Brachychiton survivors

Most working days I walk through Queens Park on my way to and from town, passing a beautiful Queensland Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris).

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba. I ended 2012 by taking some extended leave, and each morning I walked the little black dog through the park, gradually slowing down and looking around instead of rushing to work.

While I’m a bigger fan of wild areas, there are always things to discover in parks. The more I looked at this tree, the more I saw and liked. Walkers, dogs, joggers ands cyclists pass directly under its canopy, lost in their thoughts and usually oblivious to its charms.

Over the next three months I kept looking, photographing it with whatever I had on hand. Not knowing anything about Brachychitons I was concerned when it shed most of its leaves in the hot, dry October/November weeks, thinking it was drought stressed.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

A carpet of dead leaves during dry summer months. All photos R. Ashdown.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

However, a bloom of new orange and pink foliage belayed my fears. I found out later that this is a characteristic of these trees — they often do this before flowering, and they can also shed leaves to conserve moisture during prolonged drought.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Queensland Bottle Trees often shed their leaves before flowering, or during drought times. New growth is a beautiful pink colour.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Good to see I’m not the only one admiring this tree.

Also known as the Narrow-leaved Bottle Tree, this is one of  31 species of Brachychiton, with 30 found in Australia and one species in New Guinea. The common name “bottle tree” refers to the characteristic trunk of the tree, which can reach up to seven metres in circumference. Fossils from New South Wales and New Zealand have been dated at 50 million years old.

Pale-headed rosella in Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Pale-headed Rosellas seem to enjoy chewing the bark of bottle trees. A pair  regularly hang out quietly in the tree.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba

The tree supports  a mosaic of lichens, usually very pale and hard to see during dry times.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Midday, and bloody hot! A distinguishing feature of this particular tree is a water-mark that runs down one side. These trees do not store reservoirs of water, but their interior is made of a spongy, fibrous material that holds moisture. Photo by Harry Ashdown.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Sometimes, despite there being no rain for days, moisture seeps down the water-mark. Maybe early morning condensation moving down branches?

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Rain at last — summer thunderstorms appear in December 2012.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Workers return home through welcome rain …

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

… while, soaked with water and lit by the twilight, the tree glows quietly.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

A dark, rain-soaked trunk sports subtle hues …

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

… and the lichens seem to spring outward.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Before long we are back to long, searing days again in January 2013’s record heat wave.

Queensland Bottle Trees are endemic to a limited region of Australia — Central Queensland through to northern New South Wales. In 1845 the explorer Thomas Mitchell led an expedition seeking an overland route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria. He ran into these trees on his journey, within the brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) scrub that covered much of central Queensland. Mitchell found some trees so wide that a horse standing side on was said to disappear from view. This tree would be the saviour of many early squatters.

Barakula State Forest, Kurrajong.

A name-carved bottle tree has witnessed families come and go in Central Queensland.

The Bottle Tree’s most striking characteristic was that its trunk was not made of sapwood like ordinary trees, but rather consisted of a spongy fibre, which was also filled with moisture. In times of drought, settlers would cut down bottle trees and peel off the bark —  exposing the fleshy fibre, which cattle would eat. A large tree could satisfy a hungry, thirsty herd for weeks.

Indigenous peoples of course knew the value of this tree, carving holes into the soft bark to create reservoir-like structures, and the seeds, roots, stems, and bark have all been a source of food for people and animals alike long before white settlers arrived. The fibrous inner bark was used to make twine or rope and even woven together to make fishing nets.


The strange, spongy bark of a Queensland Bottle Tree.

Auburn River NP 2004.

Bottle tree seed-pods, Auburn River National Park. This is a close-relative, the Broad-leaved Bottle Tree (Brachychiton australis).


Seed-pods of Brachychiton australis. Photo courtesy Vanessa Ryan.

Deemed a ‘useful’ tree, bottle trees were often left by settlers when they were clearing land. Today, solitary specimens are often seen in fields. To me they are reminders of times not so long ago when vast areas of central Queensland were covered in scrub.

Near Proston, Bottle trees

Near Proston, Central Queensland. A hill once covered in ‘softwood scrub’.

Kurrajong, Roma.

Farmlands and remnant bottle trees, Roma.

Kurrajong, Roma.

Roma, central Queensland.

In the brigalow-dominated landscape of the Queensland bio-region known as the Brigalow Belt, Queensland Bottle Trees were found within pockets of ‘softwood scrub’ —  or ‘semi-evergreen vine thicket’, a type of scrubby, dry rainforest. These ecosystems show some of the characteristics associated with the wetter tropical type of rainforest but are less luxuriant, lacking species such as tree ferns, palms and epiphytes. They also have a reduced canopy height and are simpler in structure.

A Brachychiton standsout amongst the silver foliage of Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla).

A Brachychiton stands out amongst the silver foliage of Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla). Arcadia Valley, central Queensland.

Auburn River NP 2004.

Queensland Bottle Trees are lit by the afternoon sun within remnant softwood scrub, Auburn River National Park.

Isla Gorge NP

Down at ground level within softwood scrub at Isla Gorge National Park (the trunk of a bottle tree is on the right). The technical term for these scrubs is ‘semi-evergreen vine thicket’.

Adaptations found in these forests to drier environments include smaller, thicker leaves, swollen roots and stems, and an (optional) deciduous habit — meaning that plants can preserve moisture by losing their leaves in times of extreme drought.

Auburn River NP 2004. Bottletree, Brachychiton.

Auburn River National Park. A Queensland Bottle Tree stands over the flooded river, 2004.

Auburn River NP 2004. Bottletree, Brachychiton.

The same location — a Broad-leaved Bottle Tree in its original habitat. A tad wilder, and a lot more interesting, than Queens Park.

Since white settlement approximately 83 percent of this type of ecosystem has been cleared, and the remaining patches are classified as endangered ecological communities.

About 20 percent of the remaining patches are found in protected areas, such as Cania Gorge, Carnarvon, Bunya Mountains and Expedition national parks. I’ve spent some magic hours walking within these remaining patches of softwood scrub, and it’s always exciting to come across a large bottle tree within its original habitat.


A mighty specimen reaches high above cleared farmland in central Queensland.

Bottle Trees are also sought-after ornamentals, and line the streets of towns from Brisbane to Roma.

Queensland Bottle Tree, Brisbane

Queensland Bottle Tree, Brisbane (thanks, Susan).

Queensland Bottle Tree, Anzac Square, Brisbane. Photo courtesy Vanessa Ryan.

Queensland Bottle Tree, Anzac Square, Brisbane. Photo courtesy Vanessa Ryan.

My solitary Queens Park tree, looking down onto Toowoomba’s central business district, seems odd and out of place to me in this cultivated landscape — a strange, silent, and somewhat troubling reminder of wild times past, when tangles of un-tamed vine scrub ruled much of the land now civilised and ordered by farms and towns.

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba

Kurrajong, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Bottle Tree, Queens Park, Toowomba

January 27, 2013. Ex-tropical cyclone Oswald works its way down the east coast, bringing heavy rain and winds, and soaking ground for thirsty trees.

Bottle Tree, Queens Park, Toowomba

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Queensland Bottle Tree.

Next day. The rain and wind has gone, the ground is soaked, shadows are back with the afternoon sun.

Queensland Bottle Tree.

Water still soaks down the tree’s side.

Queensland Bottle Tree.

A millipede enjoys the water.

Queensland Bottle Tree.

