Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Black Mountain Moths

I was recently asked to join a team of moth enthusiasts for a night's survey. My role was to take photographs which might be used illustrate a book they are writing on the moths of the Australian Capital Territory. These were Ted Edwards, Glenn Cocking and Suzi Bond and they used lamps to attract the insects, explained to me which was which, then I tried to grab some shots. I learned a lot in a such a short time, and since when looking up background of the various species.

Entometa sp. (Lasiocampidae) - wingspan of female c 8cm
The study site was in eucalyptus forest on Black Mountain, within a few km of the city centre, and we ran the traps from dusk (1900) to about 2300 hrs. The moths came in steadily all that time, and after a while they would drift off back into the surrounding darkness. So the variety of species changed as the night progressed as different moths are active at different times. I didn't know that before then, thanks Ted and Glenn.

Wingia lambertella - wingspan c 4cm
The moths' colours were distorted by the mercury lights, casting a green tinge over them, so I concentrated on taking shots insects out on the edge of the area, where they settled on leaf litter, foliage or branches. Although focusing the cameras in the near darkness was a challenge.

Sorama bicolor - wingspan male 4 cm, female 6 cm
All the species I photographed were eucalyptus, gum-tree, specialists so it was no surprise that they were abundant as we were in the middle of 5 sq km of dry sclerophyll forest dominated by Scribbly Gum Eucalyptus rossii, Red-stringybark E. macrorhyncha. The caterpillars of all the species illustrated here feed on gum leaves,

Hypobapta sp. (Geometridae) - wingspan c 5 cm
I have always shied away from studying moths as there are so many species, but as is so often the case, if we take it in small steps we can have a fascinating journey.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Old Suit

One of the highlights of my wildlife week has been meeting this wedge-tailed eagle high on a ridge. I was out for a walk on one of the many hills in Canberra, many of which are within suburbia, like this one. The bird was quite happy to sit on its branch while I walked past less than fifty metres away, so I grabbed a few shots. Once I looked through the long lens, I saw how scruffy he was - it was a male - not only his flight feathers of his tail and wings, but even his body feathers were tatty. It was an old suit and time he grew a new one. That would probably not be long now as the eagle chicks in the area are several weeks old now and will soon be fledging. When they are about 11 or 12 weeks old. This bird has probably worn his feathers down while hunting for his family, but he will have the whole of summer to regrow a new suit, while his fledglings learn to fend for themselves.

Once he had sussed me out and judged that I was no threat to him, he carried on preening. He tried hard to straighten and smooth those feathers. First those on his back.

Then he grabbed a primary that needed a good bit of maintenance.

He gave the whole lot a good shake.

Stretched out his wings - showing the chips on the edges of the primaries and his wayward tail feathers.

Meanwhile a pied currawong was determined to make life noisy and uncomfortable for its predatory neighbour. The wedgie couldn't care. He knew what he could do if he wanted to. And I moved on leaving them to it.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

First Frogmouths fledged

The first Tawny Frogmouth chicks of the year left their nest last Sunday, the 15th October. That means the first egg would have been laid about the 18th August, quite early but not the earliest I have seen in Canberra. That was the 12th August one year. The pair who breed in this territory are usually one of the earliest to lay. There is a wide spread of laying dates this year over the frogmouths that I monitor - I have been recording the breeding success of about fifty pairs for over ten years. And this year some of the birds only went down on eggs a week or so ago, seven weeks later than these early ones.

Even though they have left the nest, the chicks have not truly fledged. They are still very dependent upon their parents for food and protection. They will stay with their parents for at least another month, usually longer, living as a family group until they finally disperse at the end of the breeding season and find territories and mates of their own.

The male was the bird in close attendance of the chicks, as is usually the case. Although the adult birds both know me as I have been visiting them for several years, they were still wary of me in protection of their chicks. They did not go into full stick-pose, but did stretch up a little and watch me through half-closed eyes.

