birding

Victoria's robins bring a hint of warmth in the dead of winter

A flash of red caught my eye. Perched on the top wire of the fence between the bush reserve and the lightly grazed paddock was a small bird, its scarlet breast contrasting with the white below and the black of its head and back. A white stripe down the side of its wings and an obvious white spot above its beak completed its showy costume. Further along the fence another bird perched. Its size and white markings were similar, but its back and head were grey, and its red chest less vibrant. The birds stared down. The duller bird dropped to the ground, caught a small flying insect in the grass, and returned to the fence to devour its prey.

The birds reminded me that it was winter. They were a pair of Scarlet Robins, the brighter plumage belonging to the male. They breed in forests during spring and summer and move to more open areas at lower altitude in autumn, remaining there for winter. When nesting, they prefer larger patches of forest with shrubs, fallen branches and leaf litter. In the cooler months they are more likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses. They catch insects and spiders from the ground in colder months, and from bark and leaves when living in forests.

In the cooler months, Scarlet Robins are likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses.  Image: Rowan Mott

In the cooler months, Scarlet Robins are likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses. Image: Rowan Mott

A female Scarlet Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Scarlet Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

The male and female bond for life and defend their territory during the breeding season. They usually choose the fork of a tree as a place for the female to build a cup-shaped nest of bark. She covers the outside in sticky cobwebs. Inside, on a lining of animal fur, feathers and sometimes soft plant fibres, she lays about three pale green, blue or grey eggs with brown splotches and one pointed end. The female sits on the eggs and the young chicks, while the male feeds her and the babies. As the babies grow, the female leaves the nest and assists with the hunting. Many chicks don’t survive to fledging. Threats include snakes and predatory birds such as currawongs. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, including robins’ nests, with the young cuckoo being the only survivor of the brood. The robins will lay two or three batches of eggs in one breeding season, then leave for their winter residence. I notice the Scarlet Robins’ arrival, usually in April, but I never notice their departure as the weather warms. One day I realise that I haven’t seen them for a few weeks, and I know they are gone until next autumn.

Occasionally another robin visits us in autumn. It is the Flame Robin. The male has a brilliant orange-red front, and dark grey back. His posture is more upright than the Scarlet Robin and he is slightly larger, but otherwise they look similar. The female is brown. She has white stripes on her wings, but no red on her chest. These robins are sometimes seen in small flocks in winter. In his springtime breeding habitat, the male sings and displays his feathers, puffing up his flame-coloured breast, or his white markings, to defend his territory from other Flame Robins, and from Scarlet Robins, which sometimes breed in the same area. He may also fly at intruders to scare them away. The populations of both species of robins are declining, possibly due to loss of  habitat and more predators, as birds such as currawongs thrive in landscapes created by people.

A female Flame Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

A male Flame Robin.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A male Flame Robin. Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin at her nest.  Image: Bernie McRitchie

A female Flame Robin at her nest. Image: Bernie McRitchie

Another robin that is becoming scarcer is the Jacky Winter. With a grey back and white underneath, it is harder to identify than the other robins. It also sits on fences looking for food. As it dives to the ground or swoops through the air chasing flying insects, it spreads its tail, showing the black central feathers and white edge feathers that are its most obvious distinguishing feature.

Another colourful, but less seen visitor to our area, is the Eastern Yellow Robin. The male and female both have a grey head, olive-green lower back and are bright yellow underneath. They live near the coast and further inland and are found in many different habitats. Their habits are similar to the other robins.

A Jacky Winter.  Image: David Whelan

A Jacky Winter. Image: David Whelan

Eastern Yellow Robins can be found near the coast and further inland.  Image: David Whelan

Eastern Yellow Robins can be found near the coast and further inland. Image: David Whelan

Most of these birds are eye-catching with their bright colours. They are often seen perched on a fence or in a tree. They seem undisturbed by people, so it is possible to walk slowly and quietly closer to them, and watch them as they feed. Some are curious enough that they may even come closer to look at you. 


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.

Photographer Bernie McRitchie’s love of nature was born of visits to the Bannockburn bush as a teen. Trained as a horticulturalist and now working as an arborist for Wyndham City Council, many readers would be familiar with Bernie’s iconic photos which grace the pages of several nature groups on Facebook. Bernie’s most recent contribution to the photographic literature is via Dr Stephen Debus’s 2017 book Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds, published by CSIRO Publishing. Along with his good friend David Whelan, he provided the first confirmed, successful breeding record for the Black Falcon in Southern Victoria.


Banner image of a Scarlet Robin courtesy of Rowan Mott. 

