The weeds of spring

A field of  mouse-eared chickweed and wild aster. Both species thrive when the competition has been killed previously.

A field of mouse-eared chickweed and wild aster. Both species thrive when the competition has been killed previously.

One of the ongoing problems in the wetlands is weeds. Because the soil is so fertile and moist, come the warm weather and we tend to be inundated by them. At present there are far more species of weeds than native plants, after all, not only were the wetlands left vacant for many decades, but there were several irrigated vegetable gardens there too, for such plants as alfalfa and carrots. And lets not forget that there were a few years in which the wetlands was used to house a small herd of Shetland ponies. One way to deal with weeds is broad-scale spraying with glyphosate in the form of bioactive Roundup or other appropriate herbicides.

Bill is of our volunteers who makes it his regular job to spot weed in small or difficult places, unsuited for broad-scale spraying.

Bill is of our volunteers who makes it his regular job to spot weed in small or difficult places, unsuited for broad-scale spraying.

While we try to minimise the application of herbicides, with 30 acres of land that contains a massive seed bed and with occasional floods that readily deposit even more, hand weeding is not an option in most places. That doesn’t mean we don’t try. Where our planted species occur, weeds readily grow, even through the thickest mulch. In these cases we use mattoacks and a range of weeding tools to physically remove the weeds and replace the mulch. As time goes on we know that many of our plants will provide root or shade competition to discourage new weeds from occurring. But in these early stages it is a weed’s paradise, after all weeds love disturbance best, and that is what we are up to at the moment. Where broad-scale weeding won’t work, we spot-spray in tight niches or where a few targeted weeds occur in relative isolation. One of our FROGS’ members has modified existing equipment to minimise wind drift and makes it his job to routinely and sequentially walk the wetlands, removing such culprits.

Greg mulches the inter-tussock spaces. Even mulch is no permanent guarantee against thriving weeds.

Greg mulches the inter-tussock spaces. Even mulch is no permanent guarantee against thriving weeds.

So what are our main weeds? There are too many to list in this space. Almost certainly worst is Chilean Needlegrass, This is a relative newcomer, having arrived in Goulburn around the early 2000s. It didn’t take long to establish itself in moist valleys and riversides. Soon a plant that many took to be the healthiest looking speargrass they ever saw covered thousands of acres, aggressively excluding most other plants in its path. The good news? Well, it is palatable to cattle and only has a relatively short seed life of about 3 years. The bad news is that it is incredibly invasive. In the wetlands we sowed several hectares to native grasses at great expense. The native grasses came up, but, despite having slashed, mowed and sprayed twice, so did Chilean Needlegrass and it was so vigorous it completely swallowed up the native grasses, only a tiny fraction which has been seen since. The other serious problem with needlegrass is that it sets seed in three parts of the plant: the seed head (well, you’d expect that), inside the stalk holding up the seedhead and, worse still, at the very base of the tussock. In other words, mowing has little or no effect on the spread of this species. The golf course beside us is largely mown needlegrass.

Burr-medic in flower. Great thickets growi in the moist soil above the water-line.

Burr-medic in flower. Great thickets growi in the moist soil above the water-line.

Below are some photos of typical weeds found during spring in the wetlands.

 

Congratulations Ray Shiel!

President of FROGS, Ray Shiel, thanks our volunteers and describes this event as part of Goulburn Connects.

President of FROGS, Ray Shiel, at the launch of the Goulburn Wetlands’ David Barnett bird hide during Goulburn Connects 2013.

 

As all our regular readers will know, the Goulburn Wetlands is managed by volunteers belonging to the Friends & Residents Of Goulburn Swamps (Landcare Inc.) or FROGS for short. Our President, Ray Shiel, has just been announced on Australia Day as Goulburn’s Australian of the Year. Well done and congratulations!

Dry times

Where's the water? Its much further to go to get there now for the moorhens.

Where’s the water? Its much further to go to get there now for the moorhens.

