Possum wallaby woes

With the big dry affecting many parts of Gippsland in Victoria (Australia), the amount of feed for wallabies, possums and other wildlife has diminished.  So what do they do when there’s no fresh grass?

With drought affecting Phillip Island and no sign of rain on the long term weather forecast, it’s looking a bit grim for the hungry hordes of animals on the reserve out the back of our place.  When they run out of green grass, what do they do? Why, they come checking out nearby properties for any titbit that’s green and edible.

Here the wildlife can choose to browse any number of properties and farms.  However, many are fully fenced, located in suburbia, or don’t have gardens because they’re only occupied for a few months each year.  That leaves places where humans reside during summer, and who plant and tend juicy horticultural things in our gardens.

ONCE UPON A TIME …

Our house backs onto a reserve.  Once upon a time it contained mangroves, shrubs and tall native grasses.  Seawater flooded much of it at high tide.  Of course, it would’ve been loved and used by many animals and hundreds of different birds.

Then a moron came along and turned it into a farm, building a land bridge to stop the tide, and whacking in cows so they could stroll along eating what little grass they could find and trampling on the native grasses, plants and mangroves.

One day about 6-8 years ago (can’t recall exactly when), the moron removed the cows and allowed the land to go back to its natural state.  And wow, has it flourished without that constant trampling.  Unfortunately rabbits and foxes moved in.  The Council undertook a baiting program to remove foxes from the island, but you’ll all know what happens to rabbit numbers when there’s no longer any predators.

MARCH OF THE MULTITUDES

Rabbits aside, the wallabies moved in.  Then the Cape Barren geese built nests in the swaying grasses, along with ducks and purple swamp hens (affectionally called pukekos in our household, because that’s what I knew them as growing up in NZ).

A plethora of other smaller birds also became common, and the possums think life is akin to nirvana.  We’ve even got snakes, echidnas and blue tongued lizards.  It’s helped enormously that a few neighbours added a permanent supply of water in troughs along the boundary fence.

So a multitude of critters great and small now have water, edible food, and places to hide and sleep.  The price they pay for that is competition for food and having to tolerate annoying human beings on one side of the fence.  They get their own back, as you will see.

SUMMER TIME AND THE LIVING IS …

In early summer, the animals and birds are very well behaved.  They eat their grass, wild fruits and seeds, they drink the water, they blink at us from a distance, and in the late afternoon they may visit a human’s property for a sticky beak.

Come late summer, with no decent rain for a few months and grasses effectively dried up, many creatures are struggling to find enough to eat.  So they come a-calling.  Every last single one of them.

WHO’S BAD …

  1. Possums

Possums are by far the worst.  Scungy fluffy cute little critters they may be, but they’re incredibly effective at knocking off everything.

Last week, in one night, they ate the ENTIRE crop of the neighbour’s flourishing and massive passionfruit crop.  That was hard to bear.

You cannot grow herbs or fruits without them being decimated.  Same deal for any vegetables at all – including hot chillies – because they’ll be munched by rats, rabbits, wallabies, possums, pukekos and a few other lurking creatures I’m probably not aware of.

Possums also love flower seedlings, and any plant with pelagonium or geranium in its title.  They pull them out by the roots, leaving nothing to continue growing.

Normally wildlife don’t touch succulents.  But when possums get peckish, the succulent collection is prey to a horror story.  Mine sit on a table above wallaby height, and the possums have to get through a barrage of spikey yukka plants to reach them.  So at this stage, they’re relatively untouched.  The neighbour, however, has suffered a posse of possums having a late night party and knocking the pots off their shelf, followed by the indignity of being trodden on and nibbled.

ALL my geraniums have suffered badly.  The larger ones planted in the garden have been jumped on and squashed flat during a myriad of night time possum parties.  Then they chow down on any juicy new growth, leaving a few bare stalks.  If the geranium is in a pot, it finds itself upside down on the ground and pulled out by its roots.

  1. Wallabies

Next up on the Bad List are the wallabies.  Anything they can reach is subject to a taste test, then nibbled at until destroyed.  Even caught a baby wallaby on my back verandah chewing at a spiny spikey succulent.

When really hungry, they chow down on succulents of all kinds including our huge jade bushes, shrubs (irrelevant whether they’re native or not), pelargoniums, herbs and climbers.

I’ve double fenced many areas, which the weeds have taken advantage of because it’s that much harder to reach over and pull them out.

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Baby wallaby drinking from our dilapidated birdbath
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Young wallaby in the reserve – “it wasn’t me …”
  1. Pukekos

Don’t actually mind pukekos.  They just mosey around and mind their own business, pecking the tripes out of the lawn to find juicy bugs.  They’re murder on water sources though –  dig up plants and poop into the water rendering it undrinkable for anything.

