Gwen and Jeff Young plant thousands of trees to create 9-hectare haven for birds on their Port MacDonnell farm

Long before Jeff Young met his wife Gwen, birds were targets for his slug gun.

Sparrows were “spoggies”, red-browed finches were “beetroot eaters” — at least that is what his Dad told him on their Port MacDonnell farm in South Australia’s south-east.

Since meeting Gwen in 1996, the farm has become a haven for 122 species of birds many of which Mr Young can now call by their real names.

In 20 years they have planted thousands of trees and covered 9 of their 72 acres with native corridors, changing their landscape — and their relationship — forever.

Gwen’s lifelong love for birds

Gwen Young is serious about her birds.(Supplied: Gwen Young)

Growing up on a tiny dairy on the northern coast of New South Wales, Gwen Young knew the eastern species as well as anyone.

On the 2.5-kilometre walk through the bush to and from school each morning, she and her sister would document any signs of birds they came across.

When their older brother was given an Australian bird guide for his 15th birthday, they were all thrilled.

“Every day we were looking at that book and finding out what the birds around us were,” Mrs Young said.

Dollarbirds, bowerbirds, finches, honeyeaters.

An older woman in the driver's seat of a car gestures towards the windshield with one hand, her other hand steering the wheel.
Gwen Young’s dream since she was a girl is to see every Australian bird.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“We’ve just been birding ever since. I just love them,” Mrs Young said.

In the decades of endless bird trips and surveys since, she has clocked up sightings of nearly 600 different bird species.

“There’s another couple of hundred to go but I’m never going to get there, too old now,” Mrs Young said with a chuckle.

Transforming their property

Many of those birds have been in the Youngs’ backyard.

Over the past week, the couple has been noting down the different species around their property for the Aussie Backyard Bird Count.

The tally by Friday was 27 species, which was a little down on last year’s total, Mrs Young said.

But it was about 27 more than when Mrs Young first visited Jeff’s farm in 1996.

An aerial photo shows large green paddocks with large patches of trees on them, a coastline and blue sky in the background.
Before Gwen arrived, Jeff Young’s property was bare. Now it has tree corridors full of birds.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“When I first came here you couldn’t see the bush,” Mrs Young said.

“There were really only magpies and sparrows … that was basically about it.”

Mr Young’s father had cleared a lot of the native trees on the property years ago.

“The good thing about it is that he didn’t clear it all; some properties were all cleared,” Mrs Young said.

A smiling couple stand next to a sign that says Bushcare
Gwen moved in with Jeff Young on his farm when they married in 1998.(Supplied: Jeff and Gwen Young)

In 2000, the Youngs acquired a little over $1,000 from the government to fence off a corridor and start planting again.

After a few years Mrs Young was able to collect her own seeds.

“That was really satisfying being able to collect seeds off trees that I’d planted,” she said.

On a “good day” they would plant 600 trees. Sometimes Mrs Young would spend four days a week planting.

“I just loved doing it,” she said.

A government authorised sign surrounded by trees reads 'Landholders Enhancing Local Landscapes. Site, Young. Area, one hectare.'
Gwen and Jeff Young’s plantations are recognised by the government.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

And they both loved being out among nature. “I love the bush,” Mr Young said.

Build it and they will fly in

Native scrubland now covers 9 hectares of the Youngs’ property.

“I’ve no idea how many superb fairy wrens we’ve got but there must be hundreds of them,” Mrs Young said.

“There are also a lot of birds that just come now and then.”

When it’s wet, the swamps become a hub of activity.

A shallow body of water on a paddock surrounded by tall grass.
Multiple swamps form on the Youngs’ property after the rain, attracting even more birds.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

One winter they could see spoonbills, egrets and hundreds of ducks from their kitchen window.

“It was just magic,” Mrs Young said.

Closer to the house, Mr Young is often accompanied by scrub wrens in his workshop.

Birds will nest almost anywhere — even in pot plants and hay bales.

An older woman stands next to part of a dead tree hanging in a shed, a hole in the middle marks a bird nest.
Gwen Young with one of the many bird nests dotted around the garden.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

For one audit of the dairy, Mr and Mrs Young had to hide a swallow’s nest during the inspection.

“[Jeff] took the brush with the nest on it and took it out the back until the auditor left,” Mrs Young said.

An older man and woman smile as they climb through a gap in a fence, surrounded by bush.
The Youngs might have to clear some hurdles but they never have to venture far to find a scenic picnic spot.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Jeff’s new appreciation for birds

Mr Young has become used to his wife’s obsession.

“We can’t bypass a national park, we’ve got to go into it,” he said.

While he does not have the same fascination with all birds as his wife does, he is interested in the species he sees on his property.

An older man in a grey cap smiles at the camera, a motorbike and shed behind him.
Jeff Young moved from dairy farming to cattle farming a couple of years ago.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“It didn’t take him too long to start to notice different birds,” Mrs Young said.

