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.]

Thanks to:


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.


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

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Images from guest photographers

Some images from guest photographers Bernice Sigley, Mike Peisley, Vanessa Ryan, Ross Naumann and Raelene Neilson.

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.]


Mount Moffatt section, Carnarvon National Park.

Acid trip on Moreton Island 

I am crouching on the edge of a freshwater swamp somewhere in the middle of Moreton Island.

 Wallum Sedge Frog

A Wallum Sedge Frog ( Litoria olongburensis ), only about 3cm long, hides in sedges of an ‘acid’ lake. Its quavering call has been described as ‘somewhat reminiscent of an accelerating motorcycle’. All photographs by R. Ashdown. Click on images for a closer look.

It’s a hot summer evening without a cloud in the sky, but I’m wearing a raincoat and sweating. Peering into a wall of grey sedges, camera in hand, I try to spot a tiny frog. The Wallum Sedge Frogs I seek are not helping me. One calls every now and then, with a sound like a distant accelerating motorcycle, but when I turn in that direction another starts up from somewhere else, confusing me completely. These tiny frogs are perfectly camouflaged and cling to sedges. They’re not the only thing hanging out on the sedges, hence the skin-covering raincoat. Nests of paper wasps abound and I’ve been stung several times on previous attempts to see a frog.

Grey sedges in the acidic waters of a freshwater lake on Moreton Island.

Grey sedges in the acidic waters of a freshwater lake on Moreton Island.

Fellow naturalist and photographer Eric Vanderduys and I had been on a long bushwalk through the centre of the island, exploring this colourful coastal habitat. It was 1998 — in the pre-digital era — where every roll of exposed film held miserable failures and exciting successes, all to be revealed only after an interminable wait for slides to be developed and returned. Like many other naturalists I struggled with primitive flash systems and expensive slide film, all the while becoming ever-more addicted to capturing images of the ‘small world’.

 The late afternoon reflections of paperbark trees in an ephemeral sedge swamp, Moreton Island.

The late afternoon reflections of paperbark trees in an ephemeral sedge swamp, Moreton Island.

A photographic subject we sought on our Moreton Island walk was the ‘acid’ or ‘wallum’ frogs. The term ‘acid’ was applied to a small group of frogs in 1975 by Glen Ingram and Chris Corben (researchers, taxonomists and serious frog legends) in a paper discussing the frogs of North Stradbroke Island.

These frogs, and their tadpoles, thrive in the acidic waters of eastern Australia’s coastal wallum swamps and wet heathlands. The undisturbed swamps and lakes of Moreton and Stradbroke islands are perfect places for ‘acid’ frogs. This is a singular group of amphibians, in a land where our 230 or so species of frogs — such seemingly fragile creatures — reveal all manner of surprising adaptations to the various habitats of our dry continent.

Litoria freycineti, Moreton Island.

In 1838, the vulnerable Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti) was the first frog to be described the genus Litoria, which means ‘beach frog’ in reference to this frog’s coastal distribution. Moreton Island.

 Moreton Island

The acidic waters of a Moreton Island lake are stained brown with tannin from decomposing vegetation.

There are four frogs in the ‘acid’ group — the Wallum Sedge Frog (Litoria olongburensis), the Cooloola Sedge Frog (Litoria cooloolensis), the Wallum Froglet (Crinea tinnula) and the Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti).

These little survivors have a lot on their plates. Their preferred habitats are threatened, being cleared or fragmented for residential development. Changes to the hydrology of the ephemeral wetlands found in these coastal ecosystems are caused by groundwater extraction and canal development. Introduced fish, such as Mosquito Fish (Gambusia sp.) feed on frog eggs and tadpoles. As if all this was not enough, the spectre of climate change and its yet-to-be-known effects looms large — a threat I’d not imagined all those years ago while stalking the Wallum Sedge Frog on Moreton Island.

Eighteen Mile Swamp,  Stradbroke Island.

The Eighteen Mile Swamp on Stradbroke Island is perfect habitat for ‘acid’ frogs.

