about this blog

I started this blog in 2008. It started mainly as a way of tracking the evolution of my dry garden, and that led to an interest in photography and in the creatures that live in the garden. It's still about the garden and wildlife, but now my passion is thinking about how we humans can learn to co-exist with wild animals and plants, especially in urban areas.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

tracking the lives of microbats

Microbats are found all over Australia, and they are very important for the ecosystem because they eat loads of insects. They are amazing and wonderful animals. The only mammals who can fly, the females feed their young with milk. They vary in size, but can fit into the palm of one hand.  

Since 1994 a research program has been tracking the lives of these creatures in three locations in or near Melbourne. The people involved are enthusiastic citizen scientists, as well as academic researchers. They track the bats by monthly inspections of bat boxes. Bats are banded so they can be identified.

I went along to the project a few times recently. The first thing is to climb to the bat boxes using tall ladders and safety ropes. To do this people need to have completed an accredited training in climbing.

The rest of us wait on the ground.

Some boxes have lots of bats inside. Some have other occupants, like spiders or ants.

The bats are carefully removed and put into these white bags, that are labelled with the box number.

Then the bags are taken to a comfortable work space, where they are inspected and details such as where they were found, their weight and whether pregnant recorded. If they haven't been banded, they are banded. You can't handle the bats unless you've completed a course of rabies vaccinations, so the rest of us help by recording. 

Some bats carry the Lyssavirus, rabies-related virus. You want to make sure they don't bite you for two reasons. One, you don't want to risk getting rabies. If it did bit you, you would be protected by the vaccination, but the bat would be killed and dissected to determine whether it does carry the virus. 

Broadnosed Bat 
This male Broadnose is identified by the number 96518. He has been captured 9 times being banded in January 2015. 

When the recording has been done and it is dark the bats are taken back to where they came from, and released.

All microbats are vulnerable because without bat boxes they depend on tree hollows to shelter in during the day and to breed. Tree hollows have declined due to land clearing. Competition with aggressive birds like the introduced Indian Myna birds add to the problem.

This is just one of many, many opportunities for citizen scientists to help scientists track the effects of climate change on the environment. For more details of this project check out its website, Melbourne's Bat Monitoring Program.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

art and poetry that resonates

"It is at the edge of a petal that love waits." (William Carlos Williams).

Christopher Marley is an artist obsessed with insects... "We do not love nature because it is beautiful; we find beauty in nature because we are a part of it, and it is a part of us." 

Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. Eleanor Vere Boyle, illustrator. 
London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1872.

The fairy stories of Hans Christian Andersen are simply told and spiritually profound...  "Just living is not enough ... one must have sunshine, freedom , and a little flower." 

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Spiders are solitary creatures. The females tend to be aggressive, killing the smaller, weaker males after sex. I'm strictly an amateur entomologist, but in my imagination this tiny unidentified spider is protectively, patiently, kindly, lovingly touching her egg sac with one of her 8 legs. Nature is not "red in tooth and claw" all the time.

Some things are better expressed in poetry and 
pictures than with everyday words.

Monday, 6 March 2017

sharing the garden - and house - with spiders

I love sharing the garden with spiders and would never dream of being inhospitable. But ...  I wish they wouldn't build their webs across paths. It creeps me out when I get web in my hair and on my face, and I imagine it's a worse shock for them.

A Garden Orb Weaving spider has woven its web across a path I manage to avoid. Every night I visit it and watch it repairing its web from the ravages of the day, and polishing off any tasty insects caught in its web.

Usually it's not around in the daytime but the other day it must have been hungry and I watched it devouring a tiny fly, not at all put off by the fact it was still wriggling.

Then there are shy spiders that good at hiding. The Leaf Curling Spider (genus Phonognatha) uses a dried leaf to hide in. It is also an orb weaver like the one above, so there a big web around it. This one is carefully spun across the path to the compost. So far I have managed to avoid damaging the web and getting webbing in my hair by going the long way round.

If anyone knows how to train spiders not to build their webs across paths, I would love to hear from them.

