Frogs In The Bigger Picture

Frogs In The Bigger Picture

Frogs In The Bigger Picture

What kind of world do you want to live in?

Many people hope for their own home with a secure fence around it and a car in the driveway. Their occupation might be in an office and, on the weekends, they might tend their garden or take the dogs for a run or take a drive with the family. Others might prefer a flat in a block of units that doesn't need any house or yard maintenance. At night, they might meet friends in the pub and, during their working hours, they might be a waiter in a hotel restaurant or someone who travels a lot for their job.

Whatever kind of 'world' you want to make for yourself - if you live in Far North Queensland, you live in a very special part of Australia - a very special part of the world, in fact. Many settlers to Cairns claim that they moved here for the natural environment and the climate. However, the environment gets less and less noticed as the struggles of daily life become top priority - the time it takes many to find work, permanent casuals, fluctuating/seasonal unemployment rate, rising food, rent and vehicle running costs, worsening economy, etc. Depending on your exact circumstances, Cairns can be a difficult place to live even though we are rewarded daily by the richness of the spectacular local environment.

While everyone is busy trying to make a living, the environment has been changing. Locally, the wildlife that used to share our yards has been thinning out and pushed out (or run over!). Diseases are killing our frogs AND cane toads. Mass deaths of wildlife are in the news almost every single day now and droughts are getting stronger and stronger. While it is not yet a household word, geo-engineering (stratospheric injection) is taking its tool on biodiversity.

All these events are not flukes and they aren't going to fix themselves. Serious actions are going to be needed to repair what we've trashed. On a local scale, Cairns has some real problems to fix and we can all do something to help. Get your whole family involved. This will be educational for your children and it will teach them better ways to live for their future.

Issue #1

At first you might think about the Central Swamp, the Freshwater Lakes areas and the hillslopes but this is not enough. Our climate is tropical which means that the sun is very strong and heat builds up quickly and there is more of it to be reflected back up. We found out just how strong in 2001 when we had hardly any cloud cover from December to March and the summer sun beat down on us with a vengence. The weather guage at the airport may have said 33 or 34 degrees but the reality was that much of Cairns was more like 38 and 39 degrees. When we had the heatwave at the end of November, the airport guage said 43.6C but down at Edmonton, it would have been 47C or higher and at least 15,000 spectacled flying-foxes dropped dead.

A lot of heat is absorbed by cement, bitumen and rooves. During the drought, it didn't matter how much water you might have thrown on the the garden - some plants just shrivelled up and died from excessive heat. When clouds did move in occasionally and the rain started to fall, it often evaporated as soon as or before it even hit the ground. As the clouds moved past the Cairns 'hot spot', the rain fell so the areas surrounding Cairns (while still way short on normal falls) got more rain than Cairns did. This is called a microclimate where landscape is so modified that it can cause changes to local weather.

There has been a lot of development in Cairns and a drive around the various suburbs will reveal how many new estates and blocks of units are under construction right now with more planned. The melaleuca/pandanus seasonally inundated swamp habitat - although officially recognised as a threatened habitat type - has already been significantly bulldozed on the northern beaches. Despite its status, a remaining 60 hectare site between Palm Cove and Clifton Beach is under development. Unfortunately, when we went up to Palm Cove to survey in 2001, 99% of the frogs in that suburb were found in the Juniper and adjacent Argentea development sites.

The previous and current town planning schemes for Cairns also revised the minimum residential block size from its prior 700 sqm to 300 sqm. This is so small, your neighbour's roof can be as close as a metre from your roof. In our tropical humid climate, this block size is totally inappropriate and its shortcomings are described in the tropic humid climate considerations under the AMCORD Guidelines for Residential Housing - a document which is supposed to be used as guide for Queensland councils but, unfortunately, is not a mandatory requirement.

One of the main problems with this block size is that it is too small for shade trees so the entire house must be airconditioned. Most residents end up planting palms as these will fit in the smallest of spaces. However, palms do not provide sufficient shade or water uptake (and do not constitute a habitat for wildlife). The result is more water run-off and a much greater demand for electricity to keep the house cool. The lack of proper vegetation helps worsen the global warming scenario locally but the excessive electricity consumption directly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Much of Australia's electricity is generated by coal and even mining giant Rio Tinto acknowledges that coal contributes even more Greenhouse gases than oil!

