Author Archives: Patrick Kavanagh

Presenting on photographing invertebrates at FOBIF AGM

I was pleased and honoured to be invited to be a presenter at the Friends of the Box-Ironbark Forests AGM, to be held on Monday, Sept 12th. I will be talking about how photography can be a tool for developing a more intimate knowledge of and closer relationship with our beautiful woodlands and the many lifeforms that are part of this complex and threatened ecosystem. As the topic is potentially very wide, I’ve decided to focus on how photographing tiny invertebrates has helped me discover some of the wonders of our local bush. The AGM will start at 7.30 pm at the Ray Bradfield Rooms in Castlemaine.

Red Velvet Mite – one of the tiny beings featured at the FOBIF AGM

As will the secret life of the Ant Lion
A Sundew – a deadly hunter of tiny insects
Why is this little cutie called a sweat bee?
What does this strange creature feed on and how?

The wide waters of Joyce’s Creek

With some good rains, soaked soil our waterways are flowing beautifully. Cairn Curran Reservoir has come up significantly. A kayak trip upstream from the bridge on the Pyrenees Highway on the weekend was pure delight.

Looking upstream from the west bank south of the Pyrenees Highway.
Heading upstream

A group of Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicullatus) were hanging around the lower reaches near the bridge. The can be few sights as magnificent as watching these birds in flight.

Australian Pelican

On a branch of one of the old, dead River Red Gums that line the main channel of Joyce’s Creek (now well under water) a Royal Spoonbill (Platalea regia) rested.

Royal Spoonbill

Ducks were abundant further up the creek, especially Pacific Black Ducks (Anas superciliosa) and Grey Teals (Anas castanea).

Grey Teal
Grey Teal in flight
Pacific Black Ducks

Long-billed Corellas were also around in big numbers, some of them checking out hollows in the dead trunks and branches.

Long-billed Corella

There were a few Whistling Kites (Haliastur sphenurus) around, patrolling for fish or whatever else they could snatch off the water.

Whistling Kite about to land on an old tree.

Below the Kite’s roosting spot, Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena) rested between sorties to hawk small insects above the water.

Welcome Swallows

A few kilometres upstream from the bridge, there was a great abundance of Straw-necked Ibis (Threskornis spinicollis) and a few Black Swans (Cygnus atratus)

Quite a few Straw-necked Ibis and a Galah
Ibis take off!
and a landing Galah

Small – some winter invertebrates

Winter is not a great time for photographing invertebrates, partly as they are fewer in number, but also because those that are around are often really small. I don’t know why the colder weather seems to favour the smaller.

Golden Wattles (Acacia pycnantha) are still bursting into flower, providing pollen for a multitude of tiny beetles.

Golden Wattle and pollinating beetles.

One species I was surprised to find at this time of year was the Acacia Horned Treehopper (Sextius virescens). I’ve occasionally seen them at this time of year, but they are usually something I find in spring and summer. They have wonderful camouflage which they rely on totally for their safety, moving only very slowly around to the other side of the branch to escape my interest.

Acacia Horned Treehopper


Looking for anything that looks a little odd is a very effective way to find some interesting invertebrates. A curious looking little lump on a strip of bark turned out to be a tiny Twig Spider (Poltys sp.), all of 2 mm long.

Twig Spider

By night, the Golden Wattles continue to support many little creatures. A few tiny Psyllid Bugs were perched on the edge of some of the new leaves.

Psyllid Bug.

Small nocturnal Notoncus ants are often out on a winter’s night, gleaning a sweet secretion from the gland on Golden Wattle leaves.

Notoncus ant checking out a wattle leaf gland.

Quite a few Fungus Gnats and midges sleep on our bushes at night and I found a beautiful green midge sleeping on a flower bud.

Midge on Golden Wattle flower.

Where there are animals, there are predators and one of the most common finds at night at the moment are tiny spiders. Lots of them. Some of the biggest are green Crab Spiders (Cetratus rubropunctatus) at about 10mm long.

Crab Spider (Cetratus rubropunctatus)
Up close

But by far, the bulk are less than 2mm long.

