T’is the season …

Well of course it is, the mince pies are back in the shops. No carols yet, though.

In Darwin, Australia’s most northerly state capital, the inhabitants from the dawn of time identified six seasons. Presently it’s Gurrung, the hot dry period, time to hunt file snakes and long-necked turtles. When the white fellah showed up he simplified matters to just two seasons, wet and dry.

Melbourne, the most southerly capital of mainland Australia, has four seasons … most days.

In my little patch of Victoria it’s spring. The last week or so of winter was very summery. I do occasionally see a long-necked turtle but I’d starve to death if I had to rely on hunting them. I tend to notice the passage of the seasons by the birds. I heard the first Rufous Songlark on October 29. The following day they were everywhere singing and displaying for all they were worth.

Rufous Songlark

Horsefield’s Bronze-Cuckoos were hot on their heels.

Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo

No sight or sound yet of the Sacred Kingfishers.

They were all greeted by an icy blast. Since the calendar ticked over the weather seems determined to return to winter.

Despite the cool weather the first Brown Snake of the year turned up in the dog yard this morning.

My neck of the woods is nice and green. Winter rain was about average and the crops locally are looking good. That’s not true for inland Australia even as close as north-west Victoria it’s been very dry. This has brought a few nomads into the state. It was my chance to add Pied Honeyeater and Crimson Chat to my Vic List. To find them I headed to Goschen and I found them both within an hour or so.

Crimson Chat has to be the most gorgeous bird in the Australian Field Guides but they are rarely as attractive in real life as they are on the page but some of the males on this occasion were at their finest …

The Yellow Robin that showed up recently in the driveway is still around. I hold out little hope for it finding a mate however.

Crested Pigeon …

Crested Pigeon

Back in the 1840s John Gould, who was so important in the early cataloguing of Australia’s birds, described  the Crested Pigeon as one of the “loveliest in its tribe … not surpassed in beauty by any other form from any part of the world”. This could be overstating it a bit.

But rare birds do tend to be admired more than the common ones and in those days he said that it could only be seen by “enterprising countrymen … prepared to leave the haunts of civilised man and wander in the wilds of the distant interior”. And the best parts of that distant interior were the marshes and ephemeral lakes of the Murray-Darling and Eyre Basins where they followed a nomadic lifestyle to cope with the frequent droughts.

Its range began to increase in the 1920s and since then it has arrived in most of the major cities of Australia and is now a fairly common bird in areas where it was formerly unrecorded. The reasons for this success have been much discussed. Climate change has got a good run and since the temperature has been slowly rising since the Little Ice Age it may have played a part. Other more major changes have occurred however. The reduction of tree cover, creation of permanent watering places and the introduction of exotic weeds all associated with pastoral activity have greatly changed the environment in its favour.

The Crested Pigeon showed great flexibility in its food requirements, consuming seeds and some leaves of many pastoral plants and weeds, notably Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane, Echium plantagineum, and with native plants of little importance in its diet. See Andrew Black

I came across a pair the other day that were quite confiding. This is unusual in pigeons because, as a rule, they make good eating. Perhaps they recognised me as a well educated human likely to have read the verdict of Charles Sturt, one of Australia’s great explorers, that their flesh is neither tender nor well flavoured.

Crested Pigeon
Crested Pigeon


Vulture …

East Africa has seven species of vulture. They are  members of the Accipitridae the family that includes eagles, buzzards, hawks and some of the kites. They are united by the fact that they live mainly on carrion but they are not necessarily each others closest relatives within the family. They are unrelated to the New World Vultures and Condors that evolved separately in the Americas to look quite similar.

Like a lot of heavy birds in warm climates they prefer to wait until the sun has cooked up a few thermals before they take to the wing. Then it’s time to hunt for the day’s meal which they find by sight.

Lappet-faced Vulture waiting for the thermals

It’s not difficult for a human to find dead animals in the savanna – just watch the vultures. Initially they all seem to be going the same way. As you get closer they’re converging from all points of the compass.

Hooded Vulture

There were more than fifty vultures of five different species in this assembly in Kidepo National Park.

Vultures – Kidepo National Park, Uganda

And then the squabbling begins …

Lappet-faced Vultures
White-headed Vulture in the centre

As they get their fill they lumber off.

