Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brown Thornbill

Another Australian bird, which is also found in Tasmania- the Brown Thornbird ( Acanthiza pusilla ). This insectivorous bird has a melodious call and it was a pleasure watching it hunt for insects.
Could not observe the bird for long- since it disappeared after about 10 minutes. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Grey Teal

A small respite in my schedule gives me a chance to resume my posting of Australian birds. We all associate ducks with water- so when I spotted a duck high up on a tree, I was quite amused. Although I had seen many photographs of ducks on trees, I had never seen one in real life. Well this time it was the Grey Teal ( Anas gracilis ). Another mobile duck,(just like the wandering whistling duck posted earlier) that keeps migrating irregularly, between freshwater lakes- looking for abundant food supply. When it comes to food they are not at all fussy and can eat anything from dry land plants,to insects and their larvae. The bird generally breeds near inland waterways, and nests may be placed on the ground, in rabbit burrows or in tree hollows. Eggs are also laid on the bare floor of the nest site, which are then covered with down (feathers).

Monday, April 27, 2015

Black Swan

One of my favourite books in finance is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s "The black swan", a term he popularized to mean "An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict." The chance sighting of this pair of Black Swan ( Cygnus atratus , the scientific name means ‘a swan attired in black’, ) was something like a 'Black swan' event itself. A series of unplanned events, led my wife and me to a place called Hunter wetland center, where we spotted this pair.
We spent quite sometime, watching this graceful pair. Black swans are naturally found in in the wetlands of south western and eastern Australia and were hunted to near extinction in New Zealand, where they are successfully reintroduced now.  These birds are exclusively herbivores and feed on aquatic plants and algae. The swan is the state emblem of Western Australia and appears on the state flag.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Satin Bowerbird

When I started birding in Australia there were three birds that I wanted to see; Kookaburra, Satin Bowerbird and the Lyre bird. I have already posted about the Kookaburra, today is the turn of the Bowerbird. To my dismay, I did not sight a male Satin bowerbird ( Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) - but was quite delighted seeing a female. Bowerbirds themselves are quite drab looking birds, nothing eye catching about their appearance or colour. But what is quite fascinating, is what the male does to woo the female. The male builds an elaborate structure and decorates it with various artifacts- they could be anything raging from shells, petals, parrot feathers, berries to mirror pieces, ball pens, clips and other man made objects. They however prefer objects with blue colour or even the ones that shine. Once the structure ( called bower) is built the female inspects it and if she likes it mates with the builder. What the male has built is actually not a nest- but just a structure. The female now has to build her own nest and lay her eggs- while the male goes his merry ways.
I did not spot a bower in the wild, however I did see one in the Natural History museum at Sydney. The third photograph is from this place, and displays a bower with two stuffed birds. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Pacific Black Duck

The Pacific black duck (Anas superciliosa), featured today is  predominantly brown duck- the only black feathers it has are a thin stripe near its eyes. In New Zealand, they are called the grey ducks, again they hardly have any grey colour on them; who says taxonomists are predictable ? The bird is found throughout most of Australia, and the Pacific. Recreational hunting (Isn't this word Oxymoron?) of this duck is permitted in some Australian states. We had a lovely time with the sociable duck though.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wandering whistling duck

It was raining very heavily and going by their demeanor these Wandering Whistling ducks (Dendrocygna arcuata ) did not like the rain a bit.  They spent most of their time (we were there for a whole day) on a tree top rather than on water.
The are called whistling duck because  of the loud whistling calls and the whistling noise their wings make during flight. Wandering because, they keep migrating from permanent wetlands along the coast to ephemeral ones that are formed inland during wet weather.
These birds feed on aquatic vegetation, seeds, the bulbs of plants and other herbage, insects and small aquatic animals. Pairs mostly bond for life. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Australasian darter

Many birds that I spotted in Australia were very similar to the ones I see in India. Such similarity I noticed in this Australasian Darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae ). Also called the snake bird, because of its long neck- this bird is a wonderful swimmer, as it is a fisherbird. Unusually for a waterbird, the darter has very little oil to make its feather waterproof. Hence after a session of diving and fishing the bird has to dry itself with its wings open. The lack of oil actually aids the bird, in diving deep and competing with other water birds which have a much shallower dive. The bird is found throughout Australia's wetlands. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Magpie Goose

Most birds that we watch are generally quite active, hardly resting at a particular place for a long time. The Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata ) though were an exception to the rule. Probably the most sedentary birds that we have seen. Found throughout the northern and easters Australian coast, these birds have an cry that sounds like a loud honk.
Although the bird has seen a decline in population over a period of time- hunting of the bird is permitted so as to maintain a viable population and also not to have an excess pest like population.
The red background that you see in some of the photographs is because of a water fern or plant called Azolla. This plant which can rapidly spread, in the presence of phosphorous is red in the presence of sun and green in shade. The entire water body was covered with Azolla giving it a lovely red carpet appearance.
Diverting a bit from natural history- a little Trivial pursuit. According to some dictionaries the plural of Goose is not geese as we would naturally assume. Geese is used only if there are 1,2,3,4,6, or 8 geese, if there are 5,7,9 or higher then its "gooses" .
If that was not enough a flock of geese when not flying is called a 'Gaggle'- when in flight they become a 'Skein'. The word 'Gaggle' originated  in the late 15c from 'gagyll', with reference to both geese and women.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Pink Eared Duck

