Author Archives: Geoff Park

A good sign … and a puzzle

Yesterday afternoon I walked in the Mia Mia … hoping to get a drenching from the promised thunderstorms.

The rain stayed away, but thankfully we received 20mm overnight.

The good sign was a juvenile Red-capped Robin, found in the Rough Wattle to the west of Mia Mia Track and in the company of Buff-rumped Thornbills and Superb Fairy-wrens. Juvenile robins, like quite a number of the songbirds, are distinguished by blotchy patterning that serves as excellent camouflage. Young ‘red-caps’ are much paler, smaller and slimmer than juvenile Scarlet Robins which breed regularly in this area but then appear to depart over summer.

Nearby I spotted an adult male Red-capped Robin … with a couple of puzzling features, firstly the gape colour (yellow rather than black at the base) and also the general appearance of the head feathers (quite pale ear-coverts and light brown overall rather than the usual jet black).

Immature male Red-capped Robins resemble the female (see here), often with a reddish wash across the breast – young birds are known to breed in this plumage.  The adult male pictured here is, I think, more likely to be an older bird (some adults retain a pale gape) showing signs of feather wear and possibly moulting into fresh plumage.

Juvenile Red-capped Robin, Mia Mia Track, 2nd January 2020

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Red-capped Robin (male), Mia Mia Track, 2nd January 2020

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List: Crested Bellbird, Brown-headed Honeyeater, Fuscous Honeyeater, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Striated Thornbill, Weebill, Peaceful Dove.

Hollows make a home …

… for a myriad of native wildlife.

A pair of Sacred Kingfishers is currently occupying this fine hollow in a veteran River Red-gum. The lack of ‘whitewash’ around the entrance indicates that the eggs are yet to hatch, or at least they may have just done so. As the nestlings grow the adults perch at the entrance to deliver food and leave a tell-tale trail of excreta below the opening.

As I sat, entranced by the kingfishers, a small bird caught my eye as it fluttered, like a large moth, to perch beside another hollow above me. It was an Australian Owlet-nightjar (often confusingly referred to as the moth-owl … it is neither a moth or an owl!). It must have been sitting quietly nearby observing me before deciding to decamp to its roosting hollow for the day.

I was intrigued to notice the projections at the end of the rictal bristles around the face of of the owlet. I’ve never noticed these before but suspect they are a type of filoplume. The bristles are thought to aid the nocturnal navigation of the owlet as it hunts for insects in its favoured habitats – woodlands and forest. The plume-like projections looked very delicate and perhaps they only persist for a short time on the newly replaced bristles?

Australian Owlet-nightjar, Loddon River @ Newstead, 30th December 2020

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Sacred Kingfisher @ nest site in River Red-gum

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Face to face with ferals

I’ve had two feral encounters in recent days.

First, with a Red Fox cub in Providence Gully. It loped across the road in front of the car and then its curiosity allowed me to capture a couple of hasty images before it trotted off. An adult fox would not have allowed such an opportunity. Red Foxes are significant pests, preying mainly on rabbits but also on native fauna including possums, gliders, dasyurids such as antechinus, as well as ground dwelling birds. I see them regularly during my rambles.

Red Fox cub, Providence Gully, 30th December 2020

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The second observation was that of a House Cat, most likely of the feral persuasion – this time deceased!

The skull, lacking the lower mandible, was found in an area that is important for White-throated Nightjars. This ground nesting bird is a regular migrant to the Muckleford bush and would be vulnerable to cat predation. While cats feed mainly on mammals – like the Red Fox rabbits are a major part of their diet – they also take Sugar and Feather-tailed Gliders and birds. I very rarely see feral cats in the bush, although I’m sure they see me regularly.

Cat skull, Mia Mia Track area, 30th December 2020

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A perilous time to be a woodswallow

In a summer notable for the almost complete absence (so far) of White-browed and Masked Woodswallows, Dusky Woodswallows are more than compensating.

‘Duskies’ commenced nesting in mid-November, usually the time when their migratory cousins appear in large numbers throughout the box-ironbark country. The first youngsters are now facing a perilous period post-fledging – it takes them a week or so to become capable aerialists and during this time they perch, often noisily, waiting for their parents to arrive with food. Surely many are ‘picked off’ by predators, such as currawongs, kookaburras and raptors, as nature takes its course.

This group of four was observed earlier in the week along Sullivans Track in the Muckleford bush. The adults were arriving with food every few minutes – cicadas, wasps and bees, captured on aerial sorties high above or taken from the ground nearby. Initially three of the four were huddled close together but over a period of thirty minutes or so they became separated as each youngster made short, faltering flights to test its newly acquired powers.

Dusky Woodswallows are partially migratory in my experience. The majority of birds have left the district by late autumn, but I have seen the species in all months – either small numbers are resident or these may be birds from further south spending the winter in warmer climes. Dusky Woodswallows are the only woodswallow to include Tasmania as part of their normal range.

Juvenile Dusky Woodswallows, Sullivans Track, Muckleford State Forest, 29th December 2020

Juvenile Dusky Woodswallows have distinctive blotchy plumage to provide some camouflage during a vulnerable part of their life-cycle

Adult arriving with cicada prey

The appearance of the adults nearby elicits a frantic burst of wing fluttering from the juvenile 

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Wing and tail stretching by the juveniles was observed regularly – this aids the rapid development of their flight feathers.

