Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Ants in your plants--symbiosis in the Wet Tropics

Prickly Ant Plant at Keating Lagoon near Cooktown
Ants in Your Plants! Not in your pants. That's a children's ditty.

Prickly Ant Plants.
Symbiotic or mutual relationships in nature can be very fascinating, but here's one that beats them all.

It's a triple whammy of the natural world and it taking place right now throughout Cape York.
You can find specimens in the  among the mangroves at Cowie Beach, along Marrja Boardwalk at Cape Tribulation, among the melaleaucas at Keating Lagoon outside Cooktown, and the Natures Powerhouse Botanic Gardens at Cooktown.
 By far the most easily spotted is in the gardens outside James Cook Museum, where one endemic  Ant Plant species is nicely plaqued and presented on a paperbark tree.

Ant plant at Marrdja Boardwalk growing among mangroves

The Ant Plant (myrmecodia beccarii) is an epiphytic plant with fibrous inner chambers. It usually grows on paperbarks (melaleucas) or mangrove species. Superficially, it looks like an orchid, but close up, you can see that the outside is covered with prickles.
The real action is inside. Golden ants live inside the chambers and patrol the plant to remove leaf-eating pests. Their excreta is absorbed as food by the plant. That's a genuine symbiotic or mutual relationship.

The next symbiotic layer is the arrival of the Apollo jewel butterfly, the larvae of which live inside the plant. They seem to eat either the ant plant tissue and leaves or ant larvae. The butterfly larvae then provide honeydew as food for the ants. In appreciation, the ants protect the larvae.

Complicated? Incredibly so! Interdependency or mutualism--sometimes co-operative, sometimes not.
Figs need wasps to pollinate each and every fig. Buff-breasted paradise kingfishers bore a hole into and inhabit termites nests.

Peppermint spray in the Wet Tropics rainforest

Rainforest spray

What’s  a quirky blueish-green colour and spits out peppermint spray?

It’s not a seasick sailor, but a very unusual insect, called the peppermint stick insect (or megacrania batesii).
A coupling pair of peppermint stick insects

There’s no other  insect –or insect colour for that matter-- quite like it. We only get them in the Wet Tropics World Heritage rainforest, mainly in the northern end, around the Cow Bay to Cape Tribulation areas.

They don’t really spit, rather they squirt from their backs. When disturbed by a predator, they send out a surprising sweet-smelling spray of milky-white gooey peppermint. Just enough to sting the eyes of a preying spider or bird, or surprise a curious tourist.

Their diet is the serrated leaf of only the pandanus plant (aka scrub breadfruit), in which they also hide skilfully.   While indigestible food to us, it's the bread of life for peppermint stick insects. 
Even when they are inextricably entwined, like the coupling two in the accompanying photo, they are almost perfectly camouflaged among the pandanus leaves. The male is the much smaller of the two, but with better wings, does most of the flitting around. She is bigger, and can fly but doesn’t much need to. She just drops the fertilised eggs down the leaf, where they hatch a few months later.

When I think insects, I think of the Daintree Entological Museum (the Insect Museum) near Cooper Creek. Apart from its collection under glass, you usually see spiny leaf insects, Goliath Stick Insects and, if you’re lucky, a caterpillar of the Giant Hercules Moth. It’s off Turpentine Road, twenty minutes drive south of Cape Tribulation, or 70 minutes north of Port Douglas.

Where to find the little fellas

Where else can you find the Peppermint Stick Insect?
Their Pandanus food lives mainly in swampy areas and near the beach, so that’s where you’ll most likely find them. Try alongside Thornton Beach, Kulki (around the Cape Tribulation Carpark and toilet area), Dubuji Boardwalk and in Myall Beach area around  the Cape Trib Campground. They are all good spots. Look for the telltale signs that the pandanus leaves have been freshly eaten.

Tasting Notes

 Only peppermint Stick Insects would eat pandanus leaves—have you ever tried them? Don’t. They’re too prickly for a start.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Keatings Lagoon in Spring and Summer

A 4WD drive from Cape Tribulation takes you past Keatings Lagoon near Cooktown.
Visitors have been seeing lots of birds in September and October and the whole show should continue well through November as the waters dry up and leave increasingly scarce pickings and fewer places to hide for hungry water birds.
Last week, we saw Australian Pelicans, magpie geese, royal spoonbills and cormorants across the waterlilies from the Bird Hide. They're spending daytime hours just hanging around until a cooler part of the day.

Closer to the Hide were two busy groups of Pacific Black Duck and Hardhead Duck. During our last visit, the Pacific Blacks were attracted by some underwater food source, and gradually swelled in numbers. Then, like a mob to a hanging (or drinkers to a shout!), the Hardheads progressively departed their own area, and came swooping and milling together, squawking, diving , splashing and creating a real feeding frenzy.
The Hardhead, incidentally are Australia's only true deep diving duck. Other duck are shallow divers, unlike everyday Australians, who are much deeper animals.

Red-combed Jacana (or "Jesus" birds) walk, usually in pairs across the lily pads, occasionally hopping with barely a wing beat.

Very occasionally, a visiting family of brolgas can drop in to check out the neighbourhood. Last week, this family of three, the juvenile obvious with its lack of colouring, landed near the entrance of Keatings. It's too late in the season for its wonderfully intricate and graceful mating dance, although they can do it all year around. The dance is often reflected in Indigenous dances.