African White-backed Vulture
Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture

Spare moments …

The Budongo Forest covers an area of about 435 km² which reportedly makes it the largest forest in Uganda. It’s a mixed forest and was once important as a source of mahogany. Left to itself the mix would simplify, at climax it would be dominated by Ironwood (Cynometra alexandrii) more valuable timber species would be excluded. Mahogany is much more attractive to foresters. The efforts to encourage a rich mix to persist were successful but Celtis (hackberries or nettle trees) and Ficus (figs) species were more inclined to grow than Mahogany. These have no timber value but do provide food for primates and birds.

The forest looks natural enough but the parts that have been molested are better for birds and primates than a couple of reserved areas that have never been touched. Who’d have thought.

We were kept hard at work but a couple of hours every afternoon were ours to go for a walk down the Royal Mile or around the camp.

White-throated Bee-eater
Red-capped Robin-Chat

King and Commoners …

The summer visitor to Svalbard will see a few ducks. The commonest is the Common Eider but if you’re lucky there will be an occasional King in the flock.

Kings and Commoners

The male King is hard to misidentify …

King Eider

the female can be distinguished from Common Eider by its slightly smaller size and more concave face.

Common Eider

Both species are sea ducks that dive for their food. They nest on the ground which puts them at the mercy of Arctic Foxes. There are often small nesting colonies of Common Eider near the compounds where the sled dogs are kept. Foxes tend to keep away from the dogs. They also lose eggs and young to Glaucous Gulls and occasionally Polar Bears.

A rare bird among the Eiders on Svalbard is one named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, a biologist that I have more than a little admiration for. Steller’s Eider is the smallest of the eiders and we were lucky to get fairly distant views of a single male.

Steller’s Eider

We encountered some other ducks on fresh water.

Long-tailed Duck (or Oldsquaw to some of the politically incorrect) has the distinction of being the deepest diving duck (60 metres, ~200 feet). It is a sea duck but the one pair encountered were on a freshwater pond.

Long-tailed Duck

Not a sea duck and the only representative of its species that we saw was this Tufted Duck.

Tufted Duck

All of these birds dive for their food so too does this one. It’s not a duck it’s a diver or, as the Americans would have it, a loon.

Red-throated Diver (Loon)

Where the Eiders are seasonally gaudy the Divers are elegantly understated in designer pastels. Note how far back the legs are set on the body. They are on a different evolutionary path than the Auks. All five species of Diver are foot propelled underwater. They can use their wings to change direction but essentially their wings are for flight.

Arse Feet …

… or for Americans Ass Feet. If you were a torpedo, a ship or a foot propelled diver having the means of propulsion at the rear end has its advantages.

The Great Crested Grebe rejoices in the scientific name Podiceps cristatus … Latin for Crested Arse-foot. Along with the other grebes they are in the Family Podicepididae and the Order Podicepidiformes all celebrating the location of their feet … I did say rejoice.

Podiceps cristatus

Penguins are wing propelled divers and one group, the stiff tails, are united in the genus Pygoscelis. If the grebes speak Latin among themselves then the stiff tails speak Greek. You guessed it – Arse-feet. The penguins so blessed are the Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo.

Chinstrap Penguin
Adelie Penguin
Gentoo Penguin

Gentoo, that’s an odd name for a penguin. I’ll come back to it.

Meanwhile, having your feet back there is not without disadvantage for the grebes. They are hopeless on land. The Great Crested Grebe nests at the water’s edge often on a floating mat of reeds tethered to standing reeds. They have freedom in the water and in the air but have surrendered their access to land. Ducks and swans have taken a different evolutionary journey. So have the penguins.

Penguins have surrendered their power of flight. In air that is. Their wings are adapted to flight in water a medium that is 784 times more dense than air (at sea level … such precision!). You can’t do both (which is what my mother said when I told her I wanted to be a musician when I grew up). They (penguins not musicians) need to come ashore to nest. Having their feet where they are enables upright bipedalism and, since they are webbed, they act in the same way as the elevators on the tail plane of fixed wing aircraft. Their feet have ended up in a similar location to the grebes but for quite different reasons and there seems little downside to the arrangement.

Back to the Gentoo, Pygoscelis papua. The scientific name is more easily explained than the common name. A French naturalist, Pierre Sonnerat (1748 – 1814), claimed to have discovered it in new Guinea. Neither he nor the penguin having ever been to New Guinea this seems unlikely.

In Voyage à la Nouvelle-Guinée (1776) Sonnerat details an expedition to the Spice Islands and New Guinea made in 1771. Some of which is pure fiction. The book though, contains good illustrations of three different penguins and the Laughing Kookaburra all signed with his name. The penguins are readily identifiable as the Emperor, King and Gentoo. None of these birds occur in New Guinea.

