Fly in, fly out

The first asparagus is up.  The greenflies are sucking the life out of the few broad beans plants that survived the gnashers of the garden’s winter visitors.  The bowerbirds are brutalising the new growth on the liquidambar, in a jaunty colourised style that makes me think we have a flock of Calamity Janes in the canopy.  Spring is here!

But what about the spring birds?  I haven’t heard the first koel of the season, but the channel billed cuckoos have squawked their way into our dreams.  And in the last week, a new rolling trill in the trees: the olive backed orioles have returned.  We rarely see them around here, but according to Michael Moorcroft’s “Birds of Australia” as “common”.  The emergent twitcher in me sighs.

I met a charming French skin specialist once, and asked her why she moved to Sydney.  “We have melanoma in France of course” she said “But really, if you are interested in skin cancer, Australia is the place to be”.

On the other hand, if you long for the sight of that first feathered visitor arriving from a epic transcontinental journey, you’re better off in the Northern hemisphere.  All the ocean in the southern half of the globe, moderating seasonal temperatures; barriers of forest and ocean; a less icy past; uncertain rainfall and an often arid climate; and (somewhat unconvincingly) weirdly, lots of  “V” shaped continents; all reasons I’ve come across to explain why we have so few migrating birds around here (Someille et al 2013; Dingle 2008).

Back home, two thirds of my French oncologist’s local birdlife would be part time residents.  But in Sydney, it’s maybe one in five.  In the outback there are nomads, roaming around trying to find things to eat in an arid landscape, but there are hardly any regular migrants at all.

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Tasmanian silvereye mid-migration, Zosterops lateralis lateralis

What we do have lots of in Australia are “partial migrants”.  Somewhere between a third and a half of bird species have some sedentary individuals while others take off in the colder weather (Chan, 2001).  Most silvereyes, for instance, stay put, but many Tassie birds – chunky numbers with chestnut sides, like the one above – fly across the Bass Strait in winter, possibly island-hopping as they make their way to Victoria, NSW and Queensland.  On my way to work the other day, I was was befuddled by the strange appearance of a crew of migrants – on their way home, perhaps – milling around happily in the company a bunch of plain-brand silvereyes.

Hard working bird lovers have been tagging silvereyes for 30 years (Chan, 2001), so we know what these guys are up to.  But in general, partial migrants are tricky customers – figuring which of the identical birds you see are interstate visitor and which are locals is mostly pretty hard to do.

After reading a bit about research on bird internal navigation systems, I’m starting to think this kind of deviousness may be payback.

One set of experiments involved keeping captive birds and observing what corner of their cage they batter themselves against, driven by migration-restlessness or Zugunruhe (one of those cool German words for which there is no English equivalent).  Researchers messed with the heads of these captive birds, using mirrors to shift the apparent direction of the sun so they could see what new quadrant of their cage they try to escape through.  Other experiments placed caged birds inside a magnetic coil to warp their sense of direction – a research activity truly worth of evil genius from X-Men. Although I do find the thought of a bunch of 1940s songbirds flooding into a planetarium – another early experiment – quite charming (Burton 1992).

 

dawn-moon-best-tight-crop

If you do see a trans-continental migrant in Australia, it will probably be a shorebird.  About 35 beach loving species migrate here (Dingle, 2008).  On a paddle up Mooney Mooney Creek last weekend, I was really happy to see one of them: an eastern curlew, its absurdly long beak mucky after joyously feasting on the mud-flat crabs off Spectacle Island.  Flying from Siberia will take it out of you. Between the bloody photographers, the houseboats and the jet skiiers, it’s not hard to see why these guys are classed as critically endangered around here.

