Category Archives: The Home Garden

Kookaburra action

Laughing Kookaburras are regular visitors to our plot – it’s not unusual to have a party of three or four pay a short visit, perching in the tall eucalypts, as they survey their surroundings for a meal.

Last Saturday morning an absolute cacophony erupted from high up in one of the Yellow Gums out back. There were four birds, with two of the four making repeated forays to a hollow (pictured below).

I suspect they were just ‘playing’ as part of a warm up routine for the upcoming breeding season. After a series of excited visits to the hollow they departed, perhaps in search of a more suitable site.

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Laughing Kookaburras, Newstead, 18th June 2022

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Those confounding accipiters

Accipiter is the genus name for the group of birds commonly known as goshawks.

Locally we have two species, the Collared Sparrowhawk Accipiter cirrocephalus and the Brown Goshawk Accipiter fasciatus. A third species, the Grey Goshawk is a rare visitor to the district … I’ve observed it locally once, in forty years.

Over the years I’ve posted regularly about both the Collared Sparrowhawk and the Brown Goshawk, in particular the identification challenges they pose. For a sample click here and here.

In summary, here are the features on which to base an identification:

  • Tail shape – Brown Goshawk has a rounded tail, square in the Collared Sparrowhawk
  • Legs and middle toe – Collared Sparrowhawk has a elongated middle toe and finer legs
  • Cere (the waxy, fleshy covering between the upper bill and forehead feathers) – Collared Sparrowhawk has pale-blue in front of the cere, in the Brown Goshawk it is dull-yellow
  • Brow – Brown Goshawk has more prominent brow ridges, resulting in a frowning expression while the Collared Sparrowhawk appears to stare

On this basis the bird pictured below is an adult Brown Goshawk, most likely a male. The females of both species are much larger than the males, with the female Collared Sparrowhawk of similar size and build to the male Brown Goshawk. The adult and juvenile/immature plumages in both species are essentially the same, apart from the fact that the Collared Sparrowhawk moults directly from juvenile to adult plumage, skipping a distinct immature phase.

This particular individual was based through the garden by some Red Wattlebirds, alighting briefly in a large eucalyptus before departing.

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Brown Goshawk, Newstead, 27th May 2022

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A home garden experiment

Some years ago I began experimenting with planting a number of non-local, indigenous plants in our home garden.

My choice of species was influenced by many years of traversing the landscapes of northern Victoria and admiration for some of the native plants, especially wattles, that characterise these places in the zone between home and the Murray River. This includes species such as Eumong Acacia stenophylla, Willow Wattle A.salicina, Yarran A.omalophylla, Black Box Eucalyptus largiflorens, and a number of others that I began planting around a decade ago.

Most of these plants have now established and thrived, with little or no attention. It represents my small effort to plan and plant for a future climate, one in which central Victoria will be hotter and drier than we have become accustomed to. At the same time I haven’t neglected some of the hardy local indigenous plants – Silver Banksia Banksia marginata, Lightwood A.implexa, Drooping Sheoak Allocasuarina verticillata and Buloke A.luehmannii, all of which are doing well in a changing climate.

Importantly, but hardly surprising, is that our local native birds are attracted to these plantings. A few minutes ago I took a break from the computer for a stroll through the garden … Spotted and Striated Pardalotes, Red-browed Finch, Silvereye, Grey Fantail, New Holland Honeyeater, Eastern Spinebill … all in and around some of these exotic new plantings as well as the local natives.

Home gardens can provide significant habitat for wildlife, in addition to a multitude of other benefits. Over time I predict we’ll start to increasingly see the use of some of these ‘dry country’ species in home gardens.

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Eumong Acacia stenophylla seed pods and foliage

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Lightwood Acacia implexa bark

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Silver Banksia Banksia marginata foliage

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Spotted Pardalote (male) in Eumong

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Male in a Silver Banksia

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… in a Willow Wattle

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Spotted Pardalote (female) in Silver Banksia

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Willow wattle flowers and foliage

Stacks on …

At this time of year the song of Mistletoebirds is regularly heard. Yellow Gums, replete with ripening fruit are a magnet for the adults as they ferry the succulent offerings to hungry mouths.

The Mistletoebird nest is a thing of beauty, stitched together from cobwebs, grass, spent flowers and other plant material, the purse-like structure is suspended from a narrow twig … this time in a lilac bush. In town it seems Mistletoebirds often select an exotic shrub to locate their nest. In the surrounding bushland coppice eucalypts are a favoured choice.

Both parents bring fruit to the nestlings, with visits only a few minutes apart – dozens of berries are required every hour when a family of four is raised.

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Mistletoebirds x 4, Newstead, 13th November 2021

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Female Mistletoebird at the nest

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Male Mistletoebird

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Acanthiza nana

Instalment #3 on the identification guide to central Victorian thornbills. Today it’s the turn of the Yellow Thornbill Acanthiza nana.

This species is arguably the most nondescript of our local thornbills, the lack of distinctive markings are what makes it relatively easy to identify.

In my view there are two handy spotting characters, firstly the boldly streaked ear-coverts – a feature  shared with the Striated Thornbill, and secondly the russet wash on the throat and chin. This latter feature renders an overall ‘golden’ hue to the bird and is unique to this species of thornbill. It is the lack of streaking on the crown and breast that sets A. nana apart from both the Striated Thornbill and the Brown Thornbill.

