Flocking to Boolcoomatta

Monday 20 June, 2011

Removing stock and controlling ferals has led to a staggering increase in native birds at the edge of South Australia's Olary Ranges.

Photo of Boolcoomatta Reserve's Olary Hills. Photo: Wayne LawlerBoolcoomatta Reserve's Olary Hills. Photo: Wayne Lawler

The brown songlark is one of those aptly named birds. The male and female have a dusky brown back, pale brownish-white underparts and a dark brown centre belly. While they may lose out big-time to more garish parrots and lorikeets in the colourful plumage stakes, when they take to the sky there's nothing to rival them.

The male brown songlark is one of the true masters of ‘song flight', continuously singing as he flies and swoops high above his territory. His sound is musical and metallic, ending in a sharp whip crack as he flutters showily towards the ground

The birds return

Photo of Zebra finchesZebra finches. Photo: Wayne Lawler/Ecopix.

The sound of joyous song flight in the sky over Boolcoomatta Reserve is cause for celebration for Bush Heritage donors. For the first time in the four years since Bush Heritage acquired Boolcoomatta Reserve, and thanks largely to your wonderful and unwavering support, brown songlarks and several other native bird species have been recorded on the property.

And the news gets even better. Despite a general trend of decreasing bird populations across Australia, at Boolcoomatta there was a staggering 300% increase in ground-foraging and shrub-dependent native birds between 2006 and 2008. Even after the slight drought-induced decrease in 2009, abundance remained well above 2006 levels.

Reserve Managers, Peter and Emma Ashton, who live in one of Boolcoomatta's historic stone homesteads with their children Jarrah and Indigo, don't have to go far to get up close and personal with some of their feathery charges. 'Around the homestead we're seeing lots of eastern ringnecks, yellow-throated miners, spiny cheeked honeyeaters and zebra finches. They're a noisy bunch,' says Peter.

'We even have a pair of striated pardalotes coming and going from a nest they've built in the wall cavity of one of the other houses. Now you can bird watch without even leaving home!'

'There are plenty of emus too. They come in close and like to take a good look at us and the kids. They're very curious about what we're up to, especially the young ones.'

Bucking the trend

Photo of Cinnamon quail-thrushCinnamon quail-thrush. Photo: Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies

The reason why Bush Heritage has been able to buck the nationwide trend in declining bird numbers on our Boolcoomatta Reserve is simple, says Peter. 'It's down to good land management. And not forgetting the amazing support we get from our donors and tireless volunteers.'

'Boolcoomatta was run as a sheep station for nearly 150 years before Bush Heritage acquired it. When we buy a property, we generally remove any hard-hooved, introduced animals like cattle and sheep to allow the land to recover, and this is exactly what happened at Boolcoomatta.'

'This has led to a huge resurgence in emu bush and native grasses that provide vital habitat for native birds like the rufous fieldwren.'

Bush Heritage ecologist, Sandy Gilmore, is excited by what he's found.

'After five bird surveys, several ground and shrub-feeding species such as the chirruping wedgebill, white-winged fairy wren, and cinnamon quail thrush have had what I can only describe as explosive population increases.'

'The encouraging thing is that these increases occurred before the rains of 2010. Since then we've seen similar increases in grassland birds.'

'Since we de-stocked, many species have also colonised on Boolcoomatta or been recorded for the first time such as the red-capped robin, brown songlark and grey fantail.'

Solving the feral problem

Photo of Oura property gate with Dry's Bluff in backgroundOne of the heritage stone buildings on Boolcoomatta. Photo: Wayne Lawler/Ecopix

'This is really exciting because bird abundance and diversity is a great indicator of the health of ecosystems. It shows we're heading in the right direction.'

Future surveys will reveal the results of recent efforts to control feral animals. Responsibility for these programs lies in the more than capable hands of Peter and Emma.

'On Boolcoomatta our main feral animal problems are rabbits, goats, foxes and cats,' says Peter

'We've been working on the rabbit problem since 2006, with the first couple of years spent mapping and surveying the massive network of over 7000 warrens. Recently, with the help of Bush Heritage volunteers, we've begun breaking down the warrens and fumigating in order to suppress rabbit numbers.'

'We need to control them because they eat seeds and seedlings. Left unchecked, they can denude land and leave it open to erosion.'

Of equal importance is the control of feral predators and Peter says their efforts, particularly with foxes, are paying off.

'Boolcoomatta is largely treeless, so most of the birds live on or close to the ground. This makes them and their nests particularly vulnerable to feral predators.'

'When we first came here, it wasn't hard to spot a fox. But after several years of spotlighting and baiting, they're much rarer. I did a 30km spotlight run with a friend a few nights ago, and we didn't see one. Our neighbours who also went spotlighting on their property at about the same time got 29 foxes over 30 kilometres. We do need to stay vigilant though, because foxes are so mobile. The program has to be ongoing, in order to keep their numbers at bay.'

A collaborative approach

As well as the feral animal control programs Bush Heritage undertakes on its own reserves, it also participates in larger-scale programs with partners, some on a regional basis.

'We're neighbours with Bimbowrie, a South Australian government-managed reserve,' says Peter.

'We're running a joint fox and goat control program with them which is benefiting both reserves.'

Tracking the change

Photo of Doug Humann presenting Bob Brown with a fern grown from Liffey Valley stockOonartra waterhole at dusk. Photo: Wayne Lawler/Ecopix.

It's now down to ecologist Sandy Gilmore and his ongoing bird surveys at Boolcoomatta to determine what further effect feral animal control is having on bird species abundance.

As Sandy says, only time will tell but with your help, Emma and Peter can look forward to hearing even more birdsong from eastern ringnecks, spiny cheeked honeyeaters and chirruping wegdebills at Boolcoomatta.

Boolcoomatta Reserve was acquired in 2006 with the assistance of the Australian Government under the Natural Heritage Trust's National Reserve System Programme and the Nature Foundation SA. Thanks also to the Native Vegetation Council of South Australia for its support of rabbit control and other crucial activities on Boolcoomatta.

By Lucy Ashley

You can help control feral animals

Did you know it was in large part your support that helped to attract bird species back to Boolcoomatta? Sandy, Peter and Emma need your help to continue this vital work at Boolcoomatta, as the ‘boom' cycle reaches its peak following the bountiful rains of 2010.

To continue your support and help our urgent feral animal control programs, donate before 30 June to claim your tax deduction for this financial year.

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