Weevil or beetle?

Let me begin by admitting that my title question is misleading: weevils are different from most beetles in a very recognisable way but they are in fact still beetles, a family within the order Coleoptera which includes longicorns, elephant beetles and all the others.

Wikipedia informs us that Curculionidae, “the “true” weevils (or “snout beetles”) … are one of the largest animal families, with 6,800 genera and 83,000 species described worldwide.” It’s not surprising, then, that, “with so many species, a spirited debate exists about the relationships between subfamilies and genera,” (Wikipedia’s polite way of saying that the experts are still arguing).

CSIRO’s invaluable site says that weevils are, “Highly variable in form, but usually moderately to strongly convex, robust, heavily sclerotised and often clothed with scales or bristles. Head always more or less produced [i.e. extended] in front of eyes to form a rostrum, which is usually much longer than broad; antennae always geniculate [elbowed] with long scape and more or less compact club.” Many of those features can be seen in my photos of an individual I found in my garden recently:

Weevil on a frangipani branch

Continue reading “Weevil or beetle?”

Counting birds

screenshot-birdcount-sThe Aussie Backyard Bird Count is underway as I write and still has a few days to run, so there’s still time to get involved. It’s an annual event but this is the first time I have been organised enough to take part.

The procedure is simple enough, so long as you have a smartphone:

  • Download the (free) app from the homepage or your usual Android or Apple app store.
  • Sign in.
  • Mark your location on its map. You can do it manually if the app can’t find your location. (This happened to me a couple of times and was only resolved when I went to ‘Settings’ and enabled high-accuracy location services.)
  • Hit ‘Next’ and your 20-minute counting session begins. When you see a bird, type in the species; if you see another, just hit + on the list you’re building up.
  • When the timer has counted down to zero, you will be asked to submit your count.
  • If you’re like me, you will then wonder whether you should have counted the bird you heard but didn’t see, or the one you weren’t quite sure about, and will consult the FAQs hiding behind the ? at the top of the home screen.
  • Then do as many more counts as you like, in any locations you like.

The Bird Count is a project of Birdlife Australia and Birds in Backyards. Visit its own homepage to get started or find answers to any other questions about it. It’s a great citizen-science project and the bird identification section of the app will be useful for year to come – unless you’re one of those super-keen birders who already has such a thing on your phone.

If you are one of those people, you may well be interested in the National Twitchathon at the end of this month:

Every year, hundreds of passionate birdwatchers race around the great Australian bush competing in a unique sporting event called a Twitchathon. The aim? To see or hear as many bird species as possible, and in the process help protect our birdlife for years to come.

In 2016, the BirdLife Australia National Twitchathon is back, bigger and better than ever. Whether it’s your first time spotting or you’re a fully-fledged twitcher, the Twitchathon is now a nationwide competition that caters for all birders. …

This year there are three different event options to choose from. Choose an event, form a team, and start planning a route and fundraising strategy!

As always, the 24-hour race will be a marathon of maximum habitat coverage, yielding massive species totals – winning teams regularly see over a quarter of all Australia’s birds, driving hundreds of kilometres and stopping only to twitch. This year, a system for calculating the national winning team has been created using statistical analysis of BirdLife Atlas data found in our new Birdata web portal.

For those with less time, the 12-hour ‘Champagne’ race gives teams half a day to spot as many birds as they can. This more relaxed event avoids the need for teams to drive overnight, and even includes an optional lunch break.

The ‘Birdathon’ targets everyone, young and old, experienced and novice. Each team has three 1-hour blocks to birdwatch over the course of the day, which they can choose to use at any time, and in any place. …

Good luck – and have fun! – at whatever level suits you.

Nature photography online

I have been having such a good time outdoors lately that I am welcoming this wet day (our first for a very long time) not just for the much-needed rain but for the chance to catch up with my photos and my blog. My visits to Alligator Creek on Boxing Day and Magnetic Island (blog post to come) have reminded me how often I use several online reference collections to help me identify the wildlife I come across. I think they deserve to be featured in their own right, both to thank all the people involved with these excellent sites and to help any readers looking for wildlife identification guides. Here they are:

  • The Flickr group Field Guide to Insects of Australia is the hub of a community of interested and helpful folk with varying levels of expertise in entomology. With 600+ members and 22 000+ photos it covers a lot of bugs!
  • Graeme Cocks’ Wildlife of Townsville is unrivalled as regards insects of my local region and has smaller sections covering spiders, birds and other animal life.
  • Brisbane Insects and Spiders is a very big site which is great for SE QLD and very good for most of the East coast.
  • Spiders of Australia is Flickr’s counterpart to Field Guide to Insects of Australia. Very useful if you want help with ID, or if you think you know what you’ve got but want to look at lots of photos of it.
  • Arachne.org (Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson), Spiders of Australia (Ed Nieuwenhuys) and Find-a-Spider (Ron Atkinson) are all large, authoritative photographic catalogues. The third is focused on SE Qld (although of course many of its species have much broader ranges) but the other two are national.
  • When it comes to birds, Birdway (Ian Montgomery) is my first, and usually last, click but Birdlife Townsville (formerly the Bird Observers’ Club) is well worth a visit.