For the next few days I will posting a few water birds. Probably a good way to start the series is by the most cutest of the lot- The Pink eared duck (Malacorhynchus membranaceus ). A pretty looking duck with a spatula like beak. It is called the pink eared duck, because it has a small pink spot near it's eye (though the female does not have the spot) . The duck is also called a zebra duck, because of its patterns. Its unusual bill is highly specialised and is fringed with fine grooves, which  filter out the microscopic plants and animals which make up the bulk of its diet. The water enters through the tip of the bill and after getting filtered is expelled along the sides.
I spotted this solitary duck at the Hunter wetland area.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo

Australia has five species of black Cockatoo's and these black Cockatoo's are endemic to Australia and found nowhere else in the world. I was so delighted to spot one of these blacks, that despite it not being a good image, I anyway decided to post it on the blog.
The bird is the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus ) once called by John Gould as the Funeral Cockatoo. Four of these five black Cockatoo's are listed as threatened. The population of Yellow-tailed too is declining and may be a matter of time before it joins the other four. Loss of habitat and illegal pet trade are the primary reasons for their decline.
Now for some interesting- Although Cockatoo's are related to the parrots, they are never found in green or blue colour, like the parrots. Colours in birds are produced not just by pigments, but by microscopically structured surface on the feathers. When light reflects of these surface from various layers, it causes interference. The greens and the blues are caused by something called constructive interference and the structure responsible for it is called the Dyck texture. Cockatoo's lack this structure in their feathers hence the lack of greens and blues in them.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Superb Fairy Wren

Both the images are of a male Superb Fairy wren (Malurus cyaneus), a gleaming, velvety blue and black bird. The male is so colourful that it is hard to miss it- so hard to miss, that I missed out on photographing the female ! Other than the colourful plumage this wren leads a colourful life too. The birds are monogamous and pair for life, but they are also sexually promiscuous, which means that each partner will mate with other individuals and they will raise the chicks together born out of such mating. So infidelity is quite the norm, despite the monogamy.
As a part of their courtship display the male plucks and offers yellow petals to the female. This restless insectivorous bird, also has an interesting way to identify parasitic cuckoo in their nest (see previous post). It uses a unique song as a password, which only the superb wrens chicks respond to. A very interesting bird indeed. The bird is found only in Eastern Australia and Tasmania. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fan-tailed Cuckoo

The first thing most of us remember when we thing about the cuckoo, is its ingenious way of dodging the perils and labours of incubation by depositing their eggs in the  nest of some other bird and allowing them to rear its young. Those exactly where my thoughts when I saw this Fan-tailed Cuckoo ( Cacomantis flabelliformis ) in Australia, which incidentally was also my first cuckoo sighting down under. To avoid having their eggs thrown out by the foster parents cuckoos have developed a colouration to their eggs that matches with those species they parasitise, so each race of cuckoo restricts itself to only certain species. This Fan-tailed chooses flycatchers, fairy-wrens, scrubwrens and thornbills, the Brown Thornbill being a particular favourite.  A single egg is laid in the nest and one of the host's eggs removed. The young cuckoo generally hatches earlier than the host's eggs and proceeds to eject the other eggs or hatchlings. The seemingly unaware foster parents then rear the cuckoo chick.
It was an amazing feeling to see a cuckoo here and it reminded me so much of the Indian cuckoo. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gang Gang Cockatoo

The sheer variety of Parrots in Australia has left me wondering on how evolution has been shaped by isolation. While the parrots I am used to in India are mostly green, I wonder how they managed to come in such huge variety of colours and hues in Australia. Previously I have posted a White Cockatoo, a multi coloured  lorikeet  and today is another contrast a Black Cockatoo. Commonly called the Gang gang Cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum ) I spotted a male and the female in the blue mountains. The male has a scarlet head and the female has a grey head and crest, with both sexes having yellow edged plumage. 
Biologists are still trying to find a satisfactory answer to this variation in plumage and hopefully they will get and answer sooner than later. Meanwhile, my quest to see as many of the 40 different parrots found only in Australia continues. 
The name Gang gang, is very interesting. It is derived from an  onomatopoeic aboriginal name. Many aboriginal names have reduplication like Rainbow Lorikeet is wirritywirrity, white sea eagle is makmak, tyunguttyungut is fgrogmouth owl and so on. 

In the photographs, the top is the mature Male, Followed by Juvenile and the last two are females. 

