<![CDATA[Birds, flowers, insects - FIBS Blog]]>Sun, 29 Mar 2020 22:24:32 +1100Weebly<![CDATA[A Periwinkle Catcher]]>Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:53:12 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/a-periwinkle-catcherBroulee Island Nature Reserve is a rocky hillock about 500 metres across, connected to the mainland by a sandy isthmus.  I visited it briefly during my trip to the South Coast two weeks ago.  As I was standing on a rocky stretch of shore photographing some thornbills on the nearby hillside, I noticed this big black bird behind me with something in its beak.

The oystercatcher vigorously shook its trophy – not an oyster, more like a periwinkle – showering sea water before putting the periwinkle down.

It then began the task of extracting the hapless mollusc from its shell:

It paused to check that I wasn’t doing anything sinister, before bending to its task once more.

Meal over, it paused to leave a souvenir of a previous meal on the rocks:

.... before shaking out its wings and rear end, and flying off:

​With its handsome red beak and eyes and shiny black feathers, this was a Sooty Oystercatcher (Haemotopus fuliginosus). These birds can be found in small numbers all around the Australian coast. This one belonged to the southern subspecies – confirmed by the narrow orange eye-ring and yellow claws (just visible in a couple of the photos). The clear red iris suggests it was a male; the females have brown flecks.

There is a second species of oystercatcher native to Australia – the Pied Oystercatcher. (One is pictured below, on Bruny Island.) As the oystercatcher name suggests, both species feed on static or slow-moving coastal invertebrates such as shellfish, chitons and sea urchins. Indeed they are shellfish specialists, so powerfully built as to be able to dislodge and prise open creatures no other bird could tackle.
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<![CDATA[Topknot Pigeons]]>Sun, 22 Mar 2020 10:16:58 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/topknot-pigeonsThese pigeons have been the bane of my life lately—I could never get close to one even though they flap round regularly in Sydney in summer—but I find them fascinating:  they look so exotically eccentric.  A topknot pigeon is a conventional grey pigeon except that it has a red beak and eyes, and a forward grey crest like a bulbous forehead as well as a trailing red/brown ponytail crest.  Here’s what one looks like:

For a couple of years I have been seeing them around North Sydney, always flying swiftly overhead in the middle distance or, more usually, the distant distance. This was about the best view I ever got:

​Then late in 2018 from our house I saw some unusual birds flying into a eucalypt – still in the middle distance, of course.  I got a couple of shots before they departed, and the enlarged pics then revealed   that they were indeed topknots. It was a fair-sized flock – I counted over 30 in this image, many of them partially obscured by foliage.

There the matter rested until a contact told me she’d seen and photographed some at Jerrara Dam, inland from Kiama.  So when I went on my South Coast trip last week, I allowed time for a brief diversion to Jerrara on the way home.  Sure enough, there was a couple in a large fig tree, including the one in the pic at the top of this post. This bird checked me out carefully:

It then vented its opinion of bird photographers before flying off.

The second pigeon remained hidden in the foliage, but I still left for home happy that I had at last broken the hoodoo and got some good photos of these birds.  That was on the lucky Friday 13th.

5 days later I went for a walk to Waverton, and about a kilometre from our house I saw this in a fig tree.

It clambered about, always fairly high up, showing a fair bit of agility for such a large pigeon as it selected and ate the riper figs.

It then took a break from feeding to survey me:

I went home to review my photos, and the next day went down there again. This time, there were several pigeons in the trees, although they were hard to pick out through the thick foliage. However one paused on an open branch to see what I was doing before resuming its grazing:

This bird’s topknot was longer than the previous day’s pigeon, with a more unruly “I just washed my hair and can’t do a thing with it” look.

It didn’t find much on this branch, and moved to another one nearby where it proceeded to pick the ripe fruit bare:

It then flew off with a typically noisy clatter of wings. It is this clatter that betrays the presence of otherwise invisible topknots in dense foliage—that and the regular fall of rejected figs and droppings.

As I was leaving, another bird gave me a quizzical look – they seem to be a topknot specialty:

Back home it was my turn for a quizzical look, at the bird books. They confirm that Topknot Pigeons (Lopholaimus antarcticus) really are big pigeons, weighing between 470-600g. Compare this to the common feral pigeon (Rock Dove or Columbia livia) which is 220-360g or the Crested Pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes) at 145-260g. The topknot sexes are similar, but males tend to have a longer crest and less streaking on their chest.

