<![CDATA[Birds, flowers, insects - FIBS Blog]]>Mon, 19 Aug 2019 01:03:02 +1000Weebly<![CDATA[Wise Willies]]>Sun, 18 Aug 2019 12:01:52 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/wise-williesThe main street of Noosa Heads, Hastings Street, is lined with restaurants, chic boutiques and a surf club.  Few people walking along would have noticed a head-high branch in a little tree where two Willie Wagtails were putting the finishing touches to their nest.

One flew in with some strands of fibrous material.

It bent forward into the nest and pressed down the fibres.

I couldn’t quite see what happened next, but it seemed to involve a lot of scrabbling with beak and feet, with its tail high in the air.

Then it turned around and went on scrabbling whilst facing me:

Finally, it sat up to survey the result, and seemed satisfied. Its partner flew in, seemingly without any nesting material, and the first bird moved away to make room.

A passerby saw what I was photographing, and commented that it seemed an unwise place to build a nest. It was right over a public bench at the side of the street, so close that I had to sit at the far end of the bench in order to squeeze the bird into the photo frame. So, yes, at the time I agreed that it seemed an odd choice.

Later, I wasn’t so sure. Willie Wagtails are often seen near human settlement, and are popular with people because of their entertaining behaviour. The passing parade of humanity in Noosa would scare away many of the hazards faced by birds protecting their eggs and chicks – such as snakes and goannas and cuckoos.  Other birds could still pose a threat – those who frequently hang around people, such as kookaburras, magpies and crows.  Overall, though, the site was probably a clever choice. The nest itself was a neat cup made of leaves and fibres and lined with cobwebs.

The Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is not related to the bird family called wagtails, as their name suggests, but are large fantails found all over Australia. They have much the same tail-wagging and wing-fanning behaviour as their smaller fantail cousinsbut are typically found in more open country, foraging for insects. The next photo (of a different bird) shows one in a typical wagtail pose.

​In favourable conditions, wagtails can raise up to four broods of 2 or 3 young each year, so their Australia-wide distribution and “least threatened” extinction status are not surprising. They aren’t always successful though.  A couple of days after I took the earlier photos, I went into Noosa at night to take another photo of the nest.  It seemed to be abandoned. Perhaps the choice of site hadn’t been so sensible after all?

But when I drove through Noosa on my last day and stopped for pedestrians in Hastings Street, I was happy to see the dark shape of a wagtail sitting on the nest once more.

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<![CDATA[An Eastern Rosella]]>Sun, 04 Aug 2019 12:51:50 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/an-eastern-rosellaThis morning I walked to Badangi Reserve. As I walked along one of the paths, an Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius) flew off before stopping to check me out from a safe distance:

I looked away for a while, and it came much closer. 

A little closer still, and it – or rather he, I was pretty sure it was a male – was out in the open, though still watchful and keeping foliage between us:

After a while he decided that I was safe enough to ignore, and resumed his breakfast.

At this point, a woman came along the path in the opposite direction.  She saw me with my camera raised, then the rosella, and considerately slowed down so as not to spook him. By this time, the bird was well into his meal, and kept on grazing. 

We both watched him for a few minutes, before the woman crept past me to continue her walk. The rosella ignored her. He was more concerned about keeping his balance on the skinny twigs he was clambering on:

Several times he had to use his wings to steady himself.

He grazed on for a while:  

Then he decided he had had enough, and flew off. This was the last I saw of him, before I turned and headed off for my own breakfast:  

Around the time of the millennium drought, we used to see Eastern Rosellas in our immediate area, then they seemed to disappear (though still visible elsewhere). However I am starting to see a few of them again which makes me wonder if the present drought is encouraging them to move to areas like North Sydney.  They are usually found in pairs or small groups, but this one seemed to be solitary. They range over the south-east of Australia, typically in lightly treed country, and feed on seeds, fruits and berries.

The name “rosella” derives from “Rosehiller”, the name early colonists gave to flocks of these birds around Rosehill west of Sydney town.

