Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country … 2nd Edition

Many readers will be familiar with the wonderful book by Chris Tzaros, Wildlife of the Box Ironbark Country, first published in 2005. You may well have a well-worn copy in the car or on the bookshelf, or perhaps have tried in vain to find a copy in bookshops. In recent times they have become like ‘hens teeth’.

The terrific news is that the second edition will be available very soon, in October.

The new edition is certainly well deserving of its tag line … A comprehensive overview of the ecologically significant Box–Ironbark habitats and their wildlife.

Victoria’s Box–Ironbark region is one of the most important areas of animal diversity and significance in southern Australia. The forests and woodlands of this region provide critical habitat for a diverse array of woodland-dependent animals, including many threatened and declining species such as the Squirrel Glider, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Regent Honeyeater, Swift Parrot, Pink-tailed Worm-Lizard, Woodland Blind Snake, Tree Goanna and Bibron’s Toadlet.

Wildlife of the Box–Ironbark Country gives a comprehensive overview of the ecology of the Box–Ironbark habitats and their wildlife, and how climate change is having a major influence. This extensively revised second edition covers all of the mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs that occur in the region, with a brief description of their distribution, status, ecology and identification, together with a detailed distribution map and superb colour photograph for each species. The book includes a ‘Where to watch’ section, featuring a selection of national parks, state parks and nature conservation reserves where people can experience the ecosystem and its wildlife for themselves. This book is intended for land managers, conservation and wildlife workers, fauna consultants, landholders, teachers, students, naturalists and all those interested in learning about and appreciating the wildlife of this fascinating and endangered ecosystem.

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The book will be available from all good bookstores in October 2021 – $49.99. Further details here publish.csiro.au/book/7945

About the author
CT
Chris Tzaros is uniquely placed to write about the fauna of Victoria’s Box–Ironbark country. Brought up near Bendigo, he has had a passionate interest in wildlife since childhood. Chris has 25 years’ experience working on wildlife research and conservation projects, largely focused on threatened woodland birds, for both government and non-government environmental and conservation organisations. He is an award-winning wildlife photographer and has produced the majority of the photos in this book. Chris is currently an independent wildlife ecologist and nature photographer based in north-east Victoria but enjoys working among nature right around Australia.

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Spring fever

While I didn’t exactly ‘nail’ the first three images they do capture a rarely observed event – one that I’ve only glimpsed, from memory, a couple of times in the past.

All of the robins, in fact many birds, engage in courtship feeding during the breeding season. In this case I first spotted this female Hooded Robin perched high in the canopy where it started to flutter its wings in frenzied fashion. Moments later the male appeared and delivered a caterpillar morsel to its mate. This all happened in the matter of seconds, the male departed and the female descended to the woodland floor where it resumed gathering material for its nest, being built nearby low in a eucalypt stump.

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Female Hooded Robin, wing vibration prior to courtship feeding, Welshmans Reef, 12th September 2021

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Male Hooded Robin courtship feeding

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Hooded Robin (adult male)

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Hooded Robin (adult female) with nesting material

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Shaping the nest – the site in a low fork of a coppiced eucalypt

Familiar friends and a mini-mystery

The bird in the image below has me somewhat confounded.

It’s clearly a tern, but which species?

I spotted it late yesterday afternoon on the Moolort Plains. As I quietly watched a distant feeding Brolga, it must have passed directly over my head, observed briefly in fading light as it headed north.

Whiskered Terns are the most commonly observed birds from this sub-family (related to the gulls) and can be seen in wet years on freshwater wetlands and regularly on Cairn Curran, along with the much larger Caspian Terns.

It was a fleeting glimpse but this individual looked intriguingly like a Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, a reasonably common species in northern and southern Victoria, but one that I’ve never observed locally. The overall appearance was of a bulkier bird than a Whiskered Tern, with less buoyant flight. Adult breeding Whiskered Terns have a black cap and nape, as do Gull-billed Terns, but have a red bill, not black and their underparts typically are sooty. The upper parts of the Gull-billed tern are almost white, rather than grey. Another clear difference is the bill shape – slender, with a less pronounced ‘gull’ conformation than the G.nilotica.

