You can see the first part of this interview and find a bit more about Dave and his work here.

Associate Professor Dave Watson
Associate Professor Dave Watson

Re-imaging Australia’s lost woodland landscapes

The Northern Myth: is it true to say that we almost have to re-imagine the landscape when we look at it?

Dave Watson: Exactly…we have to re-imagine these lost landscapes. Put aside all the degrading processes – ignore them. The reason why there are so few woodland species hanging on in the woodlands that we have left is that that is the way they always were. That habitat was sparse. Those species were just eking out an existence on those fragments.

And humans, we have this inherently short frame of reference. We know, inherently, that science is only two hundred years old at best, but we can’t think beyond that. We can’t project forward either; we can’t think that a lot of our world views are – or may be – fundamentally wrong.

TNM: We don’t see the absolute manipulation that we’ve inflicted upon our landscapes. The stunning example you gave the other day after the introduction of hard-hoofed ungulates into the landscape around here in the New England tablelands. In the first twenty-five years eighty five per cent of the top-soil was lost…and that was before settlement, before any clearing.

DW: There was no cropping, no chopping down the odd tree to make to occasional bark hut.

This was the 1830s. This was the first wave – bring a mob of sheep into virgin country. It is a form of mining – taking stuff away that can never come back.

Mining a thousand tonnes of cockroaches – its more than a stain

TNM: A friend of mine in the Top End of the NT made this analogy a long time ago –pastoralism is a form of mining. Take a thousand tonnes of beef off a paddock over ten years or so – that is a thousand tonnes of…

DW: Yes. That is a thousand tonnes of cockroaches, that is a thousand tonnes of earthworms.

I was talking to Martin Cody from the University of California at Los Angeles afterwards, Martin is a grand old man of ecology and he’s been doing this sort of work for almost forty years.

He said that he was amazed while listening to my talk and that he was now able to put together work that he’s been doing for the past twenty-odd years in Honduras, Nicaragua and associated areas, looking at areas that the Mayans used to farm and areas that the Mayans didn’t farm.

The Mayan world collapsed about twelve hundred years ago and you can still see the difference between cropped and un-cropped areas.

And it is more than a stain.

Martin told me that when you walk around the forest, that to the untrained eye all looks identical; the trees are there; you can see the Toucans flying around. But only a tiny fraction of the surface litter is left in the areas farmed by the Mayans. The litter is just not there; there’s half the diversity of insectivorous birds – more alarmingly there are no snakes and very low productivity.

And that is a rainforest that gets four metres of rain a year.

TNM: In much of Australia the crunches are unpredictable and can be catastrophic on a year-to-year basis. You get three or four years of no rain and suddenly you get a deluge…

DW: Yes. We have lost just about all of our top-soil. It has now sitting as sand-slugs in our rivers and layers of dust in New Zealand glaciers – and it isn’t going to come back.

People like birds – and why we need more ornithologists

TNM: You’ve long been associated with training and educating ornithologists and biologists – why is that important?

DW: Birds are funny things. The reason why we are here today talking about all this, and the reason why Birds Australia exists, is because of one special thing.

People like birds.

When I’m going out to the field – out into the desert – and I’ve got “Charles Sturt University – Ecology Group” written on the trailer, and I’m filling up the jerry-cans and I start talking to a kindly local gentleman who is also filling up his jerries and he says “Ecology eh, what are you doing out here?”

Sometimes I start to explain what I’m doing in broad ecological technical terms: “Well, I’m interested in patterns, processes and the inherently non-random distribution of diversity and why is it that you get a whole lot of things in this spot and hardly any at that spot.”

So what is different between the spots? Why are some things found all over? Why are Magpies in every backyard in Australia, whereas their closest living relatives, Pied Butcherbirds, aren’t?

These are all interesting questions. But the bloke stares at me blankly and walks away, saying “Good on you mate.” And goes back to his jerry can, muttering “Weirdo” under his breath.

But! If you say that you study birds – Bingo! “I saw this bird once…” and away they go – and then you can then tell him about the non-random distribution; you can talk about different sites and different species. All using birds as the vehicle for communication.

Ornithology is a very sneaky manipulation of the human psyche – because ornithology is not a science. Ornithology is all life sciences that relates to one group of organisms.

It is anatomy, it is behaviour, it is physiology, it is biology, ecology, it is evolution. Name an “-ology” – birds are in it!

So I think that is why ornithology is a diverting and pretty powerful thing to spend at least some of your time doing.

TNM: Do you think that ornithology in Australia has a bright future? It seems to me that Australian ornithology has batted well above its weight over the years. For a small country with incredible bird diversity we do pretty well.

DW: I agree with what you are saying, and I think that “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.

That’s the stuff that gets us up in the morning

DW: The two big words that dominate every news story – global change – what does global change mean? We don’t know.

But, depending on the area of the world we look at almost certainly it means more variability in the very near future.

This is where variability is important, what is bird migration all about, really?

It is about birds responding to environmental cues – and in the northern hemisphere it is those environmental cues that are – or have been – so regular.

Take bud bursts for example. In Europe it has happened on the same day of the year – every year. For hundreds of years.

Two days after that you have enough caterpillars snacking on those green leaves to attract the warblers and whatever else snacks on them…and there the birds are.

In Australia, you have exactly the same thing. You have Eucalypts flowering in response to rainfall and temperature, and after they have been there for long enough and you have enough nectar – wham – you get this wave of honeyeaters. That is migration. That’s exactly the same process.

But the periodicity of it, the tempo of it is dictated by fundamentally different underlying patterns in Australia to much of the rest of the world.

And it is important to realize that what the default condition is in Australia – inherent variability – is probably more representative of what Europe and north America are in for in the coming hundreds of years and beyond.

So, rather than Australia being characterized as “Oh, yeah, you guys are weird, your birds are drifters, you’ve got things coming and going, and it is all random.” That kind of complexity is the norm for us. And this puts us in a good position. By using that familiar approach and applying it to changing distribution patterns, changing climate patterns, changing biology – for any organism, in the northern hemisphere and other parts of the world – Australian biologists can have an increasingly important role to play.

Researchers elsewhere are going to look to us and ask: “How do you grapple with this?” “How do you get your mind around that level of variation?

That’s the stuff that gets us up in the morning.