backyard

Birding in the backyard counts

I lift the cup to my lips, breathing in the earl grey bouquet as it mixes with the scents of my garden in spring. My laptop sits open with unread emails to attend to but I relish the moment. It is quiet, peaceful. I know that it won't be quiet for long.

Moment by moment, my ears attune to the sounds of the world around me. A large dragonfly drones by, a magpie carols in the distance, and closer at hand an eastern spinebill calls its peeping song. A flock of tiny brown thornbills makes its way along the native bushes that line our fence. More and more, the world comes to life around me, and I muse that I wouldn't have seen it this way had I not brought my cuppa out with me and sat down for a moment.

The companionable twitterings and cheeky bickering of brown thornbills along our fenceline is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

The companionable twitterings and cheeky bickering of brown thornbills along our fenceline is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

As a kid, the backyard was my habitat and my domain. These days, even with two dogs I hardly spend any time out there. Because of this, I miss out on so much. 

Sitting, quietly contemplating the world about me, I begin to pick up and recognise behaviours in the birdlife. The spinebills make a predictable circuit around the flowers they feed on. Day by day, they give away the location of their nest, perched high and deep in the neighbour’s cypress. My mum informs me that around five each afternoon, a female gang gang flies through. Sometimes we hear her and her mate feeding in the neighbourhood, but they always leave to roost for the night. A chance glance across the side fence one morning reveals an Australian hobby sitting silently atop our neighbour’s aerial, buffeted by the spring gusts.

Spring visits from eastern spinebills have brought joy to my family for years, but their presence at our place has recently become permanent. Last year we had chicks raised in the garden. Will they succeed this year? 

Spring visits from eastern spinebills have brought joy to my family for years, but their presence at our place has recently become permanent. Last year we had chicks raised in the garden. Will they succeed this year? 

Our birch trees have seen a succession of parrots. The crimson and eastern rosellas of my childhood rarely call their bell-like toll these days, replaced instead by the cheeky rainbow lorikeets.

Our birch trees have seen a succession of parrots. The crimson and eastern rosellas of my childhood rarely call their bell-like toll these days, replaced instead by the cheeky rainbow lorikeets.

Spotted doves. The fact that they are an introduced species does nothing to diminish the pleasure spent watching them.

Spotted doves. The fact that they are an introduced species does nothing to diminish the pleasure spent watching them.

The more I notice, the more interested I become, and the more I feel an affinity for these individuals as they go about their day around me. We spend so much time indoors that we are cut off from the myriad other lives buzzing about us, a fact which removes them from our minds and puts them low on the list of priorities to protect. The more time I spend outside, the more connected I feel to this little patch of earth, the busy, functioning ecosystem of my yard and the life it supports.

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Two years ago, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count forced me to sit outside for 20 minutes at a time to record birds in the garden. I thought I'd be bored in my urban habitat, but was surprised to find the peace it brought me, and the number of species I found. These days it is a feature of my life. As much as I can, I take a tea outside, or my breakfast, and sit, watch and listen. Tuning my senses to the birds and beasts brings me out of the inner monologue that usually dominates my life. We so rarely sit quietly that we forget how restorative it is, how vital for our functioning. It's only when we're forced to do so that we remember how good it is.

Try it sometime. Head out the back door with a cup of tea, coffee or your lunch, and just wait. Even if the only thing you see is an ant crawling across your table, I dare you to say you’re bored.

The Aussie Backyard Bird Count takes place from Monday 23rd October to Sunday 29th October. Register here to participate.


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Cathy Cavallo

Cathy is a PhD student and science communicator with a passion for natural history, environmental engagement and photography. When she isn't running the Wild Melbourne social media, you'll find her working with little penguins on Phillip Island or underwater somewhere.

You can find her on Twitter at @CavalloDelMare


All images courtesy of Cathy Cavallo.

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.

