COVID changed all our lives. For Jackie and Dave Newman, it put a stop to their annual wildlife safaris around Australia. During the long lockdowns, their world was constrained to a 5km radius around their home in Lang Lang.
But as their world got smaller, they made a magical discovery. The nearby Adams Creek Nature Conservation Reserve was a biodiversity hot spot.
They’d visited the reserve once or twice in the past but perhaps they were looking the wrong way when something amazing flew past. They didn’t see much of interest and forgot all about it while they explored more exotic spots around this great continent.
When they revisited during the lockdown, they were blown away by the diversity: colonies of sugar gliders, antechinuses, snakes, skinks, multi-coloured moths, gorgeous orchids, and two-metre reptiles.
And the birds! Bassian thrushes, brush bronzewings, a rufous fantail. “We saw an olive whistler,” Dave says. “That really blew me away. We went all the way to Port Fairy to see an olive whistler! The closest I’d seen one was Tarra Bulga. And here they were just down the road!”
They are not alone. Until a year or two ago, very few of us had been into the woodlands. There are no signs on the highway pointing out nature conservation reserves or walking trails. The approach to the Adams Creek NCR is particularly forbidding. You pull off the South Gippsland Highway and travel down a dirt road between vast sand mines.
Dave says they were initially interested in finding powerful owls. Some of the terrain looked promising and they found three or four hollows that were suitable for powerful owls. Then as the weather got better they started to see and photograph the huge diversity of birds and animals.
Dave’s photo of a lace monitor (tree goanna), taken last year, is an astonishing portrait of a rarely seen animal in an even rarer pose, its long tongue flicking ahead, its eyes apparently fixed on the viewer. Every detail is sharp: the armour-like hide, the immense talons, and something more. We can feel the essence of the animal, its dignity. We know we are a visitor to his world.
“Usually you come across them by accident and they shoot up a tree,” he says. “We were really lucky with this guy. We had stopped and we happened to look up the track and he was wandering towards us.”
Luck plays a big part in getting photos like this, he says. And dogged persistence. Recently, on a trip to the far north, they managed to see and photograph some palm cockatoos, a holy grail of bird watchers. “It was our seventh attempt,” Dave says. “We joke that that’s our $20,000 photograph.”
Then there is Jackie’s photo of an agile antechinus. Dave and Jackie were showing a group of us around Adams Creek Reserve. Walking with them was a chance to see the world anew. Every now and then they would stop, the chatter would die down, and we would listen. Initially there was only silence and then there was a growing chorus of birds. Over many years of bird watching, they have developed acute powers of observation – a flicker here, a cheep there. Nothing goes unnoticed.
On this occasion, Jackie saw it first. An agile antechinus. Such a shy animal. You occasionally see a dead male (they die after mating) but rarely a live animal. This one was carrying leaves up a tree to a nest in a hollow. One at a time, up and down. Our group stood spellbound for 15 minutes or more watching and listening. And Jackie got the photo of the day.
“I just found it mind blowing that there are lace monitors so close to where we live,” Dave says. “We know there are at least two in Adams Creek. I hope there are more. And we know they’re in The Gurdies and Grantville. But they’re functionally extinct unless we maintain the linkages throughout the woodlands.”
They are mapping their walks as they go to introduce more people to the woodlands. They walked for six hours last week. But there are still large parts of the woodlands they haven’t explored and new discoveries to be made. They are constantly scanning the tree tops – which is how they made one of their most recent discoveries: a koala in the Adams Creek reserve.
They had heard koalas growling before but they had never managed to spot one. Jackie was following some crimson rosellas when she saw the bundle of fur high in a tree.
They collected some nice fresh scats and sent them to koala researcher Kelly Smith for DNA analysis. Kelly is searching for remnant populations of Strzelecki koalas, ie. not descended from the koalas that were sent to French Island in the early 1900s when koalas had been hunted almost to the point of extinction.
Koalas were once plentiful in the woodlands but they are now rare. However, recent sightings in Adams Creek and Grantville reserves are cause for optimism that they may be making a comeback. Koalas are now listed as endangered in Queensland, NSW and the ACT so it’s a significant find. They are confident there are more there.
They’ve looked back on some of the old records and species lists. Now they’re on the lookout for firetail finches and perhaps even a barking owl. They continue to look for evidence of powerful owls.
They have seen blue winged parrots at several spots in the woodlands and a large flock on a nearby private property. “Blue winged parrots are a big attraction for birdies. They come across from Tasmania. They are also notorious for hanging around with orange bellied parrots.”
This critically endangered parrot is one of the holy grails of bird watchers. Of course they would love to find one – or preferably a flock – in our woodlands. They’re also cautious. If they did find one they wouldn’t publicise it. “That might sound selfish but I’m not sure we want too many people trampling over sensitive areas.”