Welcome to the News section of the iNSiGHT Ornithology website (
www.simoncherriman.com). This blog contains updates about various things I've been up to, interesting environmental issues and observations I make regularly while going about my day. It is designed to be fun AND educational, and inspire you about our wonderful natural world. Happy reading!

Friday, 15 June 2018

Eagles Die Hard but Old Habits Do Not

This Wedge-tailed Eagle was satellite-tracked from Perth to the Pilbara and died of injuries (chopped wing feathers) suspected to have been sustained following a collision with an aircraft or drone.


The news has been spreading like wildfire so you're probably well aware about the mass-culling of over 130 Wedge-tailed Eagles in East Gippsland, Victoria. This isn't the first case of suspected raptor poisoning in East Gippsland, with several White-bellied Sea Eagles testing positively to organochlorine last August. Since this recent story was released last week, ongoing publicity around the issue has sparked debates about eagles, lambs and what should be done when wild animals protected by legislation come into conflict with human interests.

There are a number of points that need clarifying (as always is the case, because of the simplification that often comes with rapid and concise communication), so I felt the need to post this update to offer a resource that can hopefully prevent the evolution of more myths (huh, one can only try! In fact, read all the freely available information on my websites, which might cull 130+ myths. Legally, of course). I have researched eagles for over two decades, during which time I have been fortunate to be mentored by some of the world's leading experts on this group of amazing raptors, and while I certainly don't know everything there is to know about their biology (the eagles, not the experts), I am amazed by how little of the basic information many people seem to know, and by the speculation and sheer lack of environmental understanding demonstrated this past week!

Firstly, 130+ eagles were not culled last week. The news was made public last week, but this is clearly an example of ongoing, systematic persecution which has involved culling birds over a period of several years. So, questions like "why were so many eagles in one place at once?" and "how did someone kill so many so quickly?" can be put to bed.

Secondly, people have again started debating whether or not eagles kill lambs. This issue is discussed more deeply in a very well-balanced piece published by Australian Geographic late last week, including immensely valuable comments from leading Australian raptor biologist Dr. Stephen Debus. Key points discussed here are:

- eagles are mammalian predators capable of killing lambs, but repeatedly evidence has suggested they are rarely the prime cause of deaths, which are more often attributable to foxes, crows, poor weather and mismothering.
- even in cases where eagle predation is documented, the costs of having them taking some potentially viable lambs are far outweighed by the benefits these predatory birds deliver through predation of pest species, and removal of disease-harbouring carrion.
- no economic impacts to the sheep industry have ever been proven to be caused by eagles.
- there are many alternative solutions to culling or 'legal' (i.e. with a permit) killing (read on!).


To clarify an important ecological point regarding the behavioural differences in the two broad 'types' of Wedge-tailed Eagle present in our landscape (1: sedentary, breeding adults, and 2: nomadic, non-breeding juvenile/immature birds), I responded on Tuesday to interest from The Conversation who published this article that I co-wrote with one of their editors. Breeding adults may occasionally take lambs (viable or otherwise) as nesting food, but this is rare and smaller vertebrates are preferred. Juvenile eagles are drawn to abundant prey sources and can sometimes accumulate in larger concentrations (dozens or more). Such birds may simultaneously attack larger animals, which can be perceived as 'pack hunting', but there is no evidence these attacks are coordinated. It is these birds which seem to have mostly been the target of the recent cull. I also published this article to raise awareness about the potential impacts to the population of a native predator that, as my recent satellite-tracking research has confirmed, can in its juvenile dispersal phase move such enormous distances. This means:

- EAGLES CULLED in East Gippsland could essentially be born ANYWHERE in Australia.
- ecological sinks created by humans are never a good thing, but to think the Gippsland one could be responsible for deaths of eagles born near you, wherever your Australian residence may be, is deeply concerning.

Then in an update published yesterday, we heard a response from a Victorian Farmers Federation spokesperson, who made this comment regarding potential unethical situations lambs face if attacked by eagles: "it's not a pleasant death for the lamb, it's fairly horrific." This prompted me to post a video response on my Twitter and Instagram pages to emphasise the point that, if we are talking about animal welfare here, it should be made a much more urgent priority to cull the live export industry, rather than a native predator!!

Although it was published on Tuesday, this update from The Weekly Times only came to my attention this morning. And this quote from it is what grabbed me the most:

"... governments and community needed to do more than just throw up their arms in horror."

I couldn't agree more. What cases like this recent mass-culling event do is highlight that there is clearly a problem (be it perceived or real), and they open a door towards potential growth and change, which is always required to find a solution (it is normally growth in our mindset that is most often necessary).

'We need to either issue farmers with permits to control [eagles], or the community compensates farmers for their (lamb) losses,' Mr Vallance said. 'Farmers are keen to preserve wildlife, but when they come into excess it really does change things.'"


