birds

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.

   
  
    
  
   Normal 
   0 
   
   
   
   
   false 
   false 
   false 
   
   EN-GB 
   X-NONE 
   X-NONE 
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
  
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
  
   
 
 /* Style Definitions */
 table.MsoNormalTable
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
	mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
	mso-style-noshow:yes;
	mso-style-priority:99;
	mso-style-parent:"";
	mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
	mso-para-margin-top:0cm;
	mso-para-margin-right:0cm;
	mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt;
	mso-para-margin-left:0cm;
	line-height:107%;
	mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
	font-size:11.0pt;
	font-family:"Calibri",sans-serif;
	mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
	mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
	mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
	mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
	mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
	mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;
	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}
 
  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.


download.png

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.

The Fab Five: Finches of Victoria

Finches have captured our attention for aeons, and around the world a number of similar-looking bird families have come to be commonly referred to as finches. They have a habit of living in small sociable groups, and are often cloaked in a striking plumage of resplendent reds, subtle olives, or delicate polkadot spots (sometimes all three!). This makes them very pleasing on the eye and great fun to watch as the finch party goes about its business. As biological history goes, it's quite lucky that these birds are so easy to watch, as the observations Charles Darwin made of finches on the Galápagos Islands formed a key part in his derivation of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Victoria's native finches may not be as famous as the finches of the Galápagos, and you might not earn a reputation as esteemed as Darwin’s for watching them, but I highly recommend you get out and find them for yourself. It is possible to see five species of finch native to Victoria.

Red-browed Finch

For most readers, this is likely to be the species that you are most familiar with. They live in wetter parts of the state in the grassy habitats of forest openings, stream banks, and parks and gardens. If you live in the heart of Melbourne and think you will have to make something of a getaway to see this species, think again. Red-browed Finches can be easily found foraging among overgrown grasses along the Merri Creek Trail, Main Yarra Trail, and maybe even your own backyard if it has an 'untidy section'. Although the bright flash of red from its rump and brow can often give it away, more often than not it forages unobtrusively among the grass and its little peeping calls are what belie its presence.

Red-browed Finches can often be found feeding among seeding grasses.  Image: Rowan Mott

Red-browed Finches can often be found feeding among seeding grasses. Image: Rowan Mott

Zebra Finch

These charming little birds may also be familiar to you because they are often kept as pets in aviaries. They breed prolifically in captivity, provided they are well cared for, which has lent them well to scientific research. In fact, Australia's Zebra Finches have become the second most studied species of bird behind the Great Tit, and have been used to study subjects varying from neurobiology and development of song, to sperm competition and quantitative genetics.

This species inhabits drier country and their movements are influenced by local conditions. They can be nomadic and move across the landscape in search of favourable foraging conditions, particularly in response to rainfall. Victoria's Zebra Finch population hotspots are Hird Swamp Wildlife Reserve, Kerang Lakes, and Winton Wetlands. If you live in Melbourne and can't spare the time to trek to the north of our state, Zebra Finches can usually be found along Point Wilson Road and Beach Road near Avalon Airport, and in the You Yangs.

The many studies conducted on Zebra Finches have taught us much about bird biology, and some of the findings even have implications for human biology.  Image: Rowan Mott

The many studies conducted on Zebra Finches have taught us much about bird biology, and some of the findings even have implications for human biology. Image: Rowan Mott

Diamond Firetail

Humans have long-prized diamonds for their beauty and rarity. Although Diamond Firetails have been beautiful for as long as they have existed, the last century or so has seen these woodland denizens become quite rare. Suffering from the combined effects of habitat loss and habitat degradation, particularly in the core of their range along the inland side of the Great Dividing Range, populations of Diamond Firetails are in decline. For your best chance of seeing this true gem of a bird in Victoria, head to the Lurg Hills to the east of Benalla, Terrick Terrick National Park, or Little Desert National Park.

Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes, and you are sure to remember your first sighting of this beautiful finch forever. Image: Rowan Mott

Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes, and you are sure to remember your first sighting of this beautiful finch forever. Image: Rowan Mott

Beautiful Firetail

I often hear people complaining about how birds are named. For example, 'Why do we call it a Pink-eared Duck when the spot of pink is so small you can hardly see it?' In the case of the Beautiful Firetail, no such argument could be laid. Every bit of this bird is beautiful and to reinforce this point, not only does its common name include the word beautiful, but the species part of its scientific name, Stagonopleura bella, also translates to beautiful. In Victoria, Beautiful Firetails primarily inhabit wet coastal heathlands. They can regularly be found at Cape Liptrap, Cape Otway, and away from the coast in Bunyip State Park.

Beautiful Firetails, as the name suggests, are surely one of Victoria’s prettiest birds.  Image: Rowan Mott

Beautiful Firetails, as the name suggests, are surely one of Victoria’s prettiest birds. Image: Rowan Mott

Double-barred Finch

Double-barred Finches qualify by the merest of margins as a Victorian finch. They are common in open woodlands and scrub across northern Australia, but their range extends south to capture only a sliver of north-east Victoria. If you wish to add this species to your Victorian list (and why wouldn't you?), hillsides around Wodonga offer your best chance. Like the Zebra Finch, Double-barred Finches may also be nomadic as they search for favourable conditions. For this reason, you may want to check eBird for recent Victorian sightings before making the journey up to the north-east.

Double-barred Finches occur in only a very small proportion of Victoria. However, their striking plumage makes it well worth putting in some effort to find them.  Image: Rowan Mott

Double-barred Finches occur in only a very small proportion of Victoria. However, their striking plumage makes it well worth putting in some effort to find them. Image: Rowan Mott


download.png

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.

