Double the impact in outback wetlands

Sunday 21 June, 2015

On most days if you could see our Naree Station Reserve, or neighbouring Yantabulla Station, it would be hard to believe the parched outback landscape transforms into one of Australia’s most breathtaking inland wetlands, teeming with water birds.

Black-winged stiltA black-winged stilt, photographed here at Naree, is among the native birds to use these wetlands. Photo Peter Morris.

These properties sit at the heart of the Paroo-Warrego wetlands (the last remaining free-flowing river catchment in the Murray-Darling Basin) about 150km north-west of Bourke in NSW.

In this typically harsh ‘boom and bust’ landscape, where temperatures soar into the high 40s in summer, water is often scarce.

A major rain event – enough to flood the ephemeral wetlands and flip their natural cycle into a ‘boom’ – only happens once every five to ten years. In between it’s a very different story.

A map showing the boundaries of Naree and Yantabulla Station.
A map showing the boundaries of Naree and Yantabulla Station.
Walking into the wetlands when they’re dry, as they are now, is an extraordinary experience. Ancient black box, coolabah trees and elegant yapunyahs are found around the swamp margins. The deeper you go the larger the river wattles and tangled lignum shrubs become. In certain spots you can see dozens of old nesting platforms left behind by previous generations of waterbirds.

All around you are signs of bird activity on a scale that’s at odds with the dry conditions, and a sense that the land is silently waiting for the water to return, when it will transform again.

“At the moment there’s a lot of red sand, silver trees and very dry grass. The heart of it is still wet though,” says Sue Akers. Sue and husband David are our managers at Naree.

Earlier this year we had our first glimpse since Bush Heritage purchased Naree in 2012 of just how quickly these ephemeral wetlands can transform.

Local rain, backed up by falls over 500km away in Queensland, kick started a mini ‘boom’. It took weeks for the rain that fell late last year in the Carnarvon Ranges to creep past Charleville and Cunnamulla, and into the lower reaches of the Warrego River.

Reserve Manager David Akers and PhD student Dana Vickers exploring Yantabulla Station. Photo Sue Akers.

David and Sue were able to watch its arrival on Naree as it inched its way slowly down the Cuttaburra Creek.

“The dry ground is like a sponge,” adds David. “It’s cracking clay and you can watch the water when it runs here, disappear into a crack in the ground for 45 minutes before it fills up and moves on to the next crack. But you get a sense of the parched land drinking and how beneficial that must be.”

Our new partnership

Through an innovative new partnership with South Endeavour Trust, David and Sue have also recently begun managing Yantabulla Station to the south-west of our Naree Reserve.

South Endeavour Trust already owned several conservation properties and when we introduced them to Yantabulla it was a chance to complement Naree. Together the properties protect the entire Back Creek Swamp and the delta of the much larger Yantabulla Swamp – two of the most important water bird breeding and feeding sites in arid Australia.

The glowing reds of a yapunyah tree (Eucalyptus ochrophloia) on Naree. These trees put on a glorious display at Naree and Yantabulla, and only occur over a relatively small area in the Paroo floodplains. Photo Cory Butler.

Tens of thousands of nomadic waterbirds – spoonbills, egrets, ibis, ducks, swans, avocets, stilts, cormorants, grebes, brolgas, pelicans, dotterels – congregate here when conditions are right, and waders, some from as far away as Siberia, stop to feed and refuel in the shallow wetlands.

With skilled land managers already on the ground, it made sense for Bush Heritage to manage Yantabulla Station, in partnership with South Endeavour Trust, as one consolidated reserve with Naree. This more than doubles our conservation footprint in the area, and provides major efficiencies for managing the properties.

David and Sue are relishing the chance to translate their successes at Naree on to Yantabulla Station. Some of their first activities will be reducing the impact of feral animals to help restore vital ground cover in preparation for the next big rain event.

The water that arrived this summer was only about 5 per cent of that needed to spark a major boom, but almost overnight seeds that had been dormant in the red dust and dry clay beds began germinating, producing a lush carpet of native herbs and grasses.

In the swamps, the tangled lignum bushes burst into thousands of delicate white flowers. Frogs, insects and other creatures emerged, producing a cacophony of night-time calls.

It was enough to show the promise of things to come with Naree and Yantabulla Station’s precious ephemeral wetlands now managed together for conservation.

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