  1. Pheasants

Yes you’re correct, pheasants aren’t native to Australia.  Neither are dogs, cats, rabbits, foxes and a squillion other creatures the Brits left us with (yes, I’m from English/Scottish stock so this failure to think things through might’ve had something to do with my ancestors, but I like to think they were smarter than that).

Two pheasants escaped from a (now defunct) local pheasant farm some years ago (see my previous post).  Ferdinand was the original escapee and somehow Felicity has done a runner as well.  We’re very grateful – he was a lonely boy without her.  Figured a snake would’ve got them in the intervening years, but they’re actually alive and well.

They like to scratch through the soil, digging up grass and plants and leaving bare dry earth in its place.  It’s a nuisance, but at least they’re not eating my remaining precious plants or stealing lemons from the neighbour’s lemon tree.

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Ferdinand pecking in the backyard

END OF GARDEN CAPERS

So there you go.  We love the wildlife deeply, even have a possum box on the back verandah, but I really wish they’d go visit someone else’s property.

In the meantime, I continue to learn the lesson to only plant things they hate to eat, and buy all my fruit and vegetables from the supermarket.

Whaling at Noosa

Although the forecast was for rain, we took the punt it’d stay sky blue and headed off to Noosa National Park headland for a stroll around the headland.

Got there early, scored a lucky car park (always a scramble as there’s never enough parks for the huge number of vehicles wanting to use it), and off we wandered.

The goal today was to find dolphins and maybe a greenback turtle.  Yeah right, my expectations of seeing both creatures weren’t tremendously high.

However, in the first few minutes, we spotted a small pod of dolphins cavorting not far off the coastline. When walking along Noosa Main beach the previous day, another pod of dolphins bounced along close to shore. Swimmers nearby were unaware these magnificent creatures were so close. Today, paddlers and surfers were also unaware of their supreme luck in having these friendly souls weaving amongst them.

We’d forgotten whale season* had recently started and thus were surprised to see spouting and splashing in the distance. So started the humpback whale spotting in earnest.

Loads of locals and tourists walk this trail … it’s tremendously popular. Other than Australian, the main accents today were Kiwi, British, French and German. Between us, we spotted many a whale heading south and together delighted in their antics.

Did you know the humpback whale has two blowholes? It has one for each lung and each lung is the size of a small car … which possibly accounts for the huge lingering drifts of spray they pump out through their blowholes.

Every time a whale breeched – and they’d often do so 3-4 times in a row – there’d be gasps of awe.  I wondered aloud how the Japanese could bear to kill them in the name of “scientific research”, when in reality they munch them as an expensive delicacy.

Dozens of whales went sailing by – some singly or in small groups. We enjoyed each and every one we spotted even though they were away in the distance.

At Hell’s Gate (tip of the national park), a large and lively pod of dolphins dipped around the headland and disappeared into the depths.  The whales were way out to sea so you only the spray from their blowholes was visible.

On the way back, a wonderful treat awaited us. We could see a whale breaching close to shore and hurried along the path to get a better view. Two whales then swam close to the rocky shoreline, close enough for the gathering crowd to see their large sleek bodies from where we stood on the rocks, and hear the noise of their blowholes.

To the delight of all who’d gathered, the whales meandered near us for quite some time before continuing their southern migration.

A very slow walk in the end, but unexpectedly successful. And guess what, despite not seeing a single turtle, we had blue skies the whole day.

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* From June to November, humpback whales migrate around 10,000km from Antarctica to the Queensland coast where they madly have babies in the warmer waters.

You need to be casso-wary

When in Far North Queensland, we visited Hartley’s Crocodile & Wildlife Park near Cairns.  The creature that took my attention was a southern cassowary haughtily marching along the fence of its large enclosure. If you want a bird with wow factor, this one’s a stunning example.

A southern cassowary, for those who’ve not seen one, is a very tall intimidating bird with a boney helmet on its head, a bright blue neck and drooping red wattles. Unless you’re waddling around a zoo, you’ll only see these in tropical rainforests in north-east Queensland.

Why you should be wary of a cassowary

Cassowaries are actually quite shy and prefer to disappear into the forest before you remotely figure out they’re there.

The ladies are bigger and more brightly coloured than the men (as it should be). Height-wise they can grow to 2m (6.6ft). They’ve got tiny wings hence no flying about – and each of their three-toed feet has a second toe sporting a very sharp dagger-like claw.

This claw is why you need to be wary of a cassowary. If you annoy one too much, it could slice you with that claw and spill your intestines onto the grass below. You certainly don’t want to chase one through the dense forest either because they can jump up to 1.5m (5ft), swim across raging rivers and over the sea, and belt through dense forest at speeds up to 50kph (31mph).

However, in the real world, there’s only one documented death of a human from a whack by a cassowary and that was way back in 1926. Two boys, 13 and 16 year old brothers, saw a cassowary on their Dad’s property and because they were idiots, thought they’d kill the bird by whacking it with clubs.

