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.

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Gluepot Reserve; one of the great Australian conservation success stories

The mallee comprises a vast swathe of semi-arid woodland stretching from the dry inland of south-eastern Australia to south-western Australia, reaching the coast in South Australia and across to the west. It is characterised by a multi-stemmed form adopted by many eucalypt species growing in low phosphate soils. More on the mallee in general in another post. I grew up in South Australia and identify strongly with the mallee. I once had the privilege of talking on radio to Graham Pizzey, the great naturalist and author of the first world-class Australian bird field guide, and was thrilled when he nominated the mallee as his favourite habitat.

Mallee form at Gluepot Reserve, either Eucalyptus oleosa or E. gracilis
(both are present and I didn't check which this was at the time).
Notwithstanding its significance, the mallee has not been treated kindly, and huge areas have been razed by broadscale clearing and burning for agriculture. In the higher rainfall areas of its range wheat and sheep production is quite successful if chemical fertilisers are applied - however the plants which evolved to lower levels of the nutrients do not do well when levels are raised. In particular old-growth mallee - ie unburned for 50 years or more - is a scarce treasure now, and some of the most threatened species (notably birds, but other animals as well) rely on this habitat. 
This map (courtesy of the Australian National Botanic Gardens) gives an indication of
the current (green) and estimated former (pink) distribution of mallee woodlands.
However we should note that the current range by no means implies continuous or
undamaged mallee. Most is fragmentary.
Which brings us to Gluepot, literally, as well as in this blog! The Murraylands north of the Murray in South Australia contain a reasonable area of remnant mallee, mostly subject to low-level grazing. It was here in 1997 that someone recorded, on Gluepot Station some 60km north of Waikerie, a population of Black-eared Miners Manorina melanotis, one of the rarest species in Australia. It is an old-growth mallee specialist, threatened by mallee clearing in an unexpected way, as well as the obvious. As gaps appear in the mallee, creating edges along with associated stock watering points, the closely related and abundant Yellow-throated Miner Manorina flavigula invades and interbreeds with the previously isolated Black-eareds. It is only in the area north of Waikerie and Renmark that Black-eared Miners are hanging on in any numbers, though these numbers are still small. 
Approximate location of Gluepot, at the end of the red arrow.
Gluepot had been taken up for grazing in 1887, under legislation dealing with 'Waste Lands of the Crown'! The name supposedly refers to the state of the clay areas after the infrequent rain. It had been grazed lightly but the lessee in 1997 had applied for permission to burn the mallee to increase his grazing. By then it was established that viable populations of another five nationally endangered bird species were also present, and that none of it had burnt signifcantly since the 1950s and much of it seemingly not for centuries. This was a conservation treasure and Birds Australia scrambled to crowd fund to buy the property; the owner wasn't averse to selling but was also quite willing to burn to get a few more years of grazing out of the mallee. Incredibly the $360,000 was raised in ten weeks, along with pledges of $30,000 a year for the next five years to manage the reserve. Volunteers worked hard and still provide management to this day. 

Perhaps counterintuitively at first sight, the key job initially was to fill in dams and remove watering troughs. These enabled dangerous increases in numbers of Western Grey Kangaroos and survival of feral goats, anathema to the mallee. On the other hand the old mallee specialists got along perfectly well without permanent water. There is a lot more about the history and management of the reserve on its excellent web site

Access is good, two-wheel drive is generally enough. Visitors are welcome and are greeted by a very good information centre. There are three basic campgrounds, featuring cleared sites, long drop toilets and a couple of tables. We had a campground to ourselves, but this was in early autumn, not the most popular time of year to visit, for reasons we can confirm! (Though we went into it with eyes open.)

Sunrise in the campground. Much of the mallee in the reserve seems to be
recovering from some form of canopy dieback, about which I'm hoping to find out more.
It was still a wonderful scene to awake to.

I've only mentioned the mallee, but even that isn't at all uniform and there are other habitats present.

Mallee with a relatively sparse chenopod understorey - ie saltbushes and bluebushes.
This is good habitat for fairywrens, thornbills, babblers etc.

