Sparrowhawk summer

The sparrowhawks in the bottom of the neighbour’s yard have beaten the odds.  Despite the visits of the hungry currawongs and randy cuckoos, two strapping fledglings have emerged from the nest this week.

Two juvenile sparrowhawks trying out their wings

Our days are punctuated by the insistent call of the mother and father hawks telling the teenagers that it’s time to head back to the ridiculously tiny nest for dinner.  And the juvenile’s answering pitiful cries, disproportionate to their galumphing size.  They’re easily as big as their parents even at this early stage.

Photo of juvenile sparrowhawk with its mouth open

Fledgling sparrowhawk talking back to its parent

And early in the morning, the ding-dong battles between the sparrowhawks and the local mob of sulphur crested cockatoos, that wheel across the valley each day to find the tastiest trees and finest roosting places. The hawks have been watchful but apparently unconcerned by the range of large and small humans arguing, gardening, driving, swimming and playing beneath their nest and, as you can see, endlessly photographing their activities.

But the arrival of a crew of a dozen or so seed eaters in their territory was apparently intolerable.  A crested pigeon is the biggest prey sparrowhawks have been known to take, but we’ve seen for ourselves they’re not afraid to send cockies and cuckoos packing.  The cockatoos didn’t take off without a bit of argy bargy but in the end the diminutive predators won the day.

The flock retreated off to our place, and relieved their frustration with some light demolition work on the rotting pine tree in our backyard.  I assumed it was the parents that did the chasing off, but Stephen Debus, who spent a lot of time hanging out in the Bundaberg Botanical Gardens with a digital camera and a pair of young sparrowhawks, seems to think that the young ones like to chase away bigger birds that they couldn’t possibly eat, everything from egrets, darters and ducks to kestrels and even currawongs, their erstwhile enemies.

There’s been an exciting new development in the last couple of days: the littlies are trying their hand with disembowelling.  Young nestlings are fed gobbets of freshly plucked bird flesh, straight from mum or dad’s beak, but this youngster was doing his own kitchen prep.  It took him a while.  Given the eye-claw coordination on display here, it may be a few weeks before this one is hunting on its own.  It seems that taking dinner from the talons of parents mid-air (and maybe snacking on cicadas in between meals) is the next step towards independence.

From the vantage point of our neighbours’ pool, we’ve watched the fledglings practicing their short haul flights (and awkward landings), whine a lot and bicker over food.  In a truly rare sighting, judging from my experience with human children, I even saw one of them give in to his sibling’s relentless complaining and share a meal.

Or maybe what I saw was big sister muscling in on little brother?  Sparrowhawks have distinct sexual dimorphism, and apparently any idiot can tell the smaller males from the females.  Not this idiot!  I look forward to being enlightened by sharp eyed readers.

As you can tell from the recent posts in this blog, I have got just a little obsessed by our in-house raptors these last few months.  Maybe because our four serial killers have cleared the area of other distraction – the usual “house” birds.

No baby brush turkeys this year (hooray!) and the noisy miners have been mercifully silent. But the gorgeous satin bowerbirds have also been thin on the ground, the newly arrived whipbird disappeared suddenly without leaving a forwarding address, and I’ve heard very few of the chocks and clucks of the wattlebirds that make up the usual soundscape of our neighbourhood.

We have about six weeks, it seems, before the young sparrowhawks will disperse, looking for another neck of the woods with the requisite tall trees for nesting and plenty of small gormless birds to ambush from a secret spot in the canopy.

Will the adults stay after the brood has gone?   Will they leave and come back next year?  It seems no one really knows much about the movement of these secretive birds, despite their presence all over Australia, in every habitat but the driest of deserts.

And, if our lovely raptors do leave us, will our usual cast of feathered friends – the nectar drinkers, the seed and flower and lerp eaters – return?

Further references

Barnes, C.P. and Debus, S. (2014) “Observations of the post-fledgling period of the collared sparrowhawk (Accipeter cirrocephalus)” from The Sunbird (2014) 44(1): 12–23

Debus, Stephen (2012) Birds of Prey of Australia: a field guide, CSIRO Publishing

 

More sparrowhawk stories from our backyard

The end of the brush turkey plague? The battle of the baby birds….

There’s a collared sparrowhawk nesting in our garden…. or is it a goshawk…?

and the latest from our backyard: the teenagers start hunting for themselves… Sibling rivalry amongst the young serial killers….

 

 

 

Meet the Royals

Spoonbill looking back good portrait 2 wideTo be honest, I’m a republican more than a monarchist, but over the weekend I met one set of royals I have some time for: Royal Spoonbills.  They carry off the ceremonial garb beautifully without raiding the public purse for grog or helicopter rides, and their landed estates are mostly mud, swamps and reed beds, as opposed to, say 20 million acres of Britain’s finest arable land.

