Nice to see Needletails

Martinet épineux Hirundapus caudacutus White-throated Needletail

Beautiful painting by an English ornithologist of the early 20th century: Henry E Dresser

As thunder rumbled in gathering clouds, with patches of blue sky and impossibly white cumulus clouds edged with sunshine I thought to myself ‘ooh, I might see some swifts today’, And lo! Within minutes an incredibly athletic looking bird flew low over the property, closely followed by a second bird. White-throated Needletail! These birds are a large species of swift, somewhat like a swallow, superbly aerodynamic with a cigar-shaped body and long curved wings like a scythe.

White-throated Needletails are one of our summer visitors from overseas – in this case, from Siberia and Japan. The swifts visit Australia each summer to spend their winter non-breeding period – then when spring returns in the Northern Hemisphere they fly back.

In warm, humid weather,  the wind movements at storm fronts provide perfect conditions for the swifts to hunt masses of insects that may be caught up in the gathering winds. The way that the swifts forage for insects is interesting. Rather than pursuing individual insects, the birds simply plunge through a patch of swarming insects with their bills wide open – a bit like a baleen whale through krill. Special bristles around their bills help guide the insects in. The swifts then dive and weave and repeat through the same prey-rich area.

Gathering clouds

Don’t bother trying to find the swifts – they had already zoomed by – this pic is to capture the clouds and the time of day – classic swift foraging conditions!

After spotting the two swifts, I gathered my binoculars and went for a walk down the dirt road, hoping to see more swifts – and about half an hour later I saw a flock wheeling and zooming in the skies, high up but still close enough for good views. Much of their foraging is done at great heights where they cannot be seen with naked eye or binoculars. I counted about twelve of the birds – and was thrilled to bits as I have not seen them in recent summers. For a few years a while back I used to have a flock of fifteen or so regularly patrolling the area at this time of year.

Sadly, a 2014 study by Mike Tarbuton revealed that numbers of these lovely birds have plummeted in recent years. There are still flocks of hundreds or even thousands to be seen but overall when the data was ‘crunched’ Mike noted a decline in the order of three quarters of the population. The species conservation status was subsequently upgraded to Vulnerable by the BirdLife Australia Research and Conservation Committee. Unfortunately the government ( state and federal) have yet to act upon this recommendation, and the species is still classified as ‘secure’.

It’s a perilous world for a long distance migrant. Legal and illegal logging in prime breeding habitat in Siberia is removing the old poplars, larch, spruce and oak trees that the swifts nest in at an alarming rate. Like many Australian birds,  the needletails require hollows to nest in. This must be having a devastating impact on their numbers. And then here in Australia,  while the threats are much less, I would think that our strange climate change weather may be affecting the swifts.

In the past it was considered that the White-throated Needletail never landed on tree or cliff while in Australia – and spent months on the wing. While they can remain aloft for weeks and months at a time, sleeping even, radio-tracking and some more recent observations reveal that they do alight in Australia. The swifts have been observed sheltering in rock crevices and hollows in very bad weather, and even clinging to trees during a bushfire. Which seems strange – the swifts use the updrafts and wild winds that come from fires to forage for insects, and one would think that they would simply fly up and away to get away from a fire!

Looking at their body shape and aerodynamic flight, you could easily think they were closely related to swallows. But swifts are in a completely different group and may be more closely related to hummingbirds. The attractive and large eyes of both groups are certainly similar, as is their tiny feet, and incredibly shaped wings.

I was most fortunate to see White-throated Needletails while I was in Japan in 2015. I was there for the summer, on the big northern island of Hokkaido, on the side of a large mountain. I was in an onsen, a Japanese bath which was outside, and filled with hot volcanic spring water. I looked up,  and there were a few needletails flying above, high in the blue sky. It gave me such a thrill to think that I could have seen these very individuals all the way back home in Porcupine Ridge!

