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.

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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..