It’s a rat
Thankfully the antechinus breeding season is into its last few days in Sydney. As much as I love the Brown Antechinus, after a month of sharing the house with a host of the noisy little monsters they’ve well and truly outstayed their welcome.
Much of the noise comes from the battles between male antechinus vying for the attention of females. The peak in breeding activity is concentrated into a few short days and has a terminal impact on the health of the males. This leads to increasingly erratic behaviour on the part of the males, including daytime excursions of what are otherwise strictly nocturnal animals.
The track along the coast of Royal National Park passes through a wonderland of flowering shrubs at this time of year. One of my walking companions asked if I knew the identity of the small animal scampering over a bright orange banksia flower. It was a Brown Antechinus, busily sticking it head into the flowers to slurp away on nectar.
The antechinus’ attention was focused on a single ‘ripe’ banksia. It seemed totally oblivious to the dozens of walkers passing within touching distance of its feast. It was a remarkable sighting of a species that is normally nocturnal, highly wary of humans and is carnivorous to boot. Here it was tucking into a sugary pick-me-up to fuel its last few frantic days.
As we stood watching the antechinus another walker looked over our shoulders, shuddered and said ‘It’s a rat.’ One of my friends jumped in with ‘No, it’s an antechinus, a small native carnivore.’ The response was an unshakeable ‘No, it’s a rat.’ That’s OK, we enjoyed our sighting of a rat.
It’s a Snake
A few hundred metres further down the track a Red Bellied Black Snake lay curled on the edge of the track, basking in the afternoon sun. The sleek black upper surface was flattened to maximise the area exposed to the sun. Once it realised it had been spotted it slowly slid off the pile and into the undergrowth. The snake’s demeanour couldn’t have been calmer, not something I could say about the young British travellers who stopped to see what had caught our interest!
It’s an Ibis
Sacred Ibis have a terrible reputation around Sydney, possibly second only to funnel webs in the category of ‘most loathed local wildlife’. Their bald heads, adapted for easy maintenance after probing into the mud of mangrove forests and wetlands, are most often seen riffling through garbage bins or extracting rotten morsels from piles of garbage at the tip. The appeal of these less than charming habits are compounded by their taste for establishing nesting colonies in suburban trees. Their preferred nesting trees are large date palms, a species often planted in local parks, schoolyards and public institutions. As a consequence, they are a species that rarely evokes a lot of sympathy.
I have a soft spot for Sacred Ibis. Over the last couple years I’ve been trying to capture appealing images of the species, something that shows them in a more positive light. My first attempts concentrated on the standard strategy for creating cute wildlife images, that is photographs of babies and youngsters. Unfortunately baby ibis are one of the few species where the babies are just as, and possibly more, ugly than the adults.
My subsequent efforts adopted the second standard strategy, photographing the subject against a background whose appeal offsets their shortcomings. A sunset shoot at Lake Illawarra provided several silhouettes that got close to the target of a ‘nice ibis’ shot.
It’s a Mistletoe Bird
The southern edge Lake Illawarra is fringed by a large stands of casuarina. Some of the older trees have infestations of mistletoe on the lower branches. Mistletoes are a parasitic plant that grows on another tree, their roots tapping into the host tree to extract water and nutrients. They are more common in forest and woodland habitats than on the coast.
Mistletoes produce abundant flowers and are hot spots for honeyeaters and lorikeets. They are also the preferred habitat for one of our tiniest wildlife gems, the Mistletoe Bird. Sure enough, within a moment of noticing that the trees contained flowering mistletoe I spotted one.
Mistletoe Birds are a dietary specialist, subsisting almost entirely on mistletoe fruit and flowers. They search the flowers for mature fruit, typically a glutinous looking sphere around 5mm in diameter. The fruit is consumed whole, barely fitting down the tiny bird’s throat. Only the outer layer of fruit is digested as it passes through the bird. What emerges is a seed covered by an incredibly sticky coating, which the bird detaches by grabbing in its beak and wiping off on a branch. The sticky coating holds the seed in place on the branch, where with a bit of luck it germinates and grows into a new mistletoe. It’s a neat symbiosis—the Mistletoe Bird gets a high quality, abundant food source in return for distributing the seeds to the plant’s precise, and peculiar, requirements.
It’s a Kookaburra
Every breakfast during the last month has been accompanied by a repetitive ‘whacking’ noise. The sound comes from the relentless efforts of a pair of Laughing Kookaburras to enlarge a hollow in the trunk of a dead tree outside the kitchen window.
Last year a pair of Eastern Rosellas successfully raised a batch of chicks in the hollow. Eastern Rosellas are about as long but much more slender than kookaburras. The kookaburras had clearly decided that they wanted the nesting hollow, but first they needed to enlarge the entrance.
Many birds rely upon nesting hollows, and some have the ability to widen or even create holes from scratch. In the northern hemisphere woodpeckers use their chisel-like bills and reinforced skulls to drill holes into tree trunks. In the Australian context kookaburras are capable of burrowing into arboreal termite nests, however this was the first time I’d seen them attempting to break through solid wood.
Unlike the woodpeckers, the kookaburras didn’t have enough brute strength in their beaks and necks to hammer their way into the trunk. Their technique was to ready themselves from a perch about ten metres from the hole, then fly at the hollow, striking the edge with their beaks. Then they’d cling to the trunk and use their bills to wrench off any dislodged wood before flying back to the perch to recuperate. A minute or so later they’d launch off to strike the trunk again. They’ve kept this up for about an hour a day for nearly a month. Day by day the entrance gets a little larger, although I’m far from convinced it will be big enough to let them inside the hollow trunk before spring. Until then, the daily ‘whack’ continues.