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!

LOVE… is not confined to humans

Have you ever watched a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets snuggling together on a branch?  They nuzzle each other, their whole bodies touching even in hot weather.  The one being groomed closes their eyes with a look of pure contentment.  RAINBOWlorikeet070114p06mmtext2

When you know that this is a pair that has been together for many years, and that they do this several times a day, you know it’s more than just “grooming”.  This is an activity they indulge in as often as they can, always with their partner.  They are a married couple.

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When they have children, they look after them with affection.  They snuggle with their young, and groom them too.  But there’s something special about the interaction between a mated pair.

There’s nothing else to call it.  It is LOVE.
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Sometimes love is felt most keenly when one of the pair dies.  Rainbow Lorikeets, along with many parrots, will stand beside the body of their mate killed on the road, some for hours.  They don’t seem to know what to do – they refuse to leave their side, often in danger themselves from passing cars.   We don’t see all the manifestations of grief – most of that would happen quietly in the trees.  We do see this though.

If that’s not love, what is it?

We believe that it’s best to assume that every single wild animal on this earth is loved by another of their own kind.  Some species make it obvious – like Rainbows.  Some are more subtle.  We’ve seen signs of Koala love, love between Kangaroos,  magpies, ravens, flying-foxes.  We don’t know whether insects, spiders or fish feel it, but how would we know?  Even if they don’t, isn’t it best to respect all life?

Which animals have you seen loving each other?

There are many reasons to save the planet from human-induced climate change.  This is just one of them.  Every single Rainbow Lorikeet that dies of heat stress, starvation, fatigue or bushfire leaves behind another Rainbow Lorikeet who grieves for them.

See our video: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10152232854316495&set=vb.106519026494&type=2&theater

Which do you need more: food for the soul, or food for the stomach? On our last trip to the Top End we had to choose.

One of the strange joys of a Darwin trip is the sparrow’s fart arrival. Planes come into Darwin at odd times. So we always find ourselves at Darwin International Airport as the sun is rising, or well after it has set. It’s a fine welcome – night is possibly the best part of a day in the tropics. The warmth is pleasant, the smells are enhanced, there is softness in the air that contrasts strongly with the eye-blinding, walk-into-a-pizza-oven heat of a Darwin dry-season day.

Brown Honeyeaters and Red-collared Lorikeets called as we picked up our hire car. We drove away from the dawn. Hours to kill before hotel check in, but East Point always provides entertainment before late breakfast at Fannie Bay.

Darwin is a west-facing city. It is a city of sunsets, not sunrises. West of the Darwin peninsula is the sea: beaches, parks, markets, places to eat. East of Darwin is a vast swathe of flatness, all the way to the Arnhem Land escarpment 300km away.

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Darwin’s most fascinating large park is East Point Reserve. In true Top End fashion, you drive north, then west to get to it. It’s a peninsula poking out into Beagle Gulf. The name takes you back to another time, when cities and land transport were not the focus – the sea was. East Point marks the eastern beacon of one of the few safe harbours of the wild Top End, from a sailors point of view. Imagine the relief they would have felt seeing that promontory during a tropical storm, or after a long sea journey where supplies ran low.

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That morning, as the eastern headland woke up we listened to Bar-shouldered and Peaceful Doves, Olive-backed & Yellow Orioles & Figbirds, Trillers, Brown, Rufous-banded and White-gaped Honeyeaters, Forest & Sacred Kingfishers. Orange-footed Scrubfowls scratched in the undergrowth, dolphins played in the shallows and a group of Grey-tailed Tattlers rested on a rock. But it was someone else that gave us the soul-food we will remember always.

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Some silhouettes are unmistakeable. The Beach Stone-curlew is one of those. Elegant – no. Delicate – certainly not. Comic – yes, that’s getting closer. A bird embarrassed by its huge, unwieldly beak, further complicated by unfortunate splotches of yellow. Even never having seen one before, we knew it immediately. And it was BEAUTIFUL!

As if ashamed by his appearance, the male* appeared to be hiding, standing in plain sight on the beach. In fact, his camouflage was so excellent that we could easily have missed him on the featureless sand. He watched us, we watched him, thrilled with our discovery.

Unsatisfied with our view, we tried another angle back down the track. Relocating him was tricky – he was even harder to see with the light in our eyes. There he was, higher up on the sand amongst the rocks and driftwood. He’d moved. Or had he? Moments later another Beach Stone-curlew flew in from the sea and landed where the male had been earlier! Whatever, now we had two. It’s incredibly special to have your first sighting of a species, a lifer, and have two of them in view for extended moments.

Some lifers are unforgettable. You just want to stare at them forever, drinking in every tiny detail. Its like you need to imprint them on your brain so that the creature is a part of you. Our eyes grew strained from peering through the binoculars. For relief, I took bad photo after bad photo knowing I had a big delete session coming on but doing it anyway.

The staring marathon paid off – a chick emerged from the detritus! Playfully he walked towards his parent, who was carrying something. The chick’s beak was smaller, almost like a normal bird’s, and he lacked the bold yellow, black & white patterning around the head. After feeding, the chick sat down amongst a pile of sticks and then it was an effort to locate him after each blink.

