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July B-mail 2016

Lighting up Winter

Cold, dark winters are no deterrent for these bright buddies

This issue of B-mail was written by Felicity Harvey.

Yellow Robin: David CookYellow, Round Robins

This month bright yellow robins in the east and west of Australia will be lighting up your winter garden with their cheeky personalities and colourful outfits.

It’s breeding time for these colourful characters so expect some showing off from the males. They breed from July to January each year, and can lay up to three clutches of eggs during this time.

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Yellow Robin distribution mapDistribution map of the Eastern Yellow Robin, Eopsaltria australis (Green) and the Western Yellow Robin, Eopsaltria griseogularis (pink).

Small families of robins establish a territory and base themselves there for a season or even the whole year. Look out for the female building the nest and sitting on her eggs.

The nest, made of woven bark and grass and bound with spider webbing, is placed high up in a tree fork, usually 5 meters but sometimes reaching up to 20. Dig out your binoculars to spot the nest, as these birds do their best to disguise it with lichen or moss and leaves. Here’s a video of mum and dad raising their babies from nest building all the way through to babies leaving the nest.

East to west, these yellow robins are unusually confident and gutsy. The Eastern and Western Yellow Robins are well known for their friendliness and approachability. As an added bonus, they’re not too hard on the eyes, either, with their sunshine coloured chests.

The Eastern Yellow Robin is found in the east and south-east of the Australian mainland. They mostly stay along the coast, although they do reach quite far inland in some areas. They prefer damp places and being near a water source. Like all robins, they love a dark, shady place to scope out the scene and look out for food or potential threats.

The female robin will make the nest and incubate her eggs.
For such small birds, they sure eat a lot of insects.
The Western Yellow Robin has grey feathers under its chin.
The female robin will make the nest and incubate her eggs.Photo: David Lochlin.

The Western Yellow Robin is sometimes called the Grey-brested Robin because unlike their eastern cousins, the western robin has an added grey patch on its chest.

To encourage yellow robins into your garden, provide a water source with a few shallow bird baths and a good mix of local natives. Here's a good site to help you find good local natives to plant. These yellow robins love areas with lots of tall shrubs under bigger trees that provide a forest canopy overhead.

These are fun buddies to watch. Yellow robins often hang out on the side of a tree trunk. It’s a great vantage point from which to watch for their favourite prey – flies, moth, spiders, and other insects. These robins catch most of their food on the ground by pouncing on it from a low perch. Watch this yellow robin chick get fed insect after insect from its parent.

Eastern Yellow Robins follow birds that rake up the leaf litter such as Lyrebirds and Brush
Turkeys. The robins then pounce on any insects exposed. If you’re doing any gardening and digging, you may just find an Eastern Yellow Robin is eying you from not too far away.

Avoid using bug spray to ensure that robins and other flycatchers will have plenty of healthy insects to make a meal of in your garden.

You can also plant insect attracting plants to ensure robins are well fed. Some good natives to plant are:

  • Sigma Weeping Wattle, Acacia verniciflua, which grows in central Victoria.
  • Southern Cypress-pine, Callitris gracilis, which grows in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.
  • Little Spotty, Eucalyptus mannifera (dwarf form), which grows in East Gipsland (Victoria) and the Mitta Mitta Region.
  • Edna Walling Wild Wisteria, Hardenbergia comptoniana, which grows in the coastal forests of south-western Australia.

  • TIP
    While they are notorious for popping in on a picnic and freely helping themselves to food, be careful when it comes to treats. As with all native animals, they’re accustomed to a very different diet to ours, and what’s considered a sweet snack for humans could be very harmful to the robins.

    The earliest of early birds, Eastern Yellow Robins are among the first to be heard at the crack of dawn with their series of trills and piping. Their voice is high and bell-like, with ‘chop-chop’ sounds and brief, sharp whistles. You might recognise this call. Their scientific name, Eopsaltria, appropriately translates to ‘dawn-harper’.

