Author Archives: Patrick Kavanagh

Galaxies from Picnic Point

Cloud-free nights have been a bit thin on the ground, but last Sunday night provided a great opportunity to photograph some spectacular galaxies from Picnic Point on Lake Cairn Curran.

The centre of the Milky Way rises above Lake Cairn Curran

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, consists of about 200-400 billion stars. Its centre is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Due to the intense concentration of gravity, dust and gasses it is a very busy place of star formation. The dark areas are dense clouds of gas.

In the eighteenth century, comets were objects of great interest. Charles Messier was an avid seeker of comets and drew up a catalogue of the fuzzy things he saw through his tiny telescope that he knew were not comets. Although he never found a comet, he left us a catalogue of 110 bright objects in our night sky – nebulae (clouds of dust and gas from which stars form), star clusters both open and globular and galaxies. This photo shows quite a few of these Messier objects, some of which I’ve labelled.

With labels

Messiers 6,7 and 8 are all open clusters of stars and associated nebulae from which they were born. These clusters are relatively young and consist of hundreds to thousands of stars. Messier 22 is a globular cluster. In our galaxies, the stars in these clusters are extremely old and are gravitationally bound in very dense clusters that may include millions of stars packed into a mere 70 light years (the nearest star to our sun is 4 light years away).

All of these objects are visible with a good pair of binoculars. Messier 22 looks like a fuzzy ball in binoculars, but resolves into myriad stars with a medium sized telescope (10″ diameter)

The centre of Messier 22 (European Space Agency)

Whilst I was taking photos for this image, I was joined by a curious Barn Owl that took up a position on one of the dead trees I was photographing. I think it wondered what the strange lights were all about. Alas, I had left my bird photography lens and flash at home. So it’s a wide-angled shot of a motion blurred owl with galaxy backdrop.

Milky Way with Barn Owl

Looking to the south, two more galaxies float above the Moolort plains – the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

The Small Magellanic Cloud (left) and Large Magellanic Cloud (centre)

The Large Magellanic Cloud is a distorted barred spiral that we view from above. You can see the central bar sloping from bottom left to top right and surrounding it the spirals that have been disrupted by the gravity of the Milky Way. the bright star-like object to the top right of the bar is actually the largest star forming region in our group of galaxies 30 Dorado or NGC 2070. It contains 70+ massive stars up to 300 times the mass of our sun. The Large Magellanic Cloud is 150,000 light years away and is about 1/10 the size of the Milky Way. The light you see from it left 150,000 years ago.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light years away and weighs in at about 7 billion suns.

After the rains, magic afoot.

The gentle rains have soaked our soil and leaf litter and the threads of fungus have been hard at work digesting leaf litter and fallen wood. Walking through the bush on our place at Strangways has been a process of frequent wonderful discoveries of the gorgeous fruiting bodies of these fungi. It seems a particularly big year for them. I was chatting with the esteemed Bernard Slattery recently who hypothesised that the rain, coupled with cool weather and lots of cloudy days have made conditions perfect for them. The fungi along with the rejuvenated mosses make a bush walk quite a magical experience. I find identification of fungi quite challenging and the captions for these photos are very provisional indeed and any corrections are most appreciated.

Fungus (Mycena sp?) and moss on fallen wood.

Gilled fungal fruits are common on both the top and underside of the logs in our bush. Turning over a bit of wood can reveal quite a splendour. The fruiting bodies in the shot below have stared turning upwards, but some are yet to open up and show their gills.

Gilled fungi under a log.

Others have found a little niche in a gap in a log.

More Mycena fungi?

I was pleased to find a little fungus gnat on the stem of a Funnel Cup fungus. There appears to be another even smaller insect in the cup, but I can’t make out what it is. I’ve recently noted large swarms of fungus gnats swirling and dancing in the late afternoon sunlight.

Funnel Cup fungus with fungus gnat and friend.
Hebeloma sp. perhaps

There have been lots of leather fungi sticking out from dead wood too. Stereum fungi are amongst the most common.

Stereum sp.
Stereum from underneath

Underneath the same log, we found another shelf-like fungus – Panellus – but this one looks very different underneath

Panellus sp. underneath some wood
The gills of Panellus‘ underside

Puffball fungi have also been poking up out of the moss and leaf litter. These beautiful little domes will discharge a puff of spores into the air when hit by a drop of water. The little spines on this one will drop off as it ages.

Lycoperdum sp.

Under another log was a distinctive purple fungus – Ceripora purpurea – which is apparently less commonly found.

Ceripora purpurea

Jaws

Arachnaphobe alert – spiders ahead

With the cooler weather, it’s a little easier to find a cooperative invertebrate sitter for close up portraits. A colony of Black-headed Bull Ants (Myrmecia nigriceps) that live under a Red Box tree in our yard have been out on their night patrols and slow enough to get close to safely. This lady happily sat still for a close up of her impressive mandibles.

