The magic of Heron Island… Or should I say Heaven Island!
I realised it had been two years since I wrote a blog – where on earth does the time go… seriously! So, I thought why not download some photos and share he wonderful time our family recently had at Heron Island. Or as I should have said, Heaven Island. Heaven is just how we described it, as soon as we got off the boat ride (note to yourself, make sure you take sea sickness tablets, let’s just say it can get a little rough on the open ocean!). The island is referred to as a coral cay and has never been attached to the mainland. It’s located 72 km northeast of Gladstone and has only been in existence for some 6,000 years! This teeny tiny coral cay of about 800 m in length and 300 m wide (about 16 ha) is a small dot in the Coral Sea surrounded by 24 hectares of coral reef and part of the Capricorn Group at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.
Once you arrive, your heart is immediately caught up in the crystal-clear blue water, white sand (which is actually heaps of crushed up, munched up and pooed out coral, about 90% of it is Parrot Fish poo, that is they poo out clean sand/coral, how cool is that!) and vibes of the natural wonderland that is Heron Island.
Within the first few hours, we started to unwind, relax and get to know the small dot of land that will be our home for the next week. We also start to check out the tide times, where the best spots to snorkel for the day are and the temperature, which even in the middle of winter hovered nicely around 24 degrees every day. This became a daily routine, as well as checking out what free activities with the awesome naturalist guides were available. We took advantage of the whole lot exploring the reef at low tide, a bird watching and island history walk and a fantastic tour of the world-renowned University of Queensland research station. The kids also took part in Junior Ranges programs learning about turtle conservation and sharks and rays.
Remember the famous quote from Romeo and Juliet: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet." (Shakespeare, 1594)
It’s a funny thing names, usually to name a thing is to know a thing, but with Heron Island, there are a few little quirks that make for some interesting insights. It was named after the birds which frequent the island, which were thought to be Herons, but were actually later named as the Eastern Reef Egret. These beautiful birds are all over the island and can be seen hanging out in pairs on the sand, straddling the rocky shore, perched up in the overhanging she-oak trees or flying over the reef. There are two morphs of this species: the white and dark morph. So, another possible name emerges… Egret Island? Another quirky name fact, there is a snorkelling area they call ‘Shark Bay’ but the sharks it was named after are actually the shovel-nose ray – not sharks!
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any underwater camera gear to capture the beautiful sea life. A whole new world lives under the surface of the water. We felt so privileged every day to swim with green sea turtles, cow-tailed stingrays, black-tipped reef sharks and hundreds of fish species. Anyhow, I ended up taking many walks with my camera to capture the terrestrial life on the island. It was relatively quiet, as come spring and summer there are thousands of black noddy terns which breed on the island, I hear it’s hard not to get pooed on at that time of year! Still I found lots of juvenile terns coming in to take a rest during the day throughout the Pisonia Forest. A few other terns such as the crested tern and black-naped tern could be seen on the shore.
A fascinating story started to emerge as I walked through the forest and read more about the black noddy terns’ symbiotic relationship with the Pisonia trees in which they make their nest. They create a very weak and loose stick nest which they make predominantly out of the Pisonia leaves which they collect from the forest floor and stick it together with bird droppings (everything is used for something in nature). The sticky seeds of the Pisonia trees fall to the ground which create a sticky mat on the forest floor. The sad part is some of the weaker young birds fall out of their nests and get stuck often getting caught and dying. The thought is that the decaying birds provide nutrients for the Pisonia trees to grow. With many terns also surviving this curious relationship continues. It’s a tough world for the birds and it truly is survival of the fittest.
A few other birds I photographed were the Ruddy Turnstone (I just love that name!) and the cute little finch, Capricorn silvereye, a sub-species of the Silvereyes and the only endemic bird species to the Great Barrier Reef.
Another plant that grows on the island is the Octopus bush and I found as this was in flower it was a-buzz with lots of lovely insect-pollinators, including native bees, a few different varieties of native flies, some with amazingly beautiful iridescent colouring and several butterfly species, including the ubiquitous Caper White Butterfly.
I personally find the practice of searching for birds and insects such a joyful experience and great way to connect with nature. Its mindful and exciting at the same time.
I have shared a heap of photos from our time at ‘Heaven’ Island. I truly recommend it as a safe, relaxing place to be with a young family or even on a couples long weekend away. It is not commercialised as some of the other reef resorts and the Great Barrier Reef is such an awe-inspiring place to experience, it brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it, and I can’t even fathom it not being part of this world.
