Put a bird on it! 10 reasons you should become a birdwatcher

Bill Oddie is renowned for it. Jonathan Franzen creates controversy around it.

Bill Bailey devotes entire comedy and TV shows to his love of it.

tawny frogmouth

Tawny frogmouths – birds worth watching, if you can find them in the first place.

Bird watching is undergoing a sort of renaissance, with paid up members of bird-loving organizations on the rise in Australia and beyond. I think these newly-minted birdos are onto something – here’s why you should consider joining them:

  1. You can do it anywhere. From the depths of the concrete jungle to the outermost offshore island, look around you for long enough, and eventually, you’ll see a bird. Urban areas might not provide the most exciting array of birds to ogle, but don’t write them off as possible bird watching locations. I’ve done some of my best birding, martini in one hand, binoculars in the other, propped on the balcony at someone else’s house. Which leads me to…
  1. The refreshments. With hobbit-like enthusiasm, seasoned birdos tend to conduct their bird watching sorties fully kitted out with vintage thermoses and a delightful array of home-baked goods. Take a break from squinting through your binoculars with a nice cuppa and a slice of Aunty Vera’s prize-winning fruitcake, or impress your new friends with your latest chia choc-chip cookie recipe.
  1. Location, location, location! Bird watching provides a great excuse to take impromptu trips to exotic locations, on the premise of spotting some rare vagrant bird rumoured to have once considered landing there. Travelled halfway across the country, yet failed to bag your bird? Who cares? You’re at a scenic sewage treatment plant in Alice Springs!
  1. The fashion is fabulous, dahling. Whether you have a penchant for pockets, or a taste for tweed, there’s a practical yet flattering bird watching look to suit you. Skinny jeans aside, there’s actually quite an overlap between hipster fashion and trad bird watching attire, and many older birdos, both male and female, sport impressive, stroke-worthy facial hair. Leather elbow pads, anyone?
  1. The romance, and all it may lead to. Bird watching offers erotically charged opportunities unrivalled by any hookup app. Romantic moments in secluded bird hides. Skin brushing against skin as binoculars are passed from hand to trembling hand, as you watch sensual dance of the Brolgas, or perhaps admire the slightly earthier courtship rituals of the Musk Duck. You won’t be getting any of that action on Tinder.
OBP v Firetail

Exceedingly rare or common as the proverbial – both orange-bellied parrots and beautiful firetails are both worth a look.

  1. Cheap thrills for the avid collector. Ever rummaged through a vintage op-shop and unearthed a fantastic collectors’ piece, only to have your heart stop when you saw its price tag? Birds are free, man.
  1. Bird watching lets you say ridiculous things with a straight face. See a great pair of Boobies the other day? Tell all your friends! Desperate for a bit of Hairy Woodpecker action, or perhaps lusting after a Fluffy-backed Tit Babbler? Don’t be ashamed to put that out there. Bonus: many of these entertaining bird monikers double as potential insults. Try calling someone a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, or an Agile Tit Tyrant, and see if they mistake your intentions.
  1. On the topic of outrageousness, birds provide an ongoing source of anecdotes, allowing you to indulge in a spot of scandalous gossip with limited social repercussions. Entertain your friends with titillating stories of the Kardashian-esque sex lives of fairy wrens, the stand-over tactics of the cuckoo mafia, or the brain-munching antics of zombie tits!
  1. Bird watching is a part of human nature. As soon as human children first stumble to their feet, they are possessed of a deep-seated need to chase seagulls, in the apparent hope of stuffing them into their mouths for further analysis. While most of us outgrow the mouth-stuffing bit, our instinctive fascination with birds remains. Who are you to deny biology?
  1. It’s actually quite fun. But don’t tell everyone – they’ll all want a piece of it.

Disclosure statement: The author does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any birds that would benefit from this article.Firetails Melaleuca

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Mobbed, and very nearly eaten, by the Sunshine Coast’s Eco Goats.

