There are many things to love about Australia, not least of which are the birds. And it’s not just that there are a lot of birds—though there are—it’s also that the birds are remarkable. I’ve posted several times about specific birds: lyrebirds, kookaburras, magpies, brolgas, jabirus, and more. But among the feathered denizens of the land Down Under, it is the parrots and the cockatoos that are the attention getters. Because I’ve covered so much of Australia, I’ve seen many varieties of both. Fortunately, there are experts who spend months researching Aussie bird life. I’ve just come across a new YouTube channel where one of these experts shares both images and insights about his favorites among Australia’s birds. In this video, he focuses on Cockatoos—but if you visit his channel, you’ll find others.
Tag Archives: birds
Trip 3:Sunday, September 3, Part 1
Last night I slept beneath the stars and a quarter moon so bright that I hardly needed a flashlight. The breeze was as gentle and warm as a caress. It was wonderful.
I awoke to the sounds of hundreds of corellas (small, white cockatoos), and to a clear, cool, and steadily brightening sky. I slept relatively well last night—better than in the tent—and felt refreshed, though not eager to rise.
We had a leisurely breakfast, and then, at 7:30 a.m., a chance to hike back to the gorge again, to see it by morning light. I set off on my own, with hat, water bottle, and camera. Windjana is a gentle, sandy gorge, so I could wear sandals instead of hiking boots.
The gorge was even lovelier in the morning light. The water was still and glassy. Dozens upon dozens of corellas were standing at the water’s edge and in the shallows, getting their morning drinks. Other corellas flew over in flocks of varying size, and still others sat in the trees, making an unbelievable amount of noise.
There was one non-corella among the feathered features. A cormorant that must have been doing some early morning fishing sat on a branch, drying its wings.
On the far shore, opposite where I stood, the beach was covered with freshwater crocodiles. A few others floated in the water nearby. Last night, when Belinda and I had gone swimming, we had seen just a couple of freshies a fair bit up the gorge, but now that I saw how many there were, I’m not sure I’d so happily jump in the water with them all. Just a bit daunting to see so many.
Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered and perched everywhere. Some dragonflies were bright red, others were vivid blue. The butterflies were white with black or brown with white and purple. Actually, we’ve seen numerous butterflies everywhere up here. They have been a great delight to me. The brown butterflies I was seeing today were now familiar companions, having appeared many places—there were dozens at Tunnel Creek in particular. But I have also seen black and electric blue, yellow, orange with black, and white beauties as we’ve crossed the region. Wonderful.
I photographed a lot of things I shot yesterday, but the light is different now. Plus this is a place of such astonishing and strange beauty, I wanted to take as much of it with me as possible, even if just on film. Perhaps it is because it is the last day of the tour that I am being so prolific with my photos—sort of a way of holding on to the place.
By 9:15, I was back in camp. We packed up all our gear, and by 10am, we were on the road. Sigh.
Another blazing hot, crystal-clear morning. As we sped along the road to Derby, the boabs became more numerous. Most of these delightfully strange trees stand alone, but occasionally they occur in little “groves” of four or five trees—probably youngsters sprung up from seeds dropped by the parent tree. Over time, the central or largest boab has pushed the others over simply by getting so huge in girth that it “wins.” Or sometimes, if the boabs are similar in size, it looks like they’re dancing in a ring, and leaning way back.
A lot of short, uninteresting-looking scrub and flat land now surrounded us, as we approached Derby. This is not the most scenic part of the trip. Recent burn-off made some bits look really desolate. Litter and telephone poles were our first indications that we were approaching civilization.
In the previous post, I mentioned enjoying seeing and hearing the magpies, and it occurs to me that some of my readers will not have heard or seen an Australian magpie.
Aussie magpies are not the same birds as Eurasian magpies, but they look similar, with striking black and white feathers.
Aussie magpies can be aggressive during the mating season, so they are not always welcome guests in backyards. However, they are handsome and have an unusual, musical call that is delightful. So here’s a video, to share the sight and sound of the Australian magpie. (Note: as is common in Australia, if one bird is present, others are, as well, so there are other bird calls in the background.)
Male bowerbirds are birds that build bowers, structures designed to attract females and used for mating. The bowers are not nests, though they are elaborately constructed of twigs. Various types of bowerbirds build different shapes and sizes of bowers and collect different items to adorn the area around the bower. The male satin bowerbird, which is a shiny blue-black, builds a bower that is an arched tunnel, and he collects only blue items to attract the olive and yellow-colored female. (If you’re in their territory, don’t set down anything blue that you don’t want to lose. They’re adept thieves.)