To read Mike Tarburton’s article in Australian Field Ornithology 2014, 31, 122–140- download it here  tarburton2014

 

Flying Dinosaurs: a book review

flying-dinosaurs-book

“As you read this, an estimated 400 billion individual feathered dinosaurs, of 10,000 species, can be found on earth, in almost every habitable environment. You need only step outside and look up into the trees and the wide blue skies to find them”

John Pickrell is the editor of Australian Geographic and an accomplished journalist who has followed the last exciting decade or two in paleaontology very closely. Flying Dinosaurs is a culmination of this passion.

Since the first dinosaurs with feathers started coming out of China in the late 90’s, I have been aware of the thrilling notion that there are virtually no differences between today’s birds and the feathered therapod dinosaurs of millions of years ago, but this immensely readable book painted a picture for me like never before. The author describes birds as “simply small, specialised, mostly flight-capable forms of dinosaur”. Small feathered flying dinosaurs ( birds) were around at the same time as the huge predators like Tyrannosaurus rex. And these large dinosaurs were covered in feathers.

Their co-existence was long – for a period of some 85 million years there was a diverse assemblage of dinosaurs and birds. There are some fantastic artworks in the centre of the book illustrating all the new advances in what we know about feathered dinosaurs – and one of these depicts a large feathered carnivorous dinosaur with small feathered dinosaurs perched on his head – much like oxpeckers on a giraffe today.

In a warm and conversational tone, “Flying dinosaurs” covers a wide range of topics such as the evolution of feathers for flight and display, dinosaur sounds ( very unlike any bird!),  dinosaur sex, and more.

For a long period of time, feathered dinosaurs tried out the four-winged method of flying – dinosaurs such as Microraptor, a small raven-sized dinosaur, had winged forearms and winged legs – capable of flapping flight. The wings on the feathers were true wings, with the feathers aerodynamically shaped asymmetrically like modern feathers to provide lift.

The book detailed discoveries of pigments that show that Microraptor was black, an iridescent  blue – black similar to ravens – and this was 130 million years ago!

Microraptor_by_durbed

The four-winged Microraptor gui ( from Wikimedia Commons)

 

For a fantastic video from the American Museum of Natural History, explaining the discovery of black pigments ( and really realistic depictions!) See Microraptor gui .

The book is not all about the science and ecology of feathered dinosaurs – it also describes the burgeoning trade in fossils and fake fossils! Fossils can be faked in a number of ways: sometimes they are created by sticking together many disparate bones from separate individuals, or they may be combined from separate species to create what looks like a new species. Fossils are also manipulated or enhanced and sometimes even painstakingly created from scratch with excellent craftsmanship.

If you have any interest at all in dinosaurs or birds, this book is highly recommended – an easy read through a veritable tsunami of new discoveries; which still continue! In fact the Flying  Dinosaurs blog has a recent discovery which takes the cake for weirdness… Yi qi, meaning “strange wing” was discovered in 2015. Yi qi was a small pigeon-sized dinosaur with long tail feathers for display, a body covering of feathery fluff coupled with special long fingers and forearms covered with membraneous skin like a bat! And they believed it flew! Clearly dinosaur diversity is only just beginning to be grasped.

John Pickrell’s blog is at  http://flyingdinosaurs.net/blog/

A great review of the book can be found on Chris Watson’s fantastic blog The Grip http://www.chriswatson.com.au/blog/flying-dinosaurs

This book review was originally published in Wombat Forestcare’s wonderful newsletter. For a copy of the June 2016 issue:  Wombat Forestcare website

Mating swans at Lake Daylesford

I love how a nature moment can occur at any time – not necessarily when out in the forest with binoculars in hand. We were coming out of the Boathouse Cafe at Lake Daylesford after brunch when I noticed two swans very close together, right near the shoreline. The swans silently performed a beautiful series of synchronised movements – their necks bowing from side to side, arching over their partner’s body.

