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Finding a home for the Brush-tailed Phascogale

The small grey marsupial pushed her pointed snout under a loose piece of bark, halfway up an ancient gum tree. She could smell food – a large huntsman spider, which she hastily caught and crunched between her sharp teeth. She was a Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan, the dark stripe down her face barely visible in the night. Her sharp claws were poised to lift another strip of bark, her pink ears listening for danger, when air movement on this still night alerted her at the last moment. She stamped her front feet on the tree trunk. The long black hairs on the brush-like portion of her tail stood up. The owl’s talons reached for her conspicuous tail as she ran. It caught only a few hairs as she ducked behind the trunk. She fled for the safety of a nearby hollow.

The hollow entrance was about three to four centimetres wide, just big enough for the phascogale to enter, while securely keeping out predators, such as owls and cats. In the spacious interior was a woven nest of bark, feathers and fur. She would move from this hollow soon to another in her forty-hectare territory. She would use up to thirty hollows if she could find them, but there were insufficient trees in her territory old enough to have hollows. Competition with possums, birds and bees for these precious spaces was intense. This one may be occupied when she next returned.

 The Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan. Note the dark stripe that runs down their face, ending at the nose.  Image: David Whelan

The Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan. Note the dark stripe that runs down their face, ending at the nose. Image: David Whelan

The female was about seven months old and had recently left her mother’s nest and found her own territory not far away. Her body and tail were each about 18 centimetres long. She was nocturnal, emerging from her hollow at dusk to hunt, usually in trees, but occasionally on the ground. Mostly she ate spiders, centipedes, cockroaches and other insects, but sometimes she drank nectar or caught a napping bird or small mammal. She was capable of killing a chicken, which Brush-tailed Phascogales will occasionally do, if they can find a small hole to enter a chicken coop.

In May or June, it will be breeding season - a very intense few weeks, especially for the males, who use a lot of energy in competition and mating, then die from stress-induced illnesses. After the breeding season, there will be no males. One month later the female will give birth to her litter. She has eight teats, and her babies will attach to them, so she carries them everywhere. When they are about seven weeks old, she will leave them in a carefully woven nest, under a layer of fur and feathers. Initially she will only hunt for a short time, returning for long visits to suckle and warm her babies. As they become older, she will visit less. At around three months old, she will start to bring solid food for them. The young will leave the nest in early summer to find their own territory. Rearing young takes a lot of effort, and the female may be one of the small number who survive to breed a second time.

Brush-tailed Phascogales are a threatened species in Victoria, which means there is a threat of them becoming extinct. Much of the dry eucalypt forest they prefer has been cleared for agriculture, or changed through grazing, mining, forestry and firewood collection. Patches of suitable habitat may be separated from each other, limiting the area in which young phascogales can disperse, and their ability to move to a new area and to find mates. They are also preyed on by foxes and cats as well as their natural predators.

 The Brush-tailed Phascogale is listed as a threatened species in Victoria.  Image: David Whelan

The Brush-tailed Phascogale is listed as a threatened species in Victoria. Image: David Whelan

Another threat is the loss of hollows for shelter and nesting. In 2016, the Friends of Brisbane Ranges (FoBR) received a grant from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) which allowed them to install fifty nest-boxes in the Brisbane Ranges National Park. They are designed to suit phascogales, with small entrance holes and spacious interiors. Students from Wyndham Central College in Werribee, who visit the park for environmental studies, were involved in making and installing the boxes. FoBR also conducted a successful crowdfunding campaign, which has allowed the project to continue, and supported the creation of a network of groups involved in similar projects elsewhere.

In 2017, FoBR was thrilled to be chosen by Remember The Wild as one of the groups whose story would be told through the Community Conservationists initiative, highlighting the plight of these little-known marsupials and the work of the inspirational students involved in the project.

Hopefully, the nest-boxes will provide additional homes for Brush-tailed Phascogales, and may also free up some of the limited number of natural hollows for other species. So far, there are about seventy nest-boxes on tree trunks in the Brisbane Ranges National Park being explored by furry visitors, or perhaps already occupied, and the nest-box project continues.