Second chance for a Brown Falcon

Brown Falcon (Falco berigora), Goomburra

Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) on the wing, Darling Downs. Described in a field guide as “pot-bellied and scruffy”, I consider this to be a most striking raptor. All photos R. Ashdown (click on image for larger view)

On the second day of November in 2012, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Rod Hobson spied an adult male Brown Falcon trapped on a barbed-wire fence on the Back Flagstone Creek Road, at Lilydale, to the east of Toowoomba.

He extricated the injured bird and left it with wildlife carer Trish LeeHong at Murphys Creek. Trish who does a wonderful and difficult job looking after all manner of native creatures.

Nineteen days later Rod returned the rehabilitated bird to Lilydale for release. “The female will be here somewhere,” Rod said as we approached the spot. Sure enough, we soon found the female falcon perched close to the road.

Female Brown Falcon

The female Brown Falcon eyes us warily from her perch close to the road. One of six Australian falcon species, Brown Falcons are typically seen perched on fences, poles, tops of dead trees and even electricity wires.

Rod carefully extricated the the feisty male falcon from a carrying box and it was soon on its way skyward.

Brown Falcon

Rehabilitated male Brown Falcon, not happy about being handled by a human. The dark facial markings  and dark eyes, as well as conspicuous orbital skin and other bare parts, is typical of our falcons.

Brown Falcon

On its way up and out. Brown falcons are slow and heavy fliers, with a flight action described as “often erratic with jinking and side-slipping”. They can fly swiftly in pursuit  of prey, with short, stiff wing beats.

Brown Falcon

Heading off. Brown Falcons glide on raised wings, and soar with rounded wing-tips upswept. They often give cackling, chattering and screeching calls.

Brown Falcon

The released falcon gains some altitude. A soaring raptor is a sight to lift the spirits of any naturalist!

Brown falcons are one of my favourite birds, so it was a thrill to see one up close and to witness it winging its way back into the skies.

Postscript: Last week Rod revisited the spot and spied the male and female falcons sitting together  A good news tale!

Thanks to Trish LeeHong, Jonno McDonald, Raelene Neilson and Rod Hobson.

Trish LeeHong was the founding secretary of the Toowoomba branch of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland  A wildlife carer of over 20 years’ experience, she has a BAppSc in Animal Studies with Honours in echidna research at the University of Queensland.


Wooli and Yuraygir National Park

Some images from a trip in October 2012 to Wooli and Yuraygir National Park, east of Grafton in New South Wales.

Click on the ‘enlarge’ button (at right) to fill your screen with the slide-show. You can click ahead on images during the slide-show.

Dripping Dragons

Reproduction of a small article I wrote for the NatureWatch section of the Summer 2012 edition of Wildlife Australia, the magazine of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

Australia is a land blessed with dragons — lizards of the family Agamidae — with at least 75 species, mostly in arid-to-dry tropical areas. Queensland has a great variety of these wonderful reptiles, although only two are found in rainforests.

Boyd's Forest Dragon

Boyd’s Forest Dragon. Photos R. Ashdown

The spectacular Boyd’s Forest Dragon (Hypsilurus boydii) inhabits Queensland’s northern wet tropics. Both temperature and mood influence a male dragon’s features. Warm summers, the time for courtship and mating, bring on displays of their brightest colours and patterns. The female digs a burrow to lay her parchment-shelled eggs.

At the southern end of the State, Australia’s only other rainforest dragon species is also active, in its own cautious, cryptic way. The smaller, similarly camouflaged Southern Angle-headed Dragon (H. spinipes) warms itself in morning patches of sunlight while clinging motionless to saplings and the buttresses of larger trees.

Southern angle-headed dragon, Goomburra NP.

Southern Angle-headed Dragon, Goomburra National Park.

Southern Angle-headed Dragon

Southern Angle-headed Dragon, Goomburra National Park.


Frogs and lizards in print

I’ve recently had some images published in several new books on Australian reptiles and frogs. It’s always fun to see an image in print, especially when two of the books are by friends with whom I’ve spent some great time in the scrub messing about with cameras, and the third one includes images by another good photographer mate.

Cooloola Sedgefrog, Litoria cooloolensis, Freshwater Lake.

Cooloola Sedgefrogs (Litoria cooloolensis), at Freshwater Lake, Cooloola. This photograph, taken on a trip with Steve Wilson (see book further below), has been used in the newly published Field Guide to the Frogs of Queensland by Eric Vanderduys.

Field Guide to the Frogs of Queensland.

Find out more about the Field Guide to the Frogs of Queensland, including how to order, here.

Eulamprus tryoni + funnel-web spider

Tryon’s Skink (Eulamprus tryoni) with a Funnelweb Spider (Hadronyche sp.) While deadly to humans, the spider makes a great meal for this lizard. This image, taken at Lamington Plateau while on a walk with Eric Vanderduys (see book above), has been used in the recently published Australian Lizards, A Natural History, by Steve Wilson.

Australian Lizards

Find out more about Australian Lizards, including how to order, here.

small-eyed snake, Isla Gorge NP

Small-eyed Snake (Crytophis nigrescens), Isla Gorge NP.  This image was used in the recently published The Reptiles of Brisbane, by the Queensland Museum. This field guide features the wonderful images of Museum photographers Jeff Wright (with whom I’ve also spent some time in the wild with cameras) and Gary Cranitch as well as contributions by Mark Sanders, Steve Wilson and John Cann.

The Reptiles of Brisbane

Find out more about The Reptiles of Brisbane, including how to order, here.

Giant Spear Lilly

Tucked away in a corner of the Toowoomba Botanic Gardens is a fairly nondescript plant with a rosette of large sword-like fronds. Barely noticed for most of the time, it captures walkers’ attention once a year when it throws up a large spike of bright red flowers. It’s a Giant Spear Lilly (Doryanthes palmeri).

Giant Spear Lilly, Toowoomba Botanic Gardens

Native bee on giant spear lilly flower

Struggling for a foothold — a native bee inside a flower of the Giant Spear Lilly in the Toowoomba Botanic Gardens. The leaves of this native plant can reach up to 3 metres, while their flower stalks (known as scapes) extend even further — up to 5 metres. Photo R. Ashdown.

The flower spike of 2012 was fairly low to the ground, so I had the chance to peer inside the flowers, where native bees could be seen covered in pollen and struggling to escape.

Native bee in Giant Spear Lilly flower, Toowoomba.

Native bee in Giant Spear Lilly flower, Toowoomba Botanic  Gardens. Photo R. Ashdown.

Named after English botanist Edward Palmer (1833-?1899), the Giant Spear Lilly is found in south-eastern Queensland and far north-eastern New South Wales. It lives on exposed rocky outcrops on infertile soils, or on bare rock. In New South Wales it is listed as a ‘Vulnerable’ species, as it is threatened in the wild by weed invasion, frequent fires and illegal seed harvesting.

Giant Spear Lilly, Main Range

In their element. Giant Spear Lillies, Main Range. Photo courtesy Karen Smith, NPRSR.

A great place to see these plants in the wild is at Cunningham’s Gap, where the cliff face of Mount Cordeaux is covered in them. Mount Cordeaux (1135 m) is known to Aboriginal people as ‘Niamboyoo’. Part of Main Range National Park, a walking track here leads off  the rainforest circuit and zigzags through rainforest to the exposed upper slopes, ending at a lookout on the southern side (take great care if walking this track).

Giant Spear Lilly, Main Range

Giant Spear Lillies cling to the cliff face of Mount Cordeaux. Photo R. Ashdown.

Giant Spear Lilly, Main Range

They share their rocky habitat with Grass Trees. Photo R. Ashdown.

