Author Archives: Patrick Kavanagh

Peak Chough?

A while back I posted about the progress of White-winged Choughs (Corcorax melanorhamphos) building nests around our place at Strangways. We’ve now counted seven nests with adults incubating eggs within a 400m radius of our house. Yesterday we saw the first family with fledglings shepherding three chicks around the ground, secreting them amongst the fallen timber. Today, as evening drew near the frantic adults were busy feeding and corralling their young charges amongst the shrubs, leaf litter and dead wood.

A White-winged Chough fledgling only a couple of days out of the nest having a good stretch.

All three of this little sweeties are able to fly – sort of. A bit of vigorous flapping and they can get a metre or two off the ground. We watched as some adults on the ground guided them to a fork in a Grey Box tree and other adults in a low branch of the tree seemed to encourage them upwards to a safe spot to roost for the night.

One fledgling starts the climb towards the adult birds on a horizontal branch about 3 metres high
All three struggle up the stem.
Giddying heights are reached, but holding on is not easy.

Eventually, all three gave up the climb and flew in ungainly style towards some logs on the ground, whereupon some adults began again the seemingly chaotic task of finding a safe place for the little crew to spend the night.

Back on the ground after the unsuccessful climb

We noted that pretty much as soon as these chicks were out of the nest, some Choughs had started construction of a new nest very close to the old one. We think but can’t be sure that this is the same group of about 12 birds building the second nest. What strikes me from these observations is how important dead wood on the ground is for sheltering these very young birds.

Nest building proceeds

As a very fecund spring unfolds, a lot of nest building activity is happening at our place at Strangways.

The White-winged Choughs whose nest building I posted about a month or so ago are now sitting on eggs.

White-winged Chough patiently incubating.

This particular family seems to be way ahead of the other Chough families around our place, with at least 4 other nests in early stages of building in a 1 km stretch along our lane.

It’s early days for other Chough nests, and construction standards look a little different in this nest base.

Pardalotes have been busy too. Striated Pardalotes are starting to pack some new lining in the nest boxes near our house.

Striated Pardalote on the perch of a nest box about to add some lining.

And others are looking at the same box with some hope of moving in.

One of the nest builders telling a hopeful occupant to look elsewhere.

Spotted Pardalotes never seem to be interested in our nest boxes. I’m not sure if that’s because the entry tubes might be too big for them or whether their larger Striated cousins just keep them away. The Spotted Pardalotes have some nesting holes in the bank of the roadside at the front of our place and I was delighted to come across a male tearing strips off fallen bark and ferrying it back to one of these nests.

A male Spotted Pardalote collecting some bark for lining a nest hole
The yellow throat indicates this is a boy.
“Can I fit any more in my beak?”

Every year, Brown Thornbills make nests very close to our front verandah. I think they regard us and our dog as protection from predatory birds and cuckoos. They hide in a nearby hop bush with their construction materials and dart quickly into the dense patch of Gold Dust Wattle where they’re making the nest, so I’ve not managed to get a shot of them going in. Whilst one of the pair darts in with the goods, the other will sit more obviously in a nearby Spreading Wattle and sings loudly, perhaps to draw attention away from the one heading to their very well hidden nest. The intelligence of these birds is astounding. I read a while back that when a predator or cuckoo approaches their nest, they make hawk alarm calls of various species until the threat takes off for their own safety.

One of our Brown Thornbills creating a distraction.

One of the prized lining materials for our local birds is the fur of our small dog. After brushing him, I poke bundles of his fur into our fencing wire and quite a few different bird species will pick it up.

A female Scarlet Robin with some valuable nest lining courtesy of our Schipperke.

Majestic visitors drop in for a bite

Some 12-15 years ago, we threw a few locally collected, untreated Hakea decurrens seeds in the bush at our place in Strangways, protected by a small exclosure fence. Before too long, we had a couple of large hakeas, covered with flowers and seed pods and with numerous second generation seedlings springing up beneath them.

Hakeas from direct seeding, and their offspring.

A few months back, we found seven Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus funereus) checking our hakeas out. This was the first time in the 27 years we’ve been on our place that we’d seen this species stop rather than just fly over. Yesterday, we saw a flock of about twenty happily and noisily cracking seed pods for their tasty contents. To my absolute delight, they stuck around while I got the camera.

A female pausing briefly from feasting.

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos evolved to feed on Hakea, Casuarina and Banksia seeds, but have become more dependent on introduced pines as their usual foods have been reduced by European land management practices. They also like to dig burrowing insects out of eucalypts and wattles.

