Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Grassy woodland survey

A group of us turned up at the private property at Bannockburn, set to survey a selected area of grassy woodland. And survey it we did. It took all day. Some of us walked the area to see what was growing there, some sampled the water in the creek for saltiness and oxygen levels and dipped the water for its invertebrates, some checked the insect pitfall traps, the mammal traps were checked, we looked and listened for the birds. There were some friendly and interesting discussions during rest breaks about identification of particular species.
It was a hot day and the vegetation showed the effect of many dry years but we saw many different plants flowering, including the nationally vulnerable Clover Glycine Glycine latrobeana. Several orchid species were flowering well - the Tiger Orchid Diuris sulphurea looked very handsome and the Sun-orchids were fully open in the sunshine. (Its exact identity wasn't clear but I think we decided it was the Plain Sun-orchid Thelymitra nuda or a near relative.)

Sun-orchid Thelymitra nuda

Tiger Orchid Diuris sulphurea

A report will be given to the owners and the Catchment Management Authority, and results will be published in the Field Naturalists Club magazine. And the survey group will move on to investigate another private property in the near future. I'm already looking forward to it.
The aim is to build up the bank of knowledge about particular vegetation types on the volcanic plains. It's fun to do, and a terrific way for a novice to learn from the experts.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Grasslands Forever

Only 1% of the original vegetation on Victoria's volcanic plain remains, on roadsides, cemeteries, stock routes and in areas on private land that have been grazed but not cropped. Thankfully the volcanic nature of the plain meant that some areas have been impossible to plough.
The plains once supported a complex community of tussocks of Kangaroo Grass and other tussock grasses interspersed with a variety of lilies, orchids, daisies and other small herbs – 600 different species probably.
There is not enough effort being made to protect what we have left, and the loss of species and habitat is still happening. Even in reserved areas there are incremental losses of diversity over the years. Only the hardy plants are surviving because of changed fire regimes, weeds, man-made chemicals in soil and air, even climate change have an effect. And now we have machines that are capable of crushing the rocks on the plains, so we lose the fauna that use the rocks as shelter. Remnants need to be fenced and managed – strategic grazing, avoiding the use of fertilisers, weed control, a fire regime.
How can we make grasslands sexy? A lot of great work is being done by farmers, the Landcare organisation, Trust for Nature, Land for Wildlife. But a lot of the work involves planting trees and shrubs. Plains don't have trees and shrubs. And it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to re-establish a grassland. We have to put money and effort into preserving what is left.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Blog Action Day

Tomorrow is Blog Action Day and thousands all over the world are participating.

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Cemetery visit

There was a time when the only, apart from the obvious, reason I went into a cemetery was for family history research. I've spent a lot of time in cemeteries, checking out the headstones and burial places of my ancestors, transcribing headstones for databases, leading guided cemetery walks.
My fellow genealogists laughed at me when I occasionally took my binoculars to country cemeteries to observe interesting birds, but I never really noticed what was underfoot until after I became aware of the plant world (as opposed to the bird world). Then it gradually dawned on me that country cemeteries are often little remnants of what the vegetation used to be like in a particular district. They haven't been ploughed and planted with crops of grasses, they are usually far bigger than necessary for their designated business, they are slashed occasionally and that suits the Australian herbs and grasses. Neglect has been the perfect management tool. Now when I visit a cemetery I am more often there to look at the vegetation than for any other purpose.
Today I went to the Anakie Wildflower Show, a good display of the huge range of plants that grow in the Brisbane Ranges north-east of Geelong. With time to spare I, and many other visitors, decided to check out some of the wildflowers on tracks and roadsides. Almost the whole of the Brisbane Ranges has been burnt in the last couple of summers but the wildflowers have responded well. Many of the peas were flowering, as well as daisies, lomandras, orchids, bluebells – the bush was putting on a show.

Golden Grevillea

Then I went to the Steiglitz Cemetery. The fires missed this area and it has always been worth a visit. Today I found the lovely Golden Grevillea Grevillea chrysophaea flowering, Flying Duck Orchids, the pink-flowering Heath Teatree (growing along the ground because of the slashing), Many-flowered Mat-rush Lomandra multiflora, Tiny Drosera Drosera pygmaea, Bent Goodenia Goodenia geniculata and the white flowers of Blunt Everlastings Argentipallium obtusifolium.

