Planting Trees is a TREAT

treeplantingPlanting trees with TREAT in 2014

By Jenna Gersie

Five years ago, I visited the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland to learn about the rainforest through the School for International Training’s semester abroad in Australia. Our professor asked us if we would prefer to spend our last day in the rainforest hiking or planting trees. Amongst the fourteen students in my group, the decision to plant trees was unanimous. We headed to a property where a planting site had been prepared in the red, muddy soil, with native rainforest tree seedlings laid out next to holes dug in the earth. We moved down the rows, putting the baby trees in the soil and packing the dirt tightly around their thin trunks. We had joined another group of students from the School for Field Studies, as well as many community members who volunteer with TREAT, or Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands.

I didn’t know much about TREAT when I planted with them in 2009, other than that it was a fun day, kneeling in the red mud and putting trees into the ground. The chance to plant trees was especially meaningful after spending the previous ten days learning about rainforest composition, disturbance, reforestation, and wildlife. While I was proud of my small contribution on that day, I certainly did not imagine that I would return to the Atherton Tablelands in 2013 as a staff member for the School for Field Studies, the other group we had met at the planting, and make volunteering with TREAT a weekly occurrence.

Early upon my return to Australia, I visited the Lake Eacham nursery, operated under a partnership between TREAT and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS), to bring my group of School for Field Studies students to volunteer. When I introduced myself at morning tea (also known as smoko) and told the other volunteers that I had planted trees with TREAT in 2009, their faces lit up with pride. Their smiles at that moment were something I would encounter again and again, on Friday visits to the nursery and on Saturday morning tree plantings throughout the Tablelands. If the chance to put trees in the ground and the tasty post-planting barbeques weren’t enough to keep calling me back to TREAT, the friendliness I encountered within that community undoubtedly was.

TREAT was founded in 1982 by local community members who recognized a need to plant native rainforest trees on the Tablelands. The Tablelands were once completely covered with beautiful, native rainforest, but when land was opened to settlers in the late 1800s, there was a requirement to clear and cultivate the land as a condition of occupancy. Much of the rainforest turned to farmland, and giant rainforest trees were felled at a rapid rate. In the early 1980s, protest movements to protect the remaining rainforest, such as blockading logging trucks, began. Enough passionate people got together to ensure that the remaining rainforest would be protected, and in 1988, the Wet Tropics received World Heritage Area protection. That protection, combined with a grassroots effort to reforest the Tablelands, has meant that mature rainforests are returning to the Tablelands.

Furthermore, the community effort that led to the founding of TREAT is backed by science. Community members work with QPWS and rainforest ecologists to connected isolated, fragmented habitat to larger tracts of rainforest. With landscape disturbance from cyclones and the degradation of forest fragments from weed invasion and other disturbances, it is important to connect these high-value systems of forest for the long-term health of the environment.

One example of this type of work is found at Donaghy’s Corridor near Lake Barrine. This wildlife corridor links forest at Crater Lakes National Park with Gadgarra State Forest. Plantings began in 1995, and after 18,000 trees were put into the ground along 1.5 kilometers, the corridor connected the forests in 1998. The work done to create this wildlife corridor was among the leading tropical restoration work in the world at the time. And TREAT didn’t stop there; they’ve been creating these types of forest linkages all over the Tablelands ever since.

IMG_2273Plastic guards protect these seedlings from herbivory by pademelons

One of the main reasons to create these wildlife corridors is to support the amazing floral and faunal diversity of the Wet Tropics. A starring character of this diversity is the Lumholtz Tree-kangaroo, also known as the mabi in the local Aboriginal dialect. Because of these unique and rare creatures, the rainforests in the area have come to be known as Mabi Forest, though they are more scientifically characterized as Complex Notophyll Vine Forest. Reforestation efforts in the area have also led to sightings of the Southern Cassowary, a large, flightless bird who survives on rainforest fruits.

Lumholtz Tree-kangaroo in habitat

To support Australia’s native wildlife, TREAT members turn up at the Lake Eacham nursery every Friday morning to take care of seedlings, extract seeds from rainforest fruit, pot plants, and plant seeds. During smoko, announcements are shared, QPWS gives updates on their fruit-gathering efforts, community members share their exciting wildlife sightings, and tea and cake are enjoyed by all. During the wet season, TREAT members and volunteers meet every Saturday morning on various landholders’ properties to plant hundreds to thousands of tree seedlings. Following each planting, volunteers on the cook crew provide sausages and lentil burgers for the hungry planters. I would give a great deal to again be sharing a cuppa with Tablelands community members after planting trees on a misty morning, red dirt still under my fingernails.

