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)

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.

Tally Howe!

On Sunday I’m off on my fourth trip to Lord Howe Island World Heritage Area. I thought I wouldn’t go again after my third trip – there are too many other places to explore – but when a citizen science trip came on my radar, I couldn’t resist. It’s in conjunction with the Australian Geographic Society and the Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO.

Painting displayed on Lord Howe; unknown artist

Painting displayed on Lord Howe Island; unknown artist

The Pinetrees (the lodge where I’m staying) website says:

The Australian Geographic Expedition is for ‘citizen scientists’ to work with scientists from Australian Geographic, the CSIRO and the Lord Howe Island Board. With expert support, people with a good level of fitness (i.e walk 5 km in 1.5 hours and be steady footed in steep mountain terrain) and interest in conservation (i.e. you don’t need any scientific training!) can help discover insect species, which are thought to be extinct, or close to extinct. Many species remain undescribed or unrecorded since 1978, so the expedition stands to make a significant contribution to conservation on Lord Howe Island.

You don’t need any special expertise to go on citizen science trips – just enthusiasm and the ability to pay the money. You pay your own way to get there; food, accommodation and a donation to the research are included in the fee. It’s great to get a different view from what you’d experience as a ‘normal’ tourist and meet like-minded people, too.

Earthwatch is another volunteer organisation that can take you worldwide as well as in Australia, and covers a lot of research areas. Curious Traveller took me to Tassie earlier in the year to help with Tassie devil research, and will take me in November to Maria Island in Tassie to help with hooded plover research (there are still places available on that one if you’re interested).

On Lord Howe, we’ll be out in the forest every day collecting insects. The one with the most media coverage is probably the ‘land lobster’, which I wrote about here. If you click on ‘Lord Howe Island’ in the tag cloud at right, you’ll find my other posts on Lord Howe. Much of each afternoon will be free time, so I’ll be off to the museum, or snorkelling with the turtles, or taking photos of critters in rock pools, or walking the beaches, or sipping a beer at the bar, or …

I’ll really looking forward to this trip and I’ll tell you all about it after I get back!

Video of Lord Howe Island stick insect hatching

I was captivated by the very-rare-but-getting-much-less-so Lord Howe Island stick insect (Dryococelus australis) when I visited the island, and wrote about it here.

New Scientist recently posted a wonderful video of a LHI stick insect hatching. You can see it here. It’s fascinating to watch the nymph emerge … and emerge … and emerge … and emerge … from the comparatively tiny egg. Check it out!

Sir David Attenborough was recently in Melbourne and made their acquaintance – you can read about it here.

And to get an idea of what has been learned by breeding them, check out the “Husbandry Manual for the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect” here.

The screams in the forest

Last time I wrote about the silence in the forest on Lord Howe. But at night in the bird-breeding season, it’s a very different story.

Mutton birds (flesh-footed shearwaters, Ardenna carneipes) in their thousands (17.5 thousand breeding pairs in 2005 – see here) descend upon Lord Howe and other islands to breed in burrows – the same burrow every year, apparently.

Move the mutton bird! Shift the shearwater!

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The silence in the forest

Walking along the tracks of Lord Howe Island’s palm forests was a strange experience. All I could hear was the wind through the palm leaves, the sea and the occasional rustle. At home when I hear rustling, it’ll be a brush turkey, a goanna, a snake, maybe a frog or three, or one of many, many birds. In the same month (November) at home, there’s also the ear-splitting stridulations (love that word) of cicadas en masse.

Lord Howe native kentia palm forest

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Sea cucumbers, stars and urchins on Lord Howe

I was going to call this post “the pentaradials”, because sea cucumbers, sea stars, brittle stars and sea urchins all have similar body plans (fivefold symmetry), but decided I was trying too hard. It’s a good excuse to group them together, though.

Sea cucumbers

The black sea cucumber (Holothuria leucospilota) common on Lord Howe is the same one as on the coast at home. I’d often wondered what the internal structure of a sea cucumber was, and as luck would have it (although not for the sea cucumber), there was a dead one on the beach.

What’s inside a black sea cucumber

When you disturb one, it’ll sometimes spit out white stringy filaments – these are the Cuvier’s tubules, the white stuff on the left of the picture. They become very sticky on contact with water and are apparently toxic, so a defense mechanism for this animal. I didn’t realise there was so much of them inside. The sausage-looking structure is indeed the intestine. One of the other structures is the respiratory tree, the equivalent to our lungs.

[Update: you can see the internal structure of a sea cucumber and find out about its eating habits at Deep Sea News here.]

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