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Frog ID

September 27, 2022

It has been a wonderful experience to learn the calls of local frogs. I’ve been late coming to this bank of information and I’ve been surprised that it is not that difficult. The FrogID app on my phone is a doorway into this wonderful world. It lists the frogs you may find in an area and each one is given a handful of photos, a full description and a handful of sound recordings. What is even more amazing, is that when a frog is calling in the wild, I push a button to record the call, submit it and in a week or two, get an email telling me what frog is in my recording. The work of Australia’s most enthusiastic frogger Jodi Rowley from Australia University seems to be driving this fantastic resource.

Reading through the archive of this Focus on Fauna blog, there are many references to the Plains Brown Tree Frog (Litoria paraewingi) now called Victorian Tree Frog. It has been pointed out that a. it is very difficult to distinguish from the Brown Tree Frog (Litoria ewingii) and b. that the two do not live in the same area and it is hard to tell which one lives in our area – the distribution maps meet around here somewhere.

So I picked up this fellow struggling through wet grass and wondered which one it might be. Is it L. ewingi or L. paraewingi?

The museum site says you cannot distinguish between the two species on appearance; they are both variable and have the same markings. They can be greenish, brown, cream, tan, or grey and the markings can be bold or faint. They both boast a black stripe from snout to shoulder with a smart white outline below, but it can be faint. The way you tell them apart is by the call; though both can be described as creee-cree-cree, – one (L. ewingii)is quicker and shorter than the other (L. paraewingi).

I can confidently declare it is a Victorian Tree Frog (Litoria paraewingi) – formerly the Plains Brown T.F.

My reasons are that it looks very much like one of the photos on the app and is very small – L. paraewingi tends to be smaller. But the main reason is that I have sent off several recordings to Jodi Rowley of tree frogs calling in the area and they all came back as L. paraewingi, Victorian Tree Frog. Since the two species do not co-exist in the one area, any small tree frog we find is sure to be that.

Don’t thank me, thank Jodi.

A recording of L.Paraewingi, Victorian Tree Frog

Family truths exposed

September 15, 2022

Traveling around the district on my daily cycle ride gives me the opportunity to photograph some amazing fauna but sometimes one comes across a tragic sight (pictured below left), a wombat with mange. Mange is caused by the parasitic mite Sarcoptes scabiei. The female mite burrows under the skin of the host and lays eggs. When the eggs hatch it causes extreme discomfort. In humans this is called scabies.

Parasitic mites were thought to have been introduced to Australia from Europe on the livestock of the first settlers. In addition to wombats mange is known to affect wallabies, koalas, ring-tailed possums and bandicoots. Wombats seem to be the most affected because their burrows provide good conditions (cool and humid) for the survival of the mite if it doesn’t have a host. In addition wombats with overlapping territories are known to share burrows making mite transfer between animals easy.

 Successive generations of mites cause thickening of the skin and hair loss in the host. Excessive scratching by the animal then results in open wounds and the possibility of secondary infection (see photo above). In severe cases mange can cause the death of the animal. Unfortunately there is no method to eliminate these mites in the wild although individual animals can be treated with chemicals such as moxydectin.

Not to trivialise the mitey problem that mange creates in the wombat community, when I was a child I had (like most kids) an inseparable toy. Mine was a koala called Ted (I was not known for my originality), pictured right. My mum always told me that Ted was in the state he was in because I’d ‘loved all the fur off him’. I now suspect that Ted had mange. Another family myth exploded!

Leaf Attack

September 12, 2022

Many folk have noted the large number of gum trees with significant die-back characterised by brown or missing leaves around the district at the moment. In the main this damage is caused by lerps, a parasite on eucalypt leaves that Ron Litjens has often written about with graphic photos and explanations on this blog.

Typical tree suffering dieback
Lerps on a eucalypt leaf and the damage they cause

People ask, will the trees recover? And the answer usually given is that this is a natural cycle and predators will increase to counter the abundance of lerps. However, we have created widespread landscape alteration and the natural predators of leaf-eaters may not be in sufficient abundance. In the 1980’s thousands of mature majestic eucalypts perished from dieback in New England, NSW, and the immediate cause identified was an abundance of Christmas Beetles, but the deeper cause was the continual attack on landscape integrity with removal of understorey plants, superphosphate-fed pastures and absence of habitat for the natural predators. This is a grim warning that they don’t always recover.

It is fascinating to note that the lerps are very selective: River Red Gums (E. camaldulensis) are badly inundated but right beside them will be a stand of Grey Box (E. microcarpa) with no lerps at all.

Another cause of defoliation is that this is an incredible year for Spitfires. I was sent a video of an inundation in a home garden of which this is an extract. These larvae of Sawflies (Perga spp) can defoliate a tree in short time, and in this garden, there were huge mounds and armies of them on trees, grass, fenceposts, in nightmarish numbers, worthy of a Hitchcock horror movie.

What can be done about them? There are natural predators – some hardy birds eat them, some stink bugs suck them, some beetles eat the pupae, some wasps parasitise them, but it takes a while for any balance to be restored. Trees usually recover but it may take a year or two.

Or we could leave home and live in a concrete high-rise in the city where nature will not be able to impact us!!

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.