About Channel-billed Cuckoos and other cuckoos of the Top End

About Channel-billed Cuckoos and other cuckoos of the Top End

Cuckoos are unpopular with other birds. They have a habit of sneaking into other birds houses, chucking out the kids and depositing cuckoo children in their place. The unwilling surrogate parents find themselves feeding a voracious cuckoo child, at great personal expense.

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You would think the surrogate parents would realise that the cuckoo child wasn’t theirs, but it doesn’t work that way. Any egg that hatches in their nest is their child. It is hard-wired in birds.

They have their revenge though – bird species that are often host parents of cuckoo children bear a grudge against any and every cuckoo they see. As a result cuckoos are unpopular with other birds. Adult cuckoos are often harassed by the birds they parasitise. Read about one study on this behaviour conducted near Melbourne.

This might be why cuckoos have a tendency to sit still in a tree, well hidden. They don’t fly around making themselves noticeable. The Channel-billed Cuckoo is a perfect example.

We must have walked and driven past dozens of these enormous birds in the Top End before seeing the first one properly. Read about how excited we were to see the first one properly here. Seriously, they are 58-65cm long from beak to tail!

Every year around August they fly over from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. They hit the Northern Territory and Queensland Top End first, then over November and December end up as far south as Sydney and even East Gippsland, Victoria and the suburbs of Melbourne. Read more about them here.

They come to breed, and to do that they stop being unobtrusive. Their loud and wonderful calls ring out through the sub-tropical forests they love. Visit this page to listen.

The Top End has other lovely cuckoos too – including the huge and gorgeous Pheasant Coucal that seems to prefer running around on the ground to flying.

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Their call is magnificent – something like a troupe of monkeys crossed with water dripping into a resonant drum. Listen here on Birdlife Australia Unlike other cuckoos, the Pheasant Coucal does build its own nest and raise its own children.

We also see, when we’re lucky, the tiny Little Bronze-cuckoo. This bird has a soothing, cicada-like hum that makes you think of summer and lazy afternoons. Listen and see great pictures on Graeme Chapman’s site.

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The 6 day Wild Top End wildlife tour runs every August – which we think is the best time to be there. Its not too hot, most of the migrant birds have arrived, and its dry enough to get into the great places to see these Top End cuckoos and other wonderful birds.

Janine Duffy, Wildlife Guide. 

 

 

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Built for the birds – Welcome Swallows and the Mungo Woolshed.

Built for the birds – Welcome Swallows and the Mungo Woolshed.

Mungo in late November is hot. By 11.30am walking outside is unattractive, no matter how captivating the big mob of Emus look in the heat shimmer. The historic rough-sawn bulk of the Mungo Woolshed promises relief, so I duck inside.

Emus at Mungo National Park

Just above my head, a Welcome Swallow dismisses me with a glance. Elegant and haughty, swallows are creatures of the air, not of the land. Humans, it seems, are nothing more to them than builders of convenient eaves for swallow nest sites.

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I scan the large room. No wonder the swallow seemed calm. The woolshed is full of swallows. I see thirty on the ceiling braces of one alcove. Each rafter holds a swallow, and every few minutes a soft blue blur reveals another swallow entering.

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Welcome Swallows are high speed aerial acrobats. They fly endlessly without tiring, sometimes completing figures-of-eight around your legs as you walk across a park. Mostly when you see them flying they are hunting – the small insects they prey on are invisible to our eyes, but the swallow’s acrobatic manoevres are the hunter in pursuit.

But the middle of the day in The Outback is hot. Even the insects seek shade (have you ever walked into an Outback dunny* on a hot day to find it full of flies? They get hot too!) Perhaps the swallows find it hard to hunt in very high temperatures and take a siesta in the woolshed.

The Mungo Woolshed may have been built for humans to make money from wool, but it has another purpose now. Its the Mungo Swallow-shed.

Visit the wildlife and heritage of Mungo National Park with us on our 3 day Mungo Outback Journey

 

*dunny: an outhouse toilet.

Where does the King-Parrot get his name?

 

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Bird names are a bit like the English language – a lumpy soup of broken rules, throwbacks, dialects and slang. Some birds are named for their appearance: Tawny Frogmouth, White-throated Needletail; for their behaviour: Plains Wanderer, Bee-eater; for their similarity to other birds: Quail-thrush, Cuckooshrike, Fairywren; some for their calls: Laughing Kookaburra, Clinking Currawong and some for the region and habitat they live in: Atherton Scrubwren, Australian Reed-warbler.

Others are named for a combination of features, and some for reasons so twisted and mangled that they are nearly untraceable: Pitta, Cockatoo and the hilarious Drongo.

