The food chain in the chook yard

Since we started sharing our place in the bush at Strangways with some chickens, the dynamics of the local bird life have certainly changed.

White-winged Choughs (Corcorax melanorhamphos) have been the true masters of our land for many years and became the first species to decide the chook food was pretty good. Several families visit often, squawking and carrying on relentlessly. They are so adapted to us, that close-up photos are very easy.

The spectacular eye of a White-winged Chough

A pair of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) have also become regulars and are similarly unfazed by the presence of a human with a big camera.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

In the last 6 months, Peaceful Doves (Geopelia placida) have become regulars. We used to occasionally hear and rarely see these beautiful birds. Now a flock of up to twelve find their way through the wire mesh and into the main chook pen. They are more coy than the Choughs, flying out of the yard and onto a nearby Long-leafed Box limb when we approach.

Peaceful Doves in a light shower
On a favoured branch

Recently, raptors have twigged that the doves are regular visitors and have started dropping by to hunt them. We saw an Australian Hobby (Falco longipennis) a few days ago. Yesterday a pair of of Collared Sparrowhawks (Accipiter cirrocephalus) came in to check things out. They flew off as I approached with the camera, but didn’t go far.

Collared Sparrowhawk

One returned before too long. Instead of making for the chook yard, it perched on a gate at the bottom of our yard, closely scanning a mound of dirt near a garden bed, presumably looking for small prey on the ground.

Closely watching for prey on the ground.

Periodically it would spread its wings slightly. I don’t know what this was about and would welcome any insight.

A slight wingspread.

Plains sunset

A wonderful sunset last evening on the Moolort Plains.

Tarrengower from the Moolort Plains, 24th June 2020

Red Gum wetland #1

Red Gum wetland #2

The view west towards Mount Moolort

PS: I heard my first Fan-tailed Cuckoo for the season on 22 June (centre of town) – at least six weeks early … perhaps an overwintering bird? Also a small flock of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos – heard but not seen yesterday morning.

Of the night and of the earth

Winter nights are still a time to find some invertebrates out and about. On a Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) recently I found a very beautiful small green caterpillar, holding itself out perhaps to look like a bit of leaf.

Caterpillar on Golden Wattle

The orange patches mark a lateral extension, a bit like a hood and the face could only be seen from below and in front. On close inspection, this little one was using some silk. When I visited later, there was no sign of a cocoon, so I’m not sure what the silk threads were about.

Quite a sweetie

There are still lots of tiny midges and fungus gnats about, sleeping on leaves at night. You can tell this midge (only 2mm long) is a male from his feathery antennae. And you can tell he’s not a mosquito as his back legs are down.

Male midge on Grey Box leaf

With all the moisture in the soil, it’s a great time to get down into the leaf litter to see some fungi and other tiny treasures.

Fungus fruiting bodies

We’ve had our place at Strangways for 26 years and I’d been familiar with the Scented and Tall Sundews in our bush. Last winter was the first time I’d seen a Climbing Sundew (Drosera macrantha) at our place. Since then I’ve seen at least half a dozen. Perhaps it’s just getting your eye in. Unlike Tall Sundews, which are free-standing, Climbing Sundews tend to climb over other vegetation, like shrubs and grasses. The longest I’ve seen was about 30 cm long. This one, that I found yesterday, was only 4 cm long. So I presume it’s quite young – and yet it still has quite a few gnats and midges in its deadly leaves.

Climbing Sundew (Drosera macrantha) with at least five meals on board

The leaves of Climbing Sundews are bell-shaped and tend to hang down. Those of Tall Sundew are more heart-shaped and the plant tends to point them outwards.

The bell-shaped leaf of a Climbing Sundew, with dinner.

I tend to not turn over too many rocks or logs looking for subjects as I don’t want to cause too much disturbance. In the cold of winter, I do tend to resort to this more often as subjects in the bushes are much rarer. Clinging to the bottom of one rock, I found quite a number of Black-headed Sugar Ants (Camponotus nigriceps), whose nest was under the rock. I took a few photos of this sisterhood before very carefully replacing the rock to not squash any of these sleepy, beautiful ants.

A Black-headed Sugar Ant and her sisters. I think the large, out-of-focus head in the top left corner is a guard. But she too was very soporific.

A winter bird

While they can be seen locally in all seasons, for me at least, the White-eared Honeyeater is a winter bird.

It is found throughout the box-ironbark country, but also further north in dry mallee environments as well as tall forests along the Great Divide and all the way to the coast. Often regarded as sedentary I certainly see it in greater numbers during the cooler months, perhaps birds from further south enjoying a winter break!

