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Don’t mind me

January 7, 2020

Venturing outside in the mid-afternoon heat last Friday with the temperature over 35°C I noticed a Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) waddling along, as they do, occasionally stopping to search for food. It meandered towards me and eventually clambered over one of my boots and then, after a sniff or two, over the other. Clearly there was nothing of interest there, so it continued on its way.

This encounter got me thinking about what a truly amazing animal the echidna is, and wondering how it would cope with climate change and, more immediately, with the catastrophic fires raging at present.

A quick search through reference books and on the internet revealed a surprising number of features unique to the Short-beaked Echidna, many of which help it to be a long-term survivor. In fact the fossil record shows it to be little changed from its Pleistocene era ancestors.

A few of its characteristics:
• unfussy as to habitat, as long as there is an ample food supply (predominantly ants and termites) and some shelter, it is found from sea level up to alpine altitudes and over pretty much the whole of Australia in a wide range of vegetation communities
• it can lower its metabolic rate and undergo torpor or hibernation for extended periods, allowing it to survive extreme cold, drought, floods and food shortages
• in bushfires it can dig down to about 1 metre and go into torpor, where it survives due to its tolerance of high carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels
• it is also a good swimmer and if necessary can dive deep
• it has the effective defensive mechanism of curling itself into a partly buried ball, due to its short flexible spine
• it is long-lived, sometimes up to 50 years in captivity.

Some other physical attributes are:
• it has fur between its spines and on its underside, the fur being longer in cooler climes, almost obscuring the spines in Tasmania – one piece of trivia related to its fur is that it can be infested with the world’s largest flea
• it does not have the ability to sweat and doesn’t pant, which helps avoid dehydration, but means it reportedly does not handle heat well (tell that to our echidna – out in the searing heat!)
• the male echidna has internal testes and an unusual penis with four knobs on the tip, while the female has a milk patch to feed the young which is called a puggle
• on each rear leg, the male has a small spur which, unlike the Platypus, is not venomous
• while it has poor eyesight, its eyes are well-protected by a hardened flat surface so they don’t get irritated by ants or impaled by sticks or its own spines
• it detects prey by smell receptors on its snout and possibly also by hearing
• it has a very long sticky tongue that can move very rapidly – the echidna’s generic name Tachyglossus translates as “quick tongue”
• and of course the feature that confounded early explorers and naturalists was that it lays eggs – a single soft-shelled egg laid into its backward-facing pouch.

Having apparently coped well with the extensive changes to the landscape that followed European occupation, the Short-beaked Echidna will hopefully be versatile enough to take climate change in its stride (or should that be waddle?).

Script revision needed

January 5, 2020

One of the presentations I deliver is entitled ‘Faunascaping Your Garden’ and describes simple things one can do to increase the number and diversity of animals in your patch. It comes with several caveats. You may have the best garden in the world but can fauna get there (is there a bio-link)? If there is a species you want to attract, is it local to the area? You won’t see an Andean Condor perched in a tree in Strath Creek!

One of the examples I give of managing your expectations is the Blue-faced Honeyeater (Entomyzon cyanotis), pictured left, photographed in Euroa. I love this bird because the colour blue is rare in nature and this bird is flaunting it loud and proud. As much as I would love this bird in my garden and might plant the right flora to attract it, the Blue-faced Honeyeater is rarely seen south and east of the Strathbogies. In fact I have never seen it in our area. Until now.

Whilst weeding the vegie patch I heard a bird call unusual for this area and looking up there was a juvenile Blue-faced Honeyeater in the tree above, pictured right and below. The green patch around its eye is bare skin and is indicative of the age of the bird. Young birds have yellow skin around the eye which turns green after six months. This skin turns blue after about 16 months.

The dry conditions on our continent in recent times has meant that fauna are moving outside of their normal distribution zones often in the search for water, or have the changes made to my garden in recent times actually enticed this bird in? Or has this species always been in the garden but I’ve never noticed it?

Either way this recent sighting means that a script revision is needed for my talk.

Different species, same story

December 31, 2019

Last year I blogged about watching Grey Fantails (Rhipidura albiscapa) build a nest in the vines outside the kitchen window. This year they have not returned but my ‘neighbour’ Corrine has had a pair of Willie Wagtails (Rhipidura leucophrys), pictured left, nesting in a tree next to her house and I have been gaining vicarious pleasure from listening to the reports of their progress. The scientific name is derived from the Greek words rhipis (fan), oura (tail), leukos (white) and ophrus (eyebrow) – a ‘white-eyebrowed fantail’.

