Up and about early

Sadly I’m not a really early riser, but occasionally I’ll make a supreme effort – usually rewarded in terms of bird observations.

In the first part of the day birds are generally easier to locate and observe. This Grey Shrike-thrush was seen last weekend in the Muckleford State Forest (within 5km of home). Part of an early morning chorus that included White-eared and yellow-faced Honeyeater, Scarlet and Rose Robin, it was allowed a close approach as it sat preening amongst the Golden Wattles after bathing. The forest floor is replete with fungi at present – the spectacular orange of Tremella … either mesenterica or aurantia stands out like a ‘traffic light in the bush’.

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Grey Shrike-thrush, Muckleford State Forest, 18th July 2021

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Tremella sp … not sure which one

Galaxies from Picnic Point

Cloud-free nights have been a bit thin on the ground, but last Sunday night provided a great opportunity to photograph some spectacular galaxies from Picnic Point on Lake Cairn Curran.

The centre of the Milky Way rises above Lake Cairn Curran

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, consists of about 200-400 billion stars. Its centre is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Due to the intense concentration of gravity, dust and gasses it is a very busy place of star formation. The dark areas are dense clouds of gas.

In the eighteenth century, comets were objects of great interest. Charles Messier was an avid seeker of comets and drew up a catalogue of the fuzzy things he saw through his tiny telescope that he knew were not comets. Although he never found a comet, he left us a catalogue of 110 bright objects in our night sky – nebulae (clouds of dust and gas from which stars form), star clusters both open and globular and galaxies. This photo shows quite a few of these Messier objects, some of which I’ve labelled.

With labels

Messiers 6,7 and 8 are all open clusters of stars and associated nebulae from which they were born. These clusters are relatively young and consist of hundreds to thousands of stars. Messier 22 is a globular cluster. In our galaxies, the stars in these clusters are extremely old and are gravitationally bound in very dense clusters that may include millions of stars packed into a mere 70 light years (the nearest star to our sun is 4 light years away).

All of these objects are visible with a good pair of binoculars. Messier 22 looks like a fuzzy ball in binoculars, but resolves into myriad stars with a medium sized telescope (10″ diameter)

The centre of Messier 22 (European Space Agency)

Whilst I was taking photos for this image, I was joined by a curious Barn Owl that took up a position on one of the dead trees I was photographing. I think it wondered what the strange lights were all about. Alas, I had left my bird photography lens and flash at home. So it’s a wide-angled shot of a motion blurred owl with galaxy backdrop.

Milky Way with Barn Owl

Looking to the south, two more galaxies float above the Moolort plains – the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

The Small Magellanic Cloud (left) and Large Magellanic Cloud (centre)

The Large Magellanic Cloud is a distorted barred spiral that we view from above. You can see the central bar sloping from bottom left to top right and surrounding it the spirals that have been disrupted by the gravity of the Milky Way. the bright star-like object to the top right of the bar is actually the largest star forming region in our group of galaxies 30 Dorado or NGC 2070. It contains 70+ massive stars up to 300 times the mass of our sun. The Large Magellanic Cloud is 150,000 light years away and is about 1/10 the size of the Milky Way. The light you see from it left 150,000 years ago.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light years away and weighs in at about 7 billion suns.

Buff-rumped Thornbill

This is the instalment #4 in the series of identification tips for local thornbills. For previous instalments see Brown Thornbill, Striated Thornbill and Yellow Thornbill.

Today it’s the turn of the Buff-rumped Thornbill.

This species is possibly the most common thornbill in woodland habitats around Newstead. It is unusual not to hear its tinkling calls on a short ramble through suitable habitat.

The key features to look for are:

  • pale-cream coloured iris, a feature shared with the Yellow-rumped Thornbill
  • buff coloured rump with black sub-terminal tail band – this feature is very obvious when the bird is in flight but also usually visible when foraging
  • rufous-brown forehead with delicate scalloping – this feature is not that obvious but contrasts markedly with the white-spotted black forehead of the Yellow-rumped Thornbill

Overall though it is the uniform colour and lack of markings that set this species apart from other local thornbills – no streaking on the breast, forehead or ear coverts.

Buff-rumped Thornbills are typically found in open woodland habitat with reasonably intact grassy and/or shrubby layers. They feed mostly close to the ground but will also glean insects from low foliage and bark. They are almost always in small tight parties of 4-6 birds, frequently with other insectivorous species in mixed feeding flocks outside the breeding season.

