Saturday, 27 May 2017

Possum inna Pot

One of the best things about living where I do is the wildlife. There's lots of it and it's close. Sometimes too close. I've had to call a snake catcher to relocate a red-bellied black snake from my living room to a more suitable habitat, and I always have bananas in the fruit bowl because there's no better lure for honeyeaters and possums that have wandered into the house and can't find their way back out.

Whereas only a few animals head inside, many more of them hang around outside. Golden orb-weavers build their webs between the verandah posts, bats and snakes spend the day in the car port, and, after dark, possums use the roof as a shortcut between trees. Somewhere, there's a stash of hobnailed boots that the possums slip on before they trot across the corrugated iron. There's no other explanation for the noise.

A few days ago, I tweeted these photos.

It's a coppery brushtailed possum asleep in a big plant pot. That photo isn't as clear as it could be, because I didn't want to startle the animal with an electronic flash. A possum. In a pot.

Plant pots aren't the usual resting spots for possums — they prefer trees, roof spaces or cupboards — but this one feels quite at home here. 

She appears to be well. She isn't doddery and, as you can tell, doesn't seem to be undernourished.

This isn't her all-day space. She spends most of the time in what I assume is a more possumy haunt.

But in the late afternoon, she shifts to the plant pot next to my office window.

Since the weather is cooler now, she's unlikely to be bothered by amethystine (scrub) and carpet pythons. I don't need to use the pot for its intended purpose, so am happy to let her stay. Her activities are a pleasant distraction towards the end of the day.

Note on coppery brushtails
Coppery brushtailed possums are restricted to the Atherton Tablelands. There's still some discussion of whether they are a rainforest variant of the common brushtailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) or represent a separate species. The individuals I've seen here range in colour from dark brown to a bright coppery orange; I've yet to see a grey animal, which is the most frequent pelt colour in common brushtails.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Snake Tales

A Lewin's honeyeater let me know that a brown tree snake was on the move. (Lewin's honeyeaters complain about everything, but are particularly vocal when snakes are around.)

This individual flew up to my office window to attract my attention — like a feathery Lassie or Skippy with a beak [needs work:– Ed.] — and then led me to the corner of the carport.

It was midday, but this usually nocturnal BTS had decided it was time to shift. No doubt it was muttering to itself about the decline of the neighbourhood. The honeyeater was doing the same, but at the top of its voice.

The snake investigated the possibilities to the west, but decided that area was not up to its exacting standards. So it slithered around the corner.

Where this much larger brown tree snake was already in residence.

There was a small adjustment.

And the first snake headed off again to find another location for a nap.

It eventually found a spot not far from where it started, as is often the case.

And the Lewin's honeyeater flew off, not angry, just disappointed in my lack of action. This, too, is often the case.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Jottings from the Tropics: 21 May 2017

You might remember that I found an owl feather in the car and concluded, not unreasonably, that the boobooks had been taking the vehicle for joyrides. Today I found a white-headed pigeon feather in the tumble dryer. This time the birds have gone too far. It has been sunny for days now, so there is no need to use the dryer. But I suppose this is why the pigeons always look so bright and clean.

— o O o —

Also taking liberties is this Stony Creek frog. For several days in a row it has decided that my car cover is also an excellent frog cover and I have to relocate it (the frog) when I need to go out.We both have the same expression when this happens.

 — o O o —

Although I park in a really quite palatial carport, I need the car cover to stop a very excitable male golden whistler attacking his reflection. If I forget to replace it, within a short time every window and external mirror is decorated with bird poo. Quite a lot of poo, considering a golden whistler is a small bird. He has scratched the headlights and left marks on the strips of chrome around the radiator grille. Sometimes, he brings his mate to watch him. I think she is about as impressed with his behaviour as I am. (See frog photo above for general idea.)

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Intrigue of Webs

On damp mornings, among the patches of grass that have survived the pademelons, webs glisten with drops of water.

They belong to a species of Venonia Thorell, 1894, one of the few web-building wolf spiders (Lycosidae). Most species of  wolf spider hunt their prey, but Venonia sits in a burrow at the centre of the web and waits for an insect to approach. Then the spider darts out and drags the unfortunate creature back to the burrow.

Most of these spiders are timid and retreat when a camera looms over them, but this one held its ground long enough for me to take several photos, all of them not quite in focus. This is the least fuzzy. I'll have to give it another go.

I'm not sure which Venonia this is — species are differentiated by reproductive anatomy — but the sheet-web wolf spider V. micarioides (Koch, 1877) is by far the most widespread and common species in Australia. In suitable habitat, their webs cover the ground by the hundreds. I suspect the ruthless grazing here keeps the numbers down.

Further reading
Yoo, S-J. & Framenau, V.W.  (2006) Systematics and biogeography of the sheet-web building wolf spider genus Venonia (Araneae: Lycosidae). Invertebrate Systematics 20: 675 – 712.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Here Be Bustards

The Maryfarms area of Mt Carbine is usually a reliable location for Australian bustards (Ardeotis australis). So when at Kingfisher Park, Julatten, recently, I headed north on the Mulligan Highway to see whether I could get some photos of these wonderful birds.

As the name suggests, Maryfarms is a farming area on Mary Creek. It is surrounded by savanna woodland — tall grass and eucalypts — and is close to the rainforest of Mt Lewis. This combination of habitats making it an excellent spot to see a variety of birds. Especially if you are a better bird watcher than me, as you almost certainly are.

