Monday 8 January 2007

Spurring on the lapwings

Every evening, long after sunset, the masked lapwings (Vanellus miles) stake their claim on the vacant building plots along the Maribyrnong. Even though it's not light enough to spot the birds, their loud and peevish calls are unmistakeable. They always sound as if they've just received their 'phone bill.

Masked lapwings are abundant in grassy areas in northern and eastern Australia. They've done very well from golf courses, parks and road verges, which provide the ideal habitat for these ground-nesting, invertebrate-eating birds.

Most of the time, they will sidle out of the way if you get too close. (And they are very tolerant of humans in urban areas.) But it's a different matter in the breeding season. They're extremely protective of their chicks and will chase off anything or anyone that ventures too close. If an open-winged charge doesn't work, they'll try an airborne attack. Did I mention they have spurs on their wings? (You can see one on the picture below).

Masked lapwings were among the first birds to be recorded by European explorers in eastern Australia. The individual illustrated by John Hunter and George Raper at Port Jackson is of the eastern form, which is characterised by the black nape and band in front of the wings. The wattle extends no further back than the rear edge of the eye. The northern form has a black cap and a more extensive wattle.

The species has extended its range in recent times. In 1932, a pair of eastern form masked lapwings did their thing in Invercargill on the South Island of New Zealand. Since then, the species has populated the whole of the South Island, crossed Cook Strait, invaded the North Island and spread to the offshore islands (Stewart to the south and the Kermadecs to the north). In 2002, pairs bred in New Caledonia. Recently, a few pioneers have made it to the Cook Islands but are yet to become established.

Northern form lapwings are found naturally as far north as the Moluccas and Sunda Islands. A small number of birds can also be seen in Singapore, where they're fugitives from the Singapore Zoo.

These birds get around.

Thanks to Marcus for the reference to the Singapore lapwings