Baby swift parrotses!

Yesterday, I went to Bruny Island with Team Swift Parrot, and watched them torturing adorable baby gremlin birds.  Photographic evidence attached.

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Dr Dejan Stojanovic hypnotising a baby swift parrot before taking its blood.

As well as taking these tiny, flooffy, incredibly rowdy fuzz-buckets from their nests, they also measured them, weighed them in ziplock bags, and stole their feathers and blood, allegedly for science, but I have it on good authority that researcher Dr Dejan Stojanovic (pictured above) actually uses the blood from these helpless babies as a key ingredient for his elixir of eternal youth (he’s actually 763).

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Latest horrifying pet trend to emerge from Tasmania – birds in bags.

More details on the terrible things they do to adorable baby dinosaur creatures in the name of conservation can be found at the Difficult Birds website.

Slightly belated gloating…

I won a thing!

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The Hazards – granite-a-rama!

This year, two Tasmanian National Parks are celebrating their centenaries – Mt. Field and Freycinet on the beautiful east coast.

At the end of August, I had the pleasure of spending a lovely weekend up at Coles Bay, in a house looking out to the Hazards,  and participating in the 100th birthday celebrations for Freycinet National Park.

Part of the celebrations involved the announcement of winners of the the 2016 Tasmanian Wildcare Nature Writing Prize.  I’m really pleased to have been announced as one of the runners-up for this prize, for my essay Selling the Farm, much of which was written while I was on retreat on a fabulous Dombrovskis Parks and Wildlife Residency at Lake St Clair National Park.

Overall prize winner Harriet Riley came all the way over from New York to join myself, judge Sarah Day, and members of the Tasmanian Writers Centre – we had a lot of fun over the weekend, and did our very best to support Tasmanian champers and cheese producers 🙂  You can read Harriet’s winning essay Endings – On Love and Extinction in the latest Island mag, which I encourage you all to go out and subscribe to.

My essay will be available for public consumption shortly – stay tuned for more details.

To the island! Schouten Island, giant sharks, Tasmanian tigers and my un-illustrious family history.

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For the next week or so, hopefully*, I will be on Schouten Island, volunteering for the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service as a camp host. Part of the stunning Freycinet National Park, on Tasmania’s east coast, this large granite island is about 2800 Ha (about 6km by 7km), and generally only visited by yachties and hardy kayakers.

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Schouten Island. So big! 

I’m quite excited about heading to Schouten, as apart from never having been there before, my family has island form. Apparently, we used to run cattle out there in the early 1900’s and possibly before. My great-great-great grandfather used to tie the head steer (that’s a young bull without balls) to the back of a boat and row him out there – all the other cattle would swim behind him, across an often rough stretch of water patrolled by rather large sharks (more on them later).

According to my father, my family also shot what was probably the last Tasmanian tiger on the east coast on Schouten (now you see why I work in conservation). I don’t have a great deal of information on this as yet, but will continue sifting through the family dirt over the next few weeks. As well as various internet trawling spoils, I have these for research purposes, which should make for interesting reading.

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I’ve also downloaded the Hamish Saunders Expedition report for the island – I didn’t go on this particular expedition, but many skilled ecologists did, and the report gives a great overview of what natural delights may await us.

Stay tuned for more stories of giant sharks, pocket pygmy possums, hidden waterfalls and island adventures!

(* I say hopefully, as we were supposed to head out there yesterday, but weather and waves prevented our departure. The next couple of days are also out, but Thursday looks possible, apparently.  Digits crossed!)

S is for superb fairy wrens – true-blue root-rats of the bird world #MelaleucaMiscellany

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“Helloooo laydeez!” Good looking wren supplied by Mick Brown.

Fairy wrens, eh?  Are they naughty or what?

Famously described by Sir David Attenborough as “the most promiscuous bird known”, much research has been done into the convoluted and apparently quite permissive sex-lives of these rather adorable tiny blue birds and their little brown lady friends.  Both sexes of superb fairy wrens (Malurus cyaneus) are socially monogamous (staying in the same partnerships), but sexually promiscuous (self-explanatory).

Whilst I could tell many entertaining anecdotes about the louche behaviour of fairy wrens, my favourite one, which I learnt about in a short piece by Mary Kille in edition 55 of Yellowthroat (newsletter of Birds Tasmania), regards the peculiar practice of furgling.

