Author Archives: Barbara

Flashes of colour on the wing

We’ve had a few drizzly Daintree days recently – probably our least favourite weather when there is just enough rain to make outside work unappealing. It’s not cold but on those drizzly days everything feels damp and I long for a few hours of sunshine.

In the last few months, while Allen has been gradually recovering from an unfortunately rapid descent through one of our Mangosteen trees, he has been using his lighter Olympus camera as he quietly wanders around our tracks. While we have both always admired and photographed butterflies this year Allen has managed to take photos of a few species we had not previously identified. He has the required patience and has also been inspired by the recent acquisition of a new book. ‘A Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia’ written by Gary Sankowsky is a companion volume to his ‘All About Butterflies of Australia’ both published by Reed New Holland. The descriptions of both butterflies and their host plants in addition to photographs of both make identification so much easier and we’ve been having a lot of fun sharing the pleasure of learning.

The butterflies in the following photos are all members of the family Pieridae, known in a general sense as Whites and Yellows.

Union Jack – Delias mysis

We have several different species of Mistletoe and many of them are suitable host plants for this colourful butterfly. Gary describes it as usually being found in rainforest and spreading out to Melaleuca wetlands near the coast which makes this property perfectly suited. It is not surprising that it is our most commonly sighted species of Delias but as similar bright colours occur in many of the Jezabels it is always worth a careful look to confirm identification.

Common Jezabel – Delias nigrina on Mammey Sapote flowers
Common Jezabel – upper wings
Yellow-banded Jezabel – Delias ennia nigidius female

Here is an example of ‘yellow’ – like sunshine on the wing!

Lemon Migrant – Catopsilia pomona … female dry season form

Lemon migrants have a slight colour variation, during the wet season they appear in lemon/lime tones.

Lemon Migrant – wet season colour

Common Grass Yellows are indeed both common and widespread over much of Australia. They are delightfully active butterflies, with gorgeous yellow wings giving colour and movement to our landscape.

Common Grass Yellow – Eurema hecabe

‘Yellows’ can be hard to positively identify without a photo and digital photography gives us the opportunity for a close look. I must admit that I rather naively expected the host plant list to at least include some grasses but this does not appear to be so. There is quite an extensive list of host plants which helps explain their wide distribution. Gary Sankowsky has listed the Best Garden Host Plant as Breynia stipitata, a local rainforest species known as Fart Bush which readily self-sows in our garden. While I know its little red berries are consumed by birds, apparently not sensitive to their toxicity, I am glad to know that its leaves are providing food for the Common Grass Yellow larvae.

Metallic Starlings

At the start of June only a small flock of immature Metallic Starlings remain on the property and these birds may stay in these environs for the winter months. For a week or so in April we had a large flock of mostly immature birds, swooping through our garden in a frenzy of feeding. We imagined the young birds were readying themselves for their flight north to spend winter in Papua New Guinea. The towering Melaleuca leucadendra in our garden gully provided a perfect venue for them to congregate in the late afternoon light while they preened and grabbed any available grubs.

Still sporting immature plumage but the eye is the slightly creepy solid red of an adult bird.

These highly sociable migratory birds which visit the Qld coast during their breeding season from Aug-Sept to April-May weave nests in a huge colony which they revisit every year. In the days before our revegetation efforts blocked our view, a huge fig tree was visible on the hills at the back of the property. Late in the afternoon we could watch huge flocks of Metallic Starlings dipping and swirling before coming to rest on their nests. For a few years a Brahminy Kite made its nest in the centre of the tree but the presence of a predator was not enough to cause the colony to find another tree. When the Kite was on it’s nest the colony was calm but any movement to and from would cause the Metallic Starlings to take off en masse and swirl around the tree until they deemed it safe to land again.

Metallic Starlings in a nesting colony.

Our orchard trees, especially the Mangosteens, benefit enormously from the attention of these active birds as they eat many of the caterpillars and grasshoppers which can cause substantial damage to the trees’ foliage. The birds also enjoy some extra sweet benefits from our orchard.

Adult Metallic Starling feeding on Black Sapote – Diospyros digyana

The spectacular iridescence of the plumage is clearly visible in this photo. While a large flock can be rather noisy and they do ‘take over’ an area, temporarily displacing other smaller birds, we still look forward to their annual arrival.