Giant Spear Lillies can grow to three metres tall and four metres wide. The leaves are ribbed to provide structural support. Giant Spear Lillies are known as xerophytes, meaning that they have adapted to dry conditions and do not require much water.

Each rosette of the Spear Lilly flowers once in its lifetime, but after flowering, the plant is able to produce more rosettes. Giant Spear Lillies flower in spring but can take over 13 years to flower. Flowering can be brought on by bushfires, which also promotes the sprouting of root bulbs.

Roasted Doryanthes flower spikes were used as a food source for Indigenous Australians and the roots were mashed into a pulp and made into cakes.

Giant Spear Lilly, Main Range

Giant Spear Lilly, Main Range. Looking  south-east from Mount Cordeaux toward Boonah. The flower spike of this species will droop due to the weight of the flowers. Photo R. Ashdown.

Giant Spear Lilly, Toowoomba Botanic Gardens

A new flower spike begins to grow. I’ll keep you posted!

More information on Giant Spear Lillies:

Life in the drains

A day off work  a good time to explore the drains of town. With (small) dog and (smaller) camera, of course.

I say drains, because unfortunately it’s about the closest thing you get to a creek or some kind of natural waterway in this part of town. Still,  drains and water always have life of some kind, even if a tad feral.

[Blog update: Clicking on any image will bring up a larger version of the image.]


A walk is always an exciting thing for a dog, in this case our midget mutt Pluto. The world is just full of stuff to explore. Like when we were kids. (Photos R. Ashdown)


Why walk when you can fly?


Are we going in here, boss?


OK, let’s move into the light …

Cane Toad

… where we meet one of the underworld locals — a Cane Toad (Bufo marinus), seeking peace in the dark during the daylight hours.


Tracks in the sand

Tracks, Windorah

Tracks of night-movers. An early morning on the red sand dunes near Windorah.

Reproduction of text and images from a small article of mine recently published in the Spring 2012 edition of Wildlife Australia, the magazine of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

Who goes there?

We might have missed the wildlife but, with careful observation, we can tell who’s been there – and, possibly, which way they’ve gone, and how quickly.

Tracks — ephemeral trails in time — are always exciting to a naturalist. As windows into the lives of often elusive and shy animals, animal tracks open up an unseen world. They invite investigation and further detective work to figure out what wildlife has travelled the land before you. Along with scats and other markings, tracks bear witness not only to what animals have passed by, but what they did, where they went and more. Ground that others might not look at twice comes alive with a wealth of information.

Red-necked Wallaby and tracks

The closely-placed prints of the front and fore-limbs of a macropod, possibly a Red-necked Wallaby, in the bed of the Maranoa River at Mount Moffatt National Park show that it was not moving quickly.

Interpreting animal tracks has been, and still is, an essential life-skill for many people. Historically, animal tracking skills helped people find food, avoid dangerous predators and read the stories on the landscape. Indigenous Australians are masters in this field. My favourite description comes from Stanley Breeden, in his wonderful book Uluru: Looking after Uluru-Kata Tjuta — the Anangu Way. Breeden devotes an entire chapter to tracks and describes the exciting experience of exploring tracks and trails in the red sand with Anangu People.

The dense patterns of tracks I see in the sand everywhere are almost entirely made by small to tiny animals, their passages written in a fine handwriting. Luckily the sand is a perfect medium. The smallest toes and the lightest footfalls leave their marks.

For months now I have puzzled over these bewildering scrawls of hieroglyphics. A few I can identify … but most tracks are indecipherable. I need an interpreter, and there is none better than Edith Imantura Richards. To her the tracks are a clear text, an open book that she reads in great details and with a casual ease that comes from long practice. Reading tracks is routine to her but never dull. She enjoys telling interested people about the plants and animals, to share her knowledge with them.

Stanley Breeden, Uluru : looking after Uluru-Kata Tjuta — the Anangu way

Following the footsteps

Identification of wildlife tracks is employed today in wildlife research, conservation, and outdoor education. I’ve always found it extremely difficult. It’s hard to find ‘perfect’ tracks, and the surfaces on which the tracks are left make a lot of difference. The tracks by a particular animal will look different on different surfaces. The speed and gait of the animal varies the tracks and they are also affected by weathering.

Red Triangle Slug

Footprints are tracks, but not all tracks are footprints. These mysterious circular marks are found on the bark of eucalypts in wild places, as well as on the fences of towns like Toowoomba. They are made by the mouths of nocturnal molluscs, the native Red Triangle Slug, which grazes on wet nights on the algae that grows on those surfaces.

Gillen's Monitor

Goannas and other lizards leave distinctive tracks that include their feet and a tail-mark. Some goannas , such as the tree-loving, tiny and elusive Gillen’s Monitor (Varanus gilleni) are hard to spot, their presence perhaps best detected by marks in the sand.

The best places to find tracks are in locations with little vegetation and impressionable surfaces, such as sand or mud. The best times are generally early in the morning or late afternoon, as the oblique rays of the sun create shadows that make the tracks easier to see and to photograph.

Luckily these days we have several great guides to animal tracks and traces. For many years I carried A Field Guide to the Tracks and Traces of Australian Animals by R.G.B. Morrison, while today Barbara Triggs’ Tracks, Scats and Other Traces — a Field Guide to Australian Mammals is an essential book for any naturalist. Both Morrison and Triggs note that it is important to know something of the way that animals’ feet and limbs are constructed and how they move at different speeds — and both books give detailed descriptions of these factors.

Carpet python

Snakes, such as this Carpet Python at Arcadia Valley, leave unusual winding patterns on dusty roads and sand.


Some tracks left by birds. Migratory wader prints in the sands of Moreton Bay (left), wet footprints from a just-departed White-faced Heron at Carnarvon Gorge (middle), and the wing marks of a Superb Blue Fairy Wren on a dewy car windscreen (right).

Matching the tracks

I’ve collected quite a few photographs of animal tracks over the years, but have identified very few of them, at least to species level. There’s something fascinating about them from a photographer’s point of view, particularly when you enjoy photographing the patterns in nature. It’s the intriguing evidence of an animal you’ve just missed seeing, but are now aware is around you somewhere. The bush speaks to us in many ways.

Bulldog ant, Wooli

Insects also leave their mark. A Bulldog Ant struggles to cross the sands of a steep dune at Wooli.

Loggerhead Turtle, Mon Repos Beach.

Tracks on a beach near Bundaberg are evidence of a natural history event that has been played out here for millennia. At night, in summer, between November and February, turtles, such as this Loggerhead, lumber up beaches to dunes to lay eggs, before returning to the ocean. These strange and large tracks are quickly obliterated by the rising tide.

My favourite tracking experience was stumbling upon the fresh marks in the red sand of the Simpson Desert, soon after arriving on a trip there. I had not seen a thorny devil (Moloch horridus) at that stage, but was fairly sure that these parallel lines of small footprints might belong to one of these wonderful native dragons.

I followed the tracks into the setting sun and, sure enough, came across my first thorny devil making its way slowly but purposefully across the sand. Photographing it as it wandered along in the setting sun was a memorable experience, and a lasting reminder to me that the tracks of other creatures can be worth following.

Thorny devil

Following tracks can sometimes lead to the track-maker. My track marks and those of the Thorny Devil I eventually found, Simpson Desert, western Queensland.

Thorny Devil


Flight of the stingless bees

My son has been keeping an eye on a colony of Stingless Native Bees (Trigona carbonaria) in his school grounds. These tiny (4mm) native insects are found across open forest, woodland and rainforest through coastal areas of eastern Australia.

