Desert Dash to Alice Springs and beyond

I have just returned from a quick trip to Alice Springs where my good mate Pip was kind enough to lend his car.

So I’ll share some pictures with you. It was only a short trip of two nights and loads of driving.

Photographing fish of the NT

Well, as per usual I have been extremely busy, this time working at photographing some of the fish found in Australia’s Northern Territory. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

 

Bowerbirds – Nature’s very own ‘players’

Bowerbirds – nature’s “players”

Obsession with treasure to the point of insanity, piracy and dirty tactics… It is this attitude that, without a shadow of doubt makes bowerbirds my favourite group of birds.

The spotted catbird is a bowerbird

The spotted catbird, like other catbirds has been seen with bowers but it is generally accepted they don’t normally build one.

Male bowerbirds go to extreme lengths to attract females, unlike anything you would ever see in other groups of bird – they build a bower. So what exactly is a bower? It’s a structure built by the bird specifically to attract females, nothing else. Many observers can confuse these wondrous structures with a sort of a nest, or even a sleeping shelter (in fact several groups of Australian birds do make such things). Male bowerbirds have no need to make a nest, they play absolutely no part in child-rearing to the point of having children with as many females as physically possible. So, they set up a territory and get to work building their Magnum opus.

 

Much like a suburban human rev-head with a customized car, or Hugh Heffner’s mansion the bowerbird’s bower is an extension of himself, an artistic statement to show off who he is, and of course reel the ladies in.

The first type of bower exhibited by the family is, well none at all. Catbirds are found in eastern Australia and the mountains of New Guinea. They are typically green and fairly nondescript. They have been observed with very primitive ‘bowers’ at times, but they are merely a collection of twigs and objects that seem to be carelessly dropped in a spot – they don’t seem to require one at all. Catbirds got their name from the cat-like scream they let out in the dense forests. The species shown is a spotted catbird from northeastern Australia.

Slightly, but barely more advanced is the arena constructed by the tooth-billed bowerbird (Scenopoeetes dentirostris). Named for the tooth-like structures in its beak, this bowerbird is a dull green-brown with a white chest marked with black vertical dashes. Males clear out a section of forest floor, stripping it right down to bare dirt and set out into the forest to collect green leaves. He carefully selects the ones that please his eye the most and place them about on his ‘stage’ and perches on a horizontal branch above it to sing. There is a curious relationship between bowerbird’s plumage and their call. Species with more dull plumage tend to be better songsters. The tooth-billed bowerbird is no exception. Males try to out-sing nearby rivals by imitating other sounds they hear. And they are very good at it, almost as good as the famous lyrebirds of further south.

The satin bowerbird is obsessed with blue

The most common form of bower in Australia is that of the avenue variety. Around six of the ten Australian bowerbird species make this type. It is simply made of two parallel walls, kind of like a skateboarder’s half-pipe, decorated with all sorts of treasures. What exactly constitutes treasure is up to the individual male bowerbird. Male satin bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) are famous for collecting blue objects, in fact practically anything blue will do just fine. Feathers, clothes pegs (many clothes have been found in the dirt under many washing lines where these birds live!) jewelery, bottle-tops, berries, drinking straws and so on. In fact, he will even chew up blue berries and paint the walls of his bower with the paste!

A male is deciding exactly where this treasure is going to go…

The great bowerbird builds the ‘avenue’ style bower. Notice there is green in the middle, white around it and other colours on the perimeter? A bower is a totally customizeable form of display unlike feathers.

Less obsessed with any one colour are the four species of spotted bowerbird (Chlamydera species), two of which specialize in arid and semi arid parts of Australia. Also building the avenue bower, they are more flexible in colour choice and will use mostly white objects which are more common in the dry zones such as sun bleached bones, quartz stones and mollusc shells. In suburban areas, they will also make use of other colours, in fact the male great bowerbirds (Chlamydera nuchalis) seem to experiment with themes, some individuals going for green, others trying out white décor, and some trying out a layered approach with several colours.

The male watches over the bower… like a hawk, and for good reason.

