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.