Exploring Victoria’s Box–Ironbark Country with Chris Tzaros
Sixteen years after the release of the much-loved first edition, wildlife watchers have a new guidebook for their libraries with the publication of the extensively revised Wildlife of the Box–Ironbark Country, Second Edition. The book’s author, Chris Tzaros, is an ecologist and avid wildlife photographer, and is uniquely placed to write about the fauna of Victoria’s Box–Ironbark country – brought up near Bendigo, he has had a passionate interest in wildlife since childhood.
We spoke with Chris to find out what it is about Box–Ironbark habitats he finds so special, as well as his advice for budding wildlife photographers.
What inspired you to write Wildlife of the Box–Ironbark Country?
Spending time in the bush near my hometown of Bendigo is one of my fondest childhood memories. Building rickety bush huts, catching yabbies and exploring bush tracks on my bike was my standard weekend entertainment. I really enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of being out in nature. On my travels, I would stop to observe echidnas and shingleback lizards crossing bush tracks, sneak-up on wallabies browsing in the undergrowth, follow birds carrying food to their nests to feed their young, and rescue turtles as they attempted to cross busy roads.
My fascination and curiosity for wildlife developed through my teenage years as I became more observant of my surrounds, and I developed a deeper appreciation for the box–ironbark forests that I took for granted in my earlier years. Having now studied, conducted research, and worked professionally in conservation, ecology and wildlife photography for over 25 years, with much of this work concentrating on temperate woodlands including box–ironbark, I was inspired to share my knowledge and photography with a broader audience.
What is so significant about Box-Ironbark habitats?
Occurring as a broad band across the inland slopes of the Great Divide, Box–Ironbark habitats are nestled between the high-altitude mountain environments to the south, and the drier flatter terrain of the northern Victorian plains. The trees that make up these dry forests and woodlands occur nowhere else, and they support populations of wildlife that depend on important habitat resources – such as eucalypt nectar, tree hollows and fallen timber and debris – that are a feature of the ecosystem and give the Box–Ironbark a strong sense of uniqueness.
Human activities and industry over the last 200 years have led to significant habitat loss across the Box–Ironbark region – with over 83 per cent of the original vegetation cover cleared, the Box–Ironbark ecosystem is now one of the most endangered habitats in Australia. The loss of habitat has had a profound impact on the wildlife dependent on these forests and woodlands. Birds such as the Swift Parrot and Regent Honeyeater have become critically endangered, and many other species have experienced severe population declines, so remaining areas of Box–Ironbark vegetation play a vital role in the conservation of these species.
What kind of animals can be found Box–Ironbark country?
In ways no different to any other type of ecosystem, an array of birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs have evolved over thousands of years to live in Box–Ironbark forests and woodlands. Some species have specialised habitat preferences whereby they prefer Box–Ironbark habitats over other types of vegetation, so they are largely dependent on this habitat for their ongoing survival. They include many of the region’s most emblematic species, such as the Brush-tailed Phascogale, Squirrel Glider, Regent Honeyeater, Swift Parrot, Pink-tailed Worm-Lizard, Tree Goanna and Bibron’s Toadlet – many of which are sadly threatened or declining.
Do you have any concerns about conservation or changes you’ve seen to the ecology of the Box-Ironbark region?
From 1997 to 2010, the devastating Millennium Drought caused significant and irreversible changes to the Box–Ironbark ecosystem, and impacts to wildlife were catastrophic. In addition to the direct loss of animal lives, opportunities for reproduction were lost over multiple seasons because of a severe reduction of their required food sources and breeding sites. Many species of birds were forced to move away from the region for long periods of time, and frog populations were decimated due to the prolonged dryness.
Though there has been some recovery since, the impact of this worst drought on record will remain, perhaps permanently. It paints an incredibly disturbing picture for what might be expected in the future, as climate change drives warmer and drier conditions, as well as more extreme weather events such as flash floods and bushfires.
Much has changed throughout the region since I was a kid. Many of the birds I knew of at particular sites are now long gone as those areas have completely changed. Sad as this is, all is not lost. With careful planning, appropriate management, and adequate resourcing, I think we are in a position to retain the incredible diversity of wildlife in our Box–Ironbark forests and woodlands. A key part of the process is changing people’s attitudes towards conservation and I hope this book plays a role in that process.
Most of the photos in the book are taken by you – how did your passion for wildlife photography start?
Though I started taking photos in my teenage years, I didn’t really get too serious until around the time I began preparing the first edition of this book, some 20+ years ago. A photographer friend, who knew of my naturalist skills and ability to find wildlife, encouraged me to start documenting nature with a camera, and he kindly gave me a lens to use with a camera that I purchased. From there on, I was hooked and there was no turning back!
Locating subjects to photograph can certainly be a challenge, especially in the case of rare and cryptic species, but taking a good quality photo takes it to a whole other level. I really enjoy this challenge and it’s so satisfying working with wild subjects and capturing images of birds and other animals going about their lives in nature.
Do you have a favourite type of animal to watch or to photograph?
Birds are something I’ve always had a fascination with. I guess it’s their ability to fly, the remarkable sounds they make, and the incredible colours and patterns of their feathers that provides an endless source of amazement. Though I enjoy watching birds, photographing them provides me with the opportunity to slow down and really get absorbed into their realm. A lot of what I know about birds, and other animals, comes from hours and hours of detailed observation through the camera lens – something that can’t be gleaned through a fleeting glimpse or casual observation.
All birds make great photographic subjects but personally, it’s a bit hard to go past the vibrancy and vivid colours of our parrots, or trying to capture the animation of our small bush birds such as finches, whistlers, robins, pardalotes and babblers.
Any tips for readers who want to try wildlife photography?
Having the latest, whiz-bang camera and lens might help, but I believe it’s more important for the photographer to understand photographic principles better and have a deeper understanding of their subjects – how to approach them so they don’t fly away; how to compose an image so the subject is clear enough among its surrounds; how to make a photo engaging; and when to fire the shutter at the right moment to capture that interesting behaviour. These are the sorts of things to consider when taking a photo, and they determine whether the image is a success or something that you would delete on the spot!
It’s also about patience, practice, perseverance… and a bit more patience! Wildlife photography is just that – the subject is ‘wild’ ‘life’, not tame animals that are accustomed to people. So how you operate as the photographer will determine what chances you have of being able to locate a subject, get close enough for a good shot, and not disturb the creature unnecessarily.
Wildlife of the Box–Ironbark Country, Second Edition, provides an overview of Victoria’s ecologically significant Box–Ironbark habitats, as well as guide to the fauna that can be found in this region.
The book covers 267 species of mammals, birds reptiles and frogs, each with a detailed description, high-quality colour photograph and updated distribution map. It also provides a checklist of species as well as tips for when and where to go wildlife-watching.
Available from our website or all good bookstores.