Friday, 28 December 2007

Tiger Tales

The Tiger enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo in January 1959.

Tiger Tales
(an aside)

This has nothing to do with Kuranda but you might find it interesting regarding a current news item.

In 1959 I was 17 years old. The recently formed San Francisco Zoological Society contracted to do a television program on the “educational TV station” KQED Channel 9. I was a member of the Student Section of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and was selected to join the San Francisco Zoo Director, Carey Baldwin, to do the show. I acted as his student asking questions and helping with the livestock that was taken to the studio each week. The program lasted for two seasons. I lived only a few blocks from the zoo and Mr. Baldwin and I became very good friends. He was most entertaining and I could regale you with many stories. One immediately came to mind when I heard about the recent tiger incident at the San Francisco Zoo. One evening Mr. Baldwin invited me over to his house after dinner to see if "we had a problem with a tiger". I forget the tiger's name but Mr. Baldwin had been told by one of the zookeepers that the tiger might be able to escape by jumping across the moat and onto the flowerbed between the public guard rail and the moat. We got a large piece of meat and tied it to a long bamboo pole and approached the tiger enclosure. We were at the other end of the bamboo pole--about 15 ft away from the meat. Mr. Baldwin held the pole at the edge of our side of the moat. Once the tiger saw it, he literally flew across the moat from his position on the other side, grabbed the meat, and sprung back to the grotto all in one graceful movement. It happened so quickly that it was hard to believe what we had seen. Immediately we got into Mr. Baldwin's car, drove around to the other side of the enclosures, and entered the Lion House where we coaxed Mr. Tiger into its indoor holding cage. Then Mr. Baldwin closed the tiger's access to the outside--supposedly forever. Notes were left to the zookeepers to never let this tiger outside again.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Intent Predator and Unsuspecting Prey

This little bug, Dindymus sp., has tapped into the blood supply of this large Rhinoceros Beetle (Scarabaeidae) by piercing through the tender membrane between the joints of the leg.

Not much sustenance in this small snail.

Hungry Dindymus

The family Pyrrhocoridae is commonly known as Cotton Stainers, Pyrrhocoridae because the crushed bodies of the bugs during cotton harvest stain the cotton and reduce its quality. Many are very serious pests of plants, especially the Malvaceae.

Not all are damaging species, however. At least one rainforest species of Dindymus is a predator. This little bug is a regular visitor to the light sheet where it has been observed feeding on a variety of unsuspecting insects and even a small snail.

Terrible Turkeys

Dominant male Brush Turkey with hs Rakings

A subdominant male Brush Turkey

A swath of rakings that Mr Turkey insists must be in just this spot!

Terrible Turkeys

The Australian Brush (not Bush) Turkey, Alectura lathami, is the curse of every gardener from Gosford, New South Wales to Cape York Queensland. These birds are magapodes and are only very distantly related to the turkey of North America, Brush-turkey But many a person has wished to be able to put these birds on the table as a punishment for the damage they cause.

Megapodes are mound builders—chicken-like birds with big feet suitable to raking and scraping,Megapodes they are common residents of many places in Australasia EAST of Wallace’s Line, Wallace Line. Each species except the Malleefowl live in jungle or woodland habitats where they build large mounds of leaves and detritus. Depending on the species, these can be up to 5 m by 3 m high. They are used over and over again and may be used by succeeding dominant males. Eggs are laid within the mounds and are dependent upon the temperature of the mound to develop. The male can regulate the temperature by adding or subtracting leaves and mulch. The have temperature-sensitive organs on the head to determine this.

Problems with Brush Turkeys and humans occur when the turkey decides to rake clean the garden bed of all its mulch and leaf litter. This is often just a matter of dominance. The dominant male in our neighbourhood has been raking the same spot for weeks and weeks. For some peculiar reason that the turkey does not understand, I don’t want a pile of leaves in my driveway and I rake them back into the rainforest. Within minutes they are thrown back on the driveway just the way he wanted them. This goes on repeatedly. Sometimes I rake this pile 4 times a day.

