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.

Volunteers Needed: Conservation of locally occurring nest of Pied Oyster Catchers

The Pied Oyster Catcher (Haematopus longirostris) is currently listed as endangered in NSW and a rare visitor to Sydneys shores. This species is distributed around the entire Australian coastline, being found more commonly around the coastlines of the southern states of Tasmania and Victoria. In NSW this species is in decline with fewer than 200 breeding pairs estimated to occur with in this region.

 

Mating pair of Pied Oyster Catchers (Haematopus longirostris).

Mating pair of Pied Oyster Catchers (Haematopus longirostris) – Photo  by Toni Burnham

 

Pied Oyster Catchers will choose nesting sites mostly in coastal situations, on estuarine beaches and occasionally saltmarsh or grassy habitats. Nests are often exposed shallow scrapes in sand above the hightide mark, often amongst seaweed, shells, and small stones. The eggs of the Pied Oyster Catcher are sandy coloured and rely on camouflage to avoid detection of predators. They are particularly at risk of being trampled by people, especially children and dogs.

 

Pied Oyster Catcher eggs

Pied Oyster Catcher eggs – Photo by Toni Burnham

 

3 days ago a pair laid eggs on a local highly touristed beach and are currently trying to nest (Picture of eggs is actual nest site). We are looking for passionate people that can be present on a rotational basis to keep people away from the nest and keep an eye on it over the next 30 days, especially through the busy school holiday period. The site is located within the Sutherland Shire region.

If interested please email Toni Burnham on burnhamtoni@gmail.com

Birds of Broughton Island

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Broughton Island, it is a relatively small island (a touch over 100 hectares) a part of Myall Lakes National Park, off the east coast of Australia. This small island has retained some interesting natural heritage, with having the second largest population of Green and Golden Bell Frogs in the world and also one of the few places to find the critically endangered Storm Petrel. Broughton Island also boasts nesting populations of Wedged-Tailed Shearwaters (also known as ‘Mutton Birds’), and also Fairy Penguins which are occurring on the island close to the northern limit their distribution. Broughton Island provides good coastal habitat and heathland habitat which is used by a considerably large variety of different bird species. The island attracts both sea birds, raptors and even land birds which have retained their permanent positions. This makes it a popular spot for bird enthusiasts where they run annual Broughton Island ‘twitching’ events to count how many bird species are present and see if they can spot any new ones. While I stayed at Broughton conducting bell frog surveys I went to do some twitching in my spare time and this is what I found:

 

1. The first bird to great me on the island is an easy guess considering this is a coastal island: the Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) which most people just refer to as the ‘Sea Gull’. They were in a large noisy colony where the fishers huts reside.

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

 

2. The second bird I quickly realised were in abundance on this island were the Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena). There were dive bombing insects and speeding around the main cabins, occasionally taking a pit stop on a twig or branch.

Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena)

 

3. The next bird I became aware of was the Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae), which were cheekily and quietly jumping and rummaging around the grass and seaweed, presumably looking for invertebrate snacks.

Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae)

Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae)

4. After a heading out to one of the bell frog sites, many small birds were sighted in the Broughton Island heathland. One of them I failed to get a photo of which was the Silver Eyes (Zosterops lateralis) but the other common heathland bird was the Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis), which occasionally perched in the open to let out alarm calls as we approached their territory.

Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis)

A Male Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis)

5. Before leaving the heathlands we keep sighted small ground dwelling birds scuttling in the bushes before we got close. My 300 mm lens proved them to be Brown Quails (Coturnix ypsilophora).

A family group of Brown Quail (Coturnix ypsilophora)

A family group of Brown Quail (Coturnix ypsilophora)

6. When arriving to the beach, the next bird sighted was darting in and out of the seaweed clumps with fast legs. They turned out to be Red Capped Plovers (Charadrius ruficapillus), which are are common occurrence on the coasts of Australia.

