A very small drama on Castle Hill

Castle Hill from the Magnetic Island ferry
Castle Hill from the Magnetic Island ferry

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.

two spiders
The jumping spider already has the advantage
two spiders
Nearly over. The Lynx has lost a couple of legs
two spiders
It’s easy to feel sorry for the loser

Alligator Creek

We took advantage of the Boxing Day holiday to drive down to the camping and picnic area at Alligator Creek. It is normally a popular spot but the long dry spell which only ended on Christmas Eve seems to have discouraged the campers and even the day-tripper numbers were down, so it was pleasantly quiet. We paddled in the shallows, swam in the deeper pools, clambered over the rocks and enjoyed a picnic lunch. All of us are enthusiastic about wildlife and all of us had cameras so my photographic haul for the day is only about a quarter of the total.

We all took photos of the scrub turkeys, Alectura lathami. There were plenty of them around and they were absolutely comfortable with human society – even to the point of shopping at Supré, apparently:

scrub turkey with shopping bag over one shoulder
Scrub turkey returning from its shopping trip
scrub turkey with head in shopping bag
Did I remember to buy the bread?
turkey head-down in the dust
Crash landing? What crash landing?

They are large and somewhat clumsy birds but my third photo here is misleading: the bird did not crash-land at all but was enjoying an energetic dust-bath. A far more formal portrait is here, on my Flickr photostream.

The scrub turkeys were not the first creatures we noticed on arrival: the cicadas were. Their screaming drone is characteristic of the Australian bush in summer and dominated the picnic area. After a while we saw some of their cast-off shells (here and adjacent) clinging to tree-trunks and saplings but we never did see any of the adult insects; they must have been high in the trees.

I also brought home pictures of spiders – another ant-mimicking jumping spider, a tiny yellow spider which had somehow defeated a green-ant plus a couple of others – flies (1, 2), dragonflies, damselflies and a marvellously camouflaged mantis:

Brown Mantis 5822
Mantis? Where?

A post about an earlier visit to the same park shows the scenery and some more of the fauna, while this link will take you to a composite collection of my Flickr photos of the wildlife.

Mantis-fly

Even after a couple of years photographing bugs in my garden I come across insects which are quite new to me. I got another one just a couple of days ago, a mantis-fly:

Mantis fly hanging under frangipani leaf
A mantis-fly hanging beneath a frangipani leaf

The photo makes it look very much like a praying mantis but in real life you would notice that is is tiny compared to an ordinary green mantis like this. In fact, it is only 10-12mm long. A baby praying mantis could be this small but wouldn’t have wings – see this little brown one, for instance.

The mantis-fly does use the same hunting strategy as praying mantises – sit and wait, then grab with those over-developed front legs – but it is not closely related to them. Rather, it is a cousin of lacewings and ant-lions, a family within the order of Neuroptera. (Once again I will use an index page on Graeme’s Insects of Townsville site to illustrate the relationship.) There is a nice introduction to Neuroptera here, on the Queensland Museum website. There are 45 Australian species of Mantispidae and I’m not sure which one mine belongs to.

What’s around – mid January

The wet season I was greeting a month ago has been playing hide and seek ever since. We have had very little rain out of it so far, although areas around Townsville have had a little more, and have been watering our garden most weeks. Insect life in the garden has reacted accordingly: a slight increase in numbers because there’s really not much more food around, and a bigger increase in variety because it really is a change of season.

Large butterfly on pentas
My first female Common Eggfly of the season

Butterflies: some Migrants, Crows and Ulysses, one or two Cairns Birdwing and Blue-banded Eggfly, and the first Eurema and female Common Eggfly for many months; a slight increase in Hesperidae; lots of Pale Triangles; very few Chocolate Soldiers (for the first month I can remember, they don’t outnumber all the rest).

Moths: dozens of little fawn grass moths and a few larger ones which come indoors in the evenings.

Wasps and Bees: the Blue-banded Amegilla are still around, as are the tiny native bees and the Resin Bees. I haven’t seen many Paper Wasps or Mud-daubers, and the number of Ichneumonids has dropped a bit.

colourful jumping spider
Jumping spider, possibly Cytaea sp.

Spiders: the gradual return of the orb-weavers continues with St Andrew’s Cross Spiders joining the Silver Orb-weavers, but we still have no Austracantha. Lots of Jumping Spiders and Lynxes but not as many Flower Spiders as there were a couple of months ago.

Flies: not many, really – not even as many of the tiny green Dolichopodidae as usual. Only the Soldier Flies have maintained their populations.

Other  insects: lots of small Grasshoppers; hatchings of Mantis and Neomantis; a noise of Cicadas – not a deafening one here as it was on Hervey’s Range; a scattering of sap-suckers; a small number of Dragonflies.

Other wildlife: the skinks and geckoes have been very active, and we are seeing lots of little ones of all species. The birds, especially the large Blue-faced Honey-eaters and Friar-birds, have been (frankly) crazy, calling continually and chasing each other round the garden.

