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!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Home of the Hawks


Don't those eyes just GRAB you!!?? Their owner tried to grab me a couple of times as I climbed to check her nest in the West Australian wheatbelt region today. These mesmerising yellow orbs belong to a gorgeous female Brown Goshawk (Accipiter fasciatus), one of the most formidable predators of the Australian bush. The species name 'fasciatus' means 'banded', after the horizontal bars (called 'chevrons') visible across the bird's breast. It was a great privilege to be shown a nest by a friend of mine and have the opportunity to lend others an insight into the lives of these awesome birds.

Brown Goshawks take a variety of birds including parrots, pigeons, butcherbirds and magpies, and mammals up to the size of a rabbit. These raptors are also an aggressive defender of their nest site. This female (who is much larger than the male) stood guard while I photographed her chicks, making occasional swoops at me. Here's what Brown Goshawks look like on their first day in this world:


As with all other raptors in the hawk family (Accipitridae), Goshawks line their nest with fresh green leaves, usually Eucalypts. It is truly amazing to see how tiny, fluffy chicks like this can grow up to become powerful hunters of other animals. Chicks this young are vulnerable to exposure so I made sure to keep my visit as brief as possible, and set up a camera to observe the nest remotely without disturbance. The female resumed sitting as soon as I had left the nest and walked only 50m away.


Goshawks are often thought of as 'pests' because they can harass caged birds like chickens and pigeons, a perfectly natural instinct for an ambush predator which seeks unsuspecting or 'cornered' prey. This can be avoided by situating aviaries in a protected area (such as under trees) and covering the front with a blanket or sheet of hessian, and securing your chicken pen with a ceiling. Also, it pays to remember that you live in their habitat! Raptors across the world have been (and still are in some places) severely persecuted by humans, so with the growing attitude towards conservation it is fabulous to be able to witness such amazing, swift and beautiful birds. Here's a final glimpse of this female Goshawk's amazing dedication to her nest, as captured by my hidden video camera.



Goshawk from Simon Cherriman on Vimeo.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

You're a Dead Duck

 
This is a familiar spot to anyone who lives in the Mundaring Shire - it is the section of Riley Road, just west of the Stoneville Road roundabout. Today I was horrified to drive through the roundabout and find some dead animals one the side of the road. Note that they are on the northern side, which, if you are in a car and heading east, you have to start to slow down for a roundabout right where the yellow sign is. Check this out:


This is the first victim, a female Australian Wood Duck who has been squashed by a car, which supposedly should have been slowing down for the roundabout. But if you  look closer, you can see than whoever hit her also killed three of her day-old ducklings.


Later that same day, I drove back along this stretch of road and found a dead female Quenda or Southern Brown Bandicoot. She was also not the soul victim. Hanging from her pouch were 2 partly furred babies, both stone cold dead, having clearly not been able to make it when they tried to flee their mother's cold body. The family had been killed in broad daylight in a 50kph zone.

This story is chilling and sends a simple but strong message to people living in the bush:

WATCH THE ROAD and SLOW DOWN FOR WILDLIFE

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Drain Dragons


This great little wetland (a delightfully concreted urban drain in Canberra) is home to a surprising array of wildlife, so I found recently. The attempt at preventing erosion by concreting the banks and building large rock walls held in place with wire mesh framework (and I say 'attempt' because downstream of this photo the banks are totally washed away by storm-water flooding!) has actually been quite beneficial to one species in particular. Here it is...


No - this eye doesn't belong to a Tyrannosaurus rex!!... although its dinosaur-like appearance is a clear indicator of the ancient ancestors from which this creature evolved. It is in fact the eye of a Gippsland Water Dragon (Physignathus lesueurii howittii), one of the large, semi-aquatic reptiles found in eastern Australia. These native lizards are named 'dragons' because of their resemblance to the creatures of Chinese mythology. Here's a wider view of one:


You can see the 'dragon-like' features which include thick, leathery scales, a spiky 'mohawk' (which is actually a row of pointed scales running down the centre of the neck, referred to as a 'nuchal crest'), and long, powerful legs equipped with sharp claws which make these lizards adept climbers. It's hard to get any sense of scale from the above image, but they can grow to a metre long, and weigh up to 1kg!