Black-headed Bull Ant

A Wolf Spider (Lycosidae) also proved a cooperative sitter. I think the technical name for the impressive jaws is chelicera

Wolf Spider – a prey eye view.

And on some grass stems, a small Huntsman spider.

Chelicera of a Huntsman.

Spiders aren’t the only effective hunters around at the moment. I was delighted to get some good views of a Yellow-footed Antechinus (Antechinus flavipes) hunting at our place this afternoon. This curious little cutie was very keen to check me out, but wasn’t going to show the magnificent teeth that make this species so potent.

Keeping a close eye on me
Still not sure about me.

Time for the Redcoats

Late summer and the Soldier Beetles are on the march. Well, not so much marching as breeding!

Triclour Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus tricolor)

I’ve often wondered why they’re called soldier beetles. A bit of reading reveals that, since they were named long before the days of military camouflage, their red and black colours evoked the soldier’s uniforms of the day. They are also called leather wings due to their soft wing covers or elytra.

Plenty of other beetles are around at the moment too. Acacias sport quite a few Calomela leaf beetles.

Calomela beetle on Golden Wattle. I’m not sure about whether the attached excrement is significant.
Belid Weevil
Up close

One night recently, I came across an unusually large number of dragonflies sleeping in our front yard, hanging from various shrubs. I think they are Blue Skimmers (Orhtretum caledonicum). Not very blue at the moment as I think they have just moulted. As their skins mature, the boys will go a powdery blue colour and the girls will go brown. It’s not often that I get such cooperative dragonfly subjects!

Blue Skimmer dragonfly
In profile

Lord of the Flies – just bad press

When we read “Lord of the Flies” at school, we were taught that the term referred to the devil. It turns out that both adolescent male humans and flies were given some bad press by William Golding. Journalist Rutger Bregman discovered that when a bunch of schoolboys were indeed stranded on a deserted island in the Pacific during the 1960s, they organised a very functional and caring little society that helped them all survive until they were rescued. And of course, flies far from being repulsive representatives of unadulterated evil, are providers of essential ecosystem services and can be very beautiful.

During last Monday’s heat, lots of flies of all sizes sheltered on our back porch. The largest looked to be about 20 mm long and were very reluctant to have their photos taken. Truly Lords (or Ladies) of the Flies I thought. There were quite a few beautifully marked flies, well bristled and still quite large at about 15 mm long. And these were very sedate – easily encouraged from the decking onto a leaf for relocation and portraiture on the way.

Not quite the Lord of the flies, but still impressive.

The very helpful site Insects of Tasmania unlocked the identity of this splendid dipteran for me – a Golden Tachinid Fly (Microtropesa sinuata). Whilst it’s hard to pin down much information about this species, Tachinid flies occur across the world and are mostly parasitoids. Unlike a parasite which lives with or in a host without killing it, a parasitoid will end the life of its hapless host. Tachinid flies lay eggs on or in hosts, mostly caterpillars. Pretty grim perhaps, even evocative of Golding’s Satanic vision. But they are essential components of ecosystems, preventing herbivorous caterpillars from decimating vegetation. Adults will usually have an important role as pollinators.

Golden Tachinid Fly – a particular kind of beauty
And in profile…

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how one particularly prolific Hardenbergia in our yard is a haven for invertebrates by day and night. Currently quite a few Garden Mantis nymphs (Orthodera sp.) patrol it. They often leap onto my hand or camera as I try to get shots of them. They will then taste their forelegs with the palps around their mouths to work out what I am.

Garden Mantis using palps to check me out
And then having a good look.

In some years, we’ve had an abundance of tiny Spiny-legged Leafhopper nymphs on eucalypt leaves. This year I’ve seen very few. Whilst they don’t run away, they can be hard to get a good photo of as their main defence is to turn their spiky tails towards any perceived threat. I eventually got a photo of one from the front end. I know it’s not what’s going on, but it’s hard not to see this little cutie as having a very big smile.

Spiny-legged Leafhopper nymph

I’m always pleased to find Red Velvet Mites in our bush and mostly they are scrambling around the leaf litter and hard to get a good view of. I found one recently on an old grass flower stalk. Again, very cute.

Red Velvet Mite

Life on the grass stems

After a good year’s flowering and seeding, there is an abundance of old grass stems in our yard at Strangways. These stems are a surprisingly popular venue for invertebrates by night.

One grass stem provided a bed for a Halictid bee which I think was well asleep as it was very unfazed by my bright lights.

Halictid Bee on grass stem.

