Birds

Birds are an unending source of interest and entertainment on Gang Gang.

Finches – never where you want them –  on the greed of wanting ALL the birds at Gang Gang
Birds from near and far – on the behaviour of birds during a heat wave
The consolation of thornbills  –  on the usefulness of bird baths for bird identification
The humble wood duck  – on under-appreciated birds

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Finches – never where you want them  –  September 2012

The funny thing about birds is that they do not always agree with you about the habitat that you think they should like.  Finches are a particularly fine example of this.

There are three types of finch in the Gundaroo district – all lovely in their way.  In the case of these three, rarity is proportional to beauty, or at least spectacle.  In descending order of your likelihood of seeing them are: the Red-browed Firetail (dull green/grey with scarlet brow and rump), the Double-barred Finch (brownish grey with white front and smart looking black bands on throat and chest ) and the Diamond Firetail (a glorious ensemble of the previous two, red ends, white front, black chest band with white diamonds down its sides).  The latter finch is declining and listed as ‘Vulnerable’ in NSW.

We have seen all three of them on Gang Gang, but only once each.  Clearly they can get there, but take one look at the place and move to somewhere else.  What an insult.  How could they possibly spurn our beautiful bush, with all it shrubbiness, tall trees and 60-odd species of grass?

What is even more galling is that in these winter months, we have been seeing large flocks of Red-browed Firetails and Diamond Firetails regularly in the bottom of the Yass Valley.  I don’t mean to be rude, but this part of the world is not what you might call a birds’ paradise – comprehensively pasture improved and lacking trees and shrubs, it looks very like the ‘Bliss’ wallpaper that is supplied with most computers – bald, smooth green rolling hills.

When we moved to Armidale 20 years ago, we enthusiastically started clearing blackberries on our new place, and were horrified to find that that Double-barred Finches were nesting in them.  Being legally obliged to control blackberries and not thinking finches could be that sensitive to disturbance, we removed the bushes at the end of the breeding season.  For the three years we lived there, we never saw finches on the property again.

With repeated sightings of the Yass Valley finches, I eventually noticed that on some occasions, the birds flushed by our car were flying into large dense prickly (non-native)  bushes that were very widely scattered along the road verge.  Perhaps these were providing the birds with enough protection to use these open  pastures, where kestrels, kites and hawks regularly patrol.  It would be so easy for some well-intentioned weed control to result in a complete loss of cover for these birds, so they could longer be able to use the open paddocks.  Of course you might ask what they are doing there in the first place?

Finches are seed eaters, and studies have shown they prefer to eat seeds of introduced grasses.  This is because there are many annual and winter growing grasses amongst the weedy species that have emigrated to Australia.  Annual grasses produce a lot of seed, and winter growing grasses must fill an important food gap for finches.  How  many grasses were seeding last June and July in any quantity?  The only one that comes to mind is Poa annua (aptly named Winter Grass), which is frequently found in fertile heavily grazed pastures, lawns and disturbed places.  Certainly most of the finch sightings that we have noted around about have been in weedy sites.  For all its diversity, Gang Gang is on infertile soils and has lots of tall native grasses that seed relatively sparingly, or at the wrong time.

But here’s the rub – many fine sources of seed (lawns, fertilized pastures) may not have the other habitat elements necessary for finch well-being – a good cover of shrubs for example.  Domestic gardens should be liked by finches, with their juxtaposition of lawns and shrubberies, but many households have cats that create a hazard for ground-feeding birds.  Also many lawns are too well maintained to have seeding weeds.

It seems that good finch conservation requires us to think like a finch.  Perhaps we’d better get a patch of Winter Grass lawn established at Gang Gang, in our otherwise ‘beautiful bush’.

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Birds from near and far –  February 2014

I am writing this in the week of the mid-January heat wave and, like many people, we have been doing our best to maintain coolth in the house.  This involves opening up the house at night, and keeping the house shut in the day, with minimal comings and goings when the inferno is hottest.

During our middle-of-the-day confinement, the main link with the outside world is a view of the birdbath. Heat in the 40s is a life-threatening situation for many birds, and water is a means of survival, so the birdbath has become a source of intensive activity and much entertainment for us. The birds start arriving at first light and, as the day progresses, numbers build up until the surrounding trees are filled with birds queuing for their moment.  There seems to be a size hierarchy; when the large birds are at the water, the smaller ones hold back.  But different species of similarly-sized birds seem to bathe and drink happily together.

