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My, what big feet you have!

November 11, 2017

Getting a good look at the water birds which inhabit the vegetative fringe of dams is fraught with difficulty. Although they are often seen foraging in the pastures around a dam, the mere slight of a human will send them scurrying out of view into the reeds. This is particularly true of their chicks. This week however I had occasion to spy some Purple Swamphens (Porphyrio porphyrio) (adult pictured left) and their chicks out in the open.

Swamphens are good swimmers despite the fact they do not have webbed feet. Their diet mainly consists of reed shoots and aquatic fauna such as frogs. Nests are built of matted reeds or on floating debris just above the water level in swamps and dams.

Swamphens are able to clamber across reed beds because their large feet spread the weight of the bird over a large area. The size of the feet is unremarkable until you see them on the chicks (pictured right and below). The feet are also used to grasp food.

With feet that big a Double Whopper with Cheese would present no problem at all.

Circle work in the bush

November 6, 2017

The bush dam on our property is a mecca for all sorts of fauna and approaching it with stealth is often rewarded with the sight of something unusual. This week a flash of blue indicated the presence of a Sacred Kingfisher, a bird rarely seen in our area but arguably the most beautiful one around. An even more cautious approach did not reveal the bird but I did notice ripples in the water on the far side of the dam (see photo above). Thinking the rakali was back I settled quietly into the rushes to watch.

What I saw was a Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus) slowly and ever so gracefully swimming around the edge of the dam checking in at every reed clump – presumably for food such as frogs (no frogs were croaking!).

I would have assumed that a Black Snake would be a land-based hunter but this specimen swam around the edge of the dam twice before realising I was there. It then swam underwater across the other side of the dam before reappearing and wrapping itself around the base of a reed (see below).

Two thoughts came to mind.  Firstly these snakes are obviously just as much at home hunting in the water as they are on land. Secondly, I spend a lot of time around this dam. I am always consciously looking for snakes but in this case, even though I knew where the snake was I could not see it from a land-based vantage point.

This  event is shaping up to affect my photography in the same way Jaws affected my surfing all those decades ago – that niggling worry in the back of the mind…

Some privacy please!

October 31, 2017

Spring is well and truly here. The plants are flowering and the animals are doing what they always do in spring – mate.

But just consider the plight of most insects. They have to do the deed al fresco which means they have to contend with the elements rain, hail or shine. In many cases insects can find a secluded spot away from prying eyes deep within the vegetation, for example this pair of Southern Green Stink Bugs (Nezara viridula) mating on a broad bean (pictured left).


However, for these beetles pictured right a floret of Clustered Everlastings (Chrysocephalum semipapposum) might make a romantic setting but where’s the privacy.

And then you have to put up with others dropping in to watch. It is enough to put you off.

I know it puts me off.

Return of the cuckoo

October 23, 2017

Surprisingly, we had not recorded a Pallid Cuckoo on our place since 2011, despite it being a regular spring visitor for many years before that. But this year it has returned and we are seeing and hearing Pallid Cuckoos (as well as Fan-tailed Cuckoos and two Bronze-Cuckoos: Horsfield’s and Shining) not only on our property but at various spots around the district.

It’s good to hear again the familiar and distinctive call, although we know that our smaller birds will have an added threat to contend with when nesting this year. The call is a series of rising notes that can be heard by clicking on the audio bar below. It’s worth getting to know the various cuckoo calls for easy identification of their presence – in a previous post on this blog in 2011 the calls of all the cuckoos mentioned above can be heard.

Grey male Pallid Cuckoo

Browner female (or immature?)

The Pallid Cuckoo uses a perch and pounce technique to catch insects on the ground and is often seen along fence-lines waiting patiently for its next meal. It seems particularly fond of caterpillars (see top photo above), even those hairy ones spurned by many other birds – must have a strong stomach!

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!