Thursday, 30 May 2013

Using the trail camera to see the results of digging a hole, planting some natives, and adding water

Trying out the "Infrared Digital Scouting Camera - Pocket Camera SG570-6M"

Riddells Creek Landcare Committee has purchased 5 trail cameras that will eventually be made available for members to borrow. I've been experimenting with one of these on my property, and in two days picked up two new bird records for Riddells Creek. Actually, both species are frequent visitors to the property, but haven't made themselves available or haven't cooperated when I had a camera in hand.

The first shots were of a little pied cormorant, Microcarbo melanoleucos ( There were two pictures of the bird, both facing away from the camera, so my initial ID was wrong. My Claremont Field Guide to the Birds of Australia unfortunately lacks a good picture for the little pied, and I mistook what Russell Best pointed out to me was actually the tip of the beak, for a yellow patch over the eye (see the enlargement of the picture below) that is diagnostic for the pied cormorant, Phalacrocorax varius. What I failed to pay attention to was the absence of a black strip on the leg feathers of my bird, but is typical of the other black and white cormorants (see James Booth's picture of a pied cormorant standing on a wire [!] - The absence of the stripe is diagnostic for the little pied.

The next set of pictures are of a white-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae - These are also regular visitors to my dam, which isn't surprising because the neighbour (who called them "blue herons" said that last year they nested in a tall eucalypt next door.


Several species of waterbirds regularly use the bridge rail as a perch on arriving or departing from the dam, so my first choice of a spot for the camera was where it could see the rail. This is an easy place to land where they can check out the area for potential dangers before beginning their fishing.

Building a paradise for birds and aquatic life

The pond is a great success for the property. When we bought our Two Hills Estate property in 1991, it was a 5 acre bare paddock without a stick on it, and only a slight depression conducting runoff to the muddy pond next door. (The fence separates us from the neighbour's 15 acres.). We picked the property specifically because it did have a little drainage passing through it.

Newnham was still building the estate's roads and had his earth movers parked around, so we asked him for a price to prepare the house site and build a drive. I also asked asked if he could dig out a small pond. He suggested that I think a bit larger and sketched out how he could use the existing drainage and run a large dam along parallel to the property line to make a good sized pond. What we ended up with was an impoundment 140 m long by 40 wide, with a 10 m x 14 island, for an all up cost for the earthworks of around $5,000 (see below for the just about finished stage). The result of the plantings is that we lost our view of Barrm Birrm, but turned the bare paddock into a paradise for birds and other small wildlife that have been able to cross the horse paddocks to reach it.

Ros and I, with a couple of friends began to add vegetation, as can barely be seen in the next photo from a year later, thanks to a flying doctor who takes aerial photos to pay his costs for his hobby. The lower dam is the neighbour's that dates back to the days when Two Hills was a horse stud. The middle tree is the one where the herons are said to roost. The bridge to the island was hand-built with only a handsaw and an augur and no measurements as the lake was rising around my feet from a wet winter. Because the property gets the runoff from Cutevan Cr, even in the drought years there has been enough rain to fill the lake to full supply (i.e., the level of the trickle tube), even if there was not enough for a flow over the spillway.

 The "after" pictures are below - showing what can be done with tube-stock trees and a little water!

 As shown in the next picture, the bridge was "designed" as a drawbridge to protect nesting birds. A pulley can be attached to the posts to lower the 2" x 8" x 8' sleepers serving as the bridge itself. The middle railings slot into place once the sleepers have been lowered. The trail camera was strapped to the nearer post and aimed at the railing to see who lands on it. 

The final picture (below) is from last year, showing the extent of vegetation on the property around the lake - showing what can be done in 21 years with a bulldozer, some tube stock, labour, and a little water.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

NatureShare now shares its data with the Atlas of Living Australia

NatureShare observations are now being uploaded to the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA). 
The ALA brings together flora and fauna records from Herabaria, Museums and other sources from all over Australia. The first upload from NatureShare occurred in April 2013 and included over 9000 observations.

So your records are now shared with a national database. Others can do research using your data in conjunction with other data sets. A large number of the photos from NatureShare are the only photos available for a considerable number of species on the Atlas. Some NatureShare records for some species are the only records for that species currently on the Atlas, or the only record for the Atlas in Victoria.

