Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Four for kingfisher lovers

Forest Kingfishers (Todiramphus macleayii) dominate the fenceline on the entry to Tyto these mornings. Not yet seeing 10-20 poised on posts, but 5-6 birds within 30 metres a common sight. Caterpillars from amid dewy grasses are the prime prey. Two problems: kingfishers are alert and shy, so don't like closeups; kingfishers persist in sitting on manmade structures. Sorry about that!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Balanced diet continued

White-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike (Coracina papuensis) unknowingly continues my previous theme of a balanced diet with a caterpillar about to be part of breakfast at Tyto this week. Bird wasn't willing to stick around and let me move to better lighting.

Magpie-Lark (Grallina cycanoleuca) even less helpful. So quick on the swallow that its prey, a small grasshopper, was disappearing even as I lifted the camera.

White-browed Robin (Poecilodryas superciliosa) made no effort to co-operate with my would-be dietary theme. It's only contribution to balanced anything was to balance briefly on a shaded branch.

Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis) also proved impossible to catch with anything resembling food in bill. Not so surprising since most of its food is caught and consumed within long grasses.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oriole balances hairy diet

A balanced diet is the way to good health, we're told (though many choose to ignore such maxims and indulge in maximums). No need to sell the message to the Yellow Oriole (Oriolus flavocinctus).

Watched today as the bird below snagged a large hairy caterpillar, gave it the typical cuckoo-like thrash and bash treatment for at least two minutes and gulped the bruised mass down.
It then moved on to fruit, more customary fare. The bird tried several ripening guavas before finding one already part-eaten and to its liking. 

Most birds avoid hairy caterpillars, leaving them to the cuckoos. Orioles are fruit eaters and though they seem to relish some insects I've not previously seen one tackle any hairy 'monsters'. Perhaps the cuckoos get there first most of the time.

Will get a chance to study Yellow Oriole eating habits more closely in coming weeks after seeing one in the early stages of nest building near the lookout today. Should mean plenty of resounding 'yonk yonk a-lonks' and breezy wheezy 'sneezes' to come.

And news of the Crimson Finch nest in the trunk of a paperbark in front of the hide. Two outsiders turned up today. One ventured near the nest. Out rushed a female furious at having her sitting interrupted. The interlopers fled. It's been about two weeks since final feather-bedding (above) activity, so fledging is probably a week off. I'll be on watch!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jacana walks on: eggs go under

Sunny feeding time for this Comb-crested Jacana with snippet of vegetation in bill at Tyto yesterday. Not often the birds will allow one to walk up on them. Took my time edging along the lagoon and easing into the mud and water as the bird pecked away hoping for morsels on and under the water lily leaves. More trial and error than perceived prey behind the technique, it seems.

Even more trial and error on the part of the Jacanas that plonked two eggs on a straggly leaf and bits of lotus roots in the middle of the lagoon the other day. Got that sinking feeling when I studied the 'nest' (from 40 metres away) on Friday and saw sitting bird awash. Sure enough, eggs gone and the birds ignoring the site yesterday. Probably a not uncommon miscalculation by birds living most of their lives on flimsy flotation.

Got a fleeting look at three young Magpie Geese yesterday before they were hustled off into swampy long grass. In a reversal of life in fairy tales, the goslings begin as cuddly and adorable and progress quickly through colourful and attractive to long-necked and awkward (those with teen boys might see a pattern!). I don't think them ugly, young or old, but admit theirs is a rather singular beauty.

Also singular (though without much sing to its 'songs') is the Great Bowerbird. The bird above led me a long-winded dance in, under and around shaded trees grouped near the Tyto lookout yesterday. The 30 minutes or more was much punctuated by hisses, squawks, tinny gurgles and metallic gargles. In the contest between bird and photographer, I was outclassed and left behind a barriers of twigs or leaves and branches at every turn, gaining the one dodgy head shot with prey. As a last straw, the bird went silent and melted off unseen into the late morning.

Two other birds that melted off today were noteworthy for different reasons. First came early on when a Dollarbird floated into view above the new lagoon near the Tyto entry. As I focussed at longrange and hoped for a closer shot, five Masked Lapwings screeched into view and drove the Dollarbird off. First time I've seen such aggression against a Dollarbird. Never very many of them in the wetlands and such incidents may be common elsewhere.

Another to get the message to clear off was the first Little Eagle of the year, a particularly tidy and lightly coloured pale morph. No chance to get decent pictures because even when first spotted it was soaring and being harried ever higher and away by three Black Kites. A pale Little Eagle turned up several times last year, but I suspect today's bird is smaller. Whatever the case, it's always great to see a rare raptor!     

