Sunday, 28 December 2014

Whiskered Terns on the Gippsland Lakes

Whiskered Terns are a nomadic inland water bird species that prefer shallow freshwater wetlands. They turn up on the Gippsland Lakes and associated wetlands after being absent for many years.
Whiskered Tern in breeding condition with red bill and legs, black cap and dark grey underparts.
The Gippsland Lakes, located adjacent to the Ninety Mile Beach in East Gippsland, are the largest inland waterway in Australia. Not surprisingly they provide important habitat for many species of water birds including international migrant and resident species. The whole of the Lakes system is declared a Ramsar Wetland and an IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area).
For more information regarding Ramsar and IBA’s see:
Given the extreme boom/bust wet/dry cycles which impact arid inland Australia it is not surprising to find that many of our resident bird species populations also boom and bust and as a survival strategy many species are nomadic, moving long distances in response to push pull factors to find suitable habitat.
Many water bird species such as ducks, ibis, herons, egrets, stilts, grebes, terns, pelicans, plovers and cormorants can flock to inland waterways and breed up in huge numbers when conditions are good. However when the inevitable drought sets in these same birds must move towards the coast to find refuge. The Gippsland Lakes are one such important coastal wetland refuge.
Back in November 2013 I found a large number of Whiskered Terns feeding over dry sheep paddocks near Hollands Landing and reported on these in a blog post. Background information about this species can be found here:
Whiskered Terns are still around the Lakes and one year later in November 2014, I encountered a flock of about 100 birds at the SE end of Raymond Island. The birds were resting on a small timber jetty along with some other water bird species. By slowly approaching the jetty I was able to get close enough to capture some photos of the activity on this small jetty.
Two White-faced Herons sharing a jetty with Whiskered Terns.
A pair of Masked Lapwings were also on the jetty.
Note the whitewash – the lack of toilet training is a great source of annoyance for humans who after all build the jetties for their own use and no doubt would be happy to share the facilities with the birds if only they did not coat them with liberal quantities of guano.This issue aside man made structures around the Lakes provide important roosting and resting and sometimes nesting habitat for water birds.
All lined up facing the same way – always into the wind.
Whiskered Terns were constantly leaving the jetty and returning in the brisk wind conditions - flight was easy for these masters of the air.
A free post top with only room for one.
The Heron has had enough of the photographer edging out along the jetty and perhaps the melee of Terns coming and going – time to find a more peaceful resting place.
Two uncommon Common Terns were among the Whiskered Terns.
Often a large flock of terns, say Crested or Whiskered, will contain another species, in this case a pair of Common Terns. This Tern species derives its name from the northern hemisphere where it is very common however it is uncommon in Australia where small numbers visit between October and March.
When I spotted this plastic snake its purpose was immediately apparent.
I have seen many attempts to scare birds off jetties (and boats) using fake raptors and owls for example, however this is the first time I have seen a plastic snake used.
I think based on the evidence of this photo the snake is a failure.
Here are a few more shots of these beautiful birds.

Eventually when the drought in the NSW Murray Darling basin ends these birds will no doubt disappear from the Lakes – it is good to know that they have found refuge here.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Mistletoe and Mistletoebirds – a fascinating relationship

