Wild South East

a nature blog of south-east Victoria, mostly Gippsland


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Southern Serpents (Gippsland’s Reptiles- Part 2)

Now spring has arrived snakes are starting to show their faces and as I tend work in prime snake habitats every year I couldn’t be happier (although some of my fellow workers have other thoughts on this). I have a soft spot for snakes and a lot of respect. This following blog describes some of the common species likely to be encountered in Gippsland, Victoria.

Although not as diverse as in the warmer parts of Australia, Gippsland’s snakes have evolved to withstand the bitter winters of the southern part of the continent. All species in Gippsland go through a period of semi-hibernation called torpor where they shelter under logs or in burrows during the cooler months. On warmer sunny days in winter many often emerge to feed before returning to a state of torpor in a shelter.

One species which has evolved to withstand at least some resilience to the cold is the White-lipped Snake Drysdalia coronoides.

White-lipped Snake Drysdalia coronoides. Morwell River wetlands, Morwell.

White-lipped Snake Drysdalia coronoides. Morwell River wetlands, Morwell.

This small, inconspicuous species often enters torpor later than most snakes and emerges earlier at the end. It’s also found in higher elevations than other snakes in the alpine regions for the same reasons. In the reasonably mild summer of 2014/15 I saw them more frequently than usual and this could have been due to the milder conditions being favourable to them.

Growing to a length of around 40cm it is generally an olive-grey or rusty brown colour with an orange to pink belly. The underside of juveniles is often much more brightly coloured as can be seen in the photos below. This individual was found in grass tussocks in the Latrobe Valley and was only about 25cm long. When disturbed it flashed it’s vivid belly at me and this is probably a defence mechanism of the species.

White-lipped Snake (juvenile)

White-lipped Snake (juvenile)

White-lipped Snake (juvenile) in 'defence' posture

White-lipped Snake (juvenile) in ‘defence’ posture

Skinks are the primary food of White-lipped Snakes with some frogs and small mammals taken also. Although venomous they are generally not regarded as life-threatening to humans. They can be found in a large variety of habitats from the coast to the alpine country.

The Lowland Copperhead Austrelaps superbus is probably the most commonly encountered species in the region and as it’s name suggests it is mostly found in the lowlands or plains. It can also be found in some elevated areas.

Lowland Copperhead Austrelaps superbus. Morwell, Victoria

Lowland Copperhead Austrelaps superbus. Hernes Oak, Victoria

Lowland Copperhead

Lowland Copperhead

Lowland Copperhead

Lowland Copperhead

Copperheads, although being highly poisonous, are not renowned for their aggressiveness and have caused few deaths in Australia. They feed mostly on frogs and lizards and will also eat small birds and mammals. The White-lipped Snake has been recorded as prey of this species. The Lowland Copperhead can grow up to 1.7m in total length but most adults encountered are between 1 and 1.5m.

The Highland Copperhead Austrelaps ramsayi is very similar to the Lowland species but differs by having more prominent white streaks on the labials (lip scales) and the head scales behind the eye are slightly different. This species can vary from brown or rusty-brown to almost black. It is found mostly in the high country and foothills and occasionally in lowland areas.

The Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus is a reasonably common species throughout Gippsland and grows to a length of 1.5m.

Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus (sub-adult). Yallourn, Vic

Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus (sub-adult). Yallourn, Vic. The striped markings of juveniles and adults gives the snake it’s common name.

Tiger Snake

Tiger Snake

Juvenile Tiger Snake

Juvenile Tiger Snake

Due to their taste for frogs they are often found near swamps and other wetlands and are capable of swimming and climbing very well.

Tiger Snakes are very good swimmers.

Tiger Snakes are very good swimmers.

Beside a frog-filled swamp I have seen a Black Rock Skink Egernia saxatilis moving about on a log within two metres of a basking Tiger Snake, seemingly aware that the snake posed it little threat and possibly using the snake for protection from predators. They will occasionally eat lizards, as well as small mammals and birds, so the skink was living dangerously!

Tiger Snakes are one of the most dangerous snakes in the world due to their aggressive nature if provoked and the high toxicity of their venom. Most human deaths from Tiger Snake bites occurred in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, probably due to the draining of wetlands for agriculture and housing which forced the snakes to become more mobile. They were possibly much more common and widespread than they are now. The majority of deaths in Australia since the mid 1900’s have been primarily due to the Eastern Brown Snake Pseudonaja textilis (see below) and the Western Brown or Gwarder Pseudonaja nuchalis.

