Author Archives: Patrick Kavanagh

Timing, defenses refined by evolution

As spring unfolds, I’m seeing a lot of invertebrates around our place at Strangways that I’ve not seen since the end of autumn. Various species of wasp are around and most have been a bit camera shy, but one was happy to pose.

Brachonid wasp?

I think this little cutie is a Brachonid wasp, but I’m happy to be corrected. Other Brachonids are definitely waking up at the moment. The ovipositor on this one was just too long to include fully in the photo. Brachonids often use these to deposit their eggs into the bodies of Sawfly larvae that the wasp larvae will eat from inside. Over millenia of evolution, the timing of the emergence of the adult wasps has been perfected as I’m starting to find quite a few schools of Sawfly larvae munching on eucalypt leaves.

Sawfly larvae

These larvae have appeared on the same trees that I found adult Pergagrapta Sawflies last autumn, so I wonder if they are the same species.

Pergarapta Sawfly from last autumn

Caterpillars are increasing in diversity. There are still a lot of Chlenias moth caterpillars about, but not as many as a few weeks ago when I posted about them. They have been joined by some other interesting caterpillars.

What am I looking at?

As I was inspecting a Grey Box sucker looking for subjects, I couldn’t help but notice one leaf stalk that seemed to be pointing the wrong way. As I watched, things started to change.

Not quite a leaf stem
What a disguise!

I have no idea what species this little caterpillar was, but I am lost in admiration for the camouflage.

Another very successful strategy for a juicy caterpillar is to look spiky and unappetising. This one was on a Black-anther Flax Lily flower stalk.

How not to look tasty!

Lacewings are also starting to appear in greater numbers and variety.

Green Lacewing

I always like looking at Hoverflies, with their elegant shapes and steady hovering flight. Lots of them are now investigating the flowers in the yard and bush. This one was very sedate, resting on a Groundsel and so a good photo was pretty easy.

Hoverfly

ARACHNOPHOBE WARNING – A SPIDER FOLLOWS.

Wolf spiders are also emerging from their holes in the ground. At night, their beautiful emerald eyes shine in the glow of my headlight. These spiders tend to carry their babies on their backs, which I’ve never managed to get a photo of. They still make an impressive subject for a close-up, in-your-face portrait.

A lichen covered stone makes a great stage for an impressive Wolf Spider

Strange encounters on the tussocks

A wander into the grassy woodland at our place the other night led to some interesting encounters and a puzzle with a solution reminiscent of science fiction.

Focusing my attention on the Poa and Austrodanthonia grasses, I was impressed by how many invertebrates were either sleeping, feeding of hunting on them. And it seems that a lot of insects are waking from their winter down time. I was delighted to find a tiny Praying Mantis nymph, all of 15mm long.

Praying Mantis nymph

I also found quite a few leafhopper nymphs.

Leafhopper nymph, 2mm long

One activity that I forgot to list was mating. A pair of moths were busy organising the next generation.

Mating moths

Tussock grasses seem to be a favourite spot for small flies and wasps to sleep.

Sleeping fly
Sleeping wasp

Katydid nymphs are also starting to emerge. A Twig-mimicking Katydid (Zaprochilus) was doing its best to look inconspicuous.

Zaprochilus nymph

When this nymph is an adult, its wings will project strikingly upwards from its thorax, looking like a forked twig. As a nymph, theu are tiny buds just discernible.

Dorsal view showing wings

I found another Katydid nymph not far away.

Katydid nymph

Hanging on a silk thread between two grass strands, I found a fungus gnat with a large, swollen and very red abdomen. My guess is that she’s heavily pregnant, but would be happy to hear any more informed explanations.

Fungus Gnat

Cup Moth larvae have started making their appearance.

Cup Moth larva

On the ground, perhaps knocked off a wattle as I moved around, I found an exquisite green moth. I assumed it has a relationship with wattles or eucalypts, but I discovered that its a Native Cranberry Moth (Poecilasthena pulchraria) and its caterpillars feed on native cranberry bushes (Astroloma).

Native Cranberry Moth
Native Cranberry Moth

A small bug on one tussock looked to me like a Mirid Bug nymph.