He now comes home after a day in the paddocks with a run-sheet of species he saw, or questions about a visitor.

“He mightn’t know what they were but he knew there was a different bird down there,” Mrs Young said.

Other farmers following suit

The Youngs’ commitment to greening their property has made an impact.

“There are quite a few other people who have planted little strips along their fences,” Mrs Young said.

“Even the neighbour is changing his ways … he’s planted a hell of a lot of trees on his high ground,” Mr Young said.

“There has been a lot done over the years since we started,” Mrs Young added.

Two grey and white cows in a grassy paddock stare at the camera, a small black calf in the background.
The Youngs are happy to see other farmers planting trees on their properties.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

As far as birding goes, Mrs Young has made inroads with two of her three daughters. Her grandchildren have not shown as much interest.

“But now that their mothers are [birding], maybe they will,” Mrs Young said.

While back and hip issues have put a halt on Gwen Young’s dreams of new bird sightings, most of her favourite memories involve everyday birds.

A closeup shop of a bird
An eastern spinebill, like this one, gave Gwen Young a memory she still cherishes.(Supplied: Rhonda Corcoran)

One day in the Grampians National Park stands out.

It had started to rain, so she took cover under some flowering shrubbery.

“This spinebill came along and he was drinking out of the blossoms just there, a few inches from my face,” Mrs Young said.

“I grew up with spinebills, but to see one right in front of your face … That was a pleasure that I’ll never forget.”

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Tjoritja West MacDonnell Ranges – vegeTARAian

After tackling Kings Canyon on a tour of the Northern Territory, we headed to West MacDonnell National Park. The incredible landscape of the West MacDonnell Ranges features natural gorges and waterholes, as well as native plants and wildlife.

Known as Tjoritja (pronounced choor-it-ja) by the Traditional Owners of the land, the West MacDonnell Ranges is an important area for the Aranda Aboriginal people.

This is a popular area for hikers. The Larapinta Trail is a long-distance walk, which runs along 223km of the West MacDonnell Ranges. The track is divided into 12 sections so visitors can take on the trail in smaller bushwalks.

Mt Sonder lookout

After a night camping at Glen Helen, we stopped at a lookout to see the West MacDonnell Ranges. The highest peak of Mount Sonder sits 1,380 metres above sea level. From a distance, it’s said to look like a pregnant lady lying on her back.


Ormiston Gorge

There is no denying the strikingly beautiful sites that a visit to the Northern Territory offers. For me one of the most spectacular was Ormiston Gorge.


Ormiston Waterhole

You can take a walk up to the Ghost Gum Lookout or a much shorter and leisurely stroll straight to Ormiston Waterhole. And if you’ve time to visit the cafe while you’re there, the homemade scones are a must.

Nature can be so amazing. Seeing the brilliant colours of the sharp rock contrasted against the glassy clear water was simply breathtaking. I’d say it’s impossible to take a bad photo here.


We also visited a dry creek known as the Ochre Pits, featuring layered mineral rocks that were mined by generations of Aboriginal people.

The earthy colours of the silky ochre pigments were used for paintings, to protect wooden weapons from termites, and as paint for ceremonial body decorations.


Ellery Creek Big Hole

One of my favourites spots was Ellery Creek Big Hole, which is in a gorge surrounded by red cliffs, created by thousands of years of floods. This serene permanent waterhole has been a special meeting place for the Aranda people.


Simpsons Gap

Another quiet and permanent waterhole we stopped at was Simpsons Gap. Black-footed rock wallabies can be seen in this area, but they were a little shy during my visit.

Simpsons Gap is an important spiritual site known as Rungutjirpa by the Arrernte people. It’s said to be the home of a group of giant goanna ancestors.

Up next: We head north to Darwin to start the second leg of the tour.

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  1. Glen Helen
    Neighborhood in Macdonnell Australia

    Macdonnell Australia

  2. Mount Sonder
    Attraction in Macdonnell Australia

    Macdonnell Australia

  3. Simpsons Gap
    Attraction in Macdonnell Australia

    Macdonnell Australia

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West MacDonnell park: Life returns after the firestorm


A bushfire tore through the West MacDonnells, star attraction of the new campaign to revive the local travel industry, burning about half of the national park at the start of last year.

Ptilotus in bloom.

Its valleys, gorges, waterholes and stunning mountains on the doorsteps of Alice Springs are one of the highest plant diversity regions in arid Australia, home to the jewels in the crown of our tourism, Ellery Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm, its restaurant almost destroyed in the blaze.

On Sunday it was the destination for about a 80 people in cars, and on 36 bikes some 70 members of HOG, short for Harley Owners Group, who raised $800 for the hospital’s palliative care unit with a fun ride.

