Sunday, September 28, 2008

Accounting for the tail

Latham's Snipe (Gallinado hardwickii) pictured at high noon today standing quietly at the edge of a treatment pond. Sorry about the harsh light. Don't have flash capable of infill.

Seen, say, in Darwin the bird might be a Pin-tailed Snipe (G. stenura) or Swinhoe's Snipe (G. megala). How to tell the difference? Easy. Catch the bird. Carefully count the tail feathers. Got 18 or fewer? It's Latham's. Got 20+? Pin-tailed. Got 24+? Swinhoe's.

See? Dead easy. Do you know, there are some people who say bird ID can be difficult!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Boinng! Sproinng! Kapow!!!

Why is the Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles) shrilling at the agitated Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) on the mown track near my 20-minute morning survey area?

Because the grass is rippling? Not quite. The grass is rippling because a two-metre Amethyst Python (Morelia amethistina) is sliding through it, toward a Leichardt Tree and longer buffalo grass.

Leap off bike and move to cut off snake. Which virtually ignores me, eases on to leaf litter under the tree and smoothly rises unsupported close to a metre to reach a low branch. Without urgency the snake climbs a bit higher and pauses to flick out a tongue and assess things.
Stalemate. If I stay around the snake won't move. If I go too far the snake will vanish in the mysterious way they do. We compromise. I go off briefly. The snake decides I'm no threat and surprisingly quickly begins to leave the relative safety of the tree. It tolerates my return and some (failed) closeups.

Down to ground, the snake noses through more grass, across a dry ditch, ignores a cool and shaded culvert, and begins a diagonal route down a lightly metalled dirt and grass vehicle track. More pictures at a distance because the snake may well climb the tree against which my bike is leaning. Or even (a bonus!) climb the bike.

Instead: Boinng! Sproinng! Kapow!!! Sproinng! Boinng! Boinng!

A medium-small Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis) hurtles into view at high speed, bounds on to the raised track, spins in the air, clubs the snake heavily with a thudding right foot to the head and leaves even faster the way it came.

So, two of us totally gob-smacked. Me, and the snake! Neither of us moves for maybe two minutes. The snake with head and neck pulled back in a slightly unnatural position after the wallaby's impact. Perhaps it was literally stunned. Me, mentally stunned and open-mouthed at the attack.

The snake straightens and moves off as if nothing untoward has taken place. Perhaps by a snake's lights nothing odd has happened. (I've sometimes joked about snakes in the wetlands suffering frequent headaches because of accidental thumps by the numerous wallabies.)
For another 10 minutes we dawdle over about 30 metres of mainly open ground. A final farewell stroke by me sees the snake safely into long protective bladey grass. Something for us both to tell the little ones.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Railing and quailing over ID

What's small, brown, silent, a bit clumsy in the air, without much tail, rising out of the head-high bulrushes and landing like a rail in short new-growth before vanishing into the tall stuff?

How about Baillon's Crake (Porzana pusilla)? Smallest of the rails. Fits the colouring as seen from behind. Perfect location. Almost the ideal answer. Too bad the species isn't known in these wetlands.

So. Almost. But maybe a bit too big. Perhaps too much tail to match the bird briefly observed in gusting breezes early today.

Come noon after two laps of Tyto and it's much hotter and breezier. What are the chances of another sighting? Zero? But then again...

Stalk slowly along edge of bulrush beside track. Sneak around corner and spot hurried movement just ahead. Hello, Red-backed Button-Quail (Turnix maculosa). Why are you here? You should be in knee-high weeds, not messing about flying up out of the tall bulrushes.
Easy answer - on reflection. Much of the weed habitat foraged over by the button-quail has been heavily sprayed and mown. Sightings may be fewer this year as the birds that stick around make greater use of the bulrushes.

Whatever proves the case, the nippy movers will be no easier to capture with a camera. (Today's dodgy efforts further obscured by a thumb smear on the main lens while detaching 1.7x telephoto.)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Coming to grips with cockroaches

What have we here?

It's not a rhetorical question. My limited reference library doesn't cover this dark but presumably common cockroach found marching across a sunlit track in Tyto today. It crawled on to my hand without great ado but persisted in turning away from the camera.

