Things to do with termite nests

lizard in kingfisher nest better crop

Lace monitor in an arboreal termite nest

Happy New Year!

I don’t know about yours, but one of my resolutions for 2018 is to pay a lot more more attention to bugs.  Or rather, insects in general, and how they interact with all the other critters around them.

So the year was off to a good insect-oriented start when I took this photo  just down the hill from the spectacular lookout at West Head in Kuring-gai Chase National Park.

What’s this little monitor doing as she peeps out of this termites’ nest, a few metres up a gum tree?

What’s her story? And what’s she up to with those termites?

Lion island from west head

View north from West Head

 

At first, I thought she might have been after kingfisher eggs or nestlings.

A couple of years ago my bird watching brother told me to keep an eye out for termites nests in trees, pointing out that kingfishers often made the hollows in these “termitaria” to nest in.  Since then, I’ve seen plenty of arboreal burrows on my paddles around the Hawkesbury, and occasionally a sacred kingfisher lurking suspiciously nearby.

Many species of kingfishers, including (to my great surprise – I’m not sure why), kookaburras, often nest in termite mounds.  I had assumed that birds would choose abandoned arboreal termitaria, but in most cases where animals reuse mounds, it seems, the original builders are still in situ when the new residents move in.

Matching kookaburras

Synchronised kookaburras

Unlike other birds, such as the hooded parrots of Arnhem Land, kingfishers don’t wait to build until the mud of the mound is softened by rain.  They do construction the hard way, through sometimes lethal collision flights into outer wall of the nest.  Both members of the pair participate in this headbanging activity until a 25 cm tunnel is dug.  As you can see in the picture of the burrow above, the tunnel slopes downward a little, to help with keeping the it clear of the young’s faeces.  If only dealing with human children’s ordure was a simple as a gently sloping bedroom and hallway, eh?  Once the initial tunnel is dug, the kingfisher sometimes leaves the excavation for the termites to tidy up inside, sealing the interior walls of the nest.

Kingfisher lit profile sharp bigger crop better

New Zealand Sacred Kingfisher

But kingfishers aren’t alone in using termite mounds as a handy place to breed.  I’m not quite sure what was using this big nest near Port Stephens.  I suspect it’s not kingfishers.  Like many Australian birds, they are cooperative breeders, with their youngsters from previous broods helping raise the new babies, but they don’t seem to nest colonially.  As these burrowholes or just access points for some insect-eating predator to have a crunchy snack?

But back to our termite loving monitor lizard.  As a bird-savvy informant pointed out, had my lizard been munching baby kingfisher eggs, the parents would have had something to say about it.  In fact, what I saw wasn’t a nest-raid but most likely the aftermath of a hatching.

Monitor lizard face closeup

Another lace monitor in Kuring-gai National Park

Because, as it turns out, lace monitors  also lay their eggs in termite mounds, using the warmth generated by the insects to incubate their young.  Once the eggs are laid, the lizards lets the termites seal them in, safe from predators in their incubation chamber in the treetops. Or perhaps slightly safer.

No-one seems to research lace monitors – too damn common it seems.  But, researchers studying the related Rosenberg Monitors found that females defended the nests for a few weeks after the eggs were deposited.  Some hard core conflict was observed:

“The most aggressive fighting observed was between a defending female and a marauder, with females fighting males more than twice their body mass. Both attacker and defender sustained injuries, including dislocated or broken limbs; broken ribs; spinal injuries; and severe bites to head, throat, and abdomen” (Rismiller, McKelvey, Green, 2010).

Baby rosenberg monitors dig their own way out of their natal termite heap, but everyone’s a bit vague about how the baby lace monitors escape their birthplace/prison.  Despite the female’s willingness to break a spine or limbs to ensure the safety of their young at the point eggs are laid, herpetologists don’t give goanna mothers a lot of credit for subsequent interest in their offspring.  Some researchers think that the mothers come back to dig their babies out of captivity when the right time comes.  Others seem to think they just happen to be digging randomly in likely-looking termite mounds when they accidentally happen upon their young (Kirshner, 2007).  This sounds all rather implausible to me .

Goanna whole against lichen

Lace monitor in Wollemi National Park

I’m still not 100% clear about what I saw up a tree at West Head.  Was the lizard I spotted was one of the little ones, lolling around in its birthplace after its mysterious liberation.  Or a female spending some time hanging out in the nest, having helped her young to freedom?  I’m just not sure.

One way or another, one of our common-as-muck goannas was doing its thing in its ordinary, fascinating way.  With the help of a multitude of insect Mary Poppinses.

lizard in kingfisher nest distant

The termetarium from a distance

Further references

Kirshner, D. (2007) Multiclutching in captive Lace Monitors, Varanus varius. Mertensiella (16): 403-421

Rismiller, P.D., McKelvey, M.W., Green, B. (2010) “Breeding phenology and behavior of Rosenberg’s Goanna (Varanus rosenbergi) on Kangaroo Island, South Australia” Journal of Herpetology 44(3):399-408. 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday afternoon service at the Church of the Double Bladed Paddle

7 degrees at daybreak and good company the evening before: no chance of making it out for dawn this weekend.  So it was the afternoon service for me in the Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle.  Down the end of our street, the Hawkesbury in the golden hour.