Water dragons are excellent swimmers and while walking around the drain I often head a 'plop' then saw one motoring across the surface of the water. Water travel is made easy with a thick, paddle-shaped tale, which is dorsally compressed (a scientific term meaning 'squashed in from the sides') and makes up about two-thirds of the body length. Sometimes they dive straight under and can remain submerged on the river bed for over an hour! When emerging from their watery hiding place, the wire mesh walls on our Canberra drain give them excellent grip, and the rock is a perfect place to bask, especially when carpeted with blankets of golden sunlight during the late afternoon. Being 'solar-powered', all reptiles rely on an external source of heat to fuel their metabolism, so scanning rocks and logs while walking is a good way to tune into lizard spotting. This smaller female dragon (noticeably greener in colour than the male pictured above, and with less bold markings) was half way through shedding her skin, and allowed me to crawl quite close for a photo. There is something refreshing about seeing the old skin peel off and make way for the beautiful new scales underneath.


Ok... let's finish with a challenge. Spot the dragon! Here are four photographs taken along the creek banks at our Dragon Drain, each one with a dragon hiding. Can you spot them all!?
(Click on each image to make it larger).





Sunday, 3 November 2013

Creatures of the Dam

 
This beautiful water, decorated with water lilies and surrounded by dense reeds on some of the banks, makes up part of the picturesque scene below the verandah of the house where I'm spending a few days near a place called The Channon, in north-eastern NSW. Looking at the perfect reflections which shimmer on a flat surface which resembles a giant piece of glass, the dam gives the sense that nothing is moving. However, as I've found out over the last few days, there is always plenty of wildlife hiding away in such areas. Check out these amazing creatures!

These Hardheads, or White-eyed Ducks (Aythya australis) have landed on the dam for each afternoon. Initially I thought they were a pair, but looking more closely you can see they both have white eyes, making them males - females of this species have a brown iris.


Late one afternoon I was really lucky to see one of Australia's most iconic yet cryptic animals - a Platypus! European settlers first thought this amazing animal was a hoax because it was a mammal with a duck's beak that lived in the water. Platypus live in freshwater streams, diving beneath the surface and using special electro-sensors in their bill to detect creatures like crustaceans and small macro-invertebrates. They surface every so often and raft around on the water before diving, giving anyone who is looking a sneaky glimpse!


As the sun set a few loud noises started up at the pond's edge. Investigating with a head torch and listening carefully, I managed to find the culprits - two species of tree frog which were calling loudly to attract mates. The first one only reaches 3cm in length so was hard to spot among the thick reed stems, but eventually I snapped a photo. Meet the Eastern Dwarf Tree Frog (Litoria fallax):


The second species was much louder and also larger, making it easier to spot with a head torch. Another tree frog, as evident from the large discs on the end of his fingers which are very useful for climbing, sat on a large tree stump giving off his whirring song. This one turned out to be a Peron's Tree Frog (Litoria peronii), a common species of the south-east. You can just make out the yellow pattern between his fingers - this was even brighter along the linings of their legs.


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Rabbit Leg Anyone?


While observing satellite-tagged eagles from my hide today, I was very pleased when Gidjee, an adult female, flew in with part of a freshly killed rabbit and fed it to her chick. She only stayed for 17 minutes before taking off again - but not before finishing the last bit of rabbit herself. I watched in awe as she proceeded to swallow a hind limb - from the hip joint to the toes - WHOLE!! This whopping great mouthful would have measured about 25cm long, a truly incredible feat for a bird that normal swallows soft chunks of flesh.

The leg goes in, feet first...

Gidjee swallows the rest of the leg.

Monday, 14 October 2013

A Fowl bit of Driving



It is always a great shame to see wildlife hit by cars, and a much greater one when the species killed is Endangered.