Nothing of importance to this except to put a point of view: that bush cockroaches don't arouse the instinctive distaste and not infrequent fury attending their houshold cousins.

Though not, in general, particularly squeamish, I'd rather not 'dirty' my hands with household roaches. A rolled magazine or newspaper is my preferred disposal method. And pickup by way of plastic bag.

But I live in an old caravan. Seasonal roaches are inevitable, with or without nasty bait traps. If the choice is letting a big female stroll across my bedding or grabbing it and flinging it outside, I swoop to grab and fling.

On the other hand, meet a cockroach, big or small, plain or multicoloured, in the bush and I want to say gidday and 'shake hands'.

In similar vein, how would you react if after grabbing an Asian House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) off a curtain it disappeared and then came the feel of grippy little footsteps down the spine inside the shirt?

Happened to me yesterday. At first I felt a quiver of disquiet and then I had to laugh at the absurdity of the moment. The gecko's still somewhere in the caravan.

Monday, September 22, 2008

No need to get all snarky about it

Poking your tongue out isn't rude, if you are asked to do so, I said. In fact, it might be considered the polite thing to do. So I'll ask again, nicely. Poke your tongue out, please.

Sha'n't! Sha'n't! Sha'n't! Hissed the Carpet Python. My name's Morelia spilota mcdowelli and my rank is reptilia and that's all you're getting out of me. And I'm warning you. Touch me again and I'll bite.

There's no need to take that attitude, I said. I was just giving you a little pat goodbye. Then you got all snakey. Sorry, didn't mean to be offensive. Snarky. That's what I meant. Snarky.

Snarky? Snarky? Who are you calling snarky? I'm perfectly composed ...

Of course you are, I ...

...and don't interrupt, it's not polite. As I was saying, I'm composed and have every right to aggrievement. Lying contentedly taking the morning sun and not a trouble in the world - until you came along and thrust that glassy thing in my face.

I'm sorry, I ...

You're not sorry at all. I've heard that you do this sort of thing all the time. All the time! Don't you dare try to deny it. I'm going off to report your intrusion right now. You'll be hearing from us.

Us? What do you mean? Us?

FANGS, that's who. Fellowship Against Naturalists Grabbing Snakes. You've got a severe tongue-lashing coming ... Don't! Don't you dare ask again that I poke my tongue out.

With that, M. s. mcdowelli was gone, leaving me chastised. But undaunted. Little did the snarky one know I'd captured an early shot of the tongue today at Tyto. Not so clever now, eh, M.s.m.?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Whipsnake not so dead(ly)

Greater Black Whipsnake (Demansia papuensis) poses reluctantly for a picture of its underside after being caught playing dead. These are among Tyto's most commonly encountered daytime snakes. Can't recall any positive sightings of the Lesser Black (D. vestigiata).

I spotted the one-metre snake idling across a track of short grass and over a patch of leaf litter at the base of a few paperbarks. A tree snake would have gone straight up a tree, but whipsnakes seem only to consider climbing when on the track of prey.

The defensive strategy is to sit it out in whatever limited cover is available, stiffen up and feign death. The pretence continues even when a stick is gently pushed under the snake and most of the body is hoisted clear of the ground.

But it seems the muscular demands of continuing the trick cannot be sustained when all the body is raised. The snake then slowly 'returns to life'. There's no aggressive reaction or sudden movement, simply a gradually easing of body off the hoisting stick.

Only when back on the ground and facing a camera close to its head will the snake rear back in defensive threat. Pull camera or presence away slightly and wary calm returns. Pull back a little more and a gentle escape is made.

Though large whipsnakes are considered potentially dangerous there's something unthreatening about them. The only snakes I've felt comfortable having close enough to 'taste' my sandalled toes with their delicate tongues have been Common Trees, Greater Blacks, and small pythons.

This from a Kiwi cyclist whose first reaction on seeing a tiny snake on a Boondall Wetlands (Brisbane) path nine years ago was to hoist both feet high off the pedals. Times change - and we can too!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Agile words and mow woe

An Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis) pauses from the serious business of munching selected stalks of grass to take stock of the decrepit life form crawling towards it.