The text for this post was prepared for an article in BirdLife East Gippsland’s newsletter, The Chat, Number 62 December 2014.  Some of the photos and captions have changed.
Mistletoe is a name applied to parasitic plants that grow on other plants and derive water and nutrients from their host. Mistletoe is widespread throughout the world including Australia where there are numerous species adapted to growing on many species of host plants. Willis et al in their Field Guide to the Flowering Plants of Victoria state there are 12 species of mistletoe in Victoria with Drooping Mistletoe (Amyema pendula) (Loranthaceae) probably the most common species. Jean Galbraith in her field guide, Wild Flowers of South-East Australia, lists some 21 species for a larger area. There will be many more species for Australia.
Mistletoe are seen by some as pest plants as heavy infestations may kill the host tree, usually when it is weakened by disease or drought. However mistletoes are important plants as they add greatly to biodiversity, providing significant quantities of high quality food. Also their dense foliage provides excellent roosting and nesting opportunities. 240 bird species have been recorded nesting in mistletoe, some 75% of Australia’s resident bird species.
The Mistletoebird, a species of flowerpecker, is native to Australia, where it is widespread, and some of the islands to our immediate north, though it is absent from Tasmania. As the name implies, the Mistletoebird has a close association with mistletoe plants and in Australia is probably the main species responsible for the spread and on going survival of mistletoe. While Mistletoebirds do eat the nectar and fruits of other plant species, and also insects and spiders, their diet is heavily concentrated on the fruits of mistletoe and their digestive system is specifically adapted to this specialised diet.
The mistletoe fruits can pass through the Mistletoebird’s digestive system and be expelled within 4 to 25 minutes. The fruits are ejected with little change and the sticky surface allows the seed to stick to the bark of plants where it has a chance of taking hold. The Mistletoebird actually wipes the seeds onto the branches of plants as they are excreted, thus promoting the spread of their principle food source.  
Male Mistletoebird - they are brightly coloured but hard to see and most often detected by their call.
The more sombre coloured female Mistletoebird.
The specialised diet of mistletoe berries and the adaption of the Mistletoebird’s digestive system to this diet starts very soon after the young birds hatch. Apparently the young birds are first fed on insects, however mistletoe berries soon become a prominent part of the young bird’s diet.
The following sequence of photos, starting with the beautiful nest, show the young being fed mistletoe berries and the associated waste management process.
Mistletoebird nest in Snowy Daisy-bush.
The female Mistletoebird builds the nest with no help from the male. She lays between three and four eggs and incubates the eggs herself. After the eggs hatch both parents feed the young.
The Morecombe field guide nest section (p416) describes the nest as follows, “The suspended nest is tiny, neat, soft and pear shaped, made of plant down densely bound with webs to create soft, felt-like walls. The shape and the soft thin walls, like fine woollen knitting, have led many to describe the nest as being like a baby’s bootee”.
The walls may be thin however they are tough and withstand the rigors of both the young birds as they rapidly grow within the nest and the many visits by the parents, who cling to the nest to supply food and take away waste.
The nest must stand up to the rigors of parents making possibly thousands of visits to the nest and up to four rapidly growing and active young.
This nest was constructed in a Snowy Daisy-bush (Olearia lirata) near the top about 1.6 metres above the ground surface where it was moderately exposed not only to photographers but also to potential predators.
At this nest, only the female came to feed the young.  In this case there were two young, a smaller clutch than the usual three or four? The male was too shy to come near the nest while I was nearby taking photos. It is possible however that the male was supplying the female with food and she was bringing it in to the young while I was there.
Each time the female came in she followed more or less the same path landing on a stem of the Daisy-bush about half a metre from the nest before landing on the nest itself. The young were often aware of her approach well before I was, as they started calling with wide-open mouths thrust out from the nest entrance before she appeared, no doubt they were alerted to her approach by a single call.
The female approaching the nest with mistletoe fruit. She followed the same path on most visits.
She always paused to check all was safe before making the last short flight to the nest.
The young birds in the photos are about a week old and the diet is mostly mistletoe fruits. They were being fed mistletoe fruits before their eyes opened. One fruit was delivered at a time. About every third visit waste fruits were taken away, usually three were expelled at a time by one of the young.
Both chicks were always very keen to be fed. How does the parent know which one to feed? It must be even harder to determine when there are four young.
The fruits were inserted well down the young bird's throats.
The careful removal of waste from the nest is practiced by many bird species, especially smaller birds. Apart from reasons of hygiene and the shear practicality of avoiding large volumes of waste accumulation in small nests, the removal of waste reduces the chance of attracting predators to the nest.
The chicks backed their rear ends well out of the nest entrance before excreting several partially digested mistletoe fruits which the female deftly collected.
Job done, female about to depart with another load of waste, which I assume she dropped somewhere away from the nest on her way to collect more fruits.
A fascinating and closely dependent relationship has evolved between a group of parasitic flowering plants and a single bird species.
When out in the field keep and eye open for mistletoe and wherever you find the plant Mistletoebirds will not be far away. They are fast and active birds not easily seen so learning their calls is a good way to find them. 
