The tiny marsupial blinked through pin-prick, shining eyes. I was blocking his path as he tried to scurry into the undergrowth on Mt Wellington.
Sharing a track with a dusky antechinus half-way up the mountain, we had both been caught out by a sudden change in the weather that brought a blizzard swirling around the peaks to the south.
I did not have a winter coat, or a hat but my problems paled into insignificance when I considered those of the antechinus. A brown falcon hovered, spotting the antechinus as the snow clouds gathered, and I raised myself to my full height after crouching in the snow, to let the falcon know the marsupial had a friend.
And he needed someone to watch over him. It’s not easy being an antechinus out on a mountain track, pursued by a falcon with an even greater fate at the unforgiving hand of nature just around the corner.
The antechinus had been out and about looking for a mate, and in the process sealing his own death warrant, which would come regardless of the intrusions of the falcon or any other predator stalking the mountain.
I know this column is supposed to be about birds – and how human and avian lives someone intertwine in the suburbs – but our feathered friends are only part of the bigger picture and I cannot ignore what else I observe on my rambles.
The Bennett’s wallabies, pademelons and potoroos also share my wildlife world, as does the platypus I spotted recently at the Silver Falls on Mt Wellington, and now the mercurial, mysterious dusky antechinus.
The species is small for one to be tramping the mountain at night. It’s only between 10 and 16 centimetres in length without its long tail, and weighing a mere 65 grams, the females even lighter. It’s a carnivore, its diet comprising insects, worms, lizards and, occasionally, even small birds, and is supplemented with fruits of the forest. As with most marsupials, the dusky antechinus is nocturnal, spending the day-light hours within a nest in a hollowed log or among the thick leaf litter and ground vegetation of the forest floor.
It is its mating behaviour, though, that sets this marsupial mouse apart from other animals. The males in winter are driven to frenzied sexual activity due to raised testosterone levels and they compete vigorously for females. Within three weeks, almost all the males in the population are dead. The male die-off is largely brought on by the high stress levels associated with the physiological changes brought on by the breeding period.
The female gives birth after a four-week gestation period. Six to eight young are born and carried in the pouch for up to eight weeks. Young are then left in a den before becoming independent at about three months.
All these facts were presented to me when I sat at home after leaving the mountain, reading about the antechinus in an animal book as I sat in front of a roaring log fire.
I was thinking of an over-sexed marsupial mouse roaming a mountain track, and grateful evolution had sent me along a different path.