The bird kicked the 13 year old, who ran off. His older brother then struck the bird. He tripped and fell and the cassowary took the opportunity to kick him in the neck which probably severed his jugular vein. One kaput 16 year old. Personally I vote for the bird.

If you like statistics, there were 221 attacks in 2003 of which 150 were against humans. This was mostly because humans fed the cassowaries (a big no-no) and the birds came to expect or snatch the food. Most of the other attacks were because the male was defending its nest.

This was my favourite painting to do. Who’d have thought cassowaries and boots could be such fun. Sadly I made it too tall and then couldn’t decide if I should cut the bottom part of the boot off, or the top of the cassowary’s head. The compromise was to fold down the top so you can open up the painting and see the lot.

Cassowary hi-jinks

The boney helmet on top of a cassowary’s head (called a casque) grows as they age, but it’s not really known what the casque is for. Perhaps it:

  • helps them smash through undergrowth so they don’t hurt their heads
  • enables them to push leaf litter around while scratching for tasty treats
  • enables them to smack other cassowaries around when fighting over who’s the biggest dude in the forest
  • amplifies low-frequency sounds made by cassowaries who are ready for a bit of naughty fun. That’s my theory. Feel free to make up your own.

Cassowaries munch on fallen fruit (their favourite), flowers, fungi, snails, insects, fish, frogs, rats, mice and dead creatures. Because they eat fruit whole, they’re VERY important for distributing plant species through the forest.

Each year, their solitary lifestyle is interrupted when a female or male decide it’s time for a bit of sexual proliferation. Males may share a female, but females will not tolerate another female hanging in their space.

In May or June, Mrs Cassowary lays 3-8 eggs in a heap of leaves, then Mr C moves in for nine months to incubate the eggs and look after the little chickies. I’m starting to think female cassowaries have it all worked out.

Wild cassowaries are thought to live to about 40 to 50 years. It’s endangered because humans run vehicles over them, dogs attack them, they get shot, tangled in fence wire, habitat destroyed by humans or cyclones, or they die from disease. Then feral pigs eat their eggs and other creatures eat their food supplies. It’s not a marvellous outcome.

So treat these birds with respect and behave yourself in the forest, then you needn’t be too wary of the magnificent cassowary!

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My desk with the cassowary painting in action

Bluey’s search for a sole

Last summer, while moving soil around the garden with the wheelbarrow, I ran over a long solid object. First thought – “why did the ol’ fellow leave the hose there?  What an odd place to put it.”

Micro-seconds later, I clicked it wasn’t a hose … and then gave myself a terrible fright thinking it was a snake. They’re beautiful creatures but there’s not a single non-poisonous snake in Australia, and Phillip Island certainly has its fair share of them slithering about. Running one over isn’t something you really want to do.

So with pounding pulse, I leapt about 30 feet into the air before realising it was actually an adult blue-tongue lizard I’d just abused.

The wheelbarrow was empty so no harm done and fortunately they’re very solid … although I’m sure the blue-tongue was deeply unimpressed. He lay there stock still, very embarrassed to be caught out.

At this point, to avoid further damage, I picked him up in gloved hands and gently placed him beyond the rear wire fence out of harm’s way. To my relief, he promptly took off for the safety of a fallen log.

This lizard really does have a blue tongue. If you watch quietly and don’t run over them with garden implements, you’ll easily spot that beautiful blue toned appendage flicking in and out.

This painting was a pleasure to do, particularly the canvas sneaker. I wanted the shoe to sit on the blue tongue’s back, to show he’d sneaked off and stolen it in his search for a sole. Hopefully it doesn’t look like he’s being squashed by it!

Bluey’s habits

Did you know we’ve got six species of blue-tongue lizard in Oz? Nope, I didn’t either. It’s a splendid number you have to admit.

They have a long body with a large head and short legs – hence the initial thinking that it was a snake. The legs aren’t initially that obvious. However they have a rather short tail which tapers off to a point, unlike our friend the snake with their l-o-n-g tails.

Blue-tongue lizards are found throughout most of Australia. We’ve seen them in all the Australian States visited so far, usually in unexpected places seeking out warmth or chasing something to fill their tummies.

At night they hide under leaf litter, in burrows or under rocks and logs. Once morning arrives, they meander about to find sunny spots for basking, and forage around for breakfast.

They eat all sorts of things including a wide variety of vegetation and invertebrates. With their large teeth and strong jaws, they easily crush snail shells and beetles. We have some pretty weird beetles lurking about, so they’re most welcome to those.

Blue-tongues prefer their own company most of the year. Then between September and November, the males go hunting females for a good time. They get rather rough though, and females can end up with scrape marks from the male’s teeth. I’m so glad I’m not a lizard.

