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 …

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 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 …

Australian Geographic Lord Howe Island citizen science insect expedition (part 1)

To paraphrase Orson Welles, I don’t know much about insects, but I know what I like. If I knew more, I suspect I would like them even more. Both massively useful and massively destructive, they fascinate me with their different body forms. We couldn’t live without them as they pollinate our crops and provide chocolate, too. Yes, really.

The Australian Museum says:

It is estimated that Australia has over 300,000 insect species, but only 160,000 have been named or described.

Museum Victoria says:

Insect species make up … the largest of all animal groups. Of all the animal species on Earth that scientists have named and described, 75% are insects. … The number of individual insects estimated to be alive in the world at any one time is 10 quintillion, or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. It is figured that for every human being on the planet there are about 200 million insects.

Sometimes it seems they are all in my backyard at once. 🙂

So when the Australian Geographic Society announced a citizen science project to Lord Howe Island with the Australian Museum, looking at insects, I jumped at the chance. I initially missed out on the 2016 trip as it was already fully booked, but asked to be notified if anyone dropped out. A couple did, and I took over their room at the last minute. The Australian Museum also dropped out and was replaced by three of CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection scientists. You can read an overview of the week by trip coordinator Luke Hanson here.

I’d been to Lord Howe Island three times before (click on ‘Lord Howe Island’ in the word cloud on the right for my other posts on the place) and didn’t think I’d go again, but this project was too enticing to ignore. The island is visually stunning with its mountains, lagoon, forests and tropical lagoon. It may be one of the most studied islands in the world from a natural history perspective, as a World Heritage Marine Park should be.

Mt Lidgbird (left) and Mt Gower (right); you can go with a guide to the top of Mt Gower to see the unique cloud forest and providence petrel breeding area

Mt Lidgbird (left) and Mt Gower (right); you can go (only with a guide as it’s not a good place to get lost) to the top of Mt Gower to see the unique cloud forest and providence petrel breeding area

Day 1

The two-hour flight from Brisbane was uneventful, unlike one other time when our 10-seater (I think – it was tiny) plane flew through a massive storm. That was in the days when cabin service was a biscuit tin and thermos passed round. The turbulence, thunder, lightning and hailstones beating on the windscreen were terrifying. I thought I was doing OK, but when I got off the plane at the other end, I couldn’t unclench my fists for several minutes! Fortunately, it was perfect flying weather this time, and remained so every day except the last one. Weather on the island is volatile, so we were fortunate to have a run of good days with max. temps in the early 20s (Celsius). Perfect for walking.

It’s always a thrill to see the island from the air, and the pilots kindly do a circuit before landing. Ball’s Pyramid was especially clear that day so we got a good view.

Ball's Pyramid; photo by National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Wikimedia Commons

Ball’s Pyramid; photo by National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Wikimedia Commons

The geology of Lord Howe is most interesting; it and Ball’s are remnants of a massive volcanic explosion six million-ish years ago. There’s more on the geology later in this post.

I’d arrived in mid-afternoon so there were a couple of hours to kill before the meeting at 6 pm. I arranged my gear in my room at Pinetrees and walked to the museum. (You either walk or ride a bike on the island as most things are close. There’s a couple of cars for hire, but you only need them if you can’t walk, ride or hitch a lift with the lodge staff.) It’s a compact but well-presented museum, with a room for natural history and one for social history, a meeting room, a café and an entrance room with the usual souvenirs for sale.

I walked back along the beach, looking at what was washed up and soaking in the atmosphere. You could take photos of the mountains every half hour and find the clouds on their tops changing shape. Heart urchins, a type of sea urchin, are very common in the lagoon and their tests often wash up. When alive, they have short brown spines.

Heart urchin, Breynia australasiae

Heart urchin, Breynia australasiae


The meeting was a get-to-know-you affair, where we each said who we were and what our interests were, and Luke Hanson, trip coordinator and Pinetrees owner/manager, laid out the approximate plan for the week. Weather always dictates what to do (or not do, if you want to go up Mt Gower on the eight-hour guided walk) so we had to be flexible. There were 20 participants and three scientists, quite a large ‘expedition’. Bry the Fly Guy (Dr Bryan Lessard) hadn’t arrived yet, but Dr Andreas Zwick and his co-moth-er Glenn Cocking had brought masses of equipment from the mainland. (They obviously didn’t have the 14 kg weight limit we ordinary folk had to adhere to, but how else are you going to get a couple of generators, lights, traps, a zillion plastic specimen bottles and alcohol – no, not the drinking sort but the preserving sort – onto the island?)