It seems that he was given the skins of these birds by Sir Joseph Banks at the Cape of Good Hope to pass on to fellow naturalist Dr Philibert Commerson in Mauritius.  He duly delivered them to Commerson’s illustrator, Paul Philippe Sanguin de Jossigny who made drawings of them. Poor de Jossigny died unexpectedly. Sonnerat took the opportunity to take the drawings, sign them and pass them off as his own.

When I arrived in Australia the Laughing Kookaburra was rather evocatively called Dacelo gigas but older Scientific names take precedence. So now we have Pygoscelis papua and Dacelo novaeguineae both named after places where they have never been found.

Gentoo is a word that has fallen out of common use it was formerly synonymous with Hindu. Australian Bird Names – A Complete Guide, by Fraser and Gray (CSIRO) suggests that the link between Hindus and the penguin “will remain one of the great mysteries of the universe“. Perhaps the head pattern reminded someone of a turban.

Gentoo Penguin

A link with my past …

My interest in birds goes way back to primary school in England. The reason for it is totally unfathomable, no one else in the family was so inclined although there were a couple of books about birds in our small collection. At the time I lived in Leyton, London within walking distance of Whipps Cross where there is some residual oak forest and the Hollow Ponds.

I doubt that parents these days would be comfortable with an eight year old wandering off by themselves to go bird watching but it seemed normal enough back then.

There were a couple of birds that I regarded as megastars – the Jay and the Great Crested Grebe. The Jay has a wide distribution across Europe and Asia but doesn’t make it to Australia which is where I now live. The Great Crested Grebe though does.

I went for a walk around Lake Wendouree in Ballarat the other day and there were several pairs swimming about.

We have three species of Grebe in Oz. The Australasian Grebe is the smallest and occurs on shallow freshwater sometimes on surprisingly small ponds. The Hoary-headed Grebe is slightly larger and dives slightly deeper. It occurs on fresh water bodies and is also happy in sheltered salt water. The Great Crested is the largest of the three, dives deeper and is found on lakes rather than ponds.

Australasian Grebe
Hoary-headed Grebe

For the photographer none of the grebes are particularly cooperative.  They like a comfortable distance between you and them. When I found myself close to a pair of Great Crested Grebes in some reeds I sat on the bank and waited hoping that they would emerge and give me a shot. Eventually one did …

Great Crested Grebe

In concentrating on the first pair I had failed to notice a second pair coming from my right. They were quite close by the time I saw them, their necks stretched out in aggressive pose. Here’s a close up of one of them …

Great Crested Grebe

This was a territorial issue. Pair number one retreated into the reeds. Pair number two went in after them, there was a few moments of splashing, unfortunately hidden from my view. Pair number two re-emerged and stood guard for a couple of minutes. The edge of the reeds was clearly the territory boundary.

It was only then, it seemed, that they realised I was there.

Great Crested Grebe

The scientific name of the Great Crested Grebe is Podiceps cristatus, wherein lies a story …

While I was there …

There wasn’t a lot of time in Harrietville for birdwatching but as I moved between my accommodation and rehearsal rooms I often encountered a bunch of Scrubwrens at one particular spot. They clearly resented my intrusion and would gather and scold me. I had to get a photograph.

White-browed Scrubwren

They are denizens of dense vegetation. In eastern Victoria it would be hard to go birding without encountering them. In the drier west of Victoria they are harder to find, streamside vegetation offers the best chance.

They are members of the genus Sericornis named by Gould in 1838. It is from the Greek and means silk bird apparently because of their silky plumage. I have banded many of these birds. Whilst handling  them it never seemed to me that they were silkier than other little birds from similar habitats.

White-browed Scrubwren

Ecclesiastes 3:1 …

The change of seasons in Victoria is far less dramatic than in the US or UK. There as summer fades the leaves change colour and a big proportion of breeding birds head south for winter. An influx of winter birds take refuge from what will soon be a snow-covered landmass further north.

Here autumn is a bit of a flop. The plants tend to be evergreen and there is no major landmass to the south to provide us with a winter influx. Antarctica doesn’t have much to start with. Tasmania does its best for us with a couple of parrot species. New Zealand sends us a tern and a shorebird.

But spring is everything it should be. The wild flowers bring some colour. The Superb Fairywrens take on their breeding plumage. Bird activity and numbers increase.

Our Clamorous Reedwarblers arrived the other day and a big flock of White-browed Woodswallows has passed through.

Superb Fairywren
Waxlip Orchid
Sticky Everlasting
Sticky Everlasting
White-browed Woodswallow