Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Monday, May 31, 2010

Lena wins Eurovision Song Contest

Well it has been coming for some time. And now it has happened - LENA has won the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest.
Here she is at the After-Party.
And again, being carried out by her Minder, Zoe.
From the look in Lena's eyes, she had clearly indulged in too much "Green Fairy" at the After-Party.

Hopefully life in Robertson will return to normal tomorrow.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dragons and Damsels

I love the mythological sounding names we have imposed on these lovely insects - Damselflies and Dragonflies. Identifying these creatures is really the business of specialists, but I have done my best to track down what I was photographing. If anyone has any better suggestions, I would be happy to hear from you.

When I was at Charcoal Tank (West Wyalong district, NSW) last weekend I came across a moist patch of scrub (not wet, actually, but long fresh grass, and bright green shrubs). This was a mere 100 metres from the main dam on the block, but there was no standing water apart from in the dam itself.

Anyway, I was surprised to notice a bunch of Damselflies perched on the leaves of the shrubbery. I took a few images, so you can see what they were.

I am familiar with seeing Damselflies on rushes along the edges of swamps, not on bush shrubbery in dry country, such as West Wyalong. So you can see why I was a bit surprised.
The shrub in question is, I believe, a type of Hop Bush Dodonea viscosa ssp cuneata. This shrub was very common in the eastern end of the Reserve, where the Ironbarks and some Callitris were growing in an open forest spacing, but not amongst the Mallee patches.
This is a male Damselfly,
possibly the Wandering Ringtail Damselfly
Here is the female.
Just nearby to the shrubs which were attracting the Damselflies I saw a brown Dragonfly. I only saw this single specimen, whereas there were many Damsels around this little patch of scrub.I believe this to be a female of the Wandering Percher, If I am correct in that assumption, we are looking at Diplacodes bipunctata. Apparently this is also known as the Common Percher or Red Percher. Certainly it was "perching" when I saw it. (There are several Dragonfly species in which the males are bright red.)

As Dragonflies go, this was a relatively small one, compared to other brown or yellowish Dragonflies I have seen before.

I know that Dragonflies are generally identified by wing markings, and the spacing of their eyes. I did not get a front-on view of this Dragonfly, but it seems to have eyes placed adjacent to eachother (as do most Dragonflies), not widely spaced. Beyond that I cannot say. At least the venation of the wings is fairly clearly visible. Click on this link for a comparison from the Chew Family's website.

An interesting feature of my photo above is that it clearly shows a typical feature of Dragonfly wings, which, in this case is the red-brown panel in the front of each wing, which is called the "pterostigma". This feature is now understood to be aerodynamically important, affecting their ability to glide at high speed. Both Damsels and Dragons have this feature, but it is more clearly visible in the Dragonflies, as they hold their wings open at right angles from their bodies, and they are not overlapped, whereas the Damsels generally fold their wings together, in line with their bodies.

I think of it as being analogous with the little weights which automobile mechanics add to car wheels in order to "balance them". That feature is only important at relatively high speeds, but if your wheels are out of balance, you certainly notice it.

Fancy Dragonflies and Damsels having solved a problem of the aerodynamics of flight in this way. Ain't Nature wonderful?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The processes of bird banding

I have for some time refrained from showing any details of the processes of bird banding, for what you might refer to as "ethical" reasons. For many years, my father was the sole authorised importer of mist nets in Australia, acting as an agent for the licenced Bird Banders in Australia . He was always conscious that there is an active black market trade in native birds and animals. So, we always tried to keep from the public gaze any details of the processes involved.

However, it seems that licenced Bird Banders are not quite so concerned to keep their activities "covert" any more. "Australia does not permit the export of live native mammals, amphibians, reptiles or birds for commercial purposes." We all know that it happens, or that people regularly get caught attempting to smuggle wildlife out of Australia, but the CITES Convention is very strong and it is enforced by Customs and the legal procedures and powers under CITES are administered by the Federal Dept of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.