Mirid Bug nymph

Other larval forms about are, of course, caterpillars. Chlenias are still very abundant, but not in quite the enormous numbers of last week. I was puzzled that a small percentage of them seem to have small parcels stuck on their backs. One suggestion is that it might be the skin from a previous shedding that hasn’t come unstuck yet. I’d appreciate any thoughts.

Chlenias with a mystery parcel

Another caterpillar similar in size and shape to Chlenias was magnificently camouflaged.

I look like a stick too!

One fly that I found on a Golden Wattle leaf had me really puzzled. It didn’t look dead as its eyes were quite clean, but it was quite immobile and had a lot fuzz on its abdomen. Its wings and legs were in a very odd posture.

A puzzling fly

A bit of research led me to the fungus Entomophthora muscae, which as its name implies specialises in flies. When the spores come into contact with a fly, they have enzymes that break through the skin of the insect, allowing the fungal threads to spread through the fly. The fungus digests the organs of the fly and as the fly gets sicker, the fungus alters it’s brain function to make the hapless insect climb to a high point on a leaf, stretch its wings and legs. All of this sets the fly up perfectly for the next step. The fungus by now has spread microscopic canons over the abdomen and these will shoot spores out for them to land on the next victim. The wing and leg positions optimise the range of the spores.

And of course, where there are insects, there are those that eat them. Especially spiders. Like a baby Huntsman, about 10mm long.

Huntsman

Not Chlenias again!

I’ve done a couple of posts featuring the Chlenias moth caterpillars that abound in our bush at present. They are doing a great job participating (unwillingly) in the conversion of Cassinia into birds! A pair of Brown Thornbills have built a nest less than a metre from our front veranda at Strangways. They often make their nests close to our house as I think they realise that we will deter predators. And the number one food item they’re bringing in to their nestlings?

Brown Thornbill bringing in Chlenias caterpillar for the chicks.

The parents seem quite happy to come in to the nest even when we’re on the veranda. The very disciplined young stay absolutely silent when they get their feed.

Quite a load of tucker!

A few years ago, I read of research that found that when predatory birds such as currawongs or magpies – and cuckoos – approached the nests of Brown Thornbills, the parents will mimic the hawk alarms of other bird species and this will frighten the predators away. Such clever little birds!

Currently building a nest only a few metres from the Thornbills’ nest is a pair of Superb Fairy-wrens. The nest is buried deep in a Hop Bush covered with native clematis. The wrens when they leave tend to go to the same spot on Grevillea with a Hardenbergia in the backgorund, which makes for a very photogenic setting.

Superb Fairy-wren female
And her consort, who’s just finished morphing into his best plumage
Our beau is starting to get very amorous, but his lady friend is not quite ready

Speckled Warblers are not uncommon at our place, but are often hard to see and get near to for a photo. I was pleased when I found myself in the path of a pair of them as they foraged in the leaf litter and fallen wood recently. They are of the same family as the Thornbills – Acanthizidae – which also includes gerygones and scrubwrens.

Speckled Warbler

I’ll pocket the protection money, but my children will still eat you.

Lots of bugs that use their tube mouth parts to suck the sap of plants produce a sweet honeydew that attracts ants. In a (usually) win-win situation, the ants get some valued nutrition and the bug gets an entourage of stinging, biting friends to scare off predators.

I was very interested to find a Brown Lacewing (Micromus sp. I think) on a Grey Everlasting which at first I thought was eating a tiny aphid. I was surprised as I didn’t think adults would eat aphids. When I looked at the photos on the back of my camera, I could see it was getting honeydew from the rear end of the aphid.

Brown Lacewing and aphid

The Lacewing was handling the aphid quite roughly, grabbing the aphid with its front legs to make sure it could get to the anus and the sweet secretion.

A bit of rough handling.

Now I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t the win-win deal that the aphid would like as the Lacewing was not going to stick around to look after its little sweet acquaintance. Moreover, the Lacewing’s larvae are sure to be looking for little aphids just like this to dine on, as I photographed a few years back.

Lacewing larva hunting aphids in 2017

I posted a little while back about the Chlenias caterpillars feeding on Cassinia plants in our bush. We now seem to have hit peak caterpillar. It seems every Cassinia bush has at least 20 of these caterpillars, ranging in length from 10 to 50mm. They are also quite prevalent on Golden Wattles, but the Cassinia is really being stripped by them.

