The farmers’ friend – a friend in need

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The paddocks near my place in Porcupine Ridge are busy with visitors. Almost a hundred Straw-necked ibis may be seen there each day, first on one paddock then in the other; busy probing the soil with long bills and stalking through the grass tussocks.

Straw-necked ibis are large heron-like birds with naked heads and a long curved bill. Their neck and bodies are whitish, and their wings look black from afar, but are actually iridescent – with metallic green and gold colouring. As we are nearing breeding season for ibis, their necks are decorated with yellowish,  filamentous feathers – hence the name straw-necked ibis.

Also within the flock of straw-necked ibis are about eight Australian White Ibis, a close relative and similar in appearance, but nearly all white in colour, with black tail and black plumes. The white ibis is also referred to as a ‘bin chicken’ due to its habit of scavenging bins and rubbish dumps, especially in NSW. Wjote ibis may be seen tame and scavenging in parts of Melbourne and at Healesville Sanctuary, but the less bold and adaptable Straw-necked Ibis never engages in such behaviour.

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A beautiful capture of the iridescent feathers, by James Niland. Creative Commons.

The ibis are here to feast on the frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and crustaceans such as land yabbies that are flourishing in our wet paddocks. One of the old name’s of the straw-necked ibis is the ‘famer’s friend’ due to their eating of grasshoppers and beetle larvae – a much nicer name than the bin chicken!

The ibis will stay on as long as there is plenty of food, roosting in nearby tall trees at night. This habit protects them from predators such as foxes, and also shields them from exposure to cold winds and frosts.

Straw-necked ibis are often seen flying high overhead, in a v-shaped or chevron formation, or in even larger flocks wheeling slowly on the warm air currents.  They are great fliers, and often fly hundreds or thousands of kilometres between temperate locations in the south and tropical areas, and between inland sites and the coasts, possibly as regular seasonal movements, and sometimes in response to local environmental conditions. The longest recorded movement of a Straw-necked Ibis was from Muchea in south-western WA to Beaudesert in south-eastern Queensland, a distance of well over 3500 kilometres.

Despite the fact that we see them in paddocks, ibis are regarded as water birds, as they need water in the form of large rivers and lakes to breed communally in large colonies.  In the past, colonies of 5,000, 20,000 and even 150,000 nests were common in wet years. These mass breeding events would ensure there were plenty of young ‘farmer’s friends’ to replace their parent’s generation.

In the past 30 years, there have been very significant declines of all of our waterbirds – spoonbills, egrets, herons, ibis and waterfowl such as ducks.  Scientists from around Australia are studying these groups to try to determine the cause or causes of the declining numbers.  In the case of the ibis, it seems that it is the very high mortality rate of young ibis that is the problem.

The Straw-necked ibis had a relatively good year in 2015-2016 with over 150,000 nests in the Murray Darling basin, and many young fledging. Yet, the flocks such as the one visiting my local paddocks seemed to be exclusively  adult birds.

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Straw-necked ibis feeding in a paddock. By Cyron Ray Macey, Wikimedia Commons.

A team at CSIRO attached radio transmitters to twenty straw-necked ibis in spring 2016, ten adults and ten juveniles. Just three months later, only two adult individuals had survived.  The birds succumbed to a litany of tragedies– predation of juveniles, death of adults by disease (botulism), starvation, and poisoning from pesticide affected insects on paddocks.  Weather extremes such as very hot days followed by cold windy nights resulted in the deaths of two juveniles, and three birds went missing in these conditions. Surprisingly collision with cars is a cause of death for many waterbirds, and one of the juveniles was hit by a car. Some ibis are shot, as they get caught in the firing line of duck shooting season.

Twenty individuals is not a large sample size, but it is clear that it is a harsh world for both adult and young Straw-necked ibis.

How can we help the farmer’s friend? We can support environmental water flows in the lake and river systems of the Murray- Darling, support organic farming, and campaign to end duck shooting in Victoria. I think the story of the aging ibises in our Daylesford paddocks is a bit sad – and a reminder that we are intimately connected to other parts of Australia.

https://research.csiro.au/ewkrwaterbirds/satellite-tracking/juvenile-mortality/

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Gang gang family returns

Gang gang cockatoos are known mainly in this district for their habit of feasting on Hawthorn berries in Autumn.  But one Winter delight I am privileged to witness is the behaviour of a family of gang gangs on my bush block!
Gang gangs are small, stocky cockatoos that are mostly grey, with finely patterned feathers that are tinged with red and green. The males sport a red cap and delightful fringed and floppy crest of bright red feathers.

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A beautiful male Gang Gang By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Gang gangs are not as conspicuous as other cockies, and it is often the sound of their creaking calls, or the gentle dropping of half eaten gum nuts that belies their presence.  They feed primarily on the seeds of eucalypts, wattles and Hawthorn berries, and will also eat insects and their larvae. The gang gang is one of the few birds that can eat sawfly larvae, or spitfires – they may work their way through a whole clump!

Gang gangs are known as altitudinal migrants; they move up and down the forests of the Great dividing range – inhabiting mainly tall wet forests in summer, then moving down to more open dry forests, or even box –ironbark in winter.   They only occur in South Australia, Victoria, NSW, and are the faunal emblem of the ACT.  In NSW they have declined in numbers to such an extent that they are listed as Vulnerable. Their main threats are timber harvesting ( which removes the large old trees required for nesting), wildfire events and planned burns, and climate change impacts.

Very little is known about their breeding habits in the wild.  I was delighted to host not one but two gang gang families in the winter of 2012. One family had a young male, the other a young female. I have not seen them here since!

Then late one afternoon two weeks ago, I heard the familiar rising creaky call and saw a couple of grey shapes flitting through the canopy. An adult male and female, with a young female! Once they perched together, the young bird made the classic constant begging call characteristic of the cockatoo family, although a gang gang baby is not quite so crazy and insistent as a corella baby. My bird book, the Handbook of Australian and New Zealand birds (HANZAB) refers to the young gang gang’s call as a buzzing Morse code! The female fed the young a few times, while the male fed quietly on messmate nuts nearby.

On Sunday 23 July, in the morning and in the afternoon, the three birds could be seen messmate gum cracking and devouring.  This time the young gang gang was fed by the adult male. During feeding, the young stares at the adult with a crouched, somewhat ridiculous posture, and sways back and forth with its bill open and wheezing incessantly.  When the adult regurgitates seeds and other plant matter into its mouth in a pumping motion, the baby makes a series of gurgling notes known as a “food swallowing vocalisation’.

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The carefully chewed remains of gum nuts beneath a large emergent Messmate next to our house. Both the Gang gang family and a couple of cockies were responsible.

 

According to HANZAB, Gang gangs usually breed in Oct-Jan, but may also breed in late August, or early Sept/March with feeding young in late April or August.  In 2012, it was June when I noticed the first family, and feeding of the baby continued until early August.  Gang gangs nest in hollows in tall, living Eucalypts, and the nest is usually very high up – up to 40 metres have been recorded! The female selects the nest hollow, and two or sometimes three eggs are laid. Both sexes incubate the eggs. In captivity, the young are in the nest hollow until 7 or 8 weeks of age, then after they fledge, fed by the parents for 4-6 weeks after.

All up then the care period lasts for approximately three months – which suggests that the baby I am observing now was born two months ago in May. I took detailed notes on the gang gang families in 2012 and I will do so again, and perhaps write up my observations in the Australian Field Ornithology journal. I would love to hear if you have any breeding observations – especially if you have an active nest hollow!

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

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“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!

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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”!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!