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Relatively little

October 6, 2017

A number of Australian birds have the epithet “little” in their common name. But for some of these there is only a marginal difference between the “little” species and another closely related species. So, unless you happen to see both species close up and together, for the non-expert it is not immediately obvious which is the “little” species, and therefore other distinguishing features such as plumage, habits or call must be used for their identification. For example, we have the Little Corella only slightly smaller than the Long-billed Corella, and the Little Raven only marginally smaller than the Australian Raven. Similarly, the Little and Red-chested Button-quails are essentially the same size.

For the pied cormorants there is undoubtedly a size difference between the Little Pied and Pied, but when trying to identify and photograph a wary bird through rushes and sedges on the other side of a wetland (see photo above), size is not so easy to determine. With declining eyesight and without binoculars at hand it was only by studying the photos later that we were able to recognise our bird as a Little Pied Cormorant, because of its (relatively) stubby orange/yellow bill and its all-white face, compared with the Pied Cormorant’s long slender pale bill and distinctive face colourings. The Pied also has a shorter tail and black thighs/flanks, and in fact is in a different genus, Phalacrocorax, from the Little Pied’s Microcarbo. The clincher is the Little Pied’s crest on the forehead which can just be seen slightly raised in the photo at right which was taken a couple of days later from a more advantageous spot on our wetland.

Interestingly, there has been some recognition of the inadequacy of the “little” descriptor: the Australasian Grebe was formerly known as the Little Grebe despite being only slightly smaller than the Hoary-headed Grebe, and the Little Thornbill was changed to Yellow Thornbill, acknowledging that it is in fact much the same size as other thornbills.

So with bird identification, maybe size doesn’t matter – there are more important things to consider?!

Ol’ Blue-eyes

September 29, 2017

During my latest excursions with the Murrindindi Birdwatchers I have learned a new word – ‘Lifer’. A lifer is a bird that you have observed for the first time ever, and of course everyone is keen to do that. Last weekend whilst wandering in the bush I saw a lifer. Strangely enough it was not really the bird that I was interested in but one of its constructs – a bower. Ever since I was a kid I had heard of the bower that a Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) makes and how the male decorates it with blue articles to attract and impress the female Bowerbird.

And there it was in the middle of the bush, a collection of blue articles (pictured above) – packing twine, packing straps, plastic lids, even the top of a BIC ballpoint pen. It took four visits to the bower over several days to eventually see the constructor of the bower (pictured right). The male is solid black in colour (the female is green/brown) but when the light is at the correct angle it diffracts off the feathers to give the male bird a distinctly metallic blue appearance. Most striking however are the violet-blue eyes.

This particular male was quite mature. Younger males are coloured like the female and decorate their bowers with both blue and yellow objects. As a bird matures the feathers become darker and the decorations become more blue.

Which got me thinking…all the items in this bower were man made. Blue is not a common colour in nature and I wonder what was used to decorate bowers before man appeared. Berries maybe, even flowers.

If I was a Crimson Rosella I’d watch out for my tail feathers.

A fishy story

September 24, 2017

Since 2006 scientists from the Arthur Rylah Institute have been surveying Goulburn River tributaries, including the King Parrot Creek, to assess the status of Macquarie Perch, Macquaria australasica, populations. During that time they have accumulated a great deal of data and obtained insights into the habits, requirements and biology of this fascinating native fish. Now Focus on Fauna is fortunate that two of the ARI researchers, Jo Kearns and Renae Ayres, have agreed to come to Strath Creek on Sunday 8th October to tell us all about their findings. Click on the flyer at right for full details of their presentation. All are welcome to attend, but RSVP would be appreciated.

The Macquarie Perch is endemic to the south-eastern reaches of the Murray-Darling Basin and was once widespread and common in parts of the Goulburn-Broken catchment. However, particularly over the past 50 years or so, numbers have declined dramatically to the point where only a small number of fragmented populations exist in Victoria, and the perch is considered endangered here as well as nationally. Why not come along to this talk and find out why, and what is being done to ensure the fish’s survival – a pleasant way to spend a spring Sunday afternoon and be informed!

Is it a bird …?

September 7, 2017

It’s relatively easy to record frog calls, but sometimes much more difficult to find and photograph the frog itself. One in particular is the Whistling (or Verreaux’s) Tree Frog, Litoria verreauxii, which has been calling around our wetland and dams recently, but which we have never managed to find, let alone photograph. To the rescue came Jo Wood, from the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority, who sent us the wonderful image below taken by Damien Cook.

The call is a repeated whistle – click on the audio bar below to hear it recorded near Strath Creek (with the Common Froglet, Crinia signifera, in the background). When we first heard it many years ago we assumed the perpetrator was a bird, especially as the sound was coming from a tree about 3m above ground. We never did discover the mystery bird and it was some time later that, with embarassment, we learnt the caller was a frog.

The male Whistling Tree Frog may call all year round, but at our place it seems to be mainly over winter/spring. It is predominantly a ground-dweller, although, as we discovered, it can climb with the aid of the pads on its digits, but perhaps not as well as some other Tree Frogs (family Hylidae) which have broader pads.

There are actually two sub-species – ours is Litoria verreauxii verreauxii and the other, Litoria verreauxii alpina, is found in alpine areas, and is considered Critically Endangered in Victoria and Vulnerable nationally. The Alpine Tree Frog’s call is slower and less whistle-like – probably not likely to be confused with a bird!

[Incidentally, if you want to identify a frog you’ve found or heard in this area, the iSpy Frogs free app developed by the GBCMA is a great place to start – and you can record your sighting on their database. A more recent addition is the iSpy Catchment Creatures app that includes birds, fish and reptiles, as well as frogs.]

It’s dead, but that’s OK

September 2, 2017

Recently a neighbour (distance-wise, a relative term in the country) told me about a dead bird they had found on their property. It was described as having a definite ‘finch-like’ beak and a red face. The only common finches I knew of in the area were the Red-browed Finches (Neochmia temporalis), pictured left, a highly sociable bird I often see in large flocks on my lawn eating grass seeds. It has a red eyebrow but hardly a red face.

A photo (right) of the demised bird and some ‘googling’ revealed the mystery bird to be a European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis). European Goldfinches are native to Europe, north Africa and central Asia and were introduced into Australia in the 1860’s, probably as a cage bird. It has subsequently become established in south-eastern Australia. Furthermore this bird is from the family of birds called True Finches. It and another import, the Common Greenfinch (Chloris chloris), are the only true finches Australia has. All of the native ‘finches’ in Australia, of which there are over a dozen, are technically classed as Grassfinches and are generally smaller in size than True Finches.

So, mystery solved. I am not too disturbed that the bird was found deceased. A good feral is a dead feral. Is that too harsh???

I know that you’re there…

August 14, 2017

and I know what you’ve eaten.

During winter many birds and animals are rarely seen because they are sheltering from the cold and wet. Regular readers will notice a decrease in the frequency of these blogs for this reason, and because the authors are also hiding away from the elements. But you don’t need to see the fauna to know that they are there.

The wildlife still have to eat and drink. So for the nerds amongst us with a motion-sensing camera, positioning it in the right spot will reveal the unseen action that happens during the breaks in the weather (see picture left of a Brush-tailed Phascogale).
Examination of washouts of sand or clay after the rain will reveal footprints that characterise the birds and animals that have passed by. Pictured right are the front paw prints of a Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) and, slightly to the left of those, the characteristic long toe print and toenail impression of the back leg.

Diggings in the ground indicate where hungry animals have foraged for roots, insects and their larvae. The photo left shows (sort of) the conical hole and nose print of a bandicoot digging. Similar nose prints but a different shaped hole would indicate an echidna had been there.

And finally let’s talk about poo – scats to be more precise if you are talking about fauna. The shape and size of scats are indicative of the animals that produced them. A walk through the bush with eyes fixed on the ground will reveal wombat, kangaroo and possum scats everywhere. And if you break the scat up it will reveal information about what the animal has eaten.

The photo right is of a fox or dog scat typified by the cylindrical shape with a pinched end. I have no idea what has been eaten but foxes regularly eat berries to supplement their diet.

To work out the ingredients a person would need to employ the chew and taste test…but that person is not me.

In black and white

August 1, 2017

Black-and-white “stilt-walker”

While many of our native birds, especially woodland birds, are undoubtedly declining in numbers and distribution, some of our open-country birds seem to be bucking the trend. One of these is the Magpie-lark, otherwise known as Mudlark or Peewee, a common and familiar sight around the district. We have had four strutting around our place for some time, but in recent days this seems to have been reduced to a single pair who we suspect are working up to breeding. They are regularly emitting their loud antiphonal call as a duet (click on audio bar below for an example).

There is a distinct gender difference in the Magpie-lark’s plumage, with the male having a black face and throat, and white eyebrow, and the female having a white forehead and throat. Their nest, seen in the middle picture above, is a sturdy mud affair like a smaller version of the White-winged Chough’s nest.

The scientific name, Grallina cyanoleuca, means “blue and white stilt-walker”. The stiltwalker part is understandable, as they do forage on the ground on fairly long legs, but “blue and white”? – definitely black and white to us!