It has been a very long, hot time at the wetlands. We hardly got any rain in December or November, and nothing at all of any substance for many months before. So with the dry westerly winds and temperatures in the high thirties, much of Goulburn has not merely hayed off, huge swathes of shrubs are dying and the ornamental trees from the northern hemisphere are losing leaves as if it were autumn, while plants that like subtropical climates are being bleached white.

At least we still have water in the large pond, even if the anabranch has almost run dry and the wader pond actually has. Consequently the water ribbons have gone from being fully aquatic to being semi-aquatic and their long juicy leaves have toughened up. The deep pools are now shallow and the shallow pools are now expanses of mud. This has brought quite a few waders. Last Wednesday we saw 5 snipe probing the mud. They are impossible birds to photograph: they see us first and clear off, they are incredibly well camouflaged and are invisible when standing still,  or they duck into the water ribbons every chance they get.

SIgns of shrinking pools: little pied cormorants getting dirty in the mud.

SIgns of shrinking pools: little pied cormorants getting dirty in the mud.

The low water has brought the return of the Great Egrets and the White-necked Herons. The little black cormorant and the little pied cormorant are now able to catch food more easily as it is concentrated in the pools. They just fling themselves into the green-brown water and get covered in mud as they wallow around after fish. As was the case last year, the deep water hardheads have gone and have been replaced with nearly 100 more terrestrial wood ducks. The paspalum is getting quite a trimming.

It was so hot working in the sun, our volunteers had to have morning tree across the road under the pines, then call it quits an hour early.

It was so hot working in the sun, our volunteers had to have morning tree across the road under the pines, then call it quits an hour early.

 

Happy New Year

A young Australasian grebe (left) and its parent, in full breeding plumage.

A young Australasian grebe (left) and its parent, in full breeding plumage.

Happy 2014 to all our readers. A lot has been going on in the wetlands over the Christmas/New Year period.

River Bulrush (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis) has invaded the smaller ponds and parts of the river.

River Bulrush (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis) has invaded the smaller ponds and parts of the river.

Goulburn has experienced an intense hot, dry, windy period that has resulted in the withering of grass and the drying of the wetlands. The water ribbons are now standing well above the water and have formed a dense jungle covering most of the water area. As a result there are only a few pools with relatively deep water so the coots and hardheads have declined to just one bird each last week. The dusky moorhens have increased and added a few new babies as well.

Bird's foot trfoil (Lotus corniculatus) is a small relatively harmless weed that has heavily invaded the sedge meadows.

Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is a small relatively harmless weed that has heavily invaded the sedge meadows.

The small wader pool has lost all its water now and is a tract of orange-brown mud being encircled and increasingly invaded by a mixture of river bulrushes and several species of spikerush. The river buttercups are still in flower as are a number of other wetland plants. With its drying up many of the migratory waders have moved on, but there is plenty of evidence of herons and kangaroos using it: the mudflat is criss-crossed by their footprints. As a result what was a pool is now slowly tuning into a sedge-meadow … an island of moist green in a sea of dry yellow grasses.

 

The current small dramas have been provided by a family of Australasian Grebes. The young grebes are very fuzzily striped making them look quite blurry, while their intensely protective parents are in their smartest breeding colours. Click on a photo to enlarge it.

As well as the grebes and moorhens, we have several other breeding successes, including two clutches of black ducks (one more successful than the other), wood ducks, white-faced herons, superb fairy-wrens and black-fronted dotterels. You may recall their well camouflaged eggs from a couple of months ago; well now they’re well camouflaged chicks. Pacific herons and great egrets have shown up recently, both species in full breeding plumage, so maybe we’ll have a few more babies in the weeks or months to come. Some of our juvenile birds are shown below.

As well as some welcome babies, there are some not-so welcome ones. During the human festivities the Christmas beetles were having their own which, unfortunately, meant defoliating the three young cabbage gums. While we could remove the adults, they had laid their eggs and placed grubs in the mulch nearby. Fortunately for the cabbage gums, along came a huge blue flower wasp and placed its babies inside the young Christmas beetles.

