Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Birds in black and white

Did you know that most of the birds at our school are black and white? This seems to be the colour of birds that are most common in our cities and it can be rather tricky telling some of them apart.

The following photos and text should give you some clues to identify the different species.

Black birds

Crows (or ravens) are black all over with white eyes. They are very large birds, measuring around 52cm. Their call is a drawn out "ark, ark" sound. There are feathers under their chins called "throat hackles"These fan out to form a beard when the crow is calling.

Crows nest in the highest branches of very tall trees. They are commonly seen at school in the fig trees or trying to raid garbage bins for food. Crows are extremely clever birds and are one of the few animals that has been observed making tools in nature.

Other birds that are black all over include male Koels which have red eyes and a long square tail and Spangled Drongos which have red eyes and a flaring forked tail. Crows are much larger than both these birds.

Black and white birds

Magpies are mostly black but have a wide, white collar - also called a nape. Adult magpies have red eyes and a white beak with a black tip.

We mostly associate magpies with swooping attacks during nesting season but although there has been a nesting magpie in the Camphor Laurel tree on C Playground it doesn't seem to have been bothered by hoardes of school children.

Currawongs are mostly black with white feathers near their tails but no white near their necks. They have bright yellow eyes and a black beak.

Currawongs used to migrate to Sydney from the Blue Mountains but there are so many food sources for them here that they've become permanent. They prefer forests and woodlands for habitat and are not commonly seen at school. These two were photographed in Wolli Valley bushland.

Magpie larks are a much smaller black and white bird. They have a white beak and a white eye. The male has a black throat and the female has a white throat. The male is also described as having a white eyebrow but if you think of him as wearing a mask like Zorro it will help to remember which one is male!

Wagtails are one of the smaller black and white birds seen at school. They are common througout Australia and one of the easiest to identify because of their wagging tail action. They are mostly black with a white front and a white eyebrow. They are extremely territorial and will chase off birds much larger than themselves.

White birds

Ibis are predominantly white. They have a black head and some black tail feathers. Ibis are another species that have adopted Sydney as a permanent home even though they used to be migratory. Drought and loss of wetlands in rural areas is thought to be the reason. Unfortunately, ibis spend a lot of time raiding garbage bins for food and have a bad reputation.

Cockatoos come in various colours. Sulphur crested cockatoos are white all over (except for the yellow crest) and can be seen here in the school's front garden. They are not regular visitors. They make a brief and noisy appearance when this tree is in seed.


Activity - visit the school grounds and make a list of all the birds. How many are black and white birds? How many are coloured?

Activity - identify the following birds from their descriptions

1. A am a medium-sized, male bird. My beak is dark. I have a white eyebrow but a black throat. The sound of my call is "pee-wee, pee-wee".

2. I am a medium-sized bird. I am mostly black with a splash of white behind my neck and on my wings. I like to eat worms and grubs on the ground.

3. I am a small bird. My back is black, my belly is white. I like open, grassy areas. I wag my tail from side to side and catch the insects that fly up from the ground.



Part of the process for building a frog pond at school was deciding which fish to introduce. Extensive research was undertaken to identify a local, native fish species that would control mosquito larvae without eating frogs eggs or tadpoles.

A colourful Empire Gudgeon found in Wolli Creek.

The following fish occur locally in the freshwater sections of Wolli Creek:
Firetail Gudgeon
Empire Gudgeon
Striped Gudgeon
Flathead Gudgeon
Common Jollytail

Of these, only the Firetail Gudgeon is considered frog-friendly and not needing saltwater for part of its life-cycle so it would be the most suitable species for the school pond.

However, if fish of this species were sourced from aquariums they might have come from warmer climates and may not be acclimatised to Sydney outdoors! The species for our school pond will be sourced locally with the help of Canterbury Council and NSW Fisheries.

Firetail Gudgeon occur in streams, ponds, swamps and drains, usually among aquatic weeds. Juveniles feed on zooplankton while adults feed on insects, larvae and small crustaceans. They breed between October and January in response to rising water temperatures. Male colouration intensifies at this time. Eggs are laid underneath rock ledges, logs or leaves and are guarded and fanned by the male parent until hatching, 3-5 days later.


- contact Voren for activity sheets relating to local native fish species.


Activity - Divide the class (Yr 6) into small groups. Give every group the following set of criteria.

Ideally fish for our pond would be:
- a small species;
- suitable to still water;
- suitable to freshwater habitat;
- native to Australia;
- that would eat mosquito larvae;
- that would not eat frogs eggs;
- that would not need filtration; and
- that would be suitable to East Coast (Sydney) climate.

