a Dip

By Jeremy Snowdon-James

On a recent Low Ecological Services P/L field trip, out west of Alice Springs, we were lucky enough to come across two beautiful young snakes, a Desert Death Adder (Acanthophis Pyrrhus) and a Little Spotted Snake (Suta punctata); though at first glance we may have missed them both! We were alerted to their presence by staff at the facility we were inspecting.

“Couple of snakes in the pool for ya’s if you want to check them out”

“Ah really?” We asked, “what type?”

“Not sure, one looks like a death adder and the other is more slender, darker. We got them out a few times, but they keep going back in!”

It was early afternoon when we received this information, so after a meal we went to investigate! On first assessment, there were no snakes to be seen in the now largely empty pool. Our disappointment was evident and we figured they must have escaped, not returned or perhaps we had been sold a furphy! But then, just as we were about to give up, we spotted the small reddish brown colour of the Death Adder! It was half hidden beneath leaf litter, pressed against the bottom step; a quarter of the size we were expecting. Quickly our fearless leader picked up a small twig and jumped in to grab it out; highlighting the importance of undergoing some basic snake handling training! After several photos and close inspection, we released the snake up in the surrounding hills, sufficient distance to deter re-entry to the pool trap.

We returned to the pool and looked a bit more, but were unable to find the second snake.

That next morning over breakfast we relayed the information about the Death Adders’ transportation and our lack of luck in finding the other.

“No, it’s in there,” they confirmed. “Saw him just last night, hiding under the drain cap”.

With a belly full of breakfast and fresh morning enthusiasm, we returned to the pool for one last inspection before we headed home. Alas, nothing under the drain cap.

There was a fair amount of leaf litter in a small amount of water caught from rainfall in the bottom of the pool; so, we stirred it up with a stick. And whip, there it was, sneakily hiding within the brush, filling up on frogs and tadpoles! This Little Spotted snake was far less corporative than the Death Adder, as it constantly wiggled and curled its body out from under the stick. Finally, after a 20-minute snake/stick dance, we managed to get it stuck and transported it to the hills!

We installed a fauna ladder (branch, pole, house ladder, whatever is lying around that an animal will be able to use to climb out) into the pool, so that if it happened again, the little creatures can make their own way out. With so much water around after the summer rains, and frogs a plenty, it makes for perfect conditions for snakes to be out hunting. And an out-of-use pool makes for an ideal hunting ground; however, also a perfect trap.

Quite often in the desert when out walking, concern about snakes can get subdued, as you rarely see them. This experienced reminded us all that sometimes we only think about the big snakes, King Browns or Carpet snakes over a meter in length! We probably come across far more snakes than we think, we just have to take the time to look out for the smaller ones; a good local ID book is paramount!

It was a thought I carried with me the following weekend as I took a walk out behind Stanley Chasm. I came across a great little waterhole, with hundreds of tadpoles and small frogs jumping about; thinking this would be a perfect place for a snake. And there it was, subtly hidden beneath the water at first, a beautiful King Brown! Slowly it made its way up out of the water and back into the safety of rocks!

~ Jeremy Snowdon-James

Death Adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus)

 

Death Adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus)

 

Little Spotted Snake (Suta punctata)

 

Frog Frenzy for World Wetlands Day

Simpsons Gap: These Waterways are home to a range of amphibians, invertebrates and other fauna.

Simpsons Gap: These Waterways are home to a range of amphibians, invertebrates and other fauna.

Land for Wildlife went along to the Territory NRM World Wetlands Day Event on February 1st at Simpsons Gap and were delighted to see all the frogs that have emerged following recent rains. Three species were present at the TNRM hosted event, including the Centralian Tree Frog (Litoria gilleni), Red Tree Frog (Litoria rubella) and Spencer’s Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum spenceri). The Centralian Tree Frog is distinguished by its green colour and white spots on the back, while the Red Tree Frog is much smaller, can be grey to brown in colour and possesses a broad black stripe running down the side of the body. Spencer’s Burrowing Frog has large and irregular splotches of dark brown on a lighter fawn body, and has a somewhat distinctive shield or plate behind the back of the head.

