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.