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Having a spring in your…tail

August 10, 2022

On a faunal scale much smaller than dogs and cats, even smaller than mosquitos are six-legged creatures known as Springtails. Even though they have six legs they are not insects because they have internal mouthparts. Insects have external ones. Springtails feed on a variety of foods though most are vegetarians. They are commonly found in leaf litter where they breakdown vegetable matter into nutrients for the soil. They are called springtails because under their bodies is curled a ‘tail’ known as a furcula. When disturbed the furcula explosively hits the ground propelling the creature forward.

There are many different types of Springtails. Last week I came across the broken top of a white-gilled mushroom lying upside down on the ground. After picking it up a rush of red springtails emerged from the gills (pictured above). These are springtails of the order Poduromorpha characterised by an oval shaped plump body, short legs and two noticeable antennae. Red Springtails feed on the spores of fungi. If you look careful at the gills of most mushrooms you will find springtails though not all of them will be red.

Technically these springtails are neither vegetarians or fungivores but are more correctly classed as sporivores – another word for your vocabulary!

Barry, Hiccup and Sticky*

August 5, 2022

When I was growing up in the city the choice of pet was limited to a dog or cat. These days the choices for young folk seem limitless especially if you grow up in a rural area. Take my young friend E.M. as an example. In the past 12 months his range of pets has been quite diverse.

In July of last year EM introduced me to Barry, his pet stick insect, pictured left (a face only a mother could love!). Stick insects are not that uncommon it is just that firstly they are very hard to see given their camouflage and secondly the larger adults are nocturnal due to the sensitivity of their eyes to light. Barry was not caged in anyway but hung around the same area each day and didn’t seem to mind being handled. After a while he (or she) wandered off to do other stick insect things.

Hiccup snug in his home-made pouch

Barry (named after the Tiger in Dr Doolittle?) has soon replaced by Hiccup, a very young Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) joey (pictured right) found abandoned in the bush. Hiccup required 4 hourly feeds of marsupial formula milk. Watching him tumble head first into any pouch-looking bag was worth all the late nights and early mornings. As Hiccup got larger it was positively dangerous to have the pet launch themselves at you so Hiccup went to an establishment that rehabilitated young roos.

Which brings us to the current pets of choice – four Giant Prickly Leaf Insects (Extatosoma tiaratum) pictured left, purchased from a private vendor. Like stick insects they are nocturnal and by day remain camouflaged not by looking like a stick as in stick insects but by resembling leaves. These insects are indigenous to Australia but are found naturally in the warmer climes up north.

I think I still prefer the good ol’ days. For all the exoticness of the aforementioned pets you can’t simply put a lead on them and take them for a walk.

* names still to be decided.

Export opportunity

July 31, 2022

Trying to find fauna to feature in this blog during winter is quite difficult. The only animals that can be relied upon to be around during this time are Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus) that are always up for a family portrait (see below) and unfortunately, Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor).

Family portrait

When I moved into the area nearly two decades ago one never saw deer. They were happily inhabiting more remote places like the Mt Disappointment State Forest. But since the ’09 bushfires when that forest got totally burnt out, Sambar Deer, as well as other species of deer such as Red Deer and Fallow Deer have found good foraging in the valleys and haven’t left.

Sambar Deer are the largest of the feral deer in Australia with the males tipping the scales at 300kg. In my experience they are extremely elusive unlike the kangaroos they share the area with. Very often the only indication that the deer are around, apart from footprints and the ubiquitous tree rubbings is the explosive warning sound they make (called pooking) when you get near. These deer graze on a wide variety of vegetation, so much so that they are listed as a biodiversity threat in Victoria.

Originating in India, China and south-east Asia Sambar Deer were first introduced into Australia in the 1860’s nearby at Mount Sugarloaf in what is now known as Kinglake National Park. In their home ranges overseas they are classed as Endangered due in particular to loss of habitat. So here’s the export opportunity for a budding entrepreneur. Why not export a feral pest from Australia back to where it came from (and remove it from the Endangered list at the same time) and set up the export operation in Kinglake.