A newcomer, the red-kneed dotterel, about twice the size of the black-fronted dotterel, is still dwarfed by the grey teal.

A newcomer, the red-kneed dotterel, about twice the size of the black-fronted dotterel, is still dwarfed by the grey teal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The new bird hide, waders and a change of focus

All hands on deck to finish the first bird hide.

All hands on deck to finish the first bird hide.

 

It has been some very busy while since last I made an entry to this blog.

One big problem has been that I have been blasted with spammers (2,384 in the last couple of weeks) and I am having to reconsider how I allow comments to this page. When I work that out I’ll put a message on the first page.

Meanwhile everyone in FROGS has been going hell for leather. The first and most important item was to open the bird hide. Due to last minute glitches with a delivery of dented colorbond it was real fingernail chewing time right up to the day. Goulburn Signs gave us a big discount and we got our big sign up describing birds of the wetlands as well as a small and temporary plaque thanking our local member Pru Goward for helping us so much, indeed in paying for the construction of the hide. She named it in honour of her husband The David Barnett Bird Hide and we all got ready for the day.

Divall's crew putting bitumen on the track to the bird hide.

Divall’s crew putting bitumen on the track to the bird hide.

Andy Divall, his men and machines came along and finished laying the main track, constructing a gravel cycle and fitness path and sealing the main car park and the road to the bird hide with bitumen.  This now means the main trails have been inserted into the wetlands and will provide a base from which items and activities can be placed. They finished in plenty of time for the opening and provided a generous discount. A job very efficiently completed by a local company.

The launch of the bird hide was deliberately planned to coincide with Goulburn’s Sustainability Week organised by The Goulburn Group (TGG). TGG had effectively run a program of well attended events throughout the week, including:

  • a Sustainable Building Design Forum
  • the launch of the Lieder Theatre Sustainability Project
  • guided tours through Goulburn’s Community Garden and Food Forest
  • a bike ride with Southern Tablelands Cycling Inc.
  • the opening of the Goulburn Resource Recovery Centre
  • a Heritage Walk and visit to the Sustainable Heritage Home
  • holding a stall, a series of Permaculture talks and demonstrations and making a Permaculture scarecrow at the Riversdale Markets
  • holding a tour and afternoon tea at the Victorian Kitchen Garden
  • a talk to Goulburn’s business community on Climate Change by John Hewson
  • and of course the launch of the Wetlands Bird Hide and Free Wifi, together with guided tours of the Wetlands

Below is a series of photos, thanks to Jim Webb, outlining the sequence of events on the day of the bird hide launch.

 

And afterwards people gathered round for the guided tour.

And afterwards people gathered round for the guided tour.

All through the presentation ceremony the people were watched by a mother black duck and her three ducklings, who only swam away at its end. We gave a huge sigh of relief at the end of that day, but next week we were back again. We planted Callistemons around the bird hide. These were the last of our plantings for 2013, since the weather was becoming hotter and drier and the survival of future plants was questionable. We will be planting again in autumn 2014.

Map of the Wetlands provided by LandTeam.

Map of the Wetlands provided by LandTeam.

The creation of the new paths was combined with some serious surveying done by LandTeam. Like Divall’s they also did this at a greatly reduced cost to us. The result was a collection of levels that can be used into the future for planning. This was translated into two maps: one detailed version for precision planning and another generalised one for easy consumption. Locations within the wetlands were given names for ready recognition and a general scheme was created, separating shy birds from active humans while allowing humans to remain hidden while checking out such difficult to see species as the migratory waders.

Uncovering old paths and the floors of old buildings.

Uncovering old paths and the floors of old buildings.

