A cocoon undone

Picking off the citrus bugs from the orange tree, I saw this cocoon, all dried up and with a hole in the base.

Cocoon of Papilio aegus

Friend Christa clued me in to the correct ID – Papilio aegus, the orchard or citrus swallowtail butterfly. Thanks, Christa!

She also sent me some photos from her own garden showing one of the instars (developmental stages) and a cocoon, in much better shape than mine, that it came from.

  The instars all have slightly different colours and forms, as can be seen on the Coffs Harbour Butterfly House website.

Adult males and females look slightly different.

Papilio aegeus adult male; photo by JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Commons

Papilio aegeus adult female; photo by Summerdrought, Wikimedia Commons

According to the Brisbane’s Big Butterfly Count Facebook page:

… one of our largest, the Orchard Swallowtail. Many of you will have encountered this beauty and will easily recognise it. You can’t miss it just by its size. According to M. Braby the size varies from a wingspan of 102mm (male, below right) to 108mm (female, below left), some describe them as larger. The males are predominantly black with white markings while the female is very attractive with extensive white-greyish markings and additional red and blue ones on the hindwing.

Once emerged from the egg, the caterpillar (larva) looks like a bird dropping, brown and white in colour, with growth gradually changing through instar stages to a mostly green appearance before it changes into the pupa (chrysalis). The chrysalis colour can change too, depending on where it is positioned, presumably to blend into the surrounds.

This butterfly has many larval hosts. Home gardeners will find the caterpillars on citrus trees and the adult butterfly on many flowering garden plants. Among the native host plants for larvae are Lime berry (Micromelum minutum), native limes (Citrus australis, C. australasica), and Crow’s Ash (Flindersia australis).

Did you know that this butterfly’s larva (like that of other swallowtails) uses a red osmeterium to warn predators? Osmeteria look like a little forks and are located just behind the caterpillar’s head. They are everted when the larvae feel threatened.

Many gardeners consider the caterpillars to be pests on their citrus trees, but I’m happy to share. As Sir David Attenborough says, “I think sometimes we need to take a step back and just remember we have no greater right to be here than any other animal.”

Posted in Insects | Tagged , | 6 Comments

White flower spider

In this case, the spider, not the flower, is white. This tiny spider (possibly Thomisus spectabilis) was resting on one of my rose flowers, waiting for a pollinating insect to turn up for lunch.

Thomisus spectabilis, the white flower spider

These spiders are also known as crab spiders. There is some thought that white ones which look like this are female, but yellow ones are male.

Bites are apparently very painful to humans but lasts only a couple of hours. The venom would have to work quickly to disable a bee or butterfly struggling after the spider had pounced on it.

To paraphrase the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Nature, white in fang and claw”.

Posted in Spiders | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sacred kingfisher

The Ballina Bar can produce some mighty waves – that’s why there are so many signs for boaties on their way out and way back, and where Marine Rescue is situated. Sunday was no exception – blustery, rainy and the waves giving a real sense of their tonnes of weight and force as they heaved into the mouth of the Richmond River between the breakwaters.

The big pod of dolphins, however, were having a whale of a time (so to speak) – surfing under and over the waves, leaping and twisting. I’d never seen three together with the middle one upside-down as they surfed together. Then the middle one did an almighty leap and jumped right out of the water and over its buddy on the right. Amazing and exhilarating!

On Lighthouse Beach it was pretty blowy, too, but this little bird was making the best of it, flying from one washed-up tree trunk or branch to another.

Sacred kingfisher

It was a sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus), looking for crustaceans, insects and other small prey like lizards. Despite its name, it seldom eats fish.

They are solitary birds except for the breeding season (September to December). The nest is in a hollow branch, termite mound or river bank. Both male and female incubate the eggs and feed the young, in two clutches a season.

The beach was pretty clean of weed and there didn’t seem to be many insects available, but maybe this little bird was lucky.

