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  • Disguuussssting!

    Words and pics by Howard Birnstihl

    All I can say about the character in the accompanying pic is he’s a real show-off.   And definitely not anal retentive.  It reminds me of my early days at Upwey primary school when the greatest challenge was to pee over the high red brick wall surrounding the boys toilet block.

                   I seem to remember Alan Pearson was the best at it and perhaps that’s the real origin of his nickname, Peo, rather than just the usual Aussie habit of lopping off a few final letters that most of us have to endure.

    ????????????? This little critter, a nymph of some species I’m not sure of, (perhaps you could find out) also reminds me of the prophets of doom in the late nineteenth century, who, aghast at the forecast of a population boom with the advent of the twentieth century, feared a world swamped by unmanageable piles of horse manure.?? The expected was replaced by the unexpected.? They hadn’t, of course, anticipated the automobile.? If they were concerned about what came out of all those horses’ behinds it was nothing compared to the scale of the problems caused by what comes out of rear ends of the world’s motor cars.

    ????????????? If you were unlucky enough to fall ill back in the 1600 – 1700 period your local GP would no doubt have spent much time in examining your ‘doings’ to find the cause of your ailment.?? This was not the most scientific of methods and today doctors have chucked that habit.? It’s now left to small children and naturalists for whom old habits die hard.? I even have a book on my shelves which deals entirely with the subject of animal poo and its contents.?? Studying these ‘scats’ of course is not unlike ASIO agents searching a suspect’s rubbish bins in order to? create a profile.?? Rather than spending half a lifetime laying traps in order to estimate the antechinus population, a study of the droppings of its natural predators will indicate quite accurately not only the numbers of this endangered animal, but the general distribution as well.

                  The habit of marking territorial boundaries with their outpourings is a well- known animal habit, and like the tiny lava in the first photograph, wallabies refuse to hide their light under a bushel, preferring to drop their little calling cards overtly upon the top of a rock.   What better way to display your little sculpture than putting it on a pedestal?    Not only is this akin to the idea of luminous patches on road-side posts, but I imagine in the cool of the evening, when macropods are most active, the comfort of  a heat retaining rock close to the bare behind is not unwelcome.   Reminds me, must check Ebay for heated toilet seats.

    ????????????? Just as many Australian plant seeds will only germinate after the heat of a bushfire, those of the mistletoe (a parasite on many of our trees) will only spring to life after being eaten by the aptly named mistletoe bird and squirted out its rear end.?? And speaking of rear ends, I have strong memories of my children playing in the bath.? Quite feral, these little monsters were never happier than when having bubble blowing competitions… via their rear ends. Perhaps they got the idea when out with me on a field expedition examining various pond life.?? The water beetle in the accompanying pic had become quite an expert by the time we found him.

                  Blowflies, I have to say, are not much more sophisticated.  Playing in rubbish tips is obviously not a habit to be encouraged, but even when out in the wholesome countryside they will persist with that nasty habit of chewing gum.  This of course could be tolerated if only they’d keep the darned stuff in their mouths, but they insist on blowing bubbles.   I’ve heard one lame excuse that this is similar to the way cows use four stomach compartments to digest their food…regurgitating it and rechewing it.   Flies reckon this bubble blowing business helps them digest their breakfast.  A likely story.   Oh, and while we’re talking cows…not a good idea to stand too close when they’re eating… at either end.  All that acid produced in all that digesting results in… well, let’s not go into detail.  Let’s just say I would never advise sharing a bath with a cow.

                   Did you know wombats have cubular droppings?  One just has to hope the corners are not too sharp.   And that reminds me of another old theory where camels were once thought to be responsible for the pyramids.  {It was thought they may have triangular arse holes}.  If faint hearted, please don’t read that previous sentence.

    But seeing we’ve hit rock bottom [oops], what about dung beetles?? You heard the one about a dung beetle going in to a bar and asking, ‘is this stool taken?’ Hmmmm. Sorry. Anyway, these cute little critters love nothing better than rolling their little bundles along, taking them home to the delight of the hungry kids.? However, as is so often the case when disturbing the balance of nature, our 500 local species, brought up on the high quality poo of our marsupials, found the slop of the introduced species not to their liking.? We had to send some of our experts over to Hawaii for a holiday where they ‘borrowed’ a few of the local species and smuggled them back here in their luggage.? Good thing too, otherwise we may all be knee deep in cow pats without their good work.?? Our soil wouldn’t have benefited either without their efforts, so all in all, vive le dung beetle.