I commented that they looked frisky, and my friend visiting from London crept forward to take a photo. Frisky indeed they were, as one swan, presumably the female, floated low in the water while the male mounted her as he gripped the base of her neck with his bill. Mating lasted for just a moment. As they parted, they raised their necks and heads to the sky and honked loudly in unison. It was a beautiful moment; this is called the “Triumph display”!

black-swans-1021084_960_720

A pair of swans – from Wikimedia Commons…

 

After separating the swans swam apart and rearranged their feathers a bit, acting very casual. My friend recorded the mating, and the lovely honking calls, and this can be viewed on my blog.

Male swans can be distinguished from females by being slightly larger – males 6-9 kilograms and females 4-7 kilograms. The male swan is called a cob due to the knob on his bill. This comes from the old German term “Knopf” meaning knob. The female is called the pen because of the way she holds her wings back in a penned manner from the old English term “Penne”. Although I think they both hold their wings in a similar manner!

Mating season for swans is anywhere from June to September, so this amorous pair got in early on May 28. The pairs mate for life, although, as in many so-called monogamous birds, extra-pair matings ( or sneaky affairs) are very common. In fact, studies at Albert Park Lake have revealed that 15 per cent of all cygnets are not sired by their social ‘father’, but by another cob in the population.

Black swans are the subject of intense study by researchers past and present at Melbourne University. One such researcher, Ken Kraaijaveld studied the social lives of the swans of Lake Wendouree very closely with the help of Ballarat Field Naturalists club members John Gregurke and Carol Hall.

Black Swans have very curly feathers on their backs, actually their wings, so when they are in the water, the back feathers look very curled. Both males and females have between 7 and 22 of these curly feathers. The curls develop throughout their youth, then remain fixed in number once they are sexually mature.

black-swan-bird-wallpaper-3

some free Black Swan wallpaper – showing the beautiful curled feathers

 

It turns out these curled feathers are actually a determinant of who mates with who, and the dominance of a pair in the flock. The swans with lots of curled feathers pair up togethe, and highly ornamented pairs select the best breeding areas for their cygnets. The cygnets raised by these “power couples” have the best chance of survival.

The study of the Lake Wendouree swans moved to Albert Park Lake when Lake Wendouree dried up in the big drought. You can read about the ongoing research of swans there at the website http://www.myswan.org.au/, and see a beautiful series of images of swans mating.

The pair at Lake Daylesford will probably have a nest ready to go nearby – one that was either built this season, or built upon from previous years. Once laid, the eggs will be incubated for about 40 days. If all goes well, we will be seeing four or five gorgeous fluffy grey cygnets at the lake in early July.

The biggest threats to breeding swans are foxes, which are rife around large lake systems and also very common locally. Another threat is both chasing and attack by off-lead dogs. Whether the dog actually “gets” the swan is not the point, as the chasing interrupts the swans’ feeding regimes, and stresses the birds out, raising their cortisol levels and lowering their resistance to disease.

More traditional predators include Australian Ravens, Native Water Rats and the bird of prey the Swamp Harrier. I have seen Native Water rats at the lake; they are lovely animals, however I do hope they stick to their usual diet of crustaceans and small fish!

An edited version of this was published in Hepburn Advocate 8/06/2015 xx

Jewels of the dry bush

I most often write about the flora and fauna of the wetter, more higher elevations of the Wombat Forest and surrounds. The forests around Daylesford, Porcupine Ridge, Glenlyon have tall messmates and candlebarks, silver wattles and blackwood, and birds such as White-eared Honeyeaters, Crescent Honeyeaters and Gang gang cockatoos. But as you head past Mount Franklin, and yours ears pop a little as you move onto the plains – a whole different world awaits. The flora and fauna of Shepherds Flat, Yandoit, and Clydesdale are remarkably different to the Daylesford area.

The trees are red box, grey box and yellow gum with black wattles, with river red gums along the watercourses. And the bird fauna is incredible: Fuscous Honeyeaters, White-plumed Honeyeaters, Brown Treecreepers and one of my very favourite birds – the Diamond Firetail.