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.


Perimetre Walk

It’s just before a quarter to seven in the morning; the temperature is over 25 degrees and the sky is streaked with pink, purple and orange clouds. It should be autumn, but it’s still summer.  Waking to a temperature that exceeds the normal average maximum for the time of year is not the best way to start the day. Tea may sluice away some of the night’s disturbance, but it does not make up for lost sleep. The roads are quiet even for this time of the day. Most people are still asleep in what passes for the cool of the morning. I drive past a few houses where people stand in their gardens and, shaking their heads, look up at the sky. Another week will have to slip by before we see temperatures in the teens, before sleep is cool and refreshing.

The flags on the Westgate Bridge hang limp and unmoving as the sun burns away the cloud and sky turns from pale in bright. For me, it’s a well-worn path to the east, towards Queenscliff, towards a day on the bay.

I read the road signs, formal and informal, homemade and manufactured. Voices from the radio talk about climate change and weather. People phone in to complain about bias. It’s 28 degrees at 7.30am. I concentrate on the road, and smile at the found poetry of the painted signs.

Clean fill,

Fresh fruit,

Horse Poo.

 

Raspberries,

Fresh Strawberries,

Lemons and Limes.

 

Park here for free,

Stop here for coffee,

Keep Left, Keep Right, Keep Going.

 One of the bright beaches of Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

One of the bright beaches of Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

There are very few people in the car park at Queenscliff. This select few, this band of birders, are pulling on old shoes, battered hats and buff-coloured clothes. The birds they watch are always better dressed than the watchers – even if they are in deep moult. The air smells of sun block, insect repellent and coffee. Wafts of bacon drift from the harbour-side cafes. It still feels early and it feels hot. I look at my bag and decide to take less food but more water.   

The boat is sleek and pointy – comfortable seats and some shade. A rushing tide and contrary wind ruff up sharp waves in the Bay. We head away from our destination to avoid the chop. Wind and waves conspire to kick sprays of water over the edge of the boat. If you want to look forward you need to keep one eye shut. A few hats are dislodged, a few people dampened. We swing off our distancing tack and head for Mud Islands, over water less than one metre deep. It’s strange to feel all at sea, but know you could jump overboard and still stand with your head above water. If there was ever an experience to show how much difference a change in sea level would cause, it has to be this. Australia is old enough for people to have watched as the grassland that was once here flooded and turned the land to sea. To watch the land become sea, the solid become fluid, must have so perfectly shown the true nature of a changeable climate to Indigenous Australian people.

 Red Knot (central), Sharptailed Sandpiper (out of focus ginger cap, green legs in the foreground), and Ruddy Turnstone.  Image: Stewart Monckton

Red Knot (central), Sharptailed Sandpiper (out of focus ginger cap, green legs in the foreground), and Ruddy Turnstone. Image: Stewart Monckton

The islands are not that impressive from the sea – in fact they are almost invisible. They don’t have the height to break the skyline of the shore beyond and so merge into the background. It’s only when you wade ashore – through ankle-deep water – that they take on the form of real islands. The highest point on the island becomes your own head and from that vantage point you can look down to sea, land and now a distant horizon. And, despite the name, a lack of mud.

The beaches are squint-eyed bright under the cloudless sky. A mixture of white sand and shells brings a sense of tropicalilty to these normally cooler beaches. Welcome Swallows flash over the sand, and groups seem to hover over the clumps of low plants that stud the upper beach. Once you touch a plant it’s not hard to see why – swarms of small blue butterflies spring from the vegetation whenever it moves. A wind shock or a footstep releases them and the swallows dive and dine. Once the butterflies land again they almost disappear, their underwings a counterfeit of a leaf or a dried stem. 

