Its easy to assume that wild koalas have small, reliable home ranges. After all, you don’t see them moving about much do you?
If we’ve learnt one thing over 17 years of wild koala research, its that koalas move! A lot!
We first met Cruiz in November 2008 in the Turntable region of the You Yangs. He looked big, strong and healthy. We assumed he was mature – at least 4 or 5 years old. It was exciting to have a new male on the block.
But then he disappeared. Sadly, we filed his photos and nose pattern diagram under the “Koalas once seen, never to be seen again” file.
You should never give up on a koala, though. Out of the blue in December 2011 he re-appeared in the turntable area. He’s back, we thought. “Don’t be hasty” he thought.
We didn’t see Cruiz once in 2012. Not once. Back into The File he went.
So when he showed up three times in 2013 and three times in 2014, we had learnt our lesson. We didn’t get excited. Maybe he’s a nomad. Maybe he’s in protracted negotiations with dominant male Anzac, and other residents Vincent, Zack, Kenny and Rocky.
But 2015 was a good year for Cruiz. Already we have seen him 12 times. He’s been all over the place – turntable, branding yard 2 km to the east, Branch Rd. If we simply join the dots of all his locations this year, his home range would be around 117 hectares!
Interestingly, too, he isn’t migrating steadily from one area to another – he is regularly traversing that entire area. One day he’ll be in Branding Yard, a week later he’ll be back in Turntable.
He’s not young either – we estimate he is at least 12 years old. That’s a really good age for a wild male these days.
Every single wild koala is different. Cruiz is a special fellow.
Bird names are a bit like the English language – a lumpy soup of broken rules, throwbacks, dialects and slang. Some birds are named for their appearance: Tawny Frogmouth, White-throated Needletail; for their behaviour: Plains Wanderer, Bee-eater; for their similarity to other birds: Quail-thrush, Cuckooshrike, Fairywren; some for their calls: Laughing Kookaburra, Clinking Currawong and some for the region and habitat they live in: Atherton Scrubwren, Australian Reed-warbler.
Others are named for a combination of features, and some for reasons so twisted and mangled that they are nearly untraceable: Pitta, Cockatoo and the hilarious Drongo.
So when you look at a large, elegant, vermillion and emerald-green parrot, the name King-Parrot seems sensible. The plumage of the adult male is reminiscent of expensive velvet cloaks with shimmering satin linings. A flash of turquoise on the wing sparkles like a diamond bracelet.
Obviously King-Parrots are named for their appearance? Well, no.
Watch this elegant parrot for a while and you will see that they are special. They inhabit the cool, wet forests of eastern Australia. They are sensitive to heat and dryness. High in the mighty eucalyptus forests of East Gippsland you will hear their ringing call, but they are elusive and sometimes difficult to see. The ground level of us mere mortals is a long way beneath them.
If you own a bird feeder, as Sue & Glenn Herbert of Snowy River Homestead in Orbost do, you will meet many glorious Rainbow Lorikeets, Galahs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Crimson Rosellas, who crowd and squabble over seed treats.
Rarely, though, will you see a King-Parrot. They will wait until the others have gorged and then calmly appear. They will not squabble. They will not debase themselves. Somehow they know that you have saved a little seed for the most regal of visitors.
Okay, then King-Parrots must named for their behaviour? No, afraid not.
There is another way to name a bird. A name can honour a person. American naturalist Thomas Horsfield has a bronze-cuckoo and a bushlark named after him, artist John Lewin has a rail and a honeyeater, ornithologist John Gould has a finch and a petrel, and royalty are well represented by (Queen) Victoria’s Riflebird and Princess (Alexandra’s) Parrot.
Politicians and heads of state also get their share of bird-names-in-honour. Barack Obama, Indira Gandhi and Nelson Mandela all have birds named for them. But this is not just a recent phenomenon.
Philip Gidley King, Governor of New South Wales from 1800-1806 is the King-Parrot’s name source.
According to “Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide” by Jeannie Gray & Ian Fraser, the name King’s Parrot was proposed by George Caley to honour Governor King. Whether King ever saw or appreciated his namesake is not known. The poor fellow died in 1808, only 2 years after resigning his post as governor and returning to England.
What do children do if they don’t have toys? They make them! Baby animals are just the same as human children in some respects. They play with what they have.
Three Jabiru chicks were walking with their parent across a Top End, Northern Territory floodplain on a hot September day. We were lucky enough to be driving past, and did a quick U turn to watch.
Their cautious parent took them into the bushes upon seeing us, but after a few minutes the kids lost interest in hiding and started looking for some fun. A small tree on the open floodplain was calling them: “Come and pull me apart, why don’t you?” The temptation was too much.
Out they marched, one chick the ringleader. She ambled up to the small tree and grabbed hold of a dangly bit of branch and pulled. Her brother and sister looked on, uncertainly. The ringleader pulled and twisted until finally, the branch broke free. What fun! Brother and sister decided to try some for themselves.
