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Here’s the scoop

July 25, 2017

If you want your fix of monsters you do not have to spend twenty bucks at the movies. All you have to do is spend an afternoon with Kirsten from Waterwatch to get alien looking lifeforms that you never thought possible. And they are all living under the surface of your nearest stream or pond.

I love terrestrial insects. Their outlandish forms and bizarre lives provide endless hours of fascination. But the mere scoop of a net through the reeds and mud of the King Parrot Creek will reveal, arguably, even stranger creatures – very often the young of the insects that so enthrall me.

From a recent primary school outing I reported an activity to search for terrestrial invertebrates (Rock and Rolling) that turned up a large number of scorpions. At the same event Kirsten, having scooped our local waterway was showing off some of the aquatic invertebrates.

The stick-insect-looking creature (pictured above) is a Needle Bug. Needle Bugs are found in a wide range of waterbodies and breathe through a long ‘snorkel’ that extends from the abdomen to above the water surface (see photo). They are ‘sit and wait’ predators that are well camouflaged in underwater vegetation. When prey swims by they grab it with their two front legs, stab it with their proboscis, injecting dissolving enzymes and then suck out the resultant ‘soup’. Who needs to watch Alien.

Despite its ferocious appearance the mayfly nymph (family Coloburiscidae) pictured right is a more benign critter. These genera of mayfly nymph live in cool, fast flowing water. They are herbivores, using the fine hairs on their forelegs and jaws to trap organic particles. Mayflies spend the majority (6 months to 2 years) of their lives in the nymphal stage. The adult insect (featured earlier this year) has a lifespan measured in hours.

Here’s the scoop – if you want to find these creatures yourself just take the kitchen strainer and drag it through the creek. Just don’t tell Mum.

Fox on the run

July 18, 2017

Anyone missing a hen?

Following the national release of the RHDV1 K5 virus in March, rabbit numbers are expected to be greatly reduced, perhaps by as much as 40% or more. As rabbits form a significant part of the diet of the Red Fox, hungry foxes are going to be searching for alternative prey and guess what will be in their sights? – native wildlife! – many species of which are already under threat from habitat loss and fragmentation as well as other pressures. Of particular concern are threatened and locally significant species such as Long-nosed Bandicoot, Superb Lyrebird, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Striped Legless Lizard and Spotted Quail-thrush. This was part of the motivation for establishing the King Parrot Catchment Fox Control Project (KPCFCP).

To assess the extent of the fox problem, a remote camera monitoring program was run in March/April. Cameras were deployed at about 40 sites over a 3-week period and almost all recorded foxes, often with multiple sightings. Some of the recorded images are shown here. To see the the prevalence of fox sightings in the King Parrot Creek area go to the FeralScan website and then zoom in to the Kinglake to Strath Creek region.

One aim of this project is to coordinate fox eradication action by all parties interested in maintaining the natural environment and protecting both native species and livestock. Action will take various forms as appropriate or acceptable to participants, including monitoring, baiting, soft-jaw trapping, shooting and den fumigation.

If you’re interested in joining, or learning more about, this project, please contact Chris Cobern on 0413 855 490 or by email at ugln.projects@ugln.net

Honeyeater HQ

July 13, 2017

None of the local plants on the hill are flowering at the moment.  Some of the feral invaders though are putting on a mighty show, in particular the Flinders Range Wattle (Acacia iteaphylla) and the Pincushion Hakea (Hakea laurina). It is the latter plant, with its branches laden with nectar-rich spherical flowers that is attracting all the honeyeaters in town (& country).

You don’t need to know where the trees are located to get an idea of where the birds are. The raucous territorial cries of the Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata), left, can be heard from a long way away. They are of course warning other wattlebirds that this is their feeding spot. And whilst the wattlebirds beat each other up, smaller honeyeaters like the New Holland Honeyeater  (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae), right, and the Eastern Spinebill duck in and out of the trees to have their fill of nectar.

Pretty soon the hakea show will be over, the local acacias will take over and the honeyeaters will disperse across the landscape.

I’ll sit here at Honeyeater HQ whilst the show lasts.

When rock and roll turns dangerous

June 30, 2017

I recently had the opportunity to escort some primary school students through the bush on an exercise to (carefully!) roll over logs and see what invertebrates we could find underneath. Naturally changing the name of the activity to Rock and Rolling was far more exciting.

The wish when doing these activities is to find things which will keep the kids engaged for the duration of the exercise. The first log turned revealed a large female Wolf Spider and its diminutive male partner. This discovery was accompanied by much screaming and yelling and a general rush in the backward direction although a hardy few got down on their hands and knees to take pictures with their i-Phones of the less than happy couple.

Subsequent logs revealed millipedes and Darkling Beetles (boring!)  – their words not mine. The discovery of a 5cm long centipede revved up the interest again. It was not until the last 5 minutes that we ventured up a rocky slope with very little fallen timber. The first rock rolled revealed a decent sized scorpion, pictured below.  I was reliably informed by Eamon, who has previously featured in this blog, that it was a Black Rock Scorpion (Urodacus manicatus).

