Night walk

It was a still night in the Brisbane Ranges. The bright light of the full moon was dimmed by mist. Out of the white haze along the ground stood trees, those closest to us appearing black. Trunks behind them were grey, becoming paler with distance, until they faded into invisibility. While we waited for the rest of our group, we scanned the trees. A grey brushtail possum gazed down at us, its fluffy black tail hanging down beside the branch; large ears, pink nose and dark eyes alert. Careful! Don’t shine the spotlight in its eyes. We don’t want to blind it! It ducked behind the trunk, out of view.

 The Common Brushtail Possum is, unsurprisingly, a common sight when spotlighting in Victoria.  Image: David Whelan

The Common Brushtail Possum is, unsurprisingly, a common sight when spotlighting in Victoria. Image: David Whelan

Soon the group assembled and we began our walk along the bush track. More possums were seen, going about their nightly business in the tall pale-branched Manna Gums, trunks dark and rough, long ribbons of old bark hanging from their branches. We followed the slow ‘mo-poke’ call of a Southern Boobook Owl, hoping for a glimpse of it. In the distance another boobook answered. A member of the group repeated the owls’ calls, hoping to attract one to us, but as the birds’ calls became more distant, we gave up.

Sharp eyes noted a mat of prickly leaves on the ground, with small cranberry heath flowers, red tubes splitting at the end to five tiny hairy points. A cluster of Parsons Bands Orchids was found, each with two white petals reaching out and down. Then, eyeshine, up in the wattle tree. A small grey head with rounded ears and a black stripe between them. Sharp claws gripping the trunk as it faced downwards. A loose fold of white skin between front and back legs. A Sugar Glider! It stayed frozen as we gazed at it, the two wildlife photographers clicking away enthusiastically. Then it began to move its head from side to side, perhaps using sharp incisors to cut the tree’s bark, creating a wound that would ooze sugary sap, an evening meal. When the photographers were satisfied, we continued our walk.

 If you're lucky, the distinctive face of a Sugar Glider may greet you on a night walk.  Image: David Whelan

If you're lucky, the distinctive face of a Sugar Glider may greet you on a night walk. Image: David Whelan

 Sugar Gliders use their sharp incisors to cut through tree bark so that they can reach the sugary sap underneath.  Image: David Whelan

Sugar Gliders use their sharp incisors to cut through tree bark so that they can reach the sugary sap underneath. Image: David Whelan

We turned onto another track, hoping to see the prize we had come for, a Powerful Owl, known to be in the area. We noticed a rare patch of Snow Gums, trunks pale all the way to the ground, veins of the leaves almost parallel. Above, we heard the high-pitched echolocation calls of White-striped Freetail Bats hunting flying insects, and in the distance a repeated yap from a Sugar Glider. More eyes. Something large and brown in a tree. There it was! Australia’s largest owl. The Powerful Owl was huge, sitting on its branch, brown feathers with white markings, bright yellow eyes with large black pupils staring down at us and away. The photographers were joyfully busy. The rest of us watched the bird in wonder. It spread its long pale wings and silently flew to another tree. After a few minutes, the spotlighters found it again. The watching continued. A rustle in the trees across the track. The owl flew towards it. We left it, hunting for a meal, probably another possum.

 The Powerful Owl is Australia's largest owl.  Image: David Whelan

The Powerful Owl is Australia's largest owl. Image: David Whelan

Some of us were tiring, so we turned back along the track, searching for more eyes and listening to the sounds of busy nightlife. Towards the end of the walk we heard the growling squabbles of brushtail possums. There were four in the low leafy branches of a Manna Gum, arguing over territory or food or mates. One climbed down the curved trunk and walked among the grasses. It sat up on its hind legs looking around. We could see the dark stripe of a scent gland down its chest, marking it as a male. Back onto four legs, walking towards us! When he was close, he turned and walked away along the track and finally back into the grasses. We continued back to the cars. The mist was gone, but the moon was still dimmed by light cloud. We enjoyed the black silhouettes of tree branches and leaves against the grey sky, said goodnight, and drove home to bed, leaving the animals to continue their busy night.


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.