There’s something ‘full circle’ about that idea.

Now is the Winter of the Spinebill

July 23, 2022

One of the daintiest, prettiest birds in the garden is the Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorynchus tenuirostris). It is a member of the Honeyeater family and one that, unusually, is more likely to be found in Winter in our district than the warmer months. Like currawongs and robins, they tend to move from higher altitudes and wetter forests out through the valleys, gardens and farmland in the cooler months.

Australia is the home of honeyeaters; they are not found in Asia, Europe or America, only Australia and surrounding islands. This is because our trees produce more nectar than those of other places. We have forests of trees that burst into masses of flowers producing rich honey-like nectar. And these trees – especially Eucalypts and Melaleucas – depend on birds for their pollination. Bird-pollinated plants are exceeding rare in the rest of the world; they are dominant here. And honeyeaters aggressively and noisily defend their patch when trees are in blossom.

The Eastern Spinebill is a specialist feeder on heaths which have tubular flowers, and therefore has the longest, thinnest beak of any honeyeater. The Latin name means ‘spine bill thin beak’. As they probe the flowers for nectar (and the Pink Heath is flowering now) they get daubed with pollen which they pass on to the next flower. You can see pollen on the base of the bird’s beak in the photo. Their loud piping call reminds me of Winter as it echoes through the Yea fog on cold days.

They love to visit native gardens and it is a good thing they do so in Winter, because come Springtime they would be in competition with big bossypants like Red Wattlebirds and New Holland Honeyeaters. When you’re small, dainty and pretty you don’t pick fights with the tough guys.

They’re all around

June 26, 2022

The Rakali (Hydromys chrysogaster) formerly known as the White-tailed Water Rat is more common than many may think. It is their primarily nocturnal nature and inherent shyness that make them less seen than other fauna. Those who have participated in the Strath Creek Landcare Group’s or Yea Wetlands’ Platypus & Rakali Count will know that sightings of this large rat are more common than the ‘sexier’ platypus.

The natural range of the rakali covers most of eastern Australia (excluding the desert regions) and the south west corner of W.A. They live near permanent bodies of water, both fresh water and salt where they feed on crustaceans such as yabbies, fish, frogs, reptiles and birds eggs. They are also efficient scavengers and are known to come into urban areas in search of food.

In the Yea Wetlands at the moment there is a rakali that seems to ignore all the rules by hunting through the billabongs during daylight hours (pictured above left). An even more startling sighting has been this rakali (pictured above) that regularly frequents a bird feeder in the backyard of a house on High Street.

I have always had a philosophical objection to feeding birds but if a bird feeder attracts rakalis…..

Looking his best

June 20, 2022

It stands to reason that the time in the great cycle of life to look your best is during the courtship phase. So it is no surprise that male Wood Ducks (Chenonetta jubata) are at their resplendent best in mid-Winter. Wood ducks are one of the earliest-breeding birds, producing large clutches of very cute ducklings ready to leave the nest the first week of Spring. So this is the time to spruce up and impress the ladies.

Pair of Wood Ducks, male on the right

I have a photo of a wood duck family taken last November, when the male is looking decidedly plain. His bright colours have faded, he has lines around his eyes, the kids are out of control, the mate is nagging for more food – that’s when one loses interest in keeping up appearances.

Male wood duck in faded plumage, Nov 2021

You can see why this species was once known as ‘Maned Goose’. Their bill is more like a goose’s beak rather than a duck-bill, and the male can extend a small but impressive mane.

Male wood duck in fresh, bright plumage showing extended mane, June 2022

Wood ducks breed in tree hollows, often quite a few metres high in a tree. I asked an experienced birder once how they got the ducklings out of the nest-hollow onto the ground, which clearly happens well before they can fly. “They just push them out – they weigh only a few grams and can’t hurt themselves, they flutter down like dry leaves.”

