Wild South East

a nature blog of south-east Victoria, mostly Gippsland


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Cherry Ballart

The Cherry Ballart Exocarpos cupressiformis is a unique tree but looking at it many people aren’t aware of its peculiar nature.

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Cherry Ballart Exocarpos cupressiformis growing in dry eucalypt woodland. Fernbank, Victoria

Known as a hemiparasite (or semi-parasite) it needs other plants, particularly Eucalypts and to a lesser extent Acacias, in it’s earlier stages of life. This is due to it parasitising the roots of these plants and obtaining nutrients and water from them. Once they become mature Cherry Ballarts can photosynthesize by themselves and therefore don’t need other plants as much. The stems, not the leaves, perform the majority of this photosynthesis as the leaves are reduced to scales, not unlike Sheoaks Allocasuarina spp.

Scientists are still perplexed on some of functions of this plant and one of these is how it germinates. Horticulturalists have found that propagating the seed with Kangaroo Grass Themeda triandra or the introduced Lucerne Medicago sativa, both of which have been passed through the stomach of hens, have produced some success. It has also been found that they are probably reliant on mychorrizal fungi so placing soil from it’s natural habitat in the propagation mix may be also beneficial. It does however regenerate very well from cut or damaged stumps and sends out multiple suckers.

The Cherry Ballart was first discovered in 1792 by the French naturalist Jacques-Julien Houton de Labillardière while exploring southern Tasmania as part of Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux’s command of the two ships Recherche and Esperence.  Labillardière named it Exocarpos, Exo meaning external, carpos meaning fruit. This is due to the fact that the actual fruit, a small inedible nut, is found at the end of a yellow to red succulent swollen pedicle or stalk. This swollen stem is often mistakenly referred to as the fruit and is very delicious but small in size.

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Orange-red ‘fruit’ of the Cherry Ballart with the hard green nut on the end

The Cherry Ballart with its very dense and light green canopy is a very prominent tree in a variety of wet to dry habitats, usually but not always in association with eucalypt woodlands or forest. Its distribution extends along the eastern parts of Australia from Qld to SA, including Tasmania. This plant can be a powerhouse in terms of providing protection and a food source for a massive variety of wildlife as well as herbs and grasses. Small birds in particular find this ideal protection to forage and build their nests. The fruit-eating birds in summer also have a plentiful supply of succulent berries on which to feast on. I have seen Silvereyes en masse as well as Satin Bowerbirds foraging on the fruit in summer. Insect-eating birds also feed on the often abundant insect and spider fauna associated with the plant.

Insects and other invertebrates also find this tree ideal habitat and there are some species which specialize in Cherry Ballarts such as the Crexa moth Genduara punctigera whose caterpillars feed only on the leaves of Cherry Ballarts.

Crexa Moth- Genduara punctigera (2)

Crexa Moth Genduara punctigera. A Cherry Ballart specialist. Fernbank, Vic.

The brightly coloured Stink Bug Commius elegans also has a penchant for this plant and in mid summer the trees can be loaded with the bug and its newly hatched nymphs. Both the adults and the nymphs feed on the leaves and stems of the Cherry Ballart with the adults remaining near the young until they are older.

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Stink Bug Commius elegans nymph. Note the minute yellow flowers of the Cherry Ballart in the top left corner.

 

 

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Commius elegans on Cherry Ballart. The adult is on the top right.

 

 

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Cream-spotted Ichneumon wasp Echthromorpha intricatoria feeding on Cherry Ballart flowers. Giffard, Vic

 

I have also seen Ring-tail Possums using the dense foliage to build their dreys and on hot summer days it’s not uncommon to see a kangaroo or wallaby sheltering from the sun under the thick canopy of the tree.  Unfortunately deer, particularly Sambar and Red, also have a liking for this tree and will heavily browse the lower branches. Males frequently rub their antlers on the trunk in the rutting season and this damage has been found to reduce the density of Ballarts as well as other trees and shrubs in an area.

The Cherry Ballart is a unique and significant tree in the forests and woodland of eastern Australia and one which shows a great resilience to a wide range of soil and climatic conditions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bountiful Buchan

There’s something about Buchan in east Gippsland that draws our family in every time and it’s not the Buchan pies or the ridiculously touristy Buchan Caves Reserve in town (they are both pretty good mind you). We’re always looking for something away from the raucous flocks of tourists and exorbitant prices and after Christmas we found such a place.

Tucked away east of Buchan is a small campground called Balley Hooley at the junction of the Buchan and Snowy Rivers. We had been here two years before but only for a swim so this time we decided to camp here for 5 days from Christmas day.