The team at the Atlas have been a pleasure to work with. They tell me that observations will be uploaded approximately monthly and that any changes made on NatureShare to old records will be found and changed on ALA too (eg. if observation no. 1234 is renamed on NatureShare, that change will be found in ALA's monthly upload). Some features of NatureShare were not available on the ALA site and they were open to incorporating some of NatureShare's unique features. As an example, full resolution versions of photos, so important in aiding ID, were not made available via the ALA website. I've just noticed that this feature is now available within individual records - see below ...

So it is great to know we are also helping the Atlas develop, and great to know they are so responsive.
The information uploaded from a NatureShare observation includes species name, date, location, photo if available, description, tags, copyright level (CC 2.5), a link to the original NatureShare observation, etc. Below is an example of a NatureShare observation in the ALA system ...

To search for your own data in the Atlas, from the ALA home page click on "Data sets" ...

On the next screen enter just "natureshare" to see all NatureShare data, or add your name as in the example below to see just your own data ...
The ALA site then gives you a list of all your records. The left and upper menu bar then gives you lots of options to further limit your search (eg. by council area) and you can also map your records.
Keep up the great work everyone!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Hopping Cuteness

Having found a dead antechinus  outside our front door one day a few months ago, we knew they were the last month or so they have decided to show themselves. One appeared on top of the couch the other night and hopped behind a cushion then disappeared as if by magic :) Another appeared from behind the wood heater (it wasn't on!) hopped around in front and hopped back. Then last night our daughter found one hopping along her windowsill in the middle of the night. They  are incredibly cute, with a long nose or snout, a hopping gait and a pouch. Frustratingly, apart from the dead one, none of them have hung around long enough to be photographed. However the one on our holidays was not camera shy so you can look at that one here
Does anyone else have these beautiful creatures?

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Species IDed in Riddells Creek passes 1200.

Many new species for Riddells Creek have been identified in the past couple of weeks, mainly as I went through sorting some old files, and many thanks to Ken Walker at the Museum for IDs (or confirmations) of bees, wasps, ants and others. Some IDs have been of common species that most of us know already but just haven't been formally named on our lists, but many others are not so well known. Here are a few of the highlights (click on the links to get more photos or details of the specific NatureShare observation).

The best dressed bug, with bow tie and buttoned up brightly coloured shirt (a small bit of anthropomorphising there I suspect!) is a nymph of the Harlequin Bug (Dindymus versicolor) - the 'bow tie' is the developing wings (thanks to Martin Lagerway for ID):
... and here is the Harlequin Bug in its better known stage, fully grown up:

Here are a few new native bees. This one I've always called the 'red-bottomed bee', Megachile ferox (in the group of leafcutter or resin bees).
and here is a different looking pic of Megachile ferox in the native garden of RCL members Pam & Jim Brooks:

This bee I came across when digging up the garden, Lasioglossum sulthicum (a Halictid or 'sweat' bee):

Callomelitta picta, a beautifully coloured bee of the Colletidae family (Short-tongued Bees or sometimes called plasterer bees or polyester bees, due to the method of smoothing the walls of their nest cells):

... and another Colletid Bee, Leioproctus amabilis:

Then a few wasps ... this one (and possibly another like it) is quite common on my windows at night, a Neteleia species (Netelia species are well known for being attracted to lights - it is also a friend of farmers because it is a parasitiser of some moth caterpillars that are farm pests, specifically Helicoverpa and armyworm caterpillars). The horrible-looking 'stinger-like' spine at its rear is in fact just an egg-laying tool (an ovipositor) which is a signature feature of parasitic Ichneumonid wasps.

For the wasp below, Certonotus nitidulus, Ken Walker added "I have never seen one of these alive so this is a thrill for me to see it!". Here it is on Olearia lirata (Snowy Daisy-bush). The very long ovipositor (egg-laying tool) is again a signature of the parasitic Ichneumonid wasps.

