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Frogmouth squats in Chough’s Nest

November 28, 2021

The craft that goes into the construction of a White-winged Chough’s nest (Corcorax melanorhamphos) is extraordinary. The family work together to sculpt a beautiful mud bowl. ANU researcher Dr Connie Leon was fascinated by the complex family dynamics and noticed that they practised a type of slavery – young birds from neighbouring clans are coerced into the work gang, building the nest, taking a turn on the nest for brooding, and then helping to feed the very demanding chicks. In other words, the clan is augmented by additional young workers lured from other clans and kept there by vigilance.

Chough families are often seen on roadsides in our area and can grow to as large as 20 birds, although I have seen super flocks in Autumn at times of many more than that.  It seems a waste of energy to build a beautiful mud bowl nest each year. This family of choughs left an excellent nest behind and built a new one for the season on the other side of the same tree.

White-winged chough at new mud nest

So in moved a Tawny Frogmouth pair (Podargus strigoides) to occupy a perfectly-good choughs’ nest from the previous year. Frogmouths normally build a very flimsy nest on a fork on a horizontal branch where they train up a couple of lugubrious fluffy chicks to sit as still and stiff as their parents.

It must have been an irresistible opportunity to squat in this elaborate nest that no frogmouth could ever construct and bring up the family in security and comfort.

Tawny Frogmouth using an abandoned Choughs’ Nest

The slogan they follow seems to be: reduce (work), reuse, recycle.

It’s a Breeding Frenzy

November 12, 2021

It’s a lively breeding season in this lush Spring after generous rain over the year thus far. One of the easiest birds to observe, to wonder at, and to photograph is the Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis) because they are bold, they forage at eye-level or lower, and they tend to settle calmly when they land, not be restless like a thornbill.

Though I always try to keep my distance from a nesting bird, this Eastern Yellow Robin in the Yea Wetlands makes little effort to hide itself or its nest. There seem to be several pairs nesting at the moment and although the one pictured at the nest has very young chicks, some parents have got ahead in the race. I found one very young individual with rich brown plumage moving alone through the trees by the river. It will probably still get occasional feeding from its parents, like a teenager still likes to go home for Sunday lunch, but I saw no adult while I was watching, making me unsure of its identification till I checked up later.

It’s a good year for birds, a good year for breeding, a good year for learning more about birds.

The Greeblies are here

November 8, 2021

After three anxious weeks of watching them on the nest – a floating structure built way to close to the shore by my way of thinking and in the vicinity of a big ol’ Red-bellied Black (Snake), mum and dad Australasian Grebes (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae) hatched what can only be described a three cotton balls with paddles.

Although the three Greeblies (not the official term for a Grebe chicks!) are quite capable of swimming at birth when danger threatens they clamber aboard the back of one of the parents and hide under their wings (see picture above and below). If the parents are concerned then they do the usual grebe-thing of diving under the water only to reappear metres away. The young ones are taken along for the ride.

This form of chick transportation only takes place in the first few weeks after hatching. By then the greeblies are too big to fit on their parents’ backs and have themselves learned the art of diving when danger approaches. Daily life now appears to consist of the adults diving down and picking up food that is voraciously eaten by the chicks as soon as they surface.

After a couple of months the parents will leave the young to fend for themselves. In good seasons they may reuse the nest to lay a second clutch of eggs.

I don’t think I could stand the stress of waiting again.

Is that a gun in your pocket?

November 2, 2021

Cup moths are so named because of the shape of their cocoons. Their caterpillars feed on new gum leaves and are therefore rarely seen because they are usually in the uppermost reaches of eucalypts where the new growth is. However after a storm like the one we had last week there is a good chance some of these caterpillars will be found on the ground having been dislodged by the wind. Pictured below is a Painted Cup Moth (Doratifera oxleyi) caterpillar found last week in these circumstances. This species is found predominantly in central NSW but is also found in Victoria (obviously), South Australia and Tasmania. The larvae feed on River Red Gum leaves (E. camaldulensis).

For protection the caterpillar can deploy spines, that in some species are loaded with irritant liquid. The spines are kept in pockets on the front and back of the caterpillar. The larva pictured above, has eight such pockets, four at the front and four at the back each containing yellow spines. In the picture the spines at the back are partially everted – only mildly annoyed! When very annoyed the caterpillar can erect all eight spine clusters from their pockets (picture left).

Not a gun in the pocket but a weapon none the less.

Insect origami

October 24, 2021
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Like most insect Orders the name for the group of insects that includes beetles is derived from two Greek words describing the insect’s wings. Coleoptera comes from koleus meaning sheath and pteron meaning wing. It describes the hard ‘shield-like’ outer wings that protect the more fragile flying wings underneath. All members of this order have two pairs of wings. The outer wings are known as elytra. When the beetle is in flight the elytra are drawn up and away to allow the flying wings to unfurl. For most beetles the elytra cover the entire length of the abdomen.

Rove Beetles (pictured above) comprise a group of insects where the elytra are significantly shortened. In the natural world the Rove Beetle family comprises the largest number of organisms in a single group. As such they are widely varied in their habits and distributions. These beetles in our district are typically varied combinations of black and red. The elytra usually only cover the first few segments of the abdomen.

The majority of Rove Beetles, both adults and larvae, are voracious predators feeding on insects and other invertebrates. The Devil’s Coach Horse (Creophilus erythrocephalus), pictured left, feeds on maggots (fly larvae) and can be found in carcasses of mammals. They neither bite nor sting humans but contain a powerful toxin that can cause contact dermatitis when touched.

It is wrong to assume that due to the small elytra the rove beetle has small flying wings and is therefore a poor flyer. The picture right shows a Rove Beetle with its flying wings extended. When at rest the beetle needs to undertaking a complex folding manoeuvre to store its flying wings under the red elytra.

Insect origami.

Illegal Immigrants

October 19, 2021

House sparrows (Passer domesticus) are a native bird of Europe that has been introduced to many parts of the world, including Eastern Australia. They are not established yet in Western Australia, and that State wants to keep it that way. There is a hotline for anyone sighting a House Sparrow in WA and they will send out professionals to ‘disestablish’ them.

Back in the years when we used to travel, I was visiting Port Hedland in WA and in a touch of glorious irony, I was standing outside the Immigration Detention Centre in Port Hedland when I saw a small group of House Sparrows at the edge of the car park.  In this place where “illegal immigrants” were to be detained, some feathered ones had flown in. I rang the hotline and felt insulted when the person at the other end asked, Are you sure they are House Sparrows? Hmmph! I’m from Victoria.

Once the most common of introduced birds, House Sparrows are now in serious decline. They’re hard to find in Great Britain, in India, and getting less frequent in Australia. No one is sure just why – one study blames the rise of the mobile phone.

I still have a small flock at my place; they like our chook pen and the food it provides. I learnt an interesting fact about House Sparrows.  The male sports a fine black bib that functions much the same as the blue on male Superb Fairywrens: the colours are rich and bright in the breeding season but fade or dissipate in the off-season. Except for the Alpha males; these are dominant, at least 3 years old, high in the pecking order and carrying enough testosterone to sustain breeding colours in the non-breeding season.

In any flock of sparrows, watch out for the cock sparrows that have the biggest, blackest bib. They’ll be strutting and swaggering, shoving the commoners aside.

Cock sparrow in breeding plumage: black beak, and black bib

Related post Attention Entrepreneurs!

The Greeblies are coming!

October 13, 2021

Non-breeding plumage

Any one who has been cycling in the last month knows it is nest-building season and has run the gauntlet of magpies protecting theirs. On a more sedate note in our local dams Australasian Grebes (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae) have been quietly constructing their own nests.

Australasian Grebes are freshwater birds. During winter the plumage is quite plain (see photo left) but as breeding season approaches the birds display distinctive plumage (see photo below) including a yellow facial patch, a darker head and a striking chestnut stripe extending from the back of the eye down the neck (see photos below).

