Z is for Bassian thrush (Zoothera lunulata) – guilty-looking ground scruffler of the understorey #MelaleucaMiscellany

One with worms, one with veg - on their way to a potluck, perhaps - excellent shot from Mick Brown.

One with worms, one with veg – on their way to a potluck, perhaps – excellent shot from Mick Brown.

And so we arrive at the last letter of the alphabet, the enigmatic Z.  Our alphabetical natural miscellany comes to a end, not with a bang, but with a scruffle, for Z is for Zoothera lunulata, a.k.a. the rather adorable Bassian thrush. I’d never seen a Bassian thrush prior to visiting Melaleuca, but since meeting them there, they have become firm favourites in the world of cryptic, little (mostly) brown birds.  Birdlife Australia describe them as “secretive”, so maybe it’s not surprising we only just met. Bassian thrushes seem to wear a permanent look of anxious guilt, as if you’ve caught them smoking behind the school tennis sheds. They are members of the unfortunately named Turdidae family, which also includes the similarly remorseful-looking blackbirds, who doubtless were smoking behind the tennis sheds, and probably ripping the moss of my bonsai plants, the little bastards.

So delicious!  This fabulous shot from JJ Harrison, via the Wikimedia Commons -  (jjharrison89@facebook.com)

So delicious! This fabulous shot from JJ Harrison, via the Wikimedia Commons – (jjharrison89@facebook.com)e hope of startling unwary visitors.  

Larger than many of the other LBBs, Bassian thrushes have the most beautifully patterned feathers, in colours from cream through to caramels, in toffee and coffee tones, their edges scalloped in a rich dark-chocolate.  Although they look quite delicious, do not be tempted to eat them! Bassian thrushes enjoy such pastimes as ground scruffling, turning over litter to find tasty bits of bug, fruit or worm, and also lurking around the bushwalkers’ huts in the hope of startling unwary visitors.

The bird that lived outside the backdoor of the Charles King Memorial Hut was convinced of its mad camo-skills.  Should you walk too close, it would take a couple of quick steps, then freeze in “invisible” mode, which unfortunately, was only effective in the dark. Another Bassian thrush regularly tempted fate by stealing blueberries from the Fenton-King residence.  It probably thought itself lucky to survive a close encounter with a flying hearth brush, when the wanton theft became too much for one of the bipedal residents to bear*.

Mick Brown captured this BT in Deny King's garden - could this be our blueberry thief?

Mick Brown captured this BT in Deny King’s garden – could this be our blueberry thief?

This is the final instalment of the Melaleuca Miscellany.  Many many thanks to all of the lovely people who’ve contributed photos and ideas to the series – I hope you all get to visit the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area one day, to experience the magic of Melaleuca for yourselves.

The Bassian thrush is so cryptic, I bet you can't even see it in this photo.

The Bassian thrush is so cryptic, I bet you can’t even see it in this photo.  Hint: it’s by the back door of the hut on the left, pretending it’s a feathery rock.

*N.B. – No birds were harmed in the making of this anecdote.

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X is for Xyris – sharp but gentle yellow-eyes of the buttongrass moor #MelaleucaMiscellany

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Tall yellow-eye, Xyris operculata, sans pretty flowers.

Xyris comes from the Greek for “cutting knife” or “sword”.  Fortunately, their leaves resemble dangerous weapons in shape only; unlike much of the vegetation of the button-grass moorlands, they are smooth and gentle on the skin.

There are four types of Xyris in Tasmania – these sedges are commonly known as yellow-eyes due to their quite showy, three-petalled yellow flowers, held aloft on elongated, loosely twisted stems.

Although Xyris flowers in summer, they were pretty much done by the time I made it to Melaleuca.  However, you can find many pretty photos of them on Flickr here.

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Xyris operculata, traditional ink-stylee, borrowed from classicnatureprints.com

W is for Wildflowers of the South West Wilderness #MelaleucaMiscellany

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Paper Daisy (Helichrysum pumilum) – important orange-bellied parrot tucker – its abundance is tied to the fire regime.

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Tiny Flannelflower (Actinotus bellidioides) – more important parrot food. The seeds of these furry flora are so tiny, it’s no wonder the OBPs spend all their time stuffing their feathery little faces – it’d be like trying to subsist entirely on hundreds and thousands.

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A pretty eyebright (Euphrasia) from Mount Beattie.

Triggerplant!  Proto-carnivore and insect basher.  When insects land on trigger plant flowers, a fused stigma/style swings around like a teensy botanical fist and thumps the unsuspecting invertebrate on the rear, thus disseminating the plant's pollen.  Trigger plants also have a sticky mucilage which is thought to allow them to trap and digest insects.  Double jeopardy!