Royal Spoonbills are not uncommon birds – their conservation status is secure across much of Australia, and they can be found not just in rivers and coastal mudflats but  also in temporary inland waterways during times of flood, wading through shallow water, feeling for fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects with their vibration-detecting spoon-shaped beaks. They’ve also made it to New Zealand, where their numbers seem to be increasing.

But I’ve only seen them on two occasions in my weekly outings on the Hawkesbury, at the same time – early morning an hour or two after low tide- and in the same spot, in the mangroves near the shambling boatyards in Mooney Mooney.  It’s place with a splendid outlook but it won’t be appearing on the front cover of Vogue’s Marina and Oysterfarm magazine.  Unless they’re doing a special spread on “2017’s best retro refits for your partially sunken houseboat”

Sea eagle at dawn long small

White bellied sea eagle at dawn over Spectacle Island

The perpetually roar from the freeway, the piles of maritime junk and even the unchained dog wandering round the quayside didn’t seem to bother the herons, the pelicans or the spoonbills.  The tidal mudflats fringing Mooney Mooney and the nature reserve at Spectacle Island  across the way must make for good pickings, and the stands of mangroves by the boatyard a safe place to nest, over the water.

I’m pretty sure this is a regular hang-out for them.  Spoonbills living near the coast are sedentary and often use the same nests from year to year.  My failure to spot them over the intervening period is, I suspect, more to do with cluelessness about the best tide time to catch them, rather than a sign they wander around a lot.

Like darters, they breed in colonies with other waterbirds.  The first time I saw this group (or to use the proper collective noun, bowl) of spoonbills, in September last year, they were in the company of another wader I’ve rarely seen on the Hawkesbury, an egret. And this time, as well as the ubiquitous white-faced herons feeding en-masse on the mud flats at dawn and then later in the shallows, there were a flock of the much maligned white ibises – or “bin chickens” as urban Australian call them disparagingly – hunting in amongst the mangroves down the way.

Pelicans shouting at each other crop small

Apparently this is a male pelican (in breeding colours) chatting up a likely female!

I read that juvenile spoon bills have even been spotted grooming other species of waterbirds.  Shortsighted?  Or just very very friendly?

This time there was no sign of the spoonbills’ breeding plumage, a 20cm long crest of feathers on the back of the necks of both males and female (although the crest on female, like their legs and beak, is apparently shorter than the males’).  October to April is said to be the breeding season, so I must have caught them, last time, just before they paired up and started thinking about the next generation.  It’s probably lucky I didn’t catch them any later in the year, since it seems they’re very sensitive to disturbance when they’re on the nest.

Birds do seem to be more chilled around a photographer gliding along in a canoe than someone stumbling in the undergrowth with a camera.  It is pleasing to have this observation, made on the water over the past three years, confirmed by a recent paper, entertainingly called “Up the Creek with a Paddle”.  According to its authors, Hayley Glover, Patrick-Jean Guay and Michael Weston, the FID (flight-initiation-disturbance) distance of royal spoonbills is 23 metres if you are in a canoe, versus 55 metres if you’re on foot.  Mind you, driving up to birds in your car is also scientifically vindicated way of getting (slightly) closer to them before they make a break for it, but unless you want your SUV bobbing in the water next to the Mooney Mooney houseboat, perhaps not such a good idea in this instance.

Guay, Glover and Weston, having presumably spent quite some time running loudly (with a tape measure) through the reeds towards a range of species and then ramming them (carefully and scientifically) with canoes, recommend a “set back” from waterbirds for boaties of about 90 metres*. Which is a long way, even if you have a good zoom on your camera.  But I think, at least for the next few months, I’ll give the spoonbills a wide berth and let them raise their babies in peace.

Spectacle island mud flats lines abstract long and thin small

Spectacle Island mudflats at dawn

References

Glover, Hayley K., Guay, Patrick-Jean and Weston, Michael A.  (2015) “Up the creek with a paddle; avian flight distances from canoes versus walkers” Wetlands Ecological Management,  23:775–778

Guay, Patrick-Jean; McLeod, Emily M; Taysom, Alice J and Weston, Michael A. Are vehicles ‘mobile bird hides’?: A test of the hypothesis that ‘cars cause less disturbance’. The Victorian Naturalist, Vol. 131, No. 4, Aug 2014

McLeod EM, Guay P-J, Taysom AJ, Robinson RW, Weston MA (2013) “Buses, cars, bicycles and walkers: the influence of the type of human transport on the flight responses of waterbirds”. PLoS ONE 8:e82008

Mo, Matthew (2016) An apparent case of interspecific allopreening by a Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia. Australian Zoologist: 2016, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 214-216.