One of many tiny spiders active by night.

And finally, a fungus fruiting body just because there’s a lot of them and they’re beautiful.

A plethora of fungi and a gratuitous night sky view

With our wet, cool winter we still have an abundance of fungal fruiting bodies popping out of the earth and trees to spread their spores far and wide. I am unsure of the precise identification of these little beauties and welcome any clarifications.

Many of the photos show tiny invertebrates feeding on the fruiting bodies – tiny creatures that I had no idea where there until I processed the shots.

Funnel Cup fungi with a Springtail on top

Springtails have six legs, but are not insects and have internal mouth parts. They live in the leaf litter and eat decaying plant matter and microbes. They also eat fungal hyphae (the strands that make up the bulk of the fungus) and spores.

The delicate gills and rich colours of the fungi look stunning against the mosses.

Galerina sp. – careful inspection of the one on the right reveals another springtail.

Galerina sp. with Fungus Gnat.

Fungus Gnats are tiny flies that are very important pollinators and spreaders of fungal spores. The adult forms can be seen flying around in large groups in still air even in winter as they meet up to mate.

At first, I thought this was a Puff Ball Fungus, but on closer inspection, I think it has a stem which has yet to rise above the moss.
Mycena sp in a niche in an old Grey Box stump. Fungi are important in the recycling of wood.
Galerina sp. and Scented Sundews.
Lichenomphalia sp. – there are so many of these beautiful tiny fruiting bodies on the woodland floor at the moment.

And – quite off topic – a gratuitous night sky shot that I took the other night from the old rail crossing now submerged in Cairn Curran at Joyce’s Creek.

The centre of the Milky Way rises over Cairn Curran. The dark patches are cold clouds of dust and gas from which future stars will form. The bright patches are clouds of gas ionised by the clusters of newborn stars that they surround.

Some Autumn Invertebrates in Green

There are still quite a few insects around in mid-Autumn and I found a few in shades of green recently. By night when the temperature is down, it’s a lot easier to photograph them than when they’re warmed up and ready to fly.

Perched on an outdoor table in the cool evening, I found a Lesser Meadow Katydid (Genus Conocephalus – thanks to iNaturalist for help with identification). Katydids are close kin to grasshoppers, but have very long antennae. I picked the katydid up with a leaf, but a more appropriate perch for this subject would have been a grass blade.

Lesser Meadow Katydid

It was a very patient sitter, so I was able to get some close up shots of the extraordinary palps around the katydid’s mouth – remarkable little leg-like appendages that help the insect taste and feel it’s way through the world.

A close up view showing the sensory palps.

On a native Clematis plant, a small green Stink Bug (family Pentatomidae) was relying on its camouflage and chemical deterrent.

Stink Bug on native Clematis.
The side view shows the tiny aperture through which the bug can squirt a noxious defence – just above the base of the second leg.

Welcome rain has also triggered the fruiting of fungi in our bush. A little patch of Parasola fungi cropped up just next to our driveway. A very appropriate name! A few tiny Springtails look like they are patrolling the freshly sprouted mushrooms.

Parasola fungus fruiting body complete with Springtails.

Some Autumnal Invertebrates

As our gentle summer draws to a close, there is still plenty of invertebrate action around. Dragonflies and Damselflies are closely related hunters that abound at the moment and are very busy mating. Both belong to the order Odonata, referring to the teeth on their mandibles. In adult form, both hunt flies and mosquitos on the wing. Damselflies tend to be smaller, more slender and perch with their wings along their bodies.

Wandering Ringtail (Austrolestes leda) damselfly
Up close, it’s clear that the damselfy’s eyes are widely spaced and somewhat smaller than a dragonfly’s

Dragonflies usually perch with their wings perpendicular to their bodies. Wandering Perchers (Diplacodes bipunctata) are common dragonflies in our patch and are fascinating to watch.