They are found east of the Divide, all the way from Cape York down into Victoria, and are nomadic, moving as different trees come into fruit. This is why topknots are usually only seen around North Sydney during summer and into autumn, when the fig trees are in fruit (the feral camphor laurel is another favourite). They nest high up in tall trees some distance away from food sources, which is why they’re more usually seen on the wing. This was certainly my experience until very recently.
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<![CDATA[After the Fires]]>Sun, 15 Mar 2020 11:21:31 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/after-the-firesNearly three months after the bushfires, I visited the coast south of Sydney last week. It was wonderful to see how resilient old Mother Nature can be after all the devastation. I found mile after mile of burned forest furred with new green growth, like this stretch in Mogo state forest:

It was an impressive demonstration of the ability of eucalypts to survive extreme temperatures – on occasions steel signs were melted by these fires – and it was noticeable that it was the thicker limbs that survived. This tree in the Currumbene forest was one example:

As this close-up shows, the regrowth can emerge from anywhere, even through the charred thick bark on this tree-trunk in Mogo.

This also happens with banksia trees:

Many small shrubs can regenerate from their roots, which are sheltered by the earth even as the above-ground stalks are being cooked by the heat. This one was in the Blue Mountains:

After reports of the ferocity of this summer’s fires, I was prepared for the worst. I had seen it before, in the aftermath of the bad 2013 fire in the Warrumbungle Mountains. The next photo was taken nearly a year after that fire, and you can see that while all the lower trees survived, those further up the hill are gone for good.

This didn’t happen with the South Coast fires. They were intense, but also too fast-moving to really kill the trees. This buoyed my spirits.

The other encouraging thing I found was the almost complete recovery of the Mogo Zoo.  Here, on the worst day of the Currowan bushfire, the staff had had to battle all day to save the zoo and its animals from annihilation.  (There’s a fine account by Jane Cadzow of their ordeal here.)

This is a wildlife blog, so I don’t normally include zoo photographs—I’m a bit ambivalent about zoos generally—but I’m making Mogo an exception. I’ve been to the zoo before, and it’s one of the good ones, with reasonable space for its animals and an obviously caring staff.  Besides, after such a dramatic event, I wanted to see how the animals had come through their ordeal by fire. In the event, I found them pretty chilled.

For example, this lion was quite at ease as it sat in the sun:

The pygmy marmoset on the right was more concerned about the bit of hair on its tongue from grooming its mate.

The meerkat, serval and deer all seemed quite relaxed:

Also happy was this red panda, as a redhead pandered to it.

Black and white ruffed lemurs always look startled, even when calm.

High in its island eyrie, a siamang was enjoying the view.

A cheetah raised its head briefly to check me out before dozing off again:

“Fire? What fire?”
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<![CDATA[My Leap-Day Puzzle]]>Sun, 08 Mar 2020 10:52:10 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/my-leap-year-puzzleSmall brown birds aren’t always easy to identify. Here’s one I saw on 29th February.

​When I first saw it, it was in long grass below a thick bush.  It had seen me too:

After a couple of seconds it decided I was not an immediate danger, and it could get on with more important things. Something above its head caught its eye, and it pounced, as this triptych shows:

It looked around for its next snack:

The next pounce was deep in the grass, so I couldn’t see the bird until it resurfaced.  But it was now in the open, giving me a much clearer view:

Although plainly coloured, the warm tones and neat lines made it a pleasant-looking little bird. I just wasn’t sure what sort of little bird it was, though the shape looked rather like a small honeyeater. The bird was still moving around, so I left identification for later.  The next time I had a clear view, it was watching out for its next insect.

Soon it saw something and was off again:

It disappeared into a lantana thicket for a while, and then re-emerged before vanishing into the shrubbery.

​I walked on, but returned about half an hour later.  I peered over a drainage culvert on the other side of the pathway and saw it again—or another very similar bird.  Most of its body was concealed by the culvert, but I got a good shot of its head above a floating leaf.

Pretty soon it was off again, into another lantana thicket, and I went home shortly after to consult my bird books.

Identifying the bird wasn’t easy – those warm brown shades didn’t seem to match anything in the books. The Menkhorst Guide had one that came closest; it also had a second illustration showing the orange colouring on the inside of the beak. That clinched it for me as an Australian Reed-Warbler (Acrocephalus australis).

Like some other Australian birds, the reed-warblers have been the subjects of taxonomic uncertainty. My older 1980 Pizzey Guide names the same bird as the Clamorous Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus stentoreus), and it seems there are several similar species.  All the book illustrations agree in showing a distinct pale patch or bar above the eye, which was barely visible in this bird.

