On the rocks

Rock walls are harsh environments. The sun beats down, the rain pelts down, the wind blasts through and over the rocks and, at the North Wall at Ballina, the river and ocean waters take turns, depending on the tide, to deliver spray. It’s hot, cold, wet, dry, salty and fresh, sometimes in short order and over and over again. You have to be a tough, resilient animal or plant to live there.

The North Wall is an artificial wall, built from 1889-1912 along with the South Wall. It was planned to stabilise the mouth of the Richmond River and help provide safe passage for ships from Sydney (and other east coast ports) that were transporting people and goods to Ballina. From there, smaller boats shunted back and forth to Lismore and small towns in between. Rileys Hill quarry down south provided the rocks, which were brought up the coast by barge. Prior to the walls being built, the mouth of the river moved over time and so did the sandbars, which were dangerous to shipping. It’s still a dangerous bar with fast-flowing water.

In 2016, structural repairs were carried out in the form of hanbars. Like many, I thought these blocks were very ugly, until Cape Town friend Jane pointed out that the structures are somewhat similar to the dolosse concrete blocks invented in South Africa, based on a kind of traditional knucklebone game. After that, I felt they looked more interesting.

View of the cyclone-tossed sea from North Wall, Ballina – hanbars and Rileys Hill quarry rocks in the foreground

The path on the wall is popular for walking, jogging, cycling and pooch walking. It also gives great views of the beaches to the north and south, of breaching whales while they are migrating up and down the east coast, and of pods of dolphins exploring the waters for a feed. In a decent storm, there’s almost nobody there and the waves are spectacular.

One of the tough animals commonly spotted is the eastern water dragon (Intellagama lesueurii). You might see a dozen of these, of all sizes, on a 10-minute amble along the wall, sunning themselves. They can grow up to 90 cm long (nose tip to very-long-tail tip). They eat small reptiles, worms, frogs, insects, vegetation, fruit, small mammals and molluscs, all of which would be available in rock crevices or on the nearby sand dunes.

The skin texture is marvellous – Andrew took some close-ups of some medium-sized ones yesterday.

We were able to see another tough reptile living on the wall – a carpet python (Morelia spilota). We’d only seen this one once before, last week. I guess it was warming up. They usually feed at night, on rats, possums and birds – and maybe small lizards?

The python would have been as long as I am tall – and very healthy looking.

Meanwhile north of the wall on the windy Lighthouse Beach, a willy wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) was following us, possibly watching out for any insects we might dislodge as we picked up plastic from the tide wrack – not much, thankfully.

The cyclonic seas had washed up the usual suspects that often come in from far offshore together – glaucus, porpita and bluebottles. The only thing missing was velella.

You really want to avoid the ‘pearls of pain’ – nematocysts – of the bluebottle, even on the sand. They can still be triggered by contact with your skin.

You never know what you’ll find on a walk on the wild side.

Posted in Animals on land, Lizards, Snakes, Travels | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A tale of two thrushes

In mid-November, friend Mazza sent me the first of several ‘birdie bulletins’ – she was so excited about the nesting of a pair of grey shrike-thrushes (Colluricincla harmonica) and the subsequent hatching of the eggs. The pair were nesting in a hanging basket right outside her bedroom window.

The Australian Museum says:

The grey shrike-thrush searches for food on the ground, generally around fallen logs, and on the limbs and trunks of trees. It has a varied diet consisting of insects, spiders, small mammals, frogs and lizards, and birds’ eggs and young, and some birds have been observed feeding on carrion. Fruits and seeds may also be eaten on occasion. …

Grey shrike-thrush pairs generally remain together for life and inhabit the same areas throughout this time. Breeding territories of up to ten hectares are maintained. The nest is a cup-shaped structure of dried vegetation, and may be constructed in the same site year after year. Both birds share the nest-building and incubation duties, and both care for the young birds.

The bird itself is pretty drab-looking, but its song is lovely and very distinctive – you can hear it on this website. In fact, I can hear one at home right now. Grey shrike-thrushes are well used to being around people, and it is not unusual for them to build their cup-shape nest of dried vegetation in and around human structures – in rafters, garages, buckets and even potted plants. Mazza has had them nest on speaker shelves high up on the veranda walls.

