Wednesday, 30 September 2015

In-between fieldwork: Powl

"Powl" is how the local birders refer to their powerful owl. I find the abbreviation oddly cute.

The powerful owl (Ninox strenua) is Australia's biggest owl species. It's big, with big claws.

Meet Powl. Look at those claws!

When it looks at you it seems to be measuring you with its gaze, and I could swear it's wondering whether it could take you on. Can I eat it? it seems to ask.

Powl sees you.

Those owls are normally found in forests, yet Powl lives in a park neighbouring a bowling club. Powl lives alone and it is currently not known whether it's a boy or a girl. I like to refer to Powl as "she" (I can blame it on owl being a feminine word in my mother tongue).  She might be a bit lonely, but she is probably not struggling for prey around this area.

Powl with dinner. Can you spot the possum?

The lovely COG birders have introduced me to Powl and I have been visiting her every few days with hope of getting some decent images I could share with you. She is snoozing peacefully most of the time I see her and I've got lots of "bum" shots. She likes to tuck her head into the feathers and can be fairly tricky to spot when sitting completely still high up in the trees, between all the foliage and branches, but as with all bird photography patience and perseverance seems to be the key to success.

She can be cute when she wants to. I bet that's how she lures the unsuspecting prey into the park.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Fieldwork: Displays

My fieldwork centers around male courtship displays and their variability. Only males that have finished their moult, i.e. only males that are "fully" blue, display. I've been even told that there have been males that started displaying immediately after they shook off their last brown head feathers.

grWM after a moult - fully blue.

Males display to their social partners, but they will also travel to other territories in order to display to females resident on those territories. Displays are a form of an advertisement - they never result in immediate copulation, but males can promote themselves and maybe, just maybe, the females will be impressed enough to choose them as their extra-pair partner during one of their forays.

While displaying male attempts to hide his brown wings and belly from female's view - he tucks those parts under the black feathers. Black creates the perfect background for the iridescent blue of the head and cheeks. Male then raises and fans the blue feathers - his head looks a bit odd during the display, as if it were flattened. Makes me think about cartoon cats squished by pianos.

GnwG displaying - isn't he handsome?
Nice view of the fanned and flattened blue feathers.

Males often chase the females, either in addition to the display or sometimes instead of it. I think the reaction of the female and that of the resident male plays a role here - maybe if the male can't display "in peace" he chooses to chase? It could also be that less experienced males chase more - we are not sure at the moment. One thing I do know is that those chases can be really intense and take IDing of the birds to a whole new level. Dear fairy-wrens, please stop the chasing and display gallantly.

In a small proportion of displays males carry yellow petals or small yellow flowers. This makes the male very easy to spot - I guess getting attention is exactly what he wants! It also looks unbelievably cute. I'm still trying to get a good photo of this, but since it's fairly rare and the wrens are hard to photograph as it is I'm not doing so great. My best one so far is below and you can just about see the yellow flower... It's really there, I swear!

GnwG with a yellow flower in his beak.

Another interesting aspect of the display is the "seahorse" flight. Again, it doesn't happen all the time, probably because it is energetically costly. I watched a few males do it and they only manage it for a short distance after which they land in a bush and pant with their beaks open, poor little fellas. The nature of this flight is hard to explain, but the name makes perfect sense if you see a fairy-wren do it - they really look like seahorses!

Let me try to describe it. A male attempting the seahorse flight flies in a straight line bobbing up and down, undulating, changing his body position from horizontal to vertical and back. The female would be able to see the back of the male, so he tucks in all the brown feathers, exposing only the black and blue to her. While in vertical position the tail is pointing downward and the bird looks hunched up. The shape and the undulations make them look like seahorses. It is an odd and awkward sight, it doesn't look like something a bird is meant to do. I have never seen a photo of the seahorse... I might try drawing a sketch if I see the flight a few more times.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

In-between fieldwork: Gang gangs

Gang gang overload!

The boys have red heads and the girls are all grey. I never knew that the feathers on the females' bellies are tinted till now. They always look happy too :]

Friday, 25 September 2015

In-between fieldwork: Parrot photos

I have a group of friends interested in parrots and they wouldn't forgive me if there were no photos up - so here they come! I'll clearly title all parrot posts as such, so, if you are not mad like we are, you can easily skip them.

How can anyone resists the beauty of parrots? They are so incredibly photogenic too!

Out of the three species presented below gang gangs are the hardest to photograph, as they tend to sit rather high up in the eucalyptus trees and rarely come down to the ground. Getting a nice angle on them and capturing the face aren't always possible. If that wasn't tricky enough, their grey plumage + shadows from foliage above/around them aren't an ideal combination either. I'm still trying to get some decent shots.

On the other hand this photo was taken on my first morning here and out of my bedroom window. It was the loud screech of flying-by cockatoos that woke me up, but those guys foraging just outside more than made up for it.

All of this would probably be a bit easier if I actually knew how to use my camera... I just bought a new one recently and I'm still figuring it out (no previous photography experience). It's nothing fancy, a little bridge camera. Any wildlife photography tips would be appreciated. For instance how do I deal with stunningly white cockatoos, often sitting on white-barked eucalyptus trees and posing against a clear, bright sky?

In this one a little shade went a long way in helping with all the whiteness, but I don't get this lucky all the time.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Fieldwork: Moult

The vast majority of male superb fairy-wrens moult into an eclipse plumage for the winter - they go brown (except for their tails). Now that spring has come they are moulting back! It takes them a while to turn fully blue.

I thought I'd show you a few photos, so you can get an idea of the process. In the first photo you can see a male that hasn't sta

RrbR in eclipse plumage - completely brown

Blue feathers appear around the beak first. Have a look at the cheeks of this moulting male.