Triggerplant! Proto-carnivore and insect basher. When insects land on trigger plant flowers, a fused stigma/style swings around like a teensy botanical fist and thumps the unsuspecting invertebrate on the rear, thus disseminating the plant’s pollen. Trigger plants also have a sticky mucilage which is thought to allow them to trap and digest insects. Double jeopardy!

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Purple death flowers!

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Epacrids!

V is for Vombatus ursinus! Cryptic wombats, and their roll-proof poo. #MelaleucaMiscellany

The wombats of Melaleuca are a cryptic lot, known only by their rather ambitious toilet habits.  Over the whole month we were in Melaleuca, I didn’t see a single wombat, probably because they are nocturnal, and I am not.  However, I did see a lot of wombat poo.

So boxy!  Wombat poo photo from Bjørn Christian Tørrissen http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html

So boxy! Wombat poo photo from Bjørn Christian Tørrissen http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html

Wombat toilet habits are unusual in two respects;

1. Wombat poo is cube-shaped.  I’m not quite sure how they manage this, but wombats manage to produce remarkably neat, flat-edged poos, which allows them to

2. Balance them on top of things!  Wombats like to poo at height, on rocks and logs, to mark their territories.  There was one at Melaleuca which regularly chose to ornament the boardwalk directly beneath the interpretation signage next to the airstrip.

As well as being talented toileters, wombats are also immune to ugly lights, and occasionally, unpredictably violent, towards both zoologists (perhaps deservedly), and also poets (completely uncalled for).

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Mmm, chocolate!

As I failed to see any wombats in Melaleuca, here is a picture of one that used to live at my house.

U is for Utricularia, a.k.a. Purple Death Flowers #MelaleucaMiscellany

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Pretty, aren’t they?

Don’t be fooled – beneath their pretty petals, these flowers hide a deadly secret.

Commonly known as fairy aprons, or more prosaically, as bladderworts, there’s a hint in their name of their dangerous nature.  Utricularia means “little bladder”, and it is this organ, buried beneath the sodden quartzite sands, that gives them their bite.

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Figure 1: Detail of insect-eating-apparatus – chilling!

Unlike venus fly traps, whose blood-thirsty capabilities are quite obvious, fairy aprons hide their insect-snaffling apparatus underground, like vicious, carnivorous grapes.

Utricularia bladders possess inward-opening doors or valves, and special hairs which are able to suck the water out of the bladder, maintaining internal pressure.  There are also stiff bristles surrounding the door to the bladder, which act as tripwires for unwary micro-beasts.  Should an unfortunate invertebrate (say, a rotifer) happen to swim by and accidentally brush against one of these bristles, it causes the door to open, sucking the tiny beast to its death in a swift, liquid swirl. Then the door closes, the trap resets, and all is still, until the bladderwort feeds again, bwahahahaa!

Eric and Lisa, the first OBP volunteers we met, suggested that “fairy aprons”, as a name does not adequately describe the micro-beast perspective of these sneaky plant carnivores.  They suggested that a more appropriate moniker might be “purple death flower”.  I am calling them that from now on.

Poet Ivy Alvarez has written a poem on fairy aprons, and their carnivorous cousins the sundew, which I quite like – read them here.

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Utricularia dichotoma, a.k.a. the Purple Death Flower.

T is for tiger snakes! Heaps of them, everywhere. #MelaleucaMiscellany

Snakes in trees! Photo courtesy of Mark Holdsworth

Snake inna tree! Photo courtesy of Mark Holdsworth

Melaleuca is rich in snakes.  Many of these snakes are tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus), and they’re often closer than you think.

February in Melaleuca was hot, and as such, the local snakes were on show, lazing about on jetties, around the huts, and occasionally, directly underfoot on the paths. Tasmania has only three native snakes – tiger snakes, copperheads and the much smaller white-lipped snake, which is an attractive olive green, and occasionally scares you by hanging around at head height in dense scrub.  Though they are all poisonous, and could potentially kill you if a bite went untreated, no-one has died from snake bite in Tasmania for decades.  According to the Parks and Wildlife Service, “far more people die from ant bites, peanuts or spouses than snakes” take from that what you will. 

Tiger snakes can be found just about anywhere, but in Melaleuca, there are at least two snakes who’ve worked out that nest boxes can be an excellent source of slow food.  On two separate occasions, both on very hot days, we watched two different snakes attempting to make their way into the nest boxes outside the rangers’ hut. The first snake was too heavy to get into the little branches that would have brought it close to the baby birds, but the second snake, pictured above, was much smaller and nimbler.

Four of us watched it for about two hours trying varying access points to get into the nest boxes, and Mark got a few photos, one of which is featured above.  The snake was very persistent, and appeared quite certain that a decent meal was nearby, making us wonder if it had frequented the nest boxes before.  The tree martins, who were occupying the nest, would occasionally flitter by anxiously, without making much impression on the patient reptile.