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Snowy River near Balley Hooley campground

On Boxing Day it rained on and off for most of the day and the following few days the river rose quite a bit. We spoke with a couple of kayakers who regularly paddle down this stretch of river and they said it’s the highest they’ve seen the river in summer for a while.

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Early morning on the Buchan River. Dragonflies, mudeyes (Dragonfly nymphs) and Water Striders were abundant here.

Reptiles were common everywhere and although people kept saying they saw Red-bellied Black Snakes I didn’t see a single one!  The ubiquitous Lace Monitors Varanus varius were common around camp looking for scraps and one we saw skulking around was huge and very old.

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Lace Monitor Varanus varius

In the woodland I saw a few Jacky Dragons Amphibolurus muricatus as they scuttled a short distance before becoming nearly impossible to see in leaf litter.

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Jacky Dragon Amphibolurus muricatus

Black Rock Skinks Egernia saxatilis were occasionally seen sunning themselves on large logs in the nearby forest. This one below was reasonably friendly and happy for me to approach closely.

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Black Rock Skink Egernia saxatilis

Along the Snowy River the large Gippsland Water Dragon Intelligama lesueurii howittii was very common and as we approached by canoe many would scramble awkwardly over rocks on the river edge or dive in the water.

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A very large adult male Gippsland Water Dragon

Also near the river bank were Yellow-bellied Water Skinks Eulamprus heatwolei. Like the Water Dragon these lizards are good swimmers and can hunt in the water for small aquatic animals.

At night the girls and I went hunting for frogs by torchlight and found many small frogs (most with remnants of tails) and tadpoles. I’m pretty sure these were Lesueur’s Tree Frog Litoria lesueurii. No adults were seen but they were heard.

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Young Lesueur’s Tree Frog?

Many plants along the river edges were in full bloom such as the Kanooka Tristaniopsis laurina with its yellow Leptospermum-like flowers.

 

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Kanooka Tristaniopsis laurina

 

Also in full bloom was Burgan Kunzea sp. Species within Kunzea, especially K. ericoides have had several name changes and K. ericoides which I’ve been so familiar with is now only a NZ species and the original one is split into 3 species! BOTANISTS! There is a rare Kunzea in the upper Snowy River and this one in the photo may even be it but I’ll leave it to the experts.

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Burgan Kunzea sp

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Bursaria spinosa in full bloom

As I’m unfamiliar with a lot of the East Gippsland flora there were many I haven’t ID’d. Here’s a few of them I found along the river near camp:

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Through word of mouth we heard about the nearby Wilson’s Cave which is a free-to-access cave on Parks Victoria land. We finally found it after parking off the Buchan-Orbost Rd and looking for the less than obvious sign. Once we found the entrance down the bottom of a hill we donned our head torches and followed a series of long tunnels and dead ends for several hundred metres before finally emerging back into sunlight through a very tight exit hole and realising we had actually walked underneath the road. It didnt have the brilliant decorations of the more popular caves in the area but the girls (and us for that matter) were absolutely thrilled with the adventure of exploring this underground world.

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Another fork in the cave. Which way?!

A drive to another free-to-access cave system at the Potholes Reserve was less successful as they either were padlocked for safety reasons or required abseiling equipment to access. Maybe next time.

I did find at the reserve an interesting looking fossil which at first glance I thought was an imprint of a shoe in mud but turned out to be solid limestone like the surrounding rock.

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I’m not sure what it may be a fossil of, even after trolling the internet looking for anything similar. Anyone have any ideas?

Until next year.

 

 

 


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Croajingolong


Last fortnight we spent three days in Croajingolong National Park in far SE Gippsland. It’s been about 12 years since we were last here and it was good to see it hasn’t changed a bit. This remote national park is reasonably pristine and contains vast tracts of forest and coastline stretching about 100kms from the Vic/NSW border west to Bemm River. We camped at Thurra River which is full of shady campsites and is several kilometres from the Point Hicks Lighthouse.

One of the highlights included walking on (and sliding down) the enormous sand dunes a couple of kilometres from camp.

Thurra River sand dunes

Thurra River sand dunes

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View from dunes toward the mouth of the Thurra River and camp.

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A track leads around the back and on top of these dunes and when I first visited this place years ago the river could easily be followed from the base of the dunes back to camp. Not so this time. The river and banks were choked with debris and it took us over two hours to reach camp. Our girls slept well that night!

