Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Cyclone Ita: The Aftermath

Cyclone Ita visited Australia via the Solomon Islands where it did considerable damage due to winds and flooding.

It built up strength hitting the mainland north of Cooktown as a Category 5 storm, the maximum on the scale of 1-5. Once it hit the mainland it tracked south very slowly causing much chaos to tropical crops like bananas.

The cyclone lost strength once it was over land and continued its southward journey as a Category 1 storm. The "eye" passed over Kuranda. But at that stage Ita had done its deed. The rain stopped, the wind stopped and that was it. There was just a shower overnight.

Rainfall at Kuranda during the storm: 181 mm 12 April; 206 mm 13 April; 14 mm 14 April.

Cyclone Ita travelled inland well to the south of Cairns and then eventually tracked out to sea over the Whitsunday Islands where we visited just a week before.

Damage around Kuranda was spotty. It was a major catastrophe if a tree hit your house, but just a nuisance otherwise.

The creek at flood. It passage was slowed due to fallen trees and shrubbery but it is back to normal now.
this was the extent of our damage-a small tree across the driveway.

The tree that fell on this garage missed the solar panels in the front.

But others were not so lucky. This large Black Wattle, about a metre in diameter fell onto a house down the street. Fortunately, the owners were away and there was little subsequent rain. Considering the size of the tree, there was relatively little damage.

Max and Philip standing on base of tree.
An awful site for the owner when they return from their trip.
Huh, what cyclone?

In precis, the cyclone was much more restrained than we expected when it came ashore north of Cooktown. There was relatively little damage to the Cairns business district.

Friday, 11 April 2014

A Few Notes On An Aussie Icon

The sulphur-crested cockatoo, Cacatua galerita, can be found all over Australia from sea level to tree-line in the high mountains and on adjacent islands. Four geographic races have been described. They also occur in New Guinea and on many islands such as Aru, Waigeo and Misool.

Cockatoos are popular pets. They can live for many decades and are often included in wills. They can no longer be exported from Australia but many make the northern pet trade through illegal exports from adjacent non-Australian territories and breeding by aviculturalists. They attract handsome prices outside Australia.

Cockatoos have a very loud, raucous call-probably a protective "strategy" that puts off potential predators. They cause mega-damage to fruits and nuts and farmers are allowed to shoot pesky individuals.
Cockatoos are quick to recognise potential food sources. They can descend on a bird feeder and empty it promptly. They have a great fondness for chewing on wood. Garden furniture is at risk when cockatoos are around. The wander around on roofs and chew on molding and shutters causing great economic loss. Resorts plead with visitors not to encourage the birds as they will often chew on furniture and even enter rooms in search of a free meal.
Cockatoos, as well as Rainbow Lorikeets, will gladly join you for lunch.

Some bold individuals even take to the trash bins!

A Sad Note
Within a group of cockies, you will often find one or two rather moth-eaten individuals.

Birds that look like this are suffering from Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease. This is a viral disease that is usually fatal. Some birds have an immunity to the ailment. It manifests itself in several ways. The bird's dander, the powdery coating on the feathers, is destroyed and the birds lose the ability to keep the feathers clean. So they always appear dirty. The feathers are affected. The shafts seem to not allow the feathers to open. There is feather drop and the topnotch is often lost. Birds acquire the infection in the nest and if they develop more or less normally, they eventually suffer diarrhea, vomiting and loss of appetite.

One of the sadder aspects of the disease is that the beak is often affected and can even fall off. When this happens, the bird's ability to feed is greatly limited.

Many parrot species can be affected by PBFD and it is disappointing to see a pet develop the symptoms and have to be euthanised.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Sleeping Birds

My friend Buck Richardson recently took two photos of sleeping birds.
This little fellow, probably a honeyeater from Kuranda, Queensland, is all puffed out its head tucked in the feathers on its back. It is perched on one foot.
This bird, probably also a honeyeater, was photographed in the Daintree region, north Queensland on one foot with only a small part of a toe visible.

