27 December, 2011

Under the mistletoe

With the arrival of Christmas, I figured it was time to come up with a relevant blog post. A quick Google search for Christmas and the Barwon landed me several hundred places to stay in Barwon Heads over the summer holidays, a Christmas cheerio from Barwon Water and details of an 1850s Christmas exhibition at Barwon Grange.
Aside from this, there appears to be little in the way of formal Christmas tradition attached to the Barwon River. I'm sure many local families have their own Christmas traditions associated with the river. Our ride yesterday afternoon revealed waterskiiers making the most of the weather, a variety of kids testing out new bikes and remote-controlled toys - no doubt received for Christmas - whilst for the last couple of years our own post-lunch stroll on Christmas day has been along the banks of the Barwon.
Okay, so I needed to find a different angle. Nothing came to mind, but then, a few days before Christmas, a local paper ran an article about mistletoe - what could be more Christmassy than mistletoe?
European Mistletoe, taken from www.plantlife.ort.uk
In Australia? Well, almost anything really. Mistletoe as Europeans know it or the similar plant found in America is not found in Australia and isn't much a part of our Christmas tradition. We do however have around 90 different species of mistletoe of our own.
So what is mistletoe? It is a partly parasitic plant which grows on the branches of a host tree from which it draws nutrients and water to supplement its own photosynthesis. Mistletoe is pollinated either by birds or insects who then transfer its seeds to other host plants via their faeces or on their beaks. Mistletoe seeds contain a sticky substance which binds them to the branch of the host until the seed germinates and a more permanent connection is made via a root which grows into the bark.
Australian mistletoe varieties belong to the family Loranthaceae and to the genera Amyema and Lysiana whilst Europe has only the one species of mistletoe from the Viscaceae family and the genus Viscum. American mistletoe belongs to the genus Phoradendron which aptly enough translates from the Greek as "thief of the tree". There are only two species of mistletoe native to the United States.
The term mistletoe itself is believed to derive from the Anglo-Saxon words "mistal" meaning dung and "tan" meaning twig thus "dung on a twig", probably reflecting the tendency of mistletoe to seed where birds had perched.
Wattle tree infested with multiple bunches of mistletoe, Barwon River,Highton
So, is there mistletoe along the Barwon? Yes, and it didn't take us long to spot some. From what I can tell, it is Amyema preissii - the wire-leaved mistletoe whose preferred host is the wattle and it was on that plant that I found it. It has thin leaves and long drooping red flowers. Prior to European settlement along the Barwon, the Wathaurong people used the seeds and flowers of this plant as a natural sweetener.
Bunch of mistletoe hanging from a wattle tree, Barwon River, Highton
 Likewise, a variety of animals and insects also use mistletoe as a food source. Not surprisingly, Mistletoebirds are known to pollinate wire-leaved mistletoe as are Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, however I have not seen mistletoebirds anywhere along the Barwon and have not seen these honeyeaters  on this section of the river (around Queen's Park). I would guess then, that some other variety of honeyeater is getting the job done instead.
Red Wattlebirds and White-plumed Honeyeaters are both in the vicinity and known to take nectar from mistletoe whilst New Holland Honeyeaters are also around. It is possible too that other nocturnal visitors such as possums may help disperse seeds.
Wire-leaved Mistletoe flowers, Barwon River, Highton
A second visit today in order to get some close up shots of our local mistletoe, revealed a more widespread infestation than I had realised. There are several dead wattle trees showing signs of previous mistletoe growth along the walking track below and the edge of Barwon Boulevard above the river through Highton. Several more living wattles have varying amounts of mistletoe hanging from their branches.
I would be interested to know if the responsible authority has measures in place for controlling the spread of mistletoe. Whilst it can be an important food source for a variety of wildlife, it can also become a damaging weed.
I did however, see one example of a win to the wattle.