Lace Monitor tracks

Tracks of a Lace Monitor

Another highlight was seeing a single Hooded Plover at the mouth of the Thurra River. It didn’t seem to be nesting yet but a Pied Oystercatcher was and seemed to be getting annoyed at the plover for getting close to it’s nest and chased it several times. The oystercatcher’s apparent mate was nearby and was banded with an orange tag and number 18 on it.

Hooded Plover

Hooded Plover

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Pied Oystercatcher on nest

Pied Oystercatcher on nest

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Also at the mouth was a Caspian Tern. This species, along with the Hooded Plover, is listed as threatened under the FFG Act.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

While at walking back to camp one morning I noticed a Grey Currawong acting nervous and swooping on something in our camp. It turned out to be one of the biggest, fattest Tiger Snakes I’ve ever seen and was quite aggressive when I tried to make it leave our campsite.

Tiger Snake

Tiger Snake

A few Red-bellied Black Snakes were seen during our stay as well, luckily not in our camp!

We made the 2km walk to the Point Hicks Lighthouse and went on a very interesting tour of it. The construction of it and the adjoining cottages began in 1887 and took three years to complete.  The cottages were initially to be built of granite but a ship was wrecked nearby loaded with timber and other building supplies bound for elsewhere so this was instead used. Talk about luck! The 37m tall lighthouse was initially to be built from granite blocks quarried and cut from site but instead this granite was crushed and used to concrete it. Imagine the effort in hauling up the wet concrete day after day. The only day they got off was on Christmas day but they got double their rum rations. Slackers.

Point Hicks Lighthouse and caretaker cottages

Point Hicks Lighthouse and caretaker cottages

On April 20th 1770 James Cook sailing on the Endeavour passed Point Hicks and was the first European to sight the east coast of Australia. He named the point after Lieutenant Zachary Hicks who was the first to sight land.

James Cook Memorial

Memorial to Cook and Hicks.

Swathes of

Coastal vegetation at Point Hicks

While at the top of the lighthouse we spotted these Australian Fur-seals basking on rocks at the point. There was a large male with a female and juveniles and they weren’t too worried when we went down and got a closer look.

Australian Fur-seals basking

Australian Fur-seals basking

Dreaming of fish

Dreaming of fish

The plant life surrounding Thurra River and Point Hicks was amazing and much of it was familiar to me but many weren’t. It was good to see Sweet Pittosporum Pittosporum undulatum in it’s correct habitat and not a serious environmental weed as in western Gippsland.

Stinging Nettle in full flower

Stinging Nettle in full flower

Native Violet Viola hederacea

Native Violet Viola hederacea

Pigface

Pigface Carpobrotus sp

Dianella tasmanica

Dianella tasmanica

 

Caladenia orchid

Caladenia orchid

Bidgee Widgee Acaena novae-zealandiae

Bidgee Widgee Acaena novae-zealandiae

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Cape Barren Goose

The Cape Barren Goose Cereopsis novaehollandiae is a large goose confined to islands and the nearby mainland of southern Australia. Together with the Coscoroba Swan Coscoroba coscoroba of South America it is thought to belong to a primitive group whose ancestors gave rise to the modern true geese and swans.

Once common the Cape Barren Goose is now restricted in range, especially in Western Australia, but can be reasonably common in some parts of eastern Australia and Tasmania thanks mainly to their safe refuges on several islands. These islands are used as their primary breeding areas in winter, safe from predators and other threats, and in summer many tend to migrate to the mainland. This species was feared to become extinct in the wild in the mid 20th century due to hunting, predation and habitat modification but conservation efforts have increased their numbers. It is still regarded as one of the rarest geese in the world.

In Gippsland the Cape Barren Goose is relatively stable on Philllip Island thanks to fox and cat control efforts and is a reliable place to see the species. This pair was photographed in open paddock near Surf Beach on Phillip Island feeding on pasture grasses.

Cape Barren Geese, Phillip Island, Victoria

Cape Barren Geese, Phillip Island, Victoria

This species was first described by European explorers at Cape Barren Island in the Bass Strait and this and other islands in the area are still some of it’s strongholds.

Grasses, particularly the Coastal Tussock-grass Poa poifomis and a variety of pasture grasses are their main food with some herbs and succulents such as saltbush also eaten as well.

Coastal Tussock-grass Poa poiformis, a favourite food of the Cape Barren Goose

Coastal Tussock-grass Poa poiformis, a favourite food of the Cape Barren Goose

To ensure the ongoing survival of this species more conservation work needs to be undertaken in coastal habitats, especially grasslands and wetlands. This includes the remediation and protection of these fragile habitats, an intense and prolonged feral predator control program and public awareness of this iconic and unique bird.


