Eurobodalla Naturalist's Diary - August 1

It may be winter still, at least officially, but the main populations of some summer-breeding migrant birds began arriving early in the month. They soon let us know they are here, shouting the odds in woodland and forest, singing and posturing and looking over last season?s breeding sites. The first, tentative and enquiring calls are answered and in a couple of days the woodland rings with the cheerful ?chick-up? of a good dozen or more Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, the harsh, drawn-out? P-L-Oooo? of Noisy Friarbirds, and the mellow ?olly-olly-olly? of a couple of Olive-backed Orioles that came in ahead of the pack and settled into their old territory in the last days of July. At about the same time, the first couple of Figbirds returned to last summer?s old stamping ground in the Moreton Bay Figs on the river bank in Moruya; relative newcomers they are, but now firmly establishing themselves as regular summer migrants along the coast, and breeding too.

From now on, the migrants join the garden residents in becoming part of our daily lives; we?ll watch them gather nest materials, ferry food to the brooders and see their offspring grow to independence before they all head north in the autumn. In these first days of the month, the male Variegated Fairy-wrens have begun to assume their colourful breeding plumage, piece by piece and, in some birds, rather pale and lacking the depth of colour that will come in a couple of weeks. There were two groups today, about fifty yards from each other, and the male in one party was quite richly-endowed with colour on his body, though his head was still brown and rather scruffy-looking. The other male had obviously just begun to acquire colour, his shoulders a washed-out orange rather than rich chestnut and sporting just a few patchy bits of blue here and there, a pale promise of the glory to come. Yet they were all preening and prancing in preparation for the mating and breeding ahead, the females? soft brown plumage gleaming with newness, the males proudly leading the way through the undergrowth. In the canopy of a Silver-topped Ash, two White-naped Honeyeaters investigated the first newly-opening blossoms. Driven off by an aggressive Eastern Spinebill, they returned with reinforcements and reclaimed their little feeding ground. The tree is laden with buds, as are many of its kind this year, and there is the promise of sweet food for migrating travellers and residents for the next few weeks.
The pair of Olive-backed Orioles that nested in the big casuarina last year went off in January and left their offspring to follow at its leisure; it didn?t follow and remained through autumn and winter, as a few young do every year. This was a lone bird, left to its own devices, so how did it learn the right calls without the adults to guide and teach it? Through the following months it lived almost exclusively in the narrow corridor of cliff-top woodland adjacent to the garden and I was able to chart its progress from unformed chatterings and murmurings to a creditable adult call, albeit not quite complete. I am as sure as can be that the bird taught itself, for there was no other of its ilk in the vicinity. It practised diligently, to the point where the murmurs and chatters became one of the many layers of daily bird noises in the garden and passed without comment. There must be some latent instinct, or in-built memory, that allows a bird to develop the language of its species without tuition and with only that brief month or six weeks of hearing the calls of its own kind. I wish it were possible to say with conviction that this overwintering bird answered the calls of its returning relatives and was welcomed with open wings, but I just don?t know.
It is re-assuring to see and hear again the familiar harbingers of spring: a couple of Fan-tailed Cuckoos trilling to each other, a Golden Whistler tuning up his vocal chords and a Grey Shrike-thrush practising the first notes of spring song. The resident Magpies chortle through the days, all puffed up with the importance of their new black-and-white courting suits. They have been carrying sticks to the woodland for a couple of weeks and are now happily engaged in ripping up the old doormat. Well, it was a fairly new doormat till they realised it was just perfect for nest-lining. The Wattlebirds are quite skittish and rattle their bills like maxim guns, ducking heads and fanning tails to impress and entice potential partners. Most of the honeyeaters indulge in wild sexual chases in the courting season, and though the little ones don?t pose much of a threat, I know from experience that a Red Wattlebird can deliver a pretty hard whack when in blind pursuit of a tempting female, indeed any female, for they are all tempting in spring. While we may still be wrapped in layers of winter clothing, the bird world is joyfully preparing for spring and breeding and the months of hard work that will follow.
A little Striated Thornbill was building its nest in a clump of eucalyptus foliage overhanging the edge of the road and seemed not at all fazed by passing traffic. There was not much movement early in the morning when I first noticed it, so I went back later and sat down to watch proceedings. At that stage of construction, the lower part hung down in untidy strands which were later woven together to form the rounded bottom of the nest. The sides and the entrance were already completed but undecorated. When the little rounded structure was finished, I could not but stand back and admire the workmanship. Suspended from a small branch and woven from fibres and grass that were bound together by spider webs, this neat little brooding chamber was adorned with a hooded side entrance and was so unobtrusive that one could walk by and not even notice it nestling in the foliage. Sadly, all that work came to nothing; a couple of weeks later I found the nest ripped to pieces, only a few strands of grass left hanging forlornly among the leaves. There are always predators watching out for brooding birds and nestlings. One year an Australian Raven dived into the oleander beside the verandah and carried off a Brown Thornbill?s nest containing two naked nestlings, while the distressed brooder, probably the female, battered the black predator with her tiny wings; helplessly of course, but how bravely she fought to save her young.
Young adult birds in their first mating season tend to build some pretty unsuccessful nests and will often start and abandon two or three before getting the hang of it. By the same token, their first brooding is often a failure, mostly through inexperience, but they soon learn and by the second season their efforts are more likely to be crowned with success. It is easy enough to say that wild females instinctively make good mothers but that is not necessarily true. The instinct to breed, brood and raise young may be there, but the practicalities of the job have to be learned by all creatures that actively care for their young. There are safe sites for the placement of nests, and there are dangerous sites too, and the birds simply have to find out the hard way. The Brown Thornbill?s nest was easily extracted by the raven; in true thornbill fashion, it had been placed close to the end of an outer branch, though that black thief would have fought its way right to the heart of the shrub for those two tasty, mouse-sized morsels to feed to its own young.
The art of keeping eggs warm when the wind blows cold and cool when the sun blazes down, is not one with which birds are naturally endowed. They have to learn for how long the eggs will stay warm if the brooder leaves the nest, how often the eggs have to be turned and how strong the nest has to be to hold the weight of the chicks as well as the adult. A pair will often choose to nest in exactly the same place as they did last year, especially if that nest was successful. We humans are much the same and will return to a place where we were happy, or were blest with success, and we do it for the same reason as the birds - the instinctive feeling that the happiness or success will be replicated. The resident White-browed Scrubwrens subscribe to this theory of sticking to the place that has brought success and have nested for the past five or six years in the Spiny Mat-rush clumps underpinning the trees by the clothes line. The only variation is in the choice of clump, a different one for each brood, the first in August and the second in late October or November, for this little brown bird is a singular example of an excellent breeder, an efficient forager and a careful guardian of her young. You can rely on her to raise healthy young and to usher them safely into the world of independence.