Wandering Percher perching
The very different face of a Dragonfly

I was pleased to recently find a different species of Clerid Beetle at our place yesterday. Clerid Beetles are mostly elongated and they are covered with conspicuous hairs. I think the one I found is in the genus Lemidia. I haven’t been able to find out much about this genus, but apparently most Clerid Beetles are carnivores and prey on other beetle species. Adult Clerids tend to eat adult beetles and Clerid larvae tend to eat other beetle larvae.

Lemidia sp?
In profile.

Yesterday morning, I found an intriguing Praying Mantis struggling in one of our dog’s water bowls. From its camouflage, I suspect it lives in leaf litter, but I photographed it on the grass stem that I used to lift it from the water.

Praying Mantis.

Arachnophobe warning – cute spiders ahead!

It’s also a big time for spiders. I think Jumping Spiders are especially cute and I was very pleased to get some shots of a couple. They can be quite tricky to photograph as they like to jump, even onto my flash diffuser or my hand.

One very tiny spider I spied in the leaf litter. This one was only a few millimetres long. From my Spiders of Bendigo book, I think it might be a Jotus sp.

Jumping Spider

The second species was hiding on a twig on a Golden Wattle and its body was about 10mm long. I think this one is an Opisthonchus species.

Opisthonchus sp?
A dorsal view.

Nature photography at the Arts Hub

I’m very excited to be part of an exhibition of nature photography from the Goldfields at the beautiful Newstead Railway Arts Hub, starting next Saturday.

Bernard Slattery, Bronwyn Silver, David Tatnall and I will be showing some of our best photos of the natural world every weekend in March and on the Labour Day long weekend.

The Cascades by Bronwyn Silver
Ironbarks by David Tatnall
Flume by Bernard Slattery
Barn Owl by Patrick Kavanagh

The exhibition will be open on March 5th and be open every Saturday and Sunday from 10 am until 5 pm, with Sunday March 27th as the final day. It will also be open on Labour Day, Monday March 14th from 10 am until 5 pm.

There will be a launch and “meet the artists” on Sunday March 6th at 10.30 am. All are welcome to come to the launch – we’d love to see you.

More details and artist’s statements can be seen at the Newstead Arts Hub web site.

Up the creek

After our recent generous fall of rain, Joyce’s Creek near its inflow to Lake Cairn Curran has become a beautiful expanse of calm water. What could be better than to paddle upstream from the bridge at the Pyrenees Highway with binoculars and a camera?

Heading upstream from the bridge, the old River Red Gums killed by the flooding of the dam show the old creek line on the right. Younger Red Gums germinated after more recent floods can be seen on the left.

The old River Red Gums are full of hollows and provide nesting sites highly valued by hollow dependent species. A favourite spot for Long-billed Corellas (Cacatua tenuirostris)

Long-billed Corella coming in to land on a dead tree

White-faced Herons (Egretta novaehollandiae) also spend a fair bit of time perched on the old trees, keeping a close eye on the boat below.

White-faced Heron

Fallen trees and logs are also important habitat. Lots of Chestnut Teals (Anas castanea) are enjoying the creek at the moment. A male in non-breeding plumage watches us slip quietly past, surrounded by the tops of paddock weeds now drowned by the high waters.

Chestnut Teal

Heading upstream, the channel narrows to the old stream, sentinels from past centuries line the banks.

We saw Chestnut Teals all the way along the creek, quite a few with young.

Chestnut Teals prefer to nest in hollows 6m or more above the water, so the old trees along the creek provide great hollows for nesting. Some females will dump their eggs in the nests of other females, which explains why we sometimes see mothers with flocks of up to 17 chicks following them around. I use the plural Teals rather than Teal as apparently the use of plurals without an s is for game species. I dread to think of our beautiful birds being shot, so can’t bring myself to call them Teal.

A kayak is a beautifully intimate way to explore the landscape – photo by Lee Shelden

I was pleased to discover some Fairy Martin nests under the branch of one of the old trees. I usually see these wonderful structures mounted on a human made surface, so it was great to see them on a natural one. From the rings of mud on the tree, it looks like it’s been used for nests for a long time.