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Yesterday, I hung out with the fine caprines of Eco Goats Queensland, up in the weed-infested hills of the Sunshine Coast hinterlands.  As well as being completely adorable, these goats are working to help clear environmental weeds like the feral Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia), which, with a horde of other invasive plants, are growing into tall, dense weedy tracts throughout the region.  Although they are rightly known as pests elsewhere, when managed correctly, goats can provide a herbicide-free, cost-effective weed control service in some environments.

As well as being very hard working, the Eco Goats are also very friendly, and desperate for hugs and pats.  They mobbed me like I was a rockstar – I smelt pretty goaty by yesterday afternoon!

Goats are great – check them out!

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Goats are often considered to have broad tastes.   A few of them had a bit of a nibble on my arms and legs to see if I was worth a chew, and one of them managed to get hold of my fancy diary, which I’d foolishly left poking out of one pocket.  It’s dry now, but it was a little gross there for a bit.

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T is for tiger snakes! Heaps of them, everywhere. #MelaleucaMiscellany

Snakes in trees! Photo courtesy of Mark Holdsworth

Snake inna tree! Photo courtesy of Mark Holdsworth

Melaleuca is rich in snakes.  Many of these snakes are tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus), and they’re often closer than you think.

February in Melaleuca was hot, and as such, the local snakes were on show, lazing about on jetties, around the huts, and occasionally, directly underfoot on the paths. Tasmania has only three native snakes – tiger snakes, copperheads and the much smaller white-lipped snake, which is an attractive olive green, and occasionally scares you by hanging around at head height in dense scrub.  Though they are all poisonous, and could potentially kill you if a bite went untreated, no-one has died from snake bite in Tasmania for decades.  According to the Parks and Wildlife Service, “far more people die from ant bites, peanuts or spouses than snakes” take from that what you will. 

Tiger snakes can be found just about anywhere, but in Melaleuca, there are at least two snakes who’ve worked out that nest boxes can be an excellent source of slow food.  On two separate occasions, both on very hot days, we watched two different snakes attempting to make their way into the nest boxes outside the rangers’ hut. The first snake was too heavy to get into the little branches that would have brought it close to the baby birds, but the second snake, pictured above, was much smaller and nimbler.

Four of us watched it for about two hours trying varying access points to get into the nest boxes, and Mark got a few photos, one of which is featured above.  The snake was very persistent, and appeared quite certain that a decent meal was nearby, making us wonder if it had frequented the nest boxes before.  The tree martins, who were occupying the nest, would occasionally flitter by anxiously, without making much impression on the patient reptile.

However, once the superb fairy wrens arrived, it was on.  A very fetching blue wren boy swooped the snake, saying something quite severe to it.  This was quickly followed by a yellow-throated honey eater, a scrub wren, and a New Holland honeyeater.  Rudest of all was a teensy grey fantail, apparently yelling something truly obscene in tiny-bird-speak as it danced back and forth within centimetres of the snake’s face.  After two hours of fruitless tree-climbing, this avian rudeness seemed to finally break the tiger snake’s spirit.  It backtracked back up the branch, chased by tiny birds all the while, then attempted a graceful descent down the main trunk.

It did this by wrapping its tail like a slipknot around the trunk, before allowing gravity to take it, a foot at a time, down the tree.  This worked fine for the first couple of metres, but then the snake appeared to lose its grip, and fell a couple of metres into the cutting grass below.  The birds were placated, and went back to their regular business.

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.

Q is for Quoll – good looking ginger about town! #MelaleucaMiscellany

“What was that?”

DC and I were wandering around the darkened Melaleuca campsite, looking for a good spot to set up the camera for some star-trails when we heard a loud rustling.  It was close, and whatever was making it didn’t mind if we heard it.

We flicked on our head torches and there he was.  A rather fine looking, gingery-brown spotted-tail quoll, covered with his species characteristic white spots from head to tail.  He was so big, he had to be a boy.  He seemed completely unconcerned by the attention, and I got the distinct feeling that we may have not been the first humans he’d snuck up on at night.

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We never got any decent photos of this particular quoll, so I’ve stolen this photo from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service – see below for details.