Chlenias on Golden Wattle

These caterpillars basically eat anything they land on. From what I’ve been able to find, the first instars of these caterpillars travel from their hatching site (which can be the leaf of any plant) by launching a balloon of silk to be carried by the wind. I wonder if the complex leaf structure of Cassinia catches them more efficiently and hence the heavier numbers. As we have a super-abundance of Cassinia at our place at present, I’m not too fussed about the caterpillars doing a bit of pruning as well as being fodder for our birds.

The view from below

Also still present in great abundance are Fungus Gnats. The more I see of these tiny flies, the more I recognise how essential they are for pollination, spreading fungal spores and as food.

Fungus Gnat on Golden Wattle

Whilst I was prowling around the Golden Wattle blooms at night, I was surprised to see tiny yellow grubs eating the flowers. They look a bit like yellow Ladybird larvae. I’m not sure of this and whether this species is always yellow or whether it borrows its colour from the flower as some Flower Spiders do.

Ladybird larva perhaps?

Our sleepy neighbour

In the 26 years we’ve had our place at Strangways, we’ve seen numerous species of lizards, but never a Shingleback (Tiliqua rugosa). So it was a pleasant surprise to see a very pale specimen appearing from under a ground cover in our front yard to sun itself.

Shingleback

I’ve read that Shinglebacks may be the lizard with the most common names in English – Stumpy-tailed, Bob-tailed, Bogeye, Sleepy Lizard and Pinecone Lizard amongst them. I learned from a wonderful episode of Off Track on ABC Radio National that they are the only lizards known to be monogamous and live for up to 30 years in the wild. If you haven’t heard this delightful show, make sure you click on the link and enjoy a fascinating 1/2 hour. I really only have one shot of this little cutie as it was so soporific that it just stayed still for a very long time.

 

Out of the moss

With the damp earth of winter, it is a joy to spend some time low to the ground and admiring the mosses in our bush. And admiring the things that com out of the moss.

In lots of places, Scented Sundews (Drosera whittakeri) push up through the mosses. It’s not a coincidence that nearby, mushroom fruiting bodies are also poking up.

Scented Sundews and Galerina fungus fruiting body emerge from the damp moss

Fungus gnat larvae feed on the fungus strands under the soil. At this time of year, adults will be laying eggs in the soil. I’ve also read that some fungus gnat adults will feed on the mushrooms themselves and carry the fungus spores around the bush. Sundews that happen to be amongst areas rich in fungi will get more gnats stuck to their sticky spines and will therefore be able to proliferate more.

As I was rolling around the ground trying to get good angles on the luxurious mossy floor of our woodland at Strangways, I was delighted to see a small red speck climb out of the thick moss.

 

Red Velvet Mite

The red speck was a Red Velvet Mite – an arachnid of the family Trobidiidae. Unlike other arachnids, their bodies are not segmented. They have two eyes but use chemoreceptors (smell but with no nose) and sense vibrations to find their prey – primarily other invertebrates.

Climbing over rough terrain

They will emerge from the soil after rain. At times I’ve seen a horde of these tiny animals, up to 50 at a time, ranging from less than 0.5mm to about 4 mm long, quickly dispersing. This one was on its own and was about 3mm long.

Apparently, male Red Velvet Mites will construct a little boudoir of plant material and spermatophores – little clumps of sperm – into which he will invite a prospective mate. He does this by waiting for a lady to pass and then does a little dance for her. If she likes what she sees, she sits on one of his spermatophores and impregnates herself.

Not far from where I found the little red cutie, I found a male midge sitting on a Golden Wattle bud. I’ve struggled to get a photo of the wonderful feathery antennae that the boy midges sport, so I was very pleased that this lad sat still long enough to get a decent shot.

Midges sit with their back legs down – mosquitoes lift their hind legs. Males have feathery antennae

The moths that ate Strangways – well not quite

Since the heavy rains of 2010-11, we’ve had quite a growth of Cassinia sifton at our place. In recent weeks, it has become favourite fodder for Looping Caterpillars of the moth genus Chlenias.

Chlenias caterpillar

Almost all of the Cassinia bushes at our place have at least a few of these munching away, ranging from 10-30 mm long. As there is a great abundance of the shrub in our bush, I’m very happy that someone is keeping it in check. There is some debate about whether Cassinia sifton is truly native to Victoria or whether it came from NSW during the early gold rushes. Until recently it was classed as one species with Cassinia arcuata which is now a rare species only found in the northwest of the state.

