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

King of the Sandstone Throne: The red crowned toadlet

This species of the week is dedicated to the threatened red crowned toadlet (Pseudophryne australis) which is both spectacularly adorable and has an incredibly interesting strategy of survival. This frog is quite small and is really strange for a frog in the way it lives. The red crowned toadlet, unlike most frogs, makes a terrestrial nest. The male will sit and guide his egg clutch and call almost all year round. Female red crowned toadlets visit the male and deposit eggs which he fertilises. The tadpoles start development inside the egg. A male will end up with eggs of many different stages of development stages. When it rains, the eggs in the nest will wash away to the closest puddle or creek where the developed tadpoles will emerge from their eggs to complete development as free swimming tadpole. Only the eggs at the right development stage will be able to survive when being washed into a puddle.  By having eggs of multiple development stages, the red crowned toadlet is able to ensure at least some of the eggs will be at the correct development stage when it rains and will hatch. This is the unique strategy of the red crowned toadlet known as ‘bet hedging’.

 

Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

The red crowned toadlet is found in sandstone areas across Sydney and is quite well distributed within the Royal National Park. They prefer rocky sandstone outcrops and reside within tributaries that are prone to drying up. This is the perfect habitat for their unique life strategy. They are threatened due to being easily wiped out during development and may be susceptible to the changes to water run off due to curb and guttering, which diverts water away from the small tributaries that the red crowned toadlets live in.   With good management, this species can be preserved and hopefully they will continue to exist unimpeded in areas such as the Royal National Park as they are an interesting little frog.

 

A male Red Crowned Toadlet next to his nest of eggs | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

A male Red Crowned Toadlet next to his nest of eggs | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

One last random fact sure to interest most people is you can actually talk to them and they will call back. They are able to hear the frequency of the human voice, and if you yell for example “HEY FROG!?”, it will respond in its calls which is a series of squelches and squeaks.

 

Male Red Crowned Toadlet | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Male Red Crowned Toadlet | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)