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<![CDATA[Some Red Rumps]]>Sun, 28 Jul 2019 10:50:21 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/some-red-rumps
A couple of concealed birds were calling from a thickly-leaved tree. I was walking slowly towards them, when I suddenly realised that my stalking was about to disturb some quieter birds on the ground below. They were a small group of Red-rumped Parrots (Psephotus haematonotus), feeding on the fallen fruit under the tree.

I’ve never been able to get very close to red-rumps before, so I ignored the noisy birds in the tree and edged closer to the parrots. There were half a dozen of them, loosely separated into male/female pairs, but these two males were briefly aligned:

A third male gave me a clear view of why they are called red-rumped, although only the males have this red patch.

The females look sombre next to the gaudy males, but seen in isolation, they are quietly pretty little birds clad in a range of grey and green shades, with blue edging on wings and tail.

I also liked the gentle reticulated patterning of the feathers on their heads.

The males also have this some of this reticulated effect, which seems to be caused by each feather’s barbs and barbules standing out against a darker background.

I took more photos as the parrots continued to feed quietly, occasionally chattering or warbling to one another. There was one minor squawking episode from this female, but it quickly quietened down.

​However her little outburst reminded me to have another check on the noisy birds still concealed in the tree above. One of them showed itself briefly before they flew off – it turned out to be an Australasian Figbird (Specotheres vieilloti).

With the figbirds gone, I went off to get my lunch, leaving the parrots to linger quietly over theirs.
Red-rumped Parrots are medium-small parrots, weighing around 70 grams (compared with say an Eastern Rosella at 90-125 grams). They are common in SE Australia, at least outside the city centres. They prefer open habitats with grass - they feed on the ground – but with some woodland for shelter and breeding as they nest in tree hollows and other similar spots. Their diet consists of grass seeds and the green tips of some plants.

Australasian Figbirds are larger (100-150 grams) birds in the oriole family. They are found mostly along the eastern edge of Australia, where like the red-rumps they are common. They are gradually extending their range southwards, reaching Sydney 70 years ago, and are now found in eastern Victoria. As their name implies, they feed mostly on fruit, especially figs.
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<![CDATA[Manta Rays]]>Mon, 22 Jul 2019 05:55:12 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/manta-raysIn one of my Tonga posts last year I included a photo of a Manta Ray. In the light of recent publicity about a manta dubbed “Freckles” on Ningaloo reef, I thought it might be a good time to show some more. One disclaimer; I didn’t take any of these manta photos. Vili Takau took them for me using my camera, for reasons I’ll explain later.

​Vili’s first photo sets the scene.

You can see that the ray is in shallow water clouded with sediments. The cloudiness is caused by an incoming tide covering previously exposed sections of reef; the shallow water creates strong currents that stir up the organic matter clouding the water. This in turn attracts small fish, turning the sea into a diluted soup for creatures like mantas that are equipped for filter-feeding.

The mantas know this, and exploit it very effectively by swimming over the reef and against the current. This means that they are moving much faster through the water than they are over the ground – similar to an aircraft in a head wind – and so pushing a high volume of water through their food-filtering mechanism without travelling very far. To help this along, they curl their cephalic lobes (the “horns” at the front) to funnel water towards their mouth. When they reach the end of the reef, they turn around and swim back to where they started, and begin another feeding run parallel to the previous one.

The black manta above is starting one of these feeding runs. The current has stirred up a lot of sediment, giving a haze I’ve only partially removed. I’ve cropped the next image to give a clearer view of the mouth open between the curled “horns”.

As the manta draws abreast of Vili, it looks as though the pilot fish is “slipstreaming” rather than hanging on. The side view also gives a better view of the gill slits, which are open to allow the easy flow-through of water from the mouth.

As the manta goes past, the perspective shifts to its rear quarter:

In all these shots you can see the sinuous beauty of the manta’s “wings” on their up and down strokes. The bubbles show how much power the manta needs to even progress slowly in the current.

As the manta goes past, the two pilot fish come into view more clearly.

Until this final view:

Another manta has white undersides and markings, not unlike Freckles the Ningaloo manta.

As it goes past Vili, it descends, giving a clear view of its small dorsal fin.

