Friday, October 31, 2008

Watch for crocs, find crakes

Ventured into crocodile country today, at the Macknade revegetation area along a major creek and billabong system close to Halifax and the Herbert River. Tyto's croc warning is mainly for show (though we did have a two-metre inhabitant for a while) and to cover the shire's behind, but things are different nearer the Herbert.

Once (as I've been) five metres away from a three-metre salty (with bit of tail missing!) hauled up on a sandy tongue leading into waist-deep water full of blue and deep red lotuses (and, sadly, Hymenachne) the size and danger is clear. Much bigger crocs have been seen in a deeper stretch of water. All this on both sides of a major Ingham-Halifax-Lucinda road and about 150 metres from the local pub.

Since the revege area is surrounded by sugar cane, the place must have its share of snakes - Browns, Taipans, Red-bellied Blacks heading the danger list - though I've seen very few. And snakes don't stalk us. Or eat us. Crocs do.

I walk through the knee-high grass with a wee tingle pinging on the senses. I want to see crocs, but not if they see me first - from up close. Only sign today was a days-old track of flattened grass on a narrow finger of land between two channels.
So, no crocs, but did get lucky with the sighting of two young White-browed Crakes (Porzana cinerea) and a parent bird, which snatched something large, whitish and leggy out of the weeds. Though it looks like a frog, the prey refuses to resolve itself no matter how I squint at pixilated enlargements. The legs wrapped around the bird's lower bill just don't look froggy.
The juveniles darted from cover to cover, as they always do, making it impossible to obtain any clear shots. Rather a satisfying encounter, all the same. And unexpected here at this time of year. No sign at Tyto of breeding. Two guide books offer 'most months' or 'Sept-Apr' on breeding. Dec-Mar is closer to my experience in the wetlands.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Miss wagtail, tern, turn to lark

Drove out to a series of treatment ponds this afternoon to check for Yellow Wagtails, migrants at this time of year from Japan and northeast Russia. The birds like areas of drying sludge and sometimes associate with Australasian Pipits. No sign of birds and shortage of sludge.

And no luck trying to capture flight shots of Whiskered Terns snatching flying insects from just above the surface of two ponds. A female Magpie-Lark (Granilla cyanoleuca) took a calmer path through the air, because it was not interested in hawking for tiny elusive prey.

White-breasted Woodswallows (Artamus leucorynchus) are very interested in flying prey. But this bird was even more interested in a series of intricate wing flapping and tail twitching exercises. I'm not sure what this behaviour - confined, in my experience, to solitary birds - means. Perhaps no more than avian PE.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who's singing his heart out?

Who's this singing his heart out in the early morning? The sweetly-shrill notes of a Rufous Songlark (Cinclorhamphus mathewsi) rise from a bare bit of ground in the light industrial area I cycle through when entering Tyto by the 'back door' (from the south).
For four days the bird has been running parts of its song sheet. Won't do much good I'm afraid. All very well for the guide books to show Ingham and further north as songlark territory. The birds simply don't often make it this far northeast. When one does, it's likely to stay lonely till it gets the message and heads southwest.

In the meantime the mature male is more than holding its own competing for food against assorted trillers, woodswallows and - naturally - Willie Wagtails. As to voice, no contest!

And speaking of mannikins, this pair of Chestnut-breasteds caught the eye in the morning sun today. As did the Crimson Finch (below).

As predicted (he said smugly), the wader count in Tyto continues to rise. Six Marsh Sandpipers today, plus two Sharp-taileds, and the lone Wood. Looking close to their spectacular breeding plumage best were a pair of Glossy Ibises.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Wading into the smugness

See me smiling? It's the ugly mug of the smug gloater. We would-be Nostradamuses don't pay too much attention to the odd failure. But just hear us crow about our successes!

I was a few days out with my small-waders-here-by-November. Better early than late, I say. Get on with it, I hear you say?

Didn't spot the bird hidden by reeds in the shallows today till a passing Little Egret took my eye. And led it to a Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola). The birds that visit Tyto are usually loners. They may stick around for months and can become almost as approachable as the more gregarious Sharp-taileds (yet to appear in Tyto but plenty nearby).