I can’t tell the story any better than Mazza’s own words, below (slightly edited), from her Birdie Bulletin.

(13/11/21)  A month or two back, our local grey shrike-thrush was spotted with some nesting material in his or her beak; not sure whether the bird I saw was male or female. Then I noticed that a prelined but still empty hanging basket, near my back door, had a nest in it. Watching more closely it became clear that’s what the grey shrike-thrush (herein referred to as ‘Birdie’) was building. (‘Birdies’, as we’ve fondly call these for years, are the most fabulous sounding songbirds, rating second only to the butcherbirds and magpies.)

Then I didn’t see him or her for a while, and thought they’d made wiser plans of nesting elsewhere. (The hanging basket was next to the most frequently used door in the glasshouse, being under the edge of the carport and at ‘business end’ of the glasshouse – you can see the white frame of the door to the left in the first photo.)

A while later I looked at the untended nest and felt it had evolved some more. Days later I saw a pale egg with brown-mottling in it; then the next day two eggs, etc etc.

So now Birdie is sitting on a nest with four eggs in it, and I’ve stopped using that door to minimize disturbance. He or she flies off whenever there’s nearby disturbance, as if to draw attention away from the nest. I understand that grey shrike-thrushes are monogamous, and both share equally in the incubating of eggs.

Location of the nest – in a hanging basket

(13/11/21) Here are the next photos I took of Birdie’s nest with the latest laid eggs. Each egg was laid at least one day after the last.

(15/11/21) Birdie’s sitting fine, although I can never tell when it’s mum, or when it’s dad.  I’d moved some of my amenities to the other side of the glasshouse, and stopped using the side door next to the nest, to minimise my disturbing her or him.

I’ve just had to disengage a passionfruit vine which had thrown a tendril around the ‘nest’ basket’s wire. With gusty winds cropping up of late, the vine was going to jossle the basket more than the wind alone.  I just talked to Birdie soft and low, trying to deal with it at as much distance as possible, and (s)he just sat there!

Also recently, I was doing something near where the hanging basket is, and I saw Birdie fly to the nest, look at me, and promptly return to sitting.  Prior to that, if ever the sitter saw me, it’d fly off (which is why I’ve been avoiding the ‘business end’ of the carport etc where the nest is).  So now I’m ‘bird-whispering’ whenever I’m approaching, and no longer putting off things I need to do there.

I’ve also become very protective. Normally I don’t discourage any native fauna, but I shooed a female koel (a type of cuckoo) [eastern koel, Eudynamys scolopacea] off from nearby trees; she wasn’t in direct line of sight of the nest, but I wasn’t taking any risks! (The koel flew a considerable distance away, and when I thought more about where she flew from, I realised she was probably only eating fruits from a native tree.  But I didn’t want her to find the nest at all.)

The first photo is taken from my bed within the caravan ~ with just the caravan wall between us, I sleep a couple of feet away from the nest, at a level slightly above it, hence the photo looking down at the nest.  When I nestle down at night, I feel like I’m sharing her experience, being so close. You can see the bed-end of the caravan in the last two photos. Hatching is due any day now, certainly by the weekend.

(17/11/21) We have three out of four hatched eggs.  Interestingly, there are no remnants of the broken shells left in the nest.  Both parents are feeding in rotation. I’m watching to see what, if anything, happens to egg #4.

One of our Bulletin recipients has been inspired to hang some lined-only baskets around her place.  Mine are all lined with paperbark first, then the coir ‘cups’. Ironically that came to be to prevent birds pulling coir out from the sides, to build nests elsewhere!  (Poor plants!)

By same token, whenever I clip my long-haired dogs (Lhasa apsos and Maltese), there’s a wealth of very soft nesting material I leave distributed at various points under trees, near bushes etc.  I know the finches use it, I’ve seen it woven with cobwebs in the nesting structure. I don’t yet know if anyone uses it as a soft lining.  Another interesting point about grey shrike-thrush nests is that they are lined specifically with small roots.  Not very cosy, but creates lots of little gaps/airspaces, that the outer nesting structure doesn’t have.  Maybe it’s something to do with ‘nest hygiene’ – droppings? The nestlings take about 15-16 days to fully fledge. The eggs were between the sizes of 5c and 10c coins.  The adult bird is > 21 cm long (up to 25 cm). So that’s a lot of feeding and rapid growth.

