Author Archives: Patrick Kavanagh

Undaunted by winter’s cold

The middle of winter is not a great time for invertebrate macrophotography. Dependent on the environment for body heat regulation, these tiny animals are mostly in some form of dormancy. But not all, and I am amazed at how many very tiny spiders, flies and ants seem to navigate the frosty conditions of a Newstead winter.

Last night, I was impressed to find a number of small ants seeking out food on the wattles at our place at Strangways. One species were small black ants, about 5mm long. I think they are a species of the genus Notoncus, but I’m very happy to be corrected. When I got to look at this photo on my computer, I was amazed to see what looks like a tiny brown mite on the ant’s abdomen. I find the size of some of these mites mind bogglingly small.

Notoncus sp.

Notoncus worker on Golden Wattle, with mite

As is often the case, these ladies were feeding from the little gland in the bend of the wattle leaf stem.

Notoncus sp

Feeding at Golden Wattle gland.

Another species of the same genus is one that I often see at night – Notoncus hickmani (I’m more confident about this as the friendly people at bowerbird.org.au identified it for me last year). Having done a bit of research on the web about this genus, I have found out that not much is known about their biology. These workers also look about 5mm long to me.

Notoncus hickmani

Notoncus hickmani on Silver Wattle #1

Notoncus hickmani

N. hickmani #2

About twice the size of the Notoncus ants was another species, black and quite graceful with ornate looking spines at the back of the thorax. I think this ant is a Campomyrma species. This is a sub-genus of Polyrhachis. Again, I’d like to be able to say something useful or interesting about these ants, but there seems very little information about them on the web. Given that all these ants are pretty common, it says a lot about what we don’t know about these incredibly important insects.

Polyrhachis-Campomyrma_19-07-16_3

Campomyrma sp?

 

 

 

Macrophotography and invertebrates at Castlemaine Field Naturalists

Praying Mantis nymph

Praying Mantis

I am very excited to have been asked to do a presentation on macrophotography and invertebrates for the Castlemaine Field Naturalists Club this Friday, July 12th. I’ll be talking about the challenges of photographing small inverterbrates in our bush and about some of the things I’ve discovered about our local insects and arachnids through taking photos of them.

The meeting starts at 7.30pm at the Uniting Church hall in Lyttleton St, Castlemaine.

Myrmecia pyriformis

Myrmecia pyriformis

Just down the driveway, it’s crane and giant emu time

A clear winter night is a delight for southern hemisphere astronomers as the centre of the Milky Way galaxy is in a perfect position for observing. As I was spending some time at my telescope eyepiece a couple of nights ago, I couldn’t resist getting the camera to capture the spectacle of the galactic centre rising over our driveway. Just down the road really!

The centre of the galaxy rises over Strangways

The Galaxy rises!

The centre of the Milky Way is in the direction of the Arabic-European constellation Sagittarius – the centaur archer. While the bright stars of Sagittarius are all less than 100 light years away, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy is 25,640 light years from us and the galaxy itself is estimated to be 150,000 light years across. A light year is the distance light travels in a year – about 10,000,000,000,000 kilometres.

Also in this photo are the constellations Scorpius and Grus – the scorpion and the crane. Both of these constellations actually look like the beings the are named after, but the upswept wings of the crane are actually out of the frame at the bottom of the photo.

Gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn can also be seen in this photo – about 50 and 80 light minutes from us, so very much closer to home.

The dark patches across the Milky Way are lanes of cold gas and dust, from which new stars will one day be born. At the top right hand corner of the frame, between two stars of the Southern Cross (Crux) is a dark gas cloud unpoetically called the Coal Sack by western astronomers. To indigenous Australian astronomers, this was the head of the giant emu, the shape made by the dark clouds along the Milky Way.

The centre of the galaxy rises over Strangways labeled

Many years ago, Newstead Landcare were fortunate to have a night under the stars with John Morieson who had studied the records of the astronomy of the Boorong people of Lake Tyrell in northern Victoria. They called the giant Emu Tchingal and it was a giant who ate people – perhaps the giant carnivorous megafauna emu that once roamed Australia. John told us of the fight between Tchingal and Bunya, the Ring-tailed Possum ancestor, who drops his spear whilst climbing a tree that we see as the Southern Cross. The spear is seen as the pointers – Alpha and Beta Centauri, whilst Bunya’s head is the top star of the cross (Gamma Crucis), his ears are two small stars above the cross and his tail is an arc of stars to the left of the cross.

bunya labeled

Bunya and his spear and tree

I pointed the camera south to capture more of Tchingal’s head in case I needed to stitch a few photos together to catch the emu’s full glory. As I did so, a bright fireball meteor plunged earthward between the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. These neighbouring dwarf galaxies are 150,000 and 200,000 light years away respectively and consist of 15 billion and 5 billion suns. The Milky Way is 200 billion suns in mass.

