Author Archives: Patrick Kavanagh

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.

Small and smaller

The range of sizes of species the can be seen with a macro lens is extraordinary, across the biological kingdoms from plant to animals.

As our beautiful spring unfolds, we still have a few of the beautiful, delicate little Twining Fringe-lily flowers (Thysanotus patersonii) dangling over the low shrubs and native herbs in the bush at our place at Strangways. Each year, their tiny, leafless, soft stems push out of the soil and leaf litter, twining around any support and setting their intricate, star like blooms. Little wonders in our woodlands.

Twining Fringe-lily

With flowers about a centimetre across, the Fringe-lilies dwarf some of the other tiny plants visible this spring. Stems of Crassula decumbens have been up for a while. They grow on hard surfaces including rocks and in the middle of gravel roads, starting out a vivid green colour, but by now having flowered they’ve turned a beautiful pink. Whilst some of the specimens at our place are up to 70mm high, I was particularly keen to get a shot of a smaller plant and found one only a centimetre high sprouting from a bed of moss.

Crassula decumbens

One of my favourite tiny plants is the Hairy Stylewort, Levenhookia dubia. This year there have been wonderful little stands of these – hundreds of individual plants up to a mighty 20mm high with a tiny bunch of flowers on top of a thin stem. I found it very hard to take a pleasing shot of a whole group of them, so focused on a solo plant to show how it gets its name.

Hairy Stylewort – the flowers are <2mm across

A visit to one of the Drooping Sheoaks in our front yard often yields some interesting arthropod finds – but it can take some very close inspection. My eye was drawn to what first appeared to be a slight swelling on a Sheoak needle, but with the macro lens turned out to be a most curious looking animal.

Who is this?

Searching some of my usual sources didn’t quickly yield much, so I put the image into an iNaturalist observation and the site suggested that it’s a Plecoptera or Stonefly. The adults lay their eggs (up to 1000) in fresh water, where the larvae feed mostly on algae and other vegetable matter. According to the CSIRO web site, the nymphs go through up to 15 sheddings of their exoskeletons before becoming an adult and this may take up to 3 years. The adults are also vegetarians and don’t venture far from the water in which they grew.

Further very close inspection showed another, much smaller denizen of the Sheoak needle, a tiny spider hidden between some needle buds.

A miniscule predator.

As the Golden Everlastings (Xerochrysum bracteatum) burst into flower, there is also quite a range of sizes of insects visiting them. The largest by far are the feral European Honey Bees.

European Honey Bee

Far more pleasing to my eye are the numerous hoverflies starting to appear.

Hoverfly

At the micro end of the scale, I’ve come across a few truly tiny insects that appear to be depositing eggs in the heart of the Everlasting flowers. One was a fly, looking very like a gnat, only 2mm long.

A very small fly

On a similar scale, a tiny wasp also seemed to be leaving something behind.

A 2mm wasp leaving eggs in an Everlasting flower

Peak Chough?

A while back I posted about the progress of White-winged Choughs (Corcorax melanorhamphos) building nests around our place at Strangways. We’ve now counted seven nests with adults incubating eggs within a 400m radius of our house. Yesterday we saw the first family with fledglings shepherding three chicks around the ground, secreting them amongst the fallen timber. Today, as evening drew near the frantic adults were busy feeding and corralling their young charges amongst the shrubs, leaf litter and dead wood.

A White-winged Chough fledgling only a couple of days out of the nest having a good stretch.

All three of this little sweeties are able to fly – sort of. A bit of vigorous flapping and they can get a metre or two off the ground. We watched as some adults on the ground guided them to a fork in a Grey Box tree and other adults in a low branch of the tree seemed to encourage them upwards to a safe spot to roost for the night.

One fledgling starts the climb towards the adult birds on a horizontal branch about 3 metres high
All three struggle up the stem.
Giddying heights are reached, but holding on is not easy.

Eventually, all three gave up the climb and flew in ungainly style towards some logs on the ground, whereupon some adults began again the seemingly chaotic task of finding a safe place for the little crew to spend the night.