18 December, 2011

Hide and seek

The Jerringot Wetlands are of interest at the moment as much for  what I can't see as what I can. With the spring rains, the plant life is flourishing and the fauna is abundant. Part of the problem however, is that all this lush growth is making it rather tricky to see much of what is going on.
As a general rule, rain means frogs and frogs mean snakes. We had the rain, the frogs arrived and so did the snakes. Great! Rain also means grass. Nice, lush grass; good for hiding frogs and snakes.
Australasian Grebe amongst the reeds at Jerringot
Away from the water's edge, the aquatic plants are so abundant that it is becoming difficult to see much of anything from the bird hide. Whilst no doubt thankful for the extra cover, the coots and moorhens must be finding it hard work to paddle their way about - as for the ducks, I'm surprised they bother!
Of course, if it is tricky to see the birds which are abundant and generally easy to spot, how hard then, is it to see the birds that don't wish to be seen? Very! The information boards conveniently placed at strategic points around the wetlands, inform me that during the summer months, I should be on the look out for crakes, rails and the internationally protected Latham's Snipe. They say that I need to be patient and still - why do I always seem to be attracted to hobbies which require patience?
Well, I have been patient and I have been still and I have had...a limited degree of success.
Buff Banded Rail at Jerringot
Over the past couple of months my patience paid off with sightings and photos of several Buff Banded Rails which do indeed run across the path, right where the sign says they might and even in a few other places besides. On one occasion I even spotted a rail on the opposite side of the Barwon, hanging around in a patch of rushes not far from one of the factories which back on to that part of the river.
Within a similar time frame, I found that often as I walked down the path near the golf course, a number of birds would break cover from the grassy area, fly up and then re-settle a short distance away. Last week, I decided to be a little more careful. I approached slowly and was not surprised as a couple of birds flew up out of the undergrowth, then a couple more and a couple more.
Latham's Snipe at Jerringot
After a few attempts which saw me photographing a patch of weeds and an obligingly immobile and vaguely bird-shaped log, I spotted my quarry. It was standing at the edge of a clearing attempting - with some degree of success - to look like a piece of bark.
It turns out, I had managed to snap a Latham's Snipe - a migratory waterbird which spends its breeding months in Japan before heading south to spend the warmer months from September to February in the eastern states of Australia. These snipes are waders, with long, pointed bills which they use to probe mud and water looking for food.
This species which used to be hunted as game in Australia is now protected as part of an international agreement with Japan.
So, I have seen rails and snipes - that leaves crakes. There are three types to choose from but so far, I have failed to see a single one - unlike the local naturalist Trevor Pescott whom I note in a recent article managed to snap a shot of a Baillon's Crake near the bird hide.
Clearly I need to spend some time sharpening my skills as a stalker...

10 December, 2011

All aflutter

Of course, birds are not the only winged creatures which in, on and beside the river. There is a whole host of insects which buzzes, flaps and crawls along the length of the river and were I an etymologist I would know significantly more about them than I currently do. What I do know however, is that some are more visible - and more attractive - than others.
With the arrival of the warmer weather have come butterflies. Not a huge variety - so far I have only seen two different types along the Barwon through Geelong - but certainly quite an abundance of those species which are there. In fact, so common is the Cabbage White Butterfly (aka cabbage moth), that on occasion as I have walked down the river, it has almost appeared to be snowing!
Cabbage White Butterfly
This is the first of the two types of butterfly I've spotted and probably not the most popular, owing to its tendency to lay its eggs on the leaves and stalks of some of our vegetables - not just cabbage, but broccoli and cauliflower too.
Cabbage White Butterfly on a Hop Goodenia
bush at Breakwater
The second species of butterfly is more elaborately patterned and at the moment in my estimation, somewhat more populous than the cabbage white. This is the aptly-named Common Brown Butterfly.
Common Brown Butterfly, Breakwater
As its name suggests, it is indeed quite brown and quite common. We've all seen them here and there, but a close look at their wings shows an intricate pattern of light and dark brown shading with that classic butterfly defense of "eye spots" which may act to fool predators into thinking they are being watched by a much larger, less palatable creature.
A quick scan of the literature reveals several facts about this particular species of butterfly. Firstly, it is believed that warming of the Earth's atmosphere is causing the Common Brown to pupate ten days earlier than it did some sixty years ago. Secondly, these little guys are responsible for pollinating many of our native plant species.
Common Brown Butterfly, Breakwater
This makes sense when you consider the number of native trees, shrubs and grasses which have been used to revegetate the section of the river through Geelong. The butterflies are attracted to our native plants by colour and smell. They use taste buds in their feet - yes, really - preferring flowers which are yellow, orange, purple, white or blue - which pretty much covers the colour range I've seen along the river. No wonder they like it there!
So far, I have been unable to find any other types of butterfly - or moth - including along the upper reaches of the river where I did not see a single butterfly on my recent excursion. I am informed however, that there have been over fourty different species of butterfly sighted in the Otways National Park. They must all have been hiding that day!

