It takes something a little more than the ordinary to distract me from watching Sacred Kingfishers.
This Yellow-footed Antechinus did the trick as I watched its athletic foraging antics. This species is equally adept on the ground – clinging to a near vertical earthen bank, as it is when searching for prey amongst the branches of a Grey Box.
Yellow-footed Antechinus, Newstead area, 5th January 2021
… that you get a chance to spend some time with a family of Tuans Phascogale tapoatafa.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to observe a family of these remarkable animals, also known as Brush-tailed Phascogales, near Green Gully Creek – a small tributary of the Loddon River to the west of Newstead.
Tuans are Dasyurids, a unique family of marsupial carnivores that includes species such as the Tasmanian Devil, Spot-tailed Quoll and a local favourite, the Yellow-footed Antechinus. Tuans are ‘rat-sized’ with a pointy snout, sharp teeth and a distinctive ‘bottle-brush’ tail which is almost the same length as the rest of the body. They are widespread throughout the box-ironbark country, but rarely seen – this is only the second time I’ve ever been able to photograph one outside a nest box. Tuans are classified as vulnerable in Victoria.
On this occasion we observed at least three individuals – I suspect an adult female and two immature individuals – emerging from a den at the base of a large eucalypt. A well-placed nest box higher in the tree is also being used by the animals. For more than an hour we watched on in awe as they foraged actively around the den – on the trunk and branches of the gum and also on a nearby Blackwood Wattle.
The extraordinary breeding cycle of the Tuan will be well-known to many folks … the adults mate in late autumn and early winter, then all the males die! The gestation period lasts about a month, with litters of 6-8 youngsters rapidly replenishing the population until the cycle repeats itself again the following year. Some females apparently survive for up to 3 years. Tuans are voracious hunters – they feed mainly on insects but will also eat bird eggs, nestlings and nectar. Backyard poultry can also fall victim to a hungry Tuan!
Tuan (Brush-tailed Phascogale), Green Gully Creek Newstead, 22nd November 2021
Although they’re quite common at our place at Strangways, it’s always a special delight to encounter an Echidna. So an Echidna train is a real (and much rarer) treat. On Sunday, three of these gorgeous animals trooped past our front yard in an amorous promenade.
Echidnas have a very particular mating protocol, as one would expect for such a prickly animal. When a female is ready to mate, she is followed by a number of males in what biologists call a train. Trains usually consist of 3-5 animals, but up to eleven have been recorded.
The males become very focused as they follow the female to whatever place she decides is the safest for mating to occur. The female checked out quite a few logs and old stumps before she moved on. One of the males would periodically sniff at her tail on the way.
He would also occasionally roll onto his side behind her and push his tail into hers, apparently trying to get in early, but with little interest from the female. Typically, mating waits until the train is in a safe place and the male has to dig his way under her to get access with his tail under hers. During copulation, his penis will grow to 1/3 of his body length.
The train wended around our place until the female found the fence for our chook yard. This aroused the curiosity of our resident White-winged Choughs.
Eventually, the female decided that underneath our chooks’ house was the place. The trio made their way under it, spent the night there and were gone in the morning.
I never tire of watching Yellow-footed Antechinus as they go about their business. These tiny, fearless carnivores are always on the move, in search of insects, small reptiles, birds eggs and even nestlings if they get the chance. I encounter them on most visits to the Rise and Shine, one of a number of local hot-spots for the species.
Yellow-footed Antechinus, Rise & Shine Bushland Reserve, 8th March 2021
Ravens, in my experience, a difficult birds to photograph. They are constantly alert and wary of humans, but are the most magnificent birds.
We have two local species, the Little Raven and the Australian Raven. It can be difficult to tell them apart. The Australian Raven is larger, with a more robust bill – the best way to separate the species is by call. Australian Ravens typically utter a slow, drawn out call aihh-aaah-aaah-aaaaaahhh … the last note dropping in pitch and intensity, while the Little Raven utters short rapid notes – ark-ark-ark … and yes, just to reiterate, we don’t have crows around here!
