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Neither cuckoo nor shrike

November 12, 2019

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike

Following the previous post by Ronlit on unexpectedly finding water birds nesting high in trees, in the case of the Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike it is not unexpected at all for this arboreal bird, but what is surprising is that a) we managed to spot one high up in a large Yellow Box (Eucalyptus melliodora) right outside our front gate, and b) that cuckoo-shrikes ever manage to successfully breed since their nest is typically a small, shallow and flimsy affair precariously balanced in the fork of a branch and so is very susceptible to strong winds (and is very hard to see from below!).

Change-over time at nest duties

The Black-faced is the most widespread and common of the cuckoo-shrikes. It is migratory/nomadic, usually heading north in winter, but in 2010 it was recorded here in all months of the year. Both sexes share nest-building, incubation and feeding young.

White-winged Triller male

Another migratory bird in the cuckoo-shrike family (Campephagidae – meaning caterpillar-eater) is the White-winged Triller (pictured below) which is turning up in numbers in our district and, unusually, around southern Victoria, including Melbourne suburbs. The abundance of White-winged Trillers is known to fluctuate widely, and the last time we had a big influx of trillers was in 2013, when they could be heard in spring all around the Flowerdale/Strath Creek area.

Like all the cuckoo-shrike family, these two birds are unrelated to either cuckoos or shrikes. The origin of the name remains a mystery, though unconvincing explanations have been proposed about cuckoo-like plumage and flight, and shrike-like bill. As Fraser and Gray say in their book Australian Bird Names “… it is another awful combination of names of birds of entirely different orders…”.

To hear local recordings of the cuckoo-shrike and triller calls/song, click on the audio below.
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike:

White-winged Triller:

Room with a view

November 9, 2019

As a very amateur birdo I find that my preconceived ideas about birds and how they live are continually being challenged and corrected, none more so than my recent discovery. I find wetlands and dams to be infinitely fascinating places – the intersection between the terrestrial and the aquatic life. At the right time of the year contemplation at the side of a dam will reveal a multitude of birdlife nesting in the reeds and sedges. And so I thought that all aquatic birds e.g. ducks, herons, etc. did the same.

Last week I spied a nest made of sticks and twigs high up in a River Red Gum (above left). It was to my great surprise that a photograph of the nest revealed two White-faced Heron (Egretta novaehollandiae) chicks peering out over the edge (above). My Pizzey and Knight bird app tells me the nest should be ‘in a leafy branch 5 – 12 m high, sometimes far from water’. Check.

Coincidentally, now that I know where to look, I spied an Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosa), left, nesting in the top of an old stag and an Australian Wood Duck (Chenonetta jubata) nesting in a tree hollow (pictured below).

A quick check of other ducks, egrets and spoonbills on the app shows they invariably nest in hollows or nests high in trees either close to or away from water – obviously the inner-city high-rise apartment dwellers of the aquatic bird world. Be careful what you assume.

Herbie rides again

November 6, 2019

For those of my generation the term Love Bug conjures up images of a self-directed Volkswagon Beetle called Herbie with the racing number of 53. The Love Bug movie spawned a succession of sequels featuring the said car. At the moment there is another Love Bug on the scene. Flies of the genus Plecia pictured below are starting to swarm.

In late spring and early summer the males hatch and await the arrival of the females. Mating takes place as soon as the females have hatched and lasts up to three days after which time the female lays eggs and dies. The term love bug or honeymoon bug comes from the fact that for the majority of their lives these flies can be seen flying around attached tail to tail mating.

The eggs are laid in decaying vegetable matter, the substrate on which the larvae feed. The adults are nectar feeders (pictured right).

In the United States swarms are known to create significant traffic hazards by coating car windscreens and blocking radiator grilles…probably more of a traffic hazard than even Herbie.

A hard head?

September 30, 2019

Hardhead female with grebe

An elegant female Hardhead has taken up residence on our dam this month – the first sighting here since 2013. She can often be seen gliding serenely around the dam in the company of other waterbirds, such as the Australasian Grebe and Pacific Black Duck shown here.

Hardhead female with black duck

The Hardhead is the only Australian representative of the true diving ducks or pochards. It’s an efficient swimmer and swift flyer, but a clumsy walker. It likes deep water, usually keeping well away from shore. Being a diver, it can reach food inaccessible to other ducks – its diet can include aquatic insects, crustaceans and submerged vegetation.

