After my adrenaline-pumping rock climbing fiasco, it’s time for a complete change of pace. Sit back, relax, and let me take you on a little journey into the wild.
Unlike the unfortunate experience of Christopher McCandless, it won’t end in your demise. It’s time to share what’s died, survived, thrived, and arrived in my private wildlife sanctuary.
A visitor once called my 1/2 acre block “an oasis in an urban apocalypse”. At first I thought this an exaggeration, but after watching surrounding bushland being wiped out on a grand scale by development, I’m beginning to think it’s not hyperbole.
The house may be tiny, old, and badly in need of repair, but being surrounded by greenery and wildlife has helped me cope with city living.
Thankfully, my elderly neighbour, Clare, had a similar approach. For seven years we joyfully shared the snakes, lizards, possums, birds, bats, and butterflies. After she died, her family home and trees were bulldozed, and the land subdivided for new housing.
This year I’ve had several offers from developers. The stress of paying off a loan into my old age, high council rates, and not being able to afford necessary repairs makes it highly tempting. However, selling to these companies is akin to signing a death warrant for the vast number of flora and fauna species that live here. Developers place a market value on the land and home, but not on the thousands of lives which depend on this small, but increasingly vital habitat.
To me it’s not a one-directional relationship though. If we nurture nature, nature will nurture us. I owe a great deal to this little patch of wild. To save money, preserve my rapidly deteriorating joints, and reduce my negative impact on the environment, I rarely drive to distant and challenging solo hiking destinations now. Much of my spare time is spent deriving solace from the natural world in my own backyard.
I’m extremely lucky not to be desperate enough to sell just yet. The situation could change rapidly though. While it remains, I invite you to discover the creepy, the cuddly, the weird, and the wonderful lives that share this sanctuary.
To begin our journey into the wild, here’s a very rough clip I made one morning of bird sounds in the canopy. The picture quality is poor, but if you turn up the volume you’ll hear the cacophony of birdlife. If personal circumstances and world events are causing you distress, I hope this provides a few moments of escape.
At first glance, my green patch appears to be a chaotic jumble of plants growing without any plan. A farming relative was aghast that I’d paid good money for “wild scrub.”
There is order in the chaos though. There are patterns, shapes, and intricate designs already existing in the natural world that we don’t create.
There is order in the flowers, leaves, trunks, butterfly wings, and bird feathers. Viewing the natural world under a microscope opens up a hidden world of design. Nature also has its own rhythms, cycles, and seasons.
While contemplating the inhabitats of my garden and pondering world events, I’ve been reminded of these words from Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall.
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out”
While I do have permanent residents, many are daily and seasonal visitors. Increasingly, my block also provides refuge to wildlife fleeing from bulldozers, drought, and bushfires. My yard is a dynamic environment. It is not limited by walls. The sky and ground provide constant access to all who need respite. Some just need brief sustenance and time to recover before relocating. Others have nowhere else to go and remain. None are caged.
When native trees are flowering, fruit bats (or flying foxes as they are commonly called) arrive at dusk to feast on nectar and the juicy pulp of fruit.
Sometimes a few remain during the day and continue to snack instead of returning to their colony, such as this little one that greeted me through my kitchen window one morning.
This has become more common during the drought and devastating bushfire season. Land clearing has also removed their food sources.
These migratory and nomadic creatures are regarded as a “keystone” species which help regenerate forests and keep ecosystems healthy through pollination and seed dispersal. Some of Australia’s hardwood species release nectar only at night, and depend on flying foxes for pollination. We do have some night-pollinating insects and mammals, but by far the best pollinators and seed dispersal agents of these hardwoods are flying foxes. Without flying foxes, many of these tall species will become genetically weak.
Flying foxes are also highly intelligent and affectionate. Wildlife carers of injured or orphaned flying foxes have reported them enjoying a massage, and even purring. They come to know their individual carers well and usually settle down after a day or so. Unlike smaller insect-eating bats, flying foxes do not use echo-location. They have excellent night vision and hearing like cats. Some have even dubbed them “flying cats” for these reasons.
Female bats are regarded as some of the world’s most devoted mothers and after losing their babies, have been known to search for their young and cry out for over a week. The young are completely dependent on their mother for the first few months. The baby attaches itself to a nipple in the mother’s armpit and grips around her waist with its hind legs so it can travel with her during her night feeding. After about six weeks, when they become too heavy to carry, the mother leaves her “pup” in a community managed creche while she forages.
Even though they hang upside down, flying foxes invert their bodies to prevent urinating and defecating on themselves. However, when they roost in large colonies, it is of course likely that some bats below may receive the deposits of those above. I’ve been the recipient of such fragrant gifts on a few occasions.
Like other bats, flying foxes have a special tendon with a ratchet-like mechanism in their legs. This lets them hang securely without needing to expend energy. They don’t always hang in this manner. Sometimes they sunbathe, belly-side up.
