Being a tourist in my own backyard

(Or, how I got over it and started appreciating Christchurch wildlife.)

As my parents will attest, I’ve always been into animals and the outdoors. But young-me was only interested in animals that were from exotic, faraway places like the African plains or South American jungles, definitely not suburban Christchurch and the flat, pasture-ised Canterbury Plains. But it seems I’ve changed and when I go back to the South Island, I now find myself being a happy wildlife-tourist in my own (former) backyard. Turns out Christchurch is home to some nifty critters and good places to go look for them.

New Zealand wildlife is rather special, but when I was growing up around Christchurch they weren’t exactly plentiful and I really wasn’t interested – I liked big cats, not cryptic birds or subtle skinks. And if I did want to see a native species, then surely I had to go up to the national parks because Christchurch had no ‘wilderness’ and that is where the exciting things are.

And what lives under this rock?

Turns out that is not true, and I just needed an attitude adjustment. I think this adjustment began when I was working for the Freshwater Ecology Research Group in the mid-2000s, identifying freshwater invertebrates. I now knew the names for different animals (yes, invertebrates are animals) and going for a walk wasn’t just about getting somewhere or admiring a view, it was about looking in streams and lifting up rocks to see what was living under them. It was about seeing things I knew the name of and using guide-books to identify those I didn’t. I could see them and I could identify, therefore I cared. Maybe it was as simple as that.

And now it’s not just stream-bugs I want to know about. I’ve become a bird-botherer too, probably helped by the binoculars I recently bought. So, while on a walk with my dad, the birds around the Christchurch estuary suddenly become not just “gulls, shags* and ducks”, but red-billed gulls, black-billed gulls (occasionally), pied shags, black shags, New Zealand scaup, New Zealand shovellers, and even some bar-tailed godwits materialising out of the sand.

Dad admiring the godwits on Christchurch Estuary from the Southshore Spit walk

Now we’re not just out for a walk, we’re walking to look for birds. And then Christchurch becomes an interesting place. Turns out there are a few pockets of remaining, regenerating or restored wetlands and native bush in the old home-town, and there are cool things living there. And I want to go see them.

The Canterbury Plains were systematically and efficiently cleared during the 19th century, and today less than 1% of the land still supports native vegetation. Wetlands, rivers and estuaries were particularly impacted, and only small fragments remain. But what is left deserves valuing, and while I may be a bit late in my appreciation for my (formerly) local animals and wilderness, I’m trying to make the most of it.

*  aka ‘cormorants’ in Australia

Some Jo-recommended places to visit, with a Dad-star rating on accessibility:

  • Travis Wetland still exists due to determined local residents who campaigned to save it from housing development, and is the last large wetland in Christchurch. Dad says: “4+ stars, a nice flat circular walking track with information boards and different entry points.”
  • Coastal wetland and estuaries are great for spotting native and migratory shorebirds, so take binoculars and check out Brooklands Lagoon, Charlesworth Tidal Wetlands walk, and the Southshore Spit. Dad says, “3 stars, track a little rough; 4 stars, very good path; 4 stars as while the path is a bit rough, you don’t have to walk far before you see many birds.”
  • Hinewai is a large private reserve at the tip of Banks Peninsula about two hours drive from Christchurch, but worth the travel with wonderful old growth bush areas and vast swathes of regenerating native forest. Dad says, “2 stars for accessibility as the walking is a bit more adventurous and slopey, but definitely a rewarding place to visit, so 5 stars for scenic-ness.”
  • Omahu Bush Reserve is closer to town and is one of the best areas of native bushland on the Port Hills. It is still relatively intact after the fires in 2017. Dad says, “Have I been here? I have? Oh right, well then 3 stars based on what you say.”
“What’s in the water, Aunty Go?”
Estuary wetlands at the Charlesworth Reserve


Sharing love of frogs (even when on holiday…)

When I was first in the Macquarie Marshes, landholders didn’t know there were at least 15 different frog species, and would simply call everything either a green frog or a brown frog. Though after I’d compiled a small identification guide, they’d tell me the proper names of what they’d seen and how many were calling after it rained, and by the time I finished my PhD fieldwork out there, they were all experts! I love telling people about frogs and sharing what I know. Even when on holiday it seems, which is how I ended up doing a guide to the frogs I saw while on holiday in the northern Brazilian Pantanal.