Fairy Martin nests on an old Red Gum

The old trees are also favoured perches for Australian Pelicans (Pelicanus conspicullatus) and Australian White Ibises (Threskiornis molucca)

An Australian Pelican, curious about the intruders.
An Australian White Ibis moves to a higher perch as we pass.
As we head back downstream, we get a good view of the many Fairy Martin nests underneath the bridge on the Pyrenees Highway. When no longer used by Martins, other hollow dependent birds like Pardalotes can use these fabulous homes.

Only at night

Some things are best seen in the dark. One such is a visitor from the farthest reaches of the Solar System on its way to the Sun – Comet Leonard. Comets are balls of ice and dust and long-period comets like Leonard are thought to come from a hypothetical vast cloud of countless such balls, known as the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is thought to start at about 2000 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun – about 150 million kilometres) to about 200,000 astronomical units. So from 300 billion to 30 trillion kilometres. So this visitor has travelled a rather long way and can now be seen in the night sky above Newstead. On Saturday evening,I headed out to Welshman’s Reef to get a photo.

At the moment the comet is low in the sky and hard to see against the glow of the setting sun and is near Venus, which is shining very brightly at present.

The western night sky above Cairn Curran with Comet Leonard – can you find it?

The comet is far less impressive than Comet Lovejoy which graced our skies at Christmas in 2011 and Comet McNaught from summer in 2007. It took me a little while to find it in the photo above.

For contrast, Comet Lovejoy from our place in December 2011
Some labels for Comet Leonard. Its position will change daily, so don’t use this as a guide to find it in the sky.

A nocturnal find a bit closer to home. Back in July I went to Picnic Point to get some photos of the Milky Way rising over Cairn Curran and whilst I was mucking around with the camera, an Eastern Barn Owl (Tyto alba) came to check me out. Not only had I failed to bring a bird lens with me, but I also had no flash, so came away with a somewhat blurry image.

Milky Way with Barn Owl at Picnic Point in July.

Needless to say, I’ve been back to the same spot a few times and seen the owl but not managed any shots. Recently as I headed out for another try, my journey was interrupted by seeing another Eastern Barn Owl on a fence about 3 km from home, just between Strangways and Newstead. This bird was so relaxed I got a few close shots, but it was a little hard to get it to look my way. A few whistles and squeaks from me and it eventually looked my way. Such a thrilling encounter with a very impressive bird!

Eastern Barn Owl, Newstead

Small drama of new life and death

As spring rolls into summer, the bush at our place is a frenzy creating new invertebrate life and transforming the flesh of some tiny animals into that of others.

Drooping Sheoaks in our front yard seem to be a favourite spot for Ladybird Beetles, including for a midday tryst.

Ladybird Beetles arranging the next generation.

Nymphs and larvae are also abundant and even in these early stages of life, they play out the drama of the hunted and hunter. On a Grey Box leaf, tiny Sawfly larvae bunch up to look dangerous and unappetising to predators.

Sawfly larvae succeeding in looking unpleasant

Not everyone will be fooled by this, however. A few centimetres from this little group of siblings, I found a Predatory Shield Bug Nymph (genus Oechalia) making off with one of the family. A nymph is an immature form that looks like the adult form in a way that other larvae don’t look at all like their adult forms (eg Sawflies). Nymphs don’t need to undergo metamorphosis in a cocoon, they just shed their skin.

Oechalia nymph with dinner.
The view from above

Shield bugs are true bugs and have tubular, sucking mouth parts. Most Shield Bugs are herbivores, but a small number specialise in literally sucking the life out of other invertebrates.

On a bunch of Clustered Everlastings (Chrysocephalum semipapposum) I found another true bug species, genus Taylorilygus. These belong to the Mirid Bug family, the largest family of true bugs.

Mirid bug, genus Taylorilygus

This little cutie was quite fortunate not to have been on a neighbouring flower head at the wrong time, where a very impressive Praying Mantis nymph was devouring a tiny wasp. The mantis nymph was about 20mm long. The wasp looks like one that I often see laying eggs in everlasting flowers. I wonder if she succeeded before being involuntarily converted into Praying Mantis.