Monday, 6 November 2006

Wildlife Observations on the Gold Coast

After receiving and reading our latest Ochre Archives Newsletter long time family friend, Athol Hodgson (who lives in the Gold Coast Hinterland) sent me a very informative email sharing his observations on the wildlife in his area. I subsequently sought and was given Athol’s permission to publish the main points in his email as a “guest Blog” which is what this now is.

You’ll notice when reading Athol’s comments that among other things he has observed a significant decline in the number of Magpies. This seems particularly curious. I suggested to Athol that perhaps the cane toads might have had some impact (due to the poisons that are in glands on their backs) and I also embarked on a bit of investigative research to see if I could find someone who was able to provide some scientifically based thoughts on the change.

On the research front, I contacted Toni McLeish, who works for the NSW Department of Environment and Conservation and coordinates the Grassy Box Woodlands Conservation Management Network. Toni kindly referred me to Greg Ford who is the Regional Coordinator - Vegetation and Biodiversity for the Queensland Murray-Darling Committee based at Toowoomba West. Greg in turn expressed interest in the case recommended that I approach one of the following groups:
* Birds Australia -
* Birds Queensland -
* Centre for Innovative Conservation Strategies, Griffith University –
* Assoc Prof Darryl Jones (at above centre) is an expert on wildlife in urban areas

I opted for Darryl, and received a very helpful and informative response, the main points of which also appear below.

Athol’s Observations
“Although I've not taken the time to do extensive studies of birds and animals, I am fascinated by them. Where we live here in the hinterland we are fortunate that there is an abundance of birdlife, particularly along Mudgeeraba creek, which is just a few hundred yards from our house as the crow flies, and the crows outnumber all the others put together. In fact, the entire Gold Coast is home to thousands! At Nobby Beach for a time, and I was amazed at the number of crows there. The first thing I noticed upon arriving on the Gold Coast was that the crows here have a different call. It is short and clipped as opposed to crows down South, and in the West. This, despite the fact that my brother told me a crow was caught in Greenethorpe (near central NSW), and was found to have a tag which was attached in Darwin! Are some crows migratory?

Here we see wattle birds, lorikeets, peewees, butcher birds, currawongs, (though not as many now for some reason). Ibis are also in abundance, and they have become a nuisance in recent times, being real scavengers. Down on the creek there are crimson rosellas, eastern rosellas and king parrots.

Magpies have largely disappeared, don't know why. Up until two years ago there were thousands. I am skeptical about the cane toads decimating them. If this was so, surely they wouldn't all disappear at once. Some three years ago we were visiting Tamworth, and at that time there was literally a plague of magpies, who hung around for a couple of months, then vanished, except for a few who stayed. We actually have two or three pairs here at present, but I have seen no young ones. I have found that they start nesting in August, and that applies to the bush where we lived, in Sydney, and the Gold Coast. However, I have not seen any young ones this season, whereas there was some last year.

Water dragons abound along Mudgeeraba creek.

We have been delighted to see the return of green tree frogs, but they only emerge after rain. Two nights ago there was a light shower and I spotted one on the back step. And three weeks back I went to water the plants (water restrictions now decree that we only use water cans) and I wondered why the water wouldn't come out. I found a green frog in the spout!

At a one acre block just five minutes from us, there are cockatoos and a family of plovers, which intrigue me, as they nest on the grass, not even in a hollow, and with no nesting material .Last summer they nested three times, as predators of some kind kept swiping their eggs. They finally managed to raise one chick. Large wood ducks can be seen almost daily on their land, and last summer a pair of crows nested in a tall gum tree just outside their front door.

Just after dark a couple of weeks ago near home a fox crossed the road in front of us. The sad thing is that development is going on at a great rate all over the coast, which means loss of habitat for many.

This morning I encountered my first cane toad for this season. They haven't been around, no doubt because we have had no rain to speak of. As with snakes, a lot of myths surround them. One story which I don't believe is that they spit deadly venom when cornered. In 1970 in North Queensland I encountered an average of six every night. We had an outside toilet there, and my wife wouldn't go down until I did the surveillance. Not one ever spat at me.

Last summer we were at my partner’s daughter's place- and there were hundreds of tiny toads in the grass. I suspect that the birds prey on them as they say the small ones don't have any venom. I recall the teacher at the Greenethorpe public school telling us about cane toads. That would have been about 1943, and as you know, the toads were introduced to control pests of sugar cane. As with most introduced species, this move was disastrous. Take the Indian Mynah. Sydney now has a plague of them.

Something else that I have discovered, when we were living in Meadowbank on the banks of the Parramatta river I befriended a pair of butcher birds, which I tamed fairly quickly and had them literally eating out of my hand. I read about them in two different bird books, and I found that a pair of birds occupies a certain area, and no other butcher birds are allowed there. However, the books didn't mention that every pair has a different call, unmistakably butcher bird, but a different melody. I discovered that very quickly. During our stay there, over about five years, I watched them nest each year, then was fascinated when the fledglings left as soon as they could fend for themselves. How they found an unoccupied area to move to I don't know.

Last night, upon arriving home in the dark, I spotted two small geckos under the eaves outside our garage. I've not seen any before. There are usually two per house I'm told.

I have always loved pelicans, and they are in abundance on the Gold Coast. You have no doubt heard how the pelicans that frequent Lake Eyre desert the lake as it dries up during drought, heading for the coast. Then when the rains come and the lake fills again, they fly back. No-one knows how they can work out that the lake has filled again. Another aspect of pelican life intrigues me. I have only ever seen adult birds. I just went into Google and accessed 'Pelicans' which tells me that the birds nest in secluded spots or on islands. The young stay in the nest for a month and then frequent a crèche for a further two months, when they join the adults. I have yet to find just where they nest, having visited secluded spots and islands.

When we came here four years ago, there were hundreds of lorikeets coming into our back yard each morning. We have grevillias growing outside our back fence, and they love to get the nectar from these. However, despite the fact that the grevillias had an abundance of flowers in spring, the birds have largely gone. It is now rare to see one pair. Curious!”

Assoc Prof Darryl Jones Thoughts on Athol’s Magpie Observations
“My first impression - is that the impression of a major decline in magpies is very likely to simply be an impression (!). They are one of the relatively small numbers of species that have thrived in the wake of urbanisation, while lots have disappeared. However, there are some current issues that could certainly be affecting things in a specific location. The first is that these birds are reliant on friable soil and short grass to obtain almost all their food. So when drought continues and the grass dries and the ground hardens they are in trouble. However, these birds also maintain their territories for life and I cannot imagine any natural conditions that would force them to leave their patch - apart from concreting the whole thing over.

And these territories are the exclusive domain of a single pair and whatever offspring may be hanging around since last breeding season. No other individuals are tolerated on these spots - unless, as sometimes happens, someone is feeding lots and the territorial system breaks down in the vicinity of a particularly rich scavenging site.

I am aware of some situations were people do poison birds - usually crows - and magpies are hit inadvertently.”

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