‘I feel privileged to have them’: why you should befriend a resident possum

At last light, a silhouette detaches itself from the shadows on the roof. It is round and fuzzy, with a tail curled into a comma at the tip. It clambers on to the power line and trundles along until it reaches the trees. Parking its fluffy backside on a branch, it starts on the ripening fruit that will never make it to my kitchen.

My guest is a coppery brushtail possum, the blinged-up tropical cousin of the common brushtail possum so familiar in cities. Although I rarely see it, the possum makes itself known. The heavy footfall shifting between march and gallop. The scrabbling as it squeezes into impossibly small spaces. And the staccato hisses and growls when it runs into a rival. Brushies might tolerate humans in their territories, but they draw the line at other possums.

Read more of this story at the Guardian.

Coppery Brushtail Possum on the Atherton Tablelands, Far North Queensland.

‘Gloriously gnarly’: what professional botanists plant at home

Walking through London’s Kew Gardens on a winter’s day, the botanist Prof Tim Entwisle was struck by the sight of a Persian ironwood tree. The tree was leafless but not lifeless. While others in the gardens were bare-branched and stark, the ironwood’s vibrant red blossoms stood out against the snow.

The image stayed with Entwisle. It prompted him to plant a Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) at his home in Melbourne, where it thrives, out of place, in the heart of an orderly garden.

“It’s an interesting, intriguing tree,” he says. “It doesn’t fit, but growing it reminds me of that time at Kew.”

Read more of ‘Gloriously gnarly’ at the Guardian.

Pink-flowering Broad-leaved Paperbark (Melaleuca viridiflora), Cape York Peninsula.

Here come the lorikeets! How garden trends can change the local wildlife

My bird-watching friend Simon is telling me about the parrots he sees on his daily walks around Canberra. It is a long list, which includes five types of cockatoos. When he gets to the tenth parrot species – “red-rumps. Everyone loves those” – he stops to think. The eleventh is the rainbow lorikeet.

“They’re newcomers,” he says. “And they’ve really taken off.”

I find it difficult to imagine a city without rainbow lorikeets. I am in far north Queensland and they are everywhere. Street trees are filled with shrieking, whistling birds. Flocks fly past in tight formation. Everything about them is frantic – from their nectar-guzzling to their psychedelic plumage.

According to BirdLife Australia’s annual Aussie Backyard Bird Count, the rainbow lorikeet is the most abundant species in the eastern states. Every year since the count began in 2014, the bird has been ranked No 1 one nationwide. But in Canberra, the species is a recent arrival. It is making up for lost time.

Read more of ‘Here come the lorikeets!‘ at the Guardian.

Rainbow Lorikeet on Golden Penda, Atherton Tablelands.

Inala Nature Tours Guide to Birds of Bruny Island, Tasmania

By Tonia Cochran and Bronwen Scott

Bruny Island, on the SE coast of Tasmania, is a favourite destination for lovers of nature. The island’s diverse habitats – from wild ocean beaches to tranquil rainforest gullies – are home to a wide range of birds. Among them the knee-high flightless Tasmanian Native-hen, the eye-popping Pink Robin, the exquisite pure white form of the Grey Goshawk, and two of the world’s rarest bird species, the Forty-spotted Pardalote and Swift Parrot. Many of Bruny’s bird species can be seen at ‘Inala’, Inala Nature Tours headquarters near Cloudy Bay in the island’s picturesque south.

The Inala Nature Tours Guide to Birds of Bruny Island, Tasmania, is a handy photographic reference to 72 of the island’s iconic and most easily seen species, including all 12 Tasmanian endemics.

All proceeds from the sale of this book support the Inala Nature Foundation ‘s work on conservation, habitat restoration, and wildlife rehabilitation.

Publication Date: 25 March 2022

Cover of the Guide to Birds of Bruny Island.

X is for Xanthophyll

Senescence, eh? That point in a leaf’s existence when chlorophyll breaks apart and disappears. This fading green marks the end of life. Without chlorophyll, the leaf is useless to a tree. It is a consumer of energy, a punctured pipe leaking water. Time to throw it away.  

Hidden in the leaf are green machines that once trapped sunlight and dismantled water, and reassembled molecules into roots and stems and flowers, and, yes, more leaves. Now those machines have stopped working. The green is draining away.

And in doing so, unmasks underlying hues of yellow and orange. These are the colours of xanthophylls. They persist as the green wanes. They will eventually break down, but not yet.

Xanthophylls protect. They are complex molecules that shield the green machines from too much sun. Light drives photosynthesis, but it also burns and heats and injures. Xanthophylls soak up the blue end of the spectrum – indigo, purple, violent ultra violet – to stop it from damaging the leaf. They reflect harmless yellows and reds. Balance in nature is commonly achieved by way of panicked teetering.

Read more of ‘X is for Xanthophyll’ in Mslexia 92.

Wild Architects: Seeing Things from a Bowerbird’s Perspective

I got down on my hands and knees to examine the bower. There were snail shells bleached white by exposure, quartz pebbles gathered from the floor of a winter-dry creek, and bones of a long-dead bird. The arrangement appeared haphazard, but I was looking at it with human eyes and from a human angle.

So I lay in the warm dirt and rested my chin on folded arms. The sun warmed my back. Ants found the gaps between shirt and pants and took exploratory bites of unprotected skin. Now my line of sight was closer to that of a mid-sized bird. When I stopped categorising by type — shells, rocks, bones — and instead thought of them as part of a whole, the bower began to make sense.

Then the bird returned, and I hoped he would not judge the effort it took to get back up on creaky knees.

He definitely judged.

Read more of ‘Wild Architects’ at A Snail’s Eye View.

Great Bowerbird bower, Broome, Western Australia.

Armchair Expeditions: the Addictive Joy of Dunnart Spotting

The photograph is black and white, taken at night by an infrared camera. A fence of fine mesh runs at an angle from left to right. It is barely visible in the dark. Something triggered the camera, but even when I check the images that precede this one, I can’t see anything obvious. Squinting does not help. Neither does enlarging the photo until it turns into a monochrome mosaic.

I am looking for dunnarts, those miniature cousins of quolls and Tasmanian devils. So far, I have seen photos starring wallabies, beautiful firetails (little round finches with scarlet rear ends, black masks and finely striped fronts), and even a brush-tailed possum, looming over the camera like a fluffy Godzilla. One sequence had been triggered by a pudgy beetle. Another by a sleek black skink that scuttled along the base of the fence. But in this photo, there is nothing except grass stems and the almost invisible fence.

Reluctantly I tick the box that says, “there’s no animal in view”, submit the record, and move on to the next one. Science is a lesson in disappointment.

Read more of ‘Armchair Expeditions’ in the Guardian.