Sunday, 30 March 2014

Migrants on the move

As summer disappears and autumn is upon us it is time for migratory birds to be on the move.  During February and March our yard, and the surrounding area, has been visited by a variety of migrant species.  In my last post I discussed the Spangled Drongo, with some individuals travelling north and others going south for the winter.  The late summer-autumn movement of birds in northern New South Wales involves two groups.  The first is comprised of those that breed in the southern states and travel to northern Australia or cross Torres Strait to New Guinea and other Pacific Islands.  The second are those that travel from Tasmania, Victoria and southern New South Wales to winter in areas of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.  The first group has been recognised as migrants for many decades and includes the well known migrants such as the Dollarbird, Sacred Kingfisher, Rainbow Bee-eater, Cicadabird, Leaden Flycatcher, Satin Flycatcher, Black-faced Monarch, Spectacled Monarch, Rufous Fantail, White-breasted Woodswallow, White-throated Gerygone and most of the cuckoos.  The second group has only been recognised as migrating northwards in recent decades, particularly since bird banding has been carried out.   The first of these southerners to be found in northern NSW and southern Queensland was the Silvereye.  Prior to banding it was thought that there were two species of Silvereye in New South Wales, the Grey-backed and the Grey-breasted and at another time it was thought that rather than there being two species local Silvereyes changed their colours during the winter.  Once birds banded in northern NSW and southern Queensland were retrapped in Tasmania it was realised that there was only one species involved but it comprised different races or colour varieties.  A number of banders contributed to this work but S.G. (Bill) Lane, John Liddy and D. M. Walker were involved significantly in working out the plumage differences of the different races/populations.  Tasmanian Silvereyes have bright chestnut flanks and white throats, Victorian birds have bright chestnut flanks and yellow throats and birds from Sydney north tend to have pale buff to grey flanks and yellow throats.  It is a little more complicated than this and birds from the Canberra area can also be distinguished.  So from the 1960s it was known that some Tasmanian and Victorian Silvereyes migrated north during the winter but it has only been in recent decades that we now have evidence to prove, or to strongly suggest, that Grey Fantails, Golden Whistlers and Striated Pardalotes migrate from Tasmania.  We know that the Tasmanian race of the Striated Pardalote does, as it is the only race with a yellow spot on the wing.  All of the other races have a red spot.  I have observed these 'Yellow-spotted Pardalotes' in my backyard in Coutts Crossing.  Almost 100% of Grey Fantails that I band in the Clarence Valley during the autumn-winter are Tasmanian birds as are a high proportion of the Golden Whistlers.  This is determined by the tail-wing ratios of these birds.  Schodde and Mason in the Directory of Australian Birds provide measurements of the different races (taxa) allowing them to be identified to race by measurement.   Large numbers of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters and White-naped Honeyeaters also migrate to the NSW north coast and Southern Queensland during the autumn-winter months and flock to the coastal heaths seeking nectar, along with large flocks of Silvereyes.  Other birds, such as the Pacific Baza,  also appear to be on the move but how migratory this species is is still being debated.  It appears near our home during late summer to autumn, usually comprising flocks of adults with dependent young.  They stay for a few days and then they are gone, apparently migrating.      

On February 2 2014 I observed three juvenile Pacific Bazas hunting in eucalypts in a park at Coutts Crossing.  On February 4 I banded a juvenile that was in care and on February 8 an adult bird with three dependent young landed in the trees in our backyard and spent a couple of hours foraging in our local area.

Two juvenile Pacific Bazas foraging in Spotted Gum
Coutts Crossing 02/02/14

Juvenile Pacific Baza in care on 04/02/14

Adult Pacific Baza Coutts Crossing 08/02/14


Juvenile Pacific Baza eating large green insect
Coutts Crossing 08/02/14 (also 3 photos below)


The details of migrating birds at Coutts Crossing are as follows:

Black-faced Monarch: immature bird caught and banded near Cemetery on 15/02/14.  Immature bird observed nearby on 29/03/14.