  • Glover, Guay and Weston are undoubtedly bird lovers and did their research with the greatest sensitivity and care.  I just always find it funny / slightly disturbing to read about the things animal researchers sometimes do to expand the range of human knowledge.  Most poignant I’ve read in recent times: releasing migrating songbirds into a planetarium and allowing them to try to navigate by the stars…

 

Spoonbill fishing 3 cropped larger asymmetrical

Perhaps not a beautiful bird but certainly eye catching!

Flying lawnmowers

There’s aren’t too many workplaces that have their own bird list.  Or offices that you can use as a hide for stalking coy marshbirds.

Buff banded rail with raised leg long and skinny

The elusive Buff Banded Rail of Mars Creek

On the 5 k walk that bookends my train commute from Berowra to Epping, I might see a tree creeper or a figbird, a scrubwren or a fairy wren, a flock of silver-eyes or gerygones or red-browed finches, a eastern rosella or a crew of glossy black-cockatoos.  But the twitching doesn’t end when I arrive, because Macquarie University, where I work, is no mean place for bird watching either.

On occasion I’m asked to explain to prospective “customers” why they should study with us, rather than one of the other fine educational institutions in Sydney.  This kind of sales-pitch is not really my strong point – I’m a teacher, not a real-estate agent.  I find myself fatally drawn to talk, not so much about the passionate lecturers, the interdisciplinary subjects, the fancy technical facilities or even the light-drenched underground train station with tranquil majesty of a church, but mostly about the parrots.  Which, unfortunately, seems to be a niche interest from a teenaged point of view.

Upside down coot horizontal small lighter

So when I found myself surrounded by maybe a hundred birds – magpies, swamp hens and miners mixing it with the galahs and cockies – on my walk home, I wasn’t too surprised.  But the long-billed corellas – their red slashed throats and preposterously dangerous looking beaks – were a new one on me.  For a start they aren’t meant to be in Sydney at all.

According to my bird book and the Michael Morecombe app on my phone, corellas are birds of the inland and the south. But for all that, there are plenty of of them around the cities of the eastern seaboard these days.  So very many in fact that in fact, a corella poisoner has been at work in the Central Coast, killing scores of birds from the flocks that roost in parks on the shores of Lake Macquarie.

Mob of corellas crop smaller

A flock of little corellas at Speers Point on the Central Coast

So how did the corellas get to Sydney and Brisbane anyway?  One idea, as put about by Martyn Robinson from the Australian Museum, is that corellas moved east from the plains during the drought.  But even he agrees that flock numbers have swelled  – along with the wild birds’ English vocabulary – thanks to escapees from cages.  Long-billed corellas in particular are apparently wonderful talkers.

On the face of it, looking at the huge flocks creaking and wheeling over ovals and golfcourses, this sounds like an unlikely idea.  But tracking back through Trove, the wonderful searchable archive of Australian newspapers digitised by the National Library of Australia , it seems that corellas have been going rogue for a long time.

The first reference I find about these birds as pets in New South Wales is a story in 1878 in the Australia Town and Country Journal in about Mr D.E.Dargin bringing them 500 miles overland to join “collected goods of every sort” at the Bathurst Show.  And by 1879 we have the first Sydney corella reported missing:

Lost corella jpeg

It’s a fine thought – these long-lived, clever and social birds breaking out of their cages and joining their wild confederates.  My friend Rose has a beautiful story about a tame galah passed on to her after its previous human died.  She kept it in an aviary outside and most days a flock of wild galahs would land and spend some time on the grass nearby.  One bird in particular would always linger by the caged bird after the rest of the flock departed.

Eventually Rose decided to open the aviary door and let the two love birds fly off together into the sunset.  Galahs can live for up to eighty years, and while they form permanent pair bonds, they will find a new mate if their partner dies.  I like to think of the two of them out there somewhere, enjoying a late-life romance with a side serve of onion weed.

Galahs two heads together corellas background crop

Some people – especially farmers – see corellas as pests. Apparently the long-billed species are a particular blight on ovals and golf courses, thanks to the six inch deep holes they can dig for roots and corms with their spectacular beak.  To be honest this habit endears them to me – there’s a fine radical history to the defacing of golf courses.

Dandelion at MQ extreme closeup

There was obviously good eating to be had last week on Macquarie’s sweeping lawns. I wonder, though, if the very oldest parrots that visit the campus still remember the finer pickings from the time, in the sixties, when it was all market gardens, orchards and chicken farms.

Long beaked corella with grass in front of sign long and skinny amend