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

Advertisements

Z is for Bassian thrush (Zoothera lunulata) – guilty-looking ground scruffler of the understorey #MelaleucaMiscellany

One with worms, one with veg - on their way to a potluck, perhaps - excellent shot from Mick Brown.

One with worms, one with veg – on their way to a potluck, perhaps – excellent shot from Mick Brown.

And so we arrive at the last letter of the alphabet, the enigmatic Z.  Our alphabetical natural miscellany comes to a end, not with a bang, but with a scruffle, for Z is for Zoothera lunulata, a.k.a. the rather adorable Bassian thrush. I’d never seen a Bassian thrush prior to visiting Melaleuca, but since meeting them there, they have become firm favourites in the world of cryptic, little (mostly) brown birds.  Birdlife Australia describe them as “secretive”, so maybe it’s not surprising we only just met. Bassian thrushes seem to wear a permanent look of anxious guilt, as if you’ve caught them smoking behind the school tennis sheds. They are members of the unfortunately named Turdidae family, which also includes the similarly remorseful-looking blackbirds, who doubtless were smoking behind the tennis sheds, and probably ripping the moss of my bonsai plants, the little bastards.

So delicious!  This fabulous shot from JJ Harrison, via the Wikimedia Commons -  (jjharrison89@facebook.com)

So delicious! This fabulous shot from JJ Harrison, via the Wikimedia Commons – (jjharrison89@facebook.com)e hope of startling unwary visitors.  

Larger than many of the other LBBs, Bassian thrushes have the most beautifully patterned feathers, in colours from cream through to caramels, in toffee and coffee tones, their edges scalloped in a rich dark-chocolate.  Although they look quite delicious, do not be tempted to eat them! Bassian thrushes enjoy such pastimes as ground scruffling, turning over litter to find tasty bits of bug, fruit or worm, and also lurking around the bushwalkers’ huts in the hope of startling unwary visitors.

The bird that lived outside the backdoor of the Charles King Memorial Hut was convinced of its mad camo-skills.  Should you walk too close, it would take a couple of quick steps, then freeze in “invisible” mode, which unfortunately, was only effective in the dark. Another Bassian thrush regularly tempted fate by stealing blueberries from the Fenton-King residence.  It probably thought itself lucky to survive a close encounter with a flying hearth brush, when the wanton theft became too much for one of the bipedal residents to bear*.

Mick Brown captured this BT in Deny King's garden - could this be our blueberry thief?

Mick Brown captured this BT in Deny King’s garden – could this be our blueberry thief?

This is the final instalment of the Melaleuca Miscellany.  Many many thanks to all of the lovely people who’ve contributed photos and ideas to the series – I hope you all get to visit the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area one day, to experience the magic of Melaleuca for yourselves.

The Bassian thrush is so cryptic, I bet you can't even see it in this photo.

The Bassian thrush is so cryptic, I bet you can’t even see it in this photo.  Hint: it’s by the back door of the hut on the left, pretending it’s a feathery rock.

*N.B. – No birds were harmed in the making of this anecdote.

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

1495129_935664026474307_4072550223577659061_o

“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.

10661712_847989451928951_5780074039144263738_o

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.

11014858_935664016474308_4058101922435180898_o

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)
11020745_847989845262245_6803639619299677724_o

Breeding season plumage – note the stealth with which the male blue wren conceals his mammoth testicles! Picture courtesy Charlie Price.

11038431_847989348595628_1500309628556456811_o

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.

R is for the Richards! The grey shrike-thrushes of Melaleuca #MelaleucaMiscellany

A Richard, checking the coast is clear, prior to scoffing some snacks.  Photo kindly supplied by Mavis

A Richard, checking the coast is clear, prior to scoffing some snacks. Photo kindly supplied by Mavis Wilkins.

Melaleuca is home to a variety of talented feathered songsters, but the Richards are perhaps the most famous.  They got a guernsey in Christobel Mattingley’s book “King of the Wilderness”, on the life of Deny King.  Apparently, Deny named them after Richard Tauber, a popular singer of the time, for their tuneful ways.

Grey shrike-thrushes (Colluricincla harmonica) are quite common in Tasmania, but that does not diminish their charm.  They’re relatively curious birds, and are often quite bold around humans.  They’ll eat just about anything – insects, lizards, frogs, spiders, birds eggs and sometimes nestlings, and occasionally, random bits of rotting dead things they find lying around.  Fruit and nuts may be eaten at a pinch.

11039124_410164792496014_8404667576989901599_o

Wary Richard, concerned that someone is coming to steal his cheese! Photo by Mavis Wilkins.

I’d always assumed that the Melaleuca residents had called them Richards as a slightly more formal version of Dick Whitty – another common name, which sounds a little like the sound they make when calling.  Their songs are quite lovely, and apparently quite convincing, for Richards mate for life, living happily ever after in territories of up to 10 hectares.

The Richards are often seen hopping about the trees around the bushwalkers huts, and at the Fenton-King residence.  Rumour has it that they are also somewhat partial to cheese, although where they obtain such contraband is a mystery.

11086753_10205890440158153_350254026_o

A Richard eating more traditional food – in this case, an unfortunate frog. Photo received with thanks from John McDougall.

All of the photos featured in this blog post were gifted by some of the generous bird-people of the Facebook group Tasmanian Bird Sightings and Photography.  If you have even a passing interest in Tasmanian birds, it’s well worth joining.

If you’d like to hear some of the Richards’ greatest hits, I can recommend the inexpensive but excellent Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service’s Bird in the Hand app – this app, and others, can be found here.

