Thursday, 7 November 2013

Owlet-nightjar – a lucky find

This morning I was with a small group from BirdLife East Gippsland conducting a bird survey for the Gippsland Plains Catchment Management Network in woodland in the Forge Creek Water Reserve near Paynesville. Two in the group noticed a bird flush from somewhere near the ground and fly up into a tree above. Another member of the group spotted the bird in the tree, an Australian Owlet-nightjar.
The Australian Owlet-nightjar flushed during a bird survey in the Forge Creek Water Reserve today.
The whisker like feathers on the face stand out in this shot against the sky. Do these act like cat whiskers or sensors to protect the bird's eyes from injury from flying insects at night?
Note: The photos can be enlarged with a left mouse click and the mouse wheel can be used to scroll through the images as a slide show.  
These small nocturnal birds are widespread across the Australian mainland and also found in Tasmania. They are common in suitable habitat, especially woodlands, where there are suitable tree hollows in which to spend the day roosting. Also holes in embankments and cliff faces may be used. In winter they often sun themselves at the entrance of their roosting hole.
While these birds may be common it is far from common to see one. When they are seen it is mostly when they are found sunning themselves at a hollow entrance or when they are flushed, as the bird was today. Finding them at night with a light is almost impossible for unlike most nocturnal animals, which have large light reflecting eyes, Owlet-nightjars, while they do have large eyes, do not reflect torchlight at all. I was lucky enough to find one at night with a torch so I can testify from first hand experience that they have no eye shine at night.
Therefore the group’s excitement at finding this rarely seen bird today was understandable and the two photographers in the group took full advantage of the rare opportunity while the bird posed within camera range.
The bird flew a short distance to a new perch. Note raptor like claws. Does this bird catch prey at night on the wing in its beak or with its feet, or both?
In spite of its name the Owlet-nightjar is not related to Nightjars. The nearest relatives are thought to be swifts and while this may seem surprising I think they do have some similarities. Before I became aware of the relationship with swifts I saw an Owlet-nightjar at Gluepot in South Australia one night swooping a number of times by our camp site, chasing moths attracted by the light and I was left with the feeling that this bird looked like a swift. 
Other names used in the past for the Owlet-nightjar include Little Nightjar (as mentioned above they are not related to nightjars), Fairy Owl (they are not related to owls) and Moth Owl, a partly appropriate name as their diet does mainly consist of nocturnally active insects caught on the wing, including moths and beetles.
Looking out from a hollow this very cute face could look like a small possum such as a Sugar Glider.

1 comment:

  1. What a lucky find. They are just beautiful with those big eyes!