An equally difficult situation develops during the dry season when the birds are a bit stressed for food. They dig up- garden plants—only the really desirable ones! This year seems to be the worse one on record for this activity. Full grown Heliconia plants have fallen to the birds. They eat the flowers and then dig up the plants and eat the roots. Any really important plants have to be enclosed with chicken wire.

But we wouldn’t be without them! These birds have strong, individual personalities and we can tell each of the 9 residents of our block apart from one another both by the size, shape and colour of their feet and their personalities. The same dominant male (with the long wattle) has been a resident here as long as we have. He bangs on the glass door several times a day for handouts and is not keen on waiting. He regularly throws sandals out in the driveway and overturns pot plants if he is kept waiting too long. And although mostly ground birds, the do fly and spend their nights high in the treetops away from predators. With the option to fly, no bird feeder escapes their detection and they clean out the contents in a matter of minutes. What perseverance!

Long live the Brush Turkey!

Cassowary Calendar #2

Cassowary Calendar #2
15 November 2007

It’s been a bout a month since the newly hatched chicks arrived. Since then, they have doubled in size and their colour pattern is gradually changing from the rusty head and striped body to the rather uniformly brown that will adorn the chicks until they are mature.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Oecophorid Oddities

Oecophorid oddities

The moth family Oecophoridae Is represented in Australia by three subfamilies. The Oecophorinae is the largest with over 2500 described species but with a potential of over 5000 in Australia!

Every night there are dozens of species at the light but a couple of the oddest are represented here.

Polyeucta callimorpha (Lower, 1893) had been known from only a few specimens until it started turning up at my lights. Aside from its dazzling array of colours. It has highly modified maxillae (mouthpart) with black tips that resemble antennae. The antennae are actually held alongside the body at rest. It’s a member of the largest subfamily in Australia, the Oecophorinae.

Zatrichodes sp., a Fringemoth, is a tiny thing of beauty. It is a member of the subfamily Stathmopodinae. The “hairs” are actually scales coming from the joints of the legs.

Cassowary Capers

Cassowary Capers!

Pops and his watchful eye. The male looks after the chicks until they are nearly adult. Females have no role in bringing up the young.

Cassowary Babies 2007 #2
21 Nov. 2007

I just couldn’t let these guys pass by without another go. They have gained weight and size in less than a week. They squeak as they did when they first appeared. This vocalization will continue until they are just about adult.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Cassowary Babies 2007


Late in the afternoon of 15 Nov. I glimpsed a black image out of the corner of my eye as it walked past the door of my house. A week or so prior I had seen a very, old female Cassowary on the premises but it was with surprise and delight to discover our resident male with 3 young of the year. They must have been very recent hatchlings as they were tiny-about the size or slightly smaller than the average bantam. They seemed to be on their maiden walk and totally unfamiliar with their environment. In fact, they probably had not eaten before as the male had to show them food and coax them to try and eat it. The chicks have a distinct colour pattern that will change in time. In the 5 years that we have been here, we have not seen him mature 3 young. There must be some calamities—predators, accidents, parasites, which take their toll. The incredible size disparity between the male and the chicks suggests that a misplaced foot could easily crush one of the babies. On the other hand, it is touching to see how gentle he is with his young. The male will look after these young himself for many months. He usually leaves them to their own devices the following August. I’ll keep you posted as I expect them to be daily visitors over the next few months.

Saturday, 27 October 2007


The late Dr. E. C. Zimmerman and Dr. Edward S. Ross at “Zimmie’s” home in Tura Beach, New South Wales, 1997.

Dr. Edward S. Ross, looking under a log in the Grampian Mountains, Victoria, Australia, 1997, on one of his several trips to the continent.