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

OBP v Firetail

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.

OBP

H is for Hirundo neoxena – Welcome swallows, and their other little Hirund* friends #MelaleucaMiscellany

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Let’s fledge, you said… there’ll be heaps of insects, you said….everyone else is doing it, you said.”   Two baby welcome swallows appear to regret their decision to fly the nest the day before the weather collapsed.

The welcome swallows of Melaleuca take their welcoming duties very seriously.  So seriously, that they nest in the Trodel Hut, right next to the airstrip at Melaleuca, so they’re always on hand to greet new arrivals, and if they’re lucky, poo on their backpacks.  These summer migrants brooded two clutches of babies in their muddy little nests, and some of those babies decided to fledge while we were still there.

A couple left the nest a day or two before their siblings, and appeared to immediately regret having done so.  They spent a lot of time sitting on that beam pictured above, apparently trying to work out how to get back into the cosy space that had until recently been their home.

Further up the hill towards the bushwalkers huts, the tree martins (Hirundo nigricans) took advantage of higher-class real estate openings, which became available once the orange-bellied parrots vacated their specially built nesting boxes.  It took less than 24 hours after OBP fledging for a family of martins to measure up, upgrade and move into one of the nest boxes outside the rangers’ hut – they are paragons of avian efficiency.

Another Hirund* observed but briefly at Melaleuca were a mob of white-throated needletails (Hirundapaus caudacutus).  Being a bit of a bird duffer, I’d never seen these uncommon migrants before, until a squadron of them appeared practicing their aerial manoeuvres over the Fenton-King residence.  There were actual serious ecologists staying in the bushwalkers’ huts that night, so Qug and I raced inside to check that yes, they were really white-throated needletails, which the ecologists confirmed with some amusement as we raced back out the door.

Dave Watts describes these birds as “large, strong and powerful”, which seemed a fair thing, but I prefer Penny’s description, of them being like aerial tuna – strong, streamlined and built for speed.  As they swept by overhead, you could hear, and almost feel, the beat of the feathered bellows of their wings.  I described them like this to a friend earlier this evening, who said they sounded quite scary.

“Oh no!” I said, “They wouldn’t hurt a fly!” which I immediately realised was a complete lie, as flies are almost certainly the first thing they would hurt.  Their habitat is listed as “aerial”, and they are constantly taking insects, including flies, on the wing.

All of the Hirund*s are insect aficionados, scoffing vast quantities of them to keep up all that swooping and diving, although I did feel that the tree martins could try a little harder on the sandfly-eating front.  Which leads us to tomorrow’s letter – I is for Insects – so many of them!

G is for Ground Parrot! Six reasons they are better than OBPs #MelaleucaMiscellany

Ground Parrot Melaleuca

A ground parrot hides modestly in the moorland. Such good camouflage!

“Where are the orange-bellied parrots?”

Some people haven’t even clambered out of the plane before they ask this at Melaleuca.

I’d guess about one in ten visitors to Melaleuca comes at least partially to see the birds, and by the birds, I usually mean the orange-bellied parrot, a.k.a the OBP.   Yes, they’re super rare, and cute’n’all, but I think ground parrots (Pezopus wallicus) are actually way more betterer.

Although orange-bellied parrots are technically rarer, more people see OBPs at Melaleuca than see ground parrots.  In my experience, ground parrots are most abundant and visible early in the morning, as you walk to clean the loos near the bushwalkers’ huts, or when you’re running down to the airstrip to meet the first plane of the day.  After that, they seem to vanish until everyone else leaves.

But that’s ok – ground parrots have a right to be exclusive if they want to.  I totally support them in this, and present you with six reasons why ground parrots are better than OBPs:

1. Ground parrots are modest.  While the orange-bellied parrots are usually busy posing for visitors packing impressive camera equipment, the ground parrots prefer to keep a low profile, bashfully lurking in the buttongrass, showing themselves only when you’re actually about to tread on them.

2. Ground parrots are more hygienic.  Look at this ground parrot explaining the importance of clean boots inside the (erstwhile OBP) observation hut – selfless!

Photo 21-02-2015 10 02 23 am

Ground parrots have a passion for keeping things clean.

3. Ground parrots are hard-working sound artists.  Whilst orange-bellied parrots can sound not unlike cranky budgies, ground parrots pipe a mournful, ascending minor scale, twice daily, an hour before the sun has bothered to rise, and an hour after it drops below the buttongrass plains.  It is beautiful, and so are they, man.

4. Ground parrots have a smaller carbon footprint.  While OBPs are frequent flyers, clocking up innumerable miles between Tasmania and mainland Australia on an annual basis, the ground parrot appreciates local comforts, rarely straying outside a modest 10 hectare territory.  If flushed from cover, they shoot out of the scrub and fly low and fast, usually not especially far, before burying themselves in the buttongrass again. Oh, and they’re committed locavores, though I’m yet to see one eating kale.

5. Ground parrots are closely related to famed Lazarus-bird, the night parrot. Recently discovered to not actually be extinct, this bird has been accused of causing more deaths of obsessive Aussie birdos than any other.  As such, don’t you think you should be a little nicer to its apparently mild-mannered cousin?

6. Ground parrots have stripy tail feathers.  I don’t think I need to explain this further.

Of course, there will be people who disagree with me – as is their misguided right – some of them congregate at this Facebook page, which has excellent information on what those marginally less awesome birds, the orange-bellied parrots, have been up to.