Frogs on the menu

While this is not exactly the famous kingfisher shot that many nature photographers crave, it might be the best I ever get!

This Sacred Kingfisher has been coming in to a nice perch above a small bush dam on South German Track … a perfect vantage point from which to spy a frog for its nestlings. The images below are in sequence … moments after I took the first shot the kingfisher swallowed the frog and then plunged in after another.

While I’m pretty confident on the bird ID I’d be happy for any suggestions specific to the unlucky amphibian!

Sacred Kingfisher with amphibian prey, South German Track, 2nd January 2020

Another sortie #1

No success this time!

A good sign … and a puzzle

Yesterday afternoon I walked in the Mia Mia … hoping to get a drenching from the promised thunderstorms.

The rain stayed away, but thankfully we received 20mm overnight.

The good sign was a juvenile Red-capped Robin, found in the Rough Wattle to the west of Mia Mia Track and in the company of Buff-rumped Thornbills and Superb Fairy-wrens. Juvenile robins, like quite a number of the songbirds, are distinguished by blotchy patterning that serves as excellent camouflage. Young ‘red-caps’ are much paler, smaller and slimmer than juvenile Scarlet Robins which breed regularly in this area but then appear to depart over summer.

Nearby I spotted an adult male Red-capped Robin … with a couple of puzzling features, firstly the gape colour (yellow rather than black at the base) and also the general appearance of the head feathers (quite pale ear-coverts and light brown overall rather than the usual jet black).

Immature male Red-capped Robins resemble the female (see here), often with a reddish wash across the breast – young birds are known to breed in this plumage.  The adult male pictured here is, I think, more likely to be an older bird (some adults retain a pale gape) showing signs of feather wear and possibly moulting into fresh plumage.

Juvenile Red-capped Robin, Mia Mia Track, 2nd January 2020

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Red-capped Robin (male), Mia Mia Track, 2nd January 2020

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List: Crested Bellbird, Brown-headed Honeyeater, Fuscous Honeyeater, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Striated Thornbill, Weebill, Peaceful Dove.

Hollows make a home …

… for a myriad of native wildlife.

A pair of Sacred Kingfishers is currently occupying this fine hollow in a veteran River Red-gum. The lack of ‘whitewash’ around the entrance indicates that the eggs are yet to hatch, or at least they may have just done so. As the nestlings grow the adults perch at the entrance to deliver food and leave a tell-tale trail of excreta below the opening.

As I sat, entranced by the kingfishers, a small bird caught my eye as it fluttered, like a large moth, to perch beside another hollow above me. It was an Australian Owlet-nightjar (often confusingly referred to as the moth-owl … it is neither a moth or an owl!). It must have been sitting quietly nearby observing me before deciding to decamp to its roosting hollow for the day.

I was intrigued to notice the projections at the end of the rictal bristles around the face of of the owlet. I’ve never noticed these before but suspect they are a type of filoplume. The bristles are thought to aid the nocturnal navigation of the owlet as it hunts for insects in its favoured habitats – woodlands and forest. The plume-like projections looked very delicate and perhaps they only persist for a short time on the newly replaced bristles?

Australian Owlet-nightjar, Loddon River @ Newstead, 30th December 2020

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Sacred Kingfisher @ nest site in River Red-gum

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Face to face with ferals

I’ve had two feral encounters in recent days.

First, with a Red Fox cub in Providence Gully. It loped across the road in front of the car and then its curiosity allowed me to capture a couple of hasty images before it trotted off. An adult fox would not have allowed such an opportunity. Red Foxes are significant pests, preying mainly on rabbits but also on native fauna including possums, gliders, dasyurids such as antechinus, as well as ground dwelling birds. I see them regularly during my rambles.

Red Fox cub, Providence Gully, 30th December 2020

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The second observation was that of a House Cat, most likely of the feral persuasion – this time deceased!

The skull, lacking the lower mandible, was found in an area that is important for White-throated Nightjars. This ground nesting bird is a regular migrant to the Muckleford bush and would be vulnerable to cat predation. While cats feed mainly on mammals – like the Red Fox rabbits are a major part of their diet – they also take Sugar and Feather-tailed Gliders and birds. I very rarely see feral cats in the bush, although I’m sure they see me regularly.

Cat skull, Mia Mia Track area, 30th December 2020

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A perilous time to be a woodswallow

In a summer notable for the almost complete absence (so far) of White-browed and Masked Woodswallows, Dusky Woodswallows are more than compensating.

‘Duskies’ commenced nesting in mid-November, usually the time when their migratory cousins appear in large numbers throughout the box-ironbark country. The first youngsters are now facing a perilous period post-fledging – it takes them a week or so to become capable aerialists and during this time they perch, often noisily, waiting for their parents to arrive with food. Surely many are ‘picked off’ by predators, such as currawongs, kookaburras and raptors, as nature takes its course.

This group of four was observed earlier in the week along Sullivans Track in the Muckleford bush. The adults were arriving with food every few minutes – cicadas, wasps and bees, captured on aerial sorties high above or taken from the ground nearby. Initially three of the four were huddled close together but over a period of thirty minutes or so they became separated as each youngster made short, faltering flights to test its newly acquired powers.

Dusky Woodswallows are partially migratory in my experience. The majority of birds have left the district by late autumn, but I have seen the species in all months – either small numbers are resident or these may be birds from further south spending the winter in warmer climes. Dusky Woodswallows are the only woodswallow to include Tasmania as part of their normal range.

