Fallow Deer family

A few nights ago, I spotted a family group of deer on the roadside as I drove to Daylesford.  There was a female deer, a male with small horns, and a young deer. The adults crossed the road towards Leitches Creek Bushland Reserve while the young deer stared at me with some confusion. I followed my kangaroo protocol – turn high beams off, slow down or stop (if safe to do so) and the young one joined his family soon enough.

Deer were introduced to Australia as game animals with much enthusiasm by the Acclimitisation Societies of the 19th Century. There are several species in Australia which are naturalised – that is, they have self-sustaining populations in our forests and farmlands.

The Grampians is the home of the mighty Red Deer – those huge, impressive deer of Scottish wildlife documentaries. Eastern Victoria and particularly East Gippsland is the home of the Sambar, another massive species of deer. In the Otways and here in the Wombat Forest, we have Fallow Deer and, to a lesser extent, Sambar. Coastal areas such as Wilsons Promontary and the Gippsland Lakes have Hog Deer.

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This is a female Fallow Deer without spots (pixabay.com)

Fallow Deer are smaller than Red Deer or Sambar – the males weigh up to 90 kg, while a Sambar male can be up to 250kg! Like most deer, males are larger than females, with females being about half the weight of males.

Fallow Deer are your classic spotty deer – a rusty, reddish-brown colour with white spots, blending to a white underbelly and legs. A black stripe runs along the back and extends onto the tail. Some deer do not have spots, and some are very dark – and quite a few deer are white. A farmer in Muckleford has a group of deer living on and around his farm, with a big all-white stag!

The deer we see wild locally are from deer farms that have gone out of business, and then the owners have set them free into the nearby bush.  Fallow deer can’t survive in purely native habitats such as huge stretches of forest. They rely on a patchwork pattern; a modified landscape of paddocks with introduced grasses, farms and farmlets and patches of open forest or woodland.

During Winter, Spring and early summer, there is some degree of segregation between the sexes – males form small groups and roam across their home ranges, while the females, yearlings of both sexes and juveniles remain more sedentary.

With this in mind, the family I spotted the other night may have been mum, big brother and a young one. This little group will stick together until late Summer/ Autumn, when the rut begins.  The males return to their favourite rutting territories, and make grunting calls, paw the ground, spread their urine and scent, and flay bushes and tree trunks with their antlers. The females visit the males and mate.

About seven months later a little fawn is born. The mother and fawn pretty much keep to themselves until the fawn is about a month old, and then they rejoin the local herd.

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–Wonderful male Fallow Deer, by Jiri Nederost

Most of the information I could find about Fallow Deer was about their value and qualities as a game animal. Deer hunting is hugely popular and growing each year – some 60,000 deer were killed by hunters last year.  I have to admit I am in two minds about this! Wherever there are large herds of deer the native plant species are diminished in number, orchids and wildflowers destroyed, and the wattles browsed to such an extent that small birds lose their cover for feeding and nesting.

Fallow Deer predators are listed as wolves, cougars, lynx, bears, mountain cougars, coyotes and bobcats – no wonder they are doing so well in Australia! From what I can see from the Australian Deer Association, deer hunting requires a lot of patience and skill, and precision, as the deer are so wary and intelligent. As hunting goes, it seems fairer than duck shooting, or kangaroo hunting – both of which are horribly cruel and very unfair.

Hunting aside,  my heart sings whenever I see our local Fallow Deer – they are so pretty and gentle! I have Dutch and Irish heritage, so I think some deep, ancestral part of me really loves these animals.

For this year’s Words in Winter, I will be giving a  talk : “Hepburn Nature Diary: seven years and counting”, a behind the scenes look at my nature stories. Please come and say hello! Saturday, August 6, 6:30 – 7:20 at the Words in Winter Hub, 81 Vincent Street, Daylesford.

Male Fallow Deer picture:  via Wikimedia Commons and http://www.hvozd.eu/

For some information on ecology of Fallow Deer in Australia ( Tasmania) rather than hunting information, this paper is interesting Fallow-Deer-Species-Profile Tasmania

 

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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

Jewels by the roadside

What better way to bring in the beginning of 2016 than a beetle-spotting walk?

My dogs are fairly old now, so they do not mind if a slow walk along our dirt road involves the examination of eucalypt and wattle regrowth. One never knows what delights may be observed clinging to the leaves and stems. Insects seem to appear and disappear in stages, so you may get a week or two observing just small golden green beetles, then these disappear and are replaced with treehoppers being attended by ants, or perhaps interesting flies.

On this day however, I was delighted to observe and photograph a couple of my favourite beetles – jewel beetles. Jewel beetles are found worldwide and number approximately 15,000 species. They are much loved for their astounding array of colours, which are often metallic. In Australia, the Buprestidae family has 82 genera and some 1,200 species. Some beetle families vary widely in form, but jewel beetles are very recognisable by their cylindrical, cigar–like body shape, small antennae and very large eyes. Jewel beetles have very cute faces!