To learn more about TREAT, please visit their website, or watch a short documentary, Wet Tropics – Restoring Communities, here. You can also read about Donaghy’s Corridor and other projects here.

tree3Planting trees with TREAT in 2009


Every Path Leads Homeward

By Jenna Gersie

In August 2013, I spent about a week at home in northwest New Jersey, preparing for my ten-month stay in Far North Queensland, Australia. In between packing a year’s worth of my life into two suitcases, saying goodbye to friends and family, and taking care of the necessary doctor appointments and financial arrangements, I had some time to part with the oak and hemlock forests that I love, the Turkey Vultures soaring on broad wings above, and the beautiful late summer light that makes Sussex County so special to me.

In recent years, as I’ve begun to study my home place from an academic standpoint, I have grown more attached to my rural region of New Jersey, one of the places that give the state the nickname “The Garden State.” The more time I spend away from the place I grew up, the more it feels like “home” to me.

But I was off on a journey; I was returning to a place I had lived for a short while nearly five years before. In 2009, I studied abroad in Cairns, Australia, and connected with the rainforests and coral reefs of that region. In 2013, when my final flight from Sydney to Cairns approached land, my heart sang as I saw the rainforest-covered mountains that lined the coast. I felt like I was coming home.

Australia began to feel more and more like home to me as I got to know the community—human and non-human—of the Atherton Tablelands, about an hour’s drive from Cairns. I planted hundreds and hundreds of rainforest tree seedlings with TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands). I was welcomed to country by Aboriginal community members both on the Tablelands and down on the coast. I became friends with the locals, learned to identify the birds, and grew accustomed to the relentless terrestrial leeches.

IMG_0164The Atherton Tablelands

And while I was in Australia, I began to explore the meaning of “home” through the novels of Hermann Hesse. I had discovered that many of Hesse’s characters left the places where they had grown up to embark on journeys of self-discovery, only to later return to their homes or other places with which they had connected along the way. There I was, having returned to a place that I had explored five years before, and examining the actions of these characters and their own connections to nature and place.

For many of Hesse’s characters, a sense of homesickness pervades their feelings as they travel away from their homelands. Peter Camenzind misses the lake and mountains of his native place; Goldmund thinks often of the old chestnut tree and cloister walls of the place he spent the second half of his childhood; Knulp imagines the gardens of his father’s house; Siddhartha returns again and again to the river of his childhood; and Hans Giebenrath daydreams of fishing by the riverside in his hometown. For me, the Black Kites had replaced the Turkey Vultures, the oaks and hemlocks were substituted by Atherton oaks and Bunya pines, and the sunset in the west shone in different colors from my rainforest porch. I thought often of home.

I also thought of the idea of “reinhabiting”—both of returning to a place one has connected with, and of getting to know that place inside and out: its streams, trees, animals, people, seasons. In LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice, Robert L. Thayer writes, “People who care about a place are more likely to take better care of it. And people who take care of places, one place at a time, are the key to the future of humanity and all living creatures.” By getting to know one’s life-place, one begins to care more about it, and therefore take better care of it. I knew the bleeding heart tree seedlings that I planted in Australian soil and the Pale Yellow Robins that fluttered through the trees on my way to work. I cared about them.

But now I am in the process of reinhabiting. I have left one home behind for another. Hesse wrote, “A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward…” I said goodbye to the rainforest trees that had become my home, so that I could return to my original home. Now I look out my window and see the oak trees and Turkey Vultures I had missed. Like each of Hesse’s characters who return to his home place, I have returned to my home in northwest New Jersey. I am beginning to relearn the natural history of this place as I spend time outdoors. I have put aside my Australian bird guide for a North American one. I am homesick for the Tablelands, to be sure; but I have returned to the place that knows me as well as I know it.

IMG_2437Sussex County, New Jersey

Where ever you are, you have the opportunity to connect to place—to make the place you are living your life-place, to care for that place, and in caring for it, to take better care of it. Meanings of home are ever-changing, but I believe they are founded on one thing: sense of place. How well do you know your home place? What does “home” mean to you?

Boundary Stream Scenic Reserve

By Jenna Gersie

After living in the tropics for nine months, traveling for a week on the North Island during New Zealand’s winter had me shivering, layering, and seeking warmth indoors. I spent as much time outdoors in the middle, and warmest part, of the day as I could. When I drove the twelve kilometres of winding, gravel road to Boundary Stream Scenic Reserve on the eastern coast of the North Island on my way from Gisborne to Napier, I stepped out of the car to very cold weather; it almost felt like it might snow. I grabbed an extra layer and my binoculars and set out on a walk.

