There were certainly a lot of highlights at this year’s Blues for the Bush music festival at Charles Darwin Reserve, but for me, and many other festival-goers, easily one of the stand-out, most-popular events on offer were the ecotours around the reserve.
Picking-up on the ‘culture and conservation’ theme of the wonderful weekend, festival-goers were able to jump on a bus – one departed every 20 minutes – for a 2-hour guided trip around an internal-tracks-loop that took-in some of the vegetation communities on the reserve.
I thoroughly enjoyed being one of the ecologists leading the tours – playing host to about 15-20 visitors at a time – along with another half-dozen or more guides (Bush Heritage staff and volunteers), many of whom have long associations with the reserve.
With useful briefing notes prepared by ecologist Vanessa Westcott, supplemented with additional information and anecdotes from Reserve Manager Will Hansen, long-time Charles Darwin Reserve volunteer Charlie Nicholson, and others, we were all able to provide a constant and informative commentary about the Reserve’s history, ecology and conservation activities throughout the two-hour round trip.
The reserve is about 68,600 hectares, comprising mostly woodlands, heathlands, granite outcrops, salt lakes and Greenstone hills. It’s a ‘hotspot in a hotspot’ – located in the ecologically-fascinating and diverse ‘Transitional Zone’ between the Southwest Australia Global Biodiversity Hotspot and the relatively arid, but equally fascinating Eremaean Province.
The Reserve was purchased by Bush Heritage in 2003 – thanks to a generous donation by Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson: Chris Darwin.
Charles Darwin Reserve was looking fabulous this year, after successive winter rainfalls had resulted in an explosion of wildflowers, with carpets of everlastings disappearing into the distance in every direction. Fortunately, 15 years of no hard-hooved livestock (sheep and goats), and landscape restoration (especially weed and erosion control) helped to ensure the ecotour guides had good stories to tell at each and every turn.
Back in 2003, as a six-year drought crippled the former sheep station, Chris Darwin struggled with the purchase decision, saying: “It was just appalling. I expected to fall in love with it, but it was dusty, and overgrown with weeds. It looked awful, rundown, overgrazed and dry – we were in shock.”
Fortunately, Chris and family and friends have since visited the reserve regularly, including this year, and have rejoiced in the steady recovery of the land into its present beautiful state.
Indicative of that transition, this year there was little dust. In the formerly weedy paddock introduced species were rare – as swathes of white Everlasting Daisies (Cephalipterum drummondii and Rhodanthe chlorocephala) turned the landscape into a carpet of white. Other wildflowers chimed-in to add to the spring explosion of colour, with Pink Everlastings (Schoenia cassiniana), Orange Immortelles (Waitzia acuminata), Yellow Podolepis (Podolepis spp.), Pink Velleia (Velleia rosea), and Pink Parakeelya (Calandrinia sp.) further adding to the palette.
The Reserve’s botanical diversity was further shown-off by rich purples of Firebush (Seringia integrifolia) and Flannel Bush (Solanum lasiophyllum), subtle mauves of Cotton Bush (Ptilotus obovatus), and every other colour of the rainbow via a plethora of other wildflower shrubs and bushes.
The reserve has about 750 taxa of plants (species and sub-species/varieties), and about 240 fauna species, including a few rare and threatened species that warrant special attention.
We showed-off as many of these plants and animals as we could during the tours – stopping on three or four occasions to focus on particular habitats and vegetation communities.
The stops included an ancient York Gum (Eucalyptus loxophleba) woodland – complete with an old, abandoned Wedge-tailed Eagle’s nest; an former station well and muster-point fenced-off by a Native Cypress (Callitris sp.) stubbing fence; and a ‘gabhida’ (the local traditional Aboriginal word for rock hole). Charles Darwin Reserve is in Badimaya country, and the gabhida is a feature of the reserve, and the feature of a great yarn in a previous blog post by Will Hansen – that is well worth reading.
During the Ecotour, our guests were able to get up-close to the well-adapted, parasitic Sandalwood and Quondong trees; old Malleefowl mounds; Mulga Ants' nest ‘fortresses’ and their intriguing arrangement of Acacia phyllodes around the perimeter; and, for the alert and quick-sighted, an occasional glimpse of a Sand Monitor, Dragon Lizard, Pink Cockatoo, or Cockatiel.
We talked about the fragility of the landscape; how long it took for the old eucalypts to form old-growth hollows that provide homes for fauna; the importance of fallen dead wood; the impacts of feral cats and foxes, fire and climate change; and the restorative changes that have taken place across the reserve since Bush Heritage took over in 2003.
There’s evidence of regeneration everywhere, with the Blues for the Bush concert venue site a perfect example. It was once a cleared paddock – cropped to grow oats for station horses – but 30 years without cropping, and 15 years without livestock have left it to regenerate (with a little help from its friends – the amazing Bush Heritage volunteers) into a magnificent wildflower and native grass wonderland. It sure provided a great venue for the festival, and a great start-and-finish conversation-piece for the Ecotours.
I've hardly skimmed over the tip of the iceberg of the ecology of Charles Darwin Reserve with this blog. There's so much more I could tell you about the place and its web-of-life. You’ll just have to make sure you get in early, and book a bus-seat on one of the ecotours at the next Blues for the Bush – in 2020.
See ya there!
Richard is a Bush Heritage volunteer (and member of our Volunteer Advisory Committee), and regular contributor to the ‘Bushie Blog’. You can follow Richard on Twitter: @RichardMcLellan