The hunt for suburban wildlife

Since moving back to Melbourne from Alice Springs, I have had rather a lot of lifestyle adjustments to make. While it is good to be back within just-pop-over-for-a-coffee range of family and friends, I do miss the accessibility of the outback from Alice Springs. A half-hour drive from our house would put us well into the bush with the likelihood of bumping into another person at slim to none. In comparison, the sheer density of people within Melbourne is somewhat overwhelming. Even when seeking out parks and gardens that have good reputations for bird watching and other wildlife spotting, it is quite challenging having to share these scraps of nature with dog walkers, cyclists, and people talking loudly on their phones. I was downright spoilt in Alice Springs!

Challenging though it may be, my need to find and photograph wildlife has not diminished in the slightest. So, there are a few patterns in other people’s behaviour that I have noticed so far:

  • People are EVERYWHERE during school holidays, there is no getting around this
    • Not that surprisingly, this is especially true on weekends
  • Waterfalls and high vantage lookout points are massive drawcards for other people
  • Dirt roads seem to be deterrents
    • As are poor weather and long travel distances that do not end at a beach

Common Bronzewing, Phaps chalcoptera, Chelsworth Park, VIC

With this growing body of knowledge, the challenge has become more about finding a good location and the best time to visit. Surprisingly, we have already stumbled across a number of great spots that are curiously unpopular. And, where a location is teeming with people who regularly flush whatever animal you have managed to find, I have found the best solution is to switch from my zoom to my macro lens. Flowers, leaves and insects tend not to be disturbed by others walking past, and, for some reason, seeing a woman crawling through the undergrowth with a camera seems to attract less attention and questions than one pointing her camera at eye level or above.

A Sunday visit to King Lake National Park put all these theories to the test. The weather was clear and warmish (by Melbourne standards) and people were well and truly out and about. Motorcycle enthusiasts were taking advantage of the windy roads to and from the King Lake township and the Harley Davidson club members were holding a fund raising event in the picnic grounds of the National Park itself. So, the ambient noise of the park included the throaty roars of motorcycles on top of the general hum of people chatting. Bird sightings were few and far between and were limited to the more courageous and common species like Superb Fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus), Grey Fantails (Rhipidura albiscapa) and White-browed Scrubwrens (Sericornis frontalis).

But the mint bushes (Prostanthera sp.) were putting on brilliant displays with tight clusters of small white flowers. Delicate purple dappling filled the interior of the flowers with a little yellow landing spot on the lower petal to guide all manner of pollinating insects into the very centre. Although somewhat less native, bright purple thistles called to bees, which were already comically laden with massive pollen packets on each leg. A few pretty beetles were also spotted climbing up a particularly long blade of grass.

Then, like adjusting your focus to see the hidden 3D image in a Magic Eye, it wasn’t just a few of these beetles, but hundreds – probably thousands. They piled indiscriminately on every plant within a two-metre radius. Neon orange abdomens poked out from under metallic olive green elytra, and each beetle sported a matching orange collar around its ‘neck’ in startling contrast to the glossy black of the rest of its head. Only around 1.5cm, they scrambled over each other, often three or four animals deep.

Inspired and armed with the macro lens, I plunged into the leafy undergrowth and fitted a flash to compensate for the shade beneath the canopy. Having never used a flash outside during daylight hours, it was quite the experiment. Now curious about the beetles, I posted a couple of pictures on Twitter when I returned home and was rewarded by a quick response from Parks Victoria, who sent me a link to a brief article from CSIRO that identified the beetles as Plague Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus lugubris). It turns out that these beetles emerge from the ground, having matured from their larval state, climb the nearest plant and start breeding like crazy. Perhaps erroneously called ‘plague’ beetles, they don’t appear to eat the plants they are resting on, but the sheer weight of such large numbers of individuals on a single plant has been known to cause structural damage to smaller branches. The Plague Soldier Beetle is also known to secrete a milky substance that supposedly repels predators and acts as an anti-microbial treatment for their eggs. There was even some mention of ongoing research into this substance for its potential to be used as a human antibiotic or anti-cancer medication. However, I could not find any further information about this. If you would like to read the full CSIRO article, click here.

I also found some brilliant observations of the Plague Solider Beetle by kindergarten children. It reminded me that I should really take my niece and nephews into the bush more often.

The inner city and suburban parks have also been a real find. The wetlands in Royal Park were well established and easily navigable by the gravel paths and boardwalks, with plenty of park benches to get comfortable and just watch the birdlife. Even though most of the species we saw were “dirt-birds” (common as dirt), as expert bird watcher Chris Watson would say, the views we had were excellent. It was also really pleasing to see how many of the birds were breeding successfully, with lots of chicks and fledglings at various stages of development trailing after their parents.

Braeside Park was disappointingly full of rabbits, but it was also home to at least one enormous Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus). An unusually solitary Red-rumped Parrot (Psephotus haematonotus) fed contentedly beside the road, on the edge of the park, while I all but hung out of the car window snapping away at it. And two quarrelling Black-shouldered Kites (Elanus axillaris) flew over us at speed. Not only did I fail to get even a single shot of the kites, I didn’t even get a good look at them. I am a ‘photo-ticker’; I won’t count an animal sighting unless I manage to get a photo. This means that, much to Watson's dismay, I almost always favour my camera over my binoculars and often miss a good bird.

Many of the other parks we’ve visited in the last few weeks I feel are well worth a return visit. Churchill Island and Conservation Hill on Phillip Island were both very busy. While the animals were definitely there, the photo opportunities were not great with bike riders whizzing past and over excited P-platers practising their drifting skills on the gravel roads. Now that the school holidays are over, it may be much easier to find a good place to just sit and wait for the birds to come to us.

But there are so many different places to visit. Parks Victoria lists seventy National and State Parks alone, without counting all the council parks and gardens. It is going to be an exciting year, reacquainting myself with Victoria and its plethora of plants and wildlife.