The books also agree that these little birds are common in the eastern half of Australia. They are the loudest songbirds in reed-beds and similar habitats, especially in the breeding season. Paradoxically “my” bird didn’t utter a peep, preferring to focus on catching insects. Though not particularly shy, these warblers aren’t easily seen in the dense shrubbery they inhabit, so I was lucky.

The Acrocephalus family of warblers are found in much of the Old World – Wikipedia lists around 35 species.  A couple are found in Europe, and I also had a quick peek in my little Lomond guide where I found two – the Reed Warbler and the Sedge Warbler. They both look very similar to the Australian Warbler, but are a fair bit smaller (13 cm as opposed to 17 cm).

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<![CDATA[Little Corellas]]>Sun, 01 Mar 2020 09:24:22 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/little-corellasWatching Little Corellas (Cacatua sanguinea) can be great fun.   Take this one reclining on the grass at Sydney Uni with a sprig of leaves in its left claw.

It transfers the sprig to its right claw:

and then picks up another sprig with its left:

and shakes both vigorously like a cheerleader at a gridiron game.

Two corellas can be twice the fun:

Of course all of this is tiring. ​After a solid morning of clowning around, it’s time for a lunchtime snooze in the trees:

The first four images were taken at Sydney University, and the remainder in Sydney's Centennial Park.

Little Corellas are, as their name implies, the smallest of the corella branch of the cockatoos (the largest is the sulphur-crested cockatoo). They are found in the eastern half of Australia, with sub-races also occurring in north-western and south-western areas. They mostly feed on the ground, picking up seeds and also plant bulbs and corms.
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<![CDATA[An Oriole]]>Sun, 23 Feb 2020 11:33:02 GMThttp://wildnsydney.com/fibs_blog/an-orioleWalking through Badangi Reserve, I spotted a greyish bird on a low branch.  It immediately flew up into the canopy and I was able to get a quick shot.

Although its head was in deep shade, I could see clearly its white underside with dark streaking, and this made me think it was either an Oriole or a Figbird. The insect in its beak suggested an oriole, but both species take insects.  The bird then flew to a more open spot:

​The olive-green shading into its chest, and its red eye and reddish beak, confirmed that it was indeed an Olive-backed Oriole (Oriolus sagittatus), the first I had ever seen in North Sydney. It was busily scanning the area for more insects, and very soon it was off again. Eventually it perched on another branch with something in its beak I couldn’t quite see, a cricket maybe.

Soon it moved again, to scan for prey in another place:

It spotted something and leapt into the air once more:

​At that point I became a little distracted.  Several mosquitoes were collecting blood samples from my bare legs with an enthusiasm that would have done credit to a team of health experts on a coronavirus cruise ship. The oriole flew past me and for a wild moment I hoped it might remove the mosquitoes!  By the time I’d moved to a less mosquito-infested space, the oriole had moved on too. Another movement then caught my eye – a little dart butterfly.

Then the oriole –I think it was the same one – returned to a branch near me, still scanning for insects. It looked first to my left:

then above me:

and then to my right:

where it spotted something:

A couple of seconds later it was perched nearby with its latest prize:

A jumping-ant (bull ant):

​The oriole took its time before swallowing the ant, possibly aware that it packed a nasty bite and worse sting.   It then set off on its next hunt.  This was my last view of it:

Earlier I commented that the same or another bird had returned. This happened several times - the bird would fly off and then I would see it in a different place. I'm actually pretty sure there were at least two orioles playing tag around me. Keen viewers may have noticed that some photos show more olive shading into the white below the neck compared with others, and I don't think it's just the variations in light and shade in the dappled light.

I have seen orioles before, in the Lane Cove National Park for example. They are a common enough species in the eastern third of Australia, where they migrate south in summer, and return in winter. A related subspecies (O. affinis) occurs across the north. They are omnivorous, eating insects and fruit in season.

As I said earlier, I wasn’t sure at first if the bird was a female fig-bird, so for comparison’s sake here’s a photo of three Australasian Figbirds at Newport, on Sydney’s northern beaches.  At the time, they were undergoing a moult and so look pretty scruffy. The male is at bottom right, and very different, but the other two are females and to a casual glance look similar until you get a closer view of their heads.

Another bird that has a superficial similarity to the oriole is the Metallic Starling, but these are only found on the tropical Queensland coast.
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