P.S. The hatchlings hardly make any sound till within days of being fully fledged!

Newly hatched

(18/11/21) Early this morning I saw one Birdie turn up, feed the Birdie sitting on the nestlings, and (s)he in turn appeared to feed the bubs, whilst the visiting Birdie flew off.

Later on, when the morning sun was well on the nest, and the sitting Birdie looked a bit hot (beak open, so possibly panting, just like a dog – I’ve seen kookaburras do that on 45 degree days), the other birdie turns up, with what looked like an insect in its beak, and directly proffered it to the bubs, then settled in to cover them. (I don’t know that the bubs took in the proffered tucker).  In the meantime ‘hot’ Birdie had flown off, presumably for a food-finding break and a drink of water.

Later again, I watched whichever Birdie was on the nest, and saw throat movements that could have been regurgitatory.  Not sure if s/he was feeding them or not, but suspect so.  If she was, she was quick at raising her head to make more of the same throat movements.

The parents are so busy now, with coordinating their comings and goings, I’m not sure the chicks will be left alone long enough to get another photo, perhaps until there’s at least some pin feathers protecting them.  This afternoon’s cold wind isn’t helping either. So I haven’t seen the bubs since the ‘newly hatched’ photos.

I’ve now checked below the nest, and found no trace of eggshells, so I can only assume that Birdies ate the remnants after the chicks hatched  (a good strategy for disguising existence of the nest, aside from recycling the nutrients!)  Then a zoologist friend tells me they do take the shells out of and away from the nest, along with their ‘poo packets’.

The parents have just started singing their more melodic songs for the first time since they were just building the nest.  The only call I’ve heard in the interim has been their alarm call, usually when the sitter has flown from the nest when disturbed.  So as I sit at my computer typing this, I’m hearing the most clear and lyrical serenade, amplified by the roof over the caravan and the carport.  This is heaven!

One day old

Changing of the guard – parents swap places

<19/11/21) Well, the nestlings are now 3-4 days old, and, oh my, have they grown!

It was hot here today, so my camera caught a time when no Birdies were sitting.

We definitely have three bubs, with the fourth egg still in the nest.  (But you can’t see the fourth egg in today’s photos, because the bubs are covering it – compare the first photo (earliest of bubs) and second photo (today’s) – amazing what 3-4 days’ growth does!)

Apart from dark skin, there remains a sparse dark down.  (Chooks would at least have pin feathers edging their wings by now, but wouldn’t (I don’t think) have increased so much in volume. (Memory test anyone? It’s a while since I bred chooks too!)

The other remarkable thing about the bubs, is their eyes are huge relative to the size of their skulls.  It’s not very clear from the still shot, but it was very evident in observation, because the eyes were moving a lot under their closed eyelids.  Fascinatinger and fascinatinger!

And not a drop of poo in the nest proper! (A bit of parental whoopsy on bark well out of range of the chicks!)

Who says nature’s perfect?  But it’s still amazing!

Four days old

(22/11/21) Today I took more piccies, as the pin-feathers had clearly lengthened, in under 24 hours.  The rain has not interrupted the daily routines of parents coming and going.  And the bubs can be seen snoozing peacefully when nobody’s actively sitting, even when it’s raining!  I imagine this warmer weather allows the parents to have more breaks than I was expecting.

The bubs are starting to make very quiet sounds, sort of murmurings more than anything more distinctly birdlike, and only occasionally.  Eyes are still closed and they’re hardly active at all. When they are, it’s mostly when an adult turns up and they open their gapes, as if to say ‘feed me, feed me’!  (However, they are well into deep breathing – those body movements are very obvious.)

6 days old – pin feathers emerging

7 days old – pin feathers on wings, tail, and thickened down generally

Last photo at 8 days

(27/11/21) There’s no nice way of putting this, so I will just say it like it is.