The reason I didn’t take these photos is that burdened with a camera, I was too slow a swimmer for those currents. Only one person on board was able to cope comfortably - Vili, the local whale guide, who with his metre-long fins could seemingly swim as far and as fast as a Long Lance torpedo (that’s him in the photo below, pointing out a whale in deep water). He offered to take my camera in if I set it up for him, an offer for which I am truly grateful.

The mantas we saw were almost certainly Reef Manta Rays (Mobula alfredi). They can have a span of 5 metres or more, though these ones were more like 3 metres. Their very similar cousins, the Oceanic Manta Rays (Mobula birostris), grow larger - up to 7 metres. Mantas are part of the Elasmobranch subclass of fish, which includes sharks, rays and skates. They differ from the Teleosts or bony fishes in having cartilaginous skeletons and up to 7 pairs of uncovered gill slits.  Mantas have 5 pairs of gill slits, each supported by a cartilaginous gill arch. These gill arches also hold pallets of spongy tissue – rakers - that trap the food particles as the water flows through them, giving them their filter-feeding abilities. Unfortunately, this also makes mantas vulnerable to floating bits of plastic.

Like some other elasmobranchs, mantas are ovoviviparous. The females hold their fertilised eggs in their oviducts while the pups hatch. The pup then remains in the oviduct for a while, feeding on a milky secretion produced by the mother. When it eventually emerges, a year or so after conception, it weighs around 9 kilos and has a span of 1.4m.

For me, the real eye-opener was how intelligent mantas are. Having long ago dissected dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula) and seen how their cerebrum is dwarfed by their olfactory scent lobes, I assumed that all elasmobranchs must be equally dim-witted because they were so distant from us. A dangerous assumption, given the intelligence of some birds (whose ancestral line split from ours over 300 million years ago), and octopods (over 500 million years ago - they don’t even have a backbone). Unlike their distant dogfish cousins, manta rays have large brains, proportionately and absolutely, with well-developed areas normally associated with learning and problem-solving. Recent experiments with mirrors suggest that they possess self-awareness, in the way that chimps and dolphins do.

Like many other large fish, mantas use cleaning stations. These are spots, usually on a reef, staffed by specialist cleaner shrimp and species of wrasse and goby. The larger fish approaches, holding open its mouth to reveal it needs cleaning. It then stops, allowing the cleaners to safely remove and eat any parasites. The cleaners even swim inside the manta’s mouth and gills to do the job, to the mutual benefit of both parties.

That led me to think about Freckles, the Ningaloo manta.  Given manta intelligence and familiarity with cleaning stations, it’s perhaps not surprising that Freckles approached her human acquaintance to remove what was effectively just another parasite embedded in her skin. It puts us humans in our place – we’re just large cleaning shrimps!

My whale-swimming trip is described here, a favourite whale encounter here, and some Tongan land animals (mostly birds) here.
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<![CDATA[A Pardalote Switch]]>Sun, 14 Jul 2019 12:36:25 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/a-couple-of-pardalotesSpotted Pardalotes (Pardalotus punctatus) or Diamond Birds are about the size of the Eurasian Wren I described earlier, but whereas the wren is plain brown, pert-tailed and sharp beaked, the pardalote has showy patterning, an almost invisible tail and a rounded beak. The wren sings well too, while the pardalote gives a frequent monotonous 2 or 3 note call (they are also called Headache Birds!) The wren builds a neat little tree-nest whilst the pardalote digs a burrow. 
Or maybe that last isn’t absolutely true. After seeing what looked like a mobile jewel case fly down to a hollowed and burnt tree, I went nearer to investigate:

By the time I got close, the female pardalote (for that’s what it was) had moved out and the male was poking around inside the split and fire-blackened trunk.

The female moved back to supervise:

They changed places a couple of times as they explored inside.