So many birds in so many different taxa sleep in this very same way. Why? Is there a reason? Well there could be. With the exception of a small part of the scaly foot, there are no exposed bits of skin ( as around the eye or beak). The head is tucked well within a few layers of feathers.

Could this provide protection from hungry mosquitoes thereby reducing the potential for disease. Or is there another reason for so many kinds of birds sleeping just like this?

Comments appreciated.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Surinam Cockroach

With the immanent publication of the Guidebook to Australian Cockroaches, readers of this blog can expect an emphasis on cockroaches for a time. There are additional cockroach photos on the Flickr site noted in the left margin for those who might be interested.

The Surinam Cockroach (Pycnoscelus surinamensis (Linnaeus); Blaberidae; Pycnoscelinae) is one of some 12 known species in the genus. Two have been recorded from Australia: P. surinamensis and P. indica. The latter species has been collected on Norfolk Island along with the former but P. indicus has not been found on the Australian mainland.

In Australia P. surinamensis is known from several localities in New South Wales and Queensland. Despite its name, it is thought to have originated in the Indomalayan Region. Here in Kuranda it is common in compost heaps and in roof gutters where leaves accumulate. It does not seem to enter houses but is of economic concern because it damages plants, especially seedlings, by its feeding habits.

To 1998 it was known as the only obligatory parthenogenetic, thelytokous cockroach. What that means in plain English is that females can reproduce without mating. Males are rare and when the occur they are sexually non-functional.

From an economic standpoint, that means that a single nymph can give rise to an entire population of this cockroach. So the species can be spread easily. The cockroaches are moved about in nursery stock, soil, stock feed and the like. But even though this cockroach is tropical and subtropical its its habitat requirements, it can live quite nicely in greenhouses in temperate regions.

The Surinam Cockroach
Pycnoscelus surinamensis (Linnaeus)

The Surinam Cockroach is easily recognised by its black head and pronotum, the latter of which has a yellow margin near the head. It is a good flier and can be found at lights where it occurs.

Roth (1998) reported that P. surinamensis was derived from its relative P. indicus, a species that has males and is slightly smaller and instead of a black head, has a head with a black vertical stripe. It cannot reproduce parthenogenetically and does not readily, if at all, fly. They live in burrows and are apparently of no economic concern. The distribution of the species is similar to that of P. surinamensis.

Black Butcher-birds, Craticus quoyi, learn to find Surinam Cockroaches all they have to do is toss leaves out of roof gutters-- (but not thoroughly enough to be useful!). The cockroahces are large enough to be worth the effort and are a good source of fat and protein.

The Surninam Cockroach is almost a perfect lab animal. It reproduces readily in captivity and is easily cared for. It does not have a disagreeable odour and females look after their young. Children find them intriguing. 

Roth, L. M. 1998. The cockroach genus Pycnoscelus Scudder, with a description of Pycnoscelus femapterus, sp. nov. (Balttaria: Blaberidae; Pycnoscelinae). Oriental Insects 32: 93-130.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Australian Earwigs

Most gardeners in the temperate parts of Australia and in the northern hemisphere have a very negative image of earwigs. That is not unreasonable because the only one they see is the European Earwig, Forficula auricularia. This species feeds on flowers and vegetables at night rendering flowers useless and gardeners frustrated. European Earwigs are difficult to control because they really cannot be killed by spraying. They are "positively thigmotactic", like all earwigs. What this means is that they are "programmed" to spend most of their time in close quarters. So, during the day they can be found under rocks, in cracks in trees or, as with many Australian species, under bark. They, therefore, avoid the normal spraying control schemes.

Innovation is often the solution for earwig problems. A flock of bantam hens or Japanese Silkies can remove earwigs from a veggie patch-but they will also dine on the veggies. Some people crumple newspapers and the thigmotactic earwigs are drawn to the newspapers can be collected in the morning and the earwigs can be harvested.

