Sunday, 30 November 2014

Yellow-billed Kingfisher - Portraits and Profiles

I’ve twice been to Iron Range National Park (now Kutini-Payamu National Park) on bird banding trips. The first was in late November 2005 – the banner photo above shows our campsite at Gordon Creek. The second trip was at the same time of year but six years later, in 2011. The timing is very deliberate – intended to coincide with the very end of the dry season, so after most migrants have returned to the area if they’re going to, but hopefully also before the wet begins. If you’re still there after the first big rains you could be stuck there for quite a while as the river crossings become impassable.

Not that this timing has any relevance to the bird featured in this blog post. The Yellow-billed Kingfisher is resident in the area, inhabiting rainforest edges, tropical scrubs and woodland edges. It is a beautiful bird, not uncommon, and fairly frequently heard, but often difficult to actually see. This, together with its restricted range, makes it one of the key target species for birdwatchers venturing to the far north of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula. 

When seen, the Yellow-billed Kingfisher is most often glimpsed in the depths of the rainforest vegetation.

Mostly they’ll keep to themselves, well hidden in the dense foliage of the lower to middle canopy. Even when nesting they have been described as non-aggressive and liable to desert the nest if disturbed (Reader's Digest 1976), but other evidence suggests they can be fairly pugnacious and won’t hesitate to make their discontent known if riled. David Hollands in his book Kingfishers & Kookaburras : Jewels of the Australian Bush (1999) relates eloquently and evocatively (as he does) some of his experiences trying to photograph nesting yellow-bills at Iron Range, and at 'Silver Plains' at the southern limit of the species’ distribution.

While banding along Portland Road in Iron Range National Park in 2011, we had a pair of Yellow-billed Kingfishers regularly taunting us with their calls, which are notoriously ventriloquial. Their call is a pleasant whistled usually descending trill, somewhat similar to that of the Fan-tailed Cuckoo. (And sometimes likened to a postman’s whistle – but I’ve never actually experienced the blowing of a postal worker’s whistle; well, maybe in an old movie I guess.) The birds were obviously fairly close, but proved proverbially difficult to locate. Eventually we did find the birds, in the canopy almost directly above us. They may well have ventriloquial calls, but I think they were also moving about a little ‘cause I really don’t think they were looking down haughtily at us for all of the time we were hearing them!

Female Yellow-billed Kingfisher in the trees above our banding site at Iron Range NP.

Later, the male joined her and they both watched us quietly as we watched them rather more excitedly.

Yellow-billed Kingfishers are about 20 cm in length. The male has a bright orange head, the female's is not quite so bright and has a dark patch on top of the crown. Both have dark spots either side of the nape. They feed mainly on insects, earthworms and small lizards. The nest is excavated in an arboreal termite nest, usually 3-15 metres above the ground.

They are also called Saw-billed Kingfishers because of the serrated edge to the upper bill (see photos below), and in New Guinea, where two of the three subspecies occur, they are also known as Lowland or Lesser Yellow-billed Kingfishers to distinguish them from their congener, the Mountain Kingfisher.

The Australian race, which occurs from the northern tip of Cape York to Princess Charlotte Bay, is known scientifically as Syma torotoro flavirostris. Syma is the name of a 'sea nymph' from Greek mythology (there is an ongoing theme of sea-based mythological personages and animals in kingfisher taxonomy for reasons which are best left alone here but well worth looking into if you have the time and inclination - Google, or try Australian Bird Names - a complete guide by Ian Fraser and Jeannie Gray, CSIRO Publishing, 2013 - it's a great read!). The specific epithet, torotoro, is from the local name for the bird in West Papua. René Lesson, the French ornithologist who named the species in 1827, claimed it was in reference to the birds' call. I must hear things differently! The subspecies name flavirostris means yellow-billed (surprise, surprise), and was given by John Gould in 1850 when he named the species Halcyon flavirostris, not realising that Lesson had already done the honours with the New Guinea birds. 

We were lucky enough to see Yellow-billed Kingfishers on both trips to the Cape, and band both  a female and a male in 2005, providing perfect opportunities to photograph the birds in the hand. I'll let the photos speak for themselves...

Female Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
Note the dark patch on the crown, which only the female has.

Male Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
The serrated edge to the upper bill provides the alternative name of Saw-billed Kingfisher.

Female Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
The twin nape spots are larger in females and sometimes join up forming a short collar.

Male Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
The males head plumage is brighter with no dark patch on the crown.

Female Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
Male Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.