The hotter weather meant changing activities towards the old brickwork area, uncovering old paths and building floors so they can be preserved and incorporated into the wetlands project.
This is careful work. Apart from a few bricks and the odd relic, such as an old inkpot, a rusting piece of iron, a bent horse rail or a stamped brick, there is little to show but a pattern of building footprints. These are being interpreted by some of Goulburn’s experienced brick workers, such as Geoff Gulson, who has kindly donated his time to inspect the site. As a result we can gather a clearer understanding of what remains and what was. This information will be passed on to Goulburn Mulwaree Council’s heritage officers while we await their decision on how we should further proceed. When the old brickworks was dismantled and the ovens and chimney pulled down, people from around the town were given permission to scavenge what they liked. As a result there is little or no treasure to be found, but a lot of rubbish. Nonetheless this tells its own story of the site.

The first quadr5at in the first transect: our most naturally biodiverse vegetated area.

The first quadr5at in the first transect: our most naturally biodiverse vegetated area.

We commenced our first detailed transects and quadrats too. A transect is a sample of a site taken by stretching 50 metres of rope across a chosen sample area. Every 2 metres the species of plants within a one metre radius are identified and recorded. Once the transect is completed 4 quadrats are chosen at random along the transect. A quadrat is a one-metre square. In our case it is made of wood and is collapsible. It is placed over the point of the transect given by using a random number generator. The area occupied by each plant species is recorded as well as numbers of plants of species occupying too small an area to be readily calculated.

The footprints and beak marks of small and large waders by the wader pool.

The footprints and beak marks of small and large waders by the wader pool. You can clearly see the larger footprints of a white-faced heron superimposed on those of the smaller greenshanks, snipe and sandpipers.

Our first transect, from the wader pool into the surrounding grassy area, contained by far the greatest number of native plant species. The plants included Tall Sedge Carex appressa, Mat Grass Hemarthria uncinata, several rushes Juncus species, native buttercups Ranunculus amphitriche and some introduced docks and grasses. At its end, however, we were left with a weed bed that had previously been poisoned in preparation for planting with native grasses next autumn. Halfway along the transect we struck mud and the edge of the pool. It was here we had disturbed two sandpipers on our way in. These little birds are a devil to identify as they invariably detect us before or as soon as we see them. A glimpse is all we generally get of them before they take explosively into the air and are gone. We are getting better at deciphering fleeting views of grey and white bottoms retreating away. So far we know we have Latham’s or Japanese Snipe (a bird covered by international treaties to protect it and its habitat), Common Greenshanks and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. We now also suspect we have Common Sandpipers. In the wet mud they leave clear traces of their activities as they have probed into it with their long beaks, searching for juicy worms and other invertebrates. One day we all hope we’ll get a clear, uninterrupted view and a good photograph.

 

A small wader feather left behind on the mudflat, probably by a snipe.

A small wader feather left behind on the mudflat, probably by a snipe.

Life and death in the wetlands

In the past raptors have chased starlings or mynas (like the peregrine falcons), crested pigeons (like the brown goshawks), mice (like the black-shouldered kites and kestrels) or ducks (like the grey goshawk). Some just soared along and away, like the sea eagle and the wedge-tailed eagle. The whistling kite, however, came to breed and feed.

In the past raptors have chased starlings or mynas (like the peregrine falcons), crested pigeons (like the brown goshawks), mice (like the black-shouldered kites and kestrels) or ducks (like the grey goshawk). Some just soared along and away, like the sea eagle and the wedge-tailed eagle. The whistling kites, however, came to breed and feed.

TAFE students coming from Taiwan, the Congo, Turkey, Thailand, China and Ethiopia gathered in the wind for a day at the wetlands.

TAFE students coming from Taiwan, the Congo, Turkey, Thailand, China and Ethiopia gathered in the wind for a day at the wetlands.

Last Wednesday everything happened. We planted Poa tussocks and Towrang bottlebrushes, weeded and cleaned up … all as usual. The ESL class from TAFE came some days earlier with Raina their teacher and the wind blew us all back to the classroom. But Wednesday was perfect. Divalls came along and all of a sudden the first pool in the anabranch was lowered (for the golf club), new lagoons were created to (over)compensate, the walking track was graded and the bike path was too.