Luckily, some insight is being gained into the lives of acid frogs by researchers from Griffith University, including Dr Katrin Lowe. Dr Lowe has been studying the complex relationships between climate, hydrology and water chemistry and their effects on the Wallum Sedge Frog. Studies on how these frogs respond to environmental conditions, and how they are able to time reproduction in terms of temperature and rainfall, may shed some light on how acid frogs will respond to long term changes in wetlands.

Research by Dr Lowe and her colleagues has also helped inform management of our protected estate, principally national parks, so important for the future of threatened species such as acid frogs. Fires are common in national parks, and the way fire is managed affects the fauna and flora protected within these areas.

Cooloola Sedge Frogs

The rare and threatened Cooloola Sedge Frog is found in coastal melaleuca woodlands, perched lakes and wallum swamps in southern Queensland.

 Cooloola Sedge Frog (<i>Litoria cooloolensis</i>)

Cooloola Sedge Frog (Litoria cooloolensis)

The Griffith University researchers believe that acid frogs are resilient and highly adaptable. They can survive fires by sheltering quickly within the wetter, cooler parts of their habitat, and can breed in fire-altered environments. However, the researchers caution that the long-term resilience of these frogs depends on how wet things are. If it’s drier and hotter they have less chance of surviving fires. Hazard reduction burns are therefore best conducted in these habitats during cooler, wetter periods, when the frogs have a better chance of survival and population recovery.

How will these frogs cope, however, with a drier and hotter climate, when more fires could put entire populations at risk? Long-term monitoring by researchers is important in understanding what is happening with such little-understood species.

Crinea tinnula.

The tiny (<2cm) ground-dwelling Wallum Froglet (Crinea tinnula) is variable in appearance. It is one of six species of the genus Crinea found in Queensland.

Frogs continue to capture my imagination. Armed with more sophisticated (but still temperamental) digital camera gear, I still enjoy messing about in the dark with dodgy flashes and a macro lens. Sometimes I’m talked into photographing far trickier subjects, such as people. While photographing the wedding of two ranger friends recently, the groom’s father remarked that I must enjoy photographing people. “No”, I replied, “frogs, snakes and lizards are my preferred subjects.” I think he feared for the outcome of the wedding album.

And as for my companion on that bushwalk long ago? Eric now works for CSIRO, and in 2012 published his Field Guide to the Frogs of Queensland. I think one of his photographs from our Moreton Island walk, that of a Wallum Rocket Frog, ended up within. Each of Eric’s beautiful images of Queensland’s diverse frogs has a story behind it. I understand a little of the theme that runs throughout the book’s images — that of countless hours spent struggling with head-torches, cameras and flash units in dark, difficult conditions in pursuit of a couple of photographs of ridiculously elusive subjects, complete experts at not being seen, let alone photographed. However, the memories of the search and times spent in such beautiful locations mean that any minor hardships, and wasp stings, are soon forgotten. And,  what could be more rewarding than eventually sharing the results of such endeavours with others in a book, or a blog post?

R. Ashdown and E. Vanderduys, Moreton Island

Frogologists Eric Vanderduys (left) and Robert Ashdown lost on Moreton Island in search of acid frogs, 1998. (Note compass and map – GPS? What’s a GPS?).

Originally written for the Summer 2014 edition of Wildlife Queensland News.

Bottletrees at Highwoods

The Queensland Bottletree, also known as the Narrow-leaf Bottletree or Kurrajong, is a fascinating plant. I’ve admired them deep within the shaded interior of remnant dry vine scrub, standing alone in cleared farmland like ancient sentinels, and lining the streets of Brisbane and Roma.

They are an intriguing tree to a photographer, as their furrowed bark seems to soak up the light and their bright foliage stands out among the drab greens of central Queensland. These images were taken at a friend’s property, Highwoods, on the Darling Downs.

Queensland Bottletree (Brachychiton rupestris). Highview, Darling Downs.