I had read about the satin bowerbird long before I saw one, and saw one long before I heard one. However, I finally heard what is often described as the “starter motor call” on my second trip to Australia. The satin bower bird uses this odd call to woo the lady bowerbird he hopes to win. While I’m sure it must have some appeal for the lady bowerbird, I find it highly amusing. The video below shows a few of the blue items a satin bowerbird has collected, around the lacy bower. Then, when the female appears, you get to find out how the mating call got its name.
One of the many things that delighted me while at the Taronga Zoo — and, indeed, in several other parts of Sydney — was that the wild birds that showed up were occasionally as exotic as the things one was seeing in cages. In the suburbs and out in the surrounding mountains, I’d seen parrots, rosellas, and galahs, but the “city birds” of note included white cockatoos in the Botanic Garden and, anywhere there was food to be scavenged, Australian white ibises. It amused me no end to see the ibises strolling amid the picnic tables at the zoo, perched on the edges of garbage cans, running down anything dropped by a careless child. Pigeons were on hand, as well, and a few seagulls, but most of those seeking handouts at the zoo were the ibises, which were also so building nests at the tops of some of the zoo’s palm trees. In Florida, large, exotic birds may be a common sight, but to a Chicagoan, it was a delightful surprise.
Another Aussie Picnic
The comment on the previous post about how much nicer wallabies would be at picnics, versus ants, reminded me of another picnic I had in Australia, this one on my third trip Down Under.
Friends and I spent the day at Wilsons Promontory National Park, a splendidly gorgeous area perched on the southernmost tip of the Australian mainland. The park is in Victoria, just across Bass Strait from Tasmania. Mountains, beaches, wilderness, and wildlife (including a fair number of wombats) filled our day. When we stopped for a picnic lunch at one of the designated picnic sites, we learned that here, the sight of food draws things on wings. We were particularly besieged by crimson rosellas, the parrots that are clinging to my two friends in the image below. Holding back a bit, but still eager, were the sea gulls—and with these fellows around, you definitely wouldn’t want to leave the table unattended. The wattle bird, in the final photo, was happy for a handout of sugar.
So while not every picnic site in Australia offers this much built-in entertainment, there are certainly a fair number of places where you can expect company.
While staying in Melbourne, I caught a tour down to see the large penguin colony on Phillip Island. I actually wrote about this, and included an excerpt from my book about the penguins coming ashore, back in June 17, 2007, when the blog was still fairly new. (However, if you missed the earlier post, you can see it here.) Because penguins were pretty well covered, I thought I’d talk a bit about some of the other Australian birds I love—these ones for their songs or calls. The links will take you to videos where you can hear these wonderful creatures.
Kookaburras are the largest members of the kingfisher family (they can reach lengths of 17 inches). They are also the fastest kingfishers, are very territorial, and mate for life. While there are birds in Australia with lovelier songs, there are no others that can so easily put a smile on my face. Whole families of kookaburras greet the day with everything from raucous laughter to quiet chuckles—and it is almost impossible not to join in.
Australian magpies are handsome, crow-sized birds with pure white markings splashed across jet black feathers. They are bold and can be comical, but are most appreciated for their lovely caroling.
My visit to the Dandenongs was not the first or only time I heard the whipbird, but I did hear it a lot as I wandered amid the tree ferns and mountain ash in these mountains outside Melbourne. Unlike the kookaburras and magpies, whipbirds are rather shy. So while they are often heard, they are rarely seen. It is their call, like the whistling of a whip being swung, that gives these birds their names. The long “whip” sound is actually only made by the male. You often just hear that sound, but if there is a little “tweet tweet” immediately following it, that is the female responding. The video reached by this link is not of good visual quality, but it offers a good recording of the male whipbird.
There were only a few times I was in a forest where I was surrounded by bellbirds, but they were remarkable times, with the ethereal, crystalline ringing sound of the birds stopping me in my tracks.
The lyrebird is named for its tail plumes, which, when erect, look like the outline of a Grecian lyre. The male is a master mimic. In this excerpt from David Attenborough’s series on birds, you will recognize several of the bird songs identified above, as well as surprisingly good imitations of some human devices, from a camera’s motor drive to a car alarm to a saw.
Australia is sometimes called the Land of the Parrot, and wherever I went, from the tropics to the deserts to chilly mountaintops, I could always find (and was always delighted by) at least a few species. I’ve already written of the stunning crimson rosellas and nearly ubiquitous galahs in earlier posts, but there are vastly more species than these.
Among parrots, few are more iconically Australian than cockatoos. (However, though primarily found in Australia, there are a few species that live on nearby islands.) There are 21 species of these handsome parrots, which are best known for the crests that they fan so expressively.
Cockatoos are fairly large birds, ranging in size from about 14 inches (including tail) up to the nearly three-foot length of the great black cockatoos of the north. Cockatoos have powerful beaks for cracking nuts, digging up roots, or prying grubs from wood. They are sometimes seen singly, but are usually seen in groups—and sometimes in large, noisy flocks, which can actually include two or three types of cockatoo. Like most parrots, cockatoos live long lives, with life spans generally running around 40 to 60 years, depending on the species—though some in zoos have been known to live close to 100 years.
Cockatoos are tree nesters, so even though I saw some in the desert, they only live in areas where trees exist—even if the trees are dead. In fact, I have often seen dead trees in arid regions covered with cockatoos, looking from a distance like a springtime floral display.
On my third trip to Australia, in Windjana Gorge, I was overjoyed to see thousands of cockatoos gathered for the breeding season. The courtship rituals we witnessed were charming—heads bobbing, small gifts being offered and accepted. Just adorable.
Of course, being adorable is one of the reasons cockatoos are popular pets. Being clever and affectionate is also appealing. Not all species adapt well to human company, however, and some are difficult to train.
One of the ones that are difficult to train is the glorious Major Mitchell cockatoo, also called a Leadbeater’s cockatoo. Pity, as they are so lovely, with their pale, rose-colored bodies and splendid yellow-and-red striped crests. But they are aggressive birds, and they don’t make particularly good pets. The aggressive nature of the Major Mitchell cockatoo pictured below manifested itself in its unwillingness to let me spend too much time photographing other birds, as I wandered through the aviary in Perth’s Cohuna Wildlife Sanctuary. It chased off its rivals for my attention, and then posed while I took several photos.
Despite the fact that much of the Pilbara is dry to the point of crispness, there is a surprising amount of flora and fauna, particularly close to places, such as the gorges, where water is available much of the year. Wildflowers, eucalypts, acacias, and spinifex dot the landscape and offer homes to birds, bugs, lizards, and small mammals.
Among the birds that make this arid region home is the spinifex pigeon, or Geophaps plumifera. (Geophaps means “earth pigeon,” an appropriate moniker for these attractive little ground-dwellers.) Spinfex pigeons nest near clumps of spinifex or small shrubs, simply scratching a slight depression in the stony soil and lining it with wisps of dry grass. They generally dine on the seeds of the spinifex and other dry grasses and plants—but that doesn’t keep them from accepting handouts, when tourists drop by. When we reemerged from Weano Gorge at lunchtime, we found that a group of spinifex pigeons had come around in the hope that we’d toss them our crumbs—which we were only too happy to do.
These pigeons are usually found in pairs or small groups. They are wanderers, following the receding water supply as the dry season progresses. They lay their eggs when rain brings renewed growth and fresh seeds to the grasses. They lay two eggs, which both male and female of a pair incubate. Both also tend the chicks, which are fledged in about eight days. As you can see in the photo, their coloration is ideal for blending into their surroundings.
We saw thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of birds as we cruised Yellow Water. There is an incredible concentration of birdlife at this wetland site, and I was nearly beside myself with delight (and frantic to write down everything we were seeing). It wasn’t just numbers of each species, though that was impressive, but the diversity of species, as well. Ibis, sea eagles, ducks, pygmy geese, lotus birds, and vastly more surrounded us, flew or perched overhead, or hunted in the water nearby.
Among those hunters were several snakebirds, which are also called darters, and in some parts of the world are known as anhingas. Snakebirds are found in tropical to warm temperate regions worldwide, with the exception of Europe. I have since seen anhingas in Florida, while down there photographing birds during the spring mating season, but my first view of this lithe bird was at Yellow Water.
The bird gets its “snakebird” moniker from the way it hunts. It swims almost completely submerged, with only its head and long, flexible neck above the water. As it swims, the head and neck dart from side to side, darting snakelike as it looks for fish. (And that darting is, of course, why it is also sometimes called a darter.) When it sees a fish, the snakebird strikes with the speed of a snake, too, spearing the fish on its bill. It then carries the fish to shore for consumption. Once fed, it perches on a branch and spreads out its wings to dry them.
The darter below is being watched by a couple of Australian pelicans—which were also abundant at Yellow Water.