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Rockpool ramblings- Bear Gully

Bear Gully Camp Ground is a great little beach camping area nestled away in Cape Liptrap Coastal Park in South Gippsland. On clear days you can see Wilson’s Promontory from the beach and even from some of the campsites.  We camped here recently but it’s unfortunate that these campsites have had a fee introduced in recent times. I suppose Parks Vic need to cover their maintenance costs somehow.

The beach is generally not suitable for swimming as it is mostly made up of extensive areas of rocks. This turned out to be a very interesting area to search in the tidal pools and our kids were constantly on their hand and knees peering into these worlds with amazement.

Our youngest daughter at a rock pool

Our youngest daughter at a rock pool

I managed to get up early one morning while the rest of the family were in dream land and the following photos are of some of the critters found on my rock pool ramblings. As it was early morning it was poor light so many of the photos don’t have much depth of field as I didn’t use a flash.

A pair of White-faced Herons seemed to have a territory of about 500 metres along the beach and were constantly flying back and forward searching for areas to hunt in the rock pools at low tide.

Pair of White-faced Herons hunting

Pair of White-faced Herons hunting

I did notice them taking fish and small crabs but they were so quick it was hard to get a photo of them catching it. They would often perch at the edge of a pool and watch intently at small fish which were caught in the pools at low tide before striking.

White-faced Heron ready to strike.

White-faced Heron ready to strike.

During high tide White-faced Herons seemed to rest for longer periods as their food sources were harder to find. Here a heron shares a rock at high tide with a pair of Pacific Gulls.

White-faced Heron with Pacific Gulls

White-faced Heron with Pacific Gulls

A pair of Sooty Oystercatchers were lurking in the background of the herons and seemed to be much more wary of my presence. This is a species which hunts almost predominantly along rocky shorelines and they eat a wide variety of small marine animals.

Sooty Oystercatchers

Sooty Oystercatchers

In almost all of the pools the dominant seaweed was the Neptune’s Necklace Hormosira banksii which formed extensive mats. This yellow-brown alga is a very successful species mostly due to the fact that no animals are known to feed on it as it contains repelling chemicals. It can reproduce either vegetatively or by releasing sperm and eggs into the water.

Neptune's Necklace- Hormosira
Neptune’s Necklace- Hormosira banksii
Neptune's Necklace forming dense mats

Neptune’s Necklace forming dense mats

The small dark green Sea Lettuce Ulva sp. is a small inconspicuous alga of rock pools and these were reasonably common. This species typically grow on rocks in intertidal rock pools and fish as well as sea snails are the main browsers of this species.

Sea Lettuce- Ulva sp.

Sea Lettuce- Ulva sp.

Two common sea grasses were the Sea Nymph Amphibolis antarctica and the Eelgrass Zostera sp. Both these are flowering plants and as such reproduce by dispersing seed.

Sea Nymph- Amphibolis antarctica

Sea Nymph- Amphibolis antarctica

Sea Nymph

Sea Nymph

Eelgrass- Zostera sp

Eelgrass- Zostera sp

A brilliantly coloured Waratah Anemone Actinia tenebrosa was found in one small rock pool. This small bright red anemone is found in rocky intertidal areas and can withdraw it’s tentacles completely if disturbed. It is also capable of capturing prey or inflicting pain on intruders with the use of stinging cells on some specialised tentacles.

Waratah Anemone- Actinia tenebrosa.

Waratah Anemone- Actinia tenebrosa.

The Five-armed Cushion Star is a tiny blue-green sea star which was fairly common on rocks once you got your eye in for it’s camouflaged body. These are one of the few sea stars which lay their eggs on rocks, usually in late winter, instead of a swimming larval stage.

Five-armed Cushion Star- Parvulastra exigua.

Five-armed Cushion Star- Parvulastra exigua.

Molluscs usually dominate the fauna in rock pools throughout Australia and Bear Gully was no exception. The Black Nerite Nerita sp (this one is most likely N. atramentosa) is a sea snail (Gastropod) and this was found mostly on the underside of rocks in large congregations.

Black Nerite- Nerita sp (possibly N. atramentosa) in typical congregations

Black Nerite- Nerita sp (possibly N. atramentosa) in typical congregations

Another common sea snail among many other species was the Ribbed Top Shell Austrocochlea constricta.

Ribbed Top Shell- Austrocochlea constricta

Ribbed Top Shell- Austrocochlea constricta

Limpets were also very common but they are ridiculously difficult to ID.

