Not As We Know It: Down Frankston Way

Just as so many native trees, shrubs, birds and mammals love the sea air, we humans are particularly fond of it too. Unfortunately, this means that if you’re a coastal habitat, you’re almost destined to be disturbed, dug up or built on. When Europeans arrived in Victoria, they were particularly destructive, and from Brighton to Beaumaris, through to Aspendale and Frankston, the native coastal habitat was etched away, replaced with roads, shopping centres, coffee shops, impressive houses, and a particularly pretty bike route along the coast. When I find time to head to the Mornington Peninsula, I always make my way down along the coast, sweeping along the road and taking in the ocean views. While there’s some coastal scrub hanging on along the coastline, it’s only a glimmer of what would have been almost 300 years ago, before Europeans arrived.

Around Brighton and through to Beaumaris, the gentle slopes opened the area up to grassy and herb-rich woodlands. In some areas, the sandy soils became more infertile, with sedges and shrubs such as common heath and prickly tea-tree dominating the area. Where the soil had a few more nutrients, eucalyptus and sheoak species were able to grow, and were subsequently scattered through the landscape. There was a thick understory of species such as tall sundew, weeping grass and cranberry heath surrounding them. While you’re much more likely to see trendy dog breeds like French bulldogs and spaniels bounding through the area now, hundreds of years ago kangaroo and wallaby would have bounded around instead. The red-bellied pademelon, now restricted to Tasmania, would also have been prevalent. Hundreds of years ago, they were free from the predation of foxes and the habitat destruction that later wiped them out on the mainland, and they happily roamed around Port Phillip Bay.

This beautiful grassy woodland habitat would have stretched out through to Bentleigh. Reaching up to ten metres high, species such as Jimmy’s shining peppermint and messmate stringybark would have sprouted up across the landscape. In some places, shrubs grew in thick, dense thickets, with swamp paperbark and woolly tea-tree outcompeting most species. In the areas where light could pass through the thick shrubs, moss, lichen and liverwort tried their hand at survival, drinking up the sun and spreading through the understory. This interesting concoction of environments continued through Mordialloc, Parkdale and Braeside.

As well as the thicket of swamp scrub, herb-rich, heathy and grassy woodlands occurred in patches throughout the areas. Some river red gum, swamp gum, and rough-barked manna gum would have been scattered around, but generally speaking, it was the understory of grasses, reeds, and bracken that reigned supreme. The beautifully named stinking pennywort and variable stinkweed made up a good portion of the understory, along with the more endearingly named swamp billy-button and tiny water-milfoll.

From Aspendale through to Seaford, which have some of my favourite ocean views as you drive towards Frankston, the area was wetter than the surrounding habitats and as a result was mainly treeless. While some swamp gum may have popped up here and there, it was shrubs and grasses that loved this environment the most. White purslane and wattle mat-rush were widespread, bringing bursts of white and yellow into the green landscape. These grasses would have continued through to Carrum Downs, with kangaroo grass and reed bent-grass sweeping through the area, until swampy riparian woodland emerged around Lyndhurst, snaking through parts of Carrum Downs, Cranbourne, and Dandenong South. Swamp paperbark, blackwood and woolly tea-tree made up the majority of the habitat. Birds would have loved this environment, with the flowers of the swamp paperbark beautifully fragrant to our native species. Native butterflies such as the imperial hairstreak and tailed emperor love blackwood, as it is a host plant for their larvae until they become adults. 

In Frankston, heathy woodland began to emerge again. Eucalypts reached up to ten metres tall, shrubs such as the common heath, prickly tea-tree, and prickly broom-heath dominating the understory. The bright colours of the flowers of common heath, combined with the beautiful soft whites of the prickly species, would have made a wonderful sight. No doubt honeyeaters and native bees could have been heard throughout the area, happily pollinating our shrubs and heath. Moving through to Mount Eliza, we once again meet grassy woodland, with sheoaks and eucalypts emerging and kangaroo grass and wattle mat-rush sprouting up in the understory. Lovely natives such as feathertail gliders, echidnas, and bandicoots would have made themselves at home between the trees and shrubs, gobbling up beetles, ants and other crawling creatures.

On the drive along the coast from Brighton to Frankston, it’s difficult to imagine the diversity that would have once been. It’s particularly difficult in Frankston, which is now almost a city in its own right. A train station, shopping centre, movie theatre, and many delicious fish and chip shops now stand where trees, shrubs, animals, and birds used to be abundant. But nature is resilient in the strangest of ways, and native shorebirds such as pelicans, gulls and cormorants can still be seen on the beaches throughout the bay. Ringtails have managed to survive despite the presence of cats and foxes. Rosellas, cockatoos, and even birds of prey like falcons aren’t unfamiliar sights, soaring above our suburbs, searching for places to roost and feed. In the last few years there has been an increase in planting along the coast of Port Philip, to stabilise our beaches and help to conserve our native species. While too late for our once wide-spread pademelon, it may be enough to help birds and other mammals increase in number. Maybe one day we will even be able to get a glimpse of what it would have been like all those years ago. 

Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

Plover Diaries: The Tale of a Territory

The Plover Diaries

By Hannah Lethlean

The hooded plover (aka ‘hoodie’) is a local beach-nesting bird, battling to survive on the Mornington Peninsula. Their breeding season coincides with the busiest time of the year (September to April), leaving them struggling to find undisturbed nesting space on the beach during this influx of people. In order to raise a chick they must overcome enormous odds, contending with thousands of beach-goers, dogs, foxes, birds of prey, ravens, gulls, and the harsh and unpredictable weather of Victoria’s coastline.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Human-induced disturbance or not, hoodies naturally have low breeding success. After 28 days of incubation, hoodie chicks hatch and leave the nest. They have a further 35 days of foraging and growing on an open beach before they are able to fly. Once able to fly (A.K.A. a ‘fledgling’), their chance of survival soars to over 50% compared to around 3% as a flightless chick. Keeping chicks alive during that time is the ultimate challenge, and is a testing endeavour even in natural conditions.

Throwing beach-goers, dogs off lead, foxes and increased numbers of ravens into the mix is tipping the pressure too far, and Hoodies are struggling to fledge chicks. In order to sustain the population, experts say there needs to be at least 0.47 chicks fledged per nest. Last breeding season, the Mornington Peninsula produced 0.16 fledglings per active nest. This puts us way behind the benchmark, and could mean local extinction within 25 years.

But it’s not all doom and gloom!

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

BirdLife Australia, Parks Victoria and volunteer groups have been working towards fostering a greater coexistence between nesting hoodies and recreational beach-users. By implementing on-ground local action and publicising the threats imposed by humans, we aim to increase community responsibility for the hoodies’ plight, and therefore give them a better chance of survival. This is done by marketing strategies through articles, merchandise and stalls at local markets; applying for grants to provide protective fencing and directional signage; educational programs; research into coastal ecosystems and the threat of introduced weeds; and coordinating and training an army of citizen scientists to collect observed data from their beach monitoring.

The Tale of a Territory: Moana East, January 2016

The Moana East territory is a popular surf break near St Andrews Beach and has been the centre of some serious hoodie drama and heartbreak for quite some time. Originally occupied by female ‘KT’ and an unbanded male, one day ‘KT disappeared, last sighted on her territory with a nest in November 2013. We thought her dead, but to our surprise she located up the coast eight months later… with a new man! Meanwhile, ‘MU’ (banded as a chick at Fingal in February 2012) and her unbanded male partner conquered the Moana East territory in December of 2013. Since then, these new birds on the block have had numerous nesting attempts, but unfortunately no surviving chicks.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Tragedy overcame the pair last year with the loss of two chicks only days away from fledging. This was devastating for the parents, as well as the volunteers and rangers who had dedicated days of work to give these chicks a chance at flying. A necropsy conducted later on one of the chick’s bodies showed that the cause of death had been from a dog.

This season, the pair have persevered and successfully hatched four chicks. Volunteers and rangers do regular check-ups on the little fluff-balls in order to monitor their movements, as well as to educate any beach-goers about the detriment of disturbance. The first chick from their first nesting attempt was lost soon after hatching. However, their second clutch of three eggs was far more successful and all hatched. Unfortunately, just as our confidence was beginning to build, we lost two of the chicks at 17-days-old. All hope rested on the final chick, whom at 23 days was starting to look more like a gangly teenager! The awkward transition of fluff to feather was taking place, and everyone was counting down the days until first flight.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Unfortunately, January 12th marked the disappearance of the final chick from the Moana East territory. Being much older and wiser, it was hard not to have hoped that it would survive. Not knowing the cause of death is frustrating and shattering for the people who have invested so much time and effort, but conservation of threatened species is rarely dominated by heart-warming stories.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

So I know I said it’s ‘not all doom and gloom’ and followed it by exemplifying a hoodie territory where, this year, all four chicks have perished….. But the success we strive for is measured in increments. Only five years ago this territory was on the verge of being abandoned by scientists. The level of human disturbance was so great that clutches rarely hatched and dog regulations were blatantly ignored by the majority. Now, through various programs there is greater awareness and appreciation of the hoodies, which means that beach regulations regarding dog control and dune invasion are better adhered to. The community is gradually taking ownership of the hoodies’ plight and is joining us in the journey from eggs to chick to fledgling. The greater the community involvement, the closer we come to understanding the fate of the chicks. Before long, we will get those chicks to 35 days so that they can fly away - and we can sleep easy knowing that they made it through.