Queensland Bottletrees (Brachychiton rupestris). Highwoods, Darling Downs. This species is found from central Queensland down to northern New South Wales. This is a hardy tree, which tolerates a wide variety of climates and soil types. Queensland Bottletrees have been cultivated in southern Australia for many decades and can be seen as an ornamental plant around the world.

HighView. Martin Ambrose with Rod Hobson and Rob Ashdown. 13_06_2014.

HighView. .


Thanks to Martin for the chance to spend some time at Highwoods.

Previous posts on Bottletrees:

Moon Rise, Lake Broadwater

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater is the only large, naturally-occurring freshwater lake on the Darling Downs.

Situated within one of the most intensively cultivated agricultural districts in Queensland, the lake is only about three to four metres deep when full. The lake is a focal point of the 1,212 ha Lake Broadwater Regional Park, an important refuge for wildlife and a much-loved recreational area for locals.

I visited the lake in March this year to see if I could capture some images of the full moon rise. Arriving with time to spare, I wandered the edge of the lake, where ancient Blue Gums (Eucalyptus tereticornis) stand, and absorbed the slow, quiet change of the light as the day drew to a close. As the sun’s light faded, the full moon’s eerie glow soon flooded the scene.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

This post is dedicated to the Lake Broadwater Natural History Association.

More information on Lake Broadwater Regional Park

Mulga snakes

This post features some terrific images of Mulga Snakes from western Queensland, all taken by Lindsay Muller.

Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis). All photos by Lindsay Muller.

An intense and wary gaze — Mulga Snake on the move. Photo by Lindsay Muller.

The Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis) is one of seven species of snake in the genus Pseudechis, widely known as the ‘black snakes’. This is an odd name for the group, as just one species is always black.

Spot the Mulga Snake?

Spot the snake? A Mulga Snake, also known as a King Brown, hides beneath the ashes of a recent fire. Photo Lindsay Muller.

The snake emerges from the ashes of a recent fire. Photo Lindsay Muller.

A blur of sudden colour — snake on the move to safer places. Photo Lindsay Muller.

 “The Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis), also known as the King Brown Snake, is poorly named, as the Mulga (Acacia aneura) forms only part of its vast distribution and individuals are not always brown. This extremely variable snake, ranging from yellowish brown or reddish brown to dark olive, has a reticulated pattern formed by dark-edged scales. It is the largest and most widespread species within the group, occurring across most of mainland Australia except the more humid eastern and southern regions.

A large Mulga Snake putting on a defensive display is an impressive sight. While it is fairly placid and disinclined to bite, if it does so it chews while biting, injecting the greatest venom yield for any Australian snake.”    

—  Gerry Swan and Steve Wilson, What Snake Is That?

I have unfortunately never seen a live Mulga Snake, just haven’t been out west enough I guess. Here’s the closest I’ve come to one — a shed skin on a rock outcrop on the Hood Range in western Queensland. A magic place, made all the more so by the presence of such marvellous reptiles.

Mulga Snake Skin, western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

A shed Mulga Snake skin, western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

Another member of the Black Snake family, the more appropriately-named Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus), is surely one of Australia’s most beautifully-coloured animals. It’s my favourite Australian critter (well, after my dog, but she’s not native and she’s not wildlife by any stretch).

After the fire has passed - Red-bellied Black Snake, Lota, Brisbane. Photo R. Ashdown.

Red-bellied Black Snake, Lota, Brisbane. Like Lindsay, I photographed this particular snake after a fire had passed through some bushland. Photo R. Ashdown.

The mistletoe — as Australian as the gum tree


Mention mistletoe to most Australians and they seem to think only of the Christmas tradition of kissing under one — that is, under a northern-hemisphere plant (which they have probably never seen). Meanwhile, Australia has at least 90 native species of mistletoe, probably none of which have ever been kissed under in December.

Yelarbon State Forest

Mistletoe flowers, seen here in a eucalypt at Yelarbon State Forest, are a colourful feature of Australian woodlands. Photo Robert Ashdown.

