Kerri-Lee Harris

Autumn short stories

Kerri-Lee Harris
Autumn short stories

For the past few weeks, our experience of life in the forest has been a wonderfully ‘mixed bag’.

Male butterflies of one species appear and stake out their territories, while females of another stealthily emerge to lay their eggs. I came across a rarely seen and highly-cryptic spider. Fungi are popping up everywhere after recent rains. We discovered bull ants on the wing, and mating. A solitary sand wasp is busily nesting in our back door, while a colony of paper wasps is expanding rapidly. Over just three days last week, I found three dead snakes, of three different species (quite bizarre!). And we’ve started to get serious about aquatic invertebrates, sampling our frog pond and the nearby creek.

To top it all off, last week we carried out a serious moth survey with a visiting friend and moth expert. Perhaps as many as 200 species, including one ghost moth rarely seen - and never before seen by us! But that’s a story for a later blog.

So here’s a glimpse, as a series of photo essays.

The Banks’ Browns (Heteronympha banksii) are back, and males are vigorously defending territories. They attack all intruders – including me as I hang about watching them. The larvae feed on various native grasses, and here in the south of their range the adults are most abundant from March to April.

The other most common butterfly species at this time of year is from the same family (Nymphalidae), but is a much smaller insect. The Brown Ringlets (Hypocysta metirius) are equally territorial, and despite the mismatch in size, they are at war with the Banks’ Browns. I find their spiralling aerial battles quite mesmerising. They don’t make contact, and the sparring partners return to their selected perches between bouts. This species completes several generations each year. Here, at the southern end of their distribution, we see them from October to April.

Common Browns (Heteronympha merope) have a different life-history again. The adults emerge in Spring. Females mate just once – and then they wait. They delay egg production, and hide out in cool places until the heat of Summer has passed. Now, with the higher humidity and cooler days, they’ve reappeared. With wings closed, these females are nearly invisible as they settle amongst leaf litter and grasses to lay their eggs. The males are long gone, and the females are probably six months old! No wonder her wings are a little tatty.

Varied Sword-grass Browns (Tisiphone aboena) patrol patches of Gahnia, males searching for emerging females, and mated females seeking to deposit their eggs. The slow, lilting flight of these large and beautiful butterflies is in stark contrast to the rapid spiralling of the Banks Brown and Brown Ringlet. The best time to photograph them is in the cool of early morning, before they take flight.

Hidden away in plain sight. I was lucky to spot this tiny ambush hunter sitting motionless on a narrow leaf. At just 6mm long and resembling a bird-dropping, Arkys alticephala is easily overlooked. We’d seen a similar, related spider (Arkys curtulus) once, several years ago. Yet another ‘first’ for our home list!

Many orb-weavers hide away during the day, moving out of the web into adjacent bushes. Round-bodied spiders like this one are quite common, but determining species identity is fraught. There are many similar-looking species, the entire subfamily is need of revision, and most species are highly variable in their colour and patterns. This one may belong to the Cyclosa fuliginata group, or it many be an Araneus species.

An all-together different way to hide - a curled leaf! After dark is the best time to catch this Phonognatha sp. out in the open … and even then they dash for cover after a couple of shots.

The identity of this raspy cricket (family Gryllacrididae) is currently a mystery. In many ways, she looks like a species we’ve seen before – Paragryllacris combusta – but the colouring on her legs is not quite right. We’ll be following this up when we visit ANIC (Australian National Insect Collection) sometime soon. Oh, we do recognise her as female … the massively long ovipositor is the giveaway!

The Giant Torbia katydid (Torbia perficita) - another orthopteran, and definitely a first for our home list. Alive, anyway. I did find a dead one nearby last year, but alive they are so much more spectacular. Around 70mm from head to wing tip, they normally live in the forest canopy. However, they are drawn to bright lights, and we drew several to the light sheet during our moth survey last week.

These common ladybird beetles (Illeis galbula) were, strictly speaking, not actually in the forest. Rather, they were very much at home grazing the fungus that has overtaken our zucchini plants. The larvae and pupae are nearly as striking as the adults!

Bulldog ants as we rarely see them!

I noticed a huge female bull ant clinging to vegetation, about a metre off the ground. I disturbed her, and she dropped … only to climb the grass blades again a short time later.

Then, I happened to look her way again, as a wasp-like insect flew around her in ever tighter circles. At first I thought this would be a battle of ant and wasp. I could not have been more wrong.

They’re Myrmecia tarsata - a common species in this region. However, images of positively identified winged males are rare, so we’re feeling rather lucky. The ants are perhaps a little less lucky … they are now headed for the ANIC collection in Canberra.

These familiar paper wasps (Polistes humilis) are really quite intriguing insects. By this stage in the season, and with a colony of this size, there are multiple reproductive ‘queens’. They are nearly identical in appearance to workers, but can be recognised because the returning workers provide them with regurgitated meals of caterpillars (photo 3, perhaps). The nest is made of wood+saliva (= paper). The larvae are progressively fed as they grow, the cell only sealed off when they are ready to pupate.

These wasps have quite a reputation for delivering a painful sting, but we have never been troubled by them - even when they nest on the house.

This sand wasp (Pison sp.) has a very different life history to that of Polistes. It is a solitary species. The single female uses wet sand or mud to progressively create her multi-celled nest. As each cell is completed, she stocks it with a paralysed spider, lays an egg on top of the ‘baby food’, and then seals the compartment. The untended egg will hatch, and the larva will feed on the still-living spider, before pupating and emerging as an adult. I expect that the young wasps growing in the track of our screen door will overwinter as pupae and emerge next Spring. This female has been so intent upon her task, that she tolerates our comings and goings, the slamming of the screen door, and even my very close approach with a macro lens. A most obliging little insect!

We are having trouble keeping up with the fungi of late. Every day there is something new, and many are quite short-lived. Some disappear naturally, while others are rapidly devoured. Fungi is a favourite food for everything from tiny beetles, fly larvae and collembolans, to large nocturnal mammals.

What killed the three snakes I really don’t know. Perhaps they were washed out of the forest during recent heavy rain. I discovered all of them lying separately on the road not far from here, over the course of just three days. The Mustard-bellied Snake (Drysdalia rhodogaster) below was an adult (40cm) and in perfect condition. It almost looked alive. The other two had clearly been run over … an adult (40cm) White-lipped Snake (Drysdalia coronoides) and a juvenile (30cm) Red-bellied Black-snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus) . Whether that was the cause of death I can’t be sure.

We have a net, a collecting tray, a key to aquatic invertebrates … so of course we can’t resist taking a look at the small things living at the bottom of the pond. We also took a quick sample from the river, upstream where it’s fresh and fast-flowing. Here’s a quick glimpse … the diversity has surprised even us. And we’ve only just begun! The identifications are a work-in-progress …

Finally, two bird sightings of note.

I’ve been seeing a group of three Glossy Black-cockatoos, here and nearby, quite regularly of late. At least, I think it might be the same group. One is a juvenile, begging loudly while the parents feed.

A road-killed kangaroo just 100 metres from our place quickly attracted the usual scavenging goannas … and then a family of Wedge-tailed Eagles moved in for a couple of days. They were reasonably wary, but the lure of an easy meal kept them close enough for me to get a good look at both an adult and a much younger bird.