Category Archives: Spring Hill and the Mia Mia

Long time, no see

Almost a decade ago the local Connecting Country program identified a suite of woodland birds, known as the ‘feathered five’, as a focus for conservation actions across Mount Alexander Shire.

The five species selected were Jacky Winter, Hooded Robin, Brown Treecreeper, Diamond Firetail and Painted Button-quail. The ‘feathered five’ were chosen as they have all been declining in number and range in recent years, and are listed as threatened, along with a number of other bird species, in a group known as the Temperate Woodland Bird Community. Furthermore, each species is:

  • easily identified
  • reasonably wide spread across the Mount Alexander region
  • a ground foraging bird  and very susceptible to the pressures that are causing woodland birds to decline.

While four of the five species on this list can be readily found in various local spots, the Painted Button-quail has proven to be extremely elusive in recent years. In fact, I haven’t observed them around Newstead in the last four years – the period immediately following the breaking of the Millenium Drought in 2010-11 is the last time I can recall seeing them in reasonable numbers.

What a delight then to come across a single female in the Mia Mia earlier this week. After having almost stepped on the bird it scurried quickly away as I froze in surprise and then stood transfixed for ten minutes or so as it alternated between careful foraging and sitting to bathe in the late afternoon sunshine. The behaviour of this female suggests it may have a nest nearby, or at least be thinking about breeding.

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Painted Button-quail, Mia Mia Track, 11th October 2021

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Painted Button-quail are often detected by the presence of platelets, saucer-shaped depressions created by the birds turning in a circle as they forage in leaf litter. There were a number of platelets to be found in the vicinity of where I spotted the female button-quail.

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Painted Button-quail platelet

Orioles in the Mia Mia

Olive-backed Orioles are back in force for spring breeding.

I recently came across a nesting pair in the gully line alongside Mia Mia Track. This area is a favourite breeding ground for the species, with this nest in a typical site.

The raggedy cup-shaped nest has been suspended amongst the foliage of a Grey Box sapling, about 3 metres above the ground.

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Olive-backed Oriole, Mia Mia Track, 23rd September 2021

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The nest is a deep, cup-shaped structure …

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… suspended in a Grey Box sapling

A good year …

The local bush is oblivious to the pandemic.

With abundant winter and early spring rain there is a riot of colour at present, dominated by flowering wattles – especially Rough Wattle Acacia aspera.

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A riot of colour, Mia Mia Track, 5th September 2021

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Rough Wattle

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Downy Grevillea

The highlight of this walk was a flock of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, perhaps a dozen or so, moving in a loose party through the canopy and feasting on caterpillars. A number were observed with large, green larvae that they had captured. They would bash the larvae on branch before consuming them in a series of gulps. I’m not able to positively identify the larvae but they most likely belong to the family Saturniidae, of which the Emperor Gum Moth is a well known member. Moths in this family often pupate for more than a year, emerging when conditions are suitable.

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Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike with Emperor Gum Moth caterpillar

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… mournful trilling

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Fan-tailed Cuckoo with caterpillar

The chance effect

A wonderful aspect of birding is the unpredictable nature of it all.

I often start a ramble with a reasonable idea of which species I might see, as well as a small list of birds that I hope to encounter. Every trip is different.

Last weekend in the Mia Mia I was on the lookout for cuckoos, especially Pallid Cuckoos, spotted earlier in the week along Bruce’s Track – my first sightings for the season.

While there was no sign of Pallids, other cuckoos were calling – Fan-tailed, Shining Bronze and Horsfield’s Bronze. This Fan-tailed Cuckoo was observed moving surreptitiously through the understory … perhaps in search of caterpillars but possibly also looking for an opportunity to deposit an egg in the nest of a host … such as a Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. As I approached the cuckoo two heathwrens scuttled from a patch of nearby Gold-dust Wattle. Their subsequent behaviour, perching to view the intruders and some gentle contact calling suggest we were both on their breeding ground.

Click here for a terrific local story about the association between these two species. Heathwrens are difficult birds to find and photograph, so to capture one feeding a cuckoo is a great feat.

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Fan-tailed Cuckoo, South German Track, 28th August 2021

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Chestnut-rumped Heathwren

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Starting to move

The arrival of Olive-backed Orioles usually marks the appearance of warmer spring weather around Newstead. I heard my first for the season, near South German Track, on Saturday.

The brilliant red iris of the adult oriole is a striking feature, contrasting with the plumage which can make this species hard to see amongst the foliage as it searches for caterpillars and other insect prey. Olive-backed Orioles are an interesting bird. They spend most of the year with us, departing when the last of the autumn fruits are done. I last spotted one in early May, feasting on figs near the Loddon River. I’ve no real idea of where they go over the cooler months – there are a few isolated local reports during June/July but the main influx of birds occurs in September. At this time they are quite vocal and I suspect more birds over-winter than we realise – remaining silent and therefore easily missed.

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Olive-backed Oriole, South German Track, 21st August 2021

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Mistletoebird (male), Mia Mia Track

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Little Pied Cormorant, Bell’s Lane Track

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Balancing act

Like many small woodland birds, Striated Thornbills can be incredibly acrobatic in their search for food.

The individual pictured below was spotted gleaning insects from the foliage of White Box Eucalyptus albens. In the first three images you may just be able to make out, near the thornbill’s tarsi, some white web-like material. This is a remnant of a psyllid casing.

Thornbills are one of a host of woodland insectivores that forage assiduously on this material, which is known as lerp. Lerp is a crystalline honeydew that psyllid insects produce in abundance throughout eucalypt woodlands and forests. The sugary casing acts as a form of protection for the soft-bodied pysllids, however, there is some complexity going on here with the casing a clear attractor for avian foragers.

Two other insectivores were also about in the company of the thornbills, an immature Golden Whistler (note the rich brown in the secondary flight feathers) and a splendid male Rose Robin. Both of these are cool-season migrants that will move south to breed in a week or two, although a few Golden Whistlers do breed locally in some years.

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Striated Thornbill gleaning insects from White Box foliage, Muckleford State Forest, 8th August 2021

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Rose Robin (male)

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Golden Whistler

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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.