Photographer David Whelan is a foundation member of the Australasian Raptor Association (ARA), now Birdlife Australia’s Raptor Group. His photography has graced the pages of several reference books, the latest being CSIRO Publishing’s 2017 release Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds by Stephen Debus. Along with his good friend Bernie McRitchie, he provided the first confirmed successful breeding records for the Black Falcon in Southern Victoria. Photographer in Residence for Martin Scuffins and the team at Leigh Valley Hawk and Owl Sanctuary, David is working on several new publishing projects coming in 2018/19 and is preparing to launch a website showcasing his skills later this year.


Banner image courtesy of David Whelan.

Exploring Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park

As we speed towards the cooler months, we Victorians might think it’s time to say goodbye to outdoor activities for a while. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Cold weather is all relative – and winter is the time of year when whales come up from Antarctica to breed and take advantage of our comparatively “warmer” waters in Bass Strait. So, now is the perfect time for whale-watching!

Last year I went on a boat trip around the islands of Wilsons Promontory, and my eyes were opened to the magical and majestic underwater world that lives just on our doorstep this time of year. I thought I’d share with you a few snapshots from the day.

First, we saw the Australasian Gannets (Morus serrator), plunging straight into the waves to catch fish. They were so quick, often you would just catch a splash out of the corner of your eye.

  Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

  Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

Then came the pod of dolphins keeping pace with the boat and jumping above the waves. These Short-beaked Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis) live in large pods (I couldn’t count how many we saw!), and can be found in offshore waters around Australia.

  Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

  Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

We then passed some Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) lounging on the rocks in the intermittent sun and frolicking in the waves. Apparently when they “wave” their flipper in the air, it’s not to say hello - they are actually using the air to evaporate water and cool down their body temperature.

  Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

But we were always on the lookout for those elusive creatures that had drawn us all there – the Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). And finally, just peaking above the water, the back of a male humpback in the distance. Much still remains a mystery about these amazing creatures – they are arguably the hardest and most expensive vertebrate to work on because of their lifestyle, mobility and remote habitat. But catching a glimpse of one was truly a rare and exciting gift.

  Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly


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Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella


Banner image courtesy of Ella Kelly.

The Fab Five: Finches of Victoria

Finches have captured our attention for aeons, and around the world a number of similar-looking bird families have come to be commonly referred to as finches. They have a habit of living in small sociable groups, and are often cloaked in a striking plumage of resplendent reds, subtle olives, or delicate polkadot spots (sometimes all three!). This makes them very pleasing on the eye and great fun to watch as the finch party goes about its business. As biological history goes, it's quite lucky that these birds are so easy to watch, as the observations Charles Darwin made of finches on the Galápagos Islands formed a key part in his derivation of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Victoria's native finches may not be as famous as the finches of the Galápagos, and you might not earn a reputation as esteemed as Darwin’s for watching them, but I highly recommend you get out and find them for yourself. It is possible to see five species of finch native to Victoria.

Red-browed Finch

For most readers, this is likely to be the species that you are most familiar with. They live in wetter parts of the state in the grassy habitats of forest openings, stream banks, and parks and gardens. If you live in the heart of Melbourne and think you will have to make something of a getaway to see this species, think again. Red-browed Finches can be easily found foraging among overgrown grasses along the Merri Creek Trail, Main Yarra Trail, and maybe even your own backyard if it has an 'untidy section'. Although the bright flash of red from its rump and brow can often give it away, more often than not it forages unobtrusively among the grass and its little peeping calls are what belie its presence.

 Red-browed Finches can often be found feeding among seeding grasses.  Image: Rowan Mott

Red-browed Finches can often be found feeding among seeding grasses. Image: Rowan Mott

Zebra Finch

These charming little birds may also be familiar to you because they are often kept as pets in aviaries. They breed prolifically in captivity, provided they are well cared for, which has lent them well to scientific research. In fact, Australia's Zebra Finches have become the second most studied species of bird behind the Great Tit, and have been used to study subjects varying from neurobiology and development of song, to sperm competition and quantitative genetics.

This species inhabits drier country and their movements are influenced by local conditions. They can be nomadic and move across the landscape in search of favourable foraging conditions, particularly in response to rainfall. Victoria's Zebra Finch population hotspots are Hird Swamp Wildlife Reserve, Kerang Lakes, and Winton Wetlands. If you live in Melbourne and can't spare the time to trek to the north of our state, Zebra Finches can usually be found along Point Wilson Road and Beach Road near Avalon Airport, and in the You Yangs.

