Tropical oases and Purple-crowned Fairywrens, today we’re talking about conservation of northern Australia’s tropical waterways and their inhabitants…
The tropical rivers of northern Australia and the “riparian habitat” (or riverside plants that line the banks) are home to all kinds of cool and quirky creatures. In pristine condition, these areas are cool, palm-filled oases with tall shady paperbarks stretching tall overhead. However, these oases quickly become devastated to muddy puddles when exposed to threats like mismanaged fire, weeds and trampling by introduced cattle and livestock.
The impacts of poor land management have caused fragmentation, degradation and loss of riparian habitat, now considered “at risk” in many areas of northern Australia. Many of the critters that rely solely on this habitat, we call them riparian specialists, are also declining as a result of this damage!
In the Kimberley, riparian specialists include birds like the Crimson Finch, Buff-sided Robin and the nationally Endangered western subspecies of the Purple-crowned Fairywren.
A dense, intact middle-storey of palm-like Pandanus plants and a shady canopy of tall paperbarks and other emergent trees are what characterize a healthy riparian habitat. These plants are integral for stabilizing banks, preventing erosion during floods, filtering water and nutrient cycle as well as providing essential habitat for wildlife.
Protecting riparian habitats and Pandanus
Riparian ecosystems are declining in extent and condition across northern Australia. They can be protected by:
- Managing fire either side of creeks to exclude it from the leafy green plants,
- Excluding grazers (cattle, horses, donkeys, pigs) which trample soil and plants,
- Controlling weeds
Pandanus palms in particular are sensitive to degradation from feral herbivores and fire. Healthy stands of Pandanus along creeks indicate the absence of these threats.
Purple-crowned Fairywrens are small, social bird found only in dense, riparian habitat in northern Australia. They are co-operative breeders that live in Pandanus-dense creeks in well-defined territories with intricate social structures. A breeding pair maintain their territory along with other helper birds (who aren’t necessarily related) who work together to defend their territories, forage for insects and raise chicks.
And the best part? Although these birds have disappeared from large parts of their former range, research has found that populations increase in response to effective management of fire and destocking creeks over time. So, improving the habitat will increase their chances of survival – simples!
This research has also provided a deep understanding of the life history of birds and uncovered fascinating parts of their ecology, social behaviour and response to threats. We will be looking into this more in an upcoming blog post so… watch this space!
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