Along came a spider …

Rod Hobson

As many of my friends, including several of the Toowoomba Field Naturalists, are now aware I have spent a good portion of the first four months of 2022 house bound following the total replacement of my left knee. To say the least this gave me a great deal of time for sombre reflection on life in general and, for Betty, on the institution of marriage in particular.

About two months into my confinement, I was able to get about our yard with the aid of a stick and renewed some of the simple delights of the suburban garden that have been, over the years, displaced by frantic dashes around the country in pursuit of the exotic and fabulous. I became reacquainted through circumstance with the beauty of the commonplace, the gorgeous livery of a male Australian King Parrot, the spectacle that is a female Orchard Swallowtail or the aerial wizardry of an Australian Duskhawker.

Aerial sunlight backyard dancer. Orchard Swallowtail (Papilio aegius), Toowoomba. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

I also caught up on a lot of reading. This has resulted in the following amalgam of reminiscences, obscure facts, and trivia that, hopefully, will bestow upon the reader some moments of pleasure no matter how tenuous are the strands that compose the essence of the story, an invalid’s story, anecdotes of a curmudgeon. In other words, a rambling discourse on things varied and curious.

To begin gathering the disparate mycelia that should, hopefully, form a cogent whole first credit must be given to my old mate and fellow Toowoomba Field Natter Michael Rooke. Michael is an old newspaper man and of my vintage. We have a great fondness for words and are stout defenders of the semi-colon. And not to mention the interrobang. Etymology and punctuation are our thing. Just the sorts of blokes to add glamour and glitz to your dinner party! Another passion we have in common is the local news, though not the stuff about a new bikeway, netball team or shopping centre but what’s going on around your back yard, local swamp, or patch of remnant bushland, which denizen feathered, furred, or squamous has popped up there lately. How many of your avocados, tomatoes or electrical wires did it chew through? The guts of a good newsletter. Michael has been the untiring champion of local content for many a year now and has contributed more than his fair share to our newsletter. Thanks, Michael.

As I said my recent forced confinement to barracks gave me ample spare time to sit and think, usually on our back stoop if a sunshiny morning. During that time, a Satin Bowerbird established his bower under the drooping branches of one of our avocados. Australian Admirals, White-banded Planes, Tailed Emperors, Pale Triangles and Tau Emeralds, usually occasional visitors to our yard at best were around in numbers. One morning, by our front stairs, as I was staring, mind blank, into our overgrown flower garden I suddenly became aware of the skeletal form of a male Net-casting Spider Deinopus subrufa suspended, as if frozen in time, in an angle of the house wall. I’ve often encountered this spider in our yard over the years and it certainly appears to be a common local species. It’s a favourite of mine and never fails to elicit comment from people who encounter it.

Net-casting spider – a fence-dwelling, ogre-faced urban arachnid. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

Over this last spring/summer I have received two reports of this spider from the Ashdown residence in Mary Street, and one each from the Thorn Street wall of the Toowoomba Office Works and from Duggan Bushland and near Bunkers Hill State School. Further afield I’ve received recent reports of the spider from a friend’s house yard in Redbank Plains (J. Sparks pers. comm.). There is a skate park, one of those lekking grounds for disenchanted youth, near Lake Annand. For all this summer a female Net-caster has been in residence there tucked up under a concrete lip out of sight, out of mind despite the almost constant hubbub around her.

Adult male net-casting spider (Deinopsis subrufa) not caring a jot about camouflage as it hangs about the wall of the Toowoomba Office Works. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

One of my first spider books that I acquired in my early teenage years was Keith C. McKeown’s Australian Spiders first published by Angus and Robertson in 1936 as Spider Wonders of Australia. Mine is the version revised by N.L. Roberts and published by Sirius Books in 1963. I still have it and it is beside me as I write. I remember seeing my first net-caster long before I got this book. It was holed up under Pat Walker’s Japanese Honeysuckle vine at his home in Jennings Street. I have never lost my fascination with this spider. The Net-caster Spider goes under the aliases Ogre-faced Spider, Stick Spider, Gladiator Spider and Retiarius, the last of which is used by Mc Keown in his book above. I’ve always preferred Retiarius likely from the early influence of this book. The scientific name of our local net-caster is Deinopis subrufa (family Deinopidae). Deinopis is from the Greek deinos meaning fearful plus opis meaning appearance. Deinopis subrufa was described by the German entomologist and arachnologist Ludwig Carl Christian Koch (1825-1908). Its specific epithet means light red. The light red, fearful-looking spider.

Lamp-shade ornament – net-casting spider indoors. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

The Deinopidae was first described by the British civil servant and entomologist William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865) (Macleay, 1839). This is a pantropical family of sixty-seven species in three genera, the Asianopsis, Deinopis and Menneus (= Avella) (Friedrich and Lehmann, 2020). The World Spider Catalog (Natural History Museum Bern, 2021) lists nine species of Asianopsis confined to SE Asia and China and fourteen species of Menneus found in Australia as well as Lord Howe Island, New Caledonia, “possibly New Guinea”, and South Africa. The Catalog lists Deinopis as the largest genus (44 species). It is found on all continents except for Europe and Antarctica. All Australian Deinopis were described before 1900 with six species entering the literature. These are (fasciata, ravida and tabida, Queensland; schomburgki, South Australia; unicolor, Western Australia and subrufa, eastern Australia). All except subrufa are now considered nomen dubia. Nomen dubium (doubtful name) is a name used in zoology that is of unknown or doubtful use i.e., dodgy. This also includes a spider originally named Deinopis bicornis that is now recognised as subrufa.

Certain individuals of subrufa have two dorsolateral bumps halfway along their abdomen that initially gave rise to bicornis being thought a separate species. Toowoomba arachnologist Dr. Ron Atkinson, and other authorities (Volker et al., 2014; Whyte and Anderson, 2017) acknowledge that the taxonomic status of Australian Deinopis, though, is not yet fully resolved; a refrain echoed ad infinitum by taxonomists in disciplines not solely confined to arachnology. The local species, however, is certainly subrufa (R. Atkinson pers comm., 01/06/2022). Two subrufa, a male and a female have even managed to cross The Ditch to New Zealand (Forster and Forster, 1999). There have been no recent observations of net-casters, however, in that country.

Deinopis subrufa with the pair of dorsolateral “bumps” that led to this form being originally described as Deinopis bicornis. (Photo: Jane Sparks)

The Menneus or hump-backed spiders were originally placed with the cribellate orb-weavers but moved to Deinopidae in 1967. There are seven species in Australia (Coddington et al., 2012) that include two Queensland species viz. aussie and trinodosus. The pair are found in New South Wales, as well with aussie extending to Lord Howe Island. Aussie is suspected of being in New Guinea, too. For brevity in scientific names, it be hard to go past the Western Australian species Menneus wa. And who said taxonomists are humourless types. Western Australia also has Menneus quasimodo. Howzat for a name for a hump-backed spider? The net-caster genus Asianopis was only described in 2020 (Lin et al., 2020a) and is absent from Australia. The three genera have all adopted ‘net-casting’ for procuring prey, though with slight variations in techniques across the genera.

Net-casters have an elongated body hence Stick Spider being a popular vernacular. The legs are long, spindly with the third pair being the shortest. Body length across the family ranges from 5-28 mm. The prey capturing strategy within this family is unique. The spider’s snare is produced from an organ on the ventral side of the abdomen near the spinnerets called a cribellum. The snare is entire and broad resembling a net hence the spider’s name. This rectangular snare is held by the spider between their first three-pairs of legs with the spider, in turn, suspended by its hind legs by what is thought to be a reduced web. On the arrival of an unsuspecting feed the spider stretches its legs thereby expanding its net. Following the release of its fourth limbs the spider is free to throw its net over the prey. The net can be dispatched to capture aerial or ground dwelling prey. Aerial prey capture is more usual in the Menneus whilst Deinopis generally hunts pedestrian prey, however methods are not mutually exclusive (Volker et al., 2014). Prey as large as trapdoors and gryllacridid crickets are taken. To increase the spider’s net-casting efficiency it often deposits white faecal spots on the leaves below its ambush used as aiming spots by the arachnid. It’s a touch and go strategy and the spider is often left holding an empty net. The spider’s net is dismantled during daylight hours, and it retreats into the surrounding area where its lanky morphology and stoical demure provides excellent camouflage from hungry predators.

A net-caster Deinopis subrufa with net in place awaiting its next meal. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

A closer scrutiny of Deinopis will quicky reinforce another of its trivial names, Ogre-faced Spider. It’s got a physiognomy that only a mother could love. The most conspicuous feature of the spider’s head is two massive staring jet eyes, the posterior median eyes in the crusty parlance of science. These, along with a huge set of jaws seem to almost comprise its entire ‘face.’ Four additional but miniscule eyes, by comparison, subtend these mighty, beetle-browed gogglers. There are also another two small eyes behind the posterior median eyes so, eight eyes in all for the net-casters, which is standard for most species of spider. Asianopis has similar-sized posterior median eyes, however these are smaller and more widely spaced in Menneus. Net-caster eyes are remarkable organs. They are far more efficient in gathering light than in animals such as cats and owls. This is despite the spider lacking the reflective layer (tapetum lucidum) present in the eyes of many vertebrates. The tapetum lucidum is a layer of tissue immediately behind the retina, a retroreflector that increases the light available to the photoreceptors (image forming cells). In our spiders a large area of light-sensitive membrane is produced within the eyes nightly which, since spider eyes lack irises, is rapidly destroyed by the arrival of day. The spider’s enormous posterior median eyes give the animal a very wide field of vision to complement its excellent night vision. The post median eyes of Deinopis are believed to be the largest ocelli relative to body size of any invertebrate with those of subrufa measuring up to 1.4 mm in diameter (Volker et al., 2014).

A male Deinopis subrufa. The two large, clubbed organs at the bottom of the photograph are the palps, the reproductive organs in male spiders. (Photo: Bruce Thomson)

These spiders mature in summer. Mating and egg-laying occurs in autumn with spiderlings emerging in spring. Hatched spiderlings remain massed in a communal web before finally dispersing. Egg sacs are round balls up to 10 mm in diameter. The sacs possess a tough and intricately woven silk exterior of an ochre-brown, dark-flecked colouration. These are hidden, suspended in low vegetation, and camouflaged with bits and pieces of twig and leaf-litter. Up to four egg sacs are produced. The reproductive process in these spiders is ingenious and best described by Whyte and Anderson (2017) quote, “In this family the male’s inseminating embolus is tightly coiled up to 20 times in a spiral. The female organ has corresponding coils to receive it. During copulation the embolus unwinds, rotating itself into the female in a marvel of sexual engineering.” The net-casters are truly one of the wonders of our bushland and the world of arachnids generally.

So, “now for something entirely different” to explain my preferred colloquial name for Deinopis subrufa viz. Retiarius I’ll return to my sunny doorstep earlier this year. I was contemplating my Retiarius when I noticed, nary a spiderspit away, a small clump of those flowers that have entered Australian iconography courtesy of our celebrity Housewife from Moonie Ponds. That plant, of course, is the gladiola Gladiolus sp., one of over three hundred species in the Iris family Gladiolaceae. Ours have valiantly rejuvenated themselves every other year despite being completely ignored by the homeowners. It dawned on me that, perhaps, the origin of this plant’s name came from the Latin gladius meaning sword. And so, it proved and refers to plant’s sword-shaped leaves.

The gladius was a short sword perfectly designed for close combat. It reached its zenith as a combat weapon in the hands of the legions of the Roman Empire. Roman foot-soldiers adopted this sword from that used by the Celtiberians in Hispania late in the Punic Wars (264-146 BC). The sword was also used in the Roman arena hence we also have the word gladiator or swordsman from this root. There were distinct types of gladiators and one, armed with a trident (fuscina), dagger (pugio) and a weighted net (rete) was known as the net-man (retiarius). The retiarius was usually matched against the secutor (follower or chaser) who was more heavily armed with a gladius and curved, rectangular shield (scutum). The secutor’s head was encased in a distinctive, claustrophobic helmet, with only two small holes for the eyes, to prevent a trident thrust into the face. The secutor, being much more heavily encumbered than the lightly armed retiarius had to finish the combat quickly before being overtaken by exhaustion hence his name of follower or chaser (secutor). The was also a gladiator who was known as the contraretiarius or contrarete. This was simply another name for a retiarius pitched against a second retiarius. So, hereby hangs my tale with three of my favourite subjects, zoology, history, and etymology coalescing on that sunny morning.

“What have the Romans ever done for us,” Reg, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea harangues his audience in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Well, Reg, aside to aqueducts and roads they have bequeathed to us a great name for an amazing spider. Viva Retiarius may your casts be fruitful these summer eves.

I would like to thank Toowoomba arachnologist Dr. Ron Atkinson for his comments on the taxonomy of the Deinopidae. Ron’s sharing of his extensive arachnological knowledge over many years is also acknowledged. Thanks Ron.

References

Coddington J.A., Kuntner M., and Opell, B.D. (2012). Systematics of the spider family Deinopidae with a revision of the genus Menneus. Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology. 636:12.

Forster, R., and Forster, L. (1999). Spiders of New Zealand and their Worldwide Kin. University of Otago Press, Dunedin.

Friedrich S. and Lehmann T. (2020). Second record of Net-casting Spiders in Peru. Spixiana. 43 (2): 304.

Lin, Y.J., Shao, L., Hangii, A., Caleb, J.T.D., Koh, J.K.H., Jager, P. and Li, S.Q. (2020a). Asianopsis gen. nov., a new genus of the spider family Deinopidae from Asia. Zookeys 911; 67-69.

Macleay, W.S. (1839). “On some new forms of Arachnida” in Annals of Natural History. 2 (7): 1-2.

Volker, W.F., Baehr, B.C., and Zborowski, P. (2014). A Guide to the Spiders of Australia. Reed New Holland Publishers Pty Ltd., Sydney.

Whyte, R., and Anderson, G. (2017). A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South.

[This article was first published in the July 2022 edition (775) of The Darling Downs Naturalist, newsletter of the Toowoomba Field Naturalists Club.]

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Sitting on the fence — survival in the suburbs

I grew up in the suburbs of Brisbane in the 60s and 70s. It was a large sprawling town really, on the edge of becoming a city. There were chaotic urban blocks, old wooden houses with overgrown yards, huge mango trees, untidy footpaths, space, and lots of interesting wildlife.

At dusk a huge stream of flying foxes would darken the sky above our house at Manly in the Brisbane Bayside area, moving into the suburbs from the mangroves near the mouth of the Brisbane River, looking for food in backyards and the nectar of flowering eucalypts. Their colony is long gone, along with much of the mangrove forest they lived in — cleared for a huge port extension.

I would take a torch at night and stand under Queen Palms and peer up at these squabbling, fascinating mammals, Black and Grey-headed Flying Foxes. Their mysterious leathery wings and dog-like faces had me enthralled. I completed a poster on bats for a primary science competition, scouring libraries for anything I could find about these creatures, which was not a lot.

Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus). A much-loved feature of my urban childhood. Who could not be charmed by bats?

Old houses had dodgy tin roofs, where sparrows and possums could move in and cause havoc. And there were always reptiles. Carpet Snakes and large, fierce, fence-claiming Bearded Dragons. 

Carpet Python (Morelia spilota) – still a common reptile in many Brisbane suburbs.

Every backyard in Brisbane in the 60s and 70s had reptiles. And for a young fan of wildlife, Bearded Dragons were endlessly fascinating.

There were always skinks, those miniature marvels. Large, slow-moving Blue-tongued Skinks (Tiliqua fasciata) and the small brown, ground-dwelling Garden Skinks (Lampropholis delicata), which scurried about sunny patches on the edge of garden beds.

Blue-tongued Skink (Tiliqua fasciata).

Delicate Sun Skink (Lampropholis delicata).

Then there were the darker, striped, wide-eyed and wary Fence Skinks (Cryptoblepharus pulcher), which raced along fences, defying all efforts to be caught.

The Elegant Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharis pulcher).

I still look forward to seeing Fence Skinks (now usually referred to as Snake-eyed Skinks) while walking the dog in Toowoomba on sunny mornings. They warily watch the dog and I as we stroll past their early-morning fence gatherings, and I marvel at how they carry on their lives amidst our urban chaos. They seem to be a living link to my suburban childhood, clinging on as they do in the edge zones of our dwellings and structures and in the distant memories of sunny childhood yards long gone.

Old power poles, with cracked, flaking surfaces, provide fabulous habitat for the reptilian lovers of all things vertical.

One can only wonder what social dynamics are happening here. Many of this group have either missing tails or have regrown new ones — evidence of a perilous life near the bottom of the food chain. These dark bricks on an eastern-facing fence on a busy road warm quickly in the morning sun and are a much-loved hang-out for my local skinks.

Spot the skink. Footpath trees provide another form of prime urban real estate.

As Steve Wilson says in Australian Lizards, a Natural History, “Lizards are extraordinarily successful at what they do best — being lizards.”

Skinks, the largest group of lizards in terms of number of species, have a wide range of adaptations and survival strategies that have seen them flourish in virtually all Australian habitats, including cities and towns. Snake-eyed Skinks must surely be at the top of the list for being able to survive around people. 

There are currently 23 species of snake-eyed skinks (Cryptoblepharus) described in Australia. They are long-limbed, flat-bodied lizards — swiftly defying gravity as they race over rocks, fences, tree trunks and buildings. They are found across most of Australia, other than the south-eastern mainland and Tasmania. Their long-limbed, flattened characteristics are taken to the most extreme proportions in the Fuhn’s Snake-eyed Skinks (Cryptoblepharus fuhni), found only on the surfaces of granite boulders at Cape Melville in north-eastern Queensland.

My local fence-loving species, the Elegant (or Pretty) Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus pulcher pulcher), is the ‘nominate’ subspecies, found across eastern Australia from Ingham in Queensland to Jervis Bay in New South Wales (including in inner suburban Sydney and Brisbane), while the subspecies Cryptoblepharus pulcher clarus is found in locations in southern Australia between South Australia and Western Australia. In my local bush areas I have seen Elegant Snake-eyed Skinks on trees and rocks, while in the suburbs they hang out on the human-engineered vertical surfaces of fences and walls.

Perhaps the most successful skinks across the urban spectrum are the snake-eyed skinks (Cryptoblepharus spp.), also appropriately called fence or wall lizards. They do not reach as far south as Melbourne, but they thrive in most other cities between Perth and Cairns. In a natural environment they live on vertical rock and tree surfaces, and the shift to human structures has been an easy one. Snake-eyed skinks even occupy the walls of buildings well within the central business districts.                                                           —  Steve K Wilson Australian Lizards, A Natural History

An Elegant Snake-eyed Skink in the wild, seen here on sandstone in bushland at White Rocks reserve near Ipswich.

Other species of snake-eyed skinks include the Coastal Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus litoralis), which stays close to the rocky coasts of north-eastern Queensland and the Northern Territory, where it avoids waves to feed on wave-drenched rocks. The Agile Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharis zoticus) is a rock specialist, living on the sandstone escarpments of north-western Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The Agile Snake-eyed Skink (Crptoblepharus zoticus). Lawn Hill. Image courtesy Steve K Wilson.

The Coastal Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus litoralis). Prince of Wales Island, Queensland. Image courtesy Steve K Wilson.

Snake-eyed skinks have adapted well to life in the suburbs and to harsh bush environments. While they extend from the deserts well into areas with high rainfall, they dwell on exposed vertical surfaces, places usually free of moisture. One feature that assists them in surviving in such habitats is the presence of a transparent, fixed eye cover known as a brille (hence the name  ‘snake-eyed’). This is the skink’s lower eyelid, which is permanently closed in an upright state, a condition known as ablepharine. This reduces the amount of moisture lost through the lizard’s eyes, a real problem for small reptiles in warm and dry places.

