Monday, December 8, 2014

The Blue Quandong Tree

Blue Quandong (Elaeocarpus grandis)
The blue quandong is one of our taller buttressed trees, growing up to 35 metres. Seen here as a tree in a park, it has been trimmed occasionally of dead branches. I presume to prevent nasty accidents falling from great heights. Though this tree is nowhere near its full height yet. Park trees often don't have to strive for sunlight the same way that trees growing in forests do.

This species of tree often grows along watercourses in the East-coast Australian subtropical rainforest. Flowers are white, sometimes pink, about 15 mm long, and difficult to see. Flowering happens from autumn to winter. The blue edible fruit, the size of greengage plums, are falling now, in December, while spent red leaves drop at any time of the year. 

Possums love the blue quandong fruit. They are said to be edible by humans but I have never met anyone to give them a try.

Blue Quandong fruit and spent leaves.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Our POZIBLE Crowdfunding Project: Nestboxes for Owls

With less than $1000 to raise at this moment, and 17 hours remaining to do it in, I'm hopeful. Check out and have a look.

Though it is of course always possible to fall just before the finishing line. Keep your fingers crossed. Or pledge, if you haven't already and want to help us help owls.

Wild Barking Owl, D Pearce

It's definitely worth getting yourself onto the list of supporters. Once it becomes Brunswick Valley Landcare's Nestboxes for Owls project, there will still be updates. There'll be pics of the scenery ... we have that in spades. Pics of the nestboxes up in their trees. Internal shots showing the inhabitants.

We may have to wait a year before owls use a particular box. I heard of a box in someone's farm yard that first housed a possum brood, then a galah brood, finally a pair of barn owls. They had a great layer of duff brought in by the previous tenants.

Barn Owl at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, R Hollands

Depending on the number of nestboxes we end up with and the number of owl habitats, we may install two boxes on one tree, one above the other. Dr Brendan Taylor, nestbox monitor, said in the owl talk we had a few weeks ago,that possums will opportunistically take the lower one, leaving the upper one for birds. It's something to experiment with.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Owls and Nestboxes

Troy O’Keefe, local raptor carer, and Dr Brendan Taylor, working in nest box monitoring, spoke at the Brunswick Valley Landcare sponsored Owl Event at the Mullumbimby Community Gardens on Saturday November 1.

Barking owl roosting in the daytime & keeping half an eye open for trouble,
photo sourced from free internet stock
Ten attendees made for a very informative afternoon, with everyone able to ask questions and have them answered in detail. And we learned wonderful detail about the lives of our native owls, and their care should they be found in an injured state.

The breeding up of mouse plagues cause barn owls to raise two nests per year of owlets. The young owls when first making their way in the world are the most vulnerable to being killed by cars. Perhaps their hunting skills haven’t developed yet to where they don’t need to scrounge by the side of the road. Perhaps the end of the mouse plague spells their doom, and they become part of nature’s natural attrition rates.

Our region is home to three species of masked owls: the barn owl which is also called the white owl, or sometimes the ghost owl; the masked owl; and the sooty owl which can be almost black. Sound is gathered in the disk, like in a satellite dish, and the owl’s ears underneath it are unusually large. Masked owls hunt in the pitch dark and can hear a mouse’s heartbeat from 500 metres.

An injured owl has two defences. First it’ll flip onto its back, facing the unlucky carer with its talons. Here’s where it is good to have two old towels in your car, says Troy, instead of the usual one for injured koalas. Throw the first towel over the talons and the owl will instinctively grip the towel. Drape the second towel over the owl, covering the face, and you can then pick it up without getting bitten. Put it in a cardboard box for transport to a caring situation.

Troy loves to get dead owls. He has a feather bank in his freezer. Using titanium shanks, and feathers saved from dead owls, he can repair a broken wing or tail well enough to last until the bird’s next moult.

The barking owl, the powerful owl and the boobook are our hawk owls, that use the early light of dusk and dawn to catch their prey by. There may be only eight breeding pairs of powerful owls remaining on the NSW north coast. Only the boobook isn’t a threatened species.

Monitoring programs may show only 30% of nest-boxes in use. Yet evidence around the boxes leads to the conclusion that up to 90% of nest-boxes may be being used through a year. Animals such as gliders may use up to nine dens per year as they move around their territory.

It’s all right and even a good idea to mount boxes one above the other. Possums will opportunistically take a lower box, leaving the higher one for owls and wood ducks, also a high nesting species. Owls may use a nest-hole for twelve weeks, but will come back to it yearly.

