Author Archives: Geoff Park

A Brolga on the plains

What a wonderful sight to observe a Brolga once again on the Moolort Plains. This area is home to a small number of pairs, perhaps no more than two, an isolated population between its stronghold in south-western Victoria (635 birds were counted there in 2019) and the northern Victorian irrigation region, which supports reasonable numbers of Brolgas (probably less than 100 individuals).

While I’ve received regular reports over recent years this is my first observation since around 2016 – the last time the Moolort wetlands held a significant amount of water.

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Brolga, Moolort Plains, 1st August 2021

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Pea, legume, or bean?  What does it mean? 

On behalf of Friends of the Box Ironbark Forests – Mount Alexander region

Come along (via Zoom®) to FoBIF’s AGM (7:30 p.m. on Monday the 9th of August) and hear Ian Higgins speak on:

“Everything you wanted to know about the plant world’s third most diverse family but were too afraid to ask”.

Yes, the “Fabaceae” family, aka peas and relatives has just won the bronze medal for species diversity (right after orchids and daisies)!  But was it cheating by branch stacking?  This family recently experienced a dramatic increase in the number of its species. 

  • What happened?  
  • What is the Greek word for branch anyway?
  • Why is this family the world’s most important source of plant resources that support humans (and the rest of the planet)?
  • Did you realise, that before Europeanisation, our district used to be much richer in species of this family?  
  • What’s gone missing and why?
  • What is the role of phosphorus and why is spreading “super” such an un-Australian activity?
  • What’s the connection with butterflies?
  • What is plant blindness 
  • Why should I care about plant identification?

Ian will reveal answers to all these questions and more as part of the launch of FoBIF’s marvellous identification booklet: “Native peas of the Mount Alexander region”.

Members and supporters who wish to attend can register by emailing FOBIF (info@fobif.org.au). We would like people to register 48 hours before the meeting. People who have registered will be sent a login link before the meeting. 

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Not quite a thornbill

Thornbills have been featuring lately but today’s diversion involves a closely related bird from the same family, Acanthizidae, but a different genus, Smicrornis.

Weebills are found in the same habitats as thornbills and share essentially the same features. Key differences include:

  • a short, stubby bill, rather than the slender, needle-like bill of the thornbills
  • their calls – louder with more of a whistling quality than most typical thornbill calls.

Weebills also commonly hover on the outer edge of the foliage while they search for insects to pluck from the leaves, a behaviour that is rarely exhibited by thornbills. I was pretty happy to capture this hovering Weebill as it foraged amongst the coppice regrowth near Mia Mia Track.

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the ‘structure’ shown in the last image. It’s the egg-case of the Praying Mantis. The eggs are laid by the female and then covered with a frothy mass, somewhat like polystyrene, that hardens over a period of a few days. The tiny nymphs emerge when the weather warms – I suspect they make excellent Weebill tucker at this early stage of their life cycle!

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Weebill , Mia Mia Track, 25th July 2021

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Mantid egg-case

Yellow-rumped Thornbill

Instalment #5 in the local thornbill identification series features the Yellow-rumped Thornbill.

Affectionately known as the ‘butter-bum’ by some birders, this species is the one most likely to be encountered around town, in home gardens or farmland. It does occur one the margins of the bush, in open woodland with a grassy understorey.

You’ll typically spot this thornbill feeding on the ground in small flocks, sometimes in the company of birds such as the Red-browed Finch and Southern Whiteface.

Identification is pretty straightforward, with two main spotting characters to look for:

  1. Distinctive white spots on a black forehead and crown
  2. The bright-yellow rump … obvious when the bird flys

Apart from these features this species has a white eye-brow (supercilium) and pale iris.

I apologise that none of the images below show the yellow rump to advantage – I’ll aim to rectify this in a summary post on thornbill ID soon.

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Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Newstead, 18th Jly 2021

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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

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