The transparent, fixed eye cover (known as a ‘brille’), that earns this skink the common name ‘snake-eyed’.

Covering the eye with an immovable transparent window has evolved independently among small skinks worldwide. More than eight Australian species exhibit the condition. At one time, all skinks that adopted this water-saving strategy were lumped together in one genus, Ablepharus. The name appears in old Australian reference books and was applied to unrelated species ranging from central Victoria to central Europe.                                  — Steve Wilson and Gerry Swan. What Lizard is That?

As they are able to withstand desiccating conditions, snake-eyed skinks have been able to travel across oceans. The genus extends from southern Africa and out across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where they are found living on isolated small islands. Their moisture-resistant eye-caps have assisted them in surviving such long-distance travels.

The Christmas Island Blue-tailed Skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae) is a species of snake-eyed skink that originally travelled to Christmas Island from Australia, or islands ecologically connected to it. Once common and widespread in the 1980s, this species was driven to extinction by 2010 by an introduced predator, the Yellow Crazy Ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes). However, rangers on the island saved 66 skinks and a captive breeding program in Australia began.

Christmas Island Blue-tailed Skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae). Photograph courtesy Jon-Paul Emery.

Jon-Paul Emery researched the Christmas Island Blue-tailed Skink on Christmas Island as part of his PhD thesis. He says, “Captive breeding of the aptly-named blue-tailed skink was incredibly successful; so much so that Parks Australia in 2017 began trials re-introducing the skink back onto the island to try and establish populations in predator exclusion sites. My research investigated the ecology of the species as well as ways to monitor the skinks and how they responded post-release. I also looked at the threats that affected how well the skinks did within the translocation sites.”

Researcher Jon-Paul Emery with a Shingleback (Tiliqua rugosa). Photograph courtesy Jon-Paul Emery.

Christmas Island Blue-tailed Skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae). Photograph courtesy Jon-Paul Emery.

Jon-Paul’s research has helped inform ongoing management of the species, with translocations been undertaken to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (an archipelago 1,000km away) and additional sites on Christmas Island. 

In the safer suburbs of Queensland, Snake-eyed Skinks race out to catch passing insects such as flies, cockroaches, bugs, wasps and grubs. They tend to capture more flying insects than other ground-dwelling lizards. They have been observed carrying out ‘kleptophagy’ — a form of piracy whereby they rob ants of the food they are carrying. They have also been seen looting mudwasp nests to take the arthropod prey intended for the wasps’ larvae. When eating ants, they take the tasty ant alates while avoiding worker ants. In my area, naturalist Rod Hobson has watched them eating Black House Ants (Ochetellus glaber). In the Great Victoria Desert, Buchanan’s Snake-eyed Skinks (Cryptoblepharus buchananii) mainly eat termites, small spiders, bugs and beetles.

Fences old and new, all made the more interesting by the presence of tiny reptiles.

Skinks, however, are near the bottom of the food chain, and like all creatures down the list, they have many predators out to get them — including birds, snakes, cats, curious children and even spiders. They stay close to cover, are very wary, and dart off rapidly to nearby crevices at the slightest sign of approaching trouble. They can shimmy across vertical surfaces and their flattened bodies allow them to hide in narrow places.

A passing ant is seized. Snake-eyed skinks have been recorded staking out ant trails to rob the insects of the prey they are carrying.

A Red-back Spider makes a meal of an Elegant Snake-eyed Skink on a footpath in the main street of Toowoomba. Note how the skink has cast off its tail in an attempt to escape the spider’s clutches.

Despite being a common species, a recent study published in the Australian Journal of Zoology is one of the first to provide a detailed look at the life-history of the Elegant Snake-eyed Skink.

Living for about three years, these skinks breed in spring and summer in southern Queensland and all year round in hotter northern places. Females lay two eggs, and there have been documented cases of communal nesting where up to four females lay eggs at the same time in one place.

Snake-eyed skinks lay small eggs, probably similar in appearance to these of the Delicate Sun Skink. Although they are common in urban environments, very few egg clutches of snake-eyed skinks have ever been recorded. It is reported that some species lay eggs in communal sites, including the Striped Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus virgatus), which uses ant plants (Rubiacceae) on Horn Island in the Torres Strait as communal nest sites. Up to 20 eggs and four hatchlings were recorded together at one site.

[Click on images in the gallery above for a closer view.]

I hope that that suburban fences may forever be adorned with the skittering shapes of miniature snake-eyed reptiles. The urban wilderness would be far more boring without them.

All uncredited images R. Ashdown
Thanks to Steve K Wilson, Rod Hobson and Jon-Paul Emery

The Chestnut Polypore — a fascinating fungus

It’s been raining now for days. Walks with my small black dog are sodden affairs, but the little hound always seems happy enough, as hounds are when out just sniffing about.

Extended rain means at least one interesting thing for those keen on natural history – fungi! And sure enough, there have been all sorts of weird and wonderful fungal fruiting bodies rising above the soil in Toowoomba’s Queens’ Park Botanic Gardens, a favourite spot for a walk for me and the dog. 

The mini-wolf is startled by the alien-like form of an Anemone Stinkhorn Fungus (Aseroe rubra) emerging from the leaf litter in Queen’s Park

So, on the theme of fungi, and with a link to Queen’s Park, here is an article by Rod Hobson on a fascinating and uncommon local fungus, the Chestnut Polypore.


An Interesting Fungus from Duggan Bushland, Toowooomba.
Rod Hobson

Anyone with an interest in the Toowoomba’s past, especially its botanical and colonial history will be familiar with the name Carl Heinrich Hartmann (1833-1887).

Hartmann was born in Dahlen in Saxony, Germany. He emigrated to Australia in 1850 and eventually settled in Toowoomba with his wife Georgina Elizabeth Anna nee Pringle around 1865. He set up his home in what is now the Alderley Street depot of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) and Hartmann Bushland Reserve. Here, he established the Range Nursery and an arboretum. Several survivors from his arboretum persist there to this day. His nursery became a major supplier of ornamental and commercial plants within Toowoomba and beyond, including plantings for Toowoomba’s fledgling Queens Park Gardens. Aside to his horticultural ventures Hartmann was an accomplished botanist and a founding member of the Royal Society of Queensland. He sent zoological specimens to the Queensland Museum and plants to Ferdinand Mueller (1825-1896) who was, for a time, the Victorian Government Botanist. Carl Hartmann travelled widely collecting botanical specimens, including two trips to New Guinea in 1885 and 1887. He died soon after returning from his second trip, from a fever contracted in New Guinea. Several species of plants and insects have been named in Hartmann’s honour. He was also a devoted theosophist.

C. H. Hartmann’s advertisement for his Toowoomba nursery in the Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, 16 September, 1865. (Source: Trove).

I grew up in Rowbotham Street in Toowoomba in the 1950-60s, just around the corner from “Hartmann’s” as the site of the old nursery and arboretum was known locally. It still is, though Hartman(n) is now variously spelt with one or two n’s. My family was friends of some of the Hartmann descendants who still lived in the area and I went to Rangeville State School with two of the Hartmann boys. We stole bamboo Bambusa sp. (balcooa?) from the old arboretum site when we were kids, but the species made poor fishing poles. The name Hartmann is firmly ensconced in local lore. So, anytime I hear or read the name Hartmann my interest is immediately piqued.

Rod with bamboo still growing in the Hartman’s Reserve, Toowoomba. This is quite probably Bambusa balcooa, a ‘descendant’ of the original bamboo planted by C. H. Hartmann in the 1800s. This would then be a remnant of one of the few clumping bamboos planted in Australia during the first half of the 20th century. Photo R. Ashdown

On the 28 October, 2020 I was walking the dog in Duggan Bushland in Leslie Street, which is only about five to 10 minutes’ walk from the site of Hartmann’s original residence and today’s QPWS depot. At one stage my interest was attracted to two large fungi growing at the foot of an old, fire-scarred eucalypt just off in the bush from one of the walking tracks. On a closer inspection I found them to be a species of polypore, large and irregularly shaped with a rich red-brown cap and yellowish underside. I didn’t know what to make of the fungus so took one, as a specimen. I remember that the stipe did not come free of the ground with its distal portion intact, as I expected it would. It broke with a jagged end, but I put this down to my inadvertent rough handling of the specimen. This fracture was later to provide supportive evidence in the identification of the specimen.

Chestnut Polypore Laccocephalum hartmannii, at the base of a burnt eucalypt, J. E. Duggan Park, Toowoomba, October 2020. Photo R. Ashdown

When I arrived home, I spent several hours in an attempt to identify the fungus but could not come up with a satisfactory identification so sent off some photographs to a few acquaintances whom I know to be adept at fungi identification. The answer to my conundrum arrived quickly, from Nigel Fechner through Vanessa Ryan. Nigel is the Queensland Herbarium’s mycologist, and he was very interested in my find that he identified as a species of Laccocephalum (lakkos = stone + kephalos = head; from the Ancient Greek). He also told me that specimens of this genus were poorly represented in the Queensland Herbarium’s collection and hoped that I’d retained it. As I read this email the fungus was on my desk in front of me awaiting its fate. Fortunately, Nigel’s interest prevented it from becoming compost and, as circumstance would have it, I was heading off to the Queensland Museum next day so was able to deliver him the specimen en route. Not long afterwards Nigel informed me that my find was the Chestnut Polypore Laccocephalum hartmannii.

Here, then, was that name Hartmann again. Searching the records, I could only find two previous specimen records of this species for Queensland. One was collected by L. Bolland at Salisbury, Brisbane on 17.02.1975 and is held, as a preserved specimen, in the National Herbarium of Victoria (catalogue number MEL 2301256A). The second, also a preserved specimen in the Queensland Herbarium (catalogue number BRI AQO645866), was collected by Francis Manson Bailey (1827-1915) but no data, other than it was collected in “Queensland”, are available. Bailey was appointed Colonial Botanist of Queensland in 1881, a position he held until his death. He was the author of the seminal work on Queensland botany The Queensland Flora published in six volumes between 1899 and 1902, followed by the index in 1905. He also published on Queensland’s grasses and Australian ferns.

The Chestnut Polypore was eaten by the Indigenous people of Australia — a common name for it was Native or Blackfellow’s Bread. It has been variously described as a ‘delicacy’ by some diners and ‘dull and uninteresting’ by others.

There are quite a few Chestnut Polypore records from the eastern coast south of the Queensland border including Tasmania, however, so it would appear that SEQ is likely the northern range limit for the species. There are five recognised species of Laccocephalum in Australia. They, along with Neolentinus and Pleurotus tuber-regium form a group generally referred to as stonemaker fungi. Laccocephalum is an interesting genus that grows from an underground storage-organ called a pseudosclerotium (sclerotium) although it has been recorded fruiting directly on tree trunks on rare occasions. The pseudosclerotium can weigh up to 20 kilograms in one species L. mylittae. This formation in mylittae was eaten by the Indigenous people of Australia and a common name for it is Native or Blackfellow’s Bread. It has been variously described as a “delicacy” by some diners and “dull and uninteresting” by others. The snapped off stipe of the Duggan Bushland specimen was due to my forcefully but unwittingly detaching the stipe from its pseudosclerotium, which helped Nigel with his initial identification. The fact that this genus is also fire-responsive, and my specimen was growing at the foot of a eucalypt recently charred by fire also supported the Laccocephalum case. The fungus is also said to respond to drought conditions and mechanical disturbance.

Chestnut Polypore Laccocephalum hartmannii, J. E. Duggan Park, Toowoomba, October 2020. Photo R. Ashdown

I was intrigued by the specific epithet of the Duggan Bushland specimen. I was unaware such a fungus existed until then. Was the holotype collected by Carl Hartmann and named in his honour? He lived only a stone’s throw from where I collected my specimen. Had the species persisted under our very noses undisturbed for nearly 150 years? For the next week I dredged the literature to see if my hunch was right. And it appears it was. The species was described by Mordecai Cubitt Cooke (1825-1914) as “Polyporus (Mesopus), Hartmannii Cke. – Type sp. No. 42968” and annotated “On ground, Toowoomba, Queensland (Hartmann, No. 10)”. This was published in Grevillea 12 (No. 61) :14 (September,1883) in Grevillea – a Quarterly Record of Cryptogamic Botany and its Literature. Cooke was an enthusiastic mycologist. He launched and edited Grevillea during the last 12 years of his working life in the botany department of London’s Kew Gardens museum. On his retirement in 1892, the publication of Grevillea fell into the hands of his successor George Edward Masse (1845-1917) and ceased publication soon after in 1893. In 1896 Cooke, Masse, Carlton Rea and Charles Bagge Plowright, along with other mycologists, co-founded the British Mycological Society. It was in a copy of Grevillea held in the Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University Herbaria and Libraries that I eventually tracked down Cooke’s description of what we now know as the Chestnut Polypore Laccocephalum hartmannii. To date (December 2020) the only Chestnut Polypore specimen held in the Queensland Herbarium, aside to Bailey’s old, preserved one, is the Duggan Bushland individual from October 2020.

The genus Laccocephalum (Polyporaceae) was erected in 1895 by Daniel McAlpine and Otto Tepper. McAlpine (1849-1932) was appointed Government Vegetable Pathologist in May 1890 in the Victorian Department of Agriculture. Johann Gottlieb Tepper (1841-1923) was a Prussian-born botanist, plant collector and entomologist who spent most of his career with the South Australian Museum. According to Pat Leonard (2012) writing of the genus in the Queensland Mycological Society’s Queensland Fungal Record, “No true Laccocephalum species have yet been sequenced.” Nigel Fechner was happy to get this fresh material, which certainly appears to have been collected from the immediate area of Carl Hartmann’s original specimen, in order to carry out this genetic work. It appears that Carl Hartmann also collected Native Bread described by Cooke and Masse in 1893 as Polyporous mylittae. Hartmann collected a specimen near Toowoomba in 1884 that is held in the National Herbarium of Victoria (catalogue number MEL 1054943A). I kept an eye on the remaining Duggan Bushland fungus until the 9 November when the survivor was a desiccated and amorphous mass on the woodland floor and, tempted as I was on several occasions to exhume the pseudo-sclerotium resisted the urge. Hopefully, this Chestnut Polypore will regenerate post the next fire, a fascinating fungus.

Everyone needs a truffle-hound when out looking for fascinating fungi. Rod with Gordy, inspecting the elusive Chestnut Polypore. Photo R. Ashdown

Finally, an interesting aside to my find was the emergence from the specimen of several small, brown beetles that spent the evening disporting themselves over my desk. These proved to be a species of Pleasing Fungus Beetle of the Family Erotylidae (ref: Chris Burwell in The Queensland Mycologist, Vol. 2, Issue 3 – Spring 2007). As the family name suggests, some species can be brightly coloured and patterned but mine were mere small brown jobbies. The fungus’ cap and underside were riddled with the pinhole-sized entrances of these beetles.

And now there’s also the Ravine Orchid Sarcochilus hartmannii from the, “timbered mountain ranges behind Toowoomba …”. The thread that runs through these stories is a never-ending one. Still unravelling. Still fascinating. Carl Heinrich Hartmann – what a legacy you’ve left Toowoomba in particular and botany in general, and me.

The Ravine Orchid Sarcochilus hartmannii, near Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown

Footnote: Any reader wishing to know more about Carl Hartmann should talk with Toowoomba Field Naturalists’ Dr. John Swarbrick who is an authority on Hartmann’s life and times. 

— Rod Hobson

[This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of the The Darling Downs Naturalist, newsletter of the Toowoomba Field Naturalists Club.]

Rod Hobson is a naturalist and retired Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger who lives in Toowoomba, Queensland. Rod was awarded the 2021 Queensland Natural History Award by the Queensland Naturalists’ Club, an award that is presented annually to recognise people who have made outstanding contributions to natural history in Queensland.

Black and red

A Red-bellied Black Snake enjoys the morning sun following a stormy night at Girraween National Park.

Red and black, always a great colour scheme — and certainly an arresting one when you are out walking and the colours belong to a Red-bellied Black Snake.

Bushwalkers who know their stuff are always scanning around them as they walk, keeping one eye open lest a boot should land unwittingly on one of the scaly creatures who share the bush with us. Encountering one of these spectacular red and black snakes while walking will always pull you up a bit short — seeing one in the wild is always memorable. Like all snakes, ‘Red-bellies’ are mysterious and fascinating things. My heart may skip a beat if I stumble upon one unexpectedly, but that is soon replaced by the excitement of having the chance to observe one of these beautiful reptiles doing its thing.

Red-bellied Black Snakes (Pseudechis porphyriacus) are found along the east coast of Australia, where they live in woodlands, plains and urban bush, even being found in Brisbane, Adelaide, Cairns, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Like all snakes, the Red-Bellied Black has a forked tongue, which it uses to ‘smell’. By flicking its tongue in the air, a snake can collect odour-causing particles that it then delivers to a sensory organ in its mouth.

This species has other common names — redbelly, RBBS, common black snake. It is known as djirrabidi to the Eora and Darug First Nations people of the Sydney basin.

Red-bellied Black Snakes can grow to about two metres in length. They like to live near water and can usually be found around river and creek banks, swamps and wet forests. They seem to prefer areas that have shallow water with logs, water plants and other debris. While they like water, they can travel about 100m from their favourite retreat, and turn up in nearby backyards.

The English naturalist George Shaw described The Red-bellied Black Snake in Zoology of New Holland in 1794, giving it the scientific name Coluber porphyriacus. It was the first Australian elapid snake to be scientifically described. Shaw thought the species was not venomous, writing, “This beautiful snake, which appears to be unprovided with tubular teeth or fangs, and consequently not of a venomous nature, is three, sometimes four, feet in nature.” 

The species name (Pseudechis porphyriachus) is derived from the Greek word ‘porphyrous’, which can mean ‘dark purple’, ‘red-purple’ or ‘beauteous’

While actually highly venomous, Red-bellied Black Snakes are quite shy animals, and will flee from humans whenever possible. This has certainly been my experience. Want a long and animated chat, though? Ask a group of people about snakes chasing humans — there wll be no end to the stories of scary pursuit by determined snakes!

Despite its reputation for being aggressive and highly dangerous, this elegant snake is inoffensive and reluctant to bite. Though it is rightly considered to be potentially dangerous, there are no proven human fatalities despite its occurrence along the populated eastern seaboard. — ‘What Snake is That?’ Gerry Swan and Steve Wilson

Yes, people do get bitten by them. Early settlers feared the species, though it turned out to be much less dangerous than many other snakes. The snake’s venom contains neurotoxins, myotoxins, and coagulants and also has haemolytic properties. Bites from Red-bellied Black Snakes can be extremely painful and result in prolonged bleeding, swelling and even local necrosis.

This species accounted for 16% of identified snakebite victims in Australia between 2005 and 2015. However, over that time no deaths were recorded.

Juvenile Red-bellied Black Snakes are similar to the Eastern Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens). The latter species (photographed here at Isla Gorge National Park) lacks the Red-bellied Black Snake’s red flanks.

Red-bellies are active by day (unlike other black snakes). They eat frogs, fish, reptiles (including other snakes) and small mammals. While numbers have declined in areas where cane toads are present, the species seems to have developed increased resistance to toad toxin and decreased preference for toads as snacks. They search widely for prey, sometimes hunting in water. When fleeing a predator, these snakes may stay submerged with just their head showing, or dive under completely for nearly 30 minutes.

Snakes’ eyes are closed all the time. Rather than having moveable eyelids, snakes have a single, fused, clear layer of skin over their eye, called a spectacle or brille (German for “glasses”), which protects the eye. A snake’s skin is covered in scales, and the outer part of the spectacle is indeed a scale. The deeper layers of the spectacle are formed, during development, from the same embryonic tissue that in other animals forms the eyelid. The spectacle is not attached to the snake’s eye in any way, so the eye can move freely behind it, although its movement is limited. —  Life is Short, but Snakes are Long.

