The Casuarina Corridor of Life

At this time of year the days are becoming colder and most animals are becoming less active, or migrated north. This stillness and quietness of winter becomes evident. However there are a few specific vegetation communities which can occasionally provide an abundance of life in the onset of winter, and it’s all controlled by food. One of these vegetation communities are the Casuarina swamp lands which line undisturbed river lines in eastern Australia. Most inland rivers are cloaked by the River She-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana), usually 20 meters each side of the bank, but sometimes more or sometimes less depending on the geological architecture of the area.

 

Tree top view of a Casuarina swampland along Wollondilly River.

Tree top view of a Casuarina swampland along Wollondilly River.

 

 

These Casuarina swamp lands can become a very important niche for many different species of birds during the onset of winter. The reason for this does not lie with the Casuarinas specifically, but surprisingly a parasitic plant which lives on the Casuarinas. These plants are known as mistletoes. While mistletoes have adapted to mimic a multitude of different host tree species, the mimicracy displayed by the Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei) is extraordinary. This mistletoe has evolved to mimic Casuarinas and Allocasuarinas, and does a remarkable job of disguising itself amoung the Casuarina needles. Unless you are a mistletoe expert, the only sure-fire way to discern mistletoe from Casurina is to witness the Needle-leaf Mistletoe in flower (which are incredibly beautiful and unique!). Casuarina flowers are much different from mistletoe flowers and look like small fluffly red or brown parts on the leaves (needles), while the Needle-leaf Mistletoe flowers have large bright red anthers that a readily distinguishable, and are probably that bright to attract the birds!

 

Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei)

Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei)

 

The Needle-leaf mistletoe usually flowers at the beginning of spring, however I must of been at the right place at the right time as thousands of Needle-leaf Mistletoe were in flower, giving the Casaurinas bright red highlights which contrast well among their dull foliage. This earlier flowering could probably be due to the large quantities of rain south eastern Australia has had in the preceding months. With waning nectar resources from other tree and plant species, it seemed all the nectar feeding birds in the area decided to take advantage. We were treated to an avain frenzy of tweets and feathers. There were many bird species I didn’t manage to get a photo of and many bird calls I couldn’t identify, but below are some notable entries.

 

Yellow-faced Honey Eater (Lichenostomus chrysops), preparing for flight.

Yellow-faced Honey Eater (Lichenostomus chrysops), preparing for flight.

A Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), flutter around the canopy tops in the Casuarina.

A Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), flutter around the canopy tops in the Casuarina.

Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis), eyeing off a flowering mistletoe target.

Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis), eyeing off a flowering mistletoe target.

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusila)

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusila)

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris)

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris)

A mating pair of Turquoise Parrots (Neophema pulchella) take off.

A mating pair of Turquoise Parrots (Neophema pulchella) take off.

 

The last bird shown above is the Turquoise Parrot which is threatened in NSW. This was an especially great find! They even landed for me to take a photo, however they chose the ugliest invasive weed species to land on, I was in any case excited.

 

Turquoise Parrot (Neophema pulchella)

 

While the bird life was astonishing, there were other appearances which you usually only get to see in areas which are healthy and remote from urban development. The area harboring this biodiversity is situated between Nattai NP and Yerranderie Conservation Area along Wollondilly River, which gives wildlife to solitude it needs to become especially diverse and abundant. The healthy sections of this river is known to be home to the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), which I was especially lucky and excited to witness. The photo isn’t great but I was able to view it with binoculars as it would emerge and submerged for ten meters. On the banks of the river I was also able to see a healthy Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) grazing, and well as huge amounts of butterflies fluttering around, which turned out to be the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and Lesser Wanderers (Danuas chrysippus). I am unsure if these butterflies were here for the mistletoe nectar or for some kind of migration.

 

Platypus frolicking in Wollondilly River.

Platypus frolicking in Wollondilly River.

A healthy looking wombat, seemingly untouched by the current wombat disease epidemic, mange.