I am still discovering new insects in my garden, and learning more about some that I have known for a while. I have become aware of another kind of predatory wasp – Gorytini family – after noticing them carrying their large white prey to their nests. A particular pleasure in the last month has been observing the pretty little Neomantis, watching them from babies to adults. And I have just photographed an insect which looks like a weird cross between a fly (look at those big eyes!) and a wasp (look at those wings and that yellow-banded black body!)

Wasp-like insect
Wasp? Fly? Chimaera?

With the help of my friendly local expert I have identified it as a Hover-fly, probably Ceriana ornata. It is very different from most other Hover-flies, e.g. here, here and here; many of then look slightly bee-like or wasp-like but none of them take the mimicry nearly as far.

Turning over a new leaf

I was going to write a post with this title for New Year’s Day, playing on the New Year / New Leaf association by literally turning over leaves and showing what was underneath them. However, someone or something else intervened. The site crashed – I think it was hacked – on the New Year weekend and it took a few days to get it up again. (I think it is all back to normal now, but please do let me know if you spot any problems.) Meanwhile, however, most of the intended ‘New Leaf’ pics are already on my Flickr photostream, so I’ll just give you another photo of the odd mantis I described here a week ago. I turned over a leaf and saw the light shining through both leaf and mantis … but I had fun exaggerating the x-ray effect.

False-colour image of mantis
Neomantis in a new light

May 2012 be peaceful and happy for my readers and the wider world.

Another kind of mantis

A month ago I wrote about finding a group of tiny just-emerged mantis nymphs. (‘Nymphs’ covers all stages of development except adults, from just-hatched to nearly fully developed.) In a footnote to that post I mentioned a larger nymph I discovered a little later. I have been observing and photographing that one and its relations (at least two more hatchings, all on a particular patch of weeds) since then and now have a reasonably complete record of their development.

First, the hatchlings (click on any photo for a larger image). They are quite different from the ones in my previous post. Most obviously, they are paler and have pairs of brown spots all the way along head and body. Also, their head is much broader than their thorax, and their typical posture is different: straddle-legged and straight-backed.

Neomantis nymph
Spotty nymph

Mantises moult to move on to the next stage – the next ‘instar’ – of their development. The next stage I recognise is still completely wingless but the brown spots have faded. One or two instars later, wing buds appear; they have a faint mottling of darker green, as do the front legs. The nymphs are still straddle-legged but a new characteristic posture appears: they flatten themselves against the leaf they are on. They spend more time underneath their leaf than on top of it, at least by day.

Neomantis nymph older
Older nymph
Neomantis nymph
Nymph with wing buds 1
Neomantis nymph
Nymph with wing buds 2

 



Finally, the adult, about 20 mm long: the broad wings are translucent (note the leaf veins visible through them) and marked in a pattern of dark and light veining which resembles the pattern of the leaf itself. Around the ‘shoulder’ of each upper wing is a short row of yellowish spots, with minute black dots between them.

Neomantis adult
Adult 1
Neomantis adult
Adult 2



So what is it? Certainly a mantis (Mantodea, Mantidae) but not the common  green Garden Mantid (Orthodera ministralis). It looks much more like the mantid shown here as Neomantis australis, but that one is still different in several ways: it has narrower wings, is more nearly transparent and yellower overall, and has dark eyes (which may be due to the fact that it is a photo of a dead insect). CSIRO’s (poor) photo of Neomantis australis shows an insect more like mine but with a transverse pale stripe across its wings, more like the one I saw on Hervey’s Range.

I suspect there are at least two species or sub-species amongst all these but for now I will just call my little family Neomantis australis with one or two question marks.

What’s around – mid December

Brown Cicada on Frangipani trunk
Cicada, Brown Bunyip

In the last three weeks we have finally had some rain (see previous post for details) and the insects are responding. We have more …

  • Beetles – mostly 12mm long brown beetles, with a few green ‘Christmas beetles’, flying to the house lights at night. Some ladybird-size beetles in the shrubbery too, but no Elephant Beetles yet.
  • Dragonflies, in our garden again; at least 3 species.
  • Mud-dauber wasps and resin bees.
  • Orb-weaver spiders, after a long gap. The Austracantha aren’t back yet but the Silver Orb-weavers are.
  • Mantises – I have seen two hatchings (1) and (2).
  • Cicadas – I have seen three species so far: the Brown Bunyip at left, the one posted here almost a month ago and a green one I didn’t photograph.
Green frog
Small frog

We also have more …

  • Frogs, large and small. The one on this page is about half the length of my little finger, i.e. around the same size as the cicada.
  • Birds, lots of them and very noisy. Their idea of ‘morning’ is 5 a.m. which doesn’t go down very well with us, however much we like them at other times.

Still around:

  • The same butterflies (I guess we’re waiting for them to breed and pupate), a slightly greater number of moths, and a much greater number of mosquitoes (ouch!).
  • House spiders indoors and lynx and jumping spiders outdoors, though not so many flower spiders.