Pitter, patter, Boolcoomatta: raindrops and saltbushes in arid South Australia.

on 19 Oct 2015 

Confusion rains at Boolcoomatta…

Fat and scattered, the first raindrops confused me. They sounded like the resident possum that's been galloping around the shearers quarters ceiling. Then the storm cloud broke, and you couldn’t pick one tin-roof drop from the next. It’s raining at Boolcoomatta, a Bush Heritage reserve with an average annual rainfall of 190 mm. After days of hot weather and strong winds, the smell of rain is heavenly.

Studying saltbushes and admiring annuals

I’ve been at Boolcoomatta for 12 days now. It’s my second trip to the South Australian reserve, the case study for my Master of Science (Botany) research project. It’s vast, beautiful, and contains more than 30 species from the family Chenopodiaceae (aka chenopods or saltbushes). I love the place.

Like last year, I’m helping Bush Heritage with vegetation surveys on Boolcoomatta. I also surveyed saltbush shrublands on four properties next door to Boolcoomatta—Bimbowrie Conservation Park, Kalkaroo and two sheep stations: Bindarah and Kalabity. I’ve set up these control sites to investigate how much change in the cover of perennial chenopods is due to Boolcoomatta’s management actions (destocking sheep, ripping rabbit warrens, etc.) and how much is due to other variables like rainfall and soil type. Luckily, that isolated downpour didn’t hinder our surveys—spring winds quickly evaporated any water that had puddled on the 63,000 ha reserve. 

Given Boolcoomatta’s size and isolation, I couldn’t do fieldwork alone. So I enlisted the help of the best volunteers around–my sister, Anna, and my dad, Graham. Growing up on a farm in western Queensland, the Cranney clan have spent countless hours working outside together. We’ve mustered together. We’ve lamb-marked together. We’ve walked for miles along fence lines. We’ve checked firebreaks in the dead of night. Heck, we’ve even stick-picked together.

So I knew we’d be a stellar vegetation survey team. Little did I suspect my family’s secret botanical skills—no sooner had I laid the 50m survey tape than Anna and dad were rattling off Latin plant names like Linnaeus himself. (A slight exaggeration, but I was impressed, nonetheless.) Spending quality time with my family in the bush has been the best part of this trip.

Other highlights…

  • Oodles of wildflowers blooming. We saw lilies, tiny tufted daisies, rushes, abundant eremophila and saltbush seedlings amongst cryptogammic crust.
  • Swimming in the dam after a hot day’s work (glorious!) and catching yabbies with the Dermer family ye olde fashioned way — a stick, string and a hunk of meat.
  • Yarning with John, John, Geoff and Trevor, the conservation shooters that I met last year. They are kind, generous men, and some of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. 
  • The seafood feast that John Borg cooked up for a 15-strong group of major donors, ecologists, shooters, volunteers and Bush Heritage staff. Laughter and chatter ricocheted around the room for hours. It was a great night.
  • Seeing a wedge-tailed eagle chick, shingleback lizards, bearded-dragons, a huge king brown snake and a plains turkey.
  • And, of course, that sound of rain on a hot tin roof.

Thanks to…

This was my second and final fieldwork trip to Boolcoomatta. I'm grateful to the neighbouring property owners for allowing me access to their land and offering valuable suggestions on my research. Thanks also to Glen Norris, Sandy Gilmore and Al and Karen Dermer, for making me welcome on Boolcoomatta. Lastly, a hearty thanks to Anna and Graham Cranney for agreeing to measure Maireanas with me.