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Eurobodalla Naturalist's Diary - August 2

Another garden resident, the Grey Shrike-thrush, is beginning to sing, noticeably only in the morning when it perches high to catch the first rays of sun. For the rest of the day, the call is restricted to a single ringing note, described as 'dite' but sounding more like 'bill' to my ear. As the breeding season approaches, the male?s song grows stronger and more varied, for these birds are great improvisers and seem to delight in vocalising. This pair usually retires to nest in the woodland in October and will not return till December, with or without young; their breeding efforts are not always successful. Quite often they will nest on a west-facing bank or plonk the nest on a broken-off tree trunk or on the top of a fence post, where the poor young will be cooked in the not unlikely event of a couple of hot days. None the less, the resident pair manages to raise one young, and two in some years, so they are replacing themselves and providing a few spares for their species. In spite of its friendly and gentle behaviour in the garden, the neatly-feathered Grey Shrike-thrush is a known predator of frogs, lizards, eggs and nestlings and is the most carnivorous of all the thrushes; that probably accounts for the ?shrike? part of the name, for the shrikes are hunters and often spike their prey on a twig or small branch for later consumption. Our bird provided an illustration of its hunting style when I was holding an unconscious New Holland Honeyeater in my left hand and fighting it off with the other; a determined attack that drew blood, mine. Still, our Grey Shrike-thrush is a wondrous songster, well deserving of its scientific name, Colluricincla harmonica, and its rich and melodious song brightens the springtime hours. And I am the first to admit that these garden residents appear to feed mainly on insects, caterpillars, moths and spiders and, therefore, can be forgiven the occasional lapse of parricide.
The winter months obviously call for extra cleanliness in the avian population and the water dishes and ponds are in frequent use by residents as well as the travelling public. Flocks of Silvereyes call in to drink and bathe; they have had their holiday up north and are heading for their southern breeding places. A few small flocks of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters are already on the move, making for their own sites further down the coast or in Victoria. Red and Little Wattlebirds dip down at speed to just touch the pond surface and frighten the daylights out of the fish, while the Magpies splash and bathe vigorously from a shallow shelf. The Crimson Rosella delights us with its bathing ritual. First there is the careful survey to ensure nothing untoward is in sight, then the slow waddle up the path to the frog pond under the lemon tree, a drink and some genteel splashing, and the final hop up to the water dish, which is no more than a shallow receptacle elevated on a length of old-fashioned earthenware pipe. Another survey and a careful test of the water; safe enough so far, so in goes the other foot, and there follows a long moment of contemplation before the visitor lowers itself into the water with all the dignity of Queen Victoria descending from her bathing machine. It?s a performance worthy of an entrance fee.

