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

The Galaxias of Nolans Creek

I am writing this article under the pergola at Nolans Creek Picnic Ground, south of Bullarto, enjoying a much needed day of rain in the Wombat State Forest. The ferns look so happy, the lichens and mosses are revived. Small birds such as White-browed Scrubwrens forage among dripping shrubs, and a Victorian Smooth froglet calls from the dry creekbed. Their call is a very recognisable crr-r-rarck crarck pip pip pip-pip-pip pip, and I only hear it in these wetter higher parts of the Wombat.

Yes, Nolans Creek is bone dry.  Part of the reason for the morning expedition is to see whether I can spot any of the native fish that live in this creek, a smooth, cigar-shaped little beauty called a galaxias. But not even the deep pools have water.

I remember coming here in summer in past years and seeing galaxia in the deep pools, along with the large tadpoles of Pobblebonks. These big taddies require pretty permanent water, as their slow growing young take over a year to mature into frogs.

If you type native fish and Wombat Forest into your search engine, most of what comes up is information on trout fishing opportunities. Trout and their relatives are introduced fish that have a devastating impact on native fish. Trout eat the eggs and young of fish such as Galaxias. The trout and native fish also compete for the same food sources. The introduced Redfin which is also very common locally also eats the eggs and young of native fish.

According to the 1999 Lerderderg Park Management plan, there are Mountain Galaxias in the Lerderderg River. This particular species of galaxias is listed as Critically Endangered on the UCN Red List. That’s big – this little fish should be well known as we try to save its last little populations!

But fish are not as well known or considered as much as other groups of animals. For example, this is my first nature diary article on fish since my contributions began in 2009! The Wombat Forestcare website, the go-to place for local biodiversity knowledge has species lists for birds, mammals, frogs, reptiles, invertebrates, a fungi field guide – but no information on fish.

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Adorable! Pic by  Julian Finn (!)  / Museum Victoria. License: CC BY Attribution 

While getting a coffee at Cliffys on the way out here, I was lucky to see a long term local who had some interesting fish knowledge to share. Steve began by emphasising that the creeks and rivers around here just aren’t the same as 20-30 years ago.

There were platypus in Jim Crow ( Jum cra) Creek, and Blackfish all through the upper Loddon. The platypus and blackfish ( a larger native fish also badly effected by trout) could persist because the dry summers still always had deep pools – drought refuges that are now dry. And one day, at the Glenyon General store many many years ago, a chap came to the store with a huge Murray Cod he had just caught, and everyone was like “where did you land that?!” And he said “oh under the bridge just here in Glenlyon”.

It is difficult for me to know what kind of Mountain Galaxias have lived in Nolans Creek. Recent work on this species by Dr Tarmo Raadik has shown that this group is actually a diverse “species complex” with maybe 15 species! I imagine they have fairly similar lifestyles, being so closely related.

The fish live in small groups, foraging and resting near boulders and rocky outcrops. They prefer crystal clear waters that are running gently over a sandy or rocky substrate.

The galaxias are usually 7 or 8 cm long, but can grow up to 14 cm. They are reproductively mature at about the end of their first year, and spawn in spring and summer – or sometimes autumn. The female lays 50 – 100 eggs on the underside of stones and boulders in riffles and at the head of pools.

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This pic was also by Mr Finn on the excellent Fishes of Australia site – see below

These delicate treasures can live ONLY where there are no trout or redfin, and are endemic to Australia, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. So I am praying for more rain – to fill the creeks for the Mountain Galaxias and Blackfish and other aquatic animals that must be struggling so in these drought times…

Martin F. Gomon & Dianne J. Bray, 2011, Mountain Galaxias, Galaxias olidus, in Fishes of Australia, accessed 29 Apr 2016, http://www.fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/3677

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyVg-P2BPhM A delightful video of closely related Ornate Galaxias – part of the Mountain Galaxias complex.

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Nolans Creek, April 2016. Lovely habitat for fish and frogs – when there is water!!!!!!

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I found this pic! The same creek in April 2011. Ooh – what a lovely wet year that was! This pic was taken about 100 metres from the bridge pictured above.

 

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

Jewels by the roadside

What better way to bring in the beginning of 2016 than a beetle-spotting walk?

My dogs are fairly old now, so they do not mind if a slow walk along our dirt road involves the examination of eucalypt and wattle regrowth. One never knows what delights may be observed clinging to the leaves and stems. Insects seem to appear and disappear in stages, so you may get a week or two observing just small golden green beetles, then these disappear and are replaced with treehoppers being attended by ants, or perhaps interesting flies.