This is one potential solution, but it is short-sighted and does not change the fact that since it was forced onto the Australian landscape, extensive pastoralism centralised around the production of a few species has and always will create all sorts of ecological issues.

As I stated in the Australian Geographic article quoted above:

"What often happens with pastoralism is we simplify ecosystems so every part of the landscape has economic value. We clear land, put sheep in and only focus on keeping animals that benefit us. But we need to focus on biodiversity conservation. This means having a huge diversity of animals in a landscape regardless of their economic value, because the more diverse the ecosystem is, the less likely it is that native predators will kill domestic livestock."

"Retaining large patches of native vegetation that can support a diverse range of animals that offer alternative prey to livestock, such as kangaroos, possums and birds, is one way of solving these problems [and one way of solving many other problems too!]. We simply can't clear all of the land, kill the kangaroos and rabbits, and expect these majestic eagles to eat dust."

A greater understanding of how this continent and its vast assortment of unique, amazing wildlife eats, sleeps, breathes, moves and changes, and a mindset that takes these facts into consideration when deciding what actions we humans take as its current custodians, its clearly what is needed to resolve any/all of the environmental issues that present themselves. Which leads me to my final point, stemming from this quote in The Weekly Times' article:

"... the horrific drought in NSW was likely to be driving Wedge-tailed Eagles off the western plains and on to southern sheep properties [a good ecological explanation and one that is likely, but still speculative without evidence of cause and effect]. 'It’s likely to be a short-term thing for farmers and once they get five inches of rain out on the swamps of NSW they’ll go back where they came from,' Mr Vallance said."

New South Wales and Victoria might be rivals over sporting events or for other anthropocentric reasons, but Australia's ecosystems and their components do not recognise a few lines placed on a map 230 years ago. So the connotations associated with comments about eagles coming from NSW as though they are foreigners invading a state boundary need to be culled. If apex predators did recognise any 'borders' then it would be those created by the land management actions of Aboriginal Australians tens of thousands of years ago, which (mostly through fire) created the diversity of ecosystems that Westerners first saw in 1788. And in order to grow (or 'move forward', as they say in the corporate world!) in the most urgently needed way, we need to turn back the clock, put all our fuel onto the fire of reconciliation with the First Australians, and use the natural history of this country to rebuild the cultural and economic framework that is rapidly weakening.

To listen to an interview I did with Richelle Hunt on ABC Radio Afternoons in Melbourne, click here and scroll forward to 1h 30mins.

To listen to more about eagles, lambs and biodiversity, visit this ABC Radio Gippsland's Drive podcast and scroll forward to 2h 30mins.


A bird's eye view give valuable insights into better ways of custodianship.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

U3A Armadale


Today I volunteered some time to give one of my 'standard' Wedge-tailed Eagle talks at the meeting of University of the Third Age (U3A) group in Armadale. While talking at the Armadale Library last August, I was pleased to receive a letter from one of the group's members, Keith, kindly inviting me to present at a U3A meeting in 2018. The time went quickly and suddenly today had arrived!

With lots of fieldwork under my belt from the 2018 season there were many updates to share, especially from our recently satellite-tagged eagle Kwidi and her family, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting some new people and answering their questions. I also really enjoyed the cake and fruit offered for morning tea, and the nice bottle of wine I received as a thank-you for presenting! If you are interested in keeping your mind active, please visit the group's website for more information. Thanks to Keith for setting this occasion up, to all who attended for showing such interest in my research, and especially to Annie taking photos and for her very kind words about my work!

Sunday, 14 January 2018

New Year Nestboxing


I've just returned from a beautiful piece of bushland not far from Margaret River in WA's south-west, where I spent a couple of days with my partner Dani installing nest-boxes designed for a variety of wildlife. Putting a new pulley and new hand ascender (Christmas presents!) straight into action for the first tree-climbing job of the new year helped us install the thirteen boxes more efficiently, with the pulley being a welcome addition to the normal hauling rig used to hoist my large vertical Black Cockatoo boxes (of which there were five) into place.


The picture at the top of this post shows how the 3-1 pulley system is set up on one of the cockatoo boxes, which was positioned in a very tall, old, but hollow-lacking Marri tree. And above is a slightly wider shot of the same box (and the two tiny ants installing it!), taken by the property owners Karen and Rob, whose wonderful enthusiasm to help her local fauna I had to thank for being here in the first place. One of the most rewarding things about my job is getting to meet the growing number of people going out of their way to engage with and provide support to native wildlife, a truly positive edge to our currently testing environmental times. As with all my nest-boxes, these hollow-homes will be closely monitored to help gather information about how effective they are, particularly in helping threatened species like Black Cockatoos, which have been very successful in my large vertical boxes. I can't wait to hear about the first occupants in this latest batch of boxes!