 The many studies conducted on Zebra Finches have taught us much about bird biology, and some of the findings even have implications for human biology.  Image: Rowan Mott

The many studies conducted on Zebra Finches have taught us much about bird biology, and some of the findings even have implications for human biology. Image: Rowan Mott

Diamond Firetail

Humans have long-prized diamonds for their beauty and rarity. Although Diamond Firetails have been beautiful for as long as they have existed, the last century or so has seen these woodland denizens become quite rare. Suffering from the combined effects of habitat loss and habitat degradation, particularly in the core of their range along the inland side of the Great Dividing Range, populations of Diamond Firetails are in decline. For your best chance of seeing this true gem of a bird in Victoria, head to the Lurg Hills to the east of Benalla, Terrick Terrick National Park, or Little Desert National Park.

 Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes, and you are sure to remember your first sighting of this beautiful finch forever. Image: Rowan Mott

Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes, and you are sure to remember your first sighting of this beautiful finch forever. Image: Rowan Mott

Beautiful Firetail

I often hear people complaining about how birds are named. For example, 'Why do we call it a Pink-eared Duck when the spot of pink is so small you can hardly see it?' In the case of the Beautiful Firetail, no such argument could be laid. Every bit of this bird is beautiful and to reinforce this point, not only does its common name include the word beautiful, but the species part of its scientific name, Stagonopleura bella, also translates to beautiful. In Victoria, Beautiful Firetails primarily inhabit wet coastal heathlands. They can regularly be found at Cape Liptrap, Cape Otway, and away from the coast in Bunyip State Park.

 Beautiful Firetails, as the name suggests, are surely one of Victoria’s prettiest birds.  Image: Rowan Mott

Beautiful Firetails, as the name suggests, are surely one of Victoria’s prettiest birds. Image: Rowan Mott

Double-barred Finch

Double-barred Finches qualify by the merest of margins as a Victorian finch. They are common in open woodlands and scrub across northern Australia, but their range extends south to capture only a sliver of north-east Victoria. If you wish to add this species to your Victorian list (and why wouldn't you?), hillsides around Wodonga offer your best chance. Like the Zebra Finch, Double-barred Finches may also be nomadic as they search for favourable conditions. For this reason, you may want to check eBird for recent Victorian sightings before making the journey up to the north-east.

 Double-barred Finches occur in only a very small proportion of Victoria. However, their striking plumage makes it well worth putting in some effort to find them.  Image: Rowan Mott

Double-barred Finches occur in only a very small proportion of Victoria. However, their striking plumage makes it well worth putting in some effort to find them. Image: Rowan Mott


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Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

Finding the little things that make our city special

…the true treasure of the City of Melbourne, metropolitan Melbourne, and any other city across Australia and the world is its nature.

A good children’s book is often seen as one that can either inspire or educate. A better one will do both. Such is the case with The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!. Co-authored by Kate Cranney, Sarah Bekessy and Luis Mata, and published in partnership with the City of Melbourne, this exceptional book provides children with the opportunity to discover some of Melbourne’s most wonderful insects – some well-known and others less so – and will also inspire them to seek out the world of ‘little things’ that goes largely unnoticed.

  Image: City of Melbourne

Image: City of Melbourne

Luis Mata describes how the inspiration to write the book came while conducting fieldwork with co-author, Kate Cranney, for the original The Little Things that Run the City project. While outside observing some of the incredible insects of Melbourne, both Kate and Luis were questioned by children and their parents passing by about what they were up to. He explains that ‘Kate and I really enjoyed the opportunity to take a break and explain to both the kids and their parents some of the fascinating things we we’re learning by observing the amazing insects that call the City of Melbourne home.’ It was these ‘…enthusiastic children and their supportive parents [who] were a true inspiration to develop the ideas that led to The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!’.

Kate describes how '...kids love insects: spotting butterflies in the park, the sideways sway of a praying mantis, or a huddle of sawfly larvae, all rearing their heads. It’s no accident that Bugs Alive! is one of Museum Victoria's most popular exhibitions.' This is indeed something that can be easily forgotten by us adults - kids love discovering these little things in the garden or the local park, and are invigorated by the opportunity to learn more about them in an outdoor setting. 