I wasn’t sure if they were seriously considering adapting the tree-hollow for nest, or had just found an unusual food source. The site was different from the usual Pardalote tunnel, which looks more like this:

After a while the birds flew off, and I walked on. When I returned a couple of hours later, I found that they were back inside the tree. That made me think that they were indeed establishing a nest site.  For one thing, there is a low branch nearby, like other nest tunnels I have seen. When returning to the nest the birds usually pause on this branch, presumably to check for nearby predators, before flying down to the burrow. Here the female pauses, showing the yellow spots on her head; the yellow bib of the male is visible to the left in the tree hollow:

Shortly afterwards it was the male’s turn to sit outside, showing his white head-spots and “eyebrows”, and his yellow bib:

​All of this was done in a dutiful but rather dour fashion. (Pardalotes don’t exhibit much playfulness or humour.)  The pair then flew up into a leafy eucalypt canopy, and shortly afterwards, a pardalote flew out and into the tree above me. I pointed the camera at it:

​But then I noticed its yellow “eyebrows” and realised it was a Striated Pardalote (Pardalotus striatus) - an entirely different bird. The pardalotes had pulled a switch on me! This was the last view I had of it:

Perhaps pardalotes do have a sense of humour after all.

The Pardalote genus is endemic to Australia. Taxonomists have found it difficult to distinguish boundaries between the various species and subspecies. The current view is that there are just four species, of which the Spotted and Striated are by far the commonest. The Forty-spotted Pardalote, found only in Tasmania, is listed as endangered. They all feed on lerp and other insects, generally gleaned by foraging in woodland canopies. This locale means they are often attacked by aggressive honeyeaters, and it has been suggested that their short tails evolved to give a pursuing honeyeater less to grab on to.
When I was watching the pair inspecting the tree trunk, a twitcher came by and commented that they were delightful little birds. I had to agree.
I have written before about pardalotes, for example here: pardalote-posing.html 

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<![CDATA[A┬áBlack-shouldered Kite]]>Sun, 07 Jul 2019 11:39:10 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/a-black-shouldered-kiteI had originally put these photos aside, thinking they weren’t quite close or sharp enough. However I changed my mind this week, when I received an email from BirdLife Australia nominating the Black-shouldered Kite as their bird of the month. 
My photos were taken last month when I went with a couple of friends to Cape Solander.  Walking south from the lookout, I saw a white bird in the distance inland that didn’t look like a gull. I took a few photos in the hope that there might be enough detail to identify the bird later.

I was in luck because it gradually flew closer, giving me a reasonable image as it surveyed the heath below.

As we walked back, it retreated a little and then returned and slowed again to watch something below.

It began to hover with impressive control:

It then stooped vertically, too suddenly for me to follow with the camera, and disappeared into the scrub below. Shortly after, it rose again, carrying something long-tailed in its claws.

It zig-zagged back briefly, allowing us to see that it had caught a small rodent. We could also see the sun catching one red eye.

Soon it headed off towards the lowering sun. This was my last image:

​Back home, I was able to identify the bird as a Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus axillaris) – something I’ve not photographed before.  Although all my photos have been considerably cropped, you can see the Kite’s distinctive black wing patch on the top of each wing, and the smaller patch on the underside, as well as the piratical black eye-patch. It’s one of the two Australian birds of prey that regularly hover – the other is the Nankeen Kestrel.  They have different diving techniques, however: the Kestrel folds its wings whereas the Kite holds its wings up in a steep V with its talons outstretched. My last image, taken a second or two before it stooped, shows – though I didn’t realise it at the time – the kite positioning its claws and wings for the drop.

Black-shouldered Kites are fairly small raptors – about the same size as a city pigeon. They are quite common over much of Australia, usually in more open and less arid country such as grasslands and heaths, including agricultural land. They prey on rodents, insects and small reptiles.

They are not “firehawks” like the Black Kites who’ve learnt to flush out prey by spreading grass fires. (Firehawk species do this by picking up a burning twig and dropping it away from the existing fire front.)
  • Background notes from the excellent Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst et al.
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<![CDATA[Here be Dragons]]>Sun, 30 Jun 2019 11:51:35 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/here-be-dragonsI haven’t yet planted out this year’s strawberry runners—I still have to prepare the bed!—but strawberry flowers can be dangerous places for small creatures. My recent post about Lacewings included a photo of a larva laden with trophies of past victims searching a strawberry flower for its next meal.