It takes a few years sometimes for a particular species to use a nest box. In the meantime others, possums, gliders, ducks and galahs have built up a good layer of duff. Many species import eucalyptus leaves as nesting material, thought to be disinfectant against bird parasites.

There are hundreds more things to learn. Hopefully while we are installing our nest-boxes, at present being made here and there, with the funds we are raising. $5145 with 3 days to go. Afterwards by monitoring, and enjoying the fledglings and possum young. Our fundraising page:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: Where Song Began

Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world by Tim Low, 2014, Viking.
Where Song Began is such a fascinating, enjoyable and richly detailed story that I haven’t been able to review the book in the conventional manner. I still have much reading to do and so instead will tell you some of the things that interested me.

Being swooped by birds has not been a common experience for me, barring the odd plover fly-by when crossing a football field on my daily walk. This year, in Brisbane, while I sat near the cafĂ© in the Botanical Gardens, a kookaburra egged on by a pair of noisy miners, took the last of my lunch from my fingers. The next day, while I again ate and drank, this time under cover at a student cafeteria, a pair of noisy miners flew in, grabbed the sugar that I don’t use from the table … you know, one of those little sachets … and proceeded to feed from the tube as if it was a flower.

In Where Song Began, I became engrossed in the reasons for our birds’ unusual behaviours. Tim Low explains that here many trees and plants are pollinated by birds. Nectar birds on other continents tend to be humming birds. Here we have a huge range of honey-eaters of all sizes and many parrots that live on nectar, not to forget mammals such as sugar-gliders and fruit bats. Trees in flower are defended by birds for the use of family groups. Noisy miners grow into tribes of up to 200 members. Fascinating stuff.

Australian birds accordingly are aggressive for the very good reason that many Australian trees have evolved an attractive high energy food that can last for days. Sixteen flowering banksia cones producing nectar for twenty days can constitute a honey eater’s territory that will need to be protected against others.

Not only are Australian birds aggressive against people whom they see as dangerous to their young, or their food source – the currawongs in my backyard almost took a piece out of me when I came dangerously close to the fruiting bangalow palm – they are also aggressive against other birds. We’ve all seen noisy miners chase off the competition as well as magpies taking on channel billed cuckoos dangerous to their eggs and nestlings.

Australian soils are by and large impoverished. How often have we been told not to add garden-strength fertilisers? Not to dump rich garden waste. The theory by Orians & Milewski (2007) goes that our trees cannot convert the carbohydrates they make into tissue or seed due to the lack of soil minerals. “The surplus sugar is fed to birds as nectar in return for pollination. Birds can thrive on this sugar as they eat insects as well to provide the missing nutrients.” (Low, p12)

I read about Ice Age survival. With no wind-blown seed, Australian trees did not move in the last period of extreme climate change and therefore are not expected to move in the present period of swift climate change. In the past, trees survived in small pockets, refugia, because their pollinators wandered the landscape searching for trees in flower. There’s a case there, says Tim Low, for concentrating our conservation efforts on birds and bats.

Due to my new interest in owls, I looked for them in this story. It turns out they are late arrivals on this continent, with a presence of only a few million years. Why then, I want to ask Tim Low. He makes the case that since Australia does not have a suite of large mammalian predators, birds have taken up those niches. So why owls so late in the piece? What were the predators before them?

Among the trees that can only spread by the dispersal of their fruit, another interesting resonance is the number of large-fruit fruiting trees that no longer have a dispersal agent. Eleven local trees including the Davidson Plum are now dispersed mainly by human actions. Together they apparently prove the once upon-a-time existence in this region of a dwarf cassowary. I’m looking forward to the time that they find that birds DNA in amber and we can have it revived Jurassic Park style.

The pied currawongs now taking over suburbia and surviving in towns over winter, gladly feed on privets, cotoneaster, camphor laurel, firethorn, hawthorn and holly. Come spring they are the main predators of small nestlings and eggs. Robins are vulnerable to extinction if not already threatened. Another reason for continuing to educate gardeners. Birds can be brought back from the brink if we replace exotic berry bushes.

These facts make up only some of the fount of knowledges in this amazing story, and not even the primary premise. I have to read the book again to take in that, but couldn’t wait to share it with you, and encourage you to beg borrow or buy Where Song Began. You won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Owls and People: The Sooty Owl

Sooty Owl, (Tyto tenebricosa) image by way of J Lindsay
Reading about Sooty Owls, it seems probable to me that these mysterious dark owls may never take to the nesting boxes we're intending to instal in local trees. Although they are one of our medium sized forest owls, they are to all accounts extremely silent and shy. Their dark plumage helps to keep them unseen, shadows in dark forests. 