Say cheese!
It’s a small wetland frog research world!

I’m not an expert on Pantanal frogs, but it turned out that finding some experts wasn’t that hard. It seems that while the world is a large place, the ‘world’ I live in is a bit smaller and mostly inhabited by like-minded people. So when I go on holiday and visit wetlands because that is what I like doing, I’m likely to run into other people who like to be around wetlands. This also increases the likelihood that they might be interested in frogs, maybe even researching them. And if the wetland that I’m holidaying at is a natural analogue for the wetlands that I work on here in Australia, then — apparently — there is a good chance that they’ll have read my research papers! Which is how you run into people who know you, even though you’re in a somewhat remote area of a large foreign country far from home, and is how I met my Pantanal frog experts, the awesome Leonardo, Natalia and Marcos.

The Pantanal is the largest continuous floodplain in the world. And like any good wetland system has a lot of frogs, as well as a multitude of other spectacular wildlife such as waterbirds (OK we also have them in Australia, but these are different waterbirds), giant spiny anteaters, capybaras, jaguars, anacondas, and caiman to name a few obvious ones.

Flooded floodplain in the afternoon light.

While I could find plenty of information on these charismatic megafauna, there was a distinct lack of frog knowledge including by the owners and staff of the pousada I stayed at (the wonderful Araras). It seems even though they could hear the frogs and were surrounded by them, they didn’t know any of the species and hadn’t met anyone interested in frogs before. Even just showing them photos of what I’d seen the night before opened up a new world for them, species that were totally unknown yet a very present part of the wildlife of the Pantanal.

Showing the guide how it’s done.

By the end of my stay at Araras, the owners were keen to know more about the frogs and asked me to share what I’d found. Fortunately, I’d kept in touch with Leonardo, Natalia and Marcos and they could identify the 13 different species I’d seen over the three nights. Seeing as a basic identification guide worked last time, when I got home I put one together of the frogs I saw at Araras. The idea was help the owners and staff know more about the frogs around them and share with any future frog-interested guests (check it out here). I also did one for another amazing pousada I stayed at, Park Eco Lodge at Chapada dos Guimaraes (one in English and another in Portuguese). Considering I was there at the start of the dry season and there are many, many more species that I didn’t see in the Pantanal, I think a second edition might require another visit. Who’s coming?

Rhinella major trying to squeeze back under the building.
Known as the Formula 1 frog due to the sound males make, Physalaemus albonotatus.
I feel in love with this one, Boana punctata
Teeny tiny dwarf tree frog Dendropsophus nanus

PS. The Pantanal was the last stop on my tour of different Brazilian ecosystems arranged by Pantanal Explorer and organised for me by the amazing Lara at Eclipse Travel in Sydney. If you want a bang-up Brazilian holiday, email ( and tell her I sent you! And if you want do a lot of ticking on your Brazilian bird-list, make sure you request Allan Franco, the best.

Fussy frogs and wet wetlands

Floodplain wetlands in semi-arid and arid regions are important habitats for a variety of wildlife, including frogs. Managing these important habitats requires that we know how wildlife respond to their patterns of natural flows, but surprisingly we don’t have a good understanding of this relationship for many species. While it makes sense that frogs would like inundated wetlands, we don’t actually know if this is the case in many systems, so I set out to determine which species were fond of good flow conditions and which weren’t. I found that while the Macquarie Marshes, a large floodplain wetland with huge conservation significance in inland NSW, supported a diverse range of frogs, not all species responded to flooding in the same way. Knowing this helps us understand which species are more likely to benefit from managed water flows, and which aren’t.