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Teaching care and respect for animals to children is a life-long lesson that can be instilled at a very early age. Having pets at home is a great way to do this. We have a Rainbow Stag Beetle, a Kelpie, and two species of frogs locally common to Melbourne (purchased from a pet shop, not taken from the wild). We have recently added about 50 or so mealworms to our menagerie! To feed the frogs you may think... But no, these are to keep as pets.
Mealworms are the larvae of the darkling beetle and offer a great opportunity for children to care, interact and learn about animals. The larvae are not actual worms, they have a rounded head, six legs (as do all insects) and a segmented body. Their sole purpose in life is to eat and eat and eat until they have enough energy stored up to pupate and then eventually transform through complete metamorphosis into an adult beetle.
Throughout the world, mealworms are the decomposers, breaking down dead and decaying organic matter and recycling that back into the system. They are also an important food source for many species of reptile, bird and amphibian.
My children feel great pride having their 'own pets' to look after. We have them in a plastic container with air holes, and put a base of oats and wheat germ for their habitat as they love to burrow down and keep hidden away (as they would do in the wild preferring cool, damp and dark places under leaf litter and decaying logs). We feed them pieces of potato and carrot, which also provides them with the water they need.
They are heaps of fun to hold as their little claws grip on to you, they move in different directions when you put them down and you can even have little races with them. The children have discovered that some like to walk backwards, why is this? The children are excited about the fact that they will change, and are asking how long will this process take? What will the beetles look like once they have transformed, what will they need to eat and what habitat will we need to provide? These are all topics we can explore, discover and research together.
We also use a mealworm journal for my older daughter to record her observations and information about the mealworms as they grow and change.
Some of the things my children have been saying about their new pets:
"Hey lets play with our mealworms"
"This is LuLu, Lily and Sophie" (they all look the same!)
"Hey lets have a race with our mealworms"
"Aaah they are trying to escape"
"Hey our mealworms can be friends"
"Ooh I have a baby one, that baby can go fast"
"I have four on my hand, they are very cute"
"Why is it walking backwards"
"It actually squeezes your finger a bit and wraps around - ooh"
"It's very sticky"
"Its got a very strong grip"
"Some have shed their skin, look!"
I actually underestimated how fun, educational and engaging these unassuming little creatures could be for my children, but each day we are finding they are worth every $1 of the $20 we spent at the pet shop!
Our first instalment for Focus on Frogs in November is a good news story. So often we hear about the desperate plight of frogs, which is confronting and sometimes paralysing. While we still need to act, it is nice to know that some frogs have been able to survive the onslaught of habitat loss, disease, introduced predators, competitors and the myriad of pollutants in our waterways. In suburban Melbourne, some frogs have survived in little pockets of habitat, refuges in the urban jungle. Even Melbourne's CBD has frogs and more local to me is the highly urbanised City of Glen Eira. There are no waterways, but there is one park which has an area that holds water after heavy rain,. After this fabulous spring rain, I recently recorded Eastern Banjo Frogs (Pobblebonks), Common Froglets and Southern Brown Tree Frogs!
Eastern Banjo Frogs are a large, robust frog. They can move large distances if needed and burrow to find shelter and refuge, which may help them survive the drier periods. Southern Brown Tree Frogs and Common Froglets, will breed all year round, I have recorded both species calling in 4 degrees Celsius in the middle of winter! This allows them an advantage to make the most of an ephemeral pond over winter for breeding, when others are sleeping the winter away.
I have spent a lot of time looking for frogs in urban areas, so I know they are out there, nonetheless it is always exciting to hear them within the inner Melbourne suburbs. I hope you can find frogs in your local area and enjoy the evening chorus of frogs, which is such an iconic sound of the Aussie bush, but one we can hear in the suburbs too.
Braeside Park is a hidden gem in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It is a huge park of 295 ha with many natural areas to explore. This includes wetlands, ponds, heathland, and Red Gum Grassy Woodlands. There is a real sense of peace and tranquillity in this park and is worth the visit.
As a family we have visited frequently and find it to be a place of relaxation and discovery. Leap into Nature often holds our Junior Nature Club here and was actually the site of our very first session back in May 2014! The great news is we will be heading there for a fantastic program for school aged children 'Nature Trackers @ Braeside Park' in the September School holidays.
You can find a large variety of insects and butterflies as our weather warms up, I have recorded Jacky Lizards here, friends have found Echidnas, and a beautiful variety of birds from the squeaky lorikeets to the chattering of New Holland Honeyeaters and 'shirp shirp' of Brown Thornbills.... just to name a few! Don't forget the frogs as we hit spring, they will be calling their little hearts out at Braeside Park, and we will be there to record them during our September school holiday session, which we can then send off to Melbourne Water's Frog Census database.