Headed from the hills to a town near you

They’re back. If you’re like me and live in one of Victoria’s bigger cities, chances are you might have noticed the influx of Pied Currawongs as the seasons have drifted through autumn and into winter. Maybe you haven’t seen them, but I’m sure you would have heard them even if you didn’t recognise the sound. A wailing ‘Kaaarrr-ooooooooo’ has been piercing the cold of suburban streets as these black and white wraiths slip through the trees on deep, lolling wing-beats, flashes of white in the outer-wing catching the eye with every flap.

Currawongs are intelligent birds – you need only watch them for a few moments to figure this out. Their burnt-yellow eyes are ever-vigilant as they slink from perch to perch. They are usually looking for foraging opportunities, and our cities and towns offer plenty to keep them well-fed. The sturdy bill that juts so prominently from their face enables them to eat a wide variety of foods. Infamous for their prowess of snatching recently hatched birds from the nest, currawongs often bear the scorn of sensitive bird watchers.

   
  
    
  
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  The piercing yellow eyes are arguably a Pied Currawong’s most striking feature.  Image: Rowan Mott

The piercing yellow eyes are arguably a Pied Currawong’s most striking feature. Image: Rowan Mott

But a quick glance at a freshly deposited Pied Currawong poo or regurgitated pellet will immediately tell you that they also include plant foods in the diet. The poos that have been left on my balcony rail recently are deep purple and contain numerous seeds, indicating these particular individuals have been feasting on a glut of berries from nearby shrubs. Currawongs also eat many insects, small reptiles and carrion. And if you have ever left a snack unattended in the backyard, you may have been unfortunate enough to discover that these plucky birds aren’t averse to helping themselves to an easy meal.

These two pellets regurgitated by Pied Currawongs on my balcony show that the diet of this species comprises far more than simply nestling birds. The one on the left is full of seeds and the one on the right contained something I couldn’t recognise.  Image: Rowan Mott

These two pellets regurgitated by Pied Currawongs on my balcony show that the diet of this species comprises far more than simply nestling birds. The one on the left is full of seeds and the one on the right contained something I couldn’t recognise. Image: Rowan Mott

So why are there so many Pied Currawongs around our built-up areas at the moment? Despite their varied diet, their primary food sources are all prone to seasonal fluctuations. As spring is the peak period of breeding for many small birds, when the seasons turn and the young birds all fledge, it becomes difficult for Pied Currawongs to find a nest-bound meal. Similarly, insects and reptiles becomes less active as the weather cools down, restricting access to these food sources for Pied Currawongs. Nowhere is the temperature change felt more acutely than in the high country and so, many Pied Currawongs that spent the summer at high elevation come flocking out to lower ground.

Pied Currawongs form large flocks during autumn and winter, unlike during the summer. No longer needing to defend a nesting territory, the territorial aggression breaks down, allowing many birds to socialise. These gregarious flocks make noisy, garrulous calls as they roam across the landscape rendering their presence almost unmissable. Numbers within these flocks may be buoyed by many young birds that left the nest just a few months before. These individuals look almost identical to the adults, but close inspection will reveal a tiny spot of yellow skin at the gape (corner) of the bill, and an overall greyer appearance. The parents care for their young for several months after fledging, but the young must quickly learn the intricacies of foraging if they are to survive through the long, lean winter.

Pied Currawongs are a familiar sight in many built-up areas of Victoria, particularly during winter when many individuals from higher altitudes descend to places with a more moderate climate.  Image: Rowan Mott

Pied Currawongs are a familiar sight in many built-up areas of Victoria, particularly during winter when many individuals from higher altitudes descend to places with a more moderate climate. Image: Rowan Mott

Young Pied Currawongs can be distinguished from adult birds by the presence of a small, fleshy, yellow gape of the bill.  Image: Rowan Mott

Young Pied Currawongs can be distinguished from adult birds by the presence of a small, fleshy, yellow gape of the bill. Image: Rowan Mott

Pied Currawongs aren’t the only currawongs to call Victorian cities and towns home. Keep an eye and ear open for Grey Currawongs. They are very similar in appearance to the Pied Currawong, but are cloaked in ashy-grey rather than black plumage. They also lack the white band on the upper side of the base of the tail (rump) that is present on a Pied Currawong.

Grey Currawongs can also be found in Victorian towns and cities. Although very similar to Pied Currawongs, they can be distinguished by their greyer plumage and lack of white on the rump.  Image: Rowan Mott

Grey Currawongs can also be found in Victorian towns and cities. Although very similar to Pied Currawongs, they can be distinguished by their greyer plumage and lack of white on the rump. Image: Rowan Mott

Although currawongs are much maligned for predating young birds, the magnitude of effect of this behaviour is likely a symptom of habitat change in our suburbs. Our urban environments are characterised by reduced vegetation cover, leaving nests of smaller birds exposed and easily discoverable to the sharp eyes of a currawong. But rather than denigrating currawongs as barbarians of the bird world, we should learn to appreciate what currawongs represent. Their successful integration into urban areas should be celebrated as a link to the natural world on our doorstep, while simultaneously reminding us that we need to be doing more to provide suitable habitat in our towns and cities for the smaller birds they prey on.