It’s been said that this species eats the more dangerous Eastern Brown Snakes, and thus if Red-Bellied Black Snakes are present, brown snakes will not be. This is a myth, as while Red-bellies may eat the occasional brown snake, they usually prefer very different habitats. Black snakes are apparently immune to the venom of brown and other venomous snakes, as they have been observed receiving multiple bites from their venomous prey without apparent ill effect.

During the spring breeding season males actively search for females and may engage in ritualised combat. They wrestle vigorously, but rarely bite, engaging in head-pushing contests, where each snake tries to drive his opponent’s head downward with his chin. Mating activity occurs during spring and mid-summer, and five to nineteen live young are born between October and March.

While the Red-belly is not considered to be endangered, its preferred habitat has been reduced and fragmented by urban development. I knew they lived quietly in a small patch of creek-side vegetation where I lived in Brisbane for years, causing no offense, living on the equally beautiful Graceful Tree Frogs, until one day the area was flattened for housing, and neighbours began to complain of the plague of evil black snakes. They were of course forced to seek other habitat, one even turning up in my backyard, where it sought shelter near an old bath-tub we’d turned into a frog pond. I dearly wished I could flatten some of the new houses and return the place to swamp.

There has also been a decline in frogs, this reptile’s favourite prey, across eastern Australia. Red-bellies are in turn eaten by kookaburras, brown falcons and other raptors, as well as cats. They don’t cope well with roads and cars.

Red-bellied Black Snake, found sheltering after a wildfire in a bush reserve at Lota, Brisbane.

This beautiful serpent shares our love of sunshine and water and is a familiar sight to many outdoor adventurers in eastern Australia. Attitudes towards these largely inoffensive snakes are slowly changing, however they are still often seen as a dangerous menace and unjustly persecuted. — The Australian Museum

[All photos by Robert Ashdown. However, the first photo in this post taken on the camera of friend, and fellow walker, Raelene Neilson. I was walking without one of my own cameras (go figure). Thanks heaps, Raels, for the camera and for the many memorable shared walks in the bush.]

Riders on the storm

Happier of happy though I be, like them I cannot take possession of the sky, mount with a thoughtless impulse, and wheel there, one of a mighty multitude whose way and motion is a harmony and dance magnificent. — William Wordsworth

The light waits for no-one. I had the spot, balanced precariously with tripod and camera on a boulder on Mount Kiangarow, the highest point of Bunya Mountains National Park.

Storms moved across the Darling Downs below. The setting sun lit clouds, rain and the grass trees in front of me with dramatic hues of red and purple. I was glued to the viewfinder, locking the tripod, checking settings, aware that the scene was vanishing by the second. There was a half-decent photograph here if I could get my act together.

Distractions were not needed at this point. I was in the zone, one of those rare moments for a photographer when things were working. Suddenly, a loud rippling, tearing, whooshing sound hit me. I looked up, startled. Nothing, I’d missed it — peregrine falcon, some other kind of bird, a UFO? I had no idea.

Then it happened again and this time I caught the source — a squadron of White-throated Needletails. With long wings curved back and tiny black eyes glinting, the birds tore through the air in front of me at terrific speed. I cranked my head back as far as I could without falling off the boulder, tracking them as they banked steeply like fighter planes and shot skywards in one long sun-lit arc of rippling feathers, disappearing east over the mountain in seconds.

White-throated Needletails have been observed from aircraft at up to 2,000 metres above sea-level, with a speed in flight measured at 120kph. While they mate in Asia, aerial courtship, consisting of chases and vertical swooping dives is seen while they are in Australia. Photo courtesy Tom Tarrant.

White-throated Needletails have been observed from aircraft at up to 2,000 metres above sea-level, with a speed in flight measured at 120 kilometres per hour. While they mate in Asia, aerial courtship, consisting of chases and vertical swooping dives, is seen while they are in southern skies. Photo courtesy Tom Tarrant.

White-throated Needletails (once known as Spine-tailed Swifts) must surely be one of the most unusual and mysterious of the more than 200 species of birds that regularly migrate to and from Australia.  Australia’s largest member of the Swift family (Apodidae), with sleek bodies up to 21 centimetres in length and long, curved wings, these are birds superbly adapted to a life spent mostly in the air.

After breeding in the rocky hills of central Asia, southern Siberia and north-eastern China, White-throated Needletails head south as the cold sets in, over-wintering largely in India, south-east Asia and Australia. It is thought that the entire population of the caudacutus subspecies of this bird visits Australia during our summer. While their exact route south is still a bit of a mystery, we know that they head south through eastern China and Japan, down the Korean peninsula, mostly moving east of Borneo, through Papua New Guinea and on to Australia — arriving here about October. Once in Australia, they slowly disperse along the continent’s eastern edge, mostly on or east of the Great Dividing Range, eventually reaching Tasmania and even New Zealand, before heading back north the following May.

The view east over the Darling Downs from Mt Kiangarow, at 1135 metres above sea level the highest point on the Bunya Mountains. Photos R. Ashdown.

White-throated Needletails spend almost all of their migratory time in the air. Highly maneuverable masters of flight, they move from a few centimeters above to ground to over a kilometre in the air, reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour. They feed on the wing — diving repeatedly through swarms of insects, scooping them up with their wide beaks. As I’d just seen, the birds streak past in long, curving rushes, with bursts of quick wing-beats or fast raking glides. Their eyes are protected from insects and debris by a special clear membrane and fine protective hairs.

White-throated Needletails are aerial birds and for a time it was commonly believed that they did not land while in Australia. It has now been observed that birds will roost in trees, and radio-tracking has since confirmed that this is a regular activity. With difficult conditions, such as with bushfires and extreme hot or cold weather, they may take refuge on tree. There is one record of the species resting under a sprinkler on a lawn during a heatwave. Photo courtesy Mile Peisley.

White-throated Needletails are aerial birds and for a time it was commonly believed that they did not land while in Australia. It has now been observed that birds will roost in trees, and radio-tracking has since confirmed that this is a regular activity. With difficult conditions, such as during bushfires and extreme hot or cold weather, they may take refuge on trees. There is one record of the birds resting under a sprinkler on a lawn during a heatwave. Photo courtesy Mike Peisley.

Needletails usually forage in areas of rising air, such as ridgelines, cliffs, sand-dunes, whirlwinds and bushfires. As with my Bunya Mountains experience, they are spotted moving ahead of low pressure fronts and associated storms, which lift both the insects and the birds, and it is said that they follow these systems across Australia.

And what’s with the ‘needletails’? These unusual birds have needle-like spines that project up to 6mm beyond their normal tail feathers. These are thought to provide increased stability in flight and to assist with clinging to vertical surfaces on the rare times they touch down on cliffs or trees.

Like all migratory birds, Needletails face many challenges. They fly for thousands of kilometers over some of the most densely populated areas of the world, where the huge human population places enormous pressure on natural resources. It’s difficult to monitor numbers of such a bird — they’re usually not even seen unless you spend most of your time looking skyward or are messing about on top of hills. In Australia they are usually seen in flocks of around 100, but sometimes up to about 2000, birds. In Victoria in 1958 a flock of between 50,000 to 100,000 birds was seen.

While they are not thought to be globally threatened, there is some evidence that the population of the subspecies that visits Australia has declined by at least 30%, probably due to habitat loss in their northern breeding grounds.

The sun had gone and the needletails had vanished with the light. As I walked back down the track in the dark, lit by lightning and shaken by distant thunder, I thought of the Needletails. Where were those tiny bundles of frantic feathers now? They were somewhere out there in the night beyond my knowing, riding the storm-winds, hanging together in the dark — travelers on an epic eight-month cross-planet journey.

A lightning-lit storm heads across the Bunya Mountains, driving insects and migratory needletails high into the air ahead of it. Photo Robert Ashdown.

A lightning-lit storm heads across the Bunya Mountains, driving insects and migratory needletails high into the air ahead of it. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Dragonflies in the mail

A beautiful set of Australian postage stamps, featuring dragonflies and damselflies, was released in August 2017. One of my images, of a damselfly known as a Whitewater Rockmaster, was included on the first day cover and the stamp set packaging.

Whitewater Rockmaster (Diphlebia lestroides), Goomburra National Park. This striking insect is one of Australia’s largest damselflies. Photograph by Robert Ashdown.

First day cover, 1 August 2017.

From the Stamp Bulletin, Issue 347, July-August 2017:

This year’s theme for Stamp Collecting Month is dragonflies, one of the most striking groups of the insect world. Of the 6,000 or so known species worldwide, there are about 325 species in Australia.

The order, Odonata, is basically made of two suborders, Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselflies). To the untrained eye, they look very similar. The true dragonflies, however, are larger than damselflies, have broader hindwings than forewings (especially at the base), and they rest with their wings outstretched. They are also more powerful fliers. The smaller, lighter damselflies generally fold their evenly-sized wings close along their abdomens when at rest, for unlike dragonflies, they have a hinge on their wings.

Although titled Dragonflies, this stamp issue represents the two suborders. The Arrowhead Rockmaster is the sole damselfly featured. The issue also includes the Beautiful Petaltail, which is one of five giant dragonfly species endemic to Australia. The selection of species is based on visual and taxonomic diversity — each species belonging to a different genus, spanning four families. The stamp designs show male dragonflies, which are often more spectacular in colouration than females.

The Whitewater Rockmaster image was taken at Goomburra National Park. For more posts on this magic little patch of sub-tropical rainforest, see here and here. I’d better get back soon to let that rockmaster know that he’s famous.

Shrieks in the night

The Australian night is rarely quiet. Many and varied are the weird and wonderful sounds of nocturnal animals, whether deep within the remote bush or floating above the urban jungle. Some of them are iconic, well-known calls; others are cryptic and mysterious — not really heard clearly or belonging to some strange, unknown beast in the shadows.

The Milky Way, Carnarvon Gorge. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Twilight is a noisy time on a warm night in my home town of Toowoomba, as the roar of Bladder Cicadas (Cystosoma saundersii) drowns out traffic and conversation. Soon, there’s there’s the flap of leathery wings and the chattering, guttural shrieks of Black Flying Foxes (Pteropus alecto) as they argue over mulberries in the back yard. Walking the dog, the faint but far-carrying ‘ooom-ooom-ooom’ of a Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) drifts over the street. Finding these avian ventriloquists is always trickier than expected. Then, as midnight approaches and the air cools a little, the highly evocative ‘mopoke’ call of a Southern Boobook Owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae) seems to resonate through the air and time itself.

While working at the Queensland Museum, I got to read the draft text for the first edition of that institution’s guide to everything, the Wildlife of Greater Brisbane. I was amused and intrigued by curator Steve van Dyck’s description of the call of the most vocal of all marsupials — the Yellow-bellied Glider (Petaurus australis). I laughed when I first tried to read it out loud —‘Ooo-cree-cha-cree-cha-chigga-woo-ja!’ Try saying that ten times fast, or well once, really. It was like something from Star Wars. I’d never heard this in the bush at the time and hoped I would one day soon.

Carnarvon Gorge lies within the spectacular and rugged ranges of Queensland's central highlands. Lined with vegetation and fed by the waters of numerous side gorges, Carnarvon Creek winds between towering sandstone cliffs. The gorge is a cool and moist oasis within the dry environment of central Queensland.

Carnarvon Gorge lies within the spectacular and rugged ranges of Queensland’s central highlands. Lined with vegetation and fed by the waters of numerous side gorges, Carnarvon Creek winds between towering sandstone cliffs. The gorge is a cool and moist oasis within the dry environment of central Queensland. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Wandering in Carnarvon Gorge National Park at night years later, I finally got to catch this vocal weirdness. As a family group of Yellow-bellied Gliders awaken and move from their day-time den, the racket begins. These nocturnal bush hooligans can be heard for about 500 metres.

Checking out the night and heading off to forage for breakfast, these beautiful and charismatic mammals will each call up to 15 times per hour. While their vocal repertoire includes moans, gurgles, panting, clicking, chirruping and purring, they tend to use two calls in particular (a moan and a gurgle) when gliding. They can glide up to 100 metres between trees, as they move quickly about their territory, which can be between 30 and 60 hectares. Researchers believe that their calls have a territorial function, as they vocalise more often near the boundaries of their territory than in its centre.

Five of Australia’s six glider species are found at Carnarvon Gorge, including the enormous Greater Glider (Petaurus volans) and the tiny Feathertail Glider (Acrobates pygmaeus). Greater Gliders are huge, reaching almost a metre between nose to tip of tail. They are solitary and quiet as they munch on eucalypt leaves. With a varied diet of insects, pollen, nectar and sap, the yellow-bellies on the other hand are active, social and rowdy — sugar and carbohydrate-fuelled hyperactives.

Carnarvon Gorge lies within the spectacular and rugged ranges of Queensland's central highlands. Lined with vegetation and fed by the waters of numerous side gorges, Carnarvon Creek winds between towering sandstone cliffs. The gorge is a cool and moist oasis within the dry environment of central Queensland. Carnarvon Gorge is home to a diverse range of unique and significant plants and animals—including five species of gliding marsupial.

 Carnarvon Gorge is home to a diverse range of unique and significant plants and animals—including five species of gliding marsupial. Photo Robert Ashdown.

As evening falls at Carnarvon Gorge, the night air is alive with the sounds of the night shift. Yellow-bellied Gliders, sleeping in dens with family members, begin to awaken. Active and rowdy, their strange calls resonate up to half a kilometer through the woodland surrounding Carnarvon Creek.

As evening falls at Carnarvon Gorge, the night air is alive with the sounds of the night shift. Yellow-bellied Gliders, sleeping in dens with family members, begin to awaken. Active and rowdy, their strange calls resonate up to half a kilometre through the woodland surrounding Carnarvon Creek. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Photographing these animals is challenging, and I really have not tried that hard — I always enjoy just hearing them and sometimes spotting one. With the increase in the low-light quality of digital camera sensors, it’s easier to grab a decent shot of nocturnal mammals using a torch or flash these days, although using blinding flashes isn’t always a great idea with nocturnal mammals and they should probably be used sparingly. Ecologists and wildlife tour guides use a red filter over spotlights when tracking mammals, as this disturbs their vision far less.

Yellow-bellied Gliders are found down the east coast of mainland Australia from the Mount Windsor Tableland, west of Mossman in Far North Queensland, to the Victorian-South Australian border.  In south-eastern Queensland, the glider is widely dispersed, but with a highly localised distribution and with possible disjunct (widely separated) populations in the Mackay and the Carnarvon areas.

Yellow-bellied Gliders live in family groups comprising up to six individuals. With aerial glides of up to 100 metres, they cover great distances quickly; moving up to a kilometre from their regular den to feed.

Yellow-bellied Gliders live in family groups comprising up to six individuals. With aerial glides of up to 100 metres, they cover great distances quickly; moving up to a kilometre from their regular den to feed. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Yellow-bellied Gliders feed on insects, nectar and pollen. However, as these foods are seasonal and scarce, they rely on the year-round source of clear, sweet-tasting sap of eucalypts, which they obtain by making V-shaped incisions with their lower incisors into the trunk bark of a number of different species of tree.

Yellow-bellied Gliders feed on insects, nectar and pollen. However, as these foods are seasonal and scarce, they rely on the year-round source of clear, sweet-tasting sap of eucalypts, which they obtain by making V-shaped incisions with their lower incisors into the trunk bark of a number of different species of tree. Photos courtesy Bernice Sigley.

Australia’s largest gliding marsupial, the Greater Glider (Petaurus volans) is a silent and solitary mammal, feeding on gum leaves. These gliders can have a combined body and tail length of almost a metre, and weigh up to 1.5 kilograms. Photo courtesy Bernice Sigley.

Squirrel Gliders (Petaurus breviceps) are one of three smaller species of gliders found at Carnarvon. Sleeping in family groups in tree hollows, they emerge quietly at night to feed on gum sap, nectar and insects.

Squirrel Gliders (Petaurus breviceps) are one of three smaller species of gliders found at Carnarvon. Sleeping in family groups in tree hollows, they emerge quietly at night to feed on gum sap, nectar and insects. Photo courtesy Bernice Sigley.

As with so many of the species we enjoy seeing, Yellow-bellied Gliders (and other glider species) face a range of threats.

Loss, and fragmentation, of habitat is the main challenge for these mammals, as it is with other wildlife. Gliders are also endangered by barbed-wire fences and introduced predators such as cats and foxes. As they are found in disjunct populations, they are also susceptible to local extinctions due to habitat degradation and climate-change.

  • Click here for more information on the Yellow-bellied Glider.

With thanks to Bernice Sigley (naturalist, photographer and ex Ranger-in-Charge, Carnarvon Gorge), for the photos and the memories of some brilliant late-nights wandering the tracks at Carnarvon Gorge. 

A nature guide to Minjerribah

The island paradise of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) has been the ancestral home of the Quandamooka People for many thousands of years.

Minjerribah — Quandamooka country

Minjerribah — Quandamooka country

Lying just across Moreton Bay from Brisbane, Minjerribah is well-known for its magnificent beaches and spectacular Humpback Whales, which often swim close to shore.

However, there is much more to this ancient sand island’s unique wildlife and ecology, as a newly published field guide illustrates beautifully.

A Nature Guide to North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah) has been produced by the Friends of Stradbroke Island (FOSI), an environment group founded in 1988 to protect this unique place. A true labour of love, this new book explores in wonderful detail the beauty and complexity of Minjerribah’s natural environment.

The Friends of Stradbroke Island aims to protect and help restore the natural environment of Minjerribah and its surrounding waters. Preserving the full range of habitats of the island’s native species, including rare and  endangered plants and animals, is a major goal. FOSI recognises the custodianship of the island’s Quandamooka People and aims to work positively and cooperatively with Minjerribah’s Traditional Owners in pursuit of its environmental goals.

I’ve visited North Stradbroke Island many times, and have always returned to the mainland full of wonder for this stunning place, so close to one of Australia’s largest cities.

In 1979 I walked with two friends from Dunwich south through the middle of the island — passing by large areas torn asunder by sand-mining, hiding from mining vehicles on sandy tracks, walking through spectacular swamps and sleeping under huge scribbly gums. Great memories.

Me, lost somewhere in a swamp and loving every minute, North Stradbroke Island, 1979.

Me, lost somewhere in a swamp and loving every minute, North Stradbroke Island, 1979.

Looking south-east from North Stradbroke back to Lamb and Russell islands, and the distant Border Ranges, 1979.

Looking south-east from North Stradbroke back to Lamb and Russell islands, and the distant Border Ranges, 1979.

Walking companion Russell Kelley, 1979.

Walking companion Russell Kelley, 1979. 

I’m happy to have been able to assist the Friends of Stradbroke Island in a small way through contributing some of my photos for this field guide. I applaud this group’s important work, which you can find out about here

A few of my fave Minjerribah images (click on any pic for a closer look). 

 

The diverting history of an earless dragon

An article published in the Summer 2015 edition of Wildlife Australia features words by Rod Hobson and images by Rob Ashdown.

  • The article can be downloaded here (PDF, 1.2MB).
  • An earlier blog post on the taxonomy of Grassland Earless Dragons can be read here.

Verandah renovations — Fire-tailed Resin Bees (Part 2)

Four years ago I wrote about Fire-tailed Resin Bees (Megachile mystacaena) making sticky resin nest chambers in gaps between the weatherboards on our old verandah (see here).