A close-up look reveals that the iris is actually olive coloured – it tends to be described as dark in the field guides. The second image also shows off the black sub-terminal band on the tail – quite narrow in this species, but a more or less obvious feature of all the thornbills.

Yellow Thornbills tend to be canopy feeders, although this can include foraging in low shrubs – the third image below shows a Yellow Thornbill feeding in planted saltbush in our garden. While I often encounter them in box-ironbark woodlands they can also be found in scattered remnants on the Moolort Plains, as well as our home garden where they appear to be resident.

I have difficulty separating the Striated and Yellow Thornbill on the basis of calls but that is largely due to my own incompetence … check a good field guide for a description of voice!

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Yellow Thornbill, Wyndham Street Newstead, 13th June 2021

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Tis a curious bird the currawong

Pied Currawongs are clever and curious birds.

This one was photographed this morning at the bird bath. Initially I was puzzled as to why it would be attempting to pierce the ice-crust that had formed overnight (it was ‘feels like’ minus 5C).

Then I noticed the shape on the surface of the ice – a currawong pellet, regurgitated by a previous visitor I would assume.

Pied Currawongs are omnivores, feeding on seeds, fruits, insects and small vertebrates when they can get them. In the town gardens over winter there is a wide variety of suitable tucker. The pellets are ejected a short time after feeding, often within 30 minutes or so and contain the hard remains of the recent meal. Beetle wing-cases and sometimes small bones can be found mixed in with plant material.

You may have noticed and wondered about these objects appearing in the garden at this time of year.

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Pied Currawong @ the bird bath, 5th June 2021

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Pied Currawong pellet

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Here we go again …

To some folks, currawongs are a bird of evil intent … not for me.

They are curious, alert and adaptable birds that have an ill-deserved reputation on account of some aspects of how they ‘make a living’ … preying on small native songbirds for example.

Every autumn, flocks of Pied Currawongs arrive in Newstead, on migration from higher altitudes along the Great Dividing Range. Each year the numbers seem to increase and in fact this year I was even hearing the occasional bird over summer. Their beautiful calls are very different to that of our resident and mainly solitary Grey Currawong.

Home gardens are a favourite for the species, with winter fruiting shrubs such as this privet a favourite food source. Yesterday afternoon more than a dozen Pied Currawongs were gathered at any one time to feast on the berries. No doubt they are responsible fo spreading the seeds of this exotic but locally this doesn’t seem to be causing a problem.

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Pied Currawong, Newstead, 27th May 2021

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Easily overlooked

The Southern Whiteface is a species that has featured occasionally on the blog over the years.

While it’s a distinctive bird, it can be easily overlooked, as I experienced again yesterday afternoon.

A few weeks ago one ventured into our garden but I was too slow with the camera to document the sighting. It’s the first time I can recall seeing one in ‘Newstead Central’, although it can be found reliably at the Newstead Cemetery and a few other locals spots. I’ve oft thought that it is one species that may be suffering a local decline.

Yesterday, an hour before dusk, I was strolling on the block below the house, watching a small flock of Yellow-rumped Thornbills, living up to their colloquial moniker of ‘butter-bums’. A number of other birds of similar size and hue were feeding with them and it took a moment to register the fact that they were lacking in the yellow rump ‘department’.

What a delight to to see a small flock of Southern Whiteface in the centre of town.

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Southern Whiteface, Wyndham Street Newstead, 2nd May 2021

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Residents and visitors

Mistletoebirds are with us year round. Extensive areas of Yellow Gum around town are replete with mistletoe and the birds breed happily from early spring into the autumn, feasting on the ripening berries and then feeding the fruits to their youngsters. From time to time they’ll visit one of the bird baths – the immature male pictured below was in the company of a female. The young males have a pale gape and traces of the bright red adult plumage on the breast.

Silvereyes on the other hand are more complicated. This species can be observed throughout the year but not always the same population of birds. A confusing array of subspecies have been described from across Australia and beyond. Buff-flanked birds, like the one pictured in the first two images below, are generally regarded as belonging to the Tasmanian sub-species lateralis, which migrates to the mainland in autumn. This seems to be an early arrival.

Silvereye, Wyndham Street Newstead, 8th March 2021

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Mistletoebird (immature male), 7th March 2021

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Trust me …

… this pale smudge is a Grey Goshawk (white morph), an exciting observation for Newstead.

Earlier this morning I glanced up from the garden and spotted a white shape, soaring in tight circles, pursued by two ravens. It took a moment to register that this wasn’t a corella or cockatoo … then I raced back inside for the camera. By this time the bird was rapidly becoming a speck as it drifted north towards Welshmans Reef.

The images below are no better than record shots, but the identification is 100% certain.

Grey Goshawks are rarely observed away from their stronghold, the wetter coastal forests in areas such as the Otways. There have been a number of local records over the years, with three observations in the Mia Mia (1/12/1999, 1/1/2000 and 1/4/2002). For me though this is a local first.

The Grey Goshawk comes in two distinct colour morphs, grey or white, with the white morph more common in southern Australia. In Tasmania, where the species is relatively common, all birds are white morphs.

Grey Goshawk, Newstead, 14th February 2021

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