Fireball between Magellanic Clouds

A meteor passes between the Magellanic Clouds

Fireball between Magellanic Clouds labeled

To the right of the Southern Cross along the Milky Way is a small bright patch around a small yellowish star, Eta Carinae. It is the seventh brightest star in the constellation Carina, the keel of Jason’s ship Argo. This star is likely to be the largest star in the Milky Way, 150 times the mass of our sun and is 7500 light years away. The fuzzy glow around it is a vast cloud of dust and gas, lit by Eta Carinae and forming numerous clusters of new stars. Eta Carina is very unstable and underwent several convulsions in the 19th century, throwing off clouds of material that are easily seen through amateur telescopes.

Incomprehensible as Eta Carinae may be, the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud manages to dwarf it. To the right of the north end of the Cloud’s bar, it appears as a faint, fuzzy round glow to the naked eye under a dark sky. It is the largest star forming region in the Local Group of galaxies and have stars up to 300 times the mass of the sun and the nebula is 930 light years across.

Moss, water, wonder.

Moss and a little bit of water go a long way for life and for beauty as well. Frances Cincotta of Newstead’s native plant nursery Newstead Natives recently lent me a tray of germinating seedlings with a thick layer of moss to explore with my macrophotography set-up. The mosses had put up a multitude of spore capsules, which hold water beautifully!

Moss

Moss spore capsule #1

The photo above was taken inside with natural light and the window of the room can be seen reflected in the drop.

At 5x macro, truly each drop holds a world.

Moss

Moss spore capsule #2 at 5x

These images are made by focus stacking. As the depth of the image in focus is very small at high magnifications, one solution is to take several photos at different focal planes and use software to combine the images. This can result in some artefacts, which can be edited out. In this photo, I’ve left the artefacts in to add to the other-worldly feel’.

Moss flowers and dew

Focus stack with artefacts.

A common wisdom in macrophotography of plants is to avoid flash. However, with a tiny subject and large diffuser for the flash, the results can be quite good.

moss 3x stack 3 v crop

Moss spore capsule and water, focus stack with diffused flash.

Moss 3x stack 2 crop a

And again.

Hunters on the ground and a Cup Moth comes to a sticky end

Walking around the bush at night with a headlight reveals myriad tiny emerald coloured lights shining back at oneself. On close inspection, these beautiful jewels are the eyes of myriad ground-dwelling spiders.

One that I found recently had me scratching my head.

Ant-eating Spider - Habronestes sp?

Who am I?

I have the excellent “Field Guide to Spiders of Australia” by Robert Whyte and Greg Andersons (CSIRO publishing), but there are so many spiders in the book that it was a bit challenging to find the right one. I noted the interesting pattern of eyes and found a match in the eye patterns in Jenny Shields “Spiders of Bendigo” (Bendigo Field Naturalists Club).

Ant-eating Spider - Habronestes sp?

The distribution of eight eyes tells the story

The two forward-curved rows of eyes are characteristic of the Ant-eating Spiders – Zodariidae. Going back to the big book, I came to the conclusion that this one is a species of Habronestes. As the common name implies, they feed on ants. They look ant-like, make movements like ants and some species even secrete pheromones to smell like ants. I didn’t get to see this one catch and ants, but I think my light was cramping its style.

Ant-eating Spider - Habronestes sp?

Ant-eating Spider – Habronestes sp.

My lights were quite helpful for another subject. Wolf Spiders are the ones most likely to have those emerald shining eyes. Their eyes have a reflective layer which makes them brightly reflect torchlight. I found this one emerging from its burrow in amongst some thin leaf litter.

Wolf Spider - Tasmanicosa sp.

Wolf Spider – Tasmanicosa sp.

As I was watching what it would do next, it leapt forward and snatched a small moth, possibly attracted by my headlight.

Wolf Spider - Tasmanicosa sp.

Munching on a moth

Those big eyes help them hunt by night or day, grabbing prey with their strong legs. According to the Filed Guide, some species are large enough to catch reptiles and frogs and even Cane Toads. I was quite stunned when this one again jumped forward and grabbed a Painted Cup Moth, quickly pinning it down and injecting it with poison. One less Cup Moth to breed up.

