<![CDATA[Birds, flowers, insects - FIBS Blog]]>Mon, 14 Oct 2019 01:11:35 +1100Weebly<![CDATA[A Crimson pair]]>Sun, 13 Oct 2019 12:12:22 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/a-crimson-pairBlack and white birds have featured heavily in my recent posts, so it’s time for a bit of colour.  Cue a pair of Crimson Rosellas (Platycercus elegans elegans). 

The two of them flew overhead just as I joined up with a Willoughby Birders group for a morning walk in Explosives Reserve.  An hour or so afterwards, we came upon them again, high up in a tree. The rosellas watched us for a few minutes before deciding we were harmless and could get on with their brunch.  They flew past us to a lower and closer group of shrubs.  Here’s the nearer one of the pair:

​This nearer bird soon moved away a bit, apparently in response to some distant alarm calls. I couldn’t see the second bird until I moved diagonally closer behind a tree trunk.  I watched while it bent forward to pluck a green seed pod:

​Using its beak and tongue, it extracted the seed from the pod:  

It had the typical look of a feeding rosella –mostly concentrating on the task of seed extraction while monitoring you for movement. Looking carefully at this bird, you can see green patches and a relatively narrow lighter blue stripe in its wings, indicating that it was still quite young:  

​It fed peacefully for a while, before moving to another bush further away:

​The original bird then returned to a nearby bush.  This one was fully mature, with no traces of green in its plumage, and a wider blue patch in its wings. It also had a grubby beak.  I don’t know whether that was the remains of its last few meals or a sign of ageing!

Shortly afterwards the pair moved away, and the show was over. We went off to look for other birds, I for one feeling pleased at this sighting. Although Crimson Rosellas are widespread in SE Australia and by no means rare within their range, I’ve seen them less frequently around Sydney in the last 20 years. Shifting weather patterns and food availability may have something to do with it.

​The next photo gives you a clearer view of the overall colour of a fully mature male (this was a different bird, taken at Hill Top):

Younger Crimson Rosellas have far more green in their feathers, which they gradually lose over two moults. This rather scruffy specimen, taken near Wombeyan Caves, is a typical juvenile with minimal red around its head and throat.

And this one is a first year immature bird, with sleeker feathers than the juvenile, and more red and clear blue in its wing:

This one has still more red colouring:

However, a word of caution. The seemingly younger bird in my original photos could possibly have been a mature female. Unlike the males, they tend to keep some green patches in their wings and tail feathers into maturity.
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<![CDATA[Not a Wagtail]]>Sun, 06 Oct 2019 11:22:23 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/not-a-wagtailI recently mistook a peewee for a magpie, reminding me to be more careful about identifying pied (black and white) birds!  Talking of which, when is a wagtail not a wagtail? Answer - when it’s a Willie Wagtail, which is a fantail and not a wagtail. But what happens when the Willie Wagtail you’re watching is not a fantail either? Well…

It all began when this Willie Wagtail kindly allowed me to take its picture:

It then resumed its Willie Wagtail routine - swinging its tail and calling loudly, and then darting off to catch an insect.

There were lots of insects around the trees:

Another Willie Wagtail soon joined it, and I was delighted to get some mid-air photos. (It can be a bit of a challenge to catch small birds on the wing!)

And then I began to realise that there was something different about that second bird....

There was too much white under its chin, and its proportions were different, especially around the head and beak. Its “jizz” was wrong, to borrow an old term used by more serious birdwatchers than me.

When it paused for a break, I had a chance to look at it a bit more closely:

​It turned out to be a Restless Flycatcher (Myiagra inquieta) , a bird I’ve not seen before.  (It’s not a particularly common bird, even though its range extends over a wide area of Eastern Australia.) When it came closer, I could see rictal bristles around its beak, and the faint buff wash on its throat and belly indicating that it was a female.

​As she turned her head, I could also see the slightly hooked tip to her beak. 

The Flycatcher spent much more time in the air on her forays than did the Willie Wagtail.  She also preferred to stay a couple of metres above ground, using a small tree as a base, while the Willie Wagtail would often launch from lower down. She also carried her tail low, whereas the Willie Wagtail frequently fanned and cocked its tail like other fantailsand let its wings droop slightly when perched.

So, if a Willie Wagtail is really a fantail, what is a wagtail? The true Wagtails belong to a separate family (Motacillidae) not closely related to fantails. The family has several species, none of them native to Australia. However individuals from some of them occasionally end up as seasonal vagrants in our coastal areas. They are all similar in size, shape and patterning, except that in some species part or all of the white is replaced by yellow. They are generally more earthbound birds that walk around whilst foraging for food, like this White Wagtail I photographed in Weymouth, England:

Another point of difference is the tail-wagging that gives them their name – Willie Wagtails wave their fanned tail from side to side, while the true Wagtails bob their tails up and down.