Mistletoe also attracts many other bird species, particularly honeyeaters, and nests of many species can often be found in the dense foliage.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Trumpeter Swans – Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone has many well-known and iconic animals such as bison, once down to only 20 or 30 in number, but now numerous and easy to find roaming in herds across the open grasslands. Wolves, another iconic species, have been reintroduced to Yellowstone, but are not easy to see. 
For avian fauna in Yellowstone there are probably no iconic species that one would look for in the Park that could not be found elsewhere. For me however the Trumpeter Swan was one species I was hoping to see in the Park as a small permanent population lives there year round. The local birds are joined over winter by some migrating birds coming down from Alaska and Canada, however as we were there in early Fall we would only have a chance of seeing the resident birds.
The Trumpeter Swan was almost wiped out from the lower 48 States by the early 1900’s and severely reduced in the remainder of its range in northwest Canada and Alaska by hunting for food and feathers, (its large flight feathers made high quality quills apparently), habitat destruction and lead shot has poisoned many young swans. With protection and careful management the species has now made a recovery in its core range however the resident population in Yellowstone has been in decline for a number of years now.
The Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) is only found in North America though it is closely related to the Whooper Swan found in Eurasia – some authorities regard them as the same species. It is the heaviest bird native to North America and, on average, the largest living waterfowl species. An all white plumaged swan, the Trumpeter may be confused in the field with the similar but smaller Tundra Swan.
We found Trumpeter Swans by luck when a road closure forced us to go the long way round to visit Old Faithful. The road took us along a section of the Yellowstone River at the northern end of the Hayden Valley where the river widens and flattens into a slow shallow course before its dramatic plunge through the spectacular Yellowstone Grand Canyon.
Yellowstone River, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park, a great wildlife viewing area.
First fall on Yellowstone River downstream from Hayden Valley in Yellowstone Canyon.
As usual we were alerted to the presence of some wildlife of interest by a large crowd gathered beside the road along the riverbank, including at least a dozen photographers, some with very long lenses on tripods. It was not until we stopped, got out of the car and walked over to the top of the river bank and looked down that we discovered the wildlife species of interest, in this case, two adult Trumpeter Swans feeding on aquatic vegetation right beside the river bank.
Just a few of the large lenses focused on a pair of Trumpeter Swans.
To frame these two large swans the long lens contingent were forced to station themselves well back however with my shorter (420mm) lens I positioned myself closer. I was soon joined by at least six other photographers gathered close beside me and was surprised to hear the large bursts of shots they were firing off for two such large slow moving birds. To capture action shots, for example birds in flight, I sometimes use the Continuous Shooting mode, which I generally have selected and control with the shutter button for single shots or bursts as needed. For me this situation demanded careful attention to detail and capture of shots here and there when appropriate and not rapid firing with large numbers of images captured.
Two adult Trumpeter Swans on Yellowstone River. The shallow section of river in the Hayden Valley provided good habitat with aquatic vegetation to browse.
Adult Trumpeter Swan, note the straight bill and the black facial skin tapering to a V at the eye.
The duck was feeding on tit bits disturbed by the Swan.
The adult swans were active pulling up waterweed from the bed of the river and eating, stirring up mud and other matter as they foraged. A few ducks were scavenging close by for tit bits stirred up by the much larger swans. Feeding associations among birds such as this are quite common.
To my surprise three ducks were huddled together sound asleep beside the bank with a large number of tourists and photographers standing directly above them and birds feeding nearby. Clearly these ducks felt safe in Yellowstone.
Sleeping ducks.
After capturing a few shots of the adult birds feeding I noticed four more swans about 100 metres downstream. A quick scan with the binoculars showed them to be three juvenile Trumpeter Swans and what looked like one white adult. The four commenced to swim upstream towards us in close formation.
Four Trumpeter Swans making their way in V formation upstream. The three grey birds are juveniles, the white one does not have an all black bill?
Before the juveniles arrived the two adults lost interest in feeding and moved off to commence some preening, giving the opportunity to capture a few shots of one with its wings spread while flapping to arrange and settle preened wing feathers.
The two adults were preening when this one began to flap its wings.
I guess vigorous flapping of the wings shakes out any dirt and loose feathers and helps
to arrange and settle the wing feathers.
The Trumpeter Swan is the largest waterfowl, adult wingspan exceeds 2 metres.
As the juveniles approached I noticed that the white bird was also juvenile as it had a largely pink bill and not a fully black bill. A later check of field guides showed this was a rare white juvenile which are only found in the Yellowstone birds.
I suspect the four young birds were siblings belonging to the two adults. All four young were banded.
The young ones arrived below us and commenced feeding where the adults had recently left off. As with many young, they fed close together even though there was plenty of space and food for all and the inevitable squabbles broke out with some feather biting and so on.
Three of the four juveniles feeding close together.
The rare white juvenile is letting the typical grey juvenile know it is too close.
There has been a lot of research on Trumpeter Swans in Yellowstone to try and work out why the resident population has been declining since the early 1960’s. Anyone interested in this subject can find links to papers on the topic in Wikipedia; just enter Trumpeter Swan in the Wikipedia search box.
All four juveniles were banded, this is H53.
I hope H53 and his/her siblings enjoy a long and productive life in Yellowstone and that there will always be a resident population of Trumpeter Swans there for future visitors to see and enjoy as we did in the Fall of 2014.