Back from Bunnings

In early spring the breeding pair accumulate reeds and grasses (pictured right) and constructs a floating nest tethered in a body of still water away from the shore. This is to protect the adult birds and the eggs and chicks from land based predators e.g. cats and foxes. The eggs take about three weeks to hatch so in a couple of weeks expect another blog on the arrival of the greeblies.

Breeding plumage

Grebes are good swimmers and divers (tachybaptus in the scientific name is Greek for rapid dipper). It is hard to get good photos of these birds because when approached they dive under the water and resurface many metres away. Quite the opposite of what happens when approaching a magpie nest.

We’re just never happy!

Rakes and Crails

October 7, 2021

Crakes and rails are small, skulking birds that hang out in reed-beds and are hard to find. They should be in any location that has a muddy edge on shallow water with lots of reeds to shelter in. Like this Spotted Crake I observed in a wetland in Barham NSW.

Water bodies that have steep sides and no mudflats or reedbeds are not likely habitats, even though many people think lakes like that are more picturesque. Yea Wetlands has some suitable areas at times, and I was quite excited to see that someone had recorded sighting a Lewin’s Rail in March this year on eBird.org, complete with a photograph of the bird partially hidden by reeds. (You can check the records and photographs here.) Rails are twice as large as crakes which are tiny, sparrow-sized waders.

Next time I was down in the area, I could see nothing in the reed bed but I did hear a persistent call which I thought was the Lewin’s Rail. I got out my phone and recorded it.

When I played this back a couple of times, to my absolute delight, the bird responded then came to the edge of the river and I got some good views of it among the reeds. Alas, I had no camera.

Why are these birds called ‘rails’? According to the etymology dictionary, it is from an old French word “raler“, meaning ‘to rattle’ and reflects their calls. (Just as crake comes from the old Norse kraka because it croaks like a crow.) Based on the recording I made, I would not object to anglicising the name and calling it a Lewin’s Rattler.

New Kid in Town

October 1, 2021
Crescent Honeyeater

Twice now I have detected this new bird in my backyard, giving an animated and loud vocal display. It is a Crescent Honeyeater  (Phylidonyris pyrrhopterus). Maree found them on Junction Hill in this post in 2019. Never recorded in Yea before. The first time in late August, it attracted the local bullyboys and was driven out by two Red Wattlebirds with cheering on by some spinebills and fairywrens. Today it was back unimpeded, calling loudly on a cold sunny morning from the top of a bush. Both times it has been a single male bird (the female has more muted colours all round).

Guess he’s no longer the New Kid in Town.

Better than a dog!

September 21, 2021
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The Huntsman Spider is one of the largest and quickest spiders in Australia. Some people may be disappointed to know that there are in fact many species of Huntsman Spider.

One of the most common, pictured left, is the Social Huntsman (Delena cancerides), the latter word derived from the Greek for ‘crab-like’, a description of the sideways walk it sometimes displays. This spider is very flat allowing it in nature to live under the bark of trees, often in groups of up to 300. In the house it can neatly slip into any crevice.

The Badge Huntsman (Neosparassus diana) is smaller but thicker than its Social counterpart. The young are born green but as they mature become brown to orange in colour (pictured right). The name is derived from the distinctive ‘badge’ marking on the underside of the abdomen (pictured below), easily seen if you can ‘coax’ the spider to walk on glass. The marking is displayed aggressively to deter possible predators, a feature known as aposematic colouration.

Like all Huntsmans, Badge Huntsmans have two rows of four evenly spaced eyes, the two outer eyes on the lowest row being the largest. The Badge Huntsman is distinguished by a patch of white hairs between the two rows that look like eyebrows (pictured below).

This is the time of the year when female Badge Huntsmans are out looking for mates, subsequently laying eggs in a silken cocoon held in a nest of grass held loosely together by silk threads.

At the moment I share my kitchen with a Badge Huntsman. Smaller than a dog it looks after its own feeding requirements and since it hasn’t shown me ‘the badge’ I am assuming it is happy with the arrangement. In covid times, a welcome companion.