Room with a view: one of the cockatoo boxes overlooking a scenic lake near Margaret River.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Kwidi


If you've been following my Instagram feed, you've probably seen the range of photos captured from the tree hide I constructed last month to observe a late-hatching Wailitj / Wedge-tailed Eagle chick in the Perth Hills, whose nest is pictured above. My first glimpse of this eaglet, which I would later find out was a female, was in November when she was a month old and her flight feathers had only just emerged.


When I did my first hide stint a few weeks later, the eaglet had made a rapid transformation from almost entirely white to about half chocolate-brown. Eaglets are normally very vocal at the sight of their parents, and virtually mute at other times, but even when her parents were absent (which, at the age of six weeks, was often), this girl called almost incessantly, her loud, two-noted yelps filling my eardrums. It was wonderful to observe her mother feeding her small pieces of Yoorn / Bobtail Skink (Tiliqua rugosa) that the male delivered early one morning, and I was very happy to obtain some video footage that will be useful for my next documentary.



Today's mission, however, was to ascend to this nest, remove the eaglet (who was now 10 weeks old) for a brief period to weigh, measure, colour-ring and satellite-tag her, then place her back as she was found. I was slightly nervous as I scaled a climbing rope high into the canopy to reach the eyrie, which was about 25 m above the forest floor. The juvenile eagle greeted me in the way that most do: with a 'threat display' that includes spread out wings and a gaping, sometimes drooling mouth, an expression that says: "I'm going to kill you, so stay back!"

"Welcome to my eyrie... now I keeeeel you!"

I was lucky to be joined on this 'eagle day' by a variety of helpers and onlookers, one of whom was my old friend and expert photographer Judy Dunlop, who managed to captured some great memories of how the afternoon unfolded, including this eye-level canopy shot of the 'capture moment'...



Back on terra firma, my partner Danielle did a wonderful job of calmly holding the eagle as I took measurements. It was a thrill to have Trish Fleming, one of my PhD supervisors, with me to help fit her with colour-rings. So much effort goes into planning and supervising doctoral research, so sharing moments in the field with those people who give monumental 'behind the scenes' support is especially rewarding.

Trish holds the colour-ring closed as I prepare to fix it with a pop-rivet.


Another person whose presence was a special blessing was Noongar woman Alison Murphy, who came along to meet the eagle and give her a Noongar name. Alison's father Noel Nannup named one of our 2016 birds 'Yirrabiddi', who is still flying around inland Western Australia, so it was great to introduce another member of the Nannup family to another member of the Wailitj one!

Alison Murphy attaches the final rivet to the eagle's colour-ring while Dani holds her.


Once we had finished taking measurements and fitting the colour-rings, it was time to accomplish the main aim of the mission and attach the satellite transmitter. If you've read other posts on this intricate procedure, you'll know it is done using a cardboard template which holds the Telfon harness straps in place while they are stitched. Dani continued her expert handling and seemed to give off soft, calming vibes that cast a spell on our subject, which made the tagging process straightforward and stress-free.


After observing the eagle's calm and placid behaviour during the ringing and tagging process, Alison decided the Noongar word 'kwidi', which means patiently waiting, would make a fitting name. Having spent so much time patiently waiting in my tree hide to observe her behaviour over the past few weeks, I agreed wholeheartedly! With the stitching on her transmitter harness complete, Kwidi was gently placed back in the handling bag and hoisted home.

Kwidi would be the 22nd and final juvenile eagle I had fitted with a transmitter for this current research project. What an amazing feeling to have completed a huge part of my PhD fieldwork! I plan to return soon after Christmas to make more hide observations, and spend more time in the canopy, patiently waiting.

It is always wonderful to be accompanied in the field by a bunch of great people.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Patiently Waiting


This beautiful Wailitj / Wedge-tailed Eagle is quite young (only 2-3 years old), and as most eagles do not enter the breeding population until they are about six, it is relatively unusual to observe a male of his age at a nest. I snapped the above photo from the top of a tree that I had scaled to see into his nest and age the chick, and by chance he suddenly landed on the nest for a brief moment, just long enough for a portrait. It was only seconds before he saw me and departed swiftly.

His mate had landed in a nearby tree and responded to my presence in completely the opposite way to her younger 'boyfriend,' perching in the sun and showing no apparent shyness. This is only the second time in over 15 years I have encountered a female Wedge-tail who is so bold; Aquila eagles are normally very shy indeed and fly away before you can get within 500 m of them!

 

The male's suspicious expression was a giveaway that I'd been 'sprung', and although the female seemed to tolerate me, I knew that to capture perfectly natural behaviour would require a much more hidden approach.


It only took a few hours to erect a platform in the canopy of a Marri sapling close to the nest, made by fastening two solid planks to the upright limbs and using a small tent as a hide. This was completed last week, then I left the eagles alone for a while to adjust to the new addition to their arboreal environment.


