A confluence of critters

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Another sunrise, another paddle through a flooded river valley.  At Port Stephens the wide Karuah River meets the Myall as it meanders south, just behind the coastal dunes.

And where the water flowing from the network of wetlands and lagoons that is Myall Lakes joins the estuary, in a river delta protected from the destructive power of the Pacific waves, there’s Corrie Island.

A spot so fabulous for cautious amateur photographers in small and ancient boats, I circumnavigated it at the crack of dawn not once but twice over the silly season.  I may have been so exhausted I wept all over my Christmas crackers but it was worth it.

Just down the river from the RAMSAR protected wetlands at Myall Lakes, migratory birds that breed in the far north spend the arctic winters hanging out here.  I saw red knots (heads up: not very red in the non-breeding season) and grey tailed tattlers, far eastern curlews and bar tailed godwits.  In fact, I was treated to a bold dispay of the very barred tail of the bar tailed godwit, that tail that make the longest uninterrupted migration flight of any bird’s behind.

The eastern ospreys, in my previous experience elusive canopy lurkers, proved so indifferent to human proximity that I actually got bored with taking photos of them posing in the beautiful dawn light, and starting trying to snap the LBBs in the beachside brush, while the ospreys observed my inadequate efforts with golden eyes.

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A pair of eastern osprey?  The females are larger.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, here come the dolphins.

The famous pod of Port Stephens dolphins – well, the easterly, sociable estuarine pod, one of two quite distinct groups that lives in the harbour – swung by to check me out.  I stopped still in the swell, watching them case the beach. At one point the still water by the boat upwelled and the tip of a bottle nose appeared above the surface for just a second or two a couple of metres off the bow.

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Enter a caption

A couple of mornings later, I was back, having rashly promised my birdwatching brother dolphins, ospreys and eagles.  No need for a refund: they arrived one after another, right on cue.

And in between boat trips, it wasn’t just overeating and board games either.  There was also watching the local bird life overeating.

A baby sitella not quite sure how to handle the festive gift of a caterpillar…

And an Australian hobby enjoying Christmas dinner with us, swooping in to a branch above our holiday rental for some yuletide disembowelling.

I think we’ll be back.

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Poor lost souls

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There’s new sound in the garden just now.  A plaintive relentless cheeping.  But not the tiny piping tones of a naked, newly hatched chick.  No, it’s the muscular alto plea of the ginormous eastern koel chick to its diminutive red wattle bird parent.

And the wattlebirds are desperate.  I eyeballed the juvenile koel, lounging comfortably high in the canopy. Meanwhile its parent wheeled and fluttered in frenzied manner, perching here and pecking there, apparently driven to madness by the insatiable appetite of its parasitic offspring.

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No sooner was the mega-chick fed than it returned to its incessant harping, as if unloved and cruelly abandoned.

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As I crashed around trying to get a clear shot of the elusive ear-splitting koel, I saw, at the top of the very same tree, something I’d never seen here before, something genuinely sad and alone.

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A flying fox all by itself, a good twenty kilometres from the nearest bat camp way down the Pacific Highway at Gordon.

Flying foxes are very mobile, travelling up to 120 kilometres a night to feed.  We often hear them around our place on summer evenings, squealing and hurling fruit around.  During the year they migrate long distances following the peripatetic flowering seasons of eucalypts, melaleucas and rainforest trees, pollinating as they go.  Just like giant warm blooded bees, they carry pollen on their fur from one fragment of forest to another.  Flying foxes have been tracked moving as far as two thousand kilometres over the course of nine months and bat encampments have been described as more like railway stations or youth hostels than places of permanent residence.

But mega bats are sociable creatures and finding one on its own in the daytime like this is not a good sign.  I realised later I should have called the local WIRES group so someone with more expertise and a better head for heights than me could shin up its extremely tall tree to check it wasn’t injured by any of the usual suspects – barbed wire, open weave fruit netting or a dog bite.  But by the time I worked that out, it was the next morning, and the bat was gone – back to its digs in the local “Batpackers”, I hope.

I know some people feel about flying foxes the way I do about brush turkeys.  If you’re a fruit grower in NSW it is still possible to get a licence to shoot them to protect your orchards, although the mega bats actually prefer pollen and nectar as a food source – and  tightly secured, finely woven netting (one you can’t poke a finger through) protects crops better than a shotgun anyway.  In my backyard, the bats would be at the back of a very long queue for the ripe fruit anyway.  Ahead of me, of course, but behind the cockies and the possums for sure.

