Ospreys …

There are subjects that lend themselves to black & white and others that just don’t …

You need to click on the pictures to really appreciate them.

I haven’t been able to get close to one eating a fish and they often do that on top of lamp posts or other unattractive man made objects. When they have caught a fish they carry it head first with one talon behind the other to minimise aerodynamic drag – another photo on the wish list.

Crab Creek …

Into the mangroves once more, This time at Crab Creek out past the Broome Bird Observatory. The specific target was Dusky Gerygone which I found but it was too flighty to photograph. Other birds, though, were more accommodating like these very cute Mangrove Grey Fantails …

and I made progress on the Mangrove Golden Whistler. A few years ago these were almost unknown in this particular patch of mangroves. On the rare occasions they keep still there’s always a stick or two between the lens and the bird. One day …

eBird …

I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study. – Ezra Cornell

Serious birdos need some means of recording their observations, preferably in a form that will spit out life lists, state lists, patch lists, backyard lists, birds seen out of the toilet window lists and a few more. Gazing at these lists will give them hours of pleasure especially if they are bigger than their frenemies.

Universities need data. This can be time consuming, tedious and costly to accumulate. So here’s the deal. We’ll keep your lists (on-line) for free and throw in an app that will help you get your ID’s right. You can use it on your laptop and/or your mobile device. So saith Cornell University of Ithaca, New York, USA, founded in 1865 (and at last they’ve done something useful).

But here’s the catch – you’ll have to do it our way.

The database is eBird. You access it through your web browser plus you can enter your observations on the mobile app available wherever you get your apps. The ID assistant is Merlin also downloaded to your mobile device. There is enough functionality in the mobile apps to go on working when there is no service. Essential for birding in Australia.

Off you go into the bush. Start your list. The app will track location and duration of the session. Input the species as you go. Upload the lot when you’re finished. If you have a target species looking it up in Merlin will give you pictures, a distribution map and in most instances recordings of its calls. All this information comes from those who went before you. You are standing on the shoulders of giants.

So far so good but doing it their way means taking a fine grained approach to location, counting birds – yes they want the numbers and writing notes to justify some of your observations. If you are really lucky and see something truly rare a moderator will take the fun out of it with naked skepticism – by email. Try not to be too precious – I console myself by checking where they are in the top 100. To date way behind me!

Cornell make it pretty easy to get up to speed via that other university – YouTube …

What of the data that Cornell gets in return? That’s their problem but its also a riveting topic among birdwatchers. Imagine a roomful of introverts who can barely make eye contact getting heated about the uselessness of the lists that some morons submit. Fortunately these discussions, as fiery as they may be, don’t last long, we’d all rather be home comparing our positions in the top 100.

But more on that another time.

Wings Up or Wings Down …

These photos of a Gull-billed Tern were taken at one two thousandth of a second so fortunately there was plenty of light. I prefer flight shots with wings up. I feel they convey a greater dynamism but they are often marred by the shadow cast by the wing. If you click on the wing down shot the feather detail on the wing makes up to some extent for the less dynamic pose.

What you really need is a well trained Tern that will expose its armpit to the sun.

Birding Software …

Juvenile Brush Cuckoo

I started bird watching in primary school. The reasons why are hard to fathom. No one else in the family had any interest in birds or natural history. It’s important for context to know that I am a baby boomer born and raised in the east end of London. We had a small library, one set of encyclopedias and four other books. These were treated with great reverence. Hands had to be washed prior to touching them. One of them was a bird book, a coffee table sort of tome, words and pictures … in colour (partly). Maybe that helped spark an interest.

We lived about 10 minutes walk from the North Circular Road where it passed through the green belt, remnants of Epping Forest. I was permitted to go watch birds in the forest adjacent to Whipps Cross Hospital. On the other side of the North Circular there was much more woodland and the Hollow Ponds. Fortunately my parents never paid attention to my lists. Swans, Coots and ducks were rare on my side of the road.

What I liked to do was walk, look and make a list. It’s what I still like to do almost 70 years on.

Those lists were on scraps of paper. They are lost. The notion of keeping a life list didn’t occur until the computer age caught up with me. I got into computers and began entering up my records which by that stage were recorded in notebooks. The user interface of the software available at the time was woeful. After a brief stint using a bought one I wrote my own. Then I created a suite of queries to generate any reports I felt the need for.