Bats are the only mammals capable of sustaining genuinely powered flight and their order Chiroptera literally means “hand wing.” If you look closely at the wings, they are actually four elongated fingers covered by a cutaneous membrane and they also have a thumblike digit. This is more obvious when you watch them climbing and crawling along branches – a very different action to birds using their feet and beaks. You can see this action towards the end of this short clip I took of flying foxes arriving at dusk to feast on gum tree blossom nectar.
Unlike my flying fox visitors, the common tree snake, Dendrelaphis punctulatus, is a permanent resident. These belong to the family Colubridae, meaning “rear-fanged” snakes. Some colubrids, like the green tree snake, have no fangs or venom. This means they eat their prey live or rely on constriction.
Their average length is around 1.2 metres, but they can reach 2 metres, such as this well-camouflaged specimen draped across my garden path. Can you spot it?
Because they eat frogs, skinks, and Asian house geckoes, common tree snakes will often be found close to, or entering homes in suburbia. Sadly, they are commonly mistaken for venomous brown snakes and killed. Mine do a wonderful job controlling introduced Asian house geckoes that bred prolifically inside my home and invaded the garden.
I have many of these slender beauties in my yard and have come to know a couple of individuals by sight. On hot days and during the drought, they appear for a drink when I sprinkle my bromeliads and orchids. I’m very fond of their large eyes, lovely sheen, and silent company, and was appalled recently to find a stray cat attacking one. I rescued the snake, but had little hope that it would recover. It had numerous deep wounds to its body and one eye.
Notice the pale blue colour around the scales. This occurs when they puff themselves up in defense, or after they’ve eaten a large meal and their skin is overly stretched.
Here are the Asian house geckoes that tree snakes help to control. While they have beautiful eyes and do keep the insect population down, these geckoes breed prolifically and compete with native species.
You can tell by the little spines on the tails and the clawed feet that they are of the feral variety.
Notice how they change colour easily to blend in with their surroundings.
If you’ve read my old garden posts you’ll know I have brushtailed possums living in my garage ceiling. Here’s a reminder of one snoozing in my garage during the day, in preparation for partying on my roof at midnight while I’m trying to sleep.
Brush-tailed possums are very territorial, but during the last decade one female has managed to defend her small patch and rear young. I caught this shot of her gremlin-eared baby riding on her back recently.
And here she is with a bulging pouch.
Brushtailed possums have adapted extremely well to suburbia, often using human made contructions such as ceilings and sheds for homes. They’ll eat natural foods such as nectar, flowers, fruit, leaves, and insects, as well as human-provided buffets such as dried dogfood, bin, compost and chicken pen scraps.
Sometimes it sounds like there are a dozen possums rather than just one or two as they thunder across my metal roof at night. Enjoying the company of wild creatures does require sacrifice on occasion.
Common ring-tailed possums haven’t adapted quite as well, perhaps because they tend to stay high in tree canopies to feed on flowers and leaves rather than venture down to the ground to access more food sources.
Interestingly, they will eat their own faeces to gain maximum nutrition from eucalypt leaves.
The ring-tailed possums on my block don’t utilise my buildings. They build dome-shaped nests, called dreys, hidden in tree canopies, such as this one right above my bedroom. I know when it’s venturing out at night as I hear a loud crash on my roof. Several ringtails may share a drey.
Ringtails use their strong white-tipped tails to grip and climb. Males help to care for the 1 – 3 babies, and will carry them on their back while the female is foraging.
Now to a critter that is a little less cuddly but unlikely to disturb my sleep or leave “interesting” perfumes. I often see the crescent-shaped trails of red triangle slugs, Triboniophorus graeffei, on tree trunks, pavers, and even my steps.
This is Australia’s largest native land slug and its name is derived from the red triangular shaped markings around its pneumostome (breathing hole). According to reference websites these can grow up to 15 cm long, but this one was closer to 20 cm.
This is not a slug you want to get rid of from your garden. It feeds on microscopic algae on tree trunks and hard surfaces like rocks, outdoor furniture and paths. In fact, sometimes you may find them in bathrooms. For someone like me who avoids bleaches and other strong cleaning products, an army of these slugs on my bathroom ceiling or shower walls would be ideal in the rainy months.
Like other leaf-vein slugs, they have indented patterns on their dorsum which resemble a leaf. They also have a strange defensive mechanism. Red triangle slugs can secrete a very sticky mucus that may glue down predators for days. This is different to the slippery slime it leaves as it moves. Unlike introduced slugs which have four tentacles, native slugs have only one pair. This species may also come in a few different colours including yellow, red, and cream.
Now I must apologise to the arachnophobes. We all have fears. I may not fear spiders, but I can assure you that I fear many other things.
I want to try to give some reassurance about these eight legged beauties though. In the ten years I’ve walked through my gardens, I’ve never been bitten by the many, many spiders that live here. In my half-century in Australia I’ve never been bitten either.
I’ve walked into numerous webs and had spiders crawl all over me.
I have been bitten or stung by ants, wasps, bees, mosquitoes, sandflies, ticks, mites, and marshflies during this time though.
During the drought I’ve seen fewer spiders. This is expected as the insect population has reduced and spiders compete with reptiles, frogs, birds, and predatory insects for food.