Willy Wagtails inhabit most areas except dense forest. In 15 years we have never observed them on our bush block though they are plentiful in the neighbour’s paddocks. The birds are aggressive and territorial and are one of those you see harassing eagles and the like to protect their territory. Like Fantail nests, Wagtail nests are built of grass and bark held together with spider web and lined with animal fur. They do not however have the wine-glass shape. This nest in question was in a citrus tree 2 metres above the ground.

Last night an SMS accompanied with a photo, see picture right, proclaimed that two chicks had hatched and that I was invited to come around and take some photos with a ‘proper’ camera which I duly did. The resulting photograph (left) revealed an empty nest. Known predators include feral cats (unlikely), rats (maybe) or Pied Currawongs (most likely). Nature is nature!

Same story as last year, different bird.


The deal

December 28, 2019

On Xmas arvo Mac and I were sitting at the dam in Flowerdale – well Mac was laying in the dam and I was sitting on the slope watching. I noticed a wasp struggling on the surface of the water. Normally I would let nature take this course but I made a deal with the wasp that if I fished it out, it would sit still long enough for me to get a good photograph, something I find difficult to do with wasps. I don’t know whether it heard but it took a considerable amount of time de-watering itself before flying off, enough time for me to get a photo or two. It was a Common Paper Wasp (Polistes humilis), pictured left and below, which has been described in a previous blog.

Ants, bees and wasps are of the order Hymenoptera (membrane-winged insects), and in the sub-order Apocrita, derived from the Greek word apokritos meaning separated. This refers to the ‘narrow waist’ these insects have. In evolutionary terms the narrow waist is beneficial as it allows flexibility when using an ovipositor when laying eggs or a sting when defending itself. The picture above clearly shows just how narrow the waist is compared to the rest of the insect. The same characteristic can be found, though sometimes not as obviously, in ants and bees.

Presuming that the wasp did not get eaten immediately after it flew away I think we both did OK out of the deal.

Gone in 60 seconds

December 24, 2019

If I tell you that the movie Gone in 60 Seconds (the original, not the remake) was one of my favourite movies as a youth, it will tell you something about how I spent my time. Not car-jacking, but certainly tinkering with fast cars. Unfortunately, as much as I tried mine was not one of them.

Last week it took a lot less than 60 seconds for me to take a hen’s egg out of the chicken coop, put it down, walk the chooks around to their run and return. In that time a Little Raven (Corvus mellori), pictured left, had found the egg and was having breakfast.

Corvids (ravens and crows) are omnivorous. Depending on the season they will feed on invertebrates such as caterpillars, spiders, centipedes and grasshoppers, plant material and carrion. In late spring and early summer they will explore trees looking for bird’s nests and take the chicks and eggs. As with raptors such as eagles you will often see ravens being harassed by other birds protecting their nests. They are opportunistic feeders and whilst not hunters of chicken eggs will certainly feed on them if they chance upon it.

They are sort of like a ‘reverse Easter Bunny’.

It’s lucky they’re small

December 19, 2019

Irrespective of the size of your backyard fauna can turn up at any time. Granted, if you live on a small block that is completely fenced you may not get Eastern Greys cruising through (or you might!) but fauna will be out there.

A trip to the clothes line this week brought me up close and personal with a Mantis Fly (see picture left). Mantis Flies have been previously blogged about. They look like a Preying Mantis but are neither a mantis nor a fly. In fact they are a type of lacewing.

In close up they look kind of ferocious (see below).

It is lucky that they are small. If I had to confront a large version of one every time I hung my clothes out to dry I think I would not bother clothes washing and become a nudist – probably just as terrifying to look at!

There’s always a down side

December 17, 2019

I like to look after the environment and eat healthily. That’s why I try to as much as possible buy organic or biodynamic food and collect it in my own containers. The downside to this is that I often have large quantities of goods that have not been treated with commercial pesticides and my containers of foodstuffs can and do get critters living in them.

The great escape

The latest zoo I have created sits in a container of walnuts. Early in the year the walnuts were festooned with what looked like webs. Rather than wash the walnuts and remove the webs I decided to find out what type of critter – weevil? beetle? moth? was responsible.

Well this week the responsible critter revealed itself. Opening the walnut container released a squadron of Indianmeal Moths (Plodia interpunctella), pictured below, into the kitchen. The insects are named not for their country of origin but for the fact the larvae feed on cornmeal (Indian meal). They also feed on nuts (obviously), cereal, pasta, bread, flour, even dogfood.

I thought this was the end of the story but the moths can travel large distances to breed, which they can do in clothing. The larvae also have the ability to eat through cardboard and plastic. As with some of my other (failed!) scientific trials it looks like this one could have long term consequences!