I’ve always found Australian mistletoes colourful and interesting plants, despite the reputation they seem to have as a pest and parasite. Is this reputation deserved? This blog post presents a perspective on these plants by natural historian Rod Hobson, with some notes on recent research by Dr David Watson and images by guest photographers Mike Peisley and Craig Eddie.

Under the Mistletoe — Rod Hobson

This may come as a surprise to many but contrary to popular belief mistletoes are not parasites. Botanists regard mistletoes as ‘hemi-parasites’, that is ‘half-way parasites’. Biologically, a parasite is an organism living in or on another organism (its host) from which the parasite obtains its food. Mistletoes don’t take anything from their host other than sap water and any minerals therein. They have green leaves therefore they have chlorophyll, which means that they are fully photosynthetic and process all their own food. During long droughts mistletoes suffer severely, as they don’t have any of the various means to conserve water that their hosts might possess. This is especially so if the survival strategy of the host includes restricting water flow to its outer branches. This process thus ‘starves’ the mistletoe of this essential commodity and the mistletoe may eventually succumb to this tactic.

The orange of mistletoe stands out against the green of eucalypts at Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

The orange of mistletoe stands out against the green of eucalypts at Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Harlequin Mistletoe

Harlequin Mistletoe (Lysiana exocarpitenuis). Mistletoes not only provide food for many native animals, birds and insects but are also a source of shelter and nesting sites for many species. Several types of honeyeater including wattlebirds and friarbirds have been recorded nesting in mistletoe clumps. There is even a record of the secretive Grey Goshawk (Accipiter novaehollandiae) nesting in mistletoe. Many birds such as the mistletoebird, cuckoo-shrikes, ravens and crows, cockatoos, shrike-thrushes, woodswallows, bowerbirds, even cassowaries and emus have been observed eating mistletoe. Photo Craig Eddie.

Another popular belief is that mistletoes kill trees. This is not so, as it would take a great many mistletoes to kill a tree and many large trees can be seen doing quite well despite their heavy load of mistletoes. A large number of mistletoes on a tree could well contribute to its decline if the tree was under stress from other factors such as adverse climatic conditions, disease or heavy insect attack. The outer parts of a mistletoe-infected branch will often die though, as upon germination the mistletoe’s anchor (haustorium) enters the water-carrying section (xylem) of its host. Eventually the haustorium may totally block the xylem thereby ‘starving’ the branch’s extremities of water and causing their deaths.

Amylotheca dictyophleba

Many Australian mistletoes are specific to one or a few host plants. The mistletoe Amylotheca dictyophleba (pictured), however, is found on several native rainforest and mixed forest trees. It has also been recorded on introduced trees such as weeping willow, black mulberry, pepperina, camphor laurel, London plane and Liquid amber. Photo Robert Ashdown.

The small and brightly-coloured Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum) is often blamed for spreading mistletoes. It is not the sole culprit however, as over 40 species of Australian birds (especially honeyeaters) are known to eat the mistletoe fruit. Other animals, including the dainty little Feathertail Glider are also very fond of mistletoe.

Mistletoe Bird

Mistletoe mate. The Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), sometimes known as the Mistletoe Flowerpecker. Once I got to know the quiet call of these small but striking birds I was surprised to find them just about everywhere, from my street in the suburbs to the arid mulga-lands of western Queensland. Photo by Mike Peisley.

A Mistletoe Bird swallowing a Mistletoe fruit. Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane. Photo Mike Peisley.

A Mistletoe Bird swallowing a Mistletoe fruit. Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane.  The lives of these birds are inextricably linked with mistletoe. This is the only Australian member of a widespread tropical family of flowerpeckers which feed almost exclusively on the fruits of mistletoes. The seed and its glucose-rich flesh are squeezed within the bill and swallowed. Within 25 to 60 minutes of being swallowed, the seeds are defecated, and are viscid, sticking to almost any surface. Almost all seeds germinate and if they have ended up on a  compatible plant , a new mistletoe plant may establish itself. Photo Mike Peisley.