A healthy looking wombat, seemingly untouched by the current wombat disease epidemic, mange.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). This butterfly is a male, which is distinguishable by the pair of black dots on the lower wings.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). This butterfly is a male, which is distinguishable by the pair of black dots on the lower wings.

 

 

To witness this spectacle of nature was an inspiring reminder that there are still untouched oases of life which escape the reach of man with the addition of wonder with how many features of animal ecology remains unknown.

 

 

Birds of Broughton Island

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Broughton Island, it is a relatively small island (a touch over 100 hectares) a part of Myall Lakes National Park, off the east coast of Australia. This small island has retained some interesting natural heritage, with having the second largest population of Green and Golden Bell Frogs in the world and also one of the few places to find the critically endangered Storm Petrel. Broughton Island also boasts nesting populations of Wedged-Tailed Shearwaters (also known as ‘Mutton Birds’), and also Fairy Penguins which are occurring on the island close to the northern limit their distribution. Broughton Island provides good coastal habitat and heathland habitat which is used by a considerably large variety of different bird species. The island attracts both sea birds, raptors and even land birds which have retained their permanent positions. This makes it a popular spot for bird enthusiasts where they run annual Broughton Island ‘twitching’ events to count how many bird species are present and see if they can spot any new ones. While I stayed at Broughton conducting bell frog surveys I went to do some twitching in my spare time and this is what I found:

 

1. The first bird to great me on the island is an easy guess considering this is a coastal island: the Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) which most people just refer to as the ‘Sea Gull’. They were in a large noisy colony where the fishers huts reside.

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

 

2. The second bird I quickly realised were in abundance on this island were the Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena). There were dive bombing insects and speeding around the main cabins, occasionally taking a pit stop on a twig or branch.

Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena)

 

3. The next bird I became aware of was the Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae), which were cheekily and quietly jumping and rummaging around the grass and seaweed, presumably looking for invertebrate snacks.

Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae)

Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae)

4. After a heading out to one of the bell frog sites, many small birds were sighted in the Broughton Island heathland. One of them I failed to get a photo of which was the Silver Eyes (Zosterops lateralis) but the other common heathland bird was the Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis), which occasionally perched in the open to let out alarm calls as we approached their territory.

Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis)

A Male Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis)

5. Before leaving the heathlands we keep sighted small ground dwelling birds scuttling in the bushes before we got close. My 300 mm lens proved them to be Brown Quails (Coturnix ypsilophora).

A family group of Brown Quail (Coturnix ypsilophora)

A family group of Brown Quail (Coturnix ypsilophora)

6. When arriving to the beach, the next bird sighted was darting in and out of the seaweed clumps with fast legs. They turned out to be Red Capped Plovers (Charadrius ruficapillus), which are are common occurrence on the coasts of Australia.

Red Capped Plover (Charadrius ruficapillus)

Red Capped Plover (Charadrius ruficapillus)

 

7. Another bird sighted darting amongst the seaweed (albeit somewhat slower and plumper than the Red Capped Plovers) was the  Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), who took flight if approached to closely and directly.

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

 

8. After patrolling making it to the rocky coastal areas of Broughton I stumbled upon a bird which frightened me probably as equally as I frightened it. This dark bird make a shreeking call and darted to a rock almost submerged by the surf. This bird turned out to be a Sooty Oyster Catcher (Haematopus fuliginosus), which were occasionally seen in pairs most likely nesting in the rocky areas of the coast of Broughton Island. https://www.flickr.com/photos/126862220@N06/15905334509/   9. I heard small tweets and chirps within a stand of Knobby Club Rush, and manged to shoot off a few photos. The specific chirps and tweets we heard along with the photo confirmed it as a Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis).

Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis)

Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis)

 

The next few species of birds we witnessed were soaring high above where I managed to capture some of them with the long lens. 10. This comorant flying over head is most likely to be the Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). Many were seen later on drying their wings on small rock platforms further out in the surf.