The Garden Gate

As I lifted my hand to open the vegetable garden gate yesterday afternoon I noticed a very young snake lying along the top of the gate with it’s head tucked out of sight in a gap between two pieces of timber. I returned to the house, via the alternative gate, for my camera plus Allen (also with camera).

Dendrelaphis punctulata

I was fascinated by the flecks of blue, almost iridescent, on the snake’s scales, a highlight of colour on an otherwise pale brown upper-side. Green Tree-snakes are often described as having blue flecks, especially on the flanks but I have never seen a good example. The adults we often see here are quite black on their upper side so it would be interesting to know if this youngster will lose the ‘blue’ as it ages.

I became curious about why the snake had it’s head hidden as it seemed to ignore my gentle stroking. When it started wriggling I wondered aloud if perhaps it was stuck so I started encouraging it to back out by lifting up part of the body and it wasn’t long before we found out why it was ‘hiding’. It had a mouthful of frog!

Here I was thinking the snake was stuck and all the time it was just trying to get a feed.

We were interested that L. rubella made no sound even when it was first pulled out of the crevice. As many would be aware when a White-lipped Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata) is grabbed by a predator it screams like a human baby, and it is difficult to restrain from interfering.

Litoria rubella desperately fighting a losing battle for it’s life.

Litoria rubella has a wide geographic distribution covering the northern parts of Australia from desert to wet tropics. It is known by many common names; Desert Frog, Red Tree Frog, Little Red Frog and Naked Tree Frog but in this household we tend to refer it by it’s species name as that seems less confusing.

With each muscular contraction more frog was consumed by the snake. Immense strength for such an apparently delicate creature.

Unfazed by the paparazzi’s intense focus the snake concentrated on swallowing the frog. It was fascinating to observe the gradual swallowing process although it wasn’t so much fun for the frog! Although we do love our frogs we recognize they are also an important food source

This photo was taken a few minutes later and you can see the bulge half-way along the snake already. Snakes use quite a lot of energy consuming and digesting food so it was probably really pleased that we stopped trying to make it pose for a photo and left it alone. Hopefully it didn’t stay on the gate for too long as it would make a tasty snack for a Butcherbird or a Kookaburra!

As we both took photos, pushing each other around a bit of course, I have used some of his and some of mine!

Radjah Shelducks

My morning walk was thwarted by a pair of Radjah Shelducks perched on the bamboo rail adjacent to our driveway culvert! My approach was making them so dreadfully anxious I just felt it was kinder to turn around. I did stop and chat, explaining that I intended no harm but although they momentarily settled during the ‘conversation’ when I moved towards them again they became frantic. I felt so sorry for them, the dilemma of not wishing to give away the location of the hidden ducklings but very worried that I was getting too close.

About 10 days ago Allen observed one duck perched on this rail on a couple of successive days. We wondered if the partner might be sitting on eggs but in spite of some searching could find no further clues. Several days later Allen flushed an adult Radjah Shelduck with about a dozen very young ducklings while wandering through trees along Effie Creek (a small ephemeral creek which comes from our neighbour Ellen’s place). Yesterday he saw two ducks on the rail and when he walked closer they flew down to the water and he noticed a third duck at the water’s edge where he thinks she/he was hiding the ducklings.

So as yet there are no photos of the ducklings and we have a mystery regarding the third duck. We suspect the breeding pair may be those that were successful here last year and that possibly the third duck may be a female from last year’s ducklings. Ready answers are not always available in these situations so we will be content with knowing that we have provided habitat while we watch and wait.

Home and Happy

Since arriving home at the end of January I’ve found many reasons to postpone writing. Where to start after such a long gap between posts?
On October 11, 2019 we began ‘Travels in South-East Australia’ which included joyous reunions with friends, visiting a fabulous variety of wonderful landscapes in parts of Victoria and NSW, observing numerous special birds and sharing precious times with many family members.

As we departed Victoria towards the end of November the summer’s catastrophic fires were just starting to make a serious impact. Our route north along the NSW coast was disrupted by a road closure at Bateman’s Bay and planned visits to National Park areas were impossible. The days were often so smoky we didn’t venture far from camp. It was devastating to know that these horrendous fires were consuming so much of our natural landscape as well as threatening people and their homes. It was a minor inconvenience to our travel plans compared to what others have suffered and continue to suffer.

