Monday, 25 June 2007

Worming my way out of trouble

I was 17 years old. After attending Teachers' College for a few weeks I was now going on 'teaching round', into a real classroom with real children. It was a very intimidating situation—and what was even more intimidating was the daily allocation of teaching tasks set for us by the teacher each afternoon for the following day. Because it was a primary school we were asked to teach on any subject. We had to be instant experts.
I remember one of my first lessons was 'nature study' and I was asked to give a lesson on the topic of earthworms. Now I grew up on a farm and was very familiar with worms. I knew exactly where to find them when I wanted to go fishing for eels. I knew how big they were and their shape and colour. But their life cycle? Zero.
The classroom teacher rescued me from my ignorance. He produced Australian Nature Studies by J. A. Leach, and I and the students learnt a lot about worms. (Reading it now though, I wonder if Leach is right about one thing. He says "If it be cut in two, each half grows the missing portion.")

Several years ago I came across the book in a secondhand bookshop and bought it. It's in quite good condition and the remains of the original paper cover have been pasted on to the hard cover, front and back. I have a lot of reference books on my bookshelf now but it's amazing how many times I refer to Leach.
Apparently there are over 1000 species of worms in Australia and about 80 of these are introduced. Very few species of worms can live in agricultural ground (the insecticides and fungicides are a problem) so if you want to find an Australian native worm you have to look in the woodlands and forests. Darwin thought worms were tremendously important so perhaps I should be paying them more attention.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

A case of mistaken identity

"Hooded Robin - a pair!", I say in excitement, after scanning the landscape carefully with my binoculars. My companions are restrained in their reactions. In fact they are looking sceptical and askance. I'm just starting to lose confidence in my identification when I realise I've done it again!
The wind is whipping sand onto my legs and face and there is a smell of salt in the air but we're not at an inland lake we're on a beach. The waves roll ashore and the 'Hooded Robins' are just beyond the high-tide mark. The Hooded Robins are in fact Hooded Plovers.
Once again I've shouted out a name before the brain has clicked into place. It's embarrassing to admit that I've done this several times – I have a mental block about the names of several birds, switching them at random. I'd hate to acquire a reputation as a stringer. [Sean Dooley's definition of a stringer in The Big Twitch is 'someone who makes claims of non-existent birds … rarely done deliberately, stringing usually occurs when a birder doesn't see a bird well enough, jumps to the wrong conclusion and is too proud or stubborn to back down.']
And there are several birds that I cannot name quickly at all. One is the Crested Shrike-tit. It's a beautiful bird, looks like its head and its body were designed by two different Grand Masters, is an eccentric and noisy feeder – but its crest is not the most noticeable thing about it so its name doesn't immediately come to mind. Sometimes it's minutes before I can recall it.
Another bird I have trouble quickly naming is the Dusky Moorhen. I can't work out why. Maybe it's the word 'dusky'. I've been known to compile a bird list at a wetland including, for example, '5 x those birds!'
And don't get me started on the Spinebill. Why can't it be called a Honeyeater like all the others?

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Up the creek

We started in bright sunshine. At Ceres in the Barrabool hills I just had to stop and take some photos of the Barwon River valley covered in fog. It looked spectacular and I'm pleased with the photos.

By the time we got to Winchelsea to meet up with other field naturalists it was cold and wet. In the rain we explored the riparian vegetation of the Barwon River with two men who have been very involved, with others, in weeding and planting. The gorse, blackberry and willow have been replaced by Black Wattle, Gynatrix, River Red Gum, Blackwood, poas and sedges. They've had great success despite the drought. It's hard to take photos when your gloves are wet, your fingers frozen, your glasses covered in rain drops and your nose dripping! But several of us found some lovely little fungi species to photograph.

The weather cleared and we went further upstream to see a section of the river that a farmer has fenced off from animals. He's installed a solar pump to take the water to the stock rather than the other way round. The River Red Gums lining the river were ancient and we thought they were wonderful. So did the cockatoos, galahs, corellas and Red-rumped Parrots. We also found Callistemon sieberi and Leptospermum myrsinoides. Dave took home a scoop of the river water to identify the invertebrates under his microscope. It would be good to go back in a decade or so to see what grows now that the stock has been excluded.

Friday, 15 June 2007

On the right track

There's an interesting article in the latest Growing Australian, the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society–Victoria. Phil Hempel of the Yarra Yarra Group has written about the kangaroos in his paddock, about how he has managed to live with the kangaroos and plant trees as well. The penny dropped for him when noticed that the damage done to his new trees and the guards seemed to follow a pattern. The kangaroos had set tracks for entering, leaving and crossing the paddock and Phil had inadvertently planted across the tracks. Now he has planted accordingly and is a lot happier with the results.
It reminded me of the tracks that I follow when I go wandering through our bush block at Homerton. In places the bracken is above my head and it's hard work bashing my way through. So I just find a roo track. I do wonder though – if the kangaroos using these tracks are stopping to graze now and again, am I missing out on seeing orchids and fungi? And because I'm really petrified about leeches I wonder if they too stick to the tracks because they know a roo will be along at some stage!
It also reminded me of the time we killed an echidna. When we first bought our property in the '70s we used to set rabbit traps along one of the side fences, just like I did when I was a kid growing up not far away. We set the traps at rabbit tracks under the wire fence and had some success. We haven't done it since the morning we went round the traps and found an echidna caught by his long beak. He too had been using the 'rabbit' track to get through the fence.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Kerang lakes