Bustards were once widespread and common, but hunting and changing land use reduced populations. In many places they are rare or locally extinct. Captive breeding programs such as that at Serendip Sanctuary in Victoria bolster wild populations of these wonderful birds. For the moment, they are still abundant and easy to spot in drier parts of northern Queensland. I have seen them at Chillagoe, Mt Garnet and Bowen. They even turn up (on the odd occasion) in the maize fields around Atherton.

At Maryfarms, I had my own curious onlookers while I searched for bustards.

Rainbow bee-eaters perched on the fences along East Mary Road. Families of red-backed fairywrens flitted and twittered in the long grass. But no bustards.

The paperbarks along the creek were full of honeyeaters and bees. There were also mosquitoes. Just picture this photo covered in thousands of black spots for the full effect.

I drove back to the highway and turned down West Mary Road. There were fewer rainbow bee-eaters here, but plenty of white-breasted woodswallows.

And agile wallabies. Because I only see pademelons at home, these wallabies looked enormous. I mistook one big male for a kangaroo. I will hand in my macropod identification badge as I leave.

I was beginning to think I wouldn't see bustards at all this time. Then these three did the Abbey Road thing right in front of me.

They were wary of the car, but not frightened, so I was able to drive up very slowly.

Fortunately, there's not much traffic at Maryfarms, so I parked at the edge of the road and watched the trio until they disappeared into the vegetation.

I probably missed two dozen other species that morning, but I saw the bustards and that was good enough for me! 

* Not actual oversized chickens 

Friday, 12 May 2017

Creature feet, yeah!

Several possums visit the house in the evening. They're curious individuals, concerned neither by my presence nor my threats. One has even taken to climbing the screen door, trying to find a way in. The same possum brings her youngster around — he's too big to clamber onto her back — and I often see his little pink nose pressed against the glass. The rest of him is invisible in the dark.

Because the possums are unafraid to the point of insolence...

Ripe bananas are a good lure for leading possums out of the house

...I can get close enough to take photos. And I am fascinated by possum feet.

Here Poss is holding onto his hind foot instead of the dish. I'm not sure if he's uncoordinated or just embarrassed by the state of his nails.

Possum hind feet exhibit the syndactyly characteristic of diprotodontid marsupials: the second and third toes are fused, while the claws remain separate to form a grooming comb.

This condition also occurs in kangaroos, koala, and their ilk. You'll often see them scratching with their hind feet and then nibbling at whatever's caught between the claws. It's not elegant, but it is convenient. 

One of the ilk

The big toe is more or less opposable, so is handy* for climbing. (See above.) (No, above in the post. The blog post. This is getting confusing.) It lacks a claw, but all the other digits have long and very sharp claws, which are particularly good for scrambling up fly screens and posts. (Steel posts, not blog po...oh, never mind.)

He's spotted a brush-turkey. He hates them.

The other day, I noticed these long hairs on Poss' front legs. They look like the carpal whiskers on cats and might have a similar function. I haven't tested this. But next time Poss is nose-deep in the seed tray, I'll give it a go and report what happens.

He could have wiped his nose for the photo

* heh

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Wine-Dark Sea* (Tasmanian edition)

I was standing in the car park at Cloudy Bay, at the southern end of Bruny Island, binoculars over my shoulder, camera around my neck. I’d planned to stroll along the beach and photograph shorebirds, but a couple of 4WDs were racing across the sand. The gulls and oystercatchers scattered. I hoped the hooded plovers had taken refuge in the dunes.

The sea looked like red wine. Don’t ask me what type because I don’t read the boxes labels.

The coloration comes from algae, but it wasn’t a red tide**. The species tinting Cloudy Bay was almost certainly Asparagopsis armata, a rhodophyte (red alga). First described by Harvey (1855: 544) from Western Australia, it is native to southern Australia and New Zealand. Ships have spread it to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere

As with other algae, A. armata has a complex lifecycle. It goes through two major stages in which the forms are so unlike each other that they were originally thought to be different species: A. armata was applied to the branching form, and Polysiphona rufolanosa (Harvey, 1855: 540) to the filamentous one.

Recognising that this was not yer standard Polysiphona, Schmitz (1897) erected a new genus, Falkenbergia, with P. rufolanosa as type species. Bonin and Hawkes (1987) finally sorted out the situation, bringing P. rufolanosa into synonymy with Asparagopsis armata. I might have missed out some steps. Don’t @ me, algologists.

Silver gull, forest raven and sooty oystercatchers minding their own business

But the name Falkenbergia hasn’t disappeared from use. The filamentous form of A. armata is referred to as the Falkenbergia stage. And it is this stage that colours the waters of Cloudy Bay and turns the strandline red.

I didn’t know any of this at the time, of course. Which was probably just as well, because two people asked me if I had any idea about it, and I don’t think they were ready for an Ancient Mariner-style lecture about the intricacies of algal taxonomy. But next time…

* With no apologies to Homer

** Or a sign of the Apocalypse, although I’m not so sure about that one anymore.


Bonin, D.R. & Hawkes, M.W. (1987). Systematics and life histories of New Zealand Bonnemaisoniaceae (Bonnemaisoniales, Rhodophyta): I. The genus Asparagopsis. New Zealand Journal of Botany 25: 577-590.

Harvey, W.H. (1855). Some account of the marine botany of the colony of western Australia. Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 22: 525-566.

Schmitz, F. & Hauptfleisch, P. (1897). Ceramiaceae. In: Die natürlichen Pflanzenfamilien nebst ihren Gattungen und wichtigeren Arten insbesondere den Nutzpflanzen unter Mitwirkung zahlreicher hervorragender Fachgelehrten, Teil 1, Abteilung 2. (Engler, A. & Prantl, K. Eds), pp. 481-504. Leipzig: verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann.