urban wildlife

Balconies for butterflies: a guide for the urban gardener

There are few creatures quite as charming as our native butterflies. Unfortunately, urbanisation has pushed many of these once-common insects from our cities and some local butterflies are now threatened with extinction. Increasingly, though, city dwellers are looking to welcome wildlife back into their urban gardens, no matter how small the available space may be. This is incredibly easy thanks to a widely available range of attractive indigenous plants suitable for any balcony. Most importantly, they’re both inexpensive and easy to grow.

Although easy enough, creating a balcony for butterflies does require some forethought. Both adult butterflies and caterpillars need to be catered for with appropriate food plants. The plants themselves must also be carefully chosen to guarantee that they will survive and thrive under the particular conditions of your balcony.

The Common Brown.  Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Brown. Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Start your butterfly balcony off by planting Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) and Common Tussock Grass (Poa labillardieri). Both these species tolerate harsh sun and dry conditions, although by no means does that mean you should go easy on the water when it comes time to give them a drink. These two species are food plants for the Common Brown (Heteronympha merope), a showy butterfly now rarely seen in Melbourne probably due to a decline of these two native grasses within the city.

To add a little height and colour, include a Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata) which flowers profusely for long periods with beautiful yellow blooms. This little shrub is an incredibly hardy, drought-resistant species and can be pruned to whatever size you desire. It is a food plant for the Meadow Argus (Junonia villida) and its larvae.

Kangaroo Grass, Common Tussock Grass and Hop Goodenia like some sun but they all tolerate a range of conditions from shade to direct sun.

The Golden Everlasting (Xerochrysum bracteatum) is another must-have for any Melburnian butterfly balcony due to its drought tolerance. These showy flowers attract the Australian Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi) which feeds on both the leaves, as a caterpillar, and the flowers, as an adult butterfly. This golden daisy is also one of very few indigenous species to bloom throughout the hot summer months. It does require a sunny position though, so place it where it will get plenty of direct light.

The Meadow Argus.  Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Meadow Argus. Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre (Trapezites symmomus) is perhaps Melbourne’s most audible butterfly species. Its rapid wingbeats sound more like a small bird than a butterfly, and it can be attracted by Mat Rushes (Lomandra longifolia). These provide year-round green, even when your native grasses have turned brown in the summer heat. They tolerate a range of light levels from full sun to shade.

Another fabulous plant to include on your butterfly balcony is the Finger Lime (Citrus australasica). Although native, it is not indigenous to the Melbourne region but is from the lowland subtropical rainforest and rainforest of the coastal border region of Queensland and New South Wales. Not only does it provide delicious zesty fruits for you, but it attracts the Dingy Swallowtail (Papilio anactus), Melbourne’s largest butterfly. Its caterpillars begin life camouflaged as little bird droppings but grow to a gargantuan size over the course of a month or two. This will allow you to observe their life cycle from the comfort of your own home.

The Splendid Ochre.  Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre. Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Many Melburnian balconies suffer from a distinct lack of direct sunlight. Fortunately, there is a perfect plant for such places, the Scrub Nettle (Urtica incisa). This delicate little native is the favoured food plant of the Australian Admiral (Vanessa itea) which constructs a little tent to shelter in during the day by folding the leaves of its host plant. The Scrub Nettle is a lover of damp and shady places so find a nice sheltered spot for it and don’t skimp on the water.

Finally, for your adult butterflies you need a source of nectar. Although many introduced flowers will suffice, there is one native genus of plant that numerous butterfly species love during the hot summer months: tea tree (Leptospermum). The nectar-filled white blooms of these plants provide a rich meal for your butterflies to fuel their busy period of mating and egg-laying. One common indigenous species with particular drought tolerance is the Prickly Tea Tree (Leptospermum continentale) which can handle partial shade to full sun.