The bird pictured below is, I’m fairly sure, a juvenile Little Raven. It dropped, in a wheeling descent, from a passing flock of adults to drink in this small pool in the Rise and Shine. Yet to adopt the wariness of an adult raven it allowed me to capture a few images before it departed.
At the same time a Short-beaked Echidna moseyed straight past me … a nice finish to my stint at the pool.
Little Raven (juvenile), Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, 1st December 2020
For much of the year these two species, the Yellow-footed Antechinus and the Rainbow Bee-eater, maintain a more than adequate social distance.
Rainbowbirds, of course, are in northern Australia from late March until early October. It’s only when they return to central Victoria to reoccupy their breeding tunnels – usually from mid November until about Xmas, that they resume contact with one of their arch enemies.
Yellow-footed Antechinus are restless hunters of insects, lizards and if they get the opportunity, eggs and nestling birds. At present Yellow-footed Antechinus have young – if you are lucky you might see a female playing ‘piggyback’ with its brood.
They will happily forage on the vertical faces of erosion gullies, typical sites for Rainbow Bee-eater nests. Each summer I watch the contest between these two amazing animals as the bee-eaters chase the antechinus away whenever they venture near an active nest.
In times past other predators would have also been a concern – Eastern Quoll (to roosting birds), dunnarts and other antechinus species – sadly all now locally extinct or rare. I imagine the Brush-tailed Phascogale may also pose a threat, but they are much less abundant than their smaller cousin … and I’m not sure they could squeeze into a bee-eater tunnel!
Rainbow Bee-eater, Sandon State Forest, 27th October 2020
I visited the Rise and Shine yesterday morning in the hope of photographing some birds. Whilst I was waiting for an Eastern Yellow Robin to come close enough for some photos (which it didn’t) I noticed a Yellow-footed AntechinusAntechinus flavipes pop its beautiful head out of a hollow log.
I was already alert to the possibility of seeing these cuties out and about in the fallen wood. They are known to be more active in the day than other Antechinus species. This one seemed very unconcerned by my presence and getting close wasn’t an issue, especially when it would pop onto the top of a log to check me out.
Many readers of this blog would know that if this is a male, he won’t have long to live. Mating season will start soon and all the males will die after a frenetic bout of mating that will leave them all exhausted and with depleted immune systems. Both males and females are formidable hunters with healthy appetites for invertebrates, eggs, nectar and sometimes small birds and mice. This one was getting a lot of invertebrates out of the leaf litter and the main challenge for photography was keeping up with it.
Not surprisingly, research shows the strongest predictors of Antechinus numbers are leaf litter and cover in the form of dead wood and rocks. Although this little one seemingly felt no threat from me, humans pose a threat by removing dead wood. And also by changing the climate. Animals with the mating style of Antechinuses are very poorly adapted to changing temperatures.
One thing they are very well adapted to is a vertical surface. I love the way this one hangs on to a tree trunk as if it’s standing on a flat surface.
Now is the time of peak activity for Yellow-footed Antechinus. Their breeding season extends from mid-winter into early spring, so as winter approaches they become extremely active – day and night – in search of food.
Not many visits to the Muckleford bush pass without at least one sighting of these charming marsupials. I disturbed this one late yesterday afternoon as it foraged on the forest floor. It hid for a few minutes in a nearby stump and then popped out to scratch and lick its coat before resuming its hunt.
Yellow-footed Antechinus, South German Track, 29th May 2020
Spreading WattleAcacia genistifolia is a wonderful autumn flowering species – it’s peaking at present throughout the Muckleford bush. Most specimens are sparse, with few flowers – not this one.
Spreading Wattle, South German Track, 13th April 2020
This Yellow-footed Antechinus emerged from a crack in the trunk of a Grey Box. It paused for a moment in the sunshine, revealing a nasty ‘growth’ on its side. It looks to me like a blood-engorged tick, or perhaps a skin tumour. It’s a bit early for this species to be in physiological die-off after its winter mating frenzy.
This White-browed Babbler was one of a party feeding in a clump of Box Mistletoe. The mistletoe was also of interest to an aggressive flock of Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, the blossom is a key source of nectar at this time of year. The babblers were quickly ejected as the honeyeaters reclaimed the bounty.