Birds from the Backyard and Boyhood

I recorded a new species for my backyard bird list. It wasn’t an exceptional species; it was a crimson rosella. But what made this record exceptional was that it occurred during one of my 20-minute Aussie Backyard Bird Count survey periods. That crimson rosella record is now part of a data set comprising almost 1.5 million individual bird sightings made across the country during a single week. Together, these data represent a treasure trove of information from which much will be learnt about the health of Australia’s bird communities and the changes that are happening.

Of course, not every bird I recorded in my backyard was new. There were the spotted doves that frequently sit on my garden shed roof of a late afternoon, and a pair of common blackbirds that I’ve come to know personally. I watch them from my kitchen window while I do the washing-up (a welcome distraction to make that chore a little easier to complete). The female is much bolder than the male and will forage on the open lawn close to the house. The male skulks along the garden edges near the back of the garden, is ever vigilant to threats, and flies off at the slightest disturbance. I was glad that these individuals also made it into the grand data set, to be part of something special.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}    I had never seen a crimson rosella in my Brunswick backyard before the one I recorded as part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Image: Rowan Mott

 I had never seen a crimson rosella in my Brunswick backyard before the one I recorded as part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Image: Rowan Mott

I was away from home for the second half of Aussie Backyard Bird Count week. A work trip meant that I was in a small town in north-east Victoria, about a 45-minute drive from where I grew up, so I took the opportunity to do a few surveys where I was staying. The soundscape in my adopted backyard was ever so familiar and took me straight back to my youth. It was like listening to your favourite song - the one you’ve listened to on repeat until you just about ruined it for yourself. There was the rhythm section that filled my childhood summers: rufous whistler and yellow-faced honeyeater. There was the guitar solo provided by sacred kingfisher and fan-tailed cuckoo, and the vocals of grey shrike-thrush. But this track must have been a live version because there were some subtle differences too. Although only a short distance down the road, the bushland in the area I was staying was wetter than my hometown and, accordingly, the bird community was not quite the same either. White-naped honeyeaters and golden whistlers were much more common here than where I grew up, showing just how particular the needs of a species can be.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}   The call of a grey shrike-thrush is a familiar one from my childhood. Image: Rowan Mott

The call of a grey shrike-thrush is a familiar one from my childhood. Image: Rowan Mott

It was one of the species not found in the dry woodlands surrounding my hometown that tested my scientific credibility most during the survey. This species was the eastern whipbird. Just moments after I had completed a 20-minute survey, the call of an eastern whipbird rang out; these birds have one of the most distinctive and beautiful calls of all our species. Instantly, there was a part of me that said, ‘Add it to the tally. They’re such a cool bird and it was only just after the timer sounded.’ Despite the temptation, I held firm and left it off my data sheet. I am glad I did because it is this standardised survey time that enables the people using the data to compare the number of birds reported between different regions or even different survey years. The number of birds recorded this year is almost 50% higher than the number recorded during the 2015 Aussie Backyard Bird Count, but the number of surveys lodged has also increased by over 40%. Without knowing that each survey was of the same duration, it would be impossible to know whether changes were due to increases in bird populations or whether it was simply because people were searching longer and therefore finding more birds.

The timing of the surveys is also important for allowing comparisons between years. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is held in the second half of October each year. This helps to minimise differences that might occur due to migrant birds not being in the same place. If the bird counts were held in summer one year and winter the next, Melbourne birders might record black-faced monarchs and red knots in the former, but these species would likely be absent during the latter. It would be impossible to infer changes in population numbers if this was the case.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}   The eastern whipbird almost made it into one of my Aussie Backyard Bird Count surveys and it took considerable restraint from incorrectly including it. Image: Rowan Mott

The eastern whipbird almost made it into one of my Aussie Backyard Bird Count surveys and it took considerable restraint from incorrectly including it. Image: Rowan Mott

I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Whether I was observing individuals that I have become accustomed to seeing on a daily basis, or reacquainting myself with the bird species that I grew up with, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count gave me an excuse to get out and enjoy my surroundings. I always enjoy taking time to look and listen to the birds around me, but there is something deeply satisfying about knowing that what you see and hear will go some way to ensuring that those sights and sounds are conserved long into the future. I hope you enjoyed taking part as much as I did, and if you didn’t take part, I recommend you keep a lookout for when the Aussie Backyard Bird Count takes place again in the second half of October 2017