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Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth.


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

Perimetre Walk

It’s just before a quarter to seven in the morning; the temperature is over 25 degrees and the sky is streaked with pink, purple and orange clouds. It should be autumn, but it’s still summer.  Waking to a temperature that exceeds the normal average maximum for the time of year is not the best way to start the day. Tea may sluice away some of the night’s disturbance, but it does not make up for lost sleep. The roads are quiet even for this time of the day. Most people are still asleep in what passes for the cool of the morning. I drive past a few houses where people stand in their gardens and, shaking their heads, look up at the sky. Another week will have to slip by before we see temperatures in the teens, before sleep is cool and refreshing.

The flags on the Westgate Bridge hang limp and unmoving as the sun burns away the cloud and sky turns from pale in bright. For me, it’s a well-worn path to the east, towards Queenscliff, towards a day on the bay.

I read the road signs, formal and informal, homemade and manufactured. Voices from the radio talk about climate change and weather. People phone in to complain about bias. It’s 28 degrees at 7.30am. I concentrate on the road, and smile at the found poetry of the painted signs.

Clean fill,

Fresh fruit,

Horse Poo.

 

Raspberries,

Fresh Strawberries,

Lemons and Limes.

 

Park here for free,

Stop here for coffee,

Keep Left, Keep Right, Keep Going.

One of the bright beaches of Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

One of the bright beaches of Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

There are very few people in the car park at Queenscliff. This select few, this band of birders, are pulling on old shoes, battered hats and buff-coloured clothes. The birds they watch are always better dressed than the watchers – even if they are in deep moult. The air smells of sun block, insect repellent and coffee. Wafts of bacon drift from the harbour-side cafes. It still feels early and it feels hot. I look at my bag and decide to take less food but more water.   

The boat is sleek and pointy – comfortable seats and some shade. A rushing tide and contrary wind ruff up sharp waves in the Bay. We head away from our destination to avoid the chop. Wind and waves conspire to kick sprays of water over the edge of the boat. If you want to look forward you need to keep one eye shut. A few hats are dislodged, a few people dampened. We swing off our distancing tack and head for Mud Islands, over water less than one metre deep. It’s strange to feel all at sea, but know you could jump overboard and still stand with your head above water. If there was ever an experience to show how much difference a change in sea level would cause, it has to be this. Australia is old enough for people to have watched as the grassland that was once here flooded and turned the land to sea. To watch the land become sea, the solid become fluid, must have so perfectly shown the true nature of a changeable climate to Indigenous Australian people.

Red Knot (central), Sharptailed Sandpiper (out of focus ginger cap, green legs in the foreground), and Ruddy Turnstone.  Image: Stewart Monckton

Red Knot (central), Sharptailed Sandpiper (out of focus ginger cap, green legs in the foreground), and Ruddy Turnstone. Image: Stewart Monckton

The islands are not that impressive from the sea – in fact they are almost invisible. They don’t have the height to break the skyline of the shore beyond and so merge into the background. It’s only when you wade ashore – through ankle-deep water – that they take on the form of real islands. The highest point on the island becomes your own head and from that vantage point you can look down to sea, land and now a distant horizon. And, despite the name, a lack of mud.

The beaches are squint-eyed bright under the cloudless sky. A mixture of white sand and shells brings a sense of tropicalilty to these normally cooler beaches. Welcome Swallows flash over the sand, and groups seem to hover over the clumps of low plants that stud the upper beach. Once you touch a plant it’s not hard to see why – swarms of small blue butterflies spring from the vegetation whenever it moves. A wind shock or a footstep releases them and the swallows dive and dine. Once the butterflies land again they almost disappear, their underwings a counterfeit of a leaf or a dried stem. 

The point of arrival is unremarkable except for two bright orange buoys floating just offshore that mark both the beginning and end of a circular walk. The choice of pale clothes and old shoes is validated as soon as we start to walk. The sun above and the reflections from below are harshly bright. It feels good to wade through the water when needed, and it happens frequently enough for your feet never to gain that almost dry feeling that is far more annoying that simple wet feet. A few people change shoes constantly between a dry pair and a wet pair.  They balance on one leg and wobble in the wind. The waders on the rocks seem to have the one-legged standing routine better rehearsed than the people.  I am reminded of and adapt the words of my brother: wet feet are only a problem if you assume you can keep them dry in the first place.