Our family Christmas in SE Qld, which for me was a grand highlight, was all the more relaxing when rain fell on Christmas Eve. Some water in the house tanks took pressure off the household restrictions and you could almost hear the crispy-dry bushland which surrounded us sighing with relief.

Atherton Tablelands – a spectacular view of a vast expanse of sky with storm clouds building up. We managed to dodge showers and storms quite successfully.

After spending our last ‘holiday’ week on the Atherton tablelands walking, bird watching and catching up with friends, we eventually made it home at the end of January. Never before have I experienced such a sense of relief at returning home. Allen didn’t quite share my emotion then, but since we are now all coping with travel restrictions as we come to grips with the Covid 19 pandemic we have both been feeling very grateful for our haven in the wet tropics.

Recently we have noticed there are many types of spider in great numbers around the house, in the garden and in the orchard. A Dome-web Orb-weaver in a garden near the house has been catching my attention each morning as palm flowers falling from above have decorated the web. The angle of the morning sun lights the web perfectly so it looks like fairy lights.

Dome-web Orb-weaver – Cyrtophora cylindroides
Female is underneath the dome and hard to see in this photo.

 Above the horizontal domed web there is a ‘retreat’ for the spider which does not appear to be particularly well formed in this example. Cyrtophora cylindroides belongs to the orb-web spiders, Araneidae although it does not build an orb-web. While tent-spiders are reasonably common from sub-tropical to tropical regions this accidentally decorated tent-like web is certainly eye catching.

Female Cyrtophora moluccensis with palm flowers
Painted St Andrew’s Cross Spider – Argiope picta

Argiope picta looked glorious with the morning sun lighting the web perfectly. When I walked past the following morning it had disappeared!

My reference for spider information is “A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia” by Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson. An excellent CSIRO publication that I would highly recommend.

Late afternoon in the hide

After my late afternoon watering routine today I strolled through the garden back to the house and suggested to Allen that we take a glass of wine and some nibbles to the bird hide. Magpie geese were calling to each other as they sorted out roosts for the approaching night. A male was standing with the three goslings at one end of the main pond then suddenly he took off leaving the goslings alone and looking very uncertain as to what they should do.

The gander landed in a Leichardt tree from where he watched the goslings as did at least two other ‘look-out geese’ in other trees. After their initial confusion the goslings rallied and started to move into a more sheltered position in the sedge. They were on their own for only about 2 minutes before more adult geese took off from further away. For a moment I thought they were all going to fly past the poor goslings but then one female peeled away and landed quite close to them. Oh the relief! The goslings rushed out from their partial hiding place and stood close to the adult female who then led them out into the water.

Female leading the goslings across the water in front of the hide
There is quite a size difference between the gosling on the left and the other two.

The goslings are growing very fast, they now have a few white breast feathers and in the photo above it is easy to see new tail feathers emerging. As Allen concentrated on the goslings, trying to see where they were being taken for the night I looked across the pond just in time to see the arrival of the Burdekin duck family. The light was just good enough for Allen to manage a photo or two of them.

Time for a quick drink no time for swimming at this time of day.

The ducklings are also growing very fast and we were delighted to see that there are still seven of them. After a quick drink the family moved up the bank and started to move along the bund wall with one parent in front and the other behind. Once out in the open the ducklings sped up, running with wing flap assistance until they were out of our sight with the parents close behind.

Once they were on the grassy top of the bund wall the ducklings moved as fast as they could to reach some shelter.

We don’t know where the ducklings or the goslings spend their nights and we never search for them in case we inadvertently alert a predator to their whereabouts.

For several years I have been pondering why ducks and geese moved off the property with newly hatched young. Was the habitat not mature enough? What was missing? These are questions that will probably remain unanswered but now I have another. With an apex predator now in residence, while enough water provides a safe haven for her, what has changed for the water birds? Could it be that the crocodile has ‘controlled’ our very healthy population of eels and turtles thus reducing the mortality of young ducks and geese? Whatever the reason it is immensely satisfying to know that we are providing habitat for these birds to breed successfully.

Not Sitting Ducks

A beautiful, sunny day and a quiet afternoon with time for a walk but I didn’t get much further than the bird hide. Finally it was my turn to get a good look at the Burdekin Duck family! There had been no sign of them for nearly a week so I was thrilled to have a chance to observe them. They were just coming down to the water as I carefully made my way into the hide without alerting them.

7 ducklings with vigilant parents

After a splash in the water while staying very close to the bank the ducklings swam along a little channel behind Crake Island.

A quick swim with a few dives, a bit of a wash then they moved on.
Ducklings drying off after their swim

As I watched the duck family I could see a Magpie goose moving around on Crake Island then the ducks swam behind the island and the goose family walked into the sun with their 3 gangly goslings. The ducks appeared a short distance away on the same little island but only to dry off in the sun before they retreated out of sight.

With all this paddling about in the mud it is no wonder the water is a bit stirred up.

So where was Betty Barratt while all this splashing and preening was going on? She was in the next door pond hiding fairly effectively in a patch of Persicaria strigosa. This photo of her tail is taken from a safe distance just to illustrate her ability to warm in the sun while remaining less than obvious to a casual observer.

Winter Update

The wet season has drizzled to a close through June and we are now experiencing some dry weather with mostly sunny days and quite cold nights. River mist is often a feature of these cold, clear mornings as we experienced yesterday at the start of a tour with Murray the Daintree Boatman. In spite of the cold it was a wonderful morning excursion and we were able to enjoy lengthy observations of a Great-billed Heron both on the main river and in Barratt Creek. It was peaceful on the water in the early morning, watching the bird with only occasional quiet talk and the whir of camera motor-drives breaking the silence.

Murray heading in to pick up his passengers
Fabulous reflections in the still water as we waited for the Heron to move into better light

Back at Wild Wings & Swampy Things ……..in early June a little flock of Spotted Whistling ducks arrived and stayed for a few weeks. We watched their movements with interest as they shared a pond with Betty Barratt, the crocodile who frequently enjoys our hospitality. The larger and apparently more senior Spotted Whistling Duck, which we took to be the male, kept a very close look-out after one of the flock went missing.

Spotted Whistling Ducks in the background – living dangerously.

Betty continues her quiet life in our ponds while they hold sufficient water for her to feel comfortable. She is becoming a little more adventurous this year with more frequent movements between ‘Graham’ and ‘Rupert’ (all our ponds have names) leaving a muddy track on the bund wall separating the two ponds.

Many of the ‘bush birds’ have been a little quiet in the last week, possibly due to cold and sometimes windy weather. A few Magpie geese have been hanging around recently and several days ago, having noticed some trampled sedge, I was able to observe an adult goose with at least four, possibly five goslings. My dusk sighting didn’t enable a good view so Allen and I went out the next morning to see what was happening. We walked to Graham’s hide first; no visible goose activity but Betty was sunning herself amongst the waterlilies looking distinctly satisfied.

Is that a self-satisfied gleam in her eye?

We walked down to the ’07 ponds (never properly named!) from where we could hear geese. There were several lookout birds honking from surrounding trees and nervous parents on the water with only two goslings. As Allen saw both a Sea Eagle and a Brahminy Kite having a go at the goslings later in the morning he was loath to blame Betty but the next morning only one gosling remained.

One gosling closely guarded

This morning the geese were sounding very unsettled, Betty was swimming around below the trees in which they perched and there was no gosling to be seen. There was, however, a Black Bittern skulking around on a small island in between the sedge plants (Rhynchospora corymbosa). It’s fun to have the opportunity to observe a BB without being seen although I didn’t see any dramatic action. Their ability to hold a pose for minutes on end with no apparent movement is extraordinary.

Female Black Bittern in typical pose on Crake Island in Graham’s Pond

And so life on the ponds continues, a visiting friend today suggested that a renaming of the property to Wild Wings & Bitey Things might be appropriate as we await our official Crocodile warning sign! My mind immediately thought of the Faulty Towers television series and the fun we could have with an easily altered sign.

