Burn-off at Bujwa Bay

The only trouble with living in paradise (apart from the long commute) is combustibility.  Our gorgeous view – mile after mile of incendiary eucalypts.  So the still, dry days and nights of autumn were thick with smoke, not from the big bad one we’re dreading, but hazard reduction burns in the bush all round the town.

Last time I went down to Bujwa Bay, it was the kind of cool and breathless day that must make the Rural Fire Service very very happy.   Mist hovered over the water in a bright line of morning light.  Forty minutes of silent paddling past the sleeping celebrities of Berowra Waters and I was round Oaky Corner and into the sunshine.

In the quiet there was a cryptic crunching noise.   Eventually, I spotted the pair of glossy black-cockatoos hidden amongst at the shore-line casuarinas.  My sense of being some kind of bird whisperer evaporated when, after fifteen minutes fooling around trying to get a decent shot of the cockies, I looked up to meet the eye of a bloody great big white-bellied sea eagle sitting directly above me.  And then, just round the corner, his pal taking in the rays.  They’re not stupid these birds, parked in the sunniest spot on the bay.

Having bonded with the local bird-life, when I heard about the burn-off, I was worried.   What happens to it all when the bush goes up in smoke?

Bujwa bay wide view 2 best small

Egg the kayak entering Bujwa Bay after the burn-off

Drooping bark and grasstrees for crop square

Back-burnt grasstrees at Bujwa Bay

It’s not all bad news.

Harry Rechter describes  birds enjoying a feast during a controlled burn in Brisbane Waters National Park, not so far from here.
“Although fuel loads in the… heath and woodland were high, and flames soared above the tallest trees and shrubs, birds moved easily in front of and above the fire to appear minutes later on the blackened vegetation to feed on less fortunate insects and small lizards”.
I missed the raptors and the insectivores that no doubt turned up at Bujwa Bay at the first sign of smoke, looking for Cajun-style chow. But chances are these blackened grasstrees will be bursting into flower next time I paddle by.  I might see lyrebirds too, raking newly formed clearings.  Ground-feeders and grain-eaters – corellas for instance – return in force after fires have passed.  The little insectivores – thornbills, wrens and robins – that build nests close to the ground don’t miss the scorched canopy, and enjoy the bugs that flourish on the flush of new growth.  The carbonised shrubbery might even give me the chance of catching a blurry LBB or two on film.
Burnt crown and cliff

After the burn-off: partly scorched eucalypts

It’s a nice idea to think that the burn-offs that protect the town are a boon for the local plants and animals too.   And there’s a euphonious catchphrase that goes with that idea: “pyrodiversity begets biodiversity”. Fire incinerates the garden escapes and wakes the soilbank’s astounding store of dormant seeds. If we burn little and often, it’s been thought, we make a mosaic of habitats: patches of open space and newly germinating seeds; places burnt a few years back; and refuges long unburnt, full of craggy trees, hollow logs and dense undergrowth.

Pyrodiversity is popular amongst land management folks, and there’s some evidence that it works, at least in some places.  But not everyone buys the story that the frequent fires that protect people and property suit other critters too. Out in the mallee, near where I grew up, a fire and biodiversity project run by Deakin and LaTrobe universities has been laboriously checking the idea out.

For all the mallee’s underground lignotubers, ready to reshoot after fire, other parts of the ecosystem – large stretches of spinifex grass, for one, that shelter dragons and legless lizards – can take fifty or more years to return after a burn.  All of which makes me feel tremendously guilty about the swiftly abandoned spinifex-covered cubbies that my brother and sister and I used to make in the mallee scrub out the back of our house.  We will never know how many now-extinct species we displaced.

Away from regrets about the trail of ecological devastation I left in childhood and back to burn-off related angst. The research in these arid areas suggests it’s not pyrodiversity that’s important for a species-rich environment but having enough country that’s reached the right stage of maturity since the last fire.  As a person in mid-life, it pleases me to say that older vegetation often seems to sustain more species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including the rare ones. Even birds that like paddocks and open plains prefer unburnt land.  Some reptiles favour recently fired landscapes, but plant communities that haven’t been burnt for a decade or two harbor the richest variety of lizards and snakes.

I tried and failed to find the experts on biodiversity and fire on Hawkesbury sandstone.  But researchers studying both subtropical Queensland and foothill forests in Victoria said similar things.  A varied landscape is important, but

the richness of frugivore, insectivore and canopy forager assemblages is driven by the presence of structurally complex vegetation and old-growth canopy trees, which are more likely to be present in areas that have not experienced fire for a prolonged period of time (Burgess 2016)

Paston and colleagues put their conclusion bluntly: “prescribed fire is of little utility for the broadscale conservation of biodiversity” (2011, 3238).

