Mudlark, magpie lark, peewee - these are all names for a bird that is common and well-known throughout Ballarat and beyond.
In fact, it is found Australia-wide, but not in Tasmania. A recent note says "what fascinates me is the constant number of mud larks, especially in the shopping centres, they appear to be very traffic wise, no matter where they are."
Magpie larks (to give them their proper name) are indeed "constant" around Ballarat. Pairs seem to occupy all suitable habitat - city, suburban or rural. They become almost fearless around traffic and footpaths, but are rarely seen dead on the roads. Even the juveniles seem to avoid such misadventure.
They sometimes come for food, but they seem to prefer finding most of their own. There are a few at Lake Wendouree that come for crumbs of bread, but they soon have their fill and depart for more normal food.
There are a dozen or more pairs with territories along the shoreline of Lake Wendouree. Territories are defended throughout the year, and pairs are thought to stay together for life.
Male and female magpie larks are fairly easy to tell apart, with the male (pictured) having a black face with a white brow, and the female having the forehead and throat white.
Parks, ovals, roadsides, lawns and backyards suit them nicely, and a farm dam with a tree or two is sure to have its pair of these native birds. They have adapted well to altered environments.
Magpie larks and magpies often feed in the same open, short-grassed places, Skirmishes between the two often occur, with most of these initiated by the magpie lark. Kookaburras and ravens are also frequently driven off.
Pairs often call in duet, emphasising their close pair-bond and territoriality. Such duetting is done mostly to announce and defend their space. Our magpie lark has a relative in Papua New Guinea, but otherwise there are no similar birds. It was once classed with a couple of other mud-nest building birds, but is now considered by many scientists to be more closely related to some of the flycatchers. A recent bird book calls it an "aberrant, giant, terrestrially-foraging monarch" flycatcher, emphasising all the differences between it and other flycatchers. Its food is mostly ground-dwelling invertebrates like worms and grubs.
The leaves of red gums are more prone to insect attack than those of any other local eucalypt. Scale insects, caterpillars, leaf-eating beetles and a host of other insects feed on them. Perhaps this is why red gums support more birds than most of the other eucalypts.
NATURE QUERIES ANSWERED
Your attractive specimen is small coral fungus, usually found in lightly-timbered places, rather than grass. However, your photo shows some native grass, indicating that the environment is not completely altered.
It is a widespread fungus, although it does not seem to be common in our district.
There are many species of coral fungi, occurring in a range of colours from white through yellow, orange and pink to bright purple. Some are denser and more spreading, with very numerous multi-branching. Others are more upright.
Botanists know this one as Ramariopsis crocea. It grows up to 50mm tall and 20-40mm across.
- Questions and photos are welcome. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send to Roger Thomas at The Courier, PO Box 21, Ballarat, 3353.