Sometimes the number of ducklings in a family group is incredible. Local photographer Robert Gardiner sent me this incredible photo:

It is probable that like some other ducks, older wiser females get custody of the young from younger parents in a sort of day-care or creche. But that’s a bit of a mystery to ponder for another day.

The surprise to me was seeing how bright the plumage of the males looked today, in the middle of Winter. Fairywren males don’t even turn blue until the start of Spring. It seems that male Wood Ducks are better at planning; they like to get an early start.

The quick and the dead

June 15, 2022

There are some things in the bush that I never get to see properly because they are gone in an instant. At the top of that list are any species of bird with the name ‘quail’ in it – quail, quail-thrush, button-quail, etc. These birds are usually seed eating ground-dwellers that live and nest in long grass. When walking through the bush I often here the whoosh of these ‘quailey-things’ as they burst from the cover of grass only to disappear back into the grass metres away. I never really get to get a good look…unless they turn up dead.

Pictured above is one such creature that turned up dead under my verandah (probably after hitting a window) last week. It is a Painted Button-quail (Turnix varius), a species I have never seen here before. Species of Button-quail are named after their striking markings e.g.  Red-backed, Chestnut-backed , Buff-breasted, etc. The Painted Button-quail is named for the detailed markings on the wings. The scientific name is derived from the Latin coturnix meaning quail (hence not quite a quail) and varius meaning variegated, referring to the many colours.

Button-quail look like but are not related to quail. They differ from quail in that they are missing a hind-toe and crop. Unlike many bird species the female button-quail is larger and more brightly coloured than the male. The nest is a depression in the ground at the base of a rock or tree and lined with grass. It is built by both sexes although it is the male that looks after the eggs, during which time the female will mate with another male.

Who’d have thought. Such risqué behaviour in the backyard.

Flocking Time

June 7, 2022

In the bird world, Autumn is flocking time. Many kinds of birds congregate in flocks in Autumn whereas in Spring and Summer, they are more likely found in pairs or families. It’s now early Winter but there are super-sized flocks still going around.

There is a massive flock of Long-billed Corellas (Cacatua tenuirostris) which roosts at the Yea Wetlands. They turn up towards dusk and the noise is deafening. A friend who had seen a similar flock thought they must nest in vast colonies somewhere, but I was able to point out that flocking is an Autumn-Winter thing. Mating pairs reunite and disperse in Springtime – they are monogamous and mate for life. Then in Summer the parents with their squeaking, demanding young ones hang around in family groups. The whole flock does not breed each year; I think I read that only about 80% breed each year, otherwise there would not be enough nest holes in trees.

This is the time to see murmurations of flocking Starlings (.Sturnus vulgaris). I saw a flock of 25 Straw-necked Ibis (Threskiornis spinikollis), and a feeding flock on a field of Little Ravens (Corvus mellori). Pied Currawongs (Strepera graculina) have built into loose flocks as their numbers in the lowland areas are augmented in the cooler months by altitudinal migration. Even White-winged Choughs (Corcorax melanorhamphos) which are usually in large family groups of 20 or so will form a super flock as I saw one day in Koondrook, consisting of hundreds of birds in a single well-treed paddock.

How does a flock of birds know how to swirl and turn and move together? In Australia, the most legendary flock behaviour is that of Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) whose large flocks are apparently incredible to watch, turning the sky black, with deafening cries and wonderful acrobatics. I have heard anecdotes that when a flock swoops into perch, there are accidents – broken wings, injuries – but in the main we see incredible coordinated movement when birds are in a flock.

How a flock works is a good life lesson:
1. The whole flock needs to know to head in the same general direction
2. Each bird is responsible to keep reasonably close to the neighbouring birds – don’t get isolated
3. At the same time, each bird is responsible not to crowd their neighbour and become a liability, a cause of interference and crashing.

