animals

A Walk in the Wild

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa

The Goulburn Valley Highway weaves northbound through central Victoria, and on approaching the town of Nagambie, a side street turns left and proceeds along the concrete bridge built to replace the collapsing historical Chinaman’s Bridge. It spans across the Goulburn River that flows down the length of Gilgai Stud Farm, home of Black Caviar, its white picket fence defining the entrance. Bordered by open pastures, the asphalt road meanders past lucerne fields and wheat crops, flocks of sheep and herds of cattle that graze on sun-drenched paddocks. Further on, the road merges onto a dusty gravel thoroughfare riddled with ruts and potholes, and continues through the State Forest of yellow box, Chinese bush and pepper trees. Mullock hills dot the forest along the way, as do the sparse, abandoned weatherboard houses and their rusting corrugated tin sheds.

The graded road leads to a gate painted silver and chained to a post leaning towards the pull of old rusted wires of a dilapidated fence. Box-ironbark and more Chinese bush, wattle, prickly grevilleas and parrot-pea shrubs grace a large part of the property.

A family of superb fairy-wrens forage in the grasses and low-lying shrubs for seeds: enough to share with the red-capped and hooded robins. Although the invasive Chinese bush, otherwise known as the Sifton bush, is an introduced plant, it does provide an abundance of seeds for small bird species, and an ideal shelter from weather conditions and predators.

Mobs of eastern grey kangaroos and the solitary brown wallaby emerge from the forest in late afternoon to scratch for roots in the barren soil baked dry by a hot sun. In marked contrast, the gravel mounds of industrious meat-eating ants nests ensure a stable, moderate temperature in their incubating tunnels beneath the surface. If ever a heroic invertebrate, say the centipede or a roaming beetle, crosses their territory, the ants go into a feeding frenzy and summon others from below ground to help dissect the invasive creatures. However, the voracious echidna has no fear of meat-eaters. It ploughs into the ant nest and consumes all it wants. And perhaps the elusive bearded dragon and stumpy-tailed lizard basking near the grey tree stumps may also partake in such a feast.

High above the stratus clouds, the wedge-tailed eagle searches for large prey, unperturbed by screeching sulphur-crested cockatoos that broadcast their messages across the plains or the pied currawongs that carol for rain. Red wattlebirds share the higher reaches of the forest with the noisy friarbirds as they seek respite from the midday heat.

Thirsty honey bees queue along a wooden plank, of which one end reaches the dregs of water in a bathtub, their need to taste the dwindling liquid as urgent as that of the yellow-tufted honeyeaters, willy wagtails and eastern rosellas that side-step along the same plank to take a decidedly necessary sip.

Leaving its mark on a eucalyptus branch, the elusive mistletoe bird ensures the future growth of red berries in the mistletoe itself. All the while, the mini willy-willy picks up dust and tosses it over grasshoppers that seek refuge in the sandstone rocks exposed by a lack of vegetation.

Come winter, swift parrots and rainbow lorikeets prune fresh tips from box-ironbark, leaving a smattering of eucalyptus blossom over composted foliage on the ground. Together, cream flowers and green moss create a natural patchwork on a moistened surface. A smattering of rocks covered in lichen complete an alluring picture.

In the clearing, welcome swallows engage in energetic flight. Skimming the ground, they rise up into the sky until the noisy miner expels its warning call to those in earshot. The peregrine falcon is on the hunt. It shoots across the plain, its keen eye fixed on movement amongst the leaves of an aged manna gum. The bird of prey soars from the tree, grasping its catch in sharp talons and disappearing into the distant canopy of eucalypts. White-winged choughs plane aimlessly through the sky while magpies parade along the ground and ignore the rhythmic call of the bronzewing that echoes through the undergrowth .

The brown snake slithers into hibernation unnoticed.

Spring arrives and sprays of wattle burst from branches after the constant rainfalls. Strong-scented blooms drive a native bee into a state of euphoria as it buries into the fluffy substance and draws nectar from the golden flurry.

Spring also exposes the spotted pardalotes as they prepare their nests in hollowed ground. And thornbills, warblers and tree-creepers pick out sap-sucking insects on stringy bark and grey box tree trunks. Willy wagtails fill the air with their chatter, performing a song and dance to draw attention away from their nest built on an unused bucket in the outhouse. The nest is cleverly stitched together with silk threads from a borrowed cobweb and is brimming with chicks. And while the lone golden whistler, perched high on a limb, calls for a mate, the crimson rosella emits a soulful note when all else is quiet in the bush.