Monday, 29 September 2014

American Dipper

Dippers are small terrestrial birds, a little smaller than a Common Starling. They have adapted to an aquatic way of life, hunting for their insect food in fast flowing clear mountain streams.
I had seen the White-capped Dipper in Peru and was hoping to find the American Dipper in North America as we were visiting a number of national parks within the bird’s distribution range with plenty of suitable habitat – fast flowing crystal clear mountain streams.
White-capped Dipper searching for food in a fast flowing stream below Machu Picchu Peru.
There are five species of Dipper worldwide: White-capped and Rufous-throated (South America), Brown (Asia), White-throated (Europe, Middle East and Indian subcontinent and American Dipper found from Panama to Alaska and generally west of the Rocky Mountains. Dippers are not found in Australia. For more information on Dippers see:
During pauses while feeding, the Dipper bobs its whole body up and down, hence the name dipper. The birds are uncommon and solitary, occupying territories along suitable stretches of fast flowing clear streams.
What I find particularly interesting about these terrestrial birds is their adaption to an aquatic way of life. They have dense feathers and a large oil gland, which keeps the feathers water repellent and dry. Their nictitating eye membrane allows them to see under water. They have long legs with strong feet and sharp claws, which allows them to wade in fast flowing water and cling to rocks. Their short wings are used to swim under water in the pursuit of food and they can remain under water for quite some time.
I was keeping an eye out for Dippers in many suitable locations but it was not until late in our Yellowstone National Park trip that I found one on the Gardiner River about seven miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs near the north west corner of the park.
Gardiner River, Yellowstone National Park (photo G Hutchison)
American Dipper on Gardiner River, note the short tail and wing and long legs.
Jumping from a rock into the water to search for food.
Being small and a general brown and grey colour they are not easy to see against the background of a fast flowing mountain stream. The bird I found was actively feeding by working its way upstream into the late afternoon sun. Fortunately it was feeding on my side of the river and I was able to work my way upstream of the bird and wait for it to come by for photo opportunities.
These photos with captions describe the birds feeding activities.
Looking for food from above the water.
Wading in the water looking for food. From time to time the bird completely submerged
as it worked its way upstream.
Looking for food with head under water.
The eye is just visible under water as the bird continues its search for food
among stones and crevices of the rocky river bed.
Now and again the bird took a look at me to check I was not a threat.
The bird managed to capture a dozen or more food items over the 15 minutes or so I observed it. Each time it emerged with an insect it shook the water from it before it was swallowed.
The bird has another insect.
As far as I could see from the photos the insects all looked to be the same species
as they were the same colour and size.
I was pleased to find a Dipper, a small modest and inconspicuous inhabitant of Yellowstone National Park, and get some photos of it feeding.
Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world (declared in 1872), a large and truly magnificent area with a diversity of breathtaking scenery and lots of large animals such as Bison, Elk, Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Black and Grizzly Bears.  The park also has an awe inspiring volcanic history with many volcanic and active geothermal features, Old Faithful Geyser being the most well known one