I also found a few bugs which look like more advanced versions of a Stenophyella nymph that I posted a little while back. These are seed eating bugs which explains their interest even though most of the grasses have already sent their seed off on the winds.

Stenophyella perhaps?

Weevils are also on grass stems in numbers. I suspect they are feeding on the stems.

Weevil – Cryptorhynchini perhaps.

And where there are herbivores, there are also carnivores. This spider was so flat against the grass stem when I found it that I thought it was just a discolouration of the plant. Anything unusual is always worth a look.

Spider laying in wait on a grass stem.

Elsewhere, I found a species of Horned Treehopper that I’ve not seem before. Most summers I see quite a few Acacia Horned Treehoppers on our wattles, with a perfect green camouflage. These were Brown Horned Treehoppers, also on a Golden Wattle stem and to me they looked so other-worldly.

Brown Horned Treehoppers

A Sheoak mystery and a lifelong impression from the “How & Why Wonder Book of Insects”

We were very curious about what appeared to be some strange looking seed pods on a Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata) on our place at Strangways.

These don’t look like the usual seed cases on a Sheoak.

Closer inspection revealed something that certainly looked like some type of fruit, but not from a Sheoak.

The plot thickens.

We decided to explore this mystery in the most effective way we know for dealing with any botanical question. We asked Frances Cincotta of course. She said it’s an insect gall made by a scale bug called Cylindrococcus spiniferus and pointed us to a Wikipedia page on it. The wingless female of this species stimulates the Sheoak to grow the gall around her and it seems her eggs are fertilised by the male through the gall. There is a photo of the inside of the gall by John Tann at https://www.flickr.com/photos/31031835@N08/15965777418/ I decided not to pull apart a gall for a photo as I don’t want to unnecessarily kill the insect.

On a different tack, I was very pleased to get some photos of an adult Ant Lion (genus Myrmeleon) hanging onto an old grass flower stalk in our front yard the other night.

Adult Ant Lion
Ant Lion

Ant Lions are related to Lacewings and belong to the same order Neuroptera (neuro – veined, ptera – wing). As a child in the mid 1960s, I was handed down my brother’s copy of the “How and Why Wonder Book of Insects” and was fascinated to read about Ant Lions. The book explained the tiny cones sunk into the dust in the bush around our places as being made by Ant Lion larvae which use them to trap ants, which they then grab with their large pincers and devour. I would gently blow away the cone and see the tiny predator exposed. And as a curious and somewhat un-empathetic child, I’d encourage an ant to fall in and watch the Ant Lion flick the dust over the struggling ant so it would slide to the bottom of the pit. Then the Ant Lion would seize it and drag it under the dust.

Ant Lion trap, March 2019
Ant Lion larva Nov 2014

I have rarely seen adults, so I was very pleased that this specimen was not in a hurry to leave and would even hang around for some close ups.

Up close
An intimate portrait.

The next insect wave – wasps

After having written about the waves of Belid Weevils and Acacia Jewel Beetles a week or so ago, I am now seeing a wave of different wasp species. Many are parasitic and I imagine the wave corresponds to the availability of suitable hosts.

On the Hardenbergia in our yard that seems to be a dormitory for many napping insects, I found a wasp which I think belongs to genus Lissonota. These are parasitic wasps in the family Ichneumonidae. Wasps in this family tend to lay eggs in or on the caterpillars of pupae of moths and butterflies, finding the food sources of their target species and using their antennae to smell out a host. Lissonota wasps tend to have white sections on their antennae.

Lissonota wasp

Netelia is another species of Ichneumon wasp. This one was also on the Hardenbergia, but was quite active on the night I found it, rather than sleeping like the Lissonota which was a few leaves away. I gather that Netelia wasps lay their eggs on rather than in their hosts which makes them ectoparasites. In addition, they are koinobionts which means they don’t impair the development of the host. In contrast, parasites which do impair their hosts (eg wasps that paralyse their hosts) are called idiobionts. Perhaps these are amongst the quirkiest biological terms!

Orange Caterpillar Parasite Wasp – Netelia sp.

Sawflies are close relatives of wasps, but have thick waists and lay their eggs in the leaves of plants using a saw-like ovipositor from which they take their name. I found a black sawfly on the old flower stalk of a Plume Grass.

Sawfly

Also on an old grass stem, I found what I think is a Stenophyella bug nymph. These bugs are in the family of Lygaeid bugs, which feed mainly on seeds and plant sap. I think this one is a nymph due to the underdeveloped wings.

Stenophyella nymph

ARACHNOPHOBE ALERT – CUTE BABY JUMPING SPIDER AHEAD

Back at the usual Hardenbergia a few days ago, I found numerous tiny Jumping Spiders (<2mm long), all of the same species. I assume from their numbers that they’d just hatched. Each seemed to have their own leaf by the time I’d found them.