Deforestation means that there’s more conflict between flying foxes and humans these days, as the bats move into  the leafy suburbs where the fruiting and flowering plants are diverse and well watered.  They’re chatty critters with some “interesting” habits – urinating on themselves and then fanning their wings to cool down for one – which some people living nearby can find a hard to take (not to mention a couple of rare but deadly bat-borne diseases).

But the visibility of flying foxes in east coast Australian cities conceals the fact that (unlike brush turkeys) their numbers are in major decline.  One article suggests that at current rates, the grey headed flying fox, the type I found in my backyard, will be extinct by 2070.

The mega bats are particularly susceptible to high temperatures.  They start to “melt from the inside” in the words of a scientist, at just about the same temperature that is unsupportable for stingless bees, 43 degrees C.  A couple of years ago in Queensland,  45,000 megabats, mostly the tropical black flying fox, died in one day during a heat wave.  But high temperatures may just be the final straw when bats are short of food anyway.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been scores of baby grey-headed bats found dead in parks along the east coast.  Both habitat loss and the aftermath of an El Nino, according to researcher Peggy Eby, have led to a food shortage.

“The mothers are going through a difficult nutritional phase, and they’re reducing the amount of milk they’re producing and the young starve.  They hang on to the females for the first several weeks of life, when she flies from the roost at night, and they simply would lose the strength that they need to hold on.”

I’m not sure why this stray found its way to our yard.  I hope it wasn’t injured here.  We don’t have a dog or barbed wire and we use veggie nets to keeps the bowerbirds and the brush turkeys off the fig trees (or if we’re feeling cheap, old trampoline netting from the side of the road).  But we still haven’t raised the cash to chop down the nasty cocos palm that is so appealing and yet so dangerous to flying foxes.

I hope the neighbours’ pool gave was a spot for a cooling bellydip and the jungle at the bottom of the yard gave it somewhere to recoup, recalibrate its GPS and get ready to head back to its pals at base camp.  Lovely as it was to have the chance to take his photo, I hope we hear him but don’t see him again.

Blood feud in the dawn redwood

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Every year for the last seven years, I’ve heard koels calling, loudly and desperately, right outside my window, day and night, for the three months from the equinox to Christmas.  And for the whole of that time I’ve been trying to get a decent photograph.  A while back, I caught sight of a whopping great juvenile sitting around on a branch of the pine tree, whining for more food from his adoptive mum, a harassed looking red wattlebird. But that’s it.

I know they’re there, skulking in the trees, the males advertising their availability in an increasingly high pitched, eventually hysterical squeak from the cover of the leaves.  And there’s that duet that koel couples, both equally well concealed and well amplified, produce – the male exclaiming “wurru-wurru!” while the female interrupts with a simultaneous “keek keek keek!”.  But where are these potentially ear damaging exchanges coming from?  Who can say.  It’s like trying to locate a pair of shy and slightly drunk ventriloquists.

But that all changed in my backyard yesterday.  I’ve finally got my stash of koel shots.

Why did these cryptic birds let me get close enough to take a million pictures?  I reckon it was because there was a battle on in the branches.   The prospect of scoring, through combat, a romantic enounter with the iridescent, satan-eyed male seem to make the feuding females oblivious to all that clicking and crashing in the undergrowth.

The  sexual proclivities of koels are not well understood (by humans anyway.  You hope koels have a decent grip on it).  Brood parasites are inherently interesting critters, so koels’ interactions with the honeyeater “hosts”, whose nests they visit to lay their eggs, has been studied exhaustively. The changes in their migrating habits as the world warms up have been looked into a bit as well (eg Chambers et al 2014).  But how and with whom they do their coupling is all a bit of a mystery.

You can’t give the ornithologists too much grief about this.  Even the most avid twitcher is going to be a bit dubious about spending the three years of a PhD shinning up trees clinging to a GPS tracking device, in an attempt to pin down the sexual encounters of an intercontinental migrant of no fixed abode.  And that’s not even considering the koel’s antisocial habits: the fact that they are “typically wary and difficult to observe [remaining] in thick foliage, high in trees, calling from concealed positions” (Healy and Healey 2007).

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So what did I see (or half see) in our metasequoia tree after breakfast yesterday?

