Snail parasite blowfly

We may not like every type of animal we see, but they all have their place in the scheme of things. I’m personally fond of things others may not be – just call me contrary.

Armenia  (the snail parasite blowfly) is certainly colourful and presumably to be thanked by gardeners for helping keep snails under control. There are several species, and this one is likely to be A. imperialis, the yellow-headed snail parasite blowfly.


amenia_1  The Queensland Museum says:

Many blowflies attack invertebrates, such as insects and snails. The Snail Parasite Blowfly often rests on rocks and fallen wood. Females give birth to large, well-developed larvae that are thought to be parasites of land snails. Common in open and closed forest in eastern Queensland and New South Wales.

Length 10-15 mm. The bright yellow head contrast with the thorax and abdomen which are metallic green or bronze with silvery-white spots. The wings are clear with dark bases.

Thanks to Greg Spencer for the heads-up and the photos, taken down the road in Rock Valley.

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Finally – a Richmond birdwing!

I’ve been waiting to see the beautiful Richmond birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia) since I moved to the Northern Rivers (18 years ago). Admittedly I have not tried very hard – didn’t go to likely places of encounter. But now I have seen one – outside the lounge room window! It’s a great, colourful thing with a most graceful, swooping flight on big wings. I thought I’d never see one, as it is a threatened species. This is a male, in the flowering frangipani tree.


Richmond birdwing butterfly (male)

The maximum wingspan is said to be about 10.5 cm, and this one seemed about that. The female is not quite so colourful, but has a bigger wingspan (up to 11.5 cm). The green  of the top of the wings of the male (photo below) first caught my attention as it sailed by.

richmond_birdwing_butterfly; photo by Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

Top view of male Richmond birdwing butterfly; photo by Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Wikimedia Commons

The species is threatened in New South Wales, vulnerable in Queensland, according to Braby’s Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia (CSIRO, 2016) (contrary to Wikipedia).

The Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network has a mission to increase the numbers via increasing the host plant (the Richmond birdwing vines: Pararistolochia praevenosa in the lowlands and P. laheyana in the higher areas) and also the habitat that the vines and butterflies – at all stages of the life cycle – need). The FAQ of the network gives a lot of information about the butterfly, its lifestyle and range. A short version is :

  • The life cycle is a little different in higher and lower altitudes. At my place (lower altitude, below 600 metres), there are two breeding seasons when the adults emerge: between September and November and then from January to March (long daylight hours, high temperatures and high humidity).
  • The adult butterfly lives for 4 to 6 weeks, while the pupa (as long as 7 cm) lasts for about 28 days in the warmer weather, longer in colder weather.
  • The female lays 60-100 eggs on different leaves of the Richmond birdwing vine. From up to a few kilometres away, she detects certain chemical signals in the vines that indicate they are at a stage where the caterpillars can eat them.
  • The vine is disappearing due to land clearing – once it disappears, so will the butterfly. I assume that the vine is somewhere in the vicinity of the house so I’ll have to keep an eye out for it, and for some pupas and more adults. But ‘[r]esearch has shown that the male will travel up to 4 kilometres from where it pupates while the female will travel up to 30 kilometres from where it pupates’, so it may not be that close after all.
  • The adult’s yellow and red colours tell predators (pied currawong, noisy pitta, wasps) that the butterfly is toxic and should not be eaten.

When I first saw the butterfly fluttering by, I took a quick look on the ‘net and thought, ‘Holy moly, it’s a Cairns birdwing – but what is it doing here?’ Further investigation showed that it was our very own Richmond species. The Cairns birdwing (Ornithoptera euphorion) is the largest endemic butterfly in Australia, up to 18 cm in wingspan.

As chance would have it, I have a couple of pinned specimens of the Cairns species, inherited from a friend (thanks, Cate and Bill!). You can see why I made that mistake.

(Top) Female Cairns birdwing; (bottom) male Cairns birdwing

(Top) Female Cairns birdwing; (bottom) male Cairns birdwing, Ornithoptera euphorion



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Fearsome fangs

I was sorting out stuff in my laundry this morning. It’s open to the outside so I guess it’s no surprise that this fellow should be in a bucket.