Beautiful cirrus sky and skyline

Golden bubble water crop horizontal

A seaplane was parked out front of the ritzy Berowra Waters Restaurant, a few devotees of fine dining lingering over white linen, but otherwise the river was quiet.  Weekenders emptied of their winter visitors, off home to find socks and check homework.  Some stirrings in the sandy creek bed – stingrays? – but no fishermen and hardly a fish.

Some sun worshippers were receiving the blessing of the last rays on the southern shores of Calabash Bay.

And then, a true glimpse of the sacred.  The sacred kingfisher, that is.  I’d suspected they might be found around here, even in the winter.  There was that green flash out of the corner of my eye as I scrambled over the rocks onto Bar Island, and the briefest of glimpses, framed by mangrove leaves, my camera hopelessly buried, one morning in Bujwa Bay.

But this glorious creature showed no inclination to move from his place in the sun, calmly accepting the adoration of passing paddlers.

Sacred kingfisher facing slightly away horizontal crop tighter square

Sacred kingfisher

But even a sacred kingfisher can be profane.  I’m reverently gazing, barely taking a breath, and the big guy takes the opportunity to have a lightning fast chunder.  There’s a  familiar doggo look on his face as he sits there on his sunlit stick recovering.

But you expect veneration anyway, right, mate?  And you’ll get it too.

Sacred kingfisher other side 2 wide tighter

Last winter in Calabash Bay…

Snakes vs whining teenagers

 

Tiger snake curled face crop longThis is what people who hate camping think it’s all about, right?  I suspect spiders, high winds and rowdy neighbours also make that list.  Yep, a big tick next to them too – it’s all to play for when you camp in the summertime in Wollemi National Park.

But Ganguddy, or Dunn’s Swamp, to give its inaccurate and charmless non-indigenous name, was just as marvellous this January as it was when we first visited this time last year.

Sunrise corner sky

Ganguddy in early dawn light

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View from the pagoda lookout

Yes, there were more reptiles – lethal and benign – but to balance it out, there was also less torrential rain.  At no point this year did it seem likely that the full set of adult campers, each clinging to a leg of the kitchen-gazebo, would take off and fly over the pagoda rock formations like a quartet of grubby Mary Poppinses.  It rained, but not inside any of the tents.  And the whining teenagers weren’t my delightful children but the feathered offspring of the camp ground locals.

Noisy friarbird getting food crop

Juvenile noisy friarbird wants a snack

It seems a bit unfair for such giant children to be demanding food, although Gisela Kaplan in her fascinating book “Bird Minds” suggests some evolutionary advantages to having hungry teenagers hanging around.  Apparently adults noisy friarbirds only feed the young’uns for three weeks after fledging -hard to believe this galumphing one was so close to being a fluffster.

But you can see where all that food goes.  You reckon your adolescent’s feet are big?  What about junior purple swamphen‘s clodhoppers?

Unhygenic as it sounds, the drop dunny seemed to be a particularly popular spot for a snack.  The baby grey fantails spent a lot of time looking deliberately cute there in order to get a feed.  If you were still uncertain about the superiority of the earth toilet, this little guy is a clincher I reckon.

The white-browed scrubwren also enjoyed loitering out around the toilets.  I didn’t see any juveniles, but then this one looked so stern, perhaps they were there but just too nervous to beg for tucker.

white browed scrub wren crop.jpg

Grumpy looking white browed scrubwren

The suspiciously touselled looking eastern yellow robin – a juvenile perhaps – had worked out that the best place for tucker is definitely the barbecue.

I’m not sure if the adult reed warbler had gone into head down, bum up, to feed some chicks, or if it was just going to extreme lengths to avoid facing the long-lensed papperazzi.  I was rather pleased when after two years of trying I finally got a picture of one, without even having to visit the Rylstone Guns and Ammo for a flame thrower to thin out that pesky, snap obscuring habitat.

And, miracle of miracles, I found an azure kingfisher without ADD.  I reckon I can put away my paddle now – 18 months of kayaking have not been in vain.

Kingfisher on stump 2 instagram square.jpg

At last – a sluggish azure kingfisher

The invasive gambezi minnows that fill this reservoir – built in the 30s as a water supply for a concrete works – seem to be an optimal snack size for the kingfishers – I saw plenty of them, along with a randy musk duck, the ubiquitous Eurasian coots and a pair of Nankeen night herons that alighted, mockingly, in the trees opposite the campsite, just after it got a tiny bit too dark for a decent photograph.  But there was nothing larger – no whistling kites, for one.  Judging from the frustration level of the fisherman in our party and the track record of these mosquitofish of outcompeting native rivals, I suspect there weren’t many more substantial meals to be had (on the bright side, possibly thanks to the fish, there weren’t too many mosquitos making meals of us either).

With all these LBBs – and all the fast moving ones I didn’t get a decent shot of – busy flocks of brown thornbills high in the canopy, white-throated tree-creepers spiralling their way up the tea trees, the baffling grey strike-thrush, the white-eared honeyeaters darting around in the dew drenched dawn – I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the snake that sidled through the camp site or or the one slithered along the ironstone tops.  Let’s hope the top predators were more successful at catching the flighty little buggers* than I was.

Western country rocks

Rock formations near the dam

Sunrise over swallow rocks

Dawn over “Swallow rocks”

 

*Okay I know red-bellied blacks mostly eat frogs, which is why they were down by the reedbeds near the camp. But I bet they don’t object to the odd gormless yellow robin if it’s available.

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There’s more info about the history and geology of Ganguddy in my previous post from here: In other sandstone country