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Some Autumn Invertebrates in Green

There are still quite a few insects around in mid-Autumn and I found a few in shades of green recently. By night when the temperature is down, it’s a lot easier to photograph them than when they’re warmed up and ready to fly.

Perched on an outdoor table in the cool evening, I found a Lesser Meadow Katydid (Genus Conocephalus – thanks to iNaturalist for help with identification). Katydids are close kin to grasshoppers, but have very long antennae. I picked the katydid up with a leaf, but a more appropriate perch for this subject would have been a grass blade.

Lesser Meadow Katydid

It was a very patient sitter, so I was able to get some close up shots of the extraordinary palps around the katydid’s mouth – remarkable little leg-like appendages that help the insect taste and feel it’s way through the world.

A close up view showing the sensory palps.

On a native Clematis plant, a small green Stink Bug (family Pentatomidae) was relying on its camouflage and chemical deterrent.

Stink Bug on native Clematis.
The side view shows the tiny aperture through which the bug can squirt a noxious defence – just above the base of the second leg.

Welcome rain has also triggered the fruiting of fungi in our bush. A little patch of Parasola fungi cropped up just next to our driveway. A very appropriate name! A few tiny Springtails look like they are patrolling the freshly sprouted mushrooms.

Parasola fungus fruiting body complete with Springtails.

Some Autumnal Invertebrates

As our gentle summer draws to a close, there is still plenty of invertebrate action around. Dragonflies and Damselflies are closely related hunters that abound at the moment and are very busy mating. Both belong to the order Odonata, referring to the teeth on their mandibles. In adult form, both hunt flies and mosquitos on the wing. Damselflies tend to be smaller, more slender and perch with their wings along their bodies.

Wandering Ringtail (Austrolestes leda) damselfly
Up close, it’s clear that the damselfy’s eyes are widely spaced and somewhat smaller than a dragonfly’s

Dragonflies usually perch with their wings perpendicular to their bodies. Wandering Perchers (Diplacodes bipunctata) are common dragonflies in our patch and are fascinating to watch.

Wandering Percher perching
The very different face of a Dragonfly

I was pleased to recently find a different species of Clerid Beetle at our place yesterday. Clerid Beetles are mostly elongated and they are covered with conspicuous hairs. I think the one I found is in the genus Lemidia. I haven’t been able to find out much about this genus, but apparently most Clerid Beetles are carnivores and prey on other beetle species. Adult Clerids tend to eat adult beetles and Clerid larvae tend to eat other beetle larvae.

Lemidia sp?
In profile.

Yesterday morning, I found an intriguing Praying Mantis struggling in one of our dog’s water bowls. From its camouflage, I suspect it lives in leaf litter, but I photographed it on the grass stem that I used to lift it from the water.

Praying Mantis.

Arachnophobe warning – cute spiders ahead!

It’s also a big time for spiders. I think Jumping Spiders are especially cute and I was very pleased to get some shots of a couple. They can be quite tricky to photograph as they like to jump, even onto my flash diffuser or my hand.

One very tiny spider I spied in the leaf litter. This one was only a few millimetres long. From my Spiders of Bendigo book, I think it might be a Jotus sp.

Jumping Spider

The second species was hiding on a twig on a Golden Wattle and its body was about 10mm long. I think this one is an Opisthonchus species.

Opisthonchus sp?
A dorsal view.

Nature photography at the Arts Hub

I’m very excited to be part of an exhibition of nature photography from the Goldfields at the beautiful Newstead Railway Arts Hub, starting next Saturday.

Bernard Slattery, Bronwyn Silver, David Tatnall and I will be showing some of our best photos of the natural world every weekend in March and on the Labour Day long weekend.

The Cascades by Bronwyn Silver
Ironbarks by David Tatnall
Flume by Bernard Slattery
Barn Owl by Patrick Kavanagh

The exhibition will be open on March 5th and be open every Saturday and Sunday from 10 am until 5 pm, with Sunday March 27th as the final day. It will also be open on Labour Day, Monday March 14th from 10 am until 5 pm.

There will be a launch and “meet the artists” on Sunday March 6th at 10.30 am. All are welcome to come to the launch – we’d love to see you.

More details and artist’s statements can be seen at the Newstead Arts Hub web site.