And it seems, for birds at least, smaller patches of unburnt country won’t really do – it’s larger areas that haven’t seen fire for a while that are rich in species.  One bunch of researchers found that little islands of older habitat surrounded by new growth was grabbed by one or two aggressive predatory or colonial birds, rather than harbouring lots of different critters.  One recent paper, written about arid areas, sum it up:

Our results suggest a shift in current fire management thinking… is needed, away from a focus on creating small, unburnt patches towards preserving large, intact, unburnt areas (Berry 2015 493)

Burnt crown and dark silhouette from distance

What does all this mean for Bujwa Bay?

There was nothing moving in the incinerated trees on the ridgeline as I made my way up the creek at high tide, but then, it was early and damn chilly.  Even the herons had given up on fishing and were huddled in the trees, keeping their feet dry.

But the damp fringes of the mangroves were alive with silvereyes and yellow-faced honeyeaters, and I heard the plunk of a sacred kingfisher diving for breakfast.  Gullies are especially valuable habitats for birds at the best of times.  If they’re protected from fire by burning on the slopes nearby they can be an even better retreat when that big one comes.  The top of the creek was lush and green. I can only guess that the rangers and RFS know what they’re doing.

White faced heron in tree 2 square

Chilly looking white-faced heron

In the light of recent research, Taylor and his colleagues comment dryly “current fire management for avifaunal conservation may require substantial refinement” (Taylor, 2012, 525).

But let’s not fool ourselves.  Around here at least, fire management is not for the avifauna.  It’s for me, and people like me, who choose to live high on a hill, surrounded by the beautiful, burnable bush.

Additional references.  Because the whole thing is really is quite complicated and you might want to check I didn’t get it totally wrong.

Berry, L. Lindenmeyer, D, Driscoll, D. (2015) “Large unburnt areas, not small unburnt patches, are needed to conserve avian diversity in fire-prone landscapes” Journal ofApplied Ecology Vol 52 Issue 2

Burgess, Emma, and Maron, Martine (2016) “Does the response of bird assemblages to fire mosaic properties vary among spatial scales and foraging guilds?” Landscape Ecology March 2016, Volume 31, Issue 3,pp 687–699

Doty, A., Stawski, C, Nowack, J., Bondarenco, A. (2015) “Increased lyrebird presence in a post-fire landscape” Australian Journal of Zoology 63,9–11

Hope Ben (2012) “Short-term response of the long-nosed bandicoot, Perameles nasuta, and the southern brown bandicoot, Isoodon obesulus obesulus, to low-intensity prescribed fire in heathland vegetation” Wildlife Research 39(8) 731-744

Korczynskyj, Luke and Byron B. Lamont (2005) “Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) recovery after fire in two seasons and habitats” Australian Journal of Botany, 53 509-515

Kelly, Luke T. Andrew F. Bennett, Michael F. Clarke, and Michael A. McCarthy (2015) “Optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservationConservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 2, 473–485

Lindenmayer, David B., Wade Blanchard, Lachlan McBurney, David Blair, Sam C. Banks, Don A. Driscoll, Annabel L. Smith and A. M. Gill (2014) “Complex responses of birds to landscape-level fire extent, fire severity and environmental driversDiversity and Distributions 20, 467–477

Nimmo, D, Kelly, L., Spence-Bailey, L, Watson, S.J. Taylor, R.S., Clarke, M.F and Bennett, A.F. (2012) “Fire Mosaics and Reptile Conservation in a Fire-Prone Region” Conservation Biology 27 (12)

Pastro, Louise L., Christopher R. Dickman and Mike Letnic (2011) “Burning for biodiversity or burning biodiversity? Prescribed burn vs. wildfire impacts on plants, lizards and mammals”  Ecological Applications Vol. 21, No. 8, pp. 3

Robinson, Natasha, Leonard, Steven, Bennett, Andrew, Clarke, Michael (2016) “Are forest gullies refuges for birds when burnt? The value of topographical heterogeneity to avian diversity in a fire-prone landscape” Biological Conservation 200, pp.1-7

Sitters, Holly , Di Stefano, Julian, Christie, Fiona, Swan, Matthew, York, Alan (2016) “Bird functional diversity decreases with time since disturbance” Ecological Applications, 26(1), pp. 115–127

Smith, Annabel, C.Michael Bull, Don Driscoll (2013) “Successional specialization in a reptile community cautions against widespread planned burning and complete fire suppression”Journal of Applied Ecology 2013, 50, 1178–118

Thinking like a bird

One of the things I love about my regular walk to the the train station is the chance to check out the critters’ daily routines while I’m in the midst of mine.  I’m an everyday intruder, just passing through.  Through the carpark behind the panel beaters’ shed where the glossy black cockatoos do their acrobatics.   Over the slimy patch on the footpath that used to lure eastern waterdragons out to play chicken in the traffic (I stress “used to”. Sad face). Past the carefully tended brush turkey mound in the scrub by the library and round the the blind corner where butcherbirds find their roadkill.  So far I’ve never seen them pecking at the flattened remains of kids on skateboards but I worry.