These creatures excavate tunnels under rocks and come to the surface to feed on all the boring insects we had previously seen – beetles, spiders, millipedes, etc. Their sting although not deadly to humans causes considerable pain and swelling.

My job was done. We found a creature that would be the subject of conversations for a least the bus ride home. Each rock we rolled revealed a scorpion hidden underneath, quite extraordinary. And as the excitement ramped up, every kid wanted to find their own scorpion. My job now changed from keeping the students engaged to curbing their natural and macabre interest in all things poisonous.

At days end I had seen more scorpions than I had collectively seen in my whole life…and a new found respect for teachers.

No animals were hurt in obtaining this story.

All the leaves are brown…

June 26, 2017

And the sky is grey – are the starting lyrics of the Mamas and the Papas hit, California Dreamin and are certainly apt descriptors of conditions so far this winter in the King Parrot Creek valley. However it is not just the deciduous trees sporting brown leaves. Unusually, the leaves of a lot of eucalypts are brown too, particularly those of the River Red Gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).

A close look at the gum leaves will reveal that they are covered in off-white scallop-like structures. These are called lace or basket lerps (Cardiaspina sp.), shown below left in close up. They are the sugar-rich secretions from the nymphs of insects known as psyllids. Psyllids and their nymphs are sap sucking insects. They suck sap from eucalypt leaves to extract the protein on which they live. The remaining sugary waste is eliminated from their body and forms a protective cover under which the nymph lives. If you look closely at the photo (below right) you can just make out the form of the brown psyllid nymph under the lerp. There are many different types of psyllids and therefore lerp structures. Other lerps may take the form of sugar cones or even fairy floss.

In normal circumstances the nymphs cause a red/purple discoloration of the leaf (see picture right) and/or dead brown patches. However severe infestations of nymphs, as we are seeing in the valley this season, can result in severe browning of the foliage, defoliation of trees and sometimes dieback. It rarely results in the death of the tree. Natural predators of the psyllids, which include other insects and birds such as Pardalotes and Bell Miners obviously cannot control the sheer number of psyllids this season.

The common misconception is that the brown foliage is not due to psyllids but to water stress in the gum tree. If you hear that said, tell them they’re dreaming – Flowerdale Dreamin.

A new pest?

June 19, 2017

Here’s a mystery – four of these slugs (see pictures) turned up on our back doorstep a few days ago and they appear to be Black Slugs, also known as Black Arion, Arion ater, although at about 3.5cm long, they were considerably smaller than the reported size at maturity of up to 15cm, or even longer! The mystery is: how did they get there?

They are an introduced species native to Europe and, according to Museums Victoria, as recently as 2009 they were not considered to be established in Australia. However, since then they seem to have popped up, sometimes in large numbers, in various places in Victoria and around Sydney and Adelaide. The Atlas of Living Australia has 29 records on its data base.

The Black Slug has no natural predators in Australia and has the potential to be a highly invasive pest. They can reproduce rapidly under favourable conditions. They are hermaphrodites and each partner in a mating pair can produce fertile eggs, up to 150 in a clutch.

In the UK, this slug is considered either as a garden pest or as an important component of woodland ground fauna, depending on what perspective is taken. Its omnivorous diet includes leaves, stems, dead animal or plant matter, earthworms and fungi. Its effect on our natural environment is unknown, but it does present a risk to seedlings and crops.

We would be interested to hear of any other local sightings of this slug. If you do find one, be aware that the slime should be avoided – use gloves when disposing of it.

Since we haven’t imported any garden soil or pot plants recently, the mystery remains as to how they arrived!

So that’s how it does it

June 12, 2017

Long time readers of this blog will recognise, in the photo below, the nest-box and the critter loitering in the entrance. Every June/July for the past five or so years an Australian Owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles cristatus), pictured, roosts for several weeks in this nest-box near our house.  The smallest of Australia’s nocturnal birds it is extremely curious and if we happen to walk past the nest-box during the day it immediately pokes its head out of the entrance to see what is going on.1-DSCN4629

The nest-box in question is built for a Rosella (so the guides tell me). It is much deeper than it is wide. I also have in trees near the house two Owlet-nightjar nest-boxes which are much wider than they are deep but nothing has ever inhabited them. I have often wondered how the Owlet-nightjar could sit looking out of the nest-box opening for long periods of time. I assumed that it had feet like a White-throated Treecreeper.

White-throated Treecreeper (Cormobates leucophaea)The White-throated Treecreeper (Cormobates leucophaea) spends its life scaling the trunks of trees looking under bark for the insects on which it feeds. A look at the photo (right) shows that the toes are particularly large compared to the size of the body, perfectly adapted for the task of cling to vertical surfaces. In addition, their legs and feet are controlled by special tendons so that when a bird bends its legs the feet automatically close. In this way the treecreeper can sleep whilst attached to vertical surfaces. The photo below shows a treecreeper that often sleeps under the eaves of our house.

white throated treecreeper DSCN2109But a careful look at the ONJ photo shows its feet (with little toes) gripping the opening of the nest-box. Evidently it does not have the feet/toe locking mechanism of the treecreeper but in an effort to check out the neighbours simply perches on the edge of the nest-box entrance and crams its body through the opening.

Being a busy-body comes at a cost.