Gold is the colour …

Gold is the colour of the bush at present – wattles, honeyeaters and robins are the embodiment of a wonderful spring.

Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, Mia Mia Track, 16th September 2020

Eastern Yellow Robins continue to delight … the final image in this sequence is a first for me.

Eastern Yellow Robins

Female at right

Male at left

Curious and delightful birds

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Magic moment!

Timing, defenses refined by evolution

As spring unfolds, I’m seeing a lot of invertebrates around our place at Strangways that I’ve not seen since the end of autumn. Various species of wasp are around and most have been a bit camera shy, but one was happy to pose.

Brachonid wasp?

I think this little cutie is a Brachonid wasp, but I’m happy to be corrected. Other Brachonids are definitely waking up at the moment. The ovipositor on this one was just too long to include fully in the photo. Brachonids often use these to deposit their eggs into the bodies of Sawfly larvae that the wasp larvae will eat from inside. Over millenia of evolution, the timing of the emergence of the adult wasps has been perfected as I’m starting to find quite a few schools of Sawfly larvae munching on eucalypt leaves.

Sawfly larvae

These larvae have appeared on the same trees that I found adult Pergagrapta Sawflies last autumn, so I wonder if they are the same species.

Pergarapta Sawfly from last autumn

Caterpillars are increasing in diversity. There are still a lot of Chlenias moth caterpillars about, but not as many as a few weeks ago when I posted about them. They have been joined by some other interesting caterpillars.

What am I looking at?

As I was inspecting a Grey Box sucker looking for subjects, I couldn’t help but notice one leaf stalk that seemed to be pointing the wrong way. As I watched, things started to change.

Not quite a leaf stem
What a disguise!

I have no idea what species this little caterpillar was, but I am lost in admiration for the camouflage.

Another very successful strategy for a juicy caterpillar is to look spiky and unappetising. This one was on a Black-anther Flax Lily flower stalk.

How not to look tasty!

Lacewings are also starting to appear in greater numbers and variety.

Green Lacewing

I always like looking at Hoverflies, with their elegant shapes and steady hovering flight. Lots of them are now investigating the flowers in the yard and bush. This one was very sedate, resting on a Groundsel and so a good photo was pretty easy.

Hoverfly

ARACHNOPHOBE WARNING – A SPIDER FOLLOWS.

Wolf spiders are also emerging from their holes in the ground. At night, their beautiful emerald eyes shine in the glow of my headlight. These spiders tend to carry their babies on their backs, which I’ve never managed to get a photo of. They still make an impressive subject for a close-up, in-your-face portrait.

A lichen covered stone makes a great stage for an impressive Wolf Spider

In the engine room

The local bush hasn’t looked as good for years … of course memory does play tricks, but it’s a cracker of a spring.

Healthy shrubby understorey is a key driver of bird populations and there has been a steady recovery in some areas of the Muckleford bush since the Millennium drought broke in 2010. Rough Wattle Acacia aspera is one of the plants priming this resurgence. In full flower it’s home to a myriad of insects and this of course brings the insectivorous birds to feast and breed.

Hooded Robins are competing at present with a host of other woodland birds for their share. The Eastern Yellow Robin (pictured below) was chasing the Hooded Robin pair in a minor territorial dispute, before all resumed regular duties.

Rough Wattle, Mia Mia Track, 12th September 2020

Female Hooded Robin with nest-building material

Hooded Robin pair

Male Hooded Robin

Eastern Yellow Robin … on the lookout

On the lookout

I’m on the lookout for waders.

Over the next month or so we should see the arrival of small numbers of migratory waders from the northern hemisphere to Cairn Curran Reservoir. It’s been an ‘average’ winter rainfall-wise and the storage is filling nicely (now up to ~ 47%). Water is starting to cover some of the low lying flats and this will stimulate some habitat creation over coming weeks.

Red-necked Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers are regular spring visitors, along with small numbers of other species such as Latham’s Snipe and Common Greenshank. A party of Black-winged Stilts was seen enjoying feeding amongst the aquatic vegetation at Joyce’s Creek over the weekend. This species isn’t a migrant but will depart the district during dry times, arriving back from ‘who knows where’ when conditions are suitable.

Black-winged Stilt, Joyce’s Creek @ Cairn Curran, 13th September 2020

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Welcome back Lalage

Perhaps a smidgeon earlier than usual, White-winged Trillers have arrived back from their northern vacation.

First hearing their distant rattling calls, two individuals were then spotted right in front of me near Mia Mia Track. The pied bird is a sub-adult male, retaining vestiges of the brown immature plumage. The other is an immature female, the pale barring on the flanks a distinctive feature. Trillers belong in the cuckoo-shrike family Campephagidae – the White-winged Triller is scientifically known as Lalage tricolor (formerly sueurii). Trillers, like cuckoo-shrikes, have a penchant for caterpillars.

The origin of Lalage is vague, deriving apparently from a reference to an unidentified bird, by the Greek grammarian Hesyschius. The epithet sueurii, now replaced by tricolor, was named for Charles Lesueur (1778-1846), a French draughtsman and zoologist who was part of the Baudin expedition to the South Seas in the Geographe from 1800-1804.