I was trudging home a few months ago, when there was a kerfuffle in the shrubbery that even the most self-absorbed commuter couldn’t ignore. An aggravated bird was repeatedly hurling herself at an invisible enemy, and making a tremendous din.  I spotted a tail sliding behind the trunk of a halfway up a tree – was it a goanna? a snake?  No, a brush-tailed possum, having a late afternoon snack in a grey butcherbird’s nest. Mum was willing to fight for her eggs to her last breath.  I don’t have any pictures of the stramash, unfortunately, despite roaming around Berowra most days like some bumbling stalker, a chunky camera swinging around my neck.

However, I feel a bit less sheepish about my amateur-hour suburban birdwatching – and a little less clueless about butcherbirds – after  reading Gisela Kaplan’s fascinating book Bird Minds (CSIRO, 2015) this week.

Butcherbird in near silhouette crop

Grey butcherbird makes a rare appearance in the backyard

Bird Minds considers most aspects of avian cognition – social learning, mimicry, tool use, play, abstract thought and emotion  – with a particular focus on the locals.  This, as Kaplan points out, is no mean feat.  Aussie natives are under-discussed in the world of scholarly ornithology, it seems.  She tells (with secret delight, I reckon) how the international community were forced to reluctantly accept that songbirds evolved in the part of Gondwanaland that came to be Australia, overturning 200 years of northern hemisphere prejudice.  The oldest songbird fossil ever found came from here, and recently the discovery of heron footprints from the Cretaceous Era in southern Victoria showed that birds and those other, non-avian dinosaurs cohabited this part of the world, at least, for millions of years.

So, as well as summarising the work of researchers from around the globe, to fill the gap in the published research on Australian natives, Kaplan draws on anecdotes from bird watchers (like the amazing tales of fire-starting black kites that have done the rounds in the papers lately) and her own experience of studying, observing and hand-rearing birds over the decades.  My particular favourite is her story of the adopted 75 year old galah who liked to summon all four household dogs by name in a passable impression of Kaplan’s voice just for the fun of bossing them around.  Every week.  It’s this kind of jolly jape that keeps a bird young.

Galahs in the rain crop

Pair of galahs

Butcherbirds are just the type of birds that Kaplan is interested in, although her own research for the last 25 years has been on another member of the Artamidae family, the Australian magpie.  Currawongs, butcherbirds and magpies, like many other Australian natives, don’t fit a northern hemisphere perspective on avian lives.  Grey butcherbirds are wonderful mellifluous singers, for example (though their tunes are less feted than the improvisational outpourings of the pied butcherbird).  But their carolling doesn’t fit the familiar songbird story.

Kaplan points out, for instance, that while northern hemisphere songbirds are most vocal during the breeding season, the Australian bush is often quietest at that time.  Amongst the much studied birds of high latitudes, males sing as part of a courting display.  In comparison, she observes, “Australian species often seem rather ‘egalitarian’ “.  For many Aussie birds, including butcherbirds “there is often no difference in the song between male and female, no marked difference in plumage or size, brooding and feeding of youngsters and defence” (Kaplan 2015 114).  I have to confess, this whole line of argument really appeals to me.

Magpie with fluff horizontal smaller

Magpie in spring

I also get sneaky pleasure at Kaplan’s observations about the cleverness of Australian birds.  Smarts, she suggests, are one strategy for coping with harsh environments and unreliable climatic conditions.  The humble budgie, a desert dweller, for instance, has one of the largest bird brains for its size, along with Cape York’s palm cockatoo, a formidable tool user.  These clever cockies select, shape and stash particularly excellent sticks, some to use as percussion instruments and others to improve nest-hole drainage.  Behavioural flexibility is a sign of sophisticated thinking: I guess musician cum plumber fits that bill quite nicely.  Birds like this, Kaplan thinks, playful, inquisitive and social, fill the ecological niche of monkeys in an Antipodean environment.

Australian birds often live much longer lives than their northern hemisphere equivalents. Permanent pair bonding means that galahs, for instance, or sulphur crested cockatoos may end up in a 60 year partnership.  Kaplan suggests that these long-term pairings require social nous and a sophisticated communication repertoire.  Forget relationship counselling, it could be time to take advice from the local cockies!