Did I witness a female, already partnered however temporarily with Mr Shiny Feathers, being challenged by a youngblood for access to a mate?  Koel males are apparently “polygynous” – they mate with multiple females.  But those ventriloquist duets suggest some kind of short-term liaisons, since couples that sing together like this, apparently, often have some kind of ongoing arrangement (Maller and Jones, 2001).

Or just two females both keen to hook up with guy who had command of such a fine calling station, my beautiful dawn redwood?

 

The male was staying well out of it, watching cagily from the side lines.  At one point I spotted him passing somethinga nuptial gift of a berry? – to one of the warring females.  I didn’t see if him get anything in return, unlike the lucky Asian koel spotted by this Singapore based bird watcher. But then with bird couplings, blink and you could easily miss it.

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Female koel… with nuptial gift?

 

But if the male bird was playing favours, this was strictly a chick fight.

At first it was a rap battle.

Eventually the two females settled at opposites ends of a branch, studiously ignoring each other, like gunfighters in a Western pacing the far ends of Main Street.  And then it was on, with a flurry of feathers and a fanning of tails.

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Two female koels about to tussle

 

Such chick fights aren’t as unusual as old-fashioned zoologists might think. Females that live in groups, it seems, often engage in “intense female-female competition over reproduction, dominance rank and other components of social-living” (Rubenstein, 2012, 2250). I’ve seen it with the chickens.  According to the implausibly named Clutton-Brock and Huchard, in a recent article for the Royal Society these fights “peak… during the reproductive season [8183], and … can lead to wounding or death [28,84].”  And fights are not just about access to mates, but about protecting eggs or nesting sites, space or foraging territories (Tobias et al, 2012; Krieg 2016).

Intriguingly, competition between females seems to go along with good looks or “ornamentation”.  Or better still “ornamentation and weaponry”.  And female koels, while not obviously armed to the teeth, surely are beautiful birds; like most ornamental or colourful females both substantial in size and hailing from the tropics (Dale et al 2015).

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Hang on, what is that mysterious red stain on that creamy chest?  Was this a battle involving “wounding or even death”?  Was I witnessing an injured female being challenged, in her moment of weakness, by a healthier rival?

In some of my photos it surely looks like it.

Is that a blood stained beak?  Was this a ghoulish outcome of a predator attack followed by a desperate battle for genetic survival?

female-koel-with-red-beak-squareOr is it just mulberry season?

References

Chambers, L E, Beaumont LJ, Hudson IL (2014) “Continental scale analysis of bird migration timing: influences of climate and life history traits” International Journal of Biometeorology 58 (6) 1147-62

Dale, J., Dey, C, Delhey, K, Kempenaers, B, Valcu, M. (2015) “The effects of life history and sexual selection on male and female plumage coloration” Nature Vol 527 pp.367-71

Healy, C and Healey, E (2007) “Diet and Roost-site Fidelity in the Common Koel
Eudynamys scolopacea in Suburban Darwin” Australian Field Ornithology 2007, 24, 184–186

Maller, C J and Jones, D N (2001)”Vocal behaviour of the Common Koel, Eudynamys scolopacea, and implications for mating systems” Emu, 2001, 101, 105–112

Rubenstein, D.R. (2012) “Sexual and social competition: broadening perspectives by defining female roles”  Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol 367 No 1600, 2274-2293

Tobias, J. et al (2012) “The evolution of female ornaments and weaponry: social selection, sexual selection and ecological competition” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol 367 No 1600, 2274-2293

Krieg, CA, Getty, T. (2016) “Not just for males: females use song against male and female rivls in a temperate zone songbird” Animal Behaviour Vol 113 39-47

 

Fly in, fly out

The first asparagus is up.  The greenflies are sucking the life out of the few broad beans plants that survived the gnashers of the garden’s winter visitors.  The bowerbirds are brutalising the new growth on the liquidambar, in a jaunty colourised style that makes me think we have a flock of Calamity Janes in the canopy.  Spring is here!

But what about the spring birds?  I haven’t heard the first koel of the season, but the channel billed cuckoos have squawked their way into our dreams.  And in the last week, a new rolling trill in the trees: the olive backed orioles have returned.  We rarely see them around here, but according to Michael Moorcroft’s “Birds of Australia” as “common”.  The emergent twitcher in me sighs.

I met a charming French skin specialist once, and asked her why she moved to Sydney.  “We have melanoma in France of course” she said “But really, if you are interested in skin cancer, Australia is the place to be”.