Last thing on the day’s agenda was the evening meal, which was full-on, three-course restaurant service. The food was delicious and healthy, and beautifully plated up, but the noise level was quite high because about 70 people were being served that night. There was another tour group of about 20 and miscellaneous other guests for the week. It was difficult to hold a conversation, and this was the case every night. We were certainly well fed throughout the trip, though, and the staff were all friendly, professional and courteous. Well done, Pinetrees, for your choice of staff.

After dinner I walked along the lagoon beach again, with the full moon shining on the lagoon and the mutton birds calling from their burrows – stunning stuff, the sort that brings tears of joy to your eyes.

Day 2

After brekky, we headed off through the forest to Soldier Creeks and along the Rocky Run Creek track to the ocean on the other side of the island. Andreas led the charge with insect net and stopped to tell us about anything insectival we found. This was also a reconnaisance mission to find areas suitable for putting up UV light traps at night to catch moths (Andreas’s main interest, although he’s also into intertidal crustaceans – a man after my own heart).

Andreas explaining about leaf miners

Andreas explains what leaf miners do; note the tall roots of the pandanus – much taller than those on the mainland – behind us

Abdreas checking for insects under a rotting log; Dean Hiscox (back) fills us in on various aspects of LHI ecology

Andreas checks for insects under a rotting log; Dean Hiscox, LHI environmental guide (back), fills us in on various aspects of LHI ecology. The log was carefully replaced in its original spot afterwards.

The kentia palm, a popular house plant since Victorian times and an important part of the LHI economy until recently (owing to overseas kentia-growing industries starting up), is endemic to Lord Howe. Some parts of the forest are pure kentias, with the occasional banyan.

Endemic kentia palm - note the red seeds

Endemic kentia palm – note the red seeds

Banyans (Ficus macrophylla) grow huge on LHI. These figs grow fibrous aerial prop roots that eventually reach the ground and thicken up to provide support for the vertical limbs, allowing a single tree to cover a large area, the largest one estimated to cover five acres. National Geographic published an article on research into the LHI banyans here.

The aerial roots eventually look like the main trunk

The fibrous aerial roots eventually look like the main trunk and support the spreading ‘arms’ of the fig.

When we got to where Rocky Run Creek meets the sea, Dean Hiscox described the geology of the region. The Lord Howe Island website says the old shield volcano:

has been eroded to one-fortieth its original size. Lord Howe’s crescent shape embraces a sheltered lagoon and the southernmost coral reef on the planet.

Balls Pyramid, Lord Howe and its islets form part of a chain of seamounts that extend north for 1,000km and are thought to be the result of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate moving northward over a stationary hotspot. The chain forms part of the undersea plateau known as the Lord Howe Rise.

The island itself is dominated by the basalt peaks of Mt Lidgbird, 777m and Mt Gower, 875m, at the southern end of the island – virtually all that remains of 6.4 million-year-old lava flows that filled a large volcanic caldera.

From the south, the island slopes more gently towards the north, with beautiful sandy beaches on the eastern and western sides, and a large portion of the island covered in dense forests. Spectacular cliffs buttress the eastern side, which offers dramatic views of the offshore rocks, islands and along the spine of the island south to Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower.

Dean Hiscox tells the geological history of LHI

Dean Hiscox tells the geological history of LHI while we sit on some volcanic remnants.

Then it was back through the forest via Mutton Bird Point to the lodge for lunch. Our postprandial walk was to the Middle Beach rock pools at, coincidentally, the lowest tide of the year.

Middle Beach rock pools

Middle Beach rock pools; Admiralty Islands, bird-breeding islands, on the back left horizon

This imperial hermit crab (Calcinus imperialis) had taken a shell of the endangered land snail, the Lord Howe flax snail (Placostylus bivaricosus). Apparently it is rare to see this land snail alive, although there are plenty of their empty shells about. You can read more about LHI’s endangered land snails here. (I’m taking my IDs primarily from Neville Coleman’s Lord Howe Island Marine Park Wildlife Guide and some internet sites; all mistakes are entirely mine.)

