natural history

Victoria's robins bring a hint of warmth in the dead of winter

A flash of red caught my eye. Perched on the top wire of the fence between the bush reserve and the lightly grazed paddock was a small bird, its scarlet breast contrasting with the white below and the black of its head and back. A white stripe down the side of its wings and an obvious white spot above its beak completed its showy costume. Further along the fence another bird perched. Its size and white markings were similar, but its back and head were grey, and its red chest less vibrant. The birds stared down. The duller bird dropped to the ground, caught a small flying insect in the grass, and returned to the fence to devour its prey.

The birds reminded me that it was winter. They were a pair of Scarlet Robins, the brighter plumage belonging to the male. They breed in forests during spring and summer and move to more open areas at lower altitude in autumn, remaining there for winter. When nesting, they prefer larger patches of forest with shrubs, fallen branches and leaf litter. In the cooler months they are more likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses. They catch insects and spiders from the ground in colder months, and from bark and leaves when living in forests.

In the cooler months, Scarlet Robins are likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses.  Image: Rowan Mott

In the cooler months, Scarlet Robins are likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses. Image: Rowan Mott

A female Scarlet Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Scarlet Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

The male and female bond for life and defend their territory during the breeding season. They usually choose the fork of a tree as a place for the female to build a cup-shaped nest of bark. She covers the outside in sticky cobwebs. Inside, on a lining of animal fur, feathers and sometimes soft plant fibres, she lays about three pale green, blue or grey eggs with brown splotches and one pointed end. The female sits on the eggs and the young chicks, while the male feeds her and the babies. As the babies grow, the female leaves the nest and assists with the hunting. Many chicks don’t survive to fledging. Threats include snakes and predatory birds such as currawongs. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, including robins’ nests, with the young cuckoo being the only survivor of the brood. The robins will lay two or three batches of eggs in one breeding season, then leave for their winter residence. I notice the Scarlet Robins’ arrival, usually in April, but I never notice their departure as the weather warms. One day I realise that I haven’t seen them for a few weeks, and I know they are gone until next autumn.

Occasionally another robin visits us in autumn. It is the Flame Robin. The male has a brilliant orange-red front, and dark grey back. His posture is more upright than the Scarlet Robin and he is slightly larger, but otherwise they look similar. The female is brown. She has white stripes on her wings, but no red on her chest. These robins are sometimes seen in small flocks in winter. In his springtime breeding habitat, the male sings and displays his feathers, puffing up his flame-coloured breast, or his white markings, to defend his territory from other Flame Robins, and from Scarlet Robins, which sometimes breed in the same area. He may also fly at intruders to scare them away. The populations of both species of robins are declining, possibly due to loss of  habitat and more predators, as birds such as currawongs thrive in landscapes created by people.

A female Flame Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

A male Flame Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A male Flame Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin at her nest.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin at her nest. Image: Bernie McRitchie

Another robin that is becoming scarcer is the Jacky Winter. With a grey back and white underneath, it is harder to identify than the other robins. It also sits on fences looking for food. As it dives to the ground or swoops through the air chasing flying insects, it spreads its tail, showing the black central feathers and white edge feathers that are its most obvious distinguishing feature.

Another colourful, but less seen visitor to our area, is the Eastern Yellow Robin. The male and female both have a grey head, olive-green lower back and are bright yellow underneath. They live near the coast and further inland and are found in many different habitats. Their habits are similar to the other robins.

A Jacky Winter.  Image: David Whelan

A Jacky Winter. Image: David Whelan

Eastern Yellow Robins can be found near the coast and further inland.  Image: David Whelan

Eastern Yellow Robins can be found near the coast and further inland. Image: David Whelan

Most of these birds are eye-catching with their bright colours. They are often seen perched on a fence or in a tree. They seem undisturbed by people, so it is possible to walk slowly and quietly closer to them, and watch them as they feed. Some are curious enough that they may even come closer to look at you. 


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 Bernie McRitchie’s love of nature was born of visits to the Bannockburn bush as a teen. Trained as a horticulturalist and now working as an arborist for Wyndham City Council, many readers would be familiar with Bernie’s iconic photos which grace the pages of several nature groups on Facebook. Bernie’s most recent contribution to the photographic literature is via Dr Stephen Debus’s 2017 book Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds, published by CSIRO Publishing. Along with his good friend David Whelan, he provided the first confirmed, successful breeding record for the Black Falcon in Southern Victoria.


Banner image of a Scarlet Robin courtesy of Rowan Mott. 

Listening to nature's subtle cues

I was visiting the St Kilda Botanical Gardens when a storm was approaching; the air felt electric. The sun disappeared behind dark, all-consuming clouds, and lightning could be seen cracking through the grey sky. My senses were heightened and from a nearby pond in the gardens I could hear the 'Creee... cree creee cree creee' of Southern Brown Tree Frogs calling. Then the rain started to fall, delicately splashing my face.

How do you experience, or sense a change in the weather?

These days, we are bombarded with weather updates, warnings and other information from our electronic devices, televisions, and even Siri and Google Home. In nature, animals and plants have evolved inbuilt systems to detect changes in the weather and react accordingly. For thousands of years, people have used some of these animals to predict changes in the weather.

By becoming more mindful and paying closer attention to nature, we can detect oncoming changes in the weather. There are several examples to draw on. Many insects hide away when a storm is brewing; black ants make themselves busy by covering up holes to their nests if rain is on the way; and there is even a saying, ‘when sheep gather in a huddle, tomorrow will have a puddle.’ One of the other well-known cues in nature is taken from frogs, as their evening choruses are generally a sign that rain is on the way.

Southern Brown Tree Frogs are often heard prior to rainfall in and around Melbourne.  Image: Rowan Mott

Southern Brown Tree Frogs are often heard prior to rainfall in and around Melbourne. Image: Rowan Mott

When it comes to frogs, the events of reproduction must be synchronised with suitable conditions, so breeding can be successful. We can take advantage of this time and listen carefully to the unique calls of male frogs “wooing” the females to their pond. Many frog species breed seasonally, and are thought to use temperature, day length, moisture and atmospheric pressure (“weight of the air”) to time their breeding activity. The final trigger for most frogs is rainfall, as many species require free-standing water for fertilisation.

There are several local species in Melbourne that you may hear prior to a rainfall event. Here are a few examples to spark your interest.

The Southern Brown Tree Frog (Litoria ewingii) is a species that has adapted to urbanised habitats, and can be found from the city to the suburbs and beyond. The adults inhabit a variety of wet and flooded areas, and fortunately for us they are common in gardens and suburban areas. Southern Brown Tree Frogs can also be found calling long distances from water. The good news for us is they call all year round, and often in response to rain. So, next time you're out and you hear a series of rapid, whirring, pulsing notes, repeated 5 to 15 times – ‘creeeeeee creee creee cree cree cree’ (the first note is usually the longest) – it might be wise to grab a raincoat!

Another helpful frog is the Eastern Banjo Frog or Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes dumerilii). This species can call all year round, but has a peak in its calling period during spring and early summer. Keep your ear out for a short explosive note producing a resonant ‘bonk’. The call is usually repeated every few seconds. This fascinating species can migrate up to one kilometre to its breeding sites. It is also a burrowing species, commonly popping up in suburban gardens and sandpits where you may glimpse it foraging on the surface after rain. 

The Eastern Banjo Frog is also known as the Pobblebonk and can call all year round.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

The Eastern Banjo Frog is also known as the Pobblebonk and can call all year round. Image: Cathy Cavallo

The Eastern Banjo Frog can migrate up to one kilometre to their breeding sites.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

The Eastern Banjo Frog can migrate up to one kilometre to their breeding sites. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Lastly, we come to frogs that alert us to the autumn rain Melbourne often experiences. One of the more common species you may come across is the Victorian Smooth Froglet (Geocrinia victoriana). I’ve recorded Victorian Smooth Froglets at Yarra Bend Park in Kew, and in the outer-eastern suburbs. The male frogs can be heard from low-lying areas within gullies, at the edge of wetlands and waterways (such as among moist leaf litter) that will flood after rain. They are a secretive species, and need an inquisitive ear to seek out their lovely and very distinctive call. Their song consists of a long, harsh first note, followed by a long series of short, rapidly repeated musical notes – ‘wa-a-a-a-a-ark pip-pip-pip-pip-pip-pip...’.

Not all frogs are “pond breeders”. The Victorian Smooth Froglet is an exception to the rule and is referred to as a terrestrial breeder for their curious and intriguing reproductive habit. Within a low-lying moist area, the male calls from a shallow burrow and the female will lay her eggs in the burrow on land, not in the water. Much of the development is done within the egg capsule. Once the rain floods their burrow, the tadpoles can emerge and complete their metamorphosis in free-standing water. Males will often call prior to or at the onset of a heavy rain event throughout March to May. The other not-so-common terrestrial breeders that call in autumn are the elusive Southern Toadlet (Pseudophyryne semimarmorata) and Bibron’s Toadlet (Pseudophryne bibronii); they have very similar double-note calls with an inflection on the second note – ‘ri-rick’.

So, next time you want to ask Siri what the weather will be like, perhaps take a walk outside in your local park and see if the frogs are calling. They may be telling you in their own lovely, melodic way to take an umbrella to work today.

You can investigate other pond-breeding frogs in Melbourne that may alert you to the onset of rain throughout the year. Take a look at frogs.org.au and the Melbourne Water Frog Census. You can also download the Melbourne Water Frog Census app or check out the recently launched Australia-wide Frog ID app. Both apps encourage citizens to record frog calls, so scientists can have a greater understanding of frogs around Australia and track their populations over time.


Christina Renowden has had an affinity for nature since she was a child. Over the years this love of nature has morphed into one role or another, including studying conservation ecology, researching urban frogs, and working as a consultant zoologist. She is now a mother of two and the founder of Leap into Nature. Since 2014, Leap into Nature has been creating and presenting a range of nature-based and environmental education programs for young people. Christina is excited to begin a Master of Environment in July 2018 at the University of Melbourne and is currently the Vice President on the committee of management for Environment Education Victoria. 


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

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.