Meanwhile the female watched from the next tree. Again in part concealment pose, and watching through part-closed eyes.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

How the echidna crossed the road

The Botanic Gardens in Canberra are a great place to see wildlife; birds, wallabies, snakes, water dragons, butterflies, and the other day - I heard an echidna rolling through the undergrowth, so I stopped to watch him (it was a male).

He was obviously used to people as he kept walking straight towards me and gave me excellent views of his face and claws.

Then he climbed up onto the top of the road-side wall, about a third of a metre high.

He looked down the wall and didn't seem too sure what to do. So he went for a wander about, then came back and tried a different part of the wall. He was determined to go that way, so he had to go down.

Slowly stretching...

Then a controlled flop onto the back of his head. I am sure all those spines would have cushioned the bump nicely.

A quick uncurl.

And off he went across the road. No traffic coming, all safe.

As he walked past me a few metres away, he was close enough for me to see several ticks had attached themselves to his ear. Two were well engorged with blood and would soon drop off, but I know only too well how uncomfortable they feel. He would be glad to be rid of them.

All else was well. He slipped into the bush where he was not so easily seen. I suspect that he was a male following the scent of a female as it is the mating season. Hence his determined attitude to follow that course.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Talon-grappling eagles

There was a stiff breeze yesterday so I went out to watch for displaying raptors over some hills just outside Canberra - and I saw so much more than I expected. Four Wedge-tailed Eagles Aquila audax flew along the airspace at about my elevation on the hillside and two of them began to tumble down through the air, grappling their talons as they spun around and around.

These birds were all youngsters, i.e. fledged at least last year and not yet fully adult. This can be seen in the white base to their tails. Adults have dark tail coverts.

Although these birds have wing-spans of over two metres they showed that they are very agile and seemed to be in control of where they were at all times and in all directions. They would have to be or else they could have been seriously hurt.

They always grabbed the other bird's talons, never seeming to aim for anything else, or was it that each bird always fended off any strikes by the other.

They held each other by one and two talons, and I wondered if they ever drew blood from one another. Those talons are sharp and if they grasped the flesh of the other bird's foot, surely they could draw blood if they wanted to.

Then after only several seconds, the show was over. The birds let go and drifted apart. All while the third bird was watching from a few wing lengths away. And the fourth bird had drifted on along the ridge out of sight, mobbed by a trail of Australian Ravens, Australian Magpies and a Little Eagle.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Mist-netting birds

Owlet Nightjar Aegotheles cristatus
I was out mist-netting birds last weekend at The Charcoal Tank Nature Reserve, New South Wales, on a trip organised by Mark Clayton. The aim is to catch a sample of birds several times a year as part of a long-term study of the changes in the numbers and species in the bird population. The nets were set the evening before and opened at first light, hence we caught this nocturnal bird, an Owlet Nightjar. This is the first I have seen caught in almost-daylight. Perhaps it had been feeding late because it was a cold night at the end of winter and there were few insects about.

Small, quiet, with big dark brown eyes, a long tail, and dark grey plumage
- all ideal for a nocturnal woodland bird

Owlet Nightjars are neither owls nor nightjars, they are classed in a family of their own, Aegothelidae. They roost by day in tree hollows and hunt at night, feeding on invertebrates, mostly insects, which they can catch in flight although they spend much time foraging on the ground. They are small dainty birds, only about 50g in weight, and they have a soft plumage similar to owls and frogmouths, for quiet flight.

Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo Chalcites basalis
- the broad dark stripe over its ear coverts and the scalloped,
 buff tips to the wing coverts are diagnostic markings of the species
As the day opened up we heard four species of cuckoo calling: Pallid Cacomantis pallidus, Fan-tailed C. flabelliformis, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo Chalcites lucidus and this one, Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoo. We caught four of this last species and all were males, indicative of how male cuckoos, and many other species of birds, tend to migrate to their breeding grounds ahead of the females. The tail patterns, both topside and underneath, are diagnostic of the species' sex - the females have russet colouring on the outer tail feathers, the males, like this one, have black and white outer feathers.