Up the creek

After our recent generous fall of rain, Joyce’s Creek near its inflow to Lake Cairn Curran has become a beautiful expanse of calm water. What could be better than to paddle upstream from the bridge at the Pyrenees Highway with binoculars and a camera?

Heading upstream from the bridge, the old River Red Gums killed by the flooding of the dam show the old creek line on the right. Younger Red Gums germinated after more recent floods can be seen on the left.

The old River Red Gums are full of hollows and provide nesting sites highly valued by hollow dependent species. A favourite spot for Long-billed Corellas (Cacatua tenuirostris)

Long-billed Corella coming in to land on a dead tree

White-faced Herons (Egretta novaehollandiae) also spend a fair bit of time perched on the old trees, keeping a close eye on the boat below.

White-faced Heron

Fallen trees and logs are also important habitat. Lots of Chestnut Teals (Anas castanea) are enjoying the creek at the moment. A male in non-breeding plumage watches us slip quietly past, surrounded by the tops of paddock weeds now drowned by the high waters.

Chestnut Teal

Heading upstream, the channel narrows to the old stream, sentinels from past centuries line the banks.

We saw Chestnut Teals all the way along the creek, quite a few with young.

Chestnut Teals prefer to nest in hollows 6m or more above the water, so the old trees along the creek provide great hollows for nesting. Some females will dump their eggs in the nests of other females, which explains why we sometimes see mothers with flocks of up to 17 chicks following them around. I use the plural Teals rather than Teal as apparently the use of plurals without an s is for game species. I dread to think of our beautiful birds being shot, so can’t bring myself to call them Teal.

A kayak is a beautifully intimate way to explore the landscape – photo by Lee Shelden

I was pleased to discover some Fairy Martin nests under the branch of one of the old trees. I usually see these wonderful structures mounted on a human made surface, so it was great to see them on a natural one. From the rings of mud on the tree, it looks like it’s been used for nests for a long time.

Fairy Martin nests on an old Red Gum

The old trees are also favoured perches for Australian Pelicans (Pelicanus conspicullatus) and Australian White Ibises (Threskiornis molucca)

An Australian Pelican, curious about the intruders.
An Australian White Ibis moves to a higher perch as we pass.
As we head back downstream, we get a good view of the many Fairy Martin nests underneath the bridge on the Pyrenees Highway. When no longer used by Martins, other hollow dependent birds like Pardalotes can use these fabulous homes.

Only at night

Some things are best seen in the dark. One such is a visitor from the farthest reaches of the Solar System on its way to the Sun – Comet Leonard. Comets are balls of ice and dust and long-period comets like Leonard are thought to come from a hypothetical vast cloud of countless such balls, known as the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is thought to start at about 2000 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun – about 150 million kilometres) to about 200,000 astronomical units. So from 300 billion to 30 trillion kilometres. So this visitor has travelled a rather long way and can now be seen in the night sky above Newstead. On Saturday evening,I headed out to Welshman’s Reef to get a photo.

At the moment the comet is low in the sky and hard to see against the glow of the setting sun and is near Venus, which is shining very brightly at present.

The western night sky above Cairn Curran with Comet Leonard – can you find it?

The comet is far less impressive than Comet Lovejoy which graced our skies at Christmas in 2011 and Comet McNaught from summer in 2007. It took me a little while to find it in the photo above.

For contrast, Comet Lovejoy from our place in December 2011
Some labels for Comet Leonard. Its position will change daily, so don’t use this as a guide to find it in the sky.

A nocturnal find a bit closer to home. Back in July I went to Picnic Point to get some photos of the Milky Way rising over Cairn Curran and whilst I was mucking around with the camera, an Eastern Barn Owl (Tyto alba) came to check me out. Not only had I failed to bring a bird lens with me, but I also had no flash, so came away with a somewhat blurry image.

Milky Way with Barn Owl at Picnic Point in July.

Needless to say, I’ve been back to the same spot a few times and seen the owl but not managed any shots. Recently as I headed out for another try, my journey was interrupted by seeing another Eastern Barn Owl on a fence about 3 km from home, just between Strangways and Newstead. This bird was so relaxed I got a few close shots, but it was a little hard to get it to look my way. A few whistles and squeaks from me and it eventually looked my way. Such a thrilling encounter with a very impressive bird!