The Gasteruption species below is a wasp of Gasteruptidae family that lay eggs in the nests of solitary bees and wasps, where their larvae prey upon the host larvae:

Now to a more conventional looking wasp, below is Williamsita bivittata of the Sphecidae family (eg. mud-daubers that provision their nests with food like spiders or caterpillars before laying eggs):

Below is a wasp from the family Vespidae (same as the European Wasp), it is a Paralastor species (a Potter Wasp):

Below is called the 'Blue Ant' but it is in fact a wasp, the female of which is most often seen wandering on the ground. It is Diamma bicolor (Blue Ant), a parasitic wasp. Females are wingless and often seen wandering on the ground looking for mole crickets. They lay an egg on the paralysed cricket, with the cricket then being used as food for the developing wasp larva. Males are quite a bit smaller, have wings and feed only on nectar from flowers (they are regarded as important pollinators of native plants). They are in the family Tiphiidae (flower wasps). Unlike all the above, this species has a very painful sting - from Wikipedia "The sting can cause a severe burning sensation and swelling in humans; in rare cases, it can cause a life-threatening reaction (such as anaphylaxis)."

Often thought of as a wasp, but it is actually a fly, below is the Common Hover Fly, Melangyna viridiceps.

Bees, wasps and ants are all together in the same Order of insects (Hymenoptera). Here is a new ant species for Riddells Creek, a Camponotus species: 

A couple of beetles (IDs by Martin Lagerway) ... first, below, is the nicely coloured Lemodes coccinea:

... and the Brown Darkling Beetle (Ecnolagria grandis):

A native millipede that is apparently common in this area (ID by Bob Mesibov), Pogonosternum nigrovirgatum:

... and a non-native that has now been IDed to species level, Scutigera coleoptrata (European House Centipede) - this species can give a sting that can causing swelling:

And finally, an amazing native cockroach, Laxta granicollis, below is a male:
 and below is a female of the same species (left is its front end!):

We live in an amazing place! 

At the time of writing this article, the Riddells Creek collections on NatureShare contain 1221 species.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Deepening our membership: the search for better strategies

Riddells Creek Landcare is presently the case study for 260 or so undergraduates at RMIT taking a course on Strategic Management.  Russell Best and Ross Colliver briefed them 5 weeks ago; it's now getting deeper into the semester and closer to the deadline for submission of their strategies for RCL, and we're meeting them again to talk some more.

Ross put this account together for our members..... 

When Russell and I sat down last Friday with their questions, we had two responses: one, to scratch our heads and say "oh, yes, now that's a good question"; the other to shake our heads and say "that question just isn't coming from the right place for us as Landcare."

It was strange to find myself in this situation.  As a facilitator of Landcare strategies, I've been exasperated and perplexed by Landcare's preference for action over reflection. The sense I've made of this is that people are clear enough what future they want—a healthy environment—so they don't see much point in talking a lot more about that, when there is so much to be done now, and precious little time to do it. Their attitude seems to be: "Let's begin. Let's take action, and see if we can't make a difference." 

Now I found myself thinking:

"Strategies? Strategic plan? We haven't got around to those, but we are purposeful, and we have plenty of action underway.  What value will strategies really add?"

So at last Tuesday's discussion I prefaced my answers with a challenge to the students: if you want to develop workable, effective strategies with organisations like Landcare groups, you need to spend as much time appreciating the present as you do anticipating the future. Strategies need to take account of what people are doing now, and why they do these things, and what is working well as they take action, and why. 

Once you look hard at this, people start to see where they might need to do things differently.  And so it was for me. As I worked through their questions, laying out what we were doing and what was working, I started to see gaps in what we were doing.

I took first our over-arching goal, to protect bushland.  We have pursued this goal (and I'm open to correction here) by documenting the splendid flora and fauna around us in Riddells Creek.  We've made friends of the technical staff of government programs like MRSC's environmental program (such as it is) and Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) (now DEPI—Dept of Environment and Primary Industries), who are very pleased to have an able organisation speaking up for the environment. 

Our documentation and publicity has also made community members locally (and at a distance) more aware of what is of value here.  That is all working well, as far as it goes.

Nested under that goal is one of increasing our influence, within our local community and within the government agencies which have the power and resources to protect bushland.  Submissions to new strategies, and putting on record our concerns about protection of unprotected bushland, have been our ways to press our case, along with seeking modest funding for immediate action to threatens to bushland, such as weed risk. 

This has gained RCL a foothold of recognition amongst the institutions that govern our natural estate. However, there are two things that strike me as underdone and potentially able to help along our work. One is to cultivate relationships with decision makers in government, and the other is to appeal more deeply to community members about the crisis facing our bushland.  Although we wouldn't want to be seen to be crying wolf, crisis draws attention.