A female Mistletoe Bird with fruit. The digestive systems of the Mistletoe Bird are adapted to this specialised diet - their stomach has become a simple sac able to digest little else other than a few insects and the alimentary canal facilitates the quick passage of seeds. Photo Mike Peisley.

A female Mistletoe Bird with fruit. The digestive systems of the Mistletoe Bird are adapted to this specialised diet  their stomach has become a simple sac able to digest little else other than a few insects and the alimentary canal facilitates the quick passage of seeds. Photo Mike Peisley.

Mistleltoe bird

Mistletoe bird excreting seed. The germination inhibitor for mistletoe seeds is carbon dioxide within the fleshy fruit that surrounds the seed. Once this is removed the seed can germinate quickly. Photo Mike Peisley.

Germinating mistletoe seeds, Waaje State Forest. Photo R. Ashdown.

Germinating mistletoe seeds, Barakula State Forest. The fused cotyledons make an attachment by their tip, which eventually enter’s the host plant’s vascular system. Photo R. Ashdown.

Australian mistletoes have an ancient Gondwanaland lineage with closely related species found throughout the southern continents, as mistletoe expert Dr Gillian Scott points out in her excellent A Guide to the Mistletoes of Southeastern Australia. Dr Scott, quoting the Australian ornithologist Ken Simpson, also defends the Mistletoebird. According to Ken this bird is a relatively recent arrival in Australia, coming long after the split up of Gondwanaland and the evolution of our mistletoes. Australia has 90 species of mistletoes with about 35 of them found in south-east Queensland. Our mistletoes are contained in two families, the Loranthaceae (74 species) and the Viscaceae (14 species). The Loranthaceae has large colourful flowers and fruits whereas the Viscaceae has tiny flowers and small translucent fruits.

bulloak mistletoe

The Bulloak, or Slender-leafed, Mistletoe (Amyema linophyllum orientale) is one of the many types of mistletoe that are food plants for several species of Australian butterflies. This mistletoe is host to the Wood White (Delias aganippe, the Cooktown Azure (Ogyris aenone), the Amaryllis Azure (Ogyris amaryllis) and the Sydney Azure (Ogyris ianthus). Photo Craig Eddie.

There is still much to be found out about these fascinating plants and new species are still being discovered. As late as 2004 a new mistletoe was described from south-east Queensland. It was named Gillian’s mistletoe (Muellerina flexialabastra) in honour of its discoverer Dr Gillian Scott. It is only known from the Darling Downs and Moreton Districts where it is found on the Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghami).

Grey Mistletoe

Extracts from the leaves of the Grey Mistletoe (Amyema quandang) have been shown to be active against laboratory strains of the Gram positive bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (golden staph) and Enterococcus faecalis. Both these bacteria can cause life-threatening infections in humans and are problems in hospital environments. It has been reported that Indigenous people of central Queensland would bruise the leaves of this species in water and drink the water for treatment of fever. Photo Craig Eddie.

Mistletoes are not the demons that popular myth paints them. Rather, they are interesting and colourful members of Australia’s prolific floral wealth. So, please stop worrying about the roses and take time out ‘to smell the mistletoes’.

[This article was originally published in the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service newsletter Bush Telegraph, Summer 2008.]
orange-flowered mistletoe

Orange-flowered Mistletoe (Dendropthoe glabrescens). Mistletoe fruit is high in protein, carbohydrates and lipids. The leaves are high in nitrogen, phosphorous and trace elements. Mistletoes provide food for many native birds, mammals and insects especially during droughts and seasonal scarcity. Photo Craig Eddie.

Research does seem to indicate that mistletoe has become more abundant in woodland areas. Why is this so and is it really a problem? Dr David Watson, a plant biologist from Charles Sturt University in Albury, New South Wales, has undertaken an ambitious 25-year project to learn more about the place of mistletoe in Australia’s environment. 

