Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Australia: A Morning at Boondall and Tinchi Tamba

Tinchi Tamba
April 9, 2011, was our last day in Brisbane. During my two-year stint in Australia in 1972-74 (not to mention two earlier visits) I had built up a pretty substantial bird list, but there was one more or less common Brisbane bird that had eluded me: the Mangrove Honeyeater (Lichenostomus fasciogularis).  I now had one last chance to find it, so Sue's son Lawrence drove me out to two coastal reserves northeast of town where the bird should have been:  Boondall Wetlands, the largest wetland site in the Brisbane area (and a site listed under the Ramsar Convention), and nearby Tinchi Tamba. Like the Coombabah Wetlands I described in my last post, both areas have bands of saltmarsh separating the mangroves from swamp-oak woodlands at the highest tide level; this photo shows Tinchi Tamba, where the mangroves are more accessible.   

Red Swampdragon (Agrionoptera  insignis allogenes)
At Boondall a local volunteer guide took us around a circular trail. He was very knowledgeable about the local insect fauna, and pointed out some of the local dragonflies. This one is a Red Swampdragon (Agrionoptera  insignis allogenes).  

Wandering Percher (Diplacodes bipunctata)
Even redder is this Wandering Percher (Diplacodes bipunctata).  

Fiery Skimmer (Orthetrum villosivittatum)
A third red dragon  - a Fiery Skimmer (Orthetrum villosivittatum).  

Evening Brown Butterfly (Melanitis leda)
A nice example of camouflage: an Evening Brown Butterfly (Melanitis leda).   

Nyctimera secundiana
Usually we think of butterflies as more striking than moths, but in a contest between the Evening Brown and this day-flying moth (Nyctimera secundiana) a member of the family Arctiidae, the moth would probably win.   

I felt a bit nervous photographing this Australian Hornet (not really a hornet) or Large Mud-nest Wasp (Abispa ephippium), one of a number of large Australasian potter wasps.  Doing so brought back memories of a day in 1973 when I got just a bit too close while trying to photograph a squadron of equally-colourful paper wasps sitting on their nest in northern Queensland. 

Large Mud-nest Wasp (Abispa ephippium)
As I looked through the viewfinder I was treated to the sight of the wasps rising from the top of the nest like attack planes from an aircraft and flying purposefully in my direction.   Think of the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. I dropped my gear and ran for it, but managed to be stung several times nevertheless. For the next few days I looked like a beached dirigible, felt particularly ill, and spent much of my time vowing never to photograph wasps again (a promise I have obviously broken here).   

Brown Paper Wasp (Ropalidia revolutionalis)
I've broken it here, too, but the Brown Paper Wasp (Ropalidia revolutionalis) is a non-aggressive little thing (it's only about 10 mm long). I only found out later that they can deliver a nasty sting.  Anyway, its nest is most peculiar - a long string-like comb, two cells across, that I at first mistook for a misshapen twig.   

Brown Paper Wasp (Ropalidia revolutionalis)
This wasp is one of some 200 Ropalidia species, distributed throughout the warmer parts of the Old World. 

Coastal Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila plumipes
Trolling for all these insects is this female Coastal Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila plumipes), accompanied by her tiny mate.   

Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)
On to the birds: first, an Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus), handsomest (as I argued in an earlier post) of the world's pelicans.   

Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)
Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)
In my last post I showed you one Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) in rather dim light; here are two in bright sun that our guide showed us at Boondall Wetlands. They really do have orange eyes.   

Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)
Frogmouths, though they look rather like one of the scruffier muppets, are active predators, pouncing by night on everything from insects to  lizards and mice.  

Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)
Despite their owl-like appearance, they are actually giant nightjar relatives that hunt from a perch rather than on the wing (making them ecological equivalents of the potoos of he New World tropics). Now I will have to turn up one of their Malaysian relatives  (in the related genus Batrachostomus, composed  entirely, as far as I am concerned, of jinx birds).  

Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis)
This Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) greeted us as we arrived at Tinchi Tamba in a last attempt to see a Mangrove Honeyeater.

Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis)
Butcherbirds are the ecological equivalents of shrikes in Australia, and like them they use larders to store their prey for later use. Instead of impaling prey items on thorns, as shrikes do, Butcherbirds are more likely to wedge them into a fork or crevice, as this bird is doing (I was not able to get a clear look at what, exactly, it was taking away). 