Mallee over spinifex or porcupine grass, Triodia spp. I wrote more about this
very important component of arid Australia here. This is key habitat, with specials like
grasswrens and heathwrens and numerous reptiles and invertebrates sheltering in
the dense prickly strongholds.

Belah, or Black Oak, Casuarina pauper, a species which was formerly
included with C. cristata, though that is now recognised only from further east.
One species which specialises in this habitat is the White-browed Treecreeper.
Birds of prey may hide among the relatively dense foliage.
This is a somewhat shadier, cooler environment than that provided by the more open mallee.
We took our chance going now, just after the end of summer, and though it had been relatively cool prior to our stay it was mid-30s while we were there and the birds were pretty elusive - fortunately I know from previous visits that this is the not the norm there.

We saw a few reptiles, but doubtless would have seen more if we'd been willing to venture out into the sun during the day! There are 42 species so far recorded from Gluepot.
Common Snake-eye Skink Morethia boulengeri, which is found in a remarkable range
of habitats across Australia.

Eastern Mallee Dragon Ctenophorus spinodomus. South-eastern populations of
mallee dragons have recently been recognised as separate from those
across most of Australia.

Eastern Tree Dtella Gehyra versicolor living in the camp toilet block.
This pretty little gecko is found across much of inland eastern Australia.
Western Grey Kangaroo Macropus fuliginosus on a track. These inland kangaroos
are really brown rather than grey, but were lumped in with Eastern Greys M. giganteus
until relatively recently. Numbers at Gluepot are lower than we're used to seeing
of Eastern Greys in wetter country, but that's an artificial situation.

Chestnut Quailthrush Cinclosoma castanotum; a male crossing the entrance
track (and stopping for a quick song). A bird of arid scrublands, especially
mallee. I associate it with sandy substrates.
190 bird speces have been recorded from Gluepot, and in additon to the six nationally threatened species, another 17 are listed as threatened by one or more of the three eastern mallee states. Our birding however largely concentrated on the series of hides set up in front of raised water troughs to attract birds. And there is no contradiction here with the comments earlier about closing dams etc - the hide troughs are raised so that goats and kangaroos can't reach them. They are fed from nearby closed tanks of water maintained  for fire fighting. 
The view from Josie's Hideaway Hide; the hide is raised so that viewers
are looking straight at the trough. The following photos were taken
at Josie's in late afternoon. Most of the visitors are honeyeaters.

Yellow-plumed Honeyeater Ptilotula ornata; this was the most prominent
bird at all hides while we were there, and is found across southern inland Australia.

Brown-headed Honeyeater Melithreptus brevirostris, a softly-coloured little
short-beaked honeyeater of drier forests and woodlands. They usually
hang out in flocks.
White-eared Honeyeater Nesoptilotis leucotis. The distribution of this handsome
honeyeater fascinates me; in South Australia I grew up thinking of it as a mallee bird,
but when I went east to live I found it up in the Snow Gums! I find this remarkable.

Yellow-throated Miners Manorina flavigula. There's always a thrill of excitement when these
turn up - will they turn out to be the fabulously rare Black-eared?
For me so far - no.

Red Wattlebird Anthochaera carunculata, another mallee bird with a broad
range of habitat preferences; they are resident in our Canberra yard.
This is a young bird, whose red wattle is just starting to appear behind the eye.