Venom drops are just visible on the end of each fang.

funnelweb-spider-in-bucket_andrewIt was quite assertive, rearing up backwards in classic striking position. The venom drops on each fang were clearly visible, though not so much in the photo above. The rearing posture and venom drops distinguish it from the mouse spider, which is another biggie in our area.

You do not want to mess with this spider – it’s a funnelweb, not the Sydney funnelweb but still dangerous with possibly fatal consequences if you get bitten. It’s been quite a dry spring so the spider was probably seeking moisture as well as shelter in the daytime.

Funnelwebs are nocturnal, so I probably gave this one a shock. You can read about them here, and about mouse spiders here. Interestingly, dogs, cats, adult mice and guinea pigs are immune to the venom. The theory is that primates (including us humans) were not around when these spiders initially evolved so the toxicity is an accident.

I poured it out into the bush at the back of the property. The Queensland Museum, whom I queried re ID, says they tend to come back to their familiar places, so I might find it again. The laundry is due for a big clean-out in any case, and I’ll be wearing boots and gloves to do it.

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Antechinus and swamp rat

Friend Prue has kindly sent me photos of a couple of her native neighbours – the antechinus and the swamp rat. This antechinus is the yellow-footed or brown or dusky species. All three species live in her area of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. They are common along the east coast of Australia, including Tasmania.


Yellow-footed or brown or dusky antechinus (photo by Prue Gargano)

The antechinus (15 species endemic to Australia) is a small, fast-moving, carnivorous marsupial, possibly most famous for its reproductive style. Each female breeds only once, most dying after the weaning of the litter (usually eight babies, but can be four or ten depending on the number of teats); the males have a prolonged breeding frenzy that leads to their dying en masse after mating.


Swamp rat, Rattus lutreolus (photo by Prue Gargano)


The Atlas of Living Australia says of the swamp rat:

[It] is common over a wide area of south-eastern Australia. … Body up to 20 cm, tail up to 14 cm. … Swamp rats make tunnels through the vegetation [in swamps]. They eat mostly stems of grasses and sedges.

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Australian Geographic Lord Howe Island citizen science insect expedition (part 4)

Day 5

Even after a full day yesterday, half the group were up for more walking and went with Bryan up Malabar and Kim’s Lookout to catch flies.

Hail, mountains! We who are about to 'fly' salute you!

Hail, mountains! We who are about to ‘fly’ salute you! (Photo by Luke Hanson)

Yep, it's a long way from the top

Yep, it’s a looong way to the bottom. (Photo by Luke Hanson)

Meanwhile back at the lodge, it was time for more lab work with moths. Andreas had us sorting the previous night’s catch by gross morphology – colour, shape, wing pattern, labial palp structure, and whether the wings are spread or not. Microscopes and hand lenses were essential. This was what I enjoyed the most.

Classifying moths

Roughly classifying moths

Moth morphology

Moth morphology; the labial palp is under the eye

After lunch was a trip to Ned’s Beach, and more snorkelling for many. The fish there are used to being fed and more or less demand it of anyone venturing into the water. The rock platforms on the northerly point of the beach are splendid at low tide for critters.

Ned's Beach. Sooty terns nest along the edge of the beach and on the Admiralty Islands (rear right)

Ned’s Beach – Malabar and Kim’s Lookout are over the central hill. Sooty terns nest along the edge of the sand below the cliffs. The Admiralty Islands are rear right.

I’d been nipped by enthusiastic fish while snorkelling at Ned’s before, so thought I’d instead walk casually back to the lodge just seeing what I would see. One sight was the white terns (Gyris alba), which come to LHI to breed from October to April, and are very cute. I had a lazy afternoon meandering around the place on my own.

White terns nest in their hundreds on LHI.

White terns nest in their hundreds on LHI.


Later in the afternoon some in the group (including some keen Pinetrees staff) helped shift the generators, fuel, light, traps, camping equipment and evening snacks from the Goat House to a flat area at Rocky Run so that Andreas and Glenn could have a night out in the melaleuca forest (they had spent the previous two nights up at the Goat House). Luke described it thus:

Apparently they had a productive night, while we slept comfortably in mozzie free conditions after a 4 course dinner, good bottle of wine and pre-bedtime hot shower. The next morning, the same band of Lord Howe sherpas started with a 5.45am espresso followed by a quick charge back to Rocky Run to collect Andreas, Glenn and the gear. Somehow it got heavier.

