Many folks are perplexed when trying to identifying raptors, so I thought I’d do a few posts over coming weeks that might help. I’m no expert, that’s for sure, but will endeavour to suggest a few tips that I use to help with the challenge. I’ll start with what is probably our most commonly observed local bird of prey, the Whistling Kite. This species is usually seen in flight, gliding or soaring, often near water. This one was spotted this morning, along the Loddon River at Newstead.
Some tips, especially for raptors in flight:
- Look at the overall size, general shape and proportions, especially of the wings and tail in relation to the body.
- Consider the overall colouration – which areas are light, dark, streaked, barred or mottled?
- Study the underwing pattern – Whistling Kites for example have a very distinctive underwing pattern, with a broad, pale band along the leading edge of the innerwing and pale inner primary feathers forming a pale M-shape across the underparts.
- Look out for special features – for example, is there a cap or hood? are the wing tips strongly finger-shaped?
- Flight behaviour – for example, does the bird fly fast and direct? or with slow flapping wings?
General shape and colouration – Whistling Kites are largely pale underneath (lightly streaked on the chest and belly), contrasting with dark fingered wingtips and have a long pale tail.
The underwing pattern is very distinctive – this looks like a young bird with some spotting on the underwing coverts.
You may have come across the word dihedral when reading about raptors. The term dihedral (having two plane faces) describes the V-shaped attitude of the wings when raised above the body. In raptors this shape may vary from a very pronounced, strong dihedral (Wedge-tailed Eagles have this shape when soaring), through to slight. The dihedral may also be modified where the innerwing is raised above the body plane but the outerwing is mostly flat – this is the case in the bird pictured below.
Flight pattern – when gliding, the Whistling Kite has somewhat arched wings with a slight dihedral.
We are fortunate in the Newstead district to have an amazing diversity of diurnal birds of prey. Of the 24 species associated with mainland Australia, 16 can be seen regularly in our area.
This was the scene looking eastward across Lake Cairn Curran, this morning at 6.30am, just before sunrise.
Sunrise over Cairn Curran, 22nd January 2013.
Our second ‘Breakfast with the Birds’ was very well attended – birdwatchers are a dedicated lot!
Birds, good company, coffee and a lovely morning – an ideal combination.
The birds didn’t let us down. We were treated to great views of a Wedge-tailed Eagle, gliding low directly overhead, not long after sunrise. A family of Black-fronted Dotterels, accompanied by one of their larger relatives, a Red-kneed Dotterel, scuttled in front of the group as we meandered along the shoreline. A party of five Great Egrets, replete with breeding plumes allowed a relatively close approach. Also on this morning’s list: Eurasian Coot, Darter, Great Cormorant, Little Pied Cormorant, Little and Long-billed Corella, White-faced Heron, Whistling Kite, Grey Teal, Wood Duck, Masked Lapwing, Black-winged Stilt, Galahs of course and more …
Great Egrets in the morning light over Cairn Curran.
White-backed Swallows are in the same family as the familiar Welcome Swallow and both the Fairy Martin and Tree Martin. These latter three species are commonly observed around Newstead, the White-backed Swallow much less so. It was a thrill then to find an active nest quite close to Newstead, on the Loddon River. The site was a classic location – an exposed, east-facing vertical river-bank, with the tunnel drilled horizontally. Early yesterday the birds were making regular visits to the tunnel, although it was impossible to say for certain if there were eggs or nestlings inside.
White-backed Swallow about to leave the nest tunnel, Loddon River @ Newstead, 21st January 2013.
White-backed Swallows often nest as solitary pairs, although they can also be found in small, loose colonies. There seemed to be three individuals flying above the nest site, keeping close company – perhaps a pair with a newly fledged youngster?
White-backed Swallow in flight.
The numbers of this species seem to be steadily increasing locally – I have been noticing small numbers recently near the Newstead Cemetery, perhaps they have nested along the same gully that the Rainbow Bee-eaters have used. They can be distinguished from their familial relations by the combination of forked tail, setting them apart from the martins, and white on the head and back – very different to the Welcome Swallow which shares the forked tail.
I rose early this morning in the hope of catching the Sacred Kingfishers, found yesterday nesting along the Loddon. I was treated to some terrific views of the parents bringing a smorgasbord of food items for breakfast – Cicadas, small fish and even a large praying mantis to the hungry nestlings.
Sacred Kingfisher arriving at the nest tunnel, Loddon River @ Newstead, 21st January 2013.
Look closely and you’ll see part of the praying mantis brought in on this visit.
On one visit the parent appeared to cling to the bank with its wings as it fed the youngsters.
This morning a constant begging sound emanated from the nest tunnel, one parent arriving about every five minutes or so with a new meal. Most feeding visits involved the adult perching within a few metres of the nest, followed by two or three quick bursts from the perch to deliver the food.
One of the parents with a large black cicada.
This morning, by the Loddon River, I came across two terrific local species of birds, both using the eroded river bank as a nesting site. Sacred Kingfishers have featured nesting previously this summer, a pair near Tangey’s Lane using a eucalypt hollow as a nest site. This morning’s pair had constructed a similar diameter hollow, this time in a vertical bank, perhaps a more typical kingfisher home. The youngsters in the nest were begging noisily, the parents catching what appeared to be small fish from the pool below the nest.
Sacred Kingfisher nest, Loddon River @ Newstead, 20th January 2012.