An even more drastic bower is built by the golden bowerbird (Prionodura newtoniana).One of the smaller species, its bower is huge, the one pictured is almost the size of a queen sized mattress. Living only in high altitude forests, it is the only Australian bowerbird to build the ‘maypole’ style which is more of a fad with the species of New Guinea. A male simply selects two saplings and goes about gathering twigs, stacking them around them to build a big ‘U’ shaped bower. Normally there is a fallen branch between them which acts as further support. In the middle of the bower he places pale moss and flowers he has gathered from around the area in a very well arranged bouquet.

Male bowerbirds are obsessed with their creations, never straying far from them and spending much of their day finely adjusting it, moving a twig here and there, turning over objects to show off the best angle, stepping back to admire the treasure display and modifying it with more treasure. If a male does head off to get some food or more baubles for his bower, rival males will often sneak in to steal treasure and sabotage the bower. The theft of objects does explain the appearance of rainforest snail shells on the floodplains many kilometers away, the same shell must have been acquired by several males from their rivals and passed about the local bowers.

The artist in residence. And this goes… here!

The reason male bowerbirds are so exact with their bowers is because the females are so incredibly choosy. Females will tour the area and look at bower after bower until one impresses her more than the others. If she comes in for a closer look, the male goes into a ritual dance, jumping about and making all sorts of other-worldly noises. If he has a crest he will raise it to show off, often picking up treasures to show to the female individually. If she is happy, she will mate with that male on the spot and likely never see him again – that is until she feels like raising another brood. The nest is built in a tree much like the more ‘standard’ bird nest and the female bowerbird will raise the young unassisted. Bowerbirds flourish in Australia and New Guinea due to the lack of diurnal ground based predators, and with the abundance of food such as figs and fruits the females could easily raise young without a father present.

The massive bower of the golden bowerbird

So that is an introduction to the wonderful world of bowerbirds. Coming soon are more weird and wonderful creatures we share the world with…

Ant mimicking bugs suck!

Ant mimicking bugs suck!

Back in 2008 in North Queensland, Australia I stumbled upon a common Green Tree Ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) but this one was not behaving normally, instead of hanging about with its colleagues nearby it was on its own. Looking at it more closely revealed it was not actually an ant at all, rather an ant-mimicking bug! So what’s the difference? Aren’t ants bugs too?

The ant mimicking bug

The fake

Well first of all, the term ‘bug’ is generously applied to practically any animal with more than six jointed legs. In scientific terms, the word ‘bug’ should only be used for insects that have sucking mouthparts, kind of like a straw. They all belong to the group Hemiptera or ‘half winged’ insects. Ants belong to another group, the Hymenoptera or ‘membrane winged’ group. This also includes wasps, bees and the wasp-like Sawflies.

Why imitate an ant?

With that cleared up, what would a bug want to look like an ant for? Well, as you can see, the detail is striking. The colours are exact and the wings even follow the contours of the body, the main difference is the straw-like mouthpart tucked up underneath. The basic advantages to looking like an ant include mostly defence. Many ants taste terrible, the formic acids in their abdomens can be very pungent and most predators ignore them. Also, many ants have a powerful bite and sting which also makes them unappealing. Finally, ants are often found in large numbers, where there is one there is often a whole army nearby.

Green Tree Ant

So the ant-mimicking bug can feed in peace. What does it feed on? Many ant-mimicking bugs like it that imitate other ant species are vegetarian, sucking away at flower buds and fresh shoots. This one might just do the same.

Bugs aren’t the only critters that imitate ants… A whole group of jumping spiders do the same. This is not an ant, but a spider. But wait… Don’t spiders have eight legs rather than the six that insects have? Also, what about the antennae, or feelers that insects have but spiders do not? Well, this spider solves the problem easily, by holding up its front legs to look like antennae. It waves them about just like a real ant! Another problem is that ants have three sections to the body- the head, thorax (middle part) and abdomen (rear section).

Ant-mimicking Jumping Spider

Spiders have just two, the cephalothorax (head and middle) and the abdomen. This spider has an artificial thorax, formed by a little ‘pinch’ half way down.

