Poor lost souls

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There’s new sound in the garden just now.  A plaintive relentless cheeping.  But not the tiny piping tones of a naked, newly hatched chick.  No, it’s the muscular alto plea of the ginormous eastern koel chick to its diminutive red wattle bird parent.

And the wattlebirds are desperate.  I eyeballed the juvenile koel, lounging comfortably high in the canopy. Meanwhile its parent wheeled and fluttered in frenzied manner, perching here and pecking there, apparently driven to madness by the insatiable appetite of its parasitic offspring.

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No sooner was the mega-chick fed than it returned to its incessant harping, as if unloved and cruelly abandoned.

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As I crashed around trying to get a clear shot of the elusive ear-splitting koel, I saw, at the top of the very same tree, something I’d never seen here before, something genuinely sad and alone.

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A flying fox all by itself, a good twenty kilometres from the nearest bat camp way down the Pacific Highway at Gordon.

Flying foxes are very mobile, travelling up to 120 kilometres a night to feed.  We often hear them around our place on summer evenings, squealing and hurling fruit around.  During the year they migrate long distances following the peripatetic flowering seasons of eucalypts, melaleucas and rainforest trees, pollinating as they go.  Just like giant warm blooded bees, they carry pollen on their fur from one fragment of forest to another.  Flying foxes have been tracked moving as far as two thousand kilometres over the course of nine months and bat encampments have been described as more like railway stations or youth hostels than places of permanent residence.

But mega bats are sociable creatures and finding one on its own in the daytime like this is not a good sign.  I realised later I should have called the local WIRES group so someone with more expertise and a better head for heights than me could shin up its extremely tall tree to check it wasn’t injured by any of the usual suspects – barbed wire, open weave fruit netting or a dog bite.  But by the time I worked that out, it was the next morning, and the bat was gone – back to its digs in the local “Batpackers”, I hope.

I know some people feel about flying foxes the way I do about brush turkeys.  If you’re a fruit grower in NSW it is still possible to get a licence to shoot them to protect your orchards, although the mega bats actually prefer pollen and nectar as a food source – and  tightly secured, finely woven netting (one you can’t poke a finger through) protects crops better than a shotgun anyway.  In my backyard, the bats would be at the back of a very long queue for the ripe fruit anyway.  Ahead of me, of course, but behind the cockies and the possums for sure.

Deforestation means that there’s more conflict between flying foxes and humans these days, as the bats move into  the leafy suburbs where the fruiting and flowering plants are diverse and well watered.  They’re chatty critters with some “interesting” habits – urinating on themselves and then fanning their wings to cool down for one – which some people living nearby can find a hard to take (not to mention a couple of rare but deadly bat-borne diseases).

But the visibility of flying foxes in east coast Australian cities conceals the fact that (unlike brush turkeys) their numbers are in major decline.  One article suggests that at current rates, the grey headed flying fox, the type I found in my backyard, will be extinct by 2070.

The mega bats are particularly susceptible to high temperatures.  They start to “melt from the inside” in the words of a scientist, at just about the same temperature that is unsupportable for stingless bees, 43 degrees C.  A couple of years ago in Queensland,  45,000 megabats, mostly the tropical black flying fox, died in one day during a heat wave.  But high temperatures may just be the final straw when bats are short of food anyway.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been scores of baby grey-headed bats found dead in parks along the east coast.  Both habitat loss and the aftermath of an El Nino, according to researcher Peggy Eby, have led to a food shortage.

“The mothers are going through a difficult nutritional phase, and they’re reducing the amount of milk they’re producing and the young starve.  They hang on to the females for the first several weeks of life, when she flies from the roost at night, and they simply would lose the strength that they need to hold on.”

I’m not sure why this stray found its way to our yard.  I hope it wasn’t injured here.  We don’t have a dog or barbed wire and we use veggie nets to keeps the bowerbirds and the brush turkeys off the fig trees (or if we’re feeling cheap, old trampoline netting from the side of the road).  But we still haven’t raised the cash to chop down the nasty cocos palm that is so appealing and yet so dangerous to flying foxes.

I hope the neighbours’ pool gave was a spot for a cooling bellydip and the jungle at the bottom of the yard gave it somewhere to recoup, recalibrate its GPS and get ready to head back to its pals at base camp.  Lovely as it was to have the chance to take his photo, I hope we hear him but don’t see him again.

R2D2 in black and white

I’ve been spending a lot of time with magpies lately.  “Model magpies” as my nine year old aptly described these two who spent the day  posing in the Japanese maple and prancing around the back deck.  Oddly enough, the companionship steps up in intensity whenever I stop typing for a snack.

This gang of youngbloods don’t spend all their time begging for food and doing catalogue shoots, though.  There’s also the occasional training session for the Olympic synchronised vogueing competition.

And, of course, plenty of carolling.  The juveniles spent a lot of time last week singing for their supper, until one of the grown-ups got jack of the whole thing and flew down to show them how it was done.

But not before the youngsters did their party trick.  In amongst all the mellifluous warbling, my ear caught some distinct moments of robotic squeaking and clacking. The magpies were doing a bowerbird impression.

Apparently Australian birds are uncommonly good at mimicry.  Lyrebirds are famous for it, but all sorts of implausible suspects have a line in impressions as well: magpies, mistletoe birds, silver eyes. Apparently the minute brown thornbill has been recorded mimicking a pied currawong – a bird forty times its size.

Why do birds mimics the songs of others?  Pretending to be something bigger and tougher for self defense purposes seems to be one motive.  Bowerbirds have been observed doing raven impressions while being mobbed by a colony of those rather nasty bell-miners, for instance.

Another seems to be showing off to make yourself look good to potential mates.  Researchers have found that male bowerbirds that can only manage a one or two rubbish impressions (singing “like a kookaburra with bronchitis”, as the researcher cruelly remarked) have less mating success than those who can effortlessly produce a good five.

The most hilarious explanation I’ve read for bird mimicry is to chill out sexual partners.  Researchers reckon that R2D2 style squeaks and clicks that satin bowerbirds make while courting can freak out their mates:

“by interspersing melodic mimetic laughing kookaburra and Lewin’s honeyeater calls between episodes of harsh mechanical calls, males may calm females and improve the likelihood of that females will stay for additional courtship and copulation” (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015)

The idea that a sudden explosion of kookaburra calls would mellow you out and get you in the mood gives me a good picture of why certain male bowerbirds (and possibly particular male ornithologists) might be unlucky in love.

While not as famous as lyrebirds, bowerbirds do some pretty amazing impressions, not just of individual sounds but of whole acoustic scenes.  How’s this, observed from a toothed bowerbird?

A male started with the sounds of a group of people talking as they moved through the forest with their machetes cutting bushes and dogs barking, and continued with the sounds of machetes being used to fell a tree, complete with the rattle of shaking leaves after each blow and eventually the sound of the tree falling and hitting the ground with a crash (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015, 97)

The humble magpie doesn’t do badly either.  They’ve been recorded copying 21 different species of bird, as well as the sound of horses, dogs, cats and humans.  Magpies, it appears, only imitate critters that share their territory, not just the blow-ins and passers by, so it makes sense that our youngsters copy the satin bowerbirds that seem so spend much of the year in the garden, eviscerating my beans and kiwifruit vines and making free with my broken pegs.

I’ve got a whole new agenda in the backyard now.  There’s those in-flagrante males doing kookaburra impressions to listen out for.  As yet, I haven’t found any references to magpie calls appearing in the satin bowerbird repertoire.  Maybe this will be my contribution to science.  Better still, maybe I’ll catch a bowerbird in the act of ripping off a magpie doing a remix of another bowerbird.  Or the other way round.