The point of arrival is unremarkable except for two bright orange buoys floating just offshore that mark both the beginning and end of a circular walk. The choice of pale clothes and old shoes is validated as soon as we start to walk. The sun above and the reflections from below are harshly bright. It feels good to wade through the water when needed, and it happens frequently enough for your feet never to gain that almost dry feeling that is far more annoying that simple wet feet. A few people change shoes constantly between a dry pair and a wet pair.  They balance on one leg and wobble in the wind. The waders on the rocks seem to have the one-legged standing routine better rehearsed than the people.  I am reminded of and adapt the words of my brother: wet feet are only a problem if you assume you can keep them dry in the first place.

 Pelicans flying overhead.  Image: Stewart Monckton

Pelicans flying overhead. Image: Stewart Monckton

Water bottles are hidden in the bushes, not for fear of thievery, but to gain some shade and the promise (or hope) of cool water on our return to this point later in the day. We start to walk around the island – clockwise or so it seems from our starting point. White gulls hang over the white beach, white waders – stilts – fly low over the gentle wave breaks just offshore. Everything is bright and clear. The group of island walkers pick up bags and rucksacks, pull on straps and open and shut Velcro fasteners. Fine-tuning complete, we walk on.

At what feels like a corner on a circle, a mixed flock of waders gathers to roost. Beaks to the wind, tail feathers gently flickering, they wait for the turning of the tide. Long beaks, medium beaks, long legs, short legs. Mud probers, stone flickers. Large birds, tiny birds. As we slide slowly into an autumn that should already be here, a Red Knot is putting on its spring clothes, getting ready for a long flight north and a breeding party on arrival.

Most others of his kind are still dressed in the dull functionality of their work clothes. No party suit for them yet. A few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers – sharpies - are starting to get dressed up, as are a few godwits. It seems a shame that they put on their showy breeding finery just to leave, and return in the drab colours of camouflage and safety. I settle at the back of the walking group and sit down. Moving my tripod a metre at a time, I bum-shuffle down the beach, edging closer to the birds. I end up with my feet in the water, a very wet bum and pictures I am pleased with. That’s a fair trade. 

Overhead, the small white birds are not gulls. They distract me from the waders as they land, just a little out of lens range, on an open sand bar. They are terns, but the question becomes what sort? They are very small, with pale legs and dark bills. Fairy Tern? Little Tern? Or the as-yet-undescribed hybrid, the Tiny Tern? As ever these birds seem to have a combination of the features of both species. And it does not help that I can see (or think I can see) both in the air over my head. The ID of this bird becomes a Bridge Too Far. I plan to consult my photographs when I get home in the hope of finding an answer – optimism never goes amiss.

 The mystery terns - probably Fairy Terns.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The mystery terns - probably Fairy Terns. Image: Stewart Monckton

The prospect of lunch hangs heavy in the air as we walk along a creek edge. Pushing into the middle of the island, this creek splits the mud in two, hence the plural name – Mud Islands, rather than Mud Island. Sitting on the edge of a salt marsh, rich with halophyte Salicornia, a sausage-shaped bulbous plant, ripe for the bursting by little fingers. We are overflown by pelicans and ibis. Egrets stab at fleeting targets and Buff-banded Rails do a passable impression of chickens. I nibble on an apple, doing a passable impression of a rodent. The lunch ground smells of coffee, cheese sandwiches, and the unmistakable aroma of warm chocolate.

Soft mud, the first we have found, oozes over the top of my shoes as we wade across the creek. Dozens of small fish, the revealed target of the egrets' beaks, flick away from my churning feet. The water is warm and clear. Bigger fish break through the surface and a few crabs sidestep the issue in holes and under rocks. Life is abundant as we enter a graveyard.

 The remains of a dead pelican on Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The remains of a dead pelican on Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

In the proper season the islands are home to a colony of pelicans. The birds raise their graceless chicks on nests of sun-bleached sticks, edged with sea cast weed. But now the colony belongs to the dead. Broken birds lie in slight, fractured disarray. Desiccated beyond putrefaction, there is no smell beyond that of salt and dust-dry sand. They look like feather rags and bones. Some died in the nest where their bones join the sticks and their feathers flicker, catching the breeze, a memory of the life potion that failed. Some died under bushes, maybe seeking protection from the afternoon sun, maybe hoping for some hint of warmth and shelter on a chill night.