Immature Black-faced Monarch banded at Coutts Crossing
on 15/02/14

Immature Black-faced Monarch banded at Coutts Crossing
on 15/02/14
Satin Flycatcher:  An adult female of this species was first observed and photographed, in our backyard on 17/03/14.  It stayed for 5 days.  This is a very remarkable record as Satin Flycatchers are usually absent from the lowlands of the New South Wales (NSW) north coast.  They breed at high altitudes at places such as Ebor and Wollomombi.  A couple of reports some years' back on the Clarence lowlands were not supported with photos or detailed descriptions.  Confusion often arises between this and the very similar Leaden Flycatcher.  My bird was identified as a Satin Flycatcher by Jeff Davies, who has had plenty of experience with the species.  I originally identified it as a female Leaden Flycatcher but when I examined my photos I could see that it had some characteristics that Jeff had used to identify a Satin Flycatcher from Sydney.  These characters were the brown, not grey, flight feathers and white edging to the wing coverts.

Adult female Satin Flycatcher in backyard 17/03/14
Adult female Satin Flycatcher in backyard 17/03/14

Adult female Satin Flycatcher in backyard 17/03/14

Rufous Fantail: One Fantail was observed in local bushland on 15/02/14 and an adult turned up in our back yard on the same day as the Satin Flycatcher (17/03/14).  They are, indeed, a beautiful little gem of a bird.  A juvenile was present in nearby bushland on 29/03/14.

Adult Rufous Fantail in backyard 17/03/14


Cicadabird:  Two birds heard calling in local bushland on 15/02/14 and then an adult female with dependent juvenile was in our front yard on 23/03/14.  One bird heard calling nearby on 29/03/14.

Adult female Cicadabird in front yard 23/03/14
Juvenile Cicadabird in front yard 23/03/14

So we say goodbye for a few months to the noisy Channel-billed Cuckoos and Eastern (Australian) Koels and the beautiful Rufous Fantails and Rainbow Bee-eaters and the other migrants.  But the good news is that come spring they will all be back to brighten up our local landscape and lives.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The not so slow Drongo

"You silly drongo" was a mild insult relatively common from the 1920s up until the latter part of the 20th Century.   Anyone who is familiar with the Spangled Drongo, Australia's only drongo species, could rightly wonder why the term 'drongo' was used in this derogatory way.   The bird is a swift flying and intelligent species which chases other birds to steal their food.  Drongos associate with flocks of Cuckoo-shrike species, mostly Black-faced and White-bellied, but also occasionally Barred and Cicadabirds.  This association would most likely be due to the kleptoparasitism of the Drongo.  Drongos have been observed chasing both Black-faced and White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes which were carrying food in their bills.  The name 'drongo' is a shortened form of various French alternatives, based on a supposed native Malagasy name for the species in Madagascar (HANZAB 2006).  However why the derogatory term?  Well it is only indirectly related to the bird.  In the 1920s in Melbourne there was a race horse called 'drongo'.  Although he did achieve some success in a few races he never achieved his full potential, never winning a race, and was considered unlucky and slow.  Therefore a person considered to be slow was called a 'drongo'.

During late summer and early autumn Spangled Drongos migrate from their breeding areas in northern and eastern Australia, south to Bellingen, NSW.  Some fly north and birds have been observed crossing Torres Strait to New Guinea, while others travel south and a number usually reach Sydney, a few reach Melbourne and some rarely reach Tasmania.  I saw my First Spangled Drongo as a teenager in Sydney.  As far as I can determine the Spangled Drongo is the only bird species (in Australia or in the world) where part of the population migrates north for the winter while part travels south.  I would be interested to hear about other examples if they exist.  Although they are known to travel hundreds of kilometres, the longest movement recorded for the species in the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme (ABBBS) is only 67 km.  This was a bird that I banded at South Grafton in 1978 which was found sick at Coffs Harbour a little over two months later.  The longest time between banding and recovery for the species is just over 7 years 11 months (ABBBS).

This year seems to be a bumper year for the species.  Although I see them every year migrating through the Clarence Valley, where I live, they were more obvious this year.  Numbers appeared to be greater than normal and they stayed for longer.  More reports were received on Birdline and Birding-aus from the Sydney area as well.  Maybe they had a very successful breeding event last spring.

