More dragonflies at the Palmetum

green dragonflies mating
A mating pair of Slender Skimmers, Orthetrum sabina

I’ve written about dragonflies and the Palmetum before so I won’t say much here except that a visit in October 2013 resulted in these photos of three more species. I don’t know how many there are altogether; I’m up to about ten definitely identified and a lot more that I’m not sure of.

Australia has only half as many species of dragonflies and damselflies (closely related but mostly smaller) as it does of butterflies – about 320 – but dragonflies are harder to identify from photographs since the only conclusive method is to check the pattern of veins in the wings. However, size and colour can sometimes be enough and this Brisbane Insects page identifies many of our local species on that basis.

red-bodies dragonfly on waterlily leaf
Red Arrow, Rhodothemis lieftincki
black and yellow dragonfly
Australian Tiger, Ictinogomphus australis

Bug-hunting in Laos

On Monday I returned from a couple of weeks discovering Laos – a whole new country for me, although I had a fairly good idea of what to expect because I had been to Thailand and Cambodia a few years ago.

I travelled with a group of a dozen led by local guides. The tour began in Hanoi (yes, I know that’s in Vietnam) and took us quickly south to Vinh (still in Vietnam) before turning inland to cross the mountains via the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos. We were in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, by the end of our (long) second day’s travel. A couple of days later we took a bus to Vang Vieng, where we stayed a few days before continuing to Luang Prabang. Finally, a slow boat on the Mekong took us to the Thai border not far from Chiang Mai where the trip concluded.

The people were nice, the food was interestingly different, many of the temples were beautiful and much of the scenery was breathtaking but my interest here on Green Path is wildlife and the environment so this first post about the trip covers some of the bugs I managed to photograph along the way. All of these pictures are already on Flickr so I have linked  the small versions here to full-size versions there.

brown butterfly on purple flowers

The climate of Laos is not too different from that of Cairns (monsoonal, but wetter than Townsville) and the vegetation is very similar: I recognised most of the cultivated plants and a fair percentage of weeds and other wild plants. It is not surprising, then, that there is a lot of overlap in the insect life too.

Vientiane’s public parks and gardens tend to be neatly clipped, formal and (to my mind) rather sterile. I would have welcomed more shade trees, too, since it was very hot while we were there.  One temple garden provided most of my insect shots. The smallish brown butterfly at left is one I didn’t know, but in the same garden I also saw a flower wasp and a swallowtail butterfly which wouldn’t have surprised me at home.

brown butterfly on bamboo pole
Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is a small town surrounded by rice paddies and towering limestone mountains which are covered in jungle where they are not too sheer. My best single day of insect photography was the day we went caving and tubing. We had to wait an hour or so in a  clearing between rice paddies and the mountain (limestone mountains = caves, right?) and in that time must have photographed a dozen species of butterfly (thumbnails here) and seen a dozen more including the Green-spotted Triangle and Blue Tiger we have here in Townsville. I have rarely seen such an abundance of butterflies anywhere, and I have never before seen such a profusion of species. Later in the day I caught another three or four species including this big dark swallowtail and these creamy-white Pieridae on the pebbled bank of a stream. Meanwhile, the irrigation ditches were home to a variety of dragonflies (thumbnails here). I would have been photographing smaller insects as well except that my SLR had, infuriatingly, died in Vientiane and I was reduced to a point-and-click camera.

butterfly on fern frond
Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a bigger (and much prettier) town than Vang Vieng. Half-day trips from it took me to two waterfalls where I enjoyed insect photography as well as the scenery and splashing about in the clear waters.

My last two days in Laos were insectless because we were on a boat in the middle of one of the world’s great rivers. We reckon the Burdekin is a big river, and it is: the fourth largest in Australia by volume of water, in fact. But the Mekong is seven times as long and discharges an astonishing 40 times as much water. I will upload some landscapes when the images are sorted. Meanwhile, all my worthwhile bug photos from the trip are in three sets on Flickr: Laos wildlife, Vietnam wildlife (an astonishing two insect photos from Hanoi!) and the more recent section of Thailand insects and spiders (earlier images are from my 2009 trip).

What’s around – mid September 2012

The biggest event in the garden in the last month has been the flowering of our poplar gum, plus the paperbark, macadamia and bottlebrush. All attracted their quota of nectar-feeders – birds and flying foxes as well as insects.

The weather news is simple: we had a little bit of rain which triggered the flowering of our trees, and since then we have had rather warmer nights and slightly warmer days, with slightly higher humidity. Temperatures are now consistently dropping to 16C overnight (not 8 or 10) and going up to 28 in the daytime, and I do mean ‘a little bit’ of rain – the BoM recorded 1.4mm on August 20 and none before or since. The invertebrates have responded to the warmth and food with a surge in numbers and variety:

Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera): numerous Chocolate Soldiers and Eurema; a few Varied Eggfly and Evening Brown; and visiting Cairns Birdwing, Orchard Swallowtails and Ulysses. Magpie Moths are common again, and I loved the Zodiac Moth on the poplar gum. Nearer ground level, I spotted a pretty white moth, Amerila rubripes. It does have a ‘common name’ – Walker’s Frother but it’s not well known enough to be a genuinely common name.

hairy orange caterpillars
These very hairy caterpillars fell from the poplar gum and ended up on a weirdly photogenic blue textured glass louvre

Flies and their relations (Diptera): Tiger craneflies are abundant, to the extent that I saw half a dozen mating pairs in half an hour one morning, and the orange-headed Plecia flies are also mating. Our tiny metallic Dolichopodidae are as common as ever, and there are a few blowflies too. Mosquitoes? Yes, unfortunately, but not too many.

Paper wasps on a chain of nest cells
A new, small paper wasp nest. Its structure is enough to identify the wasps as Ropalidia revolutionalis

Wasps, Bees and Ants (Hymenoptera): Honey bees came to the flowering trees and various native bees are also around. The small parasitic wasps (Braconidae) are back, and so are paper wasps and mud-daubers.

Spiders and other Arachnids: The orb-weavers suffered housekeeping agonies from the poplar gum as flower debris kept falling into their webs, making them useless for trapping prey. Spiny spiders and the Silver Orb-weaver are the commonest at the moment, with a few St Andrew’s Cross spiders for variety. Jumping spiders, Lynx and flower spiders are all to be found, too.

Others: A praying mantis was resting on our lounge-room wall last night and I have seen a few dragonflies cruising through our airspace. There very few grasshoppers of any size or variety but lacewings, both green and brown, have been attracted to our lights in the evenings. Of the Hemiptera, my little aqua-legs sap-sucker is back and I have seen a few others; not many, though, and I suspect they are waiting for more new greenery.

Last monththis time last year

Midwinter dragonfly

Just for those who have been missing dragonflies …

Dragonfly resting in long grass
Midwinter on Mount Stuart

Even in midwinter we have dragonflies and other insects, even on the very exposed top of Mount Stuart. This photo was taken on almost the shortest day of the year and well into our dry season. I’m not sure whether the cold or the dry has the greater impact on insect numbers, to be honest, but they are well down at this time of year even in sheltered spots like my garden.

On the same visit I saw a hover-fly, an orb-weaving spider or ten (Nephilengys and two species of Leucauge, plus the spiky Austracantha), quite a lot of grasshoppers, an orange and black mud-dauber wasp, some little yellow Eurema butterflies, a couple of spotty moths and one or two other insects. Getting out of the house did me good and the views are terrific, but I have to say that the bug-hunting will be better in a few months’ time.

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 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.