Tagged: Australia

The search for flower flies – an exploration of Australia and its wildlife

by Danielle Chiasson

For the OFNC’s March monthly meeting we were pleased to welcome Jeff Skevington and his family for a presentation on the natural history of Australia and stories from their recent trip down under.

For the OFNC’s March monthly meeting we were pleased to welcome Jeff Skevington and his family for a presentation on the natural history of Australia and stories from their recent trip down under.

Jeff Skevington is a research scientist with the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. He is also an adjunct research professor at Carleton University and an active member with the OFNC.

Jeff, along with his wife and son, Angela and Alexander, embarked on a five-month research trip across Australia last year to study insects. Jeff, who completed his PhD in Australia, returned to Australia with his family to collect, study and identify flower flies as well as give talks across the country.

Alexander, a boy of 11, began the night with his own presentation of photos and anecdotes from their Australian adventures. It was a heart-warming and informative account from a young boy with a growing passion for wildlife and photography. He recounted the numerous species they came across, some common and tame and others that were out of the ordinary.

A few animals he featured included:

The short-nosed echidna – an anteater native to Australia and New Guinea. The Skevingtons had an interesting encounter with this creature. When threatened the echidna will curl up into a ball similar to a hedgehog and begin to dig downwards into the earth.

The short-nosed echidna photographed by Alexander Skevington.

The short-nosed echidna photographed by Alexander Skevington.

The echidna burying itself in the sand. Photo by Alexander Skevington.

The echidna burying itself in the sand. Photo by Alexander Skevington.

Plains-wanderer. Photo by Jeff Skevington.

Plains-wanderer. Photo by Jeff Skevington.

The plains-wanderer – a bird species endemic to Australia and of particular interest to the Skevington family. Their plumage gives them great camouflage and when threatened they puff out their cheeks. Similar to sand pipers, the plains-wanderer will run away instead of flying when disturbed.

The Lumholz’s tree kangaroo – There are many different species of kangaroo. This one (below) was spotted by the Skevington family in the northeast rainforest of Australia. Unfortunately many species of tree kangaroo are threatened because of habitat loss.

A Lumholz's tree kangaroo photographed by Jeff Skevington.

A Lumholz’s tree kangaroo photographed by Jeff Skevington.

Alex taking a "selfie" with a quokka. Photo by Jeff Skevington.

Alex taking a “selfie” with a quokka. Photo by Jeff Skevington.

The quokka – A cute little macropod with little fear of humans and a face that seems to smile. Alexander recalls this as his favourite part of the Australian trip. They took many photos with the quokkas and had the chance to give them water.

After Alexander’s presentation Jeff discussed the more technical side to organizing a 5-month cross-country research trip. He said that the trip had been very difficult to arrange and was surprised to find Australia had gotten more expensive since he and his wife were there last. They decided to camp during their stay and were faced with many challenges, the main one being the dangerous road conditions in the Australian outback.

Simosyrphus grandicornis< (Syrphinae). Photo by Alexander Skevington.

Simosyrphus grandicornis< (Syrphinae). Photo by Alexander Skevington.

Jeff then continued to present the main reason for the trip, insect research! Many insect species in Australia are undescribed. Jeff’s research brought his family across Australia, finding insects in the desert outback, across the wet East coast of Australia and the heights of hilltops.

Flower flies (also called hover flies) make up the insect family Syrphidae. Jeff talked about three subfamilies: Eristalinae, Microdontinae, and Pipizinae.

Collection methods for these flies include the use of traps, many of which are ongoing, maintained and emptied by others. More tedious collection methods include hand collecting and flower collection. These insects are great pollinators!

They also set off to collect more rare species and to hopefully find undescribed ones at higher elevations. Many insects are found on hilltops because it is an ideal place for them to find food and mate.

Austalis pulchella (Eristalinae). Photo by Jeff Skevington.

The presentation ended with a further exploration of many bird and mammal species they came across during their trip. Australia is home to many endemic birds. Here are a few examples (click on images for a full-size slide show).

Jeff and his family brought a beautiful array of photographs from their trip and many stories to accompany them. They presented many unfamiliar species of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians and gave a wonderful introduction to the natural history of Australia.

For more information on Jeff Skevington and his research please visit his web page at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes.

