winter

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.

A Fiery Season

This is a guest piece by Bruna Costa.

Autumn in Melbourne, the season to rug up, stroll across damp grasslands and wade through brilliantly tinted leaves and breathe in the cool, crisp air. It’s a time to sit by a wood fire and watch flames curl around glowing logs. And it’s the season when we ogle our neighbours’ persimmons ripening on their fiery tree, or their pomegranates, bursting with juicy, red seeds. 

It’s also the time when we wait for that phone call or text message.

‘The chestnuts are ready.’

The date is set for when we head for the hills equipped with gum boots, leather garden gloves, and loads of buckets and bags. Chestnut day encompasses all the magic that is autumn in the hills of eastern Victoria.

For one group of harvesters, the destination is Gembrook where morning fog, like a veil, obscures the rising sun and becomes trapped in the valleys, its whiteness a contrast to the display of autumnal colours on deciduous trees.

Pickers bring plates, fill the kitchen table with delicious home cooked foods, cheeses and wines, not to mention the sumptuous desserts waiting to be devoured. But before anyone tucks in, they must first pick chestnuts.

Young children, teenagers, parents and grandparents parade down the steep hill to where the chestnut trees line the paddock.

DSCN0914.JPG

Trees bearing the best flavoured chestnuts are where to begin.

There are as many burrs on the ground as those clinging to tree branches, but it’s the fallen ones that bear ripened nuts ready for the picking. Burrs split open revealing three chestnuts snuggling within the spikes; in some instances, the nuts spill out onto the ground. Children are encouraged to collect the ripe nuts scattered loosely amongst the leaf litter.

The procedure for collecting chestnuts is to split the outer shell open by running your boot over the prickly burrs. Alternatively, a good pair of garden gloves will help to pull the casing apart to reveal its contents. The best of the three nuts are chosen, and sometimes, all three nuts are worth collecting.   

The umbrella-like shape of the trees, with limbs hanging low, touching the ground, encompasses family, friends and newcomers that gather beneath their limbs. The closeness inspires light-hearted conversation. Voices rise up through the branches and drift uphill aschestnuts are rhythmically tossed into receptacles. Everyone is encouraged to pocket the largest chestnut for a weigh-in at the end of the harvest.    

After a morning of foraging, the workers arch and stretch their stiffened backs before trudging back up the steep hillside towards the homestead. The help of a small tractor to transport the laden bags and buckets up to the shed is welcoming.

Everyone shares a hearty lunch, and then they gather for the weigh-in. A small set of brass scales is placed on the table on the decking, its weighing plates each barely big enough to carry one large chestnut. Excitement fills the air as everyone jostles for a position around the table. Children are first to test their prized chestnut, while the adults wait their turn. The bearers of the largest fruits receive a packet of lollies and their names are written on a trophy. All good fun.

Then it’s time to test the fruits of the day’s labour. An old frying pan with holes poked through its base is filled with chestnuts, their brown skins already split with a sharp knife. The frypan is placed on the open fire and the chestnuts are left to cook until the skins are blackened and the insides are soft and aromatic. They are wrapped in an old towel and allowed to sweat for a while. Everyone digs in, peeling back the two layers of skin to reveal warm, softened flesh.

In late afternoon, the panorama that is Gembrook is a view worthy of the drive. The sun’s rays penetrate amassing clouds and the colours in the sky compliment the fiery red maple leaves. It marks the end of a rewarding day.

The pickings are distributed and everyone leaves with quantities of chestnuts for themselves and to be shared with friends back home where they make a suitable exchange for the neighbours’ ripening persimmons and splitting pomegranates.


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.