A shrill call from a more distant area of reeds revealed one of two Marsh Sandpipers (Tringa stagnatalis) wheeling low over the shallows, and landing again in the ankle-deep water.

The tall birds, much daintier than the lookalike but bigger Common Greenshank, will grow in numbers till the shallows evaporate.

Now, where are the plovers, stints and godwits?

Further to yesterday's talk of killing tulip trees, here's a bird today making use of the flowers - for the colour. The scrap of flower closely matches the excited Red-backed Fairy-Wren's (Malurus melanocephalus) glowing colour. The offering is intended to attract a female. Red berries are also used. Without conspicuous success in either case, from what I've seen!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Greenery, scenery, in-betweenery

How could you wander around Tyto for almost five years and have so few pictures of the place? Well may you ask. Perhaps a bit obsessed by birds and other wildlife. Yep! Don't care much for scenery? Yep! A Green who doesn't hug too many trees? Yep!

But there's a reason for the last. There aren't many trees in Tyto worth hugging and almost no standouts of any species. It's slowly being regenerated but decades of misuse and neglect will take decades to repair.

The dominant guavas and tulip trees face the axe (and poison) but such weeds don't lie down and die without a huge fight.

Construction of a major new lagoon and boardwalk system close to the information centre has just begun. This year's major replanting effort also shifted the focus away from the main lagoon and closer to the info building. (Many tourists will not, or can not, walk the kilometre to the main lookout.)

So, having made some of my many excuses, here's a look at Tyto, but without much chocolate box (for that, go to July posts).

Scleria (Razor grass) in front of hide. Manmade treed island to north.

Black-necked Stork in the reedy shallows at northwestern end of lagoon.

Pandanus (spirals go left and right), bladey grass and open woodland.

Eastern edge of a lagoon created two years ago. White-faced Heron with fish.

Typical interlaced guavas, with rufous form of Black Butcherbird.

The dreaded tulip tree - multiply by thousands - with Helmeted Friarbird.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Heron, but hearing no bitterns

Did first transect and stood at listening post as part of national Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) survey today. Not a gurgle was heard. Should be sightings soon as males start sorting out things before breeding. Almost sure the birds stick around all year though guide books talk of possible migration to Papua New Guinea.

If there's no bittern to be seen, what's next best? Well, next to them in some books is the Nankeen Night Heron (Nyticorax caledonicus). Right on cue, a heron flew out of a paperbark close to a lotus pool tucked away in a seldom visited corner of the wetlands.

Night herons enjoy freshwater mussels. Opened shells along the waterline are a sign of the bird. (But shells piled in heaps mean rats at work). Once flushed the birds usually fly off some distance and warily keep an eye on their disturber.

Today, I noted the probable hideout tree, circled around and checked out other birds. An hour later I snuck in on the bird's blindside - and almost got away with it. But not quite. So, a distant flight shot with lighting far from helpful. Another for a next time.

Did a bit better with an eclipse male White-winged Triller (Lalage sueurii). Two birds foraged among new-growth weeds before one obliged by flying up close to me. The White-wingeds come and go. A few breeding males were active and noisy early last month but nothing much came of their frantic hover-fluttering and calling (to show females where the male plans to build and mate).

Evaporation on the main lagoon is speeding up. But as yet the consequence has been many more departures than arrivals. Sandpipers and others should find the shallows and mud more to their liking by beginning of November.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Can't collar the Azures

And today's mystery visitor to the Azure Kingfisher tunnel site in the rainforest is ... a Collared Sparrowhawk. Just a fast flash through the tallest trees, about five metres below the canopy and gone again - followed by a few shrill honeyeater warning calls (too late, as usual).

Got a bit crowded at times. Large-billed Gerygones at nest, Willie Wagtail working bank, Shining Flycatchers too, Brown-backed, MacLeay's, Brown, and Graceful Honeyeaters here and there, White-browed Robin and Little Shrike-Thrush poking about, Fairy Gerygones and Silvereyes near forest's edge, Spectacled Monarch and higher up an Emerald Dove at speed and Pied Imperial Pigeons passing by.