That's all for now- have a nice day.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Laughing Kookaburra

As the batsmen of the 2015 ICC world-cup are facing the Kookaburra balls, I had the delight to face the real Kookaburra- the Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae ).
The Kookaburra belongs to the Kingfisher family and is the worlds biggest Kingfisher. Its call, which it makes to mark its territory sounded like a laughter to whoever named it- well not to me though. They hunt like kingfishers and eat a variety of prey, including fish, small snakes, lizards, rodents, worms, beetles and other insects. It is a pretty common bird in Australia, found both around human settlements and forests. The kookaburra is one classical example of a bird, which is severely affected by the pesticides used in farming.  The pesticides used to kill insects, end up poisoning the animals which usually feed on those pests. When kookaburras eat contaminated insects, they absorb the pesticide chemicals and store them in their fat. When food is in short supply and the kookaburras use some of their fat store, high concentrations of chemicals may flow into the blood. The result can be reproductive losses or even death.
I had a very wonderful evening with this lovely bird- I even managed to sip a cup of tea, watching the Kookaburra bully other birds that were trying to hunt alongside it. A wonderful bird indeed!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Glow worm tunnel

Today's is a very special post-partly inspired by David  Attenborough's documentary 'Life in the Undergrowth'. In episode 3,  Attenborough visits New Zealand's Waitomo Caves in which the larvae of fungus gnats illuminate the cave, and use their beaded filaments to lure their prey. In Australia, in the Blue Mountains region is a similar place called the 'Glow worm tunnel' - this is the story of our visit there.
After a 30 Km off-road bumpy drive which took us through some beautiful landscapes and a tunnel, we reached a desolate corner in the Wollemi National Park.

It was a further 2 Km trek to the coveted tunnel.

A special hug to my wife, Aarina, here, who despite her apprehensions of dark and desolates caves, decided to accompany me into the tunnel.

The entrance to the tunnel was partly covered by overhanging ferns and the floor was covered by a gently flowing stream of water.

Inside the tunnel its completely dark, eerily quiet. All I could hear was trickling water, my own heart beat and Aari's footsteps.

The larvae of a fungus gnat (small, short lived fly) resides in these tunnel. They are called  Arachnocampa richardsae and they can create their own light or scientifically speaking, have bio-luminescence. They sit put on the walls of these caves or tunnel and drop in a sticky silk line. This line has mucus on it which look like beaded necklaces. Any flying insect that touches these lines, stick to it and becomes the larva's meal.

To attract insects close to their snares, the larva glows. Many insects are attracted to this light and inadvertently, get stuck onto the sticky snare, the gnat then pulls the snare and feeds on the prey.

To see the glow, we switched off our lights and waited for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Slowly, we could see the entire tunnel beautifully illuminated, like stars that illuminate a dark sky.

A feeling of joy, ecstasy and accomplishment filled us up! A delightful warm embrace in a silent cave studded with glowing worms is something that we will never wish to forget!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Crimson Rosella

Australia has more than 50 varieties of Parrots, one more strikingly beautiful than the other. Every other bird I see here, turns out to be a colourful bird of the parrot family. Today I feature the Crimson Rosella ( Platycercus elegans ) a parrot native to eastern and south eastern Australia. I have seen them high up on the Blue mountains, 1000 meters above sea level to the coastal gardens around Sydney. I spotted these in pairs at the Burragorang lookout point on the blue mountains.
Well the parrot has one amazing ability- Crimson Rossella's come is various shades from deep crimson red to pale yellow. These various shades of the bird had puzzled biologist for many years. But new recent research has finally raveled the reason for the varying hues; a virus infection !! A deadly virus called  Beak and Feather Disease Virus, which can destroy a species affects these birds. But the bird has evolved to resist the virus and  the only effect it has is the discoloured plumage. Now that's evolution at work. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Crested Pigeon

I see this Crested Pigeon ( Ocyphaps lophotes ) nearly every day, and I call it the bird with the punk haircut. The bird was once apparently only restricted  to the Aussie inland region but has now slowly moved to all Australian cities. The bird, spends a lot of time on this TV antenna and I have seen it ferociously hunt away other birds that occupy its perch during its absence. Quite shy of humans and it took quite many days for the bird to get used to my presence.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Masked Lapwings

When I first saw these Lapwings- I thought, Ah! this looks like a Yellow wattled lapwing, so commonly found in India. But this is Australia- and I had a closer look again- this one looked different and indeed it was. This turns out to be a Masked Lapwing (  Vanellus miles ) which looks so similar to its Indian cousin. I saw these birds, mostly spending their time foraging on the grass looking for what looked like insects- rest of the time though was spent meditating. Lapwings, make their nests on the ground and protect their eggs by deceitfully luring the predator away. When they feel that a predator is close to their nest it lures the egg hunter away from the nest by flapping its wings on the ground, pretending to have a broken wing and distracting its predator away from its nest. So in ancient time this bird was called ' lappewinke '. This has today become a lapwing. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Australian Wood Duck

If you see any duck, in a Aussie water body, there is a good chance that it will be a Australian Wood duck ( Chenonetta jubata ). Well that is at least what I feel as of now. The first bird is a male and the lower two are Female wood ducks. The females have two white stripes over their eye. This species is also known as the Maned Duck or the Maned Goose- just for kicks.