Spotted-tail quolls (Dasyurus maculatus maculatus) are a medium-sized, forest-dependent, marsupial carnivore, considered rare within Tasmania.  They come in a range of colours, from ginger through to a dark chocolate brown, accented with a smattering of white spots.  The boys are much bigger than the girls – females usually top out around 2.2kg, with the males getting up to around 4.6kg (although one particular thumper weighed in at 7kg).  Within Tasmania, the quolls of South West Cape in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area are considered a stronghold population for conservation.

They are renowned for being ferocious and bitey – quolls will eat anything from insects to wallabies, and will attack creatures larger than themselves.  An ecologist friend of mine once saw a spotted-tail quoll chase a juvenile Tasmanian devil up a tree, where they engaged in rather bloody, bitey, paw-to-paw combat – as I remember it, the devil ended up falling out of the tree, and racing off into the darkness.

Spotted-tail quolls really do get around – they maintain extensive home ranges of several hundred to several thousand hectares.  Males tend to have especially large territories, which contain within them the more modest territories of a number of lady quolls.  Quolls are drifters, not staying anywhere for long.  They move house every one to four days as they traverse their expansive territories, making their dens in everything from piles of rocks, to trees, to under-utilized rabbit and wombat burrows (woe betide the quoll that accidentally occupies a wombat burrow whilst its actual owner is in residence!).

The Melaleuca campsite quoll seemed an exception to this rule, and was observed lurking about the place over a period of a couple of weeks.  I encountered him a couple of times on my way to the toilets at night.

He was also rather cheeky.  One bushwalker reported that he had stood very still whilst watching the quoll, and that the impudent marsupial had wandered up to him and given his boot an exploratory chew.  You don’t read about that in the authorised biography!

The picture  in this article was pinched from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service – read more about spotted-tail quoll biology there.

F is for firetails, of the beautiful, big-boned persuasion. #MelaleucaMiscellany

Firetails Melaleuca

“Dave Watts called us WHAT?!” “Shut up and pass the millet.”

“Says here they’re tubby.”

We are poring over the classic Field Guide to Tasmanian Birds by Dave Watts when the insult comes to light.

“Apparently, they’re a ‘tubby, dark finch with a scarlet bill and rump’…”

“So basically, he’s calling them fat. That’s rude, that is.”

Someone needs to take umbrage on behalf of the beautiful firetails.  Poor little things can’t even read.

The Birds in Backyards website is only marginally more polite, describing them as small and “thick-set”.

Beautiful firetails (Stagonopleura bella) are Tasmania’s only native finch, and while I wouldn’t call them fat, at Melaleuca, they have every opportunity to reach their full potential.  Over the summer breeding period, the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Program puts on a lavish seed spread on two separate feed tables, twice daily, ostensibly with the critically endangered orange-bellied parrots in mind.  While many of the parrots do make the most of this all-you-can-eat buffet, they’re not the only birds stuffing their feathery little faces.

Far and away the most common self-selected feed-table guests are beautiful firetails – as finches, seeds are their favoured food.  It’s lucky they’re cute – they’re not backwards in coming forwards for a serve of seeds, and are often observed wiping their bills with great enthusiasm on the edge of the food trays.  The orange-bellied parrots don’t seem to mind them too much – there’s plenty to go around – and perhaps being in a bigger crowd makes everyone feel that little bit safer, should a hungry bird of prey happen to cruise by.

There cannot be ravens here

Part 9 of the Spooky black birds of SoHo series, for my #AnimalMOOC Field Note – expedition to urban West Hobart

There cannot be ravens here.

I say this because of this tree:

IMG_5284It is a persimmon, larger than, but not dissimilar to the one growing next door in my neighbours yard, which the local corvids were observed to strip.  It is un-netted, and covered in a glorious array of sunburst coloured fruit.

I’ve never seen a raven in the centre of town, except perhaps flying overhead.  Town central is more the domain of weedy birds, like the introduced sparrows, starlings, and blackbirds.

Ravens like hanging around  human landscapes, eating the treats we have thoughtfully provided for them, but apparently, not in the middle of our small city.  Is this a function of the distance to the nearest forest perhaps?  Or do the potential costs of negative interactions with humans potentially outweigh the benefits of this extra food bounty.