Diamond_Firetail_-_Little_Desert_NP_-_Victoria_S4E4635_(22359529816)

A little stunner, photographed at Little Desert National Park by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons.

A small bird of great beauty, the Diamond Firetail sports a neat black and grey suit with white spots, set off by a dashing crimson rump and a coral-coloured bill and eye ring.

Diamond Firetails feed on seeds of both grasses and native trees such as she-oak. One day at the Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve in Clydesdale, I chanced upon a lone Diamond Firetail foraging with a distinctive series of moves. He trundled along the ground, then leapt up to a grass seed head, grabbed it firmly in his bill, then stood on the grass head to eat the seeds. The process was repeated at the next grass tussock.

Living on seeds alone is thirsty work, and Diamond Firetails need a safe source of water in their bushland or woodland habitat. In dry times, one way to help firetails and other birds is through the provision of a bird bath or two. Bird baths are a wonderful way to enjoy your local birds, but do bear in mind they require daily maintenance to ensure the water is clean, and always topped up.

It is too hot and dry for breeding at the moment, but after the rains return and seeding grasses are available, nesting will occur anytime from August. To attract the female, the male Diamond Firetail selects a long piece of grass with a seed head, and holds it tightly in his bill. He then fluffs his spotted flank feathers and sings as he bobs up and down on the perch.

If the female approves, they will mate in the privacy of the nest. The nest is a domed affair, of grasses, seed heads and roots, and may be found in a mistletoe clump or a thick shrub such as Hedge Wattle. Very often, flowers are weaved into the entrance of the front of the nest. The inside of the nest is lined with very fine grasses and feathers weaved together.

A few years ago, I observed a Diamond Firetail nest built amongst the large sticks of the base of a Wedge-tailed Eagle nest! According to BirdLife Australia, this is a common practice, and the finches use many types of birds of prey nests such as such as a Whistling Kite, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Brown Falcon, Nankeen Kestrel and Square-tailed Kite. One nest of a Whistling Kite contained nine Diamond Firetail nests!

diamond-firetailbathing

Diamond firetail in the bath. They readily use bird baths where they occur – I am jealous. I would love these birds here at Porcupine Ridge! Pic by Geoff Park, at Newstead.

Diamond Firetails forage in small flocks. In a fascinating study, bird ecologists discovered that it was actually the females in a flock that determine where a flock forages, and many females forage first for the choicest seeds. This dominant position of some females over the males and other females was indicated by the size and number of white spots along her flanks. A female with many and large spots was likely to always win over a contest over choice food items. It is very unusual in the bird world to have feather patterns playing such a big role in female – male food competition.

 

The spots are also distinctive enough that if you have Diamond firetails visiting your bird bath or garden, and you take photos of them, you can recognise individuals by their spot patterns.

The Diamond Firetail is less common than it once was, largely due to the removal or degradation of suitable habitat. Happily small populations are still being reported in areas such as Clydesdale, Muckleford and Fryerstown. If you have Diamond Firetails visiting your garden, or you see some out in the bush, I would love to hear from you!

Crowhurst, C. J., Zanollo, V., Griggio, M., Robertson, J. and Kleindorfer, S. (2012), White Flank Spots Signal Feeding Dominance in Female Diamond Firetails, Stagonopleura guttata. Ethology, 118: 63–75. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2011.01986.x

Diamond firetail pics by Francesco Veronesi  and Geoff Park at Natural Newstead

A Koel comes calling…

Sometimes it is very obvious when the bird you can hear calling is new to the area. In the last couple of weeks a number of Daylesford residents were treated to an extremely loud ‘tee-looo tee-loo’ call – somewhat like a repetitive peacock call.

Fiona McIntyre recorded video footage of the bird calling from a densely leaved European tree, and posted it on the Daylesford grapevine Facebook page. Thus I was thrilled to see and hear evidence of probably the first ever Eastern Koel in Daylesford!

