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May B-mail 2016

Hanging Out for Winter

These buddies like it when the weather cools down

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

Welcome Swallow: Jim BendonWelcome Swallows

This May, get ready to welcome a chirpy family to your neighbourhood — the gregarious little Welcome Swallows!

This month, you can spot your new neighbours almost anywhere — flitting around gardens, parks, city buildings, and over water bodies like lakes and ponds as they move closer into our urban areas looking for food in the colder months. You’ll likely also see them perched in rows on powerlines, particularly during the early morning hours and evenings like this one here.

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Butterflies distribution mapDistribution map of the Welcome Swallow Hirundo neoxena.

These magnificently coloured swallows have a distinctive glossy blue back, which contrasts with their earthy orange forehead and throat. Although tiny, Welcome Swallows have long, deeply forked tail that is unique among birds and will help you recognise them as they flit around.

This month, Welcome Swallows are moving around a lot in search of their favourite insect meals. If you have lots of flying insects hanging around your place, chances are the Welcome Swallow will be moving into your area.

Welcome Swallows are a very handy guest to have in the garden because of their voracious appetite for insects! They eat their own body weight in winged insects every day. Some of their favourites are mosquitoes, flies, moths, midges. They are very effective natural bug controllers, so avoid using chemicals or pesticides and let the Welcome Swallows do it all for you.

Welcome Swallows catch their moving meals in a spectacular fashion. Their long tapered wings allow them to glide and dive like acrobats while catching up insects in their beak. They are often seen hawking their prey above water, which their shimmering dark blue back camouflages with magnificently.

Three baby swallows looking a little squished in their nest.
This adult Welcome Swallow is collecting mud for a nest.
Some juveniles snuggling for warmth.
Three baby swallows looking a little squished in their nest.Photo: Ralph Green.

Welcome Swallows are Australia’s most commonly seen swallow. After venturing out of caves and cliffs, where they once exclusively built their nests, these birds are now very adaptable. Welcome Swallows can be found almost anywhere where there is fresh water and space to hunt for insects. They are common all over central, southern and eastern Australia, stretching all the way from southern Tasmania to the Torres Strait.

These bird buddies are very family-orientated and usually raise two broods of 3-5 chicks each season from August to March. They are so nurturing that they will happily adopt an orphaned chick as one of their own! Watching a Welcome Swallow building its nest is like watching a talented artist in action. They seem to defy gravity by building nests against vertical structures like the walls of houses and city buildings, as well as the eaves of barns, garages, verandas, sheds and underneath bridges and rafters.

The secret to the Welcome Swallow’s gravity-defying nest is mud. They make their
soup-bowl shaped nest from mud scooped up from a nearby water source, along with grass and a lining to warm the chicks. This lining is made of feathers, fur, twine, wood shavings, bark and even shell and nylon fishing line. When you brush your pets fur or your own hair, you should consider disposing of it in your garden as these swallows will happily use it to line their nests. Click here to see some cute Welcome Swallow chicks in their feather-lined mud nest.

Welcome Swallows have a very cute, twittering call that you will often hear before you see them. Here is a little swallow calling from a fence post.

You can help Welcome Swallows by placing an elevated water dish or a birdbath in your backyard. This provides water to help them make their nests, along with a cool drink for swallows and other birds all year round. Keeping the dish high above the ground helps Welcome Swallows keep safe. Their small size makes them vulnerable to attacks by cats and other predators on the ground.

Avoid removing Welcome Swallow nests if you see one at your home or work. The chicks leave the nest after 2-3 weeks, so the family won’t be there for long. If the nest blocks a common entryway, you can deter Welcome Swallows from nesting here again by using plastic netting or poultry wire with a mesh size of 2 cm. Avoid using thin, flexible netting that can trap and harm swallows.

Welcome Swallows get their name from sailors who knew that land was close by when they caught sight of these water and land loving birds.

Moaning Frog Photo: Kyle WilliamsDouble Trouble Frog Buddies

There are two frog buddies warming up their vocal chords in Perth and WA’s south west this month. Keep an ear out for the spooky Moaning Frog’s call and the ‘bonk, bonk’ call of the Western Pobblebonk.