You'll never see eyes as beautiful as this on any other bird! I just wonder how they stop the mascara running in the humidity!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Damsels – down at the local

In my blog post of 13 September, I showcased some fairly flashy Cape York dragonflies ( ). But you certainly don’t need to go to such far-flung places to see such diversity. Last weekend I saw two different dragonflies and a damselfly around the pool in my back yard! This is a salt-chlorine swimming pool, not a quiet reedy backyard pond, but it still manages to attract a surprising range of insects, spiders, lizards and birds (subject for another post sometime?).

On this occasion, there was a Blue Skimmer Orthetrum caledonicum (which will pose nicely for the camera), a Tau Emerald Hemicordulia tau (which are forever zipping about and are a real challenge for the 400 mm lens autofocusing), and a Common Flatwing Austroargiolestes icteromelas (which would have sat quietly were it not for the Tau chasing it away into the gloom of the surrounding shrubberies, never to be seen again).

The first two are very common dragonflies in Canberra (and throughout Australia for that matter), but it was the first time I’d ever seen a Common Flatwing (which is a damselfly). I had previously seen just one other flatwing – a Sydney Flatwing Austroargiolestes isabellae – beside Jinden Creek in the upper Shoalhaven Valley in January 2010.

A Blue Skimmer Orthetrum caledonicum (Libellulidae)
on the edge of my backyard swimming pool.

Tau Emeralds Hemicordulia tau (Hemicorduliidae) are usually seen in flight - this one over my backyard pool - rather than perched.  Note the legs are well tucked up against the body.

But this Tau Emerald Hemicordilia tau was perched and was the brightest I've seen
(perhaps newly emerged?). This was at Wedden Mountain National Park in central NSW.

A Common Flatwing Austroargiolestes icteromelas (Megapodagrionidae)
beside the pool briefly before being seen off by a Tau Emerald.

A Sydney Flatwing Austroargiolestes isabellae (Megapodagrionidae)
at Jinden Creek in the upper Shoalhaven Valley, NSW.

Both Saturday and Sunday of last weekend were warm, sunny, and not particularly windy, so my camera took me down to the dam at the local golf course, no more than a 400-metre walk from home.

Here there were the odd Blue Skimmer and Tau Emerald constantly patrolling the edges of the dam, but the fringing reeds and grasses, particularly in one secluded corner, were alive with small damselflies. The most common was probably the appropriately named Common Bluetail Ischnura heterosticta, but there were almost as many Red and Blue Damsels Xanthagrion erythroneurum.

The male Common Bluetails are quite stand out, their double-ended electric blue forms drifting about amongst the vegetation, intermittently settling on selected prominent perches. But there were many more females of the species about, probably something like four or more females to every male; they were less obvious in their drab colours, but very obvious in their intent to populate the dam with as many offspring as possible.

A male Common Bluetail Ischnura heterosticta (Coenagrionidae)

A female Common Bluetail Ischnura heterosticta (Coenagrionidae)
busy laying eggs along a decaying reed stem.

The male Red and Blue Damsels (is that an oxymoron, or just contemporary?) are even more striking. Interestingly, the males of this species outnumbered the females about two to one, and most were paired off, cruising the reed patch in tandem. In fact I never saw an un-paired female. When flying about like this, it’s hard to see who is taking the lead, but when the female starts laying eggs she is definitely the one in control. She’ll work her way down an emergent reed or twig and start laying a sequence of eggs along the submerged substrate. The male obligingly follows, but there was one occasion I witnessed where he had no physical support and was forced to remain airborne while she layed. This made me recall a trip to a friend’s place near Albury back in 2010 where I watched a laying female work her way further and further down a waterlogged twig until both she and the super-positioned male were submerged to a depth of about 10 cm.

A male Red and Blue Damsel Xanthagrion erythroneurum (Coenagrionidae)

A mated pair of Red and Blue Damsels Xanthagrion erythroneurum (Coenagrionidae)

A mated pair of Red and Blue Damsels Xanthagrion erythroneurum (Coenagrionidae)
briefly in the 'wheel' position. 

A pair of Red and Blue Damsels Xanthagrion erythroneurum (Coenagrionidae)
- they stay in tandem while the female lays her eggs.

But sometimes the male has nowhere to perch while she's busy at it!

Somewhat surprisingly, I never saw a single paired-up duo of Common Bluetails. Rather, if a male did show interest in a settled female, either quietly perched or actively laying on a bit of decaying reed, she would cut short his prospective attentions by dissuading him with a brief gossamer fluttering of her wings.  Perhaps they don't stay together long in the tandem formation, or maybe they had been paired up earlier in the day and I just missed it. 

