Friday, 1 December 2017

November Moths

Delexocha ochrocausta - wingspan c2 cm
note the long upward curved labial palps and fringed hind edges to the wings

I was out on another moth foray in the the Black Mountain woodland in November, with Glenn Cocking and Suzi Bond. Between this trip and that in October, there was quite a difference in the species and abundance of moths attracted to the lights. However, as I am simply a beginner in moth identification I was following their guidance, so what I present here is a very short list of the moths seen. All I aim to do is share my experience with others and illustrate the variety of moths, their colours and forms that can be found in one night with a light.

Wingia aurata - wingspan c2 cm
This Golden Leaf Moth has an amazing face as well as upturned hind edge to its wings. The shape and colour probably mimic a fallen leaf or piece of bark. The flash lighting exaggerates the gloss on the wing scales, it would be mat-toned in daylight when at rest.

Termessa nivosa - c2.5 cm
A Snowy Footman - what a wonderful name. This species' caterpillars feed on lichen, algae and moss and live beneath loose flakes of tree bark.

Melanodes anthracitaria - wingspan c5 cm
No common name - most moths do not have one. This is one of the abundant Geometridae species flying that night and its dark grey/black colouring fitted well on a piece of partially burned wood. There are two colour forms of this species, this and a yellow and black type. There are also two colour forms of caterpillar, green and brown. Both colours of caterpillar can come from the dark adults, but only the green from the yellow and black form. I wonder why this has evolved to the benefit of the species.

Sandava scitisignata - wingspan c2 cm
Fungi Snout - all moths should have such character names. The caterpillars of this species feed on fungi. I like mushrooms too.

Idaea costaria - wingspan c1.5 cm
A White-edged Wave - the pale leading edge to the wings, the costa, shows white in artificial light when they flutter and land around it. This is another geometridae, and like most of those species its mottled camouflage colouring blends with the substrate it lands on. In this case, a log with no bark.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Rain and Shine

Two days ago it was torrential rain. Today it was brilliant sunshine. This male Tawny Frogmouth sat on his nest all that day covering his three chicks from the wet, with only their tails sticking out. The usual brood size for these birds is one or two, so it was bit of a squeeze under there to keep dry. Meanwhile the rain pattered off his head and back, dripped from their tails and beaded on dad's back.

Today was much brighter and dry, very dry. The youngest chick was still sticking close to its father, although he was on the nest the chicks were all out.

The oldest chick had well and truly fledged. That one was up high in the next tree hiding very well, with mum close by. This youngster was probably a week or more older than the youngest one, and this is only the second brood of three chicks fledged this year in my study area in Canberra.

These birds might seem tricky, or easy, to see when the camera has framed them, but when viewed at a wider setting, there is a more realistic impression of how well these birds can hide.

Often a view down on a nest or brood can make it a little easier to find them, but I always admire them when I do find them. They are just so good at what they do, hide and sit quietly all day, waiting for night when the woods become theirs again.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Fully-fledged Frogmouths

Two well-grown frogmouth fledglings with their father on the right
On the 18th October this year I posted a feature on the first brood of Tawny Frogmouths to fledge in my study area, in Canberra. They left the nest on the 15th, and last weekend when they were six weeks old, they were fully-fledged, well almost. Compare the recent image above with that below of the same brood last month.

The youngsters now have fully-grown tail feathers, and in these pictures it can be seen how the young birds have rounded tips to these, while those of the adults are pointed. This is a common feature in birds.

Also, the young birds' under-tail coverts are still downy and white, while the adult's coverts are stiffer feathers and coloured for camouflage.

The same three birds on the 15th October - six weeks previously
Six weeks ago the young birds were only just out of the nest and still downy. Although they had well-enough developed flight feathers to flutter between trees for safety and to follow their parents around as they hunted.

The downy newly-fledged chicks 
The chicks have now lost most of their downy feathers, but a few still hung around their faces, giving the birds that still-young appearance. They could be dependent on their adults for another month yet and stay with them for longer, into the autumn or even stay with them till the next breeding season.

So at what stage can they be considered as having fledged? Well, for my study, I use the day they leave the nest as that is the only figure I can count for every breeding attempt. Many of the birds disappear into the woods after that. This is standard procedure to describe birds that have left the nest. Other birds which I study, such as Golden eagles, fledge at about twelve weeks old, but stay with their parents for another three months.

Soft downy face feathers
As is usual, it was the male who perched close to the young birds. He is larger and can give more protection against predators. The female was perched on an adjacent branch of the same tree, ready to fly in and help if any danger did approach.

The adult female

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Black Mountain Moths

I was recently asked to join a team of moth enthusiasts for a night's survey. My role was to take photographs which might be used illustrate a book they are writing on the moths of the Australian Capital Territory. These were Ted Edwards, Glenn Cocking and Suzi Bond and they used lamps to attract the insects, explained to me which was which, then I tried to grab some shots. I learned a lot in a such a short time, and since when looking up background of the various species.

Entometa sp. (Lasiocampidae) - wingspan of female c 8cm
The study site was in eucalyptus forest on Black Mountain, within a few km of the city centre, and we ran the traps from dusk (1900) to about 2300 hrs. The moths came in steadily all that time, and after a while they would drift off back into the surrounding darkness. So the variety of species changed as the night progressed as different moths are active at different times. I didn't know that before then, thanks Ted and Glenn.

Wingia lambertella - wingspan c 4cm
The moths' colours were distorted by the mercury lights, casting a green tinge over them, so I concentrated on taking shots insects out on the edge of the area, where they settled on leaf litter, foliage or branches. Although focusing the cameras in the near darkness was a challenge.

Sorama bicolor - wingspan male 4 cm, female 6 cm
All the species I photographed were eucalyptus, gum-tree, specialists so it was no surprise that they were abundant as we were in the middle of 5 sq km of dry sclerophyll forest dominated by Scribbly Gum Eucalyptus rossii, Red-stringybark E. macrorhyncha. The caterpillars of all the species illustrated here feed on gum leaves,

Hypobapta sp. (Geometridae) - wingspan c 5 cm
I have always shied away from studying moths as there are so many species, but as is so often the case, if we take it in small steps we can have a fascinating journey.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Old Suit

One of the highlights of my wildlife week has been meeting this wedge-tailed eagle high on a ridge. I was out for a walk on one of the many hills in Canberra, many of which are within suburbia, like this one. The bird was quite happy to sit on its branch while I walked past less than fifty metres away, so I grabbed a few shots. Once I looked through the long lens, I saw how scruffy he was - it was a male - not only his flight feathers of his tail and wings, but even his body feathers were tatty. It was an old suit and time he grew a new one. That would probably not be long now as the eagle chicks in the area are several weeks old now and will soon be fledging. When they are about 11 or 12 weeks old. This bird has probably worn his feathers down while hunting for his family, but he will have the whole of summer to regrow a new suit, while his fledglings learn to fend for themselves.

Once he had sussed me out and judged that I was no threat to him, he carried on preening. He tried hard to straighten and smooth those feathers. First those on his back.

Then he grabbed a primary that needed a good bit of maintenance.

He gave the whole lot a good shake.

Stretched out his wings - showing the chips on the edges of the primaries and his wayward tail feathers.

Meanwhile a pied currawong was determined to make life noisy and uncomfortable for its predatory neighbour. The wedgie couldn't care. He knew what he could do if he wanted to. And I moved on leaving them to it.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

First Frogmouths fledged

The first Tawny Frogmouth chicks of the year left their nest last Sunday, the 15th October. That means the first egg would have been laid about the 18th August, quite early but not the earliest I have seen in Canberra. That was the 12th August one year. The pair who breed in this territory are usually one of the earliest to lay. There is a wide spread of laying dates this year over the frogmouths that I monitor - I have been recording the breeding success of about fifty pairs for over ten years. And this year some of the birds only went down on eggs a week or so ago, seven weeks later than these early ones.

Even though they have left the nest, the chicks have not truly fledged. They are still very dependent upon their parents for food and protection. They will stay with their parents for at least another month, usually longer, living as a family group until they finally disperse at the end of the breeding season and find territories and mates of their own.

The male was the bird in close attendance of the chicks, as is usually the case. Although the adult birds both know me as I have been visiting them for several years, they were still wary of me in protection of their chicks. They did not go into full stick-pose, but did stretch up a little and watch me through half-closed eyes.

Meanwhile the female watched from the next tree. Again in part concealment pose, and watching through part-closed eyes.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

How the echidna crossed the road

The Botanic Gardens in Canberra are a great place to see wildlife; birds, wallabies, snakes, water dragons, butterflies, and the other day - I heard an echidna rolling through the undergrowth, so I stopped to watch him (it was a male).

He was obviously used to people as he kept walking straight towards me and gave me excellent views of his face and claws.

Then he climbed up onto the top of the road-side wall, about a third of a metre high.

He looked down the wall and didn't seem too sure what to do. So he went for a wander about, then came back and tried a different part of the wall. He was determined to go that way, so he had to go down.

Slowly stretching...

Then a controlled flop onto the back of his head. I am sure all those spines would have cushioned the bump nicely.

A quick uncurl.

And off he went across the road. No traffic coming, all safe.

As he walked past me a few metres away, he was close enough for me to see several ticks had attached themselves to his ear. Two were well engorged with blood and would soon drop off, but I know only too well how uncomfortable they feel. He would be glad to be rid of them.

All else was well. He slipped into the bush where he was not so easily seen. I suspect that he was a male following the scent of a female as it is the mating season. Hence his determined attitude to follow that course.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Talon-grappling eagles

There was a stiff breeze yesterday so I went out to watch for displaying raptors over some hills just outside Canberra - and I saw so much more than I expected. Four Wedge-tailed Eagles Aquila audax flew along the airspace at about my elevation on the hillside and two of them began to tumble down through the air, grappling their talons as they spun around and around.