This extract from a quaint 19th century poem by John Clare describes a true Wagtail:

Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain
And tittering tottering sideways he near got straight again
He stooped to get a worm and look’d up to catch a fly
And then he flew away e’re his feathers they were dry

Little trotty wagtail he waddled in the mud
And left his little foot marks trample where he would
He waddled in the water pudge and waggle went his tail
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail

(Little Trotty Wagtail by John Clare)
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<![CDATA[The Oyster Cove swallows]]>Sun, 29 Sep 2019 11:03:17 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/the-oyster-cove-swallowsI’ve previously written about the Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena) at Oyster Cove, and I returned there a few days ago.  However this swallow looked a little unwelcoming as I walked past:

On the other side of the path, another swallow sat on a sign as it called to others flying overhead:

It was joined by a second swallow but still continued to call:

Both swallows then joined the others in the air, swooping low over the grass as they hawked for insects.

One managed to catch something:

Several swallows then landed, forming a small group sitting on the grass.

​At first I thought they were drinking from a wet patch, but then I realised they were getting mud for their nest-building.  Here’s one with a beakful of mud:

A second swallow swooped down to check on progress with the excavation:

It didn’t do any digging itself, just flew ahead encouraging the first bird to follow:

The second bird took off after it, flying out over the water, and then back under the pier I was standing on. From the traffic to and fro, it’s likely that several pairs of swallows are nesting beneath the pier, but I couldn’t get below to see. Instead, here is a photo of another swallows’ nest, taken in Randwick.

Seeing the enormous amount of mud in the beak of the swallow in the second last photo made me realise just how much nest-building is done by beak. Perhaps it was the prospect of carrying mouthfuls of mud that made the swallow in my first photo look so grumpy!

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<![CDATA[More on the Kestrel and the Magpie-Lark]]>Sun, 22 Sep 2019 07:16:24 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/more-on-the-kestrel-and-the-magpieA couple of weeks ago, on a coastal walk, I saw a Nankeen Kestrel being swooped by what I thought at first was an Australian Magpie but turned out to be a Magpie-Lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) or Peewee.  At the time, I put up a few photos, and these are more from that same walk.

I first noticed the kestrel in the distance over Coogee beach.  It came closer and was almost overhead as it passed us.

​A minute later, a peewee appeared out of nowhere and began harassing it.  These photos show one swoop, starting with a steep turn by the peewee:

The peewee tucks its wings in for greater speed. The kestrel is well aware of it, and is beginning to roll left and extend its talons:

The peewee is pulling out of its dive as the kestrel continues its roll to port; its talons are almost positioned for defence.

Now the kestrel is fully rolled over, with its claws raised in its best defensive position, but the peewee is already past its closest approach.

The kestrel rolls back as the peewee climbs away. (Because the birds are more widely separated than in the previous two images, I’ve had to crop more loosely which makes the birds look smaller.)

The peewee is now turning sharply at the top of its arc to position itself for its next swoop.

This is a sequence of shots from another less close swoop, where the kestrel felt there was no need to act defensively:

Soon the pair disappeared behind some trees. The peewee must have given up shortly afterwards, as  a few minutes later the kestrel was back, checking the ground below.

I lost sight of it again, but a little later it came back past with a lizard in its claws.

The kestrel headed off to have its meal as we arrived at the Coogee food fair for ours.

Nankeen Kestrels (Falco cenchroides) are our smallest falcons, even smaller than the Australian Hobby. They are found all over Australia, but prefer open country where they can readily forage for prey. Their typical prey includes the smaller vertebrates (lizards, mice) and larger invertebrates. They are readily identified by their small size (kestrels weigh less than magpies, but more than magpie-larks), the distinctive “teardrop”mark below the eye and the distinctive brown colouring of their upper wings and body. This colour was named “nankeen” after a variety of cotton from Nankin (also called Nanking or Nanjing) in China. You can see another example of it in this bird, the Nankeen Night Heron:

Footnote: Thanks to Liz Powell for pointing out the correct identity of the swooper! As it was magpie swooping season, and the pied attacker was too far away to clearly identify, I jumped to the conclusion that it was indeed a magpie. As always, double-check and never assume! Magpie-larks are also well-known for swooping, though not with quite the same ferocity as  some magpies.
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<![CDATA[On hearing the first cuckoo]]>Sun, 15 Sep 2019 14:02:20 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/on-hearing-the-first-cuckooA well-known piece of music, On hearing the first cuckoo of spring*, reflects the composer’s delight on hearing the European cuckoo announcing spring after the long northern winter. On my walk yesterday, I heard my first Channel-bill Cuckoo announcing the southern hemisphere spring.  However, its hoarse “Waaaark” as it flew past didn’t quite produce the same delight.

​This Pied Currawong was even less delighted. It was quickly on to the cacophonous cuckoo, hurling equally noisy but more melodious abuse at it.

As the duelling pair disappeared into the distance, I walked on to the old BP site and saw this Silver Gull having a drink of fresh water.

My attention was then drawn to the mass of golden blooms on this magnificent wattle tree.

Several honey bees were on the flowers.  Here’s another view:

I also had a look at some less spectacular flowers and seed-heads nearby.  I’m no botanist, but this tall grass is, I think, dichelachne:

This common dandelion was much easier to identify…

​Out on an oil boom, a Pied Cormorant spread its wings to dry whilst doing some neck-flexing exercises.  Pied cormorants fly with a slight kink in their necks, and I wondered whether this flexing  had something to do with it.

The cormorant settled again, so I went back to the wildflowers: these are Viola hederacea:

​I’m not sure about the next flower.  I think it’s some sort of Pultenaea (Bush pea):

And this is one of my favourites, a Grey Spider Flower (Grevillea buxifolia):

​There were also Paroo Lilies (Dianella caerulea) coming into flower.

And another less showy wattle whose identity I’m not sure of:

A Brown Goshawk, with its distinctive barred chest markings, flew high overhead:

My last sighting on this Saturday walk was an Australian Magpie marching along the street gathering nesting material.

​Fortunately, that first cuckoo was not around to see the location of the magpie’s nest.
*On hearing the first cuckoo of spring is a piece for a small orchestra composed by Frederick Delius in 1912.  It’s a gentle composition which references the call of the male European cuckoo.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xHIhcstxUM on YouTube.
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<![CDATA[The first day of Spring]]>Sun, 08 Sep 2019 12:33:18 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/the-first-day-of-springSunday 1st September was warm and cloudless, a perfect day for a walk.  So perfect, in fact, that I went for two walks! The first, organised by Willoughby Birders, was in the Harold Reid Reserve, Middle Cove.* As we assembled in the car park, we birdwatchers were watched in turn by the usual hungry-eyed avian opportunists  – namely kookaburras, currawongs, ravens and butcher birds. But the focus of our walk was on the smaller birds.

Small birds in tall trees and undergrowth are not easy subjects.  The first bird I was able get a decent image of was this Eastern Yellow Robin:

After the robin, we saw a Grey Fantail and several Thornbills, mostly of the striated variety, but alas I didn’t get any good images. The Variegated Wrens weren’t much better – I think this one was acting as a decoy as a little group skittered through the undergrowth:

Because I was concentrating on this wren, I missed seeing a Sea Eagle and a Square-tailed Kite. When I rejoined the group a few minutes later, the male wren they had been watching flew off.  Further on, there were cormorants, but the closest one, a pied cormorant, dived every time I focused a camera on it. Finally, I got a decent image of an Eastern Spinebill:

Things went quiet for a bit then, so I photographed one of the numerous bees buzzing around in the warm weather:

Another robin showed up:

Next, there was an uncharacteristically quiet Sulphur-crested Cockatoo:

​And nearby, two pairs of King Parrots – this one, a female:

​The last sighting was this Red-browed Firetail.

​Sometimes, wildlife just won’t play for you, and for me this walk was one of those times. But then in the afternoon, things turned around when I walked with my family on the coastal path to Coogee. Here, I saw a group of four cormorants with three different species, including this Little Black Cormorant and a grooming Great Cormorant:

The third species was this Pied Cormorant:

A bit further on, a Nankeen Kestrel flew overhead:

As we watched, it flew on down the coast where it suffered the indignity of being swooped by a Magpie-Lark. These are as big as kestrels, so this wasn’t a frivolous challenge.  The kestrel was up to it though, rolling over to bring its main weapons – its talons – into play, and the magpie didn’t get any closer than is shown in this photo:

Eventually the magpie-lark gave up and the kestrel continued its patrolling. Soon it caught a lizard.

As the kestrel headed off to have its meal, we arrived at the Coogee food fair to have ours.

