Saturday, 25 November 2017

Australian Raven

The various species of the Corvidae family in Australia, - the Ravens and Crows, can be a challenge to identify in the field. Here in coastal East Gippsland we have three species of Ravens - Australian, Little and Forest - and no Crows.

At a distance and in flight it is near impossible to identify which species of Raven it is in coastal areas of East Gippsland where all three species are found. If the birds are calling this can be a way of identifying the species. The Aussie Raven’s call is a distinctive and classic sound in the Australian bush and outback.

The habit of the Little Raven flicking its wings when perched and calling can be a useful way to ID this species at a distance as both the Australian and Forest Ravens do not wing-flick.

Ravens are intelligent birds and as scavengers they adapt well to urban life where they can become relatively tame. However in rural and bush areas they are usually wary and getting close for photos can be difficult. Away from towns and cities, camping and picnic grounds may be an exception as the birds get used to people in these settings and know food scraps may be on offer.

The following sequence of photos of an Australian Raven were taken at the Willis camp ground on the Snowy River in the Alpine National Park. The photos show the prominent throat hackles well and also the bare patch of skin under the base of the bill and cheek – the other corvid species do not have this bare patch. The Forest and Little Ravens also have throat hackles however they are much smaller.

Please click on photos to enlarge.

This Aussie Raven was working its way along the Snowy River riparian strip and stopped in a tree above where I was having afternoon tea and my camera was set up.
The bird was calling to its other family members, though why it was calling I have no idea.
The bird was being dive-bombed by several species of small birds, suggesting to me these birds all had nests nearby.

The throat hackles hang down in this photo and look very prominent. 
The bare skin on the throat at the base of the bill and cheek shows well in this photo.

To end I have included a photo of a Forest Raven for comparison – they look very similar, however the Forest has a deeper bill, smaller hackles and no bare patch of skin under the base of the bill.

Forest Raven

Ravens are not everyone’s favourite bird and they are seen as a scourge by many farmers, especially sheep farmers, as Ravens can inflict a lot of damage on weakened and downed lambs or sheep. That said, they do play an important ecosystem role in helping to clean up carrion and they also consume a lot of insects. For me the Aussie Raven’s mournful call is deeply evocative of the Australian outback.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Fairy Terns mating

Birds which have been evolving for many millions of years have developed a large range of courtship and mating behaviours which are critical to successful reproduction. Recently I was able to capture a sequence of photos of the mating behaviour of a pair of Fairy Terns (Sternula nereis nereis) starting with the male approaching with a fish offering, then moving on to so called fish-wiping and ending with copulation (see note 1).

Early in 2017, I published a post showing a failed mating attempt:

Many mating attempts are not successful, with some simply interrupted and others involving a female that seems receptive, but was perhaps deceptive, only putting on a show to obtain the fish being offered.

According to HANZAB (see note 2) the bonds between Fairy Terns are poorly known. Courtship may involve fish-carrying pursuit flights, fish-parading and courtship feeding (male feeds the female). The pair in this post have no doubt courted, selected a nest site and dug a nest scrape at this stage.

The following sequence of photos seems to show this mating attempt ended successfully though we cannot know if an egg has been fertilised which is the only real measure of success.

Please click on photos to enlarge.

A male Fairy Tern in breeding plumage approaches a female with a fish offering.
The male at this stage circles the female with head held high displaying the fish, while the female maintains a semi crouched posture.
At this point I thought proceedings did not look to be going well – is she about to reject him or is she telling him to get on with it?
The male continues to circle – from time to time the male’s wings are lifted.
At this point it looked like the male was starting to approach from behind when the fish-wiping might start in earnest.
The male is moving his head rhythmically from side to side and at times the fish brushed over the female’s back and nape – hence the term fish-wiping.
The fish-wiping can go on for up to five minutes and as you watch you start to wonder if he will ever get to the point of the exercise.
The head continues to move rhythmically from side to side. The females also do this but not to the same extent as the males. The male may also do the head movements without a fish.
The male is now directly behind the female and you get the feeling the ritual is heading towards a conclusion. Still he wipes the fish from side to side.
Then he is back by the female’s side again – perhaps this ritual is not close to a conclusion after all?
Then suddenly things move quickly – the male has leapt up to mount the female.
He passes the fish and she accepts.
Copulation begins while the female seems to be more interested in the fish.
As the female swallows the fish the male finally completes the mating ritual.

A second later this four-minute (see note 3) ritual ends abruptly, however this ending is also a beginning – with fertilisation, a new generation of Fairy Terns is under way.


(1) The photos in this post have been obtained while working with a government biodiversity officer at a small tern breeding colony using a long telephoto lens to ensure there was no disturbance to the breeding birds or the colony. When photographing any birds the welfare of the birds must always come first.

(2) HANZAB = Handbook of Australian New Zealand and Antarctic Birds

(3) The times recorded on the photo files allowed me to calculate that just over 4 minutes elapsed from the first to the last photo.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Scarlet Honeyeater

Small numbers of Scarlet Honeyeaters (Myzomela sanguinolenta) have always been recorded in East Gippsland. I recall seeing my first Scarlets while camping at Wingan Inlet well over 20 years ago now. However, about four years ago East Gippsland experienced a major invasion of Scarlet Honeyeaters associated with a mass flowering of many eucalypt species. Since then we have had relatively large numbers of Scarlets around in spring and summer and I suspect we’ve had some over-wintering birds also.

This spring the Scarlets have been recorded in large numbers further west in Victoria as reported in this media release by BirdLife Australia:

The Scarlet Honeyeater is sedentary in the northern parts of its range, an erratic migratory visitor to the southern parts and elsewhere a nomad attracted by the presence of blossom.

In 2015, I published this post on a pair of Scarlets that were resident in our garden for a few months:

Once again this spring, we have Scarlets resident and breeding on our property.  The same tree that attracted them in 2015 is again in blossom and a magnet for the Scarlet and other honeyeaters including New Holland, Yellow-faced, White-naped as well as Eastern Spinebills and Little and Red Wattlebirds.

I could not resist capturing some more photos of the vivid red and black male Scarlets and some juvenile birds with their yellow gapes and sharing them with another post.

Please click on photos to enlarge.

There were several young scarlets busy extracting nectar from the blossom – the juveniles were raised in our garden.

The tree where I took the above photos had at times up to three adult males and four juveniles feeding however I was not able to see any adult females (see photos of adult females in earlier blog post - link given above) so wondered if they were sitting on nests raising another brood?