Nature NSW – Winter 2020

Gary Dunnett, Executive Officer of National Parks Association of NSW

We’ve all been dismayed as the horror of the fire season was replaced by the overwhelming reality of a global pandemic.  Despite a flicker of national pride in how well Australia has handled the outbreak, it’s often been hard to muster a smile.  The fear that poor environmental policies are sneaking under the radar, whether the decision to allow logging in fire ravaged landscapes or extend mining under Sydney’s drinking water catchments, has deepened the air of foreboding. 

That sombre mood had even crept into my happy place, the daily walk that continued throughout the lockdown.  Although Sydney was largely unaffected by the fires, my local patch seemed much quieter than usual, as though it were still reeling from the long dry and knock-on effects of vast fires of the last summer. 

Australia may not have herds of wildebeest thundering across the savanna, but we do get to witness a mass migration each year.  It is the migration of birds along the east coast each autumn, with hundreds of thousands from a variety of species heading north.  The national parks of the NSW coast are stepping stones for many of these migrants, especially the honeyeaters.  With so many of those stepping stones impacted by fire over the summer, I must admit to a niggling fear that the loss of habitat and mortality during the fires may have diminished the spectacle for years to come. 

All of which takes me to a cold morning at the start of May.  It only took a few paces down the Wises Firetrail in Royal NP to realise that something had changed.  That ‘something’ was a mixed flock flitting across the trail.  There were several hundred birds in the flock, mostly Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, but also White-naped Honeyeaters, Spotted Pardalotes, Silvereyes, Little and Red Wattlebirds, Eastern Spinebills, Grey Fantails, along with a sprinkling of the resident New Holland Honeyeaters.  

Now it goes without saying that my wanderings are no systematic survey, but that vibrant parade of wildlife lifted my spirits like nothing else.

As we continued along down the track it struck me that the members of that mixed flock were just about the most common birds you could imagine.  Indeed, I’d be surprised if Yellow-faced Honeyeaters weren’t the most abundant native vertebrate in NSW.  The vegetation along the track was a heathy woodland with lots of scribbly gums and pink barked angophoras, typical of many a Sydney ridgeline. 

So why take such joy at the scene?  Part of the answer was the emphatic confirmation that life really does go on.  Nature has taken a massive hit over the last summer, and that damage has been followed by a very real sense of personal peril. But there is also extraordinary resilience if we just give nature a chance.  Dark times, but those honeyeaters wending their way up the coast were an uplifting sign that recovery is on the way. 

My other musing as we walked was that ‘common’ shouldn’t mean ‘not important’.  There is a bit of a trap in seeing conservation as the protection of the rare and unique.  There is no question that we should care about the species and ecological communities that are threatened with extinction, however the lesson of the last summer is that we also need to care about the welfare of the common species.

Who would have imagined that two thirds of the forests and coastal vegetation west of the divide could burn in a single summer, driving more than a hundred species of wildlife, and several hundred species of native flora, to the edge of extinction?  The chilling fact is that the lists compiled by the Threatened Species Recovery Hub aren’t just species that were already in serious decline, but include many that were previously considered secure.  Common doesn’t always mean secure.

Which brings us to the reason why our national parks and other reserves were created, and why NPA continues working so hard to expand the system, safeguard its integrity and protect it from degradation.  A reserve network is not just about protecting the rare and unique – a truly adequate network is our best defence against common species sliding towards rarity and even extinction.  Comprehensive, adequate and representative is a great starting point for the design of our reserves, but if these last months have shown us anything, it is that true resilience requires much more than the bare minimum. 

Protecting nature requires scale, redundancy and diversity.  It means treasuring our common species of fauna and flora, not consigning them to the chainsaw or bulldozer just because they have not become the last of their kind. 

It was a relief to experience that lift in spirits along the Wises Firetrail.  It leaves me doubly convinced that an expanded network of reserves, one that ensures the protection of all fauna and flora, irrespective of their rarity, is the best gift we could possibly offer the future. 

Nature NSW Online  – Winter 2020

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