08 December, 2011

Doing the cycad stomp

On Monday I packed the kids off to school and headed for the hills - literally. I decided I needed a few extra photos for my annual Barwon calendar, but they just happened to be on parts of the river which were about as far away as I could get. Despite this, I decided I had time to make it there and back and get the shots I needed.
West Barwon Dam, confluence of the West Barwon River
and Munday Creek
I made good time and snapped snapped away at the West Barwon Dam which was looking suitably vast on this sunny morning then headed for the east branch of the Barwon. Here I made a quick circuit of the lake, took more shots - including the one I needed for the calendar - and stopped for a break.
As I was sitting at a high point overlooking the lake, I read the strategically placed, but rapidly fading, information board. It informed me - as I knew - that early in its existence, the level of the lake was lowered by several metres after the upper part of the landslide which had originally dammed the river, gave way.
What happened next is still visible today.
Not surprisingly, the trees and other vegetation which had been submerged by the initial inundation had died off. When the water level fell after the partial collapse of the initial landslip, several metres of deforested bank was revealed. This provided an opportunity.
North bank of Lake Elizabeth (left) showing regrowth of land originally
covered by higher water levels
On the cool, shady north bank of the lake, the cycads took hold - the green fronds of tree ferns which were ideally suited to this environment came to dominate the land immediately above the water level. The myrtle beech trees, so common in other parts of the temperate rainforest found in the Otways, also took their opportunity.  From where I was sitting, a quick glance showed this quite clearly to be the case.
Amongst the myrtle beech and tree ferns on the north bank of Lake Elizabeth
On the opposite, more exposed bank I was informed, tussock grass found a niche and established itself.
Lake Elizabeth Beach from the north bank
Tussock grasses on Lake Elizabeth Beach
Looking at this bank from the opposite side, the definition does not seem to be as clear as on the north bank, however it is certainly different, more open and with less of a rainforest feel to it.
So, armed with the necessary photos and some new information, I completed my circuit and headed once again for the lower reaches of the Barwon.

03 December, 2011

Hop to it!

Whilst the recent rains have been good for our gardens, they have not been entirely beneficial for the river and its inhabitants as I mentioned in my last post. There is one group of river-dwellers however, for whom the deluge has been a boon. These are the frogs which live in and beside the Barwon. In the days following all the rain, I was at Jerringot Wetlands and the first thing I noticed was the almost deafening increase in the frog noise.
Spotted Marsh Frog Spawn at Jerringot Wetlands near
Barwon Valley Golf Course
They seemed to be everywhere, which is great news for the Barwon and surrounding wetlands but perhaps just a little surprising given the amount of pollution I found in some places. As everyone knows, frog populations are very sensitive to the presence of pollutants in their habitats, but these little guys were croaking away regardless.
In fact, not only were they making a racket, they were also leaping into their breeding cycle with alacrity. When I looked closely in amongst the reeds and rushes at the edge of the Barwon Valley Golf Course, it seemed riddled with frog spawn. The conveniently placed information board next to the path informed me that as far as frogs went at Jerringot, I had four species to choose from. They were the Common Eastern Froglet, the Growling Grass Frog (Warty Bell Frog), the Ewing's Tree Frog (Southern Brown Tree Frog) and the Spotted Marsh Frog.
Spotted Marsh Frog spawn in drain leading from
Gravel Pits Road to the Barwon River
I was soon able to identify the frogs eggs I was seeing as belonging to the Spotted Marsh Frog, both from their appearance and the calls I was hearing in the vicinity. The sign also informed me that this frog has a call like two stones being knocked together which is a very apt description indeed.
Great! So I could see the eggs and hear the frogs...but finding a specimen was another matter entirely. Between the murky water and overly long grass, it seemed that I didn't have a hope. And up to the present point, that continues to be the case.
It is now a week since we had all the rain. The ephemeral water supplies are gradually receding, leaving some of the eggs high and dry and the frog noise, whilst still there is noticeably reduced.
Of course, the tiger snake who appeared beside me in the grass at Jerringot today was probably fairly keen to reduce the frog noise himself - frogs being their dietary staple. Hmmm...pity I didn't read that bit on the website about tiger snakes often being found close to frog habitats before I went looking for frogs!
So, for now, the quest to photograph some of the Barwon's hoppers continues...