Saturday, 23 January 2021

Random Memories of Australia - Part 2

      I am quite sure that the longer COVID prevents us from travelling, the more my regret grows that I had to cancel my trip to Australia in July of last year, and there is no chance that it is going to to take place this year either. I had grand plans for exciting birding adventures, with many new discoveries to be made, in the company of agreeable, knowledgeable people. Maybe I can do it next year, but I am not getting any younger!
     In the meantime, thank goodness for photographs, trip notes, reports and memories. 

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

     I am dedicating the coverage of this charming little gull to Yamini MacLean, fellow larophile, erstwhile resident of New South Wales, and aficionada of the Silver Gulls who enlivened her daily routine and brought joy to her life when she still lived there.

     It was entirely fitting that as we exited the terminal at Sydney International Airport upon arrival in Australia, it was a flock of Silver Gulls that flew in to greet us.

     What a bold statement they make with their bright red legs and bill, with a red orbital ring around the eye.
     They resemble nothing so much as avian buccaneers!

     Silver Gull is widely distributed around the coasts of Australia and is familiar to all. Following breeding it may be found quite far inland, and there is some post- breeding dispersal to Papua New Guinea, but this is essentially an Australian Gull.
     I long to hear it again, wheeling above the Pacific Ocean against the backdrop of an Australian sky.  Then will I know that I have truly returned "down under"!

Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

     Australia is at every turn a continent of wonders, and little could be more outstanding than the presence of two species of monotreme (egg-laying mammals). In fact only five species are extant in the world, two of which are found in Australia. In addition to the Short-beaked Echidna the legendary Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is thinly distributed in the eastern part of Australia. The three remaining monotremes are other species of echidna found in Papua, New Guinea.
     Short-beaked Echidna is quite common and I have seen it on both my visits to Australia.

     To say it is an endearing creature is the understatement of the day! It is not especially wary around humans and the first one I ever saw walked within a metre of me in Campbell Park in Canberra.
     They have a curious rolling gait, which is quite comical to watch. They either hibernate or go into torpor during periods of cold weather, and the one we saw at The Nobbies on Philip Island, Victoria in early October had no doubt recently emerged from winter sleep.

     I was overjoyed to see it and it served to remind  me of the special nature of Australia and its unique fauna. I am becoming excited just looking at the pictures again!

Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala)

     If one family of birds could be said to define Australia, one could not be faulted for turning to Honeyeaters (Meliphagidae). This unique assemblage of birds is wedded to the foliage of Australia and the sheer abundance of nectar-bearing plants, matched nowhere on earth.
     Noisy Miner is a large, boisterous species that has benefitted disproportionately from anthropogenic modification of the landscape and in many respects has become a bit of a "problem bird", as it displaces other species.

     But we were not there to investigate the vicissitudes of avian distribution, of impoverishment or expansion, of opportunism or encroachment, it was our mission to see as many birds as we could - all the while embracing the flora and fauna of this unique place, and learning every day.
     Noisy Miners were present in the trees and shrubs along the street at our first AirBnB in Sydney, chattering noisily, and moving along like street kids in a gang.

     In our entire visit to NSW and Victoria there were few days when Noisy Miners did not put in an appearance - and we were always happy to see them.

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorynchus tenuirostris)

     Turning to another familiar honeyeater, Eastern Spinebill quickly became a favourite. 

     It has an unquestioned air of elegance about it, and was endearingly confiding. It would forage at arm's length without hesitation and brought us many pleasurable moments.

     When we checked into our accommodation at Callala Bay, NSW the above individual was foraging in the garden and it was rarely that we went to or from our apartment that it was not present. 
     It feeds on the nectar of a wide variety of plants and was catholic in its choice based on our observations. Its decurved bill doubtless helps it to exploit certain flowers and is probably used to advantage to secure insect prey also.

     If I were to live five life times I would never look as handsome!

Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

     Who has not gone to the seaside in one part of the world or another and thrilled to the sight of a pelican flying overhead, often in the company of others, cruising by with the precision of a crack team at an air show?

     Whenever we were near the coast, or at a large body of water inland, we were treated to Australian Pelicans.
     It is a very large bird, quite unmistakable, and as the only pelican in Australia not to be confused with other species.
     Its massive bill is used to great advantage; the pouch is filled with water containing fish, the water is expelled and the fish swallowed whole.