Mangrove Gerygone (Gerygone levigaster)
The bird I was looking for is not the only mangrove specialist in Australia.  This is a poor shot of another, the Mangrove Gerygone (Gerygone levigaster).   It does range a bit beyond the mangroves, but its coastal range, pretty much paralleling the range of mangroves in Australia, is evidence of its preference. 

Mangrove Honeyeater (Lichenostomus fasciogularis)
Mangrove Honeyeater (Lichenostomus fasciogularis)
Finally, though, the bird of the hour put in an appearance (coaxed, I confess, by a tape).  It is quite a handsomely-marked creature, even though its only touch of bright colour is the yellow streak across its face (if you don't count it's blue eyes).

Mangrove Honeyeater (Lichenostomus fasciogularis)
The Mangrove Honeyeater is a much more localized bird than the Mangrove Gerygone, confined to a coastal strip from central Queensland south to northern New South Wales. Brisbane lies in the heart of its range, and I was glad to catch up with it there at long last!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Australia: An Afternoon at Coombabah

On the way back to Brisbane from Lamington, on April 8, 2011, the ladies dropped me off for a few hours' birding in very different habitat from the rainforests of the national park: the eucalypt woodlands and coastal mangroves of the Coombabah Lakelands Conservation Area on the southern edge of Moreton Bay. While they went off shopping, I had a very pleasant couple of hours on the excellent half-kilometre trail and mangrove boardwalk that lead to a bird hide on the edge of the reserve.

The short trail crosses four progressively wetter types of habitat as it descends to the hide: dry sclerophyll forest, swamp oak wetland with stands of casuarina, a band of saltmarsh marking the reach of the highest tides, and the mangroves themselves.

Eucalypts dominate the sclerophyll forest, including stands of Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis or similar) - distinctive trees with rough bark sheathing the lower trunk that gives way, as if it had been stripped off, to smooth white bark higher up.

More widespread - because it penetrates into the swamp oak stands as well - is Queensland Grey Ironbark (Eucalyptus crebra).

One of the most striking plants of the swamp oak wetland is the Swamp Banksia (Banksia robur), whose large coarse leaves are very different from the narrower fronds of the banksias I photographed in the heathland south of Sydney.

Matrushes (Lomandra spp.) may look rather like coarse grasses, but they are actually relatives of asparagus and the Cordyline trees we saw in New Zealand. They are important components of the undergrowth in the sclerophyll woodland.  Aboriginals used the fibrous leaves to weave baskets and dilly bags (a sort of carry-all handbag).

The upper photo shows a clump of brilliant orange fungus that I cannot identify. I am not even sure if the bottom picture shows a fungus, but I think it does.

This huge mass of elkhorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) looks
several sizes too large for the tree it sits on. I am more used to seeing ferns like these on the trunks of rainforest giants. They always look to me as if they had been glued to their supports, but instead they are held in place by a series of rhizomes, invisible beneath the basal leaves. Under these plate-like, sterile fronds plant matter collects and decays, creating a little compost pile that nourishes the plant. The long, hanging fronds are fertile, and bear the fern's spores.

The ferns on the forest floor were rather more typical.  The one on the right could be Australian Bracken (Pteridium esculentum).

Among the birds I found in the sclerophyll woodland was a furtive group of Brown Pigeons (Macropygia phasianella). The Brown Pigron is the only Australian representative of its genus; the others, a group of forest-dwelling pigeons collectively known as cuckoo-doves, range from New Guinea to tropical Asia, and recent Australian bird guides call this one, too, the Brown Cuckoo-Dove. The name refers to their long tails, which give the birds a vaguely cuckoo-like profile. 

  The Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) were considerably less shy. Silvereyes are the most widespread of Australia's white-eyes, a group now known to belong to the babbler assemblage. They are inquisitive, active and altogether delightful little birds. 

Once the trail hits the tide line, it gives way to a boardwalk traversing the mangrove forest.

Australia has, I was surprised to learn, the third largest area of mangroves in the world, exceeded only by Indonesia and Brazil. Mangroves reach as far south as Victoria, their furthest extension anywhere into the temperate zone.   This appears to be Stilt Mangrove (Rhizophora stylosa), a species that elevates itself above the mud on stilt roots.

