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, 19 February 2017

mathematics and images 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,
Catmint

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. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

it's autumn but it feels like summer


Unprecedented! Record breaking!  These are some of the words being used to describe what is happening weather-wise. Officially, summer is over and it's autumn. But it's still hot, really hot. We are just coming out of a week of temperatures in the 30s (35 centigrade = 95 fahrenheit). Last night it rained and the garden isn't exactly smiling but isn't looking nearly as depressed and depressing.

There have been losses.  Geranium incana, supposedly a one drip plant, didn't manage to survive the brutal heat. Same with Euphorbia martinii. Even the ones in the shade dried out. I did hand water a few times to help the newbies that were in their first summer.

Valeriana officinalis
I felt pressure to water from a couple of friends who  seemed to get quite distressed seeing the struggling plants. You give water to the birds - plants are living things too! They don't understand my project - to find plants that will sustain themselves waterwise. These friends grow vegetables and have watering systems. Mine is a different kind of garden. I like the fact it looks like it belongs in a hot Australian summer instead of looking all green and pretty like a European cottage garden. At times my garden has looked like a European cottage garden, but in spring, never in summer.

Looking at the ravaged garden, I think the trick is to try to focus on what has survived, a glass half full approach. Echiums, wattles, gums, lomandas and lots more are all ok. It's harder now for plants to get established. I used to move plants around as if they were furniture and didn't have roots. Now I'm trying to leave them if they're doing well and not be so fussy about the growing picture they make.

After a few hours rain everything has perked up. It's surprising and makes me happy to see how much has survived and recovered from stress.

I'm linking this post with GBBD - Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, at May Dreams Gardens.

Liriope muscarii
Acacia Iteaphylla 
Garlic Chives, with tiny mystery beetle 

Sunday, 14 February 2016

welcoming birds and insects to the garden



One way of welcoming insects to the garden is to make or buy a special insect house. It provides a place where insects can go when it's rainy or cold, to shelter and lay their eggs. Insect eggs hatch when the temperature and climate are right. Some insects lay their eggs on leaves of plants so the young can have a supply of food when they hatch. Others, like solitary native bees and wasps, like to lay their eggs somewhere safe from predators, and sheltered from the weather. So far no bees or wasps have used of this particular house, because I would have heard them buzzing. But there is webbing there, so it has been used already by some creatures.

video

The way to welcome birds is to provide a variety of plants for food and shelter - tall trees, with a dense under- storey of plants to provide shelter and safety for small birds. The other way is to provide them with clean water for drinking and bathing. The video shows some Magpies using the bird bath. Other birds that have come regularly lately, are Pied Currawongs,  Little Wattlebirds and Pigeons. I have also seen - and heard - chittering flocks of tiny insect eating birds in the garden, such as various species of Thornbills. But only once, on a very hot day, did they use the bird bath. 

Butterflies need water too, but it needs to be in a very shallow bowl. Planting butterfly attracting plants is the best way to attract butterflies. If they flower at different times the butterflies may stay long enough to breed. I've planted a little group of Bursaria spinosa, a plant indigenous to this area, and supposedly a magnet for butterflies. They haven't flowered yet, but hopefully soon there'll be more butterflies in the garden and more different species.

Bursaria spinosa
Heteronympha merope - Common Brown Butterfly

Photographing a dead insect certainly makes it easier to capture the details. Common Brown butterflies are native to Australia. This butterfly is a male - you can tell by the markings on the wings. One generation of these insects are completed each year. The butterflies emerge in mid-spring, but the females are inactive until mid-summer. By late summer the males are all dead and only the females are still alive. So it seems likely that this particular butterfly died a natural death.





Friday, 29 January 2016

habitat garden, garden habitat


Finding drowned insects in the bird bath made me realize that it's not only birds that need water. So I've placed a large stone to provide a safe platform for thirsty insects, while still leaving enough room for birds to have a bath.

In this post I showcase some of the diversity of insect life I've found in the garden (and the house) this summer.

Conocephalomima barameda

This katydid appeared in the laundry. I managed to relocate it to the garden but first used the opportunity for a photo shoot. I think it's doing a poo. 

Katydid is one of its common names. Thanks to Simon at the Discovery Centre at Melbourne Museum, I'm able to identify and describe the exact species. It's a native species found in southeast Australia where it occurs from coastal heath or sub-alpine woodland. Apparently it can be very abundant and during drought times may seek water in gardens - or, as in this case - in laundries.

Orb spider web

I think spider webs are one of the wonders of the natural world. Different kinds of spiders build different kinds of webs. This one is an orb web, most efficient for catching flying insects - and blundering humans who can't see it unless the light is right!  I don't know which spider made this web because when I found it early one morning, the spider wasn't there.


In one part of the garden I often see these strange structures made of webbing. I asked the Discovery Centre for an explanation and got this reply:

It can be difficult to tell what constructed the webbing without seeing the occupant, or least evidence of the occupant. Insects and spiders leave behind evidence such as cast skins and frass (wastes) which can often give a clue. Without further evidence, the webbing is most likely to be from the Social Spider (Phryganoporus candidus). Adult spiders are about 1 cm long, and pale silvery-yellow, found in every state in Australia. They are particularly common in the drier areas of Victoria. The nests are usually occupied during summer so if it is this species, it's probably a nest from last summer.

Inside this webbing is, or was, a large community of critters, consisting of about one hundred spider siblings, as well as opportunistic parasites and scavengers. Not that it's a harmonious, truly cooperative community like a beehive. Spiders are notoriously individualistic. The fact the siblings aren't eating each other is probably due to pheromones. Kind of like the use of antidepressants with us humans.

More info on these spiders can be found at http://www.arachne.org.au/01_cms/details.asp?ID=1824


 Didymoctenia exsuperata (from above)
 Didymoctenia exsuperata (from below)

This tiny moth, two cms from one delicate, intricately patterned wingtip to the other, kindly went to sleep on a window, enabling me to photograph it from both sides. I couldn't find much info about this moth on the web, other than it is a species of Ennominae that occurs in Australia.


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