Saturday, 30 April 2016

Suburb Guide: Alexandra Headland

Pale-lined tropical rock crabs (Grapsus albolineatus) are a common sight on the rock platform below the headland.

The Sunshine Coast is a place that abounds with natural beauty, so for Alexandra Headland to be as special as it is really says something! Bordered by the limelight-stealing suburbs of Mooloolaba, Maroochydore and peaceful Buderim, Alex Heads—as it is often called by those acquainted with its charm—nevertheless easily holds its own against these places. 

Featured areas: (1) Alexandra Headland Beach, (2) Alexandra Headland / 'The Bluff',
(3) Suburban Alexandra Headland, (4) Nelson Park,
and (5) Alex Forest Bushland Park. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
As is the case along the entire stretch of the Sunshine Coast, development is occurring thick and fast at Alex Heads, but a few precious places have been preserved within the suburb that offer a wild escape. Being situated by the ocean, a variety of wildlife habitats exist, such as dune ecosystems, a rocky intertidal reef, coastal woodland and a small patch of wet eucalypt forest. The latter would have been more extensive pre-European settlement, as evidenced by the Indigenous name for the beach—Wongothin—which refers to a species of forest pigeon no longer found in the area. Also absent are many of the Undanbi people themselves; despite having lived in the area for upwards of 20,000 years, they were forcibly moved on to an Aboriginal reserve at Cherboug in the late 19th and early 20th century, along with many more of their southern Queensland and northern New South Wales kin.

Today, Alex Heads plays host to many local, interstate and international tourists who come to stay in the beachside apartment towers that line Alexandra Parade, and it is also home to a resident population of almost 4,000 people. The first place this suburb guide will take a look is undoubtedly the main focal point for many of these people: the swimming beach.

Alexandra Headland Beach, looking north with Maroochydore and Mount Coolum in the distance.

1. Alexandra Headland Beach
One thing that the Sunshine Coast has arguably managed to do better than the Gold Coast is retain the dune vegetation behind its beaches (though the Gold Coast is catching up with some excellent revegetation projects). Alex Heads beach is no exception, and entry is gained through short tracks past tangled cotton trees (Hibiscus tiliaceus) and beach morning-glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae) vines. Of course the most common creature you are likely to see on the beach is the ubiquitous silver gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae), but keep an eye out in the winter months for gannets (Morus serrator) making impressive mid-air dives into the water just beyond the breakers. Winter is also when schools of tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix) migrate around the headland and along the beach at Alex Heads, drawing in recreational fisherman; recent years have seen a sharp decline in this species on the Sunshine Coast however.

An osprey at its favourite feeding perch at the base of the headlands.

Rocky intertidal reef.
2. Alexandra Headland (‘The Bluff’)
An iconic Sunshine Coast landmark, Alexandra Headland was named after Queen Alexandra at the turn of the 20th century. Before that, European settlers had known it as Potts Point, and now, for those who huff-and-puff their way up each side of the headland, it occasionally goes by the name of ‘The Bluff’. Such exercise is particularly worthwhile in the winter months, as humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) can be seen from the top of the headland as they make their way to and from their Coral Sea birthing grounds.

The headland is cloaked in thick vegetation, including native coast banksias (Banksia integrifolia) and pandanus (Pandanus tectorius) trees. Some adjacent residents in the past have taken great umbrage to the view-obscuring nature of such trees and have poisoned them; brilliantly, this has been met with the decision to plant many more trees at this location and turn it into a conservation area. The dense, well-watered habitat offers refuge to a variety of reptiles, including lively rainbow-skinks (Carlia vivax), Burton’s snake-lizards (Lialis burtonis) and eastern water dragons (Intellagama lesueurii).

Black sea cucumber, posterior view.
The rock platform at the base of the cliffs below offers some thrilling wildlife experiences. A pair of ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) that breed nearby at Mooloolaba incorporate the headlands into their territory, and there is one particular dead branch by the rockpools that is frequently used as a feeding perch by them. The rockpools themselves are teeming with fascinating sea life, including large, conspicuous black sea cucumbers (Holothuria atra) that move slowly through the water. Keep in mind that some of the creatures you may encounter are armed and can defend themselves; with a variety of cone shells (Conus species) abounding here for example, it’s best to employ a ‘no touching’ policy for rockpool exploration. Preying upon these small animals are a few regionally uncommon birds that are nevertheless seen quite regularly at Alex Heads, including the eastern reef egret (Egretta sancta) and wandering tattler (Tringa incana), the latter best seen in summer.

