Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Frogmouths incubating

A pair of Tawny Frogmouths Podargus strigoides at their nest site - can you spot them
September is the month when most tawny frogmouths in the Canberra area lay their eggs and begin their four-week incubation. This year, the earliest birds laid on the 26th August and the last ones have yet to lay, which is typical of the spread that I have found in the past several years. I monitor about fifty pairs in my studies of these birds, and they are rather difficult to find as they are well concealed. Yet every time I do find a pair at their nest site I cannot help but admire their adaptation to their habitat.

The male sitting on the nest set in the fork of a tree - tricky to see in the typical dappled light
The male incubates the eggs during the day while the female sits quietly in a nearby tree. Neither will move when approached apart from shifting their posture, usually to an erect stretched pose by which they blend into the shape of a branch. As their colouring also resembles that of a dead branch, they simply disappear into the wood.

The female sits on a dead branch high in an adjacent tree
The dead branch posture is the one most people are familiar with if they come across a bird, but most of the time they sit fluffed up and bask in the sunshine. Some of the birds I study are familiar with me as I have visited them several times a year over the years, they probably recognize me. And it is probably because the birds have seen me so often that they do not go into their branch pose. I have been right next to birds as they have cocked their head right back and opened their feathers to catch the sun. I always prefer to study undisturbed birds so it is especially pleasing to be accepted as not a threat by a wild animal.

A female basking in sunshine, with loose feathers and head tilted to catch the sun

A female adopts the stick-pose, where she resembles a dead branch in colour and shape
As a little footnote, not all the birds build their nests in a branch fork, some use old nests of other birds. And a favourite old nest is that of the white-winged chough. These are mud nests, set half-way along a lateral branch and the frogmouths add just a few sprigs of leaves and twigs to the cup of the mud nest. This might give the birds a more secure nest site than the usual flimsy loose platform balanced in a fork, but they are more obvious to predators. Over the years, I'll gather information on whether the birds that use old chough nests are more or less successful at rearing young than those that use conventional nests.

A Tawny Frogmouth sitting on his nest in an old White-winged chough Corcorax melanorhamphos nest

Monday, 28 September 2015

Dry woodland orchids continued.....

Wax Lip Orchid Glossodia major
There seem to be more and more orchids coming into bloom every day at the moment in the Canberra woodlands. Today the forest floor was peppered with blue dots of wax lip orchids in numerous colonies. The blue of these flowers is so intense, and really emphasised, by the the grey leaf and bark litter that they grow amongst. Although they are not as obvious as would seem as the strong sunshine bounces off the ground cover, making it difficult for human eyes to discern the colours in the brightness.

Dry woodland orchid habitat in Canberra 
Also, the orchids are only about 20cm tall, shorter than the grasses, but as one walks through the grass, the flowers appear into view on looking down into the sward. One after another.

A cluster of three Wax Lip Orchids - two still in bud
The most I saw in any one cluster was perhaps seven or eight, but the clusters are only part of larger colonies of twenty, forty, or more flower spikes. Then there will be a gap of a few hundred metres before another colony appears out of the grass.

A typical view looking down on these forest-floor orchids
The other orchid species I saw today, but not previously this year, was the brown caps. There were fewer of them showing and being white, they were probably less noticeable. All the more rewarding to see.

Brown Caps Orchid Caledenia ustuluta
This group were growing on the top of a gully bank, between low-lying shrubs and if not in flower they would be difficult to pick out from the foliage.

Profile of a Brown Caps Orchid flower
The detailed structure of orchid flowers are famous, and bewildering in their variety, with each feature having evolved for a reason to help the species cross-fertilize. They are fascinating when viewed up close, singly or in multiple flower-heads on one stem. No wonder they have so many human admirers.

A stem of Brown Caps Orchids with four flower heads 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Finger orchids

Blue Fingers Cyanicula caerulea - whole plant
The Spring orchids are coming into flower in Canberra and although some can be difficult to find, these finger orchids are obvious. Despite their short stature, only about 10cm tall, and growing singly, these little gems are easy to spot as the forest floor is studded with their flower heads. These flowers were on Black Mountain in the heart of the Australian Capital Territory, only a few kilometres from the city centre. Both species shown here were growing on thin stony soils in the dry forest beneath scribbly gums and red stringybark trees, with sparse leaf and bark litter. Other ground cover was mostly sparse tussocks of wallaby grass.

Blue Fingers Cyanicula caerulea - flower head
The flowers were of three colours, the blue of the blue fingers, and white and pink - two colour varieties of the dusky fingers. All the flowers were fresh and bright so they could not have been long opened. The other species I saw that day was nodding greenhood Pterostylis nutans a tiny flower of a few centres tall that was growing in a compact colony on the steep moist bank of a dry creek. Some of those flowers were fading, while other plants had not yet flowered. The season has been slow to warm up with cold spells, so perhaps that has affected their flowering. To see images of them from an earlier post click here.

Dusky Fingers Petalochilus fuscatus - whole plant
The blue fingers have prostrate single leaves, while the dusky fingers have erect lanceolate leaves as seen in this photograph of the white variety.