We stopped to look at the bees after school recently, and found them swarming in the air, with hundreds moving about in a group being gently pushed backwards and forwards by the breeze. I took some images with a compact camera, which gave quite a surreal effect.

What were they up to? Native Stingless Bees do not sting (hence the name), but can defend their nests by biting and swarming. There seemed to be no attackers about, however.

I asked QPWS Resource Ranger Rod Hobson what they might be doing, and he replied in his usual helpful way. Clearly he failed to see the aesthetic appeal of my abstract bee images:


Due to the fact that all but one of your images concentrates on the arty-farty depiction of this phenomenon and only one is of any value whatsoever in deciding on what is actually happening with the colony concerned it is impossible to give a definite explanation to your observation. There are three possible scenarios to this particular incident:

•  Native bees of this genus do swarm and can do so at any time of year including winter. Most of the swarming bees are drones obviously with a virgin female attending. These swarms are usually small up to about 200 individual bees.

•  Pheromones bind a hive together and each have has a pheromone particular to itself. Occasionally a hive gets so big that there is not enough pheromone to go around and bees that miss out are driven from the hive because they are not recognised by other members of the hive. These swarms can be of considerable size.

•  Trigona spp. (yours are carbonaria) are an aggressive mob towards others of the same species from different hives and pitched battles often take place between hives resulting in many casualties. The area around the defending hive is often left with a litter of corpses around its entrance after the battle ceases.

Judging by the number of bees that you report and appear in your images I’d go for either the second or third scenarios. Have a look around the hive ASAP to see if there is any evidence of victims of an invasion remaining although these could have already blown away after last nights wind or have been carried off by scavengers especially ants.

The bees at the entrance to their hive. These social insects make nests out of wax and resin in hollow tree trunks, branches, fallen logs and rock crevices. The brood comb is a horizontal spiral and pollen and honey are stored in pots.

Grey Goshawk

Some wonderful images of a Grey Goshawk (Accipiter novaehollandiae) taken by Mike Peisley at Boondall on the edges of Brisbane.

Ancient rainforest

A firm grip on the Earth . Buttress roots in a gentle rain, Toonumbar NP, New South Wales.

This is a selection of images from a trip to the World Heritage-listed rainforests of northern New South Wales. These sub-tropical forest remnants — known as the Gondwana rainforests — are centred around the ancient caldera of the Mount Warning shield volcano, and stretch either side of the eastern section of the New South Wales–Queensland border.

I’d like to dedicate this post to my friends in the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service who were recently made redundant in public service cutbacks. Dedicated, hard-working, passionate, experienced and skilful people one and all.

Mount Warning from the Border Ranges, New South Wales. Mount Warning, now the centre of Wollumbin National Park, is the remaining core of a giant shield volcano that towered above the landscape 20 million years ago. This photograph was taken from the remains of the edge of the original volcanic crater, or caldera, now covered by subtropical rainforest, and stretching in a semi-circle from northern New South Wales to southern Queensland.

Looking east to the Pacific Ocean from the Border Ranges.

The Gondwana rainforests include the most extensive areas of subtropical rainforest in the world, large areas of warm temperate rainforest and nearly all of the Antarctic beech cool temperate rainforest. Few places on earth contain so many plants and animals which remain relatively unchanged from their ancestors in the fossil record. The outstanding geological features displayed around shield volcanic craters and the high number of rare and threatened species are of international significance for science and conservation.

The Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area was first inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1986 and extended in 1994. It is what is known as a serial World Heritage Area and is comprised of several protected areas in north-east NSW and south-east Queensland.

The Gondwana rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area

Brindle Creek, Border Ranges, New South Wales.

Brindle Creek, Border Ranges, New South Wales.

Seeking the light. Toonumbar NP, New South Wales.

Leaf-tailed Gecko (Saltuarius swainii), Toonumbar NP, New South Wales.

Red gold. A Red Cedar (Toona ciliaris), Toonumbar NP, New South Wales.

On the borderline. The Queensland-New South Wales border runs along the backbone of many rainforest-covered ridges, such as Springbrook NP.

Toonumbar NP, New South Wales.

Rainforest skink (Saproscincus sp.), Toonumbar NP, New South Wales.

Tiny fungi at ground level, Toonumbar NP, New South Wales.

Carpet Python (Morelia spilota), Nightcap NP, New South Wales.

Lamington Spiny Cray (Euastachus sulcatus), Wollumbin NP, New South Wales.

Terania Creek, Nightcap NP, New South Wales. The site of Australia’s first protest gatherings to save the east coast’s last remaining rainforests from development. Thanks to every one of those ‘greenies’ for your wisdom, passion and the desire to stand up for your beliefs.

Rockmasters and other legendary dragonflies

The summer of 2011-2012 was hot and wet. Great for frogs, insects, reptiles and all sorts of things. I had the good fortune to be invited on a dragonfly-hunting expedition to some rarely-flowing creeks near Rockmount, just down the hill to the east of Toowoomba.

Jade Hunter, Austrogomphus ochraceus.

Jade Hunter (Austrogomphus ochraceus). Challenging the intruder to his patch of creek, or just curious? All photos Robert Ashdown.

Rod Hobson and Barry Kenway — fans of the fluttering insects belonging to the order Odonata — were spotting species that hadn’t been seen locally for a while, or at all. They were especially keen to spot some ‘rockmasters’ —  large and spectacular damselflies.

Stockyard Creek

Stockyard Creek, Rockmount — a dragonfly paradise.

The creeks were alive with insect life, and it was very enjoyable just sitting with the camera trying to snare images of things as they flashed past.

Scarlet Percher, Diplacodes haematodes.

Scarlet Percher (Diplacodes haematodes). One of about 300 Australian species in the order Odonata.

Eastern Billabongfly, Austroagrion watsoni.

The Eastern Billabongfly (Austroagrion watsoni) is a damselfly. The order of primitive insects known as the Odonata is divided into two sub-orders — the damselflies (Zygoptera) and the dragonflies proper (Epiproctophora or Anisoptera).

Scarlet Percher, Diplacodes haematodes.

Scarlet Perchers (Diplacodes haematodes). After mating some dragonflies remain joined and egg-laying is completed in tandem. Dragonfly females lay from 400 to 2000 eggs (depending on species).

a teneral straight out of the exuvia!

A newly-emerged adult dragonfly (the brown ‘shell’ of the larvae — or exuvia — can be seen below). The adult has taken about an hour to emerge, but will then only stay around long enough for its wings to dry. Adults usually live from one to three months.

Gold-fronted Riverdamsel. Pseudagrion aureofrons.

Gold-fronted Riverdamsel (Pseudagrion aureofrons).

Blue Skimmer. Orthetrum caledonicum

Blue Skimmer (Orthetrum caledonicum).

Red and Blue Damsel. Xanthagrion erythroneurum.

Red and Blue Damsel (Xanthagrion erythroneurum).

Barry Kenway and Rod Hobson

Barry Kenway and Rod Hobson enjoying some time in the bush. Where are those rockmasters?

All very nice, but what about the elusive rockmasters? In the end we found two species — the Arrowhead and the Sapphire Rockmaster. There are only five species of these large damselflies in Australia.

It was a challenge and a joy trying to capture images of these dazzling blue jewels as they patrolled their territories.

Sapphire Rockmaster. Diphlebia coerulescens.

Sapphire Rockmaster (Diphlebia coerulescens).

Arrowhead Rockmaster

Arrowhead Rockmaster (Diphlebia nymphoides).


Claimed by time and the wild

Kookaburra, Brandon's Sawmill, Bellthorpe NP

There may not be any such thing as the perfect ‘wildnerness’. Every (or almost every) habitat in Australia has seen humans and been changed in some way by their presence, over many thousands of years or over a short and relatively recent time.

