Close encounters

Published 04 Oct 2017 

Spend enough time amongst Boolcoomatta Station Reserve’s sweeping native grasslands, and you could be lucky enough to encounter a Plains-wanderer.

Boolcoomatta Station Reserve, SA. Photo Geoff Pinney.
Boolcoomatta Station Reserve, SA. Photo Geoff Pinney.
There are estimated to be less than 1,000 of these small, ground-dwelling birds left in the wild today. Native to the grasslands of south­eastern Australia, they are critically endangered.

In the past, there have been only a few recordings of Plains-wanderers on Boolcoomatta, in South Australia. So you can imagine science intern Emily Matthews’ surprise when one ran in front of her as she was driving across the property.

Slamming on the brakes to let it pass, Emily counted herself lucky to have seen the rare bird at all. But then, just a few hundred metres further down the road, she spotted a second.

“Our first thought was, ‘What’s happening here?’” recalls the Federation University graduate. “We couldn’t believe it. One night we found a female and then we found a male nearby, so we assume they're a pair. We also found an active nest with eggs,” she says.

Overall, Emily recorded eight Plains-wanderers during her three months on reserve – more than have ever been recorded there before.

“The excitement in having these grassland birds fly low in front of you is very special. Just think - Bush Heritage staff and volunteers, who have spent countless hours out there, have only ever seen a handful of these birds,” says Emily.

A critically endangered Plains-wanderer. Photo Lachlan Hall.
A critically endangered Plains-wanderer. Photo Lachlan Hall.
A landscape in repair

Plains-wanderers were once found from Victoria through to Queensland. But changes to the extent and density of native grasslands have seen their numbers plummet. As such, the very existence of Plains-wanderers on Boolcoomatta is a positive sign that this former sheep station is in repair.

Bush Heritage has managed Boolcoomatta, the traditional country of the Adnyamathanha and Wilyakali people, for over 10 years. During that time, we've focused on restoring the land’s natural ability to support native plants and animals.

Staff and volunteers have spent countless hours implementing regional control programs for invasive weeds, feral goats, cats, foxes and rabbits; improving soil quality and halting erosion; and reestablishing natural waterways.

Seeing the results of this hard work take effect has required patience; few things happen quickly in such a dry landscape. But according to Emily, our patience is starting to pay off.

“There are no quick fixes in an arid environment like this, so improvement takes time. But we’re starting to see some really pleasing results,” she says.

A Yellow-footer Rock-wallaby. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
A Yellow-footer Rock-wallaby. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
In the final days of Emily’s internship, she spotted a threatened Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby – the fourth individual recorded on the reserve this year.

Glen Norris, Healthy Landscapes Manager for Victoria and South Australia, says the regular sightings are signs that the species is making a resurgence, after the local population suffered significant declines as recently as 1981.

“While we’re not certain these weren’t the same individuals, it does point to the prospect of a new colony trying to establish at Boolcoomatta, where they were once widespread,” he says.

“In the next 10 years or so, we believe they'll re-populate Boolcoomatta. It’s a testament to the commitment Bush Heritage supporters and staff have shown to this landscape.”

Boolcoomatta’s Mulga woodlands are regenerating, too. When Bush Heritage took over management of the reserve, the combined impact of rabbits, sheep and feral goats meant Mulga seedlings were struggling to survive. With those threats now being managed and controlled, these tall, sparse shrubs are reappearing in the landscape at a striking rate.

Their presence will provide shelter for other species, and help put nutrients back into the soil. Already, we're recording increases in shrub-dependent birds such as the Cinnamon Quail-thrush, Rufous Field-wren and Chirruping Wedgebill.

Bush Heritage science intern Emily Mathews. Photo Dianne Davies.
Bush Heritage science intern Emily Mathews. Photo Dianne Davies.
Planning for the future

While these results are certainly cause for celebration, Boolcoomatta is far from out of the woods.

Feral cats continue to pose a threat to native species there, and climate change will put more pressure on the land in years to come. Yet, Glen remains upbeat. Research like Emily’s allows him to continuously adjust and adapt his management practices, and he says this is crucial to achieving further progress.

“You plan what to do. Then you monitor. Then you evaluate and say, ‘is there anything we could do better?’

“We now have a very strong sense of our targets on Boolcoomatta, which means we can address threats in a clear, methodical way.”

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