Antechinuses are odd little creatures and they become odder still in the winter. There was a lovely little Brown Antechinus crouched on the sunny side of a Saw-tooth Banksia this afternoon, concentrating on the important business of washing its face, and obviously not aware of my presence. Of course, it could have been an Agile, but a separation of identities is only possible in the hand and this animal looked sufficiently agile to outrun me, so we will call it a Brown, if you don?t mind. Ablutions concluded, the animal scuttled, in mouse-like rushes, to a small heap of bracken and dry grass and disappeared under it. My first thought was a male, on its last legs and preparing to expire in the wake of the mating season, but it looked quite handsome, with perky movements and shining fur and not at all like an exhausted animal. The males are usually dead by the end of July and as we are well into the second week of August, this was more likely to have been a pregnant female. Male marsupial mice have very short lives. Winter heralds the mating season and as the levels of testosterone rise, the males give up eating and concentrate on sex. Copulation and competition for mates is violent and stressful and not one male is left alive at the end of winter. The little creatures succumb to infections from internal parasites and bacteria, for they are so exhausted that their weakened immune systems simply can?t fend off disease. The females give birth in spring and the young remain, precariously one is tempted to say, in the open pouch for about two months before being abandoned to eke out a living on various soil invertebrates in the summer and autumn. Having reared their young and tossed them out into the world, most of the females die, though a few might survive to breed for a second season. The phenomenon of a near eradication of the previous year?s population is peculiar to almost all of Australia?s little carnivorous marsupials; it ensures an increased food supply for the juveniles to grow and prosper and repeat the performance in the following season. There is no fear of an ageing population in the world of marsupial mice.

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The Eurobodalla Naturalist's Diary - August 3

by Jill Whiter

Birdwatching excursions to farms can be a bit of a lottery; the place is either swarming with a wide range of species or presents a handful of the ever present and everyday birds. However, farms on this rich coastal strip often have a distinct advantage lacked by those in the inland parts of the State, a wetland. Sometimes small, sometimes extensive, these are private and protected paradises.

