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!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Back from the Bush



I've just returned from outback Australia after a week continuing my Wedge-tailed Eagle research in the Murchison region of WA. (Click here for more info about this project). My good friend Mick came along to help out as we revisited active nests located in August and conducted further searches for new nests in areas we hadn't yet visited.

The weather was overall cooler than expected which made our ventures much more bearable, although on one afternoon I did get a touch of heat stroke and we had to return to the homestead. We got on really well with the research, finding 14 new nests and taking our eagle nest total up to 52, and our total eagle territory count to 22. This means there are at least 22 pairs of Wedgies resident at Lorna Glen - quite a nice handful really!

The interesting find was that no eagle nests had been successful in rearing chicks. Of 11 which were active in August, one had contained a week-old chick when we last visited its nest, but sadly we found the chick had died on the nest at approximately 7 weeks of age. We located the body under a nearby perch tree suggesting one of the adult eagles (i.e. its mum or dad) had removed the carcass from the nest cavity, quite a sad thought really. But this is nature and it's perfectly normal for birds to fail at a breeding attempt at any time during the 3-month nestling period. This is most often caused by a lack of consistent food, but I suspect the death of this eaglet may have been caused by heat. There was a very hot period in October where the mercury soared above 45˚C for more than 10 days, not a very easy thing to endure when your nest is barely shaded.

This Wedge-tailed Eagle chick died at about 7-8 weeks of age, possibly from heat stress.

Although not good for eagle chicks, the warmer weather had created the perfect conditions for many of the local reptiles to emerge and begin their reproductive behaviour. One of the first sightings we had was a beautiful Mulga Dragon (Caimanops amphiboluroides), a particularly exciting discovery as I had never seen this species before. I spotted him basking on an old fence post while we whizzed down a dirt track one afternoon, and he obligingly sat for a photograph!


Another afternoon we surprised the largest Australian land lizard - a Perentie (Varanus giganteus)! Despite being a formidable predator, these lizards are very shy of humans because they have been a prized meal for Aboriginal people for thousands of years. As we approached from our car, the Perentie raced away and hid among some nearby bushes, and stayed put as we approached for some photos. Here you can see his incredibly long head, which contains sharp teeth and powerful jaws equipped for killing live prey (especially mammals like rabbits) and tearing meat from kangaroo carcasses.



And while we're on the topic of monitor lizards, another really interesting find was the mating behaviour of some Yellow-spotted Monitors (Varanus panoptes), which I managed to capture on a motion-sensing camera placed outside a burrow. Much of the footage obtained was of a large male excavating a burrow, and seemingly guarding the entrance and chasing off other monitors (according to my herpetologist friend Dr. Sean Doody, they are known to do this). But at one point a female monitor emerged from inside the burrow and was instantly embraced by the male, who mated with her for several minutes, before 'escorting' her back into the burrow.



There were many more creatures active in this desert wonderland, but I'll save their stories for next time. You can see more photos from this recent outback expedition here.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

A Nice Hobby


These two beautiful chicks belong to an Australian Hobby, one of the many birds of prey we've seen out in the Murchison region this week. A good friend and I are currently conducting some fieldwork at Lorna Glen Conservation Reserve, about 150km north-east of Wiluna, as part of a long-term research project I'm conducting on Wedge-tailed Eagles (click here for more info). These swift raptors have taken advantage of an abundance of Budgerigars which have arrived after recent rains. Hobbies are one of the smallest falcons in Australia, and are incredibly fast flyers, flapping up against the breeze then zooming back with the wind behind them like a bullet. We observed a pair hunting a few evenings ago and were in awe of their speed!

Like all other falcons, hobbies are incapable of building their own nests - this pair took up residence in an old crow's nest high above the surrounding plains in a River Redgum. The female would have laid 2-3 eggs about 2 months ago, nestling down to incubate in the deep cup in the middle of this stick structure. Obviously the hobbies' prime food, which consists mostly of small birds like budgies, honeyeaters and swallows, has been in good supply and the chicks have grown rapidly. Mick and I discovered the nest this afternoon, and I climbed up to have a closer look. As you can see, the hobby chicks have had a very nice view of the creekline in which their nest tree is situated, and the surrounding landscape:




I managed to reach the nest and get some closer shots of the gorgeous chicks. They are about a month old and very close to being able to fly.