Limpets

Limpets

Chitons were present mostly underneath rocks and some such as this Southern Chiton Ischnochiton australis were quite large, maybe 7-8cm.

Ischnochiton australis

Ischnochiton australis

The Purple-mottled Shore Crab Cyclograpsus granulosus was by far the most common crab species. Almost every rock pool had a population of these small crabs and the colouration varied from a deep purple to almost brown but always with it’s distinct mottling. It feeds mostly on dead animals as well as vegetation, including algae.

Purple-mottled Shore Crab-  Cyclograpsus granulosus

Purple-mottled Shore Crab- Cyclograpsus granulosus

Another two species but in lower numbers were the slightly larger Burrowing Shore Crab Leptograpsodes octodentatus.

Burrowing Shore Crab- Leptograpsus octodentatus

Burrowing Shore Crab- Leptograpsus octodentatus

..and the Four-toothed Shore Crab Paragrapsus quadridentatus. This one is surrounded by Southern Chitons and had lost a claw. These feed mostly on dead animals and rotting vegetation.

Four-toothed Shore Crab- Paragrapsus quadridentatus surrounded by Chitons

Four-toothed Shore Crab- Paragrapsus quadridentatus surrounded by Chitons

An unusual crustacean was the Sea Centipede Euidotea peronii. This is an isopod and is related to land slaters, not centipedes. These were common under rocks and in washed-up seaweed and varied from green-brown to almost purple. This species can vary its colour depending on the colour of the seaweed it shelters in.

Sea Centipedes- Euidotea peronii. This pair was possibly mating.

Sea Centipedes- Euidotea peronii. This pair was possibly mating.

I could have spent hours looking in these rock pools but my stomach was crying out for breakfast so I headed back to the camp.

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Gippsland: The Skink’s Domain

I’ve been fascinated by reptiles since I was a child and whenever I get the chance I’m trying to ‘hunt’ them down to observe and photograph them in the field.

Since moving to the cool climate of South Gippsland in southern Victoria several years ago I was surprised at the number of reptiles encountered on my trips to the bush in this region. It soon became apparent that although there were quite a lot of species there wasn’t that much diversity in terms of representatives of the reptile families. Skinks (Scincidae) dominate the reptile fauna in Gippsland with 32 official species listed. There are some families such as Geckos (Gekkonidae), Legless Lizards (Pygopodidae), Pythons (Boidae) and Front-fanged Snakes (Colubridae) which are typically dry land or tropical species and these have little or no representatives in the region.

Gippsland includes much of Victoria’s alpine and highland country as well as the eastern coastal plains. The majority of reptiles in this region go through a type of semi-hibernation called brumation in which they become inactive over the cooler months of the year, occasionally emerging briefly on warm days in winter to replenish themselves.

Due to the cool temperate climate of Gippsland many reptile species are viviparous where the young are born live instead of in an egg. This is because eggs usually require some degree of warmth for incubation and as such the egg stage is completed in the mother. In general most of the smaller skinks lay eggs and these are often laid in communal nests occupied by a number of adults, often with two clutches per year. Not only are these eggs relatively safe due to numbers but the warmth created by the communal habits may help with the incubation. Most of the medium to large skinks tend to be viviparous (live bearing). The small skink Bougainville’s Slider Lerista bougainvillii is unusual in that it gives birth to live young in it’s southern distribution in Tasmania, lays partly calcified eggs which hatch after almost immediately after being laid in southern parts of Victoria and lays eggs in it’s northern distribution in Victoria, NSW and SA.

THE SKINKS

In spring and summer any trip to the bush or in a well vegetated garden on a sunny day will yield a variety of skinks.  A frenzy of activity is usually seen in spring and summer when many species emerge from their dormancy to mate. During this period many skinks develop their breeding colours and often territorial displays are seen between males.

One of the most abundant species encountered in Gippsland is Guichenoti’s (or Garden) Skink Lampropholis guichenoti. This small species is often encountered in large numbers in residential areas (as it’s other common name suggests) and is also found in a wide range of habitats from wet forest to heathland. The similar Delicate Skink Lampropholis delicata is also a very common species and can be found in gardens as well as a range of habitats throughout the region.

Top: Lampropholis guichenoti. Darlimurla, Vic in damp forest. Bottom: Lampropholis delicata. Yallourn North, Vic in lowland forest.

Top: Lampropholis guichenoti. Darlimurla, Vic in damp forest.
Bottom: Lampropholis delicata. Yallourn North, Vic in lowland forest.

L. delicata can often be distinguished from L. guichenoti by the lack of prominent flecking and stripes down the length of the back and sides.

