About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Mareeba Wetlands: sweeter than sugar

There is a constant tension in near-coastal Queensland between the sugar cane industry and reaction to its impacts on ever-dwindling natural tropical and sub-tropical habitat, from rainforest to savanna woodland. Mareeba, inland from Cairns, is not on the coastal strip where most sugar is grown, but in the early 1990s the industry was seeking new areas to expand as opportunities on the coastal strip became limited. An area north of Mareeba, on the escarpment plateau 400 metres above sea level, was earmarked as an option. It was an area of tropical savanna woodland, of a type quite widespread but not well protected in reserves. Most importantly however in the selection of the area for further cane growing, was the existence of the Mareeba-Dimbulah Irrigation Scheme, based on the Tinaroo Dam on the Atherton Tableland to the south. It supports a major fruit-growing industry and in the past a large tobacco crop, though this has become much less significant in recent years.
Mareeba is approximately at the end of the red arrow;
as can be seen it is well north of the Tropic of Capricorn.
Savanna woodland, Mareeba Wetlands Reserve.
Eucalypts and shrubs grow over a grassy understorey. Massive termite mounds reflect the
significance of a huge biomass of grass-harvesting termites to the local ecology.
The proposal was to open a new area to sugar cane utilising the run-off from water which had passed through the irrigation channels. This wasn't necessarily a problem in itself, but fortunately appropriate studies were required, and these studies determined that there were serious environmental constraints on that site relating to soil types and the potential for downstream salinisation issues. 

However a group of far-sighted locals saw the potential for creative alternative uses for both the water and the land, based on the knowledge gained through the existing research. They formed the Mareeba Wetland Foundation (which has since evolved into the Wildlife Conservancy of Tropical Queensland) to press for the creation of the Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve. (It is still known to all and sundry as simply the Mareeba Wetlands so I'll continue to do so to.) They proposed a 2000 hectare savanna reserve featuring a series of gravity-fed ponds. One might argue that a wetland has no place in a savanna, but many natural wetlands have been drained, so I'd just see it as compensating for some of these. The loss of some woodland - well-represented locally - is balanced by the recreation of wetland and associated habitats which have been lost locally.

Their proposal was sufficiently well-researched and convincing to persuade the federally-funded Regional Infrastructure Development Program to support it, and local, state and commonwealth governments, as well as local business, especially the tourist industry, offered assistance. The reserve opened to the public in 1999. By then the wildlife had already offered its approval, and it had become one of the most significant Brolga and Sarus Crane roosts in north Queensland. A walk around the biggest lagoon is likely to be accompanied by the wonderful wild bugling of cranes drifting down from the sky.
Mareeba Wetlands, with the visitor information centre visible across Clancys Lagoon.
The walk around this lake, with the promise of coffee and treats at the little cafe at the end of it,
is a delightful introduction to the reserve.
The local Muluridgi people were granted title over the reserve in 2011, and the reserve is now operated as a partnership. All staff are volunteers. The magnificent visitors' centre was built with assistance from local industry.
A closer view of the Clancys Lagoon Visitors' Information Centre (VIC).

The VIC deck - an excellent location to enjoy the view and the wildlife (with or without coffee).

Another view from the deck.
There are several research and monitoring projects ongoing, including on the cranes and on the rare and little-understood Buff-breasted Buttonquail, but one very obvious one to the visitor is the captive breeding and release program for the glorious but seriously threatened Gouldian Finch.
The Gouldian Finch breeding aviary (above and below) backs on to the VIC, and faces the
wetlands and woodlands to which they are steadily being released.

The Gouldian Finch Erythrura gouldiae is truly an exquisite bird, named by the great 19th century
ornithologist John Gould for his wife and work partner, the artist Elizabeth Gould.
Once found throughout northern Australia, numbers have plummeted due to a complex of factors,
among which changed fire regimes seem likely to be the most significant.
 Waterbirds can be seen from the deck, though Clancys Lagoon is big and they will not necessarily be close.
Comb-crested Jacana Irediparra gallinacea from the VIC deck.
Its enormous toes for distributing its weight on the leaves can be seen in this photo.
The creek by the VIC entrance can be excellent for frogs, including one of my favourites.
The White-lipped Tree Frog Litoria infrafrenata is reputedly the world's largest tree frog - it can be close to 14cm long.
It is found in north Queensland and beyond into New Guinea and associated islands.
Out in the woodland there are many resources for wildlife, including flowers and grasses.
Broad-leaved Paperbark Melaleuca viridiflora is found across northern Australia.
The species name is from these (sort of) greenish flowers, but unfortunately they are just as likely to be red!

Thysanotus juncifolius, one of the glorious fringe-lilies.
Native Rice Oryza australis; the seeds are tiny but prolific and feed many animals.
Such grasses support several finch species, among others.
Black-throated Finches Poephila cincta (a declining species, above) and
Chestnut-breasted Manikins Lonchura castaneothorax harvest the reserve's grass seeds.

Pheasant Coucal Centropus phasianinus, a wonderfully scruffy and shambling big bird.
Throughout the world 60% of cuckoo species actually nest and raise their own chicks in the
conventional way, but in Australia this is the only one to do so.

Squatter Pigeon Geophaps scripta, a striking tropical ground-dwelling pigeon.
Male Leaden Flycatcher Myiagra rubecula, a monarch flycatcher.
This species migrates between the tropics and south-eastern Australia, where it breeds.
I might even have seen this bird in Canberra!

But as is the way in Australian tropical savannas, reptiles are almost as obvious as, and probably more abundant than, the birds.
Tommy Roundhead  Diporiphora australis on a Mareeba termite mound.
Australia has the most diverse arid land lizard fauna in the world, and the basis
of this proliferation is the huge mass of termites.
Snake-eyed Skink Cryptoblepharus virgatus; another who doubtless dines on the termite smorgasbord.
And finally, one of the most exciting things I've seen, in that I've looked for it in vain for many years (most recently in Kakadu NP in summer, supposedly the best place and time to look). The spectacular big Frill-necked Lizard Chlamydosaurus kingii has normally gone into winter torpor in a tree by May, when I was last there. Our luck was in however as this beautiful beast was awake and just outside the VIC.
The only member of their genus, they can grow to nearly 90cm long, and this was a big one.
The loose frill can be erected into a fearsome ruff if the owner feels the need to protect itself,
but this lovely obviously wasn't too stressed by our presence.

I can't guarantee you'll see a Frilly if you go to Mareeba Wetlands - though you certainly won't see this one if you don't go! - but I can guarantee you'll see a rich and beautiful part of Australia, and you'll see what can be done if enough people use their imagination, initiative and determination to make things better.

Next time you're up that way, don't miss it!



Susan said...

It looks fantastic, the range of birds and reptiles is fabulous.

Ian Fraser said...

It is Susan! You must add it to your 'to do' list for your next visit...

Les Mitchell said...

As always, you're a wealth of particularly interesting information on places of natural history significance. We'll endeavour to visit Mareeba Wetlands next year. Thanks!

Mrs Lawrence said...

Sadly this amazing area is no longer open to the public on a consistent basis due to a change in policy!
Its a great shame and a waste of the taxpayers dollars that allowed it to be developed.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Mrs Lawrence. Yes, it is sad, and we can only hope that the financial problems which led to its closure - based on the failure of the accommodation venture as I understand it - can be resolved in time.