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.
The male King is hard to misidentify …
the female can be distinguished from Common Eider by its slightly smaller size and more concave face.
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.
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.
Not a sea duck and the only representative of its species that we saw was this 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.
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.
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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 …
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.
The scientific name of the Great Crested Grebe is Podiceps cristatus, wherein lies a story …
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.
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.
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.
Since then I’ve visited London, UK and now I’m back in Oz.
A quick walk around the country estate (in the Goldfields, Victoria) this morning turned up some of our spring migrants, Sacred Kingfisher and Horsefields Bronze Cuckoo. The signature tune of spring here is provided by the Rufous Songlark. Whoever named this bird was using rose-tinted hearing aids. It’s back and welcome despite its scratchy voice. I guess it was never going to be called a Screechlark.
I found a platypus busy in the creek that makes my eastern boundary. I haven’t seen one in ages so it’s almost a relief to find they’re still around. Last summer the creek was just a series of billabongs but it’s flowing presently.
The grass is up. The fire season approaches so the mower will get plenty of work in the next few weeks. But there’s less need for firewood so I can put down the chainsaw for a while.
The winter crop this year has been canola (rapeseed for some of you). It got off to a poor start. It was very cold this winter and germination was very slow. It’s patchy but overall it’s done better than expected …
Yesterday I took the dog for a walk along the Beaumaris cliff top from the Motor Yacht Squadron to Table Rock. For the uninitiated this is a Melbourne suburb south east of the city on the edge of Port Phillip Bay.
The cliff is a deep red and way below our feet is …
… The fossils paint a vivid picture of life below a sea that once covered parts of Melbourne. They comprise remains of ancient whales, seals, dolphins, sharks, fishes and sea birds, crabs, shells, corals and sea urchins.
An added distinction of Beaumaris is that it is one of the only sites known in Australia where we find evidence of our ancient land mammals in rocks formed in the shallows of an ancient bay.
As land animals died, their carcasses were washed out to sea by what was an ancestral Yarra River. This co-occurrence of land and marine animals is world famous, enabling precise dating of the evolution of Australia’s unique marsupial fauna.
The Beaumaris Motor Yacht Squadron has already covered a part of this site, public land of inestimable value, with a carpark and would like to develop a commercial marina. Enriching for them, impoverishing for a landscape that inspired a couple of generations of Australian painters. Let’s hope the council has the wit to deny them that opportunity.
On the journey we pass a sign …
‘At this site in the summer of 1886 the artists Tom Roberts and
Frederick McCubbin first met Arthur Streeton. Together with Charles Conder these men were the founders of the Heidelberg School.’
Fine art has been made at virtually every lookout on the way, not only by Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton and Condor but also by John Perceval, Alfred Coleman, Clarice Beckett and many less famous artists. You can find more detail <HERE>.
It’s a place that has managed to retain a bit of bush and a little wildness despite the proximity of a busy road. For me it offers a chance to enjoy some of the local birds. I shot all of these within 45 minutes with the dog waiting patiently at my side …