The real drama, however, started with a small crowd of people staring at a pair of birds in the tall, sickly pines across the street. Read on for a set of pictures depicting the unfolding drama of the day. Click on any picture to expand it …

As the bedraggled kite at on the rocks with ribbon weed tangled in its feet, the crowd of ducks milled around once more and then dispersed. No more chicks were taken while we were there, but the kites will need more to prevent their own from starving. High level predators such as the whistling kites are a good thing for the wetlands. Their presence means the ecosystem is working and that there is enough food available at every level of the food pyramid.

As the bedraggled kite sat on the rocks with ribbon weed tangled in its feet, the crowd of ducks milled around the female black duck and her ducklings once more and then made their way back to the other side of the main pond. No more chicks were taken while we were there, but the kites will need to take more in the near future to prevent their own chicks from starving. High level predators such as the whistling kites are a good thing for the wetlands. Their presence means the ecosystem is working and that there is enough food available at every level of the food pyramid.

 

Day visitors, dotterels and ducks

Goulburn East Public School gathered at the edge of the wetlands.

Goulburn East Public School gathered at the edge of the wetlands.

The weather has been quite variable over these last few weeks. There have been some gorgeous sunny days interspersed with periods plagued by truly vile winds. The result of this has been the marked drying out once more of the wetlands. But the warmth has brought on breeding plumage, eggs, nests and, predictably, nest robbers.

Selecting bugs to identify.

Selecting bugs to identify.

Tuesday saw our second visit by Goulburn East Public School. In the morning the infants school walked across to the wetlands where they were met by Marina Holland and other Goulburn Mulwaree Council staff. They had spent some time beforehand straining bugs from the clear waters of the main pond and collecting them in plastic containers. The kids had a great time gathering these up into their own ice cube trays and then looking at them through magnifying devices. SMALL Goulburn East Primary School visit October 151013_5481After the bugs were sent home again, Rodney Falconer from FROGS gave them a few wrods about the wonders of tall sedges (far more interesting than it might appear). After the infants school and their teachers left it was the turn of the primary school (years 3 to 6) and their teachers. They were also a great bunch of kids and we went through a similar though slightly more advanced routine. It would appear from our bugs that the main pond scores about 3 our of 10 for clean water, though earlier work by some of our FROGS group has had it up to about 7.

Two little eggs in a shallow bowl, so hard to see that even the circling ravens overlooked them.

Two little eggs in a shallow bowl, so hard to see that even the circling ravens overlooked them.

On Wednesday Heather parked her car and noted that she had almost run over a pair of near invisible eggs. We carefully marked the area to avoid it and Rodney H came back after our working bee and was able to confirm that all was well: the parents had returned and were sitting on the eggs once more.  So what birds leave the waterside and lay their eggs on bare ground in the middle of a cleared ex-industrial area? They were black-fronted dotterels. These tiny, sparrow-sized waders are quite brightly coloured when viewed against a blank background. Against the muddy shore and rotting vegetation they become, like their eggs, virtually invisible. The dotterels are consistently at the wetlands, with at least one pair tottering around the water’s edge snapping up miniscule creatures from the mud and debris. Very few people, however, are aware of their presence unless they are looking at the shore and notice a sudden movement.

A black-fronted dotterel watches for movement then races across the muddy shore to snap whatever it was up.

A black-fronted dotterel watches for movement then races across the muddy shore to snap whatever it was up.

To end of this entry I should also mention that the migratory waders are back as well. We still can’t easily tell if they are sandpipers, greenshanks or some other species, but we do know that one that is easily identified, the Japanese (or Latham’s) snipe. This is a bird protected under international agreements to which Australia has agreed to bind itself  (such as RAMSAR). And one more new set of visitors: pink-eared ducks. These unusual little ducks have responded to the flushes of water life in the wetlands. Their pink ears are so small that you can barely see them and some people call them zebra ducks because of their striped bodies. One of their key distinguishing features, however, is their distinctive bill which is long and has bulldog like flaps at the end that enable them to filter plankton and small insects from the water. And they do not quack; they twitter.