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One parent (let’s say the mother, though there’s no way we could tell) walked up the beach a little out of our view. The ‘father’ flew back out to sea. Left alone, the chick got up and started to play with the debris around his hiding spot. He pulled out a whippy stick – the stick fought back! An hilarious tussle ensued. Each time the stick caught on the sand the chick would subdue it and wrestle it back into submission, when of course the stick would rise again! Birds can be very funny. Finally he walked up the beach to his mum and disappeared from our view.

Lucky for us. Our souls were well fed, but our stomachs were rumbling! Breakfast at Fannie Bay was hours overdue, and if that baby Beach Stone-curlew had kept playing we might have starved happily watching him!

Postscript: Beach Stone-curlews have a small population – only around 6,000 worldwide. Most of these are along Australia’s north coast. They are threatened by beach disturbance – people walking along beaches especially with dogs, residential development along the coast, increased feral predators that come with humans, entanglement in fishing line and nets left by human activities. They only have one chick per year, so each baby is precious. For more go to BirdLife Australia: http://www.birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/beach-stone-curlew and see their listing on the IUCN Red List: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22728621/0

To experience a story like this yourself, come on our 6 day Wild Top End tour!  http://www.echidnawalkabout.com.au/wildtopend

*there seems to be no way of telling Beach Stone-curlew sexes apart, so this is just for the sake of the story

Summer in Australia’s wildlife hotspot

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For a Guide, some trips last in the memory with a smile. Early February’s bright sunny Wildlife Journey was one of those. I shared it with 4 wonderful people who brought the best of their cultures with them: 2 enthusiastic, warm, open-hearted Americans, and 2 funny, subtle, gentle Brits. They approached every adventure with williingness, and enjoyed every bird, butterfly and lizard as much as the koalas, kangaroos and wallabies (or almost, anyway!)

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Our 4 day Wildlife Journey travels to East Gippsland – one of Australia’s wildlife hotspots. The Snowy River forms a rough western border, the Pacific Ocean on the east, the Southern Ocean to the south and the New South Wales highlands to the north. In a region that makes up only 4% of Victoria’s land live nearly half Australia’s bird species, 60% of our large mammals and a stack of reptiles, frogs and butterflies.

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The highlights were the wild koalas and kangaroos on the first day at Raymond Island, a small island in The Lakes National Park near Paynesville. It’s a fantastic spot for wildlife generally, partly due to the attitude of the few human residents of the island – they are a very pro-wildlife lot!

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For me, the great highlight was a pair of White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes on the Mooresford Track in the Snowy River National Park on the second day. I hadn’t seen a White-bellied since Darwin, NT in 2011 and that’s a very long way away from East Gippsland. White-bellieds are occasional visitors to Victoria, particularly to the dry forests of the north. One bird was the very distinctive and beautiful dark morph, which I had only seen once before.

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A very cheeky Goanna (Lace Monitor) made our lunchtime very entertaining by prowling around our table hoping for a tidbit. They are magnificent creatures. Big ones get to 2.5metres, but they’re not dangerous to people. This one was smaller, maybe 1.5m.

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As a finale to a great trip, we enjoyed sundowners and dinner while the sun set over the Southern Ocean.

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Want to see a lot of wildlife? Try slow travel!

Want to see a lot of wildlife? Try slow travel!

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Everyone travels in their own unique way. Finding your own style of travel can take years, and lots of trips. We found ours on our first trip to Australia’s Northern Territory, and with it, we found the most exciting wildlife.

Australia is a subtle land, a slow land that has been formed and forged millions of years ago. Unlike Africa, who is male – Australia is a woman. She is difficult to seduce but when she becomes yours, she gives you everything. On our first trip to the Top End, she gave us wild Bustards.

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The Australian Bustard is a big bird that requires healthy grasslands – an ecosystem severely threatened in Australia. We have plenty of grassland, but most of it on private property. Nutritious grassland was the most coveted of land in Australia’s settlement years, so it was snapped up quickly. Cattle in the north and sheep in the south trampled the soft, loose soil ruining the native vegetation. At the same time, large tasty birds were shot for the pot. So Bustards became harder and harder to find.

We’ve seen Bustards in our home state of Victoria, but rarely. They’ve become a symbol – of wildness, of healthy vast landscapes. So when we saw two males on the third day of our first trip to the Top End, we couldn’t believe our eyes.

We had driven along an unknown road that turned into a property driveway. It was one of those enormous Outback properties – no fences, no gates, just a cattle grid and a tiny sign: “Private Property – do not trespass”. We were about to turn back when we saw the bustards. They were walking, haughty and elegant with their noses up. Alertness has kept them alive all these years, and they had seen us. They ran along a little way, then took off – enormous wings straining to lift their weighty bodies.

If we’d stuck to the tourist tracks we would never have seen them. Our accommodation was in the small, relatively unknown mining town of Batchelor. We stayed for 2 weeks. When we booked the poor host could barely contain his shock: “2 weeks? Um, great!” He said. Then later “Are you sure you want to stay for 2 weeks? You know Batchelor is a small town.. not much to do” We laughed and assured him we’d be fine. And we were right.