     It is an opportunistic feeder and will not hesitate to scoop up small mammals or birds such as gulls given the chance. Individuals will feed alone or gather with others to drive shoals of fish into shallow water where they are easily captured.

     Our experience of the inshore ocean and interior wetlands was enhanced by the magnificent Australian Pelican, such as the bird above that was seen at Jell's Park in Wheeler's Hill in suburban Melbourne, on a wetland favoured by many species including a large breeding colony of Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca).
     More about that another time, perhaps!

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Book Review - Britain's Spiders - Princeton University Press (WILDGuides)


     Welcome to the second edition of a spider magnum opus!
     This is an impressive work, coming in at just under 500 pages of highly informative text, with a sensational collection of photographs, unparalleled in any prior work on arachnids. It is called a field guide, and is all of that, but goes much beyond the parameters of a conventional guide aimed only at field ID.
     The first 135 pages provide detailed notes on every salient spider fact - anatomy, life style, habitat, classification, appearance, frequency, conservation, and so on, before a page of species identification appears.
     I remember well, in times past, experiencing frustration at being unable to narrow down the identification of a spider to the species level, feeling somehow inadequate. I was relieved when I learned that I was doing well to get the family correct and extraordinarily well to pinpoint the genus. Many, many species, the majority in fact, may only be identified under a microscope by detailed examination of the genitalia. This point is made abundantly clear right from the outset, in the first page of the introduction.
      All of the preliminary information pertains to spiders the world over. The book is nominally devoted to the arachnids of Britain, but spiders with eight eyes in a row, for example, are anatomically the same whether in Britain, France or the Middle East, and you will benefit from a through study of the text.
     An excellent glossary occupies six pages and is of immense help in explaining technical terms, many of which are probably unfamiliar to any but a skilled entomologist specializing in spiders.
     When the book does get into the individual species section, the wealth of information and the photographs are comprehensive and stunning. A range map is included and notes on distribution/status. By carefully following tips on habitat and a description of the spider, chances for correct identification are measurably improved. 
     Important information is given concerning legislation and conservation, and a complete summary of all British spiders is provided with their status designation. Links to further reading and useful internet sites enable the reader to pursue other sources to expand their spider knowledge.
     The role of the British Arachnology Society is acknowledged; indeed their logo appears on the bottom right corner of the front cover.
     In the realm of texts about invertebrates, this book rises to a whole new level, combining science and field identification in ways made possible by digital photography, sophisticated scientific equipment, and the combined breadth of knowledge of three notable authors.

Britain's Spiders, A field guide - Princeton University Press (WILDGuides)
Authors: Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith
Paperback - US$32.50 - £25 - ISBN 9780691204741
Published: 3 November 2020
496 pages - 700+ colour photographs - 5.88" x 8.25"  

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

A Miscellany of Recent Events

     The Province of Ontario, in response to inadequate leadership at the highest levels, and a lack of willingness by members of our populace to take the pandemic seriously, is back into lockdown.
     What this means precisely no one has been able to quite figure out, but Miriam and I have stayed at home to a great degree. I go out to shop for groceries or other essentials, and when we venture forth together we get into the car in the garage and drive to remote areas where we have little likelihood of bumping into others. 
     Reluctantly, we have given up our Friday walks with Heather and Lily for the time being.
     There is much to entertain a couple of naturalists during this crisis and we enjoy our outings to the fullest.

10 January 2021

     The only time I am accustomed to seeing Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) close together is after courtship bonds have been cemented in the spring, so I was quite surprised to see these two individuals side by side in a tree.

     There seems to be no appreciable size difference so it is difficult to know if they are of different sexes, but there obviously is not a hint of antagonism between them.
     We have had snow on and off over the past couple of weeks, and this Mennonite family was taking advantage of the winter conditions to enjoy some family fun.

     Here is dad coming down the slope. You cannot see it but little ones too small to use a toboggan are tucked behind him.

     The Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) near Linwood have been fairly consistent in putting in an appearance, much to the delight of local birders, but nearly always in late afternoon or early evening when the light is waning. This, combined with their tendency to perch quite far away, is far from ideal for photography, but we derive great pleasure in seeing them and the pictures are of secondary importance.