So I was briefly excited when I did see a tandem pair, the male of which was topped and tailed in blue. But on looking at the photos it turned out that this was in fact a pair of Eastern Billabongflies Austroagrion watsoni, the only ones I saw there that day. Indeed the only ones I’ve ever seen!

A mating pair of Eastern Billabongflies Austroagrion watsoni (Coenagrionidae) in the 'wheel' position

After the Common Bluetails and Red and Blue Damsels, the Blue Ringtails Austrolestes annulosus were next most common. These seemed to be a bit more “off by themselves” and I never saw a paired couplet – or even a female as far as I know - and they were very obviously different, much bluer overall when ‘lit upon the end of a reed stem.

A Blue Ringtail Austrolestes annulosus (Lestidae)

There was another species I was expecting to see - the Aurora Bluetail Ischnura aurora. Three years previously, again in November and at exactly the same spot, I had first encountered this species when there were several individuals amongst the many Common Bluetails. They are a very small and delicate damselfly with a very attractive colour scheme in orange, green and blue. I spent quite a while on the lookout for these and eventually saw just the one, just briefly – hence the poor quality of the single photo I got. [I also saw these at Bowra in April this year – see Bowra non birds post - .]

A male Aurora Bluetail Ischnura aurora (Coenagrionidae)
surprisingly, the only one I saw at the dam that day.

I’m left wondering what conditions produced the abundance of Red and Blue Damsels this year (yet none that I saw in 2011) but so few Aurora Bluetails. And what will happen as this season progresses? It is still early after all, with the whole of summer yet to come…

Family Lestidae
These damselflies are medium to large. The three non-endemic Australian genera include the Dusky Spreadwing, ten ringtails, and three reedlings. The Blue Ringtail occurs in ponds, riverine pools and lakes across much of the southern half of Australia.

Family Megapodagrionidae
This is a family of small to very large damselflies which, uncharacteristically for damselfies, hold their wings spread out from the body when at rest. The 22 Australian species of Megapodagrionidae belong to five genera, of which four appear to be endemic, from eastern, northern, and south-western Australia. The Common Flatwing occurs in eastern Australia, frequenting rivers, streams and pools. The Sydney Flatwing is restricted to south-eastern New South Wales where it is associated with streams and boggy seepages.

Family Coenagrionidae
The Coenagrionidae has a world-wide distribution, with 13 genera occurring in Australia, of which two are endemic. Coenagrionid damselflies are often brightly coloured, with reds, blues and blacks predominating. The Red and Blue Damsel has an Australia-wide distribution and extends to New Zealand, New Caledonia and Fiji. It inhabits still or slow-moving water bodies. The Eastern Billabongfly occurs across much of eastern and northern Australia and is also in New Caledonia, frequenting both still and flowing waters. The Aurora and Common Bluetails are both inhabitants of sluggish or still waters and both have Australia-wide distributions, the former also occurring from India to the central Pacific, the latter from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific.

Family Hemicorduliidae
This is a widespread family (including Africa, Asia, Australia, the Pacific) of small to medium dragonflies, usually black or dark metallic with yellowish markings. The Tau Emerald is a common vagrant/nomadic species occurring across much of Australia except Cape York and Kimberley regions. They occur in a wide range of water bodies including rivers, lakes, pools, ponds and swamps.

Family Libellulidae
This is a large cosmopolitan family of ‘typical’ dragonflies. The Blue Skimmer is very common and occurs near a wide range of still and flowing waters Australia-wide, extending to Indonesia, New Guinea, and New Caledonia. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Pretty Beach Rocks

On the NSW South Coast, just south of Kioloa, there is a little place tucked away in the northern reaches of the Murramarang National Park called Pretty Beach. And it is. One of the features of the place that I love is the sculpturing of the rocks along the northern headland. The sandstone there seems particularly prone to honeycomb weathering, and here it takes on some intriguing forms that are really cool. So you can interpret this blog post’s title as Pretty Beach rocks, pretty beach rocks, or Pretty Beach rocks!

I’ve camped in and explored the area several times in the past, especially when my son was about 8 years old, and have some very fond memories. But perhaps another large part of the reason I love the area is that it is within the Sydney Basin, albeit towards the southern edge, so has the typical geology and floral ecology of the sandstone landscapes that I grew up with as a kid in northern Sydney.

James in his speed boat at Pretty Beach, October 2004.
James at Pretty Beach, October 2004.

