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The Bristly and the Beautiful

January 18, 2018

Flies in Australia get a bad rap. I grew up in the era of the antihero, Louis the Fly, who came ‘straight from rubbish tip to you’. And I cannot count the number of times that flies have made an outdoor summer event less than ideal. However there are flies and then there are flies.

Rutilia sp. 1-DSCN5502

Rutilia sp.

Bristle Fly (Amphibolia vidua)

Last month Macwake published a blog on the Golden Headed Rutilia Fly (Rutilia argentifera). This fly is of a group known as Tachinid Flies. With the advent of summer a number of tachinids have been seen in the district. On first sight they look like any other fly but are distinctly bristly, hence the name Bristle Flies. Tachinids are generally larger than the common house fly and in the case of those photographed, much larger. The adults feed on nectar and the honeydew excretions from insects such as aphids and scale insects (not a rubbish tip in sight!). As Macwake noted, flies like these are important players in the pollination of plants.
 

Microtropesia sinuata

***WARNING – GRUESOMENESS AHEAD*** Most tachinid flies deposit eggs on a live host, usually the larvae of butterflies and moths. After a few days the eggs hatch and the maggots bury themselves into the host and proceed to eat it from the inside, eventually killing the host. For flies of the Rutilia genus, the eggs are laid on the ground and the hatched maggots dig into the ground looking for the larvae of Scarab Beetles which they parasitise. These flies are important controllers of pests and some species have been used as biocontrols.

Rutilia sp.

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A close examination of photos shows these flies to be both bristly and beautiful – just like (dare I say it) my partner’s legs…this may be my last blog!

Who needs trees?

January 8, 2018

Peron’s Tree Frog

Victorian frogs belong to two families: the Hylidae or Tree Frogs and the Myobatrachidae or Southern Frogs. The tree frogs are so called because they are mostly (though not all) good climbers due to the pads on the end of their digits. They can use their climbing ability to get into some unusual spots. We have PVC pipes split lengthwise that are used to cover some of our solar hot water tubes in summer when not all the tubes are needed. A few of the half pipes were stacked together against a wall and have proved to be a favourite resting spot for two species of tree frogs, Peron’s Tree Frog, Litoria peronii – see above, and Plains Brown Tree Frog, Litoria paraewingi – see photos below.
At least we think it’s Plains Brown Tree Frog – a species that is difficult to distinguish from the closely related Southern Brown Tree Frog, Litoria ewingii. The skin markings are variable in both and the main differentiation is in the call and the distribution, although the Plains is reported to be slightly smaller. We have been told that we are in an overlapping zone of the two species, and if the frogs aren’t calling, it makes identification difficult.

We hear frogs all the time, but it’s not often we are able to get up close enough for clear photos. This hideout of the frogs between pipes was an ideal opportunity to show some of their identifying features, such as the tympanum (ear), the foot-webbing and digit pads, the eye pupil etc. The Peron’s Tree Frog, for instance, is immediately recognisable by its cross-shaped pupil, if not from its weird call. Now, if only the other little frog had a name-tag!

Listen to the calls previously recorded locally by clicking on the sound bars below:
Peron’s Tree Frog –

Plains Brown Tree Frog –

Insect onesies

January 2, 2018
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Unlike humans, insects have external skeletons (exoskeletons). One of the advantages this offers is that internal organs are well protected from injury and damage. However the downside is that for those insects that do not go through a caterpillar/cocoon stage, that is, they mature as a series of nymphs (or instars), they periodically need to moult their external skeleton and grow a bigger one. These insects include true bugs (hemiptera), grasshoppers, dragonflies and cockroaches (see photos).

cicada 1-DSCN5448

Cicada

Native Cockroach

Spring and summer are when most insects hatch and grow. It is common at this time of the year to see the discarded insect skeletons hanging around, like abandoned onesies. The process of shedding the skin is called ecdysis. Seeing ecdysis in action though is not so common. One needs to look carefully through the vegetation.

During ecdysis the emerging insect does not breathe.  During this time it is most vulnerable to attack as it is pale in colour (i.e. not camouflaged) and the exoskeleton is soft. After shedding the old shell, the insect pumps itself up to maximum size using air and bodily fluids whilst the new shell hardens, after which it relaxes giving itself room to grow. The shell develops its colours on exposure to sunlight.

When you see the insect next to its discarded onesie you can only wonder how it fitted in the shell in the first place. It’s strange because my West Coast Eagles onesie looks too big whether I am wearing it or not.

One lump is all you need

December 29, 2017

As an amateur photographer I rely on seeing things to take a picture. Recently I have participated in a number of bird surveys where the expert twitchers marked down that a bird had been ‘sighted’ when they have heard its call. This initially astounded me but of course it makes sense that if bird calls are unique to a species then hearing the call is just as valid as seeing the bird…and far more productive. It has opened up a whole new dimension as to how I ‘view’ nature.