So what can you do about the vegetation? Consider the following actions:

Plant up your block with as much vegetation as you can - if a smaller species of shade tree will fit, put one in (a nursery can advise you on the best species to use on your block) and use shrubs for the rest; a pergola will allow you to put up shade cloth and you can grow vines on it as well
Don't let being a tenant stop you from planting - gardens add value to a property and your landlord might be quite happy to see the property beautified; you may not own it but you live there and use the yard so wouldn't you like to enjoy it more? Check with your rental agent or landlord and give them a sketch of what you would like to put in - they might even be willing to supply some materials if you're doing the work and upkeep.
When selecting vegetation, choose species which are local natives and serve another purpose such as a foodplant for butterflies and moths, fruit for birds and flying-foxes, flowers (nectar and pollen) for insects and birds.
Help revegetate Cairns by volunteering for a landcare or tree planting group - these groups plant trees along watercourses and other places where lots of trees can be accommodated.
If the council strip in front of your house doesn't have a street tree on it, ask council to put one in and be prepared to look after it with water and the occasional fertiliser. (Sometimes these requests get buried in bureaucracy so keep asking every two or three months until the tree arrives!) If you can dig the hole yourself, that might speed up the process.
Check to see if your council has tree protection laws which actually work! All "significant" trees should be protected (including those on private land) by DEFAULT - not by application. If your council doesn't automatically protect big trees, then start lobbying them to change their bylaws. (For those of you in Cairns, Local Bylaw 24 is supposed to protect trees but in reality, it doesn't. The owner of the land the tree is on needs to sign the protection order - so if the owner likes the tree, it doesn't need the bylaw to protect it; if the owner doesn't want the tree, no-one can stop it from being chopped down.)
If there is a reserve on your street that is mostly lawn and doesn't get used much by your community, get a group of neighbours together and aproach council about turning the lawn into a bushy reserve. Offer to help plant the trees and shrubs and have regular neighbourhood maintenance days to pull weeds and prune where needed. You might be able to get the trees from council's own nursery or one of the other community revege projects or a nursery might donate some plants in exchange for some publicity. There's bound to be a handyman in the area who can volunteer to build some benches to place under the trees once they've grown. Planting some fragrant flowery shrubs between the trees will help turn an under-utilised piece of grass into a pleasant local gathering spot for mothers and their toddlers to catch up on some chatter. (Council should be interested in such a proposal on the grounds that it reduces their costs to have the reserve mowed regularly.)

Issue #2

Considering that we have a seasonal climate which sees millions of litres of rainwater flow past us to the sea (when we are getting a proper wet season, that is), the Cairns basin seems more like a desert during the dry. We have a hard time releasing frogs to the suburbs they came from when they have recovered during the dry season. There are a lot of cement drains and a few creeks criss-crossing Cairns but these are usually tidal so they are unsuitable for animals which depend on freshwater (like frogs). Even the ones further above sea level do not hold water permanently through the dry anymore. The drought of 2000-03 caused biological and structural changes to the region's soils so they no longer hold water long enough and are dry soon after rain has stopped. The more heat and sun we are exposed to, the more water we need.

On the other hand, when we are in LaNina conditions, there is too much water which is actively encouraged to disappear down drains and out to sea, carrying with it all kinds of crap we put on the soil such as pesticides, herbicides, fertlizers, etc. There is a distinct lack of rainwater tanks in Cairns' residential housing, Cairns is now taking water from surrounding catchments where that water is needed by those who live there and the environments located there.

So what can be done about the water? Consider these actions:

