Tag Archives: wildlife

The trouble with possums

This is a female. See the pouch under her belly?

It’s been quite the saga with our local possums lately. For my non-Australian readers, possums are native Australian marsupials about the size of a cat. They are mainly vegetarian, eating leaves, fruit, flowers and grass. But they’re not averse to insects and bird’s eggs, and have become opportunistic foragers in towns. They’re nocturnal and sleep away the daylight hours in a dark place such as a hollow log.

And that has become an issue. With increasing urban sprawl, trees are being cut down in record numbers. This has led to a serious shortage of hollow branches for parrots, cockatoos, kookaburras and the like, which use them for nesting, and for possums and other nocturnal creatures who need them as homes.

When we arrived in Hervey Bay we found a large hollow log in one of the out-buildings. It seems a previous owner of the property had been a wildlife carer and I think the log had been used as a nesting box for something like a sulphur-crested cockatoo. We like birds, so we put a lid on the log, fitted a perch, and hoisted it up onto a palm tree near the house.

What are you doing in our house? Note the board to try to limit the size. And the chewed edge.

All was well. The nest box received almost immediate interest and a couple of lorikeets moved in. But after some time this up-market accommodation attracted the attention of a possum, which moved in and has been there ever since, despite our attempts to discourage it by reducing the size of the opening. The tenant just chewed the edges to fit. So we gave up and constructed bird boxes. They were never as popular as the real thing, though. And I confess I enjoy watching the possums in the evening. One regular visitor was a female who brought her latest baby on her back to see if there was anything on the bird table. I often put a mandarin or a piece of orange out for them.

Mum and Bub

A few months ago we returned from a trip to find the possum peering at us in daylight, from inside the log. That’s unusual because they’re nocturnal, and also, they attract the fury of many of the small birds – butcher birds, noisy miners, magpie larks and the like, who gather around the box and yell. The reason for the possum’s appearance became apparent when we noticed the base had fallen from its house. So Pete took the log down (sans possum), fixed it, and put it back.

All was well.

As I sat in my office some weeks later, I heard a very loud crash from outside. It was unusual enough to cause me to check on the reason. The whole possum house had fallen to the ground – with the possum inside. I saw a little pink nose and a swarm of mosquitoes which must also have had their slumber (or their dinner) interrupted. Pete and I looked up the tree and decided we weren’t going to try to get the log back up there. After some discussion we closed the hole with a piece of tied-on wood (keeping poss inside) and took the whole shebang to a different tree in a more heavily wooded part of the garden and hoisted the log up there. Not as high, but safe and sound within the large pool enclosure.

All was well

Not long after that we noticed thumps and noises from the ceiling just before dawn, and again after nightfall. Possums have learned to live in suburbia. They had to. Ceilings are a popular housing site, and a homeless possum had found its way into ours. There are two problems with that. Possums are not house-trained, and they have been known to cause electrical fires (by damaging wires etc). So, much as I like wildlife, poss had to be evicted.

But before we got around to arranging that, we had a truly memorable morning. I was awake early, jolted out of snoozing by a loud thump from the direction of the kitchen. I didn’t bother investigating because it was probably some critter on the window ledge. Around 5am, with light graying the sky, Pete got up for a pee. He saw an animal dart into our bedroom and under the bed. “There’s a cat in here. Or a possum.”

That was that for an early morning snooze. Picture this, if you will. A couple of people well past their best years, dressed in their night attire, chasing a small furry animal around the house. The possum bolted out of the bedroom and into the lounge. We both followed, closing doors as we went. We opened the front door and the back sliding glass door, then we played sheep dogs, gently herding the little creature out into the garden. It immediately charged up the nearest fence, up onto the roof and dived into the ceiling cavity.

It’s not the same possum as the one in the log. Like I said, there’s a housing crisis for possums. This might have been a juvenile, no longer wanted by mum and looking for its own abode. We several times had junior possums using the nest boxes we’d built for the birds, but they soon outgrow them.

The obvious question was how did it get in? There’s a cat flap in the laundry door, set up so a cat can go out, but not come back in. We don’t have a cat so tended to ignore its existence. We think the possum levered a corner of the flap up. They have long, powerful claws for climbing, and they don’t need much wriggle room. Judging by the paw prints, it wandered around the kitchen, jumping up on benches and fridge magnets to get on the little ledge which was the protruding part of the fridge, just outside the cupboards around it. The thump I heard from the kitchen was the possum jumping down. I suspect it came to the bedroom because it occupied the upstairs apartment and was looking for the stairs.

Pete taped up the cat flap to prevent further visits.

We had one more bit of morning excitement before we got our act together. One morning after I’d brought him his cup of tea (yes, I do), Pete said, “Have a look in the en suite.”

Okay. I did as I was told. There was a reddish mess dripping down the cistern. Thinking Pete must have hurt himself, I asked, “What’s that?”

“Possum shit.”

I looked up at the vent for the exhaust fan which is above the toilet and saw some remnants up there, too.

That, dear reader, was the final straw.

I cleaned the mess up. It wasn’t poo. Possums do little pellets like rats and rabbits, and there was nothing like that in sight. I *think* the possum must have cut itself or something. Either way, it had outstayed its welcome.