Day 6

With a weather bureau forecast of snow for the next few days (what were they thinking? although there can be fierce storms, it never snows on subtropical LHI), we took a softer approach to the day. 🙂


Luke and staff are setting up an organic garden at Pinetrees. Since supplies come over from the mainland by ship only every fortnight, it’s great for slightly fresher veggies and herbs. He was keen to see what sorts of flies and other insects might be there, and gave us a run-down of the composting and soil improvement processes (planting lucerne and barley). Luke wrote:

Insect sampling in Pinetrees organic garden

Insect sampling in Pinetrees organic garden

After gambolling in the garden, there was more moth ID-ing (goody!) by those not volunteering to find Nemo. For over 10 years, Dean Hiscox has been surveying the endemic (to Lord Howe and Norfolk islands) McCulloch’s clownfish (Amphiprion mccullochi) as an indicator of reef health. McCulloch’s is black and white rather than orange and white. The clownfish were counted by the snorkellers over several reefs in certain survey zones in the lagoon, ranging from 8 to 45 on some bommies. The final figure for each reef was consistent with previous surveys, indicating that conditions have been fairly stable over time.

After a BBQ lunch at the lagoon, some of us walked with Andreas to Settlement Beach, where he snorkelled with a net to bring back seagrass so we minions could sort for isopods, amphipods, copepods and suchlike. I enjoyed this – it took me back to my old job in the marine invertebrates department of the South Australian Museum.

Sorting the 'pods' at Settlement Beach

Sorting the ‘pods’ at Settlement Beach


What Andreas was looking for

Day 7

There were few moths to sort from last night, so some of us went for a walk through the Valley of the Shadows to the Clear Place. The air was indeed clear and we were able to see Ball’s Pyramid peeking around the corner of the land to the north. Others went back to Goat House with Bryan to collect his malaise traps. We heard that there were no planes coming to or from Sydney today because of inclement weather in Sydney, so some folks could not get off the island, messing up their plans. (This also happened the next day so I couldn’t leave, but that is another story. It’s something to be aware of when planning a trip to LHI.)

Balls Pyramid in the distance

Balls Pyramid in the distance

After lunch, we helped sort Brian’s flies. Then it was time for a wrap-up of what had been achieved during the week. Andreas thought that we had about 150 species of moths and Bryan had two new species of soldier fly – the second one was found in the Pinetrees organic garden. He was thrilled!

Fly sorting with Bryan

Fly sorting with Bryan


Andreas gave us a talk about moths in general. He described the different taxonomic divisions and told us some fun facts about moths:

  • They have a short adult life. Most adults don’t feed (they leave that to their caterpillars). The females stay where they are and emit a pheromone to attract males.
  • Moths that are preyed on by bats fly have evolved ultrasound detection and sonar-jamming. They emit clicks that confuse the echoes of the bat’s own ultrasonic clicks. The tympanic (hearing) organs are on the moth’s chest, or at the dorsal (underneath) base of the abdomen, or on the ventral (top) side, or in the proboscis – one of these but not all together on the same moth!
  • Some poisonous moths (because their caterpillars eat plants with toxins in them and store those toxins in their flesh) give off warning ultrasonic clicks that they are poisonous. This, naturally, is mimicked by some other non-poisonous moths.
  • Other defences are caterpillar camouflage; startle displays; repellant secretions or cyanide droplets; warning colouration; hairs (protection against wasp and fly larval parasites); and irritating hairs (causing rash in humans).
  • If you watch David Attenborough’s programs, you’ll know that, in Madagascar, Darwin’s moth has the longest proboscis in the world – 40 cm, to sip from a particularly long-trumpeted orchid.
  • Moth caterpillars are parasitic on cicadas and leafhoppers.
  • There is a vampire moth, which drinks tears and pierces the flesh of fruit and elephants, drinking their blood (!).
  • Some moth larvae live in fresh water, feeding on plants or on snails that they capture with silk).
Andreas gives a general presentation on moths

Andreas gives a general presentation on moths. (Photo by Luke Hanson)

Photo by Luke Hanson

Photo by Luke Hanson

Staff were also entranced by the moths.

Pinetrees staff were entranced by the display.

