Woodland foragers

Published 10 Sep 2018 

Tarcutta Hills Reserve provides vital foraging habitat for the Swift Parrot and other woodland birds, but ensuring it continues to do so in the future will require forward-planning and fast action.

Blue-faced Honeyeater in the Tarcutta region, NSW. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.
Blue-faced Honeyeater in the Tarcutta region, NSW. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.
"I was just in awe of what I was seeing… and it’s refreshing. It gives you hope to see places like this being protected,” says Dr Debra Saunders, Swift Parrot expert and ANU researcher.

Debra has just returned from surveying the 432-hectare Tarcutta Hills Reserve, in south-central NSW, for the critically endangered Swift Parrot, which migrates north from Tasmania during the winter months to forage on flowering eucalypts in south-eastern Australia.

The Grassy White Box Woodland found on Tarcutta Hills contains trees that flower consistently during these months, making them a relatively reliable source of food for the parrots. But across NSW, less than 5% of these woodlands remain in good condition, and many other woodland communities have suffered similar fates.

Almost 90% of Australia’s temperate woodlands have been lost since European settlement, and about one in five woodland bird species are threatened as a result.

Ecologist Matt Appleby at Tarcutta Hills Reserve. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Ecologist Matt Appleby at Tarcutta Hills Reserve. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Walking amongst the magnificent stands of White Box, Red Box and Mugga Ironbark trees on Tarcutta Hills is like going back in time. The surrounding landscape has been largely cleared for agriculture, but by some twist of fate Tarcutta Hills was still relatively intact when Bush Heritage acquired it in 1999.

Today, the reserve is a vital refuge for many woodland birds that are disappearing from other parts of Australia: aside from Swift Parrots, it's home to Hooded Robins, Painted Honeyeaters, Superb Parrots, Brown Treecreepers, Diamond Firetails, and more.

Today, the reserve is a vital refuge for many woodland birds that are disappearing from other parts of Australia.

Swift Parrot. Photo Chris Tzaros/Birds, Bush and Beyond.
Swift Parrot. Photo Chris Tzaros/Birds, Bush and Beyond.
“You can’t help but think, ‘Wow, this is what woodland communities can look like’,” says Bush Heritage senior ecologist Dr Matt Appleby. “Along the creek line you see these beautiful patches of White Box… and if you walk further up the slope you get to the huge, black trunks of the Mugga Ironbark. The Muggas have these enormous, spreading canopies, and when they’re in flower they can be quite noisy with all the birds coming in to feed.”

“The nice thing about the reserve is it has both habitat types, [providing the Swift Parrot] with food over a longer period of time than sites that only have one of those species,” says Debra.

A handful of eucalypt seeds that will help us ensure ongoing woodland habitat. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
A handful of eucalypt seeds that will help us ensure ongoing woodland habitat. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Preserving Tarcutta Hills has not been as simple as purchasing the reserve and letting it be; conservation today requires constant management. Matt, Bush Heritage Reserve Manager Phil Palmer, and other staff and volunteers travel to the reserve several times a year to control weeds, ensure the fences that keep neighbouring stock out are maintained, and keep an eye on fox and feral deer numbers. They also conduct regular surveys for threatened species and monitor the overall condition of the woodland.

Controlling feral deer takes up a lot of their time. The deer nibble on the tender new growth of young eucalypts and damage their trunks by rubbing their antlers against them. Staying on top of their numbers “is not straight-forward”, says Matt, and requires patience and persistence, as well as working alongside neighbouring property owners.

But now, a new threat to Tarcutta’s woodland is emerging: tree dieback due to climate change. By 2090, modelling shows that Tarcutta’s climate will more closely resemble the climates of lower-rainfall areas further north such as Dubbo and Parkes.

If that eventuates, it’s likely many of the trees, and therefore birds, on Tarcutta Hills would suffer. And while Matt hasn’t seen any clear evidence of dieback on the reserve yet, he has noticed what he calls “early warning signs” in other parts of south-eastern Australia.

Ecologist Matt Appleby amongst the woodlands at Tarcutta Hills Reserve. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Ecologist Matt Appleby amongst the woodlands at Tarcutta Hills Reserve. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
In preparation for such a future, Bush Heritage is planning to revegetate a small part of the reserve with ‘non-local provenance seedlings’ – germinated from Mugga Ironbark and White Box seed taken from drier regions of NSW – as well as local provenance seedlings of the same species.

The hope is that the seedlings taken from drier climates will be better adapted to cope with Tarcutta’s drier future. As Matt says: “It doesn’t mean we expect that these non-local provenance trees will take over. What we actually expect to see is the pollen of those trees mixing with what’s already there and improving, in the long-run, the genetic stock of the area.”

For the Swift Parrot, as well as many other birds, this forward-planning could prove vital. When dieback does occur on the reserve, the birds will need alternative trees in which they can forage and nest immediately. And since it takes many decades for a seedling to reach that point of maturity, there’s no time to waste.

“We’ve got to get started and do something now,” says Matt. “There are 14 threatened bird species on Tarcutta Hills that depend on eucalypts. If those eucalypts suddenly or gradually disappear, then what happens to your bird population? They will also disappear.”

Funding for the planting of non-local provenance species on Tarcutta Hills comes from the NSW Environmental Trust’s ‘Saving Our Swift Parrot’ project.

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