They arrived near home, at Coutts Crossing, on February 1 when I heard 2+ calling.  I heard them again on February 2 and on February 4 I observed 6+ flying from eucalypts near Armidale Road to the school reserve at 07:00 hrs.  Then on February 7 10+ visited the trees in our backyard.  They comprised adults and begging juveniles and their constant activity made counting difficult so there was possibly a greater number present.  This visit coincided with an abundance of Christmas Beetles and Cicadas and the yard was full of noisy insectivorous birds.  In addition the Drongos there were Noisy and Little Friarbirds, Little Wattlebirds, Noisy Miners, an Olive-backed Oriole, Australasian Figbirds and a group of 12+ Blue-faced Honeyeaters.  I wasn't sure where to look there was so much activity and the noise was almost deafening.

Adult Spangled Drongo in backyard 070214

Juvenile Spangled Drongo in backyard 070214

Juvenile dozing after stuffing itself with beetles

Two juvenile Drongos one with Christmas Beetle

Adult Noisy Friarbird in backyard 070214

Juvenile Noisy Friarbird in backyard 070214

The next day I saw only one Drongo a short distance down the road from home but on February 9 there were 5 in our front yard, including two juveniles.  When they flew to the backyard an adult fed a blackish cicada to a begging juvenile.  A little later a Brown Goshawk flew over and the adult Drongo called out in alarm.  The Spangled Drongo utters a call very similar to that of the Brown Goshawk and I am not sure whether it imitates the Goshawk call or just has a similar call by co-incidence.  Drongos were seen or heard daily until February 14 but then not again until February 21 (I was away from February 18-21 so they could have been present on those days).  Subsequent sightings were made on February 22, 23, 28 and March 1-4, 6-10, 17-19 but there have been no sighting since the last date.  One bird was catching insects on the wing on March 9.  Most later records were of single birds so it seems likely that the migrating flocks may have moved on.  It is normal for single birds to winter in various Clarence Valley locations, including within backyards in the City of Grafton.

Association with cuckoo-shrikes was noted a number of times as follows:

22/02/14 - 3+ Drongos in same or nearby trees to 6+ Black-faced and 2+ White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes (one White-bellied was a begging juvenile).  One Drongo chased another on the wing.  
23/02/14 - 3+ Drongos in same or nearby trees to 6+ Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes (BFCS).  I Drongo chasing BFCS which was carrying food in bill.

02/03/14 - 3 BFCS and 1 Drongo landed in eucalypt the a Drongo was chasing a White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike (WBCS) on the wing which appeared to have food in its bill.  When the two birds landed neither had any food.

03/03/14 - 2 BFCS, 1WBCS and 1 Drongo in same or nearby tree.

At Glenugie Creek, south of Grafton, on February 8 Warren Thompson and I counted 25+ Spangled Drongos moving through the trees.  The movement was at times erratic so the count was probably an underestimate.  Three + BFCS were moving through at the same time.

I caught and banded two juvenile Drongos in our backyard on February 12.  I found out what it was like to be a cicada or a Christmas Beetle when they both took turns in biting my fingers with their sharp bills.  One also demonstrated how deep it could get its claws into my hand.  Ouch!!!

First juvenile Drongo banded on February 12

First juvenile banded - head shot

Second juvenile banded on February 12

Second juvenile banded - head shot

Second juvenile - tasting my hand


Thursday, 6 March 2014

Reconnecting with an old friend - the Cotton Pygmy-goose

A combination of his cabin fever and recent reports on NSW Birdline resulted in Warren Thompson suggesting that we should have a day out to check on the Cotton Pygmy-geese that had been reported at Kyogle.  Rob Elvish had seen 5 geese there on 26 February.  A lone male had been at the site in August 2013.  The species is very rare vagrant in New South Wales with only 5 records up to 1990  when the Handbook of Australian New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB) was published.  Rob's recent record was only the sixth since 2006.  One of these six records was a female plumaged bird that I saw at Swan Creek, near Grafton on 22 May 2007, which was first observed there by Maree Davis.   I also saw two female plumaged birds at Lismore Lake on 25 March 2006.