Optimism is a key ingredient for any successful human endeavour.
— Bob Brown

Note: All photos were taken in accordance with disturbance-minimising protocols using a telephoto lens by a trained individual. In no circumstances were the hooded plovers or chicks deliberately disturbed in order to obtain photographs.

Spider Crabs: No Rest for the Wicked

This is a guest post by Elodie Camprasse, a PhD student from Deakin University, Melbourne. 

Migration - when people hear this term, they usually picture herds of mammals (including people) or flocks of birds en route to places where they can find better conditions. However, did you know that Melbourne has a migration of its own in its underwater backyard? Giant spider crabs (Leptomithrax gaimardii) indeed put on a show every Winter in Port Phillip Bay. If you let me, I will take you on one of the most amazing dives where I was witness to this amazing event. Don’t worry though - you won’t have to get wet!

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  Giant spider crab ( Leptomithrax gaimardii) ; Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Giant spider crab (Leptomithrax gaimardii);
Photo: Elodie Camprasse

It is a chilly and dark Friday night and I am meeting with a bunch of very enthusiastic divers. We have all been looking forward to experiencing the annual spider crab migration. It is a first for me and even facing the cold, 12°C water of Blairgowrie could not take the excitement away. A nice, easy beach entry allows us to progressively get used to the water temperature before starting our actual dive under the pier. The first things we bump into are a tiny seahorse and a few stingarees, which I take as being good signs of the fascinating dive that is to come! As we swim towards the end of the pier, we cross paths with squids swimming in mid-water, porcupinefishes, big leatherjackets, colourful sea slugs and our torches reveal the vibrant colours of sponges. I am in awe already when we reach, at last, the spider crab aggregation. Here they are, hundreds of them, hanging out in about four to five metres of water. Most of them sport broken limbs and dull, old shells that they will need to get rid of within the next few weeks in order to grow bigger, this being the purpose of their migration. Crabs like to blend in and they tend to pick up bits and pieces from the sea floor and stick them on their shells in order to increase their camouflage. A few of them even ‘wear’ sponges on their heads and backs, ironically making them stand out even more as I am trying to spot the odd ones out to create better shots. As I focus on taking photos, a curious octopus cruises by to check me out.

Marching spider crabs in Blairgowrie. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Marching spider crabs in Blairgowrie. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

This is only one of the few dives I was lucky enough to take part in during this yearly phenomenon. The other dives allowed me to witness the crabs’ movements and behaviours further, at various times of day and in different light conditions. Along with that, I was able to discover bizarre-looking critters, including tassled anglerfishes and stargazers, to name a few. I was amazed to observe the big piles that spider crabs often form at this season, sometimes reaching more than a metre in height, as they seek safety in numbers.

Spider crabs forming aggregations. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Spider crabs forming aggregations. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Towards the end of the migration, the last crabs switch from the sandy sea floor to the pylons and sponge gardens on the walls of the pier. This provides the now more isolated crabs with better protection. When they moult, the crabs release a specific scent that predators such as rays, seals and seabirds are able to pick up and follow to gorge themselves on freshly moulted and hence very soft individuals. They indeed need to wait a few days for their new, brighter-coloured shells to harden in order to become less vulnerable and leave the shallows to resume their solitary life in different parts of the bay. Watching the smooth stingrays circling in between the pylons and waiting for clumsy, freshly molted crabs to fall within their reach is quite a show! So too is observing the crabs extracting themselves from their old shells: a process that seems exhausting to them and can take up to approximately half an hour; it almost felt like I was watching a creature being born, right in front of my eyes. They usually free-fall in the water once they have managed to extract themselves from their old shells, rolling around the sea floor and looking stunned for a few minutes. Only when they are quick enough to recover their senses and climb back to the pylons are they able to escape the hungry rays. Nevertheless, more discrete critters join the frenzy. Small shrimps and seastars hang around the crabs to scrape the last bits of meat off the old shells. By this time, the bottom is strewn with discarded shells, adding to the already apocalyptic atmosphere.

Spider crab removing itself from its old shell. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Spider crab removing itself from its old shell. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

There is still a lot of mystery revolving around the annual migration, which seems to happen at different sites in different years. Aggregations have indeed been observed at Rye, Sorrento and St Leonards in the past. Water temperatures or moon cycles might play a role in triggering the phenomenon, although this is only an educated guess. People used to believe that mating occurred after the crabs molted; this, however, is not supported by observations. There is not a lot of information about where these usually solitary animals spend the rest of the year and there have been aggregations in the forms of pyramids sighted at other times of year, whose purpose is unknown. Clearly, we still have a lot to learn about the migration and we will surely gain more information as enthusiastic divers and snorkelers continue to get in the water and share their sightings and behavioural observations on social media! So let us hope that next year, once again, there will be no rest for the wicked. 

For more, follow Elodie on Twitter!