Koala scats on Cornish Hill: a Chillout adventure

One of the things I love most about leading nature walks is that you just never know what you may see. One family nature walk, deep in the Wombat Forest, we encountered a wombat, staring at us from the other side of the creek. Some of the mums thought I had put a wombat statue there for the kids. More recently, while leading a walk for a big group of locals and tourists on Cornish Hill Reserve, we found koala poo.

This is a first for the Reserve. In 2016, I wrote about the results of Wombat Forestcare’s camera trapping efforts on Cornish Hill. The survey revealed native animals such as tawny frogmouth, echidna, and a black wallaby with a joey in the pouch, and another wallaby eating fungi in its paws. And a surprise – a common brushtail possum (rather than the wombat forest specialist the mountain brushtail or bobuck). But a koala has never been spotted – in ‘person’ or by scats – until now.

It was so wonderful to see some fifty people and a few well-behaved doggies on leads turn up for the walk on Saturday, March 10. Margie Thomas and the Friends of Cornish Hill Committee had agreed to do something a bit different for this nature walk, and so we were in the printed and online program for Chillout Festival. We had visitors from around Australia and even the world.

my hand and scats

This beautiful photo was taken by Helen Greenwood

With such a large group, one must walk slowly through the bush, and then stop and share points of interest. I had done a reconnaissance the day before, but had chosen a different path. So as always, I scanned the ground for clues such as pine cones chewed by yellow-tailed black cockatoos, and there were the koala scats, here and there across the path. I stopped the group and held the scats up in my hand for all to see.

Koala scats can be identified by their uniform oval shape. They are scattered beneath the tree, and unlike possum scats, they are very similar to one another, with a smooth, but granular surface. And when you break them open, they are uniform in texture –composed of very finely chewed eucalyptus leaves. And if the scats are fresh, they have a delightful musky eucalyptus scent.

It was very enjoyable encouraging people from Lithuania, New Zealand and Belgium to pass around and sniff koala poo. Surely an important part of the Australian experience.

Seriously though, members of the Friends of Cornish Hill are excited to add the koala to the growing list of native animals using the reserve. The eucalypt trees on the side of the hill where the scats were seen were mostly narrow-leafed peppermint. It is a bit of a myth that koalas only eat manna gums. Koalas actually eat a dozen or so of the local eucalypts, and it varies from place to place. In the You Yangs, the favourite food trees are river red gum, blue gum and yellow gum. In the Ballarat area, it is messmate, manna gum, and brown stringybark. Here in Daylesford – who knows. Messmate, manna gum and candlebark are likely candidates.

We are blessed to have regular sightings of healthy koalas in the Daylesford and district area. In other parts of Victoria, the disease chlamydia and over-population in tiny forest remnants cause terrible suffering. Our forest is large enough and hopefully healthy enough to sustain populations of koalas, and still provide enough food.

The Friends of Cornish Hill insist upon dogs on lead in the reserve, on their brochure, and on some delightful signage. This is fantastic as dog attack is a major threat to these beautiful animals. Female koalas will stand their ground to protect their joeys in the face of a dog attack, and sustain terrible injuries and even death to do so. Another threat to koalas is car collision. Koalas have very little road sense, and seem to sit placidly on the road in oncoming traffic. This means they are very easy to spot – so the best thing to do is pull over if it is safe to do so, usher the koala off the road.

The walk on Cornish Hill was very enjoyable, and a great success, so we will definitely be part of Chillout Festival 2019. In the meantime, do go and see this wonderful place – and look out for koalas.  www.cornishhilldaylesford.com.au.

everyone gathers

The crowd of humans and doggies gathers in spectacular Autumn weather

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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.

agile_antechinus_antechinus_agilis_on_cloth_close-up_from_front

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.

black-rat-vs-bush-rat

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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