Goat suckers! – The mysterious nightjars

Goat suckers! – The mysterious nightjars

Nightjars

Do I look like I have a dark side? The savannah nightjar of Indonesia.

Sneaking into farms at night and stealing the milk from goats? What? Only a century or so ago that is exactly what European farmers thought nightjars got up to, what with their strange shaped mouths and habit of flying around grazing goats at sunset. Them suckling the milk from the sleeping animals would be the only logical conclusion one could make. So nightjars were bestowed with the latin name Caprimulgus which literally means “goat sucker” and still applies to many species today.

Just sittin’ around waiting for a bug to fly over… A White throated nightjar in Australia

The truth of the matter is these secretive and mysterious birds do not feed on goat’s milk but hang about livestock to snap up any insects they might disturb. You see, nightjars are active at night. During the day they hunker down in some leaf litter on the ground and are so well camouflaged you can easily step over one. Nightjars got their more common name by the variety of odd calls they make, literally a jarring experience if you are suddenly awoken by one at night. The calls do vary from species to species. The white throated nightjars (Eurostopodus mystacalis) make a slow whooping sound that accelerates into a maniacal gobbling sound, the large tailed nightjars (Caprimulgus macrourus) have a monotonous chopping call while the savannah nightjars (Caprimulgus affinis) make a loud screeching call in flight at sunset. Either way, you are sure to know that they are about during breeding season.

You can’t see me… a young large tailed nightjar trying to not be seen

When nightjars do get around to it, eggs are laid on the ground in a small scrape. The parent sits there to incubate and protect them from predators and hot or wet weather. When the chick hatches it is capable of walking about and hiding from predators by itself, but it is still fed by the parent. If escape is not possible, the chick will actually attack with an open mouth and bite!

 

Savannah nightjar enjoying a small bit of rock sitting

The best way to see nightjars for yourself is to drive slowly along quiet back roads at night. Their eyes glow orange up ahead. Sometimes you can get within a couple of meters if you are lucky.

Messing about with blue banded bees

Messing about with blue banded bees

Blue banded bees

While staying with friends in Armidale in the highlands of northern New South Wales in Australia I was out looking for tiger snakes and instead stumbled onto a bunch of bees buzzing around a garden plant.

These are blue banded bees (Amegilla cingulata) and they are native to Australia and southeast Asia. Unlike the honeybees we are more familiar with, these are solitary burrowing bees that dig tunnels into dirt banks. Males are more brightly coloured than the slightly larger females. By night or whenever they are inactive, males spend their time clinging to plant stems with their jaws.

The bee has its tongue extended ready to feed. Notice the mantis in the picture.

Although they are very passive towards humans, I became painfully aware of the sting male blue banded bees possess while out one night a year or two earlier. I brushed against some grass and one fell into my shoe. Unlike a honeybee the sting did not stay, it seemed to be retractable like that of a wasp.

Blue banded bees may be non aggressive to people, but they are very nasty to one another; males will attack other males as they are feeding, often biting chunks out of each others’ wings and chase each other about.

Photographing blue banded bees

Like the pictures? My gift to you is this HD sized (1920×1080) desktop background image of a bee coming in to feed. Click here to open. Esc will close it. See the Free Stuff page for T’s and C’s.

To photograph the blue banded bees is not so easy. They are fast and dart about erratically. The best way is to find a suitable flowering plant (usually blue) and get a good camera, preferably a fast SLR. A macro lens is vital, as is strong sunlight. I used the following settings: [Tv, ISO 800, 1/2000, high speed burst mode] on a Canon EOS 60D with a EF-S 60mm f2.8 USM. Wait until a one  settles on a flower and move in close, but do so slowly as they frighten easily. Quickly focus on the bee and compose the shot, firing a rapid burst of pictures just before it takes off. The bee will usually start feeding on the bottom of the flower spike, corkscrewing its way up from flower to flower. When it reaches the top it will move to the next. You must have fast reflexes and the ability to focus quickly to be successful.

The setup used for these pictures was the Canon EOS 60D coupled with the Canon EF-S 60mm f2.8 USM lens.

Two nights in Sydney’s outer region

Two nights in Sydney’s outer region

While out to visit my relatives in the Blue Mountains region west of Sydney in Australia, I couldn’t help but go out for a night or two to see what reptiles and amphibians might be out and about.

