Sunday, 19 February 2017

Reaching for sunflower seeds

A Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans picks seeds from a sunflower outside a window

Sunflower seeds are a rich food and the garden birds love them. This sunflower grew wild in the garden, just outside a window. The seed had been in compost that was spread into the flower bed and then germinated. So we left it and it grew into a whopper. The plant is over two metres tall and the flower is about 40 cm wide.

The rosellas can pick the seeds out easily

The only birds that can gain the precious seeds are the Crimson Rosellas. The Sulphur-crested Cockatoos Cacatua galerita tried, but the plant could not bare their weight, nor the Australian Magpies Cracticus tibicen. So, the rosellas have them all to themselves. But now they have reached their limit, they cannot reach the seeds in the centre of the flowerhead. They can balance on the flower stem or the edge of the flowerhead and pull out the outer seeds, but they can't grab onto the tissue paper-thin seed cases in the flower to reach those in the middle.

It's just that they can't reach the seeds in the centre of the flower-head
They have clambered all around the flower and now look forlornly at the rich seeds still in the head. So, yes, I had to help them as I like them.

They have been stretching from all sides, gripping onto the edge of the flower
I have cut the flower head off and laid it out for them on a garden table. My good deed for the day done.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

A spectacular garden butterfly

Tailed Emperor Polyura sempronius

This magnificent butterfly was just outside our house yesterday, well it emerged yesterday, but as a caterpillar it had been in the garden for long before that. I never knew.

Hiding in the leaf litter at the side of the yard

I noticed it as it fluttered away from me when I was in the yard, and I could tell it had only recently emerged from its chrysalis as it was weak, only scuttling across the ground and into the leaf litter lying at the base of a wall. It looked so vulnerable as there are lots of birds in our garden and it would have been easy prey if any found it. So, as it was evening I took it inside for the night, lifting it by the feet, careful not to damage its scales. It was in lovely fresh condition.

In the evening I did a bit of research.

The splendid double tail on each of the hindwings - with lovely fresh margins and scales

After a good night's sleep I took it back into the yard and offered it a split grape or a chunk of pineapple for breakfast. It chose the pineapple, well these butterflies love their fructose. After a good long sip of juice it began to shiver to warm itself up. The sun was still hidden behind some trees.

Pineapple for breakfast

Then when the sunshine came through, I popped it onto the sunny side of the tree which it had been living on when a caterpillar, a Persian Silk Tree Albizia julibrissin. It immediately lined itself up so that its back was warmed by the sun through a thin gap between its closed wings. The previous night had been cold, so it took an hour or so of sunshine to warm up and begin to shuffle about. Every now and then, it shifted slightly to stay aligned with the sun.

Lined up to capture the sun's heat on its back

While I was waiting for the butterfly to take off safely, I kept close by, keeping potential predators away, and I had a bit of look through the branches of the Silk Tree. Sure enough, I found lots of nibbled leaves, and a recently emptied chrysalis.

Tailed Emperor habitat - the Silk Tree is above and left of the table

The chrysalis was like the tiny beginnings of a wasp nest, except that it was not paper, but keratin I suppose, and see-through as it was empty. I couldn't find any others, nor any caterpillars, but they hide in the leaf litter by day and climb up to feed on the leaves at night. I shall go out for a look after dark.

The chrysalis it emerged from, hanging empty from a small branchlet of the Silk Tree
- attached by a tiny silk button

Meanwhile, as the butterfly was keeping so still I took lots of photographs. I sent a set of shots to Suzi Bond, our local butterfly person and it was she who identified it as a female by her white abdomen and large size, with a wingspan of over 80 mm.

Her gorgeous face - her eyes had a black pearl effect, her proboscis was curled tight into her 'fur' and her labial palpi, a pair of  olfactory sensory organs, pointed up like a snooty nose

That was a very pleasant morning. I had learned a lot, and taken some curious shots of the butterfly, her face and wing pattern.

On recall, during the waiting, I had seen the leaves eaten in previous years, even found a spectacular green, horned caterpillar beneath the tree before, but I had not found time to identify it properly.

I left her to sun herself on her larval food tree, but once warm enough, she fluttered down to the ground and sat there motionless in the leaf litter. She obviously felt safer there where she was camouflaged.
I had found her in her favoured resting habitat.
 I'll watch the Silk Tree more thoroughly in future, and the ground below.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Dragonfly mimic

No, it looks like a dragonfly with that long thick abdomen and large wings, but it's a mimic, an Owlfly

Whenever I go out to look for one thing; plant, animal etc, I usually find something else that intrigues me, and while out on my recent dragonfly hunts I found this wonderful creature. It is an Owlfly a neuroptera species, classified in the Ascalaphidae family. What a marvellous dragonfly mimic. I went chasing through the grass after it, believing it was a dragonfly, and although I did think the habitat was a bit dry and dense for a dragonfly I continued my pursuit. Then when it rested on a grass stem I immediately saw I was being fooled. Dragonflies do not have such crazily long antennae.