There are wetlands to explore which support a great variety of waterbirds, including the threatened Latham's Snipe. This amazing bird makes a treacherous journey from its breeding grounds in Japan, and arrives in Australia during the warmer months, mainly in September (just in time for our School Holiday session!)
Did I mention the very awesome playground they have at Braeside Park, visitors centre (toilet facilities), and lovely picnic grounds too! Find some more details here:
Or better still join us on an adventure at Braeside Park in September with the children, you can find all the details in this link: www.eventbrite.com.au/e/nature-trackers-at-braeside-park-tickets-26937527871
Lysterfield Park is not far out of Melbourne and is a great spot to 'get back to nature' and do some 'bush tracking' with the kids. Lysterfield Park adjoins Churchill National Park (an equally lovely spot!). These two parks form much of the southern side of the Lysterfield Hills and are a valuable link between the Dandenong Valley and the Dandenong Ranges. These two parks joined in 1997 and cover a total area of 1,668 hectares. The parks are a haven for native birds, mammals and reptiles, and provide great recreational opportunities and have all the toilet and picnic facilities you need (see here for more details: parkweb.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/315693/Park-note-Lysterfield-Park-and-Churchill-NP.pdf.)
There are many walking and bike riding tracks to explore (see link above). You will hear a variety of birds in the bushland areas as well as see some water birds on Lysterfield Lake - although there are often watersport activities . There is a resident mob of kangaroos at the parks and as you walk/ride you are likely to see them lazily sleeping the day away or quietly feeding come late afternoon and dusk. A good spot to see the Roo's at Lysterfield at dusk is adjoining the Mahogany car park, on the right as you drive in the entrance or in the paddocks just before the main entrance.
You can hear Common Froglets calling all year, and lovely Pobblebonk choruses come spring and summer. Obviously look out for snakes on warmer days and there is a great diversity of plant life to smell, touch, and look at and many natural obstacles to explore.
We had a student from Jiangsu province in China staying with us this week, so we took the opportunity to show her some lovely Australian bush and our iconic Eastern Grey Kangaroo at Lysterfield. We have also held Junior Nature Club sessions here in the past - great family spot!
It was during University when I started working with my favourite beastie, the Growling Grass Frog (also known as the Southern Bell Frog and sister species to the Green and Golden Bell Frog well known from Homebush Bay where the Sydney Olympics were held). These frogs are big, green and beautiful with an awesome growl like call, hear it here: frogs.org.au/frogs/species/Litoria/raniformis/. Females are larger than the males and can grow up to about 10 cm long. You can find them on the outskirts of Melbourne in a variety of wetlands from deep permanent wetlands left over in old quarry holes and slow-moving creeks to ephemeral wetlands where they can breed and metamorphose without any hassles from the fish eating their young. They like a good amount of plants around the wetland and in the water too, but not so much as to block out the sun as these guys are a basking species, and love to catch a few rays during the day. Like all frogs, they will eat anything they can fit in their mouth, even eating their own species if need be.
My first project with Growlers started back in 2003, 13 years ago! No selfies - it wasn't really a thing back then! I worked with Victorian frog experts Geoffrey Heard and Peter Robertson on a project where we had to rescue as many frogs as we could from an old quarry hole that was going to be filled and turned into housing. So we caught us some frogs and moved them to newly created wetlands, just down the road. These wetlands are within a housing estate called Botanica Park Ponds, next door to Darebin Creek.
The tricky bit was that we wanted to see what happened to these frogs once they had moved into their new abode. So we put some nifty little radio transmitters on them and I followed them for a couple of months. They loved hiding away during the cooler months, under rock rubble, dumped concrete slabs and within that dense vegetation they love so much. Some even appeared to be in a torpor or dormant state, where they shut down their bodies to conserve their energy and didn't move for weeks on end.
Since then I have worked most breeding seasons in search of these lovely animals, I still get a thrill seeing them in the wild. I hope to run some frog survey sessions once we hit the warmer months and our amphibian friends start to get active again, stay tuned!
It is often hard to explain to young children when they see a pregnant woman that the baby is not actually in her stomach it's in her womb... wouldn't it be easy if we could just say mums carry their babies in their stomachs...? Well we can, but only when we are talking about this awesome and special frog... the Southern Gastric Brooding Frog. This little beauty of a frog broods tadpoles in her stomach! The species was discovered in 1973 in South-east Queensland. Amazingly, the female swallows the fertilised eggs which stay in her stomach for six weeks until they turn into tadpoles. The jelly around the eggs stops them being digested. The stomach expands so much it becomes as thin as a plastic bag and poor mum can't eat for six weeks! After this time the little froglets emerge from her mouth. It's name comes from the word 'gastric' meaning something to do with the stomach, like an 'upset tummy'.