Broad Palmed Rocket Frog

The first place, at Aunt Rhonda’s is backing onto a ridge that forms part of the Hawkesbury Sandstone formation. The forest is made up of several Eucalypt species, plus an assortment of Turpentine trees, Geebungs and a few others. Recent rains had topped up the farm dam and the frogs were calling in earnest. The most vocal were the Eastern Dwarf Tree Frogs (Litoria fallax) with a penetrating “reek…pip pip” call.

 

 

The most common frog around Sydney is the dwarf tree frog

Eastern Dwarf Tree Frog

These tiny frogs are about three centimeters long and are green or brown with a white belly and a dark stripe down the side. Next up were the small yet noisy Eastern Burrowing Toadlets (Uperoleia laevigata) which spend the day buried in the sand, coming out at night to call and feed, their call a short groan.

Normally in good numbers, but fairly rare this time were the Broad Palmed Rocket Frogs (Litoria latopalmata). Their call is a rapid yapping or chicken-like clucking. You can hear them in the background of the Eastern Dwarf Tree Frog’s call above.

Red Crowned Toadlet

Red Crowned Toadlet

Moving down the ridge though the leaf litter and over sandstone boulders I did hear a heap of frogs calling in a soak.Their calls were a short, sharp squelch. Knowing what they might be, I took a good recording of their calls then started to look. I lifted over some leaves and found one. As I suspected I had found a cute little frog restricted to this sandstone region, the Red Crowned Toadlet (Pseudophryne australis). A tiny frog, they are well adorned with a maroon back, dark sides with white frosting and a heavily marbled black and white belly. But the most striking feature is the bright red “T” mark on the head. Unusual among frogs, but fairly common with many Australian frogs is that they have an odd way of breeding. Males set up a territory in leaf litter in a damp area and begin calling. Females drop by and lay eggs which he adds to his collection. He continues calling for more, as the embryos in their massive eggs grow until they reach the stage of almost hatching. They stay in the stage until rains come and water releases them and they continue as normal.

Peron’s Tree Frog

Moving further down and hitting level ground I did hear plenty more frogs calling. Peron’s Tree Frogs (Litoria peronii) were calling with their descending fast paced laugh and one Tyler’s Tree Frog (Litoria tyleri) with a much slower call of several short rasping notes. Not finding the Tyler’s Tree Frog responsible for the call (typical for this species) I did manage a heap of excellent recordings of its call. The Peron’s Tree Frog calls in the background.

Eastern Banjo Frog

Eastern Banjo Frogs (Limnodynastes dumerilii) sat on the track looking for insects as did one Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peronii).

Walking back up the ridge I did find one Eastern Stone Gecko (Diplodactylus vittatus) walking about and an Ornate Burrowing Frog on top of the ridge. The Ornate Burrowing Frog is common further north and, like the Banjo Frog lives underground much of the time, emerging only after heavy rains or on wet, humid nights.

 

Ornate Burrowing Frog

Striped Marsh Frog

Eastern Stone Gecko

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sugar Glider photographed at another property

Also calling, but to proclaim family territories were the delightful Sugar Gliders. A small possum, they are grey with dark stripes down the face and a bushy tail. Between the wrists and heels there is a fold of skin that enables them to glide from tree to tree. Their territorial call is a yapping sound like a small dog. I managed to walk right up to one making his call and get an excellent recording of it. He looked at me, licked up a bit of sap from the tree and continued yapping away.

 

 

 

Spotted Marsh Frog

Bleating Tree Frog

The next night I stayed with friends nearby, away from the sandstone region. Tim Garrett lives on farmland closer to Sydney. We searched around the farm dams of the property. Eastern Burrowing Toadlets, Broad Palmed Rocket Frogs, a Spotted Marsh Frog, Verreaux’s Tree Frogs, Eastern Froglets, Dwarf Tree Frogs and Peron’s Tree Frogs were in residence. Having photographed all of these before, and the road noise being too loud I decided not to make any recordings. On the way out, I did notice some eye-shine coming from a hollow log. A mystery frog retreated back into it before we could do anything about it. Coming back later I did catch it and identify it as a Bleating Tree Frog (Litoria dentata).

That was all for the two nights in Sydney’s West.