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

 

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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?

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.

Food for Frogs

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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!

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Photograph by Jenna Gersie

Bool Lagoon, South Australia

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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.

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