At the same time, we need to draw Landcare members into active participation in the projects we see possible.  We really need a strategy here, a way of reaching out to our community and saying what we're doing and what we want help with.  Yes, a few of us will then have to do that strategy (!) but bringing in more enthusiastic people as active participants and managers of projects makes us more powerful and more sustainable.

I think we need to make better use of the people and projects we've already got.  We need to publicise what we are doing (as we are in this blog), personalise what we are doing (by showing the people behind our projects), and ask for what we want from our community.  This is nothing new - we get people onto the committee of management by asking them to join. We just need to do it a bit more, and target the skills we need for the projects we envisage.

As I worked through the students' questions, it was clear to me that they too thought we needed to up the wattage a bit.  I was very strict with them on this—we have only as much time and energy as our members choose to put into RCL.  So take this as a question on notice, and give us your ideas:

What will draw in more people to take responsibility for caring for our bushland?   

As we find answers to this, we'll get stronger.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Antarctica in Riddells Creek

Dicksonia antarctica that is, Soft Tree Ferns. 

Conversations with RCL member Robert Blair revealed that he had tree ferns on his property, high up on Gap Road. So I had to investigate further! Robert kindly took me on a walk up to the headwaters of a small Sandy Creek tributary that, these days, appears to rarely see flowing water. And sure enough, there it was, but only one remaining alive (plus one that had recently passed away but only time will tell if it springs back to life).

It seemed obvious that this one had only survived because its trunk (left) was growing in a deep hole that was likely to trap water.

Excitingly though, we also found one other living tree fern further down the same creek line and this turned out to be a different species, the Hard (or Rough) Tree Fern, Cyathea australis. This was easily identifiable from a few spores that remained on the underside of the fronds.

Dicksonia antarctica, Soft Tree Fern, is perhaps the most iconic of the Australian Tree Ferns can grow to15m tall, grows no more than 5 cm per year and produces spores after about it reaches about 20 years old.

And of course they reached Riddells Creek many millennia ago, ferns being among the most ancient group of plants.

The two species often grow together and are similar in their habit. There are two good ways to tell them apart. First, the spores are very different in appearance if you are lucky enough to see them. Earlier this year I saw both in spore at the same time at Lake Elizabeth in The Otways. The photo below is Dicksonia antarctica, Soft Tree Fern, with its pustule like spores.
... and below is Cyathea australis, Hard Tree Fern, from Lake Elizabeth.

If they aren't in spore (as is often the case) then the trunk and base of the fronds is the key. In young plants you will often have fight through the old fronds to reach the trunk but in old, tall plants the trunk is easily seen. As the trunk grows the base of the fronds remain and cover the trunk. In the Hard/Rough Tree Fern the old frond bases are very hard and 'prickly' (press them and they don't compress at all) and they are surrounded by hard, greyish string/hair-like structures. In the Soft Tree Fern the frond bases are soft (press them and they will collapse/break) surrounded by soft, reddish-brown hairs. Here is trunk of the Soft Tree Fern:

... and here is the trunk of the Hard/Rough Tree Fern:

They are magnificent in rainforests, reaching great heights and they can occasionally be seen like this in the Macedon Range, but many populations struggle to reach great heights. As at Robert's place, these plants will struggle as areas dry out.

Finally, Robert is of Scottish heritage and so may be interested in the derivation of the botanical name:
Dicksonia - named in honour of James Dickson, 1738-1822, a Scottish nurseryman.
antarctica - 'southern', or from the Antarctic regions.
Cyathea - derived from the Greek kyatheion, meaning "little cup", and refers to the cup-shaped spores on the underside of the fronds.

Here is a lovely Hard/Rough Tree Fern from Lake Elizabeth:

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Update on "Faster, Higher, Stronger" Article

In an earlier article on this blog, "Faster, Higher, Stronger", I asked if others had seen things in Riddells Creek that could qualify for the fastest, tallest, rarest, etc in Australia, or even the world!

Well, as it happens, I forgot that we have spotted in Riddells Creek what is thought to be the fastest thing in the whole animal kingdom - the fastest that has ever lived!

It is the Peregrine Falcon, which when diving has reputedly been recorded at the incredible speed of 389 km/h - wow! 

Here it is in Riddells Creek (recorded by our member David Francis):

Sittellas and Spoonbills

There has been some bird activity on NatureShare from RCL members, with a few new species being added to the 'Birds of Riddells Creek' collection. Two are particular note I think.

