Wild South East

a nature blog of south-east Victoria, mostly Gippsland


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Southern Africa

Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t posted for a while. Well, my family and I have just been to southern Africa and recently returned. I know my blog is usually to do with S/E Victoria but I thought I’d post here anyhow. I literally took thousands of photos on our trip, most being of wildlife, and below are some of these.

It was the first time any of us had been to Africa and we did have a few concerns before we left. These were mostly to do with our safety and health, especially travelling with our two girls aged 7 and 9 in a campervan for most of the time. We were relieved that these weren’t as much as a worry as we thought as long as we were smart about taking all the necessary precautions.

Our basic itinerary included four countries in almost three weeks (South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana) and we began by flying in to Johannesburg (or Jo’burg as the locals call it) in South Africa. Here we hired a campervan and began a two week drive along the eastern part of the country. In our view this was better than going on a tour as we had the flexibility to visit wherever we liked and to stay the night at spots which looked nice.

Map of holiday

Map showing the areas we visited.

There were some mind blowing sights in SA and the highlights of the two week drive were the Drakensberg mountains, Blyde River Canyon, St Lucia, Hluluwe Umfolozi NP and Kruger NP.

The first major highlight was the enormous Drakensberg mountains west of Durban. Rising out of the rolling hills this mountain range extends hundreds of kilometers north and south but some of the biggest peaks surround the tiny mountainous country of Lesotho. We unfotunately didn’t have time to visit this landlocked country but apparently it is beautiful and the way of life has similarities to some parts of highland South American cultures.

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Drakensberg mountains near Winterton, South Africa. Beyond these peaks is the highland country of Lesotho.

The escarpment below Lesotho in South Africa was an awe-inspiring sight with towering peaks and deep valleys. As it was winter it was very cold (often well below zero at night) but it was also dry as most of the rain falls in the summer period. This area is a good spot to observe the endangered Bearded Vulture but unfortunately we didn’t have much time and didn’t get to see any. We weren’t going to spend the night there in sub-zero temperatures in a campervan!

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As you can see road safety is taken very seriously in South Africa

Another fantastic spot was the area around the forested seaside town of St Lucia. This area includes the World Heritage listed iSimangaliso (Greater St Lucia) Wetland Park. We touched on the southern part of the park and the area was abundant with birds and mammals. Hippos apparently were known to regularly walk down the main streets at night in St Lucia and occasionally their droppings were seen in the streets around houses and on lawns. They probably find the lawns very tasty.

We were lucky to see two male Hippos fighting in the water. There was some immense power in the fights but they didn’t seem to inflict much damage on each other, more bluff I think. Still wouldn’t want to mess with one!

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iSimangaliso wetlands near St Lucia.

 

St Lucia

Clockwise from top: Vervet Monkey, Red Forest Duiker, Crested Guinea-fowl and Banded Mongoose.

Inland from St Lucia our next stop was Hluluwe Umfolozi National Park (actually two National Parks joined together). This relatively small park was loaded with an array of plants and animals and this was our first glimpse of the larger mammals iconic with Africa. The girls had their faces almost permanently plastered to the windows of the campervan as we drove through the park looking at them.

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Hluluwe Umfolozi National Park, South Africa.

 

Hluluwe Unfolozi NP

Clockwise from top: Chacma Baboon, Burchell’s Zebra, Elephant and Impala.

Next on the list was the small country of Swaziland. This country has a lot going for it such as several game parks, traditional villages, beautiful scenery and relatively good infrastructure. The border crossings in and out of the country were mind-numbingly slow though.

Sophie with frog

Sophie with a Reed Frog.

 

Driving back into SA we visited an unexpected highlight of our trip and one which is not very well known outside of Africa, Blyde River Canyon. We never imagined we would see something like this on our holiday and it left a lasting impression on all of us. Unlike Australia they don’t believe in many safety barriers at places like this so we had to keep an eye on the girls a lot of the time!

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Aloes growing precariously on a cliff face at Blyde River Canyon.

 

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Spectacular scenery at Blyde River Canyon.