Another shy spider is this Black House Spider (Badumna insignis) that comes out at night to hunt. I have glimpsed it a couple of times, but it must feel the vibrations of my steps because whenever I get near it immediately dashes into its hole. Mostly all I see is one leg. This spider adorns cracks in external doors and windows with its silk. It doesn't build webs across paths - like some spiders I know.

Brown House Spider leg

Sunday, 19 February 2017

mathematics and patterns of nature

To appreciate maths you don't need to be a highly educated person, adept at manipulating abstract symbols and equations. Maths is all around us, embodied in nature. Sometimes nature has such complicated shapes that past scientists found it difficult to believe their eyes, let alone understand and work out the underlying formulae. Margaret Wertheim writes about mathematics as performance and as play. Nature just does it. It doesn't need to understand mathematical formulae. And neither do we.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was notable because he was such a well rounded person. He loved jazz and travelling to remote places as much as he loved science. Asked once whether his scientific knowledge and understanding spoiled his appreciation of nature, he said it enhanced it. 

I'm no mathematician but looking at these patterns it adds another dimension when you try to imagine how the waveforms of light, electrons and atoms managed to achieve such brilliant mathematical coding. It's not that they can think, or that they're intelligent. Not the way we traditionally understand intelligence anyway. They just do maths. And so can we.

Einstein reportedly said that imagination was more important than knowledge. I think that quote is probably a bit dangerous at this post-truth time, but maybe we could safely say that imagination is as important as knowledge?

In the Sub-Antarctic Plant House, Royal Tasmania Botanical Gardens, Hobart

Tree Fern Dicksonia fibrosa

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

summertime, and the living is easy

Who munched the leaves of some Derwentia perfoliata plants, leaving smooth semi-circular holes at the edge? It was a native bee, a friendly pollinator. Solitary female Leafcutter Bees remove these discs from the leaves so they can use them for building their nests. The leaves are shaped into plugs that are filled with pollen and nectar for their offspring, then closed with a lid consisting of a neat circular piece of leaf.

Leafcutter Bee Megachile sp.
Photographer Bruce Hulbert

Summer, a time for watching the garden. It's too hot to garden, and anyway ridiculously foolhardy to plant or transplant. The only activities are occasionally watering pots, and regularly changing the water in the bird baths.

So I look at the garden. I look at plants that love the heat, like Catmint. I look at plants that curl up to protect themselves but unfurl when the sun sets, like Lambs Ears. I look at plants that look uncomfortable but I know from years of experience won't be summer casualties, like orange Wallflowers. (The mauve ones are much more resilient for some reason).

And ... I look at, and for, insects, spiders and birds, and any signs of them.

The leaves of the Banksia Roses got infected with sooty mould. I didn't get round to removing the diseased leaves. Then I noticed some tiny black and yellow beetles on the leaves. Identified as Fungus-eating Ladybird beetles (Illeis galbula) - these cute critters eat fungus and mould! They are welcome. Leaving the sooty mould led to an increase in the biodiversity in the garden ecosystem.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

scats: a post about poo

You mightn't see an animal, but you know it's been there because it's left its droppings, or pellets, or scats, for you to identify.

I found this on a garden chair, dried out. It was made by  a possum, I think. I was hoping it was a possum and not a rat. I found a website explaining the difference between a few scats. Rats produce narrow cylindrical pellets with one or both ends pointed. I'm relieved to notice that the ends of this poo are definitely rounded, not pointed.

The poo is this picture is larger and fresher.  I think this was also made by a possum, probably ringtail, taking a drink from the bird bath. It's the same shape as the one above. Ringtails eat fruit, flowers and leaves. You can see the seeds it's been eating.

Ringtail possums eat their own faecal pellets. That way they digest their food twice and make sure they get all the nutrients.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

a few garden pics from autumn and spring

Earthstar fungi

Black House Spider with dead fly

Unidentified fungi

Yam Daisy

Cistus x skanbergii

Erigeron, Blue Fescue grass and self seeded Valerian

Purple wallflower with Dietes bicolor and Pittosporum in background

Orange wallflower with silver leaved Santolina and Euphorbia Silver Swan

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

this blog is sleeping

It's been a long time between posts, and I don't know when the next one will happen. Non virtual life is currently very busy.