There are two main lineages of frogs in Central Australia, the first two species observed belong to the Family Hylidae (or tree frogs) and the third belongs to the Family Limnodynastidae (the Australian ground frogs). While Spencer’s Burrowing Frog spends most of its life underground to avoid dehydration, and emerges only for short periods after rains, the Centralian Tree Frog and Red Tree Frog are unable to burrow and climb into humid microhabitats such as crevices and tree hollows close to permanent water.

Centralian Tree Frog (Litoria gilleni)

Centralian Tree Frog (Litoria gilleni)

 

Red Tree Frog (Litoria rubella)

Red Tree Frog (Litoria rubella)

 

Spencer’s Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum spenceri)

Spencer’s Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum spenceri)

 

Tadpole

 

Centralian Tree Frog (Litoria gilleni)

Centralian Tree Frog (Litoria gilleni)

 

Parks and Wildlife NT are running a host of Frog Nights throughout February – get along to a session to see the diversity of amphibians in our local waterways.

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To learn more about World Wetlands Day (2nd February 2017), head to http://www.worldwetlandsday.org/

Are there frogs in your yard? Want to identify them? Pick up a copy of the Land for Wildlife production ‘Reptiles and Frogs of Alice Springs’ by Nic Gambold and Deborah Metters at any of our upcoming stalls and events. To find out more about this publication head to our Books for Sale webpage.

Arthropod Populations Swelling Following Rain

With all the rain we’ve had in central Australia over the last couple of months, the abundance of Arthropods (including insects, arachnids, myriapods, and crustaceans) has gone through the roof. Once of the obvious examples that long-term residents may notice is the increase in the number of Golden Orb Weaving Spiders (Nephila edulis). These are large fawn-grey spiders that produce a silk with a distinctive yellow colour. The large female constructs a web that is up to a meter in diameter, with guy-lines as long as three to four meters. Webs are often set at an oblique angle off the vertical, with a male (the size of which pales in comparison to the female) that takes up position to one side. Females can produce over 250 meters of silk in one sitting, which is strong and elastic, and the webs have even been known to ensnare small birds (such as finches). The silk is not only used to construct the web, but also to spin an egg sac. The female will fast for several days in preparation for spinning the oval sac, attached to a branch or other object in the vicinity of the web, in which the eggs are deposited.

So why are there so many of these healthy-looking spiders around at the moment? The spiderlings (baby spiders) of Nephila species have the ability to hatch in the egg sac and stay dormant, for over a year, until favourable weather conditions arise. Like many animals, spiders require moisture to remain hydrated, and do best when there is rain around or there are generally wet conditions. After the rains, many of the young spiderlings would have ventured out from the egg sacs and feasted on the excess food around.

I don’t think we need to point out the grasshopper population that has flourished in recent weeks – this is an epic food source for the orb spiders. The persistent rains have resulted in lush green grasses and small shrubs, which is food for the grasshoppers, and they have responded by increasing in abundance. Many wood boring beetles have spiked in numbers, as they breed in wood or under layers of bark, which is easier to bore into when wet. A range of other invertebrates have prospered with the rains as well, and hence the food source for spiders has increased dramatically. In addition, spider webs become stickier and thicker due to the moisture soaked up from rain, which can result in more food being trapped. All these factors result in some very healthy looking spiders indeed! This will be made even more obvious in the following wet period, as healthy spiders will breed more prolifically, resulting in an increase in the spider population. Arachnophobes – beware!

Check out the video of a very large Nephila edulis feasting on a grasshopper at the Land for Wildlife office recently. I had been walking nearby when I spotted the female. My feet moving through the grass stirred several dozen grasshoppers, one of which met its fate in the web of the female. The grasshopper struggled for a few moments before the female pounced, plunged in her fangs and then stood back waiting a moment. After waiting for the grasshopper to stop thrashing in her golden web, the female sat feasting, while her young crawled about around her.

Watch the video below or by clicking here

Nephila edulis female feasting on a grasshopper

Nephila edulis female feasting on a grasshopper

 

Nephila edulis female feasting on a grasshopper

Nephila edulis female feasting on a grasshopper