Unlike the bug above, this ant mimics Spiny Ants from the Polyrachis group. Jumping spiders that imitate ants apparently feed on them, using their disguise to creep up and launch a lightning fast attack on their unsuspecting victims. The disguise also saves them from spider-hunting wasps that seek out spiders, sting them and take the paralysed body back to feed their young.

Because ants are so common, it makes sense to imitate them.

 

Polyrachis ant

A Spiny Ant

In the desert…

Well, I have been back and forth from Alice Springs of late, and on the way I have been stopping to check out the wildlife. The word on the street is rain, rain and more rain! The desert is alive! So kick back and enjoy some pictures:

The desert crab (Holthuisana spp) is an amazing collection of species. It lives in burrows in dry creek beds, emerging after heavy rains flood them out. They browse on grass and anything dead that has washed in, and when times are tough will eat each other. The life cycle is unusual, most if not all other crabs have an aquatic stage where the young are free-swimming before settling. The desert crab does not. Young hatch as fully formed crabs in the mother’s burrow after she carries them under her abdomen. One species is currently recognized, but we now know there is a whole complex of un-described species…

Related to the desert crab is this unlikely animal, the shield shrimp, also known as the tadpole shrimp or Triops. These are remarkable, surviving as eggs blown about in the hot, dry dust for years until heavy rains cause them to hatch and grow rapidly, feeding on algae, smaller animals and anything else they can devour. Life is frantic, they only have days to breed before the puddles dry and all of the adults perish. The young will have to wait until the next big rain…

And an underside shot of a triops or shield shrimp, just to freak you out…

This is the Gillen’s or Centralian tree frog, Litoria gilleni. They live in rocky gorges around Alice Springs and are closely related to the Green or White’s tree frog found elsewhere in the country. They call after rain with a slow, deep “cawk…cawk…cawk” sound.

Found in the dry parts of tropical and subtropical Australia is the Stimson’s python (Antaresia stimsoni). A small python it takes frogs, lizards, mammals and birds. This one was at Ellery Creek near Alice Springs.

The most spectacular lizard in Australia’s north is the Frill Neck (Chlamydosaurus kingii) which uses its frill to frighten enemies or rivals. These are common after rain when they descend from the trees.

At the Devil’s Marbles there have been a number of juvenile Merten’s water monitors (Varanus mertensi) hunting desert crabs and tadpoles in the temporary creeks. Well outside their accepted range I have no idea how they got here, but I have never seen them here before…

An unusual monitor (goanna) lizard is the Spiny tailed (Varanus acanthurus) which normally lives in rocky outcrops or buildings but in this case was well out into the mulga woodlands. We found him with his head stuck in a beer can beside the road, so carefully cutting him free I got a picture before he rocketed off through the bush. Now I know how my Aboriginal mate Murray got the term “Runnin’ like a goanna in the spinifex…”

I had stayed at Banka Banka on the Stuart Highway just north of Tennant Creek a bunch of times but heard a new frog call. A burst of four rapid pulses. It didn’t sound far away, but 3km later I finally found the frog. Kneeling down I put my hand on a scorpion. OUCH! But I got some pictures of a frog I had never seen, the Blacksoil Toadlet (Uperoleia trachyderma). It is the size of a thumbnail or smaller.

Also out in force with a peculiar owl-like “whooping” call is the Nicholl’s or desert spadefoot toad. Globular and obese, they sit near ant hills and lap up the ants as they emerge. They are equipped with a nasty toxin they can release when upset. It is milky in colour and extremely sticky.

 

How could you not love this face?

 

Other burrowers have been at it too. The Main’s frog (Cyclorana maini) sounds like a sheep! This one was from Alice Springs.

 

But this one, Cyclorana cultripes, makes a rapid “wahhh.. wahhh…” call

A drying claypan with loads of tadpoles which may never make it…

 

Boo! This is a huge spider from the desert known as the Barking, Whistling or Bird eating spider (Selenocosmia). The names given to it mostly refer to the sound it can apparently make (never heard it) by rubbing the fangs on a special area. Just to make it creepier! It is massive, enough to cover much of your face. And yes, you’re welcome!