I saw this little bee fly checking out another strawberry flower for lurking predators.
“Plenty of pollen, looks safe… I’ll go closer”
“Yes, all clear – let’s go down”

“Touching down…”
“Stop wings, start feeding..”

“Whoa back! Something’s wrong…”

“.. I can feel it in my antennae. Higher, higher….”

“… full speed ahead..”

“Let’s get out of here!”


The Black Bee Fly is a member of the Bombylidae family, and probably of the anthracini or anthrax tribe. Beyond that I don’t know much about it, but it’s not uncommon around Sydney. It’s a relative of the Bee Fly described in my Cowes post, but lacks the same long proboscis. Like most bee flies the adult feeds on pollen and nectar.

Its would-be predator was a Garden Skink (Lampropholis delicata). As the name implies, these skinks are common in gardens, including mine.

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<![CDATA[Owls itch too!]]>Sun, 23 Jun 2019 11:56:30 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/owls-itch-too​I recently saw another Powerful Owl, this time in Centennial Park, and the contrast with the one I saw last year was interesting.  While the first owl was in peaceful woodland and quite relaxed, this one was in a park with a lot going on, and was perceptibly more alert and watchful.  First, it kept looking towards the café where people were having coffee:

Then behind it, three people began throwing a ball for three dogs to chase and yap over.

It watched the ball and pursuing pack as they passed underneath.

As they moved off, it relaxed a little.

Then came my favourite moment. Its chin began to itch, and it raised one powerful claw to scratch it.

The goofy intent look reminded me of a chin-scratching cat:

After a while I edged round to try a different angle through the branches. The owl noticed and gave me a suspicious glare:

I kept still for a little, and then edged around to the other side. By then the owl seem to have accepted that I was harmless.

And that’s where I left it.

Park staff told me that last year a breeding pair had successfully raised an owlet in the Park. Then tragically both male and juvenile were killed by cars in separate incidents, when they landed on a roadway to catch or retrieve prey. Since then, a new young male had arrived on the scene, and everyone was hoping that he and the surviving female would form another breeding pair. However the male was young and not entirely at ease in the Park with its high levels of human, dog and vehicle traffic, so this year may be too soon (the egg-laying season is almost over.)  If they do lay eggs, the area will probably be roped off as edgy male owls will swoop anything they perceive as a threat near the nest, and a powerful owl is not a bird to be swooped by!

One other thing to note with this bird is that it had a visible neck in some shots, which I didn’t see in that earlier owl. Australian owls fall broadly into two groups – the Tytonid owls which have a distinct “face”, like barn owls, and the Strigidae or hawk owls. Powerful owls are members of the hawk owl group (so are boobook owls), and this particular owl really looked hawklike in this shot:
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<![CDATA[Cockies]]>Sun, 16 Jun 2019 02:29:05 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/cockies
I have mixed feelings about Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua gelerita). I rarely photograph them because they’re so common, not only in the wild, but also as pets and in zoos.  Around Sydney they’re as ubiquitous as rats, noisy as buzz-saws, and destructive as borers. However, they are also intelligent, lively and entertaining, and can be attractive in their quieter moments. Such was the pair I saw recently in Lane Cove River National Park.
I had been for a walk along the riverside path, and hadn’t seen very much, and it was difficult to pick out bird calls over the sound of aircraft on the airport glide path.  But on the way back to the car, I saw a pair of cockies in a dead tree by the path. The winter sunlight was behind me, so I stopped to watch. This first cockatoo stayed near the top of the tree, and after checking me out, resumed enlarging the hole in the trunk. A steady stream of wood chippings fell by the path.

The other cockie, however, was clearly on its lunch break. First, it flew down to a lower tree near me.

Then it sidled down to a privet branch and plucked a small sprig bearing a couple of leaves and several berries.

It then moved back up a little, transferred the sprig to its left claws (cockatoos are generally left-footed) and began feasting, delicately picking a berry at a time.

After the cockatoo had finished the fruit, it repeated the process several more times with fresh sprays of berries. As it ate, I gradually edged closer. This didn’t seem to worry the bird, and I ended up getting very close indeed.