First, RCL member Bill Hall is always spotting some interesting visitors to his dam and last month spotted a Yellow-billed Spoonbill. He didn't manage to get a photo but this is a good example of a sighting that doesn't require a photo for NatureShare because they are so distinctive nobody could ever mistake them for anything else. Here is the NatureShare record:
... and here is a photo from NatureShare by Jason Caruso (the bill is often more yellow than seen here):

The spoonbill is a particularly good record because the species isn't listed on any Macedon Range bird lists either (eg. Cowley), so I added it to NatureShare's 'Birds of the Macedon Range' collection.

I haven't got a dam so I don't see many wading birds on my property. Has anyone else seen spoonbills in Riddells Creek or in the Macedon Range (answer via the 'comments' link below this article)?

The next 'good' record was a lucky find. I often drive down the Gap Road bitumen into Riddells Creek and I often see the stunning Eastern Rosellas in a 200m long section from about Plantation Road to Turners Paddock (the big Kangaroo Paddock well known to locals). Their colours are just stunning as the fly off - and here is a photo of them on the ground (by Thomas Nataprawira via NatureShare)

So I decided to stop the car last week to try and find and photograph the Eastern Rosellas. I didn't see a single rosella (so we still haven't got a great photo for the Birds of Riddells Creek collection on NatureShare!) but I did spot a family group of about 12 small birds foraging for insects in one of the indigenous Eucalypts on the roadside. I had no idea what they were and thought on the spot they might be some kind of thornbill, until I zoomed in and realised some had a black head:

It wasn't until I got home that I worked out they were listed in the books as 'Varied Sittella' (Daphoenositta chrysoptera). However, Simpson & Day's books show there are five races of the Varied Sittella and only one race had a black head. Further research shows this is at least informally called the Black-capped Sittella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera Race pileata or Daphoenositta chrysoptera pileata). The black head is only seen in females. Here is a pic of what I assume is a male (maybe a juvenile):
and again but in its more typical, upside-down foraging pose:

But there's more! This race is apparently rarely seen east of South Australia and the race normally observed around Melbourne and eastwards doesn't have a black head. On the Atlas of Living, for Victoria, there are only four records east of the Grampians, and only two east of Ballarat:

David Francis has informed me that he contacted a friend, a very keen birdo, after seeing my record on NatureShare and he replied saying that he has seen them at Treetops scout camp in Riddells Creek (Treetops adjoins Turners Paddock at the northern boundary).

Further to this story, Bill Hall also spotted some Sacred Ibis on his dam. Here is a photo from NatureShare (by Jason Caruso again):

I noticed that this species was also not listed on NatureShare's 'Birds of Riddells Creek' collection. I commonly see the Sacred Ibis in Riddells Creek so it got me thinking what else isn't listed on the collection. I soon realised that there is no formal list for Riddells Creek and the initial list added to the NatureShare collection were all from the remnant forested areas of Riddells Creek. My memory is that initial lists were supplied by RCL members including myself, Robert Blair, Ruary & Lynette Bucknall, Lachlan Milne (and I think one other - my apologies but I forget who). This is why the Yellow-rumped Thornbill that Bill saw a few months ago also wasn't on the Riddell Birds collection - plus I've also noticed that the Straw-necked Ibis (which I also see often in large numbers in Riddell paddocks) and Noisy Minor (which I see in the same 200m section of Gap Road as the Eastern Rosellas and Sittellas) also weren't on the Riddell list. This means there is a big gap in records that includes birds that frequent dams, paddocks, Riddell township, anywhere around and below where the bitumen road starts on Gap Road and Sandy Creek Road (and elsewhere on that line).

So, please, have a look around and let us know what birds you see in these areas of Riddells Creek - and better still, add your bird lists to the NatureShare collection here:
... and even better still, try to photograph your birds or create your own bird list and enter them as 'observations' to NatureShare as you see them.

The Birds of Riddells Creek collection is now at 74 species but I'm sure you know of many more that should be added?

And finally, my Tawny Frogmouths are back and enjoying flying into our windows after the emergence of the large autumn 'Rain Moths' (that are also heard banging into the windows).

 ... and our member James Booth made an unusual observation of a Tawny Frogmouth in deepest Melbourne: