Forts Walk, Magnetic Island

koala

Koala in a gumtree beside the Forts walking track

We visit Magnetic Island several times per year, often to share its pleasures with visitors from other parts of the country or overseas. Two of each were in town this week and we walked up to the Forts with them yesterday morning before spending the early afternoon around Alma Bay and Geoffrey Bay; I came home with enough wildlife photos to be worth sharing with a wider audience, so here they are.

half a dozen brown bats

Microbats clinging to the ceiling of a WW2 building

Five different species of microbats (i.e. not flying foxes) are listed for the Island. These may be Little Bentwing Bats but I’m not at all sure because I see bats so rarely. The whole cluster is only about 100 mm across.

lizard with orange head

A small skink beside the Forts track

Skinks are more familiar to most of us than bats but present a greater identification challenge: twenty species have been recorded on the Island, Steve Wilson devotes one third of his excellent  Field Guide to Reptiles of Queensland to “this large family” without saying how large it is, and Australian Geographic reckons there are nearly 400 species in Australia.

So far everything has been perfectly harmless, even the enormous Golden Orb-weaver whose net spanned our path (I wrote about them here and won’t repeat myself) and our English visitors were beginning to think that our gleeful stories of dangerous tropical wildlife were entirely fanciful. They weren’t, of course – we do have crocodiles, sharks and box jellyfish, even if we don’t really have drop-bears – but the most dangerous animals we saw on our walk were insects:

paper wasp nests

Paper wasp nests dangling from twigs just off the track

Paper wasps may be small but they defend their nests vigorously. Each wasp can sting many times (unlike a bee) and anyone disturbing a nest is likely to be attacked by all of its inhabitants. I wrote about them here (mostly about a different species but the life cycle is the same) and a close-up of yesterday’s wasps (Ropalidia) is here.

black and gold beetle

Tortoise beetle – about ladybird size

This pretty little beetle is not dangerous at all unless you happen to be a plant. It is a Leaf Beetle (Chrysomelidae), a member of a large and varied family of mostly-colourful small beetles, and this kind is known as a Tortoise Beetle because of its shape. If we call it a Leaf Tortoise Beetle, as some people do, we know what it eats as well as what it looks like.

After the walk we took the bus back to Arcadia and spent most of the afternoon nearby. Our visitors enjoyed a low-tide stroll on Geoffrey Bay beach and loved the curlews around (and in!) the hotel, and the rock wallabies near the old car-ferry jetty. Rock Wallabies (Petrogale assimilis) are quite numerous on the island according to the Magnetic Island Wildlife site (“island-wide on rocky slopes, will use lowlands also when food or water are scarce”) but I have only ever seen them in this one location, where they are regularly fed:

Rock wallaby at feeding station

Rock wallaby at feeding station

two wallabies on rock

A smaller friend arrives

smaller rock wallaby with food

In sole possession

More information:

  • National Parks people have put together a good overview of Magnetic Island habitats and their non-human inhabitants.
  • Koalas are not native to the island but have been introduced. For general information about them, visit the Australian Koala Foundation or (especially for their evolutionary history) Wikipedia.
  • Curlews and a reef walk on Geoffrey Bay have already featured on Green Path.
  • There is more about curlews (my photos but not my text) here, on the Wildlife Qld branch blog.
  • More about the Rock Wallabies: Rootourism
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Birds on the Town Common (and a few insects)

olive bird with white belly

White-throated Honeyeater

As promised, here is some of the wildlife I saw on the Town Common a few days ago, beginning with the birds.

  • White-throated Honeyeater, Melithreptus albogularis, above and (a more identifiable photo) on flickr.
  • Rainbow bee-eaters – lots, perching high in bare trees and swooping for their food.
  • White-breasted Woodswallow, Artamus leucorynchus, several competing with the Bee-eaters for good high perches.
  • Welcome Swallows, Hirundo neoxena, quite a large group feeding in mid-air above the lagoon at Payet’s Tower.
  • Peaceful Doves, several.
  • Bar-shouldered Dove, Geopelia humeralis, in two different locations.
  • A pair of Fairy-wrens, probably Red-backed but too far away for me to be sure.
  • Plovers (two)
  • Ibis (two)
pond

The lagoon in front of Payet’s Tower, with its lone Egret

… and one each of …

… and not even one Magpie Goose or Cormorant!

The usual butterflies were reasonably abundant – Swamp, Plain and Blue Tigers, Crow, Glasswing, Grass Yellow, Migrant and Argus – but I didn’t come across any aggregations like this over-wintering group. On the other hand, I did see a small group of Oak Blues deep within a group of small trees in a gully on the Many Peaks path.

purple-blue butterfly

Shining Oak-blue inside the tree

Oak Blues (I think mine were Shining Oak-blues, Arhopala micale) are amongst the largest and brightest of a family of small butterflies, the Blues or Lycaenidae. I don’t see them very often, so this one is a bit special.

In spite of the common name of the family, nearly all Lycaenidae imitate dry leaves with their underside coloration and few are brightly coloured even on the upper surface of the wing (see them all here).