The Malleefowl, or 'Gnow' in the Noongar language, is a threatened species, owing to massive parts of its habitat being cleared and fragmented, and predation by foxes. The bird above was hit by a car on a stretch of Great Northern Highway, just north of the town of Wubin. It had only been killed a few hours before we arrived, so must have been hit in broad daylight. People often have the naive view that a bird will simply 'fly out of the way', but this is often not the case, and it may only take a slight easing off the accelerator to buy the animal extra time. Malleefowl are mostly ground dwelling, and although they can flap up into tall shrubs to roost for the night, they are not particularly agile.

Male Malleefowl are responsible for maintaining the temperature of their giant egg incubator: a construction of sand, soil and leaf litter raked into a mound. Females lay eggs inside the mound and males regulate its temperature by piling extra material on or off. This time of year is the nesting season, so it's likely that this bird had a mound somewhere. If it was a male, the eggs will probably cook and no chicks will survive.

A sad ending when it would have been very easy to just slow down a bit and let it get off the road.


Friday, 11 October 2013

The Kite's are Back!


You might remember this post about an exciting good news story regarding the return of an orphaned Square-tailed Kite chick to its nest - thanks to some local bushwalkers and raptor rehabilitator Marra Apgar. It even featured on the Australian Geographic blog (and later in Issue 116 of the AG Journal). The kite pair had nested in a secluded gully in the Perth Hills, and considering the marvelous photography opportunity the 'friendly' female kite gave me, I was keen to return this year to see if they returned.

Today I visited last year's nest site and found it empty, with the nest showing no signs of visitation by the birds. However, it didn't take much searching to locate another nest nearby! Fresh scats (bird pooh) below and some kite tail-feathers poking out from the side of the nest told me it was active.

The female kite was sitting on a single egg and once again, was very receptive to me and my lens, allowing these shots of this beautiful, placid raptor incubating. I hope to return to the nest soon and keep track of the kites' progress.


Thursday, 3 October 2013

New Nest Boxes for Penrhos



Today I visited Penrhos College and installed 6 new nest boxes for the school grounds. The small 'bush garden' pictured above was the ideal spot for two of the boxes, and I climbed the tall Eucalypt centrepiece in which to hang them. Here's what the boxes look like from below (the higher box, designed for small parrots, is just visible near the top):



You can just make out that each nest box is numbered on the bottom side - this will help students write down their observations about any wildlife seen using them in a notebook that the school keeps in the admin. Such activities are an integral part of engaging the children with the environment of their school, and I find that 'everyone starts looking up' once you alert them to a nest box, and wants to keep looking up each day. Just what we are after!

When I had finished installing the boxes the lovely admin lady Michelle alerted me to a bird's nest in a tree in one of the school courtyards. It turned out to be a Grey Butcherbird, nesting right in the middle of the school! You might remember that I visited Penrhos last year to give some talks about local birds, and one of the highlights was finding a few birds nesting in the school grounds. These butcherbirds are almost certainly the same pair who made their nest in a Silver Birch tree at the school entrance last year. Below is a photo of this year's nest containing 3 eggs.

A big thanks to Polly and her son Austin for volunteering their time to help me install the nest boxes today, and to Michelle from Penrhos for her wonderful hospitality and giving us sandwiches and some lovely orange juice :)


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Bat Box Bugs


Today I installed some new bat boxes at Beringa Reserve in the City of Maylands. You can see one in the tree above, on a beautiful stretch of the Swan River, with a view to Perth city's buildings in the background. This is now the second batch of boxes being installed in an effort to encourage more microbats to enhance the area's biodiversity... and hopefully help control some mosquitoes. Here's what the bat boxes look like close up:

You can see the small entrance which is located at the bottom of the nest box, designed to replicate a crack in a tree trunk or crevice behind some peeling bark. This way bats are able to crawl upwards into the safety of the box chamber after landing on the 'landing pad' at the bottom. This section, just like each wall on the inside of the box, is covered with fine wire mesh to offer grip on an otherwise slippery surface of smooth plywood. The other noticeable feature is the way this box is attached to the tree. All my nest boxes are 'hung' using a length of wire which is threaded through some old garden hose. This prevents the wire from cutting into the tree, and the wire allows easy removal should the box need to be relocated, repaired or cleaned.