It is a curious species and will often join mixed-species feeding flocks of insectivores – the individual pictured here was one of a trio with a group of Brown and Buff-rumped Thornbills, a Grey Fantail and some Weebills that had congregated in a patch of Hedge Wattle.

White-eared Honeyeater, Clydesdale, 20th June 2020

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Brown Thornbill in Hedge Wattle

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Time on …

The last few minutes before dusk often produce the most marvellous light.

Just so last evening at Joyce’s Creek – the sun appeared momentarily from behind gathering storm clouds – minutes later it dropped below the horizon.

Australian Pelicans, Joyce’s Creek, 19th June 2020

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The time of small things

As winter bites, there are still plenty of invertebrates about, but they are almost all very small.

Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha)flower buds are still a target for beetles, but they are mostly 3mm long or less.

Tiny beetle on Golden Wattle
Tucking in on a cold night

There are plenty of spiders around and often less than a mm long, like one I managed to photograph of a Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata) at night.

Minuscule spider

Elsewhere on the same Sheoak were a couple of small Psyllid bugs, a safe distance from the tiny predator. These were only a couple of millimetres long.

Psyllid bugs

After a bit of rain, we’ve had another mass surfacing of springtails (Collembola) from the leaf litter. As I mentioned in a previous post, these are not insects in spite of having three pairs of legs.

Springtail profusion

Today there were many clusters of thousands of these little creatures (<1mm long) – writhing masses of little lives all tumbling over each other as they dispersed.

Springtails really know how to teem

These little creatures have a very important role in breaking down decaying vegetable matter and fungi. There is a great article on them on The Conversation. And I think they are very cute.

The sweetness of the springtail.

 

Well, I’ll be blowed

After years of missing out on Grey Butcherbirds locally it was terrific to finally see one recently – courtesy of Darryl O’Bryan.

Lo and behold, on Sunday morning another one turned up … this time in our home garden!

I first spotted it sitting on a verandah table from whence it proceeded to feed on some ripening pomegranate fruits nearby. The resident garden birds – honeyeaters and wrens especially, became quite upset and it was ultimately driven off by a Red Wattlebird.

What is causing this ‘influx’ of Grey Butcherbirds? I suspect this is a prime example of how chance is a key factor in bird observations – they have been here all the time in low numbers and patchily distributed across the landscape. Occasionally we bump into each other!

Grey Butcherbird (immature), Wyndham Street Newstead, 14th June 2020

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The reaction of one of the resident New Holland Honeyeaters

Note the distinctive hooked bill

The grey-brown upper parts indicate an immature bird

Clearly a different individual to the one seen recently at Pengally Lane

Sittellas in the garden

Varied Sittellas are common in the bushland surrounding Newstead.

They are, however, infrequent visitors to the centre of town – generally only seen outside the breeding season.

A small party passed through our home garden briefly last Friday – one of them appeared to snare a midge from the bark of a Casuarina and then offer it (unsuccessfully) one of its companions. See Patrick’s recent post for some close ups of these tiny insects.

Varied Sittellas, Wyndham Street Newstead, 12th June 2020

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The orange wing panel …

and upturned bill is a distinctive feature of this species.

Three, two, one …

Hooded Robins are one of my favourite woodland birds. I was delighted to encounter a trio along Gully Road at Welshmans Reef at the weekend.

The party consisted of two ‘adult’ males and an adult female. Hooded Robins are known to form monogamous pairs but it’s not uncommon  for there to be one or more ‘helpers’ that assist the parents raise the nestlings.

They are considered to be facultative cooperative breeders – the involvement of helpers occurs under some conditions but not under others. This behaviour is very common amongst Australian birds. I’m not aware of any genetic or banding studies of Hooded Robins but it is likely that more often than not this involves related individuals – off spring from previous breeding events.

On closer inspection one of the males (the central bird in the first image below) lacks the full hangman’s hood, suggesting that it is likely to be a sub-adult – presumably one of last season’s success stories.

Hooded Robins, Gully Road Welshmans Reef, 8th June 2020

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Female (at left) and male Hooded Robin

Male Hooded Robin

Non-nondescript

Nondescriptlacking distinctive features or characteristics, is a word that I have sometimes erroneously applied to the Jacky Winter.

This small, woodland flycatcher is anything but, in spite of its rather uniform grey plumage – slightly darker above than below.

Watching a Jacky Winter in action is always enjoyable. They can be quite tame and allow a close approach as they perch low on fallen wood, branches or rocks from whence they dart in search of insects. They will quite happily catch low-flying insects or terrestrial prey. This is the first one that I’ve ‘captured’ with a centipede – a highlight of the weekend.

Jacky Winter, Newstead, 7th June 2020

An awkward pose … but it does at least highlight the white outer tail feathers of the Jacky Winter, a diagnostic feature

Snaring a centipede

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