This is the second instalment in the thornbill identification series.
The first instalment covered some general tips and featured the Striated Thornbill. Today it’s the turn of the Brown Thornbill.
This species is generally found close to the ground, foraging in dense shrubs or in the epicormic foliage of eucalypts. Locally, wherever there is a good shrub cover, you are almost certain to encounter Brown Thornbills. They especially like areas of Gorse Bitter-pea, Rough Wattle and Coffee-bush.
The set of images below illustrate the key features of this thornbill:
- brick-red iris
- rufous forehead with delicate scalloping
- bold dark streaking on the throat and breast
- rufous rump
Brown Thornbills are active and inquisitive birds. At this time of year they are often found in the company of other thornbills and insectivores in mixed species feeding flocks. In this instance both Buff-rumped and Striated Thornbills were feeding nearby. Not far to our north the Brown Thornbill can be found together with a close relative, the Inland Thornbill. This latter species is relatively common around Bendigo, in similar habitat to the Newstead area. The main obvious difference is that the Inland Thornbill has a grey-brown forehead, rather than rufous and it also tends to carry its tail cocked. I’m always alert to the possibility of seeing an Inland Thornbill locally but have never done so.
Brown Thornbill, Fence Track, 11th June 2021
It’s been a cold, wet and windy week here in Newstead, but relatively benign compared to some other parts of the state it seems.
My regular late afternoon walks have been curtailed, although I did manage a short outing last Monday to one of the gullies on the western side of Demo Track. This area can be rich with birds – not so on this occasion. A flock of Varied Sittellas the only observation of note.
Varied Sittella, Demo Track area, 7th June 2021
I’ve had a few conversations recently about the challenges of thornbill identification.
Over coming weeks I’ll feature each of the local species in turn, followed by a post that will aim to cover the full set. First cab off the rank is the Striated Thornbill.
This species is a nice way to illustrate the overall thornbill identification ‘problem’. The trick is to look for what are sometimes referred to as ‘spotting characters’. Rather than attempting to observe all the different features of a bird at the same time, just focus on a limited set. Think of them as questions:
- What is the colour of the iris?
- Is the plumage streaked and if so where are the streaks?
- Is there any patterning on the forehead?
- Is the colour of the rump different to rest of the upper parts?
- What type of habitat is the bird in (e.g. farmland or woodland) and what layer of that habitat (e.g. ground or canopy)?
Using this approach and taking some quick mental notes can make the task of identifying that confounding ‘little brown bird’ pretty straightforward. Other attributes, such as the calls and general behaviour are also useful.
The Striated Thornbill, pictured below, has a number of distinctive spotting characters, but the main one to look for is the fine white streaking on the crown (which is distinctly rufous).
This thornbill also has somewhat coarser streaks on the ear coverts and breast, a feature that is shared with another local, the Brown Thornbill. In the case of the Striated Thornbill the iris is neither brick-red like the Brown Thornbill or pale like the Buff-rumped and Yellow-rumped Thornbills.
Striated Thornbills are a bird of the woodland canopy, where they spend their time, often in the company of other species, gleaning small insects from the foliage. Occasionally they’ll feed lower down, especially when wattles are flowering.
Striated Thornbill, Demo Track, 3rd June 2021
Pied Currawongs are clever and curious birds.
This one was photographed this morning at the bird bath. Initially I was puzzled as to why it would be attempting to pierce the ice-crust that had formed overnight (it was ‘feels like’ minus 5C).
Then I noticed the shape on the surface of the ice – a currawong pellet, regurgitated by a previous visitor I would assume.
Pied Currawongs are omnivores, feeding on seeds, fruits, insects and small vertebrates when they can get them. In the town gardens over winter there is a wide variety of suitable tucker. The pellets are ejected a short time after feeding, often within 30 minutes or so and contain the hard remains of the recent meal. Beetle wing-cases and sometimes small bones can be found mixed in with plant material.
You may have noticed and wondered about these objects appearing in the garden at this time of year.
Pied Currawong @ the bird bath, 5th June 2021
Pied Currawong pellet
I was pleasantly surprised last weekend to encounter two Fan-tailed Cuckoos in the Muckleford Nature Conservation Reserve. I had excellent view of the first bird after it flew to a nearby branch, where it was joined almost immediately by a second individual.