16 January 2021

     Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) are the premier winter attraction for birders and non birders alike, and I hope I do not sound immodest when I say that Miriam and I have developed an aptitude for finding them. They never cease to thrill us and every sighting is a cause for great glee.
     The following pictures, all of females, are of three different owls.

     As you may judge, the last one was especially cooperative and perched close by. Using the car as a blind proved to be the perfect device to enable Miriam to get this amazing shot. 
     I doubt that there is anyone who would fail to be moved by an encounter of this nature. We opened a bottle of self-congratulatory wine when we arrived home and drank a toast to Snowy Owls everywhere!

17 January 2021

     My dear friend, Mary Voisin, had asked that we let her know where she and her husband, Don, could find a Snowy Owl, so I had texted her when Miriam and I happened on the three birds the previous day, but Mary and Don were unable to leave to meet us, so we arranged a rendez-vous for the following day when they could follow us in their car to find an owl.
     You have all heard the expression "salt of the earth" when referring to sterling people.


     The ancestors of Don and Mary were hewn out of the first rock and their descendants cleave from the same fissure. It was great to see them both again after the protracted absence brought about by COVID-19.
     We proceeded directly to the spot where Miriam and I had found two owls, but search as we might we could not find either one. It was not looking good.
     However, all was not lost and we had two other possible locations in mind. We hit the jackpot not more than ten minutes after dipping at our first attempt, and a beautiful adult female was in clear view.

     Mary and Don were elated, and so were we, for any sighting of a Snowy Owl, no matter how many times you have seen it before, is a cause for great joy.
     The pandemic has caused all of us to modify our habits in myriad ways and we came across an interesting way that the local Old Order Mennonites have found to deal with religious observance, now that indoor services are not permitted.
     What better to do than circle the wagons and have an outdoor service?

     The temperature was quite mild, hovering right around zero, but I am not sure whether this option would be feasible if normal January temperatures are ever experienced.

     Sitting in a buggy for a couple of hours at minus fifteen degrees would be another thing entirely. Might be hard on the vocal chords too!

     In the meantime you have to admire Mennonite ingenuity in finding a way to continue to have a Sunday service.
     The horses wait patiently! They doubtless have lots of experience doing this!

     On the way home we passed a farm which has several bird feeders, generally active, with the dominant species being House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). We saw a female Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched atop a spindly bush and as might be expected all was quiet.

     The hawk was intently focused and paid no heed to us.

     It turned, scanned and listened, its attention rivetted on prey.
     What a great opportunity to study this raptor at close quarters. It was no more that fifteen metres away, if that.

     Within minutes it flew to the top of a nearby coniferous bush, having detected noise or movement, I presume.

     It perched on top for a moment or two.....

     .....and then dropped to the ground.

     In the glimpse of an eye it went into the bush and in mere moments emerged with a House Sparrow in its talons.
     It took a moment or two to subdue its prey and then flew off to enjoy its lunch.

     It was exciting for us to watch this gripping event unfold right before our eyes. We have seen accipiters hunt before but never the entire sequence in this fashion.
     From Don and Mary to Snowy Owl to Cooper's Hawk - what a great morning it had been. 

Monday, 18 January 2021

Book Review - Britain's Butterflies - Princeton University Press (WILDGuides of Britain & Europe)