Young Australian birds are also likely to spend a long time hanging around with their parents learning the ropes – an extra year for grey butcherbirds, as much as four for white-winged choughs. Which explains the whiny teenagers I’ve been hearing everywhere lately.

It’s hilarious watching great hulking juvenile wattlebirds, indistinguishable from adults to my untrained eye, sitting in the Japanese maple tree out back, calling plaintively and endlessly for parental attention until someone hops up and gives them a lerp.  And last week on the way home, as I passed Butcherbird Corner, I heard the sounds of a youngster calling out that all-too-familiar refrain: “Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum!”.  It drives me mad when my kids do it, but on this occasion, pester-power put a smile on my face.  The lumbering youngster was a survivor of the Possum Bloodbath of 2015, demanding quality time (and a take-away) from its weary parent.

The youngbloods may hang around with mum and dad for ages, but they do get off the couch and help with the housework.  Raising your chicks with the help of older siblings and even unrelated adults – “cooperative breeding” – is surprisingly common in Australia, in comparison to elsewhere. If refraining from tearing your life-partner limb from limb with your own beak during the course of 60 years together is a challenge to a bird’s emotional control, how much more so is long-term living with the extended family?

This is an idea that Kaplan toys with throughout the book – that “negotiated living” might  “require… changes in powers of perception: a watchful eye, powers of observation and careful scrutiny of others… watching others means awareness of others and such habits can change from behaviour reading into mind reading” (Kaplan 2015 122).  Complex social lives go along with complex minds.

I rather enjoyed the sly dig at northern hemisphere birds (they sound nice, but could well be dim) that runs alongside Kaplan’s argument for the evolutionary value of cooperation.

in the competitive mode, learning (in males) is for a well-rehearsed performance: an Eistedfodd of dance or song. In the cooperative model, learning is for communication (Kaplan 2015 119)

Old leftie that I am, I can’t help liking the idea that cooperation, “egalitarianism” of the sexes and general smarts go along together.

Long beaked corellas giving me a funny look long.jpg

Long billed corellas giving me a funny look

I can’t vouch for the rigor of Kaplan’s science, but I loved reading her stories of the cleverness of Australian birds – their “versatility, resourcefulness, complex social and individual problem solving abilities” (Kaplan, 2015, 193).  Reading Bird Minds has given me plenty to look out for as I make my workaday way through the suburban territory we share.

Russet trees & scarlet tails

Is that fall colour I see on the hillside as the mist parts over Calabash Bay?  Nope, wrong season, wrong continent.  It’s the golden-brown tips of the casuarina trees, the males that is, laden with pollen and catching the morning light.

For all their evocative latin label – named after their cassowary-like foliage – the casuarinas are a mournful kind of tree, I think.  The wind whistling through the wispy branchlets of the she-oaks takes me straight back to solitary times in childhood.  Even Wikipedia notes, rather poetically, how quiet it is in a she-oak forest, sound muffled by the blanket of fallen “needles”, in an understory where other things refuse to grow.

Not so quiet this morning, though.  Just as I was cursing my missed train, there was a “kraaaaak!” and a flash of red in the trees between the commuter car park and the RSL.  New guys in town (or new to me anyway): glossy black-cockatoos.

Two young fellas and an older female, I reckon – a typical little group for these birds, it seems, unlike the yellow and red tailed black-cockatoos that stay in bigger flocks.  The two lads flapped from tree to tree, red tails glowing in the sun, while mum (or cocky-cougar?) chilled out next to Berowra Car Care, having a good old preen.

Glossy black-cockatoos are fussy eaters.  The penny has dropped for yellow-tails that they need to diversify their eating habits and these days they’re doing okay, thanks to pine trees like the great big decrepit ones in our yard.  But these birds really only like the woody fruits of the allocasuarinas  – and turn their noses up at even some of those.  The black she-oak, casuarina littoralis, is a particular favourite and, now I’ve started to notice them in their winter finery, it seems there’s plenty of them around here.

But the black oaks don’t come back too well from big, hot fires.  And the glossy black cockies are competing with galahs, corellas, sulphur cresteds and mynahs – birds that don’t mind land being cleared and subdivided.  Humans knock down the big old trees, feral bees nick the nesting hollows and possums steal black-cockatoo eggs.  Perhaps it’s not surprising I haven’t seen these lovely birds before.

Or maybe they’ve been here all along, “inconspicuous and cryptic”, leaving a trail of half-chewed casuarina orts, just a red flash in the golden silence of the she-oak trees.