As the temperature cools down and the first heavy autumn rains fall, Male Moaning Frogs begin to call out for mates for about a month. You’re likely to be hearing their long, drawn out, mournful calls from the burrow right now if you live in the south west of Western Australia. Moaning frogs are common in and around Perth, especially in backyards and gardens near wetlands and waterways.

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Orb Spider mapDistribution map of the Moaning Frog, Heleioporus eyrei (Green) and the Western Pobblebonk Frog, Limnodynastes dorsalis (Pink).

Male Moaning Frogs act a bit like a choir and synchronise their calls, so it can get quite loud! Their call can also sound pretty spooky on a quiet night. Click here to listen to the Moaning Frog’s mating call.

Now that autumn is well and truly underway, male Moaning Frogs are energetically making burrows in low-lying areas near flowing waterways and sandy swamps. A Male Moaning Frog must dig his burrow before winter for a very important reason – the floods are coming!

It takes some time for a male Moaning Frog to attract a female to his burrow with his calls. Once a female enters the burrow the male grasps her with his front legs in a kind of embrace called ‘amplexus’. He then fertilises the 80 to 500 eggs she lays in a foamy mass at the bottom of the burrow. Their mating will usually take place from April to June.

Around your area, you may also hear a single explosive ‘bonk’ from a hidden spot in the dense undergrowth at edge of a stream, lake or your backyard pond. These calls can carry quite a distance, and they need to. Mr Pobblebonk calls to entice a female to his watery paradise!

The Moaning Frog can be hard to see in its burrow.
The Moaning Frog gets its name from its weird call.
This Western Pobblebonk Frog sounds like it's name.
The Moaning Frog can be hard to see in its burrow.Photo: Doug Beckers.

Calling begins as early as May for northern Pobblebonks, and from June-August in and around Perth. Here’s a large male calling from a backyard pond.

If you are lucky enough to spot a Pobblebonk as it moves in the undergrowth, you will be able to recognise it from a number of distinctive markings. They can be pale brown to dark chocolate with areas of deep green or olive. They also have big glands that look like lumps on their back legs.

Unlike the Moaning Frog, the Pobblebonk breeds on the water’s edge, not in burrows. When a female likes the sound of a male’s ‘bonk’ she hops with him to the water’s edge, to a spot hidden by overhanging leaves and plants. She beats the surface of the water as she lays her eggs into a floating, foamy raft-like structure, and the male fertilises them.

When the eggs hatch, the tadpoles fall through the foam and into the water below. They can be up to 8 cm long! Pobblebonk tadpoles develop very slowly, and turn into little froglets from early summer through to April.

Having frogs in and around your backyard is a sign that the environment there is healthy. Avoid using pesticides or chemicals in your backyard as rain will send the run-off into waterways. Frogs absorb moisture through their skin and can get sick if they absorb chemicals too.

To encourage frogs in your garden, why not establish a pond? The further you can put it away from your home, the less you will hear the frogs calling at night. Even an old plastic paddling pool or bath full of rainwater will make a good home for frogs. Find out more about establishing a frog pond here.

A pond or wet area in the garden is a good place for frogs, but they will love it even more if there is some shelter nearby to hide in or sit on. Shelter could include plants, logs, rocks, leaf litter or mulch around your pond. Don’t take logs or rocks from bushland or reserves as they are likely already a home to animals living there. If you have a swimming pool, you might also like to have a large stick or rope hanging into the water, so that any animals such as frogs which fall into it can climb out again safely.

Both the Moaning Frog and Western Banjo Frog will bury themselves in the hot summer months and enter a dormant state while they wait for the weather to cool down and the rain to come.

Curlew Photo: Geoff WhalanBush Stone-curlew

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.

There are two different sides to this particular Northern Territory story.

The first is a scream in the night, a wail like no other you have ever heard, followed by more of the same that makes the hair on the back of your neck rise.

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The other, much less melodramatic, are our fantastic Park Rangers and their little mate Wilson.