Now that you know some of our common Melburnian butterflies and their favourite food plants, go forth and build a butterfly oasis on your balcony. Not only will you create a wonderful little garden full of butterflies to enjoy, but you will also provide a habitat which helps our six-legged friends traverse the often perilous and resource-poor concrete jungle. All it takes is one person, a few plants, and the better half of an afternoon to set up a habitat garden which will serve hundreds of butterflies for years to come.


Mackenzie Kwak is a zoologist with a broad interest in Australia's diverse flora and fauna. His research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites, particularly ticks, fleas and lice.


Banner image of an Australian Painted Lady courtesy of fir0002 | Canon 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 + Canon MT 24-EX [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], from Wikimedia Commons.

Headed from the hills to a town near you

They’re back. If you’re like me and live in one of Victoria’s bigger cities, chances are you might have noticed the influx of Pied Currawongs as the seasons have drifted through autumn and into winter. Maybe you haven’t seen them, but I’m sure you would have heard them even if you didn’t recognise the sound. A wailing ‘Kaaarrr-ooooooooo’ has been piercing the cold of suburban streets as these black and white wraiths slip through the trees on deep, lolling wing-beats, flashes of white in the outer-wing catching the eye with every flap.

Currawongs are intelligent birds – you need only watch them for a few moments to figure this out. Their burnt-yellow eyes are ever-vigilant as they slink from perch to perch. They are usually looking for foraging opportunities, and our cities and towns offer plenty to keep them well-fed. The sturdy bill that juts so prominently from their face enables them to eat a wide variety of foods. Infamous for their prowess of snatching recently hatched birds from the nest, currawongs often bear the scorn of sensitive bird watchers.

   
  
    
  
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  The piercing yellow eyes are arguably a Pied Currawong’s most striking feature.  Image: Rowan Mott

The piercing yellow eyes are arguably a Pied Currawong’s most striking feature. Image: Rowan Mott

But a quick glance at a freshly deposited Pied Currawong poo or regurgitated pellet will immediately tell you that they also include plant foods in the diet. The poos that have been left on my balcony rail recently are deep purple and contain numerous seeds, indicating these particular individuals have been feasting on a glut of berries from nearby shrubs. Currawongs also eat many insects, small reptiles and carrion. And if you have ever left a snack unattended in the backyard, you may have been unfortunate enough to discover that these plucky birds aren’t averse to helping themselves to an easy meal.

These two pellets regurgitated by Pied Currawongs on my balcony show that the diet of this species comprises far more than simply nestling birds. The one on the left is full of seeds and the one on the right contained something I couldn’t recognise.  Image: Rowan Mott

These two pellets regurgitated by Pied Currawongs on my balcony show that the diet of this species comprises far more than simply nestling birds. The one on the left is full of seeds and the one on the right contained something I couldn’t recognise. Image: Rowan Mott

So why are there so many Pied Currawongs around our built-up areas at the moment? Despite their varied diet, their primary food sources are all prone to seasonal fluctuations. As spring is the peak period of breeding for many small birds, when the seasons turn and the young birds all fledge, it becomes difficult for Pied Currawongs to find a nest-bound meal. Similarly, insects and reptiles becomes less active as the weather cools down, restricting access to these food sources for Pied Currawongs. Nowhere is the temperature change felt more acutely than in the high country and so, many Pied Currawongs that spent the summer at high elevation come flocking out to lower ground.

Pied Currawongs form large flocks during autumn and winter, unlike during the summer. No longer needing to defend a nesting territory, the territorial aggression breaks down, allowing many birds to socialise. These gregarious flocks make noisy, garrulous calls as they roam across the landscape rendering their presence almost unmissable. Numbers within these flocks may be buoyed by many young birds that left the nest just a few months before. These individuals look almost identical to the adults, but close inspection will reveal a tiny spot of yellow skin at the gape (corner) of the bill, and an overall greyer appearance. The parents care for their young for several months after fledging, but the young must quickly learn the intricacies of foraging if they are to survive through the long, lean winter.

Pied Currawongs are a familiar sight in many built-up areas of Victoria, particularly during winter when many individuals from higher altitudes descend to places with a more moderate climate.  Image: Rowan Mott

Pied Currawongs are a familiar sight in many built-up areas of Victoria, particularly during winter when many individuals from higher altitudes descend to places with a more moderate climate. Image: Rowan Mott

Young Pied Currawongs can be distinguished from adult birds by the presence of a small, fleshy, yellow gape of the bill.  Image: Rowan Mott

Young Pied Currawongs can be distinguished from adult birds by the presence of a small, fleshy, yellow gape of the bill. Image: Rowan Mott

Pied Currawongs aren’t the only currawongs to call Victorian cities and towns home. Keep an eye and ear open for Grey Currawongs. They are very similar in appearance to the Pied Currawong, but are cloaked in ashy-grey rather than black plumage. They also lack the white band on the upper side of the base of the tail (rump) that is present on a Pied Currawong.

Grey Currawongs can also be found in Victorian towns and cities. Although very similar to Pied Currawongs, they can be distinguished by their greyer plumage and lack of white on the rump.  Image: Rowan Mott

Grey Currawongs can also be found in Victorian towns and cities. Although very similar to Pied Currawongs, they can be distinguished by their greyer plumage and lack of white on the rump. Image: Rowan Mott

Although currawongs are much maligned for predating young birds, the magnitude of effect of this behaviour is likely a symptom of habitat change in our suburbs. Our urban environments are characterised by reduced vegetation cover, leaving nests of smaller birds exposed and easily discoverable to the sharp eyes of a currawong. But rather than denigrating currawongs as barbarians of the bird world, we should learn to appreciate what currawongs represent. Their successful integration into urban areas should be celebrated as a link to the natural world on our doorstep, while simultaneously reminding us that we need to be doing more to provide suitable habitat in our towns and cities for the smaller birds they prey on.


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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.

On call to help native wildlife

Have you ever come across an injured animal and wondered how to help? Perhaps it was a kangaroo laying on the side of the road after being hit by a vehicle? Or a magpie with a broken wing? Or a possum stuck in a gutter? At the Emergency Response Service at Wildlife Victoria, we're here to help you and the local community in these distressing situations. Every day, we receive calls from members of the public throughout Victoria noticing animal suffering, and wanting assistance to find the best possible solution for these critters. As you can imagine, factors such as increased urbanisation mean that more and more animals come in contact with humans and end up in need of help as a direct result of these interactions.

A Rainbow Lorikeet after a collision with a window in Melbourne's CBD.  Image: Elodie Camprasse

A Rainbow Lorikeet after a collision with a window in Melbourne's CBD. Image: Elodie Camprasse

Wildlife Victoria is a state-wide, not-for-profit organisation that relies on donations to help reduce the suffering of injured, sick or orphaned native animals, including a range of birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians. We rely on a network of dedicated volunteers: 1,500 rescuers and carers throughout Victoria carry out this huge task. This year alone, we received a staggering 77,364 requests for assistance, and, in fact, 80% of these originated from the Melbourne metropolitan area.

You can probably guess what our most rescued species are, as they’re most likely the ones you come across the most. Kangaroos make up about a fifth of all of our rescues and are number one on our list, most of the time because they’ve been hit by vehicles, or have been displaced from their habitat. Ringtail possums, which have adapted to a wide range of habitats and are commonly seen in suburbia, are second on the top five rescued species list, with collisions with vehicles, pet attacks, and encounters within buildings being the most common causes for concern. Ducks make up for about 10% of our cases, as they’re often seen crossing busy roads, especially in spring, or are negatively impacted by rubbish. Brushtail possums and magpies require our attention in 5% of cases, with issues such as pet attacks, collisions with vehicles, and babies found out of their nests.    

An Eastern Grey Kangaroo trapped on the roof of a shopping centre in Doncaster.  Image: Wildlife Victoria

An Eastern Grey Kangaroo trapped on the roof of a shopping centre in Doncaster. Image: Wildlife Victoria

If you’re ever been in need of assistance and have called the service, you’ll know that our phone lines are busy throughout the day, with an average of 200 phone calls keeping us occupied each day, as well as webcases directly logged on our website. When you call, you will get to talk to one of our trained Emergency Response Operators, who will first gather all the relevant details for the case before deciding what the best way to help is. We provide advice and information whenever the case is regarding a non-native, or introduced species, or when sending a rescuer is not necessary. As it's not legal to release non-native species back into the wild and our organisation has limited resources, we cannot attend to these animals.

Some cases require no more than monitoring the situation without having to take the animal away from its natural habitat, or small actions people without knowledge of our native wildlife can take, such as making a fake nest for a bird that could have been found on the ground.

Most times and if possible, it’s better for the animal’s welfare to take it to the nearest vet clinic where they will be assessed, free of charge. When we ascertain that an animal needs to be rescued, we contact our network of amazing and hard-working everyday superheroes to organise rescues. They are the ones that like to get their hands dirty and are trained and experienced to handle these situations. All rescuers are volunteers and provide assistance on top of their day job and busy everyday lives. Whether the situation requires them to check the pouch of a marsupial that has been found dead on the side of the road, catch a parrot with a contagious disease, or pick up a lizard that has been injured by a pet cat or dog, they're here to help and their energy and passion will hopefully inspire you to help our native wildlife even more.

A rescuer holding a Common Brushtail Possum.  Image: Wildlife Victoria

A rescuer holding a Common Brushtail Possum. Image: Wildlife Victoria

Once animals have been rescued, they're taken to a vet clinic; here, they will be assessed and treated, free of charge. Vet clinics are a critical link in the rehabilitation process as they're the first point of call to provide a bit of relief for injured and distressed animals. Vets allow us to know whether animals will be able to make it and should be transferred to a rehabilitation facility. They provide important information such as the weight and sex of marsupials before they go to care so they can be buddied up with another animal of similar characteristics, the progression of specific diseases and whether they can be treated, or the severity of specific wounds. Unfortunately, in cases where animals have been too severely injured or are too sick to be cured, the kindest option may be to humanely put them to sleep, as otherwise their quality of life would be compromised. Liaising with vets allows us to know which animals need rehabilitation and we often assist them in finding the right people to take them to. In some instances, particularly in rural areas, finding a vet nearby might be more challenging and we may contact a licenced carer directly to find these critters temporary homes.

A network of volunteer transporters helps link vets and carers when animals are fortunate enough to have a good prognosis and licensed carers have been found. Carers work tirelessly, looking after animals that might need feeds every couple of hours, which is the case for the smallest joeys as well as some birds. If you’re a parent, you can probably easily recall having a hungry newborn crying in the middle of the night to be fed. During some times of the year, this is the carer’s everyday life! Joey marsupials will stay with them for months, so they can grow from a critter that fits in the palm of your hand to a capable, hopping and self-feeding individual.

However, carers also receive animals that need monitoring for short periods of time to make sure they can be returned to the wild, to their territories and families. These carers rely on their extensive experience to give animals the best possible chance of surviving, allowing them to go back to their normal life in nature. As cute and cuddly as the feather and fur babies they receive are, their job is a tiring one and a full-time commitment. They are also the ones to organise releases back to the wild, in small steps so the animals are not too disoriented and can slowly readapt to being in the wild.    

Carer Emily Small feeding little wombats.  Image: Simon Markhof

Carer Emily Small feeding little wombats. Image: Simon Markhof

Making sure our wildlife are treated with respect, rescued professionally when needed, and rehabilitated with love and devotion involves a lot of effort and a lot of dedicated people. So if you see a native animal in distress or even if you’re not sure, call Wildlife Victoria on 13 000 94535, and we'll give you the advice you need or send someone to the rescue. 


