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!
October #KoalaOfTheMonth is Zack! Zack is very pugnacious and always a bit ahead of the game!!
Zack is a young fellow with a lot of guts. He is pushing into dominant male Anzac’s home range – which no-one else has dared to do for years. We are all so impressed with his courage, but worried for him as well!
Zack was first seen in October 2013. We see a lot of young males moving around in spring each year. Most appear briefly, then disappear again, but Zack stuck around. We’ve been seeing him on an off now for two years. We hope he can find a little home of his own near us!
Zack has a distinct, and obvious, unique nose pattern. Can you see the bright white patches in his nostrils and how they are similar both sides, but not quite the same?
Once you know a koala by their nose you’ll rarely mistake their identity, even if other features change.
When we first met Zack he looked like a 3 or 4 year old – chubby small face, big eyes, dark grey fur.
Two years later, he is now a mature male and looks every bit of it – big, broad head, lighter dove grey fur, big shoulders.
Its #EasternGreyKangaroo week! Watching, and walking with these beautiful animals – in the wild – is something we never tire of.
The social interaction of kangaroos is fascinating to watch. Mothers and female joeys have a deep, strong bond, which they maintain even into adulthood. Most females stay with their mothers their whole lives.
Eastern Grey Kangaroo joeys stay in the pouch for about a year, which is much longer than other types of kangaroos. For the first five months, the joey is small, has no fur and cannot be seen from the outside except as a bulging pouch. At around six months the joey has developed a light coat of fur, and starts to poke its head out of the pouch for short periods.
At 9 to 10 months, an Eastern Grey joey takes its first journey outside of the pouch. The first time is usually an accident: joey falls out while mum’s pouch is loose. In shock, joey usually clambers straight back in to the safety and warmth!
Over the next 2 to 3 months, joey takes more and longer trips out of the pouch. Even with experience, though, getting back into the pouch can be complicated – watch this terrific little video to see how: https://youtu.be/pAnSftUVvoA
Mother kangaroos have a lot of control over their pouch – they can relax or contract the muscles around the pouch, and by standing up or leaning over they can control joey’s access to the pouch. If a mother wants to encourage her 9 month old joey to take their first steps outside, she will let her pouch muscles relax and lean over, allowing joey to tumble out. If she then stands up and contracts the pouch muscles, joey cannot get back in, no matter how hard they try. If there’s danger she will quickly lean forward, relax the pouch, and call to the joey, who immediately rushes back in.
One day when joey is about 11 – 12 months old, mother kangaroo will decide that its time for joey to vacate the pouch permanently. Next time joey is out, mum simply stands up, closes her pouch and that’s it. No more pouch for joey! Joey never seems happy about this arrangement, and will clutch at the pouch repeatedly, trying to get in. But mum must stay firm – she often has another joey ready to be born, and she can’t have two in the same pouch!
Eastern Greys nurse their joeys until they are 18 months old. For the first 9 months, suckling happens when the baby’s whole body is in the pouch. After final pouch exit at 11 – 12 months, joey suckles by putting just their head into the pouch.
Easy guide to age Eastern Grey joeys seen in the wild:
Joey’s head out of pouch: joey is between 6 months and 12 months
Joey gets in or out of pouch: joey is between 9 months and 12 months
Joey is outside, putting head in pouch: joey is between 9 months and 18 months.
Watch out next week for one of our favourite Aussie birds – the famous kookaburra! #LaughingKookaburra week!
Dawson, Terence J. “Kangaroos: Biology of the Largest Marsupials” 1998 pp 78-83
This week on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter we are featuring the beautiful Spotted Pardalote! #spottedPardalote week.
Spotted Pardalotes are gorgeous, tiny Australian Bush birds. They are only around 9-10cm long from beak to tail and weigh only 8 grams. They are one of Australia’s smallest birds.
Spotted Pardalotes are more often heard than seen – their penetrating call is bigger than they are! It is one of those calls that is persistent, continual – its so much a part of eucalyptus forests that you often don’t notice it until they stop calling!
Male Spotted Pardalotes have a brilliant gold chin/throat, black crown with white spots and scalloped black & white cheeks. You can tell them apart from female Spotted Pardalotes – she has a cream chin and yellow spots on her head and plainer cheeks.
Young/juvenile/immature Spotted Pardalotes are like females, but paler and plainer.
Strangley, for a tree canopy feeder, pardalotes nest in hollows dug into the ground. Watch this video to see what trouble this can get them into! https://youtu.be/8NrL4fOcqt8.
Spotted Pardalotes mostly live along Australia’s temperate east, south & west coast, and Tasmania. They do extend north to Cooktown, Queensland, in a thin band in the mountain forests. Spotted Pardalotes live in eucalyptus forests, both wet and dry including mallee. They need eucalyptus with good canopy. Their food is the insects, like psyllids, that feed on the leaves and insect exudates, like lerp. In his book “Where Song Began” Tim Low suggests that pardalotes’ spots might mimic their white lerp food. Pardalotes certainly do blend in with the leaves and can be hard to see high in eucalyptus canopy.
Spotted Pardalotes are not the same as Forty-spotted Pardalotes, though both species have lots of spots. Forty-spotted Pardalotes only live in Tasmania, whereas Spotted Pardalotes live both on the mainland and in Tasmania. I don’t know who counted the spots on Forty-spotted Pardalotes, but Spotted Pardalotes acutally have more spots: spots on their crown, wings and tail. Forty-spotteds only have spots on the wings. Maybe Spotted Pardalotes should be called Hundred-spotted Pardalotes! Read about Forty-spotteds here: http://birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/forty-spotted-pardalote
There are four species of pardalote in Australia. Striated Pardalotes (see here: http://birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/striated-pardalote) have more stripes than spots, as the name suggests, and they live in a wider band almost throughout Australia, except only the western deserts. The Red-browed Pardalote (see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-browed_pardalote) lives roughly inland of the Spotted Pardalote – almost everywhere the Spotted doesn’t go. They are like a Striated Pardalote with some spots on the crown.
Stay tuned for next week: exciting videos of kangaroo joeys! #EasternGreyKangaroo week