Red Capped Plover (Charadrius ruficapillus)

Red Capped Plover (Charadrius ruficapillus)

 

7. Another bird sighted darting amongst the seaweed (albeit somewhat slower and plumper than the Red Capped Plovers) was the  Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), who took flight if approached to closely and directly.

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

 

8. After patrolling making it to the rocky coastal areas of Broughton I stumbled upon a bird which frightened me probably as equally as I frightened it. This dark bird make a shreeking call and darted to a rock almost submerged by the surf. This bird turned out to be a Sooty Oyster Catcher (Haematopus fuliginosus), which were occasionally seen in pairs most likely nesting in the rocky areas of the coast of Broughton Island. https://www.flickr.com/photos/126862220@N06/15905334509/   9. I heard small tweets and chirps within a stand of Knobby Club Rush, and manged to shoot off a few photos. The specific chirps and tweets we heard along with the photo confirmed it as a Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis).

Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis)

Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis)

 

The next few species of birds we witnessed were soaring high above where I managed to capture some of them with the long lens. 10. This comorant flying over head is most likely to be the Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). Many were seen later on drying their wings on small rock platforms further out in the surf.

10.Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

The Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

 

11. The next bird saw flying overhead was the Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans) which was the most common raptor we saw during this trip. One of them were even sighted harassing the gull colony which sent all the adults in the air with attempts to try and drive off the raptor. It looked like the harrier had run off with on of the gull chicks!

Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans)

Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans)

 

12. Another impressive raptor was sighted gliding overhead which turned out to be a juvenile White Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), which was identified using the specific colour arrangements of the feathers as seen from below.

Juvenile White-Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

 

 

There were other birds sighted which I didn’t manage to get decent photos of which include  two other raptors: an Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus), and a Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), plus some extra additions sighted in the heathland including White-Cheeked Honey Eaters (Phylidonyris nigra). In total (including the birds that I didn’t manage to get photos of), I saw 17 birds which isn’t bad for 3 days of twitching. If I kept that ratio of birds to days up I could get all species of birds in Australia within the year!

A Quick Guide to Common Rails of Sydney

Just to make it clear for people who aren’t familiar with aquatic birds, a ‘rail’ is the common term given to birds within the Rallidae family which also include coots and swamp hens. They are birds which are adapting to swim and stalk in marshes and reeds. Most healthy wetlands will attract one of the species of rail which rely on aquatic vegetation for the staple of their diet.

The rails that you are most likely to see are:

  • Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
  • Dusky Moor Hen (Gallinula tenebrosa)
  • Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

 

The largest of the rails around Sydney is the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). This conspicuous prehistoric looking bird can be told a part from other rails easily by the size (much larger than the other rails reaching almost 50 cm tall) along with the purple/blue sheen across the neck and belly. The Purple Swamphen requires heavily vegetated wetlands with plenty of sun light. Like the other rails, the Purple Swamphens have a confused and complex mating system. Some times the birds pair up, some times their is co-operative raising of the young by other younger individuals in the family group, where all birds contribute time into egg incubation and nest protection. During spring and early summer you may also witness the antics of the males fighting for dominance, with raucous screams and viscous confrontations. The looser is often chased away.

Some easy spots to see these birds include Audley in the Royal National Park and most of the freshwater wetlands within Sydney Olympic Park.

 

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The other rail you are likely to see and which is probably the most common of the three is the Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa). This rail is smaller than the Purple Swamphen, reaching a maximum of 40 cm tall. This bird is easily distinguished from the Purple Swamphen as it lacks the purple/blue sheen and also has a yellow tipped beaked in contrast to the entirely red colored beak of the swamphen (See photo below).

 

Left - Dusky Moorhen, Right - Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

Left – Dusky Moorhen, Right – Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

 

The Dusky Moorhen enjoys heavily vegetated wetlands were they forage on aquatic plants. Like the Purple Swamphen, the Dusky Moorhen also has a complicated mating system involving communal nesting. Many of the Dusky Swamphen populations in Sydney currently have babies with them.

