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.

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.

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.

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.

A tale of two herons

The Pacific reef heron (Egretta sacra) and the white-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae) are both commonly seen on Australia’s east coast.

This reef heron at Ballina was the dark morph – they also come in white. It was busy searching for crustaceans, fish, molluscs and worms in the rock pools …

… dodging the incoming rushes of water …

… poking here and poking there …

… even spreading its wings to shade the bottom in order to see prey better …

… and eventually giving up and flying away.

The white-faced heron is an inland bird as well as coastal. This one would have been looking for the same prey as the Pacific reef heron. We see them in our valley 30 km from the coast. On the farmlands they are looking for frogs, small reptiles and insects.

Better luck next time, birdies!