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Stories from Australia’s waves, caves, and animal graves

by Natalie Sopinka

On April 8, OFNC members met for the third time at the new meeting location at the Central Experimental Farm. Murray Citron recited his first-ever published poem (in Trail & Landscape!) which captured all elements of an Ottawa spring: wind, snow and sun. On that note, as spring temperatures rise, so do the number of OFNC events and excursions! All upcoming events are posted on the OFNC website.

Anouk Hoedeman updated attendees on the work of the new Ottawa Chapter of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP). Volunteers are urgently needed for pre-dawn patrols and for picking up and transporting injured birds to the Wild Bird Care Centre. If you are interested in getting involved, you can read more about FLAP Ottawa here or email flap@ofnc.ca.

The evening’s speaker was Dr. Kathy Conlan, a scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Kathy, an expert in marine benthos and advocate of Antarctic research and conservation, shared in photographs and storytelling her recent travels to Australia with mineralogist Dr. Joel Grice. During a year-long sabbatical, Kathy and Joel embarked on four trips that took them to diverse habitats, from mangroves and rain forests to salt lakes and lava tubes.

Upwelling brings nutrient-rich water to the ocean surface promoting phyto- and zooplankton blooms. Photo: Google

Port Lincoln
Their first stop was along Australia’s southern coast – the Bonney and du Couedic submarine canyons, which are important to Australia’s fisheries because they channel seawater from a depth of a kilometre (or more) up to the surface. This “upwelling,” which happens when strong summer winds move surface water offshore, provides the phytoplankton in the nutrient-poor surface water with all the nutrients they need to grow and multiply. When phytoplankton “bloom,” zooplankton bloom too. Fish aggregate and feed on the zooplankton before being caught by fishers.

Kathy’s job on her sabbatical was to see whether these canyons also benefited the animals that live full time on the sea floor; her studies indicate that they do and that “upwelling is an important way of renewing ocean richness, rather like turning over the garden in the spring.” Kathy is quite fond of the animals that live on the sea floor, in particular species of the genus Jassa, which she has classified. She was surprised to find Jassa slatteryi in Port Lincoln as it is native to North America; the species may have crossed continents via ship ballast water. The gulfs in this area are teeming with sea grasses that support shrimp fisheries and are home to cuttlefish, leafy sea dragons, and bottlenose dolphins.

Flinders Range and Coober Pedy
Next Kathy and Joel traveled inland through Flinders Range encountering spectacular fauna including emus, eastern grey-kangaroos, rose-breasted cockatoos (or galah) and laughing kookaburra. The next stop was Coober Pedy, noted for their opal mines. Kathy found an opal potch, dull in comparison to jewelry or precious opal because the internal structure of the potch is less “organized” and does not diffract light the same way. Some inactive mines have been turned into underground campgrounds, one of which Kathy and Joel camped in.

Naracoorte and Tantanoola Caves
Heading southeast, Kathy and Joel were drawn to the World Heritage limestone Naracoorte Caves. Eroded by ground water the caverns were excellent traps for terrestrial creatures for 500,000 years. The perished megafauna were much larger than they are today and bones from over 100 species have been found to date. Nearby are the Tantanoola caves with stalactites that look like “falling caramel.”

Underground camping in Coober Pedy (left) and the Tantanoola Caves (right).

Underground camping in Coober Pedy (left) and the Tantanoola Caves (right). Photos: Kathy Conlan

Kathy scuba diving with a grouper on the Great Barrier Reef.

Kathy scuba diving with a grouper on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Oak Beach Productions, Port Douglas, Australia

Undara and the Great Barrier Reef
When Mount Undara erupted the lava radiating from the mountain flowed like molasses. The outer surface of the flows cooled forming a crust, and hotter liquids continued to flow underneath the crust, “like water in a hose.” When all the lava had flowed through, tunnels remained. Kathy and Joel walked throughout the lava tubes, which can flood during rainstorms.

The tour, and talk, ended with a diving session on the Great Barrier Reef. We saw cleaner shrimps, goby, lionfish, Moorish idol, humphead wrasse, leaf scorpionfish, seahorses and clown fish hiding among the magnificent fan, stony, zoanthid and soft corals. Sea turtles passed overhead and grouper said hello, before Kathy bid members good night.