Nicole Gill


I live with my partner, one rooster, two ducks, a three-legged cat, four bee-hives, five hens, and countless native birds and animals at the edge of Hobart, Tasmania (the little island that hangs off the south-eastern corner of Australia). I’m an unrequited zoologist who missed out on the animals bit of her science degree for refusing to chop critters up for educational purposes. When not writing about the weird and wonderful natural world, I’m gainfully employed in the persecution of non-native invasive species, most of which lack a pulse.


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B is for Buttongrass

Three days!”  Stuart, one of the regular Melaleuca pilots, shook his head in amusement.  “When this fella said he was doing a three day course on buttongrass,  I couldn’t believe it.  But when you look a bit closer, you realise how complex it actually is.”

Buttongrass moorland dominates much of the wet, poorly-drained country in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. To me, buttongrass (Gymnoschoenus sphaerocephalus) has always looked like it’s throwing a party, its spherical flower-heads like tiny round champagne corks, exploding from the tussocks on elegant stalks. But don’t be fooled – there’s a lot going on beneath this sedge’s cheery facade.

Around Melaleuca, the moorlands are riddled with the chimneystack-esque burrows of burrowing crayfish. It’s thought that buttongrass and the crayfish have a symbiotic relationship – the crayfish dig their homes into the root systems of the plants, which provide them with both shelter and food – buttongrass rhizomes are edible.  In return, the burrows improve aeration in the often-waterlogged soils.

As well as being poorly drained, the soils underlying the buttongrass are also strongly acidic.  At a pH of 4.5, they’re roughly on par with beer, and have similar impacts on nutrient uptake.  Whilst beer may cause you to forget to eat enough to gain adequate nutrition,  a low pH in peat soils means that many valuable nutrients are less available to the local plants and animals.

Individual species have their own ways of dealing with these issues.  Carnivorous plants are common amongst the buttongrass, obtaining their extra nutrients from unwary insects. Burrowing crayfish shed their carapace (shells) annually, immediately eating them to conserve hard-to-get calcium.

Buttongrass doesn’t mind a burn, and unless the underlying peat soils are dry, individual plants usually survive a fire.   The critically endangered orange-bellied parrots rely on the periodic patch-burning of the buttongrass moorland vegetation – this leaves multi-aged stands of vegetation at varying stages of growth, hopefully providing enough seeding plants to keep the parrots’ appetites satiated.

The buttongrass moorlands of the Wilderness World Heritage area are also home to the Mysterious Mounds of Melaleuca.   Of uncertain origin, these raised, round lumps rise out of the moorlands like giant pimples.  No one is really sure how they were formed. The most popular current theory involves the influx of groundwater beneath the mounds, but for completely unscientific reasons, I prefer the one that is based on parrot poo.

As far as I understand it, this theory suggests that the parrots find a nice stick in the landscape to sit on, visiting it regularly and “enhancing the nutrient profile” of the soils beneath it.  This leads to increased plant growth, which can accumulate more soil, growing more plants to attract said parrots, forming a kind of poo-enhanced positive feedback loop.  As previously stated, my preference for this theory has nothing to do with its likely accuracy, and everything to do with my penchant for parrots.

An Alphabetical Miscellany – A is for Acanthiza

I’ve just returned from an astoundingly good field trip spent at Melaleuca, in Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area.  Tucked down in the far south west of the state, it’s accessible only on foot, by small aircraft or boat, and is one of the most stunning places I’ve had the pleasure to visit.  My partner and I spent a portion of the summer there, volunteering on behalf of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service as camp hosts, chatting to visitors, scrubbing loos and keeping things as neat and tidy as you can reasonably expect them to be in the wild wild west.

As well as allowing us to meet a veritable plethora of excellent and interesting people, including bushwalkers, boat people, pilots, birdos, alpenhornists, peak baggers, ground scrufflers and sundry adventurers, spending a whole month in the rangers’ hut gave me the opportunity to indulge my eco-flâneur tendencies. I spent an inordinate amount of time stalking fabulous flora and fauna, often from within the rangers’ hut, binos in one hand, tea cup in the other.  Sometimes, there were even scones.


 


 

 

A is for Acanthiza ewingii, the Little Brown Bird with the white undies

Tasmanian thornbills (Acanthiza ewingii) are the every-bird pin-up of the LBB ranks. For those unacquainted with LBBs, they are the elite cadre of Little Brown Birds which Tasmania has in abundance.  Ask any bushwalking guide what that tiny brown feathery thing you saw flitting past at speed was, and “Oh, that’s an elbeebee!” is almost inevitably their response.  Most visitors are too embarrassed by their unfamiliarity with this species to inquire further.

The Tasmanian thornbill is endemic to the state (meaning it’s found nowhere else), and is apparently distinguished from the near identical brown thornbill by its white underpants.

A mob of Tasmanian thornbills inhabit the scrub surrounding the rangers’ hut at Melaleuca. You may not be able to see them at first glance, but I promise you, they’re there in abundance, relieving the shrubbery of its insect fauna like a gang of adorable, feathery pickpockets.


We’ll be publishing a miscellany of natural history in alphabetical order , featuring some of the natural attractions of Melaleuca and the Wilderness World Heritage Area – many of them feathered, as I went on a bit of a bird bender – but also generally floral and faunal, geological, possibly hydrological, maybe even astronomical, and most definitely ecological. Stay tuned for tales of wilderness derring-do, tiny stupid birds and the occasional cheeky marsupial.