Wild South East

a nature blog of south-east Victoria, mostly Gippsland


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Around the traps

It has been a busy month for me so far. Not only was I involved in a long awaited survey near the Gippsland Lakes for the threatened New Holland Mouse but I’ve also just purchased a whole new camera setup. The only problem is I’m still learning the buttons and settings of this camera plus getting use to my new lenses. Apart from a bridge camera (cross between a compact and DSLR) I haven’t purchased a proper DSLR since 2007 and a lot has changed since then!

Anyway, below are some of my pics from the last 1½ weeks around various sites in Gippsland.

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Grey Shrike-thrush. Darriman Reserve, Giffard.

 

 

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Sunset from Eagle’s Nest lookout, Inverloch.

 

 

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White-lipped Snake found during the New Holland Mouse survey. Gippsland Lakes, Vic.

 

 

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Agile Antechinus. Gippsland Lakes, Vic.

 

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Agile Antechinus getting revenge!

 

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New Holland Mouse, Gippsland Lakes, Vic

 

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Xanthorrhoea in the early morning. A favoured habitat for the New Holland Mouse.

The New Holland Mouse has only been recorded at 3 locations in Victoria in the last 15 years and these are Wilson’s Promontory, Providence Ponds and Gippsland Lakes, all within the Gippsland region. Originally the species was widespread throughout south-eastern Australia but is now restricted to fragmented areas of NSW, QLD, Victoria and Tasmania. We ended up trapping over 20 of the little guys near the Gippsland Lakes so this was a major success. We also had infra-red cameras set up which detected them as well.


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Human:nature

I’ve been in the field of environmental management for a little while now and one thing that stands out is that most people who couldn’t care less about the environment and/or destroy it are the ones who have distanced themselves from it since childhood. If they do spend the occasional weekend in nature they’re not the ones who stop to appreciate the beauty of it in all its intricacies from the beetle scuttling amongst the leaf litter to the raucous honeyeaters feeding on blossoms in the tree canopy. I believe it all stems from what experience in nature, if any, you had as a youngster. Without experience and knowledge there’s no empathy and appreciation. Therefore conservation in general is hampered by the quality and quantity of kid’s (and adult’s) experience with nature. For conservation to be normalised in society and not something some people are ashamed to admit we must get kids in to nature as much as we can, especially in schools.

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Kid’s spare time these days is generally dominated by the digital revolution, whether its playing games on a tablet, trolling the web or watching TV. Human’s love affair with everything digital is mostly influenced by friends and advertising. Society unfortunately sees this as normal, a way of disconnecting with reality while at the same time exploring and interacting in digital media. With the emergence of smart phones everything is now literally in the palm of your hand. Children adjust to technologies well and become tech savvy very quickly. Most young kids have poor judgement and are highly influenced by society which is a toxic combination when it comes to the digital world. They see it as the only way in which to ‘escape’.

The environmental movement today has, in part, benefited from digital media but its a double-edged sword.  One one hand it has brought attention to conservation issues on an unprecedented scale and reduced paper consumption but on the other hand it has created a society which would rather view a forest on their phone than actually see it in person. It has also created a society which is bombarded by the media with conflicting information about environmental issues, particularly climate change. This results in many people becoming confused, complacent (and often annoyed) by all the flood of information and often feel hopeless that they can’t do anything to help.

When people do get out of their sterile world and immerse themselves in nature they get a sense of why and what the conservation movement is so passionate about preserving. It should be mandatory in the school curriculum to get kids on a regular basis out in to nature and to get them on their hands and knees exploring and appreciating all that they see. If we have any hope in reversing the destruction humans have created its in the kids these days because the adults (cough..cough..politicians..) are doing a terrible effort.

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I know there’s many people who follow my blog who have kids, plus I’ve got two, so in the near future I’m going to write some short articles which hopefully sparks an interest in children to get out and explore their local bushland or park, not an article which forces information down their throat but one which portrays nature with a sense of mystery and generates adventure and wonder. Well, hopefully it does! So keep posted and get those future leaders out into the wilds.

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A frog and a fern

I was lucky enough to get photos of two more of Victoria’s threatened species on my forays recently.

The first is the Green and Golden Bell Frog Litoria aurea.

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Green and Golden Bell Frog

 

 

 

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Typical habitat of Green and Golden Bell Frog with matted and floating vegetation.

 

This frog is listed as threatened in Victoria and many populations have crashed in recent years from a multitude of factors, particularly the introduced Chytrid fungus. This one was captured during a fauna survey for a client near Dutson Downs, Victoria and is possibly the most westerly record of the species in Victoria in recent times. We were pleased to hear a large number of these frogs calling in the wetlands we surveyed at the site.

The other threatened species was the Filmy Maidenhair Fern Adiantum diaphanum.

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Filmy Maidenhair Fern

 

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Typical habitat

 

This species is restricted to only a few small fragmented sites in Victoria, all being in the western Strzelecki Ranges in Gippsland. Although threatened in Victoria there are healthy populations in New South Wales, Queensland, New Zealand, several islands and China. This one was photographed at a site near Trafalgar, Victoria, in wet forest.


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The Prom and the Parrot

Almost every Victorian has a soft spot for Wilson’s Promontory National Park, one of the state’s most iconic and visited parks. So to be asked recently to go on a hike in the less visited northern section of the ‘Prom’ I jumped at the chance, especially since we were there to look for the rarely seen Ground Parrot.