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We spent two glorious weeks in Batchelor. It took us 4 days to even get to Litchfield National Park, the main drawcard, only 20km away. We looked at every creek, park, roadside strip of remnant vegetation. We found (and better still, learned about) Bustards, LIttle Kingfishers, Red-tailed Black-cockatoos, Red-winged Parrots, Chestnut-breasted Mannikins, Red-backed Fairy-wrens and Agile Wallabies.

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When we finally made it into Litchfield, our slow travel style delivered again. We spent hours on walking tracks without seeing a single other person. The Rainbow Pittas, Shining Flycatchers and Northern Rosellas became so familiar that we felt like we’d known them all our lives. We delighted in flocks of hundreds of Red-tailed Black-cockatoos flying home for the night. We often stayed out until dark, unable to drag ourselves away, and then had to deal with the wonderful nuisance of stopping the car every few kilometres to allow an enourmous python to get off the road.

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On our second, third and fourth trips to the Top End we used the same strategy. Find a spot and stop there for 4 days at least. Some places we became besotted by and didn’t want to leave, some places we simply enjoyed. All places had something special to offer. We met local people, and stayed in touch with them afterwards. We ate paw paws grown locally on an organic farm. We learned when to be afraid of Saltwater/Estuarine Crocodiles, and that some daytime temperatures really are too hot for walking.

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But we didn’t see another Bustard.

We saw almost everything else, though! Antilopine Kangaroos, Short-eared Rock-wallabies, Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeons, Gould’s Goanna, Beach Stone-curlews, Long-tailed Finches, Australian Pratincoles, Jabirus – I mean, really, we’ve been very lucky.

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For our most recent trip we were guiding our first group. So we went a week ahead to check everything. We spent another wonderful four days at Jabiru on our own, followed by three days with the group. (“4 days at Jabiru?” all the locals cried “What for?” True, Jabiru is not pretty, but it’s right in the middle of everything and it’s wildlife is superb!!) Then we moved on to a favourite spot: Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge next to the Mary River National Park.

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Mary River NP is Kakadu’s lesser known sister. The park doesn’t have the Arnhemland escarpment, the amazing rock art of Kakadu. But she’s got some wildlife! Boat cruises on the Mary River and Corroborree Billabong are incredible. Huge salties (Saltwater Crocodiles – the world’s largest and most dangerous crocodile) are the highlight, but the birds are pretty spectacular too. The Mary River apparently has more crocs in it than water.
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Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge is on the Mary River floodplain, and is one of the last places you can reach in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Beyond the lodge, the road to Point Stuart bumps along all the way to the Timor Sea. It is a region so wild and remote that most Aussies will never see it. Yet it’s a landmark of our history – it is the point where explorer John McDouall Stuart reached the sea on his 9 month epic journey from the south.

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We liked Pt Stuart Wilderness Lodge the minute we first saw it. In true Territory-style the lodge buildings ramble, unpretentiously across the flat landscape. Everything happens on “Territory Time” – a slower pace than in the cities. On our second morning we rose late, thinking that we had missed all the wildlife, but needing the sleep.

I did my morning stretches, as I always do, facing the sun. A male Australian Bustard flew in. I remember holding my breath, not wanting to break the silent magesty of his presence. For a long, long few minutes he stayed right where he was, all of 50 metres away. I was awestruck.

We had wondered why we liked Pt Stuart, and whether we had done the right thing bringing people to this out of the way place. But our instinct for Australia proved right. We have loved her for years, and travelled gently on her back: respecting her wildlife, her indigenous people, her history. She rewards us often.

If you come and treat her well, she will reward you too!

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Rainbows everywhere!

Imagine a rowdy party. Shrill squawks and sudden laughter, bright colours, lots of movement.  That is the scene we stepped into on the Wildlife Conservation Journey last week.  It wasn’t people having the party, it was the lorikeets!

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Why the party?  The huge Banksia flowers were full of sweet nectar, and the Rainbow Lorikeets eat nothing but.  Banksia flowers are, to them, like chocolate fountains to us – impossible to resist.

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Of course, if you eat too much sugar there’s always one consequence – hyperactivity!  Lorikeets eat and fly and squeal, eat and fly and squeal at a decibel limit that is almost painful, just because they can.  They are full of life and energy.  It is infectious.  Watching them makes one want to run and jump for joy.  Watch them here: http://youtu.be/QbTNWhdAaXc

Rainbows are the biggest and noisiest of our lorikeets.  Australia has many others too, smaller, but similarly hyper.  Despite their brilliant colours, they can be hard to see in the eucalyptus leaves.  For some reason (I think it’s because of the very clean white light of Australia) a full colour palate disguises our treetop birds.  Splashes of red, yellow and blue ripple through the leaves and branchlets of gum-trees, concealing the bright little birds feedling within.

Rainbow Lorikeets live right along the north, east and south coasts of Australia.  We see a lot of them on our Wildlife Conservation Journey and Croajingolong Journey.  Come and see them soon!