Wilson is great at camouflage.
The surprise eggs laid by \"Wilson\".
Bush Stone-curlews in the desert.
Wilson is great at camouflage.Photo: Clare Oearce.

Wilson is a bird, a Burhunys grallarius, known to his friends as a Bush Stone-curlew or Bush Thick-knee. Wilson knows the Rangers well and has been visiting them for around five years now. They recognise the otherworldly screams that echo through the night as his calling card, letting them know that he is there as he communicates with other curlews or warns off predators.

Like other Bush Stone-curlews, Wilson is a ground dwelling bird, slim, with long legs and enormous yellow eyes and white eyebrows. With grey brown feathers streaked in places with black and reddish stripes, Wilson blends in well with the surrounding landscape.

A curlew's main defence is itsperfect camouflage. When they freeze motionless they almost disappear. This is fine if the hunter is using their eyes but it doesn’t help when
hiding from animals that use their noses to hunt. In some parts of Australia Bush Stone-curlews are becoming less common due to habitat loss and predation by introduced hunters like feral cats and foxes.

These odd looking birds are nocturnal hunters of things creepy and crawly and Wilson would appreciate a squishy frog or crunchy spider as much as the next bird. In hard times, he would even eat small tubers or seeds that he would find on the ground.

Bush Stone-curlews have a rather beautiful courtship dance. They stand with wings and neck outstretched and tail upright and stamp their feet rhythmically. They do this for quite some time, calling loudly all the while. They appear to spend a lot less time on housework however as they go on to lay their eggs in a simple shallow scrape on the ground instead of a nest.

The tricky thing for the Rangers is that Mr Wilson and Mrs Wilson look almost exactly the same. There is no difference between the colouring and shape of male and female Bush Stone-curlews.

Wilson recently surprised his friends at the Ranger Station by laying two rather beautiful speckled eggs! Both parents share parental duties so the real Mr Wilson is definitely nearby somewhere.

Photo: Kay MuddimanWhat's in Your Backyard?

Converting Dams to Living Wetlands - by Kay Muddiman

When we bought our rural property thirteen years ago, the one very small dam was basically a bare muddy ‘hole' in the paddock, so we decided to convert it to an environmentally friendly wetland!

As the dam is very close to our house we fenced it off so it now forms an extension of our garden. We removed as many of the weeds as possible (an ongoing process!) and planted native She Oaks below the high side of the dam, along with some non-invasive deciduous trees around the other side for autumn colour.

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Before the bare damn was transformed.
A recent photo of the amazing transformation of Kay's dam into a wildlife oasis.
One of Kay's visitors – a White-necked Heron.
Before the bare damn was transformed.

Planting some exotic plants may horrify the ‘purists’, however we believe that there is really no part of the planet that isn’t changed by the hand of humans, so we attempt to embrace change, whilst endeavouring to reduce its impact. We believe that with care, natives and some (non-invasive) exotics can be blended successfully.

After this initial planting, progress halted as we descended into a big drought — the dam reduced to a puddle and it was hard enough to keep what we had already planted alive, let alone anything else. When the drought eased we re-commenced planting the native understorey, along with various native grasses and other plants along the dam edge. We still have a way to go, but at last our once bare dam is starting to look something like the vision we have for it.

We have been rewarded with the vast increase in birdlife, especially small birds who
rely on thick understorey for protection and nesting. This past spring we had four
species of birds nest and raise their chicks in the area — Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Peewees (Magpie Larks), Superb Fairy-wrens and Willy Wagtails. As well as the resident Wood Ducks, we are also regularly visited by waterbirds such as herons, ibis and grebes, not to mention the occasional Pied Cormorant and Darter.

It’s good to feel that we are contributing, even in a very small way, to repairing some of the damage that has occurred to the Earth’s biodiversity in the name of development and progress. So, if you have a bare farm dam, why not consider converting it to a 'living wetland'? Even if you have livestock that rely on the dam for water, this can still be accomplished by pumping water to troughs, or even leaving stock access to just a section of the dam. I guarantee that your efforts will be worthwhile!