Business in South Townsville ten days ago was enough excuse for a brief visit to the mouth of Ross River. I parked near the end of Boundary Street and walked along the beach to towards the new bridge for this dramatic cloudscape. (We’ve seen lots of promising clouds lately, but still very little rain.) Construction of that bridge and its associated Port Access Road, by the way, is what was blamed for driving the flying foxes and ibis away from the mangroves in the distance to the Palmetum and Dan Gleason Gardens.
A friend sent me this photo and the subject has enough points of interest that I asked her permission to publish it here. The (really obvious) questions are mine, of course – the Q&A format is just for fun.
What is that spiky ball? It’s a flower – more accurately, a flower cluster – of the Leichhardt Tree, Nauclea orientalis.
So the butterfly is sipping nectar from it? Yes. Butterflies are not fussy eaters. They think nectar is nectar, and so long as they can reach it with their proboscises they will take advantage of it.
I’ve seen the butterfly before but not that weird flower. I guess the tree is an exotic? Wrong way round, actually: the tree is a native but the butterfly is a foreigner. It is well naturalised by now but is an American species, the Monarch or Wanderer, Danaus plexippus. Back home, they are famous for their mass migrations. Here, they have spread from Sydney (1871) to Southern West Australia and (obviously) North Queensland.
Is there any connection between the butterfly and the flower, then? Yes, but it’s indirect. The Monarch is a Milkweed butterfly (Danainae, a sub-family of Nymphalidae) and their caterpillars do require particular plants.
Let me guess: milkweeds? Yes – well done! And the botanical family is noted for milky white sap, often poisonous. The caterpillars tolerate and absorb toxins from the food plant, making them distasteful to predators. Local plants in the family include oleanders, frangipani and lots of the smaller weedy plants which grow along river banks.
And the tree? It’s not a milkweed, but it likes wet feet so it grows along river banks too. This one was beside Ross River near the Bush Garden.
And that completes the reasoning: the adult butterfly was near the river to lay eggs on the milkweeds; the tree was near the river for the water; and its flower was a convenient snack for the butterfly.
I grew up in Victoria knowing this species as ‘plovers’ or ‘Spur-winged Plovers’ and many people here in North Queensland still call them that but the officially preferred name for them is now ‘Masked Lapwing’ so I use both. At least they only have one Latin name: Vanellus miles.
Whatever we call them, they are common and distinctive inhabitants of Townsville, living in every scrap of open grassland from big traffic islands up to parks, river banks, sports grounds and (I’m sure but haven’t checked) airports. They nest in vestigial, nearly invisible scrapes in the middle of ‘their’ space and defend the nest and chicks vigorously, swooping and screeching at anyone who comes too close.
I came across a family last weekend in the parkland near Aplin’s Weir, Mundingburra. The chicks, like the young of many other birds, begin life in camouflage colours and shift to adult coloration as they moult. This one is nearly there: the main areas of colour are distinct but both the black cap and the grey-brown back are still mottled. Ian Montgomery has a couple of absurdly cuteimages of younger chicks on Birdway. (I can’t help wondering whether he still has the scars of the parents’ attacks.)
But what about the plover/lapwing question? It turns out that the family, Charadriidae (Wikipedia) consists of Lapwings, Plovers and Dotterels, most of which are small to medium-sized, round-headed, short-billed waders; many of them are nomadic. Their next-closest relations are all smallish shore birds: oystercatchers, stilts, avocets, sandpipers, etc.
The Masked Lapwing is the largest of the Charadriidae and is more often seen away from the water than most of the others. ‘Plover’ is the common name for all of the Charadriidae while ‘Lapwing’ is the usual name for all Vanellus species overseas, so both are correct. This entertaining post from another blogger has a bit to say about names. It even explains the ‘spur-winged’, which I’m not going to tackle because they do it so well.
As I’ve noted in a few recent posts and comments, we’ve had very little rain for about four months now (even as compared to our usual scanty winter rainfall) and the effects of our failed Wet season have been exacerbated. Townsville’s parks and gardens have suffered as much as the rest of the city, as a recent visit to the Ross River parklands just upstream from the Bowen Rd bridge reminded me.