* My thanks to Liz Powell, Judy Christie, Steph Yee and Nick Yu for organising what was a delightful morning walk, even if the birds weren’t entirely forthcoming.
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<![CDATA[Parrot Royalty]]>Sun, 01 Sep 2019 12:47:57 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/parrot-royaltyOn my first bird-walk after coming back from Noosa, I spotted a pair of eyes looking down at me from the roof of the Cammeraygal school in North Sydney.  The eyes belonged to an Australian King Parrot  (Alisterus scapularis).

​I had previously photographed a small group of King Parrots near the school, and perhaps this one recognised me from an earlier occasion.  At any rate, it relaxed and flew down to join this female in a nearby tree.

Soon, a second male showed up. He was a handsome bird with deep blue patches on his back and lower neck, and unusually long pale green stripes on his upper wing/shoulders.

There was clearly some tension between the two males, but unlike the honeyeater clash in last week’s post, it didn’t go beyond some gentlemanly chasing. A few minutes later, the group flew off, and I went home to see what other King Parrot photos I had—quite a few, as it turned out.

This is one I took at the same location last year, also of an adult male, and probably one from the same group.

In contrast, this one at Wombeyan was a juvenile, based on its olive-green colouring, part-orange beak and brown irises.

This adult female was similar to the juvenile, but she has distinct red tinging in her green chest feathers, as well as the dark grey beak and yellow iris of a mature bird.

Different again is this piebald young male. His plumage is in the midst of its transition from green-headed juvenile to full adult red, and he already has an adult’s black-tipped orange beak and yellow iris.

The gentle and inoffensive nature I associate with king parrots can be discerned in some of these photos.  What they don’t show is that these parrots also like their tucker. In fact the young male in the previous photo spent most of the time I was watching him breakfasting on green berries, like this:

And this one was keen on grevilleas:

The one above was photographed at Pearl Beach. As a minor curiosity, it was at Pearl Beach some years ago that Vincent Serventy noted seeing a King Parrot that had yellow rather than red colouring.  Apparently this is a rare variant that lacks melanin.

Australian king parrots are one of a group of three related species – the others are the Papuan and Moluccan king parrots. They are reasonably common in Eastern Australia, but their range doesn’t extend much west of the Divide. They are usually found in forested areas rather than grasslands, and sometimes in city gardens, where they can be encouraged to become quite tame. They mostly eat seeds and fruit, but insects and blossoms also form part of their diet. Like many parrots, they nest in holes in tree-trunks.

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<![CDATA[A Honeyeater Blue]]>Sun, 25 Aug 2019 23:48:28 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/a-honeyeater-blueThe spring is sprung, the grass is ris, I wonder where the birdie is?
Often at this time of year, the birdie is in some sort of conflict.  In the past week I’ve seen two currawongs attacking a third one they had cornered in a neighbour’s garden, and a magpie angrily pursuing a raven. In neither case did I have a camera handy. However I was able to photograph a spat in the Noosa Spit Reserve, between a Little Wattlebird and a Blue-faced Honeyeater. It was a typical clash over feeding rights to a banksia tree between two members of the honeyeater family. This was an early moment:

The wattlebird flew past the honeyeater and landed on a branch behind.

​The honeyeater ignored the wattlebird. The next bit was so unexpected, I didn’t catch it on camera –the wattlebird quietly stretched over and pulled the honeyeater’s tail feathers. The honeyeater turned with rising hackles, and a “What did you just do?” look, at this breach of avian etiquette.

There was a brief chase around the tree:

​Then, satisfied it had shooed the wattlebird away, the honeyeater settled down to investigate an old banksia cone.  But the wattlebird was still feeling proprietorial about the banksia, and soon returned:

The honeyeater turned in response as the wattlebird closed in:

Then there was a short truce as something—I didn’t see what—distracted both birds:

​The honeyeater then moved to a fresh banksia flower, and the dispute was on again as the wattlebird followed it.  First, it delivered a peck at the honeyeater’s right side:

… but was rapidly foiled:

… so it switched to the honeyeater’s left side:

…. but was repulsed again:

By this time, the honeyeater had had enough, and chased the wattlebird off before returning to its flower:

These two birds were typically pugnacious members of the honeyeater family.  Here, the blue-faced had the edge because it was the bigger bird, but the wattlebird seemed to me to be the instigator of the conflict. Perhaps the wattlebird placed a higher value on the banksia because it was its favourite food source, whereas blue-faced honeyeaters feed in a wide variety of trees.

A little later, the wattlebird was able to return to its banksia as the honeyeater had flown off to join its mate in servicing a juvenile honeyeater.  But that’s a story for another day.

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<![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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