Back on the ground after the unsuccessful climb

We noted that pretty much as soon as these chicks were out of the nest, some Choughs had started construction of a new nest very close to the old one. We think but can’t be sure that this is the same group of about 12 birds building the second nest. What strikes me from these observations is how important dead wood on the ground is for sheltering these very young birds.

Nest building proceeds

As a very fecund spring unfolds, a lot of nest building activity is happening at our place at Strangways.

The White-winged Choughs whose nest building I posted about a month or so ago are now sitting on eggs.

White-winged Chough patiently incubating.

This particular family seems to be way ahead of the other Chough families around our place, with at least 4 other nests in early stages of building in a 1 km stretch along our lane.

It’s early days for other Chough nests, and construction standards look a little different in this nest base.

Pardalotes have been busy too. Striated Pardalotes are starting to pack some new lining in the nest boxes near our house.

Striated Pardalote on the perch of a nest box about to add some lining.

And others are looking at the same box with some hope of moving in.

One of the nest builders telling a hopeful occupant to look elsewhere.

Spotted Pardalotes never seem to be interested in our nest boxes. I’m not sure if that’s because the entry tubes might be too big for them or whether their larger Striated cousins just keep them away. The Spotted Pardalotes have some nesting holes in the bank of the roadside at the front of our place and I was delighted to come across a male tearing strips off fallen bark and ferrying it back to one of these nests.

A male Spotted Pardalote collecting some bark for lining a nest hole
The yellow throat indicates this is a boy.
“Can I fit any more in my beak?”

Every year, Brown Thornbills make nests very close to our front verandah. I think they regard us and our dog as protection from predatory birds and cuckoos. They hide in a nearby hop bush with their construction materials and dart quickly into the dense patch of Gold Dust Wattle where they’re making the nest, so I’ve not managed to get a shot of them going in. Whilst one of the pair darts in with the goods, the other will sit more obviously in a nearby Spreading Wattle and sings loudly, perhaps to draw attention away from the one heading to their very well hidden nest. The intelligence of these birds is astounding. I read a while back that when a predator or cuckoo approaches their nest, they make hawk alarm calls of various species until the threat takes off for their own safety.

One of our Brown Thornbills creating a distraction.

One of the prized lining materials for our local birds is the fur of our small dog. After brushing him, I poke bundles of his fur into our fencing wire and quite a few different bird species will pick it up.

A female Scarlet Robin with some valuable nest lining courtesy of our Schipperke.

Majestic visitors drop in for a bite

Some 12-15 years ago, we threw a few locally collected, untreated Hakea decurrens seeds in the bush at our place in Strangways, protected by a small exclosure fence. Before too long, we had a couple of large hakeas, covered with flowers and seed pods and with numerous second generation seedlings springing up beneath them.

Hakeas from direct seeding, and their offspring.

A few months back, we found seven Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus funereus) checking our hakeas out. This was the first time in the 27 years we’ve been on our place that we’d seen this species stop rather than just fly over. Yesterday, we saw a flock of about twenty happily and noisily cracking seed pods for their tasty contents. To my absolute delight, they stuck around while I got the camera.

A female pausing briefly from feasting.

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos evolved to feed on Hakea, Casuarina and Banksia seeds, but have become more dependent on introduced pines as their usual foods have been reduced by European land management practices. They also like to dig burrowing insects out of eucalypts and wattles.

Checking things out

One of the recorded Dja Dja Wurrung names for this species is Wareaine or Weerran (from John Tully’s book Dja Dja Wurrung Language of Central Victoria.

Females have larger yellow patches behind their eyes, grey eye rings and white bills. The males have pink eye rings and dark grey beaks.

One of the males of the group.

After sating their appetite with Hakea seed, the flock flew into a nearby Grey Box to rest and preen.

Rest time
A bit of beak sharpening.
And preening.

Watching these magnificent birds was a pure delight. Even more so to think that a few minutes easy work a decade and a half ago has resulted in a bit of food for these beauties. Looking forward to their next visit.