Some easy spots to see this very common rail include Sydney Olympic Park, the wetland in Louisa Reserve in Bass Hill, Tudar Road wetland in Bonnet Bay, Audley in the Royal National Park, even Camelia Gardens in Caringbah has recently had some Dusky Moorhens move in and successfully raise babies their! This rail species seems to be one of the first wetland birds to move in to newly created wetlands (not including ducks).

 

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Mother Moorhens feeding babies | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Mother Moorhens feeding babies Persicaria sp. flower buds | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The last rail which is commonly seen is the unique Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra). This rail is easily distinguished from the others as it bears a white beak contrasting with completely black plumage. This bird is perhaps more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle as they have strange webbed feet which is one of their most striking features when you get a closer look. The Eurasian Coot is very adaptable in its foraging and may forage on land, dabble in water or even dive for food. They will eat aquatic vegetation, insects, even birds eggs if they find them. They nest in talls reeds which have died or have been flattened out, where they lay a few young. The young of the Eurasian Coot have a tough life as they are frequently the target of predators such as herons and egrets. Their survival is also at risk from their own parents who are known to be very tough on the hatchlings. If they have no food for them and the young keep begging they will prod their young harshly, sometimes killing them.

 

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Some good spots to see this quite common rail species is in Audley, Sydney Olympic Park and Louisa Reserve in Ball Hill.

If you want to see all three of these rails in one day its best to check out the various wetlands in Sydney Olympic Park or the Audley Lagoon in the Royal National Park. Both of these locations have many extra amazing bird life surprises. Hopefully this post has given you enough information to ID some of your local wetland birds!

Guardian of the Grasslands: The Masked Lapwing

Another bird which has been rearing their young lately is the Masked Lapwing, or as some of you may know it as, the ‘Plover’. Many of you are probably aware of this bird as they make their presence known with a defensible nature. Known for swooping and being very loud, the Masked Lapwing will attack any target it thinks is endangering its young. They are a very common bird to encounter in urban areas as they are able to utilise open areas such as parks and sports field which closely mimics their natural grassland habitats.

 

Guarding parent | Lucy Kidson (2014)

Guarding parent | Lucy Kidson (2014)

Masked Lapwings are very protective parents and will try every trick their is to deter potential predators from their young. Some of the tricks include pretending to have a broken wing or a broken leg to coax a predator into attacking it rather than the adult… Of course as soon as the predator gets close the adult flies off. They will fly off in the opposite direction of where the young are, which will lead the predator further astray till it has no hope of finding the adult or the young.

Protective parent with her young | Lucy Kidson (2014)

Protective parent with her young | Lucy Kidson (2014)

When all else fails and the potential predator gets to close for comfort, they implement plan b. This involves swooping the target aggressively, especially if the target happens to be a dog or cat. The Masked Lapwing swoop is much different than the normal ‘beak first’ method of swooping employed by Magiepies and Butcherbirds. The Masked Lapwing will swoop with an arc, aiming the middle of the wing at the target. The reason for this is because they possess hardened spurs in the top mid section of the wing which can be used as an effective weapon. There are people who are fearful of being struck by these birds as there are rumors that the wing spurs contain a venom. This is simply a myth and Masked Lapwings rarely get angry enough to try to hit you with a wing spur, unless you are a raven or a cat. Since these birds are always on alert and are very brave when it comes to protecting their young, they haven’t suffered any serious declines with urban expansion.

Yellow wing spurs poking out the top of the wing | Lucy Kidson (2014)

Yellow wing spurs poking out the top of the wing | Lucy Kidson (2014)

Next time you are at an oval or a parkland from June to summer, watch out for the Masked Lapwing and small balls of fluff which are their young. But beware and keep a safe distance as a sign of respect to the guardians of the grasslands.