After snapping these shots I was keen to see if I could get any footage of parents coming back to feed the chicks (which wouldn't happen very frequently with the chicks being so large), so I mounted my mini High Def camera to a branch overlooking the nest. The battery lasted 2 hours, and I returned just on sunset to collect the camera. Our excitement was short-lived as even though the chicks appeared to quickly accept the camera, the parents didn't as they didn't return (or perhaps they'd had no luck with hunting anything to bring back!). It is important to note that while this may seem disturbing, the chicks were fine when we saw them the next day, and at such a late stage of development the parent birds wouldn't abandon them. It was worth a shot - and I still captured some behaviour of the chicks anxiously looking around, preening, and enjoying the afternoon light in this gorgeous environment.
 

Hobbies from Simon Cherriman on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Photography Exhibition!

I am pleased to announce that a few friends and I are having a PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBITION! We are celebrating the 12th of the 12th of the 12th by releasing some postcards detailing the event. Here is all the info you need (except for the spelling mistake in the first 'Thursday'!).

More info at the facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/events/432427686810748/

Hope to see you there!


Monday, 3 December 2012

Not Easy to Fly a Kite


Ticks crawled up the inside of my trousers as I waded through scratching vegetation, and the air was thick with humidity. Strong wind gusts tore through the scrub but I still managed to hear my mobile phone ringing. I answered it.
“Is that Simon? Hi, it’s Marra here, how are you?
G’day Marra! I’m great thanks, what’s happening?
I’ve got a baby Square-tailed Kite that was found near Forrestfield yesterday. It’s very near fledging but can’t fly. Just wondering if you’re available to go and search for a nest? Would probably involve some tree-climbing!”
Not many things are more exciting to me than climbing a tree to rescue one of our most unique and beautiful birds of prey (raptors). I accepted the offer at once and agreed to call Marra Apgar, one of Perth’s most dedicated wildlife rehabilitators and manager of the education business ‘Raptor Presentations’, for more information when I returned home the next day. The field trip I was on was nearly over but already I had something else to look forward to. A mission away from the ticks and humidity, but one that would prove just as challenging.
Marra informed me that the orphaned bird had been found by some ladies walking their dogs in a regional park in the Perth foothills. I arranged to meet them on one of their routine mornings so they could show me where it had been found, and hopefully allow me to find a nest. According to Marra’s assessment, the kite was well developed but incapable of flying, so must have accidentally parachuted off its nest. Probably an easy mistake in the recent strong winds.
It was a grey morning when I met Caroline and Chris the next day, and we headed up a bush track through fields of low heath adorning the foothills, with Chris’s two dogs panting and showing us the way. The vegetation was mostly too low for raptor nests, but I noticed the occasional small red-gum growing by the track became taller and more frequent as we headed higher up the hill. This is looking more like kite-nesting country, I thought.
The ladies reached the spot where they remembered finding the young bird, who I’d heard so much about but not yet had the privilege of meeting. We stopped at a dip in the trail where a well-wooded gully sliced its way into the underlying bedrock, another highly suitable place for a nest site. Despite searching for about 20 minutes, and inspecting with my binoculars the crown of all the nearby large trees, there was no nest to be seen.
After some discussion and a quick phone-call to Marra to confirm that the bird was indeed a Square-tailed Kite (I had seen a possible tree hollow suitable for Kestrels), we carried on up the path. Another few hundred metres on and one of the ladies stopped.
“Hang on. Maybe this is where we found the chick!?”
With that I glanced skyward and an adult Square-tailed Kite flew right overhead, skimming the tree line in graceful fashion.
“There!” I yelled. “There’s an adult kite. We must be close to a nest now!”
Looking in the direction the kite had appeared from, I instantly noticed a large stick nest built in some leafy foliage of a tall red-gum.
“There’s the nest! Fantastic!” We all hopped around like excited children waiting for an ice-cream.
I rushed round one side of the tree and checked the nest repeatedly with my binoculars. The wind roared over my eardrums and sent the nest tree’s canopy rippling with air currents like a ship’s mast in a gale. The nest was very high but I could just make out the shape of another bird, flattening itself onto the platform to bunker down from each strong gust. It looked like a second fully-feathered kite chick and gave me hope I had a good chance of returning ‘our’ chick successfully.
The incredibly windy conditions prevented me from even considering tree climbing today, so Caroline, Chris, Marra and I arranged to meet on Sunday when the weather forecast looked more favourable. In the meantime ‘our’ chick, which had now been dubbed ‘Squrt’ (short for ‘SQUaRe-Tailed Kite’), would stay in Marra’s safe keeping. Although young birds of prey are known to imprint on humans when brought into captivity (i.e. by relying on a human to feed and nurture them, they grow up thinking they are human, becoming destined to a life in an aviary), larger nestlings which have passed the imprinting period can remain in human care for several days and still be returned to the wild with little impact on their psyche.
Sunday arrived quickly and, with Mum and Gill in tow, I arrived at Marra’s place early to finally meet Squrt in the flesh. She (we were uncertain whether she really was a she or not!) sat quietly in her aviary with her head cocked to one side as Marra and I talked quietly, then opened the cage for me to get some footage of her up close. I was amazed at the calm nature of the bird and instantly took a liking to her. I couldn’t wait to get her back to her nest.