The Eastern Koel is a type of large cuckoo with the males a glossy blue black, pale bill and red eye, and the females a lovely mix of brown and faun. Like other cuckoo species, koels lay their eggs in the nests of other species, known as host birds. Koels primarily use Figbirds, Noisy Friarbirds and Magpie-larks. The hatched cuckoo chick unceremoniously ejects the original bird’s eggs, and then the host species parent feeds this large and very demanding cuckoo chick until it fledges.

Each summer, Koels fly to Australia from New Guinea, Indonesia and possibly the Philippines. They breed in Northern and eastern Austrlia, and then return north around March.

Koel in foliage

Koels are notoriously difficult to see. let alone photograph.  This is a male Koel,  by Tatters (Flickr)

 

Eastern Koels are changing their range dramatically. In my favourite field guide, the Pizzey and knight 1997 edition, the distribution map shows the range of this species stopping as far north as Sydney. Over the past decades, each year they have been seen further south – in Mallacoota, Bairnsdale and occasionally in Melbourne.  And then regularly in Bendigo and Melbourne.

This November has seen a veritable influx, with Koels calling in Greensborough, Camberwell, Frankston, Bendigo, and Daylesford. Why is this range change occurring?

Could it be due to an increase in the availability of their favourite food? They are fruit eaters – figs mainly but also mulberries. It is telling that the birds have been seen mainly in towns with well-watered gardens, perhaps the fruit is more readily available, and of a higher quality?

I was fortunate to be able the pose the question of the Koel’s move southwards to experts at the recent BirdLIfe Ornithological Conference in Adelaide. Sure, the conversation was after a few too many wines after the conference dinner, on the bus back to our motels! But the good work of the bird enthusiast never dims and I was able to get a very good answer.

Our parks and gardens are seeing less and less small birds, and an increase in larger dominant nectar feeding birds such as Red Wattlebirds. Red Wattlebirds are large brown streaked honeyeaters so named for the little red flaps of skin on either side of their faces – their wattles. Red Wattlebirds are doing very well on all the large- flowering banksia and grevillea hybrid species that are planted in towns and gardens.

Virginia Abernathy at Australian National University has been studying Koels and has found that they have recently switched hosts from their usual figbirds and friarbirds to Red Wattlebirds which are abundant in cooler places such as Canberra and Victoria. And indeed Daylesford!

Koels are commonly known as storm birds as their calls come before big rains. The Bureau predicts much higher than average rainfall in western Victoria for January and February – I am happy to take the Koel’s visit as a very good omen!

Nature Diary: Grey Shrike-thrush

Each month I will reproduce my Nature Diary Articles from the Hepburn Advocate – Here is this month’s! : ) ( November 2015)

This spring, most mornings my first waking moments have been filled with the sound of the most exquisite birdsong; a strong, mellow, melodious call. No, it’s not a magpie, in this case the songsters are a pair of grey shrike-thrushes. These birds are often called grey thrushes, and are renowned for the beauty and complexity of their songs. In fact, one of their old names is harmonious thrush.

In winter this spectacular song is reduced to a simple and oft-repeated “dite”!

A male Grey Shrike-thrush, pic  from the CSIRO website.

A male Grey Shrike-thrush, pic from the CSIRO website.

Grey shrike-thrushes are mainly grey, with a reddish colour on the back or mantle. They were absent from my garden for a couple of years. I have worried that maybe it’s due to the presence of my small dogs, but I sit here writing this with two dogs by my side on the outside couch, while Mr shrike-thrush calls loudly from the hawthorn. Grey shrike-thrushes are neither shrikes or thrushes – they were named by the first Europeans as something similar to both of these species. They are unique to Australia, and are in the same family as whistlers and shrike-tits.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to witness a courtship duet. At about 7 am, the male and female were perched high in the silver banksia, a couple of branches away from one another. The female appeared very casual, almost disinterested, looking into the distance as the male poured out his love and commitment and reproductive fervour in beautiful song. But then, at last, she joined in and they sang together in perfect unison. Both birds also snapped their bills in a cracking sound that added drama to the duet. The song is very important to maintain the pair bond between the birds who mate for life.It also lets other shrike-thrushes know that this is an occupied territory.