 

Blyde River

Some of the flora and fauna around Blyde River. Clockwise from top: Jameson’s Red Rock Hare, Rock Hyrax, Aloe species and Pseudoselago serrata

Not far from Blyde River Canyon on the lowveld (plains) was Kruger National Park, a massive 19,500 square kilometre game reserve and SA’s first national park. We entered just above the central part of the park and travelled south staying at four camp sites over five days. There was no camping outside the designated, fenced campsites for obvious safety reasons but during the day we did our own game drives in the campervan. One thing that slightly disturbed us was the fact that the campsite gates were left open during the day so anything could wander in! They did too! Some antelopes, monkeys, baboons and warthogs were regularly seen inside the camps.

Almost every kilometre travelled in the park resulted in a new sighting and a tick off our list. Occasionally a herd of elephants or some zebras would wander seemingly oblivious to our presence across the road directly in front of our campervan with squeals from our girls. Animals and birds were used to seeing gawking tourists and we could drive up to them pretty close before they ambled away. As the speed limit was 40km/hr on dirt and 50km/hr on bitumen there was not a single roadkill seen over the five days.

Lilac-breasted Roller. Kruger NP, South Africa. 28.7

Lilac-breasted Roller, Kruger NP.

Black-headed Oriole on Aloe flowers. Kruger NP, South Africa. 2.8.2016 (1)

Black-headed Oriole feeding on Aloe flowers, Kruger NP

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Baobab tree with Giraffe in background. Baobabs are close relatives of Australia’s Boab tree.

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A shallow river in Kruger NP.

 

Birds, Kruger

Clockwise from top: Go-away Bird (Grey Lourie), Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures, White-bellied Sunbird and Helmeted Guinea-fowl,

 

 

Birds, animals, Kruger

Clockwise from top: Hyaena, Variable Skink, Tree Squirrel and Crested Francolin.

 

Above: Leopard Tortoise and Blue-headed Agama

Southern Ground Hornbill. Kruger NP, South Africa. 30.7.2016 (3)

The enormous Southern Ground Hornbill. This species is highly endangered and we were lucky to see two separate groups of them in Kruger. This one has leg bands and was reported to ranger staff.

 

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More of the animals seen in Kruger. Clockwise from top: Klipspringer (a species restricted to rocky outcrops), Wildebeest, Giraffe and Kudu (male).

We managed to spot some lions which were high on our list to see. This was on a safari tour we took from one of the camps in Kruger during the late afternoon and in to the night. The second photo the female has her cub with her.

Burchell's Zebra.  Kruger NP, South Africa. 29.7.2016 (3)

Zebra at sunset

We often knew when there was a good sighting up ahead as there were usually a few cars parked haphazardly across the road with cameras out the window. Road rules were completely thrown out the window when something amazing was seen.

It was always good to see the critically endangered White and Black Rhinos but sad to read that in Kruger NP alone a few hundred are killed by poachers each year despite a major effort by wildlife rangers to catch the culprits.

White Rhinoceros. Kruger NP, South Africa. 31.7.2016 (3)

White Rhino, Kruger NP.

Kruger and a lot of other parts of southern Africa are unfortunately in the midst of a mild drought so many rivers and waterholes were low and animals tended to hang around these areas. It was the middle of the dry season as well so much of the vegetation was in the process of dropping their leaves. These two factors meant many of the animals were easier to see.

After reluctantly leaving Kruger we had to get back to Jo’burg in a couple of days to return the campervan so we could fly up to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Vic Falls township was our base while we went on a four day package tour of Zimbabwe and Botswana.

The first night in Zimbabwe we visited a large restaurant called Boma where they served up traditional meals. Many of the dishes though included a lot of the game animals we saw in the wild such as Kudu, Buffalo, Ostrich and Crocodile so it felt wrong to try these! One thing I did try (with a lot of encouragement from the girls!) was a mopane worm, actually a caterpillar of the large Emperor Moth similar looking to the Witchetty Grub. I don’t recommend it!

The next part of our package tour was a boat trip down the Chobe River in Botswana. This was fantastic and allowed us to get very close to a lot of animals and waterbirds. There was also no shortage of Nile Crocodiles, some of which were pushing 4m in length, and the tour operator wasn’t shy about getting our dinghy close to some decent sized ones.

Many of the water birds were very similar to, and some the same as, Australian species. Birds like Glossy Ibis, Great Egret and Little Egret are the same species as ours. There were also Darters and Cormorants which superficially looked like our ones too but were African species.

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Clockwise from top: Glossy Ibis, Great Egret, Little Egret and African Darter. Chobe River, Botswana.