We drove up to the foothills and eagerly piled out of the car with cameras, backpacks full of climbing gear, the pet-pack containing Squrt and a whole bunch of enthusiasm, and set of along the walk trail. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the ‘nest tree’ and were greeted by Chris (Caroline had had to leave for work before we arrived). As Marra shared information about Squrt and gave the others updates on her condition, I wasted no time in unpacking my tree-scaling equipment and setting up ropes to the nest.
Just before I was ready to ascend the tree, some movement caught my eye and I noticed a Little Eagle tucking its wings up, having just landed on a main branch above the kite nest. I alerted the others and we all watched it preen briefly then look down to the nest, then back at us. It was very suspicious that one species of raptor would land so close to the active nest of another, unless of course it was hungry. From my position near the base of the tree, the nest appeared empty. No sign of the kite chick I’d seen a few days before. My mind raced. What was going on here?


I knew the only way to find out was to get up to the nest, so I quickly grabbed a camera and began scaling the rope. As I got higher, the Little Eagle promptly launched from its perch and glided away across the valley. Soon I was just below the nest platform. A gentle breeze ruffled the leaves around me. I secured a safety line around a thick limb, then pulled myself right up to the nest. There before me was an amazing sight. An incredible spectacle of nature…



The Little Eagle chick was only days old. It was tiny, not much bigger than the palm of my hand, and covered in a fine, smoky-grey natal down. Tiny whispers filled my ears as it called softly next to my head, probably thinking I was a parent bird. The small cup in the centre of the nest, lined sparsely with Eucalypt leaves, was only just big enough to cradle this little being’s body. What a sight! I pulled away from the nest and lowered myself into a sitting position in my harness.

“There’s a Little Eagle chick up here. The nest isn’t a kite’s after all. This one belongs to Little Eagles. We’re back to square one again!”
The others muttered a few words in surprise from down below. I heard Chris asking Marra questions, and the explanation that followed. If we couldn’t find a nest to return the kite to, it would have to remain in captivity. A life in prison. I dreaded the thought. Captive birds of prey play a huge role in education, and when an event like this occurs, an opportunity arises for one individual raptor to become an ambassador for its kind. To allow humans to experience at close quarters a bird that most people would never even see. And hopefully to capture children with that magic aura, the mystic glow that birds of prey seem to emit. But for me, seeing a species which is born to soar high on rising air currents restrained by domestication is still depressing. No cage is big enough to house the most powerful of our flying birds.
The figure-eight warmed my fingers, hot after my rapid descent down the static abseiling rope. I unclipped myself and walked over to the others.
“What should we do now hey? It’s a bit of a mystery where this bird has come from.” I stared at Squrt who sat on the soft blanket placed next to her pet pack. Her head tilted to one side as though she was waiting for an answer.