Birds were still around in reasonable numbers – Magpie-larks, a couple of Plovers on mud-banks beside the water, Peaceful Doves, a Gull-billed Tern (Sterna nilotica) winging its way down-river, White Ibis, a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, a Friarbird feeding on the flowers of an African Tulip tree, and lots of Brown Honeyeaters – but the park itself …
Some time in the next month those dead-looking poincianas at the left of the picture will burst into bright orange-red flower and then, given decent rain, a full suit of broad feathery leaves. Even the grass will come back, although that’s hard to believe now. The onset of the Wet is our nearest equivalent to a temperate-climate Spring and we do look forward to it just as much.
Yesterday afternoon’s beautiful weather persuaded me to leave my useful-but-tedious work for an hour or two to ride to Aplin’s Weir, leave the bike under a tree and walk upstream between the bike path and the water (still on the Mundingburra side of the river). It’s quite a wide, rich zone in that stretch of Ross River’s parkland, with a broad backwater, swampy areas and an unmade walking track under mature trees – a bit of everything for the local wildlife and (therefore) for a casual naturalist/photographer like myself. I came home relaxed and with a good haul of photos. I have started with an insect so I will continue with invertebrates before getting to the birds.
These gorgeous purple dragonflies, Rhyothemis princeps, were abundant in sunlit spots along the path, and I saw quite a few smaller blue dragonflies as well as damselfllies like the one at the top of the page.
Butterflies were also abundant. Smaller species like this Orange Bush Brown (“Bush Brown” is a family name; there is also a “Dingy Bush Brown”) and the bright Grass Yellows (Eurema species) were flitting about at shin height, with Crows (Euploea) and others at head height and above. I walked through one large aggregation of Blue Tigers (Tirumala hamata) over-wintering in the kind of moist, shady area they like, and was reminded of a similar group of Crows I found on the Town Common at this time of year in 2012 – see this photo on Flickr. There were far more than I caught in my photo, by the way – they were scattered over a few square metres.
This cranefly is not the species I’m most familiar with, the Tiger Cranefly (Nephrotoma australasiae) but one of the other 700-odd (!) species in the family Tipulidae. It’s just a little larger than the Tiger Cranefly, meaning it has a body length of about 15mm and a leg span of perhaps 60 – 80 mm. I didn’t see as many birds as I had expected but enjoyed watching the Jacana foraging on the backwater. I have not zoomed in on it in the photo below because I wanted to show just how mucky its preferred habitat can be: near-stagnant water full of rotting lilies and other plants, algae and all sorts of things we would generally not want to wade around in or (if we had feet like a jacana) on. It’s full of highly nutritious food, though, and that counts for a lot.
Other birds sighted on the walk were a Brown Honeyeater, a Pied Cormorant on the river, Welcome Swallows hunting over the water and a Forest Kingfisher looking for a late-afernoon snack:
These little birds, Spice Finches (Lonchura punctulata), look very much the same as sparrows but are even smaller (11cm to the sparrows’ 15cm) and their coloration is somewhat different. Juveniles are plain brown above and below, while the adults have chestnut faces and a scale-like pattern on the belly feathers.
Both are actually exotics which are well established here and both are technically finches – not that we normally think of sparrows as such.
The Spice Finch, also known as the Scaly-breasted Munia or Mannikin (see note on Birdway), is native to tropical Asia, occurring from India and Sri Lanka east to Indonesia and the Philippines. It has been introduced into many other parts of the world and feral populations are established in the USA and Central America as well as here. Slater’s Field Guide says that in Australia it is resident in coastal eastern Australia, mainly from Sydney to SE Queensland “but spreading”.
The species seems to be well established around Townsville. On checking older photos in preparation for this post I found that I had photographed them along Ross River on three other occasions and on the Town Common. This small flock was feeding in parkland beside Ross River, Mundingburra, when I spotted them, taking to the long grass and then to a leafless tree when I approached too close for their peace of mind.
Yellow Honeyeaters (Lichenostomus flavus) don’t visit my garden (as far as I know!) but they are quite common in Townsville parklands. I have seen them in Anderson Park, beside Ross Creek and along Ross River. The one above was one of several enjoying the paperbark flowers near the Riverway Arts Centre on Saturday morning; I saw them during the same visit on which I photographed Percival (see my previous post). I suspect the only reason they don’t visit my garden is that the numerous resident White-gaped Honeyeaters out-compete them for their preferred food.
They are easily identified because no other birds of around the same size are so uniformly bright yellow-green: the other honeyeaters about their size (e.g. White-gaped) are much duller, and the bright, beautiful Sunbird is much smaller. Their range is limited to Cape York and a coastal strip extending South to about Rockhampton.