However, once the superb fairy wrens arrived, it was on.  A very fetching blue wren boy swooped the snake, saying something quite severe to it.  This was quickly followed by a yellow-throated honey eater, a scrub wren, and a New Holland honeyeater.  Rudest of all was a teensy grey fantail, apparently yelling something truly obscene in tiny-bird-speak as it danced back and forth within centimetres of the snake’s face.  After two hours of fruitless tree-climbing, this avian rudeness seemed to finally break the tiger snake’s spirit.  It backtracked back up the branch, chased by tiny birds all the while, then attempted a graceful descent down the main trunk.

It did this by wrapping its tail like a slipknot around the trunk, before allowing gravity to take it, a foot at a time, down the tree.  This worked fine for the first couple of metres, but then the snake appeared to lose its grip, and fell a couple of metres into the cutting grass below.  The birds were placated, and went back to their regular business.

S is for superb fairy wrens – true-blue root-rats of the bird world #MelaleucaMiscellany

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“Helloooo laydeez!” Good looking wren supplied by Mick Brown.

Fairy wrens, eh?  Are they naughty or what?

Famously described by Sir David Attenborough as “the most promiscuous bird known”, much research has been done into the convoluted and apparently quite permissive sex-lives of these rather adorable tiny blue birds and their little brown lady friends.  Both sexes of superb fairy wrens (Malurus cyaneus) are socially monogamous (staying in the same partnerships), but sexually promiscuous (self-explanatory).

Whilst I could tell many entertaining anecdotes about the louche behaviour of fairy wrens, my favourite one, which I learnt about in a short piece by Mary Kille in edition 55 of Yellowthroat (newsletter of Birds Tasmania), regards the peculiar practice of furgling.

Furgling (anecdotally, a word which is a portmanteau of burgling and something else risqué that starts with ‘F’), is a practice known from several species of wrens, which involves the exchange of floral tributes for sexual favours.  Whilst in humans, these exchanges are traditionally male-to-female in nature, in fairy wrens, it’s strictly men’s business.

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Hot-to-trot male superb fairy wren, courtesy of Charlie Price.

Fairy wrens live in family groups where there is usually one dominant male, identified by his brilliant blue breeding plumage, who is accompanied by a number of females and immature birds of both sexes.

Say you are a young, good-looking, virile blue wren fellow, who is yet to acquire a harem of his own.  Say you chance upon a harem that belongs to someone else, and you have taken a fancy to one of the lady wrens within it.  You cannot just go up to her and ask her for her phone number.  She has a boyfriend, and there are protocols which must be followed.

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You pluck a petal from a lovely flower.  Let’s say it was a forget-me-not.  You take this petal to her boyfriend, and offer it to him, in exchange for some sexy-time with his lady-friend.  He scoffs at your offering, questions your ancestry, and chases you out of his territory.

But you are not dissuaded.  You pluck another petal, this time, a pretty yellow one, and bravely return to offer it to the dominant male.  This time, he accepts your efforts, and you are allowed a quick furgle with one of his ladies.  The petal indicates that you want no trouble – you’re not here for his territory or his harem, and will move along after the, ah, transaction, has taken place.

DNA tests have shown that within fairy wren clutches, often very few of the offspring are actually directly sired by the dominant male.

"Why, these babies are adorable!  Are they mine?"

“Why, these babies are adorable! Are they mine?”

Other great things about superb fairy wrens:

  • they are, like, super-popular!  They were voted Australia’s favourite bird in 2013.
  • lady wrens are not only sexual objects, available for procurement with mere petals.  They are known to get up early, before the sun has arisen, to flit off for illicit trysts with other males, one to five territories distant. Take that, patriarchy!
  • blue wren boys are not always blue.  In non-breeding season, they adopt what’s known as their eclipse plumage, becoming a muted brown very similar in appearance to the females.
  • during breeding season, a male wren’s testes can weigh up to 25% of his body mass!  That’s like a not especially large human fella having an entire huge bag of dog biscuits strapped to his crotch! (but infinitely more alluring)
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Breeding season plumage – note the stealth with which the male blue wren conceals his mammoth testicles! Picture courtesy Charlie Price.

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The male superb fairy wren in non-breeding chillax plumage – the avian equivalent of tracky-dacks. Photo courtesy Charlie Price.

Once again, all of the photos featured in this blog post were gifted by some of the talented bird-people of the Facebook group Tasmanian Bird Sightings and Photography – thanks Mick and Charlie!  Thanks also to Eric Woehler, from Birdlife Tasmania, for helping me find that elusive article.