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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The river that knew

Mist and sky above Mooney Mooney Creek better

Looking upriver from the junction with Floods Creek

If I want a quiet morning on the Hawkesbury, my best bet is a paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek.  It’s a jet ski free zone, and that’s a very fine thing. In maybe ten jaunts on various reaches of Mooney Mooney, I’ve seen a handful of kayaks, a few fishermen and one very slow moving yacht.  Unlike Cowan Creek or Patonga, there’s no sandy beaches for frisking about on, and the oysterfarms can be navigational hazard at low tide. But if you prefer hanging out with eagles and herons to spending time with humans in charge of powerboats, Mooney Mooney Creek’s the go.

Azure kingfisher profile crop

An uncharacteristically still azure kingfisher

There are really three Mooney Mooneys, for my purposes anyway.  There’s the upper reaches, a pleasant morning’s paddle if you throw in tranquil tributary Flood Creek, lined with casuarinas and decorated with the blue and green streaks of kingfishers hunting (more on the scenes and ecosystems there in a future post).  The put-in for that trip is where the switchbacking Pacific Highway crosses the river, though if you paddle upstream you pass under the highest bridge in Australia, a symphony in soaring concrete.

Or you can go downstream, towards Lemon Tree Bay and maybe on a low-ish tide, see, on every bend and mudflat herons feasting, and if you’re lucky, spot a wedge-tailed eagle soaring overhead.

Herons in parallel back in focus

White faced herons hunting at low tide

Up there in the headwaters, you’ll often see other kayakers – there are sometimes guided tours to the area – and occasionally people camping, rather naughtily, by the side of the river.  The Great North Walk, that links Sydney and Newcastle, via most of the lovely places along the way including Berowra (of course), flanks the upper reaches of the river and once or twice I’ve heard voices of hikers walking along the track or crossing the suspension bridge that spans the top of Piles Creek.

Snake island backlit 3

Snake Island and Brisbane Water National Park

But I’d prefer to be paddling than driving and I’m a little bit lazy, so I usually put in my boat in closer to home, at Deerubbin, where the freeway crosses the Hawkesbury.  From there I paddle under the freeway and past Spectacle Island, stopping off to check out the Mooney Mooney spoonbill colony, and then upstream.  Once you get past Snake Island and Sailor’s Chest Point, there’s not much sign of human activity, apart from oyster poles.

But there’s plenty going on, even without too many of us humans around.  Last week’s outing was particularly rich in feathery encounters.  A masked lapwing family enjoying a day out by the water by the Mooney Mooney public wharf.

Comedy silver gulls ducking for crabs in the shallows near Spectacle Island.

Silver gull with crab square amend

A sacred kingfisher  in the morning sun near her burrow in an abandoned arborial termite nest.  She got so bored with me clicking away she had a nap.

A striated heron, one of the river side regulars, pretending to be a particularly striking bit of sandstone.

And further up the creek, the predictable but still wonderful sight of a pair of young sea eagles perched amongst the mangroves in the shallow waters of Fox Bay.

The young ones seem to be easier to get close to.  A bit curious and a bit clueless, perhaps, about strange legless creatures that float downstream with the tide.

Even in the peace and quiet, there’s a feeling that all the inhabitants of Mooney Mooney Creek know about us.  They know we’re there – mostly out of sight, maybe, but not entirely out of mind.  The freeway passes just behind the ridge much of the way up the valley. You see it as you pass Snake Island, the trucks and cars  appear briefly, lifted above the rocky escarpment.  Sometimes, further up the creek,  the wind shifts and you can hear the sound of the traffic.

I recently found out that the freeway’s original route went right through my tranquil paddling territory – along Pile Creek, to cross the river south of where the Pacific Highway runs.  Right through kingfisher country.

But someone in the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the late 60s or 70s stood up to the road builders and just said “No”.  No, you can’t build a bloody great big road right through the (then recently established) Brisbane Water National Park.  We’re not having it.  In the words of the surprisingly fascinating “OzRoads” website

This new route had a more expensive bridge and steeper grades than the preferred route but there was nothing the DMR could do about it.

And it’s not often you hear freeway builders say that.  I’d love to  know the full story of who in Parks fought the good fight with the Roads folk.  Everytime I paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek now, I’ll be thinking about them and saying a little thank you.

Sea eagle facing away profile crop

Other paddles from Deerubbin Reserve

Up the Hawkesbury to Bar Island

For the ambitious, further in the same direction to Marramarra Creek

Into the heart of Muogamarra National Park up the winding Kimmerikong Creek

Downriver under the gorgeous if structurally challenged Hawkesbury River Bridge

 

Further references

Boon, Paul (2017) The Hawkesbury River: a social and natural history CSIRO Publishing

 

 

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…