Over the last two months I’ve been sanding and painting this part of the house. Simple job? No, typically for me this has been an epic struggle that, due to all sorts of problems, has expanded to fill endless weekends. Having sanded and painted over a red base coat that seemed solid, I discovered that as the new dark top coats of paint heated up in the afternoon summer sun, the old base coat (possibly enamel or lead-based paint dating back many decades) would apparently release a vapour that caused the newly dried top coat to blister.

Weekends of re-sanding and re-painting, on mild mornings and sun-blasted afternoons, followed. The entire time, the constant buzzing of native Fire-tailed Resin Bees, arriving and departing around me, formed a sonic backdrop to my endeavours. We became well acquainted, and my fascination with these tiny lodgers grew in parallel with my frustration over my painting abilities.

Verandah before

Dodgy photo of dodgy verandah renovations by dodgy renovator, plus small dog. All photos, except where otherwise credited, by Robert Ashdown.

A buzzing announces the arrival of another flight from the world beyond.

Out of my way human, I’m on a mission.

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Heading for an appealing gap in the timber.

Hover for a bit, then lurch forward into a space. Note the delicate hairs that cover these charming insects.

Touch-down!

Time to get to work on messing up my fresh paint. Good spot this, thanks.

There are about 2,000 species of native bees in Australia. They are extremely diverse in terms of size, shape and colour. Our bees are classified into five families, three of which are known as ‘short-tongued’ and two as ‘long-tongued’. The ‘tongue’ is actually a flexible hairy extension of the proboscis used for lapping up nectar and for applying secretions during nest-building.

Some other native bees I’ve encountered (above). Click on a thumbnail for a larger image.

Most of our native bees, including the Fire-tailed Resin Bees, are also lumped into a group known as the ‘solitary bees’. Solitary bees do not have queens, workers and drones, and so do not share a nest like European Honey Bees. However, I’ve discovered that they aren’t entirely ‘solitary’, as they do like to build nests for their young in the same great spots as others of their species. My verandah is apparently one of these prime bits of real estate.

Female bees mate and then seek tunnels or cracks in just about anything for their nests. The tunnel is lined with resin and is filled with some pollen, nectar and a single egg.

In solitary native bee species, the adult bees generally only fly during the warm months and die before the winter. Immature bees remain sealed in their cells inside the nests during the winter. They develop into adults and emerge when the warm weather returns.

On the verandah, bees (all females as I now knew) arrived constantly, carrying plant material in their mouths or with abdomens covered in pollen. Some air-traffic control was sorely needed. I witnessed mid-air crashes and bees wrestling with each other over the best spaces. I’d have them crash into me or over-fly and end up lost inside the house. They drove the dog nuts. Carrying heavy loads of plant material, some would skitter about on the new wall paint trying to get a grip before slipping and falling toward the floor, coming around for another go at speed.

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On several occasions I’d put a paintbrush down and place a finger carefully under a slipping bee so it could get a foothold. My wife suggested sanding the new paint near the nest hollows, and this seemed to help them land. Clearly, these bees were becoming a serious distraction.

Trying hard to get a grip on slippery new dried paint.

Plenty of hollows for everyone …

… unless two bees like the look of one space.  I reckon one bee here is clearing out, or cutting through, the work of another.

Resin Bees 13 (Large)

Grrr… trouble, trouble. The girls are grumpy. Or maybe not … possibly sharing a space? Sounds ‘social’ to me.

Crash-landing, luckily (this time at least) onto unpainted part of the verandah floor.

Oblivious to my expensive wet paint, the bees would throw out black crumbly resin, which of course got stuck in the new paint. Ants would be attracted to it, and then they’d get stuck. There are no workshops on coping with this at Bunnings, Mitre 10 or Masters.

Busy, busy bee.

A day’s building waste litters my newly painted floor.

I’d have to apply new paint to the edges of the bees’ nest sites in the cooler mornings, before the bees got active. Otherwise they’d get paint all over themselves, which then stressed them (and me) out.

While painting the floor one morning, a bee, with its ‘weight-to-lift ratio’ ruined by paint on delicate wings and backside, crash-landed on its back and became stuck to the floor. Carrying the bee carefully in a small decorative Christmas bowl with some water, I sat on the back steps and washed paint off the bee with a tiny paint brush as the dog looked on jealously. She hates bees, which are irritating and need to be dominated, since they are in her domain and should be under her control (like us). Helpfully, my long-suffering wife remarked that “My Christmas bowl is not meant for washing paint off bee bottoms!” Possibly accurate.

Eventually, the bee dried off and took off skywards. Returning to the front verandah with paint brush, I spied another resin-laden bee just barely clearing the wet-paint floor. The dog immediately took umbrage, zooming past me and chasing the bee all over the verandah, before running back through the house with paint-covered feet! My shouts further convinced my already suspicious family that my fragile sanity was crumbling. This was becoming a debacle, a combination of my renovational incompetence and the demands of my insect tenants. There was only one solution — give up painting, pick up a camera and attempt some more bee photos.

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Luckily, resin sticks to Dulux Weathershield paint. Maybe I should let the company know that their products are native-bee certified.

I think this particular bee is dusted with pollen. Spectacular.

Watching these insects, I ended up with some OK photos and a lot of questions, some of which I’ve listed here, with tentative answers.

Are these all male or female bees? How long do they live? Some bees spend the night in their nest chambers — where do the others go after dark?

Male bees play no part in nest construction or brood care, they just spend their time looking for females to fertilise. They usually do this by patrolling the flowers or the nesting areas. Competition for females can be intense and males may fight each other to gain access to females. Territorial behaviour is quite common where males defend a patch of habitat, often containing forage flowers, and drive off rival males and any other flying insects.

Males of many species apparently gather at night in one place. I’d seen this once with another species of native bees — Nomia Bees.

Male Nomia Bees cluster together for the night. Toombul, Brisbane.

Middle of the night. All is quiet on the verandah, some bees asleep in their nest spots.

What exactly are they doing out of sight in the wall cavity?

It seems that the plan is something like this:

  1. Gather pollen and/or nectar from the garden.
  2. Bring back resin from a  source somewhere out there.
  3. Avoid the wet paint, dog and amateur renovator.
  4. Line the walls of the chamber with resin.
  5. Deposit some food material for their larvae in the chamber.
  6. Lay an egg in the chamber with the food.
  7. Seal off the chamber completely.

The Western Australian Museum reports that while both sexes of resin bees feed on nectar, females usually thicken it into honey before taking it back to their nests. They do this by regurgitating the nectar onto their mouthparts, exposing it to the air to evaporate excess water. They alternately regurgitate and re-swallow droplets of nectar until it reaches the required consistency.

Females of most kinds of bees carry their pollen loads on specialized sets of hairs (termed ‘scopae’) on either the hind legs or the underside of the abdomen. Such pollen loads immediately distinguish the insects as bees. Bees in the family Megachilidae carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen. Unlike honeybees, they do not have pollen baskets on their hind legs.

Out in the world away from the verandah, a fire-tail obtains nectar from a flower. This beautiful photo courtesy of Erica Siegel.

These bees have strong mouth-parts for chewing up plant material and fashioning stylish resin nests.

A bee approaches — abdomen conspicuously coated with bright yellow pollen.

Pollen and honey are usually combined in the nest to form the larval food, either as a solid, rounded mass or as a fluid or semi-fluid paste. Either way, the egg is deposited on top of the completed provision. Each brood cell is a cavity providing a protective environment for the development of a single individual; it is stocked with sufficient food to enable development from egg to adult and is sealed once it receives an egg.

I noticed that several bees sometimes seem to use the same chamber — is more than one egg laid in a chamber by different bees?

Where does the resin come from?

The resin they are using at my place is a deep red/purple colour. They are reported to use resin from eucalypt species, but there are not too many gum trees in our suburban block now. The nearest resin or sap I’ve seen is leaking out of local camphor laurel trees, and some pine trees, in a local park about 500 metres away — I wonder if they use resin from these exotic species?

The purple colour of the resin can be seen on this completed cell.

Some bee-keepers have reported resin bees hanging around stingless bee hives, trying to ‘borrow’ a little resin for their nests. They have been seen ‘balling up’ the resin with their front  legs, although the bees bringing resin back to our place seem to be carrying it in chunks. They appear to work it into place with their jaws, and I’ve also watched them rubbing their abdomens on the resin. Are they secreting something to help work it into shape? Some species have also been recorded chewing leaves to add to the mix.

A bee approaches the wall with a prize chunk of resin firmly gripped in the mouth.

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Working the resin into place.

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In the USA, researchers have investigated native resin bees, from the same genus as our fire-tailed species, incorporating pieces of plastic shopping bags into their nests in addition to the usual leaves, as well as sealing the nest cavity with plastic-based sealants, including caulk.

The study offers another example of how animals adapt to human-dominated environments. “There will always be those that have adaptive traits or enough flexibility in their behavior to persist in a disturbed landscape,” they report (see link below).

What happens to the larvae?

Once hatched, the eggs progress through larval stages and subsequently will overwinter as pupae. Young bees must bore their way out of their cells and find their way to freedom. Bees that nest in hollow stems and borer holes construct a series of cells, end to end along the galleries.

I’d sometimes discover tiny bee larvae on the verandah floor in the morning. One was still alive so I attempted to get it back in a nest chamber. I can only assume that some bees remove the larvae of other bees at night as they compete for the best nesting hollows.

They face some dangers. The Western Australian Museum reports that bees’ worst enemies are mould, mites and parasitic insects — certain wasps, flies and beetles.

I sometimes observed other flying insects hovering around near the bees and finally managed a (bad) photo of one on my phone. I think this is a parasitic wasp of the Chalcididae family. These attempt to break into the bees’ freshly completed brood cells to deposit their eggs. The wasp or parasitic bee larvae, upon hatching, destroy the host egg or young larva and take over the food store.

Look out bees! A predatory wasp looks to lay an egg on bee larvae. Danger! Danger!

Bad news for a bee. Parasitic wasp on the prowl.

Are native bees important pollinators, and how are they going in general?

Native bees are important and efficient pollinators of a wide range of plant species — including crops and native species. They are also in trouble. Wild and native bees the world over are declining in numbers or disappearing completely.

While it is true that native bees are not experiencing ‘colony collapse disorder’, they suffer from many of the same problems that the more ‘glamorous’ animals are experiencing. Chief among these are loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation. And when the habitat is lost, native food sources and nesting environments vanish as well.

Native bees are also subject to the pesticides. All types of pesticides have been found to harm bees, including fungicides, herbicides, acaricides, rodenticides, and of course the ubiquitous insecticides. Since native bees are closely tied to their food source, anything that destroys the food source—whether it’s a herbicide, a freeway, or a housing development—destroys the native insects that were dependent upon it.

A park here, a field there, and a garden down the road are not enough to maintain populations in the long term. Habitat fragmentation destroys the ability of populations to freely intermingle, and soon the genetic pool becomes small and lacks diversity. This is a major step on the road to local extinction. Add enough local extinctions together and a global extinction will follow.

— Native Bee Conservancy

Russell Zabel outlines the known reasons for declines in populations of Australian native stingless bees, and these reasons would surely apply to many species of Australian native bee:

Native Bees are found in the hollows of dead or damaged trees. There are a number of reasons for their reducing population:

a. Land owners generally do not leave trees to grow old and die, therefore hollow trees are scarce.
b. Dead trees are considered a danger to livestock breeders and are therefore removed.
c. There is a possibility that poisons used for rural applications are killing out these delicate little insects.
d. Land developers are using the technique called ‘Selective Clearing’ to improve the sale potential of their allotments. Consequently, we see the trees containing native bees dozed into a heap and just burnt.

At the same time it’s clear that, as with so many components of our biodiversity, we don’t even have the full picture about what’s out there. New species of insects, including bees, are being discovered all the time. For example, in September 2015, four new native bee species were found in the Pilbara region of northern Australia. Three of these new species have special narrow heads and unusually long mouth-parts that allow them to feed on the slender flowers found on emu bush, a hardy native of the Australian desert.

Talking about resin bees to a bunch of fellow naturalists at the November meeting of the Toowoomba Branch of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

By late January, there are nine separate nest chambers either finished or under way on our verandah. Some of the bees have tattered wings, a sure sign of a long, hot nesting season. Perhaps their short life spans are running down. I have huge admiration for these fearless builders.

It’s now mid February and the mornings and evenings are slowly getting cooler. The verandah is finished, and so are the bee’s resin nest chambers. There is no sign of any visiting bees — perhaps their short adult lives have come to an end. While we sit and enjoy the revamped verandah, the next generation of resin bees are slowly growing inside the walls. I hope we’ll see them around again next Summer.

verandah after

 

A verandah just isn’t complete without ornamental orange bees.

LINKS

Thanks to Erica Siegel and Russell Zabel.

Chasing dragonflies

Dragonflies are a lot of fun to watch, but tricky to photograph. Lots of patience is needed. Here are some images from an afternoon trip to Murphy Bridge, at Iredale in the Lockyer Valley.

I was messing about with an old Nikon MF zoom lens on my Olympus OMD EM1. The results aren’t perfect, but you get the idea. Such wonderful insects!

Stormy skies

Summer storms, dramatic skies. Photos by Mike Peisley and Rob Ashdown.

Storm heading east over Boonah, from Toowoomba escarpment. Photo R. Ashdown.

Moreton Bay storms brew, from Shorncliffe. Photo M. Peisley.

A storm sweeps north-east near Injune, central Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

Moreton Bay, from Shorncliffe. Photo M. Peisley.

Storm over Moreton Bay, from Shorncliffe. Photo M. Peisley.

Stormy sunset skies, Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

Queens Park, Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

Lightning strikes the ocean, Moreton Bay. Photo M. Peisley.

Storm north of Injune. Photo R. Ashdown.

Storm heading east over Boonah, from Toowoomba escarpment. Photo R. Ashdown.

Jacarandas and stormwater., Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

Storm over Moreton Bay, from Shorncliffe. Photo M. Peisley.

After the storm, Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

The edge of the storm, north of Injune. Photo R. Ashdown

Wet powerlines reflect the setting sun, Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

Full moon and the sun’s last rays, looking east from Toowoomba, January 2016. Photo R. Ashdown.

Platypus of Carnarvon Gorge

I’ve been visiting Carnarvon Gorge (part of Carnarvon National Park), on work trips as part of my role with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, for about 15 years. In all that time I’ve never just sat by Carnarvon Creek and taken a determined look for one of the park’s most iconic creatures — platypus.

I’ve seen them briefly while walking creek-side at Carnarvon, but it’s never been much more than a glimpse. My childhood memories of platypus are mixed. As a young lad, standing fairly close to David Fleay during one of his platypus shows at his West Burleigh reserve, I marvelled at the mysterious creature that moved into view in the concrete display tank. Unfortunately, the memory is scarred by the recollection of either my brother or I accidentally kicking an empty coke bottle across the floor, not long after Mr Fleay reminded all of the utmost need for quiet and even no finger pointing. The scornful glance of the legendary naturalist was memorable.

So, on another recent quick work trip to Carnarvon, I headed down to the creek about 4.30am to see if these things really existed. If lucky, I’d get to see one, and maybe I could capture a photograph or two of the mysterious beasties. I had no hope for anything too successful photo-wise, as I’d no intention of using a flash on such shy creatures and platypus are well known for not being photogenic in the wild (like any sensible animal).

First crossing at Carnarvon Creek. A calm place at 4.30am. Click on images for a closer look. All photos R. Ashdown unless otherwise credited.

I took up a spot above the bank and sat quietly in the grass, scanning the slowly brightening waters of this marvellous creek.

Carnarvon Creek is a magical place. The water always flows, part of a process that has endlessly and relentlessly carved through basalt and sandstone to create one of Australia’s most wondrous gorges.

Multi-hued and sun-dappled creekside vegetation, as well as towering sandstone cliffs and woodland perched high above the gorge floor, are reflected in the creek’s waters. The icing on the cake is the array of animals, of which surely the platypus is the most elusive and mysterious, that call this creek home.

A quiet stretch of water. The perfect place to seek a platypus.

After a short time just sitting, a movement caught my eye. A wake was spreading out behind a moving brown lump. It was a platypus, motoring across the surface of the creek. I held my breath and tried not to kick any coke bottles.

Over the next hour, and again the next morning with a colleague (Raelene Neilson, some of whose photos are included below), I followed the progress of two platypus as they worked their way around a large, still part of the creek, not far from the visitor area.

A platypus morning seems to be spent drifting and motoring about like a tiny barge, interspersed with frequent diving and searching in the sediment for yabbies and other food. A trail of bubbles tells of a platypus searching for food on the bottom of the creek.

A swirl of bubbles indicates a platypus is grubbing about in the sediment below seeking breakfast.

Platypus are found along the east coast of Australia as far north as Cairns, down to the bottom of Tasmania and as far west as Adelaide. They are one of two monotremes (egg-laying mammals) found in Australia, the other being the Short-beaked Echidna.

Platypus live for up to 12 years in the wild and approximately 20 years in captivity because there are no predators or seasonal changes. Their tunnels, in the bank of the creek, can be from 15 to 30 metres long, and there is usually more than one entrance just above the water line. The burrows are a tight fit so that water is squeezed off their fur when a platypus enters the tunnel. Platypus have a high amount of haemoglobin in their blood, which allows them to make better use of available oxygen, so they can survive high levels of CO2 in their tunnels.

Platypus are venomous. The males have a poisonous spur on each hind ankle, which is capable of causing severe pain in humans. The female’s spurs fall off at the juvenile stage. Platypus at Carnarvon Gorge apparently only grow to around 30 cm long, possibly due to the small size of the creek, and the number of platypus living in it.

A platypus diet consists of shrimps, larvae and some insects. They find food by rummaging through the creek bed with their bill. Platypus usually feed for 10 to l7 hours a day, depending on how much food is about.

During winter and early spring females start consuming larger quantities of food and use the tail as a fat storage area to be used in the breeding season, as the female fasts for about a week after the eggs are laid.

Platypus usually mate from July to September. After conception there is a gestation period of four weeks and then three eggs are laid. The eggs are oval, light brown in colour and smaller than a twenty-cent piece. They are soft and laid in a sticky substance which allows the eggs to stick to the mother's underside for incubation. The mother stays in the burrow, which is lined with leaves and grass, for approximately seven days and after this period only goes out to defecate. During the whole process the female has the tunnel blocked off, keeping predators out and humidity high. Each time the platypus exits the nesting burrow she takes down the wall and rebuilds it. The young are incubated for 10 days and once the eggs hatch they are drawn to a milk secretion area between the mothers front and hind leg enabling the young to ingest milk. The young are fed for three to four months at which time they begin to emerge from the burrow. Photograph by Raelene Neilson.

Platypus usually mate from July to September. After conception there is a gestation period of four weeks and then three eggs are laid. The eggs are oval, light brown in colour and smaller than a twenty-cent piece. They are soft and laid in a sticky substance which allows the eggs to stick to the mother’s underside for incubation. The mother stays in the burrow, which is lined with leaves and grass, for approximately seven days and after this period only goes out to defecate. During the whole process the female has the tunnel blocked off, keeping predators out and humidity high. Each time the platypus exits the nesting burrow she takes down the wall and rebuilds it. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

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The young are incubated for 10 days and once the eggs hatch they are drawn to a milk secretion area between the mothers front and hind leg enabling the young to ingest milk. The young are fed for three to four months at which time they begin to emerge from the burrow. Photograph by Raelene Neilson.

 Messing about in the water ... or something. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

Messing about in the water … or something. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

Checking out the humans — total weirdos. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

Checking out the humans — total weirdos. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

Platypus tend to share areas and tunnels. The adult males are fairly territorial and only meet to fight over females during mating season, but females and juveniles will feed through a range of territories and generally rest in the burrow that’s closest. Colonies of platypuses keep at a fairly set level, and if conditions are not able to support the juveniles, they are forced to move on.