On this day however, I was delighted to observe and photograph a couple of my favourite beetles – jewel beetles. Jewel beetles are found worldwide and number approximately 15,000 species. They are much loved for their astounding array of colours, which are often metallic. In Australia, the Buprestidae family has 82 genera and some 1,200 species. Some beetle families vary widely in form, but jewel beetles are very recognisable by their cylindrical, cigar–like body shape, small antennae and very large eyes. Jewel beetles have very cute faces!

The Australian jewel beetle (Julodimorpha bakewelli) is a glossy, golden-brown beetle around 4cm long, found all over Australia in arid and semi-arid areas. This beetle has been featured in the news due to the unfortunate similarity to dumped beer bottles or “stubbies”. The males have been observed trying to mate with the bottles, and the poor fellas will stay there until succumbing to stress and starvation!

Jewel beetles are renowned for being difficult to photograph as they are quite shy and will play dead, dropping off the branch they are on to the forest floor. The pair I saw on the 1st January was most cooperative, staying quite still as I photographed both, using my hand as a focus guide for my iPhone. These two beetles had the same white spots on the back wing cases or elytra, but the thorax  was bronze in one and emerald green on the other. A male and female perhaps?

I will be sending these photos to the Melbourne Museum, but from what I have been able to deduce from various beetle and insect websites is that these little guys are found in both NSW and Victoria, and appear to be found on wattle foliage most of the time. They are in the genus Diphucrania.

It is quite hard to get detailed behavioural information on insects – the study of entomology has a major focus on classification and taxonomy, and often centres upon on economically important or pest species. Jewel beetles are a little more well-known than other groups on account of their beauty.

The adults feed on leaf foliage or blossom nectar, and they lay their eggs on an appropriate host plant. The larvae are whitish coloured grub-like creatures that burrow through the stems of wattles and other plants, feeding on the sapwood with their strong jaws. The larval stage may last months or even years. Sometimes, the timber used for furniture still has jewel beetles inside, and the new adults emerge into a house-type situation which is very different from the forest they originated in!

The adults live only for a few days, or up to two weeks. So if you happen to see some jewel beetles in your garden, or on a walk, enjoy their beauty, as they won’t be around in that form for very long…

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Beetle with a bronze thorax… This pic also shows their proximity to one another.

 

jewel beetle Tanya Loos

And a beetle with an emerald thorax. Lovely!

Hyacinth Orchids – Spotted, Rosy and an unusual form

Hyacinth Orchids are so unlike the rest of the wildflowers in these dry forests. They reach up out of the leaf litter or barren roadside gravel in a showy and shocking display of flashy pink. We have two kinds here – the more common Rosy Hyacinth Orchid which is a deep pink with a stripy labellum or lip, and the Spotted Hyacinth Orchid which is white with pink spots. The Spotted one is classified as rare under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, so I like to keep tabs on where they come up each year.

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A Spotted Hyacinth Orchid

On the 15th December I photographed nine Spotted Hyacinth Orchids in Dry Diggings forest. Six of these had the tops bitten off and so were unable to flower. Deer? Hares? Wallabies?

On Boxing Day,  I went for a nice long walk down Woolnoughs Road, Porcupine Ridge, and I came across a number of Hyacinth Orchids – Rosy and Spotted. I haven’t been able to get a decent photo of a Rosy Hyacinth Orchid – here is a photo of one, taken by the sorely missed Russell Best. Note the pink colour, and sometimes it is even deeper and more magenta.

rosy hyacinth by Russell Best

So it was with much surprise that I noted a population of Rosy Hyacinth Orchids that were very pale in colour, but still with those distinctive labellum stripes rather than spots. There were  11 in total, in two groups on either side of the road. In thirteen years of looking at these orchids, I have never seen such a pale form!

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An unusually pale form of the Hyacinth Orchid

In the near future,  I will have lovely feedback between this blog and the Nature Share site – so that you can check through all my photos and see the locations, and I will contribute to a wonderful body of knowledge.  And it is amazing! Check it out here: Nature Share

In the meantime: 26 December, 2015, Wooloughs Rd: 26 Spotted Hyacinth Orchid – Dipodium pardalinum, 11 pale Rosy Hyacinth Orchid, plus 4 normal – so 15 Rosy Hyacinth Orchids, or Dipodium roseum.  Lovely! A bumper year, despite the dry conditions…

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!