Posted in Birds, Travels | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A bower for the lady

It’s the time of year when birds go a’courting. I noticed a female satin bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), and then a male, in the backyard this morning. I’d never seen the two of them together so was interested to watch their interaction. (The photos are not super-sharp as they were shot through my kitchen window, which the spiders are very pleased I don’t clean much.)

The female was hopping and pecking around on the ground, possibly looking for insects or fallen mulberry fruit. The male flew in and looked at her. She noticed him and continued pecking for food. He followed her at a distance. She flew up into a tree, so did he. Then I lost sight of both of them.

We’ve had a male satin bowerbird as long as we’ve lived here, but it’s impossible to say whether it’s been the same bird all the time. Males that have been banded seem to average eight or nine years, but have been known to go to 26 years.

Males don’t mature until they are seven or eight years old, which means, if their average age is correct, they don’t get many breeding seasons in. They initially look like the females, then start changing colour to the adult, shimmering, dark blue plumage at around five years of age. Females mature between two and three years.

A male will build a bower and decorate it with blue objects on the ground. It’s a ‘theatre’ designed to attract and impress a female well enough to mate. He displays to her by dancing and vocalising in and around the bower. If she is impressd, she will mate with him and, then go off and build a stick nest high in a eucalypt or acacia tree, usually laying two eggs. The male goes back to attracting and displaying to other females. There is a terrific YouTube video of the display here.

My bird’s bower has been in the same place for years, so I went down to see if it was still there – it has been repaired from earlier when only one ‘side’ existed. No birds were in sight, so I took some shots.

The ripped-up blue material seems to be from a thick plastic bag; there were also blue fruit juice bottletops and a yellow biro with a blue top. I’m not sure where all this came from as I don’t recognise anything from my kitchen.

My neighbours have seen regent bowerbirds, but I never have. I’m happy enough with satins.

Posted in Birds | Tagged | 2 Comments

The giant spear lily

Sometimes you walk past something and don’t even recognise it – that’s often the case with me and plants. I don’t know as much as I’d like – and the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know – but I’m getting better with the botany. Copy-editing botany books, as I do occasionally, certainly helps.

Yesterday just before lockdown was visited upon us again, we visited the Lismore Rainforest Botanic Gardens. Although it opened in 2013, I’d never been there.

It is relatively small but impressive nevertheless. I’d like to volunteer there but Wednesday (when the work days are) is one of my days at the museum – perhaps I’ll follow up that opportunity in the future.

I walked past a very large plant that looked like a gymea lily (Doryanthes excelsa), then took a second look as the flower was not like the spectacular gymea – it was even more spectacular! Fortunately there was a volunteer nearby doing some watering, so I collared him for an answer.

Doryanthes palmeri; photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Wikimedia Commons

It is the giant spear lily (Doryanthes palmeri), a vulnerable species endemic to the Mt Warning/Wollumbin caldera area in northern New South Wales. For a scientific paper on it, click here. The gymea lily (endemic to southern Sydney and the Illawarra, and apparently to several Lismore streets) is the only other member of the genus. I’ve probably walked past giant spears on my ramblings on the Scenic Rim, but assumed they were gymeas.

My font of information at the gardens said various honeyeaters will happily sip from it – not surprising as there are certainly very many flowers on a flower spike that may reach a height of 5 metres.

It is always a pleasure to talk to knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers.

Posted in Plants | Tagged | 7 Comments

Bizarre bezoars

Humans are generally a superstitious lot. Take the case of the bezoars displayed in our local museum, where I volunteer a couple of days a week.

The provenance of the largest one is: ‘Ball found in stomach of horse 1885: clay ball, extremely heavy, found in stomach of horse who lived his natural term of life, but was deformed in consequence. Mr Giggens, of Dungarubba, noticed the farm horse and when it died examined its remains. Mr Giggens was an owner of many well-known trotting horses. The ball has shrunk an inch since it was found.’