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Masked Lapwing on guard

Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles) leaves no doubt about its intention to defend four eggs in a 'nest' (the merest of depressions amid short grassy weeds) beside a sugar mill road near Ingham. Spotted the breeding pair a few days ago and drove in yesterday with camera at ready.

A few moments of fuss from the bird and plenty of pictures from the car for me and we could return to doing what comes naturally. The bird sat back on the greasy-green eggs - which look as if thinly splattered with black by a Jackson Pollock wannabe. I drove off looking for anything out of the ordinary around the mill treatment ponds. Nothing!

The photographic catches at Tyto have continued to be thin, with low overall bird numbers and reduced species present. But a few birds yesterday and today fronted up for brief flights across my horizon. They all managed to looked sharper and more attractive in life than in camera. Goes without saying, of course. 

Female Black-necked Stork teased me into contemplating crawl closer (on swollen bung knee!) as it poked and prodded at the western end of the main lagoon. Luckily it eased into the air and headed east before I committed to the almost certainly fruitless effort to catch if off guard. Its presence back after the floods is, however, a favourable hint of other impending returns.

Magpie Geese have stayed in the general area, though not in large numbers. Even these big birds can be difficult to sneak up on, the more so since they've taken to the tree tops more frequently since the floods and are flightier.

One noteworthy sighting yesterday came when a pair of Shining Flycatchers darted up a creekline just as I was puzzling over the disappearance of a Common Tree Snake from a footbridge. Seems I was victim of divided attention disorder (DAD, as in you're getting old, Dad!): trying to watch three things at once led to losing all three! It did mean a rare tick, the male flycatcher being the first in five years for me at Tyto. Even females, less enamoured of the shadows, seldom venture into Tyto.

Also standing out from this week's sightings: a White-browed Crake and four large young just beginning to grow out of their black plumage. Should prove to be the first of many families begun when the floodwaters receded. 

Another nesting pair also showed out. Earlier in the week watched from 40 metres away as a Comb-crested Jacana alighted directly on top of its partner in the middle of open water with just a few scraggly lotus roots and leaves forming a precarious platform. Missed the picture! Could just make out the upper outline of two eggs today. Progress will be easy enough to follow and report, near to impossible to photograph effectively.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Little Bittern comes to bitter end

After much debate with self decided to post this image of male Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) that impaled itself (probably in night flight) on a barbed wire fence close to Tyto Wetlands, Ingham, last week. A sad enough end for any creature, but more so when the bird is from a relatively rare species currently under survey throughout much of Australia. 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Forest Kingfisher finally sits still

Finally found a Forest Kingfisher (Todiramphus macleayii) showing a bit of patience and trust at Tyto this week. Just couldn't encourage the bird to sit on a thinner branch and get into full sunlight (click top pic to enlarge).

The kingfishers are still sharing much of the saturated habitat with a lesser number of Sacreds. Earlier predictions of the Sacreds' disappearance by now have failed to hold up, because the heavy showers keep coming. As the rainfall tapers off, so will the Sacreds.

Interestingly, two Little Kingfishers continue to come and go from the creek system. Their variable presence may be explained partly by changes in conditions at some shaded pool areas. Previously open stretches of water have become overgrown, thus reducing the birds' hunting zones. 

The almost total lack of any Azure Kingfishers sightings in recent weeks may also be explained by the lack of pool water in shadow much of the day. I suspect the birds are choosing to stick to nearby heavier rainforest creek systems.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yellow and green with envy

Though denying ever being away with the fairies (Fairy Gerygones and Wrens are different cases!), I admit to chasing after dragonflies (click pic to enlarge), butterflies and pretty creatures whenever mood takes and chance offers. So, three results of pursuit - with variations on the theme of yellow and green:

First, the lumberingly named but aerially agile Austrogomphus prasinus. A male, the guidebook relates, as shown by the yellow, forked rear appendages. This dragonfly sped into view today and drifted from stem to stem of giant cane grass after drawing me away from butterflies (below) clustered on a cane road.

The Common Grass Yellows (Eurame hecabe) were gathered in several places along the sandy gravelled road sipping (licking?) salts after light rain overnight and this morning. Also popular with the 40mm wingspan butterflies was a flattened patch of horse dung. No other of the several butterfly species in the area showed interest in the gravel or the dung.

