Birds

A Gang Gang Family Returns

This is a guest article by Tanya Loos.

Gang gang cockatoos are known mainly in this district for their habit of feasting on hawthorn berries in Autumn. But one winter delight I am privileged to witness is the behaviour of a family of gang gangs on my bush block.

Gang gangs are small, stocky cockatoos that are mostly grey, with finely patterned feathers that are tinged with red and green. The males sport a red cap and a delightful fringed and floppy crest of bright red feathers. They are not as conspicuous as other cockies, and it is often the sound of their creaking calls, or the gentle dropping of half-eaten gumnuts that belies their presence. They feed primarily on the seeds of eucalypts, wattles and hawthorn berries, and will also eat insects and their larvae. The gang gang is one of the few birds that can eat sawfly larvae, or spitfires – they may work their way through a whole clump!

A pair of gang gang cockatoos - the male on the left sports a bright cap of red feathers.  Image:   David Cook Wildlife Photography - originally posted to Flickr as Gang-gang Cockatoos (Callocephalon fimbriatum), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6025730

A pair of gang gang cockatoos - the male on the left sports a bright cap of red feathers. Image: David Cook Wildlife Photography - originally posted to Flickr as Gang-gang Cockatoos (Callocephalon fimbriatum), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6025730

Image: Rowan Mott

Image: Rowan Mott

Gang gangs are known as altitudinal migrants: they move up and down the forests of the Great Dividing Range, inhabiting mainly tall, wet forests in summer, then moving down to more open dry forests, or even box-ironbark in winter. They only occur in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, and the ACT, the latter of which they are the faunal emblem. In New South Wales, they have declined in numbers to such an extent that they are listed as Vulnerable. Their main threats are timber harvesting (which removes the large old trees required for nesting), wildfire events and planned burns, and climate change impacts.

Very little is known about their breeding habits in the wild. I was delighted to host not one but two gang gang families in the winter of 2012. One family had a young male, the other a young female. I have not seen them here since.

Then late one afternoon two weeks ago, I heard the familiar rising, creaky call and saw a couple of grey shapes flitting through the canopy. An adult male and female, with a young female! Once they had perched together, the young bird made the classic, constant begging call characteristic of the cockatoo family, although a gang gang baby is not quite as crazy and insistent as a corella baby. My bird book, Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB), refers to the young gang gang’s call as a buzzing Morse code. The female fed the young a few times, while the male fed quietly on messmate nuts nearby.

On Sunday 23 July, in the morning and in the afternoon, the three birds could be seen in a messmate gum cracking and devouring. This time, the young gang gang was fed by the adult male. During feeding, the young stares at the adult with a crouched, somewhat ridiculous posture, and sways back and forth with its bill open, wheezing incessantly.  When the adult regurgitates seeds and other plant matter into its mouth in a pumping motion, the baby makes a series of gurgling notes known as a 'food swallowing vocalisation’.

The carefully chewed remains of gumnuts beneath a large emergent messmate next to our house. Both the gang gang family and a couple of cockies were responsible.  Image: Tanya Loos

The carefully chewed remains of gumnuts beneath a large emergent messmate next to our house. Both the gang gang family and a couple of cockies were responsible. Image: Tanya Loos

According to HANZAB, gang gangs mostly breed in October to January, but breeding can occur anytime between August and March. Evidently, they can breed outside of this time because in 2012, it was June when I noticed the first family, and feeding of the baby continued until early August. Gang gangs nest in hollows in tall, living Eucalypts, and the nest is usually very high up – up to 40 metres has been recorded!

The female selects the nest hollow, and two or sometimes three eggs are laid. Both sexes incubate the eggs. In captivity, the young are in the nest hollow until 7 or 8 weeks of age, then after they fledge, are fed by the parents for 4 to 6 weeks after. All up then, the care period lasts for approximately three months – which suggests that the baby I am observing now was born two months ago in May. I took detailed notes on the gang gang families in 2012 and I will do so again. I would love to hear if you have any breeding observations – especially if you have an active nest hollow!

This article was originally published on From Forest to Forest.


Tanya Loos is a field naturalist, birdo and nature writer who lives on a bush block in the Wombat Forest. She is the monitoring and engagement coordinator for Connecting Country, a non-profit environmental organisation in Castlemaine. You can read more of her work on her blog, From Forest to Forest.