Enterolith from a horse

It weighs 3.3 kg and is 12 cm across – poor horse! Such an object is known as an enterolith, which is composed of minerals – primarily magnesium, ammonium and phosphate. The stone starts to form when a foreign object (say, a small piece of wood, twine, wire, sand or a piece of hair) is swallowed and becomes wrapped, through the internal muscular contractions of the stomach, in concentric rings of minerals.

The other four are trichobezoars, more commonly called hairballs, from a pig (the rectangular one) and some cows (the spherical ones). Those of you with cats will be familiar with them. Cattle are susceptible to getting hairballs in their stomachs because, unlike cats, they do not vomit. People who chew their hair a lot can also get bezoars.

Hairballs of a pig (rectangular) and several cows (spherical)

The word ‘bezoar’ originally comes from the Persian, meaning ‘antidote’. They were found in sacrificed animals, and across many cultures were believed to be a cure for leprosy, measles, cholera, depression and other ailments. Part of one could be worn as a charm, ground into a powder and consumed, or dropped into a drink suspected to contain poison.

So how about it – want to try one next time you’re feeling poorly? ‘Hair of the dog’ or cat – in the form of a bezoar – just might fix you up. But I wouldn’t recommend it!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 6 Comments

Flash! Aaaah!

Cue Queen’s theme music from “Flash Gordon” and replace the zooming spaceships in that film with fireflies!

Firefly season started a couple of weeks early this year and lasts only for a fortnight or so each year. It’s lovely to stand outside just after full dark and watch the little lights flashing and hurtling around.

I’ve written about them before, but could not then get a photo. This time, one was caught in a spider’s web outside the window and I rushed to save it (sorry to steal your meal, spider). I placed it on the porch railing to recover and took some photos while waiting. It is not a pretty beetle, but the special effects make up for that.

This species is probably the Blue Mountains firefly, Atyphella lychnus, which has a range from Sydney to south-east Queensland. It is one of 25 species in Australia, but the only one in this region. Despite the name, they are not flies, but beetles.

Blue Mountains firefly, Atyphella lychnus

I thought the small spider had beaten me to it, but the firefly recovered and started flashing normally again. It was about the length of my thumbnail.

Firefly underside, showing the light-producing organs that contain the chemicals which react to form the flashes

The males do the most flashing, with the females responding. The very large eyes help the beetles locate their opposite numbers in the dark. Each species has its own rate of flashing. Do you remember watching Sir David Attenborough luring one onto his hand by synchronising his flashlight flashes with those of the beetle?

The adults don’t have mouthparts, so can’t feed and live only a few days. Eggs are laid in moist ground near ponds or streams, in boggy areas and in leaf litter, so it’s best to maintain these on your property if you can. The eggs hatch into larvae three or four weeks later. They follow the slime trails of worms, slugs and snails, seize them, inject them with poison and eat them.

Larvae hibernate over winter, burrowing underground or hiding under tree bark. They turn into adults in spring, emerging for the very brief breeding season.

Here is a charming YouTube video where you can see quite a lot of detail of the beetles themselves as they fly and flash.

The first time I saw fireflies I was wandering in a forest at night in Thailand during a backpacking trip. There were so many – it looked like the twinkling stars had come to roost in the trees. We don’t have that many, but they are still absolutely magical.

Posted in Insects | Tagged | 6 Comments

A study in contrast

The weather has warmed up and snakes are on the move. Here on Bundjalung Country, late July and August are called ‘Coming Out Season‘:

Getting dryer and can be strong winds, first hint of northerly winds. Birds starting to sing and build nests. Turtles and echidnas start moving around and are fat. Old people say don’t eat the first echidna after winter. Coastal acacia peak flowering, some heaths begin flowering. Banksias still flowering, river red gum peak flowering. Grey mangrove mass ripe fruit.

We’ve had our first echidna sighting and it looked pretty fat already, but it will get fatter.

On the roof, a young carpet python (Morelia spilota) was exploring.

A friend sent the photo below of another python (who she calls Skinnyfang) exploring at her place last week – you can clearly see the pit organs on the lower jaw. These organs detect infrared radiation (heat) from the bodies of possums, birds and rodents and other warm-blooded prey. The snake ambushes the prey, throws its body in coils around it and suffocates it before swallowing it down.