The Sydney Basin stretches from South Durras in the south to Newcastle in the north, reaches west to Lithgow, Mudgee and north-west of Muswellbrook, and east to the edge of the continental shelf some 30 odd kilometres offshore. The total land area of the Basin is about 44,000 square kilometres (plus a further 5,000 square kilometres offshore). The bit I’m referring to in this blog post occupies about 300 square metres, just 0.0000006% or 6 billionths of the Basin.

The Sydney Basin is defined geologically by the sedimentary sequences of Permian and Triassic sandstones, coal seams and shales that were laid down some 290-200 million years ago. The earlier Permian Sandstones derive mainly from marine sediments, the later deposits from freshwater alluvial fan and fluvial deposits. Uplifting of the area during the middle Triassic about 230 million years ago raised the whole basin, the eroded outer edges of which now manifest as impressive landforms such as the massive sandstone cliffs and escarpments, hidden valleys, and plateaux of places like the Blue Mountains, Capertee Valley, Morton National Park etc.

At Pretty Beach, the sandstone is from the early Permian and is derived from marine sediments, so fossil shells are often seen in the rocks. I recall going on an excursion to Kioloa back in 1979 during my first year of university, on which we made a brief visit to some fossil beds at Merry Beach, just around the headland from Pretty Beach. 

The strata in the sandstone are evident in the cliff faces. 

Both the rock platforms and the massive fallen boulders are subject to honeycomb weathering.

Rock platform at Pretty Beach showing honeycomb weathering of the soft sandstone.

Fossilised scallop shells exposed in a slab of Permian sandstone fallen from higher up the cliff.

The next set of photos just gives an impression of the diversity of forms the honeycomb weathering can take. 

And weirdly, for some reason pitting is sometimes concentrated along cracks in the sandstone.

And the play of light made depressions look like raised nodules.

And probably best of all are the miniature 'volcanic' landscapes - I've no idea how or why these develop quite like this.

Eventually the sandstone is eroded to small grains of sand, producing the stunning golden beaches for which the Sydney region is famous. 

And being a birdo, I can't possibly leave this post without including at least one bird!

Eastern Reef Egret (or Pacific Reef Heron) flying past O'Hara Island at Pretty Beach, NSW.

It's been a few years now since I last visited Pretty Beach - time to go again, I think. 

For anyone interested, there is some good information, particularly about the geological and geomorphological aspects of the Sydney Basin, but also a little about the ecology, at these sites:

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Buddigower Banding - an unsprung Spring?

The weather was unseasonably warm and the bush very dry. The last time I had been out there banding, exactly four years prior, the place had been awash with wildflowers and everything seemed fresh and vibrant. This time it all seemed a little tired.

Buddigower Nature Reserve is in central New South Wales, just 7 km further along a dirt road from the Charcoal Tank Nature Reserve (12 km south of West Wyalong) where we have a regular bird banding site. We generally only get to Buddigower about every three years, and this time the gap had been four. Apart from the core group of eight banders, there were also five COG members (COG = Canberra Ornithologists Group) along for the ride on this Labour Day long weekend (3-6 October).

I’d been in Melbourne for work on the Friday so couldn’t get out to Buddigower until later on the Saturday afternoon. But this did mean we were travelling in daylight and along the way we stopped for a couple of reptiles on the road to ensure they didn't become road-kill.

A Shingleback Lizard Tiliqua rugosa (Scincidae)
was persuaded to remove itself from the middle of the road.

And a beautiful Sand Monitor (or Gould's Goanna) Varanus gouldii (Varanidae) welcomed us to Buddigower

while always keeping a close eye on us. 

When we arrived at Buddigower, Karen and I set to to get a few nets up before dusk, in the same area we had banded those four years previously, then went about the business of setting up camp. It seems Mark and his crew, who had set up on the Friday afternoon, hadn’t done so well, with less than 20 birds banded for the day.

The dryness may well be the first sign of the predicted el Niño cycle. Whatever the case, there wasn’t much flowering; certainly not the main woodland eucalypt species, nor the widespread understorey of cassinia bushes. But there were several acacias still in flower. And a few isolated cassia bushes, as well as a scattering of Calytrix, Thysanotus, and some everlastings, added splashes of colour (mainly yellow) to the otherwise fairly muted landscape.

Currawang Acacia doratoxylon (Fabaceae-Mimosaceae)

Streaked Wattle Acacia lineata (Fabaceae-Mimosaceae)

A cassia (probably Cassia nemophila) (Fabaceae-Caesalpiniaceae). In the early morning the surrounding bushland was redolent with the scent from these bushes, smelling like freshly prepared garam masala!