Additional references

Borgia, G. and Keaghy, J. (2015) “Cognitively driven cooption and the evolution of sexual displays in bowerbirds”in Irschick, D., Briffa, M and Podos, J. (eds) Animal Signalling and Function: an integrative approach, Wiley Blackwell

Kaplan, Gisela (2015) Bird Minds, CSIRO Publishing

 

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.

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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

Let them eat light!

It’s persimmon season, but, natch, nothing doing on my little Nightingale tree, despite a grand show of weird naked-looking flowers in the spring.  Two fruits nearly made it to the finish line, but the possums got there first.

Gorgeous as the golden fruits are reputed to be as they hang on the leafless trees, 2016, I have decided, will be the year of picking green. The persimmons may well be mouth-puckeringly unripe but as human overlord of this place, I insist that it is I who will enjoy their high-tannin nastiness, and not some upstart marsupial.

In fact, my tree is an old fashioned astringent persimmon: the fruits need to be “bletted” to go super soft and sweet. This can happen far from fruitflies and other critters, deep in the pantry, in the comforting darkness of a paper bag, with only an ethylene-emitting banana for company.  I have days when crawling in next to the banana to be bletted myself sounds like a good gig.

In theory, me and my persimmons can hole out for a few weeks in an undisturbed corner and it should work out delectably for both of us.

But, really, I don’t care! Harvests mean nothing to me! A barren tree is a beautiful tree.

For now, it’s all about the komorebi, a Japanese word I encountered for the first time a few days ago in the marvellous nature blog, Mildly Extreme.

Because who needs food when you can have sunlight filtering through though autumn leaves?*

*Love those leaves… but thank god for the Freemont mandarins

The earth for all, not for the few

... not forgetting the chickens

… not forgetting the chickens

A Labour Day message embroidered on a banner from the wonderful British Peoples’ Museum.  Poultry care and redistribution of wealth: a fine and logical connection.  Are there any industrial folk songs about gardening?  If so, I don’t know them.

So I might have a hum along to “The Manchester Rambler” while I’m in the backyard today, relishing a long weekend gifted to me by yesterday’s union movement: “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday”*.

Domestic work is varied and pleasant

Protesting too much

We might ask, of course, is this elegant female sower of seed free from household drudgery on a Sunday?  It seems unlikely.  Her brother may be up in the mountains getting all his pleasure the hard moorland way, but she is probably going to have to go inside any minute and mop the kitchen floor.  So, in solidarity, no housework for me today! If you want me, I’ll be in the garden.

Eight hours labour

*Okay, more accurately in this case, I’m a wage slave on Tuesday but that doesn’t scan nearly so well.

Vernacular architecture in the suburbs pt.1

Moments of vernacular garden design from around Berowra.  With the council cleanup coming up, I expect to see more suburban creativity soon.

A grand day out

Time to get the fully feathered chicks – all of 6 weeks old – out of the brooder in the kids’ bedroom.  To my amazement the new coop, which weighs the same as a gas giant, does actually fit under the chook dome.   After Donna’s departure, I’m a bit worried about plunging the peepers straight into the fowl-and-brush-turkey-ordure-rich environment of the run, so we’ll give them a few weeks in the chicken tractor, getting a garden bed ready for brassicas.  They had a first scratch around this afternoon, ready for the big move tomorrow.

Andy is looking very miffed by these developments.  I caught her lurking in the new coop – I think she envisages it as her own personal quarters.  She was transfixed by the sudden appearance of the new girls, so I was able to grab her and turf her out before any argy-bargy.  However, Snowball and Andy have been using the top of the dome as a perch, so they were wandering around the run at something of a loss at sundown tonight.  They have a whole series of dry places to sleep – under the granny flat, in the wood-shed – but since they seemed to favour a spot underneath the neighbour’s horrible coral tree, we leaned a ladder (a previous craft project) against the outside of the woodshed, exactly where the chicken dome used to be.  I tried to give Andy the idea but she wasn’t having it.  Hope they are somewhere out of the rain tonight….