Juvenile Dusky Woodswallows, Sullivans Track, Muckleford State Forest, 29th December 2020

Juvenile Dusky Woodswallows have distinctive blotchy plumage to provide some camouflage during a vulnerable part of their life-cycle

Adult arriving with cicada prey

The appearance of the adults nearby elicits a frantic burst of wing fluttering from the juvenile 

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Wing and tail stretching by the juveniles was observed regularly – this aids the rapid development of their flight feathers.

… another cicada!

A Sheoak mystery and a lifelong impression from the “How & Why Wonder Book of Insects”

We were very curious about what appeared to be some strange looking seed pods on a Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata) on our place at Strangways.

These don’t look like the usual seed cases on a Sheoak.

Closer inspection revealed something that certainly looked like some type of fruit, but not from a Sheoak.

The plot thickens.

We decided to explore this mystery in the most effective way we know for dealing with any botanical question. We asked Frances Cincotta of course. She said it’s an insect gall made by a scale bug called Cylindrococcus spiniferus and pointed us to a Wikipedia page on it. The wingless female of this species stimulates the Sheoak to grow the gall around her and it seems her eggs are fertilised by the male through the gall. There is a photo of the inside of the gall by John Tann at https://www.flickr.com/photos/31031835@N08/15965777418/ I decided not to pull apart a gall for a photo as I don’t want to unnecessarily kill the insect.

On a different tack, I was very pleased to get some photos of an adult Ant Lion (genus Myrmeleon) hanging onto an old grass flower stalk in our front yard the other night.

Adult Ant Lion
Ant Lion

Ant Lions are related to Lacewings and belong to the same order Neuroptera (neuro – veined, ptera – wing). As a child in the mid 1960s, I was handed down my brother’s copy of the “How and Why Wonder Book of Insects” and was fascinated to read about Ant Lions. The book explained the tiny cones sunk into the dust in the bush around our places as being made by Ant Lion larvae which use them to trap ants, which they then grab with their large pincers and devour. I would gently blow away the cone and see the tiny predator exposed. And as a curious and somewhat un-empathetic child, I’d encourage an ant to fall in and watch the Ant Lion flick the dust over the struggling ant so it would slide to the bottom of the pit. Then the Ant Lion would seize it and drag it under the dust.

Ant Lion trap, March 2019
Ant Lion larva Nov 2014

I have rarely seen adults, so I was very pleased that this specimen was not in a hurry to leave and would even hang around for some close ups.

Up close
An intimate portrait.

Ninox connivens

The Newstead district is home to a number of pairs of Barking Owls Ninox connivens.

I was very fortunate to be able to visit a local site yesterday where one pair has taken up residence. We have three Ninox owls locally – the largest is the Powerful Owl and smallest the Southern Boobook. The Barking Owl is intermediate in size but its habits are more akin to the Powerful Owl, feeding on mid-sized mammals such as Sugar Gliders and rabbits. They have been locally reported on a regular basis in recent times, possibly the result of folks being more alert to their presence, especially their signature woof-woof calls.

The birds usually perch close together during daylight hours, choosing dark canopied trees, often along drainage lines. Roost sites are easily recognised by the collection of whitewash and ejected pellets, containing the minced up remains of their victims.

Barking Owl, Newstead area, 27th December 2020

Barking Owl pellet – a mixture of beetle exoskeleton, bones and fur

Excreta (whitewash) under the roost site

Barking Owl in River Red-gum

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Lace Monitor in Newstead

by Frances Cincotta

This terrific article reports on the recent local sighting of a Lace Monitor by Newstead local Darryl O’Bryan.

When I came along the road a 2m long Lace Monitor (Tree Goanna) Varanus varius darted across in front of my car and ran up a Grey Box where it is was well-camouflaged. In my 40+ years in Newstead it’s only the second sighting of this species. Good info on them is available in “Frogs and Reptiles of the Bendigo District” available from Newstead Natives Nursery.

According to Darryl … the previous time was possibly in the late seventies I think. This time I noticed quite a lot of bird disturbance and have since observed what may be a magpie nest destroyed in the vicinity.

Varanus varius, Newstead, 3rd December 2020

Footnote from Geoff Park – This species has always eluded me in the Newstead district. I’ve had a few reports over the years of both this species and also the Sand Goanna Varanus gouldii but have never been fortunate enough to encounter one in the flesh.

Postscript: Many thanks to respondents for their comments on this post. As suspected both V.varius and V.gouldii are ‘about’ locally … you just have to be in the right place at the right time!

Xmas feast

Xmas in Newstead is Musk Lorikeets raiding the backyard plums … Rainbow Bee-eaters feasting on a variety of flying insects for their nestlings.

Musk Lorikeet, Wyndham Street Newstead, 25th December 2020

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Rainbow Bee-eaters @ Newstead Cemetery

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Xmas Eve by the pool

The wait was rewarded … a single Fuscous Honeyeater in the first forty minutes, then a succession of nice birds after that.

A flock of ~100 Straw-necked Ibises over Strangways on the trip home and then a Pied Currawong calling when I arrived … most unusual.

Fuscous Honeyeaters, Rise & Shine Bushland Reserve, 24th December 2020

Eastern Rosella (imm.)

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Dusky Woodswallow

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Straw-necked Ibis over Strangways