“I am still sure where we found her was back down the track. Where we first looked the other day,” Chris said convincingly. Maybe I’d missed something. Gill, Chris and I headed back to the place I’d first looked for a nest, while Marra and Mum waited with Squrt.
Nearly an hour of thoroughly nest-searching the gully still brought us no luck. It was beginning to heat up and Marra was concerned to get Squrt back to her place for a feed. Chris had had to leave. Mum waved her hands at the flies. I wiped sweat from my brow. After a morning which began with so much enthusiastic energy, we were now all feeling quite dejected.
Marra placed Squrt into her pet-pack and began walking back to the car. A head start with the awkward cage would be useful. I still had quite a bit of climbing gear to pack up, so Gill took my camera back-pack and tripod then went on ahead with Mum as I gathered the last of my ropes. I heaved the heavy pack onto my shoulders and plodded up the trail. A slight rise in the landscape took the track out of the thicker vegetation and into an open section of Wandoo trees. It was dead still now and quite warm. Nearing the top of the hill, I glanced upward at the path ahead. A large Wandoo overhanging the track stood out, reaching toward the light offered by a window in the canopy. And there, in a large fork on the lowest horizontal limb, sat an adult Square-tailed Kite with its large chick on a bulky mass of sticks. At last! A kite nest. The right nest!
I burst into action and raced toward the tree, calling to Mum and Gill who had just disappeared around the corner. Some faint replies came and soon they were back again.
“MARRA! Where’s Marra? Tell her I’ve found the nest!” I dumped my bag and ran on ahead to catch up with Marra, who fortunately hadn’t yet made it back to the car. She was thrilled to hear the news and followed me excitedly as I pointed in the direction of the kites’ nest.
The kite nest is just visible at the top centre of this photograph, with me ascending from the bottom.
It wasn’t long before I had a rope set up just above the nest and began ascending the tree. The nest was quite a long way out on the limb, precariously balanced, not the easiest thing to access. Looking from below, the adult kite’s head was just visible through the sticks, and seeing as most raptors flush before you even reach the nest tree, I was surprised she was still there. I drew level and secured a second safety line, then glanced toward the nest, the female kite raising her wings slightly as I prepared to go out on a limb. The moment was here. It was finally time to send Squrt home.
My hand quivered as I reached into the Woolworth’s ‘green bag’ and clasped my fingers around Squrt’s back. The young kite was quite large, but huddled up, its torso easily fitted into my palm. My other arm locked around a thin branch, helping my body balance on the horizontal limb. I ignored the 10 metre drop below me and focused on removing the bird from its cradle, slowly but surely. Its talons caught on the fine material of the bag’s rim and remained hooked for a few seconds, but I managed to free them and lift the kite into the open.

Marra places Squrt into a green bag, ready for her release.
Photographing the kite family up close!



Just a metre away, perched at one edge of the large stick nest, sat another chick, virtually identical looking to Squrt. And opposite it, the fine hooked bill, pale head and glorious red-brown markings of an adult Square-tailed Kite, curiously watching my every move.
I nervously leaned forward, still clutching the baby bird in one hand, clinging to the tree with the other, and after a long stretch, placed it back in the centre of the nest. Its sibling reacted by raising its crest feathers and gaping, the classic threat posture adopted by many birds of prey when humans are close to their nest. The adult watched its offspring flop clumsily forward into the nest cavity, then seconds later shuffled closer to it and looked down as if to say ‘where the hell have you been!?’ The whole world was quiet and all I could focus on was these incredible birds sat before me, not just the chicks but their parent, who to my disbelief had remained on the nest this whole time. What a wonderful, placid bird. Minutes passed, I heard muffled voices below, but nothing could break the space I was in, captivated by natural history.

Leaving the tree was like trying to prize myself from some powerful magnetic force which kept me glued to the scene like an invisible magnet. But eventually my legs were numb and an aching back forced me to retract myself from the nest. It was time to get down.
*       *       *       *       * 
Twenty-four hours later I returned to find both kite chicks still on their nest. The amazingly placid adult female also remained there, and once again she accepted me into her space. I nearly fell out of the tree when she walked slowly to the edge of the nest, reach out with her beak and touched my hand gently. I took more photos, then later that day broke the fantastic news to Marra, who informed me that the chicks both had a bulging crop, a sure sign that they had been well fed since Squrt’s reunion. All the signs were good for both chicks to fledge successfully. What an awesome outcome!
Being involved in this kite story was a simply amazing experience. The image of that beautiful female kite drifts into my mind often, an image I will remember forever.