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).

 

 

 

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.

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)

 

A Colourful Tale (and Tail) of a Skink on the Prowl

I was lucky enough to come across a Three-spined Rainbow Skink (Carlia triacantha) resting on the warm paving tiles recently. They are often somewhat dull in colour, but some are striking with a bright blue head that is indicative of a breeding male. The darker tail in this case is due to regeneration, as it may have lost it in a near-miss with a predator. Upon being sprung, the male flicked his tail in the air and waved it around, while strutted along the pavement. The shaking of tails in skinks and geckos is thought to be a form of communication, when they are excited  about food or when they are searching for a mate. In this case, it is likely to be the latter of the three due to the colouration of the male.

carlia triacantha

Three-spined Rainbow Skink (Carlia triacantha)

You can also watch the short video of the Rainbow Skink walking (sadly, I wasn’t able to capture the tail shaking):

Conservation Ecology of Slater’s Skink

slaterskinktalk

Claire Treilibs has submitted her PhD thesis and would like to present the results to the Alice springs community on Friday week, Dec 16th at 3.30 at CDU lecture theatre in a talk titled Conservation Ecology of Slater’s Skink. This talk will be of interest to many in the community who may have been part of the broader Slater’s Skink surveys over the last few years.

Nibblies will be provided before and after Claire’s talk and the doors open at 3 pm for the 3.30 talk Refreshments will also be provided at the end of the talk for those who would like to stay and help Claire celebrate her thesis submission.

A sombre aspect of the proceedings will be knowledge of the sudden death of Claire’s well respected supervisor Prof Mike Bull from Flinders University in late November. Mike had supervised several students here over the years and had given a talk here on his beloved pygmy bluetongue lizards.

Sand Goanna Spotting

Sand Goannas (Varanus gouldii), also known as Gould’s Monitor and named after the prominent British naturalist, are usually quite sleek looking… Not this guy! This individual was seen sunning itself at the Land for Wildlife office this morning! What an excellent creature!

Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii) getting some morning sun at the Land for Wildlife office.

Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii) getting some morning sun at the Land for Wildlife office.

 

Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii) getting some morning sun at the Land for Wildlife office.

Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii) getting some morning sun at the Land for Wildlife office.