(Extract from “Misunderstood Mistletoe’ by Abbie Thomas, ABC Science online):

Studying 42 woodland remnants near Albury in New South Wales, Dr Watson removed mistletoe from half of these areas, while the mistletoe of the other areas was left intact. David’s plan was to find out if the presence of mistletoe can influence how many other species live in an area, in particular, bird species. David believes that mistletoe is now ten times more abundant in south-east Australia than it was before white settlement. Mistletoes particularly target trees isolated in paddocks or by the sides of roads, making them all the more obvious to us. However, David has argued that mistletoe ‘infestations’ are a symptom, not a cause of a much bigger problem. Changes in fire frequency and intensity, clearing trees and a reduction in native animals have all contributed. Mistletoe is killed by fire, and many areas are burnt far less often than before. Native animals such as possums, gliders and even koalas eat mistletoe, as do certain butterfly larvae. Once these species disappear from an area, there is nothing to keep the mistletoe in check. “But in the undisturbed bush, it’s an entirely different story,” David says. “The more mistletoes present, the greater the resources available for native animals, making the plants an important indicator of the area’s health.”

Misteltoe plants growing on a eucalypt, Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Mistletoe plants growing on a eucalypt, Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Preliminary results of his long term experiment suggest that more birds do, in fact, prefer to live where mistletoe is common. Woodland where mistletoe had been left intact had 17 per cent more total bird species, and of 44 woodland birds recorded, almost 70 per cent were more frequently seen in the intact sites than the sites without mistletoe. David says many birds prefer to nest in mistletoe because it provides shade and cover. Mistletoe nesters include the Grey Goshawk, several species of pigeon and dove, honeyeaters, wattlebirds, friarbirds and many others. Quite a number of butterfly larvae also feed on mistletoe, and some caterpillars can completely strip a mistletoe of its leaves in a matter of months, providing another natural check on mistletoe.

The larvae of the Common Jezebel Butterfly feed exclusively on Mistletoe leaves. Photo R. Ashdown.

The larvae of the Common Jezebel Butterfly feed exclusively on Mistletoe leaves. In his book on southern Australian mistletoe species (see below), David Watson lists 23 butterfly species whose larvae depend on mistletoe as a principal food source, plus an extra four species that include mistletoe among the plants they eat. A number of species of moth also have larvae that eat mistletoe. Photo R. Ashdown.

Bird's nest in a Mistletoe plant, Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Bird’s nest in a Mistletoe plant, Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Scarlet Honeyeater feeding  on Mistletoe flower nectar, Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane. Photo by Mike Peisley.

Scarlet Honeyeater feeding on Mistletoe flower nectar, Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane. Photo by Mike Peisley.

Brown Honeyeater in search of Mistletoe nectar. Photo Mike Peisley.

Brown Honeyeater in search of Mistletoe nectar. The brightly-coloured tubular corollas attract the bird, while the long stamens are ready to dab pollen on the bird’s forehead. Photo Mike Peisley.

As the biology of mistletoe becomes better understood, biologists are urging that they be managed with an eye on the underlying causes of the problem. One place that did this recently was in the Clare Valley in South Australia where local residents were concerned about mistletoe infestations in local blue gums. They made it their business to learn more about the biology of mistletoes. Although some of the bigger infestations were manually removed, natural animal predators were also encouraged back to the area by fencing off areas and planting trees.

A mistletoe, possibly Pale-leaf Mistletoe (<i>Amyema maidenii</i>), growing in Mulga (<i>Acacia stowardii</i>), Hood Range, far western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

A mistletoe, possibly Pale-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema maidenii), growing in Mulga (Acacia stowardii), Hood Range, far western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

The same species, closer view. The varied and subtle forms and colours of Australian mistletoe make them fascinating photographic subjects. Photo R. Ashdown.

The same species, closer view. The varied and subtle forms and colours of Australian mistletoe make them fascinating photographic subjects. Photo R. Ashdown.