Banner image courtesy of JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dinosaur Eyes

This is a guest article by Viktoria Rother.

Dinosaur eyes.

That’s what I told my class of adult EAL* learners they had.

Dinosaur eyes watching me and my every move. Hungrily.

I showed them a photograph of a pied currawong.

“Look closely at this bird - those are your eyes,” I informed them, “I fear you. You are just waiting for me to make a mistake and then you will strike!”

While they guffawed, I wrote pied currawong on the board, then the words Australian bird and continued my English lesson.

Pied currawongs are known for their piercing, vividly coloured eyes.    Image: Rowan Mott

Pied currawongs are known for their piercing, vividly coloured eyes. Image: Rowan Mott

Yes, they do have the eyes of a dinosaur, our pied currawongs. A hungry, clever, omnivorous, flying dinosaur. With a long, lethal, pointed dagger of a beak. Striking yellow eyes. And black plumage, with that hint of white in the tail feathers, makes them easy to recognise and extremely handsome. Who doesn’t like a well-dressed man? Or woman?

Every evening, from late April to late September, twenty minutes past five o’clock, a sextet of these birds would serenade me from the stately gum tree next door. How beautiful were their voices. How clear. Distinct. Like the finest church bells, I could hear their gloriously regal chorus above the painful, ugly roar of those Harley-Davidson motorcycles screaming along St Kilda Road. I relished every chorus, every day, for four years.

But this year, there’s no chorus. My choir has dwindled to a mere soloist, whose magnificent voice I hear every evening in winter. Yes, every evening. He or she is singularly loyal and reliable; when I hear it, I know it is time to pour myself a glass of wine and cogitate upon what I’ve achieved today, while the currawong flies from St Kilda Road to that glorious gum tree next door to perch and praise the day’s end. Their singing sounds like a celebration; to human ears, how could it be anything else? If you heard it, you too would be seduced by the song.

Do not be deceived: these beautiful birds with voices enticing and mellifluous are killers par excellence. During summer on St Kilda Road, I see them stalking dinner, then eating it on the wisteria vine on level three. That beak of theirs is the perfect eating implement; although omnivorous, they are so admirably adapted to their role in life as predators.

Donizetti, Puccini, and Verdi would envy them their capacity to compose and sing at will the most intricate of arias. Despite their fearsome mien, they remain cleverly wary of me: should I suddenly appear outside, they swiftly, silently and efficiently flee the scene, fluently cursing me as they do with that melodious voice of theirs.


As a scientist by inclination, nature and training – in her final year of a Master of Environmental Management and Sustainability – Viktoria Rother is glad to share her space on St Kilda Road with creatures great, small, silent and musical. And trees. She adores trees.


*English As An Additional Language

Banner image courtesy of Rachel Fetherston.

Bloomin' Backyard

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa.

I lean against the kitchen sink and wait for my kettle to whistle. From my window, I see the city apartments scraping against the underside of grey clouds that blanket the western horizon. My weather vane on top of our garage tells me the clouds are driven by the south-westerly breeze that regularly drifts past its pointing arrow. I summarise the weather conditions for the day. Perfect! For my garden, that is. Overcast, with dapple sunshine, and the possibility of some showers. The weather report on my radio confirms my summation.

I savour a sip of tea from my first cuppa for the day and focus on our lively backyard. Fruiting trees planted in rows like a small orchard still bear the remains of the wonderful spring bloom we recently enjoyed. Nectarines, apricots and a variety of plums displayed their beautiful blossoms of white or pink petals with crimson stamens. The contrasting blooms seemed to compete against each other, trying to attract the attention of the visiting insects. But there were no winners. Instead, each tree, in their individual splendour, attracted a number of birds and bees that sought the nectar trapped in the heart of the magnificent blooms. Now, fresh green leaves shade the tiny fruit that cling to the branches where the fertile blossom has emerged.