Finally, a small Lace Monitor (Varanus varius) encountered a few days ago (pre-Cyclone Hamish alerts) near Dungeness boat ramp, where the Herbert River emerges into the bottom end of the Hinchenbrook Channel. The monitor stopped sunning itself and skittered across the road when it saw me coming camera in hand. It disappeared - as they say, like a rat up a drainpipe - up a drainpipe! 

Such ability to vanish like a fairy in a yellow funk leaves me green with envy.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bee-eater turns dragon slayer

Another dragonfly comes to a colourful end in Tyto today. Haven't observed great numbers of such large prey being taken by Rainbow Bee-eaters. Dragonflies are usually too quick and alert. But not this one.

Also surprising was the speed with which the bird swallowed the dragonfly. No thrashing against ground or branch to remove the wings, which Willie Wagtails and some other insectivores reject. No, rather like an egret with a fish, the bird speedily manouevred the dragonfly into a head-first position inside its bill. Three fast gulps and it was gone, wings and all.

Bit like the bee-eaters themselves. In past years there have often been flocks of 50-60 birds bursting from the paperbarks in a gorgeous explosion of hues. No sign of such numbers and spectacle in recent months. Most often these days three or four birds appear briefly and just as quickly vanish.

Pulling an even faster vanishing trick today were a pair of White-browed Crake chicks. Saw the two for a split second in front of the hide before an alarm call from a parent bird brought instant disappearance by the small black youngsters. Too quick for any pictures.

Almost impossibly quick also is their production. Their habitat was totally under water five and again four weeks ago. Incubation is about 21 days. It's certain many crakes' nests were flooded. Twice in a week. But some must have laid again immediately the waters dropped. 

Little wonder Tyto's chock-full of crakes year-round. I suspect the Comb-crested Jacanas are equally swift to recover from a bit of excess water. But that's just a quick observation as excuse to run another Jacana picture. Still trying to get really close!  

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Of a cockatoo and almond I sing

The Red-tailed Black Cockatoos have been raiding the Indian almonds again at the caravan park. Perch and shred them, nip them off, drop them and go to ground and shred them, makes little difference to the birds. But ground-munchers make it easier for me. Female above was happy to let me quite close in the morning sunlight earlier this week (click pic to enlarge). Still hoping for a decent in-flight picture!

Capturing things in flight comes naturally to Willie Wagtails. One of the pair in more or less permanent possession of the hide and its surrounding paperbarks in Tyto snapped up a dragonfly yesterday morning. Looked in general guide to North Queensland fauna but couldn't ID it.

Today, while creeping about looking for Bush-Hens under trees beside an overgrown creek (and being distracted by the first Spectacled Monarch seen for many weeks) this dragonfly persistently flew into the shade and posed on a dead stem. It appears to be one of the same species that made up part of the Willie's breakfast yesterday.

A closing note, on the floods and bird counts: February's 89 total species sighted was about 10 down on lowest previous tally (in past five years). This month has brought just 56 species, about 15 fewer than I'd have expected. But a solitary Latham's Snipe appeared today, a pair of Green Pigmy Geese have returned to the largely deserted open waters, and the insectivores are more visible in resurgent grassland and woodland. The signs point to a count of about 110 for March. We'll see!  

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Taipan swims into view

Just when I begin to think most of the snakes have been washed away, this Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) comes swimming briskly from the Scleria and hauls ashore close by the footbridge to the Tyto hide.

I stepped across to its likely route up through the grass and got near, but the species is ever alert. Couldn't get unobscured shot of the raised head. Moved a little too much, and snake slipped quickly away into knee-high weeds.

Taipans are often active hunters by day. Not so often encountered in the water. This was the first I've seen coming from the flooded razor grass. Not sure that this one-metre snake could cope with a fullgrown water rat, so one of its targets could be this White-browed Crake (Ixobrychus minutus) photographed later in front of the hide. Crake eggs or chicks probably in very short supply after the whole system went under twice in the floods.

An observation on snakes and reported sizes. Most snakes appear to grow with each retelling of sightings. Discarded skins are little help, because they stretch greatly. Swimming snakes always look considerably bigger and longer than when out of water. I know this and yet still had to revise my first estimate of the above snake down by 30 centimetres. Little wonder 'huge pythons' were once so common.

Here's an unlikely meal for any passing python. However this Black Bittern (Ixobrychus flavicollis) stood almost motionless for more than half an hour today directly in front of the lookout knoll. It had presumably been there for much longer, unnoticed by some camera-toting visitors who I spotted from afar but who left before I reached the knoll. Cameras are no substitute for a decent pair of binoculars.

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