Eastern Barn Owl, Newstead

Nest building proceeds

As a very fecund spring unfolds, a lot of nest building activity is happening at our place at Strangways.

The White-winged Choughs whose nest building I posted about a month or so ago are now sitting on eggs.

White-winged Chough patiently incubating.

This particular family seems to be way ahead of the other Chough families around our place, with at least 4 other nests in early stages of building in a 1 km stretch along our lane.

It’s early days for other Chough nests, and construction standards look a little different in this nest base.

Pardalotes have been busy too. Striated Pardalotes are starting to pack some new lining in the nest boxes near our house.

Striated Pardalote on the perch of a nest box about to add some lining.

And others are looking at the same box with some hope of moving in.

One of the nest builders telling a hopeful occupant to look elsewhere.

Spotted Pardalotes never seem to be interested in our nest boxes. I’m not sure if that’s because the entry tubes might be too big for them or whether their larger Striated cousins just keep them away. The Spotted Pardalotes have some nesting holes in the bank of the roadside at the front of our place and I was delighted to come across a male tearing strips off fallen bark and ferrying it back to one of these nests.

A male Spotted Pardalote collecting some bark for lining a nest hole
The yellow throat indicates this is a boy.
“Can I fit any more in my beak?”

Every year, Brown Thornbills make nests very close to our front verandah. I think they regard us and our dog as protection from predatory birds and cuckoos. They hide in a nearby hop bush with their construction materials and dart quickly into the dense patch of Gold Dust Wattle where they’re making the nest, so I’ve not managed to get a shot of them going in. Whilst one of the pair darts in with the goods, the other will sit more obviously in a nearby Spreading Wattle and sings loudly, perhaps to draw attention away from the one heading to their very well hidden nest. The intelligence of these birds is astounding. I read a while back that when a predator or cuckoo approaches their nest, they make hawk alarm calls of various species until the threat takes off for their own safety.

One of our Brown Thornbills creating a distraction.

One of the prized lining materials for our local birds is the fur of our small dog. After brushing him, I poke bundles of his fur into our fencing wire and quite a few different bird species will pick it up.

A female Scarlet Robin with some valuable nest lining courtesy of our Schipperke.

Mooyin-unkil, the builders

Mooyin-unkil is the Dja Dja Wurrung name for the bird Europeans called the White-winged Chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos). To me, the eerie “mooyin” part of the call is one of the most striking sounds in our bush and these wonderful birds have become a big part of our life in the bush at Strangways. Three families spend a lot of time in our yard, combing through the leaf litter for small insects, but also patrolling our chooks’ yard for leftover seed.

In recent days, we’ve noticed one family group visiting with distinctly muddied heads, suggesting that they have been building one of their skillfully crafted mud nests.

White-winged Chough at the bird bath.

Sure enough, during a walk down our lane, we saw a couple of birds working on the foundation of a new nest high in a Grey Box tree.

The start of a new nest

It looks like the birds have completed the first stages – building a platform held in place by a saddle built around the branch. Mud will be added in layers each of which must dry before the next is added. The final product will be a large deep cup with a ridged form for extra strength and a drainage system. Each family group consists of a pair of parents and their offspring from previous years who all help to raise the next generation. Many of the group members will participate in making the nest under the guidance of the parents. Nest building is apparently a learned skill.

Within about 300m of this nest, along a drainage line and dirt road, there are at least 6 existing nests of varying ages. It seems a perfect site with mud from the road cutting and a dam for water. Not surprisingly, it is much easier for them to build a new nest in a wet season with lots of mud.

Another of the nest building clan

All members of the family help in rearing the young, from nest building, to incubation to feeding and caring for the chicks. They mature at about four years.

Choughs need at least four birds to successfully raise a chick and the larger the group of helpers the more success they have in rearing young. In smaller groups, the young contribute more to the incubation of eggs and lose some body mass as a result.

One of the most intriguing things to watch with our Chough cohabitors is their strange wing/eye/tail display. We often see this when groups are contesting our yard and birds will perch in trees, wave their wings and tails, flare their wonderful eyes and screech. We also see them on the ground, spreading and dragging their wings, flaring their eyes and calling mooyin. One bird will start and the rest of the group will follow with some imitating the promenade. They often do this when there is only one group present.