    Banksia Photo: David MidgleyCandles in the Bush

    When it comes to banksias, which side are you on? Do you see them as the creepy big, bad banksia men of May Gibb’s imagination? Or do their bright winter flowers light up your garden and the bush?

    The tapping and scraping at your window and the creepy looking shadows dancing on your walls can send your imagination running wild at night. If you’ve got a banksia bush in your garden, you’ve probably noticed the gnarled trunk and little banksia men leering from behind their bushy beards. Fear not! This cultural icon has a much more beautiful side.

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    Orb Spider mapDistribution map of banksias.

    When most flowers have disappeared during the cold winter months, many banksias are still going strong, their candle-like flowers dripping with nectar for winter buddies to feast on.

    Australia has over 70 different species of banksia. You can see banksias all around Australia’s coastline in a variety of forms, from ground covers to trees over 25 metres tall. The banksia gets its name from the well-known English Botanist Joseph Banks who documented the plant on his travels with Captain Cook on the Endeavour. Many banksias do most of their flowering in autumn and winter so now is the perfect time to see them.

    Flowering in winter, when there are few other flowers out, makes banksias a vital winter food source to lots of animals. Black Cockatoos love munching on the seedpods and lorikeets, wattlebirds, parrots, honey-eaters and possums love to drink up the flowers’ nectar. Insects and butterflies also love visiting the banksia to drink from the large, sweet flowers. All these animals give back by helping to pollinate the banksia.

    Click here to see different animals feeding on the banksia.

    The flowers that the banksia produces are as beautiful as they are bizarre. They come in different colours and sizes but are always made up of a bristly spike with hundreds of little flower stalks coming out of it. The most common colours for banksia flowers are red, yellow or orange.

    Candle-like flowers light up the bush.
    Do the seed pods look like big, bad banksia men to you?
    The nectar from banksia flowers is an important food source to lots of animals, especially in winter.
    Candle-like flowers light up the bush.Photo: David Ansen.

    When the banksia has finished flowering, the remaining seedpods will stay with the plant until a fire passes through (the banksia has special roots that help it survive fires) or the sun completely dries them out, at which point the seeds will pop out. When you look at the dried up seedpods, they sometimes appear to have faces. This is what Australian writer May Gibbs used in her stories about Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

    The big, bad banksia men were the baddies in May Gibbs’s book. They used to try and steal the little gumnut babies. May Gibbs wrote her stories 100 years ago but they’re still great reading today. Next time you see a banksia tree, use your imagination like May Gibbs did and see if you can make out some naughty little banksia men.

    Other Australian artists and craftspeople have used the banksia in their work. The woody trunk of the banksia has a very attractive colour inside often used for decorative
    panelling. You might have some coasters or a vase in your house made out of banksia
    seed pods.

    The banksia men are not so bad. They love the surf, beautiful deserts and just hanging out in your backyard. Click here to see their good side. Have a look at a banksia tree next time you pass one and see if you can spot the banksia men. Have a camera with you in case they try to run away with a gumnut baby!

    The banksia is a garden favourite and there are plenty varieties to choose from. Planting a banksia in your garden will bring all sorts of birds, insects and little mammals into your backyard. For more information, here is a good video.

    The banksia is over 40-50 million years old. No wonder these guys often looked so stooped with age.

    Banksia nectar makes good bush tucker, and was used by Aboriginal people for a sugar hit. They sucked nectar from the flowers or swirled the cobs in water to make a sweet honey drink.

    sick cockatoo Photo: Long Road PhotographyPlease Don't Feed the Animals

    By Ranger Clare Pearce, Community Education Officer and Katherine Region Junior Ranger Coordinator, Parks and Wildlife Commission of the N.T. NT Parks and Wildlife is on Facebook. Click to have a look.

    Every now and then Rangers need to have difficult conversations with Park visitors and on a recent trip to Rainbow Valley in Central Australia, Ranger Jo had to have one such conversation regarding a little Singing Honey-eater. She needed to chat to a man about why feeding this bird wasn’t as fun as he thought it was going to be.