Give each group a different fact sheet for a particular species. Or get them to google the species for homework.

  • Crimson-spotted Rainbow Fish, Melanotaenia splendida fluviatilis
  • Blue-spot Goby, Pseudogobius olorum
  • Western Carp Gudgeon, Hypseleotris klunzingeri
  • Bony Bream, Nematalosa erebi
  • Southern Pygmy Perch, Nannoperca australis
  • Australian Smelt, Retropinna semoni
  • Agassiz's Glassfish (Ambassis agassizii)
  • Common Jollytail (Galaxias maculatus)

Ask groups to present the case for or against their species being introduced to the school's eco pond.


Some useful websites:

Fresh Water Fish of the Sydney Region (poster)

Australian Museum Fish Site

Frog pond

In 2005, parents from the school applied for a grant to develop a natural habitat refuge for local frogs, small birds and animals. It was proposed that no creature would be introduced but that the habitat built and planted should be sufficient to attract local, native species.

In 2006 Year 6 students, with teachers and parents, set about building an eco pond and the rest followed. Now, in 2008 we have a habitat rich with reptiles, invertebrates and, at last, frogs!

After the initial structure was created the task was to transform black plastic, concrete and sandstone into a place that frogs would choose to live. It was said that any body of water left for 6 weeks would attract frogs but we found that was not the case.

Much research went into finding species of native plants that grow in the local area and would encourage frogs to move in. With advice from some plant enthusiasts in the Wolli and Bardwell Valleys we recieved both advice and donated plants including:

River Club Rush Schoenoplectus validus (sourced from Botany wetlands);

Knobbly Club Rush Isolepis nodosus;

Tall Sedge Carex appressa - local to the Cooks River Valley;

Blady Grass Imperata cylindica (sourced locally);

Kidney weed Dichondra repens;

Native reeds Juncus usitatus; and

Long hair plume grass Dichelachne crinita.

An aquatic fern called Azolla was introduced to help clean up the water and Duckweed mysteriously appeared (possibly arriving in small quantities with one of the donated plants). Lomandra, dianella and bracken ferns were sourced from Marrickville Community Nursery and the result is a pond that looks like this:

Frogs were first noticed on a weeding and watering expedition during the summer holidays. A frog loudly and proudly sang "bonk.... bonk..." to our delighted ears. After school returned, tadpoles could be seen flicking about under the Azolla and duckweed and one enterprising kindergartener lifted a section of pond to find a fully grown frog underneath. This camouflaged fellow is a Striped Marsh Frog.

The tadpoles were observed in two distinct sizes. The large ones with slightly-developed back legs and the small ones without. This suggests that perhaps several adults have bred at different stages and the prospect looks good for an ongoing population at the school.

Some weeks later front legs became apparent.

Then, at last, we found a fully developed frog:

We have yet to stock the pond with fish. That's one creature that will not be able to find its own way to the ELA! Extensive research was undertaken to identify a local native fish species that would control mosquito larvae without eating frogs eggs or tadpoles. These will be sourced locally as fish from aquariums may not be acclimatised to Sydney outdoors! In the meatime, there's plenty of exciting life to be studied in and around the eco pond.

Frog update

At Gardening Club (12 March 2009) our Yr 1 naturalist, Trystan (pictured above) found not just frog spawn, well concealed under the Carex grass, but also the frog who appeared to be in the process of laying the eggs.

Activity - research and draw the life cycle of a frog.

Activity - answer this online frog quiz.

Monday, February 18, 2008


How do you know when you've found a spider in the garden? They come in so many colours, shapes and sizes. They can be as small as a pin head or as large as your hand! Some spiders are brightly coloured or patterned and some are camouflaged against their chosen background. Others are known to disguise themselves as things like ants, sticks, crabs and bird-droppings! so how do we even know if what we've found is a spider?

We generally know something is a spider if it has 8 legs (although mites have 8 legs too). Webs are another way of deciding something is a spider but don't forget:
- some other creatures spin silk; and
- some spiders live in burrows or under bark instead of in webs.

Within the school grounds there are many different spiders. Here are some photos and some information about the different homes they live in and the way they catch food.

Orb Weavers

The St Andrew's Cross spider is an orb weaver. That means it spins a round web. This spider has brightly coloured stripes on its abdomen and even the underside is very colourful. The St Andrew's Cross spider rests with its legs grouped in pairs so that it looks like it only has four legs. It often creates zig zag patterns with silk inside its web.

As with many spiders, the male is much smaller than the female (see above).