For how cold it was (to me, at least), I was surprised to hear so much birdsong. All around me I heard the chirps of Fantails and the distinctive melodies of the Tui, a black honeyeater with an iridescent sheen and two white tufts of feathers at the throat. Almost as soon as I entered the trail, I heard a rustling above me, and raised my binoculars, expecting to see a Tui or another common bird. But feeding high in the tree was a very large bird. The shade from the tree prevented me from seeing the olive and crimson colours of some of the feathers, so it just seemed black. But as I watched, I suddenly saw through my binoculars a huge, parrot-like beak, picking fruit from the tree. I breathed a “wow” to myself when I saw the size of this beak, never having seen such a large parrot before, and certainly not in the wild. The bird above me was the Kaka, an endemic forest parrot.

IMG_2131A taxidermied specimen of the Kaka at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Boundary Stream Scenic Reserve is a home for rare endemic New Zealand birds like the Kaka. It is one of six original Mainland Islands set up on the New Zealand mainland in the 1990s. These Mainland Islands have been set up to intensively manage introduced pests in order to restore native species and ecosystems. By continually removing introduced predators, this ongoing project creates islands of native habitat and species on New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Encompassing 802 hectares, Boundary Stream was established in 1996. It is located in the Maungaharuru Range, which is fitting, because Maori legend tells that the name Maungaharuru, meaning “rumbling mountain,” was given after a priest thrust a staff onto the mountain range, and as the staff fell, the range erupted with the song of thousands of birds.

Sadly, as the forest was converted to farmland beginning in the 1870s, many of those birds began to disappear. Herbert Guthrie-Smith, a naturalist and farmer who moved to the region in 1882, kept copious notes on the environment and species present in the area for nearly sixty years. His notes have given scientists great insight as to what Boundary Stream should look like, and this has helped with both pest control and native species reintroduction. His records have also been inspiring for local people to restore the forest to what it once was.

Guthrie-Smith recorded comments by local Maori elders, stating that the endemic Kokako, Saddleback, and North Island Robin were once common in the area. By the time Guthrie-Smith arrived in the area, however, only the robins still existed, and they were few in number. These robins were the first birds to be reintroduced to the area. In 1998, twenty-eight robins were set free in the reserve. The robins are now dispersed throughout Boundary Stream and are breeding happily. The reintroduction of the robin offered the first proof that pest control is a successful means of re-establishing native habitat and species. As I walked along the trail, I noticed a gray bird hopping right in front of a sign explaining the reintroduction of the robin. As I got closer, I saw that it was indeed a North Island Robin, prancing about and showing off the sign dedicated to him.

IMG_1857In the bottom right, a North Island Robin stands at the base of the sign dedicated to him.

In 2000, New Zealand’s national icon, the Kiwi, was introduced to the reserve, and in 2001, Kokako were introduced. When the project began in 1996, the Kokako had not been seen or heard in more than 100 years. In 2001, five pairs of Kokako were brought from Te Urewera National Park. The pairs were settled into an aviary at Boundary Stream; the birds were kept captive because they have a very strong homing instinct. When these Kokako bred, the offspring were released within Boundary Stream to establish new wild populations. In addition to the populations of North Island Robins, Kiwis, and Kokakos, native Whitehead and Rifleman populations are also doing well in the area.

Rangers and volunteers trap introduced predators such as cats, possums, and rats. They also remove unwanted animals like goats and deer to protect the forest understorey. In the first few years of the project, when an understorey was nearly non-existent, 2,000 goats were killed; now a healthy sub-canopy supports the forest’s tall trees. Seedlings of native plants like Kaka Beak (Clianthus puniceus) and Yellow-flowered Mistletoe (Alepis flavida) are planted. This type of land management and predator control has offered birdlife the chance to live in a habitat similar to that which covered the North Island before the arrival of introduced species. With continued efforts by staff and volunteers, New Zealand’s native wildlife will continue to thrive.

Australia’s Spiny Anteater

By Jenna Gersie

One of the many wonderful things about living in the wilderness is the opportunity to see wildlife. My best experiences viewing wildlife were times when I wasn’t expecting to see anything in particular. When I lived in a state forest in New Jersey, my colleagues and I were drawn from our desks when a porcupine climbed a tree outside of our office window. While working at a raptor center in Vermont last year, my housemates and I spotted a Barred Owl perched outside of our kitchen window, and it took us several moments to realize that we weren’t at work, and this was, indeed, a wild Barred Owl. (It was infinitely more exciting to see one in the wild since we had spent so much time with captive owls.)

Living in the rainforest here in Australia, there are amazing opportunities to view wildlife nearly every place I look. I could do without the white-tailed rat getting stuck in my garbage can, but other fantastic moments include seeing a three-meter-long carpet python strung across the driveway; viewing the many species of honeyeaters that congregate in the fruiting trees outside of our office; watching pademelons, sometimes with joeys in tow, hopping along the pathway; and listening to the chorus of Chowchillas on the rainforest floor each morning. Sometimes, the wildlife is expected: it wouldn’t be a normal day without our Brush Turkeys (all of whom are called “Charles”) prowling around the site or the bandicoots (all of whom are called “Boris”) cleaning up after our evening meals. But sometimes, the wildlife is very unexpected, like today, when I was lucky enough to stumble upon a short-beaked echidna taking a rest in the leaf litter on the side of the trail.