They provide food and accommodation for many species of birds, for Water Rats, Water Dragons and Snake-necked Tortoises, and as many frogs as can cram into the space available. Little Grassbirds and Clamorous Reed Warblers in the reeds, ducks and other waterbirds paddling the open water, a White-faced Heron patrolling the banks and all the usual suspects occupying the fringing woodland. If there are a few tall eucalyptus trees in that fringe, or even nearby in the paddock, one might well be chosen for a Whistling Kite?s nest, perhaps another for a White-necked Heron, while the White-faced will often make do with a shorter and more flimsy tree, as long as it is very close to, and preferably overhanging, the water. The woodland birds will dispose themselves as to personal choice, while their watery cousins, Reed Warblers and Grassbirds nest just where their names imply, in the reedy places.
The Snake-necked Tortoise is worth getting to know, for it is one of those ancient creatures that excite the imagination. Our tortoise, the Eastern Snake-necked, whose scientific name of Chelodina longicollis tells us that it has a prehensile claw and is long-necked, has been re-named and is now a turtle, a Snake-necked Turtle no less. In the not-so-distant past, tortoises were creatures of fresh water, turtles of salt water, but now they are all turtles. No matter, call it what you will and look for the local species in still water - ponds, waterholes, dams and wetlands. They can remain submerged for long periods as the nostrils are conveniently located at the extreme end of the snout, and they will sometimes wander well away from water, especially on overcast summer days. They are cold-blooded of course, and lie low in winter but in October and November the females leave the water in search of suitable burrowing sites in which to lay their eggs, and are often seen purposefully and insanely, given the speed of modern traffic, plodding across roads and highways. Ten to fifteen small, white, hard-shelled eggs are deposited in the excavated burrow and the females return to the water, leaving the outcome to chance. The incubation period depends on the earth?s temperature and can be anywhere between two and three months. Hatching occurs between January and March and the young embark on their perilous journeys to the nearest water; many are lost on the way, and after they reach their destinations too, for vulnerable young are easy pickings for predators.
One farm I do remember near Wallaga Lake was an absolute joy: a classic coastal woodland surrounding a large peat bog that was covered by a field of coarse, dry phragmites, and a reed-strewn moat of swamp with delightfully boggy edges separating the bog from the woodland. And all of it home to a host of birdlife and half-a-dozen Red-bellied Black Snakes sunbathing peacefully in the short green grass. Wetlands attract all types of raptors, for they are unusually well-stocked providores, a constant and reliable source of food; there are rodents, lizards and snakes, small birds and larger ones too, eggs and the young of those breeding on or round the water. On this day, a parade of raptors circled overhead: a Little Eagle, three Whistling Kites, two White-bellied Sea-Eagles, and a single Swamp Harrier that sailed back and forth over the swamp for as long as one was prepared to watch. Raptor-watching can often be pretty frustrating; the birds are too high, too distant, won?t fly directly overhead, present an uncompromising back view on landing or just appear too cryptic to allow positive identification. But I have always found Swamp Harriers the most obliging of birds, one of the few species that can usually be relied on to give a perfect performance to an appreciative audience.
The dense reed beds of phragmites and cumbungi are ideal places to look for all three bitterns, Black, Little and Australasian, or rather to listen for them as bitterns of any ilk in any part of the world are not the kind to stand about waiting to be seen. They are skulkers of (mostly) nocturnal habits, their home the reed beds and rushes where they go about their business quietly, slipping unobserved through their repellent territory and unlikely to be stumbled on haphazardly. No, the best way to search for bitterns is to sit by a likely-looking swamp at dawn or dusk and watch for movement; you might be lucky and see the bird going about its legitimate affairs and not pretending to be a reed, which is the normal pose it adopts if disturbed. November is supposed to be the best month to listen for the distinctive booming call of a male trying to attract the attention of a female, understandably not an easy task in those dense tracts of reeds. It is said that the bittern?s call inspired the Bunyip legends of Aboriginal lore, the deep ?whoomp? easily attributed to some strange, unseen creature dwelling in the centre of a dark and mysterious swamp. Mind you, it could just as easily have begun existence as a story told to big-eyed children to deter them from venturing into a dangerous place. Legends, and how they began life as stories like any other tale, are the stuff of imaginative speculation.
Farmland is likely to harbour a few quails too, a species that has become rather scarcer in these modern times when the old mixed farming, where a little bit of everything provided a variety of habitats, has given way to more specialised enterprises. The farmer who plants a couple of fields of corn for silage is more likely to give a home to a covey of Stubble Quail, and if he has a wetland bordered by rank grass under the casuarinas, a family of Brown Quail could be expected to settle down for life. Farming practices change and adapt to meet the demands of the public who purchase the products of the farms, and the resident wildlife has to change and adapt accordingly. Sometimes it can?t and certain species are lost from certain locations, as King Quails have been lost from the Eurobodalla. And this happens in towns and villages too. Close mown grass is never allowed to seed on the verges or in parks and gardens and that means no food for finches and firetails; the tangled berry thicket that was the Superb Fairy-wrens? home offends the neat suburban prospect and is grubbed out, so the fairy-wrens leave; big trees succumb to the chainsaw because their roots buckle the pavements and their branches foul the power lines and a whole community of wildlife is thrown out of a home.
Town landscaping and native habitat make uneasy bedfellows. Yet I have noticed that few native species are driven to extinction by our sprawling occupation of land; they simply retire to a less disturbed territory where there may be fewer of them and where their presence is not obvious to the human population. And there are always some species that will not only adapt to change but will continue to thrive in a small pocket of suitable habitat. A colony of Bush Rats scampering round an inner city garden and tussling with a Ringtail Possum for possession of a palm tree was, for me, a pretty convincing example of survival. Five species of native birds bred in that garden, while the never-ending traffic thundered by and large passenger jets howled overhead.

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Contact the author ...

This article was submitted by Jill Whiter, founding member of the Eurobodalla Natural History Society (now available on e-bay.com) and author of the Eurobodalla Naturalist's diary.
To contact Jill phone 02 4471 7007.

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