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.