If you’ve been around frogs for a while, then you’ll know that if it has rained a lot, you’ll see and hear a whole different set of frog species than if it hasn’t. Also if it is still 26⁰C at midnight rather than 12⁰C, again the frogs that you see and hear will be quite different. Figuring out which species you are likely to see in what conditions is important, particularly when you want to determine how to conserve them; just because you didn’t see them, it doesn’t mean they weren’t there, which is especially true for burrowing frogs!

In order to determine how we might be able to manage frog populations by releasing upstream waters (in dams) to replicate natural flows (‘environmental flows’), I needed first to understand how natural floods affect different frog species living in large complex floodplain wetland systems. I wanted to make sure that any managed flows would actually benefit (or not) the frogs that live there. I also needed to know how things like temperature or rainfall or water depth affected how likely I was to see different species.

To do this, I (and my crew of amazing field assistants) spent a lot of afternoons and evenings sloshing through different parts of wetlands and around waterholes in the Macquarie Marshes in NSW. We did this during a large natural flood, and recorded data on weather, vegetation and water as well as all the frogs we came across.

Sloshing around the Southern Lagoons

During four months of surveys at 30 sites in the Macquarie Marshes, we identified 15 frog species, including barking marsh frogs (Limnodynastes fletcheri), wrinkled toadlets (Uperoleia rugosa), desert tree frogs (Litoria rubella) and Sudell’s burrowing frog (Neobatrachus sudellae). On average, we counted nearly 40 individual frogs per site, though sometimes we saw none and once four of us counted nearly 250 in 20 minutes!

Putting all that together, I found that as expected, not all frog species did the same thing at the same time or even liked hanging out in the same places during a flood. However, frogs that had similar features generally shared similar responses. Species that move around on the ground but can’t burrow, such as spotted marsh frogs (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis), were seen in most weather and site conditions, and were more abundant at temporarily flooded wetlands with some aquatic vegetation. Conversely, tree frogs, such as the green tree frog (Litoria caerulea) liked to be around wooded wetlands but needed it to warmer and rainier before they’d be out and about.

Spotted marsh frogs enjoying the wet conditions. Photo: Dave Herasimtschuk.
Green tree frogs doing as they do. Photo: Dave Herasimtschuk.

The remaining species, which had special adaptations allowing them to burrow into the soil, such as the crucifix frog (Notaden bennettii), were rather particular. They were more likely to pop up after some rain the day or night before and they weren’t very keen on the wetlands, preferring ephemeral, rain-fed waterholes.

After unlocking the secret preferences of frogs in a large floodplain wetland during a natural flood, we can now start to get more precise about how environmental water supports frogs. While burrowing frogs might not appreciate flood waters without associated rainfall, we know that ground frogs like the spotted marsh frog do. This means that these frogs are likely to directly respond to and benefit from water releases. And if you’ve got happy frogs, you’ve got a well-functioning wetland!

Thanks to my co-authors, Richard Kingsford (University of New South Wales), Trent Penman (University of Wollongong) and Jodi Rowley (Australian Museum Research Institute). I’d also like to thank landholders and Reserve rangers for permission to access the Macquarie Marshes during this study. Funding and support for the surveys were provided by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, the NSW Frog and Tadpole Society, and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife Service. For their assistance in the field, I particularly thank Carly Humphries, Jonathon Windsor, Ashley Soltysiak, Sarah Meredith, David Herasimtschuk, Angela Knerl, Diana Grasso, and Bill Koutsamanis.

For the nitty-gritty details, see:
Ocock, J.F., Kingsford, R.T., Penman, T.D. & Rowley, J.J.L. (2016). Amphibian abundance and detection trends during a large flood in a semi-arid floodplain wetland. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 11, 408-425.