Colour in the Sun

Although we’re still having occasional rain showers the weather bureau declared the end of ‘the wet’ a few weeks ago. Some clear mornings and gorgeous sunny days have lifted everyone’s spirits, all the more appreciated after our long and very wet summer.
About a month ago we started seeing extraordinary numbers of butterflies, including some species we had not previously observed. They didn’t need the weather bureau to tell them the wet season downpours had finished! Four O’Clock Moths have been flying at all hours of the day and every Corky Bark tree, Carallia brachiata, seems to be hosting quite a number of their vibrant looper caterpillars. The one below was trying a different pose which it held like a yogi even with a camera lens at very close range.

This larva is trying an ‘innocent’ pose but the munched leaves tell a different story
Four O’Clock Moth – Dysphania fenestrata
Red Lacewing – Cethosia cydippe
Male Cruiser – Vindula arsinoe

The larval food plant of both Cruisers and Red Lacewings is the native passionfruit vine Adenia heterophylla. It’s bright red fruit is very decorative and is much appreciated by native rodents as well as cockatoos who usually don’t wait for the fruit to ripen! The seeds are obviously distributed successfully as we find these vines popping up in all sorts of places without any help from us.

Native Passionfruit – Adenia heterophylla
Hamadryad – Tellervo zoilus

Although the Hamadryad very closely resembles the Black and White Aeroplane it actually belongs in an entirely different sub-family and is the only member of Ithomiinae in Australia. It has close relatives in southern and central America. Peter Valentine mentions that the similarity between the these two species may be an example of mimicry by the aeroplane in order to gain benefit from the toxicity of the Hamadryad. The flight of the Hamadryad is more leisurely than that of the very similar Aeroplane and close attention to the wing pattern is required in order to confirm identification.

Black & White Aeroplane – Neptis praslini
Small Oakblue- Arhopala wildei

Described by Peter Valentine as “the most elusive of all the oakblues” Allen did well to photograph this beautifully patterned little butterfly. A dimorphic species, the upperside of the female is white whereas the male is blue. Peter Valentine’s delightful and informative book on Australian Tropical Butterflies has been very useful this year as Allen was able to identify the species he found that were unknown to us.

Orange Bushbrown – Mycalesis terminus

This not uncommon but very pretty little butterfly is often seen feeding on rotting fruit. The larvae feed on grasses and don’t seem to be particularly choosy as to which species.
This is just a small selection of the butterflies seen this year. They are interesting subjects however some, like the Green Spotted Triangle, just have to be enjoyed as they move fast and seemingly continuously. The photos of the Four O’Clock moth are mine, all the others were taken by Allen and he’s still trying for one of the Green Spotted Triangle!

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher

Allen has spent many hours observing life at Wild Wings & Swampy Things this summer. I greatly admire his patience and dedication in recording the life around us especially in the very wet conditions we have been experiencing.

Adult Paradise Kingfisher feeding in our Leichhardt forest – Nauclea orientalis. Leichhardts are able to cope with swampy conditions as well as inundation.

These eye-catching birds, with their long white ribbon tails, visit our north tropical area for a few months each year to tunnel into termite mounds and lay their eggs. In the event that they are able to hatch their eggs and rear their young without mishap they feed the nestlings until they are capable of flying out on their own and feeding. The adults and young fly north before the winter chill.

One of a number of termite mounds found in our forest. Not all are used as nests and some have trial holes which didn’t meet the bird’s standard and have been abandoned.

Allen has not tried to photograph Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers when they are nesting as we are just happy to know that they have returned for another year. To hear Paradise kingfishers calling and to catch glimpses of those gorgeous colours or a flash of white tail through the trees puts smiles on our faces.

This young bird was seen near Barratt Creek
Another sighting in the Leichhardts – their big leaves provide shade from the sun or shelter from the rain and their horizontal, sturdy branches make an excellent perches.
This young one was photographed near the house. In spite of netting draped along our verandah it came in low and hit the window. We quickly got it into our recovery box but in only a few minutes it was tapping to get out. It sat on Allen’s finger for about 2 seconds before flying off to a branch for some more quiet time.
Another shot of an adult bird feeding in the Leichhardt forest during a break between heavy showers of rain. There is a lot of insect activity at this time of the year and we felt this bird was enjoying some good feeds before commencing it’s northerly migration.