Locals and tour operators are anxiously monitoring the recovery of the park, and it is a good news – bad news story.

On Sunday Alice Springs News writers walked the gully leading to the chasm, and up Section Three of the Larapinta Trial, to the first summit. We call it the Staircase to Heaven for its superb views.

We were in the company of ethno-ecologist Dr Fiona Walsh (in the photo at top), long-time local, well familiar with the West Macs. She also visited the area with the News after last year’s inferno.

These are some of her impressions from our walk on Sunday.

Decimated plants included Callitris pines. A few were only partly burned but most were charred with no signs of regeneration.

In the spring fed waters running down the gorge, which the track to the chasm follows, it looks like the Melaleucas, the paper barks, have been quite strongly affected.

Later, from the summit, we could see a large stand (centre in the photo at left) of the beautiful and restricted Acacia macdonellensis which showed no sign of re-sprouting at all. 

Among the plants that show some regeneration are River redgums, Bloodwoods, Spearwoods, Hop bush and Zamia palms show some vigour.

We saw a variety of fire responsive species, like the camel poison with a blue flower, that have been invigorated by the fire, as well as various legume flowers, including the lovely yellow flowered Hibbertia, which is coming back quite well.

To establish the proportion of plant loss would take a much bigger survey.

Some of the River redgums have been so heavily burned that large swathes of bark have shed yet there still is some epicormic growth, growth-buds re-sprouting along the length of the trunks. 

There is also this epicormic branches emerging around the trunk base. Even where trees have fallen they are setting up vertical shoots which will potentially become new branches, and, perhaps tree trunks . 

The regeneration is strongest along the spring-fed water course (at right). There is less regeneration upslope. Not surprisingly, water is a main determinant in the capacity to regenerate. 

There is intensely flourishing vegetation in the creekbed, even more varied than before the fire. 

Events like last year’s fire sets off tensions, a kind of push-pull: There is fire nurturing the reproduction of the Australian arid zone vegetation, fire providing nutrients, stimulating re-growth, opening up space for seeds for perennials and other plants to regenerate, that’s fire plus water. 

In the creek we saw one patch, about two metre square, that had 12 different species which included grasses, perennial herbs, short lived herbs, glycine, shrubs and a tree. 

Most Australian plants have varied reproductive strategies to recover from fire damage – from seeds (sexual reproduction) or re-growth from roots (clonal).

But away from springwaters up slope and down creeklines there appears to be a loss of diversity which is the combination of the number of species as well as the abundance of individuals in species. 

With both low rainfall and rain that quickly sheds off naked slope it is even less likely that water can percolate into the soil. There is not the water to allow the plants to readily put up substantive new growth.

Even with the gentle rainfalls since the fires in February last year, rather than big, flushing rains, there are patches of soil and rock slippage. A deluge would cause these soils to slip. So it’s fortunate there hasn’t been heavy rain.

The rainfall at the Alice Springs airport from February 1, 2019 to today (17 months) was a mere 143.2mm. The mean annal (12 months) rainfall is 282.8mm.

A question was about the availability of food, shelter and habitat for kangaroos, reptiles, birds and other animals who would use these slopes. 

After the fires in January last year, that was the really big worry, when there were still three or four months of high temperatures and no re-growth in that hot period. Very harsh conditions.  There is likely to have been declines of these animal populations. 

Saying that last year’s fire affected close to half the park is describing a spatial impact. 

But then there is the cumulative impact over time. Plants invest biomass into their trunks and their leaves and roots with each fire they lose biomass and energy.

Each time they burn they get worn. The intervals between fires get shorter. Some big events like last year’s wildfires create episodic impacts from which the plants have to come back. 

When these events occur often they get depleted, and that’s overlain with this other impact of climate change and dry conditions which compounds the challenges faced by plants and animals. 

Their survival is extraordinary. The forces that are working against them are powerful and have different patterns of influence. 

Epicormic growth, growth-buds re-sprouting along the length of the burnt trunks.

What about weeds? On our walk we saw Red natal grass, Ruby dock, which we pulled out, Deadly nightshade and swathes of Buffel grass.

It looks like buffel grass was managed in the gorge area but away from the park there is Buffel grass, even within view of the kiosk area, up the slope. 

Buffel grass comes back. It regenerates after being grazed, and fires are like a giant animal eating it. The buffel will come back from its root stock, it is a perennial, long-lived grass. 

It both invades and re-generates with fire and then fuels hotter fires.

It is wonderful to visit Angkerle Atwatye to see varied colourful plants that regenerate after the fires where spring waters flow but we need to be careful. We cannot assume that elsewhere the plants can recover so easily in these hotter drier conditions. Ongoing care and management of unique wildlife is needed.

The Alice Springs News extensively reported about the 2019 fires in the West MacDonnell National Park, and concerns about the adequacy of fire fighting. Google our site!

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