Friday, 17 April 2015

A true Tawny Frogmouth

A truly red/rufous coloured Tawny Frogmouth found in Canberra - a victim of road kill
It was wet with heavy rain last night, and all day today, and when I drove into town in the morning I saw a dead bird lying in the cycle lane. It looked like a Boobook, the common local owl in Canberra, but it didn't look right for one. So I took note of where it was in order to check it on my return. Maybe it was something else, what? Then an hour later, as I approached the bird from the other direction, I saw straight away that it was a Tawny Frogmouth, but it was so red, and that is why I hadn't recognised it first time. Although I study these birds and have seen hundreds of individuals, none have been as red as this bird.

All the frogmouths I have seen in the Canberra area have, despite their name, been predominately grey. The males have, if any, only a little red on the sides of their face or a touch on their wings coverts. The females are usually more rufous in the same parts, and a few have a bit more red on their wings, but none I have seen have been so red as this bird. I would so much have liked to have met her when alive in the bush.

The whole of her upper body was red
 apart from her primary and secondary feathers which were dark brown/black
The bird's body was in good condition apart form the obvious head injury that killed her outright. So I gathered her up and took a few measurements for my own records. Her corpse is now in the freezer and on Monday I shall deliver her to the Australian National Wildlife Collection, which is conveniently held by CSIRO here in Canberra, the national capital.

I must look up the type-specimen of Tawny Frogmouth one day to see whether that bird was truly tawny, or grey like most in south-east Australia.

She still had a recently caught moth in her bill when she died
The moth was large, with a body about 8-9 cm long, and grey overall with no particularly obvious features. If anyone has an idea of what it might have been please drop a note. It was obviously too large a prize for the bird to ignore as she risked the traffic to catch it. Let that be lesson to us all: take care on the roads especially while there is heavy rain.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Mixed Foraging Flock

A Buff-rumped Thornbill: they glean food from the lower branches, trunks and ground litter

Now that autumn is well on the way here in Canberra, the woodland passerines are gathering into their mixed foraging flocks. These flocks are similar to those in northern-hemisphere woodlands where several species; such as coal tits, blue tits, great tits, goldcrests and treecreepers all join together and roam through a local patch of woodland. In and around Canberra, a typical mix of species would be like one I saw yesterday which consisted of; several buff-rumped thornbills, several yellow-rumped thornbills, perhaps ten grey fantails, I think three white-throated treecreepers, a family party of superb fairy-wrens, two scarlet robins, a pair of speckled warblers and a grey shrike-thrush.

A Yellow-rumped Thornbill: they flit down to the ground for their food

These mixed flocks are an efficient strategy for the birds to collect food within the safety of their group. Many eyes are better than one for locating food and for detecting any approach of potential predators. And each species has its own preferred type of food or place to gather it from. The buff-rumped thornbills pick away at the bark for insects beneath and they might not catch every insect they disturb. Then the fantails might zip in and snatch a insect trying to escape, or a speckled warbler following along on the ground can pick up any grubs that the thornbills dislodge. The yellow-rumped thornbills keep in their own flock within the mixed flock, dropping to forage on the ground then flying back up to the lower branches after a quick feed. The superb fairy-wrens probably only joined the party as the flock moved through their home patch, taking the advantage of the group foraging behaviour while they could.

A Grey Fantail: they fly-catch tiny insects, often those disturbed by the other birds in the flock

Two male Scarlet Robins dispute in the branches
Within each mixed foraging flock there are usually two scarlet robins, one male and one female. They seem to adopt the flock as their winter/non-breeding season territory and they defend it from all other scarlet robins. Yesterday I watched two such male robins displaying and threatening one another in such a dispute for ownership. The resource of a mixed foraging flock, with its advantages for survival, is clearly a valuable commodity for woodland birds.

That mixed flock seemed to consist of mainly lower branch- or ground-feeding birds. I saw another two like that later and one flock which was formed mostly of striated thornbills and striated pardalotes, working their way through the canopy, picking food from the leaves and twigs, never venturing near the ground. Each bird in each flock will know their local patch of the woodland and together, they will work their way through the habitat every day of autumn and the oncoming winter.

Then in spring, they will disband and settle into pairs on breeding territories.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Bunny Hare

It's Easter and the Easter Bunny is hiding chocolate eggs all over gardens, or is he she? 

A White Hare - well almost white, in late winter / early spring pelage
The Easter Bunny is a modern spin on an ancient game originally played by children (and their parents) in Germany. The children would build little nests for the Oschter Haws - the Easter Hare - to come during the night and lay fancifully decorated eggs, a bit like Santa Claus coming at Christmas. This all developed from the pagan festival Ostara; celebrating the spring equinox, the Goddess Eostre and the arrival of fresh growth and new life. And as hares are obvious in springtime, they would have been a clear choice for a symbol of new life. Not rabbits, as they are a Mediterranean species and would have been unknown to people in the distant past in what is now Germany.

The bunny took over the role following the American adoption of the tradition, along with the chocolate eggs. As to why the bunny is white, the Oschter Haws is supposed to be white, but I don't know if anyone has ever seen him to verify that. Why is the bunny male anyway, shouldn't it be a female if it delivers eggs and is a symbol of new life?