The economy of over-production, safety in numbers, selection in action. The weak, the failing or badly built, abandoned by genetics. All left behind by the ones who did not die. Those who passed the test and remain part of the DNA river that flows, generation to generation, away from the first cells, away from the well spring of life, branching as new species form. It’s a site filled with brutal honesty, a clear lesson about the nature of the real. To see such things is to be reminded of our place in the world.

We walk till we find the paired orange buoys, the hidden drink bottles, and a boat to take us home.

 The beach on Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The beach on Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

This article was originally published on Stewart's blog, Paying Ready Attention.


Born in the South West of England in the early 1960s, Stewart Monckton has been a life-long watcher of all types of wildlife. With one exception, he has lived in the four corners of the UK before moving to Australia in his 30s. He is more interested in wildness than just wilderness, and finds delight in the common and the overlooked. You can read more of Stewart's writing on his blog, Paying Ready Attention.


Banner image of Bar-tailed Godwit courtesy of Stewart Monckton.

Batty encounters at Yarra Bend

Are you looking for something to do around Melbourne?  Do you love watching wildlife? Then let me share with you one of my favourite outdoor activities in the area. Every year when the weather starts warming up, I resume going for a paddle on the Yarra River, specifically to observe the Grey-headed Flying Foxes – also known as fruit bats.

Ever since I arrived in Australia and witnessed flocks of individuals leaving the comfort of their trees at dusk and flying across the city sky, I’ve been fascinated by these big but gentle creatures. Soon after, I was amazed to discover that there are places around the city, both on land and on water, where wildlife lovers can go and get a sneak peek of a day in the life of these unusual mammals.

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My favourite way to reach the area where they roost during the day is by kayaking on the Yarra, which I do from Kew. Once at the bat colony in Yarra Bend, I love sitting in my kayak close to the trees and watching their behaviours. Their numbers, fluctuating seasonally and annually but reaching 40, 000 in the busiest times, never fail to amaze me.

Most of them can be seen sleeping upside-down in trees during the day with their wings wrapped around their bodies, but they can also be observed fighting when their neighbours get too close, carrying their babies around during summer - the flying foxes’ busiest season - or swooping low and skimming the water with their bellies when it gets hot. As well as the bats, a variety of waterbirds can be spotted here, including ducks, cormorants and darters, providing good opportunities for keen photographers - don’t forget your dry bag if that’s you!

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It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to hire boats including kayaks and be provided with lifejackets at the Fairfield Park or Studley Park Boathouses, although I personally leave from the Fairfield Boathouse. I always plan on hiring a kayak for at least two hours - sometimes longer if I can afford it - so I don’t have to rush and can spend plenty of time at the bat colony. I found that, depending on fitness level, it is feasible to reach the colony and get back to the boathouse in one hour, but it doesn’t allow much time for wildlife viewing.

Pretty keen? Remember to check the weather before going, and also bear in mind that flying foxes are very sensitive to heat events and should be left undisturbed at these times of year in order to better protect them.  


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Elodie Camprasse

Elodie came to Australia where she recently completed a PhD in seabird ecology at Deakin University, after studying marine biology in Europe. She is passionate about the natural world and its protection. She is also a dive instructor and Emergency Response Operator at Wildlife Victoria.

You can find her on Twitter at @ECamprasse.

 


All images courtesy of Elodie Camprasse.

Wetland plants: Providing indigenous food for arthropods in the heart of summer

To keep ecosystems functioning well, it is important to provide indigenous food sources for beneficial insects throughout the entire year.

As a result, insects that thrive in late summer will have enough energy to continue their daily routines. These routines often include providing helpful services to your backyard garden by assisting with pollination, composting and aphid control.