If you have a nest in your garden, count yourself lucky as territories may be up to ten hectares in size. Your place is obviously prime real estate!

These lovely birds do not seem to mind the presence of friendly humans and will nest on verandahs, in flowerpots, in old coats, car ports and sheds.  My pair are nesting in an old rhododendron. If they nest in an inappropriate spot, it is easy to encourage them to nest nearby by erecting a little nest platform out of wire and wood.

The male, female and young look pretty similar, but if you have them in your garden they are likely to be quite tame and allow a close enough look to distinguish them. The males have a dark black bill, while the female’s bill has pale grey. The young have a reddish or rufous eyebrow.

The shrike-thrush pair may re-nest after the first young fledge, and then repeat – sometimes three times if conditions are ideal.

They look like soft sweeties but they are actually quite successful  hunters – living on beetles, spiders, frogs, birds’ eggs, tiny nestlings and small mammals such as baby house mice. Grey shrike-thrushes prefer to forage for food in shrubs, along the ground, and near fallen logs, so they are very vulnerable to attack by both pet cats and feral cats.

Nature Diary: The Dusky Moorhen

Monash Uni Clayton Sept 2012 / Sekor C 210mm f4 D90

Monash Uni Clayton Sept 2012

Each month I will reproduce my Nature Diary Articles from the Hepburn Advocate – Here is last month’s! : )

The wonderful thing about researching an article about very common and everyday animals is that sometimes your mind is just blown away by an insight into the fascinating lives of a bird or mammal you have been looking at your whole life. For example,  the Dusky Moorhen, or as I now call it – the “Frisky Moorhen”!

The Dusky Moorhen is a species you will probably encounter at just about any human-created water body that has native vegetation and a few trees.  Dusky Moorhens are a type of rail or crake – not a duck, and their genus name Gallinula means ‘little hen’ in Latin. Two other water hen species are similar to the Dusky Moorhen but can be easily distinguished. The similarly-sized Eurasian CootFulica atra, has a white bill and face shield and a red eye. The Purple SwamphenPorphyrio porphyrio, is much larger and has a distinct purple-blue colouring.

Dusky Moorhens have large feet with enormous toes, a dark-coloured body and a red bill with yellow tip,  and reddish orange headpiece called a frontal shield. The Moorhens walk slowly and deliberately – high-stepping and placing their feet carefully as they forage for grasses by the shore. When they swim they jerk their head forwards like a pigeon. Their calls are very accurately described as “loud, sharp gutteral crowing or harsher repeated shrieks”. Ear-splitting!

Now I have seen these birds for years raising their cute chicks, little fluffy “ mini-me’s” with huge feet. I did not realise that the Dusky Moorhen actually lives an alternative lifestyle that forgoes monogamy utterly – kind of like a radical hippy commune from the early seventies. They form breeding groups of seven or eight birds, and all the males will mate with all females. All the adults in the group build nests, defend territory and feed the young. The bonds between parents and young are maintained equally by all birds in the group until the young are independent.

Cooperative breeding is common in Australian birds, such as fairy-wrens, choughs and kookaburras, and in these cases it is mostly the males from previous years who stick around to help raise the next brood of young. With “Frisky Moorhens”,  this is a group of completely unrelated adults coming together to raise their young as a collective.

Members of a breeding group take defence of the breeding territory very seriously indeed. At the boundary of the territory the home bird will display to the intruder bird, usually this is enough for a mutual back down. If the intruder will not give, the home bird attacks it with its beak, usually on the neck and hold it submerged underwater! The intruder usually gets the signal and leaves by this point. If the intruder is determined and will not yield, or the home bird cannot get a grip on its neck, then both birds raise up and kick each other’s breast with both feet.

So this spring when you see a group of Dusky Moorhens at your local lake, watch a while – there is definitely more going here than initially meets the eye!