Pelicans flying overhead.  Image: Stewart Monckton

Pelicans flying overhead. Image: Stewart Monckton

Water bottles are hidden in the bushes, not for fear of thievery, but to gain some shade and the promise (or hope) of cool water on our return to this point later in the day. We start to walk around the island – clockwise or so it seems from our starting point. White gulls hang over the white beach, white waders – stilts – fly low over the gentle wave breaks just offshore. Everything is bright and clear. The group of island walkers pick up bags and rucksacks, pull on straps and open and shut Velcro fasteners. Fine-tuning complete, we walk on.

At what feels like a corner on a circle, a mixed flock of waders gathers to roost. Beaks to the wind, tail feathers gently flickering, they wait for the turning of the tide. Long beaks, medium beaks, long legs, short legs. Mud probers, stone flickers. Large birds, tiny birds. As we slide slowly into an autumn that should already be here, a Red Knot is putting on its spring clothes, getting ready for a long flight north and a breeding party on arrival.

Most others of his kind are still dressed in the dull functionality of their work clothes. No party suit for them yet. A few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers – sharpies - are starting to get dressed up, as are a few godwits. It seems a shame that they put on their showy breeding finery just to leave, and return in the drab colours of camouflage and safety. I settle at the back of the walking group and sit down. Moving my tripod a metre at a time, I bum-shuffle down the beach, edging closer to the birds. I end up with my feet in the water, a very wet bum and pictures I am pleased with. That’s a fair trade. 

Overhead, the small white birds are not gulls. They distract me from the waders as they land, just a little out of lens range, on an open sand bar. They are terns, but the question becomes what sort? They are very small, with pale legs and dark bills. Fairy Tern? Little Tern? Or the as-yet-undescribed hybrid, the Tiny Tern? As ever these birds seem to have a combination of the features of both species. And it does not help that I can see (or think I can see) both in the air over my head. The ID of this bird becomes a Bridge Too Far. I plan to consult my photographs when I get home in the hope of finding an answer – optimism never goes amiss.

The mystery terns - probably Fairy Terns.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The mystery terns - probably Fairy Terns. Image: Stewart Monckton

The prospect of lunch hangs heavy in the air as we walk along a creek edge. Pushing into the middle of the island, this creek splits the mud in two, hence the plural name – Mud Islands, rather than Mud Island. Sitting on the edge of a salt marsh, rich with halophyte Salicornia, a sausage-shaped bulbous plant, ripe for the bursting by little fingers. We are overflown by pelicans and ibis. Egrets stab at fleeting targets and Buff-banded Rails do a passable impression of chickens. I nibble on an apple, doing a passable impression of a rodent. The lunch ground smells of coffee, cheese sandwiches, and the unmistakable aroma of warm chocolate.

Soft mud, the first we have found, oozes over the top of my shoes as we wade across the creek. Dozens of small fish, the revealed target of the egrets' beaks, flick away from my churning feet. The water is warm and clear. Bigger fish break through the surface and a few crabs sidestep the issue in holes and under rocks. Life is abundant as we enter a graveyard.

The remains of a dead pelican on Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The remains of a dead pelican on Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

In the proper season the islands are home to a colony of pelicans. The birds raise their graceless chicks on nests of sun-bleached sticks, edged with sea cast weed. But now the colony belongs to the dead. Broken birds lie in slight, fractured disarray. Desiccated beyond putrefaction, there is no smell beyond that of salt and dust-dry sand. They look like feather rags and bones. Some died in the nest where their bones join the sticks and their feathers flicker, catching the breeze, a memory of the life potion that failed. Some died under bushes, maybe seeking protection from the afternoon sun, maybe hoping for some hint of warmth and shelter on a chill night.

The economy of over-production, safety in numbers, selection in action. The weak, the failing or badly built, abandoned by genetics. All left behind by the ones who did not die. Those who passed the test and remain part of the DNA river that flows, generation to generation, away from the first cells, away from the well spring of life, branching as new species form. It’s a site filled with brutal honesty, a clear lesson about the nature of the real. To see such things is to be reminded of our place in the world.

We walk till we find the paired orange buoys, the hidden drink bottles, and a boat to take us home.

The beach on Mud Islands.  Image: Stewart Monckton

The beach on Mud Islands. Image: Stewart Monckton

This article was originally published on Stewart's blog, Paying Ready Attention.


Born in the South West of England in the early 1960s, Stewart Monckton has been a life-long watcher of all types of wildlife. With one exception, he has lived in the four corners of the UK before moving to Australia in his 30s. He is more interested in wildness than just wilderness, and finds delight in the common and the overlooked. You can read more of Stewart's writing on his blog, Paying Ready Attention.


Banner image of Bar-tailed Godwit courtesy of Stewart Monckton.

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.