But no sight or sound of Azures. Will quit the area for a week and try again next month. (Gently measured tunnel with a soft branch: 75cm straight in!

Quick Tyto circuit chanced upon Crimson Finches continuing to line their tree-trunk nest with white feathers. Thought you might like another burst of colour (bit noisy - still playing with high ISO settings).

Friday, October 24, 2008

Orange-footed and Swallowtailed

Today's surprise visitor at the Azure Kingfisher tunnel site is ... an Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt). The birds are solid fliers but prefer to walk, even clumsily across an obstructed natural bridge such as above (20 metres east of my sitting place on the bank).
Sorry about the picture, but everything smaller that came closer darted away again just as quickly - and even I seldom ever see Scrubfowls. Of Azures, nothing!

Bit of high-speed (and noisy) photography slowed down the wings of this female Orchard Swallowtail (Papilio aegeus) on dreaded Lantana (which sadly won't top present voting for best Australian movie).
Two other butterflies met all the time are Chocolate (Junonia hedonia) and Meadow (J. villida) Arguses. Both females (I think). Chocolate's a bit worse for wear. Meadows are one of the obliging types that stay open-winged on alighting.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Honeyeaters' nest lays an egg

Brown-backed Honeyeaters (Ramsayornis modestus) flourish in Tyto in spite of many nesting failures. They usually build their bulky, dangling, domed-entry nests lowish over water and away from prying eyes (that's us, folks!).

Their caution doesn't stop other honeyeaters from stealing from the mass of nesting material. It does make the nests more difficult to find than their size would indicate.

The bird pictured and its mate have chosen as bad a site as could be imagined. Smack in front of the bird hide, high off the dry ground, and in an area teeming with tree snakes (three or four live in the hide roof!) and the odd passing vandal. Any chance of a happy outcome? Not one.

They should have asked the Yellow Honeyeaters that built and abandoned a much smaller nest tucked secretly within the same branch system what life near a hide was like. 'Too much for us,' would have been the reply. 'We couldn't stand all the noise and movement. Couldn't shift quickly enough!'

Or quizzed the Willie Wagtail sitting on a neat cup nest slightly above human eyes looking out of the hide to the southwest. 'We love it here,' she'd say. 'We got cheesed off with vandals destroying the nests we built inside the hide. But this is perfect.'

Or tried to find the Red-browed Finches that reared the usual big family in the top of the tree. So cunning were the parents, they'd fly in to one tree and dart across it into the nest tree. Almost totally unseen and all high out of harm's way.

I'll let things play out without stepping in as I'm sure the Brown-backeds will soon realise their mistake. After vandals twice destroyed nests of Willies sitting on eggs I began removing all material as soon as building began. The birds took the hint and have since reared young in two of the three trees around the hide.

Elsewhere today, brief sighting of female and probable male Lovely Fairy-Wren (not far from abandoned nest), another sighting of pale Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo seen last week being ignored by a Red-backed Fairy-Wren, today fed by three wrens, and fleeting fly-bys from the Azure Kingfisher (seemingly too busy to stop at the nest tunnel - which may as yet be more tunnel than nest).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Watching and monitoring ...

Sat waiting without luck for some action at the Azure Kingfisher nest tunnel in the rainforest creek bank today but found something much bigger crunching around in the leaf litter.

Don't see many Lace Monitors near Ingham and certainly nothing near the 1.2-metre size of today's wary big guy. Too wary for me, anyway. Couldn't get close enough for any sort of picture.

So I'll throw in a shot of a smaller monitor I photographed a few weeks back on the other side of the rainforest.

And I'll spare you yet another lovely Red-bellied Black Snake I'd hoped to sneak right up on. Didn't get close enough for the super closeup!

