Wild South East

a nature blog of south-east Victoria, mostly Gippsland


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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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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.

 

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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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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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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

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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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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.

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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.