The Eastern Brown Snake Pseudonaja textilis is a large species growing over 2m in length and is found throughout Gippsland but is more common in the drier parts.

Eastern Brown Snake Pseudonaja textilis. Snowy River National Park

Eastern Brown Snake Pseudonaja textilis. Snowy River National Park

Eastern Browns are responsible for a large proportion of human deaths in Australia due to their aggressive nature and toxic venom. While hiking I have stumbled accidentally across a pair of mating Eastern Browns and as a result the male has flung itself at me very aggressively. They feed on a wide range of vertebrates, particularly reptiles and small mammals.

The Red-bellied Black Snake Pseudechis porphyriacus is found throughout Gippsland in a wide variety of habitats from the high country to coastal areas.

Red-bellied Black Snake Pseudechis porphyriacus. Giffard, Vic

Red-bellied Black Snake Pseudechis porphyriacus. Giffard, Vic

Red-bellies account for almost no fatalities in Australia despite being highly poisonous. This is due to the fact that they are quite reluctant to bite and will flee rapidly if threatened. My daughter had an encounter with one recently that burst from a bush near her feet and dived in a stream. See my post in January https://wildsoutheast.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/camping-along-ben-cruachan-creek/

They can grow up to 2m but most individual seen are usually around 1.5m. The belly can be vivid red or pale pink-red depending on the region and individual. Their diet consists mostly of reptiles and frogs but will take other vertebrates.

Red-bellied Black Snake showing it's typical vivid red belly

Red-bellied Black Snake showing it’s typical vivid red belly and jet black body

Red-bellied Black Snake

Red-bellied Black Snake

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A reptile fortnight

Finally we managed to get a handful of warm to hot days in the last two weeks but it was only fleeting as the temperatures have dropped again, typical of this year’s unusually mild summer.

My passion for reptiles has resulted in me studying the weather forecasts every day hoping for a warm sunny day to bring them out. The last two weeks definitely lived up to my expectations.

The first of the hot days we were working for a client in wet forest near Trafalgar. While walking through an open section of the forest where sun was streaming through I came across a fully grown Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus. It was partially hidden in vegetation but I managed to snap some photos of it’s head. It seemed unperturbed by me and sat there while I composed my shots before finally slithering off slowly.

Tiger Snake

Tiger Snake

I’ve noticed in the past with very large, fully grown snakes that they are less frightened by people than younger snakes. One of the biggest Tiger Snakes I’ve ever seen was while working for Parks Vic in Wilson’s Promontory and the body of this snake was as thick as my arm! When we accidentally startled it (and ourselves!) it just raised it’s head and looked at us knowing fully well it could protect itself. We were sure it yawned at us too.

In the same forest near Trafalgar the Southern Water Skink Eulamprus tympanum seemed to be common on logs in open areas. This is a very inquisitive species and I managed to get within 10cm or so from it’s head with my camera. Although it’s called a Water Skink they are often found in areas a long way from any water body. They can, however, swim quite well.

Southern Water Skink

Southern Water Skink

Also in an open area of this same forest was a Blotched Blue-tongue Tiliqua nigrolutea.

Blotched Blue-tongue

Blotched Blue-tongue

I did mange to find a bright rusty-coloured individual near Bairnsdale last week but I didn’t have my camera with me.

While working for another client yesterday to the west of Golden Beach in Banksia woodland and dry heathy woodland I was surprised at the amount of reptiles around. We have a joke at this site that whenever we say “Gee, we haven’t seen a goanna for a while” we usually see one within a few minutes. This happened to be the case yesterday where we saw not one but two after we said this!

Lace Monitor

Lace Monitor

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This old boy was in an open paddock next to the woodland and was not worried about us approaching it one bit (it actually was falling asleep at one stage while I was photographing it!) They are known as Lace or Varied Monitors Varanus varius and many populations, especially in west Gippsland, are disappearing and as such are listed as vulnerable in Victoria.

In an area of Banksia woodland this little fella was found, a young Jacky Dragon Amphibolurus muricatus. This species can be common in areas of dry forests, woodland and heath.