Anthony Overs, who I met last weekend at Charcoal Tanks has been running an excellent Blog called "An Australian Bird Bander". His blog is very interesting with lots of good photos of birds in the hand, and also some of the process of banding, both "bush birds", and also of the "pelagic birds" - Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters.

So after some urging by Mick, who has experience of reporting Waders banded in the Northern Hemisphere at her area of Great Sandy Straits, and also Martin, Gouldiae and Tyto Tony, I have decided to make a straight forward report on the registered processes of bird banding in Australia such as I have been observing at Charcoal Tank.

The most important part is on the table - the record sheet.
Mark is measuring the head and beak size of this Bronzewing Pigeon
prior to its safe release.
Crimping the correct sized ring on a Grey Fantail's leg.
The split ring is closed firmly together with a special set of banding pliers.
It is free to slide up and down along the tarsus ("leg") of the bird.
Correct sizes for all species are specified,
to avoid an overly large ring dropping down onto the foot.
This bird is just squawking a little bit, but no pain is inflicted.
They are not known as "Cranky Fantails" for nothing.
They might feel indignant at being handled, so they let you know.
No pain is inflicted, and they recover very quickly.
Measuring the wing of a White-eared Honeyeater.
Here is a "Head and Beak" measurement being conducted
on a Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater.
This bird has been banded first of all, to minimise the risk of it escaping
without having been banded.
The Yellow-tailed Thornbill is informally referred to as a "Butter Bum".
Here it is being checked for any signs of moult.
Plumage details form part of the all important banding record.
This is a photo of a Mist Net set up in position.
It is practically invisible at right angles.
This image shows you looking through the net from one metre away.
Here is a close-up shot of the back of my hand,
to show the fine net, just visible. (Click to enlarge)
The strong vertical line is one of the framework strands
There are five horizontal strands to support the mesh.
Looking along the length of the net, it is just visible in sunlight.
There are several "pockets" formed by the loose mesh
The strong horizontal strands give the entire net the necessary support.
But the looseness of the mesh prevents harm to birds flying in at speed.
And here is the finished product.
This Western Gerygone is resting in a tree
after having been trapped, banded and released.
It flew away within 30 seconds of being released into this tree.
As with many hundreds of other birds at Charcoal Tank it now carries a band from which its life history can be monitored and analysed.

After many years of bird banding in the Brindabella Ranges, my father (S J Wilson) retired and then spend many more years writing up the records (more years than he had spent doing the banding, I mean). The life history of small bush birds is amazing with records of small birds like Thornbills and Scrubwrens living up to 17 years. This is information which nobody suspected until long term banding studies were conducted.

It is also very different from the experience in the Northern Hemisphere, where weather is more extreme, forcing many birds to migrate to mild climates in autumn ("fall") and back again in Spring. With such arduous trips most small birds in Europe and the USA live only a few years. Our small bush birds, if they can secure a territory for themselves, might never have to move more than a few hundred metres from home, and can live there until some dramatic event such as a bushfire intervenes. Nobody had any idea they lived so long until long-term banding studies were conducted.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More images from West Wyalong.

Following up on yesterday's post, I wish to publish a few more birds. But firstly I will show some habitat shots.

These Ironbark Eucalypts were flowering, but not very heavily. However, they were the main food plants for the large numbers of Honeyeaters present in the Nature Reserve.
The next plants to flower will be these Mallee Eucalypts. They have made good growth since the rain in February, and now are budding heavily and should be in heavy flower in about 3 weeks, I would think. Some were already starting to flower.This plant is the iconic "Wyalong Wattle" Acacia cardiophylla
Here is the whole shrub, about 2.5 metres tall
starting to swell the buds, and hence it is looking slightly yellowish
against the blue-grey foliage of the Ironbarks..
Here is a close-up of the leaves and buds.
And now back to the birds.
A lovely clean image of a female Red-capped Robin
By contrast, this image (click here) shows some considerable variation in this species, as it is a shot of another female without a red cap, which I photographed last year. And click here, to see the male.

