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The call of the wild in the suburbs, and one boy’s battle for the birds

Environmental campaigns often focus on remote wilderness. But for many of Australia’s vanishing species, wild refuges in urban areas are crucial to survival. A 10-year-old boy is fighting to save one of them, home to his beloved glossy black cockatoos. Jordyn Beazley continues our Living through the Climate Emergency series.

The call of the wild in the suburbs, and one boy’s battle for the birds

A pair of glossy black cockatoos at Sunrise Beach, photographed by 10-year-old Spencer Hitchen. The birds mate for life. Observing them at the development site near his home on the Sunshine Coast, Spencer realised it was serving as a kind of nursery. "They bring their fledglings here to teach them how to survive." Photo: Spencer Hitchen

Story by Jordyn Beazley
 

Spencer Hitchen strides through a network of spindly black she-oaks to a tree he knows is a favourite roosting spot for ‘Fledge’, a baby glossy black cockatoo.

Ten-year-old Spencer, his camera hanging at his hip – the lens the size of his forearm – peers up into the branches, hoping to spot the red streak on the bird’s tail. No sign of Fledge today.

“You can tell he’s been here,” says Spencer, scooping from the carpet of decaying she-oak needles a hand-full of gnarled cones that have had their seeds plied free.

“They’re very fussy eaters so they come back to the trees they know they like.”

Spencer and his mother Maxine visit this small forest sanctuary most days, observing and photographing the daily rituals of the black-brown feathered “glossies”. Only a short distance from their suburban home and the bustling beachside mecca of Noosa, it’s tucked behind a strip mall at Sunrise Beach.

In the middle of the site is the Sunrise Beach Uniting Church. The church’s residential care arm, Blue Care, has plans to build an aged care home on the land. Spencer and his mum – alongside a number of passionate Noosa Shire residents – are tirelessly lobbying for the facility to be built elsewhere.

It’s a familiar story. Fragments of precious urban habitats that have somehow endured coming under increasing pressure. Communities stepping up to oppose developments that have been approved under environmental laws found recently to be unfit for protecting species. A study released last year documented the critical importance of urban areas to threatened species, finding half of Australia’s national-listed threatened animals are found in the largest towns and cities.

Spencer first became involved in the campaign to save the Sunrise Beach habitat three years ago after he met Bob Carey, affectionately known around Noosa Shire as “Glossy Bob”. He is Spencer’s mentor, and part of a group of so-called ‘Glossy Warriors’  fighting to protect remnant glossy habitat along  Queensland’s Sunshine Coast since the mid-’90s.

Spencer Hitchen has launched an online campaign to save the five hectare habitat which has so far garnered 56,000 signatures. Photo: Paul Hilton

Spencer Hitchen has launched an online campaign to save the five hectare habitat which has so far garnered 56,000 signatures. Photo: Paul Hilton

Urban pockets of habitat have slowly been devoured by development over the years, Maxine Hitchen says. When land was cleared to make way for the Noosa Springs Golf and Spa Resort in 1995, Isobel Pert – credited as the original Glossy Warrior – recalls flocks of the ordinarily relatively quiet birds circling the area and calling out for weeks after the trees were gone.

Such memories power the efforts of campaigners against the Blue Care aged care home approved by Sunshine Coast Regional Council in 2011.

In response to community pressure, Blue Care changed its plans in 2019 to preserve 20 per cent of the trees. Last year, it adjusted plans again so that construction would be staged.

A Blue Care spokesperson told The Citizen that it would be recreating alternative glossy habitat at a nature refuge one kilometre from the development site. It began propagating seedlings from feed trees in 2018 for planting in the refuge before breaking ground on the project, which is due to begin next year.

The developers plan to remove 56 she-oak trees from the site, and to plant 448 in the nature refuge and other locations across Noosa Shire to offset the loss, resulting in a gain of 392 trees.

But objectors argue that given black she-oaks take seven years to mature into feeding trees and the glossy is among the most diet-specialised birds in the world, the offset is not an effective trade-off.

They’re also concerned the ecological assessment, which was conducted in 2008, was approved when less was known about Australia’s extinction crisis and the impact of the climate crisis on glossies. Swathes of habitat for the endangered glossies in Kangaroo Island were decimated during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfire crisis.