Sadly, this amazing frog has not been seen since 1981, it is now thought to be extinct. What a devastating loss to the world. It represents the wonderful intricacies of biodiversity and evolution, and to us humans possible medical treatment for stomach ulcers or other gastric problems.
Frogs are fantastic, don't you think? There are still new species being discovered today, it's amazing to think what other types of wonderful animals there are out there!
Reference: 'It's True, Frogs are Cannibals' M.J. Tyler.
When I reflect on the threatening processes that impact frogs, I can’t help but want to share this information, to inform the public and create awareness around the ever increasing necessity to protect and care for our frog fauna.
So today, being Rachel Carson Day, I thought it was fitting to write my new quick fix frog blog about frogs and pesticides.
Here are some quick facts about frogs and pesticides:
• Pesticides (insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc...) are toxic chemicals that generally undergo little to no testing on frogs prior to their being approved for use. Unfortunately, many end up in waterways, where frogs live and breed.
• Frogs have permeable skin, which means they are highly susceptible to absorbing chemicals within the environment – both on land and in water.
• Tadpoles appear to be more sensitive than adults.
• Species differ in their sensitivity to pesticides.
• Pesticides used in gardens and agricultural systems can be transported by wind and contaminate pristine environments and thus can impact local frog populations as well as their food source.
• Hermaphrodite frogs (males grow female sex organs) have been found in urban, suburban and agricultural ponds. This is believed to be due to contaminants found in the water such as pesticides, flame retardants, and chemicals used to give fragrance to soap and cosmetics.
• The insecticide endosulfan at low levels found in the environment can be deadly for tadpoles.
• Unfortunately, the hazardous nature of the deadly chytrid fungus affecting frog populations worldwide, could be made worse by the immune suppression produced by pesticide mixtures.
• What to do: It’s pretty simple – DON’T USE PESTICIDES at home and collectively we need to pressure corporations to substantially reduce pesticide use and ban those pesticides, such as endosulfan, found highly toxic to frogs.
Rachel Carson designated half of her own land in Maryland to be kept wild for the birds and frogs. She would no doubt be distressed by the continuing pesticide threats to frogs and other amphibians.
Sources and further reading:
Looking for a nature fix this weekend, and don't want to travel out of Melbourne... look no further than the lovely Wattle Park in Burwood. You will find it off Riversdale Road in Burwood. This is a Parks Victoria managed park which has lots of lovely remnant bushland to roam and explore with the kids.
There are a range of areas to explore, including the large old, scattered remnant trees and stags, many of which have hollows. You will surely come across the resident and rowdy flock of rainbow lorikeets coming in and out of the hollows. Keep your eyes out for feeding pairs of eastern rosellas, often on the ground. There is a drainage line/creek running through the park and a couple of wetland areas, always good for listening for frogs and spotting some waterfowl or ducks.
You will find many fallen logs which are great fun for balancing on or looking around and under for bugs. There are also lots of natural shelters and cubbies around the reserve, which are fun to contribute to and play in.
There are toilets, a great playground, complete with some old trams the kids can play in and bbq/picnic areas.
If you are a Glen Eira resident remnant indigenous vegetation can be hard to find - believe me I've looked! But if you need a little pocket of nature to visit, then look no further than Boyd Park, on Neerim Road, Murrumbeena. This is a linear park, that has bike tracks, dogs off leash, a playground and gets pretty busy on weekend. But if you take a moment to find a small section between Neerim Road and the railway line (close to Hughesdale Station), you find a very nice area of old Red Gum trees, and a fenced off area of remnant vegetation with the mid/ground-layer somewhat intact - this is a lovely spot for your little ones to explore (no dogs inside fenced area).
It came to me that this particular park gives a nice juxtaposition between indigenous trees and exotic trees. Its great to look at the different shapes and tree formations, leaf shapes and colour, and the fact that the exotic trees are losing their leaves but the indigenous trees aren't.
There are tree hollows to watch lorikeets come in and out of and bossy Noisy Miners trying to run everyone's business. A few little nooks and crannies to explore also.
These little gems should be cared for and expanded on to increase natural areas in suburban areas - especially integrating more indigenous vegetation alongside the existing flora.
For more of this idea, see the latest article in The Age about People and Parks Foundation vision to do just that!
On a side note, I have read Murrumbeena means "land of the frogs"!