     One might be forgiven for thinking that WILDGuides have been around forever, and I would suspect that a survey of naturalists would reveal that many, if not most, have used one title or another at some stage in their lives. For many of us, old editions are dog-eared and battered, having served us well in the field, and continue to do so to this day.
     It is hard to believe that this is the fourth edition of the butterfly guide, and it is more complete than ever, filled with a stunning array of coloured photographs of every species known to occur in the British Isles.
     It is significant that the book was produced in cooperation with Butterfly Conservation, the leading UK organization involved in such matters. Such a synergistic relationship can only enhance the prospects for a serious attempt to restore endangered populations.
     This guide is really well done. It serves as an excellent reference for neophytes but fits equally well into the library of seasoned entomologists.
     The entire sequence of the butterfly life cycle is covered, with a remarkable collection of photographs depicting every stage from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. 
     A section is devoted to butterfly habitats with a series of pleasing images that represent typical landscapes where different species may most easily be found. Further, the foodplants of the various species receive serious attention, and I can't think of a better way to enhance one's chances of finding a target species than to know where and upon what it might be feeding.
     The glossary is well done, and the range maps that accompany each species account are easily understood, with an accompanying diagrammatic key to the period of the year when the different stages in the organism's life cycle may be observed.
     Links to further reading and to important internet sites are given, and there are notes on butterfly conservation and legislation.
     No guide today would be complete without a comment on the potential effects of climate change (some of which are already evident) and such is the case in Britain's Butterflies. One must hope that in the next edition one does not read of a litany of extinctions and species in peril. Surely we can come to our senses and embark on the long journey to reverse the deadly forces we have set in motion.
     One of the beneficial effects of restrictions on "normal" activities brought about by COVID-19 has been an increased awareness of nature. People confined to their backyards have begun to notice creatures they had formerly paid no attention to, chief among them gloriously coloured butterflies, floating like ephemeral fairies on a bright summer's day. Planting for wildlife is on the increase and suburbia is becoming ever more critter-friendly. 
     You too can make your garden friendly for butterflies. The authors hope you will.

Britain's Butterflies - Princeton University Press (WILDGuides)
Authors: David Newland, Robert Still, Andy Swash, David Tomlinson
Paperback - US$24.95 - £17.99 - ISBN: 9780691205441
Published: 3 November 2020
256 pages - 600+ colour photographs - 10 line illustrations
5.88" x 8.25"

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Book Review - The Gull Next Door - Princeton University Press


     When I first saw this book, I was impressed by the cover! What a delightful, colourful image!
     Marianne Taylor is a popular natural history writer, easy to read, known to present technical details in simplified terms to make them accessible to the general reader. In this book she succeeds in this aim.
     For my taste she gets a little too folksy at times, repeatedly referring to North America as "across the pond", for example. Once is fine perhaps, over and over gets a little tedious.
     In presenting the gull as a misunderstood bird, she tugs at my sensibilities, however, and anything that can be done to rehabilitate the image of this much maligned bird wins my vote. There are many species of gull, of course (never seagull!), but the principal focus of Taylor's book is the Herring Gull, Britain's most common species, and the one most often encountered and maligned by intolerant humans. Those same humans are often the architects of their own misfortune. City dwellers on a day's excursion to the coast go out of their way to feed gulls, applauding  their aerial acrobatics as they snag food in mid air, and rejoicing in the proximity of a gull taking a morsel from their outstretched hand, only to vent their anger when their sandwich is snatched from them on its way to their mouth. 
     As we have encroached on gull habitat and built upon their natural nesting areas, or taken over their beaches, gulls have taken to nesting on the roofs of houses and commercial buildings, to the delight of a few, but to the dismay of many. Measures are in place to prevent them from using these substrates, and as a result gull numbers in virtually all species are  declining, sometime precipitously so.
     Taylor makes the point that we need to acknowledge the reality that we have to share this planet with other species, that we have to accommodate to their choice to use the last remaining places where they may live out their lives and breed successfully. The obliteration of nature is not, nor should be, an option that thinking people contemplate. It may not always be easy to live alongside gulls, but we have to accept the fact that minor inconvenience is a small price to pay for ecological integrity.
     As a direct result of anthropogenic actions ocean temperatures are warming, the seas are filled with plastic, the food chain is being disrupted and gulls (and other seabirds) are facing more than enough challenges without humans imposing additional persecution.
     The final chapter is a sombre recognition of the stark impacts of disastrous climate change, and the effect it will have on all species, including our own. Any way that we can remediate the damage done, including the restoration of functioning ecosystems, will benefit human and gull alike. Time is running out, however.
     To paraphrase another famous statement concerning human injustice, "Can't we all just get along?" 

The Gull Next Door - Princeton University Press
Author - Marianne Taylor
Hard cover - £20 - US$24.95
ISBN 9780691208961 - Published 27 October 2020 - 192 pages - 6" x 9.25"

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Random Memories of Australia

      My good friend, Stewart Monckton, recently sent me a book called An Australian Birding Year, which, (combined with rereading my blog posts about visits to three states in 2018), set off a bit of a wave of nostalgia. It also triggered more than a little frustration over the fact that I was planning to return to Australia last year and was stymied due to COVID, and I will be unable to do it this year for the same reason. When this accursed pandemic first gripped the world, who would have thought that it would cancel travel plans two years in a row? And it is not over yet, unfortunately. Vaccines are now available, but there seems to be one roadblock or another in the way of actually getting people vaccinated.
     I am going to share with you a few random memories, in no particular order, and none having greater significance than another - but all precious.