After installing all boxes at Beringa, I paid a visit to Clarkson Reserve where I hung 7 more earlier this year (you can read about that here). Seeing as they'd been up a few months I was excited to check them and see what creatures may have taken up residence.

Unfortunately none of the boxes had bats, but ALL had some kind of life in them, mostly in the form of insects, which was very pleasing! It might seem weird to be excited by a few bugs, but it was good to know that some local wildlife had found its way in, showing how the boxes soon become part of the trees they are in. The first box had a large Huntsman Spider sitting inside a neatly woven sphere of silk. This was a female nursing her egg sac, which should produce lots of babies soon. The second box had a few cockroaches of different varieties, and the third had another spider and a Marbled Geko which was very exciting! Here are a few snaps of the different creatures seen in today's bat boxes.

Marbled Gecko (Christinus marmoratus)

Cockroaches - great Gecko food!

Female Huntsman Spider guarding her egg sac.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Siblicide


Another 6-hour stint in my hide overlooking the eagle nest this morning revealed an absolutely incredible event, one I never thought I'd ever see, let alone capture on film. Only one eaglet remained on the nest... and the fate of the other was already sealed. It had been killed by the surviving eaglet, and I watched in amazement as the adult female returned to the nest...


Siblicide from Simon Cherriman on Vimeo.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Spot the Stick


At first glance this picture doesn't appear to have a bird in frame at all, but if you look carefully you can see that the figure in the centre IS a bird - it's a Tawny Frogmouth! This remarkable bird was one of just over 40 avian species recorded at the Bioblitz, held this weekend at Elachbutting Rock in the WA Wheatbelt region, about 300km inland from Perth. This event aims to conduct a '24-hour snapshot' of a patch of native remnant vegetation, determine which plant and animal species live there, and engage local community members through trapping, birdwatching, plant identification, spotlighting and a whole range of other activities. You can read about the great fun and cool critters we found at last year's Bioblitz here.

Here's one more of the frogmouth, looking slightly more like a bird (or maybe not!). Stuart Rae, a research scientist currently studying this species in Canberra, tells me this is the male bird, who takes up incubation duties during the daytime. Even though he is very camouflaged, at least you can see his nest :)


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Colossal Marri



A twenty metre nest-box-installing climb into the vibrant crown of this giant, wonderful, incredible, colossal, ancient (200+ yr-old) Marri tree, which glowed in the afternoon sun and tempted me up there like a cave full of glistening jewels, was the highlight of my day. And possibly year. We only met last week but we are now best of friends. Her arms cradled me with all the gentle care in the world, and the view she offered me (I could see Mt Dale 50km away!) was immense. To think that if she could talk, this tree would whisper tales of witnessing countless Nyoongar ceremonies, then one day seeing the first party of white explorers following the Helena River into the Darling Scarp, CHANGES THE GRAIN of the human mind.
 
This was one of eight beautiful Eucalypt trees I had the privilege of climbing today to install nest boxes for Black Cockatoos at Helena College, made by students at the school as part of a community services project. The students were able to salvage demolition timber and plywood to apply our 're-cyc-ology' train of thought to their boxes. My enormous thanks go to Margaret Hogan and Kate Abbott for organising Gill and I to assist with the project, and the school handymen Jason and Jason for their help providing guidance to the students during construction, and helping me with installation too.

Here's a cutting from the local Hills Gazette showing one of the boxes ready to be hoisted up!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Saliva!



Today I had the privilege of spending some time in a hide overlooking a Wedge-tailed Eagle nest in the Perth hills. I wasn't sure how successful I would be with capturing footage when I arrived in darkness around 5 am, but I when I left in daylight nearly 6 hours later, I sure was happy with the result! Both adult eagles attended the nest regularly during my presence and I was able to capture lots of interesting behavioural footage and photos. This will be added to my wildlife footage library and used in future documentaries about eagles and wildlife in the Perth hills (stay tuned!).

