A couple of weeks ago I was asked to help with a weekend bird count at Boorowa, about 3.5 hours drive SW of Sydney. The count was to focus on the Superb Parrot (Polytelus swainsonii), something I had never photographed, so I readily accepted. As it turned out, we were indeed successful in seeing and photographing the parrots – this one below is a male.
But the back story is just as interesting. After all, why would such a distant bird count be organised by Willoughby Council’s Habitat Restoration Officer in Sydney?
The story began 18 years ago, when North Sydney Council’s volunteer Bushcare group started doing annual weekend planting trips to farms around Boorowa, as a change from looking after local reserves. The goal was partly to provide ongoing rural habitat for native animals (something many farmers are sympathetic to) but there had never been a systematic follow-up to gauge the impact on local wildlife. Willoughby and North Sydney Councils’ staff do sometimes work together on projects, and so it was Willoughby’s Liz Powell who organised a pilot study and wildlife count with field ecologist Narawan Williams. The emphasis this time was on the superb parrot, which is particularly associated with Boorowa. The bird is not especially threatened but has been flagged as being vulnerable in certain areas.
Each count involved walking a 1 km “transect” in an hour, recording all wildlife seen in front and out to 250m on either side. We performed three counts, each on a different property, to get a starting base, and marked out several more transects for future annual surveys.
We saw several superb parrots on each of the three properties, and at least one nest site. This photo is of a female, with a male moving behind her.
In fact, the male kept following her around and became a bit of a pest. Eventually she flew off, perhaps to set up her own #MeToo on Twitter!
However the count was of all wildlife, not just these parrots. A quick list of other birds we saw on the first two transects begins with European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), which made up 30% of all sightings. This one is holding two insect trophies, as it surveys a previous attempt to build a nest out of fencing wire (probably made by a magpie.)
Another common sighting was of woodswallows. On the first transect the second commonest bird (10% of sightings) was the dusky woodswallow (Artamus cyanopterus), while on another property we saw a large (100+) flight of white-browed woodswallows (Artamus superciliosus). Here one of each is sharing a treetop.
This masked woodswallow (Artamus personatus) was in the same dead tree as its cousins.
We also saw a lot of red-rumped parrots (Psephotus haemotonotus), though not close up - this pair were typical:
There were also numbers of larger birds, including magpies, galahs, eastern rosellas, and some crimson rosellas and crested pigeons. Among the smaller birds were two exotics - sparrows and goldfinches – whilst native species included superb fairy wrens and striated pardalotes (Pardalotus striatus) like this one caught on the hop.
These tree martins (Petrochilodon nigricans) were sharing a nesting tree with a pair of superb parrots.
Another bird not normally seen east of the divide was this singing honeyeater (Gavicalis virescens):
There were many more birds, and other wildlife as well - too many for a blog entry like this.
The other pleasure in visiting these properties was the general hospitality, and witnessing the farmers’ dedication and enthusiasm for the properties of which they are custodians. All were aware of “natural sequence farming”, as pioneered by Peter Andrews and the Mulloon Institute. (This seeks to adapt traditional European farming practices to Australian conditions. After decades of rejection by the farming establishment, it’s now gaining acceptance. The ABC has covered it several times in Australian Story and Countrywide.) The three farmers we spoke to were partly or wholly adapting it for their own properties, and were keen to pass on sustainable enterprises to their heirs.
For example Gary Johnson of Tulangi, a lifelong farmer in various places, decided years ago that conventional methods weren’t working. When he got Tulangi, he began developing his own natural sequence practices as he revived the rundown property. He took us through a few of his paddocks, and told us a little of what he’d been doing, such as encouraging a variety of native grasses with a spread of growth periods to give year-round fodder. Likewise, stock is rotated regularly between paddocks. Instead of burning fallen timber he allows it to sit on sloping land where it slows down water run-off and acts as natural seed traps. Gary commented that the timber made the paddocks look untidy, but nature is untidy; “a well-run farm has untidy paddocks and tidy sheds” is one of his maxims (and his sheds were very tidy!)
Consequently none of our hosts has had to buy in stock feed in the current drought, and their paddocks look healthy and unstressed. This was a paddock at Tulangi; the cattle came to the gate thinking that our arrival meant it was time to move to the next paddock:
The next day it was my turn to move to another paddock, in this case back to my home turf in North Sydney. Here I could pick out my favourite parrot photo. This is it:
North Sydney – my home suburb – holds Sydney’s second largest CBD. However its parks and bushland areas, and those of neighbouring councils such as Willoughby, host a surprising variety of native flora and fauna. These bush areas are maintained by dedicated council staff, often working with local resident volunteers.