When these 3 rules are followed, the whole group can respond to the skill and imagination of one another, they can navigate crises together (predators such as falcons), they can benefit from shared knowledge of the landscape, they can get where they are going faster and safer.

I hope you can see, I think all these things apply to human communities and groups. Think about it: shared goals, not too close and not too far, watching out for each other, responding to each other.

Flocking is a good way to live. Join a group and follow these rules.

The toll of the Bell Miner

May 27, 2022

Everyone used to love the tinkling call of the Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys), known colloquially as ‘bell birds’. Then word got out about studies that showed they could be a problem in the landscape and they became dreaded more than prized.

Beautiful but heard more than seen, Bell Miner –
Photo: Robert Gardiner

Bell Miners live in fairly large colonies and nest, feed and play in the one area, which they patrol thoroughly, chasing out any pardalote or honeyeater that chances into their territory. And that is the problem: their elimination of the other birds allows certain pests and parasites of eucalypt trees to get a free pass, causing trees within a Bell Miner colonial area to suffer from ‘dieback’ because the predators of the leaf-eaters are kept out. It is called BMAD (Bell Miner Associated Dieback). For instance, lerps are a favourite food of Bell Miners but they never predate the psyllid which produces the lerp, so the psyllids proliferate and cause widespread leaf browning because the pardalotes and Shriketits that might eat them are unable to enter.

When I first came to Yea in 2012, a busy Bell Miner colony around Cummins Lagoon in Yea Wetlands was a guaranteed presence on every visit, yet people told me they had only arrived there after the 2009 fires. It was a perfect site for a Bell Miner colony – they like to be near water and have large trees to patrol. But suddenly, one day, the colony disappeared.

It was about 5 years ago, and they did not move far. They can be heard now, tinkling beautifully down at the Caravan Park where Miller St joins the Melba Highway. It is a distance of only 800m perhaps but since then I have never heard a Bell Miner in Yea Wetlands.

I know of several other stream-side colonies in the district; there is no shortage of these aggressive birds, although they remain confined to their colonial territory. Interestingly, the colonies I have observed in the district have not caused the alleged tree damage for which they have been maligned. The suggestion has been offered that where there is a healthy understorey, it is harder for the miners to keep everyone else out.

So I don’t regret the existence of Bell Miner colonies in our district. Their unforgettable bell-like notes toll clear and beautiful across the landscape. We would be depleted if their story was un-tolled.

The enemy within

May 13, 2022

Last week after two years and six postponed dates the Spider presentation finally happened. The talk contained many examples of spiders as predators: building webs, ambushing prey. But spiders don’t always get things their own way. They are an integral part of the food chain which means they are often ‘the hunted’. One of the photos shown (pictured left) taken by JB from Limestone shows the insides of a mud wasp nest that had been accidently knocked off a wall. The nest contained several paralysed spiders placed there by the adult wasp. On these spiders eggs had been laid with the intent that when the wasp larvae hatch the spiders would provide fresh food. On one of the spiders you can even see a wasp larva.

I thought that was as gruesome as the night would get until in a discussion after the talk with another JB (from Killingworth) photos and a video were revealed showing a Redback Spider (Latrodectus hasseltii) walking on a carpet (pictured right). When squashed the spider erupted into a ball of writhing worms (pictured below). Alien eat your heart out!

The worms are endoparasitic Mermithid Worms. The worms enter the spider directly or through what the spider eats and they proceed to feed on the internals of the spider without killing it.  The spider becomes more and more debilitated until the worms burst out of the body and the spider dies. Because in the final stage of the worms’ lives they are aquatic, before the spider dies the worms induce thirst in the host so that the spider will head towards water. That is probably where the hapless arachnid was going on its trip across the carpet.

I’m not going to upload the video but no sci-fi movie comes close to what happens in nature.