Shortly afterwards a couple of walkers came along and the cockatoo decided to move back up the tree. By then I had plenty of photos, so I too left.

Back home, my wife reminded me of Cockie, the companion of our then 90-year old neighbour Mollie for 45 years. Cockie and Mollie are warmly remembered, though both have been dead for many years now. These photos were taken in the late 1990s:
The little girl in these two photos has long since grown up, and also features in last year’s FIBS entries about Vava'u and swimming with whales.

Despite its name, the sulphur-crested cockatoo is more closely related to the corellas than to the other Australian (so-called) cockatoos, though they are all part of the wider cockatoo family (Cacatuidae). They are noisily conspicuous over much of northern and eastern Australia, and feed on a variety of seeds, fruits, bulbs, insects and flowers. They nest in tree hollows, using their powerful beaks to enlarge the hollows.
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<![CDATA[Lacewings: Larval Headhunters]]>Sun, 09 Jun 2019 07:40:22 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/lacewings​My last post began with the friarbird catching something that looked like an adult lacewing.  This reminded me that I had some earlier photos of lacewings (Chrysopidae), such as this one of a typical adult green lacewing.

The lacewing story starts, of course, with their distinctive eggs. You may have seen them around your garden – a cluster of what looks like tiny white barrage balloons, all tethered by stalks to a base.

​The eggs are really tiny, as can be seen by comparing these hatched eggs to the matchstick.

Laying each egg on a separate long stalk could be one way of saving the later-hatching eggs from cannibalism.  However, it doesn’t always work—as can be seen from the following photos. When they hatch, the emerging larvae rest to let their cuticle harden. They are ferocious-looking, with huge mandibles. Inside the curve of the mandibles are the more slender maxillae, which are hollow and function like hypodermic syringes.

When feeding, the larva holds its prey with its mandibles, whilst using the maxillae to inject digestive juices capable of dissolving the internal organs of an aphid within 90 seconds (according to the Wikipedia entry). The resulting mush is then sucked back. In the photo below, the two hatchlings have almost completely drained their sibling’s egg.

After dispatching any brethren, the next step for a lacewing larva is to shin down the egg stalk, or drop directly to the ground. They then set about hunting their next meal, which can be anything small enough to tackle with those oversized mandibles. They have poor eyesight (their compound eyes have only about 5-6 ommatidia, just visible in the close-up photos as white dots) and seem to rely largely on their antennae to detect prey.

​The most unusual thing about lacewing larvae, though, is what they do with their prey’s exoskeleton after the soft parts have been dissolved and sucked dry. They stick the remaining bits onto their backs, before setting off to look for their next meal. The practice is reminiscent of human head-hunters, with the heads of their victims strung on a strap or, less threateningly, of the Saucepan Man in Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree. Here’s one example, hunting on a strawberry flower:

It’s thought that this bizarre practice provides camouflage, both visually and with scent, and perhaps some physical protection for what is quite a soft-bodied insect. This is the rear view of another larva:

Their voracious appetites (larvae have been recorded eating 100 aphids in one week) make the larvae good pest controllers, and lacewing eggs have been made available commercially for just that purpose. A recent ABC Landline program about the “Bananas with a red tip” described how their growers had eschewed artificial fertilisers and pesticides, allowing insects such as hoverflies  and lacewings to flourish and successfully take over pest control. 

Their growth completed, the lacewing larvae pupate in a cocoon before becoming adults. Lacewing imagoes are usually nocturnal, and less predatory than their larvae, preferring pollen and nectar.

The Chrysopid lacewings are part of the Neuroptera order which also includes antlions and mantidflies. Typically the adults have large compound eyes, powerful mandibles, and four wings which are patterned with veins. This one is from a different lacewing species:

If you want to know more about lacewing larvae, Paul Whitington’s site is an excellent one: https://southernforestlife.net/happenings/2018/1/23/hatching-of-a-lacewing-nymph
The ABC Landline program on red-tipped bananas is at https://www.abc.net.au/landline/red-tips:-the-story-behind-the-bananas-with-the/11126862