YYbw starting to moult
YYbw with a few more blue feathers on his face

Then gradually the rest of the face fills in. Blue feathers appear on the top of the head as well as cheeks. The feathers still-to-be-moulted look scruffy.

Face is blue, but the back of the head is still brown

And finally the male is moulted, blue and ready to start displaying!

Fully moulted blue male

Saturday, 19 September 2015

In-between fieldwork: Parrots

If you know me, you are probably aware that I'm a huge parrot geek. As you can imagine I'm pretty excited to be in Australia where wild parrots roam free!

There are several species occurring locally here that I can see every single day, pretty much whenever I'm outside. It puts a smile on my face :]

It also means that I can not only have a look at them, but I can actually observe their behaviour and learn something about them. Some things I'm seeing are quite different from what I've seen in captivity before. It's great to be able to see them interact with each other, as well as with other species.

Those are the parrots I see most of the time:

Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla)
Crimson rosella (Platycercus elegans)
Gang gang cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum)
Sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita)
Australian king parrot (Alisterus scapularis)

Ever so slightly less often, lets say about every other day or so, I see those guys too:

Eastern rosella (Platycercus eximius)

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Fieldwork: Superb fairy-wrens

This is a tiny bit of my fieldsite. Not too shabby, right?

In case you were wondering this is how the superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) look like.

The females are brown, with orange beaks and loral stripes.

Say hello to young MOno

Males in breeding plumage are striking blue and black. The males in eclipse plumage look pretty much like females, but have blue tails, black beaks and black loral stripes. Their faces remind me of a Zorro mask :]

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

In-between fieldwork

You only live once and it's fundamental you make the most of it.

Or so I tell myself.

I'm therefore trying to squeeze a little bit of exploring while I'm in Australia. Posts titled "In-between fieldwork" will contain photos and information about what I managed to get up to. Not particularly scientific or academic, but here is proof that even when you are exhausted and crazy-busy you can fit "life" into your schedule.

Feel free to skip the posts, otherwise - enjoy as I did!

And on with the story...

While I'm in Oz I have access to a bike, but not a car, so trips further out would prove rather difficult. I'm interested in birds, parrots particularly, but I wasn't quite sure where I should go besides my field site - where can I see the most in a relatively short period of time and which of those places are accessible by bike?

Here enters COG: Canberra Ornithologists Group. I have emailed them asking for advice on places known to be good for birding in the area. They have completely exceeded my expectations: several people have offered not only advice, but offered to actually take me birding, share their expertise and even drive out of the city to many of the nature reserves that surround Canberra. This is kindness I won't be able to repay and I feel very grateful for all their time and effort.

I hope you enjoy future posts and photos of Australian fauna and flora!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Fieldwork: First week done!

Ooooooph. This was a long week.

I have had a few issues after arrival. My luggage got lost and it took a couple of days to get it. I have congratulated my past-self on packing a bunch of clothes in the hand luggage. What my past-self didn't take into account though is that all those clothes are brightly coloured, which is not ideal when you are trying to sneak up on birds!

There have been a few issues with the house I'm staying at, nothing major, and everything is slowly getting sorted, but even little things (like lack of heating when it's below zero at night and the house is not insulated) can get to me when I'm tired. It also turned out that paperwork wasn't quite there yet and so it took a little while to get this sorted and get me onto the University system. People at ANU have been absolutely lovely and very helpful though, so at least I didn't feel completely alone in a new place - thank you everybody!*

The beginnings of fieldwork have been tough-going. Learning to ID the superb fairy-wrens by their calls is difficult. While I can pick out the main song, the background chatter still eludes me. Thornbills and scrubwrens seem set on confusing me too. On the bright side, my peripheral vision has been improving quickly and I can now pick out fairy-wren shaped objects quickly. Things are harder when it's windy, as not only I can't hear the wrens, but every moving leaf looks like a bird. All in all, I'm happy with the progress and cautiously optimistic that things will keep improving.

So far the biggest challenge is finding the birds; once I got them I can figure out the colour bands most of the time (or at least get close enough). Certain colours are similar, especially in bright sunlight, e.g. azure and white look very similar to each other and can also be confused with a band that has very thin white and blue stripes. It doesn't help that some colours have faded over the years, for example a red band might look like red, but also like orange, mauve or even white. Each bird has three colour bands and so each ID is like a little puzzle!

Oh, and have I mentioned that it's spring here?

Hard not to smile when you can see this outside your window!

*they are unlikely to ever read this, but hopefully they know how much I appreciate their kindness

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Fieldwork: Season one

I'm off to Australia again, but this time I'm going to spend six weeks there (you might recall I went to visit for two weeks in January/February). I should be landing tomorrow night and starting fieldwork asap.

The rough plan is to carry out behavioural observations of male courtship displays and assess their variability with respect to certain female characteristics. I want to obtain data on particular superb fairy-wren individuals and so a very detail plan cannot be made at the moment as I need to see what individuals are available once I get there - all birds need to pair up and settle for the breeding season first. Last time I checked things were still in flux.

I'm planning to spend the first couple of weeks mainly on getting to know the field site and the birds. I need to be able to not only find the birds and follow them, but also to identify birds by their colour rings (nearly all birds on the field site are banded, each with a unique colour combination - so we know which bird is which!). This means practice, practice, practice!

I expect it's going to be quite tough to start with. Hopefully as my brain builds up a superb fairy-wren search image, both when it comes to spotting the birds and recognising their calls, I will be able to find the fairy-wrens easier and also have that split second longer to look at them. This is one of those rather frustrating situations, where you need to stick it out till it finally clicks. One day you just can't do it! and the next it works (seemingly by magic). I don't know whether there is any way to speed up the process, other than spending as much time as possible on trying to get things right. Fingers crossed my brain gets there quickly!