Carnarvon Creek reflections (click on image for closer look)

It’s a serene body of water — usually. However, as the rangers working here know, this quietly flowing creek has a wild side. Every now and then, floodwaters rage down the gorge system in an immense, turbulent  show of power, tearing out creek-side trees and rolling huge boulders.

A flooded Carnarvon Creek, January 1976. Photo by Bill Morley, QPWS.

A worn and battered creek boulder bears evidence of the power of a 2012 flood.

Ranger Erin Witten is dwarfed by piled up debris from another flood, 2007. Photo QPWS.

How do platypus survive such times?

Surely some of them are killed. Perhaps they are able to wait things out in their burrows, but it’s hard to imagine how they’d do this when the floodwaters can last for days. Or perhaps they sense the approaching floodwaters and quietly head away from the creek, returning when water levels  subside.

We have very few photographs of Carnarvon platypus on our QPWS files. One of them bears the caption “After the floods, the platypus come out”. I’d assume that this platypus has been photographed in the calmer creek waters not long after a flood.

Tom Grant, in The Platypus, a Unique Mammal recounts  that in the first five years of a 20-year study of platypus in the upper Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, seven floods occurred, all of which changed the river from its normal series of deep pools with connecting rapids into a raging mass of brown water with no distinction between pool and rapid. Their study found that while some platypus are killed, most were not even displaced from their home ranges by the floods.

As platypus have occupied the rivers of Australia for at least 50,000 years, they have presumably evolved strategies to cope with flooding, However, it is still unknown how they ride out floods. Early naturalists suggested that they occupy rabbit burrows and hollow logs away from the river, returning later. Some recent radio-tracking work has shown that platypus of the Goulburn River avoid high flows associated with the release of water from the Eildon Weir for irrigation used a backwater area to avoid the faster-flowing water. They even found that the animals would still enter the river to feed, paddling against the current. However, it would be hard to imagine them being able to feed easily during the raging Carnarvon Creek floods, at least during the wilder periods of flooding.

The Australian Platypus Conservancy reports how damage to creek banks and burrows happens with floods:

In theory, depending on their magnitude and duration, floods could have either a positive or negative impact on platypus populations. The effect of minor flooding is likely to be relatively benign and could even improve the quality of platypus habitat, for example by flushing accumulated silt from pools.

By comparison, severe flooding is much more likely to affect platypus populations adversely. The animals may drown, contract pneumonia after inhaling water, or be swept downstream and have to find their way back through unfamiliar terrain. Their burrows may also be inundated for a substantial period of time and food supplies badly depleted due to invertebrates being washed away.

Flooding can also degrade the quality of platypus habitat if it causes banks to erode, pools to become filled with sediment, or in-stream woody habitat (logs and branches) to be deposited on land as flood waters recede.

A study conducted by the Australian Platypus Conservancy in mid-2008 examined how platypus populations in four Gippsland rivers were faring approximately 9–11 months after substantial floods occurred. In each case, flooding peaked at an estimated flow rate of more than 10,000 megalitres/day. In brief, the severity of flood-related habitat damage was inversely related to platypus population density and reproductive success: the river suffering the greatest damage had the lowest numbers of platypus and the smallest proportion of juveniles (none), whereas the least damaged area had the highest density of platypus and the largest proportion of juveniles. It was concluded that flood-related impacts can have a measurable adverse effect on platypus populations, particularly when (as was true in this study) the vegetation on adjoining slopes has recently been damaged by wildfire.

The fact that juvenile platypus are weaker and less accomplished swimmers than older animals suggests that they may be more likely to be killed by floods, particularly if these occur around the time that juveniles first emerge from the nesting burrow in summer. This is supported by the results of live-trapping surveys carried out in the Melbourne area after more than 120 millimetres of rain fell on the city in less than 24 hours in early February 2005 (the highest one-day total since weather records were first kept in 1855). The mean juvenile capture rate from February to June 2005 was less than 10% of the corresponding mean capture rate from 2001-2004. In contrast, the capture rate for adults and subadults occupying the same five water bodies from February to June 2005 was actually slightly higher than the corresponding mean capture rate from 2001–2004.

In his book Paradoxical Platypus — Hobnobbing with Duckbills, David Fleay describes the effects of floods on young platypus in south-eastern Queensland:

As a spin-off from my appointment as weekly Nature Columnist (1952-80) to the Brisbane Courier Mail, I was in touch with most platypus happenings in south-eastern Queensland. This proved not only invaluable but very instructive.

So in way or another, numerous duckbills passed through our hands, particularly those babes rescued from peril at the generally early south-eastern Queensland nest-leaving period (late December to early February).

At least four such inexperienced juveniles were actually flotsam in the mile–distant Pacific Ocean at the tail-end of cyclones. Naturally, sudden savage flooding takes victims by surprise and bears the unwary, willy-nilly into the sea.

Times of flood must bring turmoil to the quiet morning ritual that I was fortunate to observe at Carnarvon Creek.

While there is some evidence that platypus may be adapted to survive a natural event like a flood, the effects of humans on our waterways is far more detrimental to these mammals. Having survived hunting for pelts in the 19th century, platypus now face a far greater human threat — our impact on waterways due to agriculture, forestry, dam construction, mining and industrial activities. Illegal and inappropriate fishing practices, particularly the use of nets in creeks, also kill platypus. The health of platypus populations is inextricably linked to the health of our waterways, and our activities around these river systems. How we treat our creeks and rivers will determine how well platypus survive into the future.


I greatly enjoyed my brief time watching these unusual mammals. They were full of energy and life as they worked the creek in search of food, sometimes stopping to drift and seemingly take in what was going on around them.

The sense of privilege and wonder I felt while sitting next to that serene creek lingered. Back at my work desk, I paused from the cubicle chaos to think of the morning calm of Carnarvon Creek and its marvellous residents. I really hope they’ll be messing about there forever.

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Carnarvon Creek. An ever-flowing wonder in the heart of arid central Queensland. A joy for human visitors, a home for one of Australia’s most mysterious creatures.

Platypus below. Carnarvon Creek twists its way beneath the towering sandstone cliffs of Carnarvon Gorge for many kilometres. An ancient landscape full of surprises. Photo QPWS.

 

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Arrowhead Rockmaster

A scorching summer day at Girraween National Park, and the dragonflies are everywhere. Some are sitting in the shade for a while, making photography of them a little easier.

Here’s a few photos of one of my favourites (actually a damselfly), the Arrowhead Rockmaster (Diphlebia nymphoides).

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Same place, different species. Rangers Karl, Jo and Neal on their lunch break explore a granite sink-hole, get in some band practice and attempt to stay cool for a few minutes by the creek.

In search of live Powerfuls

Along the moonpaths and under the stars, in fact, there is a world of intense and abiding interest known to few but open to all. — David Fleay

Not far from Toowoomba is a valley where  Powerful Owls have been hanging out for years. I recently went on a search for them with naturalists Rod Hobson and Bruce Thomson.

Unfortunately, dead Powerful Owls seem to be more common than live ones around here. While it’s always depressing to see how many animals are killed on our roads, you do get to find out what lives where (assuming there are some other living specimens in the area), and you sometimes get a close look at some animals that are difficult to see up close in the wild.

 An electrocuted Powerful Owl hangs from wires, Prince Henry Drive, Toowoomba.

An electrocuted Powerful Owl hangs from wires, Prince Henry Drive, Toowoomba.

 Rod Hobson with a road-killed juvenile Powerful owl, Toowoomba.

Rod Hobson with a road-killed Powerful owl, Toowoomba.

An adult Powerful Owl can be up to 650 mm in length. These shy birds live in pairs and keep to large, permanent territories of up to 1000 hectares. They roost by day in tall forest trees.

Powerful talons on a powerful bird. These birds prey on birds and mammals, including Greater Gliders, possums and flying foxes. They also eat rats, birds and young rabbits. Powerful Owls need to eat the equivalent of a large possum every two to three days to survive.

Our walk up the valley was enjoyable, and we saw and heard many birds (and other wildlife), while peering about for the elusive giant owls.

A curious juvenile Eastern Water Dragon observes our slow progress.

Eastern Yellow Robin.

A native bee seeks minerals or moisture from a clay creek bank.

Ah, now we were getting somewhere. What was that lurking in the shadows ahead? It’s one of the elusive owls, watching us closely.

Photo courtesy Bruce Thomson.

Later on, we spot another owl, hiding deep in the shadows.

Rod and Bruce owl-spotting.

Again, Bruce captures a terrific image (I won’t show any of my dodgy efforts).

Each pair of Powerful Owls has a number of roosting trees, and they roost in different trees on different days, not always together, but within calling distance from each other. Their call is a loud, mournful, far-carrying “wooo-hooo”. Photo courtesy Bruce Thomson.

While watching these birds, and recently when listening to one calling at night in the Lockyer Valley, I thought of David Fleay and his wonderful 1968 book Nightwatchman of Bush and Plain, in which he tells of many nights spent in Victorian forests pursuing these owls.

Says G. M. Ward in his 1969 review of the book in The Victorian Naturalist:

Here, deep in the Korweingeboora forest, began the prelude to forty-two years of patient and painstaking study of the Powerful Owl.

The reader tramps with the author over miles of rugged country; and spends both pleasant nights and nights of being cold, wet, muddy and miserable. But always there is an expectancy that the roosting site of the Powerful Owl is near.

Right through … the reader is constantly aware of David Fleay’s unflagging patience and determination to eventually breed captively, this wonderful and lordly bird.

LINKS

Mouse spider

When people come across a large black spider they often think they’ve encountered a Funnelweb Spider. However, not all large black spiders are necessarily Funnelwebs.

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I recently had the opportunity to photograph this spectacular Red-headed Mouse Spider (Missulena occatoria), dropped off to the QPWS office from Oakey, on the Darling Downs in south-eastern Queensland. This spider was a female — the males have a deep red head and royal blue abdomen.

Mouse spiders are related to Funnelwebs and Trapdoor Spiders. They are all members of a ‘primitive’ group of spiders, from the Infraorder Mygalomorphae. These are among the largest and longest-lived spiders, and one of the oldest groups of spiders found in the fossil record. They have remained almost unchanged for tens of millions of years.

One of the things that is so special about macro photography is the wonderful detail in the resulting photograph that was often missed with eyes alone, especially when you’re reluctant to get your face too close to the subject! I love the fine red-hairs and the colours in the leg joints of this fabulous arachnid.

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The Queensland Museum (QM) website is a great source of information on Queensland spiders. They report that three species of Mouse Spider have been recorded in Queensland:

  • Redheaded Mouse spiders (Missulena occatoria)
  • White-backed Mouse spiders (Missulena bradleyi)
  • Small Black Mouse Spider (Missulena dipsaca).

Mouse Spiders are often confused with Funnelweb Spiders. There are differences in their morphology, although to see this might require a fair bit of care and courage if you’re not particularly enamored of our eight-legged wildlife (“Sit still, I need to see where your eyes are!”).

When viewed from the side, the head of the mouse spiders appears as a step, strongly divided into two levels by a nearly vertical drop from the front half of the head. The eight tiny eyes are spread across the front of the upper section behind the very prominent chelicerae. In funnel-web and all other trapdoor spiders the eyes are grouped together on a mound at the centre front of the head and the head is not strongly divided. — QM

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Mouse Spiders are apparently quite common in many Queensland suburbs,  but not often seen. From the QM website again:

They make a very well concealed burrow in the lawn or open ground. Often the web tube flops onto the ground and is soil-encrusted and hence well-camouflaged. Burrows may be located in lawns after rain by looking for small pyramids of soil beside which is a very well concealed tube.

The spiders are often found while gardens are being dug or soil turned over. Males wander from late Summer and tend to peak in April-May and often fall into suburban swimming pools whilst searching for females. 

There is ongoing research into these spiders and just how venomous they are. A recent confirmed bite to a young girl from one of these spiders caused a severe reaction. However, the girl recovered after receiving Funnelweb antivenin.

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The Queensland Museum mentions the enigmatic nature of these spiders and what is known about their venomous nature.

The seriousness of the bite of Missulena was until recently the subject of serious disagreement. We had recorded several reports of uneventful bites from Missulena species both males and females. Two reports stand out. In one, a 7-year-old boy had a female Mouse spider attached bull-terrier style to his finger. The GP had to crush the spider to get the fangs out. The boy complained only of minor hunger pains as in the excitement, lunch had been missed!

The second case was of a paramedic whose earth basement was almost swarming with male Missulena bradleyi. He was bitten repeatedly by the males in his sleeves. The immediate pain soon passed and he had no problems until 36 hours later when a large infected area appeared on his arm. He applied an antibiotic powder and the wound healed and was barely noticeable when we saw it a week or so later.

The late Dr Struan Sutherland’s research showed that these spiders were potentially more toxic than Funnelwebs; thus, we were at odds. Inexplicably, the Gatton baby recovered quickly when given Funnelweb antivenom. Clearly, the Gatton bite was what Sutherland had predicted but why did some victims not react?

Dr David Wilson, then at the Department of Drug, Design & Development, University of Queensland looked at the question. When Funnelwebs disturbed, they quickly rise to the defence pose with a drop of venom on each fang tip. However, although Missulena also rises to the defence pose quickly, venom is rarely seen.

It seems that the Mouse Spider rarely needs or uses its much smaller reserve of venom; presumably most of the uneventful bites were dry, i.e., without venom.

A male red-headed Mouse Spider, Isla Gorge National Park. Photo R. Ashdown and R. Mancini.

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… and some more frogs

I recently stayed one night at Girraween National Park while on a work trip, and it was a stormy summer night. Perfect, of course, for checking the frogs around Bald Rock Creek!

Bleating Tree Frog (Litoria dentata)

Emerald Spotted Tree frog (Litoria peronii)

Broad-palmed Rocket Frog (Litoria latopalmata)

Eastern Stony Creek Frog (Litoria wilcoxii)

Clicking Froglet (Crinea signifera)

Ornate Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum ornatum)

There’s one species of frog at Girraween that I’ve never seen — the New England Treefrog (Litoria subglandulosa). Classed as ‘vulnerable’, this fog is only found in a small area of wet sclerophyll and heath country in the granite country of the Queensland/New South Wales border. To see an image of this beautiful species, check out this great image on this wonderful website on Girraween National Park.

Meetings with remarkable frogs

Any little dam or pond on a summer’s night, as long as it has some water and a bit of vegetation around it, can be a magnet for the frog-photographer (yes, there is such a niche in photography).

On a weekend escape with the family, as we sit on the verandah of rented cabin enjoying the fading late-afternoon light, a chorus of weird noises drifts up from a small dam just out of view, on the edge of some bush. Frogs!

I’m instantly trying to identify the callers, a habit formed many years ago when summer nights were often spent in the somewhat eccentric pastime of lurking in a muddy, mozzie-ridden swamp trying to find some tiny frog, while clutching cameras, flashes, cables and other paraphernalia.

Eastern Grey Kangaroos, and a single Red-necked Wallaby , hanging out on a slowly-cooling afternoon, and probably trying to identify the species of frogs they can hear calling.

The sun sets on this particularly warm spring day. There’s a dam down there somewhere.

“Are you looking for frogs too?”

I’m travelling a bit lighter with camera gear these days. I grab my Olympus OMD-EM1, a 60mm macro, a single flash with off-camera cable and head down to the dam to take a look.

I’m soon reminded that it’s always harder to find frogs than I remember.

A racket of various sounds assails my ears as I approach the dam, which is surrounded by vegetation and covered in water-lilies. Where to start? I pick a weird little ‘riiiiiiik’ sound in the grass and sneak up on the culprit.

Of course the frog hears some monster with the sun strapped to its head approaching noisily and, sensibly for a small vulnerable amphibian, stops calling. It seeks a mate, not some huge predator, and has no desire to be the subject of a dodgy blog post by some nocturnal swamp-wandering weirdo.

I move on to the source of another of these sounds, only to have the same thing happen. Soon, I’m heading off to nowhere, no closer to finding the tiny frog. If a fellow frogologist, sorry, herpetologist, was present, we could triangulate and move to the meeting spot of pointed fingers. X marks the spot. A secret frog-finding technique I learned from the Frog Photography Guild in my local chapter of the Illuminati.

However, I’m on my own tonight, as there was no chance of convincing wife and teenage son to attach head-torches and help me. They’ve been there before, remembering epic all-night expeditions that started with an innocuous  “Can you help me find this frog?”. They are more interested in finishing a game of Simpsons Monopoly (yes, there is such a thing).

When you’re on your own, you soon realise that frogs are amazing ventriloquists. They are never where their calls seems to indicate. However, I persist, returning to the first caller, and eventually spot the lurking little character. He’s a member of the genus Uperoleia, a frog group known commonly as Toadlets or preferably to me, Gungans. There are currently ten known species of these small frogs in Queensland, and they are all hard to identify to species level. I think I’ve found a Uperoleia rugosa, the Wrinkled Toadlet or Chubby Gungan.

“Oh no, the swamp-wandering weirdo has found me!” Chubby Gungans are about 3cm long and are great ventriloquists.

There are other tiny things wandering about at night, including this colourful spider.

One of the dam-side calls is quite distinctive, It’s a loud, manic, descending cackle — the laughing call of the Emerald-spotted Tree Frog, Litoria peronii. This is one of my favourite animals, a true character. It always make me smile when I hear their ridiculous call.

Emerald-spotted Tree Frog (Litoria peronii).

Stanthorpe weekend escape with Allana and Harry. Litoria peronii

It’s a bit hard to see the bright green spots on this frog, but they are there. They have wonderful bright yellow and black markings inside their hind legs. This is one of three similar species in Queensland that have green spots.

A sudden movement catches my eye as a frog leaps through the air in front of me. I track it down. It’s a Broad-palmed Rocket Frog, Litoria latopalmata. This species makes a series of rapid ‘quacks’ that accelerate then slow down.

Broad-palmed Rocket Frog (Litoria latopalmata)

A loud ‘bonk’ sound leads me to another favourite frog — the Eastern Banjo Frog or Grey-bellied Pobblebonk, Limnodynastes dumerilli. Limnodynastes means something like ‘Lord of the Marshes’.

One frogologist describes their call as ‘reminiscent of PVC pipe being struck by a rubber thong’. How would you know that? I guess you’d have to try it. Eccentric lot indeed. Pobblebonk, their other common name, is a great interpretation of the sound a bunch of these make when calling at once.

Grey-bellied Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes dumerilli)

Stanthorpe dam -016The most persistent call in the froggy racket is an almost deafening rasping, rickety call. Small green and brown frogs cling to feeds or occupy lily pads. These are delightful Eastern Sedge Frogs, Litoria fallax. Each frog is slightly different, their colour various combinations of greens and browns. They are like tiny jewels. I like them a lot.

Eastern Sedge Frog (Litoria fallax).

There’s at least one other species calling. I’m pretty sure it’s a Clicking Froglet, Crinea signifera, or possibly a Beeping Froglet, Crinea parinsignifera. I’m too tired to catch it, so here’s a pic of a Beeping Froglet I found one night in a road-side swamp in Texas, southern Queensland. It’d look something like this from a prone position in the mud (how I met this one).

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As I sloshingly return to the Monopoly players (Homer has been rendered bankrupt by Margie apparently), and the calls of the unfazed frogs fade behind me, I reflect on the many memorable meetings I’ve had with these critters over the years.

It may indeed seem odd to some, but I’ve enjoyed the moments spent with such mysterious and ridiculously enchanting amphibians in the bush at night. I count myself lucky to have met them. Long may we have such wonderful things out there somewhere in the darkness busy being themselves.

Here’s a quick rogue’s gallery of some of the frogs I’ve tracked down over the last few decades.

Southern Orange-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chloris). Lamington NP.