We started the hike at Five Mile Rd carpark just off the main road once you get inside the Prom. Here we walked east over undulating hills to Barry Creek campsite where we set up our base camp for the surveys. In the afternoon we hiked north along the Lower Barry Creek track for over 2km checking areas of low shrubs and heathland, the Ground Parrot’s favourite habitat, then returned back to camp. Most of the suitable habitat we found was not far from our camp so this was where we concentrated our efforts.

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Wet heathland near Barry Creek camp.

 

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Looking towards Yanakie from the Lower Barry Creek track.

 

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The Lower Barry Creek track was often hard to find!

 

Unfortunately we didn’t see or hear any Ground Parrots during the two days. We did however stop to talk to a lone hiker who we asked if he had seen any low-flying, stocky green parrots. When we described them to him he seemed certain that’s what he saw but some descriptions he gave us sounded dubious. Who knows?

 

The Ground Parrot is a very cryptic species, much like its closest cousin the once thought to be extinct Night Parrot. A plump bird, the Ground Parrot is green with heavy mottling of yellow and black and a distinct red patch above the bill. It is more often heard than seen, unless accidentally flushed out of heath and is listed in Victoria as threatened. The call (which I had on an app on my phone) is very unlike any parrot I’ve ever heard and for me sounds more like a Gerygone than a parrot. Information beforehand suggested the Ground Parrot calls at dusk and dawn so these were when we did the most of the surveys. What we didn’t realise until after the survey was they actually call more often half an hour before dawn and half an hour after dusk!

We did however see a lot of interesting plant and animal life as well as some stunning landscapes so it was still very much worthwhile going on the hike. Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens were very common in the low heath areas. I’d only seen a fleeting glimpse of them before so to see and hear them a lot was great. I got some terrible photos of some at a distance so I wont embarrass myself and put it on here!

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Crescent Honeyeaters were reasonably common and were often seen feeding on Xanthorrhoea flowers.

 

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Bees and wasps feeding on a Xanthorrhoea flower

 

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This Southern Water Skink Eulamprus tympanum was friendly around our camp.

 

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This enormous Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus was not so friendly and was reluctant to let us pass on the track.

 

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Many Hibbertia species were in flower everywhere. This one is Silky Guinea-flower Hibbertia sericea.

 

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Yellow Stackhousia Stackhousia viminea.

 

There are plans for another survey next year and this time with the new information that has come to light hopefully some can be found/heard and counted.

Anyone who sees or hears a Ground Parrot around the Northern Wilderness Area of Wilsons Promontory National Park, Nooramunga Marine & Coastal Park and Cape Liptrap Coastal Park can download the survey and ID form from the Parks Victoria website.

Thanks go to Denise and Anthony Fernando, the Victorian National Parks Association and Denis Nagle for a great hike in a great location.


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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.

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A neglected paddock with dead, borer- infested Blackwood trees

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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.

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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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The Knob Reserve, Stratford

Although it’s got an unfortunate name, the Knob Reserve in Stratford is a hidden little gem tucked away behind the town. This park is 56 hectares of mostly Gippsland Plains Grassy Woodland, an EVC (Ecological Vegetation Class) which is threatened and few relatively intact remnants remain in the region due to clearing for agriculture.

Plains Grassy Woodland, Knob Reserve.

Plains Grassy Woodland, Knob Reserve.

Historically this park is very significant to the indigenous Gunaikurnai people and has been a traditional meeting place for thousands of years. The ‘knob’, a prominent bluff along the banks of the Avon River would have been seen a long distance away. Evidence of their occupation can be found on and around the bluff including scar trees (trees with bark removed for canoes or shields) and sandstone grinding stones which were used to sharpen tools such as axes.

Panorama from the bluff overlooking the Avon River.

Panorama from the bluff overlooking the Avon River.

Grinding stones

Grinding stones

Early spring is the time when this area comes to life and although the grass is still green from winter it doesn’t take long for the soil and vegetation to dry out to a crisp. When I visited last week a lot of the herbs, lilies and orchids were in full bloom and the birdlife was extraordinary.

The Bulbine Lily Bulbine bulbosa was particularly common and the large yellow flowers could be seen dotted everywhere.

Bulbine Lily

Bulbine Lily

Chocolate Lilies Arthropodium strictum were also very common but only just beginning to form flowers and I think if you went back next week it would be a haze of purple.

Chocolate Lily

Chocolate Lily

This reserve has a high number of Donkey Orchids Diuris spp, one of them, the Purple Diuris Diuris punctata is listed as threatened. Although there weren’t any I could see flowering yet the photo below is from another trip I did to a grassland reserve near Bairnsdale the next day.

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Purple Diuris

Leopard Orchids Diuris pardina and Golden Moth Orchids Diuris chryseopsis weren’t common but scattered in the denser grasslands.

Leopard Orchid Diuris pardina

Leopard Orchid

Golden Moth Orchid

Golden Moth Orchid

Like I mentioned the birdlife was amazing and within half an hour I had a tally of nearly 40 species! Parrots in particular were everywhere and many were searching for nesting hollows in the old Red Gums.

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Sulphur-crested Cockatoo checking out the real estate

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Might need a second opinion from the wife

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Eastern Rosella checking out a hollow

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A moment of contemplation

We’re heading back to this reserve next week for work and it should be great to see what else might pop up.