My first contact in entomology was with Dr Edward S. Ross. I had a very early interest in insect, probably as a result of my paternal grandmother’s general interest in nature. When I was 12, my father took me made an appointment, through a Mr. Bob Dempster, to meet Dr. Ross in the Dept. of Entomology of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. This was to begin a life-long association that continues to this day.

Dr. Ross was feisty and opinionated but I only remember the positive advice he gave. When I, and my life-long friend Chris Wemmer Camera Trap Codger , became hooked on photography, Dr. Ross advised my mother for me to bypass the amateur stage and start out at the professional level with the best camera I could afford. That was an Asahi-Pentax. Chris’ father was into family photography and was another good source of information. Chris and I photographed all sorts of natural history subjects. We were told “only to use Kodak film”. Other cheaper films probably would not last very long was Dr. Ross’ comment. To that end, decades later, when he was asked to submit a series of photos for the CD-ROM “Insects Little Creatures In A Big World” for the CSIRO, amongst those I selected was a perfectly good slide of a skipper butterfly that he had taken in the 1950’s. His book “Insects Close-up” if not the first, was one of the first books on insect photography.

Both Bob Dempster and Dr. Ross thought I should join the Student Section of the California Academy of Sciences. This was a Department of the Academy that catered to the specialised biological and geological interests of students in San Francisco. I was eager to join and met many similar-minded students from the city that I would never had had the opportunity to meet. A very high percentage of those students went on to higher achievements in biology and geology in many parts of the USA and beyond. Many of the friendships I made there continue to this day.

When it came time for me to think of university, that decision was not difficult. Dr. Ross told my parents that the University of California, Berkeley was the number one place in the USA for entomological training. It was just a short ride away from San Francisco. I went there for 10 yrs!

Dr. Ross has mellowed over the years and is in his mid 90’s now. He continues publishing papers on his pet entomological interest, the Embidina, the Web-spinning insects. He feels he needs another lifetime to adequately finish the job. I hope to have a future Blog on these fascinating insects. Over the years Dr Ross has become known for his photographic expertise covering many fields from nature to anthropology. He has published many articles in journals and magazines and has major contributions to books in several fields. His entomological wanderings have taken him to all continents and he has been largely responsible for building the enormous insect collection housed at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Boy am I lucky my father followed Bob Dempster’s advice.


Ross, E. S. 1953. Insects Close up A Pictorial Guide for the Photographer and Collector. University of California Press, Berkeley, 80 pp.

Moths 3-The Poofeyhoose Moths

Anisozyga fascinans (Lucas) occurs from Cape York to northern New South Wales

Pyrrhorachis pyrrhogona (Walker). This species is distributed in the tropics from India and Sri Lanka to New Guinea through to Thursday Island to Brisbane and Toowoomba.

Comostola cedilla Prout

Metallochlora sp. probably lineata Warren

Unknown genus and species.

Cholorcoma dichloraria. The caterpillars are known to feed on Acacias.

Comostola laesaria

Agathia pisina. The caterpillars feed on the vine Gymnanthera nitida (Periplocaceae).

Gelasma orthodesma

Uliocnemis partita. the caterpillars feed on Eucalyptus.

Moths 3
Poofeyhoose Moths

Mentors influence us all when we are young. One of my most influential mentors was C. Don MacNeill. He had an influence on a great many young biologists, most of whom had kept in contact with him over the years. He is greatly missed. Camera Trap Codger (see September) published a touching note on this man. One of the many distinctive terms he had for things was his classification of green geometrid moths as “poofeyhoose moths”. I’m not sure of the spelling of this word or even if it’s a word but it was Don’s word for “outhouse” or “bush toilet”. Inevitably there would be one or more of these green moths on the wall in these places. It was true in California and it is true in Australia! I have harboured that term in my head for over 45 years and it is usually reinforced—when the need arises!

The Kuranda rainforest has a number of very attractive green geometrid moths. They are all members of the Geometrinae, a subfamily with a great many species ranging in size from a centimetre or so across to 3-4 cm. Little is known of their larval stages and few are seen during the day—except, perhaps, in the usual places.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Moths 2

Hercules Moth: male top, female below.