    Native animals do not need to be fed people food, they are adapted to one type of diet and tucker such as sausages or other picnic food is definitely off the menu. Their surrounding environment supplies all the food they require. Extra calories and unusual tit-bits found in and around campgrounds and gardens will cause all sorts of problems.

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    Hand-feeding native animals can have many unintended consequences. An overweight critter has as many of the same difficulties in life as an overweight person and people food doesn’t always contain the right balance of nutrients to keep an animal healthy.

    Birdbaths are a great way to still see birds up close but without harming them.
    Feeding wild animals is bad for their health as well as your safety and comfort.
    Ranger Jo looking out for the little Singing Honeyeater.
    Birdbaths are a great way to still see birds up close but without harming them.Photo: John Skewes.

    An increase in food can result in an increase of animals being born, leaving their natural food in short supply. Unnaturally large numbers of animals in one area can lead to increase stress that can result in them becoming susceptible to disease.

    Another consequence is that they tend to get far too close to people with the hope of getting a feed. This may seem great as you get to have a close look and take awesome photos but it can have tragic consequences.

    Animals that are comfortable with people come close and are easily caught and can be injured or killed. It’s not safe for us either as wild animals can sometimes be dangerous. They have sharp teeth and claws and can react in ways that you don’t anticipate.

    A goanna that has learnt that people will drop their sausage when it runs and hisses at
    them can be a scary beast indeed. Dingos are as dangerous as any other wild dog and
    the talons of kites can go straight through your hand as they swoop.

    Crows are known for their ability to break into tucker boxes and backpacks once they figure out how. Whatever the animal, their behaviour can have a negative impact on your big day out to say the least.

    Having fun in nature is great, feeding native animals is not. Feeding native animals is unnecessary. It makes them sick and creates situations where an animal becomes a problem leading to them needing to be relocated or in the worst cases, destroyed.

    So please remember, dispose of all food waste appropriately and do not feed the animals.

    Photo: Jan ThomasWhat's in Your Backyard?

    Sea Change - by Jan Thomas

    My husband and I left Sydney 16 years ago and moved down the far south coast of NSW, right by the sea. After 15 years the salt eventually got to us and we recently decided to move to the next town 5km away and buy a property away from the salt air.

    Before we moved, people said to us there is a lot more wildlife in the town of Dalmeny. So here we are, about 7km north of Narooma, up on a hill where we can still see the ocean and marvel at all the wildlife.

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    The Crimson Rosellas hanging out in Jan's trees are beautiful to watch and listen to.
    Kookaburras are a common visitor in many Australian gardens.
    Jan helps out all her birds by providing fresh water for them in a birdbath.
    The Crimson Rosellas hanging out in Jan's trees are beautiful to watch and listen to.

    Our Backyard Buddies are such a delight. We don’t have a very big backyard, just a normal sized block. We’re probably about 100 metres from the bush with houses in between and about 300 metres from the sea. Narooma is surrounded by National Parks.

    In our yard we have a big maple tree, a huge gum tree next door which hangs over our fence, a small macadamia tree, a few flowering red quinces along the fence, some other small native shrubs and some lawn. Also our neighbour’s Jacaranda overhangs our yard, which the local lorikeets just love.

    Even though we have neighbours quite close, it does not stop the wildlife—we have birds galore such as King Parrots, owls, ducks, Crimson Rosellas, ravens, Currawongs, magpies, Magpie Larks, Satin Bower Birds, swallows, wrens, Masked
    Lapwings, Rainbow Lorikeets, Black Cockatoos, and many more.

    Our most recent additions, reared by the Red Wattle Bird, are two Common Koels (cuckoo birds). As well as plenty of birds, we also have the possums (one is huge), bandicoots, a big Blue Tongue Lizard, and two to three Red-necked Wallabies.

    Every morning is a delight. We look out into our yard to see what is there. We do not feed anything because it is not good for wildlife, but the birds love the birdbath that we keep filled with fresh water every day. This lets us see the huge range of birds in our area up close.