All three chicks gave the tree hell for several minutes. It was so funny to watch. They pulled, they prodded, they grabbed high and low. Of course, when siblings play it often ends up in a squabble. “You stole my branch, bro! Give it back, or I’ll peck you! Ooooh, you’re asking for it…Give it back NOW”
But there’s a serious side to play. Baby animals play in ways that teach them how to use their bodies for serious adult life. Jabirus use their beaks for catching, killing and eating fish and carrion. So of course they must learn to use their beaks as babies. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? But think of how long it takes human infants to learn to use their hands to eat, or write! Motor skills take time to develop.
Big animals impress. But what are ‘big animals’ – elephants, rhinos, moose? How about kangaroos, emus, wedge-tailed eagles and goannas?
Australia has its share of megafauna, but we Aussies sometimes make the mistake of overlooking our big natives.
On a steamy, sizzling hot January day in far East Gippsland I took a mixed group of nature photography & wildlife biology students walking in Croajingolong National Park, near Mallacoota. It was funny trying to keep them together – the wildlife students would stand for ten minutes identifying every small bird and lizard we came across, while the photography students yawned and fiddled with their camera settings. Minutes later, the photography students would be in raptures over a rock formation, snapping from strange positions, then comparing histograms – while the wildlife students wandered off in search of obscure insects.
But one sight kept them all fascinated for twenty minutes. It was a goanna (Lace Monitor), and a big one – 2 metres long.
Single-minded, she swaggered out of the mat rush, crossing our path with only a glance in our direction. From her straight path and speed we could tell she was on a scent and getting close. None of us could smell anything, but a human’s sense of smell is embarassingly poor and anyway, we don’t have Jacobson’s organs*.
She was close to her quarry, and seized it moments later. It didn’t fight back. In fact, it hadn’t moved for weeks. A very large, long-dead, dessicated Flathead fish was her dinner and our highlight of the day.
Monitor Lizards, of which the eastern Australian goanna, or Lace Monitor, is a member, can eat anything. If its meat and its immobile, a goanna will eat it. If its meat and can be caught, a goanna will eat it. If you’re an egg, or a baby bird unable to fly, just hope that no goannas come by. You can’t hide from an indestructible, patient predator with a sense of smell that makes every bloodhound look like they have a head cold.
Our goanna wrapped her jaws around the flathead and tossed it around until she could get a good angle. Head first she started to swallow it whole. Gulp, gulp, slowly, almost painfully she eased the stiff old fish into her throat, like a sword-swallower. You could see the outline of the fish inside her chest. Ouch!
The photographers went wild! The shutter-clicks were like distant machine gun fire. The wildlife students watched in awe, no binoculars necessary for this close encounter with megafauna. You can hear their hushed excitement on this video: (video to come)
After swallowing her meal, she climbed slowly onto a fallen tree, eased her belly down, relaxed her legs, laid her chin on the tree and snoozed. Not even a hammock and a cocktail could have made her happier. She was one blissful reptile.
Keep an eye out for the megafauna in the wilder parts of Australia – goannas live everywhere in Australia except for the cities and built-up areas (and the island of Tasmania). They are most active when temperatures are warm but not too hot (20C – 30C). We often see them on our 4 day Wildlife Journey to East Gippsland (where this story occurred) and occasionally on our Mungo Outback Journey and Wild Top End trips.
*Jacobson’s Organ – an odour-tasting organ in the mouth of monitor lizards and snakes
Wombats are impressive. Wombats are powerful. Wombats are highly intelligent. They are good-looking, yes, but cute is far too diminutive a word for Australia’s most powerful native.
One night at Cape Conran in far East Gippsland, Victoria, I travelled out alone in search of a satisfying method of watching wild wombats. Most wild wombat experiences are of the disappearing, and disappointing, bottom of a wombat. I was hoping to find a better way.
Wombats are plentiful at Cape Conran, but nervous of humans and difficult to see. The country is thickly wooded with coastal scrub, leaving the only possible wombat-viewing along the slashed roadside verge and in the grassy areas around the picnic ground.
On previous research visits I had come to these conclusions:
Wombats are dignified creatures who resent bright lights and noise.
Wombats will sometimes stick around in the open if you stop your vehicle the moment you see them and turn your headlights down.
Wombats will occasionally tolerate a slow, quiet approach on foot as long as you don’t shine a bright light in their face.
On this night I rounded a corner to find a female Bare-nosed (Common) Wombat grazing ahead on the roadside. I stopped immediately, turned headlights down, but it wasn’t soon enough – she dashed into the bushes. Pity, she was such a big healthy girl, I would have loved to have spent some time with her. I was so disappointed that I just sat there for a minute in the cabin of the Landrover, wondering what on earth I was doing out here alone in the cold.