Donuca rubropicta (Butler)

Hypsidia erythropsalis (Rothchild): Head-on view top, dorsal view below.

More on moths

One of the icons of the northeastern Australian rainforests is the Hercules Moth, Coscinocera hercules, one of the world’s largest moths. Females are larger than the males, often attaining more than 20 cm across and have shorter tails. Males are usually darker than the females. These moths seem to be most active on cooler nights. Adults do not feed. They, like many other moths, survive for a few days on fats stored during the caterpillar stage. Males are more commonly found at lights. If they are recognised in the morning, the Butcherbirds finish them off. Females lay about 200+ large eggs on a variety of trees, both native and introduced. Size of the adult moths varies, probably based on the quality of the food they have eaten.

The family Oecophoridae is probably the most diverse family of moths in Australia. The larvae seem to be leaf litter feeders and occur in regions outside of the rainforests. The most common families in the rainforests seem to be the Noctuidae and the Geometridae. The oecophorids are present but in numbers less than encountered elsewhere. Perhaps, that is because leaf litter is more promptly processed in the rainforests. In the eucalypt woodlands where oecophorids predominate, leaf litter is deep and not so quickly processed. Who knows? Donuca rubropicta (Butler) is a beautiful noctuid moth that frequently comes to lights. It seems to combine cryptic, disruptive and startle colour patterns.

Hypsidia moths have been bandied about from the Noctuidae to the Pyralidae but are now placed in the Drepanidae, the Hook—tip moths. H. erythropsalis Rothchild is a common visitor to lights in the Kuranda rainforest. But it really does not have hook-tipped wings! Maybe it is still misplaced in the Drepanidae. But as I have noted previously, though common, it is one of those moths that I have never encountered during the day. It must be distasteful as birds avoid eating the moths from the light sheet.

Thursday, 20 September 2007


One of the many colour phases of Syntherata janetta (White) (Saturniidae)

“Australia has somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 species of moths (a number comparable to the number of flowering plants)….” A quote from the recent book by Zborowski & Edwards (2007). So it’s not too bold to suggest that there might be 1,000 species living in the rainforests and associated woodlands around Kuranda. In fact, there may be many more than that! I have been collecting moths for the Australian National Insect Collection, CSIRO, Canberra, every night for more than 4 years and not a night goes by that I don’t find one or more species that I had not seen before. They are so diverse in size, colour pattern, habitus and behaviour that one local artist has adopted them as an artform. His mothology site mothology is well worth a look. All the moths he uses in his art are from the Kuranda environs. Remarkable!

This is the first in a series of blogs on the moths of Kuranda.

The majority of moths are active at night. You see very few of them during the day. Most of the moths I find I have never seen in nature-only at the light sheet. Their diurnal activities, if any, are not known. It is assumed that most sit motionless to avoid predation. The wide range of colour patterns suggests a variety of strategies. Brightly coloured, often reddish or orange, moths are usually distasteful to birds and lizards. That this advertising strategy works is seen each morning on the light sheet. The moths are often the only ones that birds and lizards have left there.

The larvae (caterpillars) of most moths have not been seen. Some of the more prominent species Hawk and Silk Moths have large and obvious caterpillars and they are common if you find the appropriate host plants. But the great majority of caterpillars are hidden and have never been seen.

Some moths are seasonal, others can be found at most times of the year. And there are some that are vagrants. That is they are just flying through and are attracted by the light. The group of moths above illustrates what one might expect on a night in the rainy season. They are mostly noctuids feeding on fruit in the bird feeder. The largest moth is Ischyja neocherina, one of the fruit moths that causes damage in orchrds due ot its feeding activities which allow fungi to damage the developing fruit.