Hardhead male

The male Hardhead has a conspicuous white eye (see photo below), which gave rise to its previous name, White-eyed Duck. The “Hardhead” monicker was apparently given to it by shooters who considered it hard to kill due to its dense plumage and reputed stamina (from Australian Bird Names, Fraser & Gray).

It is still a permitted game species in the annual Victorian duck season, despite its conservation status in Victoria being listed as “Vulnerable”, meaning it is considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.

As they say, go figure!

Just like the Serengeti

September 27, 2019

At our house we run a 2-bay (single turn) hot composting system to convert garden waste and food scraps into soil. When one bay is full the contents are transferred into the second bay (that’s the single turn bit) and then the original bay is filled again. Last weekend was the day of the transfer and in doing so we unearthed a range of fauna that had called the compost heap home for the past year or so.

One of the most distinctive was a Slater-eating Spider (Dysdera crocata), pictured left, identifiable by its red cephalothorax and cream coloured abdomen. For its size this spider has very large fangs. This allows it to feed on most underground invertebrates including slaters, beetles, crickets and even centipedes. They are night-time hunters and spend most of the day in a silk ‘room’ which they construct in an underground crevice in leaf litter or under rocks or wood.

If you get close enough you’ll notice the spider has 3 pairs of eyes set close together. But don’t get too close – a bite will cause minor inflammation but can result in headaches and nausea. The other name for this spider is the European Garden Spider, indicative of its Mediterranean origin. Due to its aversion to ants, its distribution in Australia is limited to the south east of the continent.

As an aside, when I was a kid seeing African scenes of lions and their prey – zebra, antelopes, etc, living in very close proximity, seemingly ignoring each other, I wondered how could that be? The picture above right shows something similar, Slater-eating Spiders and slaters roaming about together. Just like the Serengeti but in microcosm.

Frog chorus

September 24, 2019

The frogs are in full voice around our dam and adjoining wetland at present, as you can hear by clicking on the audio below. It makes for a loud but strangely soothing soundscape.

Pobblebonk or Eastern Banjo Frog

Over the past week the Pobblebonk (or Eastern Banjo Frog), Limnodynastes dumerilii (left), has been the dominant caller, at least to our ears, but the Spotted Marsh Frog, Limnodynastes tasmaniensis, Eastern Common Froglet, Crinia insignifera, and Plains Froglet (or Eastern Sign-bearing Froglet), Crinia parinsignifera, have all been competing for air-time.

It’s only the male frogs that call, in order to attract females (and out-compete other males). Many of the male Pobblebonks have obviously done their job, judging by the many rafts of white frothy egg masses (spawn) that have appeared among sedges and rushes around the edge of the dam. Some of these spawn have tiny tadpoles appearing already (see below). The floating frothy spawn is typical of the marsh frogs, genus Limnodynastes. Crinia froglets in contrast lay individual eggs attached to stems of submerged vegetation, or on the substrate of a water body. For the tadpole to frog story see previous posts titled Metamorphosis.

The make-up of the frog soundscape varies from day to day, and even throughout the day. Perhaps they need a break every now and then from that hectic attention-seeking!

She who must be obeyed

September 20, 2019

This morning I was watching a Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) skip across the back lawn wondering where the neighbour’s cat was when you really needed it when WHAM, within a split-second the aforementioned Blackbird was skewered to the ground by a Collared Sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus), see photo below. Man, it happened quickly.

The scientific name for this species is derived from the Latin words accipere meaning ‘to seize or to capture’,  kirros  meaning ‘orange-tawny’ and kephale meaning ‘head‘. Collared Sparrowhawks normally hunt in flight or by diving on prey from low, concealed perches using speed and surprise as an advantage. Small birds make up most of the diet, which can also include birds up to the size of domestic chooks. Our chooks often act as if the Sparrowhawk is around by all of a sudden scurrying with much squawking under the nearest bush and then spending the rest of the day looking skywards. Sparrowhawks  also feed on insects, lizards and small mammals including bats. The kill is taken and eaten on a nearby perch.

As for the Blackbird, if it wasn’t dead already the stare (pictured right) would be enough to stop it in its tracks. Not as deadly as the stare from ‘She who must be obeyed’ but terrifying enough.