Gang gang family returns

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!

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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