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.

healthy wombat at burrow

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.

healthy wombat mid-scratch

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!

eastern pygmy possum north head manly

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.

ellie the baby eastern pygmy possum

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

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.

messmate-tanya-loos

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

greater-glider

The Greater Glider – Wombat Forestcare’s mascot

Photo credit: fleayswildlife.com.au, Grant Fraser