A pair of pink-eared ducks sail through a flock of much larger hardheads.

A pair of pink-eared ducks sail through a flock of much larger hardheads.

 

 

The bird hide continues

Putting the stencil on the bird hide after concreting.

Putting the stencil on the bird hide after concreting.

Another incredibly busy day at the wetlands. Bill and Ray had been there since 6:30 AM ensuring the site of the first bird hide was ready for a concrete mixer. The troops arrived well before 8 when the truck arrived and it was hell for leather until the job was finished. Ray and Ken stayed behind to level and smooth the newly laid concrete, carefully putting a slight incline near the leading edge to help accommodate the tool storage area. Meanwhile most of the others went with the truck to the rocks on the north-west side of the dam culvert. The remaining load (about a barrow’s worth) was dumped here and the truck drove away. The gang leapt on it with great speed, placing the concrete between large loose boulders to complete the reinforcement of the sides of the dam wall.

Filling in the holes. Fortunately the concreting was too stressful for Biscuit the one-eyed dog, so he left his paw prints out of the concrete.

Filling in the holes. Fortunately the concreting was too stressful for Biscuit the one-eyed dog, so he left his paw prints out of the concrete.

At the same time, Rodney and Bill 2 were inspecting the plants and putting GPS locations for 9 of the 10 transects we have to complete for the NSW Environment Trust. That job done, we figured the concrete was ready to be edged and, after a very pleasant morning tea away they all (minus Rodney and B2) ran to the bird hide again. The edging completed, the next step for the morning was to put stencilling over the surface to provide a tread and to give it an aesthetically pleasing touch consistent with the bridge. Another half an hour and the concrete was going off enough to allow the plastic stencil to be removed, a very delicate operation. As a last touch Rodney put a date on one of the rectangular squares left by the stencil before going home.

Two of the 17 large grasshoppers that stayed to watch the activity.

Two of the 17 large grasshoppers that stayed to watch the activity.

Meanwhile, spring is advancing all too fast. Out first sating bowerbird gave the site the once over, a young female. The ravens are nesting and harassing the other birds looking for vulnerable chicks and eggs. The coots are trying to breed under the bushes. All sorts of weeds are coming into flower, as well as a few hidden natives. Outside the fence are flowering brilliant blue native crowfoot shrubs.  We have to ensure they don’t accidentally get sprayed.

Trying to beat the fire season

 

Burning the first pile. As the fire gets hotter the hose goes on to control the spread of the flames.

Burning the first pile. As the fire gets hotter the hose goes on to control the spread of the flames.

We had planned this day for months, got all our permissions and made sure we had assistance from seasoned firefighters. We new we had the best part of a month before the fire season started. Finally the day came and four piles of woody weeds were burned. That, sadly, was the day parts of western Sydney caught alight and they declared the fire season to be started. But we persisted and it worked well.

African Boxthorn in full flower, fruit and leaf.

African Boxthorn in full flower, fruit and leaf.

We had previously made four piles containing the bulk of the dead African Boxthorns to be burned. This species is a vigorous weed that contains huge woody thorns. When killed it becomes a great wooden hedgehog. Unlike some other plants, such as eucalypts or willows, the thorns are not shredded and remain very sharp, being robust enough to pierce even tractor tyres. As a result they cannot be easily disposed of and so have to be stacked, raked and burnt.

The framework for the first bird hide, thanks to Pru Goward.

The framework for the first bird hide, thanks to Pru Goward.

While some of us helped by starting, managing and watching the fires until not even hot ashes were left, the rest continued with weeding and other routine jobs. Bill and Ray had already been busy completing the frame for the first bird hide. Soon a concrete base will be placed inside along with metal seats and a colorbond screen. A tool shed will be added as well as windows. Large shrubs will screen off people walking to the hide from the very skittish ducks.

Burning the third pile on a beautiful, if rather windy, spring day.

Burning the third pile on a beautiful, if rather windy, spring day.