We started our trip at Coutts Crossing and had ticked off Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Brown Goshawk and Spangled Drongo as well as thirteen other species before we left the village.  A quick check of the nearby Brothersons Swamp added, among others, 4 Yellow-billed Spoonbills and a Glossy Ibis.  The Magpie Geese were still present at the former poultry farm dam NE of Coutts Crossing with 50+ counted.  A well coloured and marked Latham's Snipe was foraging at the edge of a small dam there.

Latham's Snipe at dam NE of Coutts Crossing

On to Grafton where we checked out the egret colony at the end of the main street.  Nesting was coming to an end with over 500 large nestling Cattle Egrets standing on nests or in the water at the base of the trees.  We then drove along the Summerland Highway to Koolkhan where I spotted a stick nest in the top of a radio tower.  I couldn't see anything on the nest but a dark bird was perched at a platform lower down.  It was an adult Peregrine Falcon.  Peregrine Falcons nest on the large Telstra tower in the centre of Grafton so this tower may also be a Peregrine Falcon nesting location.  I did see an Australian Hobby at this tower a few years back.   A pair of adult Wedge-tailed eagles perched in a large gum tree at Sportsmans Creek didn't wait around to allow us to photograph them.   We pulled into a driveway at Gurranang to check on a bird that I had seen as we drove past.  The bird was a cuckoo-shrike and I thought that it looked like a White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike but we only found Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes when we stopped.  It was a rich location for birds with a flock of Rainbow Bee-eaters foraging in the air and landing on powerlines and on dead branches of trees.  At least one was a juvenile, lacking the full colour and black throat bar of the adults.  We added Weebill, White-throated Gerygone, Rufous Whistler, Black-chinned Honeyeater, Striated Pardalote and Jacky Winter at this site.

Juvenile Rainbow Bee-eater, Gurranang

A cup of tea at Ellangowan Rest Area was refreshing and allowed us to tick off Little Lorikeet.  Other than numerous Fuscous Honeyeaters and a couple of rainbow Bee-eaters, which wad had ticked off earlier, there was nothing else to note.  

As we approached Casino I noted a few small bird perched on a powerline.  I thought that they may been finches and Plum-headed Finches would be a good addition to the list.  We did a U-turn and found two adult Chestnut-breasted Mannikins on the powerline.  At Casino we checked out the very dry Geneebeinga Wetlands but found an adult female Black-necked (Satin) Stork, a Black-shouldered Kite, 10 Chestnut-breasted Mannikins and 5 Glossy Ibis and other common species.  The birds were flushed by a low flying Swamp Harrier.

                    Adult female Black-necked Stork, Geneebeinga Wetland, Casino

After checking out the Barling Creek wetland, which was also almost dry, we headed for Kyogle.  We bought pies at the bakery in Kyogle and then put out our chairs at the edge of Lake Harrison waiting for the Pygmy-geese to show.   It didn't take long before I spotted two adult male Cotton Pygmy-geese at the far end of the water body.  They looked good through the spotting scope but photography at that distance was difficult.  I then located two adult females much closer to our position.  They allowed reasonable photos to be taken.

Two adult female Cotton Pygmy-geese
Adult female Cotton Pygmy-goose

                 Two adult male Cotton Pygmy-geese at Lake Harrison Kyogle 

It was interesting that the two males stayed together in one section of the lake while the two females associated in another section.  HANZAB doesn't mention anything about sex-based segregation.

A good variety of other waterbird species was present at Lake Harrison with 11+ Comb-crested Jacanas, 10 Plumed Whistling-Ducks, an adult pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles, two Black-winged Stilts and many Eurasian Coot.