This was my second time seeing an echidna. The first was down south in Victoria, where an echidna wobbled across the road in front of my car. We were both in motion, so I didn’t get a great look or any snapshots to prove the experience. Today, however, I got an amazing up-close look at this unique mammal, and even a few photos. Though its face is mostly hidden, you can see its beak poking out from beneath the leaves.

Echidna 009

There are two species of echidnas: the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), which lives throughout Australia and in New Guinea, and the long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijni), which lives in the highlands of New Guinea. These two species of echidna, together with the platypus, which is also native to Australia, are the only existing monotremes: that is, they are egg-laying mammals.

During the mating season, echidnas form a “train,” where male echidnas follow a female echidna in single file, nose to tail. Up to ten male echidnas have been observed following a single female! After mating, the female echidna develops a simple pouch into which she lays an egg. After ten days, the egg hatches, and the jelly-bean sized baby echidna, adorably known as a puggle (a baby platypus is also called a puggle), is carried around in the mother’s pouch for the next three months. During this time, the puggle suckles from a milk patch within the mother’s pouch, for the echidna does not have nipples.

Because they are mammals, echidnas have fur, and they are also endowed with sharp spines (which are modified hairs) along the back and tail. (In fact, the species name aculeatus means “spiny.”) When the spines begin to form on the puggle, the mother will remove the baby from her pouch for comfort’s sake, though she will continue to suckle the puggle until it reaches seven months of age. During this time, the mother will safely tuck the puggle away in a burrow while she goes out foraging.

Known as the “spiny anteater,” the echidna eats ants and termites, using a long tongue that can extend 17 centimeters from its long, tubular snout. The tongue is covered with a layer of sticky mucous that allows it to collect the insects. The genus name for the short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus, means “quick tongue,” which refers to the echidna’s speedy tongue as it flicks back and forth, catching prey. Lacking teeth, the echidna grinds its food between the roof of its mouth and horny pads on the back of its tongue. Echidnas use their front feet with five flattened claws to dig in the soil and leaf litter for insects or to tear apart termite mounds. They usually feed in the morning and evening, and sleep away the hottest part of the day, which is most likely why we found the echidna napping in the late afternoon.

Though shy, echidnas are actually Australia’s most widespread native animal. They are found in almost all habitats, from snow-covered mountains to deserts, rainforests, farmland, and suburban backyards—in short, they can live anywhere there are plenty of ants. Echidnas are not threatened, but they do have predators such as dogs, dingoes, foxes, cats, eagles, and goannas, and they are easily hit by cars. To protect themselves, echidnas may curl into a ball, exposing only their spines, when on a hard surface, or they may wedge themselves into crevices between rocks or logs or bury themselves in leaf litter and soil, again exposing only their spines. In the wild, they live for about ten years.  Though they are widespread, I was lucky to chance upon this creature in the middle of the day, but then again, I am lucky to begin with–I do live in the rainforest, after all.

Cruising down the Daintree River


By Jenna Gersie

On my second visit to the Daintree National Forest, part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, the rain was so heavy on the canvas roof of our cabin that it drowned out the noise of any nearby wildlife. It rained on and off for the duration of our four-day trip, but at least when it was raining, the mosquitoes were a little less ferocious. It rained so much that when we took a river cruise on the Daintree River on our way home, the water was the color of heavily creamed coffee. There had been 400 milliliters of rain in the past forty-eight hours, and clay from riverbanks further upstream had been washed into the water.

Our riverboat was driven by its captain, Mick, and his loyal companion, Jetta, a beautiful old dog who sat faithfully by his side as the boat floated downriver. The Daintree River, 140 kilometers long, is fed by a consistent supply of fresh water from the surrounding 1,200 square kilometers of rainforest. Our location, about 11.3 kilometers inland from the Coral Sea (“Where the Rainforest meets the Reef!”), was a brackish environment, where salt water from the ocean meets the river’s fresh water.

The Daintree River, with its riverine mangrove environment through which our boat drifted, is the most mangrove diverse river system in the world. Worldwide, there are only about eighty different species of mangroves. In Australia, there are a total of forty-one species. In the state of Queensland, there are thirty-nine species, and on the Daintree River in Far North Queensland, there are an incredible thirty-three species of mangroves.

