No Tassie devil trip this year

I’m disappointed that the Tasmanian Devil Scientific Expedition in March is not going ahead this year. The chief scientist, Associate Professor Menna Jones, has won a Fulbright scholarship to pursue studies in the US. Good on her – she is smart and capable.

The devil facial tumour disease’s progress is slowing down and it still has not reached the west coast of Tassie – good news. Research is still needed, so the trip has been postponed until 2018. If you are interested in helping out, click on the link above to find out more from Curious Traveller’s website.


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Another Woody Head nudibranch

I’d already seen Sebadoris fragilis at Flat Rock, Ballina, but it’s always a joy to see any nudi, anywhere, anytime.

This one was found by Peter and Linda, snorkelling off the rocks at Woody Head. Thanks to Peter for the photos.

Sebadoris fragilis, Woody Head; photo by Peter Scharf

Sebadoris fragilis, Woody Head; photo by Peter Scharf

Sebadoris fragilis, Woody Head; photo by Peter Scharf


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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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