Another Honeyeater we caught was the medium-large species - the White-eared Honeyeater. Not as large as the Spiny-cheeked HE, but much larger than the Brown-headed HE. This species has a very wide distribution and it is not fussy about its habitats. One thing I noticed was the variation in its calls, across its range.
This next is probably the smallest bird we handled this weekend - the Western Gerygone. (Gerygone fusca)

It is very small, grey above and silver underneath.
Its red eye, white ring around the eye
and white bar across the tip of the tail are all distinctive features.
This one will be familiar to many readers - the Eastern Rosella.
It is a male in fine breeding plumage.
It is being handled very carefully, as Rosellas can really bite hard.
Here it is at the banding table,
with scales and wing measuring ruler in evidence.
By contrast with all Crimson Rosellas, this species has white cheek patches.
I promised Mick from Sandy Straits and Beyond that I would publish this tonight. It is a male Rufous Whistler. Mick has photographed a fine male on her blog, too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Birds of West Wyalong, NSW

A few kilometres south-west of the town of West Wyalong, NSW is Charcoal Tank Nature Reserve. I visited there late last year, and went back this weekend for a bird banding trip. As with last year's visit, the bird netting and banding was conducted by licenced Banders.

Many of the Ironbark Trees were in flower (although not flowering heavily). As a result, there were many Honeyeaters present in the Nature Reserve. We caught some of them.
Juvenile Brown-headed Honeyeater (Melithreptus brevirostris)

In this case we had a chance to compare the head (beak and eyes) of a juvenile and an adult.
Juvenile (pale beak, blueish eye ring), and Adult
Another bird we caught in some numbers was the Grey Fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). You can see why this small bird is so named.
This is the Inland Thornbill (Acanthiza apicalis) It is a cousin of the Brown Thornbill.The main distinguishing features of the Inland Thornbill are its red eye (see above) (similar to the Brown Thornbill), and its bright rufous rump (with dark band, and white tips).
For other similar Thornbills (of inland NSW), the Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, which I have not seen in a very long time, has a pale eye and a brighter rump. It is a close relative of the Buff-rumped Thornbill, as distinct from the Brown Thornbill.

By contrast, the Yellow-rumped Thornbill (Acanthiza chrysorrhoa) has a clear yellow rump, a black forehead with white spots. It is also greener on the wings (than the Inland Thornbill).This next bird is the largest of the Honeyeaters which we caught on this trip, although Red Wattlebirds and Blue-faced Honeyeaters were present in some numbers (up in the tall trees).
Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater (Acanthagenys rufogularis)
This interesting bird has clear pink soft tissues around the beak and has a blue eye. This specimen has just a trace of stiff yellow feathers in the cheek patch, indicating it has only just achieved adulthood. These birds are very vocal, with a variety of piping calls.

I have some other photos of some other birds and insects and spiders and plants, from Charcoal Tank, which I will show soon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pigeons on the line.

My local pigeon is the Wonga Pigeon (Leucosarcia melanoleuca). A big fat one. I saw him today, flying from just below my deck, down into the Sassafras trees, where I took the photos of the seeds (published yesterday).

Wongas are walkers. Their natural habitat is the forest floor. They eat fallen seeds.
A Wonga Pigeon coming for a drink at George's patio.
By contrast, the "Brown Pigeon" as I grew up knowing it (Brown Cuckoo-Dove), and the White-headed Pigeon are both birds of the treetops. Really that means they are "fruit eaters", but how they choose to define fruit is at least "flexible" (you will note that all three species come to my friend George's feeder, but even then the Wonga prefers to scavenge for seed spilled by other birds). But there is no denying the difference in habits, and if you live in the tree tops, you do not eat fallen seeds.
Brown Cuckoo-Doves on a Feeder at George's place.

In the case of the White-headed Pigeons, (Columba leucomela) they are still regarded as being within the classic "Columba" family (as with the "Rock Dove" Columba livia - the common introduced Pigeon).
A pair of White-headed Pigeons. (Male facing camera).

Apparently in the NSW North Coast, and probably also in southern Queensland, the White-headed Pigeon has been advantaged by the spread of Camphor Laurel trees. That is not an issue here, as those trees do not like our frosts.