Wolf Spider - Tasmanicosa sp.

A Painted Cup Moth in the process of becoming part of a Wolf Spider

 

Late afternoon Bee Flies, an evening ant and a moth of dread

Having not seen any Slender Bee Flies since the height of summer, there seem to be quite a few about the place again. Perching in late afternoon sunlight on the tips of a Melaleuca decussata in our yard, they provide an admirable subject for the macro lens and seem fairly comfortable with the intrusion on their afternoon contemplations.

Bee Fly (Geron sp)

Slender Bee Fly (Geron sp.)

As night fell, I was pleased to find this large and imposing lady prowling around the yard. As forbidding as the pincers on this Myrmecia pyriformis appear, she was quite sedate, but I kept my fingers at a safe distance as I held the twig she was on.

Myrmecia pyriformis

Bullant – Myrmecia pyriformis

The information on this species on Antwiki  says that they forage at night, heading off singly on Eucalyptus trees. The nest may or may not have a queen and workers are able to reproduce if there is no queen.

Myrmecia pyriformis

Up close

Myrmecia pyriformis

Impressive equipment

Quite abundant at present are the adult forms of Painted Cup Moths. I hope that this does not portend another heavy infestation of their colourful and stinging caterpillars which wreak such havoc on the Eucalyptus canopy. I have to say, the canopy at our place has recovered amazingly well from some of the past Cup Moth events and it is important to note that the species is native to the area.

Painted Cup Moth

Painted Cup Moth resting on a Grey Box leaf

Painted Cup Moth

Top view.

I assume the “Painted” moniker applies to the colourful larvae.

Cup Moth larva

Cup Moth larva – July 2014

The Cup part relates to the cup shaped cocoon, seen in the beak of a Grey Shrike-thrush in this post of Geoff’s from a while back. The larvae feed on the leaves of eucalypts, then drop to the ground, crawl up a stem and build their cup-shaped cocoon in which they transform into the adult moth.

At our place, the larvae seem to be a favourite food for ravens, with great flocks working through the canopy and then the leaf litter as the larvae drop from the trees.

 

 

A bevy of beetles

It seems to be a time of beetles at present, with most of my forays into the bush at our place turning up beetles. Well, as cooperative sitters, anyway. There also seem to be plenty of flies, including quite a few Robber Flies, but they are very coy and I don’t have any worthwhile photos from this season.

One sweet little species is about 10 mm long and golden coloured with a few black dots and a bright yellow spot at the base of the wing covers. Trawling through the internet, I found out that it is a type of case leaf beetle, a Cylinder Eucalyptus Leaf Beetle, Cadmus excrementarius.

Cylinder Eucalyptus Leaf Beetle

Cylinder Eucalyptus Leaf Beetle

I am impressed by the way insect eyes are so deftly formed to make space for their antennae.

Cylinder Eucalyptus Leaf Beetle

Cadmus excrementarius

Apparently these beetles lay their eggs within their faeces, dropping the protective faecal pellet and eggs into the leaf litter where the larvae feed on fallen Eucalypt leaves. Most leaf beetle larvae feed on living leaves on trees, so here the case beetles are different to other leaf beetles.

Cylinder Eucalyptus Leaf Beetle (Cadmus excrementarius)

Mum uses her hind legs to help the large faecal/egg packet out

Cylinder Eucalyptus Leaf Beetle (Cadmus excrementarius)

A very intimate view of a pooing beetle.

Soldier Beetles are quite common at the moment and mostly working on establishing the next generation like this pair. One species – and I’m not sure if it’s this one as there are two that look similar, does not eat in adult form, relying entirely on reserves from their larval stage.

Soldier Beetles

Soldier Beetles

Also with an eye to posterity were these tiny Jewel Beetles (I think), all of about 3mm long. Like the Soldier Beetles, they weren’t going to let a fool with a camera distract them from the task at hand.

Jewel Beetles

Jewel Beetles

This one that I found by night on a Flax-lily looks the same as the female in the previous photo.

Jewel beetle

A Jewel of the night.

I also found this little cutie at night, wedged in the stems of an old Wallaby Grass flower stem. Appropriately, this one is called a Red and Blue Beetle – Dicranolaius is the genus name. Who knows what the beetle calls itself though.

Dicranolaius

Red and Blue Beetle

I’ve also found a few weevils with large projections on their heads and striking, black mouth parts. So far I haven’t been able to pin down a genus for these.

Weevil

Weevil

They look a bit like a sinister alien from the front.

Weevil

Front view.