On the other hand, if you long for the sight of that first feathered visitor arriving from a epic transcontinental journey, you’re better off in the Northern hemisphere.  All the ocean in the southern half of the globe, moderating seasonal temperatures; barriers of forest and ocean; a less icy past; uncertain rainfall and an often arid climate; and (somewhat unconvincingly) weirdly, lots of  “V” shaped continents; all reasons I’ve come across to explain why we have so few migrating birds around here (Someille et al 2013; Dingle 2008).

Back home, two thirds of my French oncologist’s local birdlife would be part time residents.  But in Sydney, it’s maybe one in five.  In the outback there are nomads, roaming around trying to find things to eat in an arid landscape, but there are hardly any regular migrants at all.

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Tasmanian silvereye mid-migration, Zosterops lateralis lateralis

What we do have lots of in Australia are “partial migrants”.  Somewhere between a third and a half of bird species have some sedentary individuals while others take off in the colder weather (Chan, 2001).  Most silvereyes, for instance, stay put, but many Tassie birds – chunky numbers with chestnut sides, like the one above – fly across the Bass Strait in winter, possibly island-hopping as they make their way to Victoria, NSW and Queensland.  On my way to work the other day, I was was befuddled by the strange appearance of a crew of migrants – on their way home, perhaps – milling around happily in the company a bunch of plain-brand silvereyes.

Hard working bird lovers have been tagging silvereyes for 30 years (Chan, 2001), so we know what these guys are up to.  But in general, partial migrants are tricky customers – figuring which of the identical birds you see are interstate visitor and which are locals is mostly pretty hard to do.

After reading a bit about research on bird internal navigation systems, I’m starting to think this kind of deviousness may be payback.

One set of experiments involved keeping captive birds and observing what corner of their cage they batter themselves against, driven by migration-restlessness or Zugunruhe (one of those cool German words for which there is no English equivalent).  Researchers messed with the heads of these captive birds, using mirrors to shift the apparent direction of the sun so they could see what new quadrant of their cage they try to escape through.  Other experiments placed caged birds inside a magnetic coil to warp their sense of direction – a research activity truly worth of evil genius from X-Men. Although I do find the thought of a bunch of 1940s songbirds flooding into a planetarium – another early experiment – quite charming (Burton 1992).

 

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If you do see a trans-continental migrant in Australia, it will probably be a shorebird.  About 35 beach loving species migrate here (Dingle, 2008).  On a paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek last weekend, I was really happy to see one of them: an eastern curlew, its absurdly long beak mucky after joyously feasting on the mud-flat crabs off Spectacle Island.  Flying from Siberia will take it out of you. Between the bloody photographers, the houseboats and the jet skiiers, it’s not hard to see why these guys are classed as critically endangered around here.

 

 

References

Burton, Robert (1992) Bird Migration, London: Aurum Press

Chan, Ken (2001) “Partial migration in Australian landbirds: a review” Emu, 2001, 101, 281–292

Dingle, Hugh (2008) “Bird migration in the southern hemisphere:
a review comparing continents” Emu  (108), 341-59

Somveille M, Manica A, Butchart SHM, Rodrigues ASL (2013) Mapping Global Diversity Patterns for Migratory Birds. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70907. doi:10.1371/
journal.pone.0070907

Sunday afternoon service at the Church of the Double Bladed Paddle

7 degrees at daybreak and good company the evening before: no chance of making it out for dawn this weekend.  So it was the afternoon service for me in the Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle.  Down the end of our street, the Hawkesbury in the golden hour.

Beautiful cirrus sky and skyline

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A seaplane was parked out front of the ritzy Berowra Waters Restaurant, a few devotees of fine dining lingering over white linen, but otherwise the river was quiet.  Weekenders emptied of their winter visitors, off home to find socks and check homework.  Some stirrings in the sandy creek bed – stingrays? – but no fishermen and hardly a fish.

Some sun worshippers were receiving the blessing of the last rays on the southern shores of Calabash Bay.

And then, a true glimpse of the sacred.  The sacred kingfisher, that is.  I’d suspected they might be found around here, even in the winter.  There was that green flash out of the corner of my eye as I scrambled over the rocks onto Bar Island, and the briefest of glimpses, framed by mangrove leaves, my camera hopelessly buried, one morning in Bujwa Bay.

But this glorious creature showed no inclination to move from his place in the sun, calmly accepting the adoration of passing paddlers.