The mud is studded with the aerial roots, or pneumatophores, of the widespread Grey Mangrove (Avicennia marina).  The various plants called "mangrove" are often only distantly related, with quite separate adaptations for surviving in the salt-laden, oxygen-starved mud where they grow.  In Avicennia the pneumatophores are the lungs of the plant, involved in gas exchange with the surrounding air.

Where there is water, there are likely to be water birds: in this case, a pair of Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca)...

...and a Royal Spoonbill (Platalea regia).

In the mangroves I found a few curious Grey Fantails (Rhipidura fuliginosa)...

... and a handsome male Leaden Flycatcher (Myiagra rubecula), a member of the monarch family (Monarchidae). The Leaden is a migrant in southeastern Australia, so this might be a bird on passage. 

In any case, he was extremely cooperative!

I enjoyed the trail so much that when Mui Ling, Alicia, Sue and Eileen came by to pick me up I insisted that they should see it for themselves. In particular, I wanted to show them a bird I had just found - one that even a non-birder could be amazed at. 

I had tried to turn up a Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) at Lamington without success, so I was delighted to find this one, sitting quietly on a limb waiting for darkness to fall (the bright red eyeshine is a reflection from my flash unit, not the way its eyes normally look by day). Frogmouths are weird and striking creatures, looking rather like badly-drawn owls (though they are in fact nightjar relatives). I have sought the Tawny's Malaysian relatives in vain, so despite my Asian birding experiences this was the first wild frogmouth I had seen in many a year. The ladies were suitably impressed.

They were impressed even more, I admit, by the glorious sunset over Moreton Bay, from the bird hide at the end of the trail. I can't really blame them for that, can I?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Australia: Lamington Wildlife

Australian Brush Turkey (Alectura lathami)
Our cabin campout at Lamington proved to be a good place to watch wildlife without actually moving. In fact, it was difficult to get around without tripping over Australian Brush Turkeys (Alectura lathami) - well, OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one. 

Australian Brush Turkey (Alectura lathami)
 Australian Brush Turkey (Alectura lathami)
At mealtime they were definitely all but underfoot. 

Australian Brush Turkey (Alectura lathami)
 Australian Brush Turkey (Alectura lathami)
When they weren't stalking about the campground looking for likely morsels, we could easily find them sacked out for a sunbathe on the nearby lawn. 

Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)
Dinnertime was usually too late for the Brush Turkeys, but just right for this curious Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) - the same animal that has, with our help, made an utter nuisance of itself in New Zealand. We shipped it there in the mistaken belief that it would support a local fur industry. In the event, so much money has been spent trying to eradicate the New Zealand possums that it is hard to believe that it took several introduction attempts to get them established in the first place. 

Paradise Riflebird (Ptiloris paradiseus)
Other visitors to the campground were more interested in the surrounding trees, and what they had to offer, than in anything we humans might be doing. The clear highlight, for me, was a bird that flew in right over our dinner table on our last morning: a female (or perhaps a young male) Paradise Riflebird (Ptiloris paradiseus), most southerly of the birds of paradise. 

Paradise Riflebird (Ptiloris paradiseus)
The female may lack the velvety black plumage and iridescent blue-green breast shield the adult male acquires after perhaps as long as seven years (I was lucky enough to see a male bird earlier in the forest, but not lucky enough to photograph it), but she is an interesting creature all the same. 

Paradise Riflebird (Ptiloris paradiseus)
The tremendous range of display plumages in the birds of paradise has diverted attention from another radiation in this remarkable family - their variation in bill shape and feeding habits. While many birds of paradise are short-billed fruit-eaters, riflebirds have particularly long, almost curlew-like bills and act rather like giant treecreepers, hunting for their insect food on moss-covered tree limbs. That's what our bird proceeded to do, and it stayed with us, doing it, for quite some time - much to my delight. 

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus)
Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus)
Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus)
For other birds I had to stretch my legs a bit - though, often, not for long. I could hear the squawks of the spectacular Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus) from our cabin door, and after only a bit of a chase caught up with them feeding and preening in a nearby tree. 

Lewin's Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii)
Other birds I found at the forest edge included Lewin's Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii).... 

Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis)
 ... Several attractive Eastern Yellow Robins (Eopsaltria australis), relatives of the New Zealand robins and tomtits - once familiar garden birds, but now hard to find in urban Sydney at least... 

Red-browed Finch (Neochmia temporalis)
... And a little group of Red-browed Finches (Neochmia temporalis). 