 

 

References

Burton, Robert (1992) Bird Migration, London: Aurum Press

Chan, Ken (2001) “Partial migration in Australian landbirds: a review” Emu, 2001, 101, 281–292

Dingle, Hugh (2008) “Bird migration in the southern hemisphere:
a review comparing continents” Emu  (108), 341-59

Somveille M, Manica A, Butchart SHM, Rodrigues ASL (2013) Mapping Global Diversity Patterns for Migratory Birds. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70907. doi:10.1371/
journal.pone.0070907

A flash of gold and a stash of blue

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Season of mists and mellow tinnies: the Hawkesbury in fall

Autumn lasted for aroundabout a fortnight this year.  The endless summer of an apocalyptic El Nino wrapped up in mid-May, giving the deciduous trees an extremely tight schedule to dispense with their leaves before this weekend’s torrential rain.

We’ve had autumnal glory in the kitchen as well.  When Keats talked about the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m not sure he was thinking about bananas.  In theory our crop of tiny fragrant fruits should have been perfect for lunchboxes, but I made the mistake of describing the first-ripened one as “Geoffrey”.   After this, not only Geoffrey but all his brothers were deemed “too cute” to be eaten.

As well as the gold in the fruitbowl, there’s been plenty of gold in the trees.  The yellow-tailed black cockatoos are back in force, mewling and crunching in the radiata pines.

Yellow tail and autumn leaves horizontal

Fly by from a yellow tailed black cockatoo

And for the first time this year, I’ve noticed the migrating yellow-faced honeyeaters.  Thousands of them pass through the Blue Mountains most autumns, it seems, but this year they’ve been funnelled between the mountains and the coast, through the Hunter Valley.  I first spotted them darting through the riverside casuarinas at Karuah National Park, on our trip north, but since we’ve been back, I’ve seen flocks of them with their travelling companions, the noisy friarbirds, pouring up the Hawkesbury.  I’ve even seen them on the way to work, taking a moment out on their journey to watch the commuters boarding the morning train at Berowra Station.

But not all the autumnal excitement has been touched with gold.  Last weekend, halfway through detaining my broad beans (fencing, netting and a mulch of lavender and liquidambar – doubtless all in vain) I spotted a little collation of royal blue underneath the pomegranate tree. Nerf gun ammunition, the lid of a milk container, a peg.  Signs that we need to tidy up the yard, and a hint that randy bowerbirds might just do it for us.

 

More autumnal reflections from our backyard:

Let them eat light!

Autumn in terminal decline?

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Backyard gold

Nude trees and naughty birds

Who lives in our backyard?  How would I know? I haven’t been paying attention.

I see a flash of black and white down by the chook run and what do I think?  “Magpie”.  Humans, huh?

Yesterday, ominous thumps and crashes below the lightning-riven radiata pine had me racing to see if it had finally succumbed to a pincer movement of termites and southerlies.  But no, the demolition job was courtesy of a pied currawong, ripping the tree apart like it was a lego construction.  Well, a lego construction with integral insects.  Since in the (distant) future Lego will apparently be “sustainable”, one day this might even be a thing.

Perhaps it’s for the best that Lego’s green-washing target date is a decent decade and a half away.  Depending on how significant bark is to the structural rigidity of defunct pine trees we might need to use those infestation-proof plastic bricks – we’ve got enough of them under furniture and half buried in the garden – to rebuild our crushed house.

That’s if the currawongs are here to stay – and they might be.  Back in the day, before the ’40s, currawongs came down from the mountains to visit Sydney over the winter, but now they hang out in the big smoke all year round.  They like it down here, snacking on cute little birds and munching up the tasty berries of our attractive invasive plants.   If I want to save the roof, that monster privet the size of a redwood may have to go.

And a sighting today of another naughty black bird has cast doubt on the long-settled verdict in the Case of the Phantom Egg-Eater.

There was a stramash this morning between a crowd of brush turkeys and an crow, the latter carrying something that from a distance might appear to resembled a chicken’s egg.  I have no pictures of the actual incident but only an image extracted from the raven’s dream, in which hens’ eggs are light as a feather and easily borne in the beak for leisurely later consumption in convenient locations.

Later investigations showed that a freshly laid chook egg had indeed be devoured, but, in addition, one of the fake plastic eggs, carefully placed in the nest with to confuse and baffle hungry brush turkeys, had also vanished.

