James Fitzsimons is a busy man. As director of conservation for the Conservancy’s Australia program, he’s involved in everything from private land deals to marine protected areas. He’s also a widely published scientist, with papers published on everything from burrowing crayfish to fire management to disappearing mammals. And for good measure, he’s an adjunct associate professor at Deakin University in Melbourne.

And what does Fitzsimons do with a bit of free time?

He runs his own nature reserve.

“I was looking for a place where I could achieve conservation on my own, and have a place to share with my kids,” he says. “I’ve always wanted a block of land that had native vegetation on some parts but that also had degraded areas to restore.”

He found that in a nearly 300-acre chunk of forest in central Victoria, an area that at one point seemed destined for various development uses. When those fell through, he was able to buy the property, and set about creating a restoration and research program.

What some might see as a busman’s holiday, Fitzsimons sees as a chance to put his research into practice:

  • The reserve has become a refuge for threatened and bizarre wildlife, including a marsupial with a tail that looks like a scouring brush and a bird that resembles a roadrunner.
  • Researchers are measuring the impacts of various grazing regimes.
  • Nest boxes provide homes for gliders—marsupials with flappy skin that allow them to glide like flying squirrels.
  • Woody debris and fence posts remain on the forest floor, creating habitat for geckos and other wildlife that need this habitat to survive.
  • It’s a fun place to share nature with his wife, kids and extended family.

The reserve has truly become a family affair: His wife Janelle, of BirdLife Australia, conducted some of her Master’s research on reptiles and invertebrates on the site. His dad enjoys keeping an eye on the place when Fitzsimons can’t visit, and he takes his children camping there.

“The kids love it,” he says. “They love running around and seeing the place and learning about the animals.”

Fifty years ago, it might seem an unlikely place to enjoy nature: The area was intensively grazed, and then strip-mined for gravel. Aerial photos show a place with little forest cover, suggesting a place that might never recover.

And today? “There’s been an amazing regeneration of native trees,” says Fitzsimons. “Surprisingly, a lot of the understory is still there, including some very large populations of nationally threatened plants such as the Euroa Guinea-flower. The amount of rejuvenation is amazing to watch. The area around it has been extensively cleared, so this is the largest consolidated piece of habitat left in the landscape.”

The Freaks Come Out at Night

When the sun goes down, the Australian forest comes alive with strange beasts.

The brush-tailed phascogale, for instance: A carnivorous marsupial with an impossibly fluffy black tail and a taste for spiders. Or the Disney-cute squirrel glider, a possum with flappy skin for gliding through the trees.

If your tastes run towards the feathered, there’s the bush stone-curlew, a bird that resembles a shorebird but lives like a roadrunner. Threaten it, and it instantly freezes in position, often assuming the most bizarre poses.

You might spend a lifetime in the forest and only glimpse some of these creatures. Fitzsimons wanted to know what was actually using his forest, so he worked with the Trust for Nature to set up camera traps.

He confirmed the presence of all the above threatened critters, as well as other wildlife including common wombats, black wallabies and ringtail possums.

“It’s been a bit of a revelation finding out what’s living there,” he says. “Some animals that you might never see just walking around are actually relatively abundant.”

Fitzsimons is often involved in large-scale conservation efforts, from designing marine protected areas to evaluating public land uses. Owning the reserve has allowed him the chance to look at conservation from a new perspective.

“Managing this land myself gives me a different view of conservation,” Fitzsimons says. “It makes me appreciate the challenges and opportunities of private land conservation from a landowner’s perspective. There’s something very powerful about ownership and protecting a property in perpetuity. And on top of that, it’s just a great escape for me and my family.”

Check out a slide show featuring the bizarre creatures found on Fitzsimons’ nature reserve.

[Image: A koala. Image source: James Fitzsimons]

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  1. I lived in East Kew from 1984 – 1991. It is so beautiful there. I love all the Australian animals – wombat is my favorite. I have duel citizenship so I can moved back to OZ anytime (If I had the $$$). My father was a veterinarian in Orange County, California – I worked with him for about 12 years.
    Keep up all the great work. When I get back there, I will have to come see your preserve

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