I don't have a photograph of a white rabbit, nor a white phase Brown Hare, which I think the Oschter Haws is? So here I have added a shot of a white Mountain Hare, and a set of triplets I found last spring in the Scottish Highlands. A true sign of Spring and the fresh beginning to a year.

Happy Ostara to you all.

Three mountain leverets lying in one form, most unusual as they are usually kept separate for protection from predators

Leverets lie still, but ever watchful and ready to bolt to safety if threatened

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Exotic Sparrows

A female House Sparrow takes a bath
I have been a bit busy recently and haven't had time to keep up with the blog, but I did take time to appreciate the humble House Sparrow on the 20th March - World Sparrow Day. The House Sparrow Passer domesticus is one of the most cosmopolitan birds and here in Australia it is an exotic bird - introduced from a foreign country, i.e. the UK about 150 years ago. Some people don't like them as they are an introduced species and as such they have no legal protection, but I like them and admire them.

A Crimson Rosella in the garden
Exotic is an overused and often miss-used word, which when applied to birds usually refers to brightly-coloured species from foreign places, such as parrots. Well, some the the commonest birds in our Canberra garden are parrots; especially Crimson Rosellas, Eastern Rosellas and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. I have seen more than ten species of parrot in or over the garden, but none is exotic. The sparrow is exotic.

A flock of House Sparrows digging for seeds in the garden
It's autumn now and the sparrows are moulting into their duller winter plumage, the flock has built up to its high point - and soon there will be Collared Sparrowhawks coming in and taking a few (there is a big clue in the name). Last Spring the flock went down to only two or three birds from a peak of about twenty. But House Sparrows are survivors.

They really can dig
However, if sparrows are survivors, why are they are in decline in the UK? If we are losing sparrows, then there must be something changing in the environment. These birds are never far from human habitation, being mostly an urban species and only venturing into rural areas if there are farms or other settlements. They don't 'invade' other habitats. They can be an agricultural, or bio-security pest by eating grains or fruits, or entering piggeries. Although, perhaps they could be regarded as a biological early-warning device. Why are they declining in the UK, too many human-made chemicals in the environment? Remember, these birds only live in close proximity to humans, so if their environment if being damaged, so is ours.

But they keep themselves clean
Meanwhile, as I write I can hear them chirping and splashing as they take a bath in the birds' water dish.
A happy, healthy sound.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Bird Pollination

An adult male Eastern Spinebill sitting on a grevillea bush outside my study window

I've been at the desk a bit too much recently, but it is has turned out quite entertaining as our garden in
Canberra is busy with birds - and they have been a great distraction. Right outside the window, about a metre from me as I type, there is a small flock of Eastern Spinebills Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris feeding on a flowering grevillea. Spinebills are a species of honeyeater, and like their name suggests, they specialize in feeding on nectar, which grevilleas produce in abundance.

An adult spinebill dips its bill into a grevillea flower for nectar

An immature spinebill dips its bill into the same grevillea flower.
These birds are about sparrow size.

Grevilleas are part of the protea family and they have a highly adapted form of flower. The inflorescences - the flower spikes - have multiple flower heads held in tight clusters and with over three hundred species, they come in lots of shapes and sizes. They have evolved to be pollinated by different species of birds, insects or small marsupials, such as sugar gliders, but especially honeyeaters. There are over 60 species of honeyeater, mostly in Australia and the two families have similar geographic spreads in the general Australia/Oceania area. So, the honeyeaters are probably the main pollinators.

A Spinebill hovers to feed from a pendulous inflorescence.
Honeyeaters have evolved to feed on nectar like hummingbirds, but they are not so well adapted for hovering flight. However, they can also creep through the branches and feed safely under cover away from predators, and  humming birds can't do that, or do they need to?

Grevillea flowers have an exaggeratedly long style which unfolds with a sticky pad of pollen grains around the stigma at the tip, the pollen-presenter. The pollen is transferred from the anthers to the style as the flower opens and there are some unfolded styles in the first two photographs above, they are the curling loops above the petals. The nectar sac is cunningly concealed between fused petals and can only be reached via a slim opening. An opening which the spinebills can probe into with their fine long, curved bills, but many other animals can't gain access - this pollination strategy is selective towards species that can transfer the pollen. As the birds dip their bill into the nectar, they touch the pollen-presenters and a deposit of sticky pollen is left on their crown. Then, when the birds fly to another grevillea plant, they brush against another flower's pollen-presenter and the pollen is passed onto the style and into the stigma. And that's it, all done, the flower has been pollinated.

A Spinebill is dabbed on the head by a pollen-presenter as it feeds from a flower.
This bird is a juvenile, recognized by the fold of yellow skin at the base of its bill, the gape, which is a leftover feature of a fledgling. It will soon lose this, and the base of its bill will darken too as it grows into adult plumage during its first year of life.

Pollen sticks to the crown of this spinebill's head as it dips between a crowd of pollen-presenters

Spinebills, like other honeyeaters which are specialized nectar-feeders, have brush-tipped tongues, an adaptation that allows the birds to lap up the nectar from the tight space inside the nectar sac.They don't gain much per flower-visit, so these birds busy when feeding, and they are busiest in the morning and late afternoon. Which is fine by me as I see them first thing and then at the end of a long desk session, without too much distraction during the middle of the day.

The tip of this spinebill's tongue can be seen as the white part protruding from the end of the bill - it's very delicate