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

Mating swans at Lake Daylesford

I love how a nature moment can occur at any time – not necessarily when out in the forest with binoculars in hand. We were coming out of the Boathouse Cafe at Lake Daylesford after brunch when I noticed two swans very close together, right near the shoreline. The swans silently performed a beautiful series of synchronised movements – their necks bowing from side to side, arching over their partner’s body.

I commented that they looked frisky, and my friend visiting from London crept forward to take a photo. Frisky indeed they were, as one swan, presumably the female, floated low in the water while the male mounted her as he gripped the base of her neck with his bill. Mating lasted for just a moment. As they parted, they raised their necks and heads to the sky and honked loudly in unison. It was a beautiful moment; this is called the “Triumph display”!

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A pair of swans – from Wikimedia Commons…

 

After separating the swans swam apart and rearranged their feathers a bit, acting very casual. My friend recorded the mating, and the lovely honking calls, and this can be viewed on my blog.

Male swans can be distinguished from females by being slightly larger – males 6-9 kilograms and females 4-7 kilograms. The male swan is called a cob due to the knob on his bill. This comes from the old German term “Knopf” meaning knob. The female is called the pen because of the way she holds her wings back in a penned manner from the old English term “Penne”. Although I think they both hold their wings in a similar manner!

Mating season for swans is anywhere from June to September, so this amorous pair got in early on May 28. The pairs mate for life, although, as in many so-called monogamous birds, extra-pair matings ( or sneaky affairs) are very common. In fact, studies at Albert Park Lake have revealed that 15 per cent of all cygnets are not sired by their social ‘father’, but by another cob in the population.

Black swans are the subject of intense study by researchers past and present at Melbourne University. One such researcher, Ken Kraaijaveld studied the social lives of the swans of Lake Wendouree very closely with the help of Ballarat Field Naturalists club members John Gregurke and Carol Hall.

Black Swans have very curly feathers on their backs, actually their wings, so when they are in the water, the back feathers look very curled. Both males and females have between 7 and 22 of these curly feathers. The curls develop throughout their youth, then remain fixed in number once they are sexually mature.

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some free Black Swan wallpaper – showing the beautiful curled feathers

 

It turns out these curled feathers are actually a determinant of who mates with who, and the dominance of a pair in the flock. The swans with lots of curled feathers pair up togethe, and highly ornamented pairs select the best breeding areas for their cygnets. The cygnets raised by these “power couples” have the best chance of survival.

The study of the Lake Wendouree swans moved to Albert Park Lake when Lake Wendouree dried up in the big drought. You can read about the ongoing research of swans there at the website http://www.myswan.org.au/, and see a beautiful series of images of swans mating.

The pair at Lake Daylesford will probably have a nest ready to go nearby – one that was either built this season, or built upon from previous years. Once laid, the eggs will be incubated for about 40 days. If all goes well, we will be seeing four or five gorgeous fluffy grey cygnets at the lake in early July.

The biggest threats to breeding swans are foxes, which are rife around large lake systems and also very common locally. Another threat is both chasing and attack by off-lead dogs. Whether the dog actually “gets” the swan is not the point, as the chasing interrupts the swans’ feeding regimes, and stresses the birds out, raising their cortisol levels and lowering their resistance to disease.

More traditional predators include Australian Ravens, Native Water Rats and the bird of prey the Swamp Harrier. I have seen Native Water rats at the lake; they are lovely animals, however I do hope they stick to their usual diet of crustaceans and small fish!

An edited version of this was published in Hepburn Advocate 8/06/2015 xx

Jewels of the dry bush

I most often write about the flora and fauna of the wetter, more higher elevations of the Wombat Forest and surrounds. The forests around Daylesford, Porcupine Ridge, Glenlyon have tall messmates and candlebarks, silver wattles and blackwood, and birds such as White-eared Honeyeaters, Crescent Honeyeaters and Gang gang cockatoos. But as you head past Mount Franklin, and yours ears pop a little as you move onto the plains – a whole different world awaits. The flora and fauna of Shepherds Flat, Yandoit, and Clydesdale are remarkably different to the Daylesford area.

The trees are red box, grey box and yellow gum with black wattles, with river red gums along the watercourses. And the bird fauna is incredible: Fuscous Honeyeaters, White-plumed Honeyeaters, Brown Treecreepers and one of my very favourite birds – the Diamond Firetail.

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A little stunner, photographed at Little Desert National Park by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons.

A small bird of great beauty, the Diamond Firetail sports a neat black and grey suit with white spots, set off by a dashing crimson rump and a coral-coloured bill and eye ring.

Diamond Firetails feed on seeds of both grasses and native trees such as she-oak. One day at the Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve in Clydesdale, I chanced upon a lone Diamond Firetail foraging with a distinctive series of moves. He trundled along the ground, then leapt up to a grass seed head, grabbed it firmly in his bill, then stood on the grass head to eat the seeds. The process was repeated at the next grass tussock.

Living on seeds alone is thirsty work, and Diamond Firetails need a safe source of water in their bushland or woodland habitat. In dry times, one way to help firetails and other birds is through the provision of a bird bath or two. Bird baths are a wonderful way to enjoy your local birds, but do bear in mind they require daily maintenance to ensure the water is clean, and always topped up.