Rainwater is free. Install a water storage tank which will collect rainwater for use in keeping your newly vegetated garden healthy and growing - the larger the better, but even one of those flat 500 litre styles that fits under the eaves of the house will help.
Some councils frown on the installation of water tanks or introduce requirements which make installation difficult - if your council is one of these, write to its CEO and demand an explanation why. (When you receive a reply, please send a copy to us.)
Even if you can't install a tank or afford the tank itself, you can still collect rain water in portable containers such as small, portable rainwater tanks, water containers for camping, or large plastic bins such as new garbage bins (wash all thoroughly before use). This water can be used in the garden, for pets and bird baths, or boiled for use in drinking/cooking. Your kids can help with this by putting out clean plastic containers on the lawn when it's going to rain and they can help bottle it up later.
Create some bird baths for your garden and scatter them in various spots so some are in shade and others in the open. The bath doesn't need to be carved marble - a pot plant base on a besser brick (cinder block) will do. Just make sure the bowl/plate is not metal or porcelain. Rain water is much better to use for these than tap water which is treated with chemicals (especially flouride). Your children can have the regular chore of checking the birdbaths, cleaning them out and refilling them with your collected rainwater. (Note: lots of residents decline to use birdbaths because of mozzies - this is not an excuse as mozzies are extremely easy to control. See the bottom section of our Tadpole Raising page for information about mozzie control.)
Build a frog pond at least 30 cm (one foot) deep (60 cm (two feet) is much better) and as wide as you can manage so that frogs can access the water during the dry and hopefully breed during the summer. (visit our tropical frog ponds page for more information) You might need to check with your local council to learn if a fence will be required for your pond.
Be conscious of how you use water around the home and learn to think of water as a precious commodity. An effective trick is to place a large bowl in the sink and forget about the drain. This will demonstrate how much water you actually use - if there was no drain and you had to manually get rid of the water you use, you would quickly learn to use less.
When you run the tap to wash your hands or dishes, it doesn't need to gush out and mostly down the drain - restrict the flow to a trickle.
Put in a water efficient or horizontal shower head that allows you to run small flows of water through. Put the plug in the drain so the water will accummulate - this will show you how much water you actually use when you shower. When you're washing your hair or lathering up with soap, turn off the tap entirely and only turn it back on when you are rinsing off.
Water your garden early in the morning or at dusk when evaporation is less or water by the drip method directly onto the soil.
Keep a bucket near the kitchen sink and dump non-sudsy water in it (such as the fluid you drain from canned goods or the water that a burnt pan has been soaked with or when you rinse fruit or vege before eating) - this water can be dumped on the garden along with all your food scraps.
During the dry season or areas more prone to drought, you can use the washing machine water for watering NON-food plants. Be sure the washing powder is garden friendly (it will say so on the label) and use the smallest amount possible for each load. The water can be directed to the part of the garden norally being watered via a hose or you can leave a large garbage bin where the outflow hose goes to collect the water and bucket out later. Using two bins will allow you to use the really sudsy water for flushing the toilet and the rinse water for the garden. Be careful never to use greywater on fruit trees, veggie gardens or on herbs.
If you have a single flush toilet which can't be replaced, put a couple large rocks or a large, covered jar of small rocks inside the cistern to displace a litre or so of water - the amount you displace is the amount you save each time you flush.
Use a broom to clean the driveway and footpaths and save the water for when there's a stain to remove.

While each of these things only saves a little water, the savings add up over time and that's just at your house. If half of the 57,000 households in Cairns enacted all these small actions to save water, it would make a real difference to the water levels in Copperlode Dam (and the size of your water bill from council). Combined with water storage tanks, this would save councils (and ultimately you, the rate payer) the massive expenses associated with increasing storage capacity. Another advantage of the water savings is the increased awareness you will have about the water you use and ways to make it last longer.

Issue #3

It is hard to know what long term effects droughts and habitat loss creates but two of the greatest threats to insects and frogs are the use of the neonicotinoid group of chemicals and geo-engineering (refered to as 'chemtrails' in the past). Already, we suspect that changes have occured to the microbial content of the soil and this might be what is causing the widespread nervous system condition which turned up in local frogs in July 2002. Since then, the frog population has suffered a severe blow and even the toads are being killed off by this disease (suspected to be a species of Fusarium). Even worse, we suspect that this disease might not be confined to amphibians and may also be capable of killing reptiles and snakes but we haven't received the specimens to test - only the phone calls.

Droughts, vegetation loss, and toxins have caused a dramatic reducion in insect numbers and, as the base level of the food chain, a loss at this level can have a dramatic impact all the way up the chain as well as have an effet on insect pollinated crops. Insects are heavily depended upon as food by frogs and toads, some reptiles and snakes, many bird species and microbats. The competition for bugs is intense because of the drought (and every dry season) and this lack of food stresses animals, especially the frogs. They demonstate this stress by becoming highly susceptible to disease.

In addition to what happens to the environment because of global processes, people are also having a dramatic impact on insect numbers because of the rampant use of insecticides and herbicides in their yards. When the insects aren't being poisoned, they are losing their food supply as each big tree gets cut down.

So what can be done about the insects? Consider these actions:

Plant more moth and butterfly food plants in your yard and retain any big trees you may have
Remove green ants as best as you can from your property - they attack insects and small animals (including frogs and skinks) and the few predators that eat them (echnidnas and ant-mimicking spiders) are not likely to be found in the standard suburban backyard - refer to our new page "New to Cairns?" for more information about green ants and their removal.
Create a compost pile or two in part of your yard to attract bugs
Do not use any pesticides or herbicides in your garden - hand pull weeds and allow whatever bugs are there to remain for frogs and other animals. Caterpillars are particularly useful because many of the native plants are adapted to being muched bare by these delicate creatures and respond by shooting out voluminous new growth.
Mulch your garden heavier than the usual recommendations (especially if you have sandy soils) and use mulches and manures which will increase the amount of beneficial fungal and bacterial activity in the soil (avoid tea tree mulch, straw and processed fertilisers - yes, dynamic lifter is processed). A heavier layer of mulch may physically reduce the amount of disease causing spores that are becoming airbourne from the soil and killing amphibians, while pure manures dug into the soil will increase the fungal competition that used to be there before the drought. See our soil health section for more information on how soils affect frogs and how you can improve your soil.

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