There’s still life in a dry-season garden

Honey-bee on pentas flower

Honey-bee on pentas flower

I have been saying for a few weeks that insect activity in the garden has dropped off with the drier, cooler weather and it’s true. (It’s true every year, of course, and I documented the changes here in some detail in 2011 and 2012 - see this post). That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no invertebrates at all at this time of year. For example, I took the photos on this page in one slow ramble around the garden last week.

brown bee on leaf

Small native bee, only about 7mm long

metallic fly on leaf

A very small predatory fly, Dolichopodidae family

grey-brown fly

Robber fly, Asilidae

orange beetle

Orchid-munching Dendrobium Beetle on leaf of Golden Orchid

orange spider on web

Spider with prey – a fly or a small wasp

brown spider

Spider hiding in dead frangipani branch

I could also have photographed plenty of ants, especially the Rattle Ants and Green Ants, and the common blue blow-flies. I did see one paper wasp, Ropalidia revolutionalis (photo here, on Flickr), but their nests have emptied in the last few weeks so I guess it was one of the last of the season’s hatchlings. I don’t know if the Mud-dauber wasps, Delta spp., suffer quite the same drop-off but I do know they are still around.

As for spiders, there are lots of the small spiky Gasteracantha sacerdotalis and quite a lot of even smaller spiders. The larger one I found in the hollow frangipani branch (definitely a male and perhaps Eriophora transmarina) is a species that spreads its web each night and takes it in again each morning, and I really don’t know how many of them we have.

And where are the butterflies? None posed for me that afternoon but we’re still seeing occasional Cairns Birdwings, Ulysses, Common Eggfly and Grass Yellows. If you don’t know them, using the search box in the sidebar will find you plenty of older photos of all of them.

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Spice Finches in Ross River parkland

brown birds feeding on grass

Spice Finches feeding

brown bird - back view

Spice Finch (juvenile) in the long grass

These little birds, Spice Finches (Lonchura punctulata), look very much the same as sparrows but are even smaller (11cm to the sparrows’ 15cm) and their coloration is somewhat different. Juveniles are plain brown above and below, while the adults have chestnut faces and a scale-like pattern on the belly feathers.

Both are actually exotics which are well established here and both are technically finches – not that we normally think of sparrows as such.

The Spice Finch, also known as the Scaly-breasted Munia or Mannikin (see note on Birdway), is native to tropical Asia, occurring from India and Sri Lanka east to Indonesia and the Philippines. It has been introduced into many other parts of the world and feral populations are established in the USA and Central America as well as here. Slater’s Field Guide says that in Australia it is resident in coastal eastern Australia, mainly from Sydney to SE Queensland “but spreading”.

The species seems to be well established around Townsville. On checking older photos in preparation for this post I found that I had photographed them along Ross River on three other occasions and on the Town Common. This small flock was feeding in parkland beside Ross River, Mundingburra, when I spotted them, taking to the long grass and then to a leafless tree when I approached too close for their peace of mind.

brown finches on twig

Spice Finches (adults)

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Going solar – two updates

I have been connected with two domestic solar power projects which I described here on Green Path at the time, and today I have news on both of them.

bushland

Hervey’s Range in winter

The first item concerns our solar bore pump on Hervey’s Range: we pulled down the disused power line over the weekend and took it to a scrap metal merchant. Pulling it down made the property tidier and safer and was a good excuse for mucking around in the bush for a few hours on a beautiful sunny day, while the $150 we got for it was a belated cash-back bonus on our purchase of the solar pump system. 

The system itself, six months down the track from its installation, has performed well. Cloudy weather has not troubled it as much as we thought it might, and neither has the shorter span of daylight in winter.

Back in town, the 1.5 KW system we put on our roof has just passed a good round number in its total output: 7 000 kWh, or 7 MWh. We installed the system in May 2011 so it has produced an average of 6.2 kWh per day for three years. By power-station standards that’s nothing, of course, but it’s a useful percentage of a household’s consumption: Ergon says (on the back of our power bill) that the average daily consumption for a household like ours is about 20 kWh per day, so our panels are producing nearly a third as much as we use.

Of course, we use some of our solar power during the day and export the rest of it and then use Ergon’s power all night, so our net benefit doesn’t quite reflect those numbers. I did the sums a year after the installation and came up with a figure of $700 p.a., with the expectation that that would increase as power prices increased.

The general tariff has just gone up from 29.4 to 30.8 c/kWh, which doesn’t look like a big change until you note that the same tariff was only 19.4 c/kWh when we installed the system three years ago.

In May 2011 the “service fee” or “daily supply charge” was only $23 per quarter, whereas by May this year it had risen to 55 cents per day ($49 per quarter) and it has just increased to 92 c/day (about $83 per quarter). That will make it a major part of our power bill.

The huge increase in the supply charge is obviously Ergon’s attempt to make up for people like ourselves who still want the security of mains power but don’t actually use much of it because we generate a lot of our own. That’s fair enough, maybe, but it simultaneously encourages us (and people like us) to go completely off-grid. I will return to this scenario in another post; meanwhile, Australian households could go off-grid by 2018 is a thought-provoking introduction to it.

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Leaden Flycatcher in Townsville

Leaden Flycatcher in the poinciana tree

Leaden Flycatcher (male) in the poinciana tree

About this time of year my focus (sorry!) shifts from insects to birds, because there is less insect activity in the cooler, drier weather and more birds in town as they retreat from the gradually drying inland country.

This bird, the Leaden Flycatcher (Myiagra rubecula), has been visiting us regularly over the last couple of weeks. They are resident in our region, not migrants as they are further south, and I see them occasionally in city parklands at any time of year but not usually in my garden.

As the name suggests, they hunt small insects on the wing, in the same way that our Rainbow Bee-eaters take slightly larger prey. They also hunt insects in foliage, often quite high in trees, and they are small birds (bigger than Sunbirds but smaller than Yellow Honeyeaters) so they are rather difficult to photograph – the shot above is the best I’ve managed so far, from what must be half a dozen opportunities.

Incidentally, I saw a pair of Spotted Turtle-doves in our palm tree this morning – the first time I’ve seen them since last April.

More information on the Leaden Flycatcher: Birds in Backyards.

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Yellow Honeyeater

yellow-green bird on blossom

Yellow Honeyeater

Yellow Honeyeaters (Lichenostomus flavus) don’t visit my garden (as far as I know!) but they are quite common in Townsville parklands. I have seen them in Anderson Park, beside Ross Creek and along Ross River. The one above was one of several enjoying the paperbark flowers near the Riverway Arts Centre on Saturday morning; I saw them during the same visit on which I photographed Percival (see my previous post). I suspect the only reason they don’t visit my garden is that the numerous resident White-gaped Honeyeaters out-compete them for their preferred food.

They are easily identified because no other birds of around the same size are so uniformly bright yellow-green: the other honeyeaters about their size (e.g. White-gaped) are much duller, and the bright, beautiful Sunbird is much smaller. Their range is limited to Cape York and a coastal strip extending South to about Rockhampton.

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