 

P1140066 Red-billed Ox-peckers on Impala.Chobe River, Botswana. 5.8.2016 (2)

This female Impala seemed like it was enjoying the attention from these Red-eyed Ox-peckers who were eating parasites off it. Not so much in its ear though!

 

This part of Botswana is one of the best places on the African continent to see huge numbers of Elephants and they didn’t disappoint. At one stage large groups of Elephants appeared out of the dry scrub and assembled along the banks for miles. They were used to seeing tourists so we got relatively close to them in the boat.

Elephant. Chobe River, Botswana. 5.8.2016 (8)

Elephants on the Chobe River.

Several groups of Elephants started to nervously enter the water, most likely checking for crocs first. They then began to swim across the river in single file to reach the green grass on the islands in the centre. One young one who couldn’t reach the bottom was coaxed along by the mum at the back who occasionally dived under the youngster and lifted it out of the water while it alternated between using it’s trunk as a snorkel and or holding onto the dad’s tail with it’s trunk.

 

Video screenshot- Elephants, Chobe

A still photo taken from a video showing the young Elephant holding it’s dad’s tail while being pushed by the mum. Chobe River, Botswana

Birds, animals, Chobe 2

Clockwise from top: Nile Crocodile, Slender Mongoose, Kori Bustard and Grey Heron.

Birds, animals, Chobe

Clockwise from top: Pied Kingfisher, Hippo (definitely male!), Waterbuck (male), Waterbuck (female). Chobe River, Botswana.

 

 

Yellow-billed Stork and Black Heron, Chobe

This Black Heron had an interesting relationship with the Yellow-billed Stork. It would follow the stork around and when the stork probed the ground it would fan its wings. Any small invertebrates or fish would try and seek shelter from the stork under the heron’s wings which it would then eat.

 

After the boat trip we piled into an open-aired safari car and went on a game drive of Chobe National Park. This park was much drier and sandier than Kruger so it was interesting to see a lot of different species. Another species seen which is similar to an Australian one was the Kori Bustard, Africa’s largest flying bird and national bird of Botswana. This is very much like the Australian Bustard’s plumage but is larger than our species.

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Game drive in Chobe NP, Botswana.

 

On one of the days we went on a three hour paddle in an inflatable raft down the Zambezi River which bordered on one side with the country of Zambia and the other with Zimbabwe. Apart from our guide and a rower we were the only ones in the boat so it was good to sit back and take it slow for a change. We didn’t see as much wildlife as on our boat trip down the Chobe but we all had a nervous moment when we came out of a set of small rapids into flat water to find a Hippo not far away from us. The guide and rower exchanged some nervous looks and hand gestures and they managed to move us away without any trouble.

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Hippo footprint on the edge of the Zambezi River.

One place high on almost every visitor’s list in Zimbabwe is Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall. It’s native name is Mosi-oa-Tunya which means ‘the smoke that thunders’. This comes from the enormous cloud of mist thrown into the air by the force of the water hitting the base of the gorge. Nothing could prepare us for the enormity of the falls and halfway along the top of the walking track it seemed like it we were caught in a windy rain storm as the billowing mist saturated us in seconds. On our last day we went on a helicopter flight over the falls and got to see it and the town in a different perspective.

In the township of Victoria Falls wild animals were free to wander into town and we saw a few different species in the streets including a small herd of elephants one night wandering on the edge of the main street. Talking to one local he said lions have been known wander the streets but they know that if there are buffalo moving into town there are lions around. This is because buffalo feel protected from lions in towns. A very crude early warning system and not one I’d trust 100%!!

The town is set up primarily for the tourist trade and is not all that big in size. It’s a bustle of activity for both tourists and locals but not far out of town life is much slower and the way of life more traditional. We visited a village where families still live in grass and mud huts.  One family showed us around their small patch of land of about 1 acre and it opened our eyes to how difficult it is for them to live off the land and support their family. Water needed to be carried from a well nearly 1 km away and food was a struggle to grow in the very impoverished soil. Not only that but they had to deal with bird flu a while ago where all the poultry in the village died. To make an income so they can buy extra food and other items they can’t produce themselves many of the villagers make crafts to sell at Victoria Falls markets or they transport animal manure to local farmers with donkey and cart. We definitely take our own luxuries and way of life very much for granted.

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Our girls checking out the village.