You can see their distress in the droopy half-opened wings, and the slimline shape, which results from flattening their feathers.  Heat-stressed birds are quite a different shape from normal.  They may also be gaping, which is the bird equivalent of panting, except that they just don’t stick their tongues out in the way dogs do.

The species that regularly visit the birdbath, heatwave or not, continue to visit in numbers: striated and buff-rumped thornbills, grey fantails, brown-headed honeyeaters and crimson rosellas. Then there are those that don’t seem to drink regularly but are clearly in great need now: grey-shrike thrushes, brown thornbills, white-eared honeyeaters, noisy friar birds  and red-wattle birds.  Others we had rarely or never seen before at the birdbath, but which clearly need a drink under extreme heat were: rufous whistlers, white-throated treecreepers,  scarlet robins, currawongs and, most excitingly, diamond firetail finches, which rarely honour us with their presence, with or without a birdbath.

Over two hot days, an amazing 20 species of birds visited.  Some bathe and some only drink.  I get rather annoyed with the very numerous teenage crimson rosellas who just love to flop and flap around in the water, using more than their fair share and requiring several birdbath refills through the day. Even though we have a nearby dam, for whatever reason our raised birdbath is a great attraction.  It’s safely raised above the ground, it’s shady, it’s shallow and it has overhanging branches.  These all seem to count.

Apart from the locals crowding the facilities this year, there has also been some interesting visitors from afar, also motivated by unfavourable weather.  We are not the only people who have noticed that handsome white-browed woodswallows have been visiting and breeding in the district in large numbers, often setting up camp along roadsides. You may have flushed them from the road (hopefully not squashing them).

Another visiting breeder this season has been the white-winged triller.   We’d only ever seen one in passing at Gang Gang before, and were thrilled to have them arrive in our forest and start their conspicuous tree-top trilling to establish breeding territories.  They go quiet when they start nesting, sensibly enough, and we can’t report any definite breeding success.

The third visit was from a flock of straw-necked ibis chasing grasshoppers around the grasslands using their absurdly long curved beaks.  At first they were quite nervous and took flight in our presence, but over the weeks they have learned to stay put and just keep a watchful eye on us while they continue the hunt.  These big herds of ibis almost evoke the Serengeti – if you squint.

These three: the woodswallows, the trillers and the ibis  would have built up in numbers during previous boom years of high rainfall.  They are irregular migrants and their arrival indicates that conditions have become unfavourable elsewhere.  Perhaps they had come from drought afflicted Queensland. For them survival will depend on a continuing chase for elusive and diminishing resources around the continent.  I wish them well in our uncertain climatic future.

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The consolation of thornbills  –  May 2016

It is difficult not to get a little depressed about the state of the land at the moment, even if your livelihood is not dependent on rain. The summer-growing perennials – notably Themeda (Kangaroo Grass) and Bothriochloa (Red-leg Grass) – have wrung the last of the moisture from the sub-soil and the herbivores are starting to eat the various plants that they would have turned up their noses at a few months ago.

Our regular summer bird visitors have all gone, and the landscape is now very quiet of insects or frogs. It is as if everyone is just quietly hanging in there, conserving their energy until the waterholes fill and the plants start growing again.

Because of the dry, I have been very assiduous in maintaining the bird bath, which is the only place that there seems to be any serious wildlife action. There is a slight air of tension as the creatures congregate around the water source: it must be nerve wracking to have to be so close to other species that one usually avoids.  This is particularly the case when a neighbour is bigger than you.

With so much bird traffic, it is important to keep the bath clean to control the spread of disease, so I am out there most mornings with the wok scrubber and hose. This seems to be a sign for the birds to flock around.  The Crimson Rosellas always arrive first, while the smaller birds hold back and wait.  Rosellas love a bath – they get right in there, flinging water over themselves with their wings to make themselves thoroughly wet.  After half a dozen rosellas have finished flopping around, the nice brimming clean bath has feathers floating all over the now-depleted water surface.

After the rosellas, a procession of other species arrives, mainly comprising thornbills, and studded with the odd Scarlet Robin, Grey Fantail or treecreeper. Among the small birds, the most enthusiastic bathers are the greenish Striated Thornbills.  They bounce in and out, a flickering melee of up to 20 birds splashing, leaving, grooming and returning.  The arrival of another species, especially a bigger bird causes a momentary desertion of the bath, then they rush back.  Striated Thornbills do love a bath.