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Some northern California birds

After a spending a couple of weeks in northern California and southern Oregon here is a selection of bird photos mainly taken in and around Davis, Lake Siskiyou near Mt Shasta, Crater Lake NP in Oregon and Lassen Volcanic NP. All are fairly common birds in California and species we do not see in Australia.
Hopefully I have identified all of the birds correctly however if not then any help with ID would be appreciated.

Western Scrub-Jay in backyard at Davis, a common and confiding bird in both suburbia and non urban habitats.

A female Black-chinned Hummingbird in backyard at Davis, note pollen on top of bill, hummingbirds are no doubt important pollinators of many flowering plant species.

White-faced Ibis in Yolo wetland reserve near Davis, this bird is immature as it does not have a white face.
Great Blue Heron in rice crop, Yolo wetland reserve near Davis.

Female Red-winged Blackbird in Yolo wetland, this species is very abundant in wetland areas.

Unidentified raptor at Yolo wetlands. Raptors and Turkey Vultures have been numerous in most places we have been to date.

American White Pelicans over Yolo wetland with ducks?? Brown Pelicans are also found in California.
A White-tailed Kite, with black shoulders it is very similar to the Australian Black-shouldered Kite.
Great Egret Yolo wetlands near Davis.
Black Phoebe Yolo wetlands near Davis.
This Black-necked Stilt photographed at Yolo wetlands is very similar to the Australian Black-winged Stilt.
Lesser Yellowlegs Yolo wetland.
Northern Mockingbird in backyard at Davis. This bird is a famous songster and mimic, often calling at night.
An American Robin in backyard at Davis, this species is very common and well known in the US. Named by an English colonists the species is only very distantly related to robins).
A female Brewer's Blackbird having a drink at Whiskey Lake just west of Redding.
The very common Killdeer on Siskiyou Lake margin near Mt Shasta.
Double-crested Cormorants on marker buoy, Siskiyou Lake.
A female Common Merganser on Siskiyou Lake.
A Red Crossbill at Crater Lake NP Oregon. Note the crossed bill which is adapted for extracting seeds from pine cones.
Dark-eyed Junco at Crater Lake NP.
A Red-breasted Nuthatch, a sittella species (Sitta canadensis), Crater Lake NP.
A Gray Jay at Crater Lake NP.
I think this is an immature Mountain Bluebird at roadside rest stop north of Mt Shasta - I am far from sure about this ID.
A Dusky Flycatcher at roadside rest stop north of Mt Shasta.
Pied-billed Grebe on Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic NP.
Mountain Chickadee - at first I thought this was a Black-throated Gray Warbler but it has no yellow mark between eye and base of bill. Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic NP.
Steller's Jay, a common but attractive bird often found around camp and picnic grounds. This one was at Summit Lake camp ground, Lassen Volcanic NP.
A Yellow-rumped Warbler on Kings Creek, Lassen Volcanic NP.
Northern Flicker Mills Creek, Lassen Volcanic NP.
When traveling in an unfamiliar country being able to photograph birds in the field and then work out their ID's later is an invaluable birding tool. Even with photos identifying some species is still a challenge.