What fascinates me most about mangroves is the “sacrificial leaf.” Perhaps the name for this leaf is a bit anthropomorphic, as if the leaf itself is making a conscious decision to sacrifice itself for the sake of the tree. But the actual ecology of this system is remarkable. On the tip of one twig on each branch, the oldest leaf, (the first to grow), is yellow, while each of the other leaves is a shiny green. These yellow leaves are between two and three years old. When these leaves reach their second birthday, they lose their waxy membrane and begin to trap whatever salt is being taken up through the tree so that usable water passes on to the rest of the leaves. (The roots themselves take up about 90% of the salt, passing mostly fresh water on to the rest of the tree.) Eventually, the sacrificial leaf will die from salt saturation, at which point it will fall from the tree to be eaten by crabs, shellfish, and fungi on the water, until it is completely broken down and returned to the river system.

After admiring these brave yellow leaves, we were lucky enough to witness one of the river’s great creatures: a large saltwater crocodile. This particular crocodile, affectionately named “Scooter” by regular passersby such as Mick, was a fourteen-year-old male. Scooter unfortunately only has a few more years to enjoy his territory on the Daintree River, because when he reaches the age of about sixteen years and begins to take an interest in lady crocodiles, the larger, older, and more territorial male “Scarface” will ensure that Scooter leaves.

Saltwater crocodiles, larger and more aggressive than Australia’s second crocodile species, the freshwater crocodile, are not the smartest creatures around. A four-meter crocodile has the brain the size of a walnut! But naturally, these ancient animals know what they need to do to survive. The cold-blooded reptiles prefer to live in warm water, around twenty-eight degrees Celsius, so with the river at only about twenty-two degrees Celsius, Mick expected to find crocodiles on or near the bank. The highest part on a crocodile’s body is its eyes, so that even if it is mostly submerged, it can still observe its surroundings, and that is how we found Scooter. If you’ve ever heard of crying a “crocodile tear,” it’s because these reptiles, who absorb salt through their skin, expel that salt again through their eyes in the form of tears. In the brackish environment that we visited, both the flora and fauna have adapted to deal with salt, and each of their adaptations is a beautiful glimpse into nature’s cunning.


Food for Frogs


Photograph courtesy of wiki commons

By Jenna Gersie

In the early twentieth century, sugar cane farmers in Queensland, Australia, found that the Frenchi beetle (Lepidiota frenchi) and the grey-backed cane beetle (Dermolepida albohirtum) were destroying their sugar cane crops.  In search of a biological way to manage these pests, Reginald Mungomery, an entomologist who worked for the Queensland Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations, was sent to Hawaii in 1935 to collect cane toads (Rhinella marina), which are actually native to South and Central America.  Having heard successful reports of increased sugar cane production with the introduction of cane toads in Hawaii, Mungomery, in perhaps one of the worst ecological mistakes of the past century, imported 101 of these anurans to Australia.

The 101 cane toads—51 females and 50 males (one male died in transit)—were kept briefly in captivity to breed. In August 1935, 2,400 cane toads were released into the Little Mulgrave River and surrounding sites in Gordonvale, Queensland.  Unfortunately, the introduced cane toads had no actual effect on controlling the beetle populations; the beetles prefer to remain at the tops of the stalks of sugar cane, much higher than a cane toad can jump.

Cane toad populations began to grow immediately upon their release in Australia.  From the 1940s to the 1960s, cane toad populations began to expand at about 10 kilometers per year, but now, cane toad populations are expanding south and west at 50-60 kilometers per year.  They have traveled through the Northern Territory and crossed the border into Western Australia, and they have expanded southward out of Queensland to New South Wales.

Cane toads have parotoid glands on each shoulder that squirt out poison when the cane toad is threatened or handled roughly.  At each stage of life—egg, tadpole, toadlet, and adult—cane toads are toxic.  As a result, there is no known predator of cane toads in Australia, and animals like crocodiles, goannas, tiger snakes, dingoes, and quolls are killed by the cane toad’s poison.  Cane toads, therefore, are not only out of control in their population growth, but they are also a threat to native Australian wildlife, both because they utilize resources that other animals need and because their poison kills any unfortunate animal that tries to eat them.  The many problems that this invasive pest poses are clear.

The original release site of cane toads in Gordonvale is less than fifty kilometers from where I now live in the rainforest near Yungaburra.  Therefore, it is not surprising that when I walk back home through the forest each night, numerous cane toads, large and small, sit in the pathway and hop away as I approach.

Dr. Sigrid Heise-Pavlov, Professor of Rainforest Ecology at the School for Field Studies, Centre for Rainforest Studies, researches cane toad pest management with her American university students.  After dinner, once it is dark and the resident bandicoot (affectionately known as “Boris”) is cleaning up any scraps of food that have fallen on the ground, Siggy and the students don their gumboots, raincoats, and headlamps, and head out into the forest to hunt for cane toads.  The cane toads are collected in a bucket, euthanized according to methods outlined in Siggy’s research permit, and dissected.  Siggy is particularly interested in the stomachs and lungs of these cane toads.

