Soak it up while it lasts
by IAN HAWKINS
8th August 2019
THE DAYS HAVE been short, and the landscape has been at perhaps its most hydrated.
The sky seems drab, but quite literally, soak it up while it lasts!
Before you know it, we’ll be back to dust and searing heat.
For the naturalist in mid-winter, things can seem uninteresting.
Many animals are tucked away in hollows and burrows and the “higher” plants (trees, grasses, flowers, etc) are at a standstill.
However, a whole different slice of biodiversity has been doing its thing this month.
The trick is just knowing how to spot them.
The large “flushes” of mushrooms may have passed, but the fungi are by no means silent.
Turning a clump of soil or leaf litter may reveal fine white hairs — hyphae — the roots of the fungi.
As these are highly sensitive to drying out, winter is their time to break down all of last season’s organic matter and cycle it back into soil.
Springing from the soil after a good drink are the ferns.
Their fronds emerge as coiled bundles known as fiddle heads, for their resemblance to the end of a classical string instrument.
Thriving in low temperatures, there is a clear connection between ferns and trees.
The canopy trees shield out the harsh sunlight of midday, whilst allowing the gentle, angled light of dawn and dusk to nourish the fern.
Often at sunrise and sunset, you will see a small beam of light, with a fern waiting in just the right spot to take full advantage.
The mosses and lichens too revel in the wet, and those fuzzy banks of moss play host to other species with their high moisture content, whilst simultaneously smothering out the weeds.
These will continue to drip out water for many months to come, helping those heavy rain periods nourish the landscape for a longer period.
With water so widespread, life is good for our amphibious friends, the frogs.
Their habitat is at its greatest extent at this time of year.
Small dams and even dips/trenches in the landscape may be full of water now, but not so in summer time.
As the summertime grasses are drowned by water, a host of macro-invertebrates — water bugs — move in to feed on the decaying grass, triggering the beginnings of the freshwater food chain.
Without fish to eat their tadpoles, and nice small, tadpole sized meals swimming about, these little puddles are the perfect place for frogs to complete their life cycle.
Such water logged soils, when combined with high winds prove the down fall of many trees at this time of year.
Some healthy giants, but also many smaller dead trees that lost the race for top spot.
If you’ve had such an event at your house/your local bit of park, look out for weeds that may germinate in these areas come spring.
As if this didn’t make life hard enough for the poor possums, with very few moths about, many possums subsist only on the odd gum leaf in winter.
Our wildlife doesn’t truly hibernate like bears; however, many possums enter a low energy state or “torpor”, sleeping deeply but still waking nightly for a little snack and a stretch.
Winter is when a hollow in a dead tree becomes prized real estate.
As the inside of the tree rots it releases heat, much like a compost heap, just enough to keep a hollow a little warmer than the outside world.
The first few acacia flowers signal an explosion just around the corner.
More subtle signs of spring appear in the form of orchid leaves appearing on the ground surface, and various lilies putting out some foliage ready for the spring time delight.
So, chuck on your favourite trench coat, some good boots and get out in the bush while it is still full of life’s most precious element — water.
Ian Hawkins is a local ecologist, operating his own small business, Magpie Ecology.