Sometimes that activity brought equipment and structures, which are gradually claimed by the landscape when left behind.

Brandon's Sawmill, Bellthorpe NP

Such places are always irresistable for photographers, or those with a keen eye for history and change. Bellthorpe, to the west of the Glasshouse Mountains in southern Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, is such a place.

Bellthorpe NP

I recently rediscovered some Fuji Velvia slides taken there on a weekend twelve years ago and enjoyed the contrast and saturation of this slide film, still a staple of many photographers.

Bellthorpe garage

Bellthorpe bowser

Bellthorpe reflections

Hyacinth Orchid, Dipodium sp., Bellthorpe

 Hyacinth orchid (Dipodium variegatum)

Lichens, Bellthorpe

Bellthorpe reflections

Pseudophryne raveni, Bellthorpe

Brood frog (Pseudophryne raveni)

Kookaburra, Brandons Sawmill, Bellthorpe

Human endeavour is often part of the story of many wild areas, but nothing stays the same. Evidence of the past can be ephemeral, and nature moves back in to claim it all.

Wagtails return

Since making my post on Willie Wagtails I’ve had some lovely images of these birds sent by friends, which I’ve shared here.

Willie Wagtail Rob Mancini

Photo by Rob Mancini

Willie Wagtail by Ross Naumann

Photo by Ross Naumann

Willie Wagtail Rob Mancini

Photo by Rob Mancini

Willie Wagtail by Rob Mancini

Photo by Rob Mancini

“I remember watching one (Willie Wagtail) spiral upwards as on a staircase, through the limbs of a Norfolk Pine in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens to peck a Hobby (sitting on top of the tree) on the back of the head. He did it then dropped back down to the lower half of the tree, then worked his way back up to do it again … and again. Man, that’s 20 years ago. I watched it for hours. What a bird worth remembering.” Russell Jenkins.

Carnarvon Gorge’s quiet magic

A slideshow of some images taken on a recent work trip to Carnarvon Gorge.

This blog post goes out on World Ranger Day 2012 to my Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger friends at Carnarvon — doing a brilliant and complex job caring for a magic place in difficult times. Thanks to you from all of us who love the place.

Suburban street, rainforest pigeons

Why not complicate things? Suffering from a bad cold and recovering from a painful back, I go walking late on a Friday afternoon. It’s complicated because I’m keen to photograph some birds, but have a dog and a lad with a scooter along. Recreational conflicts abound, with the dog being the least interested in birds, other than to chew on them. The lad is resigned to my distractibility (is that a word?) when birds are about — a pair of soaring Peregrines just slow us down and the dog can’t even see them.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

Lurking among the Camphor Laurels, trying not to be noticed. A flock of White-headed Pigeons (Columbia leucomela) in a Toowoomba street. Described as “among the wariest and most secretive” of rainforest pigeons, they can be seen near cars and off-leash dogs in suburban Toowoomba. All photos R. Ashdown.

Down at the park again. For months now I’ve been spotting White-headed Pigeons around Queens Park in Toowoomba, and lately there has been a large group of these native rainforest fruit pigeons feeding on the fruit of ornamental Camphor Laurels.

These are wary, nervous birds, and my previous attempts to get close with a little compact camera have been a dismal failure. The birds arrive early morning and late afternoon, adjacent to a road and near the dog off-leash area. As a result they are often disturbed, but seem content to wait for a while before returning to their meals. I sneak up slowly with an SLR and grab a few images.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

Keeping one eye out for trouble. White-headed Pigeons (also known as Baldy Pigeons) are one of Australia’s 22 native species of pigeons. While they are mainly fruit-eaters, they are related closely to rock doves. These birds are found down the east coast of Australia, usually in rainforest and wet eucalypt forest.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

Once threatened in Australia by land-clearing, these pigeons have made a recovery since Camphor Laurel  became a popular shade and street tree. Their numbers have increased and they are now seen in towns such as Toowoomba. An introduced plant may have its occasional good sides.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

In rainforest or wet eucalypt forest these birds are hard to see, as they will sit quietly. They occur in pairs and groups of up to 15 birds. They are nomadic, and wander from place to place in search of ripening fruit, although in some areas their numbers seem to stay constant.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

A female White-headed Pigeons is a duller and greyer bird than the male.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

White-headed Pigeons breed at any time of year, but usually between September and March. The males perform a spectacular display flight, as they move in an undulating fashion above their territories, while on the ground they carry out a distinctive bowing.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

Voice: “Loud, gruff, explosive ‘WHOO! uk, WHOO! uk, WHOO! uk, WHOO!’, breath indrawn on the ‘uk’; gruff, melancholy ‘ooms’.” — Frank Pizzey.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

The two immature White-headed Pigeons seen here in the foreground have a grey crown, nape and breast, as well as darker eyes.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

Beautiful shades of blue can be seen on the back of this specimen.

White-headed Pigeons, Toowoomba

Spotted — moments before this bird took off. It soon returned.

Thanks to Harry for looking after the dog while I raced off with the camera.

UPDATE 6/1/2013
Dr Bill McDonald, Principal Botanist of the Queensland Herbarium, wrote to let me know that unlike Top Knot Pigeons, White-headed Pigeons destroy the seeds of camphor laurels when they ingest the fruit.

“Thus, I’m always happy to see them around the camphors, especially in areas we are trying to regenerate,” he says.

White-headed Pigeons on the web:

Red Triangle Slugs on the rampage

It’s a mid-winter night in Toowoomba, raining and cold. I step outside and my bare foot squishes something cold — cold, but very much alive.

Red Triangle Slug Triboniophorus graeffei.

The Red Triangle Slug (Triboniophorus graeffei), an air-breathing native slug. Photo R. Ashdown.

Oh no! I’ve trodden on a favourite invertebrate, one of a host of unusual creatures that come out to play in the suburbs at night. It’s a Red Triangle Slug — creator of the strange rows of circular marks covering fences and trees throughout town. It’s a wonderful wet night, perfect for them to rampage about the backyard.

Feeding marks of Red Triangle Slug Triboniophorus graeffei on fence.

The grazing marks of Red Triangle Slugs on a Toowoomba fence. Photo R. Ashdown.

These colourful native animals are one of approximately 1,500 species of land snails and slugs found across eastern Australia, a number that includes both native and introduced species. Most of the slugs and snails found throughout the gardens of towns such as this one are introduced, as native species have not coped well with the changes that urbanisation have brought to their original habitat. Red Triangle slugs, however, are an exception — survivors and adaptors, turning up all over the place.

Red Triangle Slug, Triboniophorus graeffei, Ravensbourne NP

A Red Triangle Slug in rainforest at Ravensbourne National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

What type of creature are these Red Triangle Slugs, named for the … well, red triangle … on their backs? They are “terrestrial pulmonate gastropod molluscs from the family Athoracorphoridae”, the leaf-veined slugs.

Molluscs are soft-bodied invertebrates that usually have a shell for protection from human toes and other problems. They have a ventral foot for locomotion and, in aquatic species, gills for respiration. Their digestive and reproductive tissues are located together to form a visceral mass inside their bodies. An extensive fold of tissue, known as a mantle, covers them and is a protective sleeve for the head and gills. In snails it produces the shell. In the Triangle Slugs, it is reduced to the red-bordered patch on their backs.

Slugs and snails belong to the class of molluscs known as gastropods, which includes marine, freshwater and land snails (mostly with coiled shells) and slugs (without shells).

