Author Archives: Patrick Kavanagh

The food chain in the chook yard

Since we started sharing our place in the bush at Strangways with some chickens, the dynamics of the local bird life have certainly changed.

White-winged Choughs (Corcorax melanorhamphos) have been the true masters of our land for many years and became the first species to decide the chook food was pretty good. Several families visit often, squawking and carrying on relentlessly. They are so adapted to us, that close-up photos are very easy.

The spectacular eye of a White-winged Chough

A pair of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) have also become regulars and are similarly unfazed by the presence of a human with a big camera.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

In the last 6 months, Peaceful Doves (Geopelia placida) have become regulars. We used to occasionally hear and rarely see these beautiful birds. Now a flock of up to twelve find their way through the wire mesh and into the main chook pen. They are more coy than the Choughs, flying out of the yard and onto a nearby Long-leafed Box limb when we approach.

Peaceful Doves in a light shower
On a favoured branch

Recently, raptors have twigged that the doves are regular visitors and have started dropping by to hunt them. We saw an Australian Hobby (Falco longipennis) a few days ago. Yesterday a pair of of Collared Sparrowhawks (Accipiter cirrocephalus) came in to check things out. They flew off as I approached with the camera, but didn’t go far.

Collared Sparrowhawk

One returned before too long. Instead of making for the chook yard, it perched on a gate at the bottom of our yard, closely scanning a mound of dirt near a garden bed, presumably looking for small prey on the ground.

Closely watching for prey on the ground.

Periodically it would spread its wings slightly. I don’t know what this was about and would welcome any insight.

A slight wingspread.

Of the night and of the earth

Winter nights are still a time to find some invertebrates out and about. On a Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) recently I found a very beautiful small green caterpillar, holding itself out perhaps to look like a bit of leaf.

Caterpillar on Golden Wattle

The orange patches mark a lateral extension, a bit like a hood and the face could only be seen from below and in front. On close inspection, this little one was using some silk. When I visited later, there was no sign of a cocoon, so I’m not sure what the silk threads were about.

Quite a sweetie

There are still lots of tiny midges and fungus gnats about, sleeping on leaves at night. You can tell this midge (only 2mm long) is a male from his feathery antennae. And you can tell he’s not a mosquito as his back legs are down.

Male midge on Grey Box leaf

With all the moisture in the soil, it’s a great time to get down into the leaf litter to see some fungi and other tiny treasures.

Fungus fruiting bodies

We’ve had our place at Strangways for 26 years and I’d been familiar with the Scented and Tall Sundews in our bush. Last winter was the first time I’d seen a Climbing Sundew (Drosera macrantha) at our place. Since then I’ve seen at least half a dozen. Perhaps it’s just getting your eye in. Unlike Tall Sundews, which are free-standing, Climbing Sundews tend to climb over other vegetation, like shrubs and grasses. The longest I’ve seen was about 30 cm long. This one, that I found yesterday, was only 4 cm long. So I presume it’s quite young – and yet it still has quite a few gnats and midges in its deadly leaves.

Climbing Sundew (Drosera macrantha) with at least five meals on board

The leaves of Climbing Sundews are bell-shaped and tend to hang down. Those of Tall Sundew are more heart-shaped and the plant tends to point them outwards.

The bell-shaped leaf of a Climbing Sundew, with dinner.

I tend to not turn over too many rocks or logs looking for subjects as I don’t want to cause too much disturbance. In the cold of winter, I do tend to resort to this more often as subjects in the bushes are much rarer. Clinging to the bottom of one rock, I found quite a number of Black-headed Sugar Ants (Camponotus nigriceps), whose nest was under the rock. I took a few photos of this sisterhood before very carefully replacing the rock to not squash any of these sleepy, beautiful ants.

A Black-headed Sugar Ant and her sisters. I think the large, out-of-focus head in the top left corner is a guard. But she too was very soporific.

The time of small things

As winter bites, there are still plenty of invertebrates about, but they are almost all very small.

Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha)flower buds are still a target for beetles, but they are mostly 3mm long or less.

Tiny beetle on Golden Wattle
Tucking in on a cold night

There are plenty of spiders around and often less than a mm long, like one I managed to photograph of a Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata) at night.

Minuscule spider

Elsewhere on the same Sheoak were a couple of small Psyllid bugs, a safe distance from the tiny predator. These were only a couple of millimetres long.

Psyllid bugs

After a bit of rain, we’ve had another mass surfacing of springtails (Collembola) from the leaf litter. As I mentioned in a previous post, these are not insects in spite of having three pairs of legs.

Springtail profusion

Today there were many clusters of thousands of these little creatures (<1mm long) – writhing masses of little lives all tumbling over each other as they dispersed.

Springtails really know how to teem

These little creatures have a very important role in breaking down decaying vegetable matter and fungi. There is a great article on them on The Conversation. And I think they are very cute.

The sweetness of the springtail.

 

The Five O’Clock Insects

The cool of winter seems to be a time of tiny insects. Some of them very tiny. More of these to come and some thoughts about it in a future post.

Amongst the myriad tiny invertebrates common at this time of year are what I tend to call “the five o’clock insects.” In the late afternoon of a sunny winters day, I notice clouds of beautiful tiny insects flying in an extraordinary choreography.

The aerial choreography of tiny insects

It’s been a bit hard to get a definitive view of these little ones and to be sure of what they’re up to – feeding? Mating?

A recent alignment of a swarm of these, a web and a chance landing on my equipment have shed some light and connected the mystery to another puzzle of the winter cold.

A nearby web showed several midges and also what looked like a fungus gnat ensnaredl along with the seed of Cassinia sifton. It was hard to get good shots of these tiny (<3mm long) insects with a fair bit of movement happening.

A male midge (the feathery antennae give the sex away), a gnat (I think) and Cassinia seed

As I was mucking around getting some photos, a pair of midges dropped in to show me what the display was about.

The point of it all.

Apart from meeting their fate in the webs of arachnids, I found another effective predator for these miniscule animals. And the predator is not even of the animal kingdom.

Scented Sundews with their prey and some Greenhood orchids

In the myriad leaves of Scented Sundews (Drosera whittakeri) was an abundance of trapped small flies. It is an accident and no accident that the Sundews are in the same frame as the greenhood orchid rosettes. When Ballarat field naturalist and orchid aficionado Emily Noble presented at Newstead Landcare’s March 2019 meeting, she pointed out that sundews that grew near orchids had the benefit of the orchids attracting fungus gnats for pollination, thereby multiplying more effectively and this results in an abundance of sundews near orchid patches. So not planned, but organised by chance and natural selection. Fungus gnats are so called as their larvae feed on fungi in the soil. Some adults also eat and transfer spores from fungus fruiting bodies

It seems that the same midges that are part of this aerial event (perhaps) are the ones that puzzle me each winter as they dangle at night on tiny webs from the leaves and stems of eucalypts and Golden Wattles. I still don’t quite know what they are doing – or how they manage in near zero temperatures, although some gnats have anti-freeze proteins.

A female midge (no feathery antennae) dangles from a Grey Box twig on a cold winter’s night.

Gnats are also a little easier to get a shot of when they are asleep.