Calcinus imperialis (hermit crab) in shell of Placostylus bivaricosus

Calcinus imperialis (hermit crab) in shell of endangered land snail Placostylus bivaricosus

Only one species of turban shell (Turbo cepoides) has been found on LHI, unlike the three (T. undulatus, torquatus and imperialis) in Australia.

Turbo cepoides

Turbo cepoides

Turbo cepoides, showing operculum

Turbo cepoides, showing its thick operculum

Waiting for the tide to come in: possibly the rug anemone Stichodactyla tapetum

Waiting for the tide to come in: I’m guessing (red, left) tuberculate sea urchin (Heliocidaris tuberculata) and (blue) the rug anemone (Stichodactyla tapetum)

Hermann's sea cucumber (Stichopus hermanni)

Hermann’s sea cucumber (Stichopus hermanni)

black-fringed-sea-cucumber (covered in sand, Holothuria leucospilots)

Black sea cucumber (covered in sand, Holothuria atra)

I'm not sure of the species of this cone

I’m not sure of the species of this cone – Conus lividus?

Elongate giant clam, Tridacna maxima - this one was less than a foot long

Elongate giant clam, Tridacna maxima – this one was less than a foot long

Sea hare, Aplysia dactylomela

Sea hare, Aplysia dactylomela

Ivory cone, Conus-eburneus

Ivory cone, Conus eburneus

The ivory cone doesn’t look ivory-coloured when alive, but when dead the thin yellow periostracum (organic coat) rots off, leaving the black and white pattern.

White-spined sea urchin and bluebottle

White-spined sea urchin and bluebottle

Beautiful pattern inside this crab shell

Beautiful pattern inside this crab shell (probably the common box crab, Calapa hepatica)

Sooty terns were incubating chicks on the ledges above the rock platforms, and some young chicks were evident. There must  have been thousands of them on the island, each nesting just out of pecking range of another bird.

Sooty terns and chicks, Middle Beach

Sooty terns and chicks, Middle Beach

After dinner, Andreas took some volunteers to set up some UV light traps and catch anything that turned up in a couple of hours. Andreas and Glen would go out to the trap sites at night and catch the moths on the sheet, snatching sleep where they could until dawn. Then it was back to the research station to store the specimens and do some pinning and DNA sampling during the day.

Light trap for capturing moths and other night-flying insects, set up in Stephens Reserve

UV light trap for attracting and capturing moths, beetles and other night-flying insects, one of two set up in Stevens Reserve













I’ll continue the trip report in the next post.

Tiny treasures: the invertebrates

Some of the many enjoyable activities on the Hinterland Bush Links course involved the invertebrates of the subtropical rainforest. Our fearless leader was the enthusiastic Michelle Gleeson (of Bugs Ed and author of Miniature Lives).

Michelle Gleeson showing one of her bug boxes

Michelle Gleeson showing one of her bug boxes





bug-box_3 bug-box_2bug-box_4 bug-box-5

These bug boxes, which Michelle uses for her educational presentations, contain a selection of impressive beasties not just from Australia but from all over the world.

Michelle led us to likely spots to catch bugs. First was the important occupational health and safety chat. Then we were shown how to use various pieces of equipment.


Then heads down and bums up …


Bugging in the blackbutt


Bugging in the rainforest (tutor and herpetologist/naturalist Tony Bright on the right)




Cat, polar bear guide extraordinaire, was pleased with her earwig larva …

Well, it's white like a polar bear!

Well, it’s white like a polar bear!


Here’s the famous bush-tucker, witchetty grub, wood-eating larva of one of several moths.

Witchetty grub

Witchetty grub


Don’t lean against a tree with the web below on it. Underneath the web is the highly venomous northern tree funnelweb (Hadronyche formidabilis). You can see the silk triplines that alert the spider to things crawling over the surface – then it will rapidly leap out and grab its meal, retreating under the web in a split second.