Red Triangle Slug, Triboniophorus graeffei,

The eyes have it. Simple eyes, on tentacles. Optical tentacles, if you like. Slugs can only ‘see’ light and dark, and the eyes are not able to focus. Photo R. Ashdown.

Growing to a length of 14 cm, the Red Triangle Slug is One of Australia’s largest native slugs. Found in coastal forests (and some towns) from around Wollongong New South Wales north to Mossman in northern Queensland, they graze on the microscopic algae that grow on tree bark, footpaths, posts and fences, among other things. Naturalist Martyn Robinson discovered that if given the chance these slugs will also remove bathroom mould!

Feeding marks of Red Triangle Slug Triboniophorus graeffei on fence.

The circular feeding marks of Red Triangle Slugs on a Spotted Gum. Photo R. Ashdown.

Red Triangle Slug, Triboniophorus graeffei, on camphor laurel

Late afternoon on a dark, wet day. A Triangle Slug roams a Camphor Laurel next to the Clive Berghoffer Stadium. Photo R. Ashdown.

Red Triangle Slug, Triboniophorus graeffei, eating algae on back steps

Alas, our stairs are in poor shape. Any remains of paint have been replaced by algae. Perfect, however, for a rampaging slug looking for a feast. Photo R. Ashdown.

Red Triangle Slug, Triboniophorus graeffei, eating algae on glass window

Doesn’t say much for the state of the back-door’s glass either! This slug runs amok in search of algae, or seeks a view of what the humans get up to at night. Photo R. Ashdown.

Red-triangle Slugs come in different colours. While the most common colour form is a creamy white animal with a prominent red triangular mantle shield, all-red and all-yellow animals can be found at Cunninghams Gap (south of Toowoomba). Future molecular studies may reveal that some of these colour forms are actually distinct species.

Red Triangle Slug, Mt Mitchell NP, Cunninghams Gap.

An orange form of the Red Triangle Slug, at Mt Mitchell NP, Cunninghams Gap. The hole inside the red triangle is the animal’s respiratory opening, known as a pneumostome, or breathing pore. This is a feature of all air-breathing land slugs and snails. Photo Harry Ashdown.

Photographing a Red Triangle Slug, Mt Mitchell, Cunninghams Gap.

Photographing a Red Triangle Slug, Mt Mitchell, Cunninghams Gap. Photo R. Ashdown.

Red Triangle Slug, Toowoomba

Toowoomba resident Jane alerted me to the presence of a beautiful red form of the slug in her Toowoomba backyard. Here are several curled up in a log in her great garden. Photo R. Ashdown.

Colour variations in Red Triangle Slugs

Colour variations in Red Triangle Slugs, from Australian Land Snails, Volume 1, by John Stanisic, Michael Shea, Darryl Potter and Owen Griffiths — gastropod gurus! Courtesy Darryl Potter.

If you have read this far you are probably not the kind of person who finds slugs disgusting. So, I don’t need to finish this post with a monologue about the important role native slugs and snails play in our ecosystems, as they go about recycling nutrients and offering themselves up as (sticky) food for many other critters.

I’ll just end by saying that it’s always great to see these little slow-motion beasties on wet nights, but not so great to feel them between your toes!

Red Triangle Slug on footpath, Toowoomba.

A Red Triangle Slug motors slowly along the footpath outside our place near midnight as cars swish past. A splash of colour on a drab, dark night in the ‘burbs. Photo R. Ashdown.

Slugs on the web:

Beautiful barred raptor

I’m currently writing the Queensland section of the NatureWatch feature for Wildlife Australia, the magazine of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. For the Winter 2012 edition I enjoyed putting some words together to accompany more exciting images of a special raptor by my brother-in-law Mike Peisley.

Pacific Baza, Boondall wetlands, Mike Peisley

The beautiful, bold banding and rufous wash of the Pacific Baza. Boondall wetlands, Brisbane. Photo courtesy Mike Peisley

One of Australia’s most beautiful birds of prey can be seen travelling through urban areas of south-eastern Queensland from early winter to mid-spring. The Pacific Baza or Crested Hawk (Aviceda subcristata) is a striking animal, with bright yellow eyes, crest and a colourful profusion of brown, blue-grey and white feathers. It is distinguished from other Australian raptors by its boldly barred breast, broad rounded blue-grey wings wit barred flight feathers and the broad black band at the end of its tail.

Pacific Baza, Boondall wetlands, Mike Peisley

Pacific Bazas are omnivorous, mainly eating tree-frogs (such as this Graceful Treefrog) and insects, however they will also catch small birds, snakes and lizards and will eat fruit, such as figs. They can sometimes be seen clambering around in the foliage to snatch prey. Photo courtesy Mike Peisley

Pacific Bazas can be secretive and difficult to spot through much of the year. However, outside their breeding season they range widely, often in groups, from upland to lowland areas in south-eastern Queensland. Parties of up to 30 birds have been observed from March to December.

Pacific Baza, Boondall wetlands, Mike Peisley

Bazas have magnificent eyes. Red oil drops in the eyes assist them to discern green prey, such as the frog being consumed in the image above. For more on vision in birds, see well-known naturalist Ian Fraser’s article on page 7 of Gang Gang, the newsletter of the Canberra ornithologists. Photo courtesy Mike Peisley

It is thought that the seasonal movement of Pacific Bazas may be a response to variations in the numbers of their favoured prey, which includes insects such as preying mantids, stick insects and large grasshoppers. As these are often less common during winter at higher altitudes, this may explain the movement of Bazas to the coast, where there is more to catch and eat. Where to see them Pacific Bazas can be seen in many types of habitat, from rainforest to suburban gardens, however they not usually spotted in treeless or open areas. When moving in groups in the non-breeding season they may be seen in backyards and have even been spotted on clotheslines and on the balconies of multi-story buildings. Bazas are highly manoeuverable birds that chase and pursue their prey in the outer foliage of trees and shrubs. On fine, warm days single birds, pairs or small parties  soar overhead and their distinctive call — a mellow double whistle described as ‘whee chiu’ (the first note rising and the second falling in pitch) can be heard drifting down form the skies overhead or in local patches of bush. As spring approaches keep an eye out for mated pairs soaring together and performing acrobatic, tumbling aerial displays.

(With thanks to Greg Czechura.)

To see more of Mike’s Baza images please visit my September 2011 post.

The spirited Wagtail

Willy Wagtail, North Stradbroke Island. Photo by Michael Hines.

A jaunty-looking Willy Wagtail ponders the surf, North Stradbroke Island. Photo courtesy of, and copyright, Michael Hines.

I don’t usually associate Willie Wagtails (Rhipidura leucophryswith beaches, but some beautiful images taken at North Stradbroke Island by Michael Hines made me ponder just how ubiquitous these real characters are.

The Willy Wagtail is one of Australia’s most familiar birds, found throughout most of the continent. The name “wagtail” is confusing, because although it flicks and wags its tail from side to side, it is actually a member of the fantail family, and not one of the wagtails of Europe and Asia. [Bird: The DK Definitive Visual Guide]

Old shearers' quarters, Currawinya National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Old shearers’ quarters, Currawinya National Park. Photo R. Ashdown. 

A bird of many names

The Willie Wagtail was first described by ornithologist John Latham in 1801 as Turdus leucophrys.

John Gould and other early writers referred to the species as the Black-and-white Fantail. However, Willie Wagtail rapidly became widely accepted sometime after 1916. ‘Wagtail’ is derived from its active behaviour, while the origins of ‘Willie’ are obscure. The name had been in use colloquially for the Pied subspecies of the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) on the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland. Other vernacular names include Shepherd’s Companion (because it accompanied livestock), Frogbird, Morning Bird, and Australian Nightingale. 

