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
Warmer weather has provoked a flurry of activity in the local bush.
Small woodland birds, such as the Silvereye and Scarlet Robins pictured below, were seen foraging for insects in the Mia Mia this morning. The Silvereye extracted the caterpillar from amongst the foliage of a Gorse-leaf Bitter-pea, while the female Scarlet Robin pounced on a colourful Cup-moth caterpillar that she spied on the ground.
Lots of birds calling, including my first Painted Honeyeater for the season, Black-eared Cuckoo and White-winged Trillers, along with Crested Bellbirds.
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.
I also found quite a few leafhopper nymphs.
One activity that I forgot to list was mating. A pair of moths were busy organising the next generation.
Tussock grasses seem to be a favourite spot for small flies and wasps to sleep.
Katydid nymphs are also starting to emerge. A Twig-mimicking Katydid (Zaprochilus) was doing its best to look inconspicuous.
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.
I found another Katydid nymph not far away.
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.
Cup Moth larvae have started making their appearance.
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).
A small bug on one tussock looked to me like a 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.
Another caterpillar similar in size and shape to Chlenias was magnificently camouflaged.
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 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.
Alfred Lord Tennyson was right about nature being red in tooth and claw!
This morning I watched five minutes worth of a grim battle between a Bull Ant and an adult Cup Moth on a paver under my verandah at Newstead.
Bull Ant (Myrmecia sp.) tearing into the body of a female Painted Cup Moth at Newstead Natives Nursery, 25th March 2020
Despite the size difference between the combatants and me thinking the Bull Ant’s eyes were bigger than its stomach I could see after a while that the ant was going to be the victor. I couldn’t watch ’til the bitter end.
Wrestling match continues
Our local eucalypts are defoliated every few years by the colourful caterpillars of this local moth species. Next time you are bitten by a Bull Ant and are cursing the existence of a species that can deliver such a painful sting, keep in mind that the ants might be helping keep Painted Cup Moth numbers in check. Or perhaps the female moth had done all its egg-laying and was old and tired near the end of its life, and that’s why it got caught?
Painted Cup Moth in its larval or caterpillar stage (photographed by Frances Cincotta November 2017)
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.
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).
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.
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.
As I was watching what it would do next, it leapt forward and snatched a small moth, possibly attracted by my headlight.
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.
A Painted Cup Moth in the process of becoming part of a Wolf Spider
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.
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.
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.
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 resting on a Grey Box leaf
I assume the “Painted” moniker applies to the colourful larvae.
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.
This moth rested on my verandah for a day. It turns out to be a female Crexa Moth, Genduara punctigera (thanks to Dave Wolfe for the identification).
18mm long female Crexa Moth on fly screen, photographed by Bronwyn Silver 18th January 2019
Detail showing her feathery antenna
Crexa Moth larvae feed exclusively on the semi-parasitic tree Native Cherry, Exocarpos cupressiformis (also known as Cherry Ballart). Native Cherries are common in bushland around Newstead, and the nearest natural stand to my place would be about 1km further up Palmerston Street.
My many attempts to propagate Native Cherry over the decades have only resulted in ONE specimen, which I planted next to the Yellow Gum at my gate so that it can tap into the root system of that big tree for nutrients and water. I will be so delighted if this or any other female Crexa Moth decides to lay eggs on my Native Cherry and I get to watch the whole life cycle!
Native Cherry (in foreground, 50cm tall) planted at base of mature Yellow Gum on the nature strip at Newstead Natives Nursery
Cup-moth caterpillars are again creating havoc in the local bush.
Cup-moth damage on a Grey Box leaf
Cuckoos are having a field day, although in some areas, such as west of Mia Mia Track, the damage is largely done. This pattern is a feature of the ecology of box-ironbark forests, however there is some speculation that infestations are becoming more severe and more frequent. I’ll be watching this patch closely for signs of recovery over coming months.
Pallid Cuckoo with Cup-moth, Mia Mia Track, 16th September 2018
Pallid Cuckoo calling …
… then departing
Shining Bronze-cuckoo sunning in the early morning sunshine
On Thursday 17th May Newstead Landcare has a treat in store for nature-lovers: Steve Williams will be giving a presentation on moths at Newstead Community Centre at 8pm. Steve will convince you that without these invertebrates we would not have many of the wonderful birds you see featured on this blog. Steve explains, “Because Lepidoptera are almost exclusively feeders on plant material in one form or another they are critical in food chains, indeed much more so than most researchers have believed. They are the invertebrates that everything eats including other invertebrates. To avoid being eaten they are great at hiding, particularly in their early life phases, and hence are difficult to research.”
Steve has been unpacking the biology of Lepidoptera in Box-Ironbark forest ecosystems for the last decade and during that period has documented the life histories of nearly 400 moth species; many for the first time. This along with nightly recording of adult moth activity over the same period is providing important insights into ecosystem functions. Steve will share the fascinating life stories of a few of these amazing animals and then present and discuss how understanding this biology has implications for land and biodiversity management in Box-Ironbark forests.
One of the Plume Moths Stangia xerodes in its pupal form, between larva and adult. It has pupated in the open, on the Rough Wattle it had been feeding on. Photographed by Steve Williams.
Everyone is welcome to attend. A gold coin donation will help Newstead Landcare cover costs.
On 21st January 2017 I noticed a cocoon on Newstead Natives’ smaller greenhouse, posted a photo of it on the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria Facebook page and people kindly identified it as being made by the caterpillar of an Australian Faggot Casemoth.
female Australian Faggot Case Moth cocoon (Clania ignoblis) 21 January 2017
Exactly 12 months later I notice a similar structure has been built on my nursery trolley! It lacks the one long twig at bottom.
male Australian Faggot Case Moth cocoon (Clania ignoblis), 19 January 2018
Anthea Fleming said, “The long twig (on the case on the greenhouse) is provided by female so winged male can land on it and visit for mating – she drops eggs from her case and then dies. The second case (on nursery trolley) is a male’s – so no long twig. During the larval phase they move about quite a lot. Pupating cases may stay a long time”.
I wondered why the creature built onto man-made things and not onto trees (which are plentiful here at Newstead)? Madeleine Nayru says, “As far as I know there’s not really much research on why/how they choose where to pupate. There’s some suggestion that man-made structures often have less airflow and activity from other animals, and no growth that could disturb the pupa, but really we don’t know. Fun side fact though, there’s been research that has found moths and butterflies maintain memories from when they were caterpillars”.