Zborowski, P., Edwards, E. D. 2007. A Guide To Australian Moths. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Australia’s Bird-of-Paradise


Victoria’s Riflebird, Ptiloris victoriae, (named for Queen Victoria) is one of three Riflebirds occurring in Australia. They are so named because it is said the “call”, such as it is, sounds like a discharging rifle. To me it sounds more like a loud squawk of the Spotted Catbird. The birds are primarily fruit-eaters and visit the bird feeder often where they eat bananas, raisins and other fruits in season. The decurved beak is used to pry insects from tight places. Adult males are spectacular with their black iridescent plumage that glistens metallic green and blue when they fly. The feathers produce a peculiar sound when they fly reminiscent of the crumpling of cellophane. Their courtship displays are elaborate as are those of their northern cousins and they sometimes display in the vegetation adjacent to the feeder. The birds are not monogamous. The nest is a small bowl and is often decorated with snake skins. Females and subadult males are brown streaked. These photos were taken at our feeder by noted wildlife photographer Gary Wilson.
Everett, M. 1987. Birds of Paradise. Chartwell Books, Secausus, New Jersey (Reprinted). 144 Pp.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Tree Runners

In most parts of Australia one or more species of mantid can be found on tree trunks. They are cryptic with colours and patterns which aids in ambushing small prey. These mantids are extremely fast and dart to the opposite side of the tree or branch when discovered. Egg cases (oothecae) are deposited in cracks in the bark.

The top photo is a nymph of the genus Ciulfina, a commonly encountered genus with many species in the Australian tropics. They usually perch head downwards with the body flat against the tree not casting a shadow. This one is ready for a quick escape. The late John Balderson discovered that males exhibit asymmetrical genitalia, with some males oriented one way and others that have a mirror image of this complex. After dark these mantids move from tree to tree over the adjacent vegetation as in the second photo.

The bottom photo is Calofulcinia oxynota La Greca, a delicate rainforest species. Males are long-winged and frequently show up at lights. Females are flightless and live on mossy rocks.

Have you Ever Met A Stalk-eyed Fly?

Stalk-eyed flies (family Platystomatidae) are common visitors to the bird-feeder during the rainy season where they are attracted to fruit. Several species are involved. Males have characteristically-shaped heads that are used in ritualistic mating displays. They have an unusual gait and are very easily approached.


McAlpine, D. K. 1972. The Australian Platystomatidae with a revision of five genera. The Australian Museum, Memoir 15. Pp.1-256

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Boyd’s Forest Dragon
Boyd’s Forest Dragon (Hypsilurus boydii) is one of the true gems of the rainforest. Males are larger than females and can attain 50 cm in length. When alarmed, like other dragons, it can become bipedal, that is, is can run on its hind legs like a little dinosaur. This lizard is not commonly seen because it spends a lot of time in the canopy where it searches for insects and other invertebrates. Most people discover the dragons basking in the sun. However, at our place we normally see them at night where they sleep. This Dragon was first spotted sleeping on a large ginger frond in March during the rainy season (we had 1000 mm of rain in March!). After a few weeks, it disappeared but reappeared again on the same ginger frond in early July.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

The Queensland Palm Katydid

The Queensland Palm Katydid (Segestidea queenslandica Rentz) is a large insect with females (the larger of the sexes) measuring around 9 cm (3.5 inches) from the head to the tip of the forewings. Males are a bit smaller. They are known from rainforests around Cairns and Kuranda and the Daintree River area of far north Queensland where they are relatively common. So it is rather surprising that the species was unnamed in the scientific literature until recently (see Rentz, below). The fact that such a large insect, one of the largest of Australian katydids, can go unnamed for such a long time is an example of just how poorly studied the Australian insect fauna really is. I had known about the existence of the insect since the early 1980’s and had been collecting information on its biology and distribution since those early collections.

This katydid is peculiar in some respects. Males are very rare. in fact, only one is known. Females are fairly common and many rainforest folk are well aware of the species. Study of captive females reveals that the species is parthenogenetic, that is, females can produce eggs that hatch without the mother ever having been mated. The species has been raised through several generations in the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, without any males ever being produced.