Kerang has been in the news lately, for all the wrong reasons. Eleven people died last week at a railway crossing I have been over many times on my way to Lake Charm. A tragedy such as this unites a community in countless ways, brings out strengths in people that they weren't even aware that they had. It touches everyone in the town, even when those who died weren't known personally.

Our family has spent countless hours beside Lake Charm, enjoying the water in various ways - water skiing, wind surfing, swimming, birdwatching (one of us does that - yours truly). But that has always been a summer activity. This time I was there in winter. And with a different group of people. I had arranged the Geelong Field Naturalists Club campout for the long weekend in June. It's been a tradition that we go somewhere 'north of the divide' for the June campout each year and I suggested the Kerang Lakes so got to organise it (funny thing that!).

The train/truck crash happened several days before the weekend and I'd arranged for campers to stay at the Pelican Waters caravan park at Lake Charm. Because the road was still closed we had to go a long way around to get to the camp - through Lake Boga or Murrabit. And I was (guiltily, and as it turned out, needlessly) a bit concerned that our activities would be curtailed because of roadblocks.

Local farmer, Stuart Simms, met up with us on Saturday morning and told us all about how the numerous Kerang lakes and creeks interconnect, how they are artificially managed for irrigation purposes, how they are trying to manage the huge salt problem. He showed us Kangaroo Lake, Salt Lake, Racecourse Lake and Lake Charm. His knowledge was truly impressive and he's such a friendly bloke. After lunch we talked to the guys at the roadblock and they let us through to have a look at the Ibis Rookery at Middle Lake (no ibis but a very interesting place) and Reedy Lake. A beautiful Intermediate Egret stood proudly on a stump for us all to see, numbers of Whistling Kites in the lakeside trees were very impressive, many Darters swam at Lake Charm, Blue-faced Honeyeaters and Musk Lorikeets in the flowering trees at the caravan park were very noisy and the countryside was looking its best because of the recent rain after years of drought. It all looked fantastic and the weather was perfect.

Kangaroo Lake

Lake Tutchewop

On Sunday Stuart's brother-in-law, Tom Lowe, met us and took us to Lake Tutchewop, Kangaroo Lake and The Marsh. Tom grew up in the area and took the huge numbers of waterbirds for granted until they started disappearing as a result of different water management schemes in the lakes. In The Marsh we saw many hundreds of dead Red Gums that died as a result of a half-metre concrete sill being installed to keep water in the marshes for duck-shooters. Having wet feet for three or four years in a row was too much for the trees. One or two would have been fine.

After lunch at Lake Boga, and a small diversion to see the Catalina (I was overruled), we went out past Round Lake to the mallee reserve at Goschen. We got very excited when we saw our first Bluebonnets on the side of the road but we got a bit blase after a while because there were so many. At Goschen we were lucky enough to see babblers and Brown Treecreepers. It was pretty quiet in the bush at that time of the day. The lichen on the ground was amazing - all different sorts and colours. I remember reading somewhere that the mallee lichens have a very important role to play in binding the soil. It would have been great to spend a bit more time there and will go back again.

Lichens at Goschen

On the way back to through Kerang to return to Geelong we had to cross the rail crossing and we saw the men working to restore the damage done to the road and the rail. All our thoughts were with the families of those who had been killed and injured. It's going to take a lifetime to restore the damage done to their lives.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Come one, come all

Some type of insect or spider has a habit of gluing one detached gum leaf to another living leaf. On the Eucalyptus leucoxylon growing in my garden there are lots of these. It's quite easy to find because the attached leaf dies and so does the bit of the leaf that it is attached to. There must be some chemical in the 'glue' that effects the living leaf. And when I prise them apart there is always a 'cobwebby' material in the middle so I presume it is a shelter or nursery for babies. I have never found any insects there so I must be looking at the wrong time of the year.

The tree is also host to a lot of lerps and scales- the ants seem to find these particularly attractive. They look amazing under a microscope - so many different shapes too. And a large percentage of the leaves show some insect damage so there must be a lot of insects living on the tree. There are also insects living under the bark. Mostly this isn't possible because the bark fits tightly but at this time of the year the bark starts to peel off so there are many crevices to hide behind.

The Red Wattlebirds, New Holland Honeyeaters and the occasional Musk and Rainbow Lorikeets that are gleaning nectar from the prolific flowers leave a great deal of debris on the ground under the tree. When I stand under the tree while they are feeding there is a continuous rain of blossom, leaves and gum nuts. I don't need to put any mulch under the tree, it mulches itself!