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Sacred kingfisher

But even a sacred kingfisher can be profane.  I’m reverently gazing, barely taking a breath, and the big guy takes the opportunity to have a lightning fast chunder.  There’s a  familiar doggo look on his face as he sits there on his sunlit stick recovering.

But you expect veneration anyway, right, mate?  And you’ll get it too.

Sacred kingfisher other side 2 wide tighter

Last winter in Calabash Bay…

Burn-off at Bujwa Bay

The only trouble with living in paradise (apart from the long commute) is combustibility.  Our gorgeous view – mile after mile of incendiary eucalypts.  So the still, dry days and nights of autumn were thick with smoke, not from the big bad one we’re dreading, but hazard reduction burns in the bush all round the town.

Last time I went down to Bujwa Bay, it was the kind of cool and breathless day that must make the Rural Fire Service very very happy.   Mist hovered over the water in a bright line of morning light.  Forty minutes of silent paddling past the sleeping celebrities of Berowra Waters and I was round Oaky Corner and into the sunshine.

In the quiet there was a cryptic crunching noise.   Eventually, I spotted the pair of glossy black-cockatoos hidden amongst at the shore-line casuarinas.  My sense of being some kind of bird whisperer evaporated when, after fifteen minutes fooling around trying to get a decent shot of the cockies, I looked up to meet the eye of a bloody great big white-bellied sea eagle sitting directly above me.  And then, just round the corner, his pal taking in the rays.  They’re not stupid these birds, parked in the sunniest spot on the bay.

Having bonded with the local bird-life, when I heard about the burn-off, I was worried.   What happens to it all when the bush goes up in smoke?

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Egg the kayak entering Bujwa Bay after the burn-off

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Back-burnt grasstrees at Bujwa Bay

It’s not all bad news.

Harry Rechter describes  birds enjoying a feast during a controlled burn in Brisbane Waters National Park, not so far from here.
“Although fuel loads in the… heath and woodland were high, and flames soared above the tallest trees and shrubs, birds moved easily in front of and above the fire to appear minutes later on the blackened vegetation to feed on less fortunate insects and small lizards”.
I missed the raptors and the insectivores that no doubt turned up at Bujwa Bay at the first sign of smoke, looking for Cajun-style chow. But chances are these blackened grasstrees will be bursting into flower next time I paddle by.  I might see lyrebirds too, raking newly formed clearings.  Ground-feeders and grain-eaters – corellas for instance – return in force after fires have passed.  The little insectivores – thornbills, wrens and robins – that build nests close to the ground don’t miss the scorched canopy, and enjoy the bugs that flourish on the flush of new growth.  The carbonised shrubbery might even give me the chance of catching a blurry LBB or two on film.
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After the burn-off: partly scorched eucalypts

It’s a nice idea to think that the burn-offs that protect the town are a boon for the local plants and animals too.   And there’s a euphonious catchphrase that goes with that idea: “pyrodiversity begets biodiversity”. Fire incinerates the garden escapes and wakes the soilbank’s astounding store of dormant seeds. If we burn little and often, it’s been thought, we make a mosaic of habitats: patches of open space and newly germinating seeds; places burnt a few years back; and refuges long unburnt, full of craggy trees, hollow logs and dense undergrowth.

Pyrodiversity is popular amongst land management folks, and there’s some evidence that it works, at least in some places.  But not everyone buys the story that the frequent fires that protect people and property suit other critters too. Out in the mallee, near where I grew up, a fire and biodiversity project run by Deakin and LaTrobe universities has been laboriously checking the idea out.

For all the mallee’s underground lignotubers, ready to reshoot after fire, other parts of the ecosystem – large stretches of spinifex grass, for one, that shelter dragons and legless lizards – can take fifty or more years to return after a burn.  All of which makes me feel tremendously guilty about the swiftly abandoned spinifex-covered cubbies that my brother and sister and I used to make in the mallee scrub out the back of our house.  We will never know how many now-extinct species we displaced.

Away from regrets about the trail of ecological devastation I left in childhood and back to burn-off related angst. The research in these arid areas suggests it’s not pyrodiversity that’s important for a species-rich environment but having enough country that’s reached the right stage of maturity since the last fire.  As a person in mid-life, it pleases me to say that older vegetation often seems to sustain more species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including the rare ones. Even birds that like paddocks and open plains prefer unburnt land.  Some reptiles favour recently fired landscapes, but plant communities that haven’t been burnt for a decade or two harbor the richest variety of lizards and snakes.