In a council meeting in November last year, the then environment officer for the council Connor Neville said: “The ratio [of replanting the black she-oaks] is 8:1, and they’re [propogated] off the actual feed trees, so hopefully one out of those eight one will become a feed tree. It’s hedging your bets, it’s not perfect, I can’t get into the minds of the glossies. We don’t know why they feed on that particular cone and not that one.”

That’s the problem, says Maxine.

“Everyone is hedging their bets with nature.”

Recreating habitat to offset loss resulting from development has long been controversial. In a review of Australia’s environmental laws released earlier this year, Professor Graeme Samuel found that biodiversity offsets were resulting in environmental losses. The report also found that without urgent changes to the laws, most of Australia’s threatened plants and animals will become extinct.

“The EPBC [Environment Protection and Biodiversity] Act just doesn’t seem to do anything, none of it seems to be working at all,” says Spencer. “I want stronger environmental laws so that we can stop climate change and extinction.”

His mum, drawn into  the campaign by her son’s advocacy, adds: “It’s very disappointing for all of us to realise that our laws don’t actually protect our wildlife because we were really unaware of that.”

Hearing Spencer speak about the EPBC Acts and the like, it’s easy to forget he’s only ten. He sprouts facts about the glossies with all the confidence of a veteran ornithologist.

After a recent presentation about his observations on fledgling (juvenile) glossies at an event, he was asked by a scientist from Sunshine Coast University if he might contribute his findings to a scientific paper.

“I realised the site [owned by the church] was like a nursery site for the fledglings. They bring their fledglings here to teach them how to survive,” Spencer says.

Bob Carey standing among some black she-oaks at the Sunrise Beach site that Blue Care plans to build an aged care home on. Photo: Jordyn Beazley

Bob Carey standing among some black she-oaks at the Sunrise Beach site that Blue Care plans to build an aged care home on. Photo: Jordyn Beazley

Among his favourite fledglings is Bellatrix, which means “beautiful warrior”. She’s a female with an orange streak across her tail who survived an attack by a grey goshawk.

Spencer has launched a Change.org campaign to save the habitat which has so far garnered 56,000 signatures, and also organises school strikes in the cause.

His effort to save five hectares of habitat may seem small in the context of the climate crisis and what is recognised as Earth’s accelerating sixth great extinction event. But Maxine says too often people consider habitat loss as mass deforestation and overlook remnant habitat in urban areas. She and Spencer argue that even the smallest habitats could be crucial to the future survival of species.

Professor Sarah Bekessy, a sustainability and urban planning expert at RMIT, agrees, identifying the fallout of cumulative development and mismanaged offsets for urban habitat is a huge issue. “We’re actually losing substantial areas of highly threatened ecosystems across Australian cities, from Perth to Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.

“People have systematically developed all the good spots in this country. Coastal places, wetter places, and more fertile places are so underrepresented in our national park systems,” she says.

 “That’s the problem; a lot of species overlap with where we want to live, areas which have systematically been targeted for urban development, so there is nowhere else for them to go.”

Spencer was hoping that during the high-stakes COP26 in Glasgow, leaders would make a firm commitment to hauling back extinction crises and habitat loss.

“I want stronger environmental laws so that we can stop climate change and extinction,” Spencer says. “Because if the trees that come down, that contributes to climate change. And it also can give way to extinction.”

A number of countries, including Australia, have pledged to end and reverse global deforestation by 2030. But the federal assistant forestry minister Jonno Duniam confirmed this would not require Australia to halt native forest logging.

Spencer’s activism may have earned him some scientific kudos, but his dream is to become a photographer. He’s less concerned with studying the environment than with finding ways to encourage people to care about the environment.

“I want to take photos of animals to show people that if we don’t protect their habitat they’ll go extinct.”

A glossy black cockatoo flying above the site at Sunrise Beach. Photo: Spencer Hitchen

A glossy black cockatoo flying above the site at Sunrise Beach. Photo: Spencer Hitchen

 

 

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

  • Editor: Jo Chandler
  • Reporter: Jordyn Beazley
  • Audio & Video editor: Louisa Lim
  • Data editor: Craig Butt
  • Editor-In-Chief: Andrew Dodd
  • Business editor: Lucy Smy
Winner — BEST PUBLICATION 2016 Ossie Awards