The eastern spinebill can sometimes be spotted in Melbourne backyards.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

The eastern spinebill can sometimes be spotted in Melbourne backyards. Image: Cathy Cavallo

The blackbird, regular as a clock chime, welcomes the sunrise every morning with his melodious song, entertaining my senses while I sip on my tea. His message is heard by another blackbird in an adjoining yard and he responds. Are the two competing for the attention of the female who ignores them both and busily searches for her morning sustenance? Or are the two birds engaging in robust conversation, I wonder? Either way, they continue with their song until the sun has lifted above the eastern horizon.  My blackbird interrupts his discourse and drops down onto the grass to feel for subtle movements beneath his feet. He thrusts his beak into the ground and retrieves a long wriggling worm. I suspect it is his first morsel for the day. He hops across to different spots on the lawn and repeats the process several times. Once he is satisfied, he returns to his singing post, and continues his song of triumph.

The remnant blossoms of some plants bring a hint of colour to a post-spring garden.  Image: Bruna Costa

The remnant blossoms of some plants bring a hint of colour to a post-spring garden. Image: Bruna Costa

By now, other birds have begun their morning calls. I pause to enjoy my feathered visitors; breakfast can wait. The tiny thornbills busily flutter from tree to tree in search of insects. They help themselves to snippets of the sweet and attractive feijoa blossoms, then flitter off to another garden. Wattlebirds come to visit and perform their acrobatics on the fuchsia, one of their favourite feeding plants that they share with the eastern spinebill. The patient spinebill waits its turn. Once the greedy wattlebirds have taken their fill, the little bird hovers like a hummingbird, drawing sweet nectar from the petite fuchsias that hang, suspended in mid-air like Prima ballerinas poised on their tippy-toes.

I prepare my breakfast, and while I wait for the toaster to crisp up the raisin bread, I gaze out from my window. In the distance, beneath the cloud formations, three hot-air balloons glide eastward, partly guided by the winds and partly manoeuvred by their pilots. Then right before my eyes, a single bulging balloon suddenly rises up just beyond my neighbours’ rooftop. Up close, it looks enormous. Passengers in the basket chatter incessantly. I rush out onto my back verandah and wave enthusiastically.

   'What's the weather like up there?' I ask, when some passengers wave back.

   'Cold!' says one, huddling into her parker. Other passengers are engrossed in a lively discussion about their surrounds, admiring the views. Dogs in nearby backyards bark in disapproval of this intrusion. The blackbirds abruptly end their sweet song and my other feathered visitors disappear. The voices of the occupants in the baskets are so clear, I want to continue with the conversation. 

A striking orange blossom featuring a six-legged friend.  Image: Bruna Costa

A striking orange blossom featuring a six-legged friend. Image: Bruna Costa

   ‘Where are you from?’ I ask.

   ‘We’re from Elizabeth, in South Australia.’

In certain weather, hot-air balloons are not an uncommon sight over Melbourne.  Image: Bruna Costa

In certain weather, hot-air balloons are not an uncommon sight over Melbourne. Image: Bruna Costa

   'Your garden is beautiful,' one adds.

   'Thank you.'

   'You have a lot of fruit trees,' another passenger observes.

   'Yes.'

   'Do you make marmalade?'

   'Not really. We share the fruit with the birds.'

They take photos and drift away. Jets of flame shoot up into the hollow cavity of the balloon. The huge oval canvas responds to the heat from the flames and soars upwards towards the clouds. The bulging balloon continues to rise and drift in an easterly direction. I race inside and grab my camera and manage to take a photo.

Such a pity the passengers weren’t here a week ago. They missed seeing the splendid display of blossom on our fruit trees. All that’s left now are the various shades of green foliage sprouting from the branches.

I wonder if they noticed the one tree still covered with blossom: the orange tree. Its true beauty is in its simplicity; five opaque petals, white with yellow stamens. The blossoms crowd the stems and push past the fresh green leaves, and they emit a sweet subtle scent that dominates the herb garden. It does, however, have one competitor whose blossoms are equally beautiful, and that’s the lemon tree.  



Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group.
She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.

Banner image of feijoa blossoms courtesy of Bruna Costa.

 

 

 

Listen up and you will never look back

This is a guest article by Monash University PhD student Rowan Mott.

There are few sounds so intrinsically linked with Australia as the chortle of a magpie first thing in the morning. The call is so distinctive that most Australians would have been able to tell you which species was making the call before they had reached school age. Yet, despite this early foray into call recognition, few people add more than a handful of other species to the list of birds that they can recognise by call. This is a shame because a good ear can turn an average day of birdwatching into a great day of birding. Birding is the term most serious birdwatchers use to describe their hobby. I think this is a fitting modification because it celebrates how much other aspects besides the visual experience can add to your enjoyment.