Mulga Parrots Psephotellus varius, a pair, with the spectacular male on the left.
They're a parrot of the dry inland, but are as likely to be seen in mallee as in mulga
(which is an acacia). Josie's was the first hide we visited and this pair was the first thing we saw -
an excellent introduction indeed!
In the morning early we tried Froggy Dam Hide (love it!), tucked into a dense stand of Belah. We only saw a few hesitant White-eared Honeyeaters come in, but then a young Collared Sparrowhawk Accipiter cirrocephalus swooped in and glowered near the water. It was partly hidden but was clearly inexperienced and kept fidgetting and moving position. We suspect it might have been hanging around before we saw it, explaining the lack of action at a usually busy time of day.
Collared Sparrowhawk; a youngster learning its trade.
Incidentally the best clue to distinguishing it from the very similar
(but smaller) Brown Goshawk from this angle is the notched,
not square, tail.
After breakfast we drove out again to the two remaining car-accessible hides (the fifth, the John Martin hide, requires a 5km walk, and these were not the conditions for that). The Don and Chris Lill Hide (the names commemorate people who have contributed to the reserve through their work) is set in very nice mallee woodland and was attracting plenty of activity, despite the morning now advancing.
Don and Chris Lill Hide, with trees and shrubs all around.
The drinkers prevalent at the previous hides (especially Josie's) were here too and I won't repeat them. One that was at Josie's but very reticent, uncharacteristically, was also one of my favourite honeyeaters. The Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater Acanthagenys rufogularis is a lovely bird and I was pleased to see that those frequenting the Lills' hide were much more relaxed.
Spiny-cheekeds are striking, fairly large honeyeaters with creamy 'spiny' cheek feathers,
salmon breast, pink bill and blue eyes (which show up better in a photo below).
Their musical fluting and loud 'pops' and quiet 'ticks' are part of the inland sound track;
in fact they are found throughout the continent except for the south-eastern,
south-western and northern coasts and hinterlands.
However on this occasion they were just about upstaged by what is probably my favourite honeyeater, an eastern dryland specialist, though like some other inland species it comes to the coast further north.
The Striped Honeyeater Plectorhyncha lanceolata doesn't really look like a honeyeater
at first, and the colour pattern, with dark-centred feathers forming stripes, is like no other.
It too has a lovely warbling call.

Lovely to see these two side by side (note the Spiny's blue eyes).

The lovely Mallee Ringneck (a subspecies of the widespread Australian Ringneck
Ringneck Barnardius zonarius) hung around a couple of the hides but didn't come
to drink while we were there.
Not all was peace and harmony at Lills' hide though. First a pugnacious Grey Butcherbird - and what a name to live up to! - came in to drink and quite unnecessarily harried the honeyeaters. However it could take one if it tried and they were wise to retreat.
Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus; note the wickedly hooked beak. 
The group name comes from its habit of storing surplus prey on thorns or in
branch forks, though it had been brought by the new settlers from Britain, where
it was applied to shrikes for the same reason. I can hear its lovely tune at home in Canberra too.

But the air of menace was to darken considerably more at Lills' hide. The three arrivals who muscled in next had no need to do any chasing or threatening; their mere appearance was threat enough.
Grey Currawongs Strepera versicolor are big, tough and swaggering. This is the all-black
mallee subspecies - the eastern subspecies is ashy grey as you'd expect. 

I don't share the antipathy which many people feel towards currawongs (which is due mostly to
their habit of feeding their own chicks on others' nestlings in spring)
but I can understand their reaction when looking into those wild yellow eyes.
Finally the Wally and Betty Klau hide, in a more open situation and with the day warming now in earnest. There were still plenty of birds, but most were the 'usual suspect' honeyeaters. In fact the only 'new' species was another old familiar from back home. 
Willie Wagtails Rhipidura leucophrys are found virtually throughout Australia
and I think just about everyone is happy to see them.
The Yellow-plumed and Brown-headed Honeyeaters are bonuses here - you're welcome!

This Weebill Smicrornis brevirostris hung around the hide (though rarely stopping for a photo)
but didn't come down to drink. It is often cited as 'Australia's smallest bird'
but I'm not getting into that one!
That evening we returned to the busy bar at Josie's hide - it was lovely to see the swirl of drinkers.
There are four honeyeater species here; I'll leave you to sort them out.

It has long been my belief that conservation on non-government reserves is a key part of the future of conservation here, and in many other places I've seen. This is no bad thing of course; the problem here is that it has been rendered necessary by the accelerating abdication of governments from their role in biodiversity protection and management. Resources are continuously cut from research programmes, compliance agencies and management of public reserves. Even legislation is being weakened to make exploitation easier and to diminish responsibility of government agencies and landholders. Destruction and extinctions are the inevitable results. In these grim times a project like the Gluepot Reserve is a light of hope and an indication of what can be achieved. It could even be seen as an inspiration to governments who are not doing their job, but I'm not going to get too carried away!

In any case it deserves your support, and it's a real joy to visit in difficult times.

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