Many Aboriginal names are onomatopoeic, based on the sound of its scolding call. Djididjidi is a name from the Kimberley, and Djigirridjdjigirridj is used by the Gunwinggu of western Arnhem Land. In Central Australia, southwest of Alice Springs, the Pitjantjatjara word is tjintir-tjintir(pa). Among the Kamilaroi, it is thirrithirri. In Bougainville Island, it is called Tsiropen in the Banoni language from the west coast, and in Awaipa of Kieta district it is Maneka. [Wikipedia]

Willy Wagtail hunting dragonflies, Carnarvon Creek, Carnarvon National Park.

A Willie Wagtail hunting dragonflies, Carnarvon Creek, Carnarvon National Park. Willie (sometimes spelled Willy) Wagtails often hawk for insects along creeks, launching into flight from boulders or other perches. We marvelled at this bird’s ability to snatch fast-moving and wary dragonflies out of the air. Photo R. Ashdown.

Found almost everywhere

Exploring clearings, and familiar in urban areas, Willie Wagatils forage conspicuously in open places and are the only fantails to feed constantly from the ground. Through this capacity they have spread throughout Australia, avoiding only dense forests and treeless, perchless plains. [Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds.]

Willy Wagtail, Stradbroke Island. Photo copyright Michael Hines.

Not your average backyard. Willie Wagtail on sand and pumice, Stradbroke Island. Willie Wagtails are one of five species of fantails (small flycatchers) in Australia. They are found throughout the mainland of Australia and, less commonly, in northern Tasmania. Mainly sedentary or locally nomadic, they tend to be solitary or to occur in pairs, but small flocks may form, where they are often mixed with species such as grey fantails. Photo courtesy of, and copyright, Michael Hines.

Small but fierce, with serious eyebrows

When breeding, Willy Wagtails defend their territory against even large predators, circling their attacker’s head in a figure-of-eight pattern uttering an aggressive ‘ricka-ticka-ticka-tick’. They defend their territory against other wagtails, enlarging their eyebrows in threat. Defeat is signalled by reducing the eyebrows and retreating. [Reader’s Digest Enclyopedia of Australian Wildlife.]

Willy Wagtail in flight, Currawinya National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Willie Wagtail in flight above the old shearers’ shed, Currawinya National Park. When driving out west I’m always worried about hitting these birds as they dart out onto roads to grab insects, or to taunt drivers. I remember hearing from someone somewhere that Aboriginal people believe harming a Wagtail will bring you bad luck for years. I once stopped to collect an injured one on the side of the road driving to Carnarvon Gorge (maybe I’d get some ‘luck credit’), but it expired despite my best efforts to keep it breathing. I wondered how such a tiny, frail body could possess such a fierce spirit. On the way home I stopped and buried it near the spot I’d found it, under a tree I reckon it would like. I check out the tree every time I return that way. Photo R. Ashdown.

A big place in human life and story

Aboriginal tribes in parts of south-eastern Australia, such as the Ngarrindjeri of the Lower Murray River, and the Narrunga People of the Yorke Peninsula, regard the Willie Wagtail as the bearer of bad news. It was thought that the Willie Wagtail could steal a person’s secrets while lingering around camps eavesdropping, so women would be tight-lipped in the presence of the Willie Wagtail. The people of the Kimberley held a similar belief that it would inform the spirit of the recently departed if living relatives spoke badly of them. They also venerated the Willie Wagtail as the most intelligent of all animals. 

Its cleverness is also seen in a Tinputz tale of Bougainville Island, where Singsing Tongereng (Willie Wagtail) wins a contest among all birds to see who can fly the highest by riding on the back of the eagle. However, the Gunwinggu in western Arnhem Land took a dimmer view and regarded it as a liar and a tattletale. He was held to have stolen fire and tried to extinguish it in the sea in a Dreaming story of the Yindjibarndi people of the central and western Pilbara, and was able to send a strong wind if frightened.

The Kalam people of New Guinea highlands called it Konmayd, and deemed it a good bird; if it came and chattered when a new garden is tilled, then there will be good crops. It is said to be taking care of pigs if it is darting and calling around them. It may also be the manifestation of the ghost of paternal relatives to the Kalam. Called the Kuritoro bird in New Guinea’s eastern highlands, its appearance was significant in the mourning ceremony by a widow for her dead husband. She would offer him banana flowers; the presence of the bird singing nearby would confirm that the dead man’s soul had taken the offering.A tale from the Kieta district of Bougainville Island relates that Maneka, the Willie Wagtail, darting along a river bank echoes a legendary daughter looking for her mother who drowned trying to cross a river flooding in a storm. 

The bird has been depicted on postage stamps in Palau and the Solomon Islands, and has also appeared as a character in Australian children’s literature, such as Dot and the Kangaroo (1899), Blinky Bill Grows Up (1935), and Willie Wagtail and Other tales (1929).  [Wikipedia]

Willie Wagtail, Marburg. Photo R. Ashdown.

Side of the highway, Marburg. Photo R. Ashdown.

A spirited and sweet voice

As a child I remember lying in bed at night listening to a strange bird call that would echo off the quiet houses — “sweet pretty creature” — loud and repeated for what seemed  forever. Adults had no answers to my questions about this call, and it took me many years to work out that it was a Willie Wagtail. Birder Trevor Hampel has an informative post on his blog Trevor’s Birding about wagtails calling at night.

The nocturnal call of the Willie Wagtail is most commonly heard during moonlit nights and especially during the breeding season (August to February). From my own experience, the presence of a bright street light or car park lighting can also contribute to this phenomenon.

Once started, the song can continue for lengthy periods, often stimulating other birds nearby to also call. It is thought that the nocturnal song in Willie Wagtails is used to maintain its territory. During the night there is no need for parental duties such as feeding the young or protecting the nest, so the song can be used to consolidate the territory. Sound tends to carry further at night and there are fewer sounds in competition and this adds to its effectiveness. It has been found that most nocturnal songs are from a roosting bird some distance away from the nest.

Wagtail with captured dragonfly, Carnarvon Creek. Photo R. Ashdown.

Wagtail with captured dragonfly, Carnarvon Creek. Photo R. Ashdown.

Eats almost anything

The Willie Wagtail is an adaptable bird with an opportunistic diet. It flys from perches to catch insects on the wing, but will also chase prey on the ground. Wagtails eat, among other things, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, dragonflies, bugs, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes.

They will often hop along the ground behind people and animals, such as cattle, sheep or horses, as they walk over grassed areas, to catch any creatures that they flush out. These birds wag their tails in a horizontal fashion while foraging. Why they do this is unknown but it may help to flush out hidden insects — or maybe they just like wagging their tails. For an in-depth study on the wagging tail of the wagtail, see here.

Willie Wagtail on cow, Rockmount.

Wagtails take ticks from the skin of grazing animals such as cattle and pigs, and have even been seen doing this with lions in a zoo. Rod Hobson tells of seeing a photograph of one on the head of a crocodile in Papua-New Guinea. Photo R. Ashdown (thanks to Helen and Bill Scanlan).

Determined parents

Willie Wagtails usually pair for life. Anywhere up to four broods may be raised during the breeding season, which lasts from July to December, more often occurring after rain in drier regions.

Wiilie Wagtail parent on nest.

Willie Wagtails build a cup-like nest, made of strips of bark or grass stems, and woven together with spider web or even hair from dogs or cats. They have even been seen trying to get hair from a pet goat. Photo courtesy Mike Peisley.

