When it comes to golf I’m largely in agreement with Mark Twain who was reported to have described the game as “a good walk spoiled”. As with so many of these well known and iconic quotes, Twain did not originate the phrase and almost certainly did not say it. Reminds me of what Einstein didn’t say about bees. Regardless of how you feel about golf*, and I appreciate that many people enjoy and play the game, golf courses represent an interesting set of environmental challenges and opportunities. On the one hand maintaining areas of perfect turf requires a big input of water, fertilisers, biocides, even grass dye, and energy – there are some interesting thoughts on this in a recent blog post at goingzerowaste.com (though it’s riddled with adverts so be patient). One of the links I picked up from that blog was to the Audubon Society in the USA which has an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf certification scheme. Its aim is to help course management teams to reduce the impact of their activities and, importantly, to maximise and protect the biodiversity on their golf courses.
There are similar schemes elsewhere in the world, for example the Golf Environment Awards in the UK. Of course building new golf courses that irreparably damage important wildlife sites is unforgivable. For existing courses these are moves in the right direction because typically less than half of a course is the playing area. The rest comprises rough grass, woodland, lakes and streams and so forth: in other words, good habitat for a broad range of wildlife.
All of this was on my mind last Wednesday when I was invited on an early morning birding trip to the urban Eastlake Golf Course by UNSW bird researcher Dr Corey Callaghan. We were joined by other staff members and postgrads from the department. Six of us spent a very enjoyable couple of hours from 6:15 am walking a route that took us close to the large bodies of water that give the course its name, through woodland and bush dominated by species of Banksia and Casuarina. The latter, despite being true flowering plants, look for all the world like the familiar conifers of many a British golf course.
Over a period of two hours we saw 70 species of birds. To put this in perspective, our Waterside Campus bird surveys back in Northampton also take around two hours and start early in the morning, through a similar mosaic of grassland, woodland patches, and a water body (the River Nene). On these surveys we typically see between 20 and 30 species; the most we’ve ever recorded in one morning is 39, and that really was exceptional. Remember also that Sydney is not in the tropics – at around 33 degrees south we’re technically subtropical here. Given the latitudinal gradient in bird diversity, a two hour survey on a tropical golf course should yield even more records, all else being equal.
Of those 70 bird species, I think about 20 were new to me, i.e. lifers in birding parlance, though I still need to write up the list of birds I’ve seen so far on this trip. Perhaps I’ll do that this afternoon as temperature in Sydney peak and its frankly too hot to do much else. As I write it’s midday and official temperature for the Coogee area is already 29 degrees C, and that’s with a cooling sea breeze. Western Sydney is likely to top 40 degree later today.
Although whole families of birds in this region are unfamiliar to us in the Northern Hemisphere, there were others that we saw on Wednesday which would not be out of place in Northamptonshire. For example, we saw common greenshank, which overwinters here after an epic journey from northern climes, and Australian raven which is a different species to the ravens and crows from the UK, but very similar looking. The wading birds such as greenshank and sharp-tailed sandpiper were benefiting from the drought conditions that has exposed parts of the lake bed. Though if this continues there’s a danger of most of the water being lost completely, impacting the large eels and other fish we saw in the shallows, as well as the semi-aquatic Eastern water dragon.
Birds, plants, fish and lizards were not the only wildlife we saw at Eastlake however – some very delicate fungi were benefiting from the regular watering of the fairway:
It’s not all been birding and swimming in the (not very) warm sea, however. This week Angela, Stephen and I were joined by our CSIRO collaborator Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy for an intense week of writing. This manuscript boot camp has gone better than we expected and we have a very good first draft of a paper that should be in a position to submit to a journal by the time my visit here ends on 2nd February.
*I make an exception for crazy golf at seaside resorts which I play with my old university mates with beer, gusto, and not a little rivalry.