Noisy Friarbird (Philemon corniculatus) 1-DSCN7074.JPG

 

Last week I HEARD a bird call I did not recognise emanating from the top of an old pine tree. In the uppermost branches sat a bird which was hard to photograph because of the bright sky background and the fact the camera kept focussing on the multitude of branches between me and the bird. What I did notice in profile however was the lump on its beak and that was all I needed to identify it (see picture above). In this part of the country it could only be a Noisy Friarbird (Philemon corniculatus).  Australia has several species of friarbirds with bill knobs but the others are restricted to northern Australia.

Noisy Friarbird (Philemon corniculatus) 1-DSCN7070Friarbirds are species of honeyeaters so called because their heads are bald, similar to the friars of old, and in large groups create a lot of noise with their constant chatter. Their alternative name is Leatherhead. In spring/summer they migrate down the east coast to breed in southern Australia. They feed on insects, fruit and nectar.

Even though the call was quite distinctive I don’t think I would recognise it again. I think I’ll stick to visual identification. Seeing is believing.

 

Stick nest

December 18, 2017

Recently we received a couple of queries about birds seen around Strath Creek which turned out to be Dusky Woodswallows. We then encountered the same species towards the end of the Upper Goulburn Landcare Network’s Rail Trail Nature Walk on 8th December. The walk was part of Birdlife Australia’s annual Challenge Count where teams of observers count the number of bird species and individuals in a chosen area during early December. It is the third year that the UGLN’s Chris Cobern has organised the event along a section of the Great Victorian Rail Trail near Cheviot, east of Yea.

Our small team was close to beating the 2015 species total of 35 when we came across a flock of woodswallows. We then noticed one visiting what appeared to be just a small bunch of sticks caught above the fork of a tree just a metre off the edge of the rail trail (photo at right). This was in fact the nest of a Dusky Woodswallow, and despite its dishevelled outer appearance and precarious position, it would actually be a neatly shaped and lined bowl for the bird to nestle into (main photo above).

 
 
 
 

A short distance further on we came across a second nest, again only a metre or so off the path, but this time in a more stable position. Foot and bike traffic is obviously not a deterrent to these nesting woodswallows!

 
And for the record, we ended up with a count of 208 birds of 36 different species.

To see a picture of what the juvenile birds will look like if the breeding is successful, see a previous post Woodswallows around.

Neither Mantis nor Fly…but feisty enough

December 13, 2017
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This is the time of the year that insectophiles like myself start closely examining the young leaves of eucalypt trees. The leaves are a mecca for insects like eucalyptus beetles, emperor gum moths and cup moths to eat, play and mate on.

Mantis Fly 1-DSCN7017

It was on one casual gum leaf observation trip I came across the insect pictured above. It is a Mantis Fly (order Neuroptera) but it is neither a mantis nor a fly. The Mantis Fly is a type of lacewing. The mantis reference pertains to the large raptorial forelegs which the mantis fly uses to grasp prey. They are most active at night and are active predators hunting sizable insects.

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Usually when photographing insects, at some point in time the insect gets sick of the camera lens getting closer and closer and takes off either by flying or crawling away or dropping to the ground. I was therefore surprised when this Mantis Fly decided that the best form of defense is attack and started to rake the lens with its forelegs (pictured right). Feisty!

I must learn to pick on someone my own size next time.

Fly on the wall

December 8, 2017

This rather large and strikingly-patterned fly was spotted resting on the brick wall of our house the other day. Thanks to fellow Focus on Fauna blogger Ronlit, we think it is a Golden Head Rutilia Fly, Rutilia argentifera. The species name argentifera would suggest silver, not gold, but perhaps it refers to the whitish/silver spots on the body, rather than the yellow head.

The Golden Head Rutilia Fly is primarily a nectar feeder, but was unfortunately not seen during our participation in the recent Wild Pollinator Count, a citizen science project which involves observing which insects visit a selected flower or group of flowers over a ten-minute period. What we did see is the native bee fly pictured at right (click on the photo for a closer look) which, with the help of Karen at the WPC, we think may be an Australiphthiria species. Bee flies (family Bombyliidae) are also nectar and pollen feeders and our example was seen on Sticky Everlasting, Xerochrysum viscosum. We tend to think of bees and perhaps wasps as the main plant pollinators, but flies also play a major role. In fact we’ve just learnt that flies won the most numbers in this spring’s Wild Pollinator Count!

Together with Ronlit’s previous post on Long-legged Flies, you can begin to get an idea of the wonderful diversity and value of flies (order Diptera) – there’s a great deal more than just blowies and bushflies!