In this special publication, Luis’ up-close photographs and Kate’s stunning illustrations provide a rare opportunity for readers to learn about and admire some of Melbourne’s wonderful insect life through both a photographer’s and illustrator’s lens. Moving from page to page, children will find themselves learning fantastic facts about the little things of our city. From the mesmerising hunting techniques of the Garden Praying Mantis and the ability of Long-tailed Sawfly larvae to turn leaves into skeletons, to the unassuming beauty of the Bush Cockroach and, my personal favourite, the sneaky breeding tactics of the alluring Checkered Cuckoo Bee, this book is packed with information that’s presented in an incredibly digestible format.

 The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey.  Image: Luis Mata

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey. Image: Luis Mata

The book has already been used by schools and children’s outdoor education groups like Leap into Nature, as detailed in a recent Wild Melbourne article by founder Christina Renowden. Kate tells me that ‘...kids are taking the book outdoors, into parks and gardens, and using it as a mini-field guide. We think that’s wonderful! Kids are using the book as part of ‘bug detective’ games – running about, trying to find the 30 insects in the book, and drawing other insects that they find. For Sarah, Luis and I, getting more kids into nature is a fantastic outcome!’

When I asked Luis if the book could also be enjoyed by adults, he assured me that they had ‘…planned the longer stories that go alongside Kate’s illustrations with both children and adults in mind.’ All three authors ‘…are thoroughly convinced that the amazing insects that live in Melbourne have something to say to everyone regardless of their age.’

But appreciating Melbourne’s insect biodiversity isn’t just about admiring their looks and behaviour. Luis explains how ‘insects are a fundamental component of nature in our cities’, especially when it comes to ecosystem services such as pollinating flowers and keeping plant pests at bay. Arguably, these insects are part of what makes Melbourne such an impressive city and allow both visitors and those that live here the chance to appreciate life on a smaller level.

I think Melburnians and Australians should consider themselves incredibly lucky to live amongst such a beautiful variety of amazing, unique insects. I’m particularly captivated by the rich connections that Indigenous people in Melbourne and Australia have with insects and other non-human animals – I treasure every Boon wurrung insect word that the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages provided for the book.

We often hear of children already being fascinated by the little things from a young age, such as the insects in their own backyards. This is an interest that sometimes seems to dissipate with age, and so a book like this will hopefully do wonders for those kids who want to retain that interest, or motivate those who are yet to develop it. Luis believes that as parents, it’s important to ‘keep providing… opportunities to remain in contact with nature and to keep highlighting the positive aspects of insects…’ throughout children’s lives. Adults are often guilty of dismissing native insects as nuisances, but it’s important to remember that for children, these animals can be the most fascinating part of enjoying the outdoors and that what we may see as pests are actually vital role-players in our local ecosystems.

This book is really the first of its kind and will hopefully result in other, similar children’s books with a focus not just on Australian wildlife in general, but local wildlife. As co-author Sarah Bekessy explains, we need to do more to make our Australian cities ‘unique’. Cities around the world are becoming more and more alike, and embracing local biodiversity ensures that we don’t lose what is special about Australian places.

 The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities.  Image: City of Melbourne

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities. Image: City of Melbourne

 This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch.  Image: Sarah Bekessy

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch. Image: Sarah Bekessy

As demonstrated by the minuscule Melburnians described in this book, there is much to love about our insect biodiversity alone. Imagine the possibilities if we extended this to all groups of animals, plants, fungi and made it clear to both residents and visitors that these are what make our home extraordinary. Sarah hopes that readers see the book as ‘a beautiful, compelling piece of work’ and describes the feeling of readers declaring their excitement when spotting the illustrated insects with their own eyes. As she tells me, ‘it’s all stuff that you can actually see yourself’ – again, the idea of what’s local is ever-important.

Finally, I asked Luis whether he had a favourite insect featured in the book. For him, it was the Blue-banded Bee. The photograph used to illustrate this species in fact marks the moment when Luis first saw this unusual bee during the Melbourne Bioblitz in 2016. He tells me that he will ‘…never forget how exciting that moment was, seeing those extraordinary, beautiful blue bands contrasting sharply with the alternate black ones. And the agile, graceful way the bee flew from one flax-lily to the other – a truly amazing experience!’ This is hopefully a joy that more Melburnians will share after learning to recognise our city’s distinctive insects using this remarkable book.

 Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'.  Image: Luis Mata

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'. Image: Luis Mata

You can download the eBook edition of The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne! at this link, or purchase a hard copy edition at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens gift shop or the Melbourne Museum gift shop


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Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.


Banner image of a Brown Darkling Beetle courtesy of Luis Mata.