White-browed Scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis)
Some other birds I only found along the forest trails (not including, unfortunately, my 'target' bird at Lamington, the shy and elusive Rufous Scrub-Bird (Atrichornis rufescens), a creature I also missed in 1972). Two species of scrubwren were common in the undergrowth, the Yellow-throated (Sericornis citreogularis) and the more abundant and widespread White-browed Scrubwren (S. frontalis), the bird in these photos. 

Green Catbird (Ailuroedus crassirostris)
From high above me in the forest canopy I could occasionally hear a wailing sound, like the complaint of a cat being slowly strangled. It took a local birding guide I met on the trail to identify it as the voice of the Green Catbird (Ailuroedus crassirostris), and with a little effort I finally got a (poor and distant) shot of it. The Green Catbird is a bowerbird (of which more below), but unlike most other members of its utterly remarkable family it is monogamous, and does not build a bower. Instead, males are content to woo their females (and their females to accept them) on a cleared display ground, decorated with leaves, on the forest floor. 

Australian Logrunner (Orthonyx temminckii)
Even more peculiar, perhaps, than the catbird was another bird I met several times in the darker patches along the forest trails. The Australian Logrunner (Orthonyx temminckii) is a member of a tiny family, with only three (or just possibly four) living species, that lies somewhere near the root of the oscine (that is, 'true' songbird) family tree. 

Australian Logrunner (Orthonyx temminckii)
It is an odd creature. It has weak, rounded wings and seldom flies. Unlike most songbirds, the female is the more colourful gender (these are males; she has a bright orange-rufous breast) - admittedly, the birds may not see it that way, as the female still has the job of building her nest and raising her young on her own, though the male brings her food to pass on to her offspring. Logrunners have spine-tipped tails used, unusually among birds, to brace themselves against the ground while they scratch through the leaf litter. 

Common Crow (Euploea core)
Unlike its birds and mammals, Australia's butterfly fauna is, by and large, very similar to that of Southeast Asia. The Common Crow (Euploea core) is not a bird, but a butterfly - one of the Danaiinae - and a common species from India to Australia. 

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
The most famous of the Danaiinae, the Monarch (Danaus plexippus), lives in Australia too, though here it is usually called the Wanderer. Strangely enough, it is not found in continental Asia; instead, it seems to be a recent arrival in Australasia, first noted in Australia around in 1871 or so. It seems that it success here dates from the introduction of milkweed, it's food plant. Perhaps migrant Monarchs regularly found themselves blown across the Pacific for centuries before, but without milkweed their caterpillars would have had nothing to eat. 

Red-necked Padamelon (Thylogale thetis)
After dark, the mammals came out to the lawns below the lodge, and Alicia and I went out in search of them, flashlights in hand - not just the possum that prowled around our campsite, but Long-nosed Bandicoots (Perameles nasuta) and Red-necked Padamelons (Thylogale thetis) like this one - shy, smallish, nocturnal forest wallabies. 

Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) bower
My wife Eileen, though she has many sterling qualities, is not, I fear, a birder. However, there was one bird-related object that she very much did want to see in Australia, ever since viewing David Attenborough's splendid documentary on its maker and his relatives. Lamington gave me my best chance to show her one, so when we arrived at Binna Burra almost the first thing I did was to ask a local naturalist if he knew where I might find the bower of a Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus).  He did indeed - there was an active bower at the foot of the lodge driveway, only a few yards from where we had parked our car!

Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) bower
In case anyone out there is not familiar either with the bird or its remarkable creation, this is not a nest. It is a display structure built, managed and decorated entirely by the male in the hope of convincing a female bowerbird that he can provide her with suitable genetic material.  The Satin Bowerbird is one of the "avenue builders", who construct a bower consisting of two parallel walls in the centre of a mat of straw and other carefully selected materials. He is particularly fond of the color blue – the color of his eye – and prefers to decorate his bower with blue objects: feathers, bits of plastic, bottle caps or what you will. He even paints the inner walls of the bower with the juice of blue berries crushed in his beak. Competition between males for the attention of a female is intense, and older bower birds regularly destroy the bowers of their younger rivals.

Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) bower
I well remember how thrilled I was to actually see one of these structures on my first visit to Australia in 1969. I have seen many since, but to find one here, literally cutting edge of the parking lot – and, particularly, to be able to show it to Eileen – was one of the high points of our visit to Lamington.