Another observation of an overwintering Fan-tailed Cuckoo prompted me to have a look at BirdData for seasonal records of the species in this part of central Victoria.
Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Muckleford Nature Conservation Reserve, 13th June 2022
The first map below shows records since 1998 for the months of May and June, the second map the combined records for May to August. Clearly this species is about during winter, at least in some years, but observations peak from August through November when they can be readily heard calling throughout the box-ironbark country.
Even in Tasmania, at the southern-most edge of their range, a few individuals are observed through deep winter. It is anybody’s guess as to whether our local ‘fantails’ are residents or migrants from further south, and furthermore if their movements are changing along with our climate. They are largely silent until their hosts (fairy-wrens, scrubwrens and thornbills) commence nest building with the first hint of spring, however I have been hearing the odd bird calling in recent weeks, along with a Shining Bronze-cuckoo.
Fan-tailed Cuckoo records (red dots) in central Victoria – May to June (all years)
Fan-tailed Cuckoo records (red dots) in central Victoria – May to August (all years)
This individual was hunting caterpillars from a series of low perches, dropping successfully to the forest floor numerous times as I followed.
The onset of winter means a subtle change in the composition of the local bird community.
Eastern Spinebill, Golden Whistler and White-eared Honeyeater are distinctive ‘winter birds’ in the Newstead district, although the latter species may be seen throughout the year. Scarlet Robins also tend to be more abundant during the cooler months.
Eastern Spinebill (adult female), Red White and Blue Mine, 2nd June 2022
Gymnopilus junonius (Spectacular Rustgill) on Grey Box
A number of folks have commented in recent weeks on the proliferation of spiders in the local bush, in particular the extraordinary Golden Orb-weaverNephila edulis.
These magnificent spiders have been casting their webs with enthusiasm post Xmas. Walking in the bush at present is tricky as you weave your own way amongst their silken creations, some of which are more than a metre across.
Golden-orb Weaver, Mia Mia Track, 27th March 2022
Speckled Warblers have bred again during autumn, a good sign for this declining woodland bird. I’ve also spotted both Red-capped and Scarlet Robins in recent weeks … they went missing during the heat of summer.
Speckled Warbler (female)
Speckled Warbler (male) … ferrying food, 7th March 2022
I was keen to pay another visit to the tiny Buloke remnant, in search again for Singing Honeyeaters. Sure enough the birds were still there, at least five individuals active in the canopy. From there I travelled further west to another favourite remnant, along Plumptons Lane at the edge of the plains country.
A Singing Honeyeater was heard, but my attention was drawn instead to a small party of Yellow Thornbills, a species very much at home in Buloke. Nearby, Harlequin MistletoeLysiana exocarpi, could be seen on a number of the mature Buloke trees. This striking mistletoe is widespread throughout Australia, from southern Victoria to the tropics and across the arid centre, and is known to parasitise a wide range of shrubs and trees. It will even become an epiparasite on other mistletoes including the local Box Mistletoe Amyema miquelii.
Singing Honeyeater, Moolort Plains, 27th February 2022
Buloke seed capsules
Buloke veteran and parent
Buloke provide a food source and living space for ants and a myriad of other insects
Yellow Thornbills are a feature of the bird fauna in Buloke remnants
This family of Australasian Grebes has provided much enjoyment during the heat of summer. Now deserted by their parents, the five juveniles have been happily independent at their birth-place, feeding on a variety of freshwater life, including tiger leeches, yabbies and caddis-fly larvae.
I’d never previously observed one capture a leech, but two of the young did so during this session. Each instance involved violent shaking of the struggling leech for a number of minutes until it was subdued enough to swallow.
Caddis-flies are small insects that spend most of their life-cycle as aquatic larvae, making their home in a protective case – in some cases the larvae weave silken cases that incorporate sand-grains and plant material, or as is the case with the variety pictured here, inside a hollow plant stem. The larvae move about inside these portable cases, protected as they feed on decaying planet material. The strategy is clearly not 100% successful as a hungry grebe demonstrates.
Australasian Grebe (juvenile) with leech, Muckleford State Forest, 19th January 2022
Each year, post Xmas, I pay a visit to a stand of Silver Wattles near Yandoit.
They are home to a colony of Common Imperial Blue ButterfliesJalmenus evagoras aka the Imperial hairstreak or simply the Imperial blue.
In common with many Australian butterflies this species has a fascinating and complex life history, of which Iridomyrmex ants play a key part. The larvae of this butterfly feed on the foliage of numerous species of acacias, locally I’ve only found them on Silver WattleAcacia dealbata. The ants live in underground nests and emerge to provide protection for the caterpillars from predators and parasitoids. The reproductive success of the butterfly is significantly improved from this protection, meanwhile the ants profit from supping on sugary secretions produced by the larvae.
On most recent visits to the colony the adult butterflies have kept their wings folded. Yesterday however, was a cool morning and the butterflies were warming up – fully opening their wings to absorb the rays of the sun, displaying the brilliant metallic blue from which J.evagoras gets its common name.
You can learn more about the Common Imperial Blue Butterfly and its life history here and here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Far more pleasing to my eye are the numerous hoverflies starting to appear.
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.
On a similar scale, a tiny wasp also seemed to be leaving something behind.
With abundant winter and early spring rain there is a riot of colour at present, dominated by flowering wattles – especially Rough WattleAcacia aspera.
A riot of colour, Mia Mia Track, 5th September 2021
The highlight of this walk was a flock of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, perhaps a dozen or so, moving in a loose party through the canopy and feasting on caterpillars. A number were observed with large, green larvae that they had captured. They would bash the larvae on branch before consuming them in a series of gulps. I’m not able to positively identify the larvae but they most likely belong to the family Saturniidae, of which the Emperor Gum Moth is a well known member. Moths in this family often pupate for more than a year, emerging when conditions are suitable.
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike with Emperor Gum Moth caterpillar