Several other small species are similar in appearance to Lampropholis and these include the genera Pseudemoia, Acritoscincus and Niveoscincus and these usually require examining their head scales with a magnifying glass for identification.

Pseudomoia tend to be more common in the alpine areas than the lowlands but one species, the Southern Grass-skink Pseudemoia entrecasteauxii , is also found in areas of grass tussocks and forests of the coastal plain.

The Glossy Grass-skink P. rawlinsoni  is a near threatened species and is becoming increasingly less common throughout it’s range throughout Victoria. This is possibly due to the draining of swamps and other wet areas for development as it tends to inhabit grassy habitats immediately beside wetlands and watercourses. This species does however seem to have at least some resilience as I have found populations in highly degraded areas in the Latrobe Valley. It often has bold stripes and a glossy olive-grey colouration.

Top: Pseudemoia entrecasteauxi. Mirboo North, Vic in damp forest. Bottom: Pseudemoia rawlinsoni. Yallourn, Vic in highly degraded grassland beside a swamp.

Top: Pseudemoia entrecasteauxi. Mirboo North, Vic in damp forest.
Bottom: Pseudemoia rawlinsoni. Yallourn, Vic in highly degraded grassland beside a swamp.

Spencer’s Skink Pseudemoia spenceri is predominantly a highland skink with some populations extending into the more elevated areas of the coastal plain. It has a distinctive mottled appearance and is often found on tree trunks and fallen logs in some alpine areas. Another species with very similar habits and habitats is the Tussock Skink P. pagenstecheri. This species can be very common in suitable habitat and in the breeding season develops a prominent red stripe along it’s side. In snowgum woodland near Lake Tali Karng in the Alpine region I have found this species to be abundant on and around nearly every log and tree stump I saw.

Top: Pseudemoia spenceri eating a beetle. Alpine NP, Vic in open woodland. Bottom: Pseudemoia pagenstecheri. Alpine NP in open woodland.

Top: Pseudemoia spenceri eating a beetle. Alpine NP, Vic in open woodland.
Bottom: Pseudemoia pagenstecheri. Alpine NP in open woodland.

One other species of Pseudemoia in Gippsland is the Alpine Bog-skink P. cryodroma, an endangered species which is restricted to the alpine region’s bog swamps.

The Metallic Skink Niveoscincus metallicus is superficially very similar to Pseudemoia, in fact it used to be included in the genus. It requires a magnifying glass to see the frontoparietal scales on the top of the head (fused in Niveoscincus, paired in Pseudemoia) and Metallic Skinks often have a dull orange-pink belly. Although common, this species has a reasonably restricted distribution in Victoria, confined mostly to the west Gippsland coastal plain. It is also found throughout Tasmania. These skinks can be found in a wide range of habitats but in Gippsland I have found this species mostly in and around forests. The other member of this genus in Gippsland is the Snow Skink N. coventryi. This species is confined to wet forests of the alpine region in Gippsland.

Metallic Skink-Niveoscincus metallicus. Mirboo North. Damp forest.

Metallic Skink-Niveoscincus metallicus. Mirboo North. Damp forest.

The Weasel Skink Saproscincus mustelinus is a small but highly distinctive species found throughout Gippsland in a range of dry and wet habitats. This skink can easily be identified in the field by it’s prominent white streak behind the eye and a rusty-brown tail. Some individuals have bold stripes running lengthways along their undersides. This species usually lays it’s eggs in a communal nest and I have found up to 30 eggs under the one log.

Weasel Skink- Saproscincus mustelinus and it's egg clutch.

Weasel Skink- Saproscincus mustelinus and it’s egg clutch. Traralgon South in open forest

If you happen to be wandering amongst coastal and near-coastal vegetation in central and western Gippsland you are likely to come across the Eastern Three-lined Skink Acritoscincus (sometimes listed as Bassianaduperreyi. It is widespread in Gippsland but doesn’t reach the level of abundance as on the coast. This species develops a flush of orange-pink on the throat in the spring breeding season and together with the stripes running the length of the back, sides and tail it can usually be easily identified.

The Red-throated Skink Acritoscincus platynotum is not encountered until you reach east Gippsland and this species usually inhabits dry forest and woodlands. Similar in most respects to P. duperreyi , including reddish throat, but many of the stripes are lacking. The overall body colour is silvery-bronze.

Top: Acritoscincus duperreyi. Golden Beach, Vic in coastal woodland. Bottom: Acritoscincus platynotum. Snowy River NP in dry woodland.