Common Fringe-myrtle Calytrix tetragona (Myrtaceae)

Twining Fringe-lily Thysanotus patersonii (Anthericaceae)

A 'Yellow Buttons' everlasting (Chrysocephalum sp. either apiculatum or semipapposum)

There were certainly birds about. They were quite vocal, and fairly active, but mostly they kept to the canopy so we had little success at the nets. At our site, Karen and I managed just 23 birds for the weekend: 7 White-browed Babblers, several Eastern Yellow Robins (including a presumed family party of mum, dad, and a stripe-headed juvenile in the first net on the first round), 3 White-eared Honeyeaters, a couple of Red-capped Robins, a Variegated Fairy-wren, a very obstreperous kookaburra (with its mate egging it on from the sidelines), a trio of Grey Fantails and a Willie Wagtail. The juvenile robin, as well as a few birds with brood patches, were the only signs that some birds at least were breeding. The Rufous Whistlers, Weebills, Inland Thornbills, Western Gerygones, Jacky Winters, Grey Shrike Thrush and Mistletoebirds were constant and welcome vocal companions but all stayed resolutely away from the nets.

White-browed Babbler Pomatostomus superciliosus (Pomatostomidae)
one of the seven caught was a re-trap from the 2010 trip.

Male Red-capped Robin Petroica goodenovii (Petroicidae)

This little Inland Thornbill Acanthiza apicalis (Acanthizidae) came to investigate why the Red-capped Robin was making such a fuss while he was being photographed immediately prior to release.

The middle of the day was hot. 36 degrees hot! More than the predicted 32, which would have been bad enough, and well above the long-term average for October (about 24ºC). The birds quietened down, but the mad-dog non-Englishman (me, in this case) continued his vain pursuit of them - in vain.

The insects, however, seemed to be enjoying the conditions. Several butterflies (Meadow Argus, Australian Painted Lady, Caper White, and a tiny grass blue) were around in small numbers. One Meadow Argus had taken a liking to, indeed laid claim to, a three square metre patch of track and was flushed each and every time I passed to check the net. Grasshoppers of several species gave me some great opportunities to play with my new macro lens, as did several robber flies, and the occasional dragonfly hummed by (possibly an emerald or emperor?) or perched on exposed twigs (Wandering Percher).

Australian Plague Locust Chortoicetes terminifera - brown form.

Australian Plague Locust Chortoicetes terminifera - green form.

Grasshopper 'type B' - red & grey form.

Grasshopper 'type B' - orange form.

The 'type B' grasshoppers would wave their front legs about
in what looked like some kind of semaphoric signalling 

and had gnarly 'old man' faces.

Robber fly 'type A' - male

Robber fly 'type A' - female.
The dense cluster of bristles in front of the face is called a mystax;
it helps to protect the fly against the struggles of any incalcitrant insect prey.

At first I thought this was a weird-looking robber fly (Asilidae) but on looking it up determined that it is in fact a species of Apiocera, from the family Apioceridae - closely related to Asilidae but one I've never come across before. Woo-hoo!

With evening, the temperature dropped slightly and the spiders came out to prowl, their eye-shine, reflecting back from the ground in front of our head-lamps, as bright as the stars above. More scope for a bit of macro experimentation. While I focussed on the larger spiders for photography, it was evident there were very many young spiders about, clearly following a major recent hatching event.

A wolf spider on the prowl.

Ain't she beautiful!

Another wolf spider hiding in its burrow - this one has very dark chelicerae compared to the first one.

I managed to induce it out of its burrow by scratching the ground with a small twig...

and got a great face on photo before it scuttled back down its hole. 

Another night-time discovery provided, for me, the highlight of the trip. There had been a Spotted Nightjar calling sporadically the previous two evenings, but on Sunday night a brief bout of spotlighting by some of the group located a nightjar nesting on the ground not far from camp (thanks Kathy), while its mate continued to call in its distinctive and eerie way as it swept over the tree-tops or the more distant paddocks. I’d just settled down for a well needed sleep when alerted to the find, but I threw off the sheet and was pulling on jeans in an instant for this opportunity.

Spotted Nightjar Eurostopodus argus (Caprimulgidae) on its nest at night.

Spotted Nightjars lay a single, pale green, speckled egg,
the 'nest' being a simple scrape in the leaf litter.

Next morning, the Spotted Nightjar's camouflage in the dappled sunlight was exquisite. Just as well I knew exactly where the nest was.

Spotted Nightjar Eurostopodus argus (Caprimulgidae) on its nest - what a great bird

So while the bird banding could have been better, and spring breeding isn't perhaps in fullest swing, the trip was undeniably a success.