Flying Duck Orchid

Tiny Drosera

Blunt Everlasting

Bent Goodenia

Friday, 12 October 2007

Grey's country today

George Grey (later Sir) was a fascinating man and his story is quite amazing. After he left Western Australia he became Governor of South Australia, New Zealand, Cape Colony (South Africa) and again New Zealand. Then he became a member of parliament and severed a term as Premier of New Zealand. He was autocratic and radical but held a deep respect for indigenous peoples.

Here I mention only one incident in his life – an expedition along the coast of Western Australia when he was a young bloke.

After mishaps, miscalculations and misfortunes his party of ten men rowed in two whale boats down the coast from the Gascoyne River area (near present-day Carnarvon). On April Fools Day 1839 both boats were damaged beyond repair as Grey and his party attempted to land during heavy seas near what we now know is the Murchison River mouth at Kalbarri. They had to walk the 500 kms to Perth over unexplored country and they had very little food. Grey published an account of the whole experience, and described the countryside. His description of the Murchison:
…one of the most romantic and picturesque estuaries I have yet seen: its shores abounded with springs, and were bordered by native paths, whilst the drooping foliage of several sorts of Casuarina, the number of wild swans on its placid bosom … imparted to the whole scene a quiet and a charm…

Murchison estuary at Kalbarri

The Murchison estuary is still beautiful, but we didn't see any swans. The Kalbarri National Park preserves most of the country surrounding the lower parts of Murchison River but Kalbarri itself, on the estuary, is in danger of spoiling itself by allowing too much development. At nearby Red Rock we noticed a large patch of land cleared of native vegetation and landscaped for new houses.

Clearing for development at Kalbarri

Grey and his party walked south, often using Aboriginal tracks through the scrub, often desperately searching for water and food. Because of the difficulties Gray pushed the reluctant men to walk long distances each day – they wanted to walk and rest, walk and rest. Grey named this 'bare, sterile and barren' area Gairdner Range. It includes Mt Lesueur. His description of this area near Jurien and Cervantes:

…elevated undulating sandy plains, covered with a thick prickly scrub, about two and a half feet high; these plains were however occasionally studded with a few Banksia trees, but anything more dark, cheerless, and barren than their general appearance, can hardly be conceived.

Mt Lesueur

Mt Lesueur was one of most amazing places we visited. It does have the cheerless appearance that Grey talked about but it is now a national park, and is a mecca for botanists and scientists. It has a very diverse population of plants. On the sign at the carpark it stated that 60% of the plants recorded on Mt Lesueur are different to those on Mt Michaud on 1.5 km away. When we were there last week I was amazed at how many different species of plants were flowering, and that was just beside the road in and the track to the top of Mt Lesueur. I am definitely going back, and for longer.

Mt Lesueur

Reference: Grey (1841) Expeditions in Western Australia 1837-1839 Vol. 2

Breathe easy

We had a road reference but the map we were using wasn't very detailed. The general reference was Yalgorup National Park, Lake Clifton south of Mandurah. Lake Clifton is very long and narrow so that wasn't much help.

So I thought that if we went to the general vicinity there would be signs to the significant thrombolites that are in the lake, but it turned out not to be the case. The actual sign, when we found it, was quite small and the road we were directed on to (Mount John Road) wound around in a suburban-type area, and there were no more signs to indicate whether we were in fact on the right track. Then the road changed to a dirt track through melaleucas and we were suddenly at the car park. They don't exactly encourage eco-tourists at Mandurah.

Lake Clifton is a coastal freshwater lake and apparently has the largest living thrombolite reef in the southern hemisphere. The rock-like formations, up to 1.3 m high, stretch in a wide band up to six kilometres along the bed of the lake. They are formed by microbes at a rate of about 1 mm a year, and differ from the famous stromatolites in Shark Bay in that they have a clotted internal organisation (think of 'thrombosis'). The stromatolites have a laminated or layered organisation.