Finally, at dusk we all went to Ned’s Beach to see the flesh-footed shearwaters come in from their rafts in the ocean. They literally drop out of the sky, recover quickly and dash to their own burrows to feed their chicks on regurgitated fish they caught that day. It is quite an experience.

Here are the intrepid citizen scientists. If anyone wants to go on the trip next year, contact Pinetrees directly to secure a place. If you’ve never been to Lord Howe or want to do something different while there, it’s worth it.

From back left: Luke, Andreas (photo by the chief Pinetrees chef)

Back left to right: Luke (Pinetrees manager/owner), Andreas, Glenn (both CSIRO); far right back Bryan; and a bunch of keen citizen scientists. (Photo by Pinetrees’ restaurant manager)

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Australian Geographic Lord Howe Island citizen science insect expedition (part 3)

Day 4

After breakfast, we were boated over to North Bay, a place I’d somehow missed on my last trips. Ranger Darcie Bellanto is overseeing an unfunded project to count sooty tern nests, so we leant her our people power. The sand at the edge of the grass is covered with birds and nests.

Darcie explains what to do

Ranger Darcie explains how to count sooty tern nests.

We divided the beach into 45 m transects and divided ourselves into couples or threes to count each transect.

Map of North Bay showing transect areas

Map of North Bay showing transect areas

Measuring out the 45 m transect lines

Measuring out the 45 m transect lines



A brown noddy flies against the background of the mountains to the north

A brown noddy flies against the background of the mountains to the north.

The result:  an average of 90 nests in each 45 metre survey plot. There were nine plots (the tide was in so plot 10 was under water), so that’s a lot of birds. My own plot (shared with three other people) had 149 nests. The idea is to do this count once a year at the same season to get an idea of breeding numbers over time.

A nests was defined as an egg, or a bird that looked like it was sitting on an egg, or a pair of birds that looked like one was sitting on an egg.

Sooty tern on egg

Sooty tern on egg


Sooty terns on nests at North Bay – there are a couple of fuzzy brown chicks here too, as they had just started hatching

Sooty tern egg

Sooty tern egg

Making another egg

Making another egg





Note the chick in the centre.

Note the chick in the centre.

Bryan naturally was also on the lookout for flies. This dead shearwater provided some – they were flesh flies, which lay their eggs on decomposing bodies. Bryan had done his PhD on those that utilise human corpses. Interestingly, these flies also were hovering around the dead bluebottles that had washed up on the beach.

Bryan hasn't caught this shearwater in his net - he's caught its flies

Bryan hasn’t caught this shearwater in his net – he’s caught its flies. (Photo by Luke Hanson)

I was thrilled to find a chambered nautilus shell.

Chambered or pearly nautilus, Nautilus pompilius

nautilus_3This is the only species found so far on Lord Howe, and this one had been smashed up on the reefs and lost a lot of its shell.


Cleaned-up nautilus



Nautiluses live at depth and rise to shallow waters at night to feed. They recently (October 2016) went onto the CITES list to protect them, as they are in danger of overfishing for their shells and the aquarium trade. This is what they look like live – utterly charming.


Nautilus pompilius (photo by appealtoreason, Wikimedia Commons)

Inside a nautilus, showing the buoyancy chambers

Inside a chambered nautilus, showing the buoyancy chambers (photo by Philippe Arles, Wikimedia Commons)

Bluebottles and janthinas (violet snails), which float together on the ocean with by-the-wind sailors (Velella velella) and sea lizards (Glaucus sp.) in a kind of blue raft, had washed up on the beach. You usually don’t see the janthina’s mucous float still visible as it usually dries out pretty quickly after the shell has washed up.

Janthina janthina with mucous float

Janthina janthina with mucous float

janthina_2After lunch, some of us went snorkelling in the bay. Helen and I decided to instead walk a little way up Mt Eliza. We couldn’t go the whole way as the track was closed because bird breeding was in full swing.

Part way up Mt Eliza

Part way up Mt Eliza, North Bay on the left

When the snorkellers had come back cooled off and refreshed, we all headed across the island to Old Gulch to see the Herring Pools.

Old Gulch

Heading around the corner from Old Gulch (background) to the Herring Pools (photo by Luke Hanson)

Brown noddies were evident on the scree at the gulch.