It is too hot and dry for breeding at the moment, but after the rains return and seeding grasses are available, nesting will occur anytime from August. To attract the female, the male Diamond Firetail selects a long piece of grass with a seed head, and holds it tightly in his bill. He then fluffs his spotted flank feathers and sings as he bobs up and down on the perch.

If the female approves, they will mate in the privacy of the nest. The nest is a domed affair, of grasses, seed heads and roots, and may be found in a mistletoe clump or a thick shrub such as Hedge Wattle. Very often, flowers are weaved into the entrance of the front of the nest. The inside of the nest is lined with very fine grasses and feathers weaved together.

A few years ago, I observed a Diamond Firetail nest built amongst the large sticks of the base of a Wedge-tailed Eagle nest! According to BirdLife Australia, this is a common practice, and the finches use many types of birds of prey nests such as such as a Whistling Kite, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Brown Falcon, Nankeen Kestrel and Square-tailed Kite. One nest of a Whistling Kite contained nine Diamond Firetail nests!

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Diamond firetail in the bath. They readily use bird baths where they occur – I am jealous. I would love these birds here at Porcupine Ridge! Pic by Geoff Park, at Newstead.

Diamond Firetails forage in small flocks. In a fascinating study, bird ecologists discovered that it was actually the females in a flock that determine where a flock forages, and many females forage first for the choicest seeds. This dominant position of some females over the males and other females was indicated by the size and number of white spots along her flanks. A female with many and large spots was likely to always win over a contest over choice food items. It is very unusual in the bird world to have feather patterns playing such a big role in female – male food competition.

 

The spots are also distinctive enough that if you have Diamond firetails visiting your bird bath or garden, and you take photos of them, you can recognise individuals by their spot patterns.

The Diamond Firetail is less common than it once was, largely due to the removal or degradation of suitable habitat. Happily small populations are still being reported in areas such as Clydesdale, Muckleford and Fryerstown. If you have Diamond Firetails visiting your garden, or you see some out in the bush, I would love to hear from you!

Crowhurst, C. J., Zanollo, V., Griggio, M., Robertson, J. and Kleindorfer, S. (2012), White Flank Spots Signal Feeding Dominance in Female Diamond Firetails, Stagonopleura guttata. Ethology, 118: 63–75. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2011.01986.x

Diamond firetail pics by Francesco Veronesi  and Geoff Park at Natural Newstead

Nature Diary: The Dusky Moorhen

Monash Uni Clayton Sept 2012 / Sekor C 210mm f4 D90

Monash Uni Clayton Sept 2012

Each month I will reproduce my Nature Diary Articles from the Hepburn Advocate – Here is last month’s! : )

The wonderful thing about researching an article about very common and everyday animals is that sometimes your mind is just blown away by an insight into the fascinating lives of a bird or mammal you have been looking at your whole life. For example,  the Dusky Moorhen, or as I now call it – the “Frisky Moorhen”!

The Dusky Moorhen is a species you will probably encounter at just about any human-created water body that has native vegetation and a few trees.  Dusky Moorhens are a type of rail or crake – not a duck, and their genus name Gallinula means ‘little hen’ in Latin. Two other water hen species are similar to the Dusky Moorhen but can be easily distinguished. The similarly-sized Eurasian CootFulica atra, has a white bill and face shield and a red eye. The Purple SwamphenPorphyrio porphyrio, is much larger and has a distinct purple-blue colouring.

Dusky Moorhens have large feet with enormous toes, a dark-coloured body and a red bill with yellow tip,  and reddish orange headpiece called a frontal shield. The Moorhens walk slowly and deliberately – high-stepping and placing their feet carefully as they forage for grasses by the shore. When they swim they jerk their head forwards like a pigeon. Their calls are very accurately described as “loud, sharp gutteral crowing or harsher repeated shrieks”. Ear-splitting!

Now I have seen these birds for years raising their cute chicks, little fluffy “ mini-me’s” with huge feet. I did not realise that the Dusky Moorhen actually lives an alternative lifestyle that forgoes monogamy utterly – kind of like a radical hippy commune from the early seventies. They form breeding groups of seven or eight birds, and all the males will mate with all females. All the adults in the group build nests, defend territory and feed the young. The bonds between parents and young are maintained equally by all birds in the group until the young are independent.

Cooperative breeding is common in Australian birds, such as fairy-wrens, choughs and kookaburras, and in these cases it is mostly the males from previous years who stick around to help raise the next brood of young. With “Frisky Moorhens”,  this is a group of completely unrelated adults coming together to raise their young as a collective.

Members of a breeding group take defence of the breeding territory very seriously indeed. At the boundary of the territory the home bird will display to the intruder bird, usually this is enough for a mutual back down. If the intruder will not give, the home bird attacks it with its beak, usually on the neck and hold it submerged underwater! The intruder usually gets the signal and leaves by this point. If the intruder is determined and will not yield, or the home bird cannot get a grip on its neck, then both birds raise up and kick each other’s breast with both feet.

So this spring when you see a group of Dusky Moorhens at your local lake, watch a while – there is definitely more going here than initially meets the eye!