While I’ve recorded all other local thornbill species in our garden on a regular basis, the Buff-rumped Thornbill is a rarity in town, highlighting its preference for intact woodland habitat.

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Buff-rumped Thornbill, Spring Hill Track, 8th July 2021

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In search of the Scarlet Robin

I’ve noted previously that two Australian birds include an Aborginal word in their scientific names, the Brown Falcon Falco berigora and the Scarlet Robin Petroica boodang.

While both berigora and boodang are Aboriginal words, neither is associated with the Dja Dja Wurrung language of central Victoria.

This sent me off on a voyage of exploration to see what I might find out about the Dja Dja Wurrung name for this enchanting bird. The Scarlet Robin occurs over much of the southern part of the continent, from the south-west of WA, across into SA, throughout Victoria and Tasmania and all the way through the eastern half of NSW to south-east Queensland. It follows therefore that it would have been known by many unique names according to the particular aboriginal language for that part of country in which the bird is found.

My research took me on a circuitous route with a snapshot of my findings below.

  • karlimoot – Noongar (south western WA)
  • tat-karna – Buanditj (south-eastern SA)
  • tjimp-kirk – Djab Wurrung (central Victoria from Gariwerd to the Pyrenees) from Blake (2011) referring to the White-spotted Robin … the Scarlet Robin has a distinctive white forehead spot.

Djab Warrung country is bordered by Dja Dja Wurrung country to the east and this last name, tjimp-kirk, may have been shared between the two groups.

Tully (1997) lists the name tee-ung for the Scarlet Robin, noting that it is not a Dja Dja Wurrung word but from an analogous language. Blake (2011) lists the name pilp nguniat for the robin in Djapwurrung (Djab Wurrung) language but this may refer to other red-breasted robins such as the Flame Robin.

The Scarlet Robin is such a distinctive and confiding bird and was clearly well known to the first Australians wherever it occurred.

I have just scratched a fascinating surface and will be very happy to learn more.

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Male Scarlet Robin, Spring Hill Track, 8th July 2021

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Scarlet Robin pair

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Female Scarlet Robin

References:

  • Blake, Barry J. , 2011, Dialects of Western Kulin, Western Victoria Yartwatjali, Tjapwurrung, Djadjawurrung, LaTrobe University Bundoora
  • John Tully, 1997, Dja Dja Wurrung language of central Victoria
  • Glenelg-Hopkins CMA, (undated), Woodland birds – Identification booklet for the Glenelg Hopkins area.
  • Condon, HT 1955, ‘Aboriginal bird names – South Australia, pt 1 & 2.’, South Australian Ornithologist, vol. 21, no. 6/7, pp. 74–88; 91–98.

This post recognises and celebrates NAIDOC Week 2021.

From east to west

A week away in East Gippsland was notable for my complete failure to photograph a Superb Lyrebird … meanwhile Shining Bronze-cuckoos called constantly overhead.

Arriving home I was surprised this morning to encounter numerous Shining Bronze-cuckoos in the Muckleford bush. This species is a late winter migrant to the box-ironbark country, usually arriving after Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoo, Fan-tailed Cuckoo and Black-eared Cuckoo and before the Pallid Cuckoo. So, this is something of an early arrival.

The birds spotted today were actively chasing each other and displaying, warming up to their parasitic spring antics, as a number of potential hosts fossicked below – Superb Fairy-wrens and Buff-rumped Thornbills. Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens, a species that is known to be a host for this cuckoo, were also about and calling.

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Shining Bronze-cuckoo, South German Track, 8th July 2021

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List: Crested Bellbird, Grey Shrike-thrush, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, Fuscous Honeyeater, Golden Whistler, Crested Shrike-tit, Striated Thornbill, Brown Thornbill, Musk Lorikeet, Chestnut-rumped Heathwren, Shining Bronze-cuckoo, Superb Fairy-wren, Crimson Rosella, Eastern Rosella, White-browed Babbler.

That hollow feeling

The first signs of breeding activity are showing, even in the depths of winter.
Hollow-nesting species, including Australian Wood Ducks and Galahs are getting busy as is evident in this recent series of images from the Muckleford bush.
The pair of Wood Ducks were accompanied by three others, all apparently interested in the same site.

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Australian Wood Ducks, Muckleford State Forest, 25th June 2021

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Male at left … female at right

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Male Australian Wood Duck

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Galah pair … female at right

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Female inspecting a prospective nesting hollow

Plains country after the storm

A wet and wintry week put paid to any birding.