Brown noddies, Old Gulch

Brown noddies, Old Gulch


Some of the Herring Pools are quite deep and swimmable.

Some of the Herring Pools; many are deep enough to swim in

A couple of the Herring Pools; many are deep enough to swim in


Crab 1

Herring pool crab

Crab 2

Another crab at the Herring Pools

Spider crab

Spider crab (dead carapace) at North Bay

spider-crab-ventralAbove the pools and along the cliffs on that side of the island, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of sooty terns, brown noddies and red tropic birds wheeling overhead. The red tropic birds have a peculiar backward-flying circular display.

On the way back, some of us found a cave with many large brown moths, but they turned out to be “ordinary dunny moths”. I was hoping for a bat, but it wasn’t that sort of cave. Bryan said there is only one species, a microbat, on LHI and a parasitic fly (of course) specific to that bat fixes onto it for life, feeding on its blood.

The trip back allowed us to watch for turtles (hawksbill and green). They are very used to boats and weren’t bothered by us circulating and looking for them.

Turtle at North Bay

Turtle coming up for a breath at North Bay


Turtle ID sheet

Turtle ID sheet



Somehow those mountains draw your eye wherever you go …

Those mountains draw your eye wherever you go.

To be continued …

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Australian Geographic Lord Howe Island citizen science insect expedition (part 2)

Day 3

It rained heavily but briefly in the night, but the day was another glorious fine and sunny one. Bryan Lessard took a group up the Goat House to place malaise traps for catching passing insects over the next few days.

Bryan sweeping for flies at the Goat House

Bryan sweeping for flies at the Goat House. The airstrip is in the background, and the houses and lodges at the settlement appear as white dots among the trees further back. (Photo by Luke Hanson)

Setting up the malaise trap

Setting up the malaise trap (photo by Luke Hanson)

What goes up ...

What goes up … (photo by Luke Hanson)

... surely must come down

… surely must come down (photo by Luke Hanson)

(Photo Luke Hanson)

Lagoon in the background. Mt Eliza is the highest peak in the distance (photo by Luke Hanson)

Brian was thrilled to find the new species of soldier fly he was looking for. He gained a certain amount of notoriety when he named a new fly after the singer Beyoncé. He’s also done a TEDX talk on flies, available here.

Bryan's inspiration is aspiration (photo by Luke Hanson)

Bryan’s inspiration is aspiration (photo by Luke Hanson)

I’d been up to the Goat House a couple of times before and, as you can see, on a fine day the view is really fabulous. (By the way, the once-large goat population is almost extinct after a lot of effort. Apparently only three nannies are left and none is pregnant.) But yesterday I was rather dispirited by my inability to keep up with most of the others, so decided to stay behind. Mind you, a couple of them got 9th place in the World Rogaining Championships, so I suppose it’s unfair to compare. I wasn’t the only one not Goat Housing, though, so I went Andreas and Glenn and the others to the Research Station. More than 50 separate species of moth had been caught the night before and they needed ID-ing, pinning and setting.

Sorting moths at the Research Station

Helen sorts moths at the Research Station.

Glenn demonstrates how to pin a moth. Margaret and I had a go but left it to super-fast Glenn

Glenn demonstrates how to pin a moth. Margaret and I had a go, but left the rest to super-fast Glenn. We appreciated the chance to try, though.

After lunch, the whole group went through the banyan trees and kentia palm forest to Little Island at the base of the two big mountains. In the photo below, look at the top of the green section – that’s the route you take along the base of Mt Lidgbird, then round the corner and up, up, up to Mt Gower’s amazing cloud forest. I went up there a few years ago and it’s awesomely awesome. We were at the top waiting for the dinosaurs to come out and start munching the ferns 🙂 and heard rumbling – looking down, we saw that we were above a thunderstorm. We had to walk down the steep path through the clouds, thunder and bucketing rain, barely seeing the ground for the water running across it. All made it down safe and sound, though – quite an adventure!

Little Island

Little Island, with Mt Lidgbird and the route to Mt Gower in the background

Providence petrels breed on the top of Mt Gower

Providence petrels breed uniquely on the top of Mt Gower.

Andreas and Glenn spent the night in the forest, waking regularly to take moths from the light trap and then back to base the next morning with their specimens for pinning and setting.

To be continued …

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