One of the parents with a meal for the nestlings.
The other highlight, also nesting nearby, were some White-backed Swallows. At least two pairs, possibly more, were visiting nesting tunnels in similar sites to the kingfishers.
One of the active White-backed Swallow nests.
The adult birds were feeding in the vicinity, with a few welcome Swallows that have raised young nearby. White-backed Swallows are thought to be resident but I’ve rarely seen them around Newstead during winter. There is some evidence that they use old nesting tunnels over winter, going into torpor during colder weather. They also use tunnels to roost in during the breeding season, either overnight or during the heat of the day. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photograph this morning but have a look at this note from February last year for a glimpse.
Next week I’ll be having breakfast with the birds at Cairn Curran Reservoir, just opposite Picnic Point, on the western side of the storage. If you’d like to come along on Tuesday 22nd January at 6.30am let me know with an email reply. The meeting place is on Google Maps -37.047539,143.978834 or click here … reckon they need to update the image!
A female Australian Kestrel with breakfast.
Bring breakfast and a chair. With luck we might see a variety of water birds and a raptor or three.
White-browed Babblers could be described as comical and amusing, but never lazy! Living in family groups of up to ten birds, sometimes more, they are always on the move.
White-browed Babbler @ Babbler’s Rest, Sandon, 16th January 2013.
At this time of year, with breeding activities winding up they can still be seen carrying nesting material. This is for the construction of roosting nests, used by the family group year round. Brood nests are apparently mainly constructed by the female, while roost nest construction is a communal activity. I spent some time watching a group busily building, or perhaps refurbishing, a roost nest earlier this week at David and Suzie’s lovely bird haven at Sandon. A number of different individuals were bringing material, including grass, leaves and mulch to the nest, tucked away inside a compact shrub. White-browed Babblers can maintain a number of roost nests simultaneously and in my experience they will transfer material between nests or adjoining groups will purloin from others handiwork.
This babbler has located a handy supply of fruit tree mulch.
The ever industrious White-browed Babbler.
As I watched the babblers at work an immature Mistletoebird paid a number of inquisitive visits. It’s been a good year for this species I think, their beautiful metallic calls have been a prominent part of the bush soundscape since the Spring.
An immature Mistletoebird, probably a young male @ Babbler’s Rest.
Have a close look at this image. It’s a flock of Yellow-billed and Royal Spoonbills near Picnic Point. You might also have noticed an unusual ‘boulder’ in the foreground to the right.
Spoonbills near Picnic Point, 16th January 2013.
Yes, it’s a Swamp Wallaby, grazing and drinking amongst the spoonbills. They are quite common around the shores of Cairn Curran, where they inhabit denser areas of vegetation. The attraction of a secure water supply is obvious to this usually solitary macropod. When water gets scarce in the bush they become less wary than usual, often seen gathering in small groups around farm and bush dams for a drink.
Swamp Wallaby with Royal Spoonbills
The wallaby slowly moved off into cover after drinking its fill.
With birdwatching, if you are patient and still, you sometimes get lucky. Such was the case yesterday evening at Cairn Curran. I stopped to watch a family of Dusky Moorhens, the parents with two medium-sized chicks. My arrival forced them back into the reeds but it wasn’t long till they reappeared to forage on the drying mud nearby. I watched them, without moving, for about ten minutes when another shape appeared from the reed-bed, a Buff-banded Rail Gallirallus phillipensis. I’ve spotted this species a number of times over the past two years, usually as a blur, disappearing into dense riparian vegetation.
Buff-banded Rail, Cairn Curran Reservoir, 16th January 2013
The rains of 2010/11 brought many Buff-banded Rails back into the district and there have been numerous reports in recent months, including breeding records. They will remain while there is water in the landscape, but are known to disperse when conditions become unsuitable. A superbly marked species it was wonderful to get such terrific views.
Buff-banded Rails feed on crustaceans, molluscs, worms, insects and some plant material.
The Buff-banded Rail is a cryptic species, generally feeding around dawn and dusk. As this one demonstrated they will feed in the open when not disturbed. After 15 minutes of observation I got up to leave, prompting the rail to scuttle head down into the safety of the reeds.
Birds in the rail family have thin, laterally compressed bodies.
This post is the product of an entrancing two hours with the Australian Kestrel family on the Moolort Plains. As mentioned previously [see post], the nestlings first feed arrived on the dot at 8am, then again at 8.06, 8.25, 8.42 and 8.55. I lost count after that but all up there were about ten feeding visits between 8 and 10am. Each visit was signalled by vigorous, noisy begging by the nestlings as they spotted an adult nearby.
Australian Kestrel chicks begging as adult approaches, Moolort Plains, 15th January 2013.
One of the parents (the female I think) perched above the hollow with a grasshopper.
On some occasions the adult would make a shallow dive directly into the nest, while other times it would perch in the nest tree, above the hollow, before making its delivery. Each feeding visit lasted just a few seconds.
Descending into the nest from a nearby perch.
It seems I’ve been incorrect in my assertion regarding the absence of the male bird! The photograph below shows one of the parents arriving at the nest at around 9am. On closer inspection it clearly has a grey tail with pale barring and a grey crown, rather than the rufous, strongly barred tail and rufous crown of the female.
The male arriving at the nest.
Male Australian Kestrel about to depart the nest hollow.
This individual is clearly the female – note the colour of the barred tail and crown.
Feeding visits were brief and efficient.