The challenge is finding indigenous plants that can cope with the arduous and dry conditions of the Australian summer. Soaring temperatures from early summer, starting in November, can put pressure on plants to survive. Thankfully, Victorian plants have evolved traits to help them cope in the month of November. Red Box (Eucalyptus polyanthemos), for example, possess leaves with a silvery shine. This colour allows the leaves to reflect more of the sun’s photon spectrum than a darker leaf colour does. In combination with a large leaf surface area, which helps maximise transpiration (the evaporation of water from plant leaves), trees such as Red Box can control their internal temperature range. Some Acacias such as Early Wattle (Acacia genistifolia) and Prickly Moses (Acacia verticillata) have waxy nodes (they don't have leaves), which help reduce water loss when opening their pores to photosynthesise.

From December onwards it becomes increasingly difficult to supply food sources in your garden for insects that provide valuable services such as pollination. Most indigenous wildflowers, shrubs, Acacias and eucalypt trees, which supply the bulk of indigenous nectar and pollen during late spring and early summer, have finished flowering by this time.  

So the burning question is: what plants flower and provide sustenance for insects from December to February? During the last two summers, I've been paying particular attention to this question. It is an important question, because this is the period when butterflies and native bees thrive. My observations have drawn me to the importance of wetlands and ephemeral water bodies in Victoria.

  An Ochre Skipper Butterfly feeding on Purple Loosestrife.  Image: Michael Smith

 An Ochre Skipper Butterfly feeding on Purple Loosestrife. Image: Michael Smith

Plants in these ecosystems often have an abundance of water. The water they suck up through their roots eventually makes its way to the leaves. The water pumps up the leaves, making them vigorous and strong. Healthy leaves mean that there is more surface area to photosynthesise, and as a result, more energy to produce flowers. So while plants in dry forests have resorted to dying or hiding underground, wetland plants can flower en masse.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and Slender Knotweed (Persicaria decipiens) are both easy to grow, and provide a lot of nectar and pollen for butterflies, day-flying moths, and bees. These species include the Common Blue Butterfly, the Ochre Skipper Butterfly and moths from the Agaristinae family. Additionally, Purple Loosestrife is a haven for Blue-banded, Resin, Chequered Cuckoo and Leafcutter Bees. These bees not only pollinate wetland plants, but will also pollinate other plants in the vicinity. In my backyard, Blue-banded Bees are visiting my wetland, herb garden (Catnip, Lemon-balm, Mint), and tomato plants - pollinating as they go.

A rather interesting observation I've noted is the amount of white flowering plants you see in wetlands - examples include Water Plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica), Australian Gypsywort (Lycopus australis) and Willow Herb (Epilobium billardierianum). Some studies have shown that white and yellow flowers tend to be visited by a larger range of insects. Having white flowers in high summer, when flowering diversity is low, makes sense for an insect-plant relationship because many insects will happily feed from these plants.

 A Chequered Cuckoo Bee feeding on Purple Loosestrife.  Image: Michael Smith

A Chequered Cuckoo Bee feeding on Purple Loosestrife. Image: Michael Smith

With so much insect diversity around wetlands, it is no wonder predatory arthropods feel at home around these water bodies. St Andrews Cross Spiders make their webs between Carex leaves, waiting for insects to become trapped, while dragonflies and robber flies search the wetland zone for small insects, such as mosquitoes, to feast on.  

If you're interested in creating a wetland in your garden, there are many good examples online and in council booklets. Wetlands can be made from baths or depressions with a lining. If you're looking for a terrestrial plant that can handle dry soil in summer, then Sweet Bursaria (Bursaria spinosa) is of great value. Their long, deep roots allow them to locate water in places other plants cannot reach. At times I've seen these trees teaming with bees, flies, butterflies and beetles. It comes as no surprise that this plant also has white flowers.


Michael Smith is a trained ecologist who currently works in bush regeneration, habitat engineering and environmental education. He is passionate about community engagement and teaching the importance of biodiversity.


Banner image of Alisma plantago-aquatica courtesy of Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons