About Tanya Loos

I am a field naturalist and nature writer - with a special interest in birds, flora, insects, reptiles, and mammals. I live on a bush block in the Wombat Forest, and I work as a bird ecologist for a non-profit environmental organisation in Castlemaine.

Gang gang family returns

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Gang gang cockatoos are known mainly in this district for their habit of feasting on Hawthorn berries in Autumn.  But one Winter delight I am privileged to witness is the behaviour of a family of gang gangs on my bush block!
Gang gangs are small, stocky cockatoos that are mostly grey, with finely patterned feathers that are tinged with red and green. The males sport a red cap and delightful fringed and floppy crest of bright red feathers.

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A beautiful male Gang Gang By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Gang gangs are not as conspicuous as other cockies, and it is often the sound of their creaking calls, or the gentle dropping of half eaten gum nuts that belies their presence.  They feed primarily on the seeds of eucalypts, wattles and Hawthorn berries, and will also eat insects and their larvae. The gang gang is one of the few birds that can eat sawfly larvae, or spitfires – they may work their way through a whole clump!

Gang gangs are known as altitudinal migrants; they move up and down the forests of the Great dividing range – inhabiting mainly tall wet forests in summer, then moving down to more open dry forests, or even box –ironbark in winter.   They only occur in South Australia, Victoria, NSW, and are the faunal emblem of the ACT.  In NSW they have declined in numbers to such an extent that they are listed as Vulnerable. Their main threats are timber harvesting ( which removes the large old trees required for nesting), wildfire events and planned burns, and climate change impacts.

Very little is known about their breeding habits in the wild.  I was delighted to host not one but two gang gang families in the winter of 2012. One family had a young male, the other a young female. I have not seen them here since!

Then late one afternoon two weeks ago, I heard the familiar rising creaky call and saw a couple of grey shapes flitting through the canopy. An adult male and female, with a young female! Once they perched together, the young bird made the classic constant begging call characteristic of the cockatoo family, although a gang gang baby is not quite so crazy and insistent as a corella baby. My bird book, the Handbook of Australian and New Zealand birds (HANZAB) refers to the young gang gang’s call as a buzzing Morse code! The female fed the young a few times, while the male fed quietly on messmate nuts nearby.

On Sunday 23 July, in the morning and in the afternoon, the three birds could be seen messmate gum cracking and devouring.  This time the young gang gang was fed by the adult male. During feeding, the young stares at the adult with a crouched, somewhat ridiculous posture, and sways back and forth with its bill open and wheezing incessantly.  When the adult regurgitates seeds and other plant matter into its mouth in a pumping motion, the baby makes a series of gurgling notes known as a “food swallowing vocalisation’.

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The carefully chewed remains of gum nuts beneath a large emergent Messmate next to our house. Both the Gang gang family and a couple of cockies were responsible.

 

According to HANZAB, Gang gangs usually breed in Oct-Jan, but may also breed in late August, or early Sept/March with feeding young in late April or August.  In 2012, it was June when I noticed the first family, and feeding of the baby continued until early August.  Gang gangs nest in hollows in tall, living Eucalypts, and the nest is usually very high up – up to 40 metres have been recorded! The female selects the nest hollow, and two or sometimes three eggs are laid. Both sexes incubate the eggs. In captivity, the young are in the nest hollow until 7 or 8 weeks of age, then after they fledge, fed by the parents for 4-6 weeks after.

All up then the care period lasts for approximately three months – which suggests that the baby I am observing now was born two months ago in May. I took detailed notes on the gang gang families in 2012 and I will do so again, and perhaps write up my observations in the Australian Field Ornithology journal. I would love to hear if you have any breeding observations – especially if you have an active nest hollow!

Wombats arrive on my street!

Coming home from work a week or two ago, I was just a couple of kilometres from my house, on Scotts Lane. The car in front of me slowed to a stop. A medium sized mammal with a distinctly square bum ambled in front of Ted’s car and disappeared into the dark forest.
A wombat! A Common or Bare-nosed Wombat – in Porcupine Ridge! There are plenty of Wombats around Trentham, Glenlyon, and throughout the Wombat Forest, but in 15 years of living in Porcupine Ridge I had accepted the fact that while we have koalas, the wombats didn’t occur this far north. However, it seems the fortunes of wombats in western Victoria are changing!

In early 2016, a wombat was caused quite a stir as it was photographed in the Gunbower forest, literally hundreds of kilometres from the nearest population. Peter Menkhorst, from the Arthur Rylah Institute was contacted to comment and he stated “The most westerly population of wombats on the Great Dividing Range is around Trentham and Daylesford, where the Campaspe begins”. He believed the wombat may have been an orphan pouch young that was released far from where it was rescued. See here for the story.

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A healthy wombat captured on camera by Connecting Country in Sutton Grange

After seeing my Porky Ridge wombat, I searched online and found a fantastic website called WomSAT. This website is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney, and encourages people Australia-wide to record their wombat sightings. The map is really is easy to use, and enables you to note down whether the wombat was dead or alive, and if it suffered from mange. You can also record burrows.

On this map, there were at least eight sightings of living wombats between Bendigo and Daylesford from 2015- 2016, in Harcourt, south of Bendigo in Sedgwick and a big concentration in the Baynton area to the east.

I had a chat with my Connecting Country work colleagues Bonnie and Jarrod who have been documenting an increase in wombat sightings all through the Harcourt and especially Sutton Grange area – one property had a network of burrows with 50-60 entrances!

So what is going on?! My Mammals of Victoria book, also by Peter Menkhorst, states that wombat distribution on a local level is ‘probably most dependent on the availability of suitable burrow sites in association with food supply’.  The wombats do not like very dense forest, but any open habitat seems to do – with habitats ranging from alpine heathland, to wet forests, dry forests and coastal scrub and tea tree heath. Most of the burrows noted by Bonnie and Jarrod have been on creeklines which are tributaries of the Coliban River, and surrounded by open forest or woodland.

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The same wombat having a cute little scritch 🙂

Wombats destroy fences,  dig in dam walls and other mischief when going about their daily activities. These habits meant that wombats were declared vermin in 1906, and there was a bounty on them from 1925 – 1966. This put the already diminishing western Victorian populations on an even deeper downward spiral and they disappeared from the volcanic plains and indeed, anywhere north of the Great Dividing Range.

Anecdotally, the recent increase in wombat numbers has been noticed after the Redesdale fires, part of the devastating Black Saturday fires. The fires may have caused a dispersal of the wombats into previously unoccupied territory.

Although the days of wombat bounties are over, according to the Dept of Environment Land Water and Planning ( DELWP) anyone can still apply for a permit to scare, remove or kill wildlife that is deemed to be causing economic hardship. In 2016, 270 applications were made, and a maximum number of 3,975 wombats killed. They helpfully point out that the actual number killed may be less. One can only hope these new populations are regarded as harmless and benign, and even as charming and beneficial ecosystem engineers!

Cars and dogs also take their toll on wombats. Those wombats that manage to avoid these threats may find themselves afflicted by sarcoptic mange – a hideous parasite that they catch from foxes. The mites cause the most severe mange affected skin and swelling around the eyes – and the wombat gets very sick indeed, and eventually dies. Happily,  wombat lovers and advocates have discovered that they can add a pesticide ointment to a flap on an affected wombat’s burrow and this treatment saves the wombat without it having to be captured and taken to a shelter.

If you are in open forest along a creekline north of Daylesford, keep an eye out, a wombat family could be your new neighbours!

 

Pygmy possums caught on camera

I usually write about the plants and animals that we are likely to encounter in the backyard, or while walking through local forests, or walking the dog around our lakes. But this month, I wanted to introduce you to a very endearing little marsupial that lives in the Wombat Forest but is rarely ever seen.

Pygmy possum caught on camera

The Eastern Pygmy possum has been photographed recently in a beautiful patch of forest south of Blackwood.  The tiny possums were captured by an infra-red camera, one of several cameras stationed around thirty sites across  the Wombat Forest by Wombat Forestcare team, as part of the Caught on Camera project. To the untrained eye, the little creature inspecting the bait in a tea strainer could be a bush rat, or an Agile Antechinus, one of the most common marsupials of the forest. But the Pygmy Possum has a quite different body shape to these animals, more stout and cuddly,  bigger rounder ears, with a fat prehensile tail.

Eastern Pygmy Possums have a brush-tipped tongue; used to gather pollen and nectar from flowers such as banksia and tea-tree. When the banksias and other flowers are not in flower,  the possums will eat invertebrates such moths, spiders, grasshoppers and beetles.  The possums shelter in tree hollows, but they also make little spherical nest balls, woven from short, shredded bark and hidden in eucalypt tree bark, old bird nests and in shrubs such as tea trees… One pygmy possum may regularly use ten of these little dens!

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This little guy was photographed during a reintroduction of Eastern Pygmy Possums to a reserve in Sydney called North Head, managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy – see here for more

The old names listed for the Eastern Pygmy Possum are so quaint: Common Dormouse-phalanger, Dormouse Opossum and Possum Mouse!  The Dormouse name probably refers to the ability that pygmy possums have to go into torpor – a light hibernation.  The possums roll into a tight little ball, with their ears folded down and their body’s internal temperature similar to that of the surroundings. They may spend large periods in winter conserving energy in this way, until the banksias come into flower again, or insect activity ramps up in warmer months.

There are several pygmy possum species around Australia, and surprisingly, the Eastern Pygmy Possum at 24 grams in weight is by no means the smallest of the group – the Little Pygmy Possum  weighs only 7 grams! These little cuties are much more carnivorous than the Eastern Pygmy Possum – their favourite food is very small lizards. The most famous of the pygmy possums,  the endangered Mountain Pygmy Possum uses this ability to go into torpor as a crucial survival tool in its alpine habitat, for up to seven months in the year.  They are regarded as the only true hibernating mammal in Australia. And they are the biggest of the lot – at 41 grams.

The  Eastern Pygmy Possum has a prehensile tail used for help when clambering about the flowers and branches. At this time of year, the base of the tail gets much thicker and is used as a fat storage area for the lean months.

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Ellie the baby Eastern Pygmy Possum enjoys a mealworm, cared for by WIRES volunteers in NSW – Daily Telegraph

The Wombat Forestcare Caught on Camera project coordinators Ivan Carter and Gayle Osborne are delighted to have photographic records of the Eastern Pygmy Possum in the Wombat Forest. They are classified as Near Threatened, and are considered to be very sensitive to threats such as logging, cats and foxes, and planned burn operations. In five years of placing cameras in various parts of the forest, the pygmy possums have been spotted at just three sites. The possums have been found in Blackwood south, in a beautiful patch of forest which is shrubby foothill forest, and heathy dry forest with towering peppermints, mountain grey gums and candlebarks, and a diverse understory of banksias, hakeas and prickly tea-tree. Crucially, this area has not been burnt for at least a decade!!!

The pygmy possums have tiny home ranges, less than a hectare. One can imagine that a planned burn that covers hundreds of hectares has a devastating effect, as the removal of the shrub layer wipes out the food and shelter of any surviving pygmy possums.

I think it’s an absolute wonder there are any surviving locally at all! The Caught on Camera project is incredibly important – as some regard the Wombat Forest as not very good habitat compared to the Otways or the forests east of Melbourne. But Wombat Forestcare’s work has shown that there is a lot of life in our beloved forest – their cameras reveal populations of Mountain Brushtail possum or Bobuck, and of course the Threatened Brush-tailed Phascogale, previously unrecorded in the Wombat Forest south of Daylesford.

For exciting photos of all the Caught on Camera animals, “like” Wombat Forestcare on Facebook, or go to www.wombatforestcare.org.au

Nice to see Needletails

Martinet épineux Hirundapus caudacutus White-throated Needletail

Beautiful painting by an English ornithologist of the early 20th century: Henry E Dresser

As thunder rumbled in gathering clouds, with patches of blue sky and impossibly white cumulus clouds edged with sunshine I thought to myself ‘ooh, I might see some swifts today’, And lo! Within minutes an incredibly athletic looking bird flew low over the property, closely followed by a second bird. White-throated Needletail! These birds are a large species of swift, somewhat like a swallow, superbly aerodynamic with a cigar-shaped body and long curved wings like a scythe.

White-throated Needletails are one of our summer visitors from overseas – in this case, from Siberia and Japan. The swifts visit Australia each summer to spend their winter non-breeding period – then when spring returns in the Northern Hemisphere they fly back.

In warm, humid weather,  the wind movements at storm fronts provide perfect conditions for the swifts to hunt masses of insects that may be caught up in the gathering winds. The way that the swifts forage for insects is interesting. Rather than pursuing individual insects, the birds simply plunge through a patch of swarming insects with their bills wide open – a bit like a baleen whale through krill. Special bristles around their bills help guide the insects in. The swifts then dive and weave and repeat through the same prey-rich area.

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Don’t bother trying to find the swifts – they had already zoomed by – this pic is to capture the clouds and the time of day – classic swift foraging conditions!

After spotting the two swifts, I gathered my binoculars and went for a walk down the dirt road, hoping to see more swifts – and about half an hour later I saw a flock wheeling and zooming in the skies, high up but still close enough for good views. Much of their foraging is done at great heights where they cannot be seen with naked eye or binoculars. I counted about twelve of the birds – and was thrilled to bits as I have not seen them in recent summers. For a few years a while back I used to have a flock of fifteen or so regularly patrolling the area at this time of year.

Sadly, a 2014 study by Mike Tarbuton revealed that numbers of these lovely birds have plummeted in recent years. There are still flocks of hundreds or even thousands to be seen but overall when the data was ‘crunched’ Mike noted a decline in the order of three quarters of the population. The species conservation status was subsequently upgraded to Vulnerable by the BirdLife Australia Research and Conservation Committee. Unfortunately the government ( state and federal) have yet to act upon this recommendation, and the species is still classified as ‘secure’.

It’s a perilous world for a long distance migrant. Legal and illegal logging in prime breeding habitat in Siberia is removing the old poplars, larch, spruce and oak trees that the swifts nest in at an alarming rate. Like many Australian birds,  the needletails require hollows to nest in. This must be having a devastating impact on their numbers. And then here in Australia,  while the threats are much less, I would think that our strange climate change weather may be affecting the swifts.

In the past it was considered that the White-throated Needletail never landed on tree or cliff while in Australia – and spent months on the wing. While they can remain aloft for weeks and months at a time, sleeping even, radio-tracking and some more recent observations reveal that they do alight in Australia. The swifts have been observed sheltering in rock crevices and hollows in very bad weather, and even clinging to trees during a bushfire. Which seems strange – the swifts use the updrafts and wild winds that come from fires to forage for insects, and one would think that they would simply fly up and away to get away from a fire!

Looking at their body shape and aerodynamic flight, you could easily think they were closely related to swallows. But swifts are in a completely different group and may be more closely related to hummingbirds. The attractive and large eyes of both groups are certainly similar, as is their tiny feet, and incredibly shaped wings.

I was most fortunate to see White-throated Needletails while I was in Japan in 2015. I was there for the summer, on the big northern island of Hokkaido, on the side of a large mountain. I was in an onsen, a Japanese bath which was outside, and filled with hot volcanic spring water. I looked up,  and there were a few needletails flying above, high in the blue sky. It gave me such a thrill to think that I could have seen these very individuals all the way back home in Porcupine Ridge!

To read Mike Tarburton’s article in Australian Field Ornithology 2014, 31, 122–140- download it here  tarburton2014

 

Messmates in flower!

The Messmates are in flower! This year’s flowering event is a rich fulsome flowering, each tree covered in masses of small white flowers, and the surrounding air alive with insects and honeyeaters.  This is wonderful to see after the sad, impotent flowering of drought years that produced dry brittle blossoms that soon died. This year’s blossoms began around Christmas, and will keep flowering for up to six weeks. That is a lot of pollen and nectar!

A Messmate is a type of Eucalyptus tree, colloquially known as a stringybark due to its fibrous stringy bark. Some people call them Messmate Stringybarks to distinguish them from other stringybarks such as Red Stringybark, another local tree. Messmates love high rainfall, fertile soils and seem to thrive in the cold. I find the Messmate, Manna Gum, Blackwood, and Silver Wattle combination of the Wombat Forest beautiful to behold.

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A couple of beloved Messmates at home at Porcupine Ridge

The Messmate was the first Eucalyptus to be described by Europeans, described by a botanist by the name of L’Heritier from specimens collected from Bruny Island  in 1777, during Captain James Cook’s third Pacific expedition. It was named Eucalyptus obliqua after the Latin obliquus, meaning oblique. This refers to the distinctive uneven join of the leaf margins to the leaf stalk. I used to think this was an identifying feature – but there are actually many Eucalypts with this leaf pattern.

So how does one identify the Messmate? If it is a rough barked tree, with rough bark all the way to the ends of the branches, find some of the fruit, or the gum nuts. If they are smooth and shaped like a wine glass, or wine barrel, it is a messmate. If the gum nuts have three pointed bits sticking up from inside the “barrel” it is likely to be a Red Stringybark, a stringybark gum which is common in Hepburn and drier areas of the shire.

Messmates have a wide distribution, occupying most of Tasmania, and the wetter cooler regions of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and westwards as far as Kangaroo Island. Their size and shape depends greatly on their habitat – from a twisted 2 metre high tree on an exposed coastal bluff, to a massive tree of almost 90 metres in a sheltered situation in Tasmania.

In the Daylesford region, you can see this variation in form in the Messmates. However I would add that it is not only habitat (soil and rainfall) but also management of the surrounding area that determines tree form. Out in Porcupine Ridge, our old Messmates have massive branches coming out from the main trunk just a few metres off the ground. This gives the trees an all over bushy shape, with ample branches exposed to sunlight for maximum blossom production, beautiful habitat within all the intersecting branches and plenty of opportunities for tree hollows.

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Messamte blossoms by Linley McGlashan – via natureshare.org

In Wheatsheaf or Trentham, the Messmates seem to be twice as tall, and they branch at 10 metres above the ground.  The canopy is smaller and tighter. I used to think this more vigorous growth habit was due to the more fertile soils and higher rainfall of these areas.

The Porcupine Ridge Messmates have been left as shade for stock such as sheep, and as such could be very old. The Messmates in the wetter areas of the shire live in a forest that has been logged and mined and logged and then logged again almost beyond recognition. The regrowth trees, of 50 – 120 years old that I am seeing in Wheatsheaf, while taller than the Porky Ridge trees, are much younger, and they are part of an even-aged stand of forest. They grow side by side, competing for the light, and crowding each other’s form.

What I wouldn’t give for a time machine to go back to see the Messmates of the Wombat Forest before the first one was cut down. I imagine huge towering trees, with massive branches each the size of a tree itself, side by side with Blackwoods with trunk diameters of several metres.  I imagine Greater Gliders and Koalas feasting on the leaves, and Sugar Gliders and Mountain Brushtails enjoying the masses of blossoms, all the while their apex predators Mr and Mrs Powerful Owl hoot in the distance. We still have this story happening in the Wombat Forest, but in much reduced glory – bless these plants and animals for holding on despite repeated onslaughts.

I would like to acknowledge the work of Wombat Forestcare, for they campaign tirelessly for the Messmates and their fauna. Please check out their website www.wombatforestcare.org.au

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The Greater Glider – Wombat Forestcare’s mascot

Photo credit: fleayswildlife.com.au, Grant Fraser

Blotched Blue-tongues mating

This year we have discovered to our joy that our kitchen porch is a love nest for blue-tongue lizards. The photo was taken by my husband Chris – he spotted them in close contact which may have been mating, and went to grab the camera, stepping over them as he did so! When he returned, the blue-tongues were on the door mat, with one gripping the other in a very firm bite on the side of the body.

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Blotched Blue-tongue lizards Tiliqua nigrolutea.      Pic by Chris McLean

I posted the photo online to the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and someone referred to the grip pictured as a “classic love bite”. A study of blue-tongue mating habits in Tasmania a few years ago recorded this grip as occurring before, during and sometimes after mating for over an hour! After mating, the blue-tongues return to their solitary habits, and the female gives birth three to five months later.

Blue-tongues do not lay eggs, they give birth to two or three live young that are ready to live independently as soon as they born. Blue-tongue lizards are actually a type of large skink; a member of the big lizard family called Scincidae which has hundreds of species ranging from the big blue-tongues down to the tiny little garden skinks. Some skinks are even legless! The Blue-tongues are distinguished from other skinks by their large size, large heads, short legs and tails and short fleshy tongues. The exception are the Pygmy Blue-tongues, which are fascinating story in their own right! Presumed extinct, a population of these tiny blue-tongues was discovered living in old spider burrows in unploughed grasslands in 1992. For more on their captive breeding program and ecology see here

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A tiny relative – less than 20cm in length. Photo by Phil Ainsley SA Zoos.

The species on our grassy dry forest block  is a Blotched Blue-tongue, a large blue-tongue that is looks very much like its close relative the Eastern Blue-tongue, although the eastern is more distinctively striped in pattern. Their behaviour and ecology is similar, except the Blotched Blue-tongue is a cool climate specialist, and can move about and forage at much lower temperatures than the Eastern.

We have only seen Blotched Blue-tongues on our block, but I have seen an Eastern Blue-tongue just a couple of kilometres away on Richardsons lane and on the Midland Highway near the Chocolate Mill.

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This pic shows that the male is gripping so tightly some of the scales are coming off!

The recent warm weather has seen many blue-tongues on the move – my heart goes to my mouth when I see one crossing the road and it manages to cross safely. Many others are not so lucky and maimed blue-tongues are a common sight on our roads.  The mating study I mentioned before said that in the spring breeding season approximately 95% of the road kill they examined was males – it seems they go out actively searching for the more sedentary females. Poor fellas!!

If it is safe to do so, you can pull over and assist a blue-tongue trying to make a crossing. Simply grasp the blue-tongue behind its armpits and pick it up with both hands, and deposit it on the side of the road it was heading for. Interestingly, I have never been hissed at or shown the blue tongue in the threat display. It is obviously stressful, as once a lizard urinated copiously all over my hands and sandals! As blue-tongues can live for twenty years or so, I figure this was a small price to pay to save a lizard from a senseless road death.

Besides roads, the other dangers faced by blue-tongues include snail baits, dogs and cats, lawn mowers, and fences. As blue-tongues love to eat slugs and snails, forget the use of snail baits in the garden! Luckily my dogs think blue-tongues are weird sort of snake so they say well away. Before you mow or use a brush cutter, it’s a good idea to walk the area you are going to treat, as once the machine starts the blue-tongues crouch, hiding still in the grass instead of running away.

We have an area of the garden surrounded by chicken wire. One summer,  the dogs found a decomposed blue-tongue that had tried to squeeze through the wire and been trapped halfway. We found another blue-tongue just in time, and managed to cut it free with wire cutters. I can’t believe we still have the fence up – a festive Christmas holiday project will be to replace the fencing wire with something more wildlife-friendly.

On that note, I would like to wish my readers a safe and happy holiday season, filled with kindness and nature.

Edwards, A and Jones, SM (2003) Mating behaviour in the blotched blue-tongued lizard, Tiliqua nigrolutea, in captivity. Herpetofauna, 33 (2). pp. 60-64.

http://www.backyardbuddies.net.au/reptiles/lizards/blue-tongued-lizard

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Eastern Blue-tongue lizard Tiliqua scincoides, pic by Mark Hutchinson

Antechinus or rat?

I was standing at my window looking out at the gathering dusk when a small mammal popped out of the shrubs and darted down the rock wall, and across our paved verandah. Antechinus!  I have lived in this house on a small bush block for 15 years and this is my second sighting of this little animal. The antechinus is a carnivorous marsupial, in the same family as the Tassie Devil, quolls and the rat-sized Brush-tailed Phascogale.

The last time I saw our resident antechinus was also at dusk, as he or she drank deeply from a bird bath that is set on the ground. But how do I know they are here all the time? Their scats!

Antechinus scats or droppings are the key to identifying whether your scuttling brown mammals are rats or native marsupials. In most bush houses and gardens around here we have a mix of introduced Black Rats, Agile Antechinus and possibly native Bush Rats.

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A beautiful little critter, note the notched ears. Pic by Mel Williams

To tell the difference between a Black Rat and a native Bush Rat – look at the tail. The Black Rat’s tail is twice as long as its body and is nearly naked, almost segmented like a very skinny earthworm. The Bush Rat’s tail is shorter than its body and quite furry. Warning: the cuteness factor does not help you distinguish between these two species – some Black Rats are simply adorable with their fine whiskers, soulful eyes and little white chests. We had a visitor from Sydney taking pics of a Black Rat clambering around on our washing up – only later did I realise it was not an adorable Antechinus or native Bush Rat! Oops.

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Black rat: left, Bush rat on the right: credit Taronga Zoo

 

Scat identification is a fun hobby – it is all about textures, and knowing a bit about the animal’s diet. Black Rats and Bush Rats are omnivorous – indeed Black Rats will eat nearly anything. Their scats are hard, cylindrical pellets that are pretty uniform in size and shape, often with a little point at one end. When you break them open they are compacted and simply break in half. Mouse scats are similar in texture, just smaller.

Agile Antechinus, on the other hand are insectivores – they eat mostly insects, with hard chitinous exoskeletons. The antechinus has long pointed jaws full of many sharp teeth which chew their insect prey up very finely. So when you pick up an antechinus scat and crumble it slightly between thumb and forefinger the whole thing breaks up into a zillion tiny brown fragments which may have a bit of iridescence. In scat parlance, they are known as ‘friable’.

Antechinus scats may be cylinders with rough broken off ends, or even curled “Mr Whippy” style scats. If the scats are friable and full of insect fragments but tiny and in great numbers – you could be looking at bat scats, as microbats also have an insect diet.

One would think that being able to identify the scats means I can confidently say whether it is Black Rats or Antechinus keeping us up at night in the roof. At our house, it seems these two species coexist – and both scats may be found under our roof.

The Antechinus leaves more scats in the shed and across the woodpile – seeming to drop them freely as they scamper about, whereas the Black Rats seems to save their scats for depositing in their creepy lairs, in secret dark places such as under tin sheets in the garden,  and notoriously in car engines!

Another way to tell these two animal groups apart is their two very distinctive gaits. Rodents, whether they are native or introduced, run in a smooth continuous motion, kind of like a horse in a gallop. Antechinus move in a very different way, it is staccato and super fast, a kind of coordinated hopping gait that moves across the ground or log like a horizontal hop. The only other animals I have seen move like this are possums and bandicoots – also marsupials.

 

The Agile Antechinus is one of the most common animals in the Wombat Forest, and the star of the Wombat Forest camera trapping program run by Wombat Forestcare and the VNPA. If you live in the drier parts of the Hepburn Shire, such as Yandoit or Clydesdale you would have the Agile’s Antechinus’ larger fluffier cousin, the very pretty Yellow-footed Antechinus.

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