    To raise the tone of this article a little, let me remind you of that most inventive of creatures, the octopus.  Rather than limiting its rear end to ablutional activities, this multi limbed marvel can zoom through the water using jet propulsion from the aforementioned orifice.  Pretty smart eh?  However, I am forced to insert a warning here: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

    Three elephants involved in backchat

    And as a final point, did you know if you collected all the droppings of a single elephant over its entire lifetime and laid them out in one long line you’d probably be locked up?

                   Well, I could go on talking about this delightful subject for hours but I just noticed the time.  I have to shoot off to the cinema.        They’re replaying “Kenny”.

    A Delicate monster

    Words and pics by Howard Birnstihl

    close view of lacewing insect

    This delicate looking creature is an aptly named lacewing.   But don’t be fooled by its demure feminine charm, this lady is a cold calculating killer.   And she was, even as a child.  However, in her case, the authorities tend to turn a blind eye, as the immature versions are great for ridding your garden of many of its harmful bugs.  It’s not hard to see why they delicate but voracious insects are commonly known as Golden Eyes.

    Young walker caterpillars don’t have the killing capacity of young lacewings but they have developed similar fashion styles.

    Lacewings start life as aggressive little bulldozer types which are tiny roaming killing machines, skewering the remains of their prey, and other garden debris, onto the small spines on their back in order to camouflage.  Considered the gardener’s friend, the adult has the spider-like habit of injecting its victims with a digestive fluid which allows it to suck its prey dry, and apparently, eating mainly aphids, does so up to 60 per hour.   

    Not just a pretty face, the female lacewing understands the law of the jungle as well as anyone and so lays her eggs on tiny, almost invisible stalks which place the potential offspring up out of sight and hopefully for them, out of mind of any potential predator wandering by.    Laying up to 600 eggs, these are usually in batches of a few dozen.  Like moths, lacewings are attracted to light and so will often be found indoors, but remember, keep that spray can away, they are completely harmless, and quite beautiful to watch.

    As with most insects the wings are constructed in a web of material known as cuticle and are glossy and transparent.   Moths and butterflies possess the less common wings which are covered with scales and therefore capable of exotic colouring resulting from the effect of the light reflecting from them.  This means the wings are not actually coloured, it is simply the way they reflect light which gives the impression of colour.  One way to verify this is to keep a butterfly specimen for as many years as you can and at the end of that time the colour will not have faded.


    All insects (except the mayfly), only develop wings at the adult stage and they usually unfurl at the final moult from the laval stage and slowly harden like the cuticle which makes up their body casing.   This tough external body covering of the insect is of vital importance as it acts as an outer or exoskeleton for creatures which possess no inner bone structure.

    Extreme close up of the wing of a birdwing butterfly (Trogonoptera brookiana) showing the pattern, texture and vibrant colour green

    The hard netting which holds the wings of the lacewing together and gives them strength are nerve veins and justifies their scientific name of neuroptera, derived from two Greek words:  “neuron” and “pteron” meaning nerve winged.  Variety in wing design results in a diverse range of flying insects, some, like Christmas beetles, bumbling along like heavy laden bombers, others like dragon flies flitting darting and hovering like demented radio controlled toys.

    And just a reminder of the nature of our friend the lacewing: one theory as to why the eggs are laid up on stalks is to protect them from being eaten by the voracious emerging young themselves, their own brothers and sisters.   Reminds me a bit of the family next door.

    A Small Inconvenience

    Words and pics by Howard Birnstihl

       The two suspicious characters hanging about at the top of the pic are mosquito larvae, commonly known as wrigglers, and their companion at the bottom is a red mite.   Both of these groups of animals are potentially dangerous and occur in uncountable numbers on our planet.

        There are 3000 known species of mosquito and the havoc they wreak in the form of malaria and other diseases is well known.   Mites have more species than you can poke a stick at and it’s estimated in any square meter of turf you’d be poking that stick at hundreds of thousands of them in various guises.