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth

A count that counts

If you’re reading this article, chances are that you’re an environmentally aware person and have a sense of custodianship over your local environment. Perhaps you regularly volunteer for your local conservation group. Perhaps you want to do more to help the environment but don’t know where to start. Perhaps you want to help the environment but making a start is too much effort given your current work and family commitments. Well, BirdLife Australia’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count is the perfect solution to your volunteer fatigue/uncertainty/lethargy. You could be making a positive contribution to conserving our birdlife without leaving your property. What’s more, collecting the data involves only a bit of fun bird watching. What could be easier?

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  Superb fairy-wrens are a common sight in many Melbourne gardens. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will help ensure they stay that way.  Image: Rowan Mott

Superb fairy-wrens are a common sight in many Melbourne gardens. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will help ensure they stay that way. Image: Rowan Mott

There are many positive reasons why you should participate. This is a nation-wide initiative and 2016 will mark the third time this annual event has been run. Large scale programs such as the Aussie Backyard Bird Count are rare when it comes to the collection of biological data. Studies extending across geographical regions and annual timeframes have a much greater capacity to detect environmental changes that would be missed by studies that are site-specific `or focus on a single point in time. You may have read our recent article outlining the valuable insights gained from long term monitoring in the Grampians. Imagine the insights that could be gained if long term data were available at the national scale rather than at a single site. This is what the Aussie Backyard Bird Count promises.

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  Common blackbirds are an introduced species, but information on where they occur is still valuable for determining the health of Australia’s bird assemblage.  Image: Rowan Mott

Common blackbirds are an introduced species, but information on where they occur is still valuable for determining the health of Australia’s bird assemblage. Image: Rowan Mott

A similar program, Garden BirdWatch run by the British Trust for Ornithology, has been instrumental in monitoring the changing fortunes of the humble house sparrow. The UK population of house sparrows has fallen by approximately half in the last four decades. Considering there is estimated to be around 13 million house sparrows in the UK, that’s a lot of birds to have disappeared. However, there is no guarantee that any single study would have been able to detect this decline because the disappearance of sparrows at a single location or a single point in time may have been the result of small scale movements or a local population decline. It is only when the population as a whole is considered that the trend becomes worrying. There is good news for house sparrows, though. Recent data shows that the population appears to have stabilised in recent years thanks to milder winters and a growing number of people providing the resources sparrows need to survive in their backyards. Could you imagine if our very own superb fairy-wren, a bird as familiar to us as the house sparrow is to UK residents, underwent a similar catastrophic decline and we failed to notice? The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will ensure that we are better placed to detect such a change as well as less obvious ones.

If your backyard is full of introduced species, such as common blackbirds, spotted doves and common mynas, and you think that any information you might be able to provide is worthless, think again. Many invasive species may outcompete their native counterparts, and, consequently, monitoring the presence and abundance of introduced species is also valuable for conservation.

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	mso-fareast-language:ZH-CN;}   Rainbow lorikeets were the most commonly reported bird in last year’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Will they be again this year?  Image: Rowan Mott

Rainbow lorikeets were the most commonly reported bird in last year’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Will they be again this year? Image: Rowan Mott

Think your birding skills aren’t up to the task? Well, what better place to learn than in your own backyard where you’ll be able to hone your skills on a small subset of species. Moreover, these species will likely visit with some regularity, giving you plenty of opportunity to reinforce the important identification features.

If all that wasn’t enough to motivate you to participate, BirdLife Australia is also offering some fantastic prizes, including a top-of-the-range pair of binoculars. So there you have it, you have no excuses! Go to the Aussie Backyard Bird Count website and register as a counter. Then all you have to do is spend 20 minutes in your own backyard watching birds between 17th and 23rd October, record your observations, and sit back and feel the warm glow that comes from knowing you did a good thing for Australia’s birds.


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth