Sleepless in Wisconsin

As I somewhat cryptically hinted in my last post, I write this e-missive in Madison, Wisconsin, land of the cheeseheads – the sometimes affectionate term given to Wisconsinites owing to the state’s predilection for fromage and the production of said curd. It is also the nickname for fans of the Green Bay Packers football team who are notorious for their fondness for extremely serious headwear as can be seen here. (Note: in a disturbing development, Wikipedia informs me that cheesehead is also used as ‘a racial slur, towards the person, who is Dutch’. If any Dutch folks are reading, firstly Hullllooooo! Secondly, my apologies.)

I am here, in my jet-lag fueled stupor, with the financial assistance of Birdlife Australia, Greening Australia and the ANU to attend the 5th World Congress on Ecological Restoration. Why Madison? Well, Madison is considered as the birthplace of ecological restoration, the base of legendary ecologist Aldo Leopold, and a producer of very high quality craft beer. A no-brainer!

The conference was carefully timed to coincide with the US Government shutdown (basically a mass-participation mandatory sickie, which has dominated the media and seen many government services, including national parks, closed. Personally, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I worked for the Australian Government for 9 years and I was shutdown for the vast majority of that.

The conference is a major event. 13 concurrent sessions, running 8am to 6pm for four days,with 1300 participants from across the globe. It’s just like the Big Day Out without the nakedness and overpriced bottled water. Getting to see everything will be tough, but there is a real diversity of topics and presenters, with a number of landholders today giving talks that showcased with enormous pride the results of restoration on their properties. These were largely prairie restoration projects on land that has been thrashed for a century, done on the cheap, low tech, and with amazing results. Inspiring stuff.

Tomorrow brings a session on animals as indicators, with talks by some folks that I’ve followed keenly in the literature that use animal behaviour in assessing restoration effectiveness (rather than just counting species and individuals). Looking forward to hearing those sessions and will post more as the conference progresses. Friday will involve a field trip to the International Crane Foundation’s headquaters and visits to a number of key restoration projects for the species.

Luckily, Dear Reader, you’ve been saved by the (laptop) battery and a welcome urge to sleep after 3 days of sleeplessness, or rather sleeplessness during times sets aside for sleep. Hope you enjoyed the judicious use of paragraphs this time round. Stay tuned for further tales of This American Life. Until then.

Once more into the field my friends, once more!

Hello again dear readers. Well, field work has begun in earnest Boorowa. Besides having now submitted a second PhD proposal titled ‘The effects of single-handedly opening thirty paddock gates per day on long-term mental integrity’, over the past three weeks I’ve managed to squeeze in 96 bird surveys at 54 sites (27 treatment and control sites pairs) across dozens of properties owned by some very welcoming and accomodating folks. This small but important progress comes despite valiant attempts by the gods (plural intended) to assault both myself and my feathered subjects with wind, rain and pestilence – well wind and rain at least. Fuelled by superb coffee at the Pantry on Pudman, and well rested after a solid sleep at the excellent Boorowa Hotel, surveys kick off just before sunrise, stopping mid-morning to resume a couple hours before sunset.

The amount of restoration work that has been undertaken in the area, and continues to be through key groups such as Greening Australia, Landcare and the CMA, as well as landholders planting trees and fencing woodland remnants ‘off their own bats’, is extremely encouraging.  It is also promising to see several less common species as well as those recognised as declining in the region using the revegetation sites despite their relatively ‘young’ age. Southern whiteface, Speckled warblers, Red-capped robins and White-browed babblers have been observed at multiple sites. The key is whether they are found in sites with particular characteristics (eg. dense vs. sparse, uniform vs. varied habitat structure, narrow strips vs block-shaped plantings etc), and whether those characteristics attract a different cost that will influence the cost-effectiveness. While it is obviously too early to draw conclusions, I will draw several. 1) All sites are not created equal: revegetated sites that were planted in the same year, with the same method, and even in the same paddock, can differ dramatically in the structure and composition of the vegetation. Some are patchy with greater proportion of eucalypts, others are basically dense hedgerows of  multi-stemmed Acacia species. This will make unpacking of the effects of different restoration approaches difficult, given the wide variation within each approach. It also means several additional variables will need to be measured to undertand what is driving the variation. Guess it’s not meant to be easy; if it was there would be too many PhD’s out there wouldn’t there. 2) Stem density matters: an early observation is that the more dense sites have less species, less individuals and different species. Again this is only an observation but is not surprising at all given the needs of species that require open space in which to hunt prey (eg. robins) can’t be met in such sites. This will however create an interesting dynamic when economic data is thrown into the mix as these sites are almost exclusively direct-seeded, a technique that is much more cost-effective per unit area than tubestock planting.  3) Bird communities differ between revegetation and remnant protection sites (fenced patches of woodland): again, just an observation and the most spurious as I’ve surveyed much fewer of these sites, but still a no-brainer given the obvious differences in the composition and structure of the vegetation. Others have shown this (several studies coming from the Fenner School among them, too many to list). Those of you still reading (ie. those that haven’t drifted off or opened a new window to google “what is twerking?”) might ask ‘How can you compare the effectiveness of restoration between revegetation and remnant protection sites when the habitat structure and bird communities differ so much? ‘. Well there in lies the rub – my intent in determining cost-effectiveness is not to compare the birds at the revegetation sites to those at remnant protection sites, but rather to compare the size of the gain that each approach has generated (by surveying the birds at nearby control or unrestored sites), and to compare the costs to achieve those gains. Got it? Good, now don’t ask any more rude questions. Enough for now. Next time, I start using paragraphs, and introduce you to the term cheeseheads.

Bird for Buck or ‘You left a well paid job to do what?!’

So here it is, the sophomore blog post. Will it fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, or will my number of readers reach double figures (ie. 2, not including mum) as a result?

As promised in my blogging debut, this post will focus on the topic of my PhD. Now before we get down to details, first a little disclaimer. If there’s one thing I have learned since embarking on this mystical journey of greatly reduced income and intellectual nourishment, it’s that you rarely end up doing your research the way you plan at the start. Things change, and sometimes dramatically from what the older kids tell me. So while I may spell out a well planned, carefully designed study to address a highly topical question in the conservation of woodland birds, I may end up writing a thesis on the relationship between fingernail hygiene and musical taste in the hill tribes of greater Monrovia.

With that, back to the birds.

At the broadest level, my research will focus on answering the following question. Which approach to restoring and conserving woodland birds in agricultural landscapes is the most cost-effective? In other words, which method provides the greatest bang for buck – or bird for buck to be more precise? Approaches to restoration broadly involve active and passive techniques. Active restoration involves planting, or revegetation. We plant trees and shrubs in all sorts of configurations and in all sizes, though typically, at least in agricultural areas, in long narrow strips often called shelterbelts. Passive restoration involves a more ‘hands-off’ approach, and instead is based on the idea of basically allowing nature to look after  itself, albeit with a little helping hand. For example, many woodland restoration schemes involve payment of incentives to farmers for fencing remnant woodlands to minimise livestock grazing and (hopefully) allow regeneration of trees, shrubs and grasses. Which of these techniques, which are both applied across agricultural landscapes in Australia and around the world, and often at great cost, provides the greatest conservation benefit for the money spent? Answering this question involves two steps. Firstly, we must identify which method provides the greatest conservation gain. Which is more effective? More birds. Secondly, we look at which method provides the greatest conservation gain per dollar spent. Which is more cost-effective? Less bucks.

Why would we want to know? I’m glad I ask! There are not enough dollars to fix the biodiversity problems that we as a society face. By identifying which restoration techniques are the most cost-effective, we can get greater conservation outcomes with the funding available. More birds per buck.

Another thing I’ve learnt is the importance of novelty in a PhD. Novelty helps your research get published. And publishing is the name of the game. The novelty in my research comes not from the fact that I will write my thesis entirely in pig latin (Iyay amyay ullfay ofyay itshay), but from: 1) the inclusion of economic data, costs are often ignored in assessing restoration effectiveness; 2) the measurement of conservation gain by comparing birds at each restored site with a paired control site, whereas effectiveness is normally gauged by  which species and how many are found at restoration sites.

So that is what will largely preoccupy me for the next 3 years, well that and grappling with the idea of not having to wear an ironed shirt (among other ‘foundation’ garments) every day of the working week. Actually, what is a working week?

And with that dear reader (singular intended), I bid you farewell. In the next installment, I pontificate on the hidden challenges of stepping off the public service merry-go-round. Until then..

Stepping boldly forth into the abyss

What’s that I hear you say? There is insufficient inane musings on the internet? A dearth of deranged diatribes? Well then…

Welcome to the first, and hopefully not the last, entry in my very own blog, dedicated to documenting my transformation from mild ill mannered public servant to heavily-bearded academic.  Stay tuned and come along for the ride as I embark on the long journey that is the PhD. My topic? The cost-effectiveness of ecological restoration, but more on that later. Rest assured however that it will be world-changing, it will be a breeze, and it will be submitted on time. And monkeys might fly out of my…

Until next time.