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!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Whales Bight


The Great Australian Bight. One of the most well-known features of our vast country. This magical spot provides a sanctuary for migratory Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis), which travel from Antarctic waters to give birth to their calves in the calm, shallow and warm waters. The Head of the Bight Whale Centre has a brilliant interpretation centre with plenty of information about the Aboriginal history and ecology of the surrounding Nullarbor Plain, as well as the biology of these gentle giants, and beautiful boardwalks provide easy access to viewing platforms from which you can see whales.

We were absolutely thrilled to read on the sign on the main highway that no less than 126 whales had been sighted in the bay at the last count!! Views from the cliffs with fresh sea air in our faces had us overlooking about 30 female whales (cows) and their calves. We watched in awe as they floated in front of us and felt totally privileged to absorb such an amazing sight. How people in the past could have harpooned such majestic mammals is beyond me, but fortunately times continue to change and much more of the world now agrees providing conservation areas for whales is far more rewarding than hunting. I'll definitely be back one day to see these creatures again.

A female Southern Right Whale and her calf blow spouts of water in unison.


Whale calves are 'small' - but only compared to the adults. They are still the length of a car.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Chats


 Always make time to stop for a chat! That is something I'm pretty keen on when it comes to being social with other humans, but also when an opportunity presents itself to photograph one of the most striking songbirds! Above you can see a male Crimson Chat (Epthianura tricolor), a vivid jewel in the low gibber and bluebush plains we have currently been driving through. Like many of the wrens and robins, this species shows strong sexual dimorphism in plumage, meaning males and females are very different to look at. In other birds the sexes are similar to look at but one is often larger than the other (size dimorphism). Here is the female chat, who you can see is much smaller. It was a thrill to watch her cleaning small insects from the bluebush shrub.


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Eastern Eagle Experiences


During the last few weeks of travel from Mudgee to Perth (5840 km) I've found 55 Wedge-tailed Eagle nests, 12 of which have been active. I thought I'd write a few stories about what I've seen, and of course share a few photos!

Above you can see one of the first wedge-tail chicks of 2014, taken in western NSW. This eaglet is just starting to pin (have its wing feather emerge) which puts it at about 4 weeks old, and means the eggs on this nest were laid in early May, a very early breeding attempt for this pair. The other active nests I've seen this month have all had females still sitting tight on eggs. Although their is some variation depending on local conditions, the majority of wedge-tail eggs are laid in June and July right across Australia, so it was exciting to unexpectedly come across a fluffy white chick!

It was interesting to find that another nest located only about 5 km away still had eggs being incubated, perhaps an indicator of how influential conditions in the exact eagle territory really are on the timing of breeding. I climbed the nest and found a freshly killed Emu chick on the edge, probably brought in by the male earlier that morning (we actually observed a male Emu, with three similar-sized chicks, only a few hundred metres from the eagle nest!).


An active Wedge-tail eyrie. You can just make out the fluffy Emu chick above the eagle eggs.

These eggs might've been due to hatch any moment, as after circling for a short time, the female returned to brood her eggs while we were still walking back to the car. You can make out her silhouette in this photo:



This was the start of better things to come. In relation to brooding females, a real point of interest to me this month has been the adult eagles' tolerance to human presence near their nest site, a stark contrast to behaviour I've observed for many years in Western Australia. It's not abnormal for a wedgie to flush when it sees a person approaching several hundred metres or more from its nest. But at three sites in arid NSW and SA, the eagles' response (or should I say 'lack of response') has been astounding. Here's a 'Where's Wally' shot to begin with. You can just make out the brooding female eagle's head, eyes looking right at me, peering out from behind the curtain of gumleaves covering her eyrie.



This wedgie didn't budge while I wandered around under her nest for a few minutes, and she kept up her piercing stare as we climbed back into the car to leave. It was amazing... but I met an even more tolerant female a few days afterwards, who peered down at me in a similar fashion as I stood beneath the nest tree and took photos. Her nest was probably the smallest I have seen, and barely seemed to be big enough to accommodate the sitting wedge-tail. I spotted it 50 m in from the dirt track we were driving on, and my first interpretation was a crow nest with a large plastic garbage bag flapping in the breeze - this turned out to be the eagle's massive tail feathers!




A female Wedge-tailed Eagle peers down at me from her nest, which was only 5m up in a Belar tree.

As if the above encounters weren't enough, my visit to the third site in question really was something else. I was fortunate to be shown this location along a seasonal watercourse in arid SA by good friend Kylie Piper, who visited the area last year. You can see the eagle eyrie, which has a gorgeous surrounding of fresh plant growth and desert wildflowers, in the top of the tallest tree in this photo:


As we approached the nest I could make out the shape of a bird sitting. It was the female, judging by the size of her bill, and the nest on which she sat was clearly a new one, being quite shallow and having plenty of loosely piled branches, not heavily compressed and faded like those of a nest years old. Despite its freshness the local Zebra Finches clearly hadn't taken long to find the eagle nest - several pairs had already constructed their neat, grassy domes into the side and the birds buzzed around like little flies. Can you spot the two finches in this photo?