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The village ‘mobile phone’. This drum was used to communicate with other nearby families. Certain drum beats indicated different things such as a lion is nearby or if it’s party time. This guy had a great sense of humour despite many of the hardships his family faced.

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Weight lifting on the cheap. This was made by pouring concrete in milo tins.

 

Southern Africa was well worth the visit and I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t been yet as it will blow your mind. As long as you research the areas you will travel and speak to locals if you have any concerns it’s reasonably safe and hassle free.

..and yes, if you’re wondering, we did see the big five (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, Rhino) but were amazed how much it was plugged at every tourist place we travelled!


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Wonthaggi Heathland

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Twiggy Daisy-bush Olearia ramulosa beginning to be taken over by tendrils of the native semi-parasite Downy Dodder-laurel Cassytha pubescens.

 

Wonthaggi Heathlands

Wonthaggi Heathland

 

 

Winter has definitely hit Victoria with a vengeance in the last few days with some snowfall on most of the peaks down to 500m. Even some of Wilson’s Promontory and the Strzelecki Ranges, including Tarra Bulga NP, have received a dusting. What better way to enjoy this than to get down on my hands and knees with a camera in Wonthaggi Heathlands in the icy 40km/hr winds last Thursday. Why you might ask? Well, I was on my lunch break from doing some contract work in the reserve and I was impressed how much there actually was flowering at this time of the year. What struck me though was the number of species flowering out of their usual period. We did have a reasonably dry and warm period in autumn to the start of winter which may have thrown some species out.

Wonthaggi Heathland and the adjoining coastal reserve contains over 800 hectares of fantastic remnant vegetation which was once widespread along Victoria’s coastal fringe. In spring this reserve explodes with a mind-blowing array of flowers but winter is generally subdued. That was until I took a closer look.

 

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Common Heath Epacris impressa is predominantly a winter flowering species and varies from deep pink-red to white.

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A young Showy Parrot-pea Dillwynia sericea flowering early. This species usually flowers late winter to early summer.

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Hibbertia species, possibly Silky Guinea-flower H. sericia. This genus usually flowers in spring so it was unusual to find some in flower.

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Black Sheoak Allocasuarina littoralis with red female flowers.

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Silver Banksia Banksia marginata finishing flowering.

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Sweet Wattle Acacia sauveolens, another species which flowers during the cooler months.

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Prickly Tea-tree Leptospermum continentale flowering way out of it’s usual mid spring to summer period.

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Sundew Drosera sp, possibly D. peltata. Although not flowering I thought I’d throw this in as they were everywhere in the low heathland.

Well, that was my lunch break. Meanwhile my hands had turned blue from the cold! It was worth it though.

 

 

 

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Dinosaur food

Not many people are aware that right under our feet in Gippsland some of the oldest surviving types of terrestrial vascular plants in the world, the Lycopods of the plant division Lycopodiophyta. These primitive plants include species living today throughout the world such as the clubmosses, quillworts and spikemosses, among others. It is estimated that they first appeared in the late Silurian period around 420 million years ago and many have changed very little since then. The first dinosaurs didn’t appear until 160 million years later but no doubt some of them would have fed on these plants during their reign.

Baragwanathia longifolia is an extinct species of clubmoss and the first fossil specimen was discovered in the Thomson River catchment in Gippsland. It is regarded as one of the first vascular plants ever to have developed on land.

Baragwanathia fossil from the early Devonian period (c.410 Ma), Victoria.       By James St. John [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Early clubmosses such as Baragwanathia were probably small (up to 1m) but by the Carboniferous period (c.360 Ma) they were giants reaching 30-35m tall! Ferns evolved from these early clubmosses and both of these produce spores for reproduction.

One living species of clubmoss occasionally encountered in Gippsland and other southern and eastern parts of Australia is the Bushy Clubmoss Lycopodium deuterodensum. This species at first sight can look a lot like a small germinating pine and it can grow up to 1m tall. It is not very common in Gippsland but in South Australia it is considered endangered as many populations have been wiped out in this state.

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Bushy Clubmoss Lycopodium deuterodensum near Mirboo North, Victoria

Bushy Clubmoss is typically found in moist areas of wet heathland and open forests as well as disturbed ground. In west Gippsland I have encountered them in lowland forests, especially around Mirboo North, as well as in heathland near Walkerville.