A raptor (bird of prey) took the egg and two chicks from the nest, very late afternoon. I stayed with the nest till dark when I noticed there was only one left, and the raptor (some type of hawk) did land on the nest to get the last one, but it got told where to go and it went!

It didn’t come back during the night, but did snatch the last chick the next morning. The attached is the last photo taken, a couple of hours before the predation. Their eyes had just started opening on occasion.

It’s been lovely sharing the joy, but nature has some pretty harsh realities, and this has been one of them. There is a chance Birdie will breed again this season, so I’m working on ways to make any repeat nesting more visually obscure, including extra lined but empty baskets, under better cover.

So sorry that it ended this way.

Fortunately, according to Backyard Buddies,

It is not unusual for grey shrike-thrushes to have one to three (or even five if there is enough food) clutches in a breeding season. So if these birds build a nest near you, you could be enjoying their company again and again as they come back to raise new chicks.

So cheer up if you can, Mazza. Although this story had a sad ending, there’s an excellent chance your birds went back to breeding very shortly after. This is why the grey shrike-thrush is one of Australia’s most widely spread birds.


Postscript: Mazza says:

I now have a couple of similar hanging baskets completely suspended under roofing. (Birdies fly into the car-port to sing sometimes, as if to amplify their sound and appear more formidable to competition.)

In case they do decide to return to their original nest, it is now obscured by a cone of newspaper, held up by the hanging pot’s three chains. The bit of branch was added to make it a bit more open, and to ensure any heavy rain run-off is shed away from the nest.  From my observation, their previous nests have all been open-topped; they are definitely not hollow-nesters; so this may be too ‘covered’ for them. It may even deter them from using the original nest again.  We may yet get to see.

Posted in Birds, Travels | Tagged | 4 Comments

UFOs identified

Unidentified Floating Objects can be a bit of a challenge to identify. By the time they reach shore and are washed up, features have often been pecked off or removed by wave action, or the creature has just rotted away and what’s left is a bit of a mystery. In the case of the latter, a rotting whale carcass washed up on a beach may sometimes be mis-identified as some sort of fabulous sea monster.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of clear, stiff, gelatinous ‘medallions’ have been washing up at Ballina – and, it turns out, in many places along the east coast.

In my quest to find out what these are, I emailed Ceridwen Fraser, associate professor in the Marine Science Department at the University of Otago and author of a new book called Beachcombing.

In her book, I had noticed a photo of a salp, which looked somewhat similar, but she thought my critters were jellies. She kindly put me onto the Facebook post of Coolum and North Shore Coast Care, which says:

These jellyfish are a relatively new species called Aldersladia magnificus, a genus and species within hydromedusa and within the Aequoreidae family found in tropical and subtropical waters (Gershwin, L. 2006).

What causes these blooms to happen? There are multiple causes, some contributing factors are ‘Eutrophication, climate change, overfishing, and habitat modification’ (Qu CF, Song JM, Li N. 2014).
When washed up they appear to have no tentacles, but when seen in the water they have long tentacles that can retract. These tentacles can sting so please be careful whilst swimming at the moment. Don’t be too scared though, Jellipedia rates them as a 1/5 on their sting-o-meter.
 
they are … bioluminescent. If you head down to the beach at night time at the moment to a spot where there are plenty of them you will see for yourself.

In 2006, Lisa-Ann Gershwin identified the new genus and published a paper, ‘Aldersladia magnificus: A new genus and species of hydromedusa (Cnidaria: Hydrozoa: Leptomedusae: Aequoreidae) from tropical and subtropical Australia’, and if you want all the gritty details you can download it for free from here.

Thank you to Ceridwen for pointing me in the right direction. It’s great fun finding and tracking down things I haven’t seen before. Now I can add one more thing to my bucket list: a salp!

 

Posted in The sea, Travels | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

To bee or not to bee

The Birdwing Butterfly Walk is a pleasant stroll in suburban Lismore, part of the Tucki Tucki Creek walk. It’s only taken me 25 years to get there, and I was impressed with the patches of subtropical rainforest along the small creek. A group of volunteers looks after it and keeps it mostly weed-free. You can hear the sounds of cars, but other than that you could be in the bush.