I tried and failed to find the experts on biodiversity and fire on Hawkesbury sandstone.  But researchers studying both subtropical Queensland and foothill forests in Victoria said similar things.  A varied landscape is important, but

the richness of frugivore, insectivore and canopy forager assemblages is driven by the presence of structurally complex vegetation and old-growth canopy trees, which are more likely to be present in areas that have not experienced fire for a prolonged period of time (Burgess 2016)

Paston and colleagues put their conclusion bluntly: “prescribed fire is of little utility for the broadscale conservation of biodiversity” (2011, 3238).

And it seems, for birds at least, smaller patches of unburnt country won’t really do – it’s larger areas that haven’t seen fire for a while that are rich in species.  One bunch of researchers found that little islands of older habitat surrounded by new growth was grabbed by one or two aggressive predatory or colonial birds, rather than harbouring lots of different critters.  One recent paper, written about arid areas, sum it up:

Our results suggest a shift in current fire management thinking… is needed, away from a focus on creating small, unburnt patches towards preserving large, intact, unburnt areas (Berry 2015 493)

Burnt crown and dark silhouette from distance

What does all this mean for Bujwa Bay?

There was nothing moving in the incinerated trees on the ridgeline as I made my way up the creek at high tide, but then, it was early and damn chilly.  Even the herons had given up on fishing and were huddled in the trees, keeping their feet dry.

But the damp fringes of the mangroves were alive with silvereyes and yellow-faced honeyeaters, and I heard the plunk of a sacred kingfisher diving for breakfast.  Gullies are especially valuable habitats for birds at the best of times.  If they’re protected from fire by burning on the slopes nearby they can be an even better retreat when that big one comes.  The top of the creek was lush and green. I can only guess that the rangers and RFS know what they’re doing.

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Chilly looking white-faced heron

In the light of recent research, Taylor and his colleagues comment dryly “current fire management for avifaunal conservation may require substantial refinement” (Taylor, 2012, 525).

But let’s not fool ourselves.  Around here at least, fire management is not for the avifauna.  It’s for me, and people like me, who choose to live high on a hill, surrounded by the beautiful, burnable bush.

Additional references.  Because the whole thing is really is quite complicated and you might want to check I didn’t get it totally wrong.

Berry, L. Lindenmeyer, D, Driscoll, D. (2015) “Large unburnt areas, not small unburnt patches, are needed to conserve avian diversity in fire-prone landscapes” Journal ofApplied Ecology Vol 52 Issue 2

Burgess, Emma, and Maron, Martine (2016) “Does the response of bird assemblages to fire mosaic properties vary among spatial scales and foraging guilds?” Landscape Ecology March 2016, Volume 31, Issue 3,pp 687–699

Doty, A., Stawski, C, Nowack, J., Bondarenco, A. (2015) “Increased lyrebird presence in a post-fire landscape” Australian Journal of Zoology 63,9–11

Hope Ben (2012) “Short-term response of the long-nosed bandicoot, Perameles nasuta, and the southern brown bandicoot, Isoodon obesulus obesulus, to low-intensity prescribed fire in heathland vegetation” Wildlife Research 39(8) 731-744

Korczynskyj, Luke and Byron B. Lamont (2005) “Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) recovery after fire in two seasons and habitats” Australian Journal of Botany, 53 509-515

Kelly, Luke T. Andrew F. Bennett, Michael F. Clarke, and Michael A. McCarthy (2015) “Optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservationConservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 2, 473–485

Lindenmayer, David B., Wade Blanchard, Lachlan McBurney, David Blair, Sam C. Banks, Don A. Driscoll, Annabel L. Smith and A. M. Gill (2014) “Complex responses of birds to landscape-level fire extent, fire severity and environmental driversDiversity and Distributions 20, 467–477

Nimmo, D, Kelly, L., Spence-Bailey, L, Watson, S.J. Taylor, R.S., Clarke, M.F and Bennett, A.F. (2012) “Fire Mosaics and Reptile Conservation in a Fire-Prone Region” Conservation Biology 27 (12)

Pastro, Louise L., Christopher R. Dickman and Mike Letnic (2011) “Burning for biodiversity or burning biodiversity? Prescribed burn vs. wildfire impacts on plants, lizards and mammals”  Ecological Applications Vol. 21, No. 8, pp. 3

