Birds are an unending source of interest and entertainment on Gang Gang.
An outburst – an early morning bird drama
Colourful northern identities – on summer visitors from the tropical north
The consolation of thornbills – on the usefulness of bird baths for bird identification
Our splendid rosellas – on under-appreciated birds
An outburst – February 2021
While I am a reasonably attentive bird observer, it is a rare occasion that I overcome sleep or laziness and get up in time to witness the dawn chorus and the short period after, when the birds are at their best. However, on one recent January morning I did forgo the pleasure of lingering in bed with a cup of tea and reading the news. I stepped out into air that was clear, calm and beautifully mild, and I was to be richly rewarded.
Binocular-armed, I headed to the top end of the block. Going far from the house would be more likely to add a few more names to the bird list that we reset every Thursday, and have done so now for 12 years. The tall flower spikes of the abundant summer grasses were cured and dropping their seed, glowing golden-brown in the slanting rays of the rising sun. Underfoot, the dewy green tussocks reminded me that it really was early morning. Wading through the not terribly pleasant combination of wet grass and tall raspy seed heads, I stopped half-way to my destination at a small stand of Red Box where there seemed to be a bit of birdy action. I heard a Scarlet Robin call. Although they stay year-round, these robins tend to be inconspicuous over spring-summer, presumably busy building nests and raising chicks. Most birds tend to be rather discreet at this time, understandably.
While hearing a familiar call is sufficient for a bird record, I was keen to see a Scarlet Robin, after a month with no sightings. So I sat down on the ground, elbows propped on knees – a comfortable position for a prolonged binocular session. The robin was still calling and a bunch of other birds were twittering encouragingly.
The field of view where I settled had the elements that contribute to good habitat, and good birdwatching. From my position on open ground, I could see the full crowns of a tight cluster of large Red Box (pictured below).
The golden grass is Themeda triandra, which has seeded heavily this year, and there were plenty of insects in the air and on the ground. Dead standing trees, once they have dropped their leaves and smaller branches, are much favoured by birds and birdwatchers alike. They allow the birds a good lookout for friends and enemies, and a perch from which to hawk flying insects. Birdwatchers like these trees as there are no bothersome leaves to obscure the view. On settling down, I immediately saw a flock of Dusky Woodswallows, perched in the dead tree and swooping at flying insects. These are a declining woodland species, with handsome powdered feathers of grey-brown, a gentle manner and an acrobatic style. It is always a delight to watch them and they are uncommon in these parts.
A flock of Striated Pardalotes accompanied the woodswallows, but were dashing between the dead tree and the Red Box canopies. Curious for there to be so many together, and to be so exposed. On closer examination, I realized that the live trees were also thronging with birds. Tiny thornbills were most numerous, at least four species but hard to identify at a distance as they move so rapidly and hide within the leaves. The ubiquitous Gray Fantails were dancing about in their effusive way, two kinds of honeyeaters, warblers, Noisy Friarbirds, Leaden Flycatchers, rosellas. All their different calls merged into one happy twittering chorus. Although the robin had stayed out of sight, this scene of joyful exuberance made up for it.
I was scanning the trees for new sightings when a disturbance in the crown caught my eye, and through the kerfuffle dashed a raptor, attempting to snatch a small bird or two. But what happened next was even more dramatic. Within moments of the swoop, the entire tree crown exploded, with hundreds of birds pitching their alarm calls in the same moment and flying out of the tree in every direction, as fast as they could. Including an oriole and cuckoo-shrikes, large birds I had not realized were there. Two more species for the bird list.
After the explosion of sound and flight, it fell deathly quiet just as quickly, and only one bird could be seen. The bird that had shattered our morning reverie, a solitary Collared Sparrowhawk, was sitting quietly right in front of me in one of the hurriedly vacated eucalypts. Another one for the bird list. I was fairly sure it had failed to catch anything, which must have been a disappointment. No breakfast, despite a feast of hundreds on offer. I felt a bit sorry for it. The Brown Goshawk is very similar in appearance to the sparrowhawk, but the aerial snatching of small birds in the air is very much the business of the latter, while the goshawk is larger and tends to take prey from the ground.
In following days, we saw similar large feeding parties, and they contain many juvenile birds of a variety of species. I would be guessing that they are forming some kind of communal nursery, where there is relative safety in numbers. Perhaps this is a reflection of the abundant season, where there is plenty for everyone and no need to spread thinly. The unlucky sparrowhawk excepted.
Colourful northern identities – December 2018
Seasonal movements are common in our local bird community, with many disappearing for winter and returning for the summer. Every spring we keep an ear out for the welcome new arrivals, heralding warmer months to come. Our most dedicated long-distance migrants are two species that spend the winter in the northern tropics, including New Guinea and Indonesia. We are quite excited to hear the distinctive calls of the Rainbow Bird or the Dollarbird, and will rush outside, searching for them in the tops of the tallest dead trees, their favourite perching sites.