Both birds were silent and moved on after a few minutes perched in the early morning sunshine. I did hear a brief ‘fan-tail’ trill at a distance a few minutes later.
Fan-tailed Cuckoos are regarded, quite rightly, as late winter migrants to the box-ironbark country. The story is a bit more complicated as they can be seen in any month, although it is unclear if some individuals remain all-year round or if these might be birds from further south. Their silence outside the breeding season is why they largely go unnoticed, until their distinctive calls are heard again from August onwards.
The story with Eastern Spinebills has some parallels, but in reverse. Arriving in good numbers in the autumn they disappear to the high country to breed in late winter, although they are apparently resident in nearby locations such as Maldon and Yandoit. The movement patterns of Australian birds are complex and new insights are continually emerging. Seasonal conditions also play a significant role in what happens from year to year, even for species with fairly well-established movement patterns.
Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Muckleford Nature Conservation Reserve, 29th May 2021
Eastern Spinebill (male)
Grey-shrike Thrush, Mia Mia Track
After yesterday’s post on the return of the male Rose Robin I thought it worth checking the other spot where I’ve seen this species over recent years, Rotunda Park in Newstead.
Sure enough, a female Rose Robin was easily located amongst the wattles at the western edge of the Park – exactly the spot where I observed a female on the cusp of spring 2020.
Rose Robins have a particular habit, while perched, of lowering their wings and cocking their tail, and then twitching them simultaneously. The second last image below is a poor depiction of this distinctive behaviour.
What I find truly remarkable is that such a small bird can seemingly return to exactly the same location in successive years.
Female Rose Robin, Rotunda Park Newstead, 30th May 2021
Last winter I was fortunate to encounter a male Rose Robin in the Muckleford Nature Conservation Reserve. The birds was present for a number of weeks in the same spot, a moist gully dominated by Yellow Box, White Box and a dense understorey of Golden Wattle.
I was not at all surprised, on a visit yesterday, to again observe a male Rose Robin!
While I have no evidence to prove my case you would have to think it is the same individual. My 2020 sighting was in mid-August, although the bird had been observed there some weeks earlier. I suspect this one will be resident for the winter.
Rose Robins breed further south, migrating in small numbers to the box-ironbark over the cooler months. Like the other Petroica robins, Rose Robins are insectivores but tend to be more aerial in their foraging behaviour.
Male Rose Robin, Muckleford State Forest, 29th May 2021
To some folks, currawongs are a bird of evil intent … not for me.
They are curious, alert and adaptable birds that have an ill-deserved reputation on account of some aspects of how they ‘make a living’ … preying on small native songbirds for example.
Every autumn, flocks of Pied Currawongs arrive in Newstead, on migration from higher altitudes along the Great Dividing Range. Each year the numbers seem to increase and in fact this year I was even hearing the occasional bird over summer. Their beautiful calls are very different to that of our resident and mainly solitary Grey Currawong.
Home gardens are a favourite for the species, with winter fruiting shrubs such as this privet a favourite food source. Yesterday afternoon more than a dozen Pied Currawongs were gathered at any one time to feast on the berries. No doubt they are responsible fo spreading the seeds of this exotic but locally this doesn’t seem to be causing a problem.
Pied Currawong, Newstead, 27th May 2021
What a stunning sight last evening, enjoyed by sky gazers across much of Australia and beyond.
Sadly, here in Newstead, a wispy cloud cover appeared just as the full spectacle was about to peak.
No matter, it was a memorable event indeed.
Super Flower Blood Moon coming up, Newstead, 26th May 2021
Clear skies about 20 minutes before totality
Approaching totality … as the cloud starts to mask the spectacle
Read more here in The Conversation
I’m surprised and a little dismayed about how much the water levels in Cairn Curran have fallen over autumn. Here’s hoping for a winter deluge to replenish this important wetland.
As you can see from the graph below this is the typical pattern that results from large volumes of downstream water transfer over summer and autumn, much of this destined for orchards along the Murray River. The storage is currently at about 38% of capacity.
Waterbirds are scarce at present, although a visit is always rewarded with some great sights.
Whistling Kite, Cairn Curran Reservoir, 20th May 2021