                          Adult Comb-crested Jacana Lake Harrison

                Adult pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles Lake Harrison

                                     Adult White-bellied Sea-Eagle Lake Harrison

                                      Eurasian Coot Lake Harrison

                                       Eurasian Coot Lake Harrison

                                       Plumed Whistling-Ducks Lake Harrison

                               Little Black Cormorant Lake Harrison

We had visited a wetland at Stratheden in the past and had always seen a great variety of unusual and rare waterbirds there so we headed home in that direction.  There was  pair of adult Black-necked (Satin) Storks on a small wetland at Stratheden.  We missed the turnoff to the main Stratheden Wetland (don't ask!!) and ended up visiting Doubtful Creek and Dyraaba.  It was a great mistake as we found a wetland alongside the road where we ticked off  6 Wandering Whistling-Ducks, 27 Plumed Whistling-Ducks, a Latham's Snipe, two Glossy Ibis and 5+ Comb-crested Jacanas.  Four more Glossy Ibis were foraging in a dry paddock nearby, an unusual habitat.  At Dyraaba we found a Greyhound kennel where 12+ Black Kites, 4 Whistling Kites and 2+ Wedge-tailed Eagles were scavenging.  One Wedge-tailed Eagle was a juvenile (see photo).  A little further along the road we saw an adult Pacific Baza fly into a eucalypt.

             Adult male Black-necked (Satin) Stork foraging at Stratheden

                       Wandering Whistling-Ducks at Doubtful Creek

                          Wandering Whistling-Duck Doubtful Creek

                        Glossy Ibis and Grey Teal Doubtful Creek

                        Juvenile Wedge-tailed Eagle Dyraaba

After a turn around at Dyraaba we stopped at the Stratheden Wetland which had mostly dried up.  We did record 5 Glossy Ibis, 1 Comb-crested Jacana, an immature White-bellied Sea-Eagle, an Australian Pelican and a few ducks.

Over 100 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, a pair of Black-necked (Satin) Storks, 7+ Glossy Ibis and 2 Chestnut-breasted Mannikins were at Round Swamp, at the edge of Casino.  We then travelled home via the Summerland Highway to Grafton and then on to Coutts Crossing.  Warren and I both agreed that it was a great day with six threatened bird species, a total of 104 birds, 3 mammals, one reptile and one amphibian recorded, and most importantly we saw the Pygmy-geese.

The total list for the day is shown below with  ‘T’ = threatened, * = introduced; 

Birds: Magpie Goose (T), Plumed Whistling-Duck, Wandering Whistling-Duck, Black Swan,  Australian Wood Duck, Cotton Pygmy-goose (T), Grey Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Hardhead, Australasian Grebe, *Rock Dove, White-headed Pigeon, *Spotted Dove, Crested Pigeon, Australasian Darter, Little Pied Cormorant, Little Black Cormorant, Australian Pelican, Black-necked Stork (T), White-necked Heron, Eastern Great Egret, Intermediate Egret, Cattle Egret, White-faced Heron,  Glossy Ibis, Australian White Ibis, Straw-necked Ibis, Royal Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Black-shouldered Kite, Pacific Baza, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Whistling Kite, Black Kite, Brown Goshawk, Swamp Harrier, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Nankeen Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Purple Swamphen, Dusky Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Black-winged Stilt, Red-kneed Dotterel, Masked Lapwing, Comb-crested Jacana (T),  Latham's Snipe, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Galah, Little Corella, Rainbow Lorikeet, Scaly-breasted Lorikeet, Musk Lorikeet, Little Lorikeet (T), Australian King-Parrot, Eastern Rosella, Laughing Kookaburra, Sacred Kingfisher, Rainbow Bee-eater, Dollarbird, Superb Fairy-wren, Red-backed Fairy-wren, Weebill, White-throated Gerygone, Brown Thornbill, Striated Pardalote, Lewin’s Honeyeater, Yellow-faced Honeyeater, Fuscous Honeyeater, Bell Miner, Noisy Miner, Brown Honeyeater, Black-chinned Honeyeater (T), White-throated Honeyeater, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Noisy Friarbird, Little Friarbird, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Rufous Whistler, Australasian Figbird, Olive-backed Oriole, White-breasted Woodswallow, Grey Butcherbird, Pied Butcherbird, Australian Magpie, Pied Currawong, Spangled Drongo, Grey Fantail, Willie Wagtail, Torresian Crow, Restless Flycatcher, Magpie-lark, Jacky Winter, Golden-headed Cisticola, Tawny Grassbird, Welcome Swallow, Tree Martin, *Common Starling, *Common Myna, Mistletoebird, Red-browed Finch, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, *House Sparrow.

Mammals: Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Red-necked Wallaby, *Rabbit.

Reptiles: Common Tree Snake.

Amphibians: Common Eastern Froglet.