David says the best way to control mistletoe infestation is by addressing the underlying cause: such as putting up nesting boxes to encourage possums and gliders, control burning of the understorey to kill excess mistletoe, and encouraging regeneration of native plants. But he takes his argument further. Mistletoe, he says, could be a powerful tool in the management of forest plantations of species such as blue gum. At the moment, such plantations are plagued by chewing insects such as beetles, and require huge expenditure on pest control. But if every, say, 100th tree were to be seeded with a mistletoe, these would eventually grow, flower and attract insect-eating birds and possums which would also eat the problem insects, effectively turning a plant pest into a natural pest controller.

Orange-flowered Mistletoe (Dendropthoe glabrescens), Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Orange-flowered Mistletoe (Dendropthoe glabrescens), Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Mistletoe growing on Whitewood (<i>Atalaya hemiglauca</i>), far western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

Mistletoe growing on Whitewood (Atalaya hemiglauca), far western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

Amylotheca dictyophleba, Barakula State Forest. Photo R. Ashdown.

Amylotheca dictyophleba, Barakula State Forest. Photo R. Ashdown.


Unruly scenes in the Botanic Gardens

The Toowoomba Regional Council gardeners took what seemed like a radical step earlier this year when they planted a stack of sunflowers in the city’s Botanic Gardens.

Sunflowers, Queens Park Botanic Gardens 2014.

Being used to seeing neat and ordered rows of flowers, we became entranced by the unruly mob of stunning, large yellow flowers that grew quickly around the central statue. They were a delight to stroll past in all types of weather and fun to photograph.

Sunflowers, Queens Park Botanic Gardens 2014.

Sunflowers, Queens Park Botanic Gardens 2014.

Things became even more fun though when the sunflowers developed full heads of seeds. Native parrots descended in flocks to ravage the nodding flowers, creating even more mess and delightful garden chaos. Tough, boisterous Rainbow Lorikeets and Galahs were joined by quiet and wary King Parrots and the occasional diminutive Scaly-breasted Lorikeet. All were all keen to plunder this unexpected suburban food source.

Rainbow Lorikeets on sunflowers, Toowoomba Botanic Gardens 2014.

Rainbow Lorikeets on sunflowers, Toowoomba Botanic Gardens 2014.

The Rainbow Lorikeets arrive — a gang of noisy, wildly-coloured avian hoodlums. Click on the images below for a closer look.

I only managed a few late afternoon photo sessions, standing quietly against the flowers, before they expired and the birds moved on. Some other walkers would stop to watch the birds, but most were oblivious to the feeding frenzy going on close by. The usually wary King Parrots would freeze when people got close, their green plumage blending into the green of the sunflowers.

King Parrots

Also known as King Lories, Australian King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis) are large and quite wary parrots. They are sometimes seen flying between the town’s Camphor Laurel trees with heavy wingbeats in their laboured style of travel. However, they are swift and dexterous birds, weaving their way through the trees with surprising grace. Click on thumbnails below for closer views.


I sent a few words of encouragement to the radical gardeners, in case they were getting worried by the chaos:

A big thanks to your Botanic Gardens gardeners for brightening the place even further. Just when I think they are a bit too obsessed with neatness they plant sunflowers around the statue in the centre of the Gardens.

Utterly and completely brilliant. First, people marvel over the bright, unruly flowers, then to our astonishment, the seeds of the flowers provide food for at least four species of local native birds— scaly-breasted and rainbow lorikeets, galahs and the beautiful king parrots — for weeks.

Last weekend people from all backgrounds were enjoying the flowers and also watching the birds. To see the huge, magnificently camouflaged (and usually very wary) king parrots quietly sitting on the sunflowers while kids on bikes raced past and walkers strolled within metres of one of our most spectacular species of parrots was most enjoyable.

Bloody marvellous stuff, please pass on my sincerest thanks to the gardeners for providing this epic splash of colour and life for both people and native birds, much appreciated.

King Parrot on sunflower.

Leonie from the Council replied:

Thank you so much for the wonderful photos, we were delighted to receive them and have printed copies to show all the staff.  It is good to see a different theme in an area that is normally very formal and I am sure the gardeners will consider this again as it has proved to be very popular.