Notably still is the red-bellied black snake as it basks in the warm sun beside the overflow of the dam, lying in wait for the pobblebonk and other frogs that trumpet their intentions to females in the rain-soaked flats.

The Sifton bush, in its dying stages, purges its last signs of life by exuding an attractive orange fungus - a striking contrast to the mauve native orchids that emerge from rhizomes buried underground; a splash of colour against an otherwise tired and dreary vegetation.  Or is it?

Carnivorous Victorian Drosera stand like sentinels, their insatiable urge being to lure hungry insects into their gaping traps. But in a field of thousands and with constant rain depleting their supply of invertebrates, few will achieve digestive satisfaction in such a competitive environment. Seemingly insignificant are the native flora speckled across the soggy planes in shades of burgundy and white; a welcoming phenomenon in a flooded plain.

Fields of golden daisies, considered weeds, stretch as far as the horizon. And most remarkable of all, the hieroglyphics created by tiny termites on fallen logs, soon to become obsolete with their total disintegration while new growth sprouts alongside the breakdown of bark, timber and seeds.

This is where humans go to reconnect with all that is wonderful on our planet Earth.

All photos by Bruna Costa.

The Nature of Melbourne

Melbourne is known for its culture, sport and coffee, but it's high time we became known for something else - biodiversity. Arguably, we are already renowned for this: think of the peregrine falcons nesting on a CBD skyscraper, the myriad of birds in our backyards, and the beautiful native gardens and parks featuring native vegetation. However, the potential to increase biodiversity and create more green spaces is endless and we need to encourage those with the ability to do so to help build a more sustainable future for Melbourne. 

Although Adelaide recently pulled ahead of Melbourne in the race to be Australia’s greenest city, let's not forget that we were the World’s Most Liveable City in 2015 for the FIFTH year in a row (but hey, who's counting?). So why not make it even more liveable through increased biodiversity and sustainable urban planning?

Melbourne City Council recently held an evening of talks on the matter, titled Nature in Our Liveable City. This provided an opportunity to various academics in the field of urban biodiversity to share their perspective on what Melbourne can start doing better. 

Kookaburras can still be found right across Melbourne.  Photo: Chris McCormack

Kookaburras can still be found right across Melbourne. Photo: Chris McCormack

Historian and author Dr Gary Presland was apt to start off the night with reference to Australia's indigenous heritage and the importance of understanding how biodiverse Melbourne once was. As Wild Melbourne has discussed previously, Presland argues that wetlands are one of the most biodiverse features of Melbourne's landscape - the question is whether we can ever see a return to this biodiversity as it was prior to European settlement.

Dr Mark Norman of Melbourne Museum continued to enforce the point that parts of Melbourne's biodiversity are more underrated than others. In his opinion, invertebrate species are often pushed to the side in favour of more 'conventional' Aussie critters, such as mammals and birds. He argued that the rarely noticed groups of animals need to be brought to people's attention in order to support increased biodiversity - after all, spiders, flies and moths are as much a part of our city as anything else (although some may not like the idea!). For Mark, it's all about 'tuning your eye...to see what is actually out there', and projects like the revegetation of Westgate Park (that was once considered an 'industrial dump') are vital in the fight to support species through green spaces.

Ringtail possums are a common sight throughout Melbourne. Photo: Emma Walsh

Ringtail possums are a common sight throughout Melbourne. Photo: Emma Walsh

An associate professor of Melbourne University, Kirsten Parris further demonstrated the importance of green spaces and appropriate habitat for increased biodiversity. She argued that habitat loss and fragmentation, noise and light pollution, and introduced species are all factors strongly implicating species across Melbourne, especially in a time of rapid population expansion.

Yet another professor in attendance that evening, Tim Entwisle of the Royal Botanic Gardens suggested that people need to learn from what they already love. Even though native plants are incredibly important in supporting higher biodiversity, Tim explained that some people need to be able to relate to the plants that they know. For example, if you plant roses, learn about the native spiders you might find on them. People's backyards can indeed become 'a part of that urban forest' (although we do highly recommend planting native!).  

Tim also provided one of the most interesting facts of the night, explaining that a study in Toronto recently showed that the planting of 10 trees in a city block provides the equivalent feeling to residents as a $10,000 increase in one's annual income would. If that's not a good enough reason to invest in greener spaces, then I don't know what is. 

This might make some of you wonder how us humans fit into biodiversity. Well, as Tim's example portrays, studies show that greener urban spaces (that intrinsically lead to higher biodiversity in many places) are actually good for us. It's a popular point currently being made by both nature and health lovers, and suggests that biodiversity may actually help us live longer. Associate Professor Sarah Bekessy of RMIT pushed this idea strongly, stating that greener cities can result in reduced stress, improved cognitive development in children, reduced mental fatigue and reduced crime - to name but a few of the many benefits. 

She believes that we need to 'start thinking differently about nature', as biodiversity is continuously seen as a problem by many city planners and urban developers. But if it brings so many health benefits, why should it be? As a teacher of sustainability and urban planning, Sarah knows that green spaces and biodiversity are 'not just about nature' - they're about people too. Considering we have falcons living side by side with office workers, it is hard to disagree.

Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Cooka.


Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human-other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Suburban wilderness: the Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve

Heading south out of Melbourne, the search for wild spaces is quicker and easier than you might think. Two turns off the Peninsula Link freeway (built to help shuttle increasing numbers of residents and visitors to Mornington or Rosebud) and the suburban sprawl breaks on the edge of a unique remnant of natural bushland.

The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve is 214 hectares of dappled stringybark woodland, flower-spotted heaths, and wetlands that reappear every spring, announced by calling frogs. From the long central break, paths curve and twist among soft hills and sand dunes left behind by the changing levels of ancient seas. At the peak of the greatest dune, surrounded by squat Epacris and heath wattle, the view stretches clear to the Dandenong Ranges in one direction and Arthur’s Seat in the other. Descending through the taller stands of Eucalyptus and Banksia interrupts a dizzying whirl of wrens, thrushes and cuckoos. Patient strolling is rewarded by the sight of shuffling echidnas, while the bounding black wallabies make an unusual hazard for bike riders.

Langwarrin Flora & Fauna Reserve. Image: Parks Victoria

Langwarrin Flora & Fauna Reserve. Image: Parks Victoria

The quality and variety of wildlife in this small space is staggering. At least 50 orchid species have been found within the reserve, including some rare and threatened examples like the purple diuris. The critically endangered New Holland mouse, and the southern emu-wren have both been spotted. The southern brown bandicoot has habitat here that is repeated almost nowhere else.

These assemblages would be wonderful enough on their own, but take on a particular significance in this location. The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve was only made a protected space in 1985; from almost 100 years earlier, the land had been in military hands, belonging to the Victorian Government in the late 19th Century and the Commonwealth following Federation. During this tenure, land was cleared for parade grounds and encampments, for training, and for the grazing of local livestock. In one tense period during World War I, German prisoners of war were interned on the site. A little later, as blithely related by a sign near the reserve’s carpark, a hospital was constructed to treat returning soldiers suffering venereal disease.

Prior to the establishment of the military reserve, it is likely that the area was cleared for agriculture along with the majority of the Mornington Peninsula. Pasture and cropland were crucial in the expansion of Melbourne, both for trade export and to support the booming population that arrived with the gold rush. However, poor soils and inconvenient landscapes meant that some of the bushland was left uncleared – in the Langwarrin district this left behind reservoirs of seed and habitat that have been lost elsewhere, along with evidence of the First Australian Boonerwrung people’s cyclic passage as they tracked seasonal food sources. Nowadays, the reserve is used by residents for exercise, recreation, horse riding, and nature study.

Langwarrin Flora and Fauna reserve houses a diverse range of fauna. Image: Parks Victoria. 

Langwarrin Flora and Fauna reserve houses a diverse range of fauna. Image: Parks Victoria. 

It is a rarity to find a space like the reserve, as well as its larger neighbour the Pines Flora and Fauna Reserve, in an area that has consistently seen a dramatically increasing residential community. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, the outer suburbs of Melbourne have experienced some of the fastest population growth in Australia. New housing estates and the rezoning of agricultural land saw building booms in the Frankston area of up to 30% expansion between 2001 and 2011. There is a more complete development of land, an increase in population density, and pressure on roads and other infrastructure.