Like all native species, possums are protected, so we could evict, but not harm. We borrowed a cage trap from a friend and baited it with an apple. But it turned out to be unnecessary. Pete went up on the roof and put wire mesh over all the gaps into the roof cavity – except the one we knew the possum used. By this time, we had decided there was more than one possum up there. The poss(es) went out foraging after nightfall, and Pete went up and plugged the last hole.

There are no more night time noises in the ceiling.

 

 

A timely rescue

Picture of a Noisy Miner Bird bathing

Noisy Miner Bird bathing

We’ve had a long dry spell of late. The grass is brown and crunchy underfoot, the trees are shedding leaves and everything seems to want a drink. A pair of Pacific black ducks pops into our swimming pool not long after dawn for an early morning splash and the bird bath is a busy spot for everybody. Not that all the smaller birds use the bird bath. It’s set up next to the swimming pool and a few birds prefer the Big Blue. Blue-faced honey eaters and noisy miner birds in particular, prefer the risky but obviously satisfying thrill of bathing in the pool. It doesn’t always work out. I’ve had to rescue quite a few over the years, some lucky enough to attract my attention before they were completely sodden. Some… well, drowning comes at the end.

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Sitting in her towel nest

I’ve seen kookaburras using the swimming pool for a bath but that was many years ago, when we had another long, dry spell.  They’re big strong birds, the largest of the king fishers, so they tend to handle the deep water pretty well. But not always. I’d been reading inside and went out to check the letterbox. On the way back I noticed a bird in the pool, sitting on the flexible pipes that run from the skimmer box down to the automatic pool cleaner. The kookaburra had been in there for a while, its soaked wings dragging in the water.

I approached slowly. Kookaburras have a formidable beak and the bird had opened it. But she didn’t struggle when a scooped her out, lifting her with her body cradled in the palm of my hand. Her wings hung down, absolutely soaked and she had no energy. Usually, if a bird hasn’t been immersed for too long I can put them into a tree, where their claws will automatically latch onto the branch without them being conscious of it. But this bird was past even that. So we dabbed her dry with a towel and then  I sat in a chair with her propped up in a towel-nest on my lap. That way she was protected from other birds who might attack a predator in a weak state, and the warmth of my body would help her to recover.

I sat like that for about half an hour, aware of her body moving as she breathed, until she began to stir a little. Then I set her up in her towel nest on the chair to give her a chance to decide what to do next without having the great big human to contend with. I kept an eye on her, though. After another ten minutes she moved to the arm of the chair and then up onto the canvas back.

On the back of the canvas chair

On the back of the canvas chair

Ten minutes later, she’d moved to the clothesline in the sun and breeze, moving her wings to dry the underparts. And then she was gone, off to tell the family about her frightening experience.

Drying her wings on the clothesline

Drying her wings on the clothesline

Two days later, three kookaburras turned up on the pool fence, happy to accept some meat scraps. Life’s hard for the predators at the moment. The worms are buried deep in the dry soil, the frogs and lizards are in hiding. I think they were happy to accept some help. Oh, and two of them went for a quick bath in the pool before they went home to bed.

I’ve called the kookaburra ‘she’ but I really don’t know. There is no discernible difference between the sexes, as far as I know.

And yes, it felt good to know I’d done a small thing to help the wild creatures in my neighbourhood. Very good.

 

Ord River buzz

The highlight of our visit to Kununurra was a trip on the Ord River. After all, without the Ord River, Kununurra wouldn’t exist. The town was created in the sixties, when one of the visionary Duracks, who originally opened up the area, persuaded the Government to dam the river. If you’ve been following my journey, you’d know that year-round water is a huge problem up here. There’s the Wet and the Dry, and the Wet is very, very wet and the Dry is very, very dry. In between there’s fire, which clears the land ready for the next wet. But traditional crops like wheat, cotton and sugar cane don’t grow like that. So a dam was built and Lake Argyle was created. You can read all about it here.

It’s hard to give an idea of size when talking about lakes and things. I’ve often heard descriptions involving Olympic sized swimming pools and football fields. But sometimes even they become insignificant. In Australia we have our own term of measurement – Sydney Harbours. Sydney Harbour holds a big lot of Olympic swimming pools (don’t ask me how many) so we have an idea that’s an enormous amount of water. Lake Argyle holds about 15 Sydney Harbours in normal times. At the height of the 2011 floods it held 44 Sydney Harbours and the flow over the diversion dam that feeds the irrigation area is also measured in Sydney Harbours.

Yes, there’s irrigation, but the other use for all that water is hydro electricity, which requires steady water flow over the turbines. So the line of isolated waterholes that used to mark the course of the Ord River in the Dry is now a fast flowing, all year river.

That’s it for context, folks. Let the journey begin. We caught a bus up to the main dam, stopping for a scenic glimpse of the lake. From there, we piled onto a jet boat – very fast, with very shallow draft to get over the shallow, rocky bits, but able to drift very comfortably in the deep bits. And off we went. The very knowledgeable driver stopped often to let us take pictures of wildlife and reflections.

A crocodile suns itself

A rock wallaby watches us from high on a vertical rock wall. They are very agile little critters.

Two pelicans sunning themselves in the afternoon light

This view was from the place we stopped for afternoon tea

Guys, this was the bestest trip. Loved the boat, loved the river, loved the red rock almost glowing in the sunlight, loved the reflections, the bird life, the crocs, the botany lessons. If you get a chance, go do it. And at the end, back at Kununurra, we watched the sunset from the boat.