But did manage to tiptoe towards a juvenile Brown Cuckoo-Dove (Macropygia amboinensis). The bird untypically chose a low branch on the edge of the rainforest. Must confess to not having in the past noticed the full attractiveness of the scalloped juvenile plumage.

Less lucky inside the rainforest. Chased in after a Noisy Pitta (Pitta versicolor). And saw at an obscured distance two birds whose paths crossed atop a fallen tree (Pittas often hop along fallen timber). Result? Two gloriously coloured blurs of bluey-greens toned with orangey-reds. In the bin!

Rounded off the increasingly sunny day with a quick loop through Tyto and a brief interlude with a Golden-headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis).

All the Hardheads, the two Glossy Ibises and many other waterbirds have gone from the main lagoon following the recent run of night showers and rain. Seems the national Little Bittern survey transect I'd notionally mapped out will be more waterlogged than I'd expected.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Birds in my face, under my feet

Female Rufous Whistler (Pachycephala rufiventris) flew so close to me I'd have missed this picture with other than my 28-300mm Tamron macro. Since I have no other lens, I got a picture.

Target until the whistler turned up was a juvenile Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum). The bird's feeding added to the colour of its vivid gape. But it stayed just out of range and light enough for a good shot.

No success with the camera at my favourite rainforest creek either. However, after joking earlier about taking years to find an Azure Kingfisher's dirt-tunnel nest, a bird popped out right under my nose (or feet) today.

Where was it? Two metres from where I watched and shot Large-billed Gerygones building their long dangling nest over the centre of a creek pool!

Over more than four weeks and at least 20 visits to the site - and many sightings of Azures - I saw no behaviour to suggest a pair of the birds had a nest virtually beneath my feet.

The water level has risen more than 600mm after recent rain. There's no easy crossing to the opposite bank. The tunnel entrance will be in shadow, severely backlit for much of the day, and eight metres off - too far for my in-camera flash.
But a bit of sit and watch is obviously called for. Keep you posted.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why's the tree snake on my head?

What's the tree snake doing on my head? I don't know. All rather unusual.

Ride up to lookout knoll as usual this morning. Duck under Weeping Fig and pull up beside the roofed shelter, as usual. Stay on bike, propped on left leg and looking down over the lagoon, as usual.

Feel gentle movement on my back and shoulder. Not usual. Look at right shoulder and see sturdy dark and light blue midsection of Common Tree Snake (Dendrelaphis punctulata). Not usual.

'Hello. What are you up to?' I ask. No reply. As usual. Feel more movement across shoulder and back, and up on to wide-brimmed cloth hat. Not usual.

Movement on back stops. Tail of snake dangles before my eyes. Try to ease hat off head and get good look at my guest. More movement on to back and over left shoulder. Not usual.

Turn left and find 1.2m snake coiled about chamfered 4x4 roof post. It seems unsure whether to go on its way or return to me. Most unusual.

Settles on slight loosening of hold on post and drops coiled about 60cm to bench. Uncoils down to ground, accelerates two metres to base of fig and speeds up tree (pictured). As usual.

Didn't want to overdo this story in the telling. The brief encounter gave me a huge lift. But was no more than the most accidental of meetings. Though most unusual.

I've no way of knowing whether the snake joined me from the fig or from the rafters and beams of the shelter. And the couple of magical minutes with the drop-in could scarcely be called quality time. Unimportant. Such moments stay with you forever. Sure beats the usual!

Saw another four tree snakes through the morning. One routed by angry Willie Wagtails (assisted by Yellow Honeyeaters) as it sought to loot their nest, three others sunning. Not one showed any interest in climbing on my head! Definitely as usual.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cockroach under the bark

Roughly 100 paperbarks sacrificed small patches of trunk cover to uncover this cockroach, which I cannot for now identify. Not that I was seeking cockroaches. The great paperbark strip is an attempt to reproduce a particularly attractive pattern of underbark, which has the appearance of a fine silk.

But what nature and strong wind once produced has proved impossible to replicate. In the process, I've found two big centipedes - avoid their bites, say the guides - many huntsmen, one wolf and assorted smaller spiders, and a few tiny swift black bark-hole munchers.