In her paper “Effect of Rhabdias pseudosphaerocephala on prey consumption of free-ranging cane toads (Rhinella marina) during Australian tropical wet seasons,” Siggy and co-authors Karena Paleologo and William Glenny, former School for Field Studies students, analyze the presence and potential impact of a species of lung nematode in cane toads.  R. pseudosphaerocephala is a species of lung nematode that is specific to cane toads; it has no effect on native anurans.  Cane toads came to Australia with this lung nematode and it can potentially be used as yet another biological control agent.  Laboratory experiments executed elsewhere in Australia have shown that this lung nematode reduces growth rates and survival in metamorph cane toads, potentially due to reduction in prey consumption and/or parasite-induced anorexia.  Additionally, the impaired lung function as a result of the parasite’s presence affects the aerobic activity of cane toads needed to access rich foraging sites.  Reduced prey consumption or certain prey selection could therefore be a consequence of infection of cane toads by the lung nematode.  This means that there is more food available for native frogs, and this is what Siggy and her students are most interested in.

Siggy and her students aimed to discover the changes in prey consumption of free-ranging cane toads infected by the lung nematode.  After dissecting the cane toads, the Arthropods (invertebrates with exoskeletons, including insects and arachnids) and Non-arthropods in the stomachs of the toads were identified.  The number of lungworms present in each toad was also counted.  The researchers found that 81 percent of the collected toads were infected with the lung nematode.  They observed that the presence of the lung nematodes did not affect the quantity of prey items consumed, but they did find that increased infection intensity resulted in decreased prey item diversity.  Therefore, infection may indeed reduce the ability of cane toads to access rich foraging sites, leaving more tasty ants and beetles for the frogs that are supposed to live and thrive in Australia.

Of course, more studies must be done to determine ways to reduce the impact of cane toads on native Australian wildlife.  But for now, let’s hope they’re leaving enough food behind for the native frogs, like these orange-eyed tree frogs that I saw last night!


Photograph by Jenna Gersie

Bool Lagoon, South Australia


By Jenna Gersie

Driving through South Australia doesn’t look like much: mile after mile of flat, dry grassland beneath an endless blue sky; the occasional eucalypt punctuating the farmer’s fields; barbed wire fences lining the roadside and dust rising up from the tires; more sheep than humans.  But amidst this vast and barren landscape I stumbled upon a refuge.  Near the town of Naracoorte, famous for its caves and fossils of extinct Australian megafauna, the swampy Bool Lagoon provides an oasis for birdlife.

Declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1985, Bool Lagoon provides a home to over 150 water bird species, twenty-seven of which are migratory species.  The Latham’s Snipe, for example, winters in South Australia before returning to the grasslands of northern Japan to breed.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that this refuge hosts so many water birds; among the birds I saw were the Black Swan, White Ibis and Straw-necked Ibis, Australasian Shoveler, White-faced Heron, Australian Shelduck, Black-winged Stilt, White-necked Heron, Australian Bittern, Pacific Black Duck, Purple Swamphen, Magpie Goose, and Eurasian Coot.

Bool Lagoon and the adjacent Hacks Lagoon are set aside to provide habitat for birds such as these, to provide a drought refuge for wetland dependent species, and to represent an inland lagoon system that flows over rich alkaline soils.  The basin where Bool Lagoon currently lies began to form 150 million years ago, when Australia began to separate from the larger landmass known as Gondwana.  Fifteen to twenty million years ago, high sea levels deposited sand, silt, and marine sediments in layers up to 6,000 meters thick.  The sea level dropped, but two million years ago, they rose again, this time depositing shelly, sandy limestone and calcareous sands.  When the sea levels dropped again, they eroded away earlier deposits of sediment, creating the siltstone that is found in the lagoon today.  The shallow, circular swamps that make up Bool Lagoon were formed within these layers of sediment by rising ground waters that penetrated the substrate and eroded the limestone.

The Bool Lagoon system, which is made up of the lagoon itself and Mosquito Creek, which feeds floodwaters into the lagoon, together make up a 1500 square kilometer catchment area.  The wetland, when at full capacity, has water that covers 2530 hectares and forms a chain of shallow, freshwater lagoons about 10 kilometers long.  Though the water may be one meter deep during the winter months, it can get quite dry during the summer.  When we visited, we saw both dry ground and dark water, where reeds and rushes thrived.

We walked along a boardwalk, past clumps of Swamp Paperbark (Melaleuca halmaturorum), also known as Tea Tree, which provides nesting habitat for thousands of birds.  The wind caught the whispers of the reeds that lined the boardwalk, and the sky was clear except for some small clouds, no more than watermarks on the distant horizon.  A small Whiskered Tern flew about in the wind like a kite being pulled along by a string and a Swamp Harrier spread its wings in the distance in search of food.  Willie Wagtails and Australian Magpies, common in most places, joined the assembly of birds that we watched, up close and through the lenses of our binoculars.