I first saw the full potential of call recognition when volunteering with ‘gun’ birder, Dean Ingwersen. Dean is the Regent Honeyeater Recovery Coordinator at BirdLife Australia. His role requires him to spend a lot of time in woodlands across the south-east of the country. This means he is often listening to birds calling. Not surprisingly, Dean’s ears were finely tuned to the call of regent honeyeaters. More impressively, he was also able to tell when other seldom-seen species such as varied sittellas and black-chinned honeyeaters were nearby, simply by distinguishing their calls from the cacophony of noisy friarbirds and red wattlebirds. My birding changed from that day onwards.

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  Weebills very conveniently have a call that sounds as if the bird is saying ‘weebill’. Photo: Rowan Mott

Weebills very conveniently have a call that sounds as if the bird is saying ‘weebill’.
Photo: Rowan Mott

I made a concerted effort to learn the characteristic calls of as many of the local species as possible. As it turned out, this was soon to be of great benefit to me when I began collecting bird survey data for my university honours project and then for subsequent research projects in a professional capacity. Being involved in scientific bird surveys has further highlighted the value of a good ear. It is only when tasked with counting every single bird in each survey site and having a tangible record of this on paper that you realise just how many birds you don’t see. Over 70% of the birds I record in a woodland bird survey I have not seen at all. Many of those that I do see I have heard first and know where I should be looking to see them.

I use a few techniques to aid my call recognition. The call of some birds resembles their name. For instance, the common two syllable phrase in the call of a weebill sounds as if it is saying ‘weebill’. Likewise, the slurred call of an olive-backed oriole sounds distinctly like ‘oriole’. However, not all bird sounds are so convenient. There are other mnemonics that I use, though. A call saying ‘sweet pretty creature’ is the familiar sound of a willie wagtail, whilst a stubble quail call resembles the phrase ‘poppy wheat’. But not all calls I remember by word association: The call of a painted honeyeater I remember as sounding like a rusty seesaw and a spotted night-jar I liken to an air-powered toy helicopter (don’t believe me? Well, listen here).

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  One of the most pleasant calls in the Victorian bush belongs to the white-throated gerygone. The sweet cascade of notes is reminiscent of a falling leaf wending its way to the ground. Photo: Rowan Mott

One of the most pleasant calls in the Victorian bush belongs to the white-throated gerygone. The sweet cascade of notes is reminiscent of a falling leaf wending its way to the ground.
Photo: Rowan Mott

The best way to learn bird calls is by going out birding with someone who already knows their stuff; ask them their secrets for remembering the calls of different species. After a description from a fellow birder, the call of white-throated gerygone is cemented in my mind as sounding like a falling leaf, whereas a white-naped honeyeater sounds vaguely like the sound of an ice-cream being slurped (I say vaguely because I don’t necessarily agree with that description). Regardless, I am thankful that the experienced birder shared their mnemonics with me - now I know that a white-naped honeyeater sounds not quite like the slurping of an ice-cream.

Listening out for calls will also mean your ears are tuned in to other noises as well. The sound of crunching bark may signal the presence of a crested shrike-tit. Similar crunching noises can betray the presence of a large parrot, such as a gang-gang cockatoo, sitting otherwise inconspicuously while crushing woody seed pods.

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  The call of the gang-gang Cockatoo sounds like a creaking door, but often it is the sound of seed pods being crushed that alert you to their presence. Photo: Rowan Mott

The call of the gang-gang Cockatoo sounds like a creaking door, but often it is the sound of seed pods being crushed that alert you to their presence. Photo: Rowan Mott

At the beginning, the many varied calls will seem overwhelming, but that is normal. I still find myself baffled even by common birds giving strange call variations or simply because of a mental block. There is no substitute for spending time outdoors listening to the real thing but there are a number of resources that can help. Apps for your phone such as Museum Victoria’s free Field Guide to Victorian Fauna and electronic versions of the Morecombe, and Pizzey and Knight field guides each come with a catalogue of call recordings. Similarly, websites such as the bird finder section of the Birds in Backyards website and the xeno-canto database have useful sound recordings. It takes patience and requires continued practice to maintain, but once your birding experience has been enhanced by your knowledge of bird calls, you’ll never look back – you’ll listen back instead!


Cover image by Rowan Mott.