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One week early

September 8, 2022

The first warm day heading into Spring last weekend saw a flurry of activity in the tops of the young eucalypts I have growing on the property. The insects looked like flies but on closer examination they turned out to be tiny beetles – Swarming Scarabs.

Swarming Scarabs is the common name given to small beetles from the genera – Automolus sp. (active during daylight hours) and Lipartrus sp. (mostly active at night). They are about 4 – 5mm long and are generally brown in colour and when the time is right they turn up in large numbers to feed. What they feed on is the leaves of eucalyptus trees and in particular the tiny fresh shoots that appear at the top of the plant. These beetle swarms can do extensive damage to young eucalypt plantations causing dieback of the young shoots and defoliation of the tree.

In the numbers I saw I’m not too concerned for my trees. We have an agreement. They are allowed to eat 5% of the vegetation.

P.S. And don’t think I didn’t notice those pesky aphids in one photo, sucking the sap out of the new growth

Real Estate for Pardalotes

September 2, 2022

My shed, I admit, is very messy. But for nature, sometimes messy is good. Today I walked into my shed and was confronted by a pair of Spotted Pardalotes (Pardalotus punctatus) looking for a nesting site. I drew my phone from my pocket and started snapping.

The male sat on a plastic tray full of bolts and occasionally chirrupped some encouragement.

Male Spotted Pardalote has yellow throat

The female went exploring.

This time of year pardalotes are roaming around in pairs checking out all manner of holes and crannies and objects. Typically, the Spotted pardalote digs a burrow or tunnel in soft dirt or sand; the Striated pardalote looks for a tube or pipe or tunnel. It annoys me because I have erected 3 Pardalote nest tubes and they never look at them. In the past I have mounted them and had the delight of watching busy Pardalote families thrive in them – but only Striated pardalotes. My provision would not please the birds I encountered today. They would be happier if I had a dump of firm sand in the yard. They left.

Pardalote Nesting Tube

A cardboard tube with a piece of ply glued to each end, and a 25mm hole drilled in the front one – small enough to keep out sparrows. Works perfectly for Striated Pardalotes – sometimes. I have yet to meet the right tenant for this one.

Maybe my environment is a bit too messy? I promise to declutter for next year.

I can dig that sound

August 26, 2022

Mole crickets (Gryllotalpa sp.) are insects that spend most of their lives underground in a system of tunnels. They have been described as the platypus of the insect world because of the many disparate parts to their bodies. A mole cricket is equipped with shovel-like front legs that it uses to quickly burrow through soil. Although a cricket the back legs are not designed to jump but to push earth aside. The shovels, head and thorax are ‘armour-plated’ (see picture above) to protect it underground. The abdomen is soft and ends with a pair of cerci, appendages that serve as sensory organs (pictured below right).

Most mole crickets are herbivores eating the roots of grasses and other plants. In some areas they are regarded as pests, such is the damage that they do to the roots of lawns. The male mole cricket does not fly. To get a mate it needs to signal a female mole cricket flying by with the hope of attracting its attention. It does this by rubbing its upper wings against the lower wings. The sound delivered is almost a pure tone.

To make the sound louder (and therefore make itself more attractive to any passing females) the male cricket constructs a specially designed tunnel. It is perfectly smooth inside and flared much in the way a loudspeaker or trumpet is. This shape maximises the efficiency with which soundwaves from the cricket are transferred to the air. The process is so efficient that on those summer nights when you hear insects chirping in your garden the mole cricket sound is by far the loudest, reaching over 90 decibels.

That loud night-time chorus I can dig which is exactly what the mole cricket had to do to get that sound.

A grim reality

August 20, 2022

After kangaroos, the Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) is probably the most commonly seen marsupial in this area. Unfortunately that is because they are most often seen dead on the side of the road after having been hit by a vehicle.

Wombats are nocturnal (active at night) and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) so are not often seen. However evidence of their existence is all around. Wombats build extensive burrow systems that they are continually renovating. Throughout the landscape there are many holes in the ground with fresh piles of dirt outside. They also regularly damage fences by digging under them or pushing through them. Most distinctively wombats have cubic shaped poo.

Their short stature and dark coloured fur make wombats particularly hard to see after dark especially against a dark road surface. Dead animals are often found on bends in the road where the headlights of cars tend to be shining off the side of the road and by the time the wombat is lit up by them it is too late.

And so we come to last night. Driving from Yea to Flowerdale I passed three new carcasses on the road. Such is the rate of wombat deaths in our area that unfortunately I am almost immune to the sight and the carnage hardly registers but last night I came across the scene of a dead adult wombat and several metres up the road a dead joey (baby wombat). It had obviously escaped the pouch and wandered off up the road only to be hit by another car.

I removed the animal from the road and carefully placed it in the roadside bush.

I am happy to say the memory still disturbs me.

When the Gang drops by

August 15, 2022

It is always a joy when the ‘creaky-door’ call of the Gang-gang (Callocephalon fimbriatum) rings out as they make their smooth undulating flight across the valley. The male has a bright red head while the female is all grey with subtly wonderful flecking.

They don’t ‘live’ around the valleys because they prefer a tall forest to nest in. They are consequently more likely to visit in Autumn or Winter when breeding is complete. I have seen them eating hawthorn berries along the rail trail, and they eat lots of seeds from eucalypts, wattles and acacias which brings them to some heavy-fruiting gums and wattles in streets and gardens around the district.

The gang-gang is always a welcome visitor to our area and every year we see small flocks several times, but in other parts of its range it is increasingly endangered. They estimate that the 2019-2020 fires in Victoria, Canberra and NSW destroyed 18% of their habitat. In March 2022, it was declared to be an Endangered species in Australia on the recommendation of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. That’s pretty serious; the next step is Critically Endangered and then Presumed Extinct.

When the gang-gangs come to town, you see them fly from tall gum tree to tall gum tree. The homeowners who hate gum trees and cut them down to replace them with ornamental pears or fast-growing pittosporums are rendering their area less attractive to gang-gangs – and most other native birds.

They are more shy than aggressive; I have never seen a Gang-gang gang gang up on other birds. Co-existence is preferred.

Photos by Chris Rowney, Warragul
Female Gang-gang

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…..