Most of the time, the small slender skink I see in my bush block garden is a garden skink. But this year, I realised that the little skinks were actually very young skinks of a larger species, the eastern water skink.
Also known as the southern water skink, these skinks are usually shorter in length than blue-tongues, and much more smooth and streamlined.
There are many species in the water skink family, known as eulamprys, and while associated with water habitats, they are also found in very rocky forested areas.
Here in the garden in the northern parts of the Wombat State Forest, there is no stream but plenty of rocks.
I have enjoyed watching the adults bask on our rock walls, and there seems to be a group living under the concrete base of a long-gone water tank, right near the garden tap. I have also seen them drinking from and submerged in the bird baths.
But until now, I had never seen their young. The young skinks look just like their parents – coppery brown above, with a complex pattern of dots and stripes down their flanks.
They have smooth shining scales, fairly long feet with long toes, and a long tail – all super slippery and stream-lined for sliding through an aquatic or rocky habitat.
Skinks tend to freeze if they see you have noticed them, which has resulted in some long staring competitions between the adults and Leela the King Charles cavalier. The skinks always win.
Water skinks are skilled hunters. I watched a young one, about 10cm from snout to tail, gliding over the rocks and pea straw in a smooth motion which suddenly sped up into a full sprint as the tiny reptile charged forward and grabbed an unseen insect or tiny snail off a tuft of grass.
As the young grow in size, their prey will increase too, and include tadpoles, small frogs and lizards and a range of invertebrates such as insects and spiders. The eastern water skink is omnivorous. I am not sure what plants they eat, perhaps dianella berries, pea flowers and moss.
The skinks communicate with a ritual head bobbing display, a rapid nodding. It is so cute watching the young ones do this, they look so self-assured.
The head bobbing is very serious when it is breeding, as it is a precursor to male combat as they fight for the right to mate.
They fight furiously, with a lot of wrestling and tearing of skin with their strong mouths.
The mating is pretty serious too, with the male to female grip so tight the female skinks may end up with post-coital wounds.
The female skinks give birth to live young, two or three usually.
I have seen at least two baby water skinks, so we could have one happy healthy litter, or perhaps multiple mothers.
Like many other lizard species, the water skink can shed its tail as a rather drastic measure to save it from being eaten by predators.
This can have unfortunate consequences for the skink, as they store fat in their tails as energy reserves for lean times, such as winter.
Skinks enter a state known as brumation during the long winter months.
Brumation is not hibernating in a true sense – they don’t shut down completely and go cold, slowing their heart rate like a chipmunk or dormouse.
It is more like a state of deep sluggishness or torpor, and the skinks need to wake regularly to drink water.
All the lizards and snakes in your garden would be in this state during winter, tucked into rock crevices and logs.
If you are not lucky enough to have eastern water skinks in your garden, a very good place to see them is on a bushwalk in the Blackwood area known as the Whipstick Creek walking track.
This three-hour loop walk leaves from the Garden of St Erth car park.
In the summer months, many of these beautiful skinks can be observed on the rocks and logs along the path.