After a few minutes of uncertain feeding it decided to sneak a little closer before hopping slowly away. Maybe it had seen enough of that big glass eye!

Tyto is more or less bounded on two sides by sports grounds and a pony club. Hundreds of Agiles - supposedly nocturnal and definitely gregarious - thrive and sport morning and evening on the resulting tender grasses around their habitat.

There's even been a spot of local hysteria. First, a junior footballer was 'tripped' by a wallaby making its way off the field. And 'all those droppings'. But juniors fall over their own feet all the time, and dogs' and cats' droppings - much nastier! - fester over all suburbia.

Certainly Agiles (aka Grass Wallabies) love mown areas. So shires taking pride in their Tropical North Queensland parklands create ideal conditions for them. So there's the rub.

But wait, there's more. All that splendid grass in which the wallaby is pictured grows on a raised square, a lightly treed hectare or so planted after Tyto's early shaping. The grass dominates until the Wet sets in. Bigger weeds then take over and are head high by the time any mower can tackle the growth in late April.

First comes the big slasher. Then the mower. And again the mower. And again...and so on. Then comes the chainsaw team to trim the trees - so the mower can get in closer. And lop off the mistletoes - so they can't drop on the mower.

All of which is considerably less than carbon neutral. As is mowing tracks ever wider - because tourists love everything trim and parklike.

Am I the only one wishing for some real tree change in the attitude of councils and shires toward parks and reserves?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Woodswallow so obliging

Black-faced Woodswallow (Artamus cinereus) shows the usual tolerance of the species toward people. The birds rival Willie Wagtails in their willingness to have cameras thrust in their faces. The woodswallows flock to Tyto only for short spells during the year and generally prefer more open country, leaving treed places to the more dominant White-breasted Woodswallow (Artamus leucorhyncus).

The three Black-necked Stork juveniles have taken possession of a small mound in the middle of the main lagoon. The parent birds no longer keep an eye on the trio for much of the day. The young birds stand around a lot without foraging in the knee-deep shallows. Perhaps they're enjoying a spell living off their equivalent of puppy fat. Though they don't appear to have any inclination toward puppy behaviour. In fact, now I muse on it, most of what appeared to me to be 'playfulness' came from mature birds.

The Forest Kingfishers have gone, five months after first appearing in large numbers following the wet season. Not clear where they go. Field guides say Todiramphus incinctus is: Sedentary. Or migratory. Or semimigratory. Nests in arboreal termite mounds. Or hollow branches and trunks. Heads south. Or north. For winter. Or summer. Of one thing I'm sure: they don't stay in Tyto once things warm up.

Also gone (again): Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Cotton Pigmy Goose.

After banging on regarding calling birds out, I note the subject's coincidentally become a hot item on birding-aus,

Finally - and apart from BWO - I add that it's taken almost a week to subdue some nasty head-invading pus-monster that kept me away from the wetlands. Thank you to doctor number three, the one who isn't scared of antibiotics!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Calling 'out' for Lovelies

Terrible (only) 2007 picture of the Lovely Fairy Wren parent birds

How can two birds, no matter how small, hide for nine months in 100 hectares?

Ask the Lovely Fairy Wrens. Unseen by me all year (but reliably reported twice), Malurus amabilis showed up briefly today at the southwestern boundary of the wetlands. To be exact, a drabbish female carrying nesting material paused for a second on a high branch in deep shadow and launched deeper into head-high tangles of vine and emerging trees.

Forty minutes patrolling a dirt road running 10 metres away and parallel to the bird's flight yielded no sight of the (presumed) pair. No sound either. But they are so very soft of voice it is almost impossible to follow them in cover by sound alone. And they do love cover within brambly tangles.

So, bird found. Game of patience begins. Can I carefully seek the nest and find the birds before they produce, say, three young, as they did last year? (Please don't ask where the junior trio went. I have enough trouble with the sedentary parents.)

Perhaps I should 'call' the birds out? Some would and do. I don't, for reasons practical and ethical/ecological, (he said piously). I don't because I'm a hopeless mimic. Birds do appear on occasion but only to fall about laughing at the strange sounds.

On a more serious note, consider the argument against calling in relation to today's sighting.