Seen from above, those antennae are so, so long and club-ended - capitate antennae,
and the abdomen looks even more dragonfly-like

I walked around the owlfly, taking shots without disturbing it, and I could not think of any insect with that body shape and body-length antennae. So I sent off some photographs to Harvey Perkins, my insect guru, and he immediately replied with its identity and congratulated me on my good find.

The posture is dragonfly-like and I was fooled until I noticed the antennae

Apart from the antennae, the Owfly's mimicry is excellent. There are wing-spots, large eyes, and the patterned abdomen, all just like those on a dragonfly.

A Tau Emerald dragonfly Hemicordata tau hangs resting - note the wing-spots and large eyes

The dragonfly above and damselfly below both have tiny setaceous antennae (bristle-like) and the owlfly seemed to hold its wings in a position part-way between how the two odonata hold their wings.

So why do Owlflies mimic dragonflies, perhaps because dragonflies are aggressive predators, and so any smaller predators might not approach the owlflies if they see them as possible dragonflies. Hence, the owlflies escape predation. But would a dragonfly attack an Owlfly I wonder.....

A Wandering Ringtail damselfly Austrolestes leda  rests on a reed stem
 - note the tiny setaceous (bristle-like) antennae, the thin lines arching up from inside the blue of the eyes  

Tuesday, 31 January 2017


Royal Tigertail Parasynthemis regina 

January has been hot and good for insects. Butterflies and grasshoppers are fluttering and hopping all over the place. And there are lots of dragonflies and damselflies about too. So, I have been educating myself by trying to identify some of the local species around Canberra. I can recognise about fifteen species so far, but I am very much indebted to Harvey Perkins for most of the initial identification of each species. He knows over fifty species in the region, and more nationwide, and more worldwide.

Royal Tigertail Parasynthemis regina 

I just love the way they tuck up their legs when flying, they look so cool.

Australian Emperor Anax papuensis

I have been taking photographs to grab shots of each species, for that is the only way I can look at the details of their colouring to identify them. That is OK when they are perched, although that is not as easy as it seems, but when they are flying I have to use the camera at high speed. There has to be enough light to allow shots to be taken at 1/8000 sec or more to freeze them in flight. I do not like using flash on wildlife. I don't like the effect and I don't like to stress animals.

Australian Emperor Anax papuensis

The ponds are busy with patrolling dragonflies and damselflies, and the females are busy laying eggs. This species lays its eggs deep in the water.

Black-faced Percher Diplacodes melanopsis female

They have very good eyesight, so careful watching of their behaviour and slow movement are required to stalk and photograph these quick flying insects.

Wandering Percher Diplacodes bipunctata male

Many of the dragonflies have been flying for a few weeks now, and some individuals are showing wear and tear. They only have the wings they emerge with, they do not regrow or fix themselves.

Tau Emerald Hemicordulia tau

When not hunting or patrolling for mates, they can be surprisingly secretive and difficult to see, often hiding under bushes.

Common Flatwing Austroargiolestes icteromelas

There are so many colours and forms, wonderful creatures.

Eastern Billabongfly Austroargrion watsoni

Bright blue on a bubble-mat of algae

Blue-spotted Hawker Adversaechna brevistyla

But above all, they are quick, very very quick.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Forest Butterflies

It's still hot in Canberra and there are a great number of butterflies about, although apart from the occasional flutter-by their abundance is not obvious. Those in the forest are keeping low and in shade for much of the day, like this Common Brown Heteronympha merope which, typical of its species, was sitting hidden on the forest floor litter with its wings closed, only flying when disturbed by my footfall close by. Then about a dozen others erupted from the litter. They should have stayed where they were as I wasn't about to trample them and I certainly had not seen them.

Many other Common Browns were hanging from the drooping branches and leaves of the trees, or on the trunks, wherever there was shade from the intense sunshine. This one has a very abraded wing and the pattern of the other upper forewing can be partially seen, enough to recognise it as a female by the large blotchy markings.

In amongst the Common Browns were several Marbled Xenicas Geitoneura klugii which closed their wings as soon as they landed on the litter and simply disappeared from my vision. I clould only grab this one shot through the grases as one landed and immediately closed its wings.

Then in a sunny open glade where there was a patch of heath and low-growing herbs I saw a few of these delicate little Blotched Dusky-blues Candalides acasta. The blotch refers to the large smudged dark grey spot on the edge of the hindwing.

This was as wide as this butterfly held its wings open. A pity as the soft blue on the upper wings has an elegant tone.

I watched a group of Stencilled Hairstreaks Jalmanus ictinus chasing one another and laying eggs on a wattle tree, but they were to high to photograph. However, I did take some shots of this Imperial Hairstreak J. evagoras as it perched on smaller wattle bush.

The back edge of this species' hind wing is coloured and curled in a curious way. And the butterfly was moving each hindwing slowly and asynchronously as if to imitate another animal, or to give the impression that its head was at that end if any potential predator was nearby. When seen from above, the modified wings have a three-dimensional appearance, adding further to the impression of perhaps a head on an otherwise slim body.

The wavy edge to the hind wings seen from below.

Occasionally, the butterfly opened its wings to reveal a shimmering coat of scales. And when it flew, as when I first saw it and probably the only reason I spotted it, it was a blue light shining in the shade of the forest.