Field guide to the future


My first field guide. A 35 cent bargain.

I could ask “what was your first field guide?” but my first field guides belonged to my parents, not me. So instead I’ll ask “what was the first field guide you remember using?”

I remember two: Trees of Victoria by Leon Costermans – a permanent resident of the car glove box – and Birds of the Ranges by the Gould League. I am indebted to the authors and illustrators of both. Without them, I may have led a different life.

Our Costermans bore the hallmark of a truly great field guide; after years of abuse, we stripped it of every skerrick of re-sale value. One summer, someone put a block of copha in the car glove box to protect it from the sun. When discovered weeks later, everything floated in a pool of coconut fat. It was awesome. Costermans was indestructible. Like the trees inside it, we created the world’s first rip-proof, water-proof, scented, and highly combustible, field guide to eucalypts.

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What makes a field guide truly great? Continue reading

Forgotten woodlands, future landscapes

Hans Heysen Droving into the Light

Hans Heysen’s famous painting, Droving into the Light. Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Picture a gorgeous woodland in the early 1800s. What do you see? Majestic gum trees with bent old boughs, golden grasses, a mob of sheep or kangaroos, and a forested hill in the distance? The luminous landscape of a Hans Heysen painting, perhaps.

It’s an iconic Aussie landscape. But something’s missing. The trees are wrong. Or at least, they aren’t all there. Continue reading

Drought, dieback and insect attack

Drought death Mt Pilot

Drought-killed Acacia, Callitris and Eucalyptus saplings at Mt Pilot in north-east Victoria. The tall dead trees in the background were killed by an earlier fire.

In 2010, Craig Allen and colleagues published ‘the first global assessment of recent tree mortality attributed to drought and heat stress’ (Allen et al. 2010). In this fantastic paper, the authors collated examples of tree die-off (or mortality) from around the world and – in a very long sentence – they concluded:

… studies compiled here suggest that at least some of the world’s forested ecosystems already may be responding to climate change, and raise concern that forests may become increasingly vulnerable to higher background tree mortality rates and die-off in response to future warming and drought, even in environments that are not normally considered water-limited.

Given that pessimistic prognosis, it’s worth asking; how are trees faring here, in our own backyard? Continue reading

The Big Wet regeneration pulse

Red Gum Seedlings

Red Gum seedlings regenerate after the Big Wet flood waters recede

In an earlier blog I asked, ‘What impact did the big wet of 2010-2011 have on native vegetation? Did heavy rains promote lots of regeneration in some areas, but not others? Or did nothing much happen at all?’ In response, many readers submitted lots of great observations from across south-east Australia.

I collated the observations of wetland and rivers and grasses, herbs and weeds in earlier posts. But what happened to trees and shrubs? Did the heavy rains trigger lots of regeneration or nothing much at all?  Initially I thought there’d be lots of regeneration in most places but, as it turned out, readers noted abundant regeneration in some areas but none in others. What caused these patterns? Read on to see what everybody found…. Continue reading

What did you get from the Big Wet?

Raywood rainfall

Annual rainfall at Raywood in central Victoria. The Big Wet years of 1973 and 2010 are shown in red. Data Source: Bureau of Meteorology. Click on the image to get a bigger, clearer view.

As climate change intensifies, we expect to get a lot more extreme weather events. It’d be great if we could predict how ecosystems will change after those events, but we can’t, for lots of reasons. One obvious reason is – we didn’t collect much information after past events to help guide us in the future.

Way back in ’73, the small town of Raywood, near Bendigo in central Victoria, got 928 mm of rain. On average, Raywood gets just over 400 mm a year, so it was a long wet year. Torrential rains came again in ’74. That Big Wet wasn’t unique to Raywood, and La Nina drenched every town, small and big, across south-east Australia. What impact did that extraordinary event have on native vegetation? Continue reading

Natural regeneration: connecting regional Australia


Want to re-connect fragmented landscapes? Where would you start? With natural regeneration of course.

Natural regeneration of native trees and shrubs is abundant in many regions, where it provides valuable habitat and linkages between patches of native vegetation. Last week I gave a talk at the Biodiversity Across The Borders conference in Ballarat in a session on landscape connectivity, on behalf of my co-authors Lisa Smallbone and Alison Matthews. Our talk covered four topics.

  1. Why do we get extensive natural regeneration in some regions?
  2. Where do we find lots of natural regeneration in Victoria?
  3. How valuable is natural regeneration for birds?
  4. How can we incorporate natural regeneration in connectivity planning?

If  you didn’t get to last week’s conference, you can now watch the video of the talk, courtesy of YouTube.

Continue reading

Dense old trees: bitter and twisted ‘charismatic megaflora’

Suppressed trunk inverseWe all know an old paddock tree when we see one: broad, deep, canopy; sagging, tangled branches; broken boughs full of hollows. The classic woodland tree. But how do you recognize an old tree that grew – not in the open – but in a closed, dense stand? It won’t have a big, wide canopy nor a thick, wide trunk if its growth was suppressed by neighbors. Continue reading