Thrombolites, Lake Clifton

The organisms are responsible for the life on earth as we know it really, because for millions of years they were the only known form of life, existing in the shallow seas. Oxygen in the atmosphere increased from 1% to 21% because the micro-organisms precipitate calcium carbonate from water as they photosynthesise and in the process leak oxygen into the air. At Lake Clifton the thrombolites are still living because of upwellings of fresh groundwater high in calcium carbonate.

Boardwalk, Lake Clifton

The side-trip in to Lake Clifton to see the thrombolites was worth the time and trouble. There is a very informative information board in the carpark, and there is a boardwalk so the fragile formations can be viewed easily without doing any damage. We visited in September and the water level was high but we could still see them easily. Apparently a visit in late summer when the water level has dropped would be fantastic – I have seen wonderful photos of the exposed mounds. So…take a deep breath and thank the millions of organisms that contributed to Earth's oxygen supply.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Tammar tales

A long chain of islands and shoals form the Houtman Abrolhos. The Abrolhos, as they are commonly called, are well-known for stunning corals, birds, lobsters and for being the site, in 1629, of the Batavia shipwreck and subsequent massacres.

The lobster season is a short and profitable, and many of the families involved move out to the Abrolhos for the three months. Shack communities with associated jetties have been built on a few of the islands. One has a church, and there is a school on North Island.

North Island, Abrolhos

In recent years several Tammar Wallabies were taken by fisherman to their fishing village on North Island. The Tammar Wallaby is so cute, with little legs like the Quokka on Rottnest Island. It used to be much more common across the west and south of Australia but is now much rarer. They still exist naturally on two of the Abrolhos islands - some of the shipwrecked passengers of the Batavia survived because of the existence of water and the wallabies on West Wallabi Island.

Tammar Wallaby

The wallabies liked their new home on North Island– there was water, a lot of low vegetation (their preferred habitat) and extra food treats from the fishing families. Their numbers increased tremendously and the result has been devastating on the environment. Several fenced-off plots have been established to illustrate and study the effects of the over-grazing, and now the wallabies are being removed from the island completely.

Tammar-proof fence

On our recent visit to North Island we saw the wallabies, even though they are nocturnal, and the effect they are having on the vegetation. Thankfully the control measures are not too late. The vegetation will recover.

A desert beauty

From our base in Geraldton on the coast of Western Australia we headed east, to look for rugged landscapes and swathes of paper daisies and other wildflowers. We drove east all day, stopping at Ellendale Pool and Coalseam Park and stopping to look at anything that caught our eye in between.

Driving is not the ideal way to look at wildflowers - even at slow speed it's easy to miss even the big colourful plants when your head is turned to one side - but it does allow you to travel big distances when you have limited time. There are always discussions as to whether it's worth turning back to check out something glimpsed. We had a great day and saw some fantastic country and wildflowers.

But then, the icing on the cake! In a tourist brochure I had read that it might be worth asking at the Canna Store for information about wildflowers in the area. It was late in the day and we were only about 20 km from Canna. We decided to give it a go because I really wanted to see the famous Wreath Flower Lechenaultia macrantha and this was really our only chance. As we pulled up in front of the little store I thought we were going to be disappointed because it was shut. But then we noticed the little blackboard and checked it out – directions to campsites, wildflower sites and, most importantly, the Wreath Flower. How friendly is that?

Canna Store

It was even later in the day, and the sun was just above the horizon. We followed the directions, driving slowly along Evaside Road north of Morawa looking left and right. Then I spotted the first plant and Phil spotted the markers some previous tourist had put on the side of the road, and I was out of the car before it came to a stop really.

Lechenaultia macrantha

Lechenaultia macrantha

Lechenaultia macrantha

There were about 50 plants in full flower growing between the road and the railway line. Why would such a lovely plant choose such an inhospitable place to grow? I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the lechenaultias, the colours of the environment, the effects of the late afternoon light. I took as many photos as I could before the light faded.

Then we turned west and drove over 200 km back to Geraldton in the dark. I wonder how many great plants and vistas I missed.