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Bushy Clubmoss

They can reproduce by spores which are contained in a structure called the strobili at the terminals of the branches or they can spread by rhizomes, particularly after a fire.

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Close-up of the strobili of Bushy Clubmoss. These produce spores and will go brown when ready to release.

So, when you’re out in the bush next keep and eye out for these ancient relics.

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Leaf-curling Spider

During summer a common sight in southern and eastern Australia’s woodlands, open forests and urban gardens is an untidy and almost circular web strung between vegetation with a curled leaf seemingly caught in its centre.  This is usually the workings of the Leaf-curling Spider Phonognatha spp.

Leaf-curling Spider- Phonognatha sp. 10km west of Morwell, Vic.  In web on edge of Leptospermum swamp. 2-3-10

Leaf-curling Spider Phonognatha graeffei outside of its Eucalypt leaf shelter. Morwell, Vic.

There are currently 7 species of Phonognatha recognised wordwide with 4 in Australia. By far the most common and widespread in Australia is P. graeffei (pronounced greef-e-i) which is found in Tasmania and along the entire east coast of Australia to South Australia. Males reach a body length of about 6mm and females 10-12mm. They currently belong to the Orb-weaving family Araneidae but there is ongoing debate as to whether they should be in this family or not and in the past the genus has being placed in other families.

Leaf-curling Spider- Phonognatha sp. 10km west of Morwell, Vic. In web on edge of Leptospermum swamp. 2-3-10

Phonognatha graeffei

Leaf-curling Spiders, after constructing a web, will haul up a leaf from the ground at night using a silk line and attach it to the web. This is then curled up with more silk until it forms a shelter in which to hide. The top end is closed with silk and the base is open. I’ve noticed Eucalyptus leaves are favourites with this species in Victoria but I have seen them use Snowy Daisy-bush Olearia lirata and Hop Goodenia Goodenia ovata leaves as well. Occasionally other items such as paper or even an empty snail shell are used instead.

Leaf curling spider  'nest'. Berrys Creek, Vic. April 2014

Typical web design with the hub being a 3/4 circle with a curled leaf near the centre. This leaf I think is from a Snowy Daisy-bushBerry’s Creek, Vic

Once the leaf shelter is completed the male will shift in with a female or sometimes live close by. This is typically an immature female who lives in the top part of the leaf while the male guards the entrance from rival males and catches insects caught in the web.

Leaf-curling Spider consuming beetle. Dutson Downs, Vic. Open Banksia woodland. 20.3.2015

P. graeffei catching a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae).

As soon as the female reaches maturity the male mates with her, occasionally resulting in the male being eaten. This female then moves out and constructs her own leaf shelter amongst nearby vegetation where she will lay her eggs. As with most other ‘modern’ spiders (Araneomorphae) they have short lives and both the male and female Leaf-curling Spiders will die at the end of summer to be replaced by their children.

Once hatched, the spiderlings themselves will begin hoisting up small leaves as practice for when they are ready to shift out of home and begin the process all over again.

 

 

 

 


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Leafless Banksia

While walking through a section of coastal scrub west of Golden Beach in Victoria I found this unusual clump of six Banksia flowers on the ground.

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At first I thought it was a bunch of flower heads that were knocked off a tree as there were no obvious leaves in sight. Looking closer I noticed it was rooted in the ground and was actually sending up three small suckers from the ground. In the centre of the flowers was a stump which had been either broken or chewed off some time ago as it had sealed over and turned grey.

This turned out to be a Silver Banksia Banksia marginata which it seems has had a very stressful life, probably from constant deer browsing (Hog Deer are very common around here) resulting in it becoming extremely stunted. After the most recent damage to its main stem it must have refused to give up its fight and sent out more shoots.

So, no it wasn’t a new species of leafless Banksia but a very hardy Silver Banksia with a stubborn fighting spirit.

 


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Gippsland’s Reptiles Part 3- Dragons and Monitors

This is part 3 of a photo essay on Gippsland’s unique reptiles, this time to include dragon and monitor (goanna) lizards.

Although not highly diverse as much of the rest of Australia, particularly the arid parts of the continent, Gippsland’s dragon lizards (family Agamidae) include a handful of interesting species. Their distribution extends throughout the Gippsland region and each has specific habitat and diet requirements.