10.Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

The Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

 

11. The next bird saw flying overhead was the Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans) which was the most common raptor we saw during this trip. One of them were even sighted harassing the gull colony which sent all the adults in the air with attempts to try and drive off the raptor. It looked like the harrier had run off with on of the gull chicks!

Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans)

Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans)

 

12. Another impressive raptor was sighted gliding overhead which turned out to be a juvenile White Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), which was identified using the specific colour arrangements of the feathers as seen from below.

Juvenile White-Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

 

 

There were other birds sighted which I didn’t manage to get decent photos of which include  two other raptors: an Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus), and a Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), plus some extra additions sighted in the heathland including White-Cheeked Honey Eaters (Phylidonyris nigra). In total (including the birds that I didn’t manage to get photos of), I saw 17 birds which isn’t bad for 3 days of twitching. If I kept that ratio of birds to days up I could get all species of birds in Australia within the year!

A Quick Guide to Common Rails of Sydney

Just to make it clear for people who aren’t familiar with aquatic birds, a ‘rail’ is the common term given to birds within the Rallidae family which also include coots and swamp hens. They are birds which are adapting to swim and stalk in marshes and reeds. Most healthy wetlands will attract one of the species of rail which rely on aquatic vegetation for the staple of their diet.

The rails that you are most likely to see are:

  • Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
  • Dusky Moor Hen (Gallinula tenebrosa)
  • Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

 

The largest of the rails around Sydney is the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). This conspicuous prehistoric looking bird can be told a part from other rails easily by the size (much larger than the other rails reaching almost 50 cm tall) along with the purple/blue sheen across the neck and belly. The Purple Swamphen requires heavily vegetated wetlands with plenty of sun light. Like the other rails, the Purple Swamphens have a confused and complex mating system. Some times the birds pair up, some times their is co-operative raising of the young by other younger individuals in the family group, where all birds contribute time into egg incubation and nest protection. During spring and early summer you may also witness the antics of the males fighting for dominance, with raucous screams and viscous confrontations. The looser is often chased away.

Some easy spots to see these birds include Audley in the Royal National Park and most of the freshwater wetlands within Sydney Olympic Park.

 

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The other rail you are likely to see and which is probably the most common of the three is the Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa). This rail is smaller than the Purple Swamphen, reaching a maximum of 40 cm tall. This bird is easily distinguished from the Purple Swamphen as it lacks the purple/blue sheen and also has a yellow tipped beaked in contrast to the entirely red colored beak of the swamphen (See photo below).

 

Left - Dusky Moorhen, Right - Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

Left – Dusky Moorhen, Right – Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

 

The Dusky Moorhen enjoys heavily vegetated wetlands were they forage on aquatic plants. Like the Purple Swamphen, the Dusky Moorhen also has a complicated mating system involving communal nesting. Many of the Dusky Swamphen populations in Sydney currently have babies with them.

Some easy spots to see this very common rail include Sydney Olympic Park, the wetland in Louisa Reserve in Bass Hill, Tudar Road wetland in Bonnet Bay, Audley in the Royal National Park, even Camelia Gardens in Caringbah has recently had some Dusky Moorhens move in and successfully raise babies their! This rail species seems to be one of the first wetland birds to move in to newly created wetlands (not including ducks).

 

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Mother Moorhens feeding babies | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Mother Moorhens feeding babies Persicaria sp. flower buds | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The last rail which is commonly seen is the unique Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra). This rail is easily distinguished from the others as it bears a white beak contrasting with completely black plumage. This bird is perhaps more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle as they have strange webbed feet which is one of their most striking features when you get a closer look. The Eurasian Coot is very adaptable in its foraging and may forage on land, dabble in water or even dive for food. They will eat aquatic vegetation, insects, even birds eggs if they find them. They nest in talls reeds which have died or have been flattened out, where they lay a few young. The young of the Eurasian Coot have a tough life as they are frequently the target of predators such as herons and egrets. Their survival is also at risk from their own parents who are known to be very tough on the hatchlings. If they have no food for them and the young keep begging they will prod their young harshly, sometimes killing them.