Baby Jumping Spider

A few days later and I found one with a catch. The spider was still only a couple of millimetres long and the fly it had caught was even smaller.

A small but effective hunter!

Insect waves

It often seems to me that different insect species often appear in waves throughout the period from spring to autumn. This year it seems particularly pronounced as each species’ wave seems to have larger numbers of Aindividuals than most years. A week or so ago I posted about big numbers of Belid Weevils. This week it’s Acacia Jewel Beetles.

Flat-headed Acacia Jewel Beetles (Agrilus australasiae) look at first glance like Belid Weevils, with long, cylindrical dark bodies, but close inspection show no snout and the iridescent sheen which gives them their jewel-like appearance.

Acacia Flat-headed Jewel Beetle

These beetles lay their eggs in wattles, especially Golden Wattles and Silver Wattles in our neck of the woods. The larvae are the borers that shorten the life of these wattles, leaving little piles of drillings at the base of the plant. This particular specimen seemed to have found itself on a eucalypt leaf for some reason.

Big eyes, up close.

A bit smaller but more iridescent, Diphucrania Acacia Jewel Beetles are also around in greater numbers than usual.

Diphucrania sp. on Golden Wattle

At this time of year, I often note the building up of numbers of Slender Bee Flies (Geron sp.) They move from the Shiny Everlastings as they finish flowering to the Sweet Bursaria that continue to flower at this time.

Slender Bee Fly on Sweet Bursaria

I had been keeping an eye on a Ladybird chrysalis on a Drooping Sheoak in our yard of late.

Ladybird Chrysalis

I was very pleased to check it recently as the Small Transverse Ladybird adult emerged, sitting quietly next to the shell as its skin hardened.

Freshly emerged ladybird.

Other recent macro finds were a tiny beetle, about 3mm long and a very small Hidden Snout Weevil (tribe Cryptorhynchi), both on Golden Wattle leaves.

A very small beetle
Weevil (Tribe Cryptorhynchi)

Beetle look-alikes. And some flies.

I’ve seen quite a few elongated beetles with rust/orange wing covers of late and assumed that they are Long-nosed Lycid Beetles (Porrostoma rhipidius) that I’ve photographed previously, but as I’ve seen them mostly on the wing, I’ve not been able to tell for sure. The first time I got a good look at my supposed Lycid Beetle through the macro lens, I was surprised to find it was actually a Red Belid Weevil – Rhinotia haemoptera. I’ve seen a great abundance of Belid Weevils this spring – more than I’ve ever seen, but none with these fantastic brick-red wing covers.

Red Belid Weevil on Rough Wattle

I was so stunned by its likeness to the Lycid Beetle. Then I found one of the the latter resting on a Cassinia.

Long-nosed Lycid Beetle.

Not just the red wing covers, but the black head and body are so strikingly similar. So I was intrigued to read on the very helpful brisbaneinsects.com that the Red Belid Weevil gets a considerable advantage by looking so like its Coleoptera cousin. It turns out that the Lycid Beetle is quite poisonous to eat and its bright colour signifies this to predators. The Weevil gets the same protection without having to be poisonous – just by looking like someone who is. It might also explain why both of these insects seemed utterly unconcerned by my interest, not for a moment considering themselves to be a meal.

Coleoptera means sheathed wing and is the name for the order of beetles. The covers that protect their delicate wings are called elytra. These are modified forewings that allow beetles to get into places that would otherwise destroy their delicate flight wings. Many beetles favourite escape mechanism is to simply drop before flying off, presumably as it’s faster than deploying wings from under the elytra. Often,however, they are quite happy to pose for photographers, like this Comb-clawed Darkling Beetle.

Comb-clawed Darkling Beetle on Red-anther Wallaby Grass flowers

With the abundance of Shiny Everlasting blossoms happening at the moment, it’s a great time to get photos of flies as they collect pollen.

Genus Metallea
Hoverfly

Flies are often nervous, but I find that when an insect has found a flower that it really likes, it stays put even with a camera and big flash diffuser right over it. Is it that it’s so good that it’s worth the risk, or do they not identify me as a threat?

Sleeping flies are also a bonus for the photographer. One seemed to be asleep in broad daylight on a Golden Wattle leaf. I’ve not been able to identify this one, but wonder if it might be a Tachinid fly.

Tachinid fly?

A Hardenbergia in our yard is a favourite napping spot by night for Lauxaniid flies. I can guarantee finding quite a number of them most spring nights. They are always on the northern side of the plant. It took me a while to come up with the hypothesis that they liked the shelter from the cool southerly breeze that’s present however subtle on most nights.

Lauxiniid fly.