And what’s that blue tongue for? When threatened, they open their mouth wide and poke out their tongue, which contrasts vividly with the pink mouth. Allegedly this colour combo scares away evil predators and dreadful human beings. Doesn’t work with wheelbarrows though.

Topsy turvy turtles

Truth to tell, I haven’t personally seen a Eastern Long Necked Turtle doing its thing in the natural world.

In late 2015, I saw a wonderful photo in one of Melbourne’s daily newspapers. Someone had piled three young turtles on top of each other at the Wild Action Zoo. They perched there looking highly alarmed while a photographer possibly frightened the tripes out of them taking a pic.

Still, the photo appealed so I hung onto it in expectation it might come in useful. Which it surely did.

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The article in question …

For the Sketchbook Project, I decided to draw two turtles atop each other but give one a smile because she’d grabbed a high heel shoe with her rear foot.

This painting turned out tricky to execute because of the large amount of dark shadows between the two turtles.

Thus it was particularly difficult to delineate one turtle shell from the other, and required much fiddling about so they didn’t completely meld into each other.

Don’t know that I was wildly successful – time consuming trying to get it right for this amateur.  Oddly, the rock on which they were perched ended up being the stickiest part to get right. C’est la vie!

Oh those naughty turtles

The Eastern Long Neck turtle (Chelodina longicollis) can be found lurking in various areas across South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and northern parts of Queensland.

They adore swimming about in fresh water and are quite common, which was a surprise. Made me realise I rarely swim in fresh water looking for creatures, plus one would need to know where to look and carry diving gear.

They’re rather naughty too, these turtles. If one comes into contact with another species called Chelodina canni up there in Queensland, they’ll mess around together and produce lots of vibrant hybrid babies.

Our turtle has a variety of names including ‘snake-necked turtle’ and ‘stinker’. When one feels threatened, a charmingly offensive smelling fluid is emitted from their musk glands.

Our smelly turtle is carnivorous and munches through a variety of critters including insects, worms, tadpoles, frogs, small fish, molluscs and crayfish.

And if you’re wondering what the point of their long necks is, they use them at mealtimes to rapidly strike at any unfortunate creature passing by.

Crabby crustaceans

As part of the Sketchbook Project, an idea for painting crustaceans – crabs mostly – came to fruition.

When wandering through the wonderful Daisu in Melbourne, I chanced upon a small ream of blank music paper. Being a devotee of paper, I thought it’d be useful for a painting. Duly purchased, I popped it into my stuffed-to-the-gills craft cupboard for future use.

The Sketchbook Project was a good reason to fish it out. My initial thought was to draw musical notes and paint a creature over the top. The idea evolved into two pages showcasing crustaceans and shells found on our local beach on Phillip Island, plus a way to incorporate tiny shoes that weren’t too obvious.

Getting it done

Fortunately I learned music for decades in my youth, so crafting clefs and notes wasn’t too difficult. It did give me an appreciation for composers though. How tedious drawing all those notes. I haven’t played either tune on the piano – I suspect it’ll be very discordant.

Sourcing sea urchins and shells was easy as I’d collected them from our beach over the years. The tricky part was determining the best ones to use. In the end laziness won out and I used the first ones that came to hand.

I had a number of very fragile upper “shells” from deceased sand crabs so used those as a main point of reference. Sadly some shells didn’t make it through the process – you only had to move one and it’d shatter. Bit crushing really (I do like the odd pun).

Soldier crabs scatter themselves along our beach in their millions so it was a case of sneaking along to take photos. I’ve recently bought a Canon digital camera with 65x zoom so it’s brilliant for sneaky photographing of creatures in the distance. Can’t be bothered fiddling with changing lenses and all that fanatical cleaning, so this was an excellent compromise.

And so the drawing developed. The music paper was surprisingly robust and didn’t buckle too much until I went to adhere it to the journal (as you will see below). Still, it was better than painting watercolour on the actual journal pages – they’re such poor quality, they buckle if you happen to sneeze.

The drawing of the Sergeant and Lieutenant Soldier Crab is about four times actual size, while Monsieur Sand Crab is actual size. Call this artistic license!

Here’s the finished paintings.  Oh, and by the way, see if you can spot the shoes.

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Sand crab

Firstly the initial idea is worked out …

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How will the music around the crab work?

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Then it’s drawn in more detail and the first washes added.

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The music is left in pencil at this stage as I don’t want the notes to show under the crab.

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More detail is added and the notes are drawn in waterproof black pen.

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And here’s the final sand crab painting.

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Soldier crabs & sea urchins

Again, the detail is worked out first.  The final pencil drawing comes together.  At this point I have shells, sea urchins, crab shells and the iPad all clamouring for space on the desk.

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The final pencil drawing is copied over in black waterproof pen.

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The washes and detail are slowly added.

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And the final painting …

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