Saturday, 30 April 2016

Spring ptarmigan

Snow-laden clouds lie heavily over the Cairngorms
It's Spring in Scotland and there have been some late snow falls in the hills. Yesterday, I was up counting Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta in a long-term study area up on the high summits. The wind was cold, the light was a little grey, ice stung my face, there was a tremendous feeling of being out in a truly wild place - alone in the high hills with the birds and mountain hares. I felt at home in my favourite habitat.

A cock ptarmigan looks out over his territory from a rocky vantage point

The ptarmigan were busy displaying over their territories. They made a wonderful sight as they strutted with their red combs held up high, and as they launched out down over the slopes in long parachute song flights. Their loud croaking calls rattled across the hillside, the only other sound being that of the wind rushing over the icy ground, whipping up spindrift. Then the next minute everything would stop and the air sparkled in sunshine.

Another cock ptarmigan floats down over the snowy hillside on a song flight

As I walked up the hill I left a small group of Sand Martins hawking low over the snow-free ground in the valley. They would have just arrived from, or rather been on passage north from their winter quarters, along with the single male Wheatear and several Meadow Pipits that I saw farther up the hill. There were a few Common Gulls flying around, they would be setting up their nesting territories down by some wet hollows in the peat. The only other local birds which spend the whole year in the area, like the ptarmigan, were the Red Grouse. Good numbers of cock grouse were calling to one another and chasing neighbours in defence of their territories. Meanwhile, the hen birds were busy feeding up to gather nutrients, all to make eggs soon. They seemed to ignore all the fuss made by the cock birds, keeping their heads down as they pecked away at the expanding buds of heather.

A bird descending slowly while calling

The ptarmigan live on the highest ground, up where there is not much vegetation and what there is, is short, prostrate in form on the wind-scoured slopes. The birds were mostly moulted out of their winter plumage and into their spring colours. Grey for the boys and mottled brown for the girls. The males are grey as they mostly sit beside grey lichen-covered rocks, the hens need to resemble the colours of the heath where they feed and nest. They will have to sit on their nests for about three weeks while they incubate the eggs alone. Seldom coming off the nest, lest the eggs become chilled and the embryos die.

A partially moulted hen ptarmigan keeps to the partially snow-free ground, well matched to both types of ground cover

I walked quietly past the birds and they stayed still, not moving any more than they needed to, all part of their strategy to rely on their camouflage to conceal them and to not move to save energy and warmth. I sat beside a pair and when settled down low at ground level, I was out of the wind, tucked into a hollow like the birds. They know to keep out of the wind to preserve body heat, and they have adopted all the best tricks for survival on the high tops. That's one reason I like them. Another is that we share a favourite habitat.

She holds herself in a tight round form, fluffed up and head tucked down into her shoulders - all to keep warm

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Autumn Butterflies

A Common Brown  Heteronympha mesope sits hidden in the leaf-litter

Summer is now long-passed in Canberra and the butterflies are dwindling in number. It seems not long ago that I was walking through clouds of butterflies whenever I walked through the bush. Now there are only a few flitting up from the ground as they see me approach. They are weak and cold, slow to move, yet still difficult to see and creep up on. To catch a few on camera, I had to wait til I flushed them, then watch and carefully mark the exact place where they landed. As soon as they landed and closed their wings they would just disappear from view. So good is their camouflage.

They look so much like fallen leaves

The two species I have seen in the past week have been the Common Brown and the Meadow Argus. Both have dull grey brown underwing colouring, which is all that can be seen when they lie with their wings closed. The bright orange topsides of their wings only show when they see a glimpse of sunshine and open them to warm up in the gentle heat.

A female Common Brown opens her wings to catch some soft sunshine

Even then, the soft tones of the oranges, yellows and blues merge well with the dead leaves, twigs and grass stems. Beautiful seasonal autumn tones. Something to linger on, as my next post, next week, will be on a fresh spring topic. I'll be migrating north any day now.

A Meadow Argus Junoia villida basks on a warm substrate of gravel amongst the leaf litter

Friday, 22 April 2016

Birds of Bowra

Crested bellbird

Following on from the previous two posts on my recent trip to Bowra wildlife sanctuary, run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, here is a brief outline of what birds we caught on the trip. I thank the AWC for their cooperation and Jon Coleman for organising the study, coordinating our visit with his team from Brisbane. Also, I thank the other members of our crew, Mark Clayton, Gil and Marion, and Richard Allen who was working not far from us most of the time and shared his knowledge of birds he and his son Mark caught.