Other orb weavers include the Garden Orb Weaver, the Silver Orb Weaver and the largest Australian Spider, the Golden Orb Weaver. Here is a Silver Orb Weaver from the Eco Learning Area and next to it is a tiny orb weaver that is only about 2mm long!

Leaf Curlers

Another type of spider that is very common at school and in local bushland is the Leaf-curling spider. This spider spins a partial orb (only one part of a cirlce) and it hides in a curled up leaf attached to the web.

It is very unusual to see the spider itself. They are quick to retreat inside the leaf if disturbed and the most you see are the front legs and a hint of yellow on the abdomen. The photos above show the spider inside its curled leaf having a meal; the underside of a leaf curler in broad daylight; and a leaf-curler that has recently shed its skin.

Flower Spiders

The Flower Spider hides under leaves waiting to ambush its prey. They are quite small spiders. These spiders were found hiding on Greek basil in the herb spiral:

Some flower spiders are very colourful so that they can sit on top of a bright flower waiting to catch a bee or fly that lands there. This white flower spider has caught a moth much larger than itself.

Spiders without webs

Wolf spiders live in shallow burrows. You will probably only see these if they are wandering or disturbed by weeding. Here is one on the path in the ELA.

Huntsman spiders live under loose bark. They often come inside buildings during wet weather. They are most active at night time.

Pictured above: a huntsman on the path in the ELA and a pair of hunstmen found under bark.

Identifying a spider

To identify a spider you need to be able to describe it in detail. The parts of a spider have special names like cephalothorax, palps and spinnerets. This website helps you to identify them all.

Activity - The following photo of a huntsman has some parts labelled. Can you think of any labels that are missing?

Activity: Look back through this blog article. Can you see any spinnerets? What part of the spider are they on?

Activity: Look closely at the following photo. Can you see a spider? (Hint: a hiding spider will often have one leg attached to its web to sense any movement from prey being caught.)

The hidden spider in this photo is a Long-jawed spider.

Activity - Look at the spider photos from Wolli Creek. Which ones are camouflaged and which ones are mimics?

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Residents of the inner-west are noticing blackened skies around dusk as a large camp of flying foxes leave their roost in the Wolli Valley and head out to feed in the suburbs.

Many of these bats find their way to our school where they feast in the giant fig trees or find pollen in our Eucalypt trees. This bat was on a gum tree inside the ELA:

And this one in the giant fig trees at the front of the school:

The Wolli Valley camp was first established in the Valley in mid-2007 and then estimated to contain over 1000 Grey-headed Flying-foxes. A bat count in April 2008 estimated the population to be well over 5000 individuals. This dramatic increase in numbers means that many bats will become trapped or injured in areas where people are not used to them.

Bats entangled in fruit nets become badly injured by trying to escape. Do not try to remove the animal yourself (their bite may carry a disease called lyssavirus). Another problem for bats is electrocution on power lines but did you know that a young bat, clinging to its mother, can survive the electric shock? It helps to look at bats hanging from electric wires to see if a juvenile bat is attached and still moving! These youngsters will starve unless they are rescued.

If you find an animal that needs help call a wildlife rescue group such as Sydney Metropolitan Wildlife Services (02 9413 4300) or WIRES (1300 094 737).

Flying fox injuries include torn wings and damage to mouths as they try to fight their way out of fruit nets. Many of these injuries can mend with time, medical treatment and the devotion of wildlife carers. Bats can be released back to the wild where they can continue their important role as pollinators of native trees.

This is one of 5 bats recently from fruit nets and taken to a wildlife carer's home to recover.


In an attempt to address the growing curiosity of the community about these new residents, Marjorie Beck and Nancy Pallin of the Ku-ring-gai Bat Conservation Society will conduct a talk on bats at 7.30 pm on Wed 7 May in the upstairs meeting room. The talk will include a Powerpoint presentation about flying foxes and even a living example!

The KBCS is a non-profit community organization working for the conservation of all bat species, especially the Grey-headed flying-fox, and they are keen to share their knowledge with us. Their website is: http://www.sydneybats.org.au/cms/

Meanwhile, you can read more about flying fox habits on the WCPS website at http://www.wollicreek.org.au/flying_fox.html.

Bat facts

Bats are the only mammals that can fly.

The grey-headed flying fox is an endangered species.

Bats drink by dunking their bodies in water then licking the water off their fur.

Grey headed flying foxes returning to roost in the Wolli Valley

Click here for video footage by Gavin Gatenby capturing the fly out on 22 November 2009. The temperatures exceeded 40 degrees and thousands of bats dipped into Wolli Creek to cool off and have a drink before heading out into the night.