Checking things out

One of the recorded Dja Dja Wurrung names for this species is Wareaine or Weerran (from John Tully’s book Dja Dja Wurrung Language of Central Victoria.

Females have larger yellow patches behind their eyes, grey eye rings and white bills. The males have pink eye rings and dark grey beaks.

One of the males of the group.

After sating their appetite with Hakea seed, the flock flew into a nearby Grey Box to rest and preen.

Rest time
A bit of beak sharpening.
And preening.

Watching these magnificent birds was a pure delight. Even more so to think that a few minutes easy work a decade and a half ago has resulted in a bit of food for these beauties. Looking forward to their next visit.

The train passes through Strangways

Although they’re quite common at our place at Strangways, it’s always a special delight to encounter an Echidna. So an Echidna train is a real (and much rarer) treat. On Sunday, three of these gorgeous animals trooped past our front yard in an amorous promenade.

An echidna train on the move. The female is the middle of the three at this point.

Echidnas have a very particular mating protocol, as one would expect for such a prickly animal. When a female is ready to mate, she is followed by a number of males in what biologists call a train. Trains usually consist of 3-5 animals, but up to eleven have been recorded.

The lady leads. She seems to have some damaged bristles on her back.

The males become very focused as they follow the female to whatever place she decides is the safest for mating to occur. The female checked out quite a few logs and old stumps before she moved on. One of the males would periodically sniff at her tail on the way.

On of the males sniffing the female’s tail.

He would also occasionally roll onto his side behind her and push his tail into hers, apparently trying to get in early, but with little interest from the female. Typically, mating waits until the train is in a safe place and the male has to dig his way under her to get access with his tail under hers. During copulation, his penis will grow to 1/3 of his body length.

One of the boys makes a move.
Stopping for a quick scratch during the pursuit. I’d never thought about how an Echidna scratches himself.
One of the boys getting a little left behind.

The train wended around our place until the female found the fence for our chook yard. This aroused the curiosity of our resident White-winged Choughs.

The chook yard beckon and no fence will stop this lady.
Concerned White-winged Choughs look on.

Eventually, the female decided that underneath our chooks’ house was the place. The trio made their way under it, spent the night there and were gone in the morning.

Australian Geographic has an easy-to-read and enjoyable article on Echidna trains at https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2021/08/echidna-trains-explained/

Mooyin-unkil, the builders

Mooyin-unkil is the Dja Dja Wurrung name for the bird Europeans called the White-winged Chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos). To me, the eerie “mooyin” part of the call is one of the most striking sounds in our bush and these wonderful birds have become a big part of our life in the bush at Strangways. Three families spend a lot of time in our yard, combing through the leaf litter for small insects, but also patrolling our chooks’ yard for leftover seed.

In recent days, we’ve noticed one family group visiting with distinctly muddied heads, suggesting that they have been building one of their skillfully crafted mud nests.

White-winged Chough at the bird bath.

Sure enough, during a walk down our lane, we saw a couple of birds working on the foundation of a new nest high in a Grey Box tree.

The start of a new nest

It looks like the birds have completed the first stages – building a platform held in place by a saddle built around the branch. Mud will be added in layers each of which must dry before the next is added. The final product will be a large deep cup with a ridged form for extra strength and a drainage system. Each family group consists of a pair of parents and their offspring from previous years who all help to raise the next generation. Many of the group members will participate in making the nest under the guidance of the parents. Nest building is apparently a learned skill.

Within about 300m of this nest, along a drainage line and dirt road, there are at least 6 existing nests of varying ages. It seems a perfect site with mud from the road cutting and a dam for water. Not surprisingly, it is much easier for them to build a new nest in a wet season with lots of mud.

Another of the nest building clan

All members of the family help in rearing the young, from nest building, to incubation to feeding and caring for the chicks. They mature at about four years.

Choughs need at least four birds to successfully raise a chick and the larger the group of helpers the more success they have in rearing young. In smaller groups, the young contribute more to the incubation of eggs and lose some body mass as a result.

One of the most intriguing things to watch with our Chough cohabitors is their strange wing/eye/tail display. We often see this when groups are contesting our yard and birds will perch in trees, wave their wings and tails, flare their wonderful eyes and screech. We also see them on the ground, spreading and dragging their wings, flaring their eyes and calling mooyin. One bird will start and the rest of the group will follow with some imitating the promenade. They often do this when there is only one group present.