Spiders have their own predators such as birds, wasps and skinks and birds will often steal silk strands and food from webs.
This competition for food and predation by hungry birds seriously depleted my golden orb weaver population this year but this magnificent specimen has survived.
Did you know Australia has over 1500 species of native bees? I even saw one article reporting up to 2000 species, many of which are still to be scientifically named. They are extremely diverse in appearance and behaviour, and relatively few resemble the common introduced European honeybee.
The vast majority are solitary rather than social. Many make burrows in soil, rock or wood, utilise existing abandoned burrows, or use natural or human-made hollows and crevices. Some build free-standing nests.
Numerous species of native bees make use of my yard , including carpenter bees, resin bees, neon-cuckoo bees, tiny stingless native honey bees, and two of my favourites – the teddy bear bee and the blue-banded bee.
These two fly with a dart and hover pattern, which is faster and jerkier than honey bees. It can make them extremely difficult to photograph, unless you find them resting or cleaning themselves when they hold onto a stem with their “beak.”
Fuzzy golden teddy bear bees, Amegilla bombiformis, dig a 10 cm burrow in banks or rubble, usually with an overhanging shelter. At the end of the burrow they construct several waterproof-lined, urn-shaped cells. An egg is deposited in each cell along with pollen and nectar paste. However, like other solitary species, their burrows can be stalked by cuckoo bees, which deposit their own eggs in the cell.
An example are these neon cuckoo bees, Thyreus nitidulu, which usually stalk the nest of the blue-banded bee, Amegilla cingulata.
During construction of the host nest, the neon cuckoo bee deposits its own eggs in the cells. Its eggs hatch earlier and eat all the provisions meant for the blue-banded bee’s larvae.
There are many beautiful and useful pollinators frequenting my garden including these beeflies. Leaving my small patch of lawn (and weeds) unmowed helps attract these tiny, but important species.
Just a few minutes observing flowering plants near my front steps yielded these pollinator observations.
I also have many ant species which I attribute to not using pesticides. I let the birds, lizards, spiders and other insects control the unwanted ones. It’s not a perfect system of course, but better than wiping out many useful species with a generic poison.
This summer has seen the arrival of my first dragonflies, perhaps because their other water sources have dried up and my water filled bromeliads and bird baths offer emergency alternatives.
I was also thrilled to spot my first owlfly recently. Owlflies can be distinguished from other kinds of lacewings by their extremely long and often bi-coloured clubbed antennae.
Now it’s time for the traditonally pretty insect visitors – butterflies and moths. Perhaps a little more appealing than spiders, slugs, and snakes to many?
These are all the species I’ve managed to photograph this season. There are many more that eluded the camera.
For a few important reasons, there has been a strong anti-wildlife feeding message in Australia for many years, however, my own view now is that when we have removed so much habitat, and contributed to drought and bushfire through long term mismanagement of the environment, it is hypocritical not to provide help to wild creatures during their recovery and transition. Birds and flying foxes, for example, need sustenance to search for increasingly sparse and distant food sources. Frogs need water sources to keep breeding. By not giving vulnerable species a helping hand during a crisis, they may become extinct.
If you want to know how you can responsibly feed native birds in Australia, I urge you to read Feeding the Birds at Your Table: A Guide for Australia by Darryl Jones. In this long overdue book, Darryl discusses the important points you need to know about supplementing wild birds, and provides Australian research to back up these claims.
When over one hundred chestnut-breasted mannikins arrived one smoky day during a week of catastrophic bushfires, I was shocked.
In the decade I’ve lived here, I’d never seen one in my yard. After some extra care their feathers have regrown and the facial injuries have healed. They are now strong enough to move on. That is of course, if they have somewhere to go.
Stone bush-curlews also appeared one hot, gusty, smoke-filled afternoon after a long absence. This species forms monogamous couples and has an impressive courtship dance which may be repeated for an hour at a time.
They are mainly nocturnal feeders and their eerie, high-pitched wailing at night evokes thoughts of ghosts and murder. Often calls are made by several birds in chorus and as the Birdlife Australia website states, sometimes “culminates in a trilled, screeching crescendo.”
During the day, they are inactive and often go unnoticed by walkers because their plumage blends in perfectly with leaf litter. Their first defense is usually to remain perfectly still, but when this fails they will retreat, or attempt to defend young.
Bush stone-curlews eat a varied diet, usually from the ground – insects, seeds, small lizards, molluscs, and frogs. Apparently they have even adapted to eating poisonous cane toads.
This introduced amphibian has wreaked havoc on Australian wildlife. Sadly, I continue to find them in my yard, and rarely see native frog species, however now that the curlews have moved in, perhaps their numbers will be reduced.
INTERMISSION: I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey into the wild so far. Some birds such as magpies, currawongs, lorikeets, noisy miners, crows, and ibis have adapted well to urban life and their numbers have increased dramatically in my area. Others like water birds, small nectar feeders, and seed-eaters continue to struggle as we remove the habitat on which they depend. Stay tuned for Part II, where I share feathered tales of high romance, community spirit, epic battles, and murder.