Young Jacky Dragon

Young Jacky Dragon

This last one is a common species along the coastal fringe of Gippsland. The Eastern Three-lined Skink Acritoscincus duperreyi often has a pinkish-orange throat in the spring breeding season.  This one was found in coastal dune scrub west of Wonthaggi.

Eastern Three-lined Skink

Eastern Three-lined Skink


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Camping along Ben Cruachan creek

After Christmas we decided on a camping trip for two nights up to one of our favourite spots in Victoria, Ben Cruachan creek in the high country of central Gippsland. This area we stumbled upon in 2011 after following a very steep track with several river crossings from the Avon-Mt Hedrick Scenic Reserve. At this time the very popular Hugget’s Crossing in the reserve was a sea of people and dirt bikes so that’s why we headed bush as far as we could.

So, 3 years later our family were back, this time with a few of the extended family in tow as well. After travelling nearly 1 hr north from Heyfield we reached the small but prominent mountain of Ben Cruachan. A short drive to the top and we were rewarded by a fantastic but very windy view to the north and east.

View from Ben Cruachan lookout

View from Ben Cruachan lookout

Next on to the Ben Cruachan Creek which runs to the north of the mountain. Here there are several creek crossings with a couple of small campsites. Our favourite campsite was close to a very deep hole on the creek beside a cliff of which we dived down several times but could not reach the bottom!

Deep hole on Ben Cruachan Creek

We tried fishing in this deep hole but no luck, although there were a few large Short-finned Eel Anguilla australis swimming around.

Creek opposite campsite

Creek opposite campsite

The creek and bush were alive with birds and insects as well as the most Red bellied Black Snakes Psuedechis porphyriacus I’ve ever seen in one place! In one spot we counted 6 within about 50 metres, most of which dived into the stream when we got near and swam to the other side. Our 7 year old daughter is still cleaning her pants out after one surprised her by bursting out of a small bush near her foot and ‘jumped’ in the water! She did the right thing by freezing but she did let out a muffled scream. We thought it might be best if we head back to camp at this point.

Red-belly swimming

Red-belly swimming

A big Red-belly

A big Red-belly

I did notice an interesting behaviour the next day with one Red-belly which was foraging along the rocky stream bank in the cool morning and turning over and rummaging around small rocks with its nose apparently looking for food, most likely frogs I’d gather.

Another reptile along the stream bank was the Yellow-bellied Water Skink Eulamprus heatwoleii which was even more common than the snakes and found along fallen logs.

Yellow-bellied Water Skink

Yellow-bellied Water Skink

These skinks are very inquisitive and if frightened will disappear only to emerge not long after in full view of a wanna-be photographer who is searching the ground at his feet for Red-bellies.

One Gippsland Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii howittii was seen on the bank but had the very smart idea to be on the opposite side to the snakes although it did scramble up the bank hysterically when I frightened a Red-belly into the water which headed directly toward the Water Dragon.

A single Lace Monitor Varanus varius was hawking around a recently abandoned campsite further upstream, most likely looking for scraps left behind.

Lace Monitor

Lace Monitor

Insects were abundant along the stream. The Arrowhead Rockmaster Diphlebia nymphoides with its striking blue male and golden female were the most common dragonfly seen and many were hunting up and down the stream for insects.

Arrowhead Rockmaster (male)

Arrowhead Rockmaster (male)

Arrowhead Rockmaster (female)

Arrowhead Rockmaster (female)

Other common insects were the Water Striders (Hemiptera:Geridae) which were abundant on the surface of the stream and many of these were mating.

Water Striders mating (smaller male on the back)

Of the Butterflies by far the most common were the Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi and mostly female Common Brown Heteronympha merope.

Australian Painted Lady on Leptospermum

Australian Painted Lady on Leptospermum

Birds were very common in this area and a pair of Sacred Kingfishers were hanging around the deep pool area looking frustrated at our family for disturbing their favourite fishing spot. Some of the birds around camp were Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Gang-gang Cockatoo, Olive-backed Oriole, Satin Flycatcher, Eastern Whipbird, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Splendid Fairy-wren, Spotted Pardalote, Eastern Yellow-robin, Crimson Rosella, Welcome Swallow, Silvereye, Pied Currawong, Laughing Kookaburra, Yellow-tufted and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, Brown Thornbill, Grey Shrike-thrush and Grey Fantail. Southern Boobooks called every night and at one stage two were calling together. This was followed later by a pair courting and both making the unusual continuous ‘por-por-por…’