Another oddity associated with this species is its food. It feeds only on palm leaves. It has mandibles that are unique and appear to be modified for this purpose. Other members of the genus occur throughout the Pacific and some cause major economic damage to Coconut Palms. This species feeds on a variety of palms and because of its size and appearance is an excellent zoo animal and easy to raise in captivity.

Females need to descend from their perches in palms to deposit eggs in the ground. This is when they are easily seen and subject to predation. Eggs hatch in late autumn and the juveniles (nymphs) seek small palms for feeding. Lawyer Palms (Calamus spp.) are usually chosen because the leaves are tender and there is an abundance of seedlings in the rainforest. The nymphs are protectively coloured (see photo) and resemble bird droppings with their white, mottled pattern. As they mature they ascend palms and change their colour to mottled brown and after the final moult, the adult dark brown colour is achieved.

The Queensland Palm Katydid recently was featured on the TV show Totally_Wild where its biology and habits were noted.


Rentz, D. C. F., Su, Y. N., Ueshima, N. 2006. Studies in Australian Tettigoniidae: The Mecopodine Katydids Part 2 (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae; Mecopodinae; Sexavaini) Queensland Palm Katydid. Transactions of the American Entomological Society, 132(3): 229-241.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Homing & Hibernating

If you own a Budgie or Cockatiel you may have noticed that the bird usually sleeps on the same perch in the same place night after night. Well wandering about the forest at night I have discovered that some forest birds do the same thing.

This Sunbird was seen sleeping on the same centimetre of the same branch night after night for about 5 weeks in May-June. It’s disappearance was no doubt prompted by the fact that the branch was pruned by a falling adjacent branch. No trace of the bird was seen there after.

This Silvereye was observed sleeping on the same branch for more than 6 months in 2006 until its branch “disappeared” due to natural pruning. Each night the bird was observed in the same position on the branch. At times it was accompanied by another Silvereye but it was mostly on its own.

Ants and Raspy Crickets are known to have elaborate methods of finding their way back to their nests after a night’s foraging (see references below). They use the stars as guides by taking a mental “picture” of their surrounds before leaving and are able to find their way back to their nests and shelters after a night’s foray. In addition to the above, the Raspy Crickets (see the two photos) have individual marking pheromones that enable them to find their own shelters once they are in near vicinity where they began their journey. The cricket in the leaf enclosure is Xanthogryllacris punctipennis Walker. It, like all others in its family is active only at night. The other Raspy Cricket is an unknown species in an enclosure made from chewed pieces of bark. These crickets, like others of the Gryllacrididae, use silk, spun from the mouthparts, to secure and reinforce their shelters.

So it was with interest when this butterfly- the Varied Eggfly, Hypolimnas bolina-was seen night after night in May-June in the same shrub in nearly the same position. But discussion with Michael Braby suggested that the butterfly might be hibernation rather than returning home after a day’s foraging. A check of the site at a number of times over a period of days revealed that the butterfly was still at home. It was sedentary. Then in early July, it disappeared and has not returned.


Braby, M. F. 2004. The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia. 340 pages. CSIRO, Melbourne.

Hale, R., Rentz, D. C. F. 2001. The Gryllacrididae: An overview of the World fauna with emphasis on Australian examples. Pp. 95-111. In: The Biology of Wetas, King Crickets and their Allies. (L. Field, ed.). CABI 540 pp.

Morton, S. R., Rentz, D. C. F. 1983. Ecology and taxonomy of fossorial, granivorous gryllacridids (Orthoptera: Gryllacrididae) from arid Australia. Australian Journal of Zoology, 31: 557-579,

Lockwood, J. A., Rentz, D. C. F. 1996. Nest construction and recognition in a gryllacridid: the discovery of pheromonally mediated autorecognition in an insect. Australian Journal of Zoology, 44: 129-141.