It is to be expected that all this impacts negatively on those remaining islands of native bushland. Management plans for the reserves of the area are constantly looking to the dangers of feral animals, of foxes and rabbits, and of the occasional presence of free-roaming housepets. There is also a cost that comes with allowing human access to each space, with risks such as erosion exacerbated by cyclists and horse-riders to the point of path closures during wet weather. A further danger is the spreading of invasive plants from nearby gardens: Pittosporum undulatum has a well-deserved reputation for choking out woodland understories, while coastal tea-trees alter fire regimes in uncertain ways. Pathogens like the cinnamon fungus, Phytophthora cinnamomi, are spread on the soles of walkers’ shoes and cause indiscriminate damage to vegetation.

Image: Parks Victoria

Image: Parks Victoria

Inevitably, though, people will keep coming into these spaces – and they have a right to. Using green spaces for walking, relaxing, or exercising has been shown to improve mental health and a sense of connection with the landscape. The reality is that without that tangible value, it is difficult to explain the necessity of preserving these beautiful, complex and fragile ecosystems.

While of course no one likes to brag, it is mentioned quite often that Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city. The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked our city first among 140 locations each year since 2011, and other polls put us in similarly high positions. Our parks and gardens do a lot to contribute to our own mental wellbeing, and shape our lifestyles for the better. These islands of natural bushland are equally beneficial, with the added bonus of keeping Australia’s native plants and animals on the ground and in our perception.

These parks are kept for all of us, not just the conservationists who catalogue their secrets. Make the time. Look around you. Seek out a new wilderness to explore.


PAUL JONES

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development

Snail Extermination and Slug Annihilation: The Blue-Tongue Lizards (Tiliqua sp.)

These surly animals are common residents in many Melbournian backyards, but due to misinformation, many people dislike and are even afraid of Blue-Tongue Lizards. Contrary to popular belief, there is a lot to like about these grumpy-looking reptiles.

Growing up to 30 cm long, Blue-Tongue Lizards are the largest members of the Skink family. They are found in a wide range of habitats, including coastal and montane regions, sclerophyll forests and urban areas. Eastern Blue-Tongue Lizards (Tiliqua scincoides) are common throughout Melbourne, especially in the western and northern suburbs, whilst Southern Blue-Tongue Lizards (Tiliqua nigrolutea) are more common in the eastern suburbs.

Also known as Common Blue-Tongue Lizards, Eastern Blue-Tongue Lizards are recognizable due to the broad, dark brown or blackish bands across their back and tail. In contrast, Southern Blue-Tongue Lizards (also known as Blotched Blue-Tongue Lizards) have large pink, cream or yellow blotches on their back. Furthermore, Eastern Blue-Tongue Lizards have a silvery-grey background colour, whilst Southern Blue Tongue Lizards have a darker, browner background colour.

An Eastern Blue-Tongue Lizard rests amongst leaf litter. 

An Eastern Blue-Tongue Lizard rests amongst leaf litter. 

These lizards are often seen basking in the morning sunshine, warming themselves up so that they can forage and hunt in the heat of the afternoon. During the winter months, these lizards enter a dormant phase, but it is not true hibernation. On warmer days during this period, Blue-Tongue Lizards will emerge from their shelters to bask, but will not feed until the weather warms up for good.

Blue-Tongue Lizards use their brightly coloured tongues for defence. When threatened, these lizards will approach the threat with their mouths wide open, and may even hiss. In the event that a Blue-Tongue Lizard is caught by a predator, it can drop its tail to increase its chances of escape and survival. The stump that remains rapidly heals, and a shorter, regenerated tail grows to replace the lost tail. Predators of Blue-Tongue Lizards include large predatory birds, snakes, and feral cats and dogs.

Contrary to popular belief, these lizards are not venomous or particularly aggressive, but can deliver a painful bite if they are harassed. In fact, Blue-Tongue Lizards are a good animal to have in your backyard, especially if you are concerned about the number of slugs and snails in your vegie patch or garden bed. Blue-Tongue Lizards feed mainly on these creepy crawlies, as well as beetles, other insects, fruits and flowers.

To encourage Blue-Tongue Lizards into your backyard, add a few rocks or logs to any sunny spots, and make sure that there is some shelter near by, such as low shrubs or a clay pipe. This way, the lizards will be able to bask, but also escape to safety if they feel threatened. In addition, keep the use of snail bait to a minimum – this is toxic to Blue-Tongue Lizards, and, with any luck, the lizards will eat those pesky snails and you won’t need the snail bait anyway!