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Soundz of Summer

January 30, 2018

Almost everyone has a sound that they associate with summer. For some it is the call of the cicadas at dusk. For others it may be the tick-tick of the garden sprinkler. For me it is the muscular buzz of the robber fly hurtling past looking to catch its prey on the wing. Robber flies are the terminators of the insect world and though I hear them I rarely see them flying such is their speed.

Recently I heard a buzz almost as powerful. The source was easily seen and luckily landed on a nearby bush. It was a pair of mating March Flies –in this case Yellow Tangle-vein Flies (Trichophthalma sp.), I think.


Both male and female flies feed on nectar and plant juices. However when the female fly is producing eggs it requires protein which it gets by extracting the blood from warm-blooded animals particularly livestock, domestic pets and humans. The mouth parts are equipped with two knife-like appendages with which to pierce the skin and a sponge to soak up the blood. The sponge can clearly be seen in the photo above. Although the bites may trigger allergic reactions in some people, most only feel a short pain followed by itchiness which is due to the anticoagulant the fly injects to ensure a continuous flow of blood.

This pair sat mating until the camera got too close after which they took off still connected. Because of the difference in wing strength between the two flies they flew off spinning quite rapidly. Mating in the air can be a dizzying experience (I’ve been told).

Quite a mouthful !

January 23, 2018

As is their custom, our resident Grey Shrike-thrushes have again nested in the corner of our shed, and their three eggs have successfully hatched. The parents have been warily landing in a tree just outside the shed before going inside, and it is interesting to see the wide range of prey they are carrying to the hatchlings: a great variety of insects, spiders and even small reptiles, like the skink pictured above, probably the common Garden Skink.

What’s surprising to us is that the skink was taken straight to the nest when the chicks were, we think, only a couple of days old, still blind and largely bald – see picture at right. This particular visit by the parent seemed short – not long enough for it to tear the skink into manageable bits, so presumably the young chicks were somehow able to handle the meal themselves!

A few days later, and a noise made by us in the shed was often enough to trigger the gape response in the hungry chicks expecting a parental visit, as seen in the photo below, which clearly shows their yellow/orange gapes.

No Heinz baby food for these youngsters!

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.




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

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


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.