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So when you look at a large, elegant, vermillion and emerald-green parrot, the name King-Parrot seems sensible. The plumage of the adult male is reminiscent of expensive velvet cloaks with shimmering satin linings. A flash of turquoise on the wing sparkles like a diamond bracelet.

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Obviously King-Parrots are named for their appearance?   Well, no.

Watch this elegant parrot for a while and you will see that they are special. They inhabit the cool, wet forests of eastern Australia. They are sensitive to heat and dryness. High in the mighty eucalyptus forests of East Gippsland you will hear their ringing call, but they are elusive and sometimes difficult to see. The ground level of us mere mortals is a long way beneath them.

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male (lower) & female King-Parrots

If you own a bird feeder, as Sue & Glenn Herbert of Snowy River Homestead in Orbost do, you will meet many glorious Rainbow Lorikeets, Galahs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Crimson Rosellas, who crowd and squabble over seed treats.

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Rainbow Lorikeets (top), Galahs (pink & grey) and 4 King-Parrots (ground) at a feeder

Rarely, though, will you see a King-Parrot. They will wait until the others have gorged and then calmly appear. They will not squabble. They will not debase themselves. Somehow they know that you have saved a little seed for the most regal of visitors.

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Okay, then King-Parrots must named for their behaviour?  No, afraid not.

There is another way to name a bird. A name can honour a person. American naturalist Thomas Horsfield has a bronze-cuckoo and a bushlark named after him, artist John Lewin has a rail and a honeyeater, ornithologist John Gould has a finch and a petrel, and royalty are well represented by (Queen) Victoria’s Riflebird and Princess (Alexandra’s) Parrot.

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Politicians and heads of state also get their share of bird-names-in-honour. Barack Obama, Indira Gandhi and Nelson Mandela all have birds named for them.  But this is not just a recent phenomenon.

Philip Gidley King, Governor of New South Wales from 1800-1806 is the King-Parrot’s name source.

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adult male (left) and female Australian King-Parrots

According to “Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide” by Jeannie Gray & Ian Fraser, the name King’s Parrot was proposed by George Caley to honour Governor King. Whether King ever saw or appreciated his namesake is not known. The poor fellow died in 1808, only 2 years after resigning his post as governor and returning to England.

Watch out next week, its #AustralianFurSeal week!

What do jabirus do for fun?

What do children do if they don’t have toys? They make them!  Baby animals are just the same as human children in some respects. They play with what they have.

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Three Jabiru chicks were walking with their parent across a Top End, Northern Territory floodplain on a hot September day. We were lucky enough to be driving past, and did a quick U turn to watch.

Their cautious parent took them into the bushes upon seeing us, but after a few minutes the kids lost interest in hiding and started looking for some fun. A small tree on the open floodplain was calling them: “Come and pull me apart, why don’t you?” The temptation was too much.

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Adult male Jabiru flying

Out they marched, one chick the ringleader. She ambled up to the small tree and grabbed hold of a dangly bit of branch and pulled. Her brother and sister looked on, uncertainly. The ringleader pulled and twisted until finally, the branch broke free. What fun! Brother and sister decided to try some for themselves.

All three chicks gave the tree hell for several minutes. It was so funny to watch.  They pulled, they prodded, they grabbed high and low.  Of course, when siblings play it often ends up in a squabble. “You stole my branch, bro! Give it back, or I’ll peck you!  Ooooh, you’re asking for it…Give it back NOW”

Watch the video here:  Baby animals play youtube video

 

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Adult male Jabiru (Black-necked Stork)

But there’s a serious side to play. Baby animals play in ways that teach them how to use their bodies for serious adult life. Jabirus use their beaks for catching, killing and eating fish and carrion. So of course they must learn to use their beaks as babies. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? But think of how long it takes human infants to learn to use their hands to eat, or write! Motor skills take time to develop.

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Adult male Jabiru – note the large, strong beak

Watch this kind of animal play on our Wild Top End trip – every August!

The Anthem of The Bush: the Laughing Kookaburra call

The call of the Laughing Kookaburra is one of the true songs of Australia. It sums up so much about our country: raucous, full of joy, spontaneous and fun. It is multi-layered and gregarious – only a family singing together can do it properly. Its not sweet or melodic, but it brings a mischievous smile to your face every time you hear it.  Watch: https://youtu.be/t8mCEXWSO44

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Kookaburras are only found in the Australasian region, so you won’t hear that marvellous call anywhere but downunder.

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Australia and New Guinea are their strongholds: Australia has the famous Laughing Kookaburra, and shares the pretty Blue-winged Kookaburra with New Guinea. New Guinea has an additional three: the stunning Spangled and Rufous-bellied Kookaburras and the special, little Shovel-billed Kookaburra (which is different to the other four – its in a genus all by itself). The tiny Aru Islands of Indonesia, just between New Guinea and Australia, also have Spangled Kookaburras.