On the coastal plain of Gippsland you are likely to come across the well camouflaged Jacky Lizard Amphibolurus muricatus, particularly in the drier woodlands and coastal parts of the region where it can be found on the ground or perched on branches. It is found in the coast and ranges of SE Australia from South Australia to south east QLD.

Jacky Dragon-Amphibolurus muricatus. Open Red Gum woodland, Fernbank,Vic. Sept 2013 (3)

Jacky Dragon. Fernbank, Vic.

 

 

Jacky Dragon- Amphibolurus muricatus. Dutson Downs, Vic. Heathy woodland. 16.9.2015 (1)

This species is relatively common in open woodlands and coastal scrub and can be easy to miss when walking through these areas as it blends in well with its surroundings. Growing to a total length of almost 400mm it is very similar to the much smaller Mountain Dragon Rankinia diemensis which also occurs in the region. Jacky Dragons can be identified from this species by the inside of their mouths being bright yellow as well as having no enlarged spines at the sides of the tail base. Mountain Dragon’s mouth is blue inside and they have small spines at the sides of the tail base.

Jacky Dragons have a peculiar way of communicating with each other which include complex movements such as head bobbing, arm waving, push ups, body rocking, tail flicks and colour changes. When disturbed they sometimes run upright on their strong back legs to escape at speed.

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The Mountain Dragon, as its name suggests, is typically found in high country but can also extend to the foothills and some parts of the nearby coastal plain.

Mountain Dragon- Rankinia diemensis. Mitchell River NP, Vic. Dry rainforest gully in leaf litter.  29-12-09

The Mountain Dragon showing its brilliant camouflage. Mitchell River NP, Vic.

As with the Jacky Dragon they are very well camouflaged and difficult to detect due to their ability to change their colour to their surroundings.  Mountain Dragons feed almost primarily on small insects found in leaf litter and low vegetation of dry woodlands. I have often seen them in the high country perched on the top of small termite mounds feeding on termites. This is a small dragon and can grow to a total length of up to 200mm.

Mountain Dragon- Rankinia diemensis. Near Ben Cruachan, N of Heyfield, Vic. 31-12-2011 (2)

Mountain Dragon feeding on termites. Note the way it changes colour to its surroundings.

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When travelling along rivers and large streams in Gippsland you are often aware of frequent splashes in the water. This is often due to the presence of the large Gippsland Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii howittii, a subspecies of the Eastern Water Dragon which is common along the east coast of Australia and is a semi-aquatic species.

Gippsland Water Dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. Yallourn, Vic.  23-2-10 (2)

Male Gippsland Water Dragon. Yallourn, Vic

 

Gippsland Water Dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. Yallourn, Vic.  23-2-10 (7)

Gippsland Water Dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. Yallourn, Vic.  23-2-10 (13)

Female or juvenile Water Dragon. Yallourn, Vic

Gippsland Water Dragons inhabit rivers, streams and sometimes rocky intertidal areas of the coast. They frequently perch on rocks, logs and branches overhanging the water and will often use these for a quick access to the water to hunt or escape predators, similar to the freshwater turtle. They have a strong swimming ability and is reputed to be able to remain underwater for over an hour! It feeds on a variety of terrestrial and aquatic species which includes insects, aquatic organisms, small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and mice as well as fruits and berries.

Gippsland Water Dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. Yallourn, Vic.  5-2-10 (3)

Water Dragons look almost like a swimming snake when they take to the water.

Gippsland Water Dragon males can grow to almost 1m in length and weight up to 1kg. Males have a brilliant colour pattern in the breeding season which includes a bright orange and green blotched neck and green overall body colour with striping on the tail. The Eastern Water Dragon male typically has a reddish pattern on the neck and chest, a dark patch behind the eye and more prominent stripes and the tail and back. It also tends to lack the green body colour of the Gippsland subspecies. Several feral populations of the Eastern Water Dragon have been found in South Australia and Victoria, including Gippsland (Yallourn), presumably escapees from reptile breeders.

Gippsland water dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. (male) Yallourn North along Latrobe River on willow. 18-3-10 (4)

An Eastern Water Dragon male showing red throat and belly and vivid patterns on the face and back. This is a member of a ‘feral’ population at Yallourn, Vic.