The most numerous insects on the Common that day were the grasshoppers and green-ants. I also saw a very handsome native cockroach (click here to see it, especially if you don’t believe cockroaches can ever be attractive) and a few dragonflies.

brown dragonfly perching

Common Glider

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The Town Common after a failed Wet season

dry landscape panorama

The Town Common looking from the Many Peaks track towards Castle Hill and Mt Stuart, April 2015

green floodplain

Looking towards Bald Rock from the same location

Townsville has had one of its driest and hottest Wet seasons on record and the consequences for the Town Common wetlands have been dire. We had 185mm of rain in January (not too bad), but only 31.8mm in February and a mere 4.8mm in March, for a total of about 220 instead of our average of around 650.

I took these two photos yesterday from a lookout above Tegoora Rock (they are almost a split panorama, since the trees at the right of the first are the trees at the left of the second). Later in the morning I drove around to the Freshwater Lagoon bird hide, stopping at Payet’s Tower on the way. There was no open water to be seen at Freshwater Lagoon, none to be seen from the road between there and Payet’s Tower, and only a small area to be seen from the Tower itself. The Wetland Walk loop track near the Pallarenda carpark was similarly dry: everything was still green but the ground was already hard.

At this time of year, the Common should look like this or this or this (the last is from a National Parks promo), to cite just three photos from better years. This is what it looked in August 2013, with far more open water than it has now; what it will look like by August – let alone November – this year is hard to envisage.

I saw few waterbirds yesterday, of course. Most of them have gone in search of greener pickings; the parklands along Ross River have been resonating with the soft hooting of Magpie Geese for some time now, and we have even had reports of adults leading their goslings down suburban streets. Ross Dam is probably more crowded than usual, too (I haven’t been there to check), but it is at levels low enough to be causing alarm in the local newspaper:

TOWNSVILLE’S dam levels have fallen to a seven-year low after the ­region ­experienced its hottest and ­driest March on record.

Ross River Dam is at just 55 per cent and Paluma Dam is sitting at 64 per cent, with water levels dropping about 2.5 per cent every week.

If the region’s dry spell continues, heightened water restrictions could be imposed on Townsville residents by as early as July. Townsville City Council may have to pump water from the Burdekin Dam at a cost of up to $170,000 a week. …

Weather bureau senior forecaster Andrew Cearns said that while the city was likely to receive minor showers over the long weekend, it would not receive any subsequent significant rainfall until the next wet season, starting in November.

The Bulletin makes no mention of the influence of global warming on our poor Wet season, and one can’t entirely blame the reporter, but all of our weather now must be considered in that context. No single weather event can be blamed entirely on climate change but many, including this one, can be seen to be exacerbated by it. In this case, our hotter, drier summer is absolutely in keeping with the trends observed by the Bureau of Meteorology over the last forty-five years; visit the trend maps and play with them to see what I mean. I am not saying, of course, that this year is the ‘new normal’, but it is far more ‘normal’ now than it would have been forty or fifty years ago.

My trip to the Common was by no means wasted in spite of the conditions, since I had a good walk and saw lots of wildlife. I will post some of the birds and insects here soon but sign off now with my one major reptile, a nearly-two-metre goanna which crossed my path near Payet’s Tower, startling both of us. Neither of us ran away, so I was able to take some photos.

goanna in grassland

Wary but not too worried

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Identifying a spider

black spider

My unknown spider, about 10 mm long

There are lots of spiders in Australia, in case you hadn’t noticed, and lots of different species – plenty, in fact, to challenge professional taxonomists (the people who scientifically describe, classify and name species) let alone ordinary people who just come across something cute or scary and want to know what it is.

My expertise is somewhere in between those two extremes, since I picked up a reasonable knowledge of the wildlife around me as I grew up on a farm and have added to it considerably in the last ten years.

How did I add to my childhood knowledge? How does anyone with only a beginner’s knowledge add to it? Here it is my method … if something so casual deserves to be called a method.

black spider

On the lid of a plastic drum – clearly an unnatural habitat

(1) What do I already know about this particular creature?

  • What kind of animal is it? It’s an arachnid (eight legs) not an insect (six) and out of the arachnids it is pretty obviously a spider (the others are scorpions, ticks and mites, harvestmen and pseudoscorpions, none of which look much like spiders.)
  • Size: It is medium size – head and body together are about 10mm long. (That’s not clear from the photo here, but I remember roughly how big it was. Sometimes I try to put something of known size in the photo for reference, e.g. my thumb nail (15mm wide), my little finger nail (about 10mm), a house key or a coin.)
  • Habitat: I saw it running around on the ground, looking as though it was hunting, near a farm house. It then ran up a plastic drum, so it probably also hunts on tree trunks in its natural surroundings.
  • Location: It was in inland North Queensland (specifically Mingela, but NQ and the dry climate are likely to be more significant).

(2) What do I know about classifying and identifying spiders?

Resources: three really good websites (as used below) but no good reference books.