It’s apparently popular with recreational walkers and dog walkers. We managed to miss them as we didn’t go before or after the usual working hours.

There were lots of birds, but we didn’t see the famous platypus nor the protected southern purplespotted gudgeon – instead there were plenty of catfish. But you can’t expect to see everything, or indeed anything, on a flying first visit. Patient stalking usually yields results.

There were plenty of brush turkeys (Alectura lathami), or bush chooks as I call them. One was resting on a branch – was he tuckered out from building the very large mound of leaves that is incubating his chicks?

And miscellaneous birds – we couldn’t get a shot of the white-browed scrub wrens as they were too fast for us, but this spangled drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus) was keeping an eye on us.

Spangled drongo, Dicrurus bracteatus, at the Butterfly Walk – the defining ‘fish tail’ is behind the plant

We also didn’t see the vulnerable-to-extinction Richmond birdwing butterfly, although there are plenty of vines for the caterpillars and they were starting to flower.

Pararistolochia praevenosa, vine and flowers

The butterfly is vulnerable because of two factors; according to Gardening Australia:

The first one is habitat loss due to development. A lot of the food plants for its caterpillars have disappeared. To complicate the situation, the caterpillars have to depend on one species of native vine – the Birdwing Butterfly Vine, Pararistolochia praevenosa. As the caterpillars lost their food plant, the populations have diminished – but home gardeners, in conjunction with conservation groups, are planting more of this native vine. In tandem with a captive breeding program, this has seen the population of Richmond Birdwings increase. However, there’s one other thing that gardeners need to note.

The exotic vine Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia littoralis syn. A. elegans) is related to the native vine, but creates a further danger for the Richmond Birdwing. The exotic vine smells exactly the same as its native food plant, so they lay their eggs on it and when the caterpillars hatch and eat its leaf, they die.

Some friends went camping at Sheep Station Creek in the Border Ranges and saw a thrilling mass flight of these butterflies – right place, right time. I’ve seen one Richmond birdwing at my place so I guess the vines are around home somewhere, possibly in the adjacent Mackellar Range.

Apparently there are eastern ringtail possums (Pseudocheirus peregrinus), too. This photo of one with its nest (drey) was on the noticeboard.

Eastern ring-tail possum and drey

Pretty patterns were forming in the stream – there was no rain, so I’m not clear how they were produced. There weren’t any overhanging trees – the elusive platypus maybe?

Native hibiscus were busy being pollinated by, probably, native flies or native bees.

Now comes the best bit (for me at least). Andrew had gone to look at something and managed to just miss poking his eye out on a stick. Although he was in pain, I’m afraid I was less than attentive because this little beauty had landed on my finger and was calmly cleaning itself – sorry, Andrew! (He should be used to me by now. Him: “For heaven’s sake, that looks like a funnel web spider.” Me: “Yes, the northern funnel web – I just want to get real close for a photo”.)

It stayed for a few minutes and would have stayed for longer, but I deposited it on a leaf. Looking at the photos later, I wondered – fly or wasp? It certainly had the ‘wasp-waist’ and I knew flies can camouflage themselves to look like wasps.

So it was off to the Queensland Museum website to ask the question – wasp or fly? South-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales share climate and much biogeography, and the museum’s experts have generously answered my questions over the years when I’m stumped for ID.

The answer came back – neither!

Your wee friend is a bee. Terry Houston in “A Guide to Native Bees of Australia” pictures a close match and has labelled the photo as Leioproctus irroratus. The Australian bee fauna is diverse (1500+ species) and yours is one of the more spectacular species. I’ve never seen one.

It’s kind of ironic that I copy-edited that book for CSIRO Publishing (I’m a freelance scientific editor in my professional life) and didn’t even think of bees as a possibility. Thank you to Kieran Aland at the museum for the ID.

The caption on Dr Houston’s photo (on page 42) says: “Female of Leioproctus irroratus.  The yellow patches on the thorax are produced by … very sort, dense hair.” On p. 32, he mentions that several species of Leioproctus have long, sickle-shaped mandibles – certainly visible in one of the photos above. The mandibles are used by the males to “occupy and defend nest burrows in which females are working to build brood cells. Each male defends his burrow against intrusions by rival males”. This behaviour hasn’t been reported for “my” bee, but it’s possible. So many bees (and everything else), so little time for research!