 

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Some good spots to see this quite common rail species is in Audley, Sydney Olympic Park and Louisa Reserve in Ball Hill.

If you want to see all three of these rails in one day its best to check out the various wetlands in Sydney Olympic Park or the Audley Lagoon in the Royal National Park. Both of these locations have many extra amazing bird life surprises. Hopefully this post has given you enough information to ID some of your local wetland birds!

Mining for Gold; Frogs of Quarries

Scattered around Sutherland Shire are small disused quarries. These sites echo with age from a hundred or more years ago when the generations before us were mining out shale and sandstone to build some of the very buildings we use today. During this mining extraction process, holes the the ground were created, cutting into the bed rock. The sandstone bed rock is impermeable and more often than not, these old mining spots become full of water as the mining works usually cut in a pond like shape into the earth.

As an indirect and unforeseen  consequence, these disused quarries have become perfect habitat for frogs. Some of them being large enough to sustain permanent wetlands and other smaller ones become equally as important ephemeral wetlands (A water body which dries up periodically). In fact, in this day and age, ephemeral water bodies may be especially important for frogs, as their periodic drying removes the water born fungal pathogen effecting frogs world wide called ‘chytrid’.

It’s not just frogs that are able to utilize these quarry wetlands. Water birds, snakes and freshwater macroinvertebrates are able to live and breed in these habitats. A good example of these habitats are the many sand mining quarries found along the stretch of Greenhills near Cronulla, which reach out patchily to Kurnell. There are many smaller disused quarries found scattered throughout the Royal National Park.

A few nights ago, I went to investigate how much diversity of frogs one of these artificially created wetlands harbor and I was astounded and very impressed to hear and see at least 9 species.

 

The Quarry

The Quarry

 

The first noise I heard as I approached the wetland was clicking of the Common Eastern Froglet (Crinia signifera) which you are likely to hear almost all year round in any pool of water, whether its a puddle or a wetland. The next noise I heard was unfamiliar to me at first. It sounded reminiscent of a ducks ‘quack’ but It sounded frog like to me. I followed my ears to locate one and It turned up being the Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti). It was exciting to hear them calling in such numbers (around 20 at least) as they usually begin calling in November, so a few weeks early.

 

Wallum Rcoket Frog (Litoria freycineti) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Wallum Rcoket Frog (Litoria freycineti) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti) | Chad Beranek (2014)

Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti) | Chad Beranek (2014)

Common Eastern Froglet compared to a Wallum Rocket Frog

Common Eastern Froglet compared to a Wallum Rocket Frog

 

I did note that the water in this particular wetland was very warm and could be an explanation for the early arrival of the Wallum Rocket Frog. It could also explain the abundance of metamorphling frogs literally jumping every where. From tiny 5 mm Common Eastern Froglet metamorph, to larger Striped Marsh Frog metamorphs. In warm water the growth and development of the tadpole is spend up which is an adaptation to avoid being stuck in a water body that is destined to dry up.

 

Common Eastern Froglet (Crinia signifera) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Common Eastern Froglet (Crinia signifera) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Metamorph Common Eastern Froglet (Crinia signifera) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Metamorph Common Eastern Froglet (Crinia signifera) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

 

The next noise that became apparent to me (which were also in very high abundance, approximately 30+ calling individuals), were the Smooth Toadlets (Uperoleia laevigata). These small frogs make a dull ‘arrrkkk’ sound, calling terrestrially, sometimes quite a distance from the water.