Two interesting things happened today that I had never observed before, one I knew about and one I had never heard of. When both adults were at the nest, the male eagle spent much time plucking small portions of prey (the red stuff in the above photo, in this case Western Grey Kangaroo), and passing them to the female (as seen above). She delicately accepted an offering, passed it back to the male, and the pair would exchange the portion back and forth several times, before one of them swallowed it. This happened about half a dozen times and was quite a deliberate gesture between the adults, which ignored the two chicks during these exchanges (they had been well fed earlier). The only explanation I can think of is that this is another ritual which strengthens the pair-bond between these long-lived, monogamous (mate for life) eagles.

During each exchange, the eagles' beaks would start to dribble saliva, which dripped of the tip of their bill before one ate the piece of 'roo. This brings me to the next point. While feeding the chicks, saliva drizzling from the adult female's bill was clearly visible as it ran onto the piece of prey and into the eaglets' mouths. This was (as far as I know) first documented by well-known conservationist David Fleay, who was able to observe such intimate behaviours by breeding Wedge-tails in captivity, and he concluded the saliva helps very young chicks to swallow and digest prey (saliva is no longer used when the eaglets reach a certain age).



Another thought which has been suggested is that by passing on saliva to their offspring, adult eagles expose them to various bacteria, helping build their immune system at a young age. Just like letting our children play in the mud and eat soil! If it helps build a healthier, stronger animal, then why not!? Perhaps this could also explain the adults exchange described above - by passing saliva to each other, both adults may be ensuring they both 'have the same germs' to avoid any unexpected bouts of sickness.

So many occurrences in the natural world we can only guess at, making it all the more wonderful I think. As I often say, such incredibly powerful predators can demonstrate the most gentle, caring behaviour when tending their chicks or nurturing each other. Few things are as fascinating to watch!

To finish with, here is a short, unedited clip of the female feeding her chick and using saliva to lubricate the meal.


Saliva! from Simon Cherriman on Vimeo.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Silent Flight


Finding a beautiful animal killed by a car is never a happy experience but one can take advantage of the situation to observe detail not possible when the animal is still alive. This macro photograph shows the comb-like edge of a Barn Owl's outer primary feather, forming the leading edge of the wing, the specialised adaptation which makes them have silent flight. How? With each flap, this 'softer' edge gently brushes through the air, making no noise, unlike the flat-edge of other diurnal birds' wings (magpies, for example).

Barn Owls also have a large facial disc composed of bristled feathers, like a radar dish which channels the tiniest sound right to the ears. Ear openings in the skull are offset, with one being higher on the head than the other, allowing the owl to calculate the direction and distance of a small rustle in the leaves. Together with a reversible outer toe for getting that grip just right, and a neck which can turn 270˚ to 'pivot the radar dish' in most directions, this specialist equipment makes them perfect nocturnal hunters capable of catching prey in total blackness, without even a glimmer of light needed.


Here is a wider shot of the upper surface of the owl's wing, showing the stunningly beautiful feather patterns. Never pass up the opportunity to learn something new, even from a dead bird!


Saturday, 31 August 2013

Window in the Nest-box


Today I saw this beautiful family of Pacific Black Ducks on the dam. After exactly 4 weeks of incubation, this proud mum has successfully hatched her brood - baby animals are definitely some of the cutest beings Late rainfall in the Perth Hills has given us a very wet August - good weather for ducks! Plenty of pond life is flourishing on the wetland surrounding their mother's nest site, giving these ducklings ample food, especially small insects, which they begin snapping at instinctively on their first day on Earth. Time will tell how many survive - unfortunately most of this family are likely to end up as food for goshawks, ravens and even Long-necked Turtles, which while swimming can easily gulp them up from below. This makes it especially important to keep your pet cats and dogs away from native wildlife, which has a tough time as it is with a vast range of natural predators. Please share to promote responsible pet ownership.

Here is a short video offering a glimpse at the female duck returning to incubate her eggs. Notice how careful she is to tuck the down feathers close to her body, sealing in that vital warm air to prevent the eggs chilling. Also (not shown in this video), she moves the eggs around underneath her, altering their position in the 'circle' and to ensure even warmth reaches each egg. This regulates the temperature and means all eggs will hatch at the same time, so the family can depart the nest together.



