Fairy Gerygone and Lewin’s Honeyeater

I’m still finding creatures I can’t identify and having to call on my Friendly Local Experts for help. They are very generous with their time,  and I thank them for their help but I don’t want to embarrass them by getting anything wrong so they will remain Anonymous FLE’s (unless, of course, they read this and choose to be named). My latest call for help related to these little birds:

fairy gerygone
What’s smaller than a Brown Honeyeater?
fairy gerygone
Is this the same or not?

They were attracted to the sprinkler at the bush block on Hervey’s Range I visit regularly. My first thought was that they were Lemon-bellied Flycatchers (aka Fly-robins) but I couldn’t account for the white streak under the eye in the second photo. They looked a bit too small, too, so I asked.

The reply was prompt: “… southern race of Fairy Gerygones: the first one is a female, the second with the white streaks is a male.”

They were new to me so I looked them up. Slaters’ Field Guide calls Gerygones “Australian Warblers” and their “Fairy Warbler, Gerygone palpebrosa,” is “10 – 11.5cm” – Sunbird size, not Brown Honeyeater size. Birdway, which is regularly updated with name changes in a way that books can’t be, includes them in “Australasian Thornbills, Scrubwrens, Gerygones & Allies (Acanthizidae).” The Fly-robin, for comparison, is here.

One of the area’s most common honeyeaters, the Lewin’s (Meliphaga lewinii), also came to enjoy the sprinkler:

Lewin's Honeyeater
Lewin’s Honeyeater

As usual, I came home with a collection of spider and insect photos. The most interesting are now on flickr, here and close to it, in my photostream.

Dry-country goanna

Australia has just over twenty species of goanna (aka monitor lizard) but if anyone talks about seeing ‘a goanna’ they usually mean the largest local species. In our case, that’s the Lace Monitor, Varanus varius, which happens to be the second-largest in the country. (The Perentie of the central deserts is a little larger, growing to 2.4m as against the Lace Monitor’s 2.1m.)

The normal colour scheme of our Lace Monitors (I’m simply going to call them ‘goannas’ from here on) is dull grey-black with a generous spattering of creamy spots, as in my photographs of goannas at Wallaman Falls, on Whitehaven Beach and in the hills above Mission Beach (scroll down each page for the pics).

Crossing open ground. The tip of the tail is right on the edge of the photo.

When we saw this reptile crossing the back yard of a weekender on Hervey’s Range we were surprised enough to check the reference books. It was close to two metres from nose to tail, so there weren’t many possibilities.

This strongly-banded sand-and-charcoal goanna is, in fact, still Varanus varius, although the ‘Lace’ name doesn’t suit it very well at all. It is known as ‘Bell’s form’ or ‘Bell’s phase’ and is more common in the drier inland than on the coast.

Noticing that s/he has been noticed

The Hervey’s Range property is just on the inland side of the crest of the range, although with a higher rainfall than regions further West, so a Bell’s form goanna is not too far out of its normal territory. That said, Wikipedia has one from the Fraser Coast (Hervey Bay – Maryborough) in its Lace Monitor gallery, so the geographical separation can’t be too strict.

Camouflage test

Pretty little spiders

Regular readers will know that I visit a bush block on Hervey’s Range, half an hour or so inland from Townsville, fairly often. It’s a great place for spiders, though I’m not quite sure why; earlier visits have brought me the two species of golden orb weavers living side by side which I mentioned here, my only whip spider, my only tarantula and many more. My latest visit brought me these three little ones.

The Horned Triangular Spider, Arkys cornutus, is so attractively bizarre that it is photographed more often than it otherwise would be. This is the first I’ve seen in real life and yes, I photographed it too.

It lurks in foliage waiting for unwary prey to land close enough to be caught between its impressively barbed front legs, so its hunting strategy is the same as the crab (aka flower) and lynx spiders. However, it is not closely related to either of those families but is an orb-weaver (AraneidaeAraneinae) which for some reason has given up  weaving.

red spider on leaf
Horned Triangular Spider

My next odd little beast is one of those crab spiders (Thomisidae), the Hairy Crab Spider, Sidymella hirsuta. It’s about 15mm long from toe to toe but its body is almost the same size as that of my Arkys.

spider on leaf
Hairy Crab Spider

My third spider isn’t as photogenic as the other two but I thought I should include it because I saw it in the same patch of bushland on the same morning.

It’s a Cyclosa, a member of a genus of smallish orb-weavers with the habit of constructing a messy strand of debris and (sometimes) egg sacs across the middle of their web and pretending to be part of the rubbish. It must be an effective strategy because they are quite common.

Naming the genus is not problematic but even the experts avoid more exact identification, saying things like, “Cyclosa is very diverse in Australia with at least 10 species, currently under revision. At this stage it is not possible to reliably identify Australian Cyclosa to species, with the exception of a few,” and I’m not going to rush in where they fear to tread.

