Bush Heritage staff members Julian Fennessy, Paul Foreman and Murray Haseler explain the remarkable event that brought life back to Ethabuka.
The homestead 'lake'. Photo Julian Fennessy.
‘While rain in the desert is always reason for celebration, the next rain that falls on Ethabuka should, by any reckoning, cause a riot.’
These were the prophetic words written by Bush Heritage ecologist Murray Haseler in Bush Heritage News, Summer 2003. On June 11 this year, after several years of drought, and on the weekend of the inaugural Bush Heritage field trip for supporters, the clouds rolled in at Ethabuka and the skies opened.
Murray Haseler, Julian Fennessy and 15 others, both guests and staff, witnessed this once-in-a-lifetime event – and for longer than they expected. Over the following week approximately 125mm (five inches) of rain fell in what proved to be the epicentre of the mid-dry-season downpour.
Sandy depressions turned into lakes, roads into watercourses and dry creek beds into rivers. The view from the homestead changed. A vast shallow lake appeared, two square kilometres in area, its surface decorated with hundreds of tiny emergent islands of parched vegetation and soil.
Yellow tops Othonno gregorii. Photo Katrina Blake.
The signs of renewal for the desert began almost instantaneously. Footprints and droppings of red kangaroos, not seen recently, appeared at the edges of the ephemeral pools. Burrowing desert spadefoot toads dug their way out of subterranean dormancy, ate off their protective saliva coatings and got on with it.
Frog spawn appeared, floating in glutinous masses on the pools. Tiny green shoots of germinating seeds emerged along the fine contours of the pools and across the plains, heralding a spectacular blooming of wildflowers.
The small desert rodents such as the desert mouse and spinifex hopping mouse will soon start to breed and their marsupial predators will respond later in spring. The recovery of these animal populations will take time as their current numbers are low after years of drought and the effects of cattle grazing. Those that have survived will begin to breed up again under the cover of a carpet of spring wildflowers.
It's six weeks since the rain and the renaissance of Ethabuka is in full swing. Photo Katrina Blake.
Although our desert-like landscapes appear ‘dead’ to most people, in fact they're full of life. Most of the time they lie in wait for an opportunity such as this. Their activity is episodic, concentrated into the short periods of plenty. When the rain comes, it triggers a frenzy of growth and reproduction and the explosion of animal populations.
For a long time at Ethabuka, cattle have been the beneficiaries of the abundance resulting from weather events such as this. Now it's the turn of the locals. The pulse of vegetation now sprouting will, for the first time in many decades, contribute its goodness to the native animals and birds. In the months to come, the recovery of the landscape and its wildlife will be nothing short of spectacular.
Sadly, reserve managers Al Dermer and Karen Harrland, who toiled through the heat and dust of summer, were not there to witness this momentous rain event. However, what has arisen from their short sojourn away from the reserve matches the miracle of that observed in the desert – new life! (Our congratulation to Karen and Al on the arrival of their baby girl Asha. All are doing well.)
Ethabuka lies in the sand dune country of the Simpson Desert in far-western Queensland. Bush Heritage purchased the 214 000 hectare lease in 2004 to protect its outstanding small mammal and reptile populations, at risk from the expansion of the pastoral industry. Cattle were removed from the property at the time of its purchase.