We have a number of local families of Superb Fairy-wrens.
Living in small family groups of 4-5 birds the numbers seem pretty healthy and they are obviously breeding successfully among the dense garden shrubs around home and next door.
Gordon, our eagle-eyed neighbour, has a good track record of finding the odd nest as he spends some quality time in the garden. The nest pictured below was in a typical site, hidden in a low shrub with nearby cover offering a number of secret pathways for the parents (and helpers) to safely use on their visits.
Interestingly one of the nearby shrubs is a yellow daisy – adult male Superb Fairy-wrens are renowned for courting females with yellow petals plucked from flowers such as this.
Female Superb Fairy-wren, Wyndham Street Newstead, 27th October 2019
The carefully hidden nest – with three eggs
With so much activity in the bush and on the plains at present I turned my attention to Cairn Curran reservoir mid-week.
Notably large numbers (~100) of Australian Pelicans are gathered at the eastern end of the storage, indicating that carp and perhaps some native fish are in abundance. A small party of around a dozen Whiskered Terns were alternating between perches on the dead River Red-gums out in the lake and hunting forays over open water. The storage level is stable at present so there is little exposed mud-flat for waders. Only a few Black-fronted Dotterels were seen, some adult aggression a sign that breeding is soon to commence.
Australian Pelicans and Black Swans, Cairn Curran Reservoir, 23rd October 2019
Whiskered Tern in breeding fettle
Other birds noted: Black Swans (100+ with a couple of active nests and numerous cygnets seen in the distance), Australasian Darter, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Chestnut-breasted Shelduck, Black Duck, Grey Teal, Masked Lapwing.
Woodswallows deserve special attention at this time of the year.
I paid another visit to the Mia Mia yesterday – this time the male White-browed Woodswallow was incubating on the nest found the day before. Both sexes share nest-building and incubation in this species.
Nearby, two pairs of Dusky Woodswallows were starting their courtship. This involves short display flights around the area where nest building will soon commence, followed by perching close together and mutual preening. This species typically starts breeding a little later in the season.
White-browed Woodswallow – male incubating, Mia Mia Track area, 19th October 2019
White-browed Woodswallow – nest and eggs
Male White-browed Woodswallow with prey, Newstead Cemetery, 15th October 2019
Dusky Woodswallows, Mia Mia Track area, 19th October 2019
Birds, like all animals, have evolved a variety of strategies to maximise breeding success.
One of those strategies, exhibited by species such as White-browed Woodswallow, is to nest in loose colonies, in places where suitable sites are abundant. Typically this species will choose a small vertical tree stump or a fence post on which to build its rudimentary stick nest. While these sites are exposed and easily accessed by predators, such as the Yellow-footed Antechinus (pictured below), the strategy seems to be successful. This year terrific numbers (along with Masked Woodswallows) have migrated to central Victoria to breed once again.
How do they beat the odds?
Well, the presence of numerous breeding pairs in a small area means that as a group they are alert to the arrival of predators and will react quickly to any sign of danger by leaving their nests to commence a chorus of chattering calls to distract the intruder. While some nests are certainly predated, enough eggs hatch and progress to fledging to ensure the survival of the species. The incubation period is short, perhaps 14-16 days, whilst the time to fledging is a further three weeks, short enough it seems to enable sufficient birds to sustain the next generation.
White-browed Woodswallow (female), Mia Mia Track area, 18th October 2019
As I photographed the woodswallow a Yellow-footed Antechinus was hunting nearby. I wondered if the site the birds had chosen – a short, broken stump in an open space in the forest was another element of the strategy. The Yellow-footed Antechinus will readily devour birds eggs and nestlings but they can be reluctant to move more than a few metres from cover when hunting. Reaching the woodswallow nest would have involved a trek of twenty metres or more from cover, perhaps too far for the antechinus to roam in search of a meal?
Each year small colonies of Fairy Martins establish nesting sites around Newstead. These dainty acrobats, also known as ‘Bottle Swallows’, make distinctive, bottle-shaped nests of mud in suitable locations, such as road culverts and under bridges. They behave much like Welcome Swallows but are easily separated by their pale, rufous head plumage and a tail with only a shallow notch, as opposed to the deeply forked tail of the swallow. I watched a small flock early in the week at the Newstead Cemetery collecting soil and grass for the nests they are starting to build.
The Fairy Martin has a close relative that also appears locally at this time of year, but in smaller numbers. The Tree Martin is a virtual facsimile of the Fairy Martin – the key difference is that the head plumage of the Tree Martin is almost all blue-black with a small rufous patch on the forehead. Tree Martins make a nest much like a Welcome Swallow, a cup shaped structure of mud, lined with grass and feathers. Unlike the Fairy Martin they prefer to nest in tree hollows. Both species of martin are spring breeding migrants to the district, whereas the Welcome Swallow is resident.
Fairy Martin, Newstead Cemetery, 15th October 2019
Amongst the chattering chorus of woodswallows, at present in their hundreds at the Rise and Shine, it would be easy to overlook some of the less vocal species.
I did, however, at the weekend pick up the mournful descending call of a number of Black-eared Cuckoos – like both White-browed and Masked Woodswallows this species is a spring migrant from the north.
In the same genus, Chalcites, as both the Shining Bronze-cuckoo and Horsfield’s Bronze -cuckoo, the Black-eared Cuckoo is less strikingly marked and also less common in the Newstead district. Like its relatives it has a fondness for caterpillars and as these images show plays a key role in regulating the numbers of cup-moths whose caterpillars can be responsible for large-scale defoliation of eucalypts in the box-ironbark ecosystem. Black-eared Cuckoos tend to arrive a little later in the season than the other local cuckoos and are most often observed during October and November, coinciding with the peak breeding activity of their hosts, such as the Speckled Warbler.
Black-eared Cuckoo with Cup-moth caterpillar, Rise and Shine, 12th October 2019
Note the trace of metallic sheen at the base of the wing coverts
We’ve just returned from a month-long expedition in search of flamingos in the northern hemishpere … well, not quite, but we did see Greater Flamingos in the Algarve!
I was delighted to receive a number of updates from home while we were away, especially to hear that White-browed and Masked Woodswallows had arrived in good numbers in early October.
I ventured out to the Rise and Shine yesterday afternoon and was pleased to see hundreds of the birds in residence. I also managed to find one pair of White-browed Woodswallows with a nest, the female apparently incubating. These birds can be a a touch enigmatic and will often desert their nests if conditions aren’t suitable. Fingers crossed for some nice spring rain later this week to encourage them to to stay.
White-browed Woodswallow (male), Rise and Shine, 12th October 2019
White-Browed Woodswallow (female)
Female White-browed Woodswallow courtship preening the male
Th female beside the nest – hidden amongst the foliage of a Long-leaved Box
List: White-browed Woodswallow, Masked Woodswallow, Black-eared Cuckoo, Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoo, Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Mistletoebird, Black-chinned Honeyeater, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, Fuscous Honeyeater.