The highlight was admiring wonderful views across the Moolort Plains after a storm rolled through on Friday afternoon.

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After the storm, Moolort Plains, 25th June 2021

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Dusk over Baker’s Swamp

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Looking north from near Frogmore Swamp to Gough’s Range

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Looking east towards Bald Hill and the Pyrenees

After the rains, magic afoot.

The gentle rains have soaked our soil and leaf litter and the threads of fungus have been hard at work digesting leaf litter and fallen wood. Walking through the bush on our place at Strangways has been a process of frequent wonderful discoveries of the gorgeous fruiting bodies of these fungi. It seems a particularly big year for them. I was chatting with the esteemed Bernard Slattery recently who hypothesised that the rain, coupled with cool weather and lots of cloudy days have made conditions perfect for them. The fungi along with the rejuvenated mosses make a bush walk quite a magical experience. I find identification of fungi quite challenging and the captions for these photos are very provisional indeed and any corrections are most appreciated.

Fungus (Mycena sp?) and moss on fallen wood.

Gilled fungal fruits are common on both the top and underside of the logs in our bush. Turning over a bit of wood can reveal quite a splendour. The fruiting bodies in the shot below have stared turning upwards, but some are yet to open up and show their gills.

Gilled fungi under a log.

Others have found a little niche in a gap in a log.

More Mycena fungi?

I was pleased to find a little fungus gnat on the stem of a Funnel Cup fungus. There appears to be another even smaller insect in the cup, but I can’t make out what it is. I’ve recently noted large swarms of fungus gnats swirling and dancing in the late afternoon sunlight.

Funnel Cup fungus with fungus gnat and friend.
Hebeloma sp. perhaps

There have been lots of leather fungi sticking out from dead wood too. Stereum fungi are amongst the most common.

Stereum sp.
Stereum from underneath

Underneath the same log, we found another shelf-like fungus – Panellus – but this one looks very different underneath

Panellus sp. underneath some wood
The gills of Panellus‘ underside

Puffball fungi have also been poking up out of the moss and leaf litter. These beautiful little domes will discharge a puff of spores into the air when hit by a drop of water. The little spines on this one will drop off as it ages.

Lycoperdum sp.

Under another log was a distinctive purple fungus – Ceripora purpurea – which is apparently less commonly found.

Ceripora purpurea

Poking about in the Muckleford bush

Queen’s Birthday morning was perfect for poking about in the Muckleford bush.

Taking a well-trodden route that included South German, Bell’s Lane and Mia Mia Tracks I was rewarded with some nice observations.

The pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles were spotted on their overnight perch, contemplating their first sortie in search of a meal.

An early flowering Golden Wattle was something of a surprise, as was the opportunity to see both the Speckled Warbler and Rose Robin up-close.

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Golden Wattle in flower, South German Track, 14th June 2021

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Wedge-tailed Eagle (adult female)

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Adult male

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Speckled Warbler (male)

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Rose Robin (male)

Acanthiza nana

Instalment #3 on the identification guide to central Victorian thornbills. Today it’s the turn of the Yellow Thornbill Acanthiza nana.

This species is arguably the most nondescript of our local thornbills, the lack of distinctive markings are what makes it relatively easy to identify.

In my view there are two handy spotting characters, firstly the boldly streaked ear-coverts – a feature  shared with the Striated Thornbill, and secondly the russet wash on the throat and chin. This latter feature renders an overall ‘golden’ hue to the bird and is unique to this species of thornbill. It is the lack of streaking on the crown and breast that sets A. nana apart from both the Striated Thornbill and the Brown Thornbill.

A close-up look reveals that the iris is actually olive coloured – it tends to be described as dark in the field guides. The second image also shows off the black sub-terminal band on the tail – quite narrow in this species, but a more or less obvious feature of all the thornbills.

Yellow Thornbills tend to be canopy feeders, although this can include foraging in low shrubs – the third image below shows a Yellow Thornbill feeding in planted saltbush in our garden. While I often encounter them in box-ironbark woodlands they can also be found in scattered remnants on the Moolort Plains, as well as our home garden where they appear to be resident.

I have difficulty separating the Striated and Yellow Thornbill on the basis of calls but that is largely due to my own incompetence … check a good field guide for a description of voice!

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Yellow Thornbill, Wyndham Street Newstead, 13th June 2021

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