Sooty Owls are one of the masked species and have huge black eyes set in a heart-shaped mask that is barely outlined with white. Their plumage is dark grey to charcoal, speckled with white flecks, and they have an almost non-existent tail. David Hollands suggests it be called the Night Bird of Australia. 

They live in the same kind of steep, gullied dark forest as the Powerful Owl, and use nest hollows high in huge eucalyptus trees or in caves. Adults often roost in nesting hollows in Flooded Gums, perhaps 30 metres above the forest floor, or caves, while fledglings seem to spend their daytime hours in the thick canopies of the lower Lilly Pilly, Brushbox, Corkwood and Pittosporum forests.  

Sooty Owls are habitual birds that return to the same nesting place for many years, possibly returning there once grown as well. Nesting places have been found in caves (eg Jenolan Caves) with evidence of occupancy ranges in the thousands of years. 

A variety of Sooty Owl calls can be heard on the following link 

Most of this information garnered from:

Owls, Frogmouths and Nightjars of Australia by David Hollands, published 2008 by Bloomings Books Pty Ltd. 

Sooty Owl, Photo by way of J Lindsay

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Owls and People: Barn Owls

Barn Owl by R Hollands

Only twice so far, in the years that I have lived in my house near the river, have I seen the actual owls that visit my backyard. The glimpses I got weren’t enough to tell me which species graced my backyard but I suspect they were both Barn Owls.

The Sooty and the Barking Owls are both greyish. Both my visitors were creamy white in the glare of my torch. With not very clearly defined masked faces when the Masked Owls do have clearly defined masks.

Barn Owls are a cosmopolitan species, they occur all over the world. As they name implies they are as happy making themselves at home in a human habitation, in a roof space or unused barn, as they are in a nest hollow. I expect that these birds will acclimatise themselves to nest-boxes very easily. 

I suspect they visit often. That one time I saw the smaller visitor take off from its perch on the rain gauge, the top of the gauge came off as the owl’s feet released their hold.

Now, whenever in the morning the gauge’s funnel top is lying on the grass, I know I have had a visitor. Barn Owls fly in the depths of the night. Their facial structuring collects sound and funnels it to their ears. Barn Owls and Masked Owls can hunt by star light. 

The larger visitor perches on the stem of the dead tree fern. It’s higher than the rain gauge and oversees a larger field of prospective food animals, mice and rats, scampering across the yard. 

If you have any dead trees or stumps in your yard, leave them up as long as they stay safe. They're great for birds to perch, to oversee their landscape. Go the POZIBLE Nest-boxes for Owls Project!

Barn Owl Flying, D Pearce

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Owls and People: The Barking Owl & Its Habitat.

Barking Owl by D Pearce of Byron Bird Buddies
Photo taken in the Byron ST Wetland (?)
The barking owl as a variety of hawk owl, is an agile and aggressive hunter of the dawn and dusk, taking a wide variety of birds as well as rabbits, possums, bats and rodents. Due to the variety of its prey one would think it an adaptable bird with a high likelihood of surviving human development.

Their favourite habitat on the east coast of Australia is open eucalyptus woodlands and the edges of forests, often adjacent to farmland. Roost sites, where owls sleep during the day, maybe located near waterways and wetlands. According to Hollands (2008) "Barking Owls have a strong liking for swampy country and small patches of woodland. It avoids dense close forest but likes old trees and large hollows for nesting."

Although Barking Owls are widely distributed through Australia with populations all along the wet east coast and through to the Kimberleys in the north west, loss of feeding, roosting and nesting opportunities in southeastern Australia has meant a marked decline. 

If in the whole of Victoria it is estimated that only 50 pairs still survive, according to the WIRES website, I can't imagine many pairs to be living in the remains of the riverine forests of the Northern NSW/Southeast Queensland BioRegion, where human development covers much of the same territory as the habitat that barking owls need. 

And yet, Barking Owls are reported to be tolerant of and seeming sometimes to be indifferent to the movement of people nearby. Holland reports a pair roosting near a busy post office in country Victoria, and nesting in the main street of a Queensland town. 

For owls, habitat loss it isn't just the loss of hollow-bearing trees and places to roost in the daytime. They need to hunt to sustain themselves. And to hunt they need the birds and small mammals that make up their food web. For habitat to be rich enough to sustain a diverse complement of animals it needs in its turn to be rich in a variety of plants and fungi. 