The Australian jewel beetle (Julodimorpha bakewelli) is a glossy, golden-brown beetle around 4cm long, found all over Australia in arid and semi-arid areas. This beetle has been featured in the news due to the unfortunate similarity to dumped beer bottles or “stubbies”. The males have been observed trying to mate with the bottles, and the poor fellas will stay there until succumbing to stress and starvation!

Jewel beetles are renowned for being difficult to photograph as they are quite shy and will play dead, dropping off the branch they are on to the forest floor. The pair I saw on the 1st January was most cooperative, staying quite still as I photographed both, using my hand as a focus guide for my iPhone. These two beetles had the same white spots on the back wing cases or elytra, but the thorax  was bronze in one and emerald green on the other. A male and female perhaps?

I will be sending these photos to the Melbourne Museum, but from what I have been able to deduce from various beetle and insect websites is that these little guys are found in both NSW and Victoria, and appear to be found on wattle foliage most of the time. They are in the genus Diphucrania.

It is quite hard to get detailed behavioural information on insects – the study of entomology has a major focus on classification and taxonomy, and often centres upon on economically important or pest species. Jewel beetles are a little more well-known than other groups on account of their beauty.

The adults feed on leaf foliage or blossom nectar, and they lay their eggs on an appropriate host plant. The larvae are whitish coloured grub-like creatures that burrow through the stems of wattles and other plants, feeding on the sapwood with their strong jaws. The larval stage may last months or even years. Sometimes, the timber used for furniture still has jewel beetles inside, and the new adults emerge into a house-type situation which is very different from the forest they originated in!

The adults live only for a few days, or up to two weeks. So if you happen to see some jewel beetles in your garden, or on a walk, enjoy their beauty, as they won’t be around in that form for very long…

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Beetle with a bronze thorax… This pic also shows their proximity to one another.

 

jewel beetle Tanya Loos

And a beetle with an emerald thorax. Lovely!

Hyacinth Orchids – Spotted, Rosy and an unusual form

Hyacinth Orchids are so unlike the rest of the wildflowers in these dry forests. They reach up out of the leaf litter or barren roadside gravel in a showy and shocking display of flashy pink. We have two kinds here – the more common Rosy Hyacinth Orchid which is a deep pink with a stripy labellum or lip, and the Spotted Hyacinth Orchid which is white with pink spots. The Spotted one is classified as rare under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, so I like to keep tabs on where they come up each year.

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A Spotted Hyacinth Orchid

On the 15th December I photographed nine Spotted Hyacinth Orchids in Dry Diggings forest. Six of these had the tops bitten off and so were unable to flower. Deer? Hares? Wallabies?

On Boxing Day,  I went for a nice long walk down Woolnoughs Road, Porcupine Ridge, and I came across a number of Hyacinth Orchids – Rosy and Spotted. I haven’t been able to get a decent photo of a Rosy Hyacinth Orchid – here is a photo of one, taken by the sorely missed Russell Best. Note the pink colour, and sometimes it is even deeper and more magenta.

rosy hyacinth by Russell Best

So it was with much surprise that I noted a population of Rosy Hyacinth Orchids that were very pale in colour, but still with those distinctive labellum stripes rather than spots. There were  11 in total, in two groups on either side of the road. In thirteen years of looking at these orchids, I have never seen such a pale form!

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An unusually pale form of the Hyacinth Orchid

In the near future,  I will have lovely feedback between this blog and the Nature Share site – so that you can check through all my photos and see the locations, and I will contribute to a wonderful body of knowledge.  And it is amazing! Check it out here: Nature Share

In the meantime: 26 December, 2015, Wooloughs Rd: 26 Spotted Hyacinth Orchid – Dipodium pardalinum, 11 pale Rosy Hyacinth Orchid, plus 4 normal – so 15 Rosy Hyacinth Orchids, or Dipodium roseum.  Lovely! A bumper year, despite the dry conditions…

A Koel comes calling…

Sometimes it is very obvious when the bird you can hear calling is new to the area. In the last couple of weeks a number of Daylesford residents were treated to an extremely loud ‘tee-looo tee-loo’ call – somewhat like a repetitive peacock call.

Fiona McIntyre recorded video footage of the bird calling from a densely leaved European tree, and posted it on the Daylesford grapevine Facebook page. Thus I was thrilled to see and hear evidence of probably the first ever Eastern Koel in Daylesford!

The Eastern Koel is a type of large cuckoo with the males a glossy blue black, pale bill and red eye, and the females a lovely mix of brown and faun. Like other cuckoo species, koels lay their eggs in the nests of other species, known as host birds. Koels primarily use Figbirds, Noisy Friarbirds and Magpie-larks. The hatched cuckoo chick unceremoniously ejects the original bird’s eggs, and then the host species parent feeds this large and very demanding cuckoo chick until it fledges.

Each summer, Koels fly to Australia from New Guinea, Indonesia and possibly the Philippines. They breed in Northern and eastern Austrlia, and then return north around March.