The thread I photographed contains (counting from the top) debris which looks like tiny dead leaves, four pale egg sacs, dark debris, the spider, more dark debris, a bigger pale bundle and a loose bundle of rubbish; the whole thing is only about as thick as a grass stem. Click on the images, as usual, for more detail.

spiderweb with debris
Cyclosa, egg sacs and debris
spider in web
Zooming in to see the spider at much more than life size: what’s in the image is about 8mm from top to bottom

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.

A very short walk on Hervey’s Range

Stick insect hanging beneath a leaf
Stick insect

I had an idle hour or so while I was visiting family on Hervey’s Range last weekend so I wandered very slowly around their bush block with my camera, taking photos of all the interesting little wildlife I spotted. This is the wet season, albeit not a very wet season so far, so the bush is looking quite lush and the herbivorous insects are taking full advantage of the food supply – and the predators, in turn, are taking full advantage of them – by multiplying enthusiastically. I must have missed far, far more than I saw but I still came back with a good collection; here are some highlights.

The stick insect above was one of several on a small tree. When disturbed, they drop out of their tree and play dead. When that doesn’t work, they do their (very poor) best to scramble away and hide.

black and gold beetle
Tiger beetle
black beetle with white markings
A small Longicorn beetle on a blade of grass
brown beetle
Weevil on a blade of dry grass

Weevils are a family of beetles characterised by their trunk-like snouts, as seen (e.g.) here.

black bug on twig
cicada on leaf
A smallish cicada, perhaps the Brown Sugarcane Cicada, Cicadetta crucifera
cicada-like bug
Plant-hopper, Fulgoridae

The cicada looks like the odd one out but these three are all Hemiptera and all sap-suckers.

black and silver fly on twig
Robber-fly, rather small for the family at about 12mm long
brown insect on leaf
Juvenile (but already large) cricket or katydid
orange-brown cockroach
This rather handsome creature is a native cockroach

These three are unrelated.

I turned over the twig the cockroach was resting on to see where the spider silk was coming from and found a whole family – mother and hatchlings, anyway, though no father – nestling underneath:

gold and white spider
Mother and babies

There were lots more spiders, too. A small creamy-white Crab spider, Thomisus spectabilis, was waiting patiently on the tip of a leaf; a couple of Lynx spiders were doing the same, while one was protecting hatchlings like the spider above; and a large Garden Orb-weaver, Eriophora transmarina, slept the afternoon away under the edge of a leaf, waiting for evening to renovate her half-metre web and (hopefully) catch her dinner.

Presenting these spiders as thumbnail images obscures their size difference. The only one on this page which is larger in real life than an adult’s thumbnail is the Garden orb-weaver, which is only about almond size anyway in the posture seen here. The others are all considerably smaller, so they are larger than life-size even before you click on them to see high-resolution images.

white spider
Thomisus spectabilis flaunting her bandit mask
brown furry spider
Garden orb-weaver in her day-time retreat
striped spider on dead leaf


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.

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.

Black Kites at Keelbottom Creek

river with gravelly banks
Keelbottom Creek looking downstream from the bridge on Hervey’s Range Developmental Road

There’s a sharp distinction between coastal and inland landscapes in North Queensland, and you don’t have to go far from Townsville to see it: just drive up Hervey’s Range Road and at the top of the range the vegetation changes to reflect the fact that most of our rain falls on the coastal side of the mountains.

Any rain that falls on the inland side of the watershed runs, eventually, into the mighty Burdekin River, and Keelbottom Creek is one of the Burdekin’s many tributaries. It crosses the Hervey’s Range Road about 25 km from the lookout at the crest of the range and the crossing is a popular camping and fishing spot, especially around the end of the wet season . It’s a good spot for a Wildlife Queensland excursion, too, as we discovered a few weeks ago; visit the local branch’s blog for an account of the visit. (Their next walk is to the Town Common but is fully booked, as of the time of writing.)

I particularly enjoyed the chance to photograph the Black Kites (Milvus migrans) soaring above us and returning to perch in the paperbarks:

hawk in flight
Black Kite against the sky
brown hawk in tree
Black Kite at rest
hawk flying from tree
Taking flight

They are one of our commonest raptors – perhaps the commonest – but birds of prey are notoriously hard to identify at any distance. The clues for the Black Kite are the forked tail (well, the outer feathers are at least longer than the centre ones, and that is the opposite of other hawks) and the fact that the tail is often twisted in flight. They are often seen in flocks, which is also unusual for birds of prey. They are not actually black but they are darker than most of the species they could be mistaken for, and their markings are not as prominent (note, for instance, the darker wingtips of the Whistling Kite here).

creek with trees on banks
Keelbottom Creek looking upstream from the bridge on Hervey’s Range Road