    Shingleback with blood-sucking tick on its neck

       Most mites of course are parasites.  Some mites, or ticks, are only intermittent feeders and usually drop off their host after their fill.  The more greedy types, which are more permanent residents, can prove fatal to their host, although this happens less often than one might imagine.    After all, why bite the hand that feeds you?  Ah, well, they do, don’t they.  But you know what I mean.

    Using their powerful jaws they cut a hole in the host’s skin and then insert a type of combination harpoon and grappling iron with which they hold on to great effect.   Hardly state of the art technology, but practical all the same.  It usually takes a close encounter with a lit cigarette to remove them.  

    As tiny as they are, the effects of mites on man can be enormous, with one variety, Acari, causing billions of dollars worth of damage annually to crops in the USA alone.  And if you were impressed with the vast number of species of mosquito, you’d better sit down for a mo.  There are 48,000 species of mite!

    Mites can infect all kinds of plants by dropping in for a visit and the often overstaying their welcome.

    The dust mite is one of the better known versions these days.  Living on dead skin [which your lovely warm bed is full of] they thrive in dark humid spaces.  Others which are becoming notorious are those which live on bees, the problems caused there now becoming quite alarming.  Found in virtually every environment, mites inhabit trees, fruit, rivers, lakes, the sea, even the respiratory channels of mammals and birds. Check out almost any creature in the bush and you’ll probably find a tick on it somewhere.  Life, it seems, is full of free loaders.

    close up of mosquito (Choromodic family) showing its long proboscus

    Mosquitoes [the word meaning little fly in Spanish] don’t bother crops but they can certainly bother you and me.  Only the female mosquito is a blood sucker, as hubby has a sweet tooth and prefers to sup on nectar.   Actually the female [which can drink up to three times its own body weight at one sitting] doesn’t feed on your blood as food, but as an agent to help develop her eggs).   You may be pleased to know, once Mrs Mozzie has exerted all that energy in having her fill of your vital juices, she has to rest up for a couple of days before producing her eggs.  She will lay up to 300 at a time and will do this about three times during her short lifetime of a couple of months.  Spare a thought for hubby though…he only lasts about ten days.

    The male locates the female by the sound of her wings [a bit like you and me on those hot summer nights, waiting with hovering hand].  Another one of those figures almost beyond comprehension – their wings beat over 500 times a second.  Not about to win any awards for aeronautics though, they don’t fly very far and only at about 1.5 miles an hour.  The fact they tend to fly below 25 feet may inspire some of you to make a pair of 26 foot stilts this summer [just a thought].  If you tend to perspire, be prepared for an attack.  They love the smell, and talking of smells, our skin produces a cocktail of about 340 different odours, so even if the mozzies in your district are picky they’re bound to find at least one of your pongs attractive.

    Looks like a mosquito but this crane fly, of which there are over 15,000 species won’t bother you. A bit like cicadas, their role in nature is limited to adding nourishment to the diet of other insects and perhaps helping to control microbial activity in the soil when in larvae form.

    The Moz has been with us for about 200 million years so has honed her skills rather well, injecting her proboscis so that one tube draws the blood while another injects saliva into the wound as an anti-coagulant, as well as being a mild pain killer [so they’re not all bad].  This is the stuff which causes the bite to swell and itch.   As far as Malaria is concerned, the disease is not caused by the actual mosquito, but a parasite who’s taken up lodging.

    Close up of a bright red dragonfly (Order Odonata) in the Northern Territory, Australia

    The eggs hatch into those wrigglers which spend about ten days pupating in their home of stagnant water before squeezing their way out and drying off, then flying off.  What attracts mosquitoes to you and me is a cocktail of carbon dioxide, lactic acid, moisture and a host of other things.  When it comes to understanding mosquitoes it is said scientists are only scratching the surface but I have been scratching my surface for years as I seem to be one of the ten percent of humans particularly desirable to these voracious insects. 

    Extreme close up of a dragonfly (Order Odonata) on a human hand emphasising the huge complex eyes of this ancient life form…great for spotting mozzies.

     By the way, the main predators are dragonflies and fish, of the latter, Gambusias the most voracious, which eat the larvae, have been introduced into many countries, including Australia, to help eradicate the moz.  Of course this unnatural inclusion of a foreign species into an eco-system is in itself fraught with danger, these aggressive fish often causing unfair competition for the local species.

    Taking a sip of fresh air or gobbling up a few mozzie eggs?