Robinson, Natasha, Leonard, Steven, Bennett, Andrew, Clarke, Michael (2016) “Are forest gullies refuges for birds when burnt? The value of topographical heterogeneity to avian diversity in a fire-prone landscape” Biological Conservation 200, pp.1-7

Sitters, Holly , Di Stefano, Julian, Christie, Fiona, Swan, Matthew, York, Alan (2016) “Bird functional diversity decreases with time since disturbance” Ecological Applications, 26(1), pp. 115–127

Smith, Annabel, C.Michael Bull, Don Driscoll (2013) “Successional specialization in a reptile community cautions against widespread planned burning and complete fire suppression”Journal of Applied Ecology 2013, 50, 1178–118

R2D2 in black and white

I’ve been spending a lot of time with magpies lately.  “Model magpies” as my nine year old aptly described these two who spent the day  posing in the Japanese maple and prancing around the back deck.  Oddly enough, the companionship steps up in intensity whenever I stop typing for a snack.

This gang of youngbloods don’t spend all their time begging for food and doing catalogue shoots, though.  There’s also the occasional training session for the Olympic synchronised vogueing competition.

And, of course, plenty of carolling.  The juveniles spent a lot of time last week singing for their supper, until one of the grown-ups got jack of the whole thing and flew down to show them how it was done.

But not before the youngsters did their party trick.  In amongst all the mellifluous warbling, my ear caught some distinct moments of robotic squeaking and clacking. The magpies were doing a bowerbird impression.

Apparently Australian birds are uncommonly good at mimicry.  Lyrebirds are famous for it, but all sorts of implausible suspects have a line in impressions as well: magpies, mistletoe birds, silver eyes. Apparently the minute brown thornbill has been recorded mimicking a pied currawong – a bird forty times its size.

Why do birds mimics the songs of others?  Pretending to be something bigger and tougher for self defense purposes seems to be one motive.  Bowerbirds have been observed doing raven impressions while being mobbed by a colony of those rather nasty bell-miners, for instance.

Another seems to be showing off to make yourself look good to potential mates.  Researchers have found that male bowerbirds that can only manage a one or two rubbish impressions (singing “like a kookaburra with bronchitis”, as the researcher cruelly remarked) have less mating success than those who can effortlessly produce a good five.

The most hilarious explanation I’ve read for bird mimicry is to chill out sexual partners.  Researchers reckon that R2D2 style squeaks and clicks that satin bowerbirds make while courting can freak out their mates:

“by interspersing melodic mimetic laughing kookaburra and Lewin’s honeyeater calls between episodes of harsh mechanical calls, males may calm females and improve the likelihood of that females will stay for additional courtship and copulation” (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015)

The idea that a sudden explosion of kookaburra calls would mellow you out and get you in the mood gives me a good picture of why certain male bowerbirds (and possibly particular male ornithologists) might be unlucky in love.

While not as famous as lyrebirds, bowerbirds do some pretty amazing impressions, not just of individual sounds but of whole acoustic scenes.  How’s this, observed from a toothed bowerbird?

A male started with the sounds of a group of people talking as they moved through the forest with their machetes cutting bushes and dogs barking, and continued with the sounds of machetes being used to fell a tree, complete with the rattle of shaking leaves after each blow and eventually the sound of the tree falling and hitting the ground with a crash (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015, 97)

The humble magpie doesn’t do badly either.  They’ve been recorded copying 21 different species of bird, as well as the sound of horses, dogs, cats and humans.  Magpies, it appears, only imitate critters that share their territory, not just the blow-ins and passers by, so it makes sense that our youngsters copy the satin bowerbirds that seem so spend much of the year in the garden, eviscerating my beans and kiwifruit vines and making free with my broken pegs.

I’ve got a whole new agenda in the backyard now.  There’s those in-flagrante males doing kookaburra impressions to listen out for.  As yet, I haven’t found any references to magpie calls appearing in the satin bowerbird repertoire.  Maybe this will be my contribution to science.  Better still, maybe I’ll catch a bowerbird in the act of ripping off a magpie doing a remix of another bowerbird.  Or the other way round.

Additional references

Borgia, G. and Keaghy, J. (2015) “Cognitively driven cooption and the evolution of sexual displays in bowerbirds”in Irschick, D., Briffa, M and Podos, J. (eds) Animal Signalling and Function: an integrative approach, Wiley Blackwell

Kaplan, Gisela (2015) Bird Minds, CSIRO Publishing