The garden is still evolving, and this gardener is still evolving ... I miss sharing the garden and spiders and fungi and thoughts and learnings about all aspects of nature.

I pronounce this blog as dormant. It's not dead, just resting till I return. 

Best regards to all you cyberfriends out there,

PS The photos were taken during a recent visit to the Grange Heathland Reserve.

Lentinellus spp. with tiny unidentified red fungi
Cortinarius areolatoimbricatus
Chestnut Polypore - Laccocephalum hartmannii or maybe Phlebopus marginatus

Saturday, 19 March 2016

why do people hate insects?

There is a whole industry devoted to killing insects. I don't understand this widespread hatred of insects. Some insects are so-called pests and some are supposedly useful to us humans, but as long as none are in plague proportions they are all part of the biodiversity needed for a healthy ecosystem.

Insects eat and are eaten and they pollinate flowers. They are so diverse it is practically meaningless to generalize about them. But I guess that's what prejudice is - it's about stereotypes and over-generalization.  Who's going to advocate for insect rights?

Robber Fly, species unknown

The insects above are one of hundreds of species of fly from the family Asilidae, commonly known as Robber Flies, or Assassin flies. I asked the experts at the Melbourne Museum if they could identify it but they said the exact species can't be determined from the photo because it doesn't show how big it is, and it doesn't have a dorsal view to look at the wings and other features. 

These flies eat other insects, and catch their prey mid-flight. They're found all over Australia, living in forests, woodlands and urban areas. They have their rather alarming name because each leg of the robber fly has a pair of strong claws that they use to catch their prey, before injecting it with a powerful poison. Enzymes help to digest the meal until all that remains is a discarded exoskeleton.

Bush Fly, probably

Another fly, another photo not good enough for exact identification of the species. Here's what Simon from the Discovery Centre at the Melbourne Museum wrote:

It could be a bush fly but it is too hard to be sure without also getting a dorsal image of the fly. It is important to be able to see the wings as the venation allows you to place in to family.

Bush flies give other flies a bad name. They breed in dung and are said to spread harmful bacteria. And there's a lot of cow dung in Australian because of the cattle industry.

Bush flies used to be very common when the weather turned warm, but there aren't so many of them now because of the Australian Dung Beetle Project. Scientists imported and released several species of dung beetles from Africa and Europe. The beetles bury the dung, depriving the flies of their breeding grounds and successfully controlling their numbers.

European Wasp

I hope scientists discover a way to control the spread of European wasps. I hate these insects and find them really scary. They are very aggressive and can sting repeatedly, unlike bees that sting you once then die. When I realized there was a wasp nest in the compost I ran away and they chased me, stinging me on the back of my legs. That was quite a few years ago but it's not something you forget.

Unlike bees, wasps don't collect pollen from trees and flowers but they're still attracted to nectar. This one is having a feast on some fennel flowers.

Dead Passionvine Hopper

Scolypopa australis, commonly known as Passionvine Hoppers, have transparent wings and elongated mouthparts that form a tube to enable them to feed by sucking up the sap of plants. They can be found on the bark of tree trunks and branches, and leaves. When you try to catch them or touch them they jump up very fast and very high. They're native to Australia and are found in urban gardens in Eastern mainland Australia and Tasmania. They are regarded as pests because they excrete honeydew that leads to the growth of black-grey mould on the cultivated and ornamental plants they frequent.

They look like a small moth but they're not moths. This one posed for me because it was dead. Alive, they're hard to photograph because they're so fast.

Live Planthopper, photo by Jeevan Jose for Wikipedia
photo by David Taft
Heat, humidity and a bit of rain means plenty of food for Redback Spiders to eat. There are a lot of them around at this time of year living in people's gardens. I haven't seen any here for a while. This one was in my friend David's garden. The female spider is tending to her egg sacs. Inside each egg sac are about 250 eggs. They won't all survive because stronger siblings eat weaker spiderlings and unhatched eggs. You've got to be careful around this spider because its bite will hurt, but they still have their place in a biodiverse ecosystem, and they help us by eating insects like mosquitos. 

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