Furgling (anecdotally, a word which is a portmanteau of burgling and something else risqué that starts with ‘F’), is a practice known from several species of wrens, which involves the exchange of floral tributes for sexual favours.  Whilst in humans, these exchanges are traditionally male-to-female in nature, in fairy wrens, it’s strictly men’s business.

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Hot-to-trot male superb fairy wren, courtesy of Charlie Price.

Fairy wrens live in family groups where there is usually one dominant male, identified by his brilliant blue breeding plumage, who is accompanied by a number of females and immature birds of both sexes.

Say you are a young, good-looking, virile blue wren fellow, who is yet to acquire a harem of his own.  Say you chance upon a harem that belongs to someone else, and you have taken a fancy to one of the lady wrens within it.  You cannot just go up to her and ask her for her phone number.  She has a boyfriend, and there are protocols which must be followed.

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You pluck a petal from a lovely flower.  Let’s say it was a forget-me-not.  You take this petal to her boyfriend, and offer it to him, in exchange for some sexy-time with his lady-friend.  He scoffs at your offering, questions your ancestry, and chases you out of his territory.

But you are not dissuaded.  You pluck another petal, this time, a pretty yellow one, and bravely return to offer it to the dominant male.  This time, he accepts your efforts, and you are allowed a quick furgle with one of his ladies.  The petal indicates that you want no trouble – you’re not here for his territory or his harem, and will move along after the, ah, transaction, has taken place.

DNA tests have shown that within fairy wren clutches, often very few of the offspring are actually directly sired by the dominant male.

"Why, these babies are adorable!  Are they mine?"

“Why, these babies are adorable! Are they mine?”

Other great things about superb fairy wrens:

  • they are, like, super-popular!  They were voted Australia’s favourite bird in 2013.
  • lady wrens are not only sexual objects, available for procurement with mere petals.  They are known to get up early, before the sun has arisen, to flit off for illicit trysts with other males, one to five territories distant. Take that, patriarchy!
  • blue wren boys are not always blue.  In non-breeding season, they adopt what’s known as their eclipse plumage, becoming a muted brown very similar in appearance to the females.
  • during breeding season, a male wren’s testes can weigh up to 25% of his body mass!  That’s like a not especially large human fella having an entire huge bag of dog biscuits strapped to his crotch! (but infinitely more alluring)
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Breeding season plumage – note the stealth with which the male blue wren conceals his mammoth testicles! Picture courtesy Charlie Price.

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The male superb fairy wren in non-breeding chillax plumage – the avian equivalent of tracky-dacks. Photo courtesy Charlie Price.

Once again, all of the photos featured in this blog post were gifted by some of the talented bird-people of the Facebook group Tasmanian Bird Sightings and Photography – thanks Mick and Charlie!  Thanks also to Eric Woehler, from Birdlife Tasmania, for helping me find that elusive article.

The other flightless, night-dwelling bird

Great article on kakapos (the “parrot of the night”) – compared to our little OBPs, they are huuuuge!

Ellen Rykers

New Zealand is well-known for our array of birds-that-are-more-like-mammals (thanks, evolution!). We have long been recognised for our namesake bird, the kiwi, but the roly-poly kākāpo is rising through the ranks of “world famous in NZ” stars. I’d contend the kākāpo is the fourth most popular folk-bird in NZ, seeing as they’re pretty much the avian version of the Flight of the Conchords: awkward but endearing and oh-so-funny. If you haven’t heard of these delightful but eccentric parrots, I can guarantee your life will be all the richer once you get to know them!

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The kākāpo is a rotund parrot with an owlish face and exquisite green mottled feathers. This soft, dappled green is excellent for blending into the lush NZ bush, which is handy for kākāpo who seem opt for “freeze” rather than “fight or flight” when taken by surprise. Kākāpo take the title for “world’s heaviest parrot” so it is no wonder they also take the honour for “world’s only flightless…

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O is for Orange Bellied Parrots – the VIB’s of the South West! #MelaleucaMiscellany

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OBP vs. beautiful firetail – fight!

I’m in the field today, and have just realised that I didn’t bring the right images with me – these ones are puny and disappointing – apologies.  I also have to go immediately out to eat something, and so, in haste, all I have to say about the OBPs is

  • There are not very many of them
  • This is not good.
  • Even though lots of people come to Melaleuca to visit them,
  • They could do with some more friends

Find out more about their rather tenuous migratory lifestyles here, and about the massive National Recovery Effort being made by an extraordinary team of passionate birdos here.

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