I noticed that the crashing sound wombats make in the undergrowth had stopped quite quickly. She hadn’t gone far. I couldn’t see her, but I wondered – is she just waiting for me to leave?
So I stayed and waited, freezing cold with the car windows open, but not willing to make a sound. It was ten minutes before she reappeared, hesitantly poking her intelligent eyes out of the bush. I didn’t move, for fear of ruining this beautiful moment.
Finally she emerged, her sleek chocolate brown body in full sight. I felt triumphant – it worked! For the next ten minutes I watched her while she grazed on the short grass by the road.
But this was a research trip, so I needed to find out if she had re-emerged because she accepted my presence, or if she simply didn’t realise I was still there. So I cleared my throat, softly. She dashed into the scrub. Damn! But then she stopped, head in the bushes, body still exposed. She waited. I waited. She turned around and returned to her grassy verge. Woo hoo!
Now I was really curious. Had she partly accepted me, on the condition that I behave; or does the level of noise/disturbance govern her reaction?
After a few more minutes I cleared my throat again. She stopped grazing for a moment, looked in my direction, but then resumed her feast. A few minutes later I did it again, louder. This time no reaction. Now I knew the answer to my question: She knew I was there and had accepted it.
Over the next half hour she grazed, I watched, making as much noise as I liked – coughing, talking to her softly, moving around in my seat, eating. I wasn’t rowdy, but I was making the sort of noises that groups of people can’t help making. And she was fine with it.
Eventually I had to leave – we humans have trouble staying awake in the full dark! By this time she was so accustomed to me that even the horrendously loud starting of the Landrover engine wasn’t enough to rouse her.
To experience wombats in the wild you need to travel to south-eastern Australia. The cool forests of Victoria (east of Melbourne) and New South Wales (in the hills west of Sydney) are home to wombats, but they are best (only?) seen on cool nights. Tasmania is by far the best place to see them – the cooler temperatures year round allow for wombat viewing even in the daytime.
Our 4 day Wildlife Journey to far East Gippsland is great for wombat viewing in the cooler months of September, October, November, April and May. In fact, it was research for this tour that gave me this experience.
Wombats are known to be the most intelligent of marsupials. They are also very large when full grown – up to one metre in length and 40kg in weight. Few native creatures are strong enough to challenge them, only humans are a real threat, so wombats have become the elephants of Australia: authoritative, stubborn, dignified. They move away from us only because they hate fuss. They’re not scared of us, they just don’t like our noisy, intrusive blundering.
Can you see why I can’t see a wombat as simply ‘cute’?
Watch out for next week: #GoannaWeek
Note: all the pictures in this post (except the one beside the road) are of baby/young wombats in care. Getting good photographs of wild adult wombats is really difficult – my photography skills and equipment are just not up to the task.
The call of the Laughing Kookaburra is one of the true songs of Australia. It sums up so much about our country: raucous, full of joy, spontaneous and fun. It is multi-layered and gregarious – only a family singing together can do it properly. Its not sweet or melodic, but it brings a mischievous smile to your face every time you hear it. Watch: https://youtu.be/t8mCEXWSO44
Kookaburras are only found in the Australasian region, so you won’t hear that marvellous call anywhere but downunder.
Australia and New Guinea are their strongholds: Australia has the famous Laughing Kookaburra, and shares the pretty Blue-winged Kookaburra with New Guinea. New Guinea has an additional three: the stunning Spangled and Rufous-bellied Kookaburras and the special, little Shovel-billed Kookaburra (which is different to the other four – its in a genus all by itself). The tiny Aru Islands of Indonesia, just between New Guinea and Australia, also have Spangled Kookaburras.
It is the Laughing Kookaburra of eastern and southern Australia that gives the group its fame. To look at he is nothing special – a brown and white kingfisher with a splash of blue in his wing. But seeing a kookaburra is not that important, its hearing them that counts. Their crazy wonderful call bursts out from a majestic gum-tree like the forest itself can’t surpress its happiness any longer and has to shout it to the world. Listen: https://soundcloud.com/nature-sounds/laughing-kookaburra-dacelo-novaeguineae It is a call of sunshine, and nature and life. The Anthem of The Bush.
Mimicing the song is not easy, partly because the call is not made by one bird – it is made by a whole family. One bird sings “koo koo koo”, her mate sings “Ka ka ka” overlapping, like singing a round. The children chime in and the song becomes complex, layered, thrilling. In fact singing together keeps the family bond alive.
If you live here, take a trip to the bush sometime soon (you can even join us on our Koala Conservation Day for Locals) and let the Kookaburra make you feel alive. If you live overseas, plan a trip to Australia and include a day outside of the city (the Koalas & Kangaroos IN THE WILD day trip from Melbourne is a great way to hear kookaburras). You’ll never forget hearing this song!