Only ducks …

Okay, so they are only ducks … but I was happy to get these images last weekend.

A party of five Grey Teal on a small bush dam in the Muckleford State Forest. Wild ducks are almost always incredibly wary and will take flight at the slightest hint of danger. I was fortunate to be able to make a close approach to these birds as they paddled quietly … still with one eye on the photographer!

Grey Teal, Muckleford State Forest, 1st August 2020

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Golden days

If you are fortunate enough to be able to do so it’s a wonderful time to be in the bush.

We are truly on the cusp of spring – flowering wattles and robins building nests. At present Golden Wattle Acacia pycnantha, Spreading Wattle A.genistifolia and Rough Wattle A. aspera, are all in flower.

Meanwhile the Eastern Yellow Robins are putting the finishing touches on a nest – the unbanded female is doing the ‘heavy lifting’ while the banded male is hanging around to offer morsels of reward.

Golden Wattle in flower, South German Track, 31st July 2020

Eastern Yellow Robin (female) with cobwebs

Adding the cobwebs to the rim of the nest

Using the wing to shape the bowl

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The male with a courtship offering

The female, post bath, back at the nest

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Spreading Wattle

Rough Wattle

Out of the moss

With the damp earth of winter, it is a joy to spend some time low to the ground and admiring the mosses in our bush. And admiring the things that com out of the moss.

In lots of places, Scented Sundews (Drosera whittakeri) push up through the mosses. It’s not a coincidence that nearby, mushroom fruiting bodies are also poking up.

Scented Sundews and Galerina fungus fruiting body emerge from the damp moss

Fungus gnat larvae feed on the fungus strands under the soil. At this time of year, adults will be laying eggs in the soil. I’ve also read that some fungus gnat adults will feed on the mushrooms themselves and carry the fungus spores around the bush. Sundews that happen to be amongst areas rich in fungi will get more gnats stuck to their sticky spines and will therefore be able to proliferate more.

As I was rolling around the ground trying to get good angles on the luxurious mossy floor of our woodland at Strangways, I was delighted to see a small red speck climb out of the thick moss.

 

Red Velvet Mite

The red speck was a Red Velvet Mite – an arachnid of the family Trobidiidae. Unlike other arachnids, their bodies are not segmented. They have two eyes but use chemoreceptors (smell but with no nose) and sense vibrations to find their prey – primarily other invertebrates.

Climbing over rough terrain

They will emerge from the soil after rain. At times I’ve seen a horde of these tiny animals, up to 50 at a time, ranging from less than 0.5mm to about 4 mm long, quickly dispersing. This one was on its own and was about 3mm long.

Apparently, male Red Velvet Mites will construct a little boudoir of plant material and spermatophores – little clumps of sperm – into which he will invite a prospective mate. He does this by waiting for a lady to pass and then does a little dance for her. If she likes what she sees, she sits on one of his spermatophores and impregnates herself.

Not far from where I found the little red cutie, I found a male midge sitting on a Golden Wattle bud. I’ve struggled to get a photo of the wonderful feathery antennae that the boy midges sport, so I was very pleased that this lad sat still long enough to get a decent shot.

Midges sit with their back legs down – mosquitoes lift their hind legs. Males have feathery antennae

An immobility of frogmouths

If we were to take a popular vote on a bird emblem for Newstead I suspect the Tawny Frogmouth might be at the top of the list.

Thanks to Newstead locals, Rose and Steve Walter, I was introduced to a new pair at the weekend … here is an ‘action-packed’ pose of them sitting in a River Red Gum on Panmure Street.

After leaving this pair in peace I ventured on to visit a famous local pair that have made Newstead Natives their home for the past decade or so. Sure enough, they were in residence too.

Tawny Frogmouths, Panmure Street Newstead, 25th July 2020

This is the female …

… close-up

Tawny Frogmouth @ Newstead Natives, 25th July 2020

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Note: See here for some creative and wonderful suggestions for collective nouns for Australian birds.

Comforting signs

In these troubling times it’s comforting to see that natural cycles of nature are continuing without interruption.

Eastern Yellow Robins are nest building in July … right on cue. This pair was observed yesterday morning in the early stages of constructing a beautiful mossy nest in a sapling Red Box.

Eastern Yellow Robin and nest, South German Track, Muckleford State Forest, 26th July 2020

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Farmers friend … join the club!

The ibis is often referred to colloquially as the farmers friend, on account of the wonderful service it provides feeding on insect pests in pastures. Many species of native birds perform a similar wonderful role, including cuckoos.