Web of the tree funnelweb, Hadronyche formidabilis

Web of the tree funnelweb, Hadronyche formidabilis


If you looked under that web, you would probably see one of these …

Male (left) and female (right); photo Toby Hudson, Wikimedia Commons

Male (left) and female (right) northern tree funnelwebs (Hadronyche formidabilis); photo Toby Hudson, Wikimedia Commons

The Australian Museum says:

Most funnel-webs are ground dwellers but a few live in trees. The largest of all funnel-webs is the Northern Tree Funnel-web Spider, Hadronyche formidabilis, reaching 4 cm – 5 cm body length. These spiders live in the wet forests of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland and have been found over 30 m above ground. While many have their retreats in surface-opening branch rot-holes, some spiders appear to live and feed entirely inside the deadwood pipe of large forest trees like Tallow-wood, feeding on beetles and other insects inside this rotting wood habitat.

That tree was alive, though.

There were a lot of spider holes in the ground. Tony Bright thought they’d belong to trapdoor or wolf spiders (not all trapdoor spider holes have trap doors). Sometimes they can go as deep as a metre.



This trapdoor was very well camouflaged by moss on top.

While we’re on the subject of spiders, there’s a good article on Australian huntsmen here.

Among other finds were the egg case of a praying mantis …

Praying mantis egg case (Orthodera ministralis)

Praying mantis egg case (Orthodera ministralis)


and a case moth’s larva case …

Case moth larva case

Case moth larva case


Setting up a light trap at night did not attract many insects, perhaps because it was too cold …


But this cute little moth did appear …


Michelle told the intriguing story of the interaction between cycads and their pollinators, certain thrips, which eat the pollen. Science Daily writes about it here. Cycads come in separate male and female plants, and the males produce pollen for up to four weeks a year (depending on the cycad species). During this time, the male cone, in which the thrips live, heats up in the morning to something like 25 degrees above the air temperature, up to 38 degrees C (100 degrees F). This causes the thrips, with accompanying pollen, to leave as they can’t take the heat. The male cones also emit an airborne chemical toxic to thrips, making sure they go. The thrips float around and head for a female cone, which has emitted a pollen-like odour to attract them, and pollinate them with the pollen they’ve carried over from the male cone. (This is known as push-pull pollination.) The male cones cool down and stop emitting the toxic chemical later in the day, attracting the thrips back for another shot at the pollen, and round and round it goes for the pollination period. Cool, huh? Or hot, depending on the time of day. 🙂

Despite contracting scrub itch (aka chiggers in the USA – perhaps allowing your study subjects to get a little too close to you?), I have to wholeheartedly endorse Michelle’s message …



Eucalyptus tip-wilter bug

This little thing was in the rain gauge when I was emptying it this morning – yes, we’re having rain at last! The big lump of heat over Australia’s interior that was encouraging the bushfires in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania was preventing the monsoon setting in in northern Australia, but that’s changed and we’re on our way to getting our January average of 155 mL.

It’s a eucalyptus tip-wilter bug (Amorbus obscuricornis) nymph, according to Brisbane Insects.

Eucalyptus tip-wilter bug nymph,  Amorbus obscuricornis

Eucalyptus tip-wilter bug nymph, Amorbus obscuricornis

You all know (yes?) that a big difference between bugs and beetles is that bugs suck and beetles bite (I recently found out that pigeons suck, unlike other birds that have to raise their heads to tip their water down their throats, but that’s another story.) The lovely emerald dove that visits the pot plants on the back deck daily to sip at the water at their bases bears this out. Fancy a T-shirt that says “Pigeons suck!”? If the Big Bang Theory guys were zoologists instead of physicists, we’d have seen one already.) You also know (don’t you?) that insect eggs hatch into a form (“instar”) that is not like the adult at all, and that the first instar changes into other body forms, five in total in this species, before the adult (reproductive) form is reached. The Brisbane Insects site has a photo of the adult of this nymph, and says, “The bugs feed on new shoots of Eucalyptus trees. They [are] usually found feeding on new shoots of gum trees during sunny days. … The first two nymphal instars of this species are green and black and the last three are orange and black”.

The eucalypt tips were already wilting without the help of these bugs, but maybe that’ll change now.