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Giant Barred Frog (Mixophyes iteratus). Sunshine Coast

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Copper-backed Brood Frog (Pseudophrene raveni). Bundaberg.

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Eastern Gungan (Uperoleia laevigata). Tingalpa.

Copper-backed Brood Frog (Pseudophrene raveni).

Tusked Frog (Adelotus brevis). Mt Moffatt NP.

Emerald-spotted Treefrog (Litoria peronii). Dalby.

Litoria caerulea, Tingalpa, Brisbane.

Green Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea), Tingalpa, Brisbane.

Naked/Purple/Red Tree Frog (Litoria rubella). Windorah.

Fleays Barred Frog (Mixophyes fleayi). Main Range NP.

Holy Cross Frog (Notaden bennetti). Barakula State Forest.

Water-holding Frog (Cyclorana platycephala), Windorah.

Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes terraereginae), Tingalpa.

Fletcher’s Frog (Limnodynastes fletcheri), Bungunya.

Wallum Froglet (Crinea tinnula), Lota.

Ornate Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum ornatum). Lota.

Pearson’s Tree Frog (Litoria pearsoniana). Minyon. I got lost in Minyon State Forest, in northern New South Wales, for about five hours after I finished photographing this frog. Ah, good times!

Australian adders

Common Death Adder, Acanthophis antarcticus, Bruce Thomson.

Common Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus), Bringalily State Forest. Photo by Bruce Thomson.

The Death Adder is one of Australia’s more unusual snakes. This post presents some recent photos of this reptile from around Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Maree Cali from Mackay spotted one of these highly venomous elapids close to her campsite. Says Maree, “I was excited to accidentally set up camp over the Easter break next to this cool customer and was blown away by its laid back nature, camouflaging ability and beauty — and I’m not particularly into snakes.”

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A master of camouflage, waiting for a meal to pass by. Photograph by Maree Cali.

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On the move! Photograph by Maree Cali.

Gerry Swan and Steve Wilson give an overview of Death Adders in their book What Snake Is That?

Australia is the only continent with no vipers, family Viperidae. In their absence, some elapid snakes of the genus Acanthophis have evolved to fill a similar niche. These sluggish, well-camouflaged and sedentary snakes lie concealed in leaf litter or under low shrubs and grasses. Important features of this group are a short, thick body, a broad head distinct from the neck and an abruptly slender tail.

Their similarity to vipers was not lost on early settlers, who were reminded of the Adder (Vipera berus) from Britain and Europe. They named the Australian snakes ‘death adders’ because of the high mortality from bites before anti-venom became available. The corruption ‘deaf adders’ may derive from their reluctance to move away when disturbed.

Death Adders are ambush predators that feed on a variety of vertebrates. The slender tail has a segmented tip and soft spine, and they lie with this resting near the head, When prey is detected, the snake wriggles the tail convulsively, mimicking a grub or worm to lure the animal within striking distance. Its ability to strike so suddenly and with such mind-boggling speed is unnerving to witness, particularly considering the snake is slow moving and prone to lie motionless for days on end. The strike is accurate and lethal, as a powerful venom is injected deeply through long fangs.

Death adder, captive specimen.

Death Adder, with strikingly patterned head strategically positioned near its tail (aka caudal lure!). Captive specimen, photograph R. Ashdown.

Common Death Adder. From The Snakes of Australia, by Gerard Krefft, 1869. Death Adders are not true ‘adders’, belonging instead to the same family as other venomous Australian snakes, the elapids. Their similarity to adders, which are actually members of the viper family, has evolved in response to the species’ environment and their ‘sit and wait’ style of life, which does not require a snake to be long and agile but short and muscular for a quick strike when necessary.

Kate Steel encountered a Death Adder near her back verandah of her house in northern New South Wales. Kate relocated the snake in a sack, grabbing a few photos on the way. She posted on Facebook, “Just caught this slithery under the verandah, there was a Willy Wagtail giving warning and then Lyly the alarm dog. Hope the photos are not too shaky cos my hand is!”

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A Death Adder being relocated from near the back verandah to somewhere less likely to be trodden on by bare feet. Photo by Kate Steel.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) Rangers often encounter snakes as part of their daily work. Ranger Stuart Fyfe took the following photos of a Northern Death Adder (Acanthophis praelongus) in far northern Queensland.

“I found this Death Adder pretty late one night outside the barracks common room, (around 11pm), so took a few photos then put him in a bucket to relocate him in the morning. We have a couple of families on base with small kids, so we tend to relocate these guys down the track.

When I first found him he was quite docile, and didn’t puff up even when I put him in the bucket, but when I released him in the morning he was all fired up — they tend to puff up like that when they are being defensive. He must not have liked being in the bucket overnight.”

Photo by Stuart Fyfe.

Death Adder scale patterns. Photo Stuart Fyfe.

Death Adder scale patterns. Photo Stuart Fyfe.

Death Adder moving out of grass to escape a controlled burn on national park. “This was one of the biggest we’ve seen up here. Based on the width of the Rake Hoe I estimate he was about 42cm long.” — Stuart Fyfe. Photo by David Delahoy, QPWS.

How dangerous are death adders to humans? From a Wikipedia article that lists details of deaths due to ‘unprovoked bites by snakes’ in Australia:

The estimated incidence of snakebites annually in Australia is between 3 and 18 per 100,000 with an average mortality rate of 0.03 per 100,000 per year. Between 1979 and 1998 there were 53 deaths from snakes, according to data obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Between 1942 and 1950 there were 56 deaths from snakebite recorded in Australia. Of 28 deaths in the 1945-49 period, 18 occurred in Queensland, 6 in New South Wales, 3 in Western Australia and 1 in Tasmania. The majority of snake bites occur when people handle snakes in an attempt to relocate or kill them.

Australia is the only continent where venomous snakes constitute the majority of species. Snake bites in Australia that cause deaths are less common than they once were, because of increased medical knowledge and anti-venom that is better and more available. Around half of all deaths from snakebites are thought to be caused by brown snakes, perhaps as many as 60% of deaths caused by snakebite.

Unlike other snakes that flee from approaching humans crashing through the undergrowth, common death adders are more likely to sit tight and risk being stepped on, making them potentially more dangerous to the unwary bushwalker.

However, they are reported to be reluctant to bite. Richard Shine, in Australian Snakes, a Natural History, describes this apparent reticence:

There are many stories testifying to this docility, perhaps the most famous being of two men cutting sugarcane in a paddock. They spent the day working at the job, carrying loads of the crop frequently out of the gate to their nearby truck. It was late in the day that one of the workers noticed a large Death Adder coiled in  the dust in the middle of the path, right beside the gate, The dust showed hundreds of footprints from their bare feet within a few centimetres of the snake’s head.

Ranger Andrew Young recalls a family Death Adder encounter when  he was a lad growing up on the family farm at Stanwell, west of Rockhampton, in the 1960s. He remembers lots of yelling, and dancing about, associated with this particular snake sighting.

“My Dad had sent the farm-hand out to our other property at Ridgelands where he was to plough up some paddocks for planting sorghum.  When he was finished he drove the tractor back to our Stanwell farm for some more work we had there.  The farms were about 40 minutes drive apart by car so a good couple of hours by tractor.

When he arrived home that evening we all went to meet him and hear how he went.  During the discussion, he said, “Oh, and I found a great legless lizard today!”  He opened the tool box on the side of the tractor and hauled out this Death Adder!  Dad shouted “Drop it!” and we all leapt back — as you might imagine! I shall not recount the snake’s fate …

But I have always thought that the snake was indeed laid back as it didn’t bite when it was ploughed out of the soil nor when grabbed out of the tool box that it had been jiggling around in all day.”

Death Adder photographed in the Mount Moffatt section of Carnarvon National Park by QPWS Ranger Brent Tangey.

In its element. A Death Adder photographed in the Mount Moffatt section of Carnarvon National Park by QPWS Ranger Brent Tangey.

Many bites from Death Adders proved fatal before the introduction of antivenom.  Death Adder venom contains a type of neurotoxin which causes loss of motor and sensory function, including respiration, which can result in paralysis and death. Deaths from bites are still common in New Guinea.

How dangerous are humans to death adders in Australia? In reality, this snake is perhaps more endangered than dangerous. Despite being labelled ‘common’, the Common Death Adder is becoming increasingly less so. Gerry Swan and Steve Wilson write:

Death Adders have declined in many areas. They can be regarded as biological indicators of environmental quality as they appear extremely susceptible to degraded conditions. Weeds, altered fire regimes, introduced predators and toxic prey in the form of the introduced Cane Toad all play a part in the demise of these snakes from sites where they were once extremely common.

As Steve, who has pursued reptiles across the continent for decades, said to me when talking about Common Death Adders, “I defy anyone to call them ‘common’.”

Reptiles are beautiful and fascinating creatures. They are a fundamental part of Australia’s wonderful biodiversity — something that is under constant siege. Says Steve:

The loss of native vegetation has been the most substantial and urgent problem facing Queensland’s reptiles and other fauna. The estimated annual toll from broad-scale clearing between 1997 and 1999 was a staggering 89 million reptiles, a figure no doubt matched today as hundreds of thousands of the state’s extraordinarily complex natural heritage is bulldozed, heaped and burnt. Apart from the immediate individual casualties, the loss and fragmentation of habitat has implications at population and species levels. With the spectre of increased clearing for expanding coal and gas exports and the push for more northern development, it is critical that habitat continuity be prioritised.

I’m yet to encounter one of these snakes in the wild, but hope the chance to do so will be there for a while yet.

northern death adder, kuranda, north queensland HDR (Large)

There are five currently recognised species of Death Adder found in Queensland, though several distinct populations may prove to be valid new species. Between these species, Death Adders can be found over most of mainland Australia, except Victoria. All are live bearers, with litters of over 30 young recorded. This is a Northern Death Adder (Acanthophis praelongus). Photographer Greg Watson photographed this captive specimen at Kuranda (within the species’ range and of an animal with a size and the pattern consistent with the location).

Common Death Adder, Acanthophis antarcticus, Bruce Thomson.

Common Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus). Photographed on a QPWS fauna survey of Bringalily State Forest by Bruce Thomson

A strikingly patterned Common Death Adder. Photo by Steve K Wilson.

A strikingly patterned Common Death Adder from central Queensland. Photo by Steve K Wilson.

For more information on the five Death Adder species found in Queensland, see A Field Guide to Reptiles of Queensland (second edition) by Steve K Wilson. The book contains some beautiful images of these snakes by Steve and fellow reptile photographers Angus Emmott and Gary Stephenson.

[Safety note: Death Adders are dangerously venomous. All photos on this post were taken at a safe distance. It’s not a good idea to test a Death Adder’s mood by touching one or getting too close with a  camera. Seek professional assistance in relocating a snake if you need to move one.]

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Life on the edge

Grey Mangroves (Avicennia marina) at dawn, Lota, Brisbane.

Grey Mangroves (Avicennia marina) at dawn, Lota, Brisbane. All photographs Robert Ashdown.

One perceives a forest of jagged, gnarled trees protruding from the surface of the sea, roots anchored in deep, black mud, verdant crowns arching toward a blazing sun. Here is where land and sea intertwine, where the line dividing ocean and continent blurs.   — Klause Rutzler and Ilka C. Feller

If there are no mangroves, then the sea will have no meaning. It is like having a tree without roots, for the mangroves are the roots of the sea.   — Attributed to a fisherman from the Andaman Sea

The sun has just risen above Moreton Bay and the sky is catching fire. I’m standing in the incoming tide, in that edge zone where land meets sea. The waking suburbs are less than a kilometre away, but I can’t see or hear anyone. The rising sun doesn’t have my attention. I’m looking the opposite direction, back into a tangled mangrove forest, as the first rays of the sun hit the gnarled grey trunks. Everything in front of me has come together in a brief, quiet spectacle of light and shade, and I’m transfixed by the scene.

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The edges of things are fascinating places to naturalists and photographers. Ecologists use the word ecotone to describe the edge zone between ecosystems. Landscape photographers revel in edges, the places where the land meets the sky, the ocean meets the shore — where lines draw the viewer into the scene.

Exploring the edge of land and bay. Amity, Stradbroke Island.

Exploring the edge of land and bay. Amity, Stradbroke Island.

With 125km of boundary (stretching from Caloundra to the Gold Coast), Moreton Bay has plenty of edges between land and water. These are diverse places, reflecting the bay’s beauty and contrasts — with mysterious mangrove forests, mud-flats full of life and sandy island beaches. Where the bay stops the growing city of Brisbane in its tracks, the human-built environment swallows these places in walls of concrete or canal estates.

Known as Quandamooka to Aboriginal people, Moreton Bay lies close to one of Australia’s largest cities.

Known as Quandamooka to Aboriginal people, Moreton Bay lies close to Brisbane, one of Australia’s largest cities.

Bushfires cloak the Glasshouse Mountains, at the northern end of Moreton Bay.

Bushfires cloak the Glasshouse Mountains, at the northern end of Moreton Bay.

Some of the bay’s natural edges have been replaced by the geometric patterns of canal estates. It is thought that about 20 per cent of the bay’s mangroves have been lost since European settlement.

Some of the bay’s gloriously ragged natural edges have been replaced by the geometric patterns of canal estates. It is thought that about 20 per cent of the bay’s mangroves have been lost since European settlement.

Luckily, there are places in Moreton Bay where the zone between sea and land is as it has been for millennia — blurred and hard to define. In 1799 Matthew Flinders couldn’t find the entrance to the Brisbane River because it was obscured by a wall of grey-green mangroves, plants which thrive in the shallow water and mud flats of this island-sheltered bay.

The word mangrove refers to a range of plants growing in the intertidal zone. This is an orange mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza), Coochiemudlo Island.

The word mangrove refers to a range of plants growing in the intertidal zone. Orange Mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza), Coochiemudlo Island.

Mangroves are, of course, important places — as home to marine life, crucial nurseries for the sea creatures our fisheries depend on, and buffer zones to storms and the power of the sea.

Important is a word that just doesn’t begin to cut it. It’s baffling then when we are reminded that some still seem to despise them, as when those who have claimed their patch of real estate by the bay see mangroves as an impediment to their view. Some even destroy them to improve their outlook, killing part of the thing they seek to enjoy, not understanding the basic truth that the bay is a vast living system, with many parts, not just some pretty vista captured within a window frame.

Australia is surrounded by approximately 11,000 km of mangrove-lined coast — around 18% of the coastline, and nearly half of this is found in Queensland. There are about 13,500 ha of mangroves on the edges of the Moreton Bay. Most are found near river mouths and in other areas protected from waves.

Australia is surrounded by approximately 11,000 km of mangrove-lined coast — around 18% of the coastline, and nearly half of this is found in Queensland. There are about 13,500 ha of mangroves on the edges of the Moreton Bay. Most are found near river mouths and in other areas protected from waves.

A grey mangrove seedling. Nearly 70 per cent of the prawns, crabs and fish we eat depend on the mangrove habitat for at least part of their lifecycle.

A grey mangrove seedling. Nearly 70 per cent of the prawns, crabs and fish we eat depend on the mangrove habitat for at least part of their lifecycle.

Many probably still see mangrove forests as smelly, horrible places crawling with mozzies, snakes, spiders and crocodiles. Explore one though, and light and time slip away. As the sounds of the land fade, other noises are heard — clicks, splashes, the clear piping of a mangrove kingfisher or the sweet, falling leaf call of a mangrove gerygone. There’s a gradual realisation that these muddy, shadowed places are full of life.

A Soldier Crab displays its maroon knees.

A Soldier Crab displays its maroon knees.

The highly venomous, but charmingly beautiful Blue-lined Octopus.

The highly venomous, but charmingly beautiful Blue-lined Octopus.

Blue swimmer, Moreton Bay.

Blue swimmer, Moreton Bay.

So where does the sea actually start or end in a mangrove zone? There’s no set spot of course, this is the intertidal zone, where the water ebbs and flows with the endless tides.

At low tide, old mangroves look like stranded, strange creatures, patterned by lichens and ringed by water-marks. They are partially consumed each day as the incoming tide pushes past them toward the land beyond. In king tides and storms the sea reaches beyond them to saltmarshes and samphire flats, sometimes even popping up in the drains and streets of bayside suburbs like some kind of unwelcome intruder.

Image 6_(c) Ashdown

Image 7_(c) Ashdown
On this morning I have waded out before dawn into the mangroves, carrying a camera and binoculars. I’m close to the suburbs but may as well be lost somewhere on Australia’s vast northern coastline, sent back in time to when there were no cities chewing up the bush beyond.
I’ve gone as far as I can, having pushed out beyond the edge of the mangroves.

As the sun rises and the first orange light hits the wall of mangroves, the wind drops and calm descends on the scene, allowing glowing reflections a brief window of life. Realising that this will only last a minute or two, I steady my camera on a shaky, mud-stuck tripod and capture one long exposure. Then, the wind rises, the moment vanishes, and a restless movement fills the mangrove forest as a new day takes over.

A dragonfly is warmed to life by the sun's first light. Lota Creek mangroves.

A dragonfly is warmed to life by the sun’s first light. Lota Creek mangroves.

Man, boat and pelicans, dawn, Wynnum.

Man, boat and pelicans, dawn, Wynnum.

Weeks later I get the developed slides back and realise that this single sunrise mangrove image (the first image on this blog post) will be a favourite photograph of mine, one that will have the power to transport me from the stress of busy life to the quiet wildness of the mangroves, still there I hope, greeting each day amid the endless rhythm of the tides, home to myriad creatures, important — and just being its mysterious, magical self.

Mangroves at dawn, Wynnum North boardwalk

Mangroves at dawn, Wynnum North boardwalk

A full moon rising over St Helena Island is framed by a grey mangrove.

A full moon rising over St Helena Island is framed by a Grey Mangrove. Wynnum North.

Wildlife of the Lockyer Valley calendar 2016

The Wildlife of the Upper Lockyer Valley calendar for 2016 is now available for ordering.

Burton’s Snake Lizard. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Proceeds from the sale of this calendar go toward The Citizens of the Lockyer Inc. This community group aims to increase awareness of the rich biodiversity to be found throughout the Lockyer Valley and to promote the adoption of sustainable lifestyles in this unique rural environment.

The calendar features some wonderful images from Bruce Thomson, Mike Peisley and Russell Jenkins (and a few from me), and includes information about the area’s wildlife from naturalist par-excellence Rod Hobson. Design was by the talented Rob and Terttu Mancini of Evergreen Design. The calendar was produced through an Community Environment grant from the Lockyer Valley Regional Council.

Graphic Flutterer. Photo by Bruce Thomson.

Wedge-tailed Eagle and Magpie. Photo by Russell Jenkins.

Scarlet Honeyeater. Photo by Mike Piesley.

Copies are $15 (+ postage) and can be ordered from Roxanne Blackley at bioearth@bigpond.com.

Brachychitons by night

My photographic exploration of these intriguing trees continues.

On a cool evening at Highwoods on the Darling Downs I watched the fading light soak into textured bark. As eerie silhouettes against a starlit sky, these trees seem otherworldly and ancient, reaching silently toward the Milky Way.

[Click on the images for a larger view]

Thanks to Martin, Rod and Mark. See also: Bottle Trees at Highwoods, Brachychiton survivors and Brachychitons Part 2.

The Simpson revisited

Simpson Desert, western Queensland.

The Simpson Desert. All photos in this post by Robert Ashdown.

The scene was awfully fearful, dear Charlotte. A kind of dread (and I am not subject to such feelings) came over me as I gazed upon it. It looked like the entrance into Hell.
[Explorer Charles Sturt on encountering the edge of the Simpson Desert, September 1845.]

In 1996 I spent some time on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Not much time, and not far into the desert, but it was a memorable adventure.

As an image I’d taken on that trip was recently chosen for the cover of a book on macroevolution (the evolutionary and ecological processes responsible for generating patterns of biodiversity), it seemed like a good opportunity to post some slide scans, accompanied by a few words written for an article published in the Summer 1996 edition of Wildlife Australia.

Looking west across the Simpson Desert as the light fades.

Looking west across the Simpson Desert as the light fades.

The Simpson Desert. To some the name may conjure images of lifeless sand dunes, of a stark and deadly landscape. To visiting naturalists, the Simpson is a place of subtlety, surprises, life, colour and great contrasts.

The Simpson Desert covers part of three states at the arid centre of Australia. More than 1,000 parallel sand ridges, often running unbroken for great distances, form a unique landscape. It is one of the world’s great sandy deserts.

Lobed Spinifex (Triodia basedowii) forms hummocks on dune crests. It provides refuge for many species of desert fauna.

Ctenotus pantherinus

Ctenotus pantherinus ,one of many species of beautiful reptiles that call this arid area home.

Parakeelya.

Parakeelya.

Central Military Dragon (Ctenophorus isolepis).

Canegrass dragon, Diporophora winneckei.

Canegrass dragon (Diporophora winneckei) playing dead.

Aboriginal people lived in this desert for countless generations, basing their lives around wells and an intimate contact with the desert plants and animals. Early Europeans saw it as a dead zone — devoid of flora and fauna of any real value.

Vegetation in the swale areas between sand ridges.

Vegetation in the swale areas between sand ridges.

Brown falcon.

Brown falcon.

"Desert

The Desert Grevillea (Grevillea juncifolia) is one of the many desert plants that can survive long periods without rain. I watched Black Honeyeaters coming over the sand ridges to land in them for a brief nectar refuel.

Ghost Gum and spinifex in afternoon light.

Ghost Gum and spinifex in afternoon light.

These notions faded as expeditions and surveys revealed an astonishing biodiversity. Far from being a monotonous and lifeless wasteland, the Simpson Desert encompasses a variety of constantly changing land-forms, each providing habitat for many superbly adapted plants and animals. New and exciting biological discoveries are continually being made.

To the visiting photographer, the Simpson is overwhelming. The vast, silent landscapes do not easily reveal their secrets. In a  dry creek bed between sand ridges, we share the midday shade with a host of birds.

Dry creek bed, Simpson Desert.

The dry bed of Gnallan-a-gea Creek, Simpson Desert.

Flowering bloodwood, Gnallan-a-gea Creek.

Flowering bloodwood, full of birds. Gnallan-a-gea Creek.

Tangled mulla mulla.

Tangled Mulla Mulla.

Grasshopper and desert sand.

Grasshopper and desert sand.

The change from afternoon into night is soft and magical. As the sun  sinks, the red sand on the ridges glows with a luminous intensity. The shadows of the wildflowers and other plants lengthen.

Silence returns and cloaks everything with a palpable intensity, The dome of the sky sweeps down to invade the ground as the twilight colours fade and the horizon vanishes, Another day in  this remarkable place has ended.

Ghost Gum and full moon.

QM photographer Jeff Wright looks after the campfire in dry creek bed.

Jeff Wright looks after the campfire in dry creek bed.

Varanus gilleni, a small species of goanna found wandering about the creek bed at night.

Gillens Moniter (Varanus gilleni), a species of small goanna. We found wandering about the creek bed at night.

And who ended up on the cover of that book? A character I’d been hoping to meet.

Thorny Devil tracks, with boot tracks of photographer seeking reptile.

Mysterious tiny tracks (on left), with the boot tracks of photographer in hot pursuit.

Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus)

Found! Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) photographed  at last.

LINKS:

Tigers on the move

There’s always something to discover in a Queensland backyard if you’re into natural history, even if it’s a fairly ordinary one like ours.

Returning from an early Saturday morning walk, the dog and I were stopped in our tracks. Our flowering Ivory Curl Flower tree (Buckinghamia celsissima) was alive with a swirling mass of Blue Tiger butterflies.

With the recent rain and heat our desert-like yard evolved into a weedy suburban Amazon, and with the green came the insects. Lots of them. Bladder Cicadas deafened all at twilight, Garden Orb-weaver spiders made each trip to the bin at night an arm-waving obstacle course and Scarlet Percher dragonflies buzzed us in our dodgy inflatable pool.

Blue Tiger butterflies swirl about our Ivory Curl flower tree, a magical Saturday morning coincidence of flowers and migrating butterflies. Text and all photographs by Robert Ashdown. Click on an image for a larger version.

However, this swirling mass of butterflies was something else. Standing under the tree, I could see a stream of the fluttering insects doggedly heading toward our house from the south-west. As they neared the Ivory Curl Flower they’d drop immediately, landing and seeking nectar, oblivious to observers. Native stingless bees buzzed about dodging the butterflies as well as the tiny flower spiders seeking to capture a meal. A microcosm of insect activity centred on this one magnetic tree.

Blue tiger butterflies feed on certain plants to obtain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals that make them quite unpleasant to animals trying to eat them. They have also been observed drinking from moist sand in the dry season.

The Blue Tiger (Tirumala hamata) is one of the butterfly species that sometimes moves in enormous numbers across southern Queensland — others include the Caper White (Belenois java) and the Lemon Migrant (Catopsilia Pomona). The Blue Tiger is a member of the Danais group which includes many migratory butterflies, the most well-known of which is the Monarch. The Monarch undertakes huge regular migrations in America and even managed an overseas trip, arriving in Australia in the 1870s, possibly blown this way by cyclones or travelling as larvae stowed away on plants that subsequently became weed species here. Once established in Australia, the Monarch settled down to a more sedentary life, only undertaking less-ambitious journeys from inland areas to the coast as the temperature drops with winter.

Blue Tigers are also found in the Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, In Australia, they breed in monsoon forest (vine thicket) and littoral rainforest in south-east Queensland, or around Darwin in the wet season when larval food plants produce new growth.

The introduced plant Lantana is a favourite source of nectar for many butterflies. Lockyer Valley.

Blue Tiger butterflies can be hard to spot during winter but large numbers can still sometimes be found. Winter is a tough time for butterflies as host plants are unable to offer fresh foliage for larvae to feed on and fewer nectar sources are available. Some Australian species, such as the Blue Tiger, have a survival strategy: they gather in large numbers and put their lives on hold for the winter. This dormancy, or ‘aestivation’ (also known as ‘overwintering’) buys adult butterflies time. In summer an adult may only live for one to two months; however, a butterfly that has overwintered can live as long as nine months. Those few extra months may mean that winter butterflies can make it through to the spring, a much more favourable breeding time. Blue Tigers have been found overwintering in vine forest in sandy gullies and creek banks, resting on branches or twigs close to the ground.

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[CLICK ON IMAGES ABOVE FOR LARGER VIEW]

In spring and summer, they take to the air, often in huge numbers. Some claim that we are currently experiencing the highest number of butterflies seen in south-east Queensland for 40 years. When interviewed by the ABC, Queensland Museum curator Dr Christine Lambkin explained that the numbers were due to a combination of rain and heat providing perfect breeding conditions for these insects.

“We have had a long extended dry period that has been broken by good rains at the right time of the year,” she said. “So we have got the warmth as well as the rain and that is what has caused the adults to break the aestivation, which is the insect hibernation, and emerge in numbers. Some of them will be trying to mate and lay eggs so that the caterpillars are going to come up on that flush new growth (of butterfly food plants) from the rain.”

With numerous pale blue streaks and elongate spots, the blue tiger is an attractive insect. The pupa of this butterfly is a shiny green with gold spots that turn silver. The caterpillars are grey with black bands, orange lines and long filaments. They feed on vines found in dry rainforest scrub.

Are the Blue Tigers heading anywhere in particular? According to old mate Google, the online consensus appears to be that this species heads south from northern Queensland in spring and summer, moving through Brisbane (where they are normally not often seen) in large numbers. They have been recorded reaching as far south as Victoria. However, other observers have recorded them heading north, as seen at our place this year.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Rod Hobson recounts watching huge numbers of blue tigers “ … flying north into the never-never of blue off the end of Sandy Cape at Fraser Island to perish at sea. I used to find large numbers of dead blue tigers in the beach wrack for days after these events.” It’s hard to imagine what they were seeking in the Pacific Ocean, if they had a destination in mind.

Strangely, when seen flying about later in autumn, Blue Tigers appear to be moving in different directions. I asked entomologist Chris Lambkin if the butterflies were perhaps being blown in one direction by prevailing winds. Chris does not believe this is the case; she has seen them moving east into the wind.

While butterflies are perhaps the best-known group of insects, much remains to be known about their taxonomy and ecological requirements, important information if we wish to conserve them.

So it seems we don’t know why they head in one direction. Clearly, the movement of butterflies in Australia is not well understood. Some research has been done — Dr Courtenay Smithers at the Australian Museum initiated a tagging program for butterflies in the 1970s, which gave some idea of the seasonal movement of Monarchs in Australia and discovered some over-wintering sites for the species. However, not a great deal appears to have been discovered about butterfly travel plans in the decades since. Much of what has been written on butterfly movement has appeared in the newsletters of ever-active organisations  such as the Butterflies and Other Invertebrates Club and Land for Wildlife (see, for example, this article on Caper White migration).

Dr Lambkin believes there just isn’t enough scientifically recorded information about these butterfly mass movement events to allow for the full picture. Why the Blue Tigers are all heading in one direction must, for the time-being, remain another of those wonderful mysteries of nature — to be watched and enjoyed.

 

Links

Ogre on the fence

How could you not like a spider with a name like Ogre-faced? I found this ogre, more commonly known as the Net-casting Spider (Deinopis subrufa), lurking on a fence facing a busy suburban street.

This is a female net-casting spider. Males are much thinner. The Queensland Museum reports that “At night, the female spider builds a brilliant blue-filled rectangle of silk which it swirls around passing prey with remarkable speed.”

‘In a bygone but more erudite society this spider was called the Retiarius (lit. “net-man” or “net-fighter” in Latin) after the lightly clad gladiator of ancient Rome who faced his more heavily encumbered opponent armed only with a cast net and trident.’ Rod Hobson

The Australian Museum tells us more about its net-casting abilities. “In order to have an aiming point, the spider often drops splashes of white faecal droppings onto the leaf or bark substrate over which it is poised. When an insect walks across this ‘target’, the spider plunges its net downward to envelop and entangle it. If successful, the spider silk-wraps the prey item, bites and paralyses it, and then feeds on it. Net strikes will also be made at flying insects that stray too close. An unused net is sometimes stored by hanging it on nearby leaves for the next night’s hunting, or the spider may eat it.”

Mystery of the clicks

The sounds of nature are always there, even in the city and suburbs, if you stop to hear.

Sometimes they are memorable, melodic noises. I remember lying in bed as a child in Brisbane in the dead of night listening to the cheerful call of a Willy Wagtail or the haunting, ‘mo-poke’ call of the Southern Boobook Owl. At other times the sounds are mysterious drones, clicks or whistles, all just part of the background of summer in the suburbs. Unless it’s a click that you’ve been trying to find the owner of for years.

The makers of many mysterious nocturnal noises lurk in a suburban backyard!

The makers of many mysterious nocturnal noises lurk in a suburban backyard! All photos R. Ashdown.

In our street on dusk after the first hot summer day, an all-enveloping, loud, continuous guttural rumbling fills the air. This is the call of the large, green Bladder Cicada (Cystosoma saundersii). These beautiful, large green insects are hard to find, given how loud and large they are.

Bladder cicada

Catching cicadas is a childhood pastime during an Australian summer. Some species sit warily high up on tall gum trees, taking flight at the slightest movement. Others, such as this Bladder Cicada, call on twilight and are well camouflaged. If detected, these cicadas will suddenly drop to the ground, hoping to avoid being caught.

Bladder Cicadas are found in closed forest and gardens on coastal Queensland and New South Wales. In males, the large, hollow abdomen acts as a resonant sound radiator, allowing the cicada’s song to carry long distances. In our suburb, the call of these insects on a summer evening can be deafening.

Most of the life of this cicada, like most species of this insect, is spent below ground as a nymph, feeding on the sap from the roots of trees. On  warm summer nights, nymphs leave the safe, dark earth, climb a tree or fence post and the adult cicada emerges from its brown skin, unfolding delicate wings that are pumped full of fluid as they unroll and harden. The shed skins, or ‘nymphal exuviae’ remain behind, clinging motionless and empty to a fence post, evidence of the adult cicada’s arrival above ground in the night.

Venation in a cicada wing.

Veins in a cicada’s wing.

The adult cicada usually only lives for two to three weeks. Males call to attract females, who fly to the male chorus and land within 50 cm of the male.The female produces a pheromone  which is distributed by wing-clicking. The male responds by changing to the courtship song, before moving towards the female and mating. The female cicadas lay eggs in the live branches of plants that are suitable for the larvae, which hatch and climb down below ground.

For many years, I’ve pondered a strange, intermittent clicking noise heard in summer in the suburbs of Brisbane and here in Toowoomba. The clicking was recently described by a naturalist mate, who had also heard them, as ‘like the sound made by two Aboriginal message or song sticks clacked together’. A perfect description. Advice from those who study insects and like stuff has pointed me towards another green cicada as the likely suspect — the  Bottle Cicada (Glaucopsaltria viridis). This cicada has a long, whistling sound on dusk, but is known to produce some intermittent clicking sounds during the day.

Bottle Cicadas are about 3 cm long. The male has an inflated hollow abdomen. They are found in south-eastern Queensland and northern New South Wales. Their main song is a continuous, monotonous whistle at dusk, between October and April.

It’s taken years, but I finally found one of these insects. While walking on dusk past a hedge from which I’d previously heard the mysterious clicking, I noticed a long whistling call emerging from all over the hedge. Closing in on one source of the sound, an insect flew down to the ground, where my faithful fellow-naturalist dog tried to eat it. I wrestled the insect from the dog’s mouth, and found that it was indeed one of these green cicadas. I had at last solved my personal mystery of the weird clicking sounds.

Bottle Cicada. Cicadas have two obvious, large, compound eyes, and three ocelli. Ocelli are three jewel-like eyes situated between the two main, compound eyes. It is thought that ocelli are used to detect levels of light and darkness.

Bottle Cicada. Cicadas have two obvious, large, compound eyes, and three ocelli. Ocelli are jewel-like eyes situated between the two main, compound eyes. It is thought that ocelli are used to detect levels of light and darkness.

Some naturalists are dedicated to investigating, and recording and analysing, the sounds of nature. Sid Curtis describes on the Nature Recordists forum his investigation into the clicking call of  Bottle Cicadas, using some specialist microphone and and recording gear:

Here in Brisbane the Bottle Cicada is common in our suburban gardens. Like many cicadas, the males all sing at the same time, thus making it difficult to locate any one individual. With just one’s ears, that is. Klas’s so excellent and highly directional Telinga mic and reflector make it easy. They sing at dusk: “Continuous and without apparent variation”, is how Dr Max Moulds author of the book Australian Cicadas, describes it. But that is not all.

During the day they have a very different and far-from-obvious call. Just a few (up to 5) short sharp ‘bips’ over a second or so. Then silence for several minutes. Also very effective in making it difficult to locate the insect by the sound. (And incidentally, using Peak LE software and a Mac computer, I have strung these bips together without spaces between them, and produced their continuous dusk song.)

To locate one during the day, play a recording of the continuous dusk song, and the cicada just has to join in. He won’t keep going for long after you stop the recording, but you can start him again. The dusk song of course is to attract females for mating. The song changes if a female arrives. I surmise that the intermittent day song is aimed at males — to enable each to maintain his personal space. I hoped to test this by concealing a small speaker fairly close to a male and playing a recording of the spaced-out day song. Unfortunately my garden is very small; I’d have to use the garden next door. This was a possibility but the house was sold and the new owners cleared the whole area — all trees and shrubs have gone, and there’ll be no cicadas.

But back to mechanical noise. At one stage someone used a motor-mower with
a whine of just the right pitch to match the cicadas dusk song. And they
joined in!

Now, I’ll need another mystery of the natural world to solve. Luckily, there are zillions more out there!

Aliens lurk in every hedge, cooking up bizarre sounds to intrigue us all.

Links:

Also see my earlier post on cicadas here.

Blue, red and green

Three images from guest photographer Brett Roberts.

Ravensbourne National Park. Photo by Brett Roberts.

Ravensbourne National Park. Photo by Brett Roberts. Click on an image for a closer look.

Brett, a colleague in the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, is a photographer who combines a technical mastery of the camera with an eye for arresting composition and abstract expression. Here are three sublime glimpses of the shimmering, ever-shifting patterns and colours of nature.

Fire, Girraween National Park. Photo by Brett Roberts.

Bushfire, Girraween National Park. Photo by Brett Roberts.

Reflections at the Cascades. Crows Nest National Park. Photo by Brett Roberts.

Reflections at the Cascades, Crows Nest National Park. Photo by Brett Roberts.

‘To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.’ Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers

‘Mysteries lie all around us, even in the most familiar things, waiting only to be perceived.’  Wynn Bullock

Cryptic dragon

A Southern Angle-headed Dragon (Hipsilures spinipes), photographed at the Goomburra section of Main Range National Park.

Southern Angle-headed Dragon, Main Range National Park.

The Southern Angle-headed Dragon is found in sub-tropical rainforests in south-eastern Queensland north to the Gympie area and in northern New South Wales. This small, well-camouflaged reptile likes to perch on the trunks of trees where light penetrates to the forest floor, such as at edges of creeks and tracks. Southern Angle-headed Dragons eat insects and arthropods, such as centipedes and spiders. In December, females lay up to seven eggs in shallow nests in clearings, and there is evidence of communal nesting. Photo R. Ashdown.

 An earlier blog post on rainforest dragons.

A name for an earless dragon

It’s taken a while, but a tiny endangered Darling Downs reptile has finally been given a scientific name.

The newly-named Condamine Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis condaminensis).

The newly-named Condamine Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis condaminensis). Earless dragons are found throughout most of mainland Australia. They live in dry open areas such as featureless stony deserts, cracking clay plains and grasslands. Most extend across vast tracts of the interior, but one southern temperate grassland species reaches the Darling Downs. Photo R. Ashdown.

A paper published recently by the Museum of Victoria has assigned scientific names to three species to the genus Tympanocryptis, commonly known as ‘earless dragons’.

The paper The Role of Integrative Taxonomy in the Conservation of Cryptic Species: The Taxonomic Status of Endangered Earless Dragons in the Grasslands of Queensland presents the results of taxonomic research from a team headed by Dr Jane Melville from Museum Victoria, and which included Katie Smith and Sumitha Hunjan (Museum Victoria), Luke Shoo (The University of Queensland) and Rod Hobson (Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service).

The paper provides clarification of the taxonomy of what has been a confusing genus of reptiles. Some of the earless dragon species still await description, while others may be part of a species group. Naming species is usually never straight-forward.

Tympanocryptis means ‘hidden ear’ — the ears of these dragons are covered by scales that make them appear earless.

A Condamine Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis condaminensis). Tympanocryptis means ‘hidden ear’ — the ears of these dragons are covered by scales that make them appear earless. Photo R. Ashdown.

The taxonomic status of the earless dragon known from the Darling Downs area has long been uncertain, so the description of this species as Tympanocyptis condaminensis (with the common name Condamine Earless Dragon) has been welcomed by herpetologists, naturalists, and the Darling Downs community that has taken this little reptile to heart.

There has been a bit of history leading to this point, as described in the paper:

The grassland earless dragons of south-eastern Queensland have long been of conservation concern. Originally the earless dragons from the Condamine catchment, in the eastern Darling Downs, were identified as Tympanocryptis pinguicolla, after being first discovered in the region over 30 years ago.

However, subsequent surveys failed to detect these dragons and they were believed to be locally extinct until their rediscovery in 2001 when a specimen was found in a grass verge along the margin of a fallow paddock. It was found that these earless dragons were restricted to mixed cropping land (maize, cotton, sorghum, sunflower etc.), remnant native grasslands and grassy verges along roads. Based on these data, the T. pinguicolla populations from the Darling Downs were listed as an endangered species of high priority in Queensland. Since then the taxonomic designation of these populations has been changed to T. cf tetraporophora, based on phylogenetic and morphological data.

The paper describes three new species of earless dragon, all found in grassland areas of Queensland, now highly impacted by human activity such as agricultural and pastoral industries, and mining and gas extraction.

The Five-lined Earless Dragon (Tympanocrytptis pentalineata). Currently only known from the one location, 50 km south-west of Normanton in the gulf region of far northern Queensland. Named for the dorsal colour pattern of the new species, characterised by five longitudinal white stripes extending along the body.

The Roma Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis wilsoni). Currently known to occur in grasslands, dominated by Mitchell grasses, on sloping terrains in near the town of Roma. Named in recognition of the contributions of Steve Wilson to Australian herpetology, in particular his direct contribution to the understanding of Tympanocryptis diversity in Queensland. Steve Wilson discovered this new species during a survey, provided photographs in-life and collected the only voucher specimens.

The Roma Earless Dragon, Tympanocryptis wilsoni.

The Roma Earless Dragon, Tympanocryptis wilsoni. Photographed by Steve Wilson, 40km east of Roma.

The Condamine Earless Dragon (Tympanocyptis condaminensis). Occurs in the remnant native grasslands, croplands and roadside verges of the eastern Darling Downs, on black cracking clays of the Condamine River floodplain. Found as far north as the Pirrinuan/Jimbour area, west as far as the town of Dalby and south to the township of Clifton. To the east it has been recorded to the eastern extremity of the Darling Downs in the Aubigny/Purrawunda area on the western outskirts of Toowoomba. Specific locations include: Oakey, Mt Tyson, Brookstead, Bongeen, and Bowenville. Named for the Condamine River and its floodplain on which this species occurs.

Steve Wilson gets up close to a Condamine Earless Dragon at Kunari, Darling Downs, 2006.

Steve Wilson gets up close to a Condamine Earless Dragon at Kunari, Darling Downs, 2006. Photo by R. Ashdown.

Two characters I’m happy to call mates have been heavily involved in this dragon discovery work. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service colleague Rod Hobson was one of the authors of the paper, while one of the newly-described dragons, the Roma Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis wilsoni), was named after photographer Steve Wilson. I have accompanied both Steve and Rod on some memorable expeditions looking for, and photographing, the Condamine Earless Dragon in cropland and roadside grasslands to the west of Toowoomba.

The Darling Downs community has long campaigned for the conservation of the tiny dragon found in their area. The Pittsworth District Landcare Association and the Mt Tyson District Landcare Group were both instrumental in initiating and resourcing the research which has resulted in this taxonomic work. Local landowners the Wooldridges (Bongeen) and the Halfords (Mt. Tyson) took a keen interest in the future of the dragons found on their properties and in their local area.

An adult Condamine Earless Dragon caught on Kunari by Rod Hobson, a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) ranger.

An adult Condamine Earless Dragon caught on Kunari by Rod Hobson, a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) ranger. QPWS staff have been involved in research and conservation of the species since its rediscovery. Photo R. Ashdown.

So where to now for these newly-named reptiles? The authors believe that the conservation status and management of this group of dragons in Queensland needs to be investigated further.

From the paper:

Earless dragons are currently known from only a few sites within the Darling Downs region and are restricted to what were previously native grasslands. The Darling Downs is an important agricultural area on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range in southern Queensland.

Prior to European settlement, it was an area characterized by open prairie-like grasslands grading into Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) and Belah (Casuarina cristata) on cracking clay soils. These fertile soils have been heavily modified since European settlement and very little native grassland remains, making this one of the most threatened ecosystems in Queensland.

 A small road-side patch of original grassland, near Jimbour on the Darling Downs.

A small road-side patch of original grassland, near Jimbour on the Darling Downs. Photo R. Ashdown

“The grasslands around the Darling Downs are subject to both mining (coal seam gas exploration) and land clearing encroachments. That loss of habitat is pushing the dragons into smaller and smaller areas — we found some along roadside verges, trapped on that very narrow strip of land,” says Jane Melville, Senior Curator of Terrestrial Vertebrates at Museum Victoria, and lead author of the paper.

 Roadside verges have become critical habitat for Condamine Earless Dragons.

Roadside verges have become critical habitat for Condamine Earless Dragons. Photo R. Ashdown.

Melville believes the discovery of an additional species on the Darling Downs highlights how little is known about fauna in these grasslands and the fundamental need for further ecological and genetic research on both species.

“We need to establish broad baseline data, which can be used to develop conservation management strategies,” she said. “There is a real risk of these species becoming extinct before we know anything about them.”

The Grassland Earless Dragon

An article written by Rod Hobson for the Winter 2006 edition of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service publication The Bush Telegraph gives an overview of the history of the Condamine Earless Dragon.

In the early 1970s amateur herpetologist Terry Adams found two little lizards in the black soil country at Mount Tyson on the eastern Darling Downs. These lizards caused a few raised eyebrows when they eventually came to the notice of staff from the Queensland Museum. Here was a new species for Queensland — a lizard that until then was only known from small and isolated populations confined to native grasslands west of Melbourne, the ACT and adjoining areas of New South Wales.

It was the grassland earless dragon Tympanocryptis pinguicolla, regarded as one of Australia’s most rare and threatened of species. Repeated searches after Terry’s initial discovery however failed to reveal any more individuals of this little dragon lizard. It was feared to be extinct in Queensland.

 Grassland on Bongeen, Darling Downs, 2005. Typical dragon habitat. Photo by R. Ashdown.

Grassland on Bongeen, Darling Downs, 2005. Typical dragon habitat. Photo by R. Ashdown.

Then, in January 2001, students from the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus caught a small lizard whilst working on a project on the property of Dennis and Rose Wooldridge, at Bongeen on the eastern Darling Downs. The students’ supervisor Dr. Luke Leung forwarded the lizard to the Queensland Museum for identification. Its arrival there caused a furore — here was the lizard thought to have become extinct in Queensland since its initial discovery in the early 1970s. It was at this early stage that Queensland Parks and Wildlife’s Toowoomba office became heavily engaged in the Grassland Earless Dragon Project, a commitment that continues to this day.

Dennis Wooldridge stands in a crop of cotton on his property Kunari at Bongeen on the Darling Downs.

Dennis Wooldridge stands in a crop of cotton on his property Kunari at Bongeen on the Darling Downs. The Condamine Earless Dragon is quite at home in a mixed cropping regime of cotton, sorghum, sunflower and maize. The dragon also requires adjoining remnant grasslands for breeding and as a retreat during harvesting operations. Photo R. Ashdown.

Discussing the dragon at Kunari. (L to R) Dennis Wooldridge, Alison Goodland, Rod Hobson and Rose Wooldridge.

Discussing the dragon at Kunari. (L to R) Dennis Wooldridge, Alison Goodland, Rod Hobson and Rose Wooldridge. Kunari was the original site of the dragon’s rediscovery. Dennis and Rose have continued to be enthusiastic and committed participants in the grassland earless dragon project. Alison at the time worked for the Queensland Murray-Darling Committee and was instrumental in the grassland earless dragon project since its inception. Photo R. Ashdown.

Since those heady days quite a few organisations, both government and non-government, have become involved with this great little lizard. Steve Wilson, Patrick Couper and Andrew Amey from the Queensland Museum have been ready and willing to provide technical and scientific information as needs arose. Students and staff from the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus have been busy on research projects, especially on the genetics of the species.

Tom Halford releases a clay dragon into the 'biodiversity area' at Mount Tyson State School during the 'Kids and Dragons' project.

Tom Halford releases a clay dragon into the ‘biodiversity area’ at Mount Tyson State School during the ‘Kids and Dragons’ project. Coordinated by the Mount Tyson District Landcare Group and funded by a community awareness grant from The Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, the project raised dragon awareness in the local community. Tom’s parents, Paula and Peter Halford of Nyleta at Mount Tyson, have been enthusiastic in coordinating dragon conservation efforts on the Darling Downs since they discovered dragons on their property several years ago. Photo Alison Goodland.

 Carly Starr, a student from University of Queensland (Gatton Campus) applies fluorescent powder to track an earless dragon during her Masters project on the species.

Carly Starr, a student from University of Queensland (Gatton Campus) applies fluorescent powder to track an earless dragon during her Masters project on the species. This picture was taken in sorghum stubble on Nyleta, a property owned by dragon enthusiasts Paula and Peter Halford at Mount Tyson on the Darling Downs. No animals were harmed during the study. Photo Josh Bassett.

 Perfectly camouflaged! It's hard to spot one of these tiny dragons . Photo R. Ashdown.

Perfectly camouflaged! It’s hard to spot one of these tiny dragons . Photo R. Ashdown.

 Condamine Earless Dragons can at times be seen perched on grass as they survey their surroundings. Photo R. Ashdown.

Condamine Earless Dragons can at times be seen perched on grass as they survey their surroundings. Photo R. Ashdown.

Students Leigh Jewell, Violeta Toneva, Carly Starr and Stephanie Goebel under the tutelage of Drs. Greg Baxter and Luke Leung have contributed significantly to our understanding of the species through their tireless fieldwork.

Alison Goodland, initially through her work for World Wildlife Fund, and lately with the Queensland Murray-Darling Committee/Condamine Alliance, has been in ‘boots and all’ since the early days of the project. The Mount Tyson Landcare Group has contributed generously towards the project with their time and enthusiasm, especially through local landowners Paula and Peter Halford.

 Heather Hanlon (proprietor of speciality chocolate shop and restaurant White Mischief) and Paula Halford (Mount Tyson District Landcare) inspect a newly hatched chocolate earless dragon.

Heather Hanlon (proprietor of speciality chocolate shop and restaurant White Mischief) and Paula Halford (Mount Tyson District Landcare) inspect a newly hatched chocolate earless dragon. Carefully hand-crafted by Heather, these novelty lizards have sold well, with funds raised going directly to dragon conservation. Photo R. Ashdown.

Heather Hanlon of White Mischief chocolate shop and restaurant at Mount Tyson has been industriously turning out chocolate earless dragons — with all funds going towards earless dragon research and conservation initiatives.Shona Clark-Dickson and her pupils from Inglewood State School raised just under $200 for the dragon through sales of chocolates and greeting cards at their school fete — well done to Shona and the kids.

Throughout the entirety of the project Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) staff from the Toowoomba office have been involved in giving school talks, media interviews and writing articles on this great little Aussie battler of a lizard, which chooses to make its home amongst the sorghum, cotton and sunflower crops of the eastern Darling Downs.

 Small, but full of character. A Condamine Earless Dragon photographed at Kunari. Photo R. Ashdown.

Small, but full of character. A Condamine Earless Dragon photographed at Kunari. Photo R. Ashdown.

 Pupils of Inglewood State School with their teacher Shona Clark-Dickson.

Pupils of Inglewood State School with their teacher Shona Clark-Dickson. The class raised $200 for dragon conservation by selling greeting cards and dragon chocolates at their school fete. Photo R. Ashdown.

To date we have records from as far north as Jimbour, west to Cecil Plains, south to Nobby/Clifton and east to Mount Tyson and all thanks to the local landowners who have generously allowed us access to their lands.

We couldn’t have had the successes that we’ve had to date without your unstinting enthusiasm and kindness. This happy marriage of such a diversity of groups couldn’t have succeeded to the extent that it has without you. So thanks to everyone involved and may the marriage be a long and happy one.

 Here there be dragons! On the main east-west highway through the Darling Downs. Photo R. Ashdown.

Here there be dragons! On the main east-west highway through the Darling Downs. Photo R. Ashdown.

Kunari, Darling Downs, 2006. Photo R. Ashdown.

Kunari, Darling Downs, 2006. Photo R. Ashdown.

Links:

Girraween granite

Girraween National Park, about 260km south-west of Brisbane, is a majestic place of granite wildness.

The Second Pyramid, seen from the ‘first’ Pyramid. November 2014. All photos by Robert Ashdown.

Girraween has grown on me steadily over the decades I’ve been visiting. I have many memories of time spent in this place, with friends, family, work colleagues or alone.  Something new is revealed each time I visit.  For a photographer artist, naturalist or walker it’s an ongoing revelation — a place where you can lose yourself in nature at it’s most dramatic. It’s always an inspiration for me.

I only made it there twice in 2014, but both trips were enjoyable.

Can there be a more exhilarating walk anywhere? Rob Mancini on the rocky walk to the top of the Pyramid. Nov 2014.

Photographer Gary Cranitch works to capture the rapidly changing sunset light.

Full moon rise over The Pyramid.

Off-duty ranger Anthony Laws takes in the last light from The Pyramid.

Bald Rock Creek on twilight, summer storm clouds in the distance.

The strikingly-patterned Cunningham’s Skink (Egernia cunninghamii).

Water-polished granite.

A recent fire has once again altered the landscape.

It’s noon, and 35C. Cicadas shriek and the granite reflects heat like a furnace. Another storms builds on the horizon.

A warm and active Water Skink (Eulamprus quoyii) checks out passing walkers. Photo by Harry Ashdown.

Rain on the western horizon, and a brief shower crosses the park.

The sun sinks through rain in the west, while large storms build once more to the east.

A fire follows a lightning strike.

Night slowly approaches again.

The summer heat is ideal breeding time for frogs. These are male Stony Creek Frogs (Litoria wilcoxii) in their finest yellow coats.

A Wyberba Leaf-tailed Gecko (Saltuarius wyberba) emerges from cracks in the granite to search of a meal.

Huntsman Spider

This blog post is dedicated to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service rangers at Girraween, both past and present, who have worked so hard to preserve this place for future generations.

Links:

The Palms — small in size, big in character

We tend to think of our national parks as large, wild places. And so they should remain. However, there are smaller parks, full of charm, that hold some great stories. The Palms National Park is one such place.

An enormous Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla) began its life here at least 500 years ago as a seedling high up on another tree. As it grew, the fig’s long cable-like roots descended to the forest floor and gradually enclosed its host tree, restricting its sap flow. The fig’s large canopy also blocked out essential sunlight from the host tree, which slowly died. Today this immense fig dominates this section of the forest and provides habitat for a variety of animals. Photo R. Ashdown.

The Palms, near Cooyar to the north of Toowoomba, is small in size but big in character. Situated at the headwaters of the Brisbane River, The Palms conserves a small remnant of palm-filled subtropical rainforest and vine forest in a spring-fed gully. At just 73 hectares, this is one of the smallest national parks in Australia. However, it’s also home to one of the most diverse ranges of flora and fauna.

A spring-fed creek runs through the park, keeping Piccabeen Palms and giant rainforest trees alive. Photo R. Ashdown.

This is an area that has seen many changes. Indigenous Australian people camped and hunted in this area for thousands of years, and many may have also passed through on their way to the bunya nut festivals at the Bunya Mountains. Timber-getters arrived in the district to utilise the rich forests, and eventually much of the surrounding countryside was cleared. The forests were replaced with crops and grazing. So why does this patch of original scrub remain?

Open farmlands surround The Palms National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Enter Charles Henry Boldery. Born in Maryborough in 1890, Charles’ father and brothers owned properties and businesses in the Blackbutt, Yarraman and Cooyar districts. In 1921 Charles purchased a block of land consisting of 318.5 acres, about ten kilometres north-east of Cooyar. Charles lived on this land with his wife Emily (nee Christiansen) and their young children, and made a living by harvesting and selling the land’s timber.

Charles Boldery and his wife Emily (nee Christiansen) on their wedding day in 1915. Photo courtesy Boldery Family.

In 1927 Charles donated just over five acres of his property to the former Rosalie Shire Council. Charles wanted the site to be protected so that people would always be able to visit it and appreciate its natural beauty. This day-use area became known as Boldery Park, and the location became a popular spot for visitors. Charles lived in Brisbane from the 1960s onwards, where he eventually passed away in 1975.

Families enjoying a day out at Boldery Park in the 1930s. Photo courtesy Boldery Family.

In 2014, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service responded to a request by Charles Boldery’s grandson David Matthews to somehow formally recognise and remember the generosity and forward-thinking action of his grandfather. David assisted QPWS ranger Bryan Phillips-Petersen in creating some new interpretive signs for the park by providing historic photographs and information. The signs were launched this year by Member for Nanango Deb Frecklington. A bunch of Charles’ descendants were there to celebrate the park and to remember Charles.

Decendants of Charles Boldery, Member for Nanango Deb Frecklington and QPWS rangers gather at the park in August 2014. Photo R. Ashdown.

Fay Donald, 89, travelled from Brisbane with sister Shirley Green, 88, for the celebration; both women are the daughters of Charles Boldery. Photo R. Ashdown.

Every time I visit this small park I discover something new. After everyone had left the celebratory barbeque, I walked the track with some rangers. We froze to watch a Noisy Pitta, one of the most beautiful and elusive of rainforest birds,  running down the middle of the walking track. I was reminded that even the smallest patch of Australian scrub can be a valuable refuge to our native plants and animals, as well as a place that rejuvenates and enthralls the visitor. I tip my hat to Charles while I’m there and nod a thankyou for his thoughtful act.

A gallery of images from The Palms (Click on a thumbnail for larger view).

 

All photos by Robert Ashdown.

Thanks to Bryan Phillips-Petersen, David Matthews and Lise Pedersen.

Link: The Palms National Park.

The Roof of Queensland

The Mount Moffatt section of Carnarvon National Park is a wild and remote place. I recently visited the park in the middle of summer heat and storms. Here are a few images from that trip.

[Click on any image for a larger view]

Lightning strikes the earth during a wild summer storm.

Lightning strikes the earth during a wild summer storm.

 Looking north from the Consuelo Tableland.

Looking north from the Consuelo Tableland.

Common Flatwing damselflies.

Common Flatwing damselflies.

Calytrix in flower.

Calytrix in flower.

A Carpet Python emerges from its sandstone retreat in search of food on a hot summer night.

A Carpet Python emerges from its sandstone retreat in search of food on a hot summer night.

 Angophora bark shines after rain.

Angophora bark shines after rain.

Jacksonia in flower near The Tombs.

Jacksonia in flower near The Tombs.

 A Bandy Bandy emerges from the sand during a warm night.

A Bandy Bandy emerges from the sand during a warm night.

 Marlong Arch.

Marlong Arch.

 Thick-tailed Gecko.

Thick-tailed Gecko.

 Carnarvon Tigertail.

Carnarvon Tigertail.

 Grass Trees on sandy soil near the Maranoa River.

Grass Trees on sandy soil near the Maranoa River.

 Thick-tailed Gecko.

Thick-tailed Gecko.

While most of Mount Moffatt is at least 700 metres above sea level, the north-eastern section of the park rises to even loftier heights. Here, the Consuelo Tableland reaches more than 1000 metres above sea level. Forming part of the Great Dividing Range, this area is known as the ‘Roof of Queensland’. Also called the ‘Home of the Rivers’, the Consuelo Tableland is the source of several major river systems. On the south-western side of the tableland, water flows along the twin branches of the Maranoa River and into the Murray-Darling catchment. To the east, water travels down steep-sided valleys, including Carnarvon Gorge, into the Comet and Dawson rivers. These join the Fitzroy River, which meets the coast near Rockhampton.

I’ve had the good fortune to have been able to have visited Mount Moffatt as part of my work developing interpretive material with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Here are some of my favourite images, taken over the last twelve years.

[Click on a thumbnail for larger image.]