White-winged Triller (sub-adult male), Mia Mia Track, 10th September 2020

White-winged Triller (immature female)

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Sittella central

I’ve been visiting a hotspot on Mia Mia Track this week.

Hooded and Eastern Yellow Robins, along with Rufous and Golden Whistlers were conspicuous and active during each visit, as were a party of Varied Sittellas.

The sittellas, seen foraging in the late afternoon sunshine on Thursday, were then spotted gathering nesting materials yesterday. The nest, almost complete, is high-up in the fork of a dead sapling – perhaps 1o metes above the ground.

A sittella nest is a thing of beauty. The delicate cup features vertically arranged shreds of bark, bound together with cobwebs, including a few threads that have been used to anchor the structure. The final touches include spider egg sacs that are arranged around the rim.

Varied Sittella, Mia Mia Track, 10th September 2020

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Still foraging in the same spot, a day later.

The nest, almost complete

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Woodland musing

For a while now, decades in fact, I’ve been an interested observer of landscape change in the Newstead district and more generally across the box-ironbark country.

Three overarching observations:

  1. Significant areas of farmland, prime grazing land last century, are now largely de-stocked and actively regenerating – especially with eucalypts and native grasses.
  2. This farmland sits within a mosaic of  ‘bush’ – forest and woodland, much of which is public land in varying states of recovery. The legacy of repeated clearing (many areas were harvested for timber multiple times since the 1850s) is often reflected in regenerating eucalypt thickets where the stem density may be 10 to 100 times greater than it was pre-clearing.
  3. Bird populations know what’s going on … there are distinct patterns of species richness and abundance that reflect the past history of land use and management.

What is happening in central Victoria is not unique, in many parts of the world agriculture is retreating from areas where it was once pervasive, a phenomenon described as land abandonment. In my experience the greatest variety and numbers of birds tend to be found in areas where the original fabric of veteran trees has triggered natural regeneration of understorey plants and this is happening where farming practices are changing and land is recovering with or without direct intention.

The three habitat images below exemplify this:

#1 woodland bird habitat (private land) – large old trees, natural regeneration and patchiness – ideal for Jacky Winter, Hooded Robin, Diamond Firetail and Swift Parrot

#2 woodland bird habitat (public land) – woodland thicket with fair to middling understorey – not as bird rich as #1 but has potential … just wait 100 years or so to see this realised.

#3 woodland bird habitat (private land) – woodland thicket with minimal understorey – maybe a Brown Treecreeper or two and the odd Scarlet Robin … this too has potential but would most likely benefit from some active management (fire, thinning, planting etc) … and time!

There are layers of complexity too – while #1 woodland bird habitat is good it could be even better with replenishment of missing shrubs, grasses and forbs.

Jacky Winter, Green Gully, 5th September 2020. This species does best on the margins of intact bush and open country – especially abandoned farmland.

#1 – Woodland bird habitat ***

#2 – Woodland bird habitat **

#3 – Woodland bird habitat *

Eucalytpus regrowth is an important part of the story – it is ideal breeding habitat for a range of woodland birds, such as the Yellow Thornbill (pictured below), Mistletoebird and Weebill. Black-chinned Honeyeaters also enjoy this habitat.

Yellow Thornbill nest in eucalyptus regrowth

The tail end of a Yellow Thornbill

Peeking out from the beautifully woven nest of grass, moss and synthetics

Black-chinned Honeyeater

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To read more about land abandonment here is an interesting article from the Yale School of the Environment.

A ridge on Fence Track

A brief visit to Fence Track earlier in the week.

Lots of birds, including the elusive Speckled Warbler, were enjoying the wildflower carpeted ridge.

Also seen: Brown, Buff-rumped and Yellow Thornbills, Grey Fantail and Yellow-faced Honeyeater.

Brown-headed Honeyeater in Cherry Ballart, Fence Track, 6th September 2020

Silvereye

Murnong (Yam Daisy)

Early Nancy amongst a carpet of Scented Sundew

Golden Moths

Night birds

It’s been a rich few days for nocturnal birds.

Numerous pairs of Tawny Frogmouths are nesting around town at present. A pair on Panmure Street have selected a large horizontal branch in a veteran River Red Gum on which to construct their meagre arrangement of sticks. Some eucalyptus and peppercorn leaves have been added as adornment. The male is sitting in these images, which is the norm – at night both sexes share incubation.

Tawny Frogmouth on nest in River Red Gum, Panmure Street Newstead, 5th September 2020

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Just after dusk last evening a Southern Boobook arrived silently in our back garden, allowing a few minutes of wonderful close-up views.

Both frogmouths and boobooks are common around town, but their nocturnal habits render them invisible to us humans for much of the time.

Southern Boobook in the home garden, 7th September 2020

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Fine finish

The kites are gathering at Cairn Curran.

As the reservoir is steadily rising from good winter rains the water is spilling over areas of mudflat … rich pickings of frogs, fish and the occasional duckling will keep the Whistling Kites happy.

A brief stop at Joyce’s Creek was followed by a sweep across the plains. Numerous Brown Falcons were observed – the highlight as I turned for home was an Australian Hobby just south of Walker’s Swamp. I’ve seen a hobby at this location before.

Whistling Kites @ Joyce’s Creek, 5th September 2020

Brown Falcon near Walker’s Swamp

Australian Hobby with volcanic landscape backdrop

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