A mist net set in the scrub

We set up about five nets each evening, ready to open at first light the next day. The habitats were mostly mallee and mulga, and although it had rained a week previously, the ground was dry and easily worked. It can be a no-go zone after heavy rain, due to vehicles becoming bogged.

Gil and Mark processing birds quietly at the banding table.

We caught 152 birds of 27 species in five days, the most numerous being Spiny-cheeked and White-plumed Honeyeaters, both common species of dry woodland habitats. It was a good trip with numerous birds that had been banded on previous visits re-trapped, which is what we need to establish some idea of the birds' movements within the reserve and their ages. Below is a sample of the birds found and caught by us this time around.

White-breasted Woodswallow - adult

There were three species of woodswallow regularly hawking over the treetop and picking food from the ground in open areas. These two and the Little Woodswallow, of which I saw several flying high, too high to get caught in the nets.

Black-faced Woodswallow - 1st year/juvenile

This Black-faced Woodswallow can be recognised as a young bird, fledged in the recent breeding season, by the buff-tipped coverts and feathers on the head. The adults have a smooth grey plumage.

Grey-headed Honeyeater - adult

We were lucky to hear, see and catch a few Grey-headed Honeyeaters. They are more abundant farther north and west, although they are a bird of the mulga woodland and that was the habitat we were in.

Red-backed Kingfisher - female

The Red-backed Kingfisher was a species that I never saw or heard until we caught one. They are usually easily found as they tend to call loud whistles from high tree-top perches. This is the kingfisher of the arid zone and dry open woodlands.

Australian Ringneck

Australian Ringnecks are common and widespread in the drier woodlands, especially the mallee and mulga. They could be found readily by following their loud calls, as parties of them fed on the bushes and trees.

Bourke's Parrot - adult female

The Bourke's Parrot is a parrot of the arid and semi-arid, mid interior country. They are generally a quiet bird and easily overlooked. The best time to find them was at dawn or dusk when they fly to drinking pools and roosts.

Hall's Babbler

The Hall's Babbler is a bird that is only found in south-west Queensland and north-west New South Wales. So was perhaps the most typical bird of the area we were in. The overall dark grey/brown plumage and the high breast-line distinguish the species from the similar White-browed Babbler which is found more widespread to the south and west. The other babbler in the area was the Chestnut-crowned Babbler, which we saw and was easily distinguished by its double white wing bars.

Variegated fairy-wren

Two common species, with wide ranges over arid and woodland areas were the Variegated and Splendid Fairy-wrens. As it was the end of the breeding season, the males of both species were moulting out of their bright blue breeding plumage into the duller grey/brown eclipse plumage they take on for the winter. They then look similar to the females and immature birds, although they retain their dark bill and the others have a red bill and eye-ring.

Splendid Fairy-wren

The Variegated Fairy-wren was a little further on with its moult than the Splendid Fairy-wren, but both will complete their change over a few weeks.

Variegated Fairy-wren

Close-up, the fairy-wrens looked especially blotchy with the flecks of blue feathers not yet moulted out.

Splendid Fairy-wren

Monday, 18 April 2016

Spotted Bowerbirds

Conflicting aging criteria?

While studying birds at Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary recently, Mark Clayton and I caught these two Spotted Bowerbirds Chlamydiae maculata and as we were not familiar with the plumages of the different ages and sexes, I photographed them. Now upon closer inspection I find myself confused by the literature and give my interpretation of their age and sex below.

An adult or young bird

An obvious feature of this Spotted Bowerbird's plumage - to a bird ringer/bander - are the bars through the pale rufous tips of the secondary coverts. According to the text of the plumage guide to aging these birds in the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds, HANZAB, this feature identifies the bird as an adult. However, the other features of the bird's plumage indicate that it is a young sub-adult bird. Also, online images of apparent adult birds at bowers show birds with large nuchal crests, and there are no bars through the tips of their secondary coverts e.g. While those of apparent young birds, by their generally pale plumage and lack of crest (HANZAB), show birds with bars through the tips of these feathers.

The second bird shown below seems to be an adult as it has a large pink nuchal crest, a red iris and richly contrasting plumage of dark, almost black and rufous feathers (HANZAB).

This image illustrates the first bird's head, showing the small nuchal crest
 of pink feathers and a slate-grey back to the neck.

This image of the second bird shows a larger, adult-type nuchal crest
 and a similar grey back to the neck

The first bird has only a few pink feathers in its crest,
and the crown feathers are dull rufous/brown with faint dark edges

The second bird has a thick group of pink feathers in its crest,
 the crown feathers have a contrasting dark edges,
those in the fore have white tips.

I suggest that the first bird is more than one year old and not older than two, a sub-adult, 2- in the Australian aging category system. The feathers are generally of low contrast in tone and many of the coverts have pale tips. It is possibly a young male as the slate-grey feathers on the back of the neck are similar to those on the second bird, which by the same criterion seems to be a male. Females have white streaks through these feathers (HANZAB).

The second bird has a rich contrasting dark brown/rufous plumage and obvious pink nuchal crest feathers. I suggest that this bird is an adult male (2+) as it does not have any white streaks through the grey patch at the back of the neck.The bird was also beginning to moult its primary and tail feathers, which is typical of adult birds post-breeding, the period when we caught the birds, in March.

Friday, 1 April 2016


A Major Mitchell's Cockatoo Lophochroa leadbeater flies over Bowra at sunrise

Last week I was at Bowra wildlife sanctuary in the Mulga lands of southern Queensland, which is owned and maintained by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. The land was previously run as a cattle station (ranch), but there are large stands of natural vegetation, particularly of the rocky Mulga woodland on the low stony ridges, Gidgee woodland on the plain and long lines of River Red Gum and Coolabah trees along the watercourses. The sanctuary is several kilometres north west of Cunnamulla and has an excellent campsite and cottage accommodation around the old homestead. Numerous rough vehicle tracks wind around and through the the various habitats giving easy access for walking through the bush to look for wildlife.

Sunrise is the best time to look for wildlife as the animals are most active before the mid-day heat 

I was there helping with a co-operative bird-banding (ringing) study organised by John Coleman from Brisbane. This was the fifth year of the project and by setting nets at the same places each year we will gradually build up a picture of the various bird species' use of the different habitats and their demography. But more of that in a later post.

The old cattle run country of Gidgee woodland - sparse mulga trees and bushes. These plains flood after heavy rains and  grasses and herbs then cover the now bare earth.

The largest and most obvious animal in the plains is the Red Kangaroo, the largest macropod, and I saw three other species, the  Common Wallaroo, Western Grey Kangaroo and Swamp Wallaby. Emus were also abundant, with some birds leading parties of up to five juveniles. Unfortunately there are stray cattle about, as well as herds of feral goats. It is not easy to control these non-native species, but the habitats were in good condition overall.

Red Kangaroos Macropus rufus (only the large dominant males are truly red). Note the large ears for keeping cool

Most animal species were reptiles such as the gecko I found on the entrance gate when I arrived, the carpet python that was high in the canopy above our tents and the numerous small lizards. My main focus was on birds this trip, so I didn't have much time to identify most of the reptiles, although I grabbed a few pictures of a skink lurking under tree bark. It seemed to be hiding there, waiting for passing prey.

A Ragged Snake-eyed Skink Cryptoblopherus pannosus hides under the bark of a Gidgee tree. 

There are several pools of standing water scattered around the sanctuary and in an arid country, that is a big draw for wildlife. I saw Pied Cormorants, a Darter and a White-necked heron fishing in the larger waterways.

Gumholes Creek - standing water lined with ancient River Red Gums

There is an artificial waterhole in the middle of the camping ground, large enough to attract a Black Swan while I was there, as well as Yellow-billed Spoonbills, Red-necked Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Masked Lapwings and Black-fronted Dotterel.

A Yellow-billed Spoonbill Platalea flavipes and two Black-winged Stilts Himantopus himantopus
in the campsite waterhole

Another water site was the campsite toilet block, a great favourite of the Desert Tree Frog, with occasional visits from Green Tree Frogs and I would expect snakes looking for frogs, although I never I met any snakes there on my visits.

Night-time is best for looking for frogs in the dunny

As the sign in the loo states, don't mind the frogs they will survive the flush.

A Desert Tree Frog Litoria rubella in the loo