These birds were all youngsters, i.e. fledged at least last year and not yet fully adult. This can be seen in the white base to their tails. Adults have dark tail coverts.

Although these birds have wing-spans of over two metres they showed that they are very agile and seemed to be in control of where they were at all times and in all directions. They would have to be or else they could have been seriously hurt.

They always grabbed the other bird's talons, never seeming to aim for anything else, or was it that each bird always fended off any strikes by the other.

They held each other by one and two talons, and I wondered if they ever drew blood from one another. Those talons are sharp and if they grasped the flesh of the other bird's foot, surely they could draw blood if they wanted to.

Then after only several seconds, the show was over. The birds let go and drifted apart. All while the third bird was watching from a few wing lengths away. And the fourth bird had drifted on along the ridge out of sight, mobbed by a trail of Australian Ravens, Australian Magpies and a Little Eagle.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Mist-netting birds

Owlet Nightjar Aegotheles cristatus
I was out mist-netting birds last weekend at The Charcoal Tank Nature Reserve, New South Wales, on a trip organised by Mark Clayton. The aim is to catch a sample of birds several times a year as part of a long-term study of the changes in the numbers and species in the bird population. The nets were set the evening before and opened at first light, hence we caught this nocturnal bird, an Owlet Nightjar. This is the first I have seen caught in almost-daylight. Perhaps it had been feeding late because it was a cold night at the end of winter and there were few insects about.

Small, quiet, with big dark brown eyes, a long tail, and dark grey plumage
- all ideal for a nocturnal woodland bird

Owlet Nightjars are neither owls nor nightjars, they are classed in a family of their own, Aegothelidae. They roost by day in tree hollows and hunt at night, feeding on invertebrates, mostly insects, which they can catch in flight although they spend much time foraging on the ground. They are small dainty birds, only about 50g in weight, and they have a soft plumage similar to owls and frogmouths, for quiet flight.

Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo Chalcites basalis
- the broad dark stripe over its ear coverts and the scalloped,
 buff tips to the wing coverts are diagnostic markings of the species
As the day opened up we heard four species of cuckoo calling: Pallid Cacomantis pallidus, Fan-tailed C. flabelliformis, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo Chalcites lucidus and this one, Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoo. We caught four of this last species and all were males, indicative of how male cuckoos, and many other species of birds, tend to migrate to their breeding grounds ahead of the females. The tail patterns, both topside and underneath, are diagnostic of the species' sex - the females have russet colouring on the outer tail feathers, the males, like this one, have black and white outer feathers.

     Top-side of Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo's tail     
    Underside of tail

We caught a good number of regular breeding birds of the area especially White-plumed Honeyeater Ptilotula penicillata and White-eared Honeyeaters Nesoptilotis leucotis for comparisons of biometrics. Our sample included a good mix of species; some resident, some returning to breed and some migrants passing through. There were examples of two races of Silvereye, Zosterops lateralis; the local Z.l. westernensis and the migrant Z.l. ochrochorous which breeds on King Island in the Bass Strait. We also caught fifteen Striated Pardalotes Pardalotus striatus at once in one net and there were three races in that flock; P.s. striatus which breeds in Tasmania, P.s. substriatus which breeds in the interior of the continent and P.s. ornatus which breeds in the south-east.

Z.l. westernensis 


Z.l.w. Rufous flanks

Z.l.o. Tawny flanks

Z.l.w. Yellow throat

Z.l.o. White throat with yellow flecks

Perhaps, the most spectacular bird we caught was a male Brown Goshawk Accipiter fasciatus in full breeding plumage. Accipiters are aggressive and can inflict cuts with their bills and talons, so great care is necessary when handling them. This powerful predatory bird was such a contrast from the docile Owlet Nightjar we began the day with.

The talons are grasped firmly and the head held up away from our hands.
The whole bird is kept well away from our faces.

The bird had clean, slate-blue upper coverts and head. Its breast and underwing coverts were solidly barred.
All its flight feathers were complete, no moult.

The rounded tail is one of the better features to look out for if in doubt whether a bird seen is a
Brown Goshawk or a Collared Sparrowhawk Accipiter cirrocephalus, which has a square-ended tail.

The bright yellow eyes of an Accipiter - a determined hunter.
Note the heavy eyebrows, these shield the eyes, not only from sunshine, but against twigs and leaves when a goshawk crashes through thick vegetation in pursuit of its prey. The brows are unfeathered and the skin shows signs of abrasion. One of the honeyeaters we caught had a 4mm long thorn stuck in the skin on its crown, an example of what birds have to contend with when flying through woodland. I pulled the thorn out cleanly and the honeyeater flew off happily.

All the birds we caught flew off back into the bush. No animals were harmed in the making of this blog.