Top: Acritoscincus duperreyi. Golden Beach, Vic in coastal woodland.
Bottom: Acritoscincus platynotum. Snowy River NP in dry woodland.

Bougainville’s Slider Lerista bougainvillii is a species which looks out of portion with its greatly elongated body, tiny legs and a sharp, beak-like snout. This small skink is the only representative in Gippsland of the Australia-wide genus Lerista, a group of reptiles highly modified for living on and under sandy soils. The sharp snout is used similar to a shovel and allows the skink to hunt for insects and other arthropods under the soil surface. Some other species of Lerista have legs so greatly reduced they no longer function. In Gippsland the Bougainville’s Slider is found almost exclusively in sandy coastal and near-coastal soils.

Bougainville's Slider- Lerista bougainvillii. West of Golden Beach in Banksia woodland.

Bougainville’s Slider- Lerista bougainvillii. West of Golden Beach in Banksia woodland.

Maccoy’s Skink Anepischetosia (formerly Nannoscincus) maccoyi is another slender species and is found in wet forests throughout Gippsland. This skink is a very secretive species and I have never seen any basking in sunlight as many reptiles tend to do. Instead it spends it’s time burrowing under sun-warmed leaf litter and other debris hunting for arthropods. Most specimens I’ve found in Gippsland tend to have a vivid lemon-yellow belly and this along with it’s unique shape makes identification very simple.

McCoy's Skink- Anepischetosia maccoyi. Morwell west in wet forest.

McCoy’s Skink- Anepischetosia maccoyi. Morwell west in wet forest.

The Copper-tailed Skink Ctenotus taeniolatus is a widely distributed medium-sized skink found throughout south eastern Australia. In Gippsland you are likely to encounter it in the north-eastern high country and neighbouring plains, particularly in the drier woodlands.  This strikingly patterned species is boldly striped and has a brown or coppery coloured tail. As with a lot of Ctenotus skinks in Australia it has long back legs and toes to enable it to move swiftly from predators and to hunt (it can be a pain to photograph!)

Copper tailed Skink- Ctenotus taeniolatus. Snowy River NP in open woodland

Copper tailed Skink- Ctenotus taeniolatus. Snowy River NP in open woodland

Egernia is a genus which includes some medium-sized to large skinks. One species which is relatively common in Gippsland is the Black Rock Skink Egernia saxatilis. The common name for this species is often a misnomer as it not only inhabits rocky areas but frequents logs and tree trunks, particularly ones with a large number of crevices and holes. I have seen this species basking in the sun at the top of a 20 metre high dead ‘stag’ tree above a forest canopy. Black Rock Skinks are highly inquisitive and when frightened will often re-emerge within a minute or so in a different place but still in full view.

Black Rock Skink- Egernia saxatilis. West of Morwell in lowland forest.

Black Rock Skink- Egernia saxatilis. West of Morwell in lowland forest.

The threatened Swamp Skink Lissolepis coventryi is a highly secretive species which inhabits the vegetation along the margins of swamps and other wetlands. Due to extensive clearing and drainage of its habitat for farming and development as well a predation by cats and foxes this species has experienced a massive decline in numbers. Isolated populations exist throughout southern Victoria and Gippsland and I’ve just recently been able to get half decent photographs of this species.

Swamp Skink- Lissolepis coventryi. Lower Powlett River in swamp scrub.

Swamp Skink- Lissolepis coventryi. Lower Powlett River in swamp scrub.

Swamp Skink- Lissolepis coventryi. Lower Powlett River in swamp scrub.

Swamp Skink- Lissolepis coventryi. Lower Powlett River in swamp scrub.

White’s Skink Liopholis whitii is one of the most spectacular skinks found in Gippsland and either comes in two colour forms, the spotted (as in the photograph below) or the plain form (this is where the spotting is greatly reduced). White’s Skink, as with most larger skinks, gives birth to live young and these adults dig a short burrow to protect themselves and their young. These are found in a wide variety of habitats from forests to heathland.

White's Skink- Liopholis whitii (spotted form). Hernes Oak, Vic in heathy woodland. Inset: White's Skink burrow

White’s Skink- Liopholis whitii (spotted form). Hernes Oak, Vic in heathy woodland.
Inset: White’s Skink burrow

Two common species of Water Skinks are found in Gippsland and another two are restricted in distribution. The name Water Skink is often a misnomer as it is frequently found a long distance from any major water source. That said, they can be reasonably common around bodies of water and I have seen these species often diving into water when threatened and swimming quite well.

In western Gippsland you are most likely to come across the Southern Water Skink Eulamprus tympanum and in the east Yellow-bellied Water Skink E. heatwolei. Both these species are widespread in a variety of habitats from forests to heathland. An easy way to determine the species in the field is E. tympanum has a broad dark brown line starting from behind the eye and extending along the flanks. E. heatwolei has this line start from the side of the face at the nostrils. E. heatwolei can also have a cream-yellow belly whereas E. tympanum is white.

Top: Eulamprus tympanum. Yallourn North in lowland forest. Bottom: Eulamprus heatwolei. Lake Tali Karng, Vic

Top: Eulamprus tympanum. Yallourn North in lowland forest.
Bottom: Eulamprus heatwolei. Lake Tali Karng, Vic

Two of the most familiar skinks in Gippsland are the Blotched Blue-tongue Tiliqua nigrolutea and the Eastern Blue-tongue T. scincoides. These are the largest of Gippsland’s skinks and can be found in nearly every habitat, including people’s backyards.

Blotched Blue-tongues can vary from light brown with pale blotches, especially lowland forms, to darker brown with orange-pink blotches in the alpine region. I have seen individuals which are a vivid rusty colour in the foothills north of Bairnsdale.

Blotched Blue Tongue- Tiliqua nigrolutea. Yallourn North, Vic in lowland forest.

Blotched Blue Tongue- Tiliqua nigrolutea. Yallourn North, Vic in lowland forest.

Eastern Blue-tongues don’t seem to be as common in Gippsland as ‘Blotchies’ but you do come across them occasionally, especially in forest. This is identified by the lack of blotching on the upper surface and the presence of a dark stripe (often broken) behind the eye.

Eastern Blue Tongue- Tiliqua scincoides. West of Morwell in lowland forest.

Eastern Blue Tongue- Tiliqua scincoides. West of Morwell in lowland forest.

Although Gippsland doesn’t have the diversity of reptiles as in other parts of Victoria such as the far north west it does have a fantastic array of unique skinks. In future blogs I might do a piece on Gippsland’s other reptiles.

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Bell Miners and psyllids

In southern Victoria and coastal NSW there’s nothing like the tinkling sound of Bell Miners but as Gouldiae pointed out recently in his blog http://gouldiaesblog.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/bell-miners-and-dieback.html it’s not always what it seems.

I visited the Drouin Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Drouin today, a small forest reserve with a relatively large population of Bell Miners.

Immediately I noticed the separation between these birds and other native birds. The Miners were located mostly in a patch of tall eucalypts as well as a some smaller eucalypt plantings. In these areas most of the eucalypts were covered in the native psyllid insect and their white sugary secretion called lerps.

Lerps on eucalypt leaf. One psyllid is in the process of starting to secrete.

Lerps on eucalypt leaf. One psyllid is in the process of starting to secrete.

Bell Miner

Bell Miner

Bell Miner with a psyllid on it's face

Bell Miner with a psyllid on it’s face

Heavy psyllid-infested eucalypt

Heavy psyllid-infested eucalypt

Some of the most heavily psyllid-infested trees as far as I could see were the smaller 4-5m tall plantings and these were surrounded by a large group of dead or dying trees, mostly E. obliqua.

Patch of tree dieback in an area with a large population of Bell Miners

Patch of tree dieback in an area with a large population of Bell Miners

To the right of this picture the Bell Miners were non-existent, even though there was suitable trees. This area had an variety of native bird species, some which tried to bravely enter the Bell Miner’s domain (possibly to feed on the lerps) only to be chased out by the highly aggressive Miners. This in turn allows the sap-sucking psyllids to breed up into mass proportions which eventually damages the trees but gives the Miners an abundant food source. The noise from the Miners was loud and incessant and the theory is that they do this so other bird species can’t hear their own contact calls and/or to advertise to other birds to stay away or else!

To the left of the picture many of the taller Eucalypts were also full of the Miners and some of the eucalypts were in the early stages of dieback as well.

Bell Miner calling while surrounded by a lolly shop of lerps.

Bell Miner calling while surrounded by a lolly shop of lerps.

I did notice quite a lot of European Wasps feeding on these lerps. These wasps are currently in almost plague proportions in Victoria due to the relatively mild spring and summer just passed.

European Wasp feeding on the sugary lerps

European Wasp feeding on the sugary lerps

As the reserve is quite small and surrounded by farmland the effects of the dieback can be noticed quite well in certain patches. If the dieback is Bell Miner/Psyllid induced then hopefully this is only cyclic and they move to other areas to allow the damaged spots to regenerate.

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