By Andrew S Gilbert and Jodie Gregson of the Westside Wilderness Group
Melbourne was coming out of lockdown six and being able to drive all the way to the South Australian border seemed a privilege. A set of Westside Wilderness Society group members set off from Newport late on a Thursday afternoon for the Murray-Sunset National Park. Our task; to monitor the 46 nesting mounds in Site 16 of the research project of The Victorian Mallee Fowl Recovery Group Inc.
We were to stay at a Parks Victoria owned shearers quarters in simple bunk accommodation. A relic of the area’s grazing past. We were a team of six volunteers with varying levels of experience in the project, bound together by a desire to take some action in preventing the extinction of our rare fauna and flora. A spectacular sunset, the rising of a nearly full moon and a packet of all natural snakes were highlights of the long drive.
The Mallee Fowl (Leipoa ocellata) belongs to the Megapode family, a species of bird that incubate their eggs by using external heat. Mallee Fowl are considered vulnerable under the Commonwealth Environment Protection Biodiversity Act 1999 and the species is listed as Endangered in Victoria and NSW and vulnerable in SA. It is sad to note that Mallee Fowl were once common and widespread throughout Australia. Threats to them include land clearing, isolation of populations, climate change, predation by cats and foxes, wildfire and intentional burns.
The importance of accurate information when arguing for the preservation of habitat and the control of feral weeds and animals cannot be overstated. Compiling this information is increasingly reliant on volunteer citizen scientists and PHD students due to funding pressures. This was where we came in. A chance to get out into the Mallee in far northwest Victoria under the expansive sky, fresh air and quietly observe the activity of a unique and remarkable endangered native bird.
Our day started early and finished before the heat of the late afternoon. Mounds were located with the help of a map and GPS device. When found, data including the presence of fox, goat and Malleefowl scats, evidence of eggshells and lerps, and a long list of measurements and clues to other activities, were recorded. The Victorian Mallee Fowl Recovery Group Inc. (VMRG) was formed in 2000 as a volunteer organisation to undertake detailed research into Mallee Fowl numbers, to promote Mallee Fowl conservation and lobby for the enhancement of current Mallee Fowl habitat.
Over the four days we only found one active nest from the 46 mounds that were located and observed. Fox scats were found at most mounds. Feral goat footprints were everywhere perhaps explaining the lack of leaf litter needed to build the complex nests. We saw no Mallee Fowl, though this is not unusual, as they are a shy bird. The trip had good weather and the four days crisscrossing the Mallee on foot were completed without major mishap.
It was satisfying mastering the required scientific tasks. After the isolation of lockdown it was novel partaking in the cooking and eating of meals as a group and fun sharing stories on the bumpy drive out to the research area at sunrise .
On Monday we returned to our inner city lives tired but rejuvenated and energised to continue our work with the Westside Wilderness Society Group.
We felt part of a wider community of concerned Australians who value our natural environment, love being out in it, understand the importance of detailed scientific research and care for our country. It was great to be reminded that there are opportunities for engagement in the preservation of our rich and diverse natural landscapes.
Murray-Sunset National Park is part of an Aboriginal cultural landscape that includes traditional Country of the Latji Latji, Ngintait and Nyeri Nyeri Peoples.