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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.


Banner image courtesy of Wildlife Victoria.

Birding in the backyard counts

I lift the cup to my lips, breathing in the earl grey bouquet as it mixes with the scents of my garden in spring. My laptop sits open with unread emails to attend to but I relish the moment. It is quiet, peaceful. I know that it won't be quiet for long.

Moment by moment, my ears attune to the sounds of the world around me. A large dragonfly drones by, a magpie carols in the distance, and closer at hand an eastern spinebill calls its peeping song. A flock of tiny brown thornbills makes its way along the native bushes that line our fence. More and more, the world comes to life around me, and I muse that I wouldn't have seen it this way had I not brought my cuppa out with me and sat down for a moment.

The companionable twitterings and cheeky bickering of brown thornbills along our fenceline is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

The companionable twitterings and cheeky bickering of brown thornbills along our fenceline is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

As a kid, the backyard was my habitat and my domain. These days, even with two dogs I hardly spend any time out there. Because of this, I miss out on so much. 

Sitting, quietly contemplating the world about me, I begin to pick up and recognise behaviours in the birdlife. The spinebills make a predictable circuit around the flowers they feed on. Day by day, they give away the location of their nest, perched high and deep in the neighbour’s cypress. My mum informs me that around five each afternoon, a female gang gang flies through. Sometimes we hear her and her mate feeding in the neighbourhood, but they always leave to roost for the night. A chance glance across the side fence one morning reveals an Australian hobby sitting silently atop our neighbour’s aerial, buffeted by the spring gusts.

Spring visits from eastern spinebills have brought joy to my family for years, but their presence at our place has recently become permanent. Last year we had chicks raised in the garden. Will they succeed this year? 

Spring visits from eastern spinebills have brought joy to my family for years, but their presence at our place has recently become permanent. Last year we had chicks raised in the garden. Will they succeed this year? 

Our birch trees have seen a succession of parrots. The crimson and eastern rosellas of my childhood rarely call their bell-like toll these days, replaced instead by the cheeky rainbow lorikeets.

Our birch trees have seen a succession of parrots. The crimson and eastern rosellas of my childhood rarely call their bell-like toll these days, replaced instead by the cheeky rainbow lorikeets.

Spotted doves. The fact that they are an introduced species does nothing to diminish the pleasure spent watching them.

Spotted doves. The fact that they are an introduced species does nothing to diminish the pleasure spent watching them.

The more I notice, the more interested I become, and the more I feel an affinity for these individuals as they go about their day around me. We spend so much time indoors that we are cut off from the myriad other lives buzzing about us, a fact which removes them from our minds and puts them low on the list of priorities to protect. The more time I spend outside, the more connected I feel to this little patch of earth, the busy, functioning ecosystem of my yard and the life it supports.

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Two years ago, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count forced me to sit outside for 20 minutes at a time to record birds in the garden. I thought I'd be bored in my urban habitat, but was surprised to find the peace it brought me, and the number of species I found. These days it is a feature of my life. As much as I can, I take a tea outside, or my breakfast, and sit, watch and listen. Tuning my senses to the birds and beasts brings me out of the inner monologue that usually dominates my life. We so rarely sit quietly that we forget how restorative it is, how vital for our functioning. It's only when we're forced to do so that we remember how good it is.

Try it sometime. Head out the back door with a cup of tea, coffee or your lunch, and just wait. Even if the only thing you see is an ant crawling across your table, I dare you to say you’re bored.

The Aussie Backyard Bird Count takes place from Monday 23rd October to Sunday 29th October. Register here to participate.


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Cathy Cavallo

Cathy is a PhD student and science communicator with a passion for natural history, environmental engagement and photography. When she isn't running the Wild Melbourne social media, you'll find her working with little penguins on Phillip Island or underwater somewhere.

You can find her on Twitter at @CavalloDelMare


All images courtesy of Cathy Cavallo.