Spiders (order Araneae) are divided into two suborders, Mygalomorphs and Araneomorphs. I know immediately that this isn’t a Mygalomorph because they are just the big hairy tarantulas and funnelwebs, so my unknown spider is an Araneomorph.

Each suborder is divided into families and that may be as far as I get with an identification because there are lots more families in this suborder than in the other one. On the other hand, knowing the family may tell me most of what I wanted to know anyway, since each family has many common characteristics. For instance, if I knew that I had a Huntsman, I would soon know all this and this. And of course learning the families, 80 of them according to Volker Framenau’s authoritative Checklist (pdf), is much easier than learning all 3634 species (so far).

(3) Method

The home page of Arachne.org lists all the Araneomorph families but is not the best for quickly identifying my spider because it has neither a key (a set of yes/no questions steering the user towards the correct identification) nor a set of photos of typical family members. Ron Atkinson’s Find-a-Spider guide has the set of questions, backed up by photos, while Ed Nieuwenhuys’ Spiders of Australia has the photos, backed up by descriptions and (if you go looking), a location/web grid which is a pretty good substitute for a key.

Let’s go for his photos this time. Half a dozen of them look similar enough in proportions and coloration to be worth checking:
housewolf-prowlingfishingground-wasp-mimic


Screen shots from the index page of Spiders of Australia

The last two are very similar to each other and the most like my unknown spider. Clicking on the Spotted Ground Spider link gets me to more and bigger photos and a feeling that none of them are quite right – but look: “Storena formosa is a very common spider … a spectacularly coloured spider that resembles the Gnaphosid Supunna picta” with a link which takes me, as it turns out, to the second of my two top picks, the Wasp-mimicking Spider. And this is the one: white spots on black body, mostly-black legs with orange-brown front legs, white stripe down the middle of the head (‘cephalothorax’ if you want to be technical, but ‘head’ will do) and nothing in the description rules it out:

The wasp-mimicking spider or Supunna picta is one of the fastest spiders in Australia. While running, it waves its two forelegs above its body, mimicking the two antennas of a wasp. The front two legs have a brown tinge. Male and females are identical and their length varies between 5 and 7 mm. This species is closely related to much larger Supunna albopunctum (7 -12 mm) but this spider has two rows of white dashed spots on its abdomen. In autumn and winter the females construct a flat very white disc shaped egg-sac of 5-6 mm. The spider feeds on ground dwelling insects and spiders.

At this point I am fairly sure I have the spider’s identity, but it’s worth checking on the other main sites. Typing “Supunna picta” into the search box on Arachne.org takes me here and gives me a little more confidence (e.g. size to 8mm here matches my guess of “about 10” a bit better than Nieuwenhuys’ “5 – 7mm”). Ron Atkinson’s site offers a Species List which takes me to a photo and description which again confirm my first conclusion.

So there we are: it is a Swift Ground Spider, aka Painted Swift Spider, aka Wasp-mimicking Spider (this is why we like Latin names!) in the family Corinnidae. Corinnidae  is not one of the bigger or better-known families (it doesn’t even have a common name) and I’m not surprised that it didn’t immediately come to mind when I saw this spider. If it had, the identification process would have been somewhat quicker.

The process I have demonstrated, incidentally, is similar for birds, butterflies or any other group of animals; I just chose spiders to demonstrate it because I had a good example at hand.

Each kind of creature has its dedicated sites and its printed guide books; my regular readers will know most of those I rely on, since I continually refer to them and link to them. And if individual research fails, there is a great community of helpful experts, especially on the appropriate Flickr groups, Field Guide to Insects of Australia and Spiders of Australia - thanks again to Rob, Graeme, Kristi, Tony, Michael, Boris, Jean, Steve and everyone else who has helped me get this far!

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Lorikeets and figbirds in North Queensland

parrot on red flowers

Rainbow Lorikeet on Umbrella Tree flowers

We regularly visit a “bush block” on Hervey’s Range, 40 minutes’ drive inland from Townsville. Six weeks ago we saw lots of Rainbow Lorikeets feeding on the bright red blossoms of the Umbrella Trees (Schefflera actinophylla) there, but when we returned a couple of days ago the flowers had become fruit and the lorikeets had shifted to a tall gum tree, 50 metres away, which had burst into blossom in the meantime.

A family of Figbirds (Sphecotheres vieilloti) had taken their place on the Umbrella Tree, feeding gregariously on the dark brown fruit. There was certainly plenty of it it to share!

brown bird on brown seed-head

Figbird on the mature fruit, early April

green and brown birds on the same flowers

The whole family feeding together

The Umbrella Tree is native to this part of the world and is not a problem here: it grows well but “has maintained a balance with other native species,” as this DAF page says. The page goes on to add, however, that “when it is grown in southern Queensland, this fast-growing invader out-competes local native species,” and this other Queensland government fact sheet simply calls it a weed (but has better pictures of it).

That’s unfair, since a weed is, when you come down to it, simply a plant where you don’t want it. Even Lantana, loathed up here, is not a weed everywhere.

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