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Come rain or shine

Published 14 Mar 2017 

Braving monsoonal rains and searing heat, PhD student and Bush Heritage Environmental Research Scholarship recipient Justin McCann is unlocking the secrets of Naree Station Reserve.

Justin McCann on Naree Station Reserve. Photo by Kathleen Davies.

When talking about the prospect of flooding at Naree Station Reserve this year, Justin McCann can barely contain his excitement.

“I’ll be putting a boat on the roof of the car, getting as much tinned food as I can and driving out there as soon as possible,” he says with a hint of glee.

His anticipation is understandable — flooding at Naree only happens every eight to ten years. On a reserve receiving just 300mm of erratic rainfall each year on average, seeing its vast wetland network at flood is a rare sight.

It’s an arduous journey from the University of New South Wales, where he studies, in the Sydney suburb of Randwick, to Naree – two days at least, and that’s if the roads haven’t been swallowed by floodwaters. But for Justin, it’s all part of the adventure that comes with studying Environmental Science.

An office like no other

Back Creek Swamp in flood, Naree Station Reserve. Photo by Justin McCann.

Naree Station is a former pastoral property found in one of the least disturbed parts of the Murray-Darling Basin in north-western NSW. It lies in the Mulga Lands Bioregion, 150km north-west of Bourke on the Cuttaburra Channels, which connect the Paroo and Warrego rivers. Its southern boundary is the Cuttaburra Creek, and Yantabulla Swamp adjoins the property to the west.

It’s uncommon to have such a diverse suite of ecosystems in one place, making Naree a unique place to conduct research. When the big wet arrives, the reserve’s ecology goes into overdrive, resulting in an abundance of invertebrate eggs and plant seeds, which lie dormant until the next flood.

It’s here that Justin has spent almost two years researching the boom and bust cycle of wetland flooding and its impact on the landscape — particularly its benefits to the waterbirds and small mammals of Naree.

This year marks the halfway point of Justin’s research and he plans to visit Naree every second month to assess how the smaller floods created by recent generous winter rains have impacted on Naree’s ecology.

“I’ve been looking at three things: the small breeding event of waterbirds that we’ve had recently, the long term flooding patterns of the wetland, and the benefit of these floods and what they provide to other animals in the landscape,” says Justin.

Flooded with life

Great Egret chicks at Yantabulla Swamp. Photo by Brian Redman.

Recently, Justin has been examining waterbird breeding on Naree’s Back Creek Swamp – counting nests, eggs and chicks – to gain an understanding of the ecosystem’s overall health.

“When Yantabulla gets going, it’s one of the top ten wetland waterbird breeding sites in Australia.”

“We're trying to get a sense of how important these small floods are to the bird life in comparison to a big boom.”

Importantly, Justin has also completed comprehensive flood modelling stretching back to the 1970s. Using satellite imagery and historical data, Justin’s research will help Bush Heritage plan for the management of Naree and Yantabulla in the face of future threats, such as climate change.

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