The link between YOUR health and nature

Have you ever felt rejuvenated and reset after going for a bush walk? Have you ever felt a calmness and inner glow after spending a night camping in untouched forest? Have you ever felt a sense of well being and awe when you stroll through at a biodiverse wildlife garden? Research is beginning to show that there is in fact a genuine reason for these feelings which have genuine benefits for the human body.

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While there are obvious benefits in spending time in nature, such as clean air for the lungs, allowing your eyes to adjust to longer distances, and physically engaging your muscles, there are other more subtle but also more potent ways immersing in nature improves your health. It’s all to do with how your brain chemistry works, and in particular, how the stress hormone cortisol works.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with cortisol, it’s a hormone which is important for many normal body functions, such as sleep, inflammation and the flight or fight response. However, long term exposure to elevated levels of this hormone can cause weight gain, impaired immune system and can shorten your life. When cortisol levels are spiked in your system, your body is essentially saying “don’t do what ever you just did again”. For example, in stressful situations such as bungee jumping, your cortisol levels will spike. This is a reaction to preserve your life.

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Now that we understand the basics of the hormone cortisol, we can have a look at the difference between the brain of someone who lives in the city and someone who lives in nature. Lets look at a hypothetical situation; say you have identical twins which live almost identical lifestyles (i.e. eat the same food, do the same amount of physical activity etc.), but one lives in the Sydney CBD and the other lives in the rural forested areas on a property in Dungog. Disregarding the effects that pollution would have on the twin in the city, the twin that lives in the bush surrounded by nature will be expected to live longer.

Why? The answer is due to cortisol. The body of the twin in the city has long term elevated levels of cortisol that then the twin in the bush. The reason the cortisol is so elevated in the twin in the city (once again disregarding factors such as noise pollution and alter sleeping regimes), is due to simply looking at the city. Evolution has devoured genes which give us positive neurochemicals when we are in biodiverse bushland with lots of different animals and plants, and in contrast, give us negative neurochemicals, such as cortisol, when we are not in biodiverse areas. This is so that it will force us to seek out areas of plentiful resources.

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Now of course cities have plentiful resources, in fact they have more resources at our fingertips than any other place. However, you have to understand that our brains and bodies have not caught up to modern technology and cities. Evolution of humans has taken place over hundreds thousands of years and cities have only been around for a couple hundred, or a couple if you count civilisations such as Rome and Egypt. To achieve a higher level of health the every day human MUST immerse in nature regularly. This leaves us with two options to gain maximum health benefits from nature.




The two options are: Go on weekly adventures into the bush, or if you have a tight schedule and are generally too busy to make this commitment, bring biodiversity back into your living space (visit the Backyard Conservation project to learn more). Either way doing one or both of these will enable you to control cortisol levels and enable your body to stop worrying. Some experts even suggest spending a whole weekend on a camping or hiking trip in the bush as this amount of time can reset your sleeping cycles and bring you back to natural cortisol levels. Please share this post and spread the word so that we can all achieve greener cities and ultimately, better health.

 

If you want to use any photos in this post, please contact us. All photos are copyrighted and property of Gumnut Naturalist.

Banksias: The no. 1 plant for attracting wildlife

I have a Coastal Banksia (Banksia integrefolia) in my backyard and it has attracting some awesome bird species to my garden over the years. Just a month ago I was surprised to find a female Bowerbird stopping over in this tree. While I don’t think it was feeding off it, it certainly used the wiry branches of the Banksia as protection from aggressive birds such as minas. Its remarkable as the nearest bush is still a few blocks away. Another avian highlight was a few years ago when I discovered a Scaly-breasted Lorrikeet pair feeding off the Banksia pollen. At the stage I was quite new to birds and was confused as to why a Rainbow Lorikeet was all green. I took photos and later discovered to my amazement that we had just had a pair of the rarer Scaly-breasted Lorikeets visiting.