And the one cockroach. Which superficially resembles Periplaneta americana about the head and in general shape, though a bit smaller at 30-35mm, and with green rather than red about the back. But unlike P. am. likes deep, dark rainforest. I can add that it doesn't like anything about human hands, doesn't mind strong light and doesn't run for it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Drifting into the shallows

As construction of a new lagoon and boardwalk motors ahead near Tyto HQ, a few seasonal regulars are drifting back to the more distant western shallows. Also noticeable, gradual additions to newcomer numbers.

A pair of Hardheads (Aythyla australis) turned up last month. Two became four, six, eight, 10, 12, 16, 18 in ensuing weeks. A similar process is building up the Royal Spoonbills (Platalea regia).

A solo Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) was joined today by two others and the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) by one other. And the first Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) of the season was running about the margins.

Still no sign of sandpipers, godwits, plovers or stints. Never too many, but this year the lagoon shallows after broken weather and many showers (and rain) since May are 20cm to 30cm deeper than in a drier Dry.

It's possible the reed flats that in past years could support trucks spraying water weeds may not dry out at all in 2008. Good for crakes, rails, bitterns and many other shy species, not so good for those seeking to spot them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Unravelled by nature's threads

What's wrong with this picture? OK, it's not the finest shot of a female Red-backed Fairy-Wren (Malurus melanocephalus), but that's not the real question.

Seconds before, a pale and very juvenile Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx basalis) was sitting on the branches when the wren flew in. The cuckoos parasitise the wrens, so I expected some passing of food.

But the cuckoo didn't even acknowledge the wren's arrival. It fluttered off a bit shakily into higher cover. (The heavily overcast day and the cuckoo's extreme lack of colour together proved too much for autofocus: too late, I tried going to manual.) No sight or sound of any other wrens, or adult cuckoos.

So, just me and the wren, which flew down as if into a nest in the long grass. Perfectly normal. Except there was no nest. Carefully and thoroughly I checked the area. Nothing!

It's not so much that I'd jumped to conclusions, rather that even the most rational lines of thought can unravel when put to the test by nature's complex threads.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Green ants come crawling

Came upon this two-metre Carpet Python (Morelia spilota macdowelli) curled up in a warm spot beside a sugar cane track today. Looks in need of a feed. But pythons can become almost skinfold thin behind the head. This snake would not merit a post except for the almost overlooked Green Tree Ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) seemingly pinching a pleat in its neck.

An illusion of course. The ant just happened by. But later I had closer ant encounters. Going into a grove to check on a robin's nest, I flushed a Large-tailed Nightjar. It landed nearby on a low branch and settled down. A way looked open to crawl under some guavas and through a bit of long grass to get pictures.

On hands and knees with camera flopping on my spine, I set off. Then noticed the leaf litter was teeming with green ants. A short crawl later and ants and I arrived within about six metres of the bird. But the angle, shadows and backlight made the task hopeless. After sitting back and watching all this, the bird effortlessly uplifted elsewhere.

Leaving me with the ants. And here's the strange part. Anyone who's wandered through rainforest and brushed against a few trees will have met the stinging defence of green ants. Can get nippy inside a shirt!

Today's ants jawed themselves in to hands and arms, but didn't follow up with stinging fluid from their abdomens. Picking them off gently was almost painless for both parties.

I assume that because there was no nest disturbed the chemical signal for all-out aggression wasn't fired off.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rare morning in the rainforest

The rainforest creek pools today produced rare local sightings of Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) and Channel-billed Cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollaniae). Noisy Pitta (Pitta versicolor), Shining Flycatcher (Myiagra alecto), MacLeay's Honeyeater (Xanthotis macleayana), Large-billed Gerygone (Gerygone magnirotris) and Azure Kingfisher (Alcedo azurea) also showed up.

Sadly, not one bird did a photographer any favours. The scrubfowl strode off sturdily, the pitta made a colourful exit into tall timber, where the channel-billed perched heavily for a few seconds before heading west, the Azure streaked away, the gerygones busied themselves in the nest, the honeyeater (below) grabbed an insect and departed, and the flycatchers mostly detoured around me.