Getting ready for a promenade
Joining the mooyin call
A member of another family drops in
Coming in to land
Looking peaceful with Golden Wattle background.
Foraging with the chooks

Galaxies from Picnic Point

Cloud-free nights have been a bit thin on the ground, but last Sunday night provided a great opportunity to photograph some spectacular galaxies from Picnic Point on Lake Cairn Curran.

The centre of the Milky Way rises above Lake Cairn Curran

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, consists of about 200-400 billion stars. Its centre is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Due to the intense concentration of gravity, dust and gasses it is a very busy place of star formation. The dark areas are dense clouds of gas.

In the eighteenth century, comets were objects of great interest. Charles Messier was an avid seeker of comets and drew up a catalogue of the fuzzy things he saw through his tiny telescope that he knew were not comets. Although he never found a comet, he left us a catalogue of 110 bright objects in our night sky – nebulae (clouds of dust and gas from which stars form), star clusters both open and globular and galaxies. This photo shows quite a few of these Messier objects, some of which I’ve labelled.

With labels

Messiers 6,7 and 8 are all open clusters of stars and associated nebulae from which they were born. These clusters are relatively young and consist of hundreds to thousands of stars. Messier 22 is a globular cluster. In our galaxies, the stars in these clusters are extremely old and are gravitationally bound in very dense clusters that may include millions of stars packed into a mere 70 light years (the nearest star to our sun is 4 light years away).

All of these objects are visible with a good pair of binoculars. Messier 22 looks like a fuzzy ball in binoculars, but resolves into myriad stars with a medium sized telescope (10″ diameter)

The centre of Messier 22 (European Space Agency)

Whilst I was taking photos for this image, I was joined by a curious Barn Owl that took up a position on one of the dead trees I was photographing. I think it wondered what the strange lights were all about. Alas, I had left my bird photography lens and flash at home. So it’s a wide-angled shot of a motion blurred owl with galaxy backdrop.

Milky Way with Barn Owl

Looking to the south, two more galaxies float above the Moolort plains – the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

The Small Magellanic Cloud (left) and Large Magellanic Cloud (centre)

The Large Magellanic Cloud is a distorted barred spiral that we view from above. You can see the central bar sloping from bottom left to top right and surrounding it the spirals that have been disrupted by the gravity of the Milky Way. the bright star-like object to the top right of the bar is actually the largest star forming region in our group of galaxies 30 Dorado or NGC 2070. It contains 70+ massive stars up to 300 times the mass of our sun. The Large Magellanic Cloud is 150,000 light years away and is about 1/10 the size of the Milky Way. The light you see from it left 150,000 years ago.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light years away and weighs in at about 7 billion suns.

After the rains, magic afoot.

The gentle rains have soaked our soil and leaf litter and the threads of fungus have been hard at work digesting leaf litter and fallen wood. Walking through the bush on our place at Strangways has been a process of frequent wonderful discoveries of the gorgeous fruiting bodies of these fungi. It seems a particularly big year for them. I was chatting with the esteemed Bernard Slattery recently who hypothesised that the rain, coupled with cool weather and lots of cloudy days have made conditions perfect for them. The fungi along with the rejuvenated mosses make a bush walk quite a magical experience. I find identification of fungi quite challenging and the captions for these photos are very provisional indeed and any corrections are most appreciated.

Fungus (Mycena sp?) and moss on fallen wood.

Gilled fungal fruits are common on both the top and underside of the logs in our bush. Turning over a bit of wood can reveal quite a splendour. The fruiting bodies in the shot below have stared turning upwards, but some are yet to open up and show their gills.

Gilled fungi under a log.

Others have found a little niche in a gap in a log.

More Mycena fungi?

I was pleased to find a little fungus gnat on the stem of a Funnel Cup fungus. There appears to be another even smaller insect in the cup, but I can’t make out what it is. I’ve recently noted large swarms of fungus gnats swirling and dancing in the late afternoon sunlight.

Funnel Cup fungus with fungus gnat and friend.
Hebeloma sp. perhaps

There have been lots of leather fungi sticking out from dead wood too. Stereum fungi are amongst the most common.

Stereum sp.
Stereum from underneath

Underneath the same log, we found another shelf-like fungus – Panellus – but this one looks very different underneath

Panellus sp. underneath some wood
The gills of Panellus‘ underside

Puffball fungi have also been poking up out of the moss and leaf litter. These beautiful little domes will discharge a puff of spores into the air when hit by a drop of water. The little spines on this one will drop off as it ages.

Lycoperdum sp.

Under another log was a distinctive purple fungus – Ceripora purpurea – which is apparently less commonly found.

Ceripora purpurea

Jaws

Arachnaphobe alert – spiders ahead

With the cooler weather, it’s a little easier to find a cooperative invertebrate sitter for close up portraits. A colony of Black-headed Bull Ants (Myrmecia nigriceps) that live under a Red Box tree in our yard have been out on their night patrols and slow enough to get close to safely. This lady happily sat still for a close up of her impressive mandibles.

Black-headed Bull Ant

A Wolf Spider (Lycosidae) also proved a cooperative sitter. I think the technical name for the impressive jaws is chelicera

Wolf Spider – a prey eye view.

And on some grass stems, a small Huntsman spider.

Chelicera of a Huntsman.

Spiders aren’t the only effective hunters around at the moment. I was delighted to get some good views of a Yellow-footed Antechinus (Antechinus flavipes) hunting at our place this afternoon. This curious little cutie was very keen to check me out, but wasn’t going to show the magnificent teeth that make this species so potent.

Keeping a close eye on me
Still not sure about me.

Time for the Redcoats

Late summer and the Soldier Beetles are on the march. Well, not so much marching as breeding!

Triclour Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus tricolor)

I’ve often wondered why they’re called soldier beetles. A bit of reading reveals that, since they were named long before the days of military camouflage, their red and black colours evoked the soldier’s uniforms of the day. They are also called leather wings due to their soft wing covers or elytra.

Plenty of other beetles are around at the moment too. Acacias sport quite a few Calomela leaf beetles.

Calomela beetle on Golden Wattle. I’m not sure about whether the attached excrement is significant.
Belid Weevil
Up close

One night recently, I came across an unusually large number of dragonflies sleeping in our front yard, hanging from various shrubs. I think they are Blue Skimmers (Orhtretum caledonicum). Not very blue at the moment as I think they have just moulted. As their skins mature, the boys will go a powdery blue colour and the girls will go brown. It’s not often that I get such cooperative dragonfly subjects!

Blue Skimmer dragonfly
In profile

Lord of the Flies – just bad press

When we read “Lord of the Flies” at school, we were taught that the term referred to the devil. It turns out that both adolescent male humans and flies were given some bad press by William Golding. Journalist Rutger Bregman discovered that when a bunch of schoolboys were indeed stranded on a deserted island in the Pacific during the 1960s, they organised a very functional and caring little society that helped them all survive until they were rescued. And of course, flies far from being repulsive representatives of unadulterated evil, are providers of essential ecosystem services and can be very beautiful.

During last Monday’s heat, lots of flies of all sizes sheltered on our back porch. The largest looked to be about 20 mm long and were very reluctant to have their photos taken. Truly Lords (or Ladies) of the Flies I thought. There were quite a few beautifully marked flies, well bristled and still quite large at about 15 mm long. And these were very sedate – easily encouraged from the decking onto a leaf for relocation and portraiture on the way.

Not quite the Lord of the flies, but still impressive.

The very helpful site Insects of Tasmania unlocked the identity of this splendid dipteran for me – a Golden Tachinid Fly (Microtropesa sinuata). Whilst it’s hard to pin down much information about this species, Tachinid flies occur across the world and are mostly parasitoids. Unlike a parasite which lives with or in a host without killing it, a parasitoid will end the life of its hapless host. Tachinid flies lay eggs on or in hosts, mostly caterpillars. Pretty grim perhaps, even evocative of Golding’s Satanic vision. But they are essential components of ecosystems, preventing herbivorous caterpillars from decimating vegetation. Adults will usually have an important role as pollinators.

Golden Tachinid Fly – a particular kind of beauty
And in profile…

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how one particularly prolific Hardenbergia in our yard is a haven for invertebrates by day and night. Currently quite a few Garden Mantis nymphs (Orthodera sp.) patrol it. They often leap onto my hand or camera as I try to get shots of them. They will then taste their forelegs with the palps around their mouths to work out what I am.

Garden Mantis using palps to check me out
And then having a good look.

In some years, we’ve had an abundance of tiny Spiny-legged Leafhopper nymphs on eucalypt leaves. This year I’ve seen very few. Whilst they don’t run away, they can be hard to get a good photo of as their main defence is to turn their spiky tails towards any perceived threat. I eventually got a photo of one from the front end. I know it’s not what’s going on, but it’s hard not to see this little cutie as having a very big smile.

Spiny-legged Leafhopper nymph

I’m always pleased to find Red Velvet Mites in our bush and mostly they are scrambling around the leaf litter and hard to get a good view of. I found one recently on an old grass flower stalk. Again, very cute.

Red Velvet Mite