Getting ready for a promenade
Joining the mooyin call
A member of another family drops in
Coming in to land
Looking peaceful with Golden Wattle background.
Foraging with the chooks

Galaxies from Picnic Point

Cloud-free nights have been a bit thin on the ground, but last Sunday night provided a great opportunity to photograph some spectacular galaxies from Picnic Point on Lake Cairn Curran.

The centre of the Milky Way rises above Lake Cairn Curran

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, consists of about 200-400 billion stars. Its centre is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Due to the intense concentration of gravity, dust and gasses it is a very busy place of star formation. The dark areas are dense clouds of gas.

In the eighteenth century, comets were objects of great interest. Charles Messier was an avid seeker of comets and drew up a catalogue of the fuzzy things he saw through his tiny telescope that he knew were not comets. Although he never found a comet, he left us a catalogue of 110 bright objects in our night sky – nebulae (clouds of dust and gas from which stars form), star clusters both open and globular and galaxies. This photo shows quite a few of these Messier objects, some of which I’ve labelled.

With labels

Messiers 6,7 and 8 are all open clusters of stars and associated nebulae from which they were born. These clusters are relatively young and consist of hundreds to thousands of stars. Messier 22 is a globular cluster. In our galaxies, the stars in these clusters are extremely old and are gravitationally bound in very dense clusters that may include millions of stars packed into a mere 70 light years (the nearest star to our sun is 4 light years away).

All of these objects are visible with a good pair of binoculars. Messier 22 looks like a fuzzy ball in binoculars, but resolves into myriad stars with a medium sized telescope (10″ diameter)

The centre of Messier 22 (European Space Agency)

Whilst I was taking photos for this image, I was joined by a curious Barn Owl that took up a position on one of the dead trees I was photographing. I think it wondered what the strange lights were all about. Alas, I had left my bird photography lens and flash at home. So it’s a wide-angled shot of a motion blurred owl with galaxy backdrop.

Milky Way with Barn Owl

Looking to the south, two more galaxies float above the Moolort plains – the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

The Small Magellanic Cloud (left) and Large Magellanic Cloud (centre)

The Large Magellanic Cloud is a distorted barred spiral that we view from above. You can see the central bar sloping from bottom left to top right and surrounding it the spirals that have been disrupted by the gravity of the Milky Way. the bright star-like object to the top right of the bar is actually the largest star forming region in our group of galaxies 30 Dorado or NGC 2070. It contains 70+ massive stars up to 300 times the mass of our sun. The Large Magellanic Cloud is 150,000 light years away and is about 1/10 the size of the Milky Way. The light you see from it left 150,000 years ago.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light years away and weighs in at about 7 billion suns.

Jaws

Arachnaphobe alert – spiders ahead

With the cooler weather, it’s a little easier to find a cooperative invertebrate sitter for close up portraits. A colony of Black-headed Bull Ants (Myrmecia nigriceps) that live under a Red Box tree in our yard have been out on their night patrols and slow enough to get close to safely. This lady happily sat still for a close up of her impressive mandibles.

Black-headed Bull Ant

A Wolf Spider (Lycosidae) also proved a cooperative sitter. I think the technical name for the impressive jaws is chelicera

Wolf Spider – a prey eye view.

And on some grass stems, a small Huntsman spider.

Chelicera of a Huntsman.

Spiders aren’t the only effective hunters around at the moment. I was delighted to get some good views of a Yellow-footed Antechinus (Antechinus flavipes) hunting at our place this afternoon. This curious little cutie was very keen to check me out, but wasn’t going to show the magnificent teeth that make this species so potent.

Keeping a close eye on me
Still not sure about me.

Why so chirpy?

I came across this splendid male Hooded Robin in the Rise and Shine on Friday evening. I was alerted to its presence by its calls, both its whee-whew-whew-whew song as well as a harsh scolding call that is uttered when agitated.

Normally this species is silent, or nearly so, outside the breeding season, which in most years extends from August to November. I wouldn’t be surprised though if the mild and wet conditions have triggered further nesting.

While I didn’t spot a female or any youngsters, my guess is that they may well have been lurking out of sight nearby.

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Male Hooded Robin, Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, 9th April 2021

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