Lake Wollumboola

     On our penultimate day in New South Wales, before moving on to Tasmania, we stopped to do some birding and have lunch at Lake Wollumboola near the town of Culburra.
      The sheer variety of birds there impressed me greatly, and it was a warm, sunny day, with Black Swans (Cygnus atratus) gracefully sailing by, or taking care of their toilette close to the shore. 

     There were herons and egrets, sandpipers and plovers, stilts and currawongs. It was quite magical really, and the pictures below will give you a sense of what we enjoyed.

White-headed Stilt (Himantopus leucocephalus), Little Pied Cormorant (Microcarbo melanoleucos), Black Swan, Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)

Superb Fairywren (Malurus cyaneus)

     Nothing is quite so charming as a fairywren. Nothing is such a bundle of activity as a fairywren. 
     We saw Superb Fairywren virtually every day we were in Australia, but were thrilled every time. How could one tire of these little gems?

Superb Fairywren (♂)   
     They truly are marvelous feathered creatures, tiny but pugnacious and fearless, a wonder to behold.

Superb Fairywren (♀)

     Pairs remain socially monogamous, but are sexually promiscuous in the extreme; 70% of all eggs in a nest are the result of extra pair copulations.
     When soliciting a female the male often carries a yellow petal as a gift. How could she resist you might ask? And she seldom does!

White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

     Just as we were leaving Adventure Bay in Tasmania, after a successful venture to see the critically endangered Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor), Miriam spotted a magnificent White-bellied Sea Eagle overlooking the blue waters of the bay.

     We were thrilled!
     This species is not uncommon in coastal Australia, but we saw it infrequently and other than this sighting always in flight.
     It is an opportunistic feeder, specializing mainly in aquatic vertebrates including fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, but it will also capture crustaceans, and does not eschew tideline carrion. 
     In acknowledgement of its star attraction for Canadian birders it posed for us beautifully, and was still in position when we left.

Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus)

     If you fail to be dazzled by this bird you had better check whether you have a pulse!

     In country renowned for its parrots, with so many colourful species, Rainbow Lorikeet stands out as a champion of ostentation.
     It is gregarious, friendly and has quickly learned how to take advantage of humans willing to bring food in exchange for a picture or two. This is another species that we saw frequently but were gobsmacked every time.
     On the day before our departure from Melbourne for Hong Kong  and thence onwards to Toronto, we enjoyed the company of a small troupe of these characters in Brimbank Park in Melbourne.
      We were glad to see them enjoying life in their own special way! Over and over!

     May their eggs be fertile, may their young be strong!

Forty-spotted Pardalote (Pardalotus quadragintus)

     Forty-spotted Pardalote ranks among the world's most endangered species; thus it was with heightened anticipation that I looked forward to seeing it.

     We had booked our stay on Bruny Island at Inala, that legendary haven owned and operated by Dr. Tonia Cochran, and a place where encounters with this diminutive species are almost guaranteed. Tonia has done more than any single individual to foster a breeding (and growing) population of these birds at Inala, and it was an honour to meet her, and have our fees help in the attempt to secure the future of this species. In the annals of ornithology Tonia will be earmarked for distinction.

     True to form we observed several Forty-spotted Pardalotes feeding on our first afternoon at Inala. It was grey, gloomy, wet and very cool, but nothing could diminish our great pleasure at seeing this bird.
     There were many other highlights at Inala but this was the most special of all.

     That's probably enough wallowing in the well of remembrance for now, but I am in love with Australia - with its birds, its monotremes and marsupials, with Stewart, Sally, Hamish and Pippa, with friendly people, with its wine, glorious wine, with Prosecco in the garden, with Lamingtons and Tim Tams, fish and chips and skinny lattés, cheese, and so much more - Vegemite not so much!
     One day, I vow to get back there again - COVID willing! Of that you may be sure.