A pair of common enough birds, but rare to an area, are building a nest. One is carrying material. From nearby comes sound of a rival bird/birds. It's a challenge? What to do? Leave it to the male? Drop material and go see? Who knows? But it's an intrusion in a way that the clumsiest birder is not.

Consider further. The shyest and rarest birds are often the target of calls. Shy and rare birds almost certainly are more than usually vulnerable to stress. Calling adds to their stress. Yes, I know, where's the evidence for this? It's here (pointing to my head).

One selection, from memory, of a New Scientist magazine about 2004. In an African national park with high conservation values birds living near tourist tracks were compared by size, weight, parasite load, breeding success and other factors to those of the same species living in unvisited areas. The distant birds rated about 7 per cent fitter. It seems even mild disturbance (stress) does harm.

Wider implications are obvious. 'We always hurt the things we love' springs to mind. Perhaps a bit extreme. But being aware of potential for damage should lead to considered and sensible compromises. (Oops, too many long words bespeaks a soapbox. Time to hop off!)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Two on to three won't go!

Two out of three ain't bad, they (the ubiquitous they) say.

Ain't good neither, say I. Two's company, three's a crowd as an adage doesn't count for much as we add age.

Enough trying to make every word count. Here's the problem. Agile Wallaby 10 metres below us with young joey peeking brickish-red face out into the morning. Willie Wagtail, diving about and using wallaby's back as springboard.

How many shots needed to get all three in one? Don't waste your time. Problem doesn't compute. It appears the joey and the bird have a deal: one shows, other goes; one chides, other hides.

Second problem: even if all three lined up, the scale between them means two onto one won't go. Cut out the middle Mum? Thought of that but bird and joey wouldn't play ball.

Here's the real lesson. We know it's never going to add up. But we sit there because it just might. And when it doesn't, it doesn't matter. We've had 30 minutes' fun trying to talk them into it.

Complete change of pace and place. The latest edition, 83, of I and The Bird, blog carnival to treasure, is again working its magic, at:

Read, wallow in and wonder at the world of birds and birders. I'd plug it even if I wasn't making a debut entry (he said, mock-modestly).

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Some weren't here yesterday

Rufous Songlark... shows up after three weeks without being sighted

Many birders will understand that terrible dread of letting down a visitor to one's stamping ground.

Having written or otherwise played up the rare treasures within, one's left saying, 'Well, they were here yesterday.'

So it's with some relief to report that a southern visitor shared in most of the 68 birds ticked off today before a localised front bucketed down - on me alone. The visitor got out beforehand. Sitting on 68, I decided to crack on for 70+ and ended drenched and still on 68.

But (always a but), didn't find Grey Whistler, or White-browed Crake, or any much less likely Lovely Fairy Wrens.

Best in the air: dark Swamp Harrier, maturing White-bellied Sea Eagle, Pelican, Little Black Cormorant, and (all to myself, BV before visitor) 9 Red-tailed Black Cockatoos (heading north: nothing in Tyto appeals to them).

In the trees (some on visitor's wish list): White-gaped Honeyeater, White-browed Robin, Rufous Fantail, Northern Fantail, MacLeays, Dusky, Graceful and Brown-backed Honeyeaters. Also sightings of Brush and Fan-tailed Cuckoos with caterpillars.

On or over the water: Little, Azure Kingfishers, juvenile Black-necked Stork, White-necked Heron. Water Python nosing about at water side of bulrushes, but no clear view.

About four hours of spotting and conversation, dealing, of course, largely with birds and wildlife. Enjoyable as a change, though at end of the joint bike ride, not a photograph taken. Obsessive single-mindedness is modified in company.

It had paid off before the joint effort as I patrolled my 2ha listing segment. Two puzzling birds engaged in distant hectic chasing through and around a grove resolved their differences and plonked themselves close to me: the 'vanished' Rufous Songlark and a young Horsfield's Cuckoo. Hadn't seen songlark for almost three weeks. Suddenly it's on top of me! Picture. Best (and only bird) of the day, but, sadly, BV.

Brown Goshawk drops in for brekkie banter

Gidday. Just flying up this track and thought I'd drop in and have a dekko for bit of brekkie. Scared? Why'd I be scared of you, sta...