Slightly more constrained are the flocks of Buff-rumped Thornbills that follow. These are greyish, with a light brown rump and a somewhat serious, even slightly grumpy expression on their faces.  While they are splashing about it is common for a Brown Thornbill to slip in.  These large-eyed, gentle brown-streaked birds tend to be solitary and have the nicest song of all the thornbills, most of which twitter rather than warble.

Lately we have been lucky to be visited by the somewhat more uncommon Yellow Thornbill. This is a lovely yellow with a deeper orangey chin and a small patch of fine striations behind the eye.  The Yellow Thornbill is different to the Yellow-rumped Thornbill.  The latter has a bright yellow rump and prefers more open spaces than the woodland around our birdbath, but is does deign to bathe occasionally.

At the other extreme from the Striated Thornbill is the Weebill, which is never seen at the bath. They are the smallest bird in Australia. Similar to the rest, olive-yellow, and are not distinguished by much other than a pale stubby bill.

Yellow, grey, olive, brown or buff, in reality all these birds just look like plain brown things to the average person, if they are noticed at all.  They can be a source of frustration to people trying to learn the different species on their patch.  The challenge is magnified by the inability of these birds to sit still for more than a few seconds.

Here the bird bath can be your saviour. Train your binoculars on the water’s edge and the different species will display themselves, allowing a view unimpeded by foliage.  Over time, you will have the opportunity to directly compare one species with another.  It is best when they first land, as they tend to get soggy and harder to differentiate after bathing.

So instead of feeling blue due to the lack of rain, you can marvel at the diversity and subtle beauty of all the thornbills that live in our district.

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The humble wood duck – September 2014

It is an odd human trait that we tend to devalue that which is abundant in our lives. Some years ago a friend of mine bought a new pair of binoculars and wandered into the garden of the house that we shared, to see what she could see. After a while, Liz returned, and rather breathlessly announced that she had seen a most spectacular bird. Bright chestnut on the nape and wings, it had a blue-grey cap and a black throat against a cream chest. It turned out to be a male house sparrow. It was a great embarrassment to Liz (not having recognized such a common bird) and an interesting lesson to me – how easy it is to regard common creatures as uninteresting, and consequently pay little attention to them.

Wood ducks are just such a bird. They decorate nearly every farm dam in the district, and are abundant in municipal parks, and almost anywhere there is a lawn and a bit of water to plonk on. They boldly march their young babies across roads in spring, stopping traffic and attracting the media. Basically they are part of the furniture and seem to be very happy with human habitats.

But when did you last look at a wood duck thoughtfully? They really are a very handsome duck: light grey smartly marked with black, the male with a rich reddish-brown head and both sexes, particularly the female, marked with strong brown speckles.

Notice the beak of the next wood duck you see. It is not flattened and upturned like that of a dabbling duck, but rather chiselled and pointy more like that of a goose. In fact that is where an older name came from – the maned goose.

While they really are proper ducks, their feeding habits are like that of a goose. They subsist almost entirely on vegetable matter and therefore require green, short, nutritious pasture. This is why they are so often found feeding on fertilized pastures and lawns. Chiselled beaks must make for more efficient grazing of short grass. It seems rather a good arrangement, short grass, a bit of water, the ducks have it made apparently.

There is one complication. Here is yet another native species that relies on hollows in eucalypts for breeding. Anyone living near forest in our district will have noticed the rather strange sounds of wood ducks in the woods: a drawn-out mournful ‘waaa’ with a rising inflection. They are looking for places to nest and it is a rather strange sight sometimes to look up and see a pair of wood ducks eyeing you off from a tall tree, or to glimpse them winging their way, fast and silent through the forest.

With the good winter rains this year, the wood ducks have been breeding early to take advantage of the winter grasses. Early August has produced the first young, which more typically appear in spring.

The duck parents are quite happy to nest high in the trees, and a long way from their feeding grounds. But this presents quite a challenge for the recently hatched brown-and yellow balls of fluff as somehow they have to get down to the ground well before they can fly.

How do they do it? Encouraged by their parents, they jump and rely on floating, fluttering and lightness to ensure a happy landing. Then they have to follow their parents to the usually far-flung feeding grounds. The ducklings actually start out eating small insects before they graduate to the peaceful grass-eating habits of their parents. But big eucalypts suitable for nesting are not generally associated with parks or fertilized pastures. Hence the frequently encountered families of wood duck trying to cross busy roads. Judging from the numbers of adult duck around, they seem to be quite adept at dealing with the numerous hazards faced during these small migrations. The kindliness of humans might play a role sometimes, and many people stop to shepherd families crossing the road.

An unassuming duck, but worth a closer look.

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