Koel in foliage

Koels are notoriously difficult to see. let alone photograph.  This is a male Koel,  by Tatters (Flickr)

 

Eastern Koels are changing their range dramatically. In my favourite field guide, the Pizzey and knight 1997 edition, the distribution map shows the range of this species stopping as far north as Sydney. Over the past decades, each year they have been seen further south – in Mallacoota, Bairnsdale and occasionally in Melbourne.  And then regularly in Bendigo and Melbourne.

This November has seen a veritable influx, with Koels calling in Greensborough, Camberwell, Frankston, Bendigo, and Daylesford. Why is this range change occurring?

Could it be due to an increase in the availability of their favourite food? They are fruit eaters – figs mainly but also mulberries. It is telling that the birds have been seen mainly in towns with well-watered gardens, perhaps the fruit is more readily available, and of a higher quality?

I was fortunate to be able the pose the question of the Koel’s move southwards to experts at the recent BirdLIfe Ornithological Conference in Adelaide. Sure, the conversation was after a few too many wines after the conference dinner, on the bus back to our motels! But the good work of the bird enthusiast never dims and I was able to get a very good answer.

Our parks and gardens are seeing less and less small birds, and an increase in larger dominant nectar feeding birds such as Red Wattlebirds. Red Wattlebirds are large brown streaked honeyeaters so named for the little red flaps of skin on either side of their faces – their wattles. Red Wattlebirds are doing very well on all the large- flowering banksia and grevillea hybrid species that are planted in towns and gardens.

Virginia Abernathy at Australian National University has been studying Koels and has found that they have recently switched hosts from their usual figbirds and friarbirds to Red Wattlebirds which are abundant in cooler places such as Canberra and Victoria. And indeed Daylesford!

Koels are commonly known as storm birds as their calls come before big rains. The Bureau predicts much higher than average rainfall in western Victoria for January and February – I am happy to take the Koel’s visit as a very good omen!

Recognising roosts – kookaburra and chough

Many times in the forest I come across a patch of bird droppings – is it from an owl roost? Or other birds? How can we tell?

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These photos were taken on Mount Alexander yesterday, September 12. My feet are in the pic for scale. This roost had several pellets which were made up almost entirely of insect exoskeleton fragments.

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So that rules out a Powerful Owl or Barn owl – who tend to have fur and feathers and bones in their pellets. Also the droppings or ‘paint’ while abundant are not as large as those of the Powerful Owl.
When I was studying ornithology at Charles Sturt University in 2008 I picked Laughing Kookaburra for my bird behaviour assignment. We had to watch the birds and create an activity budget – how many minutes hunting, preening, resting – and I followed the birds at dusk here in Porcupine Ridge. They selected a long, bare horizontal branch to roost on, tightly packed together. And underneath was a mess of droppings and pellets much like this one in the pic. White-winged Chough roosts look very very similar.
Another possibility is Boobook – bit one would expect at least a little bit of mammal prey evidence – such as bush rat.
On a final note, at this roost site, near the pellets were these strange regurgitated mud splodges. I have seen these under other bird of prey roosts but cannot imagine what their function is!

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Kangaroo clay lick in Yandoit

Ah the wondrous benefits of the naturalist who gets to know his or her patch very well indeed! I had the privilege of heading out on a bush walk with Sharon and Dave in the Yandoit area last Saturday; with a host of other local walkers, kids and dogs.

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Last year at a birthday barbecue Sharon and Dave had mentioned they knew of a kangaroo clay lick in the Yandoit area. And happily this walk took us straight past! They had noticed the hole on a few occasions, and one day they saw a kangaroo actually using it.

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And demonstrated here by their cute terrier Daisy:

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We tasted the clay to see if it was salty or high in mineral content but couldn’t tell!
A quick search online and I have found an article from the Australian Journal of Mammalogy called ‘Facultative geophagy at natural licks in an Ausyralian marsupial’ by Emily C Best et al 2003. This article looked at the use of clay licks by eastern grey kangaroos – and looked at whether geophagy was prompted by dietary mineral content, reproductive phase or thermoregulation. The authors believe that geophagy or clay licking in eastern grey kangaroos is facultative rather than obligative ( done on an as-needs basis) as it has not been observed in other very highly studied populations. The clay licks examined in their study had significantly higher levels of sodium, magnesium and sulphur.
Here is a pic of the teeth or scratch marks of this lick:

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The authors conclude that ‘geophagy is most likely to be found in areas with high temperatures that are naturally low in sodium’. And that these factors were the motivators : mineral content of the grass at different times of years affected lick visits, reproductive status – lactating females, and temperatures : high temperatures – more sodium loss from the arm licking behaviour the roos use to keep cool.
But it’s funny – in central Victoria we have really long cold winters. Are we in a particularly low sodium area? Is this a western Victorian peculiarity? Perhaps this should be reported to a kangaroo ecologist! Thanks Sharon and Dave – top work! Pdf of the article available on request. : )