… another cicada!

Ninox connivens

The Newstead district is home to a number of pairs of Barking Owls Ninox connivens.

I was very fortunate to be able to visit a local site yesterday where one pair has taken up residence. We have three Ninox owls locally – the largest is the Powerful Owl and smallest the Southern Boobook. The Barking Owl is intermediate in size but its habits are more akin to the Powerful Owl, feeding on mid-sized mammals such as Sugar Gliders and rabbits. They have been locally reported on a regular basis in recent times, possibly the result of folks being more alert to their presence, especially their signature woof-woof calls.

The birds usually perch close together during daylight hours, choosing dark canopied trees, often along drainage lines. Roost sites are easily recognised by the collection of whitewash and ejected pellets, containing the minced up remains of their victims.

Barking Owl, Newstead area, 27th December 2020

Barking Owl pellet – a mixture of beetle exoskeleton, bones and fur

Excreta (whitewash) under the roost site

Barking Owl in River Red-gum

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Xmas feast

Xmas in Newstead is Musk Lorikeets raiding the backyard plums … Rainbow Bee-eaters feasting on a variety of flying insects for their nestlings.

Musk Lorikeet, Wyndham Street Newstead, 25th December 2020

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Rainbow Bee-eaters @ Newstead Cemetery

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Xmas Eve by the pool

The wait was rewarded … a single Fuscous Honeyeater in the first forty minutes, then a succession of nice birds after that.

A flock of ~100 Straw-necked Ibises over Strangways on the trip home and then a Pied Currawong calling when I arrived … most unusual.

Fuscous Honeyeaters, Rise & Shine Bushland Reserve, 24th December 2020

Eastern Rosella (imm.)

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Dusky Woodswallow

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Straw-necked Ibis over Strangways

So, what’s more special?

Some birds, seen through human eyes at least, are more charismatic than others.

Tawny Frogmouths, in spite of their daylight hours immobility, fall into the charismatic department it seems … they always elicit an enthusiastic response from blog followers anyway!

Checking in on the ‘Pound Lane pair’ at the weekend was terrific – the parents with now two well-grown youngsters … eclipsed however by the appearance of two juvenile Diamond Firetails arriving to drink at the dam beside where the frogmouths are resident.

Diamond Firetails are a declining woodland bird, although the Newstead district is something of a hot spot. Evidence of recent breeding success is very heartening.

Tawny Frogmouth (male), Pound Lane Newstead, 20th December 2020

One of the juveniles

The second juvenile (at left) with the female

Juvenile Diamond Firetail

Immature Red-Rumped Parrot

Male Red-rumped Parrot (juvenile)

The wattle, the ant and the butterfly

The Imperial Hairstreak Butterfly Jalmenus evagoras, also known as the Imperial Blue, is a striking and fascinating species.

With a wide distribution along the east coast of Australia it can be found throughout the box-ironbark and damper forests, where it typically feeds on wattles, especially Silver Wattle locally.

Like many butterflies it has a complex and remarkable life-cycle. The adults lay eggs from late spring through to the autumn. It takes about 4 weeks from when the eggs hatch until they pupate and then butterflies emerge about a week later. Eggs that are laid late in the season are dormant over winter, then hatch in spring to release the first batch of larvae.

The Imperial Hairstreak has a fascinating mutualistic association with Iridomyrmex ants. Adult butterflies will purposefully select host plants with ants on which to lay their eggs. The ants attend the caterpillars and pupae, protecting them from predators and parasitoids such as wasps, while at the same time feeding on secretions from the larvae. Click here to learn more.

Imperial Hairstreak Butterfly, Coach Track, Yandoit, 19th December 2020

One of the caterpillars with Iridomyrmex ants in attendance

Spent cocoons

Caterpillars commencing pupation in a communal web

Underwing view

A fleeting glimpse of the spectacular upper-wings

Turning the car for home

A late afternoon jaunt across the plains has become something of a ritual – the week is not complete without at least one circuit. Yesterday afternoon was looking like a largely fruitless excursion until I turned the car for home.

A large raptor caught my eye, hovering low over a ripening cereal crop. Instantly recognisable as a Spotted Harrier Circus assimilis, it hunted in typical fashion for 15 minutes or so as I watched in awe from the roadside. An absolutely gorgeous raptor, the Spotted Harrier feeds on small birds, mammals such as mice and rabbits, as well as insects. The harrier disturbed numerous small birds, including Horsefield’s Bushlarks and Australian Pipits, as it wheeled low in small circles – dropping to the ground regularly in pursuit of a meal. This species will successfully chase its prey on the ground as well as via a direct pounce. As I continued my homeward journey its mate was encountered a little further along – this individual was significantly smaller, confirming that the first bird was a female and the second a male. Spotted Harriers nest regularly on the plains, raising their young at this time of year when food is most abundant.

Spotted Harrier (adult female), Moolort Plains, 18th December 2020

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Adult male Spotted Harrier

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