Last week I was surprised to see several groups of White-headed Pigeons fly up the valley (from the Belmore Falls area). I know that these birds are relatively common in Kangaroo Valley, and that is the most direct route from KV to Robertson. I know they like the local Lilly Pillies. which are just fruiting up.

Anyway, for the first time that I have ever seen, a family of White-heads chose to land on the power lines opposite my back deck, and I got this shot.
The male is the clean-looking bird in the centre, with red beak and red eye. The others might be females. Juveniles have a grey cap to their head, and are less clean on their front.

Brendan sent me some images from his place, near Narooma, where he regularly feeds large groups of White-headed Pigeons.And this is an image I would be happy to have taken myself.
A fine male, White-headed Pigeon, in perfect condition. Note the metallic gloss on his feathers.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Autumn colour, and Sassafras seeds

This long balmy autumn is drawing to a close. But it has given us some remarkable sights.

Although not exactly spectacular, this is at least "impressive". I cannot begin to calculate the vast number of seeds of the Sassafras trees (Doryphora sassafras) which are lying on the ground here. As I have mentioned, in the context of house painting and wind, these seeds have been flying around my house for several weeks now. Some have simply dropped from the trees, and are lying here, awaiting a good rain storm to flatten them down to the ground. Without that soil contact they have close to zero chance of germination.
Now if Peter Garrett had seen these seeds lying here, he might have thought of using them as insulation in house roofs. They certainly look fluffy enough to do that job.
I just jammed my boot in amongst the seeds,
to show their depth.
To give you a better idea of the numbers of seeds involved in just those few images, here is a close up of a single intact Sassafras seed. It is on a blue woollen jumper, so the coarse knitting pattern will give you some idea of scale. The seed itself is about the size of a match-head, and the hairy appendages are somewhere between a 5 cent coin and a 10 cent coin in area (if flattened). The seed appendages are the method of dispersal, for the plant, when it seeds. The seeds catch the wind very successfully, when the seed capsules on the tree open, or when the entire seed capsule falls to the ground. Obviously they fly best when caught by the wind from high in a Sassafras tree. They have been floating around everywhere at my place for the last three weeks now. There is hardly anywhere which is free of these intrusive flying seeds.

Cool climate gardeners tend to associate autumn with coloured leaves. My Ornamental Pistachio, Pistacio sinensis, was just reaching its peak last week when the wind blew all its leaves away.

My neighbours tree has been looking great,
when glimpsed through evergreen trees.And my own Acer rubrum "October Glory" is looking fine, growing on the west side of the house, to show the sunlight through the leaves. It is one of Fleming's Nurseries "Lipstick range" of colourful autumn trees.
These are the brightest leaves I have at present. Not as colourful as plants I was familiar with in Canberra, but the trade-off is that biting cold weather which helps produce the bright colours. Frankly, I do not miss severe frosts.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tree Dahlia makes it to flowering stage.

I love my Tree Dahlia plant. To me it symbolises the eternal struggle to succeed. In truth it might not be suitable for this climate, as it barely manages to flower, before the frosts cut it down.

Bare stems (canes) of the plant
and several arching branches carrying flowers.
In my experience, this plant needs other bushes near it
to support the heavy flowering heads.

My Blogging colleague, Martin, shares my interest in these flowers, and told me (in comments on his blog) that when he lived in Canberra, he grew them there, and they would last until the first moderate frost would arrive. It seems that where he now lives, he can no longer grow Tree Dahlias. My commiserations.

This year, my Tree Dahlia has flowered better than in previous years, as Robertson has had a long, dry and warm autumn season. In fact it started life badly as the first tall stem was knocked over by strong winds in late spring, and the plant had to start all over again.

But it has made it.
The pendant flowers always look like "Pixie's Caps" to me
(Well, as Pixie's Caps are traditionally illustrated).A close-up of the "eye" of the Tree Dahlia Flower.
Click to enlarge it, to see the details.
Just lovely, in my opinion.