I was tickled pink – yellow? – to discover this little bee even though I didn’t recognise it as one.

Posted in Birds, Insects, Plants, Travels | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A snowball in warm weather

Friend Christa sent me a photo of this colourful beastie – it’s a mealybug, in this case a snowball mealybug, Monophlebulus species. It was about the length of a thumbnail and found in disturbed earth in a garden.

Snowball mealybug, Monophlebulus species; photo by Christa Schwoebel

The body has a white, waxy layer, which is thought to control water loss and provide some disguise from the ladybird beetles and parasitic wasps that keep their population under control. The larvae are all-white and fluffy, but the adults (like the one in the photo) lose the wax layer and their colours are revealed.

There are about 200 species in Australia. They feed, using their straw-like mouthparts, on the sap of eucalypts and callistemons, and some are considered to be agricultural pests on commercial crops and in gardens.

Brisbaneinsects has good photos of both the shaggy larvae and the adults.

The Coffs Harbour Butterfly House also has good photos, including one being attended by an ant:

They are often attended by ants as they exude excess sugar syrup. The syrup is also deposited on the leaves, which then can become mouldy, reducing the light reaching the leaves. The mould, the loss of nutrients, and the injection of poisons into the plant all damage infected plants.

The ants will naturally protect their source of honeydew.

According to the WA Department of Agriculture:

Most mealybugs have a number of often overlapping generations per year. Their development is dependent on temperature. Temperatures of about 25°C and a high relative humidity are optimum for mealybugs and, like aphids, their populations reach peaks in spring and autumn.

Eggs can be laid singly or in clusters, and female long-tailed mealybugs have been recorded laying as many as 200 eggs in a lifetime. Egg clusters are usually embedded in a cocoon of waxy filaments.

After hatching, the juveniles (crawlers) search for suitable feeding sites in sheltered areas. Crawlers can be dispersed by wind and progress through five moults before reaching adulthood. For males, the last juvenile stage pupates in a silk cocoon, and emerges as a winged adult. Adult males do not feed, having no mouthparts — their sole purpose is to mate with females.

Here is a photo from friend Roselene (Beyond Nature) of what looks like the same beastie caught in the sap of a eucalypt tree.

Mealybug caught in eucalypt sap; photo by Roselene Cusack

I agree with Christa that, pest or not, “It looks truely weird.” Fortunately, I like “weird”.

Posted in Animals on land, Insects | Tagged | 4 Comments

A tiger in the bushes

Why are some butterflies called by common names such as ‘tigers’ and ‘crows’? If anyone can enlighten me, I’d appreciate it.

I saw this blue tiger (Tirumala hamata) in Ballina last week.

Blue tiger butterfly, Tirumala hamata

Near Kempsey; photo by Christa Schwoebel

These butterflies live all year round in north Queensland and migrate in spring and summer generally down to just south of the Queensland border, meaning we are pretty much at the southern-most end of their range (see the distribution map in Michael Braby’s book). But they occasionally venture further south when conditions are good for their main larvae host plants, one of which is corky milk vine (Secamone elliptica).

According to Land for Wildlife (South-East Queensland):

Corky milk vine contains several chemicals that are poisonous to many animals, but not to the blue tiger larvae. When the larvae eat corky milk vine, the poisonous chemicals get passed on to the pupae and adult butterflies. These toxins then work to protect adult blue tigers from being eaten by birds, as birds have learnt that they get sick from ingesting blue tigers.

The butterflies migrate back to the north in April and May (our autumn) and are known to over-winter in large clusters. Individuals may live up to six months.

According to Kath Vail:

The adult male butterflies are strongly attracted to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are also found in the Parsonsia vine, known as common silkpod or monkey rope. The male will scratch the leaves to release the sap which they imbibe, and then they convert this complex organic compound into sex pheromones.

Courtship for the blue tiger butterflies includes extensive use of hair pencils that are located at the tip of the male’s abdomen. It is quite rare in nature to see the hair pencil display; however, it involves the hair pencils being charged with perfume from scent pouches on the upside of the wing. The male then erects these hair pencils and dusts the female with the pheromones.