But back to the Australian species. Even though we do have the European Earwig and one or two others that cause problems, we have some spectacular species. The world's largest and smallest earwigs can be found in Australia.

Earwigs are in the order Dermaptera. The Australian Faunal Directory has an important contribution to the knowledge of Australian earwigs. This has been compiled by Prof. G. Cassis and his colleague Dr Fabian Haas. A concise overview of earwig biology, ecology and the taxonomic knowledge of species is presented there.

Earwig biology can be complex. Females of some species look after the eggs and young. Males have pinchers that are larger than those of the females that are probably used in male combat. Although earwigs live in tight places, the chances of one entering a persons ear while sleeping at night, are very slight. But it can happen!

Briefly there are 85 described Australian species in seven families. It is estimated that three times that number probably exist on the continent. Australia is a hotspot for earwigs but generic endemism is low with only about 10% of the genera endemic to the continent.

 Echinosoma yorkense Dohrn; Pygidicranidae; Echinosomatinae
Aptly named, the genus literally means "spiny body". And when viewed up close, that's exactly what it looks like
  Echinosoma yorkense Dohrn; Pygidicranidae; Echinosomatinae
The spiny surface of the body of the Cape York Earwig.
 Apachys sp, probably queenslandicus; Apachyidae
A handsome large and very flat earwig that often flies to lights. Its rapid movments defy a good, close look but when tossed into the "dishwashing bin" the earwig is a bit befuddled for a few seconds and a good photograph is possible.
?Nala lividipes (Dufour) Labiduridae; Nalinae 
This earwig is a regular visitor to lights in the rainforest as well as at inland locales where eucalyptus and acacias are dominant.
 ?Nala lividipes (Dufour) Labiduridae; Nalinae 
Earwigs have an elaborate folding system for the large fan-like wings. Using their pinchers to aid in the folding process, the entire second pair of wings fit perfectly under the small first pair of wings (tegmina). The folding takes place in the "twinkling of an eye". 

 Cranopygia sp; Pygidicranidae; Pygidicraninae
This is large, spectacular species that infrequently comes to lights and when it does, it does not stay for long.
Elaunon bipartitus (Kirby); Forficulidae; Forficulinae
This earwig is often present in tremendous numbers and can be a pest. It can cover a light sheet and as dawn approaches, it can enter buildings and become a nuisance just due to its numbers. Like most earwigs it feeds on other insects. The pinchers can be used to hold the prey. 
Elaunon bipartitus (Kirby); Forficulidae; Forficulinae
This male has exaggerated pinchers that are probably used in male combat.

Summer Scarabs

Harbingers of summer. Every night during the year there is a scarab beetle of some sort at the lights but in the rainy season (summer) the most colourful ones appear. Even though I have reported on these before, it is nice to see them again.
 Anoplognathus sp
Christmas Beetles (members of the genus Anoplognathus) occur all over Australia in summer. They can be common at times and you can often see windrows of them in car parks or in brightly lit shopping centres. Most species are Anoplognathus.
 Anoplgnathus punctulatus-the most common species in the rainforest
 Anoplognathus smaragdina (rare blue morph)
I have reported on these beetles several times. Merely use the "Search" function and insert the genus name and you see them all.
                                                  Anoplognathus smaragdina (reddish morph)
 Anoploganthus aureus (Australian Gold Beetle)- a real gem
Calloodes grayianus (Gray's Christmas Beetle)
Larger than most Anoplognathus and seemingly less common

The Downside of the Rainy Season

After a lengthy period of dry weather (for Kuranda!) the rainy season has arrived and with it some nasties. I was looking through the sliding glass door and found this creature making its way across the glass. The rains have awakened the inactive leeches and this fellow/lass was in search of a meal.
The underside of the leech viewed from inside the room.
From the topside it appeared different from the usual leeches we see around the place.
It was not long before its colleagues had hit their mark. Now each trip to the light sheet in sandals or thongs results in and anticipant fellow traveller.