The DIY approach avoided one major hurdle. At the outset most people would have thought that the taxonomy of birds was well understood and not likely to change much. DNA technology soon fixed that. Had I stayed with the bought one I’d have had to buy a new version every time there was a major change to the official world order. As it was the system met my needs for 30 years but the work of maintaining the underlying taxonomy and of reconciling all the splits and lumps grew with every year and every continent visited.

What I wanted was my records on my computer, suitably backed up of course, simple and efficient data entry and reporting and for someone else to do the work. And now I have it.

The solution comes in two parts. On my computer I have some free software called Scythebill. It is home to my records. On the web there is eBird. It takes care of the taxonomy maintenance. Data entry has moved into the field with the eBird mobile app on my phone. It records time, distance and location automatically. Data entry requires just a few keystrokes for each species. Scythebill will accept the list from eBird with minimum fuss. Either system can stand alone but they do mesh very nicely.

I’ll write more about eBird in a future blog. If you feel any temptation to write lists of birds or engage in citizen science do it on eBird. It’s free and a great solution to your record keeping and if you do get more serious at a later date your life list will be there waiting for you.

Still Swatting Mozzies …

Yellow White-eye

I’ll be visiting the Mangroves frequently because, like Tilly, a recent commenter from Kingaroy or some place in Queensland, I still need a male. It’s another Whistler, the Mangrove Golden. My best efforts to date are not up to scratch. Meanwhile I take whatever is offered. Like this young male Red-headed Honeyeater …

Red-headed Honeyeater

Presently he’s merely blushing but when he’s all grown up he will be positively glowing.

The rump is also scarlet so the shot of one with its back to the camera looking over the shoulder is on the wanted list.

The Broad-billed Flycatcher is another adorable denizen of the mangroves.

Once again the male is more striking, darker above and brighter below than the female but not all birds are sexually dimorphic. In the Yellow White-eye sexes are similar.

Yellow White-eye

Mangroves …

They may not be scenically splendid but they are the nursery for enormous numbers of sea creatures and protectors of the coast against storms. And they have birds.

Australia is home to about 45 species of mangrove in 18 families. They like the tropics, Darwin Harbour has about 36 species, Broome about a dozen. Species drop out as you head south. By the time you get to Victoria there is just one – Avicennia marina. Tasmania has none. As well as the right amount of sunshine each species needs the right amount of tidal inundation.

Birds enjoy the mangroves everywhere but the opportunities for mangrove specialists are much better in the north where there are large patches of mangrove forest.

The birdo who wants to photograph these specialists must first work out the tide and then do battle with mud and mosquitoes. The birds rarely sit still for you and the tangle of roots and branches complicates things further. One bird that has eluded me on previous visits is the male White-breasted Whistler. The females are confiding, almost brazen but drab. The males are gorgeous if you can get a clear view of them. Perhaps their skulking behaviour is to make up for their lack of camouflage. Now that I live here I can afford to sit and wait (don’t scratch those bites) …

White-breasted Whistler (female)
White-breasted Whistler (male)

Holy Egrets, Batman …

These two are much easier to tell apart than the crested terns …

except they are both the same species, Egretta sancta (sacred egrets so named in 1789 because they were supposedly venerated by some Polynesians). They are found along rocky coasts in the Pacific ranging as far north as Japan and as far south as New Zealand. They are fairly common around the Australian coast except Victoria where they are infrequent and Tasmania where they are absent. There are plenty around Broome.

The popular name is Eastern Reef Egret but they are also called Pacific Reef Heron or any other permutation of the words. They are not the only egret or heron to occur in white and grey forms. In my experience the grey ones outnumber the white ones. The cause of the difference is unknown but stable polymorphisms like this can occur where two forms of a gene (allele) exist for a particular spot on a chromosome and having one of each (heterozygosity) confers an advantage compared to two of the same (homozygosity). The advantage may be due to body colour or it may be due to some other unsuspected effect of the gene combination.

The short greeny-yellow legs distinguish the white ones from other egrets. Distinguishing the grey ones from White-faced Herons should pose no problem if relatively sober.

Eastern Reef Egret