     Top-side of Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo's tail     
    Underside of tail

We caught a good number of regular breeding birds of the area especially White-plumed Honeyeater Ptilotula penicillata and White-eared Honeyeaters Nesoptilotis leucotis for comparisons of biometrics. Our sample included a good mix of species; some resident, some returning to breed and some migrants passing through. There were examples of two races of Silvereye, Zosterops lateralis; the local Z.l. westernensis and the migrant Z.l. ochrochorous which breeds on King Island in the Bass Strait. We also caught fifteen Striated Pardalotes Pardalotus striatus at once in one net and there were three races in that flock; P.s. striatus which breeds in Tasmania, P.s. substriatus which breeds in the interior of the continent and P.s. ornatus which breeds in the south-east.

Z.l. westernensis 


Z.l.w. Rufous flanks

Z.l.o. Tawny flanks

Z.l.w. Yellow throat

Z.l.o. White throat with yellow flecks

Perhaps, the most spectacular bird we caught was a male Brown Goshawk Accipiter fasciatus in full breeding plumage. Accipiters are aggressive and can inflict cuts with their bills and talons, so great care is necessary when handling them. This powerful predatory bird was such a contrast from the docile Owlet Nightjar we began the day with.

The talons are grasped firmly and the head held up away from our hands.
The whole bird is kept well away from our faces.

The bird had clean, slate-blue upper coverts and head. Its breast and underwing coverts were solidly barred.
All its flight feathers were complete, no moult.

The rounded tail is one of the better features to look out for if in doubt whether a bird seen is a
Brown Goshawk or a Collared Sparrowhawk Accipiter cirrocephalus, which has a square-ended tail.

The bright yellow eyes of an Accipiter - a determined hunter.
Note the heavy eyebrows, these shield the eyes, not only from sunshine, but against twigs and leaves when a goshawk crashes through thick vegetation in pursuit of its prey. The brows are unfeathered and the skin shows signs of abrasion. One of the honeyeaters we caught had a 4mm long thorn stuck in the skin on its crown, an example of what birds have to contend with when flying through woodland. I pulled the thorn out cleanly and the honeyeater flew off happily.

All the birds we caught flew off back into the bush. No animals were harmed in the making of this blog. 

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Butterfly list - Keswick Island July 2017

 Dark Ciliate-blue
In reply to requests from readers of the previous post, here is the list of butterflies that I saw on Keswick Island in July 2017. There were probably a few if not several more that I did not identify or never saw. It truly is a great place for butterflies.

Large Grass-yellow

Green-spotted triangle Graphium agamemnon

Clearwing Swallowtail  Cressida cressida

Narrow-brand Grass-dart  Ocybadistes flavovttatus

Orange palm-dart  Cephrenes augiades

Lemon Migrant  Catopsilia pomona

Small Grass-yellow  Eurema smilax

Large Grass-yellow  Eurema hecabe

Cabbage White  Pieris rapae

Pearl-white (Glistening?) Elodina sp

Yellow Albatross  Appias paulina

Caper Gull  Cepora perimale

Blue Tiger  Tirumala hamata

Lesser Wanderer  Danaus petilia

Monarch  Danaus plexippus

Swamp Tiger  Danaus affinis

Swamp Tiger

Purple Crow  Euploea tuliolus

Common Crow  Euploea corinna

Glasswing  Acraea andromacha

Meadow Argus  Junonia villida

Varied Eggfly  Hypolimnas bolina

Orange Bush-brown  Mycalesis terminus

Orange Ringlet  Hypocysta adiante

Orange-streaked Ringlet  Hypocysta irius

Oak-blue (Purple?) Arhopala sp

Dark Ciliate-blue  Anthene seltuttus

Small Dusky-blue  Candalides erinus

Purple Line-blue  Prosota duboisa

Purple Cerulean Jamides phaseli

Long-tailed Pea-blue  Lampides boeticus

Common Grass-blue  Zizina otis

Orange-streaked Ringlet