A Hebrew cone (Conus ebraeus) cruises past a pair of yellow-footed hermit crabs (Clibanarius virescens).

Admiralty Drive streetscape.
3. Suburban Alexandra Headlands
Behind the highrises lining the beachfront at Alexandra Headland are quiet suburban streets filled with very large, beautiful homes. Unfortunately, like so many ‘modern’ suburbs nowadays, the streetscape and gardens of the area are largely dominated by exotic palms like the golden cane (Dypsis lutescens) and majestic palms (Ravenea rivularis). These plants—both from Madagascar—fail to provide much food and shelter for our Australian wildlife, and meet the needs of only our toughest, least-choosy creatures like rainbow lorikeets (Trichoglossus moluccanus) and brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula). A surprising find for me, however, was a purple swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus) feeding in front of the only house along the entire street that had let its kerbside lawn grow a little raggedy. Current landscaping principles seem to lean toward an aesthetic of neatness, environmental control and formal presentation, but my swamphen sighting was a good reminder that, actually, nature often thrives best among a little bit of ‘chaos’.

Purple swamphen feeding on grass seeds.

Australasian darter and Australian
white ibis (Threskiornis molucca).
4. Nelson Park
Located just behind the beachfront, Nelson Park contains a large, ornamental lagoon, bordered by a community garden, BBQ area and playground. The waterbody is heavily vegetated with water snowflakes (Nymphoides indica) and salvinia (Salvinia molesta), the latter being a Class 2 environmental weed that the council is required to control. A variety of waterbirds are at home here, including handsome Australasian darters (Anhinga novaehollandiae) and black swans (Cygnus atratus), but rare visitors like the wandering whistling-duck (Dendrocygna arcuata) occasionally drop by. Of high value is an island at the southern end of the lagoon which is covered in broad-leaved paperbarks (Melaleuca quinquenervia); this is a safe roosting site for waterbirds—including the swamphens that roam through the suburb—that cats, dogs and foxes can’t reach. Bush birds like the willie wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) and olive-backed oriole (Oriolus sagittatus) also frequent these trees.

Nelson Park lagoon, including the paperbark island.

Bar-sided skink (Eulamprus tenuis) in the cabbage tree palm forest.
5. Alex Forest Bushland Park
Just six hectares in size, Alex Forest Bushland Park is nevertheless a truly special place. The park’s main attraction is a grove of native cabbage tree palms (Livistona australis) that has the ability to transport you out of suburbia and into an incredibly lush paradise. The acoustics change suddenly among the dense trees also, so that the calls of pied currawongs (Strepera graculina) and Australasian figbirds (Sphecotheres vieilloti) fill the air in a way not possible out on the nearby road. For those who are curious about the identities of other trees in the reserve, many of them have been signposted, including one of my favourite Sunshine Coast specialities, the turpentine (Syncarpia glomulifera). This tiny fragment of coastal wet eucalypt forest is a relic of what would have once-upon-a-time existed much more widely across the Sunshine Coast, and accordingly, Alex Forest is utilised by some animals that are now quite rare in the region. Particularly of note are the grey goshawks (Accipiter novaehollandiae) that are occasionally recorded at this site, as well as the recent find of a long-nosed potoroo (Potourus tridactylus) skull from a neighbouring street. This gorgeous marsupial is listed nationally as a Vulnerable species, so it is important that nearby residents are driving with care and keeping their pets inside at night, as well as using a leash when walking dogs through the reserve. Both human and non-human users of this significant location owe a debt of gratitude to the group of Sunshine Coast conservationists who have fought to preserve it, including Alex Forest Conservation Association President Dianne Thistlethwait.

Cabbage tree palm forest, Alex Forest Bushland Park.

For more information on Alexandra Headland, please visit the excellent website created by the Alexandra Headland Community Association, who can also be found on Facebook.