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The Lace Monitor Varanus varius is a large species of goanna found throughout Gippsland but is becoming increasingly rare in the western part of the region. As such it is listed as threatened in these parts. In central and eastern Gippsland, including the high country, Lace Monitors are still quite common in forest and woodland and will often hang around campsites or rest stops looking for scraps. Individual can have a large home range of up to 1-2 km² in summer but will remain almost dormant in winter. They are semi-arboreal and will often climb trees to raid nests of birds and mammals and will often use large hollows to shelter in.

Lace Monitor- Varanus varius. Avon-Mt Hedrick Scenic Reserve, N of Heyfield, Vic. Woodland. 29-12-2011.

Lace Monitors are very adept at climbing using their large claws. Heyfield, Vic.

Lace Monitors are one of the biggest goannas in Australia and males can grow to a total length of over 2m. Their name comes from the network of stripes on the body and neck which can vary in colour and pattern. The typical overall colour is dark grey with a complex series of creamy-yellow spots often merging into stripes. The neck and underparts are cream with dark grey stripes or blotches. Some individuals have a blue tinge to the body, especially the throat.

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Lace Monitor showing blue colouration to the throat and face. Buchan, Vic

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Another species, Gould’s Sand-Monitor Varanus gouldii, has historically been recorded from far east Gippsland but this hasn’t been seen for decades and it apparently wasn’t a common species in this area.

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Dragons and monitors probably evolved on the same lineage as snakes very early in reptile evolution in the Cretaceous period. In fact, monitors are the only lizard to share the forked tongue with snakes which they use to smell scents and it is thought that these two are closely related.

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Characteristic forked tongue of the monitor lizards

 

Although not as common as Gippsland’s skinks, the dragons and monitors of the region are always a pleasure to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The secret life of the paddock tree.

The majority of prime agricultural land in southern Australia was once densely vegetated with scrub, woodlands or forests, typically dominated by eucalypts. In Victoria’s Gippsland region, one of Australia’s most fertile areas, most of the land has been so highly modified from clearing it is often difficult to determine what the original vegetation communities were. The only way to do this is to observe the handful of remnant species remaining to work out the original EVC (ecological vegetation class) and this vegetation is often in the form of the paddock tree.

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This drastic change to the landscape is unfortunately typical of a lot of agricultural land in Australia. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century the clearing of vegetation in southern and eastern parts of the continent was on such a grand scale and in such a relatively short period of time that many species, both plant and animal, had no time to adapt to this change and an extraordinary amount of species became extinct or threatened. According to the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council VEAC Report 2011 it has been estimated that 30% of Victoria’s native fauna and 44% of native flora have become extinct or threatened with extinction.

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White-footed Tree-rat Conilurus albipes, a species once widespread in south-eastern Australia but now extinct, probably due to land clearing and predation by foxes and cats. (John Gould [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In Gippsland, the Strzelecki Ranges and nearby foothills originally consisted of mostly wet or damp forest which before European colonisation was seldom touched by fire, unlike the grasslands or drier forests and woodlands of the Gippsland plain which were periodically burnt by aboriginal people.

In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s these moist slopes were beginning to be transformed into bare rolling hills by the white settlers who were allocated small allotments. These had to be cleared of a certain percent of their vegetation in a short period of time, otherwise they forfeited their rights to occupy the land. At first this was done by axes and saws which must have been an enormous task but later was done by burning the forests to open them up and make them easier to manage and clear. Wet forests are less able to adapt to intense fires and much of the vegetation didn’t recover. These bare areas were then transformed into grassy paddocks where stock and crops were farmed.

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Wet forest typical of the Strzelecki Ranges. Gunyah, Vic

 

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Typical dairy farmland in the western Strzelecki Ranges, originally consisting of wet forests. Note the major landslip in the central left of the photo.

The expansion of rail lines into South Gippsland in the 1890’s created an exponential amount of settlement in the area and subsequent clearing of forests for towns, roads and agriculture. This has resulted in a patchwork of often isolated vegetation in the form of ‘island’ reserves, parks, roadside remnants and the topic of this blog, the paddock tree.

Native paddock trees, however isolated they are, are important in the ecosystem as they provide food, shelter and protection for a wide range of species. Bats will use tree hollows or loose bark for roosting and rearing young. Koalas and possums will often travel over open farmland to utilise isolated trees and many birds will use these to feed or nest in or as stepping stones when accessing other sites.

Koala. Berry's Creek, Vic. In Gippsland Blue-Gum. 23.11.2015 (4)

The Koala often has a wide home range and will travel over open paddocks to access isolated trees.