Incubation Glimpse from Simon Cherriman on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Fluffy whites


These are the first Wedge-tailed Eagle chicks to hatch this year! Although it's hard to see the second one, which is tucked up beneath it's sibling, this nest proves that both eggs laid have successfully hatched. The next challenge is one of survival - will one eaglet fledge, or both? In 10 years of monitoring eagle nesting in the Perth region, only about 10% of nests fledge both eaglets. The second egg is laid as an 'insurance policy', in case one egg is infertile. The abundance of food and behaviour of siblings (sometimes the older attacks the younger, sometimes the two get on fine) will influence this outcome.

While walking back from the nest in this territory yesterday, I spied this Shining Bronze Cuckoo (Chalcites lucidus) zip over my head and land in a nearby Wandoo sapling. This adult was carrying a large caterpillar and I watched as it smashed it on the branch and ate its fill. What a great meal - equivalent to me eating a chocolate bar the size of my leg! Adult cuckoos are currently on the prowl, searching for nests of the many small songbirds which breed in the eagle valley. Granite outcrops and their surrounding heaths are very diverse in plants, and consequently they can support a huge range of small nesting birds. If you are a parasitic cuckoo, this is great news! You can read more about cuckoo parasitism in this post.


Sunday, 18 August 2013

Great Western Woodlands!


That's where I am right now - in the largest, intact, Mediterranean woodland left in the world. And this amazing area happens to be located 600km east of Perth, in an area which is ineptly named 'The Goldfield's'. Such a human-centric term implies the area consists of 'fields of gold', not vast, unbroken tracts of Eucalypt woodland stretching to the horizon.

This week is all about engaging local young people with their environment, getting inspired about the plants, animals and indigenous culture, and hopefully instilling in them the want to nurture and protect unique areas in this fabulous wilderness. Photos taken during this week will be added to this album on my website.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Barking up the Tree


Spot the bird's nest! In this photo it's not actually very hard to see, but if you were level with or below this tiny cup, it is almost invisible, exceptionally camouflaged. Who made it?

This remarkable piece of engineering is the work of a small, cryptic bird of the canopy - the Varied Sitella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera). But isn't Sitella a winery in the Perth region? Yes! But many human businesses take their name from something in nature, and it can be unfortunate when their original meaning is forgotten.

Varied Sitellas, so named because the species appears in several different colour forms, are widespread across Australia. They are seldom seen because flocks prefer to stay in the canopy, often only alerting themselves to humans with their distinctive call. The birds are also quite small (10cm), and are similar to tree-creepers in behaviour, spending their days clinging with ease to vertical trunks and high up branches, hopping up and down them and gleaning insects from the bark. Sitellas can easily move around without detection, foraging in the canopy in a cryptic manner.



The Sitella's ability to create such a well-disguised nest is one of the most astounding features of all Australian birds. They seek out a tiny fork in which to build and collect small flakes of bark, which are attached longitudinally to the stem with spiders' web, to make the nest appear like a broken off limb. Their attention to detail is just amazing! Peering up from the ground about 8m below, this nest is barely discernible from the other lumps and bumps on branches around it. Inside the nest a fine lining of plant down is added - in this case, the fawn-brown fuzz of Macrozamia has been used to create a soft bed for the 3 speckled eggs.

Another example of how birds never cease to amaze with their construction talent and effort when it comes to nesting.


Speech at Lynwood



After flying back from Adelaide to Perth this morning, I was greeted by this amazing sign outside Lywood Senior High School as a welcome for a speech I gave to the whole senior school. This was to tell the children about some of the exciting and fun things that come from doing environmental research and education work, and provide a  general 'kick off' to motivate them for Sustainability Week at the school. I always get a buzz to have the opportunity to talk to young people and excite them about the wonderful things to be investigated, appreciated and nurtured in the wonderful place that is natural Australia!

Thanks to Jo Willesee for inviting me to attend, and the staff at Lynwood for their welcoming attitude and making a very enjoyable visit (especially the morning tea!).