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It is the Laughing Kookaburra of eastern and southern Australia that gives the group its fame. To look at he is nothing special – a brown and white kingfisher with a splash of blue in his wing. But seeing a kookaburra is not that important, its hearing them that counts. Their crazy wonderful call bursts out from a majestic gum-tree like the forest itself can’t surpress its happiness any longer and has to shout it to the world. Listen: https://soundcloud.com/nature-sounds/laughing-kookaburra-dacelo-novaeguineae  It is a call of sunshine, and nature and life. The Anthem of The Bush.

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Mimicing the song is not easy, partly because the call is not made by one bird – it is made by a whole family. One bird sings “koo koo koo”, her mate sings “Ka ka ka” overlapping, like singing a round. The children chime in and the song becomes complex, layered, thrilling. In fact singing together keeps the family bond alive.

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The song is so complex that it is one of the few birdcalls the greatest songster of the world, the Superb Lyrebird, cannot mimic perfectly. Listen: https://soundcloud.com/janine-duffy/lyrebirddoingkookaburra

If you live here, take a trip to the bush sometime soon (you can even join us on our Koala Conservation Day for Locals) and let the Kookaburra make you feel alive. If you live overseas, plan a trip to Australia and include a day outside of the city (the Koalas & Kangaroos IN THE WILD day trip from Melbourne is a great way to hear kookaburras). You’ll never forget hearing this song!

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Watch out next week: its #WombatWeek!

All about Spotted Pardalotes! #spottedPardalote week

This week on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter we are featuring the beautiful Spotted Pardalote!  #spottedPardalote week.

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Male Spotted Pardalote

Spotted Pardalotes are gorgeous, tiny Australian Bush birds. They are only around 9-10cm long from beak to tail and weigh only 8 grams. They are one of Australia’s smallest birds.

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juvenile Spotted Pardalote

Spotted Pardalotes are more often heard than seen – their penetrating call is bigger than they are! It is one of those calls that is persistent, continual – its so much a part of eucalyptus forests that you often don’t notice it until they stop calling!

Listen to the lovely call of the Spotted Pardalote: http://www.graemechapman.com.au/library/sounds.php?r=&c=361&p=107&s=1274293396 or here: http://www.birdsinbackyards.net/species/Pardalotus-punctatus

Male Spotted Pardalotes have a brilliant gold chin/throat, black crown with white spots and scalloped black & white cheeks. You can tell them apart from female Spotted Pardalotes – she has a cream chin and yellow spots on her head and plainer cheeks.

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Male Spotted Pardalote
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Female Spotted Pardalote – maybe still quite young. Full adult female should have a paler eyebrow and greyer cheeks.

Young/juvenile/immature Spotted Pardalotes are like females, but paler and plainer.

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Juvenile Spotted Pardalote

Strangley, for a tree canopy feeder, pardalotes nest in hollows dug into the ground. Watch this video to see what trouble this can get them into! https://youtu.be/8NrL4fOcqt8.

Spotted Pardalotes mostly live along Australia’s temperate east, south & west coast, and Tasmania. They do extend north to Cooktown, Queensland, in a thin band in the mountain forests. Spotted Pardalotes live in eucalyptus forests, both wet and dry including mallee. They need eucalyptus with good canopy. Their food is the insects, like psyllids, that feed on the leaves and insect exudates, like lerp. In his book “Where Song Began” Tim Low suggests that pardalotes’ spots might mimic their white lerp food. Pardalotes certainly do blend in with the leaves and can be hard to see high in eucalyptus canopy.

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Male Spotted Pardalote

Spotted Pardalotes are not the same as Forty-spotted Pardalotes, though both species have lots of spots. Forty-spotted Pardalotes only live in Tasmania, whereas Spotted Pardalotes live both on the mainland and in Tasmania. I don’t know who counted the spots on Forty-spotted Pardalotes, but Spotted Pardalotes acutally have more spots: spots on their crown, wings and tail. Forty-spotteds only have spots on the wings. Maybe Spotted Pardalotes should be called Hundred-spotted Pardalotes! Read about Forty-spotteds here: http://birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/forty-spotted-pardalote

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Male Spotted Pardalote

There are four species of pardalote in Australia. Striated Pardalotes (see here: http://birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/striated-pardalote) have more stripes than spots, as the name suggests, and they live in a wider band almost throughout Australia, except only the western deserts. The Red-browed Pardalote (see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-browed_pardalote) lives roughly inland of the Spotted Pardalote – almost everywhere the Spotted doesn’t go. They are like a Striated Pardalote with some spots on the crown.

Stay tuned for next week: exciting videos of kangaroo joeys! #EasternGreyKangaroo week

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Female Spotted Pardalote