Up close
Chlenias caterpillars are also enjoying some Golden Wattle

I was trying to get some photos of a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus) at our place the other day and found two on the ridge, chasing each other in an amorous sort of way. They got themselves deep into a Cassinia bush where one (a male I assume) offered the other a series of Chlenias caterpillars. Due to the dense bush I was only able to get a pretty ordinary shot of her eating her gift. The male was hidden behind some of the branches, but I figure this one definitely belongs in this post.

Shining Bronze-Cuckoo with a gift of Chlenias

Also in great abundance in our bush at present are Fungus Gnats. As I prowl around the bush looking for subjects, I am struck by how important these tiny insects are for pollination and as fodder for other invertebrates. They are also very challenging to get good photos of.

Fungus Gnat sleeping on Golden Wattle flower bud
This one seemed to be drinking from the gland at the bend of the leaf stem of a Golden Wattle. Mostly I see ants doing this.

Nocturnal ants are also common and very important during winter nights and again Golden Wattles are favourite haunts.

Camponotus on a Golden Wattle

Harvestmen are arachnids that look like spiders, having eight legs, but unlike spiders they only have two eyes (spiders have eight) and have external mouth parts that crunch their prey rather than sucking the insides out as spiders do. I’ve seen harvestment from time to time, but this year I’ve seen a lot of Opoliones harvestmen, usually on wattle and eucalypt leaves.

Opoliones hunting at night on a Golden Wattle

It’s time to spread the spores

With all the moisture around, the fungi that live in our soil and break down vegetable matter are now putting out their fruiting bodies. These come in a diverse array, but most commonly of course, mushrooms. Their function is to disperse the fungus spores.

As these pop up out of our leaf litter and mosses, they can create beautiful subjects for landscape photographs on a small scale. I was struck by the magic of a Galerina fungus fruiting amidst the moss, lichens and rocks. I guess there are several fungi visible here as the lichen is a symbiosis of a fungus and algae.

Galerina sp.
A closer view shows a springtail crawling across the fruiting body

We recently acquired Joy Clusker’s “Fungi of the Bendigo Region” which is a very useful field guide.

I think this is another Galerina in the early stages
The fungus isn’t the only thing spreading spores in this photo

Mosses also multiply by spreading spores. Just behind the baby mushroom above, I found some spore capsules just starting to emerge from the moss. Looking through the very helpful “Mosses of Dry Forests in South Eastern Australia” by Cassia Read and Bernard Slattery, I think the moss is Leptodontium paradoxum, but I’m very happy to be corrected.

Moss spore capsules emerging

 

Out of the woodwork

I visited the Rise and Shine yesterday morning in the hope of photographing some birds. Whilst I was waiting for an Eastern Yellow Robin to come close enough for some photos (which it didn’t) I noticed a Yellow-footed Antechinus Antechinus flavipes pop its beautiful head out of a hollow log.

Yellow-footed Antechinus

I was already alert to the possibility of seeing these cuties out and about in the fallen wood. They are known to be more active in the day than other Antechinus species. This one seemed very unconcerned by my presence and getting close wasn’t an issue, especially when it would pop onto the top of a log to check me out.

Checking out the human
Then hopping off to find some food

Many readers of this blog would know that if this is a male, he won’t have long to live. Mating season will start soon and all the males will die after a frenetic bout of mating that will leave them all exhausted and with depleted immune systems. Both males and females are formidable hunters with healthy appetites for invertebrates, eggs, nectar and sometimes small birds and mice. This one was getting a lot of invertebrates out of the leaf litter and the main challenge for photography was keeping up with it.

A bit of a rummage
A millipede on its way to becoming antechinus
Another tasty treat

Not surprisingly, research shows the strongest predictors of Antechinus numbers are leaf litter and cover in the form of dead wood and rocks. Although this little one seemingly felt no threat from me, humans pose a threat by removing dead wood. And also by changing the climate. Animals with the mating style of Antechinuses are very poorly adapted to changing temperatures.

One thing they are very well adapted to is a vertical surface. I love the way this one hangs on to a tree trunk as if it’s standing on a flat surface.

At ease at any angle

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.