Dusky Fingers Petalochilus fuscatus - flower head, white form

Dusky Fingers Petalochilus fuscatus - whole plant, pink form

Dusky Fingers Petalochilus fuscatus - pink flower head

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Dragon fight

Two Common Bearded Dragons Pogona barbata face one another off
The reptiles in Canberra are becoming more active every day as the weather warms. I found a gecko on the front doorstep this morning and a blue-tongued lizard has taken to sunning itself on the edge of the drive. Then while out in the woodlands I came across these two bearded dragons fighting in the middle of the path.

The dominant dragon gains the high ground
I stopped and watched them from a few metres off to follow the outcome, although by the time I found them they appeared to have settled most of the dispute as one seemed to be dominant and the other subordinate. The dominant dragon was circling around the other, always clockwise, spreading out his body and tilting it to show a broad back artificially widened, with spines along the edges. And he blew up his throat to make that look large, again with spines frilling the edge. Meanwhile the subordinate dragon lay low, with its body held slim, his throat non-extended and spines held close, but still showing his teeth and in his bright yellow mouth as if ready to defend. The two, reminded me of red deer stags rutting, facing off to one another, adopting postures that threaten, by exaggerating their size and height.

The inside of their mouths is bright orangy/yellow
 which I am sure when seen from close contact is a formidable threat display
They fought for several minutes, strutting, biting, chasing and tumbling into the grassy verge, knowing I was there, but ignoring me as they were locked in a combat each wanted to win. Then it soon became obvious that one had won the contest. He held his head high and the other lay low. As with stags, they seemed to hold back from inflicting serous injury to one another. Each had a few scales knocked off and even the winner had a bloody smear below one eye. The two seemed evenly matched in size, about 500mm long, and neither looked stronger to me, so how the contest was decided I do not know, strength in endurance perhaps.

The victor posed with head up high and his throat inflated

The loser cowered low with his spines retracted and body held thin
I photographed a more aggressive fight back in 2011, to see those shots follow this link:

In the end, the loser lifted up on his hind legs and ran into the bush, spreading out his belly and neck to look big from behind - a final act of defence in case the other dragon might still attack.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Warming up

A Gippsland Water Dragon Physignathus lesueurii howitii sun-basks on a rock
The days are lengthening and warming up now in Canberra and the reptiles are beginning to show themselves. There are various species of skinks basking on the rocks in our garden, they are little animals of only several centimetres in length, but while at the Botanic Gardens yesterday, I photographed this metre-long water dragon. By its colouring this one looks like a youngster turning into adulthood - its back is more green than dark brown or grey, and there is some yellow coming through on its throat. Full adults have a pale but true green skin and a fully orange/yellow throat.

The throat was blotchy yellow
I only saw the one dragon and it was very approachable. A sign that it was still early Spring and the group that usually frequent the pool where this one was basking next to had yet to get going for the season.

The dragon was lying flat and tight against the rock it was lying on, making maximum use of the warmth of the rock by contact as well as catching as much direct sunshine/heat as possible. The hind legs are turned out wide and it was orientated along the line of the sun, with its shadow falling off under its chin. A well-adapted piece of animal behaviour.
These dragons are found in and near water around the Canberra area, and throughout south-eastern New South Wales and Victoria. There is a colony of them living in the Gardens, around the ornamental pools. They are much more approachable than those in wild settings, where on approach, they will run and dive straight into the water and remain submerged until any threat of danger has passed. Some of their dives can be rather dramatic as they will also climb trees and will dive into the water from the branches if disturbed.

A true dragon - with a magnificent line of nuchal spines running down the back of its neck.
So I took my chance and grabbed some nice close up shots of the dragon features: the scaly lips, the nuchal spines (elongated and enlarged scales on the neck) and that magnificent dragon's eye.

A dragon's eye

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

First day of Spring

Apricot blossom
Today, the 1st of September, is the first day of Spring here in Canberra and the garden is full of activity. The new growth is bursting from the plants and I saw the first butterfly of the season, a cabbage white. The skinks are sun-basking on the rocks and the crested pigeons are collecting nesting material.

But the best show is the blossom in the orchard. The apricots are always first to open and there is a terrific amount of flower heads, so lots of fruit in late summer if all goes well, and the rosellas don't eat too many buds. The plums are a few days behind, but the apples are still in tight bud.

A honey bee approaches the blossom
As it was the first day of Spring I thought I should capture the flavour, so grabbed a few shots of the blossom, then focused on the honey bees as they busied themselves around the blooms. Or rather, I tried to focus on them. They fly so quickly and being so small, there isn't much insect to focus on. But here are a few shots which I took at 40000 - 64000 ISO, 1/4000-1/8000 sec.

Bees are such wonderful fliers
If it takes such high speeds to freeze their movement (except their wing beats), I wonder what speed their own perception operates at, they must live fast furious lives.

And they make apricots for me..., the family, the neighbours, friends; the trees bare so much fruit every year we need to share.

Pollen sacs filled , maybe one little bit more...