Firewood harvesting is another human activity with big impacts on biodiversity. A hole or slit no bigger than three fingers can hide a micro-bat. Dead paddock trees may have twenty little holes in them, where gliders for example might spend the day. 

Possums and parrots also nest in hollows. A log on the ground can hide insects, native rats, mice. A log on the ground usually will be consumed by fungi. Fungi fruiting bodies make good food for a variety of little animals that in their turn may feed a clutch of owl young. 

I quote from Wikipedia:  habitat is an ecological or environmental area that is inhabited by a particular species of animalplant, or other type of organism.[1][2] It is the natural environment in which an organism lives, or the physical environment that surrounds a species population.[3]

Owls, Frogmouths & Nightjars of Australia by David Hollands (2008) Blooming Books, Melb.

Check out Brunswick Valley Landcare on Facebook for more news about the POZIBLE project Nestboxes for Owls .... 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Pozible/LandcareNSW Environment Collection Launch Date

I might have let the owl out of its nesting box a bit early, see previous post, as the official launch date for the funding campaign is the 18th of September. Which is also the National Landcare Conference.

I've just now realised why 25 projects in the collection?

We're celebrating twenty-five years of Landcare of course. Duh.

As well as songbirds, and crows and ravens beginning in Australia (in the days when it was Gondwana), Landcare is an Australian invention. Real grass roots stuff.

The above is my favourite acronym at the moment. Below is the logo my group is using.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Our Nestboxes for Owls Project

Owl Habitat with Mt Chincogan 
I've been sending various versions of this out to friends and colleagues:

The BVL (Brunswick Valley Landcare) funding subcommittee has just been awarded the opportunity to set up a fund raising campaign through NSWLandcare and the Pozible the crowd-funding platform. (What a mouthful that is!)

We thought Nesting Boxes for Owls, of which we have four that are suitable, the Southern Boobook Owl, the Barn Owl, the Sooty Owl and the Masked Owl. This might be a subtle suitable awareness raising project with the aim of eventually sourcing funding from elsewhere to 'Defrag Owl Habitat'.  

Only don't think for a minute that we are aiming to squash all the available habitat together, as we would be doing when defragging the average PC hard drive. In this case we would be connecting bits of owl habitat by infilling the spaces between. In Landcare words, we'll be doing on-ground work to connect forest fragments. In the foothills, ranges and headwaters of our creeks. 

Owls are top-end predators, and as such are a control of the biodiversity of both plants and animals in their range by way of a cascade effect. IE the mouse eats grains and nibbles nuts, controlling their growth; and is eaten by the owl. The owl controls plant growth indirectly. 

I was wondering if you could keep your ears and eyes open for any pics and videos (however short, anything to do with owls) that can be used in the campaign. IE needs to be copyright free. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Beetles and Trees

Saw this beautiful beetle on a tobacco bush leaf at the Gondwana Landcare planting. Of course, just because the little critter was resting on a weed tree doesn't mean that is its preferred food. It is always difficult not to play god and kill voracious insects when they start eating newly planted tree seedlings.

Iridescent Striped Jewel Beetle on Tobacco Bush
by R de Heer

I'm guessing it is a kind of jewel beetle. They lay their eggs deep in new wood. Their larva hatch in the goodness of time and eat their way out to start the cycle all over again. Ruining the timber, some will say. 

I read somewhere there is a specific species of jewel beetle for every species of rainforest tree in Australia. I don't know what this one is or what tree it prefers to use for its larva. 

Like every other creature on Earth, it will have an important part to play in the food-web it exists in. If that beetle species becomes extinct due to human beings playing god without meaning to by spraying  pesticides against wood-borers, by building over habitat, or by causing the weather to change, the food-web containing that beetle is impoverished.

How important can one species of beetle be, I hear the proverbial devil's advocate say.

There's a knock-on effect. Very similar to when a car producer goes broke. It isn't only the 4000 car manufacturing jobs that disappear, but also all the parts manufacturers, nearby lunch bars, and all the rest of the supporting services.   

One species of beetles can be the tip of a pyramid of loss.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Green Tree Frog, the indoor life

Green Tree Frog Leg
Photo by R de Heer
Living to maximise biodiversity sometimes means adapting to wildlife living in the house. This Green Tree Frog has taken up residence under the cowling of a toilet bowl. I have not yet been able to winkle him out, even with recorded Green Tree Frog calls on YouTube!

It's probably the drought that caused it to come indoors to where there is a constant supply of water. 

Bring on the rain.