I’ll put this observation in the maybe category for now and would be interested in any reader thoughts. Sadly, the image below is the best one I have!

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A mystery tern … maybe?

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Nankeen Kestrel (female)

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Brown Falcon

Postscript: The view from a number of expert birders is that the tern is in fact a Gull-billed Tern, a rare visitor to central Victoria. One was reported at Lake Eppalock (near Bendigo) on the 9th September.

Nest building proceeds

As a very fecund spring unfolds, a lot of nest building activity is happening at our place at Strangways.

The White-winged Choughs whose nest building I posted about a month or so ago are now sitting on eggs.

White-winged Chough patiently incubating.

This particular family seems to be way ahead of the other Chough families around our place, with at least 4 other nests in early stages of building in a 1 km stretch along our lane.

It’s early days for other Chough nests, and construction standards look a little different in this nest base.

Pardalotes have been busy too. Striated Pardalotes are starting to pack some new lining in the nest boxes near our house.

Striated Pardalote on the perch of a nest box about to add some lining.

And others are looking at the same box with some hope of moving in.

One of the nest builders telling a hopeful occupant to look elsewhere.

Spotted Pardalotes never seem to be interested in our nest boxes. I’m not sure if that’s because the entry tubes might be too big for them or whether their larger Striated cousins just keep them away. The Spotted Pardalotes have some nesting holes in the bank of the roadside at the front of our place and I was delighted to come across a male tearing strips off fallen bark and ferrying it back to one of these nests.

A male Spotted Pardalote collecting some bark for lining a nest hole
The yellow throat indicates this is a boy.
“Can I fit any more in my beak?”

Every year, Brown Thornbills make nests very close to our front verandah. I think they regard us and our dog as protection from predatory birds and cuckoos. They hide in a nearby hop bush with their construction materials and dart quickly into the dense patch of Gold Dust Wattle where they’re making the nest, so I’ve not managed to get a shot of them going in. Whilst one of the pair darts in with the goods, the other will sit more obviously in a nearby Spreading Wattle and sings loudly, perhaps to draw attention away from the one heading to their very well hidden nest. The intelligence of these birds is astounding. I read a while back that when a predator or cuckoo approaches their nest, they make hawk alarm calls of various species until the threat takes off for their own safety.

One of our Brown Thornbills creating a distraction.

One of the prized lining materials for our local birds is the fur of our small dog. After brushing him, I poke bundles of his fur into our fencing wire and quite a few different bird species will pick it up.

A female Scarlet Robin with some valuable nest lining courtesy of our Schipperke.

A good year …

The local bush is oblivious to the pandemic.

With abundant winter and early spring rain there is a riot of colour at present, dominated by flowering wattles – especially Rough Wattle Acacia aspera.

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A riot of colour, Mia Mia Track, 5th September 2021

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Rough Wattle

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Downy Grevillea

The highlight of this walk was a flock of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, perhaps a dozen or so, moving in a loose party through the canopy and feasting on caterpillars. A number were observed with large, green larvae that they had captured. They would bash the larvae on branch before consuming them in a series of gulps. I’m not able to positively identify the larvae but they most likely belong to the family Saturniidae, of which the Emperor Gum Moth is a well known member. Moths in this family often pupate for more than a year, emerging when conditions are suitable.

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Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike with Emperor Gum Moth caterpillar

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… mournful trilling

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Fan-tailed Cuckoo with caterpillar

The chance effect

A wonderful aspect of birding is the unpredictable nature of it all.

I often start a ramble with a reasonable idea of which species I might see, as well as a small list of birds that I hope to encounter. Every trip is different.

Last weekend in the Mia Mia I was on the lookout for cuckoos, especially Pallid Cuckoos, spotted earlier in the week along Bruce’s Track – my first sightings for the season.

While there was no sign of Pallids, other cuckoos were calling – Fan-tailed, Shining Bronze and Horsfield’s Bronze. This Fan-tailed Cuckoo was observed moving surreptitiously through the understory … perhaps in search of caterpillars but possibly also looking for an opportunity to deposit an egg in the nest of a host … such as a Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. As I approached the cuckoo two heathwrens scuttled from a patch of nearby Gold-dust Wattle. Their subsequent behaviour, perching to view the intruders and some gentle contact calling suggest we were both on their breeding ground.