The latter behaviour at least explained why the birds have been difficult to track. Most Shinings I've encountered elsewhere - even along similar small creek systems - stuck close to the low ground and shadowed areas. The present pair make darting flights sideways into the forest, or weave through the trees parallel to the creek before turning to forage again along the banks (male, below).

In Tyto proper, a Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) - first for several months - stood out in the midst of the expanding set of regulars standing in the rapidly evaporating shallows.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Crimson Finch feathers nest

A wow at mention of Crimson Finch (Neochmia phaeton) led me to seek them out today. With predictable results. Distant poor pictures of finches bathing, feeding, flying, perching, preening. Luckily, the male bird of the pair using a paperbark hole ouside the Tyto hide was fetching feathers to line the nest.

Females sometimes carry feathers but I'm not sure males accept any help from them. Certainly the female didn't take any part in today's hour of to-ing and fro-ing. Heavy morning showers probably limited the selection of suitable small, dry and white feathers. So trips to the nest were fewer than I've observed at other times. Perhaps the work will be continuing tomorrow.

Here's two versions of a better picture taken from my rusty mobile 4WD hide. Surprising just how close one can drive up to birds and other wildlife (but not often practicable).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Two's porny, three's allowed!

Just to show how grownup I can be, here's Lyophyllum connatum as a threesome and not the prurient pairing commonly seen, in nature - and elsewhere. Though the field guide talks of dense clumps and colonies, two or three caps growing from the grassiest of tracks is the Tyto norm.

In my eagerness to post Little Bittern pictures yesterday I neglected to include other details from the sighting.

Also close by was a Red-backed Fairy-Wren ferrying insects to a regular nesting area. The wren's disguised approach to the nest made more noise on the Scleria than the bittern.

So did a pair of Crimson Finches bouncing on the stems before taking nesting material to a hole in a paperbark. Even noisier was the rustling about of an Australian Reed Warbler.

Yet eight metres from me a relatively huge bird shifted around with little noise at all. It may be that the birds are more active feeders during the day than has been recognised. It's almost impossible to see them and now I find their secretiveness is much enhanced by quiet movement.

Missed out everywhere else on the rounds today. Shining Flycatchers, Azure Kingfishers and Large-Billed Gerygones made shadowy appearances and vanished. All the glorious leaves tiling the rainforest creek surface were scattered by overnight wind. I've declared the Lovely Fairy-Wren nest a lost cause, and am having doubts about my cuckoo thief theory.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bittern sticks his neck up

Here's today's puzzle: find the bird in the bulgaroo. Hurry up, I've done all the hard work. Stood near this spot for months off and on. And all for nothing most of the time. That, or a brief gurgle and then silence for the rest of the day.

Today brought the if-onlys. If only the bird would come out to the water's edge of the bulgaroo (which I cannot identify: am told it's Scleria sp but cannot nail it down. So, bulgaroo it is. Not bulguru: the Water Chestnut.)

If only it would climb to the top of the bulgaroo. If only it would - best of all - stand openly and preen. If only I'd ID the bird? Why, it's a Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus). Today's is the first clear sighting for me since April 7. Then, I got obscured, blurry pictures of a bittern seizing a great mass of weed and unidentified prey. One day, if only the if-onlys are aligned correctly, and fate decrees, I'll get a decent picture of little Ixo!

Elsewhere, I came across two young Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena) awaiting impatiently on a bridge rail for their hard-pressed parents to meet their demands for more, more, more... ...and people think teenagers can be just a teeny bit demanding! At least they don't physically try to bite your head off.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Unfolding a look at fronds

A few images of a frond unfolding. It's a work in progress and may come to nothing. There's something very Kiwi about this natural motif. Air NZ carries stylised ferns on its jets.

And while I waited in vain today for kingfishers, flycatchers and gerygones to turn up at my rainforest creek pool this mass of floating leaves caught my eye.

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