    The old fashioned method of cleaning up drains and spraying bodies of surface water with insecticide has proven valuable over the years but a variety of new methods of control are now employed.  The male prides itself as being the Casanova of the insect world and mates with as many females as possible and one recent technique for controlling this pest is to release huge numbers of infertile males in order to cut down on egg production.   Apparently it is working with some success, which is just as well as this tiny critter is considered the greatest killer in nature, killing a million people every year.

    Yes, both mossies and mites may be tiny creatures but they are certainly keeping the world’s scientists on their toes.   Whack!  Gotcha.

    Come on in, the door’s open

    Words and pics by Howard Birnstihl

    Bathplug Arbanitis spider at entrance of burrow

    “Come on in, the door’s open”.   The only time you’ll hear those words these days will be in an Amish community, or if you listen very closely, in the dry interior of Australia.  

                   Trapdoor spiders are often lumped in with funnel-webs in the villain class, but when was the last time you heard of one causing any real problems?   Not only are these creatures far less of a worry than many consider but they are actually to be admired, even revered.

    Close view of an Australian bathplug spider at the entrance of its burrow after having opened that famous well named bathplug door

                   When you consider the size of this creature’s brain it will astound you to know that not only does it dig a deep hole in which to live but it constructs a hinged door which fits so perfectly that when the occasional deluge comes to the desert the spider and her lair remain perfectly dry.   The example in the pic (species arbanitis) is called a bathplug trapdoor spider for obvious reasons.

                   As if this waterproofing feat wasn’t enough, when faced with predators of their own they employ ingenious ways to foil them.   Consider this: halfway down the tunnel one species weaves a little net covering most of the width of the burrow.   Instead of putting out the garbage on Wednesday nights, it stacks it around the edge of the net.   If whilst sitting at its door it notices something approaching too big for even him and his big brother together to handle [eg. a scorpion or the like] getting a bit too close for comfort the spider shoots off down the hole and hides under the net.   If the scorpion enters, our spider tugs on a little silk draw string and the net collapses with all the junk falling on top to give the appearance of the bottom of an untidy hole…the bottom of an empty hole.    The disappointed scorpion leaves to search elsewhere.  Chalk one up for the host.

                   Now, if you agree that’s pretty smart, what about Stanwellia nebulosa?   She goes one better by digging a little round hole in the side of her tunnel, constructs a pear-shaped pebble out of silk, saliva and debris and wedges it in the hole with the small end poking out.  

                   When a predator arrives she pops down, tugs on the pebble which falls in and blocks the tunnel.   Again the hunter is foiled, thinking he’s come to the end of the line.   But then, because she has made the pebble perfectly counterweighted, the spider simply flicks the thin end and it pops back into the hole and frees her passageway.

                   No doubt you’ve heard of orb weavers and their uncanny ability to produce meticulously shaped nets for catching night flying insects.  You will have seen leaf curling spiders who can turn a dead leaf into the perfect tunnel of love in a few seconds.  Mind you, love may not be quite the term the moth would use as it disappears into it.

     Jumping spiders have a couple of telescopic lenses among its eight eyes which enable it to hone in on some creature way off in the distance.  The creature thinking all is quiet, no doubt gets quite a surprise when the little spiderman appears out of nowhere.  And just in case you thought the little jumper had only the IQ of the average bikie, he has a back-up safety device where he actually spins out a safety line for those rare occasions he misses his mark. 

    To outwit any potential predator, Bird dropping spiders not only lay their eggs in sacs which are indistinguishable from the seed boxes of their host plant, they fold themselves up to look like a lump of bird poo. Any self-respecting bird with even a modicum of good breeding would hardly be seen chomping on that.  

    And talking of birds, there are some spiders large enough to eat them and not surprisingly they’re called bird-eating spiders.  Gee, eh?

    And there are Spitting spiders, possessing only six eyes, but don’t feel sorry for them.  These clever little goucho types that spit out their webs at a lightning speed of 30 yards per second to snare their unsuspecting prey.   This may seem remarkably unique behavior but there are hundreds of species of these cowboys all over the planet. 

    And if you’re into speed, just watch that homely huntsman on your bathroom wall.  When it grabs its next fly if you can actually see it move you’re a better man than me.

                   As someone we all know might say, “Crikey”!