Click here for a terrific local story about the association between these two species. Heathwrens are difficult birds to find and photograph, so to capture one feeding a cuckoo is a great feat.

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Fan-tailed Cuckoo, South German Track, 28th August 2021

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Chestnut-rumped Heathwren

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A woven treasure

The chatter of Weebills provides a pleasant accompaniment on many of my walks. Such was the case last weekend at Rotunda Park, a party of Weebills foraging in a patch of Cootamunda Wattle. The birds weren’t chasing insects, rather they were gathering spent wattle flowers to decorate an almost completed nest in a nearby Golden Wattle.

A Weebill nest is a beautiful creation, a small domed structure woven from grass and cobwebs, interspersed with flowers within and on the exterior …perhaps as camouflage. At least four individuals were contributing to the finishing touches on the nest, suspended less than a metre from the ground. Weebills are known to be cooperative breeders.

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Weebill arriving at the nest site, Rotunda Park Newstead, 28th August 2021

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Grey Fantail

Making a meal of it

Woodland insectivores have been active in recent weeks.

Brown-headed Honeyeaters are currently feasting on lerp … also favourite tucker for Buff-rumped Thornbills.

Golden Wattle is flowering wonderfully at present, which in turn attracts a bevy of insects to feed on the flowers and foliage. If you look closely at the first three images of the Buff-rumped Thornbill below, a juicy green caterpillar can be seen  to the right of the thornbill. Moments after I captured the images the caterpillar was snatched from its hiding place amongst the wattle flowers. The Buff-rumped Thornbill then returned to searching for lerp amongst the  Yellow Gum saplings.

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Brown-headed Honeyeater, Welshman’s Reef, 25th August 2021

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Buff-rumped Thornbill

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A Peregrine moment

The Peregrine Falcon is a cosmopolitan bird of prey.

You could travel almost anywhere on earth ( I wish!) and have a reasonable chance of seeing this majestic raptor.

Locally, there are a number of breeding pairs, including this pair at home in the Muckleford bush. The male Peregrine, known as the tiercel, is much smaller than the female – 600 grams versus 900 grams.

Moments after alighting on the perch (third image below) the tiercel flew a few metres to the left and mated with the female … of course I missed the shot as the event was obscured by the canopy!

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Peregrine Falcon (female), Muckleford bush, 22nd August 2021

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Female perched

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Peregrine Falcon (male)

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Majestic visitors drop in for a bite

Some 12-15 years ago, we threw a few locally collected, untreated Hakea decurrens seeds in the bush at our place in Strangways, protected by a small exclosure fence. Before too long, we had a couple of large hakeas, covered with flowers and seed pods and with numerous second generation seedlings springing up beneath them.

Hakeas from direct seeding, and their offspring.

A few months back, we found seven Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus funereus) checking our hakeas out. This was the first time in the 27 years we’ve been on our place that we’d seen this species stop rather than just fly over. Yesterday, we saw a flock of about twenty happily and noisily cracking seed pods for their tasty contents. To my absolute delight, they stuck around while I got the camera.

A female pausing briefly from feasting.

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos evolved to feed on Hakea, Casuarina and Banksia seeds, but have become more dependent on introduced pines as their usual foods have been reduced by European land management practices. They also like to dig burrowing insects out of eucalypts and wattles.

Checking things out

One of the recorded Dja Dja Wurrung names for this species is Wareaine or Weerran (from John Tully’s book Dja Dja Wurrung Language of Central Victoria.

Females have larger yellow patches behind their eyes, grey eye rings and white bills. The males have pink eye rings and dark grey beaks.

One of the males of the group.

After sating their appetite with Hakea seed, the flock flew into a nearby Grey Box to rest and preen.

Rest time
A bit of beak sharpening.
And preening.

Watching these magnificent birds was a pure delight. Even more so to think that a few minutes easy work a decade and a half ago has resulted in a bit of food for these beauties. Looking forward to their next visit.