In agriculture remnant paddock trees can be important for productivity, particularly when farming livestock as these trees provide protection to stock from the elements (less stress=more productivity). So why don’t we put more effort into protecting these assets if they’re so important? Some farmers do a great job at protecting these remnants, often depending on how active or well-funded their local Landcare group is but others can be negligent or misinformed in their approaches.

The problem with many native farm trees which become isolated is that they are more susceptible to diseases, parasites (insects, mites, nematodes and some plants), insect damage, stress from the elements, browsing pressure, excessive use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, drying out of soil, compaction of the ground and rubbing from livestock. A recent study by scientists from Deakin University looked at koala populations and their browsing pressure on Manna Gum Eucalyptus viminalis. It found an initial increase in density of Koala populations resulted in severe browsing of these trees within a small area. This in turn caused a catastrophic drop in Koala numbers due to starvation. Insects also can have a major effect on tree health due to lack of predators and can cause extreme defoliation, root or basal bark damage and are often attracted to an already stressed tree as this is when the tree’s defences are down.

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An insect borer is likely to have caused the death to this Blackwood Acacia melanoxylon.

 

All these above  factors can result in the slow death of the paddock tree with no recruitment of seedlings. Some farmers see their native trees are dying and plant exotic species such as Pines which are less prone to being attacked. But there are steps property owners can undertake to protect isolated native trees while still being productive both in an agricultural and ecological sense.

Remnant trees and other vegetation can be protected firstly by fencing off stock to avoid damage from soil compaction, browsing and rubbing, erecting the fence at least from the canopy-width out from the tree (ideally twice the width of the canopy). By allowing stock to still use the protection of the tree, but excluding them from compacting it’s roots, the farmer still benefits. Whether it’s an isolated patch of vegetation to be created or ideally a corridor the simple recipe for success is a diversity of species to be planted and adequate weed control. This includes trees, shrubs and larger hardy grasses, all of local province. Smaller shrubs, herbs and grasses can be added in the future once the canopy is relatively established and some minor weed control is continued.

Gully area in Jan 2010 for proposed reveg in May 2010 (1)

A neglected paddock with dead, borer- infested Blackwood trees

Gully area in Nov 2015 (2)

The same photo 5 years later after fencing and revegetation

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Due to the 5 year accumulation of leaf litter and dense canopy layer there is no more need for weed control and there is already a recruitment of species from self-seeding.

One mistake that many well-meaning landowners or groups do is lack diversity in their plantings. By having an array of nectar-producing plants, species like honeyeaters, bees, wasps and butterflies are attracted to feed on the flowers. Birds such as parrots and Silvereyes are attracted to fruiting plants and seed-producing plants like grasses attract native Bush Rats and Rosellas, among others. The leaves of different plants often have specialist insects which feed on them and this insect fauna attracts predators such as spiders, reptiles and a wide range of birds. Then there’s the protection from predators and nesting opportunities the plants provide.

All these factors protect any remnant isolated trees from damage and allows the tree to hopefully produce viable germinates and successive generations. Additional vegetation will protect the tree by also increasing the soil’s microbes, humus layer from leaf litter and protection from the elements. By attracting a diversity of fauna to a patch this in turn will protect the vegetation from pests as there will be more predators to keep them under control.

A common example of imbalance with isolated trees is the prevalence of the parasitic Australian mistletoe. The widespread Mistletoe Bird feeds on the fruits of the mistletoe and will often target isolated trees or trees on the edge of a remnant patch. The seeds of the fruit are excreted on the branches of the isolated tree where they grow and often infest the tree to the point of death. This is due to a lack of mistletoe predators in open areas such as some of the Jezebel butterflies Delias spp whose caterpillars feed primarily on mistletoe leaves and keep them relatively in check in healthy bushland.

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A tree heavily infested with Drooping Mistletoe Amyema pendulum.

Imperial White- Delias harpalyce. Emerged from chrysalis found on Blackwood, Fish Creek, Vic. 19.1.16 ©Craig Boase.JPG

Imperial Jezebel Delias harpalyce, Fish Creek, Vic. The caterpillars of this species help control mistletoe.

 

Unfortunately, paddock trees are a dying breed but without more education and funding available to farmers and other landowners we’ll keep losing more and more of them.

 

 

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