Carpet pythons are not venomous but a bite would be painful, and a tetanus shot is recommended if you are bitten. You don’t know where that mouth has been!

Spring may be the season of renewal, but not everything survives. The freshly dead body of this rainbow lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) allowed me to have a close-up look at its beautiful colours.

Such a contrast in colours and patterns, and both beautiful in their own way.

Posted in Animals on land, Birds | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The introduced Mexican beetle

This pretty little beetle was in the backyard last week.

The leaf beetle, Zygogramma bicolorata

I couldn’t find it in my reference books or on the ‘net so I asked the ever-helpful Queensland Museum, who identified it as the parthenium or Mexican beetle, Zygogramma bicolorata. It was introduced from Mexico into Australia and India in the 1980s, to control parthenium, an agricultural weed of national significance. It seems to have been successful, eating the leaves down so much that the plant eventually dies off.

It’s nice to hear a successful biological control story for a change.

Posted in Animals on land, Insects | Tagged | 2 Comments

The reptile and the monotreme

I heard the first boobook of the season the other night, and the first cicada. The mulberry tree’s leaves are growing back, and the whipbirds are going nuts with their call-and-response mating calls. Some frogs are even calling, and soon the fireflies will be out. Methinks the season is turning.

Andrew’s sharp ears picked up rustling out front of the house yesterday afternoon and, lo and behold, there was our second sighting of an echidna (short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus) here in 20 years.

What do reptiles have in common with monotremes? One thing is they both lay eggs – but monotremes (echidnas and platypuses) are mammals, and that’s peculiar.

The monotreme

The echidna is named after the Greek mythical monster, Echidna, who was half woman and half snake. The animal was originally perceived to have both reptile and mammal characteristics.

The female lays a single egg each year, and places it in her pouch. It is soft-shelled and leathery, and will hatch into a puggle (don’t you just love that word?) in 10 days or so. It is hairless and laps milk from two areas in the pouch – no teats on an echidna. After 45-55 days, it starts developing soft spines. The mother then digs a den and puts the puggle in it, goes off to feed and returns to ‘suckle’ the baby every few days until it is weaned at about seven months. It may stay in the den up to a year.

The first photo shows lots of dig sites – the echidna was vigorously throwing dirt out of the way with its back-facing front feet, then thrusting its nose into the dirt. The nose has electrosensors in its snout to detect ants and termites. Andrew said he could hear snorting as the echidna cleared dirt from its nose.   This is a short-beaked echidna and although the snout is pretty long, the long-beaked echidna from New Guinea does have a longer beak and overall looks very different.

The dark spot in the photo below – a vertical ellipse behind the eye –  is one of the ears. Hearing is excellent. Andrew managed to quietly sneak up for close-ups, and it at first threw itself against the earth, spines up, then, when he didn’t move, went back to digging madly shortly after.

The spines are actually tough, hollow hair follicles – you can see a broken one towards the bottom front in the photo below.

As the sun went down, we left it to its business.

The reptile

Although the echidna’s spines are pretty spiky and it hunkers down to defend itself, goannas can still make short work of them. There’s an exhibit at the Queensland Museum of a mummified pair – a perentie (Australia’s largest goanna) who tried to eat an echidna, then died and was preserved in the desert conditions. The echidna is still stuck in its mouth.

Photo by Bloopitybloop, Wikimedia Commons

Our goanna, seen resting under the hoop pine near where the echidna was digging, is a lace monitor (Varanus varius). It’s also called the tree goanna from its habit of scooting up trees, for defence and also to check out bird nests for eggs and chicks.

This one is probably making our brush turkey nervous, too, as it will dig out and eat the eggs from the turkey’s brood mound if it gets a chance.

It is always such a delight to see these animals in the wild.

Posted in Animals on land, echidnas, Lizards | Tagged , | 4 Comments