Wagtails may build nests on or near buildings, and sometimes near the nest of Magpie-larks, perhaps taking advantage of the aggressive and territorial nature of the latter bird, as it will attempt to drive off intruders.

From two to four small cream-white eggs with brownish markings are laid, and these are incubated for about 14 days. Both parents take part in feeding the young, and may continue to do so while embarking on another brood. Nestlings remain in the nest for around 14 days before fledging. Upon leaving, the fledglings will remain hidden in cover nearby for one or two days before venturing further afield. Parents will stop feeding their fledglings near the end of the second week, as the young birds increasingly forage for themselves, and soon afterwards drive them out of the territory. [Wikipedia]

Willie wagtail feeding young.

Willie wagtail feeding young. About two-thirds of eggs hatch successfully, while only a third of these leave the nest as fledglings. Young wagtails are taken by other birds,  cats and rats. Wagtails will defend the  nest aggressively from intruders, and like Australian Magpies, will sometimes swoop at humans. Photo courtesy Mike Peisley.

Wagtail defends nest from kingfisher

A Wagtail confronts a Sacred Kingfisher that has dared to land in the vicinity of its nest. Photo courtesy Mike Peisley.

The last word

Widespread, well-loved. [Graham Pizzey. The Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight Field Guide to the Birds of Australia.]

Looking for dragonflies, Carnarvon Gorge. Photo R. Ashdown.

Looking for dragonflies, Carnarvon Gorge. Photo R. Ashdown.

Wagtails on the web

Day-loving moths

Day Moth

These colourful invertebrates (butterflies?) turned up for several weeks all over my suburb in Toowoomba in summer.

One of the frustrating things about being a naturalist is that you can spend ages messing about watching things, then more time trying to figure out what you’ve seen, then if you’re like me, forgetting to make notes because you’ve been distracted by something else, or annoying-but-necessary things like work get in the way, and soon you pretty much forget everything you found out about what it is you were interested in. But that’s life.

I have many posts to make about last summer, and it’s already mid-winter. This blog is so far behind that I wonder if it’s even worth pursuing. However, it’s become some kind of online diary (gee, what a novel idea), and I enjoy keeping it running, so I’ll attempt to keep doing these posts and they’ll be filled with the usual inaccuracies and dodgy information.

Summer 2012 was a wonderful season for wildlife, with rain and heat, and all sorts of things popped up and ran amok — a top time for a nature photographer.

So, back to February! A small, fluttering invertebrate turned up all over my suburb for several weeks. At first glance they could be mistaken for butterflies, but I’d figured that they were actually Day Moths — members of a group named for their habit of flying about during the day. Whenever I’d see these moths they’d be flying between several trees, as if they were relentlessly patrolling a small territory. I tried to get photos of this one for few weeks before finally succeeding.

Day Moth, Toowoomba

A Day Moth, resting on a Spotted Gum before heading over to a nearby Kauri Pine, Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Day Moth, Toowoomba

This Day Moth is colourful, with a bright orange under-belly, black stripes and distinctive wing patterns.

Trying to identify this moth to species level is a tricky task for an amateur like me. For an accurate answer I’d usually need to catch one, kill and preserve it carefully, then get it to a lepidopterist or entomologist at the Queensland Museum, and hope that they had time to examine it and identify it for me. However, I was happy to let the thing fly back and forward between two trees in the sunlight, and have a bash at identifying it to some vague level.

I reckon that this moth is a member of the family Noctuidae, sub-family Agaristinae. Australian moth expert I. F. B. Common notes that moths in the family Noctuidae come in a ‘limitless array of shapes, sizes and colours’. There are over 1,000 species of moth in this family in Australia and more than 35,000 world-wide.

Pushing on in a devil-may-care taxonomic style, I’d suggest that this is one of a genus of moths named Cruria, commonly known as  Crow Moths.

One species of Crow Moth that turns up to the east in Brisbane is Cruria donowani, and this one of mine looks close. A description of this moth appears on the excellent Insects and Spiders of the Brisbane Area website. Here, the moth’s habit of patrolling between trees in its home territory is described, as well as its defensive behaviour of opening its wings when startled to reveal a ‘cat’s face’ pattern on its wings, designed to frighten potential predators. It is believed that butterflies and moths with this sort of wing pattern form a Mullerian mimicry complex to avoid predators — the moth may, in its colours and patterns, mimic the crow butterfly, which is toxic to predators.

Day Moth, Nightcap Ranges NP, NSW

Another Day Moth, shortly before landing on top of my camera lens. Nightcap Ranges National Park, northern New South Wales.

One month later, I was on a work assignment photographing World Heritage rainforest reserves in northern New South Wales. I ran into another Sun Moth, in a sunny clearing in rainforest, and had an amusing moment when the thing landed on the lens of my camera while I was trying to sneak up on it. Hard to get much closer to such a charming invertebrate.

More information on Australian moths:

Rainy day visitors — Satin Bowerbirds

June 2012 has been filled with many cold, rainy days. One foggy Saturday morning was brightened for me by the arrival of some Satin Bowerbirds, the first time I’ve seen these birds in our yard.

Alerted by their distinctive scolding call, I stalked out with the camera, and soon saw several females and a male. They were also in our neighbours’ yard, sitting on their ‘Hills (Clothes) Hoist’, where they seemed to be eyeing off some blue pegs (male satin Bowerbirds love to decorate their bowers with blue objects).

Female Satin Bowerbird

A female Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) in a grevillea in the back yard. I love the subtle shades of brown, green and olive of these birds, as well as their fine blue eyes.

Male Satin Bowerbird

A male on the neighbours’ Hills Hoist, checking out those irresistible blue pegs.

Male Satin Bowerbird

A male Satin Bowerbird briefly graces our drab front yard with dazzling colours, before heading off over our busy street and vanishing. Is it possible to ever tire of watching such delightful animals?

These very wary birds were quite hard to photograph, so I ended up with nothing more than a few dodgy record shots, which you see here. Our neighbours reported seeing two males and four females in their yard. I’ve seen these birds in the eastern Toowoomba area before, but this was a first for our yard. We have also had some Eastern Spinebills hanging about, another uncommon bird for our backyard.


Midnight on a foggy, humid Toowoomba night. I venture into the backyard — un-mown grass and rampant green, a very different sight to the yellow, dry block that we took on when we moved here ten-odd years ago. We’ve done little to it, it has just rained a lot lately and everything has grown.

Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk

Lurking in the yard at midnight — a Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk. All photos R. Ashdown.

February 2012’s rainy weeks have been sublime weather for all sorts of critters, including frogs. There in front of me at midnight, frozen by the light, was a new species for our yard, a Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk — one of my favourite frogs. What a fabulous thing to find lurking in the yard late at night!

Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk

The Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes terraereginae) is a member of a group of well-built, ground-dwelling and/or burrowing Australian frogs. Scarlet-sided Pobblebonks are also known as Northern Banjo Frogs, in both cases the name comes from the call of the males — when lots are going off they make a sound like a banjo being plucked, or a bubbling series of slightly different "bonk" noises.

Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk

Pobblebonks are burrowing frogs, and are only seen on the surface after lots of rain. Sometimes people find them in the garden after rain and mistake them for the introduced Cane Toad. We have lots of brown native frogs though, and this one is more colourful than a Cane Toad when you get up close.

Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk

The scarlet sides of the Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk. A regal king of the marshes indeed.

Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk

About to head off. Scarlet-sided Pobblebonks are found on the western slopes and ranges of northern New South Wales, through eastern Queensland and up to Cape York Peninsula. And in my dodgy back-yard. Outstanding!