Magpie geese are unlike European geese, in that they have half-webbed feet, which enables them to sit on branches and in trees. Weird, but true.

 The Keatings  Bird Hide is an interesting 700 metre (12 minute) walk from the carpark, just 5 minutes drive from Cooktown on the Mulligan Highway.

D'Arcy of Daintree 4WD Tours visits the Lagoon on our Cooktown one day trips from Cow Bay, Diwan and Cape Tribulation.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Winter in the Daintree - Kingfishers galore!

A busy time of the year in the Daintree with school holidays in all the cold southern states. What could be better than escaping to the tropics?!
It is a lovely time for wildlife - whales off-shore, crocs and tree snakes basking in the sun on the banks of the Daintree River, frogs hiding indoors during the day and lots of lovely birds.
Winter can be good time for seeing kingfishers, and at this time of year the following are visible around Daintree Village.

Little Kingfisher - Australia's smallest - shy and always near water.

Azure Kingfisher - bright and confiding and nearly always seen on the Daintree River.

Forest Kingfisher - often seen on power lines or fences, hunting for skinks, grasshoppers etc. Recognisable by the two white 'headlights' above the bill.

Sacred Kingfisher - more common in winter as it settles into the warmer weather. Another feeder of arthropods and others.

Laughing Kookaburra - our early morning chorus. 'Laugh, Kookaburra, Laugh'.

Blue-winged Kookaburra - more common in the open areas, rather than forest. Great haircut!!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The 'Wet Season' at last

There is nothing like some decent rain to bring the tropical lowland rainforest alive, and we have had just that in the last week or so.
The birds, the butterflies, the frogs, the fungi are all coming to life.
Pairs of mating butterflies of all sorts are making the most of sunny weather following good rains, including everyone's favourites, the Ulysses and Cairns Birdwing butterflies.

Cairns Birdwing Butterfly Daintree

The rains have also brought out the rather-stinky 'Bridal Fungi' which emerges from compost heaps and wet earth. Notice the blowflies being attracted to the slimy 'gleba' which emits a rotting smell. They then carry the spore on their feet, or through their intestines, to other locations - thus ensuring further distribution of the fungus. A marvellous world we live in!
Bridal Fungi Red Mill House garden
Many birds have been particularly active since we have had good rains. Red-necked Crake, Bushhen, Black-necked Stork and others.

A beautiful adult Cassowary was spotted bathing in Noah Creek yesterday - just gorgeous!

Southern Cassowary Miki Dengels March 2012

Friday, February 15, 2013

Cuckoos and other cheats

Spring and summer are the seasons for cuckoos in the Wet Tropics and Daintree, many of which are known to call incessantly, and most of which parasitise other birds nests.
The smallest, the Little Bronze-Cuckoo, breeds in this region and often uses the hanging nests of the Large-billed Gerygone or Fairy Gerygone to lay their eggs. The newly hatched chick disposes of the birds own eggs, allowing the poor, hapless (much smaller) 'parents' to feed it and it alone.

Little Bronze-Cuckoo (S.Isoe)
Other cuckoos in the Daintree region over the season include Brush Cuckoo (which calls incessantly), Channel-billed Cuckoo (Australia's largest cuckoo)and Australian Koel. Closely related, but not a brood parasite, is the rather clumsy but beautiful Pheasant Coucal.

Pheasant Coucal (Fred Forsell)
Large numbers of very noisy Channel-billed Cuckoos are about at present, which plenty of rainforest figs providing their necessary food.
The "wet season" is a fabulous time to be doing some Daintree birdwatching!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Welcome to Breeding Season in Daintree

After a long absence, the Daintree News blog is up and running again!

Queensland's Wet Tropics are, without doubt, Australia's best wildlife-watching locations with the rich biodiversity that is unique to the tropics. Ranging from sea-level to 900m, there is a diverse range of habitats.

Daintree, on the coastal lowlands and ranges, has some of the oldest and richest rainforest in the world and is home to a great variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects.
Birds and birdwatching are a major focus of the region with birders from around the world visiting to see a huge diversity of species in convenient and comfortable conditions.

As the 'Wet Season' approaches many local birds are finishing their breeding season, nesting at a time when flowers, fruit and insects are plentiful in the rainforest, and before rainy conditions make it difficult to raise a family. Black Bittern, Shining Flycatcher and Papuan Frogmouth chicks have mostly fledged. These all nest in trees on the banks of the Daintree River and it's best to be gone before the river floods.

Papuan Fogmouth (S.Isoe)

Others, like the Wompoo Fruit-Dove, are more likely to breed outside their main nesting season. This pair have been building their somewhat-flimsy nest in the past week. They appear to have chosen a sheltered spot, so should be successful.

Wompoo Fruit-Dove (A.Forsyth)

One of the great breeding success stories are the Metallic Starlings who migrate from New Guinea in huge numbers in August each year to breed. Their nesting colonies are massed in often-huge trees and are used year after year. They are communal nesters and can raise two, or sometimes three, broods in a season..
Adapting well to urban life, the following photo is of nesting colony in one of several palms in the carpark at Smithfield Shopping Centre.

Metallic Starling (T.Forsyth)