The male eagle suddenly flushed from a low perch beneath the nest, and to my surprise, he flew very near to me and landed on a sand dune only ~30 m from the nest. He stood guard as I walked slowly along the sandy river bed and allowed me some very close photos. The sitting female remained incubating and looked right through me as though I was invisible. I didn't know which way to look! Two of the most beautiful eagles were within only 20 m of me, and they could see me, but they had an air of tolerance that was incredible. I turned to walk away and the male launched himself from the dune just as I pressed the shutter, resulting in the below photo.

Never before had I encountered eagles at such close quarters for so long, without being concealed in a hide for hours and hours. The wedge-tail is in my experience a species that takes so much time and effort to obtain pictures of, and at the nest it is normally quite unapproachable. But this pair had allowed me into their world, albeit for a few minutes. It was certainly a day I would never forget!




Friday, 25 July 2014

Dragon Rescue!


This Centralian Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps) came dangerously close to being run over today. After spotting it in the middle of the highway heading north from Pt Augusta, we pulled over to do the right thing and move it off the road. However, before I could turn around and stop in time, a 4WD and caravan rig shot straight over the top of it at full speed... and kept going. Fortunately the lizard remained intact but closer inspection revealed blood inside its mouth, which we thought resulted from it 'lashing out' at the passing car's undercarriage. Despite some sore lips the dragon seemed fine, and I managed to gently pick it up and take it to the side. A quick couple of photos and we encouraged it to head further away from the bitumen, and hopefully find a basking place far from traffic.

How could someone not even attempt to slow down for such a beautiful animal?


Thursday, 24 July 2014

More Pretty Parrots


I saw this beautiful male Mulga Parrot (Psephotus varius) while camping in Mungo National Park yesterday morning. A pair came into our camp very early but didn't hang around long enough for any photos. But not long after we'd finished breakfast these pretty parrots returned, and the warmth of the morning sun was obviously too good to give up for two humans with cameras! I managed to sneak around one side of them so I had the sun behind me, then gradually creep closer. You can just make out the female in the background of this picture.


As we packed up our camp another pair of parrots ducked in for a feed. These ones were 'Mallee' Ringnecks (Barnadius barnadi), a subspecies of Australian Ringneck which is quite different to the south-western variety I am used to, being much more vividly coloured with aqua-marine. It was brilliant to see them so close, proof that one of the best ways to experience wildlife is to camp amongst it!


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Sleepy?


The name 'Sleepy' is the term used in eastern Australia for this large and beautiful skink, also known as the Shingleback or Bobtail Lizard (Tiliqua rugosa). It has characteristic large scales, a triangular shaped-head and a short stumpy tail. During the last few days I've seen quite a number on the move, a key sign that the weather is warming up and they are no longer feeling 'sleepy'. On thing I've noticed is the variation in colours in this widespread species - the above animal is almost plain dark brown and grey, but another one we saw a few days later (below) was a much deeper chocolate colour and its body was covered with fine yellow specks. It's always good to take notice of the more common Australian animals and appreciate how beautiful they are, even though some of us might see them regularly.


Saturday, 19 July 2014

Pretty Polly


Today's highlight come from arid New South Wales, where we have spent the last few days camping and doing some very pleasant bushwalks. This pair of Pink Cockatoos (Lophochroa leadbeateri), also known as 'Major Mitchell's Cockatoos because of their very prominent and brightly coloured crest, had a nest in a hollow branch of a live gum tree. They sat quietly and allopreened (groomed each other) as we walked below. Here is a close up shot of the female, which has a pink iris and black pupil. She can be distinguished from the male who has a black iris.

It was refreshing to find these cockatoos nesting as they are quite rare, being much less abundant than other species and no doubt get out-competed for both food and nest sites by the more aggressive Galah (Eolophus roseicapillus) and Little Corella (Cacatua sanguinea), birds that have undergone enormous population expansions following the broad-scale clearing by Europeans.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

Heading West


HOME! After nearly 2 months over seas, I arrived back on Australian soil last Friday. A horrible dose of flu was an unwelcome leaving present as I departed Singapore, but the Australian winter sun soon had me feeling better, along with a few days R & R.

Gill and I are currently assisting good friend and ecologist Dan Hunter with his PhD fieldwork in Wollomi National Park. Freezing cold nights make us shiver in our sleeping bags but the days are mostly fine and the scenery is spectacular. Over the coming 3 weeks we will be making our way back to Western Australia in the new car I've just bought (above), and I'll try and post photos of wildlife highlights we see along the way.

Here are the first two: some gorgeous early-morning Red-necked Wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus) I took near our campsite. This has been the first time I've seen this species - it's always a delight to witness yet another example of Australia's unique biodiversity.