Last week I entered the hide and made my first attempt at photography. The first two days were super exciting, with the eagles having accepted the hide and carrying on with their amazing nesting activities right in front of me. There were very long periods of waiting, however, and on some occasions I suffered pretty severe back pain. Being 6'8" isn't very helpful for being folded into a tent that is less than 1 m2 in area! You will have noticed from my Instagram posts though that the hide stints yielded some great moments. This photo of the juvenile eagle licking her beak in anticipation of being fed half a Karda / Gould's Goanna (Varanus gouldii) was by far one of my hiding highlights!


This afternoon's session, which began about 5 am and ended well after sunset, gave me some particularly big challenges. Strong winds have been present all week but the gusts that rose up after about 9 am today seemed to be intent on shaking all the trees off the hillside. At times I thought the whole tree might blow over! As the Marri leaves behind the nest began to glow brighter with back-light from the sinking sun, however, the wind slowly lost its breath. And just before sunset, the gorgeous male arrived at the nest with the hind-quarters of yet another Karda. It was beautiful to see a bird whom I knew was super shy feeding his fast-growing daughter, knowing he had no idea the same lens that focused on his youth not long ago was still present. I'm looking forward to more hide stints soon, and eventually to satellite-tagging this eaglet before she takes to the air.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Another Carnaby's Chick


It was a thrill today to see another Gnolyenok / Carnaby's Cockatoo chick peering up at me from inside one of the cockatoo boxes in a local reserve in Mundaring, the third of its kind to be successfully raised in the past three years. These endangered birds were first recorded breeding in 2015, when the Shire of Mundaring supported the installation of a suite of nest-boxes for a post-bushfire recovery program.

Earlier this week I was fortunate to visit the reserve with the WA Musuem, local Friends Group coordinator Ron Coloquhoun, Mundaring Shire Environmental Officer Jolene Wallington, and other community volunteers, to see this precious creature fitted with an ABBBS leg-band. This harmless tag will help researchers identify it in the future, maybe even when it is feeding its own offspring in a local nest-box! Fingers crossed we have many more moments like this to look forward to in the future!

Jolene holds the Carnaby's Cockatoo nestling during banding, while her daughter Emma watches on.

Friday, 1 December 2017

PorongurUpdate


It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since I installed my first Black Cockatoo nesting box on my friend Jeff's block in the Porongurup Range! Today Jeff and I celebrated this anniversary by paying a quick visit to the block and checking this box, as well as the five others that have been installed at the property since 2010, all of which have been part of increasingly successful breeding. by Gnolyenok / Carnaby's Cockatoo. We were thrilled to find Carnaby's Cockatoos in every box! The two most recently installed boxes, which went up in May this year as part of a Birdlife WA and South Coast NRM educational workshop, both had heavily chewed entrances, tell-tale signs of prospecting (and usually occupancy) by Black Cockatoos.

A large vertical box installed in May with a newly hatched Carnaby's Cockatoo chick.

These findings give me such a thrill because they prove the design of my large vertical nest-boxes is effective, and also that newly installed boxes can become occupied so readily when placed at known breeding sites.

Three cockatoo chicks were banded as part of an ongoing WA Museum study on their movements and survival, an exciting addition to the study that Jeff and I have been carrying out on the breeding of Carnaby's Cockatoo in the Porongurup range. It was amazing to see these birds so close, and heartwarming to think of the beautiful moment when they will make their first flight into the Karri canopy and beyond!

This Threatened cockatoo chick hatched inside a nest-box made from rubbish!

Monday, 27 November 2017

Djoorabiddi & The Project


Last month I had the privilege of taking a small group of people to visit a beautiful eagle eyrie in a remote part of the Perth Hills. This included Jo Manning from Murdoch University's public relations department, and Thom and Darrell from Channel 10's 'The Project', who (very excitingly!) were tagging along (pardon the pun!) to film some of my fieldwork to fit a GPS/Satellite transmitter to a juvenile Wailitj / Wedge-tailed Eagle. The bird I managed to catch on his nest was a very calm, placid young boy, who was given the name 'Djoorabiddi' by Noongar lady Alison Murphy. This word is derived from 'djoorab' = good natured/happy, & means 'go foward happily'. Alison's father Noel last year named my beautiful Parkerville eagle 'Yirrabiddi' (path/journey in the sky), so it was truly magic to have a journey theme connecting these two Nannup-derived names!!

The story of how we fitted Djoorabiddi with a satellite transmitter was played last night on the Sunday Project, who kindly gave me the below copy to post here. Keep your eyes on the Wedge-tailed Eagle Tracking website for updates on Djoorabiddi's progress, and the movements of other juvenile Wedge-tails from the Perth Hills and further a field. Enjoy!