King parrot on sunflower, Toowoomba Botanic Gardens.

Juvenile male Australian King Parrot. This image by Harry Ashdown, all others Robert Ashdown.

High summer in the Goomburra rainforest

December 2013 had some of the hottest days on record for this part of the world. Not an ideal time to visit a rainforest, but I head south anyway, driving through sun-blasted, open farmlands until I meet the western foothills of the Great Dividing Range.

Sunlit Tree Ferns (Cyathea sp.) reflected in a quiet pool on Dalrymple Creek. All photos Robert Ashdown.

Sunlit Tree Ferns (Cyathea australis) reflected in a quiet pool on Dalrymple Creek. All photos by Robert Ashdown, taken on an Olympus OM-D EM-5.

Goomburra, within Main Range National Park, is my destination.

The circuit track along Dalrymple Creek heads through wet sclerophyll forest, where giant eucalypts tower above rainforest scrub. At times, the scream of cicadas, known appropriately as Razor Grinders, is almost unbearable — a frenzy of tree-top insect metalworkers. Some recent rain and the hot weather has brought thousands of their nymphs up from their long, dark underground life. Their cast-off ‘skins’ are plastered over tree trunks, while the adult insects are high up in the glorious summer light, males calling females in a non-stop, deafening cacophony. What a dazzling stage of life it must be for an animal that has spent years underground in the cool, dark earth.

The smooth bark of the eucalypts bears evidence of other life, as skinks move across strange circular patterns — the feeding marks of Red Triangle Slugs. While scanning tree trunks I’m soon rewarded with a sighting of a Southern Angle-headed Dragon, clinging to a tree and furiously pretending to be a branch.

< click on any image in this post for a larger view, and use arrow keys to move forward through images or hit ‘escape’ to exit>

A bright, sunny day in rainforest is usually the worst time for a photographer to capture interesting images, as the contrast range between dark shadow and blazing patches of light is beyond the scope of camera sensors, and the resulting photographs never really look like what the eyes saw. However, I’m here to enjoy the walk and in that frame of mind I soon get consumed by the search for intriguing patterns and photographic subjects.

As the Cascades Track winds on and upward, there are window-like glimpses of rainforest slopes above and the multi-hued foliage of emergent trees striving to reach the light. At ground level the sunlit canopy is reflected in pools of water, where another elegant reptile — an Eastern Water Dragon — regards me warily as I traverse its own small patch of paradise. Christmas Orchids flower close to the track, blazes of white among the shadows.

The walk presents an endless kaleidoscope of colours and textures. What more could a photographer hope for?

No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film. — Robert Adams.

I stop at one pool for a break and in the quiet notice all sorts of life. The large tadpoles of Great Barred Frogs move endlessly in the water and a Marsh Snake hunts restlessly for a meal.

I end up spending over an hour stalking Whitewater Rockmasters, one of Queensland’s five species of huge damselflies in the family Diphlebidae. These dazzling insects patrol their small bits of territory, and rather than run all over the place chasing them I set up at one spot to which a large male keeps returning. I could sit and watch these characters all day. 

The Cascades Circuit leads up and out of the cool rainforest, taking me back to my vehicle via open, recently burnt, woodland. Grass Trees have seen it before, masters of surviving fire, and their green and brown skirts add colour to a blackened landscape.

All too soon I’m heading home, windows down and hot air whipping through the car. I’ve visited another world, a place of green shadows and complex life. I will return again, soon, I hope.

The road to Goomburra.

When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence. — Ansel Adams.

Main Range National Park is located on the western part of the Scenic Rim — a spectacular arc of mountains stretching from Mt Mistake to Springbook in south-east Queensland.

Much of the rainforest areas within the park fall within a World Heritage area, known as the Gondwana Rainforest of Australia World Heritage Area. This area conserves more than 1700 species of flowering plants and 500 species of vertebrate animals.