Friday, 28 July 2017

What's brown & white and swims in circles?

Almost everything at Hasties Swamp at the moment is a plumed whistling-duck. That's not a complaint; plumed whistling-ducks are the finest of our two three I don't know how many resident species of whistling-ducks. And here's the obligatory photo of a plumed whistling-duck gazing into the middle distance.

But there's more to the swamp than plumed whistling-ducks. There are plenty of magpie geese, a fair number of hardheads, and a few white-necked herons, Australian white ibis, swamphens and moorhens around at the moment. And pink-eared ducks (Malacorhynchus membranaceus), which are the best ducks. Just look at them.

Pink-ears are also called zebra ducks, because of their annual migration across the Serengeti. Alternatively, it might have something to do with the coloration.

They're common but —

Honestly, why would you name a bird for its least conspicuous feature? Zebra duck, small stripey duck, flappy-billed duck, whirly duck...All of these are more descriptive than pink-eared duck. I don't care that the tiny splash of pink is due to carotenoids in the feathers, which is so unusual in Anseriformes that it's a subject of academic study*. It looks as though someone's left the cap off a highlighter pen. Common names ...pfft. Don't get me started on brown honeyeaters and rainforest tamarinds.

— nomadic, often following the floods.

They feed on small invertebrates and algae, which they filter out of the water using lamellae on the edge of the bill. The duck on the bottom left is doing just that.

Often, two or more ducks swim together in a circle in a behaviour known as vortexing. This stirs up and concentrates food, working to both birds' advantage.

It also entertains the whistling-ducks.

* Thomas, DB, et al. (2014) Ancient origins and multiple appearances of carotenoid-pigmented feathers in birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences 281 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Water in the Desert

Immediately after the Iron Range trip, I went to Alice Springs with a bird photography group led by Mark Carter, David Stowe and Henry Cook. One of the sites we visited was a dam SW of Alice Springs. It was the only reliable water for a long way, so we decided to stake it out.

These grey teal had already claimed their spot.

This Australian hobby had the same idea.

It didn't take long before the birds started to arrive. There were plenty of zebra finches. They might be abundant, both in the wild and in aviaries, but I still think they are gorgeous little things.

A small flock of budgies flew over, but most didn't settle. Luckily for us, a few rugged individuals peeled away from the mob and joined the zebra finches.

There were also grey-headed honeyeaters...

crested pigeons...

and galahs.

This grey butcherbird must have picked up some tips from the hobby, because moments after I took this photo, it flew straight into a flock of zebra finches.

But it didn't have much luck. Good news for the finches, not so good for the butcherbird.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Fastidious Bowerbird

The tooth-billed bowerbirds usually ignore the shallow bird bath in favour of a deeper and more secluded one in the corner of the garden. But with the onset of dry weather (it's been four days since rain!), this bird has visited both. I have to refill this after he's splashed around for a while.

And sometimes he even shares with a friend. In this case, it's an eastern whipbird.

Between them, they leave scarcely enough water for the grey fantails.

The fantails are keen to let me know when the water level's low or there are foreign feathers floating in their bath, but they always struggle through.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Cape York Peninsula: Rinyirru (Lakefield) NP, Pt 2

Rinyirru NP is more than savannah and magnetic termite mounds. The park is dissected by a network of creeks and rivers, all of which are a) lined by paperbarks and b) full of crocodiles. One of these things is more obvious than the other.

While we watched banded, bar-breasted, and yellow honeyeaters squabbling over Melaleuca flowers, a white-bellied sea eagle watched us. I'm not sure if we were as entertaining to the eagle as the honeyeaters were to us.

Billabongs were home to all sorts of waterbirds, including magpie geese...

 ...and Australian darters.

There were also egrets of all sorts, comb-crested jacanas, azure and sacred kingfishers, and green pygmy geese. Rainbow bee-eaters were abundant.

In more open areas, black-backed butcherbirds hung around, waiting for us to disturb lizards or large grasshoppers. Or possibly drop sandwiches. They are as opportunistic as their southern congeners.

Brolgas lurked at the edges of woodland. I'm sure they were plotting something. (We also saw sarus cranes. At one location, there were seventeen sarus and one slightly embarrassed brolga.)

We spotted a pair of red goshawks. This one was stuffing its face, while its mate built a nest nearby.

And there were golden-shouldered parrots. This is a particularly bad photo of a male (bottom right) and female (upper left), so, if you're not familiar with the species, it's worth searching for better images. They are very beautiful birds.

Although there were fewer massive mounds, there was still plenty of evidence of termite activity.

We spotted a pair of Papuan frogmouths near Lotusbird Lodge. I thought this was my favourite species of frogmouth, until I saw the marbled ones at Lockhart River. I am fickle.

And there was this stick floating in a billabong at Musgrave Roadhouse. It wasn't very interesting, but I took a photo of it anyway.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Cape York Peninsula: Rinyirru (Lakefield) NP, Pt 1

In mid-June, I went on a birding trip to Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) and Rinyirru (Lakefield) NPs led by Tonia Cochran and Steve Davidson. There were eight other birdwatchers on the trip, all of them much better at spotting and identifying birds than me. And it was amazing.

We saw some very good birds and I took some very bad photos of them, as you will see. (I also contracted a shocking cold, so skipped a couple of night walks, which meant that I only saw one marbled frogmouth.)

These were our destinations:

The gang at Chilli Beach, Kutini-Payamu NP, looking at black-naped terns.

It turns out that I mostly took photos of birds in the drier areas, so here are some images from Julatten to Rinyirru NP.

This is a northern fantail at Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge. I hadn't seen this species before my recent trip to Cooktown, but now they're everywhere.

The Julatten -- Mount Molloy area is also an excellent spot for great bowerbirds.

The bitumen disappears north of Laura (although it reappears in places). The Peninsula Developmental Road is wide in quality. This is a good stretch, but it's not always this smooth.

Rinyirru National Park is an extraordinary place. It includes extensive mangroves, wetlands, heathlands, open woodlands, and savannah full of termite citadels.

Apart from a few scrubby trees, the magnetic termite mounds are the highest perches on Nifold Plain. This brown falcon kept an eye on us from the top of one of these edifices. Spotted harriers were also abundant here.

The road was a good spot for birds. I saw my first Australian pratincoles here. Yep, they were lifers.

Adult Australian pratincole

Juvenile Australian pratincole

I ticked a lot of lifers on this trip, including black-breasted buzzard. This one was waiting for us to move on, so it could return to its meal of road kill.

Birds weren't the only animals we saw. Apart from agile wallabies, antilopine wallaroos, striped possums, and melomys, there were also reptiles. This black-headed python started crossing the road, then decided that the car looked like a more interesting destination. We persuaded it to resume its original journey.

To be continued...*

*The trip report, that is, not the python's wanderings.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Back Home

I'm back, after two weeks on Cape York Peninsula and a week in Alice Springs. I'll be reporting on both trips over the next few days.

As a result of being in the company of people who know what they're doing (Tonia Cochran and Steve Davidson on CYP; Mark Carter, Henry Cook and David Stowe in Alice Springs), my bird list is now at 273 species for the (half) year. We saw some very good birds and I'll tell you all about them later this week.