 

Smooth Toadlet calling from leaf litter | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Smooth Toadlet calling from leaf litter | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Smooth Toadlet (Uperoleia laevigata) | Chad Beranek (2014)

Smooth Toadlet (Uperoleia laevigata) | Chad Beranek (2014)

 

After listening carefully I started to tune into the frequencies of some tree frog species who were joining in on the chorus. Calling in much less abundances, the Perons Tree Frogs (Litoria peronii) maniacal cackle could be heard in numbers between 5-10, and also the occasional inclusion of Eastern Sedge Frogs (Litoria fallax), with about 5 individuals contributing.

 

Perons Tree Frog (Litoria peronii) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Perons Tree Frog (Litoria peronii) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Perons Tree Frog (Litoria Peronii) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Perons Tree Frog (Litoria Peronii) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eastern Sedge Frog (Litoria fallax) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eastern Sedge Frog (Litoria fallax) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eastern Sedge Frog (Litoria fallax) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eastern Sedge Frog (Litoria fallax) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

I noticed huge amounts of tadpoles in the water. On closer inspection I could see multiple different species and the occasional dragonfly nymph (a common predator of tadpoles). However it seemed they were the only predator, with no appearances of fish. Perhaps this is a reason why tadpoles are in such high abundances here. I managed to scoop a large tadpole out which I thought could of been a Giant Burrowing Frog (Heleioporus australiacus) tadpole. However it was more likely to be a Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peronii) tadpole… Speaking of which where are the Striped Marsh Frogs?

 

Probably a Striped Marsh Frog tadpole | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Probably a Striped Marsh Frog tadpole | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

After scanning deciding to head home I did a quick scan of the bank as I was exiting and stumbled across a frog I’m sure you are all familiar with, the Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peronii). How strange it was to hear not even one calling, and only see 2 this night. Perhaps they don’t fair as well in natural sites, and utilize urban areas better?

We have covered a frog fact Friday on this common frog and can read more about it here: http://gumnutnaturalist.com/frog-fact-friday-the-most-common-frog-of-sydney/

 

Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peronii) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peronii) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

After getting ready to head back to the car, I stopped to have one last marvel at the chorus of multiple species of male frogs competing to find a mate. I took recordingg to share it with you. See if you can tease out which species of frogs are calling in the recording!

Recordings:

141011_003 141013_003

 

The Blue Mountains Stream Frog

Found near the tops of mountains in areas near Sydney, the blue mountains stream frog resides. This species of the week is on a locally uncommon frog which usually goes unnoticed with most attention being paid to the endangered frogs. The blue mountains stream frog inhabits sandstone creeks in high altitude areas where is it well adapted for this habitat. Areas it is found includes the Blue Mountains and Darkes Forest. It quite large for a frog has powerful and agile legs, perfect for jumping along rocky sandstone banks and swimming through fast flowing mountain creeks.

 

Blue Mountains Stream Frog (Litoria citropa) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Blue Mountains Stream Frog (Litoria citropa) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The blue mountains stream frog can be very varied in coloration, but will always have a red tinge under their arms and legs. Most of the time they are flanked by green (which can be almost fluro!) and have a brown top, with darker lines outlining their head. Some specimens can be almost completely green, but will maintain the head outline.

 

Blue Mountains Stream Frog | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Red coloration under the arms and legs | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Green morph of the Blue Mountains Stream Frog | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Green morph of the Blue Mountains Stream Frog | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

They begin calling usually around the middle of September with the first onset of warm weather followed by rain. They have a very soft call which can be difficult to detect when there is wind and flowing water about. They have a soft call due to the absence of a voice box. Even though they are usually hard to hear, in contrary to most other frogs, they are much easier to find when you get a creek they are present in. From September to January, they will be found all over creeks in high altitudes, usually on the sandstone banks, but may occasionally be seen perched up on ferns and branches of shrubs. If you are lucky enough, you may find some in amplexus in small pools to the sides of the creek.

 

Litoria citropa in amplexus | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Litoria citropa in amplexus | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

Blue Mountains Stream Frog (Litoria citropa) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Blue Mountains Stream Frog in a fern | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

And if you are especially lucky, you may even have one jump on your face!

 

Face frog

Face frog