    Mum’s the Word

    Huntsman spider (Neoparrassus) with dozens of spiderlings

    1. ???????????????????????????????????? Mum’s the Word

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    Psyching myself up


    Howard Birnstihl

    Psychoanalyst.   When I told my family I wanted to become a psycho analyst they said I was crazy…I said no, you don’t know how it works…it’s the other guys….   So I took myself off to the psych department to apply for a job.  At first they said, ‘I’m afreud you’re too jung.   It made me feel ill.   They said, ‘No, you feel sick.’  I said’ ‘No, I’m ill.’   They said, ‘No. you’re sick.’   But I didn’t want to get into psycho semantics.

    I said, ‘Listen doc…I want to be able to see right inside people so he handed me a scalpel and an X-ray machine.   ‘Take your pick,’ he said.   I did and he took his, and we played Duelling Banjos together…it was great fun.

    But I graduated and they warned me to tread carefully… ‘It’s a mind field out there you know,’ they said.   But I was so confident I decided to set up in private practice.   I would mind my own business.

    My first patient was an English teacher and when I asked him to lie down he said he couldn’t have couched it in better terms himself.   My second patient was a real psycho.   A colourful character though…and quite easy to diagnose…he was psychodelic.

    One woman told me she was a stripper …but that didn’t bare thinking about…in fact I didn’t bare thinking about it a lot…particularly at night…but the poor woman felt she couldn’t cope.   She’d designed a daring new act in which she wore a dangerously sexy outfit.   But she felt she just couldn’t pull it off.   I said, ‘Don’t worry my dear, I’m here to help.’

    But I saw all kinds of people.   One was a milliner…but she was as mad as a hatter.   And there was that strange Mr Elgin…he’d really lost his marbles.   Another one was schizophrenic.   I was in two minds about him.   In fact I saw every Tom Dick’n Harry…but I suggested that was better done in private.

    I tried that old technique of word association.   Saying whatever word comes into your mind.  But it just didn’t seem to work somehow.   I’d say ‘breasts’ and the patient would answer.  Then I would say ‘breasts’ and the patient would answer again.  Then I would say ‘breasts’ …I don’t know who invented that system but he got a lot more credit than he deserves.   The patient hardly improved at all.  However it did make me feel a lot better …

    I saw one guy who wouldn’t communicate, always retreating into his shell…or nut case as we call them.   Then he started hearing voices, so I gave him an invoice.  He said he couldn’t hear it.  I said you don’t hear invoices, you read them. He did, but didn’t like it much and asked could he watch the video instead.   I said, think of it as an account.  He said, like Dracular?   I said yes, to humour him.  He said fangs very much.  After years of this I asked about my old bill.   He said, what, you have your own private policeman?  I said we call them private dicks.  He said he knew that, the others were called flashers.  I said yes, and they need to see a shrink.  He said, what’s a shrink?  I said that’s where trappist monks do their skating.  He said, ice or roller?  I said ether, and the nurse put some over his nose.  It’s the only way to control some of these crazy people.  Of course we’re not allowed to use that term any more.  We say they’re wi’s or ts’s …or halfwits.  But that’s like splitting hairs…in fact you have to, otherwise they breed like crazy…but we don’t use that word anymore.  We say root like rattlesnakes.  This can be pretty noisy of course, but if they use the rhythm method the result can be rather nice, particularly if you know the lingo, eat a mango, use a bongo and do the tango. 

    But business began to fall off and I got to musing …not as funny as it sounds…and I thought of the old saying, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ so I began to think that anyone I couldn’t see must be crazy…so I took to wearing a blindfold.  And hey presto, everyone was crazy.   Mind you with that blindfold on I ended up tripping over and falling in a heap.   Who’d left it there I couldn’t tell.  

    After all that I was so upset I lay down on my own couch and told myself my troubles.? ‘Oh my God,’ I thought…I’ve got Parkinson’s disease …I’m interviewing myself!’?? But I shouldn’t have worried as I was speaking into my deaf ear…this one ‘ere.? And what you can’t hear can’t hurt you…mind you, Uncle Charlie didn’t hear that train coming…but that’s history…So is Uncle Charlie unfortunately…

    You’re right, this is all a bit crazy.? But we don’t use that word any longer.?? I’ll try and try and try not to say it.?? I’ll keep working on it, even if it drives me cr…umbs, I nearly said it again.