By Mark Robertson
OUR Bass Coast is rich in varied habitats – beaches, remnant bushland, estuaries, farmland and urban environments support varied and, often, rare species.
One habitat which is often literally overlooked is the subterranean world which stretches from the subtidal through to the lofty Bass hills. All sports of creatures excavate and inhabit our rich soils – including us humans.
The karmai can grow to two metres in length and live for at least five years. The large eggs take over a year to hatch, and the young are 20 centimetres long at birth – quite a feast for any predatory bird. If you listen carefully, you may hear the distinctive gurgling sound as the worms move along their moist burrows.
Clearing of the vegetation in gullies, along with ploughing and excavation, has reduced suitable habitat, but thanks to the efforts of farmers and Landcare groups over many years, the available habitat is slowly increasing.
A larger-than-life replica of karmai can be found at Bass, the remnant of an early attempt to capitalise on the hordes of tourists making their way to the penguins. Unfortunately the Megascolides does not fare well when handled by clumsy humans, and attempts to exhibit live worms resulted in too many deaths. The giant cement replica is now painted with Aboriginal motifs, a memorial to more than one indigenous population.
Of course our early coal miners were also diligent tunnellers, hewing thousands of kilometres by hand to supply Victoria Railways with black gold, remains of the cretaceous forests which once covered our lands. Readers should venture below at Wonthaggi’s State Coal Mine for a taste of the underground, and a sense of what our pioneers endured.
More recently, a pair of massive tunnel-boring machines headed out under the ocean at Williamsons Beach as part of the desalination project. Their remains lie entombed about one kilometre offshore. Perhaps a future archaeologist will dig them up and ask, “What the hell were they thinking?” These machines are traditionally named, and my passionate anti-desal protester friend Maggie was mortified when one of them was named “Wonthaggi Maggie”!
Burrowing species are common – rabbit, fox, wombat, bush rat, to name a few. But birds?
The pardalote, a tiny bejewelled species with a huge voice, burrows into soft earthern banks to form a nest. I have often wondered how such a delicate creature can perform this feat. Maybe one day I will be fortunate enough to witness the parents’ industry. Do they dig with wings, bill or feet? Forwards or backwards? How do they deter snakes from evicting them?
If you take a stroll across the mudflats at Screw Creek, Inverloch, at low tide, you will notice thousands of pencil-diameter holes, home of the Bass yabbie, a type of burrowing ghost shrimp. You may notice purple areas on the sand. These are soldier crabs, which will burrow when approached. However, they are lazy little blighters, only excavating far enough to hide from threats. Recently a bird called the beach stone-curlew has visited this habitat from the far north. Gorging on the crabs, it has become the object of desire for visiting twitchers (obsessed birdwatchers), and was even observed chasing dogs off the beach. Perhaps the shire should employ it …
The yabbies live in tunnels filtering small food from the water while trying to avoid being eaten – most fish species will pounce upon a yabbie exposed when the tide comes in. The females carry bunches of bright orange eggs under their tails, providing protection and oxygenated water for the developing young. The males carry a ridiculously large claw, hard and white and capable of a painful nip. I have never seen males in mortal combat and feel that display and bluff are its real purpose – a classic male case of “Mine is bigger than yours”.
Such a rich and tasty food source means predators. The wading birds you may see are perfectly adapted to exploiting the burrowing species – yabbies, polychaete worms and molluscs. The long curved bill of the eastern curlow and ibis can probe deeply into the holes to extract the more energetic tunnellers. Stints and dotterels have shorter, straight bills to grab species which live closer to the surface.
If you take the rime to really observe a “stinking mudflat”, you will realise that the rhythms of the natural world are fascinating, logical and surprising. Observe your own little piece of Bass Coast nature, marvel at its complexity, and think of ways you can enhance it. Find a local enthusiast, whether it’s for birds, whales, orchids, fishes or fungi, join Landcare or a conservation society, and become more than just a Bass Coast resident. Your life will be enriched, and the other species will thank you.
In the headlong rush to develop our homeland and collect a full set of “national brands”, we must not overlook and destroy our real economy – our diverse and valuable natural environments, habitats and species.