This haven, with its interesting geological, hydrological, and biological features, has relied on the efforts of the community and conservation groups to achieve protection, providing nesting and feeding sites for countless species of birdlife, as well as habitat for threatened animals such as the Southern Bell Frog, Striped Legless Lizard, Yarra Pygmy Perch, and Dwarf Galaxias.

Conservation efforts for Bool Lagoon began as early as 1940, when the Flora and Fauna committee of the South Australian Ornithological Association proposed that it be declared a bird sanctuary.  However, landholders and hunters lobbied to oppose this plan; the hunting community also opposed a plan in 1960 to drain the lagoon.  But ultimately, it was enthusiasm from the hunting community to declare the area a game reserve that afforded Bool Lagoon its protection.  In 1963, the Fisheries and Game Department developed a management plan for Bool Lagoon to hold floodwaters and conserve waterbird habitat, and in 1967, the lagoon was dedicated as a game reserve, while the adjacent Hacks Lagoon was dedicated as a conservation park.

The South Australian Field and Game Association (SAFGA) has been actively involved in conserving the lagoon for years.  Beginning in 1978, the South East Branch of SAFGA has implemented projects in Bool Lagoon such as constructing and monitoring nest boxes, conducting weed control projects, repairing fencing destroyed during bushfires, revegetating areas, and planting Melaleuca seedlings.  SAFGA members have purchased sections of land to add to Bool Lagoon with funds collected from hunting permit fees, and they regularly conduct wetland and waterfowl surveys to properly manage the area.  Today, Bool Lagoon is managed in conjunction with the South-Eastern Drainage Board, which releases floodwaters held within the lagoon at a controlled rate to prevent flooding of the Naracoorte Plains.

Only 11% of wetlands in southeast South Australia remain today, most of which are seasonal and only 14% of which are considered permanent areas of open, fresh water.  This decline in wetland habitat makes Bool Lagoon even more significant for the birdlife that it supports.  Seeing an Australian Bittern fly across the water to hide in the reeds and watching the elegant Black Swans floating on the dark water make me grateful that such areas have been set aside.


What the Birds Taught Me

Red-tailed Hawk

It’s true that the best lessons come in the most unexpected places.  I spent a year working as a raptor handler and environmental educator at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, a non-profit organization that cares for Vermont’s injured avian wildlife and gives a home to non-releasable birds that have sustained permanent injuries.  Going into it, I had no idea that several feathered carnivores would teach me the most important lessons I’ve learned in recent years.

The first thing the birds taught me was to be confident.  I learned this from the Harris’s Hawk, who became my best pal after I spent a winter cutting up his dinner of mice into small pieces, which I used to train him to fly between a perch and my glove.  Harris’s Hawks, unlike most raptors, are social creatures.  They live and hunt in family groups, and because they are used to working cooperatively, they are very trainable and commonly used in falconry.  However, their social nature means that one must be inducted into a Harris’s Hawk’s family flock before the bird is willing to do what you ask.  And until you’re accepted, they can be very aggressive.

Our Harris’s Hawk was no exception.  He would growl, he would lunge, he would adopt an intimidating stance, he would throw a sharply-taloned foot at me.  At first, whenever I put him in his crate to prepare for a program, he would slam his body, feet first, into the door of the crate as I closed it.  He would see me flinch.  Because he saw me flinch, he knew that he was in control, and he continued to slam around.  I knew that I had to stop flinching.  For fear of getting a few talons punched into my skin, I learned to be confident.

The second thing the birds taught me was to be happy.  My supervisor told me early on that the birds pick up on moods and body language and respond accordingly.  I learned this the hard way.  I went into work feeling sad one day, and the birds recognized this and let me know.  First, the one-winged Barred Owl refused to step up onto my glove.  My failure to get her on my glove only frustrated me, further adding to the negative vibe I was giving off.  The Turkey Vulture, a very sweet old lady who has been in captivity for more than 32 years, would not stop lunging at me and biting my hands with her sharp beak as I attempted to take off her leather jesses and anklets.  The Red-tailed Hawk flew into a tree instead of returning to my glove during the program.  And to top it all off, my dear friend the Harris’s Hawk turned away from me on a colleague’s glove, lifted his tail, and let an enormous projectile poop fly at me, hitting me straight in the chest and sliding down the entire length of my body, right before I went out on stage.  He has never pooped so much, before or since.  It was a terrible day at work, but I decided to never go to work upset or angry again.  I learned to be happy.

The birds never reacted so negatively to me again.  I still got plenty of poop on me every now and then, but they say it’s good luck if a bird poops on you, right?  If so, I have enough good luck to last me a lifetime.

It’s easy to consider the value of animals like raptors.  As top predators, they control rodent and other small animal populations.  They certainly provide an aesthetic value, enough to make one of them our national symbol.  But it is the moments that we share privately with wildlife that make us so grateful they share the Earth with us.  Seeing a Peregrine Falcon dive to catch its prey, watching the Turkey Vulture’s dark wings lift it up rising thermals of air, noticing a Red-tailed Hawk perched silently and stoically on the branch of a tree—these are the moments given to us to admire and appreciate nature’s beauty and ferocity.  I was lucky enough to get to know a few individuals.  And just like the other animals we get to know and love, these birds are much more like us than we think.

Yidinji Country

ImageBy Jenna Gersie

“We are blessed to have you come in our circle and walk with us.”  Sib stood on the veranda of her home and spoke to us with the kind of gentleness that you encounter rarely in a lifetime.  She is a short woman in her early sixties with her graying hair buzzed close to her head and the pale brown skin that marks her as half-caste—part white and part Aboriginal Australian.  She and her older cousin, Lawrence, had invited our group of twenty-nine American college students to their home one afternoon in October to welcome us to their country.

The late Australian spring brought sunshine and a relaxing breeze, soft green leaves, the purple bloom of the Jacaranda trees, and the fiery flowers of the Flame Tree.  According to contemporary geography, we inhabited a place in the rainforest near Yungaburra, a small town on the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland.  But specifically, we were living in Yidinji Country, and Sib and Lawr, elders of the Dugaburra clan, had invited us to their home to welcome us.

As we sat in a circle and Sib and Lawr passed around artifacts of their culture—stone tools, red and yellow ochre and black charcoal used for painting, and legal documents leftover from the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act (an Act that sounds much more harmless than it actually was)—they spoke to us about their history and their home.

In The Songlines, a travelogue of the Aboriginal Australians’ dreaming tracks and songs, Bruce Chatwin writes, “The Aboriginals had an earthbound philosophy.  The earth gave life to a man; gave him his food, language and intelligence; and the earth took him back when he died.  A man’s ‘own country,’ even an empty stretch of spinifex, was itself a sacred ikon that must remain unscarred…To wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you.  The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence.”

This earthbound philosophy made itself known in the stories that Sib and Lawr told us.  Raised in a time when Aboriginal people did their best to both maintain and recover as many elements of their culture as possible, they assimilated into white society.  As soon as the school holidays came upon them, however, their grandparents took them into the bush for their other education.  Sib referred to these bush lessons with her grandparents as “University,” and because of this experience, Sib knows which bush foods to eat and which medicines to take from the plants that surround her in the rainforest.

Coupled with this education are deep ties to her home country.  Sib detailed the pain and heartbreak that many Aboriginal people have experienced when taken away from their homes.  The Stolen Generation, the Aboriginal people who were taken from their families as children in a government effort to “breed the black out”—a policy that, cruelly, lasted until the 1970s—no longer know where they are from.  In many cases, these people were brought to missions in places far away from their home country.  Imagining this type of displacement, Sib said, “In the desert, my heart would break.  I’d want to go home where the trees are close together.  Some people have a deep longing but don’t know where to go home.”

This connection to home is part of why it was so important for Sib to welcome us to her country.  That afternoon, she brought all the female students and me to sit in the shade of the rainforest trees to talk about “Women’s Business.”  She passed around woven baskets, spoke about the responsibilities of gathering food and medicine from the forest, and told us about the two most sacred moments of a woman’s life: menstruating for the first time and carrying a child.

As a young child, her own name was given to her to mean “taking care of.”  Sib has a mission to care for all of her family members, especially her children and grandchildren, to whom she will pass on the lessons she has learned.  But after sitting with her in the Australian sunshine, we knew that she would take care of us, too.  “Your essence and spirit will be left here,” she said.  “Your footprints, the trees you planted—the ancestors will look after them.  You’ve lived part of your life in our country.  You’ll leave part of your spirit here.  That’s a good thing, because it’s going to be safe.”

The end of November brought the first rain showers of the Wet Season, and with the soil moistened, our group dug 1,500 holes and put rainforest tree seedlings into the earth.  We partnered with a local organization that is working to reforest the Atherton Tablelands and create corridors of rainforest to benefit the native wildlife.  As I scooped the dirt in over the Atherton oak and bleeding heart seedlings, I couldn’t help but think of Sib’s words—that her ancestors would look over the trees we planted.  The earthbound philosophy that bears the lessons the Aboriginal people live by was evident in this simple promise.  Like any indigenous people, the Aboriginal Australians do not leave the landscape untouched, but they treat it with a love, appreciation, and respect that sustains generations.  Each tiny seedling has value, as do the hands that put those seedlings in the ground and the early summer showers that gave them their first long, cool drink.