This Fan-tailed Cuckoo was observed last evening, feeding on caterpillars in a paddock beside the Loddon River. Over a period of twenty minutes or so it captured perhaps a dozen, each time descending from a low perch to snatch the caterpillar from a leaf, returning to its perch on each occasion to devour its prey. It then rejoiced with a series of trills before eyeing off its next victim. I originally misidentified the caterpillars as one of the Heliothis species of moths – they are actually Brown Pasture Looper Ciampa arietaria, typically found on capeweed and Erodium but also a pest of young crops and clover pastures.

Let’s hear a cheer for Fan-tailed Cuckoos!

Fan-tailed Cuckoo with , Loddon River @ Newstead, 25th July 2020

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Tell-tale signs

The ground carpeted with Yellow Gum flowers – a sure sign that nectar-loving parrots are about.

This time it was Little Lorikeets, feasting on the eucalyptus blossoms at the Rise and Shine. The smallest and perhaps the scarcest of our local lorikeets (Purple-crowned Lorikeets would rival them) are delightful birds.

Yellow Gum flowers on the woodland carpet, Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, 24th July 2020

Little Lorikeet

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Got ya!

Sitting at my desk over the past fortnight I’ve heard the regular trills of a Fan-tailed Cuckoo (possibly from a few different individuals) coming from the direction of the Loddon River to our west.

Last evening I went in search of the ‘perpetrator’ and found a couple of individuals in one of my favourite spots along the river (pictured below). Cuckoos have arrived early this year – Shining and Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoos are already about as well, perhaps a fortnight earlier than their usual arrival dates. I’ve yet to observe Pallid or Black-eared Cuckoos but will be on the lookout for them in coming weeks.

Loddon River @ Newstead (iPhone panorama), 22nd July 2020

Fan-tailed Cuckoo (adult male)

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More on Cassinia sifton

I enjoyed Patrick’s post from yesterday featuring Cassinia sifton, and his observations of some newly arrived Shining Bronze-cuckoos. I’ve known this local native species, formerly Cassinia arcuata, under various common names – Coffee-bush, Drooping Cassinia and Chinese Scrub. The great local website Wild plants of the Castlemaine district has some terrific information on the species.

During my visit to the Rise and Shine last weekend I came across a small flock of Silvereyes foraging in a copse of Cassinia sifton. 

Flame Robins and a pair of Hooded Robins were then observed nearby along with my first Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoo of the season (heard but unseen).

Silvereye in Cassinia

Flame Robin (adult male)

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Hooded Robin (adult female)

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The moths that ate Strangways – well not quite

Since the heavy rains of 2010-11, we’ve had quite a growth of Cassinia sifton at our place. In recent weeks, it has become favourite fodder for Looping Caterpillars of the moth genus Chlenias.

Chlenias caterpillar

Almost all of the Cassinia bushes at our place have at least a few of these munching away, ranging from 10-30 mm long. As there is a great abundance of the shrub in our bush, I’m very happy that someone is keeping it in check. There is some debate about whether Cassinia sifton is truly native to Victoria or whether it came from NSW during the early gold rushes. Until recently it was classed as one species with Cassinia arcuata which is now a rare species only found in the northwest of the state.

Up close
Chlenias caterpillars are also enjoying some Golden Wattle

I was trying to get some photos of a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus) at our place the other day and found two on the ridge, chasing each other in an amorous sort of way. They got themselves deep into a Cassinia bush where one (a male I assume) offered the other a series of Chlenias caterpillars. Due to the dense bush I was only able to get a pretty ordinary shot of her eating her gift. The male was hidden behind some of the branches, but I figure this one definitely belongs in this post.

Shining Bronze-Cuckoo with a gift of Chlenias

Also in great abundance in our bush at present are Fungus Gnats. As I prowl around the bush looking for subjects, I am struck by how important these tiny insects are for pollination and as fodder for other invertebrates. They are also very challenging to get good photos of.

Fungus Gnat sleeping on Golden Wattle flower bud
This one seemed to be drinking from the gland at the bend of the leaf stem of a Golden Wattle. Mostly I see ants doing this.

Nocturnal ants are also common and very important during winter nights and again Golden Wattles are favourite haunts.

Camponotus on a Golden Wattle

Harvestmen are arachnids that look like spiders, having eight legs, but unlike spiders they only have two eyes (spiders have eight) and have external mouth parts that crunch their prey rather than sucking the insides out as spiders do. I’ve seen harvestment from time to time, but this year I’ve seen a lot of Opoliones harvestmen, usually on wattle and eucalypt leaves.

Opoliones hunting at night on a Golden Wattle