President’s letter

Recoveries and discoveriesPublished 13/12/11 | by Brian Bainbridge

A year ago I asked Indigenotes readers to share their observations of re-appearances of plants or animals or other phenomena linked to the rainy weather. My motive was two-fold. Firstly I hoped to capture some of the buzz of people sharing their wonder at recoveries and discoveries. But I was also hoping to deepen understanding of why short term assessments of remnant areas so often fall short of the evaluation of people with a long-term connection to those same areas.

It is frustrating to witness scanty ‘snap-shot’ and desk-top assessments being used to inform development approvals. Such processes can never reveal the country in all its varied aspects given the erratic, long-term nature of the Australian seasonal cycles. A recent case of the finding of the endangered Tough Scurf Pea (Cullen tenax) in a proposed development site at Sunbury is a case in point. Although the site was surveyed professionally in 2008, the plant was only detected by a volunteer naturalist this summer. The naturalist was visiting at the request of concerned locals who considered that the site’s assessment (which included only a single day’s on-site visit) was inadequate. The naturalist also found an ephemeral wetland missed by the previous assessment. Possibly, both plant and wetland were dormant in the drought conditions prevalent during the official survey period. Personally I have had several revelations over the last two summers such as finding the rarely recorded fern, Austral Pillwort (Pilularia australis), in ephemeral depressions near my local railway station.

Rain has continued this last summer as we have experienced the rare phenomena of a double La Niña (the converse of the droughty ‘El Nino’). We are predicted to soon return to a more ‘normal’ weather pattern so it is timely to repeat this request to IFFA-folk to share their experiences. In the event of a further long drought cycle like the one we experienced between 1997 and 2010, such documentation will play a role in acknowledging the hidden nature of a site or the behavior of species of interest.

It is probably unreasonable to insist on twenty year assessment periods before a development proceeds; however the experience of the last two years reinforces important principles for amateur and professional naturalists;

  1. Make serious efforts to glean the local knowledge of natural historians. Much individual knowledge is now accessible on blogs and websites such as NatureShare and IFFA’s own website; however a few minutes talk with any local naturalist soon reveals they are only going to have published a tiny fraction of what they have seen. In conversation, and given appropriate respect and recognition, the memories and personal notes of fellow nature observers are often freely available. In my experience this generosity is especially present with the amazing ‘gurus and codgers’ with their precious cargo of observations.
  2. Where do you meet the ‘gurus and codgers’ of local natural history? Natural history groups! Make membership and participation in natural history groups a priority if you want to develop professionally or personally as an observer of nature.
  3. In considering the occurrences of old flora and fauna records, ask: is there a compelling reason why the species no longer exists at this site? A gap in observation of even ten years may not be proof that a site no longer holds a cryptic species or has become unsuitable as habitat for a relatively mobile species.
  4. Maximizing on-ground time and assessment period is almost always going to increase the chance of important findings of a site being made. This simple fact is no less true with all our access to ecological modeling and technology.
  5. For professionals, statements of limitations in reports should recognize the possibility of long-term cycles.
  6. Legislation and protocols that take precautionary approaches are critical if we are to retain ephemeral and nomadic landscape values. The pressure to water down such approaches must be resisted.
  7. Share with others your new insights into the nature’s powers of survival. Such stories are vital for attuning our community to the biota they live amongst and building support for the kinds of protection it needs.

Unique elements of our country’s biota are, by nature, often transitory, nomadic and exquisitely attuned to highly erratic cycles. The traditional knowledge of Indigenous people often manifests deep understanding of these cycles informed by generations of observation. Can we become more sensitive to these qualities and in so doing, get better at valuing and defending them?