Australian magpies: the playful protectors

Beautiful, vicious, cheeky, scary, intelligent, psychopathic. These are some of the words people have used to describe the Australian Magpie since it was voted the 2017 Australian Bird Of The Year. Like its close contender, the White Ibis (or ‘bin chicken’), the magpie can elicit mixed emotions among its human neighbours. There are stories of befriending magpies in our backyards, of being welcomed home to Australia by a magpie’s song, and, of course, being swooped. So I decided to catch up with someone who spends most of his time learning about magpies, to ask him what he loves about them.

If you’re ever at a public park around Melbourne, you might see a man standing alone, tossing handfuls of shredded mozzarella cheese, while whistling the theme song from The X-Files. This behaviour might sound eccentric, at best, but it serves a purpose. Farley Connelly is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. He is researching how the problem-solving abilities of urban magpies compare to rural magpies, and whether they are affected by noise pollution. The cheese is used to train wild magpies to come when Connelly whistles, so that he can test their performance on various tasks.

Image: Rowan Mott

Image: Rowan Mott

I asked Connelly for some of his favourite ‘fun facts’ about magpies. These were his responses.

Magpies are playful

We tend to associate ‘play’ behaviour with mammals, such as our pet cats and dogs. But birds and other animals can play as well. Connelly says he often sees magpies playing with items like sticks, leaves and trash.

‘I’ve watched tug-of-war multiple times between juveniles, and between juveniles and adults.’

Magpies sing – and grunt

The magpie’s song is one of Australia’s most quintessential sounds. Many of us have become so familiar with this song that we pay it no notice. But for those who don’t hear this melody every day, it can have a profound emotional impact. A friend from overseas once described her initial reaction as: Is this heaven?

‘I was recording it and sending it to everyone back home,’ she told us.

The magpie’s song inspired their scientific name: Cracticus tibicen, where ‘tibicen’ means ‘piper’ or ‘flautist’. Magpies sing to reinforce their claim on their territory, mostly at dawn and dusk.

Image: Michelle Hall

Image: Michelle Hall

But while we are all familiar with the magpie’s melodious carolling, we are perhaps less familiar with their other calls. Magpies use many different calls, including grunting noises, to communicate.

‘I don’t think most people ever hear these,’ says Connelly, ‘but they do it consistently when they are near each other.’

Magpies sunbathe

If you’ve ever come across a magpie lying on its front, wings spread out to either side, don’t panic – it might just be sunbathing.

Connelly says magpies sunbathe even when it’s not cold outside – much like an Aussie human on a summer’s day. Unlike humans, though, magpies will take turns bathing in a specific patch of dirt.

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Magpies recognise people

Magpies can remember and recognise human faces, and will treat people differently depending on whether they think they are a “threat”.

Unfortunately, humans are not quite as good at remembering and recognising magpie faces. To help him distinguish between different magpies, Connelly often needs to catch them and put a plastic identification band on their leg.

As you might imagine, the magpies are not too pleased about being caught and handled. Given that magpies can also hold grudges for a long time, this could cause major problems for Connelly’s future research.

To avoid this problem, Connelly – and other magpie researchers – must ensure that the magpie never sees who catches them. Connelly catches magpies in a trap that he controls from a distance, and keeps a hood over the magpie’s face while it is being handled. That way, the magpie doesn’t associate the person who caught them with the person who feeds them cheese and gets them to do problem-solving tasks.

By feeding the magpies, Connelly also wins their trust. As part of his research, Connelly monitors magpie nests, which might sound terrifying for anyone who has ever inadvertently crossed paths with a breeding magpie. But as the cheese-bringer, Connelly can climb right up to a magpie’s nest without being attacked.

For the rest of us, there is also a lesson here: be kind to the magpies in your neighbourhood, and they are more likely to be kind to you.

Magpies bow to their superiors

While magpies might be better known for their aggression, they also display extremely submissive behaviours.

‘Young birds and subordinates will bow down and shake their tail feathers when a dominant male or female is near,’ Connelly explains.

Magpies are caring parents

When people express their dislike of magpies, they usually refer to their swooping behaviour. Magpies are extremely protective of their nests and young, and will attack anyone that they think could be a threat.

While this can be terrifying – and occasionally causes serious injuries – it shows off another attribute of magpies: they are good parents.

Both parents care for their offspring. According to Connelly, males are much more aggressive when it comes to protection, although females help. Likewise, while females do more of the foraging and feeding, males also feed the young.

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

The protectiveness of these parents is not unwarranted. Only around 10% of chicks survive. Almost all swooping occurs when magpies have chicks in their nest, when the parents have real reason to fear predation. And while some magpies can be particularly aggressive towards humans, most never make contact when they swoop.

As with many species, not all magpies are raised by both a male and female parent either. In the last breeding season, Connelly saw two females nest together successfully.

‘Now that it has fledged, the nestling (Andy) is primarily cared for by one female,’ says Connelly, ‘but the other one is still around and feeding.’

You can find plenty of tips to avoid being swooped by magpies, and how to respond if you do. But still, if you’re ever feeling irritated about needing to adjust your route to school or work, remember – the magpies are just trying to keep their chicks safe.


download.jpeg

Anne Aulsebrook

Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, interested in conservation and the evolution of animal behaviour. One of her favourite books as a child was a field guide to Melbourne's spiders. She is currently researching how streetlights affect sleep in urban birds. 

You can find her on Twitter at @AnneAulsebrook.


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.