I’m not sure what this tells you about corvid intelligence but to me it suggests that ravens are optimists.  Apparently young European ravens are extremely curious.  In experiments where juvenile birds were offered “novel inedible items”, it seems, “birds never missed any potentially edible item … even with “highly cryptic objects”.”  I think it would be fair to call last year’s Easter hunt left-overs “highly cryptic objects”.  Maybe this was a young ‘un because apparently adult ravens are “neophobic”.  I’m assuming this doesn’t mean harbouring a hatred for Keanu Reeves in the Matrix sequels (though this is not an unreasonable viewpoint), but rather preferring actual foodstuffs to eccentric plastic replicas.

Where does the arrival of this new mob of razor sharp egg-robbers leave our prospects of our home-grown protein?  I can almost certainly outwit a brush turkey, but the socially adept, tool-using raven with the problem solving skills of a seven year old might give me a run for my money.  Perhaps I should plant some more broad beans.

And there’s more backyard black-feathered bandits where they came from.  The red-eyed, jet-feathered male koels are gone for the season, but the bowerbirds are back – mostly the “greens” – olive, stripey young bloods and females – but every now and then there’s a flash of violet-black as a grown male, glossy and gorgeous, disappears, full bellied, into the shrubbery, after a exhausting afternoon of shredding my kiwifruit vines.

But, despite my doziness, there was no way I could mistake today’s most magical visitor for a common or garden magpie.  Nude trees held no allure for her.  She watched me, still and cautious, from a leafy branch low in the hibiscus, patiently waiting for maybe five long minutes while I snapped away incredulously.

I reckon she came after the noisy miners that have descended on us over the winter, yipping and snapping at the wattle birds.  Last I saw the sparrowhawk, she was gliding off through the jungle at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden, indignant miners in hot pursuit.  I’m hoping she got the best of them.  What a fitting end for those hateful lerp eaters – fastidiously “killed, plucked and eaten”, all the while clutched in a sparrowhawk’s long and elegant middle toe.

I hope she’ll be back.  I’ll be keeping watch.

Blood on the mulberries

This means war!  Or at least a humanitarian mission with military elements.

Just when you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by their generous assistance with your passive solar, suddenly the bowerbirds turn against you.   One minute they’re giving the liquidambar a light trim, the next they’ve descended on your mulberry tree and stripped it bare.

Mulberries are perfect backyard trees.  They’re easy to grow, fruit without chilly weather, and produce berries in spring before the fruitfly really get into gear.  Kids love to eat them: the Halloween themed blood-stained hands afterwards are a bonus.  You can feed them to silkworms which sorts out any number of school projects (and if you’re that kind of person you can weave your own scarves or caftans).  Chooks happily clean up the spoil.  And you never ever see mulberries in the shops – when they’re ripe they’re so soft and juicy they’re unshippable.  You have to eat them warm, straight off the tree.

And if that’s not enough, they also make a great spot for a diamond python’s mid-morning nap.

mulberry bush and snakey

There’s not much you can do wrong with mulberries, or so they say.  You’ve gotta love trees about which it can honestly be said: “you cannot kill them”.  You have to prune them for new growth and berries, but hacking randomly does seem to more or less work, though the outcome might be described less as “a classic open-centred vase shape” and more as “an ugly mess”.

The only bit of advice that people regularly give about mulberry trees is to avoid planting them near paths “to avoid stains”.  Given the chaotic state of our garden, I smiled smugly at this.  And then planted mine right next to the washing line.  Oops.

I know, I know, my Hick’s Fancy should have been netted against the birds (given that they can be weedy, this is probably a good idea for ecological as well as harvest-maximising reasons).  But the bowerbirds haven’t stopped at the mulberry.  They’ve also had a good go at the grapes up the granny flat wall and the kiwifruit vines on the “solar pergola”.  Exclusion netting is all very well but short of getting a great big net dropped from a helicopter to drape over the whole house and yard, there’s only so much you can do.  Thinking about it, that actually sounds like a lot of fun.  All I need is some air support.