Scaley-breasted Lorikeet (Trichoglossus chlorolepidopus) feeding off my backyard Banksia | Copyright Chad Beraneki 2013)

Scaley-breasted Lorikeet (Trichoglossus chlorolepidopus) feeding off my backyard Banksia | Copyright Chad Beraneki 2013)

Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haemotodus) feeding off the same Banksia | Copright Chad Beranek 2016

Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haemotodus) feeding off the same Banksia | Copright Chad Beranek 2016

While the obvious candidates to be attracted to Banksias are animals that feed off the nectar and use the plant for protection, there are even more potential species which can be attracted by these plants. The other night I was marveling and some of the ‘flow-on’ attracting powers it has. And what I mean by flow-on is how attracting one animal species might attract another. We have had lots of Grey-headed Flying Foxes visiting lately which have been enjoying the last remains of the Banksia nectar for this season. Their presence attracted a very large and menacing backyard resident which has not been recorded in my garden yet…

An adorable Grey-headed Flying Fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) having a Banksia pollen feed | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

An adorable Grey-headed Flying Fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) having a Banksia pollen feed | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016


The resident they attracted was the local Powerful Owl who has a few roosting sites and nesting hollows scattered around Sutherland Shire (sometimes you can catch them at Camelia Gardens). I was actually coming home late from a party that night and heard the flying foxes make their usual playful chatter among the foliage of our Banksia. But then I caught a glance of the silhouette of a large bird sitting on my neighbors aerial. Straight away I knew that the only bird it could be is a Powerful Owl, due to the size. I stayed up late observing him eyeing off the flying foxes, waiting for them to make one wrong move. Fortunately they didn’t cross paths with the owl and didn’t seem to even notice it.

Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) sitting on my neighbours aerial eyeing off flying foxes | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) sitting on my neighbours aerial eyeing off flying foxes | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

This is just one example of some flow-on attracting powers the Banksia has. There are plenty more animals that can potentially be attracting by this plant which cover all animal groups. Some old school naturalists back in the day have stated that Perons Tree Frogs will sleep in the bark and small hollows of Banksia so they are even good for attracting local hylid tree frogs. The amount of animals that will be attracted to Banksias increases ten-fold if you are close to bushland, with rather critters likely to make an appearance, including Pigmy Possums, Feathertailed Gliders, Antechinus, Sugar Gliders and countless nectar feeding birds. You might get lucky and attract some really rare nectar feeding birds.

Brush-tailed Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) climbing the nearby Paperbark after having a Banksia feed | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

Brush-tailed Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) climbing the nearby Paperbark after having a Banksia feed | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

 

 

Comment below if you have a Banksia in the backyard and have noticed any Australian animals using the Banksia for food or habitat!

 

Worm farms and Compost Bins – Benefits for Sustainability and Wildlife

Worms are an often overlooked inhabitant of gardens despite being hugely important for soil and plant health. Encouraging populations of worms on landscape scales has brought about increases in crop yields and has caused a shift in perspective in regards to sustainable agriculture. On the garden sized scale, encouraging worm populations can have equally significant effects. With the use of worm farms, you can get rid of organic waste and double vegetable garden yields.

Worm farming is also known as ‘vermicompost’. It works by creating a decomposition geared ecosystem within your compost bin or worm farm. A successful ‘vermicompost’ container will have bacteria, fungi, other micro-organisms and ofcourse worms. All these groups pitch in to break down certain molecules. The end result is matter that is rich in plant nutrients and organic material.




One of the most important parts of this process is the worms gut. Worm excretions are incredibly rich in plant growth nutrients and as such have been known to be huge stimulants of plant growth. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, worm waste kick starts microbial growth within the soil which help keep plant roots healthy, and some of which gift plants nitrogen. Secondly, worm waste increases fungi growth, which many plants also depend on for exchanges of nutrients. Thirdly, the worm waste itself has essential nutrients for plants which come in a readily absorbed form All of these factors combine together to make plants respond hugely in terms of growth and size.

The overall result of incorporating a worm farm or a compost bin is that you will be able to use organic waste to make organic fertiliser to help grow your garden. If you have a vegetable patch in your garden, this process can almost become a self-sustaining cycle. Garden vegetables -> Organic waste left after consuming vegetables -> worm farm/compost bin -> generated compost -> Add to vegetable garden to grow more vegetables. Repeat as many times as you like.

Another positive effect that worm farms and compost bins can provide for your garden is habitat. If you situate a light directly next to the compost bin, it will attract lots of different insects who will be drawn to the light and stay for the food resources inside the compost bin. I have witnessed situations like these and it is incredible how much nocturnal animal activity it can attract. Frogs are especially keen on this idea, and will flock to the light to lay in wait in an ambush position to pick off as many insects as they can get. It also can attract other insectivorous mammals such as antechinus, microbats and small lizards.