It is important to plant both the corky milk vine and the Parsonsia vine together if you want to provide the most benefit to the blue tiger butterfly.

Obviously the butterflies do not feed exclusively on these vines – the Ballina example shows that. Even though these butterflies are quite common, it’s still uplifting to see them.

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Beetling about

This little one was wandering about in full daylight, and by chance I was able to get the species name from the October 2021 edition of ANICdotes from the Australian National Insect Collection. ANIC’s beetle was from Lamington National Park, not so far from us.

It is the pie-dish beetle, one of the Pterohelaeus species. This beetle is also found in Brisbane, as Brisbaneinsects shows.

Pie-dish beetle, Pterohelaeus sp.

Pie-dish beetles feed mainly  on decaying vegetation, actively foraging on the ground at night. The hard flanges of the ‘pie dish’ on the back protect against attacks by spiders, scorpions, ants and other beetles.

During the day they shelter under bark, wood, stones or leaf litter.

Adults may live up to a year.

The common name for the taxonomic family is ‘darking beetles’, which is amusing as we were originally going to call our property ‘Darkling Wood’. It was ‘Castle Undulant’ for a while before we got the main house re-stumped. Maybe we should go back to ‘Darkling Wood’!

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Trick or treat?

Halloween is not really a thing in Australia, although as a commercial event and fun for the kids, it’s growing here. A few years ago, I had a great Halloween in San Francisco – they really get into it in the USA. Sales assistants were dressed as witches and pumpkins and in other imaginative costumes. A bank teller had a lot of big purple balls on her costume – turns out she was a bunch of grapes!

If you think of it (as I do) as the pre-Christian Celtic harvest festival Samhain, it marks the end of harvest and the beginning of the darker (winter) half of the year. The souls of the dead are thought to visit their old homes and families, hence a somewhat spooky bent with ghosts and ghoulies supposed to abound. It was helpful that, on that visit to the States, I was spending time with a group of friendly neo-pagans, who were able to explain some of the more arcane aspects that the general public were probably not aware of.

In the Western Christian tradition, 31 October is All Hallow’s Eve, the evening before the observance of Allhallowtide, when the dead (saints and ordinary people) are remembered. There is disagreement among academics (of course there is!) over whether the Christians supplanted the pagan tradition. Whatever the reason, it is popular in many countries.

As a seasonal festival, it doesn’t really work in the Southern Hemisphere since the seasons are reversed, but the spooky is often attractive at any time. Horror movies, zombies and body horror can give some people an exciting frisson of fear, in a good way. (Doesn’t work for me, but it takes all kinds.)

All this is a roundabout way of introducing my next beastie, an example of body horror if ever there was one.

The sally wattle (Acacia salicina) near my house finally fell over last week. I’d been reluctant to cut it down as a squirrel glider had been supping on the sap for quite a while (we could hear its distinctive yapping at night), and various birds had been using it as a perch. But a storm finally knocked it over and revealed something like this in the crack. I didn’t get a photo of my actual ‘witchetty grub’ as I left it overnight, expecting to get a photo in the morning, little realising what was about to happen.

Curl grub, larva of scarab beetle; photo courtesy of CSIRO ScienceImage

I was expecting it to turn into a moth of some kind, but in fact it is a curl grub, the larva of a scarab beetle. In the morning, a process of transformation started. The grub gradually shed its outer skin, revealing a multi-legged monstrosity, far from the cute and furry moth I was expecting. The black area (in the photo below) is the grub’s mouth, which had been busy demolishing the sally wattle over a couple of years.

The pupa continue to wriggle and little by little the outer skin was completely shucked off.

Alas, I will never know what scarab beetle it would have turned into because after a couple of weeks it stopped moving, died and started falling apart.

The transformation was the trick – the Halloween treat will be lunch for a lucky kookaburra!

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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

Papilio aegeus female; photo by Summerdrought, Wikimedia Commons

Below is Christa’s photo of a rather worse-for-wear female in Kempsey.

P1000600According 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.”

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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”.

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