Most of my readers will have already visited Flickr, the online photo-sharing service, by now, if only because my links have taken you there. One of their ancillary services to users is the option of tagging other people’s photos as ‘Favorites’ to be able to return to them with a single click. My own favorites album, containing nearly 80 photos, is (unsurprisingly) full of nature photography and has a good proportion of macro work. Please click here to visit it … but only if you can remember to be kind about my own less-polished efforts afterwards.

Natural history in the digital age

Graeme Cocks has been my mentor in entomology since I started taking more than a casual interest in the small creatures which share our lives. Last week he told us about an incident which beautifully illustrates the power of shared knowledge:

There was a ship at anchor 1 mile off Dampier, WA, yesterday, the Mermaid Vantage. One of the crew found a large insect on board and, concerned about quarantine, the ship’s Master sent a picture of it off to the ship’s agent in Perth.

The agent happened to have a Dad who knew a bit about insects, so he sent the picture to me. I recognised it and also happened to have the right book in my library, on water bugs. So within about half an hour the ship had a name, Lethocerus distinctifemur, and a long waffle about the insect’s habits and distribution. Pretty cool.

As he says, pretty cool. But it gets better: just as easily, I can share with you his photos of the bug, a much more dramatic photo and description from someone I’ve never heard of before, and an overview of the insect’s family from Wikipedia:

Lethocerus is a genus of the hemipteran family Belostomatidae, known colloquially as giant water bugs, distributed throughout the tropical, subtropical and temperate areas of the world. The greatest diversity of species occurs in the Americas. It includes the largest true bugs with species reaching a length of over 11 centimetres.

I can easily go further and show you where museum specimens of the bug have been collected (see EoL) but that is not really the point. The point is that we have access to far more information, far more easily, than any previous generation. We should enjoy it (I know I do!) and make good use of it.

More netizen science

Encyclopedia of Life

One of my first posts to this blog mentioned Encyclopedia of Life, a major international collaborative effort to document the living world around us. Its list of sponsors and supporters starts at the highest possible levels (Smithsonian Institution)  and goes all the way down to amateurs like myself, contributing by uploading photographs of my local wildlife.

Dragonfly perched on twig
Local wildlife: Australasian Slimwing, Lathrecista asiatica festa

There is only one way for an ordinary person to contribute images, i.e. the EOL Flickr group at http://www.flickr.com/groups/encyclopedia_of_life/. The rules for the group basically say that images need a creative commons license allowing third parties to use them free of copyright and a ‘machine tag’ which will enable automated harvesting of images from the group to EOL itself.

Flickr membership needn’t cost you anything. A free account allows you to upload 300MB worth of photos per month and if you resize them to roughly screen resolution (say 1000 x 750 px) they will be under 1MB each, allowing you hundreds of uploaded images per month if you have that much free time.

It takes a bit of time and fiddly work to set up a Flickr account, choose photos and tag them, but anyone can make a useful contribution to a worthwhile project. And any Australian photos will be picked up automatically from EOL by the Atlas of Living Australia, a similar project run by CSIRO and most of our state museums.

Climate science

A question that popped up on RealClimate recently was, “In what ways could an amateur scientist contribute to the study of climate, and assist the professionals?”

The question continued, “I don’t mean advocacy, but assist in actual research. As an example in a different field of study, amateur astronomers are playing key roles by looking for supernovae and then alerting professionals when one is first found so that the far more powerful telescopes can be directed towards the exploding star to collect data …  Just like there are certain tasks that professional astronomers ‘downsource’, so to speak, to amateurs, I am curious if there are certain tasks that professional climatologists are looking to downsource.”

A good question, and it promptly got a good answer from Gavin Schmidt, one of the core members of RealClimate: “Some of the most active ‘citizen science’ projects related to climate are focused on the digitisation of old weather records (here and here), and phenology projects (for instance, here or here).” (The third of these four starts by defining ‘phenology’, in case you wondered.)

The best Australian equivalent to the US phenology projects Gavin mentions is probably Climatewatch, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other citizen science projects ranging from divers helping count marine life to students trapping and identifying barley mildew. Search the net for “citizen science projects [your state]” and find one that appeals.