Weasel Skink (Saproscincus mustelinus). One prime culprits of compost foragers, especially if there are large amounts of grass in the composts! | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

Weasel Skink (Saproscincus mustelinus). One prime culprits of compost foragers, especially if there are large amounts of grass in the composts! | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

 

I have included some links below to various worm farm/compost bin options which can be purchased online (click on the pictures for more information). Worm farms also offer an invaluable opportunity to educate children of the wonders of nature. There is a worm farm for kids which is a great idea for any nature minded parents out there.

Tumbler Compost Bin

Large Sized Worm Farm

Medium Sized Worm Farm

Small educational worm farm for kids

Why are old trees so important?

Many animals use trees for habitat in Australia, with animals from all major fauna groups solely depending on them for shelter, refuge and food. Possums eat Eucalyptus leaves while birds, flying foxes and small tree-dwelling mammals feed off flower nectar of many different tree species. Trees provide shelter via hollows, which are an essential habitat feature for birds, arboreal mammals, frogs and some tree dwelling snake species. Some hollows even naturally store water which has been shown to be important drinking sources for Feather-tailed Gliders and tree frogs. Some tree species found locally around Sydney, such as the Smooth-barked Apple (Angophora costata) and the Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis) are able to produce large hollows which are essential nest habitat for the Powerful Owls (Ninox strenua).

 

Australian Owlet Nightjar (Aegotheles cristatus): A bird which is entirely dependent on tree hollows for shelter | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

Australian Owlet Nightjar (Aegotheles cristatus): A bird which is entirely dependent on tree hollows for shelter | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

 

So where does tree age come into the picture? Tree age is important as for hollows to form a tree must be very mature. The age at which hollows to naturally form varies among tree species. For example, Blackbutt hollows start forming around 100 years old. At 140 years of age, the average Blackbutt will have numerous smaller sized hollows which are usable for small mammals and birds. For larger hollows to develop to accommodate larger animals, a Blackbutt will need to reach an age of around 210 years of age.

 

Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps): Require old growth trees for shelter | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps): Require old growth trees for shelter | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

The process that occurs for hollows to form is one of natures many fascinating processes. Firstly a tree must receive some kind of damage, which occurs naturally from twigs or branches breaking off. This unprotected scar then becomes infected by fungus which proceeds to rot the wood. This fungal infection enables easy access for termites which then make a nest in the rotting wood and feast on the fungus and the lignin in the wood. Once termites have established a nest, loose bits of the wood and termite nest will dislodge and thus form a hollow. Once again it must be remembered that this process cannot happen over night and requires decades to create viable habitat hollows.

 

 

Now given all these facts, it really puts perspective on current law practices which involve trees. Given how vitally important old growth hollow bearing trees are to a huge amount of different species, including many threatened species, why does the law make it so easy for trees to be cut down? While some trees may be a hazard for property, many of these laws are being abused just so a property owner can get better water views in attempt to get better property value.

 

A stand of Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis) coexisting fine in suburbia | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

A stand of Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis) coexisting fine in suburbia | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

In conclusion, we must pay respect to trees and pay even more respect to elderly trees! Instead of cutting older trees down to mitigate potential property damage, first seek other potential options, such as pruning more hazardous branches, leaving the tree to stand. Also be on the lookout for illegal tree lopping which is becoming a bigger occurrence these days with our out of control property market.

At the moment, there are hundreds of trees threatened to be cut down in Centennial Park. Heritage listed figs which line the streets are at risk of the new light rail that is proprosed. To find out how you can make a difference please visit Saving Sydneys Trees, and attend the protest on the 1st of May!




Conservation Cafe – Backyard Conservation by Chad Beranek

This Saturday I will be presenting at a Conservation Cafe for the Sydney Society for Conservation Biology. In this presentation I will be delving into one of the main projects of Gumnut Naturalist, which is backyard conservation. I’ll be exploring the fine details of how to attract local Sydney wildlife back into suburban areas and go into why it is important that we coexist with local wildlife. I’ll show you how you don’t need a large block of land to promote biodiversity and give examples of small reserves around Sydney which have become biodiversity sinks in the urban landscape. These areas become essential for the long term conservation of the wildlife of Sydney. Ultimately learn how to turn your backyard into a biodiversity sink which will enable wildlife to continue to exist in urban areas of Sydney indefinitely.

For more information please see:

Conservation Cafe April 2016

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