The Rainbow Bird (properly named the Rainbow Bee-eater) is the more colourful and elegant of the two, with tail streamers and contrasting black markings (see right). The Dollarbird (below) is stockier and greenish-blue with a red beak. It is named after the silver dollar coin – these are actually light blue circles in its wings which is a distinctive identification feature.
Both these birds look glorious in direct sunlight if you can get a good view, which is not so difficult given their propensity to sit in the open. They are very skilled aerialists – they need to be as they feed on flying insects spotted from their perch. They launch themselves off the branch, snatch something tasty from mid-air, and return to eat.
The Dollarbirds have a distinctive loud cackling call and are known for their aerobatic loop-the-loop display flights. It would be possible to observe this behaviour in November.
Both species breed in southern Australia in the warm months. Dollarbirds nest in tree hollows. Rainbow Birds dig burrows, most commonly in sandy creek banks. Sadly, there has been no sign of such activity Gang Gang to date.
Rainbow Birds are the more abundant species and usually grace us with visits over a few weeks each spring, and on their way back north in late summer. Their loud trill and “prip-prip” can be heard from a long way off and often we just hear them in the distance. It is a special treat when they decide to stay for a few days to stock up on foodstuffs.
Dollarbirds are far less common around here, and we’ve only seen or heard a single bird sporadically – three times in eight years. However the last two years have been different, with more prolonged visits in summer, and three birds turning up this October and November, with lots of calling and flying from tree to tree. Whether they are breeding in our locality is unknown to us, as they have now gone quiet and are no longer being seen. Obviously a pair of breeding birds may not want to draw too much attention to themselves. Nest predators abound. For all I know, they may be nesting over on the next ridge. Or they may have cleared out altogether, not finding the accommodation and food adequate for their needs. Alternatively, they may be young birds that have yet to find a suitable partner and be living the free and easy life of the single bird.
If you have Dollarbirds or Rainbow Birds come for a visit, they may be kind enough to stay for the summer. Signs of breeding could include regular sightings in the same place, entering a tree hollow or hole in a bank, and the carrying of food. And, of course, the ultimate prize for the bird lover might be the emergence of fledglings. Whether breeding or merely passing through, these long-distance travellers deserve a salute.
Our splendid rosellas – April 2017
By all objective measures, a large bird that is deep crimson in colour with bright blue wings and cheek patches, is a stunning sight. Being abundant and easy to observe in bush and garden, the Crimson Rosella is sadly regarded as a ‘rubbish’ bird in birding circles. Commonness devalues birds as it does most things.
The Crimson Rosellas in the district seem to have just had a very good breeding season. A flock of about a dozen juveniles, more than usual, have been visiting our bird bath all through March. They extravagantly splash water around, really enjoying a good soak. These are the crop of young birds that hatched last spring and have become newly independent. Juvenile Crimson Rosellas look quite different from their parents. They have the distinctive blue cheek patch, but the crimson colour is restricted to irregular red splashes, and much of the body is green. They ‘ripen’ to red at about 15 months.
Rosellas eat insects and seeds of eucalypts, shrubs and grasses. They can be seen feeding both on the ground and up in trees. They are also fond of sweet eucalypt blossoms, and their presence in eucalypt crowns may be indicated by the rain of plant pieces falling onto the ground, as they nip their way through masses of flower buds.
Like most parrots, rosellas depend on tree hollows for nesting, but judging from their abundance, Crimson Rosellas seem to be pretty successful in the competitive race for suitable apartments.
Crimson Rosellas belong to a complex of blue-cheeked sub-species, which includes the Yellow Rosella of the Riverine Plains, in which the crimson is replaced by yellow, the Adelaide Rosella which is mostly orangey-coloured and the Green Rosella of Tasmania which is yellow with green wings.
A completely different species complex is the ‘white-cheeked’ rosellas, the local variant being the Eastern Rosella. This is a smaller bird than the Crimson – about 5 cm smaller. But it makes up for size with a colour scheme that is more than spectacular. Forget the white cheeks – check out the symphony of lime-green, yellow, red, and blue, with striking yellow and black scalloping on the back. An Eastern Rosella glowing in the sunlight is one of the finest bird sights anywhere.
It is a gift that they are still quite common in the district.
Easterns prefer more open country than the Crimson Rosella, which is regarded as a forest bird. But they do overlap in habitat. At Gang Gang the rosellas demonstrate these different habitat preferences. The Easterns predominate on the upper slopes of the property where there are widely scattered trees. The Crimsons are most common in the sclerophyll forests and more densely treed grassy woodland. However, in late summer the Easterns come down into the thicker woodland after breeding, where they seem to happily co-exist with the Crimsons.
Confusingly, the Crimson and Eastern will sometimes interbreed. As I write, there are two rosellas at the birdbath that look like young Easterns at first glance. On closer inspection, it is apparent that the cheek patches are pale blue, revealing their hybrid nature.
A very famous brand of tomato sauce has been made under the banner of the Eastern Rosella since 1899. It seems that the brand has been more important than the sauce, as the trademark has been passed through five different companies over that time. It has been a favourite of mine since my childhood, but who could not be won over by such a handsome bird.