Winter is traditionally followed by Spring but not here, and not in the era of climate change. Last week was Winter; this week is the Fire Season.
Perhaps that is a little melodramatic, but it’s justified by the conditions we have experienced recently. The fire season is already well under way, as it usually is by this time of year, and we have had several very smoky days in town but today was exceptional. Late this morning I could hardly see Mount Stuart from the Rising Sun intersection on Charters Towers Rd, so I visited Castle Hill with my camera to see what I could see from there. It wasn’t pretty.
Most of our largest butterflies are Swallowtails (Papilionidae), with the Cairns Birdwing (female wingspan to 150mm) and Ulysses (108mm) notable amongst them, but we also have smaller Swallowtails such as the Blue, Pale and Green-spotted Triangles (Graphium spp.) between 57 and 65mm. Most of the Nymphs (Nymphalidae) – Crows, Soldiers, Tigers, etc – are about this size, with wingspans between 50 and 65mm. Many of the Whites and Yellows (Pieridae) – Migrants, Jezebels and Albatrosses, for instance – are in the same range, too, while the others are all smaller and Skippers (Hesperiidae) and Blues (Lycaenidae) are smaller still. (Links on Latin names take you to collections of my photos on flickr.)
Swallowtails are named for the ‘tails’ which extend from their hind wings but not all Swallowtails have tails: Ulysses and Fuscous do, while others have mere tokenistic points instead of proper tails and the Chequered, Clearwing, Dainty and the Cairns Birdwing manage without any at all. On the other hand, many non-Swallowtails, especially Blues, do have tails.
What, then, are we to make of this handsome butterfly, with its 85mm wingspan and not one but two tails on each hind wing?
Castle Hill is an immense mass of pink granite rising above the city. Beloved by tourists, joggers and landscape painters, it is a challenging environment for wildlife because the soil (where there is any) is so thin. Rainwater drains off almost instantly, so the vegetation struggles to survive and there aren’t many herbivores to feed the carnivores. Nevertheless, on Sunday I spent almost an hour in a little patch of open scrub near the summit, watching to see what was around, and was well rewarded.
There were grasshoppers, butterflies (Blue Tigers, Migrants, Crows and a few others), a couple of bee-flies, a baby mantis and lots of ants (links here take you to these insects on my flickr photostream), but the spiders drew my attention. There were odd little patches of silk in a few seed-heads of the tall grass and I pulled one apart to find a small pale-gold spider, while a similar but bigger patch in a knee-high sandpaper fig tree was home to what looked like a whole family (a female guarding her egg-sac and a smaller adult which could have been the male) of grey-brown spiders. A slim grey spider with enormously long legs appeared on the trunk of a poplar gum and wandered off again, and I watched the later stages of a deadly attack on one spider by another.
The attacker was a jumping spider (Salticidae, perhaps a Sandalodes) and its prey was a Lynx (Oxyopes macilentus). Both are predators, but the Lynx is an ambush hunter, typically waiting for prey to come within reach, while jumping spiders are roving hunters. In this case it looks like the jumping spider, the larger of the two, had chanced across the Lynx and lived up to its name; the Lynx offered very little resistance to its larger attacker.
How big are they? Not very big at all: perhaps 11 mm and 7 mm. If I hadn’t chosen to sit quietly and look around, I wouldn’t even have noticed them in the grass.
I have mentioned in earlier posts that our dry season is marked – marred, in fact – by a series of